Days Of Fear and Wonder – A Celebration of Science Fiction at the BFI

We are living in an era of astounding possibilities, in many ways the very futures that science fiction always dreamt of.  Yes, the genre has changed in many ways since it’s earliest incarnations in the minds of Jules Verne and HG Wells, but essentially it has retained the same core concept – that of extrapolating our deepest fears as well as our idealised hopes for the future of both the individual and the whole of human society.
imageIt was no coincidence that the scientific romance (or what became known as science fiction) appeared during the Victorian era, when the dirt and disease which spread with the cities accompayning industrialisation, as well as the awe-inspiring technical wonders of the industrial revolution itself, were strikingly evident and of serious social and political concern.  The fantastical possibilities that the swift technological advances implied for both the good and the detriment of ordinary people became a fertile ground for the imaginative author.  Also, by the end of the 19th century the political unrest, particularly across Europe, spawned ‘invasion’ novels and the idea that technology for all it’s wonders could easily be turned against us, whether by colonising Martians or our own kind.image
The moving image was one of the many astounding innovations of that productive era.  Although we are no longer shocked to the point of dodging the approach of a train arriving at a station, film still has the power to captivate our imaginations, move our emotions or shock our senses.  It was partly because of this that even from the early days of cinema, science fiction was felt to be a natural subject for this futuristic medium and most of our preconceptions of the genre were in evidence from the beginning – from Georges Melies ‘A Trip To The Moon‘ (1902) and his many other fantastical creations, to the ever popular mad-scientist ‘Frankenstein’ (1910) – (by the way, the formation of the monster in this film is quite grotesque!), to our fascination with Martians and not to mention wacky futurist costumes and sets in ‘Aelita:Queen of Mars’ (1924), to time out of context in ‘The Lost World’ (1925), or the ultimate dystopian/utopian/saintly girl/evil robot/future city/slave to the machine/freedom fighting/love story of them all ‘Metropolis’ (1927).
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The fascination that film makers had with science fiction continued with the advent of sound and the development of what became known as special effects, which made even more visually possible. I wont go into the many variations of the genre which proliferated throughout the decades (although here’s a thorough list), but there has, on the whole, been a healthy mix of the deeply thought provoking and the entertainingly trashy.
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The BFI are scanning the decades with a range of classic science fiction films between October and December 2014 – Sci-Fi Days of Fear and Wonder.  If you can’t actually make it to London (or a few other places around the UK) to see the films on the big screen, it would definitely be worth re-assessing your ideas of what science fiction can be by checking out at least a few of these films.

wpid-brazil.jpgFor some reason the general idea of what a science fiction film is seems to have changed over the last couple of decades (unless I am missing some great films) – it has lost its insight into contemporary issues, the mystery of discovering worlds beyond our own, or the thrill and wonder of technologies just out of reach. It has become a by-word for little more than an action movie in space or a horror movie in space. Of course they can be both of these, but they could also be so much more. Where are our own Quatermass equivalents?

I’m not calling for remakes – look at the vacuous remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still for instance! But I believe we would all benefit from more involved story lines than the recurring ‘kill the ugly alien monster’ one.  Hopefully this season will remind film makers of the infinite possibilities inherent in the limitless realms of thoughtful science fiction.

By the way, watch the trailer – how many have you seen?
imageHere’s a list of some of the films that will be on show, I’ve highlighted some of my favourites.  I think they are also showing The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) an excellent slice of British atomic sci-fi, directed by the under-appreciated Val Guest.  Although they do include ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ I would also have shown Jack Arnold’s superior The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) – a stunning piece of existential Sci-Fi and a lot less laborious than another memorable existential genre film, the equally stunning Russian film Solaris (1972).  Another recommendation is Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), which is still probably one of the best introductions to intelligent Science Fiction.  I don’t think these are on the list, which is a shame, but I might be wrong!:-

Metropolis (1927), William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936), Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1961), Jean-Luc Godard‘s New Wave offering Alphaville (1965), Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Planet of the Apes (1968), George Miller’s Mad Max II: Road Warrior (1981), Terry Gilliam’s surreal masterpiece Brazil (1985) and the dystopian vision from Margaret Atwood’s novel in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990).  The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), starring Rock Hudson, David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Michel Gondry’s emotive Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).  A Message From Mars (1913), Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds (1953), Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), Steven Spielberg’s chilling Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); there will be an Extended Run of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and screenings of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010).

Which would you choose and which have they missed out…?

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Another Monument to Man’s Folly

There is many an extravagant monument to man’s folly, to his ego, to his dreams, his vanity, or whatever else you may want to call it.  Some of the architecture was never finished, some completed and never used and some simply abandoned for any number of reasons.  There are to many to mention here (although you may like to explore some of them through the Failed Architecture website).

The project I want to highlight in this post I initially discovered on the designboom website.  It caught my attention due to it’s real-life similarity to the epic vision/blindness exhibited in the films Fitzcarraldo and The Mosquito Coast.  A cinema situated in the blazing Sinai Desert equals the monumental grandeur/doomed-to-failure obsessions evident in both of these movies.

The photographs were taken by Kaupo Kikkas and the collection is called End of The World Cinema.  It is a real shame that he didn’t take photographs of the view from the seats or the projection room – to me that would be the most obvious images to take.  Instead we have shots across the seats and the outside of the projection room.  This is what he has to say about the project:-

On a sunny day at the very beginning of this millenniums a crazy frenchman found himself in the desert of Sinai. After some puffs of a magic smoke he wondered – how come that there are no cinemas in the middle of the desert? 

He flew back to Paris and arranged some money. After that he went to Cairo to buy original old seats and projection equipment from an old cinema theatre. Then came back to Sinai, arranged generator for electricity a monsterous tractor to pull up the screen that was like a gigantic sail. And now everything was more or less ready for the premier. 

Only detail he forgot was that this nice desert happens to be in Egypt. Country where local authorities are not too happy about such enthusiasm and spirit, specially if it comes from a crazy frenchmen…

At the premier evening everything went “accidentally” wrong, their electricity generator was sabotaged and no movies were ever screened at the End of the World Cinema.

So there it lies and waits – a monument from another reality and time.

We all love grand designs and big ideas – when they come off they can be stunning, but when don’t come off they can be equally stunning.  Left to gradual decay they serve as reminders of man’s frailty and  inevitable transience on the face of the planet.

End of The World Cinema 1Photograph by Kaupo Kikkas

End of The World Cinema 2Photograph by Kaupo Kikkas

End of The World Cinema - on Google EarthEnd of The World Cinema on Google Earth.

A Quick Note On Seeing Lawrence of Arabia On The Big Screen

Firstly I must qualify the title of this mini-posting.  This is not a review of Lawrence of Arabia – it is one of he greatest ‘epic’ films ever made, what more do you need to say – and when I say ‘the Big Screen’ I actually simply mean the cinema.  I can just about remember when a big screen could actually accommodate two tiers of seating, but that was many, many years ago!

So how come Lawrence of Arabia was being shown in a mainstream cinema?  Well, this year is the fiftieth anniversary of its premier (which was at the Odeon, Leicester Square in London on 10th December 1962) and in celebration of this fact there is a Blu-ray edition available and the film is being shown in cinemas across the country.  It has already been exhibited in cinema’s in America (a month or two ago) and in the UK yesterday.  There is also another screening this coming Tuesday.

Filming with huge 70mm cameras (on Super Panavision 70 film) caused many difficulties on the shoot including the regular over-heated of he equipment in the desert sun, despite the many efforts to keep them cool.  Although the larger format does significantly increase the image quality and apparently greatly assist with image stability while projecting, the term 70mm is a slightly misleading – in terms of the actual size of the image on 70mm film, 65mm are for the picture frame and the other 5mm are for the sound strip, whereas all of the 35mm are used for the image on 35mm film.

The digital copy of the film has been scanned at 8k and 4k, which I believe is unusual (see page seven of the Masters of Cinema Catalogue for an interesting comparison of film and film scans).  Most films for release in cinemas are filmed at 2k digital, which is roughly half the equivalent of the information contained on 35mm film.  4k appears to be optimal for most movies as it is virtually equivalent to 35mm film, so I assume the 8k scan was undertaken to accommodate the additional information contained on a 70mm print.

Prior to the film screening itself there were the usual trailers for future features – one was for the Life of Pi which appears to be nearly all constructed with CGI technology.  I have no problem with CGI, it can be incredibly useful and highly effective when used sparingly, but I dislike it’s over use – it gives the film an artificial sheen which I find off-putting.  I mention this because, of course, Lawrence of Arabia was filmed long before this technology was available and the film looked refreshingly ‘natural’ and warm (or was that just the heat of the desert!).

I do not know which scan was shown, I’m assuming the 8k version – which ever it was it looked absolutely stunning, the depth and visible detail was incredible.  I have seen couple of classic films at the cinema and you do notice more, get more of an experience – it is great to see these films as they should be seen.  It is far more of an experience than watching it at home on the small screen. I was one of only five people at this particular screening, which is a pitiful number!  The film is truly epic, in terms of length as much as scope of the story – it is the longest film to win Academy Awards, only beating Gone With The Wind by about a minute.  My ticket was nearly £10, which seems to be usual, but I think I really got my monies worth this time.

If you get the chance to see this classic as it should be seen, on as big a screen as possible, I would highly recommend it.

The Woman In Black

Like many people, I do like going to the cinema – it can turn what is simply something to watch into an event, an occasion to be shared with friends or enjoyed purely on your own.  If only the cinematic experience was always like this, unfortunately there are a few aspects which put me off going to the cinema more often.  One is simply the price – it can cost as much as a Blu-ray disc (which I could watch over and over again whenever I wanted to).  In other words, I would go far more regularly if it simply cost less.  Another reason is the lack of the theatricality that used to be such a part of the whole experience – no plush carpets, no velvety sofas and no dramatic drawing back of the curtain to reveal the silver screen.  The now ubiquitous multiplex has no glamour – where once we had palaces of Arabian splendour, or the Jazzy lines of Art Deco to sweep us to our seats, they are now all alike – identical warehouses, shoe boxes with small screens, not much larger than those found in many living rooms.

Not that I remember the age of glamour of course, but I do at least remember a pause before the main feature and usherettes with trays selling ice-creams  (the last gesture towards movie going as an extravagance, a night out, something special) before the now anonymous production-line delivery of our entertainment.  Without wanting to put too much of a downer on the idea of a trip to the movies, the final reason for my reluctance to go more often is the serial disappointment I get during and after the event – the feeling that I should have simply held onto my money and put it towards a film on disc that I know I’d enjoy.

To contradict what I’ve just said, seeing a good film at the cinema can be an amazing experience, well worth the price of entry, and when it is an amazing experience, it goes a long way to negate those accumulated disappointments.  It has the power to excite you, move you, shock you or make you laugh – whatever the intended effect of the film, the viewing of it in a cinema is something quite different to watching it at home in your living room.  It offers a rare sense of shared experience, as though you as part of a group were there to witness something quite special and it can leave you with a warm feeling for days if not weeks afterwards.

I was a little wary about seeing The Woman in Black.  I had no preconceptions about the story, I had not read Susan Hill’s book, nor seen the previous TV film or hugely successful stage adaptation, yet there was a lot riding on this movie – would Daniel Radcliffe be any good in a grown up film, and as this was the first major release from the resurrected Hammer studios, would it do justice to the history of that studio?

The horror of this film is definitely in the gothic mode – it’s not the blood soaked gore of pointless torture, or the crazy men in masks running after stupid teenagers type of film (thank goodness!).  This is the horror of the desolate countryside, strange villagers fearing a curse and a decayed, haunted house – so far, so Hammer!  The mood from the beginning of this film is one of dark, cluttered rooms, wood panelling, rich buttoned up fabrics and the gloomier side of the Edwardian era.  This style of the supernatural depends completely on mood, the slow building up of expectation and tension, and that is what this film does extremely well.  The atmosphere is heavy and consistent, with the direction aided significantly by the quality of the production design, which is convincing throughout.

The story begins with Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) contemplating ending his life years after losing his wife during childbirth.  His continuing state of depression has been affecting his work and when his boss sends him to deal with the estate of a recently deceased woman it is obviously his last chance to retain his job.  It is the history of events surrounding the house of this woman that is the crux of this story.  Throughout there are images of frilly Edwardian childhood, mechanical toys, tea sets and dolls; and the innocent paraphernalia of the nursery is increasingly used to creepy effect and provides plenty of shocks (which did give me goose bumps on a number of occasions).  Of course all of this is part of the clichéd stock in trade of the traditional gothic movie, but when it is done well we remember just how effective such trappings can be.  This point, coincidently, raises my main problem with this type of film – when compared to the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, which had equally impressive production values, sense of place and script writing, should films in the style of The Woman In Black be left to television companies to produce; and wasn’t this partly why Hammer fell from film production into television in the first place?

The Woman in Black herself is largely seen through dirty windows and in the shadowy passages of the house, or in the distance wrapped in mist and foliage.  Unfortunately we do see her more closely later on in the film, which is a shame because her distance and half seen appearances are more effective than seeing the clear sight of her face, however briefly.  Daniel Radcliffe is quite convincing as as the desperate Mr Kipps, although he is still too boyish for this role and in a few more years would  suited the role better.  His precarious emotional situation is tested by the woman in black while he tries to hold his life together as the mystery of why the children of the village are dying and the implication for his own son, who is due to visit, start to overwhelm him.  The rocking chair (another old-style horror prop) is used to great effect but I found the dragging of the car out of the marsh, or more significantly, what was found there, to be the least convincing part of the film.  The end of The Woman In Black, which is apparently different to the ending in the original book, was extremely satisfying – but whether you will find it satisfying or not will depend on your frame of mind.

Apparently the British theatrical release of this film had a number of cuts made so that it could be issued with a 12A certificate, evidently to take advantage of the teenage market that Daniel Radcliff and his Harry Potter connection would bring.  Although it would be interesting to see the fuller version, I was satisfied with what I saw.  From early on the atmosphere was there and it really felt like a Hammer Production (minus the wobbly sets, of course) – the main fault was that some of the scenes dragged a little, with no more reason to them but to build the atmosphere.  This is the fifth offering from the new Hammer Films and by far the highest profile production to date (that said, Let Me In did quite well too) – if they can maintain this level of quality they could again claim this corner of the horror genre for themselves.

It has been well over a month since I saw the Woman In Black and that warm feeling, although not there now, has become a good memory – a sure indication of money well spent and good film seen.

Link:-  Hammer Films