Dare to dream of electric sheep

 

© Warner Bros / Sony Entertainment / Scott Free Productions

 

I’m afraid that over the years I’ve learned to distrust optimism and embrace pessimism.  I’ve gradually reached the conclusion that it’s better to fear the worst at all times and experience the occasional pleasant surprise when things don’t turn out as badly as expected; rather than to assume the best will happen and then be crushingly disappointed when it doesn’t.  (This may be the result of spending decades following the national Scottish football team, a masochistic pursuit that rarely, if ever, rewards hopefulness and optimism.  As was evidenced the other evening…)

 

Thus, when it was announced that, after 35 years, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s mighty 1982 science-fiction epic Blade Runner was in the works, I didn’t bother at all to exercise the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism.  No, I just assumed the sequel was going to be crass, brainless, 21st-century-Hollywood-style bollocks and I resolved to ignore its existence.

 

Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, means a lot to me.  I rate it alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as joint-best science-fiction movie ever made.  It’s also one of my favourite films of all time.  I remember when I first saw it at the age of 17.  Late in the summer of the film’s release, I travelled to Glasgow for a job interview.  I had a few hours to kill after the interview and I happened to wander past a Glaswegian cinema where Blade Runner was still playing.  On the spur of the moment, I decided to go in and watch it.  I had the auditorium almost to myself – the only other people there were two middle-aged Glaswegian ‘wifies’ who, half-an-hour into the film, with much head-shaking and muttering of incomprehension, left their seats and never came back.  I’m surprised I recall those two women leaving because by that point I was absolutely mesmerised by what I was seeing on the screen above me.  Bombarded by spectacle, special effects and emotional and  intellectual intensity, I found the Blade Runner experience awesome.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Blade Runner is a movie that’s difficult to talk about objectively these days.  When it first appeared, many critics disliked it – in Britain, the only newspaper critic I remember taking it seriously was the Observer’s Philip French.  It didn’t do much at the box office either, probably because 1982 cinema audiences, like those two ladies in Glasgow, wanted comfortable, feel-good science-fiction movies such as the same year’s ET and the second Star Trek movie.  Yet it’s proved massively influential.  Its depiction of a future Los Angeles as a dystopian, rain-drenched monster-metropolis, flavoured with the aesthetics of 1940s film-noir and of modern Tokyo, seems to have turned up again and again in a thousand science-fiction movies and rock videos made in the years since.

 

However, for all the impact of Blade Runner’s set design and visuals, its excellent cast ensures that the human (and artificial human) characters remain in the mind too.  This includes Harrison Ford as Deckard, the weary bounty hunter and titular ‘blade runner’ tasked with tracking down and executing runaway replicants, who are the artificially-created, super-strong humanoid slave labourers of the future.  Despite Ford’s presence, though, it’s really the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, leader of a gang of on-the-run replicants, who in modern parlance ‘totally owns’ the film.

 

Played by Hauer, Roy Batty is fascinatingly multi-faceted.  By turns he’s brutal, ruthless, terrifyingly physical, animalistic, child-like, icily intellectual, tender, melancholic and – when he finally shows mercy to Deckard and saves him from falling off the top of a vertiginous skyscraper – noble.  Indeed, he becomes more sympathetic than Deckard, whom we’ve seen in the course of his work blasting down two female replicants, played by Darryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy.  (The role of Deckard has never sat comfortably beside the other, straightforward-heroic roles Ford has played, like those of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.)

