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Paradoxes and Enigmas

This week, we have as our main course a long-awaited (by me, anyway) review of the crypto-thriller Enigma. But first off, the Earth's mightiest mortal points us towards an insight into the strange state of modern entertainment...

It Isn't Easy Being Green

One of the future movies to which I'm looking forward most keenly (Hollywood soul-searching and/or viral apocalypse permitting) is Ang Lee's The Incredible Hulk, due out in 2003. My bedtime reading of choice these last couple of weeks has been a collected edition of some of the lime-hued behemoth's earliest appearances, dating back to the early 60's.

In the 80's and 90's a writer named Peter David did a massive rewrite of the way the Hulk works as a character and, while this incarnation has its followers and is undoubtedly ingenious, I personally I think it stripped the Hulk of a lot of his (oh dear) mythic and psychological truthfulness. The version of the Hulk I hope we're going to see on the big screen is the 'classic' one, the one from the TV series: you know what I mean, mild-mannered scientist, blah blah blah, 'you don't want to get me angry', blah blah, shirt rips, blah, 'HULK SMASH!' and so on. That's the 'true' Hulk, the original one.

Well - not quite. The fascinating thing about the really early Hulk strips is the way the character drastically changes, literally from one issue to the next, as the creators (comics genii Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) try to find a way to make the Hulk work as a concept - he starts off grey, he changes at sunset and sunrise, he's mindless and telepathically controlled by his teenage sidekick, and so on and so on. The original Hulk book was cancelled after six months, clearly a sign that they hadn't managed to make it work yet. But, crucially, Lee still believed in the character and was able to give him a second chance in another book called Tales to Astonish - and it's only here, after the character had already failed once, that the classic, rage-driven, green-skinned Hulk appears for the first time, to (ultimately) great success.

These days there aren't any second chances in the comics marketplace - and most new books are cancelled within two or three years. It's an unforgiving environment. The same is true on TV - either a series is a smash hit in its first series or it's never heard from again. (The legendary British sitcom Only Fools and Horses nearly bit the dust after six episodes, so poor were its original audiences.)

Some ideas are always going to take longer than others to fulfil their potential or to find a big audience and, currently, they're not getting that time, as networks and publishers don't have the luxury of being able to carry unsuccessful series. What's changed massively in the last couple of decades in both TV and comics is the nature of the audience. There are far fewer people reading comics and, while the TV audience is about the same, the number of channels available has increased by a factor of about fifteen (at least in the UK). In both cases, an audience now has to be fought for.

I think the same now applies to movies. With the advent of the multiplex (once again, it's happened over the last ten to fifteen years), I now have a choice of eight or ten movies to go and see where once there were only two or three. Clearly, the less obviously commercial movies aren't going to do so well surrounded by ultra-hyped and promoted Hollywood fodder: if subtitled or classic movies are your thing, you'd better hope there's an art house cinema in your town.

I don't have a solution to this (you may not even consider it a problem). I'm simply reminded of Sturgeon's Law 1 - 90% of everything is rubbish. Today's entertainment producers seem to be under the impression that they'll find the magic 10% more quickly by focus grouping everything they make and taking the absolute bare minimum number of risks - sticking to formulae and copying past successes. Paradoxically, the advent of a much greater choice for the audience has resulted in everything becoming exactly the same. And they say there's no magic left in showbiz...

A Ration Book

Here to signify that the next bit refers to a WW2 movie, if you must know.

Jaggered Hedge

Mick Jagger's cinema career has met with (let's be charitable) mixed results. He didn't exactly set the screen ablaze in either Ned Kelly or Freejack and, while he was famously very good in Performance, playing a drug-addled millionaire pop star may not have been an enormous stretch for him. Jagger has now boldly decided to build on his lack of success and become a producer, and his first movie is Michael Apted's Enigma.

