Scanners (1981)

“Wait, what?” I can hear you ask already. “What’s this about, reviewing a film that people have heard of and seem to like?” Well, a few weeks ago we decided to run a series of reviews of movies that have “Cop” or “Cops” as the last word in their title – in fact, our newest advertising slogan is “ISCFC – The Place To Come For Reviews Of Movies With Cop Or Cops As The Last Word Of Their Title”, and we’re coming to the end of that – in fact, the only two I have left are the “Scanner Cops” series. I really really doubt we’d need to have seen the three “Scanners” movies in order to appreciate those fine works of art, but they claim to be part of the same series and we’re nothing if not thorough here, so let’s journey through them together.

This review might be a little different, too, as real genuine scholars have written about David Cronenberg and I feel my powers of analysis, such as they are, will not be equal to theirs. So, I’ll try and crack a joke or two, get as in depth as I can, and hopefully entertain – don’t worry, we’ll soon be on to straight-to-video 90s trash.

Stephen Lack is an interesting guy – never really acted much, a full-time artist these days (actually pretty good too), but he’ll forever be best known for this starring role. He’s Cameron Vale, living as a hobo due to his “scanning” abilities making interacting with people impossible. He’s captured by ConSec, although their motives are surprisingly pure – Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, delightfully unhinged) is apparently forming a Scanner underground, and killing anyone who won’t get involved. They just want Vale to stop him, is all, and to that end they give him some training and clean him up.

Of course, this comes after one of the most famous early scenes in movie history, the gif seen round the world, which…well, why mess with success? Here it is:

It’s a surprisingly “straight” movie, for Cronenberg anyway, where Vale digs deeper into the world of scanners, meets a group which is just trying to live their lives, including the sort-of love interest Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill); and there’s a mole inside ConSec, jeopardising their plans. Even though it seems extremely dark and unpleasant these days, that’s just the result of a relentless dumbing down over the last 35 years – this was pretty mainstream for the guy who created “Rabid”.

What I always love about his early movies is how cold they look. I’m sure there’s sunlight in Canada but you’d never guess it from this, and there’s something unique about the colour palette of an early Cronenberg movie that really appeals. And, of course, he’s a master of music, with early collaborator Howard Shore matching the images and mood perfectly with a fantastic soundtrack.

There’s a political element in there somewhere, about human beings and working together. The scene where the scanners are using their powers together to become one feels like a reference to hippie communes and socialist ways of organising the world; it’s also the only time Vale looks remotely happy in the entire course of the movie. This bliss is interrupted by forces from Revok, who’s similarly revolutionary but whose endgame is him at the top, and ConSec is society, with its left and right leanings, good people and bad people.

My desire to see layers in this undoubtedly fascinating film may be giving it too much credit, though. Filming was extremely difficult, with an oddity of Canadian tax law meaning filming needed to be completed inside two months, leaving Cronenberg writing the script at 4am every day to start filming at 7. This left no time to build sets, meaning production designers would drive the streets trying to find cool places to film – although they clearly had time to build the props for the artist’s retreat, which is a brilliant scene. Apparently, the stars (particularly Patrick McGoohan and Jennifer O’Neill) didn’t get on with each other or the director, leading to a particularly tough working environment for everyone.

We can perhaps be grateful that the early treatment Cronenberg wrote in 1976, featuring a character called Harley Quinn telepathically raping someone in a subway, didn’t get made; but this version is far from perfect. The “telepathic head-wobble” looks far too camp (an opinion I had the first time I watched this film, in the 80s) and Stephen Lack is a curious choice for leading man. He’s not the most charismatic guy, I guess? Although perhaps that was a deliberate choice to reflect the sort of life you’d have to lead if it turned out you had ESP. But, probably not. Jennifer O’Neill, on the other hand, is fantastic, and looks stunning. I miss the days when women with greying hair could get romantic lead roles in movies.

If they’d had more time to have a few more runs at the script, and perhaps hired a slightly more interesting star, I think “Scanners” would be up there with Cronenberg’s best. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the initial inspiration? “The Naked Lunch” features a chapter on “senders”, telepaths who have a plan to take over the world, and given Cronenberg made a film of “The Naked Lunch” a decade later, the link seems pretty clear. Maybe this was too difficult to do in the early 80s so they had to drastically limit the scope of things? The idea about being able to link with computers, while responsible for a great scene, is still a bit “really?” when you think about it.