 

In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the replicants have no capacity for human emotions and are presented purely as a threat.  In Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script for Blade Runner, however, they’re given a pre-programmed four-year lifespan that means their situation has a tragic, almost Milton-esque aspect.  They’re not simply running amok, but are searching for the corporation head who created them in the hope that he can extend their lifespans beyond four years.  And near the film’s end, we get one of cinema’s great lump-in-throat moments when Batty, after he’s rescued Deckard and before he dies, gives his famous tears-in-rain speech:  “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Everyone associated with Blade Runner – Ridley Scott, Hauer, Ford, Hannah, Cassidy and even Sean Young, who played the movie’s heroine Rachael but never fulfilled her potential in an erratic career afterwards – seems in my mind to possess an immense, if elegiac and dystopian, coolness.  This coolness extends to Greek prog-rock / ambient composer and musician Vangelis, whose haunting soundtrack for the movie is a career best.  It’s certainly miles better than the pompous theme he supplied for pompous British film Chariots of Fire the previous year.  For one Blade Runner track, Tales of the Future, Vangelis recruits the portly, kaftan-clad Greek warbler Demis Roussos, who’d always been a bit of a joke in Britain thanks to his being referenced in Mike Leigh’s stage and TV play Abigail’s Party (1977).  But hey, even Demis Roussos sounds spooky and unsettling and, yes, cool here.  That’s the transformative magic of Blade Runner for you.

 

So I was blown away by Blade Runner in 1982, even though the version of it I saw was the weakest one that’s been released.  This was the studio cut, where the film was tampered with at the last minute by frightened executives after they realised Ridley Scott hadn’t delivered the easy-on-the-brain Hollywood blockbuster they’d expected.  Their tampering included adding a redundant voiceover that explains what’s happening in the film for any morons who might be present in the audience; and the least-convincing happy ending in the history of the cinema.  Ten years later, Ridley Scott was allowed to release the version of the film that he’d wanted to put out originally, Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.  In it, both the voiceover and the happy ending are gone, thankfully, and a new dream sequence suggests that Deckard isn’t the simple cut-and-dried character he was in the original version.  Guess what he might really be?

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

As Blade Runner is set in 2019, which we’re only two years short of now, it’s fun to see how wide of the mark some of the film’s predictions have been.  We haven’t had replicants in the real world nor, alas, have we had flying cars.  And Western cities haven’t become heavily ‘East-Asian-fied’ in the manner of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, aside from acquiring a few hipster ramen and sushi joints.  Maybe this is because Japan’s bubble economy burst dramatically in the early 1990s and the country never quite became the world power that many in the 1980s had expected.  (William Gibson’s celebrated ‘cyberpunk’ trilogy of science-fiction novels, 1984’s Neuromancer, 1986’s Count Zero and 1988’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, rather overplay the Japanese influence in their future scenarios too.  Incidentally, Gibson is said to have walked out of Blade Runner after 15 minutes, because many of the ideas he’d been toying with for his then-nascent novels were already on the screen.  He didn’t want to get any more depressed.)

 

In addition, certain companies whose logos appear in the famous dazzling advertising displays of Blade Runner’s cityscape no longer exist, like Pan Am and Atari.  Well, Atari still does, barely, but not in the world-bestriding way that the filmmakers assumed it would.

 

The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was released in the UK four days ago.  Taking place 30 years on from the events of Blade Runner and starring Ryan Gosling as a new ‘runner’ called ‘K’, it brings back the now-craggy but still-personable Harrison Ford as Deckard.  To my utter surprise, the reviews have been excellent, with both critics I like (the BBC’s Mark Kermode) and ones I don’t like (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) calling it a five-star masterpiece.  Compare that with the original film, which had to wait years before the critics reappraised it and declared it a classic.  2049 has flopped at the US box office, admittedly, but then so did its predecessor; and the fact that Donald Trump-land doesn’t seem to like it might be a further indication of its quality.  It’s surely a good omen too that it’s directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who last year gave us the moving and thought-provoking science-fiction picture Arrival.

 

In fact, the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism is beginning to stir.  Rather than ignoring the existence of this sequel, I now find myself tempted to go and see it.  Yes, I’m daring to dream that Blade Runner 2049 might actually be good.  Let’s hope I’m not disappointed.

 

But at least it can’t be any worse than that bloody football match the other night.  Come on, world.  Hurry up and invent some real replicants – and then get eleven of them playing football for Scotland.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

God save the Queen

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Scene: The living room of the Parochial House on Craggy Island during a 1996 episode of Father Ted.  The elderly and infirm Bishop Jordan, one of a visiting trio of church dignitaries, has just been explaining how he had a heart attack last year and needs to avoid having sudden surprises and shocks.

