Mutant Popcorn #19

Nick Lowe

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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 – The Abyss, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Field of Dreams, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Mac and Me – appeared first in Interzone #33 (January/February 1990).

In Hollywood, you buy time by the foot. It comes in plastic rolls at around four yards to the minute, at a unit cost of anything up to a million dollars (in the case of the Roger Rabbit short Tummy Trouble, which makes The Abyss a comparative knockdown). But it’s still just lowgrade plastic time. If you hold it up to the light, it’s only a string of little pictures where nothing really moves, and each one’s pretty much indistinguishable from the last. However fast it runs, it never really changes. You only really notice when a zero appears in the corner to announce it’s time to change the reel, and suddenly everyone starts shoring up with lists and retrospects and one-line verdicts on the spool just fluttering out through the gate. (‘The eighties were the decade where everything in the world got about as awful as could possibly be imagined, then started to get a little more interesting.’) But it’s at just such times that the illusion of time is flimsiest, and the light of other days filters embarrassingly through. You can even catch a glimpse of the next, really massive reel-change ten years hence: ‘On the whole, this was a better millennium for sf cinema than its predecessor…’

Take the decade’s last really big, nearly-great picture. Here you are seemingly watching this total eighties film about nightmare and transcendence at a zillion fathoms, and suddenly a forgotten voice from the deep of memory booms out: ‘Stand by for action! Anything could happen in the next half hour…’ And the screen goes wobbly and dissolves, and you realise you’re watching Troy Tempest twenty years on, with his hair shot and his thing with Atlanta on the rocks (Marina having long since eloped with Phones to found a commune in Oregon) receive a call from Marineville to investigate the mysterious fate of a nuclear sub totalled by a mystery vessel in the opening sequence. So begins another terrifying race against time compounded from the following stock series situations: (i) heroes trapped on ocean floor with air supplies running out; (ii) enigmatic nonhuman civilisation presence in unfathomed deepsea trench; (iii) Titan’s agent bent on subverting mission; (iv) nuclear device timed to blow all to barnacles unless Troy can defuse it in time; (v) assorted motifs and trademarks transplanted from director’s earlier space thriller to bottom of sea… It’s uncanny. I don’t imagine Cameron has seen an episode of Stingray in his life, or he’d hardly feel the need systematically to reinvent its formulae here. His influences, all too clearly, are late-seventies and filmic, which is why the now impossibly-dated Spielbergian aliens and vintage Walter Hill pick-’em-off plotline. Everyone knows the alien of the late eighties is either primordial and unstoppable or a really good shag.

But the impressive thing about The Abyss is how much stunning, state-of-art entertainment it manages to build on a framework so rickety it seems hardly to bear its own weight. In outline a forlorn and sprawling hodgepodge of dated, derivative and barely-compatible genre ideas, on screen it positively thrums with dramatic charge, at least till the fairy lights come on and the master technician suddenly reverts to the most embarrassing kind of zitty pubescent poet. But by the time that plonking great Moebius marble-effect bathroom comes sloshing to the surface at the end, you’ve long since made up your mind how much of this grand film’s follies you’re prepared to overlook. I can only say I’d be prepared to forget any amount of naff alien twee for the instant-classic drowning scene alone. The disarming graft of tautly-scripted adult relationships on to basically adolescent material is presumably a legacy of the project’s long gestation and strongly personal stamp; for all the denials, you’d have to be squished in the head not to read the central relationship as Jim & Gale Ann bust up under 400 atmospheres. But there are all sorts of other attractive ways the grownup tone interferes with formula expectations – I especially liked the way so relatively few characters got offed, when you’re constantly expecting them to be conveniently whittled down to Harris, Mastantonio and that cutesy rodent. I’m surprised mass audiences have been equally forgiving, but it’s pleasing to see one of the decade’s emerging heroes come out of this one, against all prediction, humbled but still reasonably hot.

To call Disney’s gadget comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids a surprise hit would be a bit of an exaggeration – it was, after all, the major summer release from a high-performing studio. But it probably notched up the year’s biggest ratio of actual to expected take (well, next to sex, lies, and videotape), and it really isn’t all that easy to see why. On surface it looks the most retro of all the season’s smashes, a shameless flashback to Disney’s family comedies of the sixties; and if you squint at the right angle Rick Moranis’s performance dissolves uncannily into Jerry Lewis. The basic joke, of harmless domestic commodities grown huge and life-threatening, was aired at length in the Lily Tomlin Incredible Shrinking Woman without notably increasing hospital admissions for bust guts and ruptured sides, and set, characters, and milieu are dangerously reminiscent of the much wilder but not particularly hootsome The ’Burbs.

All the same, this is a clever as well as a distinctively eighties film. The admired title is one tipoff: a formerly awe-inspiring fantasy device reduced to the status of genre joke, and framed by an ironic allusion to the postnuclear family (compare My Stepmother is an Alien). This is, to be sure, a comedy about a lovable mad scientist whose shrinking machine goes awry and generates endless situations where he has to answer the door to humourless strangers with something goony strapped to his head. There’s a mild strand of darker satire in the chief dramatic idea, where the cosy suburban icon of the family lawn becomes under the microscope a nightmare landscape the kids have to battle across, but it hardly compares with the almost-throwaway treatment of the same motif in the opening scene of Blue Velvet. But the best jokes are more subtle, stemming mainly from the po-faced way the shrinking gimmick is taken for granted by all, with a total absence of running around screaming ‘O my God this is incredible I don’t believe this…’ Little by little, the absurdities heap up, up, and up, till the wildly surrealistic climax where Moranis discovers his son in a spoonful of Cheerios and everyone, audience included, goes Phew! he didn’t eat him, then. The tear-wrenching sacrifice of Anty the ant is typical, teasing the audience to share the poignant pathos while taunting them with the utter ludicrousness of the event they’re taking so seriously. Check the title again: ‘Shrank’ would have been quite wrong, as well as less funny to the ear; ‘Shrunk’ places the activity of molecular compaction in the same everyday domestic discourse as ‘Honey’ and ‘Kids’. This is a family comedy in the eighties sense, where the parents’ marriage is crumbling, a son is bullied by his dad into a complex about his height, and the teenage characters are troubled by hormones, peer pressure, and tensions between image and identity. It goes without saying that all these issues are resolved in the tackiest possible way, just as the first is similarly stitched up in The Abyss. But that’s just a datestamp of the age. There’s some good laughs, much happy daftness, and a showstealer performance from Matt Frewer, much funnier away from his prosthetic face and video stutter. Perhaps that’s more or less all you need.

On the other hand, I was completely flummoxed by the baseball fantasy Field of Dreams, in which voices in his head instruct struggling Iowa farmer Kevin Costner to plough his corn under and build a ballpark for the cast of Eight Men Out and other ghostly heroes from the game’s history, all apparently because he wouldn’t play catcher with his dad as a nipper. (‘Can you believe that?’ in the tones you’d speak of sexually abusing the family dog: ‘a boy not wanting to play catcher with his father?’) I suppose it’s possible that American males really do have all the hangups about their fathers that current film would argue (more below), but it’s hard to swallow the implication that all human angst can be reduced to this. Nor am I really sure what the moral’s supposed to be: it starts out queasily enough as You can have anything you want so long as you believe in it, but by the end it’s getting uncomfortably close to You can sell anything you want if you can persuade enough people to believe in it. More than anything I’ve seen in recent years, this is a conscious exploration of the big American secular mythologies (baseball, farming, the Midwest, the family, entrepreneurship, faith, the sixties, J.D. Salinger…). For American viewers, it’s evidently a powerful cocktail, but different cultural tastebuds may find it hard to detect anything but sugar.

Loads more fun, though still emphatically not for diabetics, is the magnificently unabashed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. It would be boorish on this tenth anniversary not to give thanks for the Star Trek movies, still a warp factor ahead of the yawny TV reincarnation, and last and longest survivor of the great space opera boom of the end seventies. (Would you believe, this one even includes a cantina sequence? It’s like bumping into your first girlfriend at a warehouse bash.) I have to say I enjoyed The Final Frontier more than any of this series bar perhaps the second. But honestly, what a load of old queens. More and more, this adorably cheesy series comes on like a spacebound blowup of The Golden Girls. This latest one has more than ever of the gently outrageous elderly male bonding mushed up with flaky Sunshine-State psychogibber. Even the notional guest villain is merely a kind of Vulcan supercounsellor, who turns everyone but Kirk into a happily integrated psyche in forty seconds flat by digging up some gruesome sentimental flashback invariably concerned with their relationship with their fathers. The quest-for-God plotline is Aquarian camp in the grand manner, the flares in the uniforms are more alarming than ever, and the deep human discovery this time round is that our heroes don’t need family so long as they’ve their fellow cast members. What’s more, not content with the shameless promotion of Bay Area tourism in the last instalment, this one begins with the Enterprise crew on shoreleave in ‘Yosemite National Park, Earth’ – finally recognising the compaction of our planet to a small area of northern California. In fact, just three days after climbing the same peak as Shatner’s mysteriously slim stunt double does a bungy-jump off in the title sequence, I savoured a matinee in a colourfully dubious neighbourhood in San Francisco, alongside a party of five white clones and a single colossal black guy whose thigh clanked disquietingly each time he slapped it. All seemed to enjoy the director’s check shirt, jeans, and eyebrow job, not to mention Spock’s line about ‘studying the customs associated with camping out’.

It’s been too good a year to pick outright winners and losers. But it’ll take a long time to shake off the memory of Mac and Me from early summer, the story of a crippled boy’s friendship with an all- American family of aliens who live on Coke, party at Macdonalds, and end the film being administered the oath of citizenship – the text of which I’ve known to cause apoplectic incredulity even among born US citizens. If nothing’s been quite as good as that was scary, you could still easily come up with a ten-best list of this one year’s sf movies to rival any previous decade’s. Not many things these past ten years have been as good as the films. It’s a chilly thought, but those were the eighties. Requiescant..

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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