It’s still very good, though, and absolutely worth your time if you decide to go on a tour through his early output.

Rating: thumbs up


Youtube Film Club: Velocity Trap (1999)


Of all the wonderful genres running through the golden age of VHS (early 80s to late 90s?) my personal favourite was always proper sci-fi, with spaceships, weird guns and so on. We’ve covered a fair few of them here, and it’s always nice to discover another one, especially as the decent budgets allowed for movies back then (straight to video being reasonably lucrative) meant they tended to look okay and weren’t quite as difficult to watch as some of today’s bargain-basement efforts.

It’s a welcome and quick return to the ISCFC for Olivier Gruner, last seen by us in “The Circuit 3”. For a former martial artist, he’s an okay actor, and doesn’t seem crazy like a Seagal or a Van Damme. He’s recently moved into writing and directing (with apparently disastrous results, which means I’ll be reviewing them soon), but this is from his strongest era – from 1999 to 2002, he appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows.  Add in director Philip Roth, who seems to have spent his career giving the world exactly the sort of movies I like, and we should be on for a good time; and a good time it is, although it really requires you to not think about the plot at all, for reasons which will hopefully become apparent during the course of this review.


Gruner is Ray Stokes, Enforcement Division (ED) officer. He gets a couple of crooked ED guys arrested, so the people who were benefiting from all the crookedness decide to get even with him. Right at the very beginning, the plan gets crazy convoluted, and I don’t feel I can unpick it without telling you all of it – don’t worry, it’s all right at the beginning and doesn’t spoil too much. Ready?


The guy in charge of the moon of Ramanaya, and the Ramanaya Mining Corporation, John Dawson (Craig Wasson, “That Guy” actor extraordinaire), is married to Stokes’ ex-wife. Marriage contracts are fixed-term in the future, but Stokes wanted to stay married, although he was a marine at the time, though, and was away for years. They had a baby who died during one of those times away, so Dawson helped her with the medical bills and then swooped in when she was vulnerable. This woman is so remarkable, though, and Dawson wants to keep her so much, that he arranges for Stokes to be on duty when the chief of all the galaxy’s ED comes to the moon; then, he plants a bomb which kills that guy, and gets one of his other goons to kill Dawson’s fellow officer in the ensuing chaos, pinning the murder on him. I hope you’re asking “why didn’t he just kill Stokes and make it look like an accident?”, to which the answer is “he didn’t want to make his wife sad, because she still loves Stokes”. All that, just because he wanted a quiet life at home! He then, of course, ruins this by arranging for Stokes to be given the worst ED detail possible, then mocking him as he leaves the moon, without a care for how his wife feels. And all this is the beginning of the first act!


So begins yet another “Die Hard in space” clone, with the added bonus of it being a bit like “The Count Of Monte Cristo”. I’ll give “Velocity Trap” credit for doing a lot of work in setting up its universe, though, with the main driver of this one being cyber-crime has rendered electronic money transfers impossible. Humanity has gone back to paper money, and moves billions of dollars from outlying banks back to Earth via heavily armed ships (they have super-cool auto-cannons which blow up anything which gets within a certain distance, which we see thanks to a TV advert for them at the beginning of the movie). The ships are largely automated, with a skeleton crew – captain, navigator and engineer – but on this one, ED has decided to put an officer on board who’ll stay awake for the entire six month journey while the crew is in cryo-sleep.


Joining Stokes is the captain of money ship FED 397 (Bruce Weitz, “Hill Street Blues”), who according to IMDB is called “Turd” Fenner; Cruz, the engineer; and Beth Sheffield, the navigator (Alicia “no relation to the famous ones” Coppola, a fine actor). For some reason, Beth and “Turd” take an instant dislike to Stokes, but Cruz is cool…although if you watch this, see if you can think of a reason why Cruz should perhaps be slightly worried about his presence on the ship. Anyway. “Fun” fact: Coppola was only on the movie because the original Beth got injured by shrapnel early in filming and quit.


