A bumper edition this week (everybody dance!) with a science-fiction triple-bill, including our first guest review: Spook gives us his thoughts on the classic Stanley Kubrick movie 2001. But first stop, 1951...
Klaatu Barada Nikto!
"...surely one of the greatest allegories of the life of Christ ever made!" - Dr Frasier Crane
Why, obsessive Star Wars fans1 amongst you may be wondering, am I listing the names of Jabba's henchmen from Return of the Jedi? Aha - read on... A few years ago a major British newspaper ran one of those regular filler pieces on 'The (X-Number) Greatest Movies Ever Made'. In addition to this they got some celebs to suggest amendments - overlooked classics, over-rated turkeys, that sort of thing. Imagine my pleasant surprise when Kenneth Branagh plumped for Robert Wise's 1951 flying saucer B-movie The Day The Earth Stood Still as an addition to the list. You may have seen it - is it really as good as all that?
It's a deceptively simple story: life on Earth is shattered when a flying saucer descends on Washington DC, not far from the White House. From it emerge humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie in a role he could've been born to play) and hulking robot Gort (Lock Martin). Klaatu is shot and wounded by the trigger-happy army that have surrounded the ship, and ends up in hospital. He reveals he's come to Earth to deliver a very important message - but Terran politics make the World Summit he insists upon impossible. Wishing to learn more about the world, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and taking the name Mr Carpenter moves into a boarding house where he befriends a young widow and her son (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray). The army continue their increasingly desperate hunt for the alien visitor, not realising that his death will trigger a planet-busting rampage from the implacable Gort...
Watching TDTESS these days is to be transported back to another age, so different is this from any modern genre movie. By modern standards it might seem incredibly sentimental and square - but it has a conviction to it, and the performances are so good, that you really never care about whether it's old fashioned or not. Michael Rennie's trademark reserved detachment was never better utilised. It's a remarkable performance, mixing compassion, optimism, exasperation, and - above all - gravitas. In many ways it's the foundation of the film, setting the serious tone essential to its success. This is helped by the direction, which is semi-documentary in places - there are frequent montage sequences displaying the impact of the film's events on ordinary people around the world (a very refreshing change from modern Hollywood's belief that the world stops at the US's borders). It's not all doom and gloom - there are many effective lighter moments, often lampooning the parochial attitudes of the US itself.
Technically, it's a very accomplished piece of work by 1951 standards. The optical effects are more than adequate to tell the story, and the 'big scenes' - the army on the move, Klaatu's neutralisation of the world's electricity - are well staged. Special mention must be made of Bernard Herrman's ear-opening score, making significant use of the thelemin (an early synthesiser). Truly eerie in parts, it's been much imitated, but never bettered.
And yes, for those who look for such things, the parallels with the Christian story are clear and frequent. But they neither add to nor detract from the message at the heart of the movie: that the human race must learn to live peacefully - or face the prospect of not living at all. Maybe it's a trite and obvious message, but it's one that as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. More's the pity.
And now for the promised guest review, of another thoughtful and much imitated SF classic...
2001: A Spook Odyssey
Five million years ago, the Apes of Earth crawl around, shouting and screaming at each other. Then, some Apes find a monolith, and suddenly they evolve and start using bones as tools and weapons. The meaning of this: unknown! Then we jump forward to 2001 and people on the moon dig up another monolith. When the sun hits it starts sending a deafening radio beam aimed at Jupiter. The meaning of this: unknown! Eighteen months later, on a spaceship going to Jupiter, the computer HAL9000 (Douglas Rain) goes nuts and tries to kill all the crew before being shut down by the last survivor, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). The meaning of this? Unknown again!
2001 is an old movie that is mainly just full of special effects - they may look really clunky today but this movie pretty much invented modern special effects. At times these long special effects scenes can seem boring, however, if you stick with it you will find a good movie. The story seems to be deliberately mysterious, as you can probably tell from the summary, but it will make you want to watch the sequel, 2010. The story has the most mysterious ending I have ever seen. Dave seems to travel through a large monolith where he ends up in a white room. As he travels out of this room into another he sees someone eating at a table. At this point Dave seems to become something else and nothing appears to make any sense. The sequel answers a lot of these questions but I recommend you watch this one first as it tells and shows you things the sequel will not.
Thanks again to Spook for the review. Personally I rather like 2001's uncompromising refusal to make sense and think the novel and sequels spoil a lot of the effect, and the intentions, of the first movie. Then again, 2010 has a lot to commend it too...
If, like Spook, you're willing to risk my hacking your material about, I'd be very happy to publish more guest reviews, if only so that I'll be sure of someone other than me and the editor actually reading the column...
Brace yourself for a tenuous link: after TDTESS, director Robert Wise had a long and varied career - most famously he was responsible for nun-fest The Sound of Music in 1966, but he also was drafted in for Star Trek - the (Slow) Motion Picture in 1979. This movie's contribution to the Trek canon is debatable, but it did donate the theme tune for the TV series The Next Generation in 1987. TNG has just started another re-run on BBC TV, and while it's not my favourite incarnation of the franchise - given the choice I'd rather see the high-camp, high-adventure goings-on of the 1960s series, or the ominous, 'bus station in Kosovo' wranglings aboard Deep Space Nine - watching the pilot episode again was a weird experience.
There are several striking things about early TNG. The first is how different it seems from 'modern' Trek: it's aged about as well as my beloved 1970s Doctor Who episodes - this reeks of the mid 1980s, from the dreadful tinny incidental music, to the fact that most of the crew look and behave like a firm of lawyers - Picard hasn't started diving for the conference room at the first sign of trouble yet, but he still has his therapist on the bridge. The characters clearly haven't settled down, either - Data is more mechanical, Picard more harsh and gruff, and Worf is virtually unrecognisable, except perhaps as a lookalike for the lead singer of Earth, Wind and Fire. If anything it's got much more in common with the 1960s series - extraordinarily short skirts grace several cast members, and the basic plot (omnipotent alien messes the crew about for ages on end) was done to death in 60s episodes like The Squire of Gothos and Who Mourns for Adonis?. This isn't wholly a flaw, of course: the script isn't afraid to give a major character a silly name like Groppler Zorn, and there's no sign of the deeply patronising conceit that by giving an actor a corrugated nose they magically become wholly convincing as an alien being.
The second striking thing - and brace yourself, Trekkies - is how bad it is. The script is clunkingly obvious and mechanical. There's dialogue like 'As you know, Data, you've been programmed with the sum total of human knowledge...' and 'As an empath, I detect a great feeling of boredom' - characters telling each other things they already know, just for the audience's benefit. Picard gives highly questionable orders just to show off the new special effects budget. Of course, it improved radically as time went on and the seeds of this are clearly visible here: there are two solid performances by Michael Dorn and Brent Spiner, and an outstanding one from Patrick Stewart as the unstereotypical, uncompromising central character. More than anything else he keeps TNG watchable.
When this was originally broadcast, over ten years ago, I remember watching it with my father. As usual, I was more forgiving of its flaws than he. 'Yes, but it's not as good as the Kirk episodes, is it,' he'd reply with a smile. Well - no, it isn't, certainly not in the early days. As for later on... Well, let's be pragmatic. Even if it isn't the best American SF TV series ever made, it's undoubtedly the most important, a fact which makes its dodgy origins even more remarkable.