Father Dougal (bellowing at the top of his voice): AAAAAHHHHH!

Bishop Jordan nearly suffers another heart attack on the living room sofa.

Father Ted (seeing Bishop Jordan’s distress): Dougal!  What are you doing?!

Father Dougal: Sorry, Ted – I just remembered.  Aliens is on after the news!

Father Ted: Dougal, for God’s sake!  (To the stricken Bishop Jordan, who has almost collapsed off the sofa.)  I’m sorry, Bishop Jordan!  (To Dougal.)  Did you not hear what he’s saying about his heart?

Father Dougal: I know, but it’s just that it’s the Director’s Cut!  Come on everyone, let’s all have a lads’ night in!

Father Ted: Dougal, just shut up!  (To Bishop Jordan.)  Ha-ha.  A heart attack?  That’s rare enough these days.

Bishop O’Neill (trying to help Father Jordan back onto the sofa): There were certainly a lot of prayers said for Bishop Jordan –

Father Dougal: I don’t know why we can’t look at Aliens

Father Ted: Dougal!  Bishop O’Neill is speaking.

Father Dougal: But…  They’d love it, Ted!

Father Ted: No, they wouldn’t!

Father Dougal: But bishops love sci-fi –

Father Ted: DOUGAL!  WE ARE NOT WATCHING ALIENS!

 

* * * * *

 

Here’s yet another anniversary that makes me feel ancient.  It’s now exactly thirty years since the James Cameron-directed sci-fi / horror / action movie Aliens was released in the United Kingdom.  A few days from now, it’ll be exactly thirty years since I first laid eyes on it in a crowded cinema in Aberdeen.  And like Dougal in that old episode of Father Ted, I still get irrationally excited when I discover that it’s due to have another airing on TV.  And during the first occasion I watched it, there were a few moments when, like the beleaguered Bishop Jordan, I thought my heart was about to pop.  Yes, Aliens is a film that gets the adrenaline sluicing through you like no other.

 

It’s remarkable that the film achieves this when it’s a sequel.  One of the Great Laws of the Cinema is that, compared to the original films, sequels are almost always rubbish.  Certainly, that law seemed to hold true in the 1980s, when cinema audiences were subjected to such puddings as Halloween II (1981), Grease 2 (1982), Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), Jaws 3-D (1983), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Beverley Hills Cop II (1987).  Oh, and Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), which was directed by a certain James Cameron…

 

Aliens’ task was particularly daunting.  It was to be the follow-up to Ridley Scott’s magnificent haunted-house-in-space movie, 1979’s Alien.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

It’s unsurprising that while Cameron was shooting the sequel at Buckinghamshire’s Pinewood Studios in the mid-1980s, he had to put up with a sceptical British crew who were of the opinion that this bearded thirty-something Canadian wasn’t fit to kiss the boots of the mighty Ridley Scott.  Mind you, the contempt was reciprocated by Cameron.  A man used to pursuing his vision with the single-minded determination of The Terminator (1984) – the film that he’d directed between the Piranha sequel and the Alien sequel – Cameron was not impressed by his crew’s Great British working practices like stopping every couple of minutes to have a tea-break.

 

The resulting movie shows no disrespect to Ridley Scott or the original Alien.  It simply takes a very different approach to the hideous, slimy, fanged, multi-jawed, acid-blooded title creatures.  Whereas Alien set one of them loose in a giant spaceship and Scott milked the scenario for all the clammy, claustrophobic horror it was worth, Cameron unleashes a whole army of them in and around a base on a distant planet and declares out-and-out war on the bastards, courtesy of a well-armed platoon of space marines who’ve journeyed there in the company of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, heroine and sole survivor of the first film.   Yes, there’s clamminess, claustrophobia and horror to be found in Cameron’s creation too, but that doesn’t prevent Aliens from also being one of the best action films ever made.

