Mutant Popcorn #18

Nick Lowe


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 – Young Einstein, Earth Girls Are Easy, The Fly II, Millennium, Batman – appeared first in Interzone #32 (November/December 1989).

Forget monsoons in the Sahel, Venice under water, the cornbelt migrating to Ontario: have you noticed the impact of global warming on world cinema? Only a decade ago, before we had summers in Britain, it was still simple. Americans went to see films in the summer, and Brits all went at Christmas; so all the big holiday stuff came out there in the summer and dribbled across here from early November with the proven blockbusters hitting in the first week of the school hols. But raise the temperature and lower the rainfall a couple of points, and suddenly it’s chaos. A three-month US summer lasts eight in Europe. With the spiralling vagaries of UK release patterns (we actually got Do the Right Thing ahead of its US release, but have to wait till February for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), we’ll still be basking in the hot hot summer of 89 well into the new decade.

There’ve been some spectacular winners and losers over this extraordinary season, but the moral victory, at least, has surely to go to the late entrant and darkest of horses Young Einstein. As anyone with antipodean contacts will have got sick of hearing by now, this is the tale of Albert’s little-known early years as a humble Tasmanian apple farmer, before his sensational discovery of Special Relativity in the course of splitting the atom in his grandfather’s shed (“I’ll just scoop these electrons into a pile over here … Now where’s that chisel?”). Realising that this precocious achievement could be a force of immeasurable benefit to humanity by making possible the grail of Australian science (beer with fizz), Albert sets out on an epic journey to Sydney, the intellectual Mecca of the new century. Here romance blooms with lovely young French genius Marie Curie, who has won a prize to study in picturesque sheep-roamed Sydney University: “Oh, some sort of scholarship?” “Neut exactly. Ze Nobel Prize.” Immediately Marie recognises a kindred mind: “You mean you ’ave already split ze atom?” “Well, it was only a little Tesminian beer etom…” But while Albert works hard as a patent clerk to support his next inventions – a wooden board that exploits the wave properties of water, and a form of music that will harness the new force of electricity – his atom-splitting technique is pirated by an evil beer magnate, and Albert is banished to the mad scientist wing of the altogether strange Sydney Asylum. Meanwhile Marie, exasperated by Albert’s devotion to theory over praxis, breaks off their romance: “Dear Albert, I see now that we were like children playing on the seashore and now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before us…” So can our hero (with the help of fellow-inmate Ernie Rutherford) escape to Europe in time to restore his name, win back Marie, and save the beer-loving world from nuclear catastrophe?

Like its unknown auteur, the extraordinary writer-director-producer-star-and-all-round-best-boy Yahoo Serious, Young Einstein is a fascinating mix of childlike innocence and high sophistication, with an amazing range of levels of appeal that made it a blockbuster hit in Australia and induced Warner to spend far more than its original $5 million cost on hyping the product for the US market. I really hope it works, because for all its inevitable rough edges this is a comedy of genius in at least 1.7 senses. Alongside the more familiar Back to the Future strand of teenagers out of time inventing the future, there’s oodles of sly parody of Australian myths and icons at home and abroad, and especially of the indigenous school of classical period cinema. But it’s also a richly seductive comedy of ideas, playing masterfully with anachronism, howlers, and preposterous intellectual bluffing in a 1066 and All That way that politely shies from poking direct fun at its audience’s ignorance. It’s not quite the funniest film of the decade (see below), and the ideas are rather stronger than the plot, but it’s still a great concept comedy, and (more remarkably) a turn-of-the-decade youth movie entirely devoid of gore, bonking, and high-level cussing. Even the nuclear explosions don’t actually damage anyone, while Serious himself – who’s neither quite as young nor quite as artless as his screen and chatshow persona suggests, and has an enjoyable way of feeding naive interviewers with contradictory versions of his real name – performs in all capacities with supreme assurance, charm, and innocence of ego. And with its gleeful zest for surfing on the great ocean of truth, it could even do for physics what Top Gun did for the US Air Force.