3 months into the journey! Stokes is dealing with the boredom by making elaborate patterns out of chewing gum and doing a spot of ballet dancing, but his fun is interrupted when the Endeavour, a huge freighter long thought missing but now crewed by space pirates, plucks the FED 397 out of space and goes about stealing all the $40,000,000,000 from it. It then tries to be Die Hard for about ten minutes, as Stokes wakes up Beth and gets her to lie about there being anyone else on the ship…until he just emerges from behind a wall and threatens them. Idiot! So, from then on, it’s Stokes and Beth against the criminals, led by Nick Simmons (Ken Olandt, “April Fool’s Day”, “Leprechaun”) and his wife Alice Pallas (Jorja Fox, who must have signed up for “CSI” right after making this). They’re really good, and one thing Roth is superb at is sketching a character out well in very little time.


Apologies if your eyes are glazing over right now, but there’s more lunacy to come. One thing you’ll notice is that this ship, carrying unimaginable amounts of wealth, has zero security or safety features (once the baddies are given inside info to disable the auto-cannons from attacking them). “Turd” takes Stokes’ bullets away because they might tear through the hull of the the ship – I think if you’re in space and a single bullet could do you in, you need to redesign your ships. But luckily, one of the villains fires a space-bazooka later on and the ship is fine – the bazooka is a prop so spectacularly cheap looking that even the most amateur cosplayer would be ashamed to carry it round. There’s one bit where Stokes is trying to escape, ends up in a service tunnel…and gets attacked by a huge robot with lasers! Hey, robot, why weren’t you protecting the rest of the ship? Why were you not mentioned before or after? At every stage where you’d expect a space ship months from humanity to have a feature to deal with a problem, it doesn’t.


“Velocity Trap” is absolutely packed to the gills with stuff. Enough plot for two sci-fi B-movies, a wild pace that ensures you’re never bored and don’t get too long to question the bonkers thing you just saw, and plenty of funny little moments too. There’s so much, that every now and again they have a newsreader to fill us in on any plot points we missed! The ending, when the two survivors (no spoilers!) decide what to do with the money is a wonderfully clever little bit of business.


I really liked it, while acknowledging it’s full of plot holes and a bit on the silly side. Gruner is a fine lead, Coppola is excellent (and they’re freed from having an annoying love interest plot, because he just wants his wife back, and she hates him) and if you have any love for straight-to-video sci-fi, this’ll be right up your street. I think we’ll be doing some more Philip Roth movies, so look out for some 90s recommendations over the next week or so.


Rating: thumbs up

The Time Guardian (1987)


time-guardianAs everyone was “celebrating” the fact that yesterday was the actual day they went to in “Back To The Future 2”, the ISCFC did it the proper way – by reviewing a trashy old Australian sci-fi / time travel movie with a couple of odd cameos in it.


Dear movie people: if you’re going to have a text scroll to start your movie, don’t also have someone read out the text scroll. Do you not trust us? One or the other is fine. But it tells us, both ways, that it’s the year 4039 and humanity has retreated to a series of cities with special force fields protecting them; this is down to a race of baddie cyborgs called the Jen-Diki (who it turns out, shock horror were created by humanity a few decades ago to fight a war for them) deciding the best thing to do would be wipe us all out.


So, humanity in the last remaining city figures out time travel, and uses this to escape the Jen-Diki, going back in time to Australia long, long before the white man turned up there, but then the Jen-Diki do too, and…this bit is all slightly confusing. I guess they bounce around time, trying to escape? God knows. Anyway, our hero is Ballard (Australian charisma vacuum Tom Burlinson), one of the handful of soldiers humanity has left, and fighting alongside him is Petra, played by…Carrie Fisher!

Yes, their metal vests have nipples

Yes, their metal vests have nipples

Having such an iconic actress in a movie like this raises all sorts of questions. Her career was going great in the 1980s, so it’s not like she was even in her drug-dependent wilderness years (although it’s very possible she was still using heavily at the time). Although she’s in the movie til almost the end, they clearly only had her for a few days, or she was in no condition to perform, as there’s some really poor cutting round her obvious absence from the set. She gets injured, and despite it being to the shoulder, has to lay down for the next hour of the movie, so we see people look down at her (but not her looking back up), very long distance shots of her next to a campfire, which could be anyone, and lots of shots where she’s the only person in the frame, with the lighting looking suspiciously different to the other people in the same scene.


Ballard and Petra are sent back to 1988 to prepare a dirt mound to sit one of the city’s damaged legs on, and after Petra gets shot (about five seconds after going back in time) the lion’s share of the work is done by Ballard and his new friend, modern day geologist Annie (Aussie soap mainstay Nikki Coghill). Small town rural Australia has a lot of similarities with rural USA, but there’s more of a sense of humour of their mockery of authority, so it rattles along with plenty of laughs, as they try and build the mound, the locals wonder what’s going on, the Jen-Diki try and track them down, and the city slowly flies back through time – in other “we could only afford him for a day” news, the ruler of the city is Dean Stockwell, just after “Blue Velvet” and just before “Quantum Leap”.


It’s definitely not one of the worst films we’ve covered here, and there’s quite a lot to like about it. It’s nicely paced, the plotlines tie together in the end, the cyborg special effects are fun, and it’s interesting to see a movie set in Australia going for a bigger sci-fi theme.


I’d suggest the biggest problem “The Time Guardians” has is the tons of dropped plot threads. There’s a whole backstory for the city hinted at, with posters everywhere telling people to conserve water, but it’s just left there (and why do they need to conserve water, if they can travel in time and go anywhere? Just park by a river and take as much as you want!). Ballard is referred to several times as “the Time Guardian”, as if it’s a title bestowed on him, but as far as the movie’s aware he’s just a grunt being sent back on a mission. And the reasoning behind the ending is not so much flimsy as entirely non-existent.


By all means watch this if you can track it down, but be prepared to scratch your head a few times. Fun by completely inconsequential.


Rating: thumbs in the middle


Starfire Mutiny (2002)


Joe Lara! Our review series of his sci-fi movies continues. We could have reviewed a lot more, as before retiring from the film industry to become a country music singer, he also did a lot of dull-sounding straight-to-video thrillers about army people and cops and so on. But who can be bothered with those?


And I wish I’d not bothered with this one. Boy oh boy, was “Starfire Mutiny” tough to get through. It’s a classic example of half a movie’s worth of plot stretched to feature length with pointless talking scenes and guys walking down a corridor bantering about all the women they want to have sex with. Poor Joe Lara! To have this as his last credit is a damn shame. I can also only assume that he’d already mentally checked out of the business by this point, as…actually, I’ll leave that dramatic reveal for later. But if you want an indication of quality, this has no mutinies in it, and doesn’t take place on a ship called the “Starfire”.


It’s a couple of hundred years in the future, and the ozone layer is gone, leaving the Earth a desert wilderness. Humanity survives in cryogenic suspension in huge ships in orbit, along with a skeleton crew to keep things in order. They’ve apparently figured out a way to kickstart the ozone layer again, and all they need is a large enough solar flare to power their MacGuffin Beam – it’s probably got a name like Genesis or Gaia or something, but I can’t remember. Also, there’s a small prison left on Earth, home to General Swann, a white supremacist who was kicked out of the army for being too horrible even for them (although judging by the movie’s 100% white cast, perhaps he was successful).


Luckily, Swann has a friend on the outside, Colonel Diana Briggs, and she busts him and a few of his men out, gets them in a spaceship, and then they’re off into orbit to put into action a plan five years in the making – using the nuclear reactors in the cryo-ships to power the MacGuffin Beam. But that will kill everyone!


Joe is Sam Talbot, the guy in charge of the skeleton crew. The first reason to get annoyed with “Starfire Mutiny” is, despite his top billing, he’s barely in it! He gets knocked out as soon as the bad guys get to the space station, and doesn’t wake up again til after the halfway point, and even then he doesn’t really do anything. Sorry, Joe! The lion’s share of the heroics go to Ben, the guy in charge of cryogenics (a chap called Julius Krajewski, who is so bad at acting I thought it was going to be revealed to be a joke) and the fraudster who replaced the dead Dr Miranda Blake, the head of the MacGuffin project, in her cryo-pod. She’s Elise Muller, who not only was in “Shark Man”, but has been in a Duplass Brothers movie (“Baghead”) and has a decent career going for herself; she’s the sole bright spark in this too.


Recapping the plot seems pointless, as it’s “Die Hard” in space (damn you Die Hard for giving low-budget producers a cheap idea!), only a version where Bruce Willis does pretty much nothing and it’s down to a weird camp idiot and a female criminal to save the day. It really tries to be funny as well, with a couple of comic relief goons getting into scrapes, plus Ben quipping every time he’s on screen, but wow does it ever fail.


Before I wrap things up, a quick word about the rather odd lesbian scene. “Miranda” convinces the baddies she’s the real deal, and uses her female charms to fool General Swann. This makes Briggs super-jealous and suspicious (legitimately wondering why a 25 year old woman would be in charge of such a huge scientific project), so Miranda has to go to Briggs’ room (why would she have a room on a space station she’d only just arrived at? Shut up) and replace a disk with the real Miranda’s picture on it. To provide a distraction, she seduces Briggs, who after a few seconds of apprehension, agrees. Now, I know sexuality is a sliding scale and all that, but Briggs has been so obsessed with Swann that she gave up her career and is prepared to sacrifice millions of people for him, so it seems a trifle unlikely she’d just hop into the sack with the first woman who asks. Plus it doesn’t work, as Briggs rumbles her plan in the very next scene with some sweet Photoshop analysis of her photo! This scene becomes slightly more understandable when you see the filmography of director Lloyd Simandl, who’s responsible for such classics as “Chained Fury: Lesbian Slave Desires”.


This movie is why you need a script that will last you 90 minutes. It’s s-l-o-w, full of unnecessary dialogue, and the action is almost non-existent for long stretches. There’s not a single scene that couldn’t have been improved by halving its length – while you don’t notice the editor’s craft when it’s done well, you really notice it when it’s done badly. One great example is when Swann mows down a room full of guards at the prison. Now, he starts at the left and slowly pans right, taking quite a while to shoot everyone. I can understand the first guy dying, but the tenth? Guard 10 had a gun in his hand but seemed quite content to just wait for the inevitable embrace of bullet-assisted death – editing, people! It’s important!


I have to assume there was some story behind Lara’s lack of involvement. By screen time, he’d be maybe fifth or sixth billed, and having two other people do the hero stuff while he’s either unconscious or just sitting in a room makes everything feel weird. Even weirder is, he has a fight near the end with a couple of the comic relief goons but loses it.


“Starfire Mutiny” is a terrible movie, it’s cheap, ugly and stupid, and only avoids the charge of being offensive to women by being offensive to everyone with at least half a normal share of common sense. Avoid (which shouldn’t be difficult, it’s really hard to get hold of and I’ve got no idea why I track this garbage down just to tell you not to track it down).


Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club: Total Reality (1997)


David Bradley must have decided shortly after making “Total Reality” that the movie business wasn’t for him. After taking over the “American Ninja” franchise and doing a pretty good job of it, he’d turned from MARTIAL ARTS GUY into a decent, charismatic leading man who could also kick ass. Then, after a few movies in 1997, that was it. When there’s “actors” like Jalal Merhi and Ron Marchini who made w-a-y more movies than they should have, it’s a shame when a good actor makes too few.

Although perhaps he saw the finished product of this confusingly plotted movie and thought gardening was a more satisfying career. John Bridges (Michael Mendelson) has written a self-help book, which advocates selfishness to get ahead, and as you might have guessed, he’s a bit of a dick, as we see his ex-wife Cathy (Ely Pouget) storm into his rather sparsely attended book launch to demand the return of money he stole from their joint account. But we’re then whisked 200 years into the future! Humanity spread throughout the galaxy pretty quickly, but with the pretty evil-sounding Bridgist political party / philosophy dominant. There’s a rebel force and a war waged which kills billions of people, and we join the action as the Bridgists are about to storm the last remaining rebel ship. Bradley is Lieutenant Antony Rand, leading the Bridgist commandos.


Now, right about here, ten minutes into the movie, is where everything goes off the rails. I don’t think it’s always necessary, but when you’re making a cheapo sci-fi action movie, it’s often handy to have clearly defined heroes and villains, at least early on. It gives you an “in” to the movie, allows you to get acclimated before the twists and turns of the plot really kick in. “Total Reality” on the other hand, gives you something different – the Rebel leader, Commander Tunis (Thomas Kretschmann, who’d go on to a decent career, including “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”), shoots the assistant who suggests surrender to save the families on board; then Rand secures the ship, only to have his Bridgist superiors destroy it from a distance with their super-lasers. Rand shoots his superior officer and is sent to military prison; Tunis and his second-in-command escape on a small craft and go back in time to 1998.  By the way, the rebel ship is the USS Haldeman, no doubt a reference to the author of sci-fi classic “The Forever War”, which I wish this movie had borrowed more from him than a name.


I could spend an entire review unpacking the plot holes and confusion in just this one tiny bit of movie, because it’s pretty special. The sole “good guy” is happily on the side of the evil Bridgists to this moment, and both sides seem like absolute scum. Then, thinking just a tiny bit deeper, if both sides have time travel technology, why haven’t they used it before this, the last possible moment of the war? Why did Tunis need to kill his assistant and potentially all the people hiding in the hold he blasted his time-travel ship out of? Why did Rand learn the truth about the Bridgists so early in the movie, leaving no big reveal for later?


From Rand’s new home on Ganymede Space-Prison, the movie then becomes a sort of reverse “Terminator”, crossed with “The Dirty Dozen”. Rand and three other inmates are given implants that will explode in 40 hours, and sent back in time themselves to capture the two rebels, alive or dead. One might think they’d at least give the four the most basic of preparation for life in the late 20th century, but no! Sure is lucky one of them can drive, otherwise this would be a movie about four people in body armour and rifles trying to hitch a ride. There’s also a smidge of “Back To The Future 2” as one of the convicts takes back a disc with every stock price movement for the last two hundred years on it.


The Fearsome Foursome are tracking the chips implanted in the rebel leaders’ necks, because every Bridgist has one implanted. Never mind that the war has been raging for decades and chances are the two rebels would have been born outside the Bridgist sphere of influence! Just go with it! They find Cathy pretty much by accident as she’s gone to her former home to get some stuff, and the two rebels turn up too, looking for Bridges themselves. Thanks to this meeting, we get perhaps the primary stylistic choice of this movie – NO-ONE CAN SHOOT FOR SHIT. People stood in the same room as each other, with big powerful guns, are appalling aims, even worse when you consider they’re all trained soldiers. This carries on throughout, to the point when you’re actually surprised when someone fails to navigate the mostly harmless hail of bullets.


The thing about David Bradley is he’s a fantastic screen martial artist, so if you hire him for your movie you’d expect there to be some decent fights. Of course, if you’re the producers of “Total Reality” then you’dabsolyutnaya-realnost-scene-2 have him in no fights at all, apart from him punching one guy in the face. I’d understand that if it were a crash-bang-wallop action movie, with stuff happening all the time, but it’s really not. As well as all the comparisons above, it’s got a lot of “The Dead Zone” to it, just with being from the future substituting for being psychic, and also has a whole undeveloped plotline which reminds you of the episode of the Simpsons where Kang and Kodos replace Bill Clinton and Bob Dole on the election trail. Whoops, spoilers!


If you’ve got a clash of ideologies, like Bridgism vs. whatever the rebels stand for, then you really need at least one description of what those ideologies are. This movie goes out of its way to not tell you, to leave you in the dark about what exactly everyone is fighting for, and while we know Bridgism is bad we’ve got absolutely no idea what the rebels would replace it with. Their plan is, what we see of it anyway, confusing, and given that Rand should really be on their side from the very beginning, sort of pointless. To top all this off, it gives us a bizarre anti-climax of an ending, with the movie’s fourth banana the one to get the big dramatic closing speech, which isn’t actually all that dramatic at all. And what the hell was with the mysterious FBI agents? They clearly knew more than they were letting on, but why? And how?


They must have filmed at 4:30 am on the streets and in an abandoned mall, because aside from the main cast there is literally no-one in this movie. I’d love it if it were a conscious choice, but I bet the filmmakers just didn’t want to pay any extras (the big book launch that will apparently change the universe is attended by maybe 10 people, for example).


I wanted to like this – time travel, sci-fi, David Bradley, director Philip Roth (who also did ISCFC favourite “Digital Man” and now produces SyFy Channel-esque movies) – there’s plenty of good elements for the B-movie lover. But it’s all so empty. Why not take out one of the meaningless talking scenes (or heavily trim the coda) and have a character explain their motivation with some clarity? “Oh, that’s why that guy shot his friend and then risked all the people on his ship to go back in time!”


Rating: thumbs down

Stargate (1994)


I would think if you’re a reader of this site, you’ll have seen “Stargate”. It’s one of the most famous sci-fi films of recent decades, it’s inspired three different TV series and has, probably, given Ancient Alien “theorists” ideas for articles that start “I know this is in the fiction section, but what if it was based on fact?” I’d never seen it until last night, so if you’re like me, or if your memory is just really bad and you want to know if you ought to watch it again, read on.


Although he’s also German, and also makes often rubbish sci-fi movies, Roland Emmerich has little else in common with Uwe Boll. Emmerich has proved, since “Universal Soldier” in 1992, that he’s the guy to go to if you want your high-concept genre movie to make big $$$; Boll has proved that any good movies he makes are probably an accident, and he should fire his casting person. While Boll is perfect for the ISCFC, Emmerich’s stuff is a bit too big-budget for us to normally bother with, but…well, I wanted to write about it.


In 1928, a group of American archaeologists uncover a Stargate, and although it takes them nearly 70 years, they figure out how to work it. Well, one guy figures it out, and that’s James Spader, with a sheepish look and magnificent mane of floppy 90s hair. He’s Dr Daniel Jackson (the same character who shows up in the TV series – don’t worry, that’s the only bit of movie-to-show trivia I have) and he plays super-smart chaps with a sense of humour remarkably well. Anyway, they get the Stargate up and running (an amazing effect, featured in all the trailers with good reason) and Jackson, Kurt Russell as the badass Army guy and his group of almost-as-badass soldiers, all go through it and find themselves somewhere that looks a lot like ancient Egypt.


So, the Egyptian sun-god Ra is just an alien who possessed the body of an Egyptian fellow, and using a weird glowing sarcophagus, keeps himself alive for the next several millennia. As the people of Earth rebelled against him (why we’re not all praying to Ra right now, presumably), the human slaves he has on this mysterious sandy planet are forbidden to read or write, so they can never progress and never rebel against his rule. So you’ve got a friendly slave culture (featuring curious kids, super-hot women and old priests); Ra and his similarly god-themed guards; and the Stargate team. Simple and effective.


First things first, the film looks amazing. The sand and the perfect blue sky pop against each other beautifully, and the culture of the planet has clearly had some thought put into it- it’s believably what ancient Egyptian culture, left to rot for a few thousand years, would look like. The effects are great too, but that’s to be expected coming from a consummate big-budget guy like Emmerich.


Talking of him, his other great gift is casting. I’m not sure how far I want to take this Boll / Emmerich comparison, but Boll’s casting feels like darts thrown at a board with the name of every actor on it; Emmerich’s just seems “right”. “Independence Day” is perhaps the best example of a film full of perfect casting choices (Randy Quaid! Brent Spiner! Harvey Fierstein!) but he nails it here too. Kurt Russell and James Spader look like they were born to play their roles, but French Stewart (in his first movie), playing wildly against future type as a hardass Italian-American soldier, is great, and the casting of the space-Egyptians is superb too.


Sadly one particular space-Egyptian didn’t feel the same way – Ra, the god-villain, is played by Jaye Davidson (“The Crying Game”), and the experience was evidently so unpleasant that he retired from acting immediately afterwards. James Spader also had a rather funny quote about why he took on this project, despite finding the script laughable: “Acting, for me, is a passion, but it’s also a job, and I’ve always approached it as such. I have a certain manual-labourist view of acting. There’s no shame in taking a film because you need some fucking money.”


It’s a slick, big-budget adventure, and provided you have some love for those, you’ll certainly have a good time with this one. It had perhaps a more chequered route to the screen than most movies of its ilk – sued for ripping off a high school teacher’s screenplay (they didn’t, probably); terrible test screenings (solved by subtitling Ra’s speeches to give the plot more shape); and, the first movie to ever have an official website. Can you imagine? The days before websites? Eurgh, we might as well have been using stone tools.


Rating: thumbs up

Robot Revolution (2015)


Although you could, if you were unkind, dismiss this as a weird Judge Dredd fan-film, or a cheap knockoff of sadly missed TV favourite “Almost Human”, there’s something surprisingly meaty and interesting about this. As far as ISCFC-reviewed movies go, it’s in the bottom 10% in terms of budget but I’d say the top 10% in terms of inventiveness and ideas. So read on with me, then get yourself to a VOD place and buy yourself a copy.

In the not-too-distant future, terrorism is rife, robots control many aspects of our daily lives, and most cops have android partners. Officer Hawkins (Virginia Logan) is dispatched to a normal tower block on a normal case, but runs into all sorts of different groups – a gang of teen junkies, a lazy building supervisor, a family with an odd religious affiliation, some terrorists and their tech genius, a huge hulking robot cleaning device…plus, something is causing all the machines in the building to malfunction; throw in a government conspiracy and you’ve got yourself a tense little thriller.


It’s set entirely inside one building, with a lot of action taking place in corridors, stairwells and claustrophobic little rooms. The budget was obviously microscopic, but the people behind this film decided to do something different – use everything to their advantage. Rather than have everything look like a cheap digital camera, they use the conceit of half the movie being from the robot’s POV, so the screen is filled with the data on his viewscreen; there’s static and weird colours and every effect in the book to make the footage look like it came from broken old security cameras; and to disguise that the place they’re filming in is a disused university dorm rather than a futuristic slum. To be able to say something like this about a movie is so incredibly refreshing – microbudget movie-makers who are bothered about how their film looks!

As the cops collect up the people in the building, we come across the first problem, in that the movie really slows down at around the halfway point and doesn’t get going til really close to the end. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say this was a short film that they pushed to feature length, but even then they’ve bothered giving the group individual personalities and having them represent different ways of living in this grim future. You will learn to dread the static screen on the robot’s display, though, as you’ll see it A LOT.


But enough of my grumpy attitude! It’s a surprisingly good movie, with a series of incredibly strong performances, especially related to other movies of a similar budget and scale. Virginia Logan is great in the central role; but there’s plenty of others, like the building super and the tech wizard…I think you’ll enjoy this. I want these people to get a bunch of money so they can really let their imaginations run wild, because that’s the only thing holding them back from making a genuinely great sci-fi movie. But support indie filmmaking and inventive sci-fi and rent “Robot Revolution”.

Rating: thumbs up

The Hidden (1987)


After a few alien-cops-on-earth movies (“Endangered Species”, “Alien Space Avenger”) we come to perhaps the best known of them all, a fun film which dispenses with anything remotely approaching backstory and just gives us full alien vs. other aliens (with a human assist) action.

A previously law-abiding chap robs a bank, kills a bunch of people, takes multiple gunshots and doesn’t go down, until eventually his car blows up and he’s taken, unconscious, to hospital. Early on, no messing, he’s got a weird alien parasite inside him, and the alien hops out of him and into the guy in the next bed. At the same time, head local cop Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri) is investigating what went on, and is joined by Seattle FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), who’s got an odd look about him. There’s plenty of other cops around too, and the whole department feels real, lots of believable-looking cops (and they must have filmed in a real police station, no way a set dresser could have made it look that authentic).


Gallagher, of course, keeps the truth from Beck, to the point he’s arrested and they figure out he’s not actually an FBI agent. Meanwhile, the alien is jumping from body to body, killing, stealing cars and stereos to play his sweet 80s metal tapes on. Included in this run of alien hosts is a 22-year-old Claudia Christian, who’d go on to genre fame in “Babylon 5” and then every trashy sci-fi movie ever, it seems like.

I really enjoyed this! Tense, well-made, visually interesting, some lovely light moments, with a couple of great central performances (McLachlan is really good, with his little oddities played down rather than broad, for laughs) and a pace which starts off fast and doesn’t really let up. Apart from the music, which sounded hideous – all weird irritating sounds that felt like they were trying to be gunshots – there’s really nothing much to criticise about this movie. Plus, it’s got perhaps the largest number of “That Guy” (and Gal) actors of any movie ever. I’ll list the names, and I guarantee you won’t have heard of any of them, but if you saw their faces you’d recognise them all instantly. Clarence Felder, Clu Gulager, Ed O’Ross, Lin Shaye, Chris Mulkey and Richard Brooks – all completely solid, dependable actors, and all doing fine work in this movie.



If you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve seen this movie before, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend checking it out. One of the classics of 80s sci-fi cinema.

Rating: thumbs up