 

That’s not to say that Aliens is a non-stop rollercoaster from start to finish.  Cameron actually takes his time getting his characters to the base (after contact with the 160-strong space colony there is suddenly and mysteriously lost).  Wisely, and unlike a lot of directors of scary movies who’ve come since, he gives the audience a chance to get to know, and get to like, his characters.  So that when all hell does break loose, halfway through the film, we’re genuinely on the edge of our seats because we’re rooting for those characters to survive.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Cameron does such a good job of it that, thirty years on, I still know those characters like they’re dear old friends.  There’s Michael Biehn’s reliable Corporal Hicks, who packs a vintage pump-action shotgun alongside his space-age weaponry (“I like to keep this handy… for close encounters”) and who finds himself in the unexpected position of platoon leader after the aliens’ first onslaught wipes most of it out.  There’s Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, the regulation android whom Ripley – mindful of what happened in the first movie – is extremely wary of; though after he’s saved her and saved the other surviving humans three or four times (even after he gets ripped in half), she accepts that he’s a good, if synthetic, bloke.

 

And there’s the motor-mouthed Private Hudson, played by the great Bill Paxton, who gets the film’s best lines.  This is both before the aliens show up, when he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!” – and after they show up, when he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, pal!”

 

But Aliens is hardly a testosterone-fest.  Dougal in Father Ted might have earmarked it for a ‘lads’ night in’ but it’s also, subversively, a chick-flick.  At its heart are no fewer than four powerful female characters.  There’s the splendid Sigourney Weaver, of course, back in the role of Ripley – though it’s in Aliens that both Weaver and Ripley properly achieve the status of cinematic icons.  There’s Carrie Henn as Newt, the waif-like little girl who’s the colony’s only survivor and who, gradually, awakens Ripley’s maternal instincts.  While Ripley spends the original movie reacting to and mainly running away from the horrors around her, it’s thanks to Newt that in Aliens she becomes increasingly proactive and ends up running at them.  Admittedly, that’s when she’s armed with a M41A Pulse Rifle / M240 Flamethrower.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

And let’s not forget the impressive Private Vasquez, played by Jenette Goldstein, who’s more than a match for any man in her platoon.  “All right,” she snarls at one point, “we got seven canisters of CM-20.  I say we roll them in there and nerve-gas the whole f***in’ nest.”  And when she’s not shooting down aliens, she’s shooting down Hudson’s bullshit, as happens in the following exchange: “Hey Vasquez.  Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”  “No.  Have you?”

 

The film’s final trump card also takes female form: the Alien Queen.  Here, Cameron combines the design of the original alien, by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, with the concepts of an egg-laying queen termite and of a tyrannosaurus rex.  He creates a twenty-foot foe of terrifying savagery, strength and tenacity.  And when she comes bearing down on Ripley at the movie’s climax, Aliens turns into the Battle of the Big Bad Mamas.  By this time, the Queen has seen her whole hellish brood destroyed and wants revenge.  Meanwhile, Ripley is determined to defend what’s left of her family – Newt and the now-incapacitated Hicks and Bishop – to the death.

 

What more can I say?  Three decades later Aliens is still riveting and I envy anyone sitting down to watch it for the first time – especially on a big screen with a big sound-system.  In the words of Private Hudson: “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-Xj24Gdxds

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjhkhi0Ye6s

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

His Ollie-ness

 

(c) Constable

 

I recently read What Fresh Lunacy is This?, a biography of the late and legendarily hellraising British movie star Oliver – ‘Ollie’ – Reed.  Written in 2013 by the film journalist Robert Sellers, it’s a brisk and engaging book.  Sellers knows and delivers what his core readership wants, which is a detailed account of Ollie’s outrageous booze-fuelled antics during four decades of stardom.  But he’s also aware of Ollie’s films and gives these due attention and respect.

 

Sellers’ book fully conveys the paradox of Oliver Reed.  On one hand he was often kind-hearted, funny, loyal, boundlessly generous and impeccably good-mannered.  On the other hand his character also contained a Pandora’s Box of vices: petulance, childishness, boorishness, cruelty and obnoxiousness.  And usually what unlocked that box was the alcohol consumed during his interminable drinking sprees.

 

From moviemorlocks.com

 

What Fresh Lunacy is This? cites several possible reasons why Ollie poured so much liquor down his neck.  He was at heart a shy man and booze bolstered his confidence.  He was conscious of being both well-to-do and an actor, two things he didn’t much care for; and booze was his way of bonding with the common folk whom he felt much more comfortable with – builders, soldiers, sailors, gardeners, road-workers.  Later, he realised he was frittering his talents away on sub-standard movies and booze provided an outlet for his frustration.  And, ever the showman, he felt obliged to give the Great British public what they wanted, which was the spectacle of him raising hell on an apocalyptic scale.  The book never identifies which of these was the prime motivation for his behaviour.  I suspect it was a combination of them all.

 

What often gets overlooked in accounts of Ollie’s life is the fact that he was a very fine actor, one of the most memorably intense and brooding ones that the British film industry produced.  His CV contained some treasurable performances: as King in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963); Gerald Crich in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969); Father Urbain Grandier in Russell’s The Devils (1971); Athos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and Four Musketeers (1974); Dr Raglan in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979); Vulcan in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988); and Proximo in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).  Thankfully, Sellers’ book gives his acting the credit it deserves.

 

Anyway, here are a few new facts I learned about Ollie whilst reading What Fresh Lunacy is This?

 

Ollie’s grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, in the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “one of the great figures of the English theatre” and “the most successful actor-manager of his time”.  Beerbohm Tree’s half-brother and Ollie’s great uncle, meanwhile, was the essayist, humourist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm whose one-and-only novel, Zuleika Dobson (1911), is ranked by the Modern Library publishing company at number 59 in the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  Ollie bought the film rights to Great Uncle Max’s book but never managed to get it to the screen.

 

(c) The Rank Film Organisation

 

I’d known that, early in his career, Ollie had appeared briefly in The Bulldog Breed (1960), a gormless and irritating comedy featuring the gormless and irritating Norman Wisdom. He plays the leader of a gang of hoodlums who waylay Norman at a cinema and give him a (well-deserved in my opinion) kicking.  What I hadn’t known that one of the sailors who rescue Norman from the hoodlums was played by an equally young and un-famous Michael Caine.

 

In 1962 Ollie appeared in the swashbuckler Captain Clegg, one of several movies he made for the British studio Hammer Films, alongside the much-loved and gentlemanly horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Noticing how Reed rather overacted in a scene where his character gets shot in the arm, Cushing later wrote him a letter of advice.  “I think you’re going to go a very long way, Oliver,” the letter said.  “But always remember, if you are hurt, you don’t have to act hurt.  If somebody grabs you, just blink.  The screen is so big that even the slightest movement makes the point.”  Ollie took Cushing’s suggestion on board.  His best performances are distinguished by their stillness and understatement.  He conveys a great deal with only a modicum of expression and movement.

 

The 1967 comedy I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname was among a half-dozen films Ollie made for the famously gobby director Michael Winner.  Generally, Winner and him got along like a house on fire.  But one day, Ollie’s patience snapped when he had to film a scene where he was propelling a punt along the River Cam in Cambridge with, at one end of it, a cameraman and Michael Winner barking directions through a megaphone.  Ollie got so fed up with Winner “f**king rabbiting on in that grating voice of his” that eventually he jumped off the punt, taking the pole with him, and swam ashore – leaving Winner (“shouting and screaming and gesticulating so ferociously that he almost capsized the boat”) and his cameraman helplessly adrift on the river.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Ken Russell’s The Devils saw Ollie appear alongside the actress and fervent left-wing political activist Vanessa Redgrave who, during filming, wanted to show solidarity with a one-day strike organised by the Trade Union movement against the early-1970s Conservative government.  She tried to get the performers and crew on the set to stop work and walk off it.  Ollie was having none of this, believing that a day’s strike-action was the last thing Britain’s beleaguered film industry needed.  The pair of them had a furious ten-minute confrontation about it in his dressing room, which culminated in Redgrave bursting into tears.  “So I put my arms around her,” recollected the gallant Ollie, “and gave her a cuddle.  Then I slapped her on the bottom and sent her back to her own dressing room.”

 

In the early 1970s, Ken Russell and Ollie were working on an ultimately-unrealised project about the quartet of knights who killed Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th century.  Discussing the film in the great hall of Ollie’s country mansion one night, the pair of them somehow ended up in a swordfight that climaxed with Russell slashing open Ollie’s shirt, and his chest underneath, with a rusty six-foot broadsword.  “Excellent!” enthused the wounded hell-raiser.  “Now we’re blood brothers.”

 

Ollie’s 1981 movie Venom is the story of a house where a hostage situation is taking place and where, somehow, an ultra-poisonous black mamba snake is also slithering around loose, endangering both hostages and hostage-takers.  It’s infamous for the rivalry that existed on set between Ollie and his co-star, the great but deranged Polish-German actor Klaus Kinski.  Venom’s director, Piers Haggard, noted that Kinski “had no sense of humour”; whereas Ollie “had a fabulous sense of humour, very wicked… and he definitely liked a laugh at Klaus Kinski’s expense.”  One day Haggard was informed that the film’s financiers, the aristocratic Anglo-Irish Guinness family, would be visiting the set, but soon forgot all about it.  When Lord Guinness, his wife and children were ushered in, they were treated to an unscripted scene where Ollie, laughing like a maniac, came charging down a staircase pursued by an enraged Kinski who was screaming, “You f**king English c**t!”, presumably because he’d just been on the receiving end of an Ollie-prank.  Small wonder that Haggard claimed the black mamba had been the easiest cast-member to work with.

 

(c) Morrison Film Group / Handmade Films / Paramount

 

By the early 1980s, his career on the slide, Ollie made movies in some unlikely places with some unlikely backers.  The historical epic Lion of the Desert (1981) was filmed in Libya and funded by Colonel Gaddafi.  Meanwhile, A Clash of Loyalties (1983) was a personal project of Saddam Hussein and was made in Iraq even though the Iran / Iraq War was in full swing at the time.  Holed up in a large, boring hotel when they weren’t filming, Ollie’s antics kept the crew entertained.  On one occasion he created such a rumpus that several Arab guests pulled out guns, believing that the hotel was being attacked.

 

The early 1980s was also when Ollie had his penis – ‘the mighty mallet’ as he called it – tattooed and he liked nothing better than to whip it out in public and show people the results of the tattooist’s art.  Whilst making Castaway for the renowned British director Nicholas Roeg in the Seychelles in the mid-1980s, a dislike developed between Ollie and the producer’s assistant.  One day he spied her eating a meal in a restaurant, crept up behind her, loosened the tattooed mallet and dropped it onto her shoulder.  She promptly stabbed it with her fork.  Ollie did not attempt this stunt again.

 

Ollie cemented his reputation as a booze-monster with a string of drunken appearances on British TV chat shows during the late 1980s and early 1990s: Aspel and Company, Des O’Connor Tonight, After Dark and The Word.  In doing so, he effectively doomed what was left of his movie career since producers became too frightened of his reputation to hire him – as Sellers puts it, he was “the sniper at his own assassination”.  At least on Des O’Connor Tonight he befriended a fellow guest, the Liverpudlian comedian Stan Boardman.  When Boardman performed on the island of Guernsey, where by now Reed was living for tax purposes, he invited him to the gig.  There, Ollie didn’t take kindly to an audience-member who was heckling Boardman.  The comedian recalled how Ollie grabbed the heckler, “gave him a big bear hug, lifted him up on to his feet, dragged him out onto the dance floor and they collapsed together in front of about three hundred people.”  The next day, Stan and Ollie headed for a restaurant where by coincidence the exact same heckler was sitting having a meal.  Renewing hostilities, Ollie flung himself on top of him and they ended up rolling about the floor, knocking crockery everywhere.  The man eventually fled the restaurant.  Presumably he never heckled Stan Boardman again.