Enigma is (not surprisingly for a British film) a period piece based on a novel. In terms of mood and tone it's (also not surprisingly for a British film) bloody miserable. Both these things should make it very attractive to certain cinemagoers (Daily Telegraph readers, for example). Based on Robert Harris' novel, it's set in the UK at the height of the Second World War. Atlantic convoys are crucial to keep the Russians and British in the war, and their success depends on successfully decoding German U-boat radio traffic. The Germans encode it using the titular Enigma machines, which have 15 million million possible settings (more or less; whatever, it's a bloomin' big number, okay?). A select team of boffins and assorted weirdos has been assembled at Bletchley Park to crack the codes and win the war (and also any Scrabble tournaments held in the area).

As the story begins a morose mathematician with the implausible name of Tom Jericho (a perpetually hangdog Dougray Scott, from Mission Impossible 2) returns from sick leave to find the Germans have changed their codes just as the biggest convoy in history has set sail. The ships are now heading into an ambush and the boffins have only four days to decipher the new system and save the war effort! You may find this interesting and challenging but, unfortunately, screenwriter Tom Stoppard clearly didn't as this situation is then almost completely ignored and the bulk of the rest of the film is taken up by a melodramatic plot about Jericho's search for AWOL old flame Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), his romance with her supposedly dowdy housemate Hester (Kate Winslet, whose dowdiness is signified - in classic movie style - by sticking a pair of specs on an otherwise very attractive woman), a traitor in the boffins' midst, Ukrainian mass graves, lots of boy's own style investigating, and low-octane action sequences.

Jagger and co were clearly aiming for a kind of cerebral Bond movie with a bit of historical gravitas. The director also helmed the outstanding Bond film The World Is Not Enough, and they've recruited 007 veteran John Barry to do the music. He provides an anonymous strings-and-woodwind score instantly recognisable to fans of Roger Moore's last few outings in the role. They don't manage it, simply because the action sequences are rubbish - not badly executed, just intrinsically dull. Gasp! as Jericho drives a bit too fast down a country lane. Stare! as he has to run for his train.
Look at your watch! as he jumps off a pier into a not-very-fast-moving boat.

Apted would have been better off stretching his actors further. Jericho spends the entire movie in a strop, getting increasingly Scottish as time goes by. Winslet similarly gets very little to do - but does it rather well. Well-known British faces pop up from time to time, but few for very long. I would've liked to have seen more of Corin Redgrave as the top brass from the Admiralty, Michael Troughton as a lecherous junior boffin, and Edward Hardwicke as a signals officer - but I didn't. The star turn in the movie is Jeremy Northam as Wigram, a suave spy hunting the Bletchley mole - he plays it rather like a extremely caddish and nasty version of Steed from The Avengers. The film improves hugely whenever he appears - but, once again, that's not often enough.

So given it leaves a bit to be desired as an action movie and a character piece, what's Enigma like as an intellectual thriller? Well... it's okay, but certainly not much better than that. Some of the plot convolutions seemed a bit suspect to me, but then it's that sort of film. There are two real problems here: firstly, the film's climax is pure Boy's Own magazine stuff, which completely torpedoes the credibility of the rest of the plot (torpedoeing is probably a suspect metaphor for a movie about shipping losses, but never mind...).

The second and more serious problem is that all the stuff about Burrows' disappearance and Scott and Winslet's sleuthing isn't nearly as interesting as the B-plot about saving the convoy and cracking the German cyphers. It's as if the writers wanted to tell the story of the Bletchley Park station but realised that this would involve lots of rather complex stuff about cryptography, and make the lead character a manic-depressive homosexual. So they decided to hedge their bets and liven it up a bit by including all this wholly fictitious stuff about traitors and romance and running around waving service revolvers. I thought this was incredibly patronising: it's like making a film about Anne Frank but giving her a kooky, wise-cracking best mate to liven up the attic a bit.

The scenes about the mechanics of code-breaking, the morality of sending sailors to near-certain death in order to secure a greater good, and the pioneering work on symbol-shifting computation done at Bletchley Park are far and away the best parts of Enigma. There's a great film waiting to be made about the station's contribution to the winning of the Second World War - but this isn't it. Still, that's what you get for underestimating the audience's intelligence. Better luck next time, Mick.


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1After the American SF writer Theodore Sturgeon.

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