It breaks my heart to say there’s even better than Young Einstein around, but back in movie homeland stirs another tiro auteur with a mad eye for the native culture. Save for destiny, Earth Girls Are Easy could have done a Yahoo for Julie Brown: the gonzo goddess of the San Fernando Valley, a cult figure in southern California, and virtually unknown over the rest of earth’s surface. Brown is the pop comedienne behind such vital numbers on the mid-eighties West Coast soundtrack as “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” and the sublime “(I Like ’Em) Big and Stupid”; and Earth Girls – which she wrote, soundtracked, and stars in – is her first film musical. But it’s not her film, because at some point in its development the directing job ended up with Julien Temple, and while Brown got saddled with the thankless role of heroine’s wacky girlfriend the leads wound up with Mrs and Mr alternative Hollywood themselves, the unstoppable Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum. As an old fan of la Brown, I feel sorry she’s so upstaged, but it remains the casting, performances, and above all direction that turn a funny script on a rather threadbare theme into a visual and satirical blitzkrieg that poses serious danger to your respiratory system.

There’s frankly not much to the plot: Starman with gags, or Splash with aliens and lose NY for LA. Valley person Davis is neglected by her wick-dipping fiance, but unaware that she longs for Mr Rite until three party-loving aliens crash their ship in her pool. Some good alien-kidnap comedy quickly gives way to a glittering satire on Valley culture, as Davis has to feed and disguise the furry incomers till her pool drains and they can take off. And yes, they do learn English from TV, go out on the town, and wreak mass hilarity and vehicle capers, while as Davis’s own relationship breaks up she falls heavily for space-captain Goldblum and has to face the imminence of losing him forever. There are songs from Brown, but though nicely mounted they’re not generally of her best and don’t always mesh much with the story.

But it’s presumably these musical set-pieces brought the formidable Temple to the project, and it’s his style all over every available surface that gives the movie its vertiginous lift: explosive colour, whiplash editing, preposterous show-stopper dance numbers, a needle-sharp eye for style, and frames crammed to the sprocketholes with throwaway visual gags. And the four leads are amazing, simply amazing, completely transcending the funny-alien and goofy-flake routines that the script alone requests. Modestly funny lines like “Oh look, low-cal pop-tarts! These are natural” or “Valerie, are we limp and difficult to manage?” are treated to the kind of deadpan delivery that both stars, at their intermittent best, have made specially theirs. Goldblum, who’s been more misused in more grim comedies than anyone dare count, gets his first truly funny part since Between the Lines; while his mrs, who after three respected movies doing nothing of the sort gets back to her old party trick of legging about in incredibly tiny underwear, steals this picture right out of his mouth. The effects are tatty, the opening spaceship scenes weak, and most of the laughs are easy. But to see something so crude done this well, with this much talent, skill, and flair, is still a kind of revelation; and the titles alone are worth twice the tag on your ticket.

The divine Jeffrey and Virginia are conspicuously missing from the sequel to their last, starmaking screen team-up, their places taken for The Fly II by the distinctly less winning duo of Eric Stoltz and Daphne Zuniga. But that’s not by a long way all that’s missing from this woefully-conceived afterbirth of the 87 monster remake. Check out the promo line: which of these sounds like a film you’d sell your grandmother to see? (i) “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” (ii) “Like father. Like son.” In the absence of Cronenberg’s uniquely visionary input for the sequel, it looks like a committee of marketing executives have got together and drawn up a spec on the basis of what they think viewers of the first Fly will want to see. Pukemaking flesh effects persist in abundance; indeed, the director is Cronenberg’s special makeup wizard Chris Walas in a helming debut. But in a clearly calculated shot at a broader youth market, the very adult body horror of Cronenberg’s prototype has been teened down to a crude heroes-&-villains tale of boy meets girl, boy and girl get it on, boy loses girl because he’s turning into a ten-foot hairy animatronic monster (via two remarkable intermediate stages where he develops unhelpful resemblances to Phil Pope and Francis Crick). In this version, suicidally, the younger Brundle’s transformation is someone’s fault (rascally Lee Richardson’s, who manipulates the boy’s talents, disability, and feelings so he can learn the secret of the teleporter) and repairable (preposterously, you can now swop the duff insect DNA through the teleporter with a healthy human donor, provided it’s okay to turn them into a hideous crawling heap of glurk). That not only loses the ending any advantage of surprise, but strips the concept of all the fatalism and moral complexity that made the original scenario interesting in the first place. The general level of inspiration is set by conspicuous lifting of key plot elements from the miniseries V, and the only really skin-crawling horror comes from the film’s emotionally retarded perception of love – as something a boy feels for his father, his girl, and (oh dear, oh dear) his dog.

