Thursday 30 April 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine - radio review

I was a guest on the BBC Radio Scotland Movie Cafe today, and reviewed the new Hugh Jackman movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine with the show's host, the lovely Janice Forsyth. It was a great experience and will hopefully lead to more. You can listen to the review here:

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine by paulcgallagher

Saturday 18 April 2009

Sci-Fi Spotlight #3: The Man Who Fell To Earth

This was a strange one. I should have suspected that science fiction from Nic Roeg would not be anything I could anticipate, and sure enough I’m still struggling to decide what to make of The Man Who Fell To Earth. At the simplest level, it shows an odd-looking man named Newton (David Bowie) appearing in small town America - literally falling from the sky - and swiftly becoming one of the most powerful businessmen in the country. He is a cold, reclusive type, and we eventually discover that he is an alien, come to earth as his planet has run out of water. We see brief shots of his alien family dying back home, but Newton becomes distracted by the money and entertainment available to him on earth, and never returns home.

Roeg doesn’t so much tell this story as make you work to tell the story yourself. Large chunks of time are skipped over, and you have to fill in what happens inbetween with your imagination. So we see Newton arrive on earth with nothing, and in only a few moments of screen time we are several years down the line and he’s running World Enterprise, a massive company that is leading the field in American research and technology. This initially suggests that he has unearthly intelligence or resources, but if this is the case it is never made explicit, and doesn’t seem to feature as the story progresses and Newton is ultimately overcome by the world.

Bowie’s performance is excellent, impenetrable and otherworldly. His pale skin and dyed red hair, combined with his hollow stare, make him seem more like an alien in human shape than when his character sheds the human disguise and is revealed in his ‘real’, make-up heavy form. Throughout the film, apart from a couple of scenes, he remains without emotion, and his thoughts and desires are similarly obscured. If there is reason or purpose in his actions then Roeg is not interested in discovering it.

What, then, is Roeg interested in showing or discovering in The Man Who Fell To Earth? He creates a lot of fascinating visuals, but there isn’t a lot of sense behind them; while the film certainly seems to have artistic intentions, watching it is something of an empty experience. It also feels very dated, being full of gratuitous nudity and extended sex scenes that may have been provocative in the 70s but now beg the question ‘why?’ Similarly, Roeg plays with the timeline of the film as if to challenge conventional storytelling techniques, but to no discernible purpose.

So roll on Alphaville, I say. Perhaps I can make more sense of Jean-Luc Godard. Errr…

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Sci-Fi Spotlight #2: THX 1138

Fresh from experiencing Tarkovsky for the first time, the second film in my Sci-Fi Spotlight is from a director that I need no introduction to, one George Lucas. The funny thing is, watching THX 1138 caused me to question if this was actually the same Lucas I knew from the Star Wars films, as the only link between his blockbusting series and this near-avant-garde film is the sense of technical innovation. THX 1138 is something of a revelation as far as my perspective on Lucas is concerned, and it seems a shame that he has never returned to making this kind of film.

The story is very simple. In an unspecified future society where everyone is sedated to the level of emotionless consumer-drones, THX (Robert Duvall) neglects to take his prescribed drugs and begins to see the reality of his predicament. His room-mate LUH (Maggie McComie) has already broken free from her sedation, in fact she intentionally caused THX to miss his required dose, and as the two awake to emotion they fall in love and have sex; illegal activites in this society. They plan to attempt an escape, but are already being pursued by the beaureacratic system of government and its police droids.

Lucas unfolds this story using a very pared-down style, not attempting to draw the viewer in by conventional storytelling methods. Working with the now-legendary editor/sound designer Walter Murch he cuts together images and voices, often unsynchronised, in a nonlinear style. Lucas uses very few establishing shots and mostly close-ups, so the individual performances and character actions become the audience’s main guide through the story’s landscape.

While there is a simple story thread running through the film, THX 1138 is most effective and memorable for individual moments, sounds and images. In a scene where police droids beat THX with electric prods, for example, they repeat the mantra “everything will be alright” even as he cries out in pain. It is a powerful image of brutal and unfeeling authority, both disturbing and absurdly funny, and Lucas injects the film with many of these moments.

On his DVD commentary Lucas insists that everything in the film is metaphorical and refers specifically to the political situation in the late 1960s. He makes a good argument for this being the case, but I don’t think it’s necessary to identify these correlations to take anything of value from this story. Many of the images and ideas in THX 1138 are arguably even more relevant today than on the film’s 1971 release, and it seems to me a great example of science fiction’s timeless potential.

Next up, The Man Who Fell To Earth. David Bowie is an alien - I knew it!