Mutant Popcorn #16

Nick Lowe

The Navigator

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Cocoon: The Return, Warlock, The Navigator, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – appeared first in Interzone #30 (July/August 1989).

Well, here they all come, belching back from the depths: all your old favourites marching out the eighties in shambolic step, as the decade goes into uncontrollable fast-flashback and spills out sequels to practically everything that ever made any money at all. From the already-dated (Indiana Jones III) to the wildly premature (Batman II), a vast clutch of erratically-timed followups line the exit to a unique decade of studio fantasy blockbusters. All the old gang’s here: Back to the FutureAliensHighlanderStar TrekGhostbustersRoger Rabbit, &c. &c. &c… It has to be the last gasp of something. Costs rise and takings fall on sequels, and the bigger the movie the slower and costlier it becomes to reassemble stars, compromise on a script, and remind the audiences why they might want to see this stuff again. A five-year gap is no longer uncommon, and it’s easier than ever for public interest to glide on and die while the studio shuffles feet, papers, names, and banknotes.

But here, a season ahead of the pack, is the surprising vanguard, Cocoon: The Return. Yes, the wrinklies from outer space return five years on to check on members of the cast left behind when Brian Dennehy beamed Don Ameche and chums up to that great rest home beyond the stars. There’s a very perfunctory plot about rescuing a larval alien whose cocoon has been dislodged from the seabed by seismic activity and repoed by the military, but most of the screentime is taken up with leisurely loose ends from the previous movie – particularly the emigrant oldsters’ relations with their terrestrial kin, and Steve Guttenberg’s two-way quest for (i) further extraterrestrial knee-tremblers with Tahnee Welch and (ii) a successful breeding relationship with somebody who maybe isn’t a luminous makeup effect in a rubber suit.

The entertainment value of all this is pretty slight, and it doesn’t help that the script picks heavily up on details of plot and personality from what, let’s face it, was a fairly forgettable original. (Can anyone remember what those wretched cocoons were doing on the seabed in the first place? I’m buggered if I can.) It’s an oddly-conceived project, whose dim Christmas performance at the US boxoffice confirmed that, whatever it was that made the first Cocoon relatively successful, this one hasn’t got the mix. In particular, the attempt to sustain youth interest through the Guttenberg-Welch relationship simply flounders into slapstick, with a very dumb episode in a fancy restaurant where she causes a frightfully embarrassing scene by throwing a space orgasm in her enthusiasm for haute cuisine.

All the same, a lot of things about this often-slapdash movie improve markedly on the original, though not (I fear) in ways that’ll yank in the punters. The old Cocoon was a particularly horrid example of Hollywood subversion of unpleasant human realities by cosy American myths: death is optional, old age is just a state of mind, and elderly persons have only themselves to blame if they’re miserable and infirm, neglected by their families, and ghettoised in conditions that would drive Mr Happy to pop his cork from institutionalised depression. What would be really great would be if you could just herd all the aging persons into unmarked flying saucers and deport them to a happy happy land in the sky where nobody ever gets old or dies or has any deeply negative type experiences ever again.

And all credit to The Return for kicking this stuff straight back up where it belongs. Here, the oldsters come home to find that neither they nor terrestrial society are terribly well served by this solution; that degeneration and death aren’t necessarily unthinkable or even undesirable; and that there can be rewards on earth worth giving up immortality for. It’s giving nothing away to say that of the six who come back only two will return to the stars at the end of the movie; and though their reasons may be pretty homespun and tacky, heavily compromised by sentiment, absurdity, and further wishful mythologising of the great American family, it’s still a major advance on the sensibility of the original. It’s nice, too, to see all those wonderful Hollywood elders like Ameche, Tandy, and Stapleton strut their stuff in ensemble again and make the most appalling guff sound like real movie drama. Somebody’s obviously worked hard on getting the whole cast back together (though Dennehy is sadly reduced to a matte-lined cameo at the end); and the big-band score is sweet, courageous, and disarming.

Cocoon’s is the first of the authentic big-studio followups to arrive; but while long-delayed sequels to The Terminator and Highlander lumber into gear, sneaky little New World have beaten both to the punch with their modest, amiably preposterous Warlock. From the spec alone, you can work out that this is one in which two seventeenth-century Scotsmen are dropped into present-day L.A. to battle for the future of the planet and settle a centuries-long feud. In an inspired attempt to rival the wacky casting of Highlander, both are played by rising English actors with ludicrous put-on accents, presumably on the grounds that European unknowns are just as cheap as American unknowns and more likely to fool the home audience. Jaunty Julian Sands, not content to costar with Jodie Foster in the gossip sheets, makes a campy Hollywood debut as the colonial Massachussetts devil’s disciple who gets rescued from the executioner by a satanic time-warp, and sets out to recover the three scattered sections of a grimoire containing easy-to-follow instructions on destroying the universe. Ubiqutious Richard E. Withnail Grant enjoys himself hugely as the uncouth avenger despatched through the warp to track the warlock down, save creation, and get off with contemporary romantic interest Lori Singer.

But for the casting, there wouldn’t be much to note about this agreeable piece of hokey, especially after gales of test-audience laughter drove the makers to cut the scene where Mary Woronov’s nipples turn into the devil. But there’s plenty of the knowing play with genre rules that’s become something of a New World trademark: nothing on the scale of the vampire and the holy-water-pistol gag from The Lost Boys, but the movie has fun with witchcraft lore about hex signs, running water, and consecrated ground. (When Singer turns out early in the film to be diabetic, you’re just waiting in a suspended cringe for the guaranteed plot gag to arrive.) Still, it’s the sublime hamming of Sands and Grant that lifts this characteristic exercise in New World’s snip’n’graft exploitation technique into a superior category – that, and the fact the showdown takes place in this terrific Boston cemetery where I once did something I’d rather not talk about. Next, I’d like to see a mix-matched clone of Fatal Attraction and Robocop, in which (say) Helena Bonham-Carter has an ill-considered one-night stand with an undead cyborg.

It’s Warlock’s bad luck to pull into town just when something far more astonishing on the man-out-of-time theme is drawing in on the adjacent platform. Vincent Ward’s ‘medieval odyssey’ The Navigator swept like a cyclone through the 1988 fantasy film festivals, plucking up awards like matchsticks. It’s the exquisitely strange story of a tiny Cumbrian mountain village in the year of the Black Death, who attempt to turn the plague aside by following the visions of the prophetic child Griffin and erecting a spire on a church the other side of the world. To reach it, they send an expedition on a hallucinatory journey through the earth, to emerge in a city that happens to be twentieth-century Auckland – though none of the characters have the least inkling of this, or even the conceptual vocabulary to understand what it would mean. There, with only Griffin’s fragmented dreams to guide them, they set about the impossible quest of casting the spire from raw Cumbrian copper, locating the church, and raising the spire before sunrise…

You’ve only got to watch these two films back-to-back to appreciate what makes The Navigator different, not just from a piece of likable fluff like Warlock but from any other time-travel fantasy. There aren’t too many films about medieval Cumbrian peasants transplanted to urban New Zealand, but that’s incidental; the city happens to be Auckland for the same reasons of production convenience as Warlock uses L.A., but any other twentieth-century metropolis would have served. In all other films of this lively subgenre, the time-travellers get fairly swiftly to grips with their new environment. In The Navigator, nothing is understood – more than that, the film is founded on the basic impossibility of the medieval peasant mind’s making any kind of sense of the twentieth century. And as things turn out, it’s paradoxically this very inability to grasp complexity that helps the bizarre quest to success.

The magi is, everything in the film is seen through medieval eyes, even down to the narrative structure – so that crossing a road becomes a major crisis recounted at length, while other accidents far more miraculous to the audience’s awareness (like finding a horse to kidnap in the middle of Auckland at dead of night) are accepted in the movie with scarcely a blink. The night setting heightens the sense of estrangement and menace, as the city turns into a stamping-ground for figures and machines surreal even by kiwi standards. Even the Cumbrian scenes have a dreamlike edge, with the odd tints that black-and-white acquires when printed on colour stock, and with actual Cumbrian locations rejected (as too tame) in favour of an extraordinary Southern Alps snowscape that places volcanoes unabashedly in the background. The whole thing’s beautifully played by a cast of unknowns (save for an unrecognisable one-handed Chris Haywood), and scored and photographed in deliberately medieval textures. A single sly AIDS reference (through a bizarre-but-genuine antipodean TV ad full of medieval imagery and starring the angel of death) hints, rather meretriciously, at an equivalence of plague experience across the barrier of centuries, but nothing’s laboured; and though it looks for a while as though the use of colour for the modern sequences is just an Ozzie conceit, a neat twist at the climax reveals what we’ve really been watching, and what the quest really means. Tarkovskian in vision but not, mercifully, in pace, it’s packed to the gills with images of haunting weirdness, yet cemented together by a coherent and compelling way of seeing the world through alien eyes. And we all thought those nice kiwi persons were so normal.

But what, now the dust seems to have settled, of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen? What amazes me about this whole imbroglio is how quickly it all seems to have passed into history. The verdict seems to be that Gilliam is innocent and pretty well everyone else is guilty of terminal incompetence: this also, to judge from hints so far, is the assessment of the upcoming making-of book. As far as the industry’s bothered, this means Gilliam gets to work again providing he’s prepared to prove himself a good chap and direct someone else’s project for his next one; and if this really does put him at the helm of Watchmen, it could be happy endings for everyone. On the budget fiasco, early estimates of writeoff now look exaggerated: as of writing, the picture’s opened cautiously to fair business in the US, and despite its vast costs looks after all to lose Columbia less pocket money overall than the disastrous, virtually-unreleased Goldblum/Lauper psychic comedy Vibes. On the by now almost-forgotten ownership suit, an insistent declaration in the credits that this isn’t a remake of Baky’s Nazi version (to which, it must be said, a couple of scenes owe a rather visible debt of inspiration) seems to have quietened the legal guns. As for the movie, the verdict of consensus is that it’s a very pretty family entertainment hamstrung by a feeble script, so haul out the kids and hope they don’t find it too long. They certainly didn’t at the packed-out weekend matinee I saw.

Well, I’d be the first to agree the script doesn’t crackle. The episodic structure worked in Time Bandits in part from its innocent novelty, in part from a strong feel of structure and escalation across the segments. Here, we just sprawl from set-piece to grandiose set-piece through a lot of rather frightful cameos and kindergarten jokes that wouldn’t raise a hurk from a laughing bag. There’s an awful lot of overfamiliar material, not just from Raspe, Burger, Dore, Baky, and Zeman, but also from T. Gilliam and especially from Time Bandits: Napoleon’s matinee, the giant’s ship, the cage sequence all turn up here in rather weakly reupholstered guises. John Neville’s Baron and Sarah Polley’s Sally get away with murder, but of the support cast only Bill Paterson’s showman gets much life out of his role, and some (Oliver Reed, Robin Williams, Jonathan Pryce) are bad beyond power of experience to conceive. As for all the huffing and puffing about the value of lying and the bankruptcy of scientific reason, the best of it is embarrassingly banal and the worst is objectionable cant.

But actually, I don’t mind this at all. What all this does is, paradoxically, to strip away the fluffy coat and lay barer the twisted bones beneath. What really astonishes me about Munchausen is what an extraordinarily dark, angry, even paranoiac movie it’s turned out to be. Gilliam’s always been pretty upfront about the personal elements in the film, though the media have tended to bend it into glib meditations on the ironic coincidence between the film’s inner and outer stories. But in fact, the autobiographical element in the Baron clearly goes back way before things started to go hideously wrong with this particular production. The script was written during the struggle over the US release of Brazil, and no doubt a lot of it came in there; no doubt, too, the events of filming tended to bring out precisely the side of Gilliam’s personality that the Baron’s story expresses. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of it was sown way back in the late sixties and the first tussles between Python and the BBC programme controllers. In interviews, he tends to smokescreen with stuff about the ages of man, the truth of lies, and the trilogic links with Time Bandits and Brazil. This is all there, but frankly peripheral. Munchausen is basically a film about death to all those evil bastards who get between fantasists and their audience, daughters and fathers, imagination and money: a film on the innocence of the storyteller and the guilt of everyone else in the universe who is out to get him. It’s extraordinary to find these half-fermented preoccupations grafted on to the matter of Munchhausen, of all sources, when both the written and filmed versions have sought to charm in dark times through the assumption of naivety. But even the awkwardly postmodern Brazilian ending, which alone should kill the kiddie audience stone dead, has a kind of sanction in the Baron’s literary tradition of knowing, nudging flirtation with the happily incredible. I’m not sure this Munchausen seriously displaces Zeman’s great animated version as the definitive screen Baron, and it certainly misses a lot of its marks as a work of straight entertainment. But I very much doubt it could ever have been just that. More than ever now, I’m watching the Watchmen.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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