A far more interesting disaster, to contemplate if not to sit through, is Millennium, the John Varley script that’s been more than once pronounced dead over the decade or so it’s taken to get to the screen. Production history is fraught, but its seed is the 1977 short “Air Raid”, in which squads of time travellers replace aircrash victims with duplicates moments before the accident, and spirit the real folks away to colonise the stars. The 1983 novel Millennium, sensibly substituting the future for the stars and introducing a new time-paradox plotline, was actually a novelisation of Varley’s own treatment for another screenwriter, whose script was junked and replaced by a new one from Varley, after which the project was aborted anyway. Varley’s script finally got made – during the Hollywood writers’ strike, when he couldn’t get involved with changes – as a Canadian production under Michael Logan’s Run Anderson, and it’s hard to believe Varley could conceivably be responsible for some of the lines that have ended up on the screen. (Unbelievably, this film actually finishes v/o: “This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. Rather, it is the end of the beginning…”)

Sadly, as filmed, Millennium is a uniformly miserable experience, wrecked less by the script than by clueless design and direction and some kiss-of-death casting of the leads. Kris Kristofferson, as the crash-investigator hero who falls for a girl out of time, might have some potential; Cheryl Ladd, as the novel’s tough-but-vulnerable time agent, has none. Each is about twenty years older than they’re supposed to be playing, and so horribly unsexy solo that the thought of them snogging and bumping together causes nasty crinklings of the sensitive tissue. There are problems with what’s left of the story – notably a sluggish middle third where the narrative laboriously retraces the same scenes we’ve already seen from Kristofferson’s timeline through Ladd’s point of view to clarify the temporal convolutions. Still, at least that’s a brave attempt at translating a familiar sf gimmick to the medium of film, and well in line with the novel’s elaborate homage to classic tricks and trappings of the time-paradox game. But even the novel had trouble justifying that damn silly robot the Ladd character spent pages of dialogue on, and that was without a makeup job on the actor that leaves red inflamed rims round his supposedly metal eyes. As Hollywood baptisms go, Varley’s seems to have been a particularly horrendous one, and my impression is that despite his name on a pretty terrible script he deserves more sympathy than blame for the mess that’s been made of his baby. It’s not his best novel and a long way from his best story; but the guy’s one of us, and we know he can do far better than this with his head in a box.

It’s early for an epitaph on the second summer of love; it won’t really be buried till we see the last of those idiotic batshirts. But we got the right winner, I think, and more or less the best Batman we could expect. It seems amazing now that this could ever have been tagged a “controversial” movie, and it doesn’t say much for the proponents of controversy that they seemed more worried by harmless nuances of casting than by the fact this Batman is a casual mass killer. (Remember all the stick Miller got when the Dark Knight looked like he was damaging a few ruffians? Feel those wrinkles…) But this isn’t just a Batman movie – it’s a Batman summer movie, which means speed, style, action, and laughs count for more than whether the underscripted antagonists make any kind of psychological sense, and one of the things you just do in summer movies is blow people away en masse. It seems risible in any case to moan about fidelity to source when there are at least five barely-related Batpersons vying for authenticity up there: Bob Kane’s noir avenger, the postwar scoutmaster with the gadgets and boy wonder, the Lorenzo Semple TV campster, the dull back-to-roots dark knight of the 70s, and the portentous 80s psycho vigilante. The Burton-Hamm version makes an impressive go of salvaging the interesting bits of sparkle from each layer of this uninviting heap, and everyone does their job very well: Bruce upstages Batman, Jack upstages everyone, and the sets and cinematography upstage the lot. I’m patriotically aghast that nobody at Pinewood knows how to use an apostrophe, but this after all is – how does it go again? – art for a postliterate generation. We might as well get used to it. In the future, we’ll have summer all year round.

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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