 

In 1999 Ollie died in Malta, where he’d been making Gladiator for Ridley Scott.  I knew he’d expired in an establishment in Valetta called the Pub, from a heart attack seemingly caused by over-exertion – he’d just been knocking back rums and arm-wrestling with a bunch of young ratings from a Royal Navy warship.   (In fact, I knew that very well because I’d drunk in the Pub in Valetta myself on a few occasions.)  However, I hadn’t known that his death happened by accident.  His original intention that day had been to have a quiet meal with his wife at a nearby Chinese restaurant, but the restaurant had been closed and instead they’d wandered into the Pub and encountered the sailors.

 

I like to think there’s a parallel universe where the Chinese restaurant had been open that fateful day, so that Ollie avoided the Pub, the ratings and the heart attack and survived to make a few more films – buoyed by the success of Gladiator and the acclaim that his performance in it received.  (As Proximo, he’s one of the best things in the movie.)  Who knows?  He might have worked with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and the Coen Brothers; and made a couple more pictures with old acquaintances such as Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott.

 

(c) Scott Free Productions

 

Game not yet over: film review / Prometheus

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Following the previous entry on this blog, I’d like to continue the space theme by giving my thoughts on Ridley Scott’s recent science fiction movie Prometheus, which was released on DVD in the United Kingdom this week and is a prequel to the series of Alien films – the first of which was famously directed by Scott back in 1979.

 

I’d have liked to begin this review with a quote from Hamlet.  The film comes laden with child-parent themes – there’s the relationship that Michael Fassbender’s android character has with his creator, and the dreams experienced by Noomi Rapace’s archaeologist where she recalls her childhood with her father, and a late-on revelation that provides a parental motive for the behaviour of the glacially unpleasant company executive played by Charlie Theron, and the fact that the film takes place in the same universe as the Alien movies, which feature the worst parenting experiences in the history of the cinema – and a few lines from Shakespeare’s play about the father-haunted, mother-fixated Dane would surely be appropriate.  However, it’s actually a quote from another Shakespearean work, Macbeth, which bests sums up certain aspects of Prometheus: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

 

That’s not to say that the film’s basic premise isn’t sound.  It begins with a scene set in the earth’s distant past that suggests life on our planet was the result of alien tampering.  Subsequently, in the late 21st century, evidence of these aliens – who are nicknamed ‘the Engineers’ – and the planet they may have come from is uncovered by archaeologists and a mega-billionaire called Charles Weyland (Guy Pearce) is sufficiently inspired to launch a spaceship containing a team of cryogenically-frozen scientists towards the distant planet.

 

Arriving a couple of years later at their destination – having been looked after en route by an android called David (Fassbender) – the team thaw out and soon discover on the planet’s surface what appear to be the remains of a giant genetic laboratory once run by the Engineers.  However, when David gets the lab’s holographic CCTV system operating again, it reveals ghostly footage of the Engineers in terrified flight from something they’d created.  And as ghastly things begin to stir in the shadowy, cave-like tunnels of the abandoned lab, it becomes clear that the Engineers – no longer the benevolent species they were when they visited earth – were working on making genetic weapons here, weapons that are still, horribly, active.

 

In the original, Scott-directed Alien, the life-cycle of the hideous title star was fairly straightforward.  It started off inside an egg, emerged as a claw-like face-hugger, incubated inside John Hurt, reappeared explosively as the phallic chest-burster and finally grew into the nightmarish, acid-blooded, adult alien that’d been designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger.  The cycle was tweaked with but not dramatically altered in later films – James Cameron’s Aliens brought in the egg-laying alien queen, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection introduced the half-alien, half-human new-born (which unfortunately looked like it was about to burst into tears and ruined the film’s finale).  Prometheus avoids the easy option of using the aliens we’ve been familiar with since 1979 as the biological weapons lurking in the Engineers’ laboratory.  Instead, we get some new but equally unpleasant life-forms that might’ve been developed in parallel with the aliens, or developed as prototypes to them.

 

Unfortunately, the rules governing the life-cycle of the thingies in Prometheus are all over the place.  (It doesn’t help that a couple of the humans are attacked too on a cellular level – they get infected by something viral and gruesome.)  During the latter stages of the film, while horribleness piled on top of horribleness, I was asking myself an array of troubling questions.  Where did that come from?  Is that thing related to that other thing from half-an-hour ago or is it something new?  And if it’s something new, what happened to the other thing from half-an-hour ago?  Why did that happen to him when it didn’t happen to the other bloke?  Why did he react that way when the last guy reacted a different way?  Oh, what the f*** is going on?!!  At a number of moments, such was the illogical sound and fury of Prometheus that it did indeed seem like a tale told by an idiot.  (The script is by Damon Lindelof, who isn’t actually an idiot, but he’s perhaps the next worst thing: he’s a writer on the TV show Lost.)

 

However, having got that major gripe out of the way, I can say there was much in Prometheus that I enjoyed.  The early stages of the film have a lovely 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe to them and it’s refreshing to encounter a science fiction movie that isn’t afraid to engage with big questions such as where we come from and what we’re doing here – which the genre should do more of, but doesn’t (cinematically, at least).  It also makes a change to have an Alien movie where the main characters are scientists and specialists who have some idea of what they’re getting themselves into (even if they’re not sure what exactly), as opposed to the hapless blue-collar and low-life characters who populated the earlier films: space-truckers in Alien, space-marines in Aliens, space-convicts in Alien 3 and space-mercenaries in Alien Resurrection.  (That said, during the scene where the spaceship prepared to land on the Engineers’ planet, I was half-hoping that Bill Paxton would pop up and exclaim: “Stop your grinnin’, and drop your linen!”)

 

The cast are also good value, especially Noomi Rapace who, in the best Sigourney Weaver / Ripley tradition, becomes tougher and more proactive as her fellow crew-members are gradually whittled away around her; and Michael Fassbender as David, who’s an intriguing creation.  Driven by a curiosity that’s sometimes child-like and sometimes ruthless, he’s morally positioned halfway between Ash, Ian Holm’s out-and-out bastard of an android in the original Alien, and Bishop, Lance Henrikson’s noble android in Aliens (who helped to save the day even after the alien queen had ripped him in half).  The other actors and actresses do well too, although they have to cope with some wildly expository dialogue – it’s just a pity that the dialogue hadn’t been more expository when explaining what, precisely, was going on in the Engineers’ laboratory.  The script also demands they do some very stupid things that only characters in horror films, and Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter, are capable of doing.  An alien life-form rears up in front of you…  And how do you respond?  You reach out and touch it.  Duh.

 

Among the supporting cast, I particularly liked Sean Harris and Rafe Spall as a bickering geologist and biologist – although when the moment comes that they stop sniping and decide they actually like each other, you know that Something Bad Is Going To Happen.

 

The real star of the film, however, is Ridley Scott.  His direction, coupled with the photography, set design and special effects, ensure that, visually, the films packs as much of a punch as any of his best movies did in the past.  And it just feels good to have him making a film again that’s set in the Alien universe, the universe that he played a major role in creating 33 years ago.  Prometheus doesn’t have the narrative thrust or the freshness of the first two films in the series, but it’s certainly superior to the third and fourth ones (although, directed by David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet respectively, neither Alien 3 nor Alien Resurrection are without merit).  So – welcome back, Ridley.

 

(You’ll notice that in the above review I have not mentioned the Alien vs Predator movies.  I have no wish to.  In fact, anyone who tries to argue with me that Alien vs Predator I and II are part of the canon deserves to have acidic alien blood dribbled over his or her head.)