Mutant Popcorn #26

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 – Dark Angel, Moon 44, RoboCop 2, Tremors, Gremlins 2: The New Batch – appeared first in Interzone #41 (November 1990).

James Ferman (Chairman)
British Board of Film Classification
3 Soho Square
London W1.

Dear Mr Ferman:

Hi! I hope you liked the card. (Sure you do: the one with the blue fluffy kitten with its genitals stitched into its mouth, and the verse inside ‘Here’s a wish from someone true/A happy DEATH THREAT just for you!’ Devoted Sons of the Prophet Greetings Inc do a whole line.)

I expect you’ll have guessed what this is about, so I just wanted to say that me and all the other members of the Gospel Oak Fabulous Film Society have agreed to pour beer over ourselves and drop in a match on the NFT back patio if International Guerrillas is not (i) awarded a certificate within 36 hours, (ii) booked for twenty weeks at the Odeon Marble Arch, and (iii) announced as the gala closing picture at this year’s London Film Festival. If the Board’s legal advisers continue to whinge on about criminal libel, we recommend the release of a dubbed print where the villain is consistently named as Solomon Rusty. This wheeze is clearly protected by the precedent, in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, of a character named Daniel Clamp who (unlike the Guerrillas character) is a completely accurate likeness in every particular of a well-known property tycoon and litigant who (unlike Mr Rushdie) has not promised not to sue. We should further like to point out that Benazir Bhutto is totally the foxiest head of state in world history and anything that’s ok by her has our stamp of by golly approval.

You see, sir, what’s really at stake here isn’t freedom of expression, or multicultural harmony, or the public right of access to dangerous fun. The issue here is the very existence of evil. There’s probably never been a time when so many talented people in the first-world movie business have been grappling so determinedly with the problem of evil – not the old poser about why it exists and stuff, but the much more serious and contemporary one about there not being enough of it. Since the commies all came over to our side, the price of evil on world markets has shot way up. It’s not that there’s a shortage of evil in general – just the very pure, entertainment-grade villainy that keeps Hollywood afloat. A year or two back it looked as though a promising new supply could be opening up in South Africa, but even there the long-term prospects have got a bit dicey since the headily uncomplicated days of Lethal Weapon 2.

So trust the Middle East to turn up with the market cornered. Those canny sons of the desert have got it made: an old-fashioned straight-down terrestrial incarnation of absolute ultimate evil, the sort even Berkoff doesn’t play any more. We just don’t have that kind of quality evil these days in the west. Any studio boss would give his eyeteeth. Not, mind, that the world is any less full of repulsive moral vermin we’d love to see blown away. The problem is, all the thuggish slimy foreign ones nowadays generally have vociferous communities in our backyard and embarrassing amounts of leverage on us abroad, while the creepy thin-lipped domestic ones are too involved in running the country to make for soft enough targets. In any case, contemporary evil is for the most part miserably uncinematic, and even more so the fight against it. Empowering the masses hasn’t exactly the blowaway ending potential of a guy with muscles on the edge of a cliff taking some pinstripe’s head off with a rocket launcher.

So what is there? Well, there’s drugs – undoubtedly Hollywood’s favourite war, so long as you don’t let in any pinko crap about addressing the disease rather than the symptoms. Special marks for invention here to Dark Angel, which cleverly made the pusher a lone, unstoppable alien, so that all you have to do is send Dolph Lundgren up against him and the problem’s erased once he figures out how to deal with the flying killer CD. More sensitively, there’s still big business, with the one drawback that in order to stop it looking too actionably like any particular real thing you have to caricature it so absurdly that nobody can take it seriously anyway. Extra points here to the incomprehensibly daft German spectacular Moon 44, whose pre-title expo began with the immortal ‘The year is 2038. Multinational corporations have taken control of the universe’. (And they still haven’t upgraded to, say, ‘multigalactic’? Mind you, this was the one with extensive credits for ‘Modellmakers’ and one delightfