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).
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.
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…?

Die Nibelungen, pt.1 – Siegfried

I have been thinking about reviewing a silent film for some time.  It is a part of film history that I have gradually been drawn into over the past five years or so, and the further I look into the maligned early days of cinema the more astounded and entranced I become.

Until relatively recently many people have disregarded the silent era as a simplistic early stage in the development of the new medium of film.  This was probably due to our perception having been shaped by decades of poor quality prints used by TV stations to fill gaps in their schedules – scratchy, grainy, jumpy and flickering images of sped-up slap-stick comedy capers inevitably gave a less than favourable impression.  It was not until relatively recently that the idea that silent films could offer anything other than simplistic and one-dimensional entertainment was thought possible.  It has been through serious restoration projects that the era has gained wider acceptance (to the point of resurrection – think about The Artist for instance), and silent cinema is finally being seen as providing a rich vein of stories with real emotional and intellectual depth.

My own starting point, as it was for many others I’m sure, came from remembering the poor quality re-runs and compilations of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy films in the 80’s (unfortunately they are very rarely on terrestrial TV anymore).  Having been into films since I was young and having seen a wide variety of movies from every decade in its history, except the 1920’s and earlier,  I was convinced that there had to be more to cinema before the arrival of effective sound-on-film.  So I decided to investigate further.

This investigation has led me to the latest release by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series – Die Nibelungen, a two-part film by Fritz Lang released in 1924.  Both parts are included on separate discs, which is understandable as they total just under five hours of viewing.  So far I have only watched part one – Siegfried.  It was too late in the evening to start the other film, which was fine because the first part completely blew me away and the images are still swirling round my imagination.

Die Nibelungen is based on the 13th century German poem Nibelungenlied (or The Lay of the Nibelungs), which itself has links to both historical fact and older Scandinavian myths.  It was the same source material that formed the basis of Richard Wagner‘s Der Ring des Nibelungen (or The Ring Cycle of operas).  Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou wanted to get away from the heavy, bearded imagery of Wagner and managed to create a visually modernist interpretation of an ancient myth, without losing the mysticism and heroic nature of the story.

Essentially it is a tale of honour, lies, physical strength, moral weakness, love and misplaced trust – classic ingredients for myths and legends all over the world.  Interestingly, although the premier was a bit of a disaster, with Lang re-editing the film right up to the last-minute and rushing the reels to the cinema (which completely altered the visual ques for the orchestration) the film was actually a commercial success all over the world, even as far afield as Thailand!  It has been called the grandfather of epic film serials and its stately nature is reminiscent of The Lord of The Rings – but where that film was a modern mythology (even though founded on the study of medieval texts), Siegfried has the feel of a proper myth, a purer story that had been handed down from ancient times.

From the moment the decrepit-looking master blacksmith blows a feather into the air and it parts over the edge of Siegfried’s sword you know that you are about to watch a very special kind of film.  Within the first half hour Siegfried has battled a fire-breathing dragon and bathed in its blood to gain invincibility.  He then overpowers a goblin, claiming an invisibility cloak and his golden hoard.  He then journeys on to form an alliance with the royal house of Burgundy, the intention being to marry the Princess Kriemhield.  He is betrayed through a false confidence on behalf of Kriemhield and is ultimately killed – this is a huge simplification of the story, but I don’t want to give it all away here – there is no substitute for seeing it the film itself.

The first thing that struck me was the orchestral score, it had been recorded specially for the re-release and sounds fantastic – I remember being similarly struck by the score when I first saw the recent restoration of Metropolis; both film scores were written by Gottfried Huppertz.  The quality of the image on Die Nibelungen is also incredible, again on a par with the Masters of Cinema release of Metropolis – there are a few scratchy scenes (but none as damaged as the newly found scenes in Metropolis) and do not detract from the film at all.

The whole film is bathed in an orange tint throughout, which is unusual as apparently Lang did not particularly favour tinting, yet it somehow this seems to add to the mythic feel of the story.  Although the camera is static, as was common until the mid to late 20’s, in terms of the staging every set on this film and every new scene, is stately and elegant.  Each shot is perfectly composed and has an unreality about it (it was all filmed inside at the UFA studios) as though the story was being told on a moving tapestry.  Needless to say I was quite overwhelmed and even if you only have a passing interest in silent film this film is well worth your time.

At some stage I hope to comment on the second part of Die Nibelungen, but at the moment I’m still enjoying the first…

Invaders From Mars (1953)

I have always had a love of past visions of the future or the fantastic – not so much for how far off the mark they were, but for the vision and sheer imagination involved in creating something that could be, if things were not quite as they are.

As the inherent possibilities for illusion on film were discovered it was soon realised that cinema was a perfect vehicle for the new genre of Science Fiction, or Scientific Romance as it was first called.  Science Fiction coalesced in the late 19th century through the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and it was a couple of stories by these two writers that became the source material for one of the earliest science fiction films – Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon) by Georges Méliès.  For the next fifty years there were sporadic films with Science Fiction themes but the first and greatest era of the Science Fiction on film happened during the 1950’s.  Some people suggest that it was a response to the Cold War – little green men from the red planet / the Reds from the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Or was it simply that film making became more liberated in the 1950’s, in terms of both the subject matter and who had access to making movies.  Maybe movies paralleled the rise of the teenager and mass-market appeal, were movies becoming more youth based – or were people simply wanting something less serious than a Crime Drama and more fantastical than yet another Western!

If I had to choose three films to represent the 1950’s Science Fiction boom they would have to be Forbidden Planet (1956), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invaders From Mars (1953).  The first two films are still rightly classed as classic examples of the genre, the third is far more debatable.  I could have selected War Of The Worlds (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), It Came From Outer Space (1953), or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956), all worthy contenders –  but I’m sticking with Invaders From Mars.  I like to back an underdog.

The film starts with a sub-War Of The Worlds style introduction, gazing out at the stars and planets before focusing in on a typical 1950’s American happy family – big house, smiling parents and little David Maclean (Jimmy Hunt), a freckled-faced mini-scientist with a telescope at the ready.  I don’t really want to give a step by step plot summary (you really should just watch the film) but I will need to give the main points as I go along.  Anyway, the boy wakes up and sees a UFO land behind a rise in the sandpits behind his house.  Although David doesn’t, we see the glowing green tip of the spaceship sink beneath the sand.  The father (Leif Erickson) goes to investigate but when he returns he is a changed man, moody, gruff and he has a strange mark on the back of his neck.  In these early stages of the film there are already two extremely striking images (one literally).

First is the sandpit, essentially the main set of the film – it rises slightly from the back of the house, is dotted with black tree trunks and has a simple wooden fence which follows the path up the rise then disappears into the sand (as do many of the characters).  Although the set is quite sparse it has an unsetteling quality, partly due to the strange forced perspective.  The fence and path (reminiscent of the scene when the somnambulist carries the girl off along the path in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is cleverly used to both lead the eye and suggest that something is not quite right about the sandpit.  The trees are used to conceal a few of the disappearances, adding to the mystery of what is out there.  I should also mention at this point the eerie choral waves that are heard as people approach the sandpit.  Once heard they are never forgotten and add a nightmare edge to proceedings.  Although credited to Raoul Kraushaar (who conducted the finished score) it was actually written by Mort Glickman who wrote the score for a huge list of low-budget movies in the 40’s and early 50’s, largely uncredited – Invaders From Mars was one of his last.  This choral passage has an interesting part to play in creating a dream-like feel – when it is first heard we assume that it is purely an effect to increase the tension, but later in the film David hears it and knows that something is wrong.  This creates a shift in perception, just like in a dream, of where the film, the story and reality cross paths.

It is the cleverness in the simplicity of the sandpit set that demonstrates the genius of William Cameron Menzies.  Although he was credited with the Production Design and Direction of this film he will be more remembered for his Production Design role.  Production Design did not exist as a separate job in the film industry until David O. Selznic issued a memo to everyone involved with Gone With the Wind (1939) stating that “Menzies is the final word” on the look of the film.  He deserves a posting all to himself – maybe another time.

The second aspect of this early sequence is less technical but completely emotive.  The kind, smiling father has been changed into a monster who lashes out and hits David to the floor with the back of his hand.  The shift in his character, rounded off by that whack and the image of the boy being knocked across the room has stuck with me since I first saw this film when I was little, and it still has, for me at least, an unnerving power even today.

Soon David’s mother (Hillary Brooke) is changed, as are a couple of Policemen, and when David goes to the Police Station he finds that even the Police Chief has that mysterious mark on the back of his neck and is acting oddly as well.  Strangely enough David is not believed by the grown-ups when he talks about flying saucers and people changing character, but eventually he is believed by Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) and Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz).

The Police Station set is another piece of minimalist surrealism – it consists of one long corridor with unusually high blank walls, a double door at one end with a policeman sitting at a high desk at the other.  The policeman’s desk also has two excessively large lamps on it.  The set is re-used as a laboratory, with different props and a lower ceiling, later in the film and is shot at a different angle to conceal the fact, but the re-use of the set only adds to the dreamlike nature of the story.

There are two versions of this film – the original American release and a slightly later British version with a few re-shoots to satisfy the British distributors.  This review concentrates on the British release version, largely because it is the one I know the best but I will compare it to the American version as well.  One of the changes made to the original film is during the observatory scene.  Essentially used a brief slow down of the action and as a quick explanation of where the invaders may have come from.  It is dealt with quite swiftly in the American version but is much longer in the British.  The longer version has models of various UFOs, a book of newspaper clippings of UFO sightings, and an illustration of a vegetated Martian surface.  The extra scenes were re-shot long after the filming had been completed – there are a few continuity inconsistencies, but they are minor and unless they are pointed out, generally go unnoticed.  That said, the British version does have the most ridiculous couple of lines in the whole film:-

Dr. Pat Blake – “What do you think it’s all about Stu?  What David thought it was?”

David – “A spaceship!”

Dr. Pat Blake – “From where?”

Dr. Stuart Kelston – pause “From outer-space.”

Maybe it is because I grew up with the British version but I do prefer it, this scene does go on a bit long but it gives the film a little more breathing space, a bit more science to the fiction before we are plunged back into the action, no matter how dubious that science is, and my goodness is it dubious – but Dr. Kelston is a scientist, so it must be true!

I also want to mention the background inside the observatory – in the American version it is a continuous blank yet vibrantly deep blue, this effect is disrupted in the extended version, but it is typical of the very particular use of colour in this film.  The original print was shot in SuperCineColor, one of the last films to be shot using this colour process which gave “an oddly striking look to the final print” (see CiniColor on Wikipedia), which unfortunately is only hinted at and needs a proper restoration to bring out.  The two versions of the film are available on a special 50th Anniversary DVD which unfortunately has not been restored, but due to its popularity we are apparently lucky to have it at all.  Most of the original prints have been worn out and poorly stored for decades.  The image has many lines and stratches and is overall a little too dark, as well as missing the vibrancy of the original print.  This film really needs saving, the best surviving print needs to found and a proper physical and digital restoration needs to be done before it gets completely beyond repair.  If the restoration of Forbidden Planet is anything to go by there are plenty of people who would appreciate a decent copy of this film – when released I was amazed to see Forbidden Planet in the HMV top 10 selling DVD’s that month!

After a military man gets sucked into the sand (another scene which sticks in the mind) the Army is called in and we see sporadic use of not very interesting stock footage of tank maneuvers.  Of course, watching this as a child it is not something that I noticed.  The film was independently made, hence the low-budget and was then taken up and distributed by 20th Century Fox – it is essentially a kids movie and apparently the film was well received at the time by its target audience.

It is over an hour into the film before we see anything of the aliens or their spaceship.  The first glimpse of their presence is when the army blast a hole in the ground and find a deserted tunnel, evidently bored by “some kind of ray”.  The walls of the tunnel are covered in 3000 blown up condoms, to give the effect of a melting ray – they originally tried balloons but they moved too much.  The effect of the ray gun, which is seen later on, was created by filming a bubbling saucepan of porridge, dyed red and lit with red lights to give the illusion of melting rock.

Another dreamlike aural effect is created by the sound of David’s voice repeatedly calling out “Colonel Fielding! Colonel Fielding!”, we rarely see him say the words but we hear his disembodied voice echoing down the tunnels over and over again.

We soon come into contact with the Mutants, part of an army of synthetic men created by the aliens.  Unfortunately they are annoyingly referred to as Mu-Tants throughout the film – I have no idea why, but it sounds silly.  The Mu-Tants are large bug-eyed men with three fat fingers on each hand.  They are all dressed in green velvet from heat to foot.  I think this was meant to be their skin but the zipper up the back gives the costume away a little.  Again this was something I either failed to notice, or refused to notice, when I was much younger – like many now ridiculous things, they were real enough to my youthful mind.

I have mentioned a few striking images from this film, but probably the one that has haunted me the most was that of the tentacled “alien intelligence”, essentially a green head in a glass sphere.  Sitting there silently gazing at the characters who appeared before it, indifferent to David MacLean as he beat the glass in anguish, the tentacles moving gently, the blood-shot eyes surveying him coldly and calmly.  Quoting from the booklet that comes with the DVD:-

Amazingly, this terrifying vision which scared the heck out of kids the world over was played by kindly midget Luce Potter, who star Jimmy Hunt [David] later remarked was a “neat little lady. She sat on a box with the bubble round her whole head.  She was just in her little street clothes, and all she did was move her eyes”

The inside of the spaceship is another testament to Menzies production design.  Again the sets are sparse, mainly blocks of colour and lighting, with a few objects set at strange angles and it really shows what can be done on a small budget if you have the flare and imagination to do it.  But the budgetary restrictions of the production are evident with the repeated use of a number of shots, both above and below ground – the Mu-Tants run through the same tunnel in the same way a couple of times. Also, when the army plant a ticking bomb in the spaceship everyone has three minutes to get out, but time does not seem to be linear in this film – the hand ticks past the same point over and over again extending the time beyond even the most extended count down on any other film.  Another repetition happens as the ship tries to escape the sandpit – the green glow breaks the crust of sand over and over again.  Is this all just a dream?

It is the end of the film where the two versions diverge significantly.  In the American version we see a strange montage of clips overlaying an extreme close up of David’s face as he runs away from the imminently exploding spaceship.  The ship explodes before it gets out of the sandpit and at the same time we hear a clap of thunder as David wakes up back in his bed.  He runs to his parents bedroom and realises that it was all just a dream – then his alarm goes off and he sees the ship land in the sandpit again.  Was it a dream, a recurring dream or a premonition.

The British version dispenses with the montage altogether and the notion that it was all just a dream.  The spaceship lifts off before exploding, then Dr. Blake reassures David that his parents will now be alright.  We then cut to David in his own bed with Dr. Blake and Dr. Kelston saying goodnight and “He’ll be safe now” before the film fades to a close.  It has a strangely abrupt ending which used to make me think that a bit was missing off the end, it wasn’t, but even this adds to the film’s feeling of being off-kilter and somewhat disjointed from the waking world.  It is a fittingly British ending – it is reminiscent of the whimsical Lewis Carroll-like day-dreaming, yet also has the dystopian fear element that is popular in British science fiction (think Quatermass and The Pit (1958 & 1967) and The Village of The Damned (1960)).

Although both version have their good points, I have to say that here again I prefer the British cut of the film.  I feel the original dream ending is a bit of a cop-out and the montage that leads up to it is too long.  That said, it does use previous footage in an imaginative way that, with the images going forwards and backwards and the endlessly ticking bomb, adds to the dreaminess of the film and sets things up for the dream ending.  The alternative version obviously suggest that the events in the film actually happened and the hallucinatory feel of the film could be attributed to the view-point of the child – the events are so out of the ordinary and as the whole film is shot from David’s perspective it could seem dream-like to a young boy.

On many levels it is a terrible film – the excessive use of stock footage, repeated shots,  the alien costumes zipped up the back and the acting is occasionally questionable (is it stylistic, expressionistic, or just average?).  It is well-known that Menzies was not a good director, but his production designs shine through on this movie as they did whenever he was visually involved.  The positives of this film far out-weigh the negatives – it is shot from a child’s perspective, has a fairytale quality enhanced by the colour process and repetitions, there are strange perspectives and deep angular shots, not to mention the dream/nightmare mood which permeates throughout.  All this adds to the appeal of a film which should not work.  In many cases it is where this film can be seen as wrong or cheap that injects it with a pervasive disorienting effect.  If you take this film as an example, you could say that perfection is undesirable – yes, perfection should be aimed for, but if it is achieved is the result just another bland film?  This film is far from bland and sticks in the mind long after it’s been seen – for this reason alone it deserves a proper restoration and elevation to the place it deserves with the great Science Fiction films of the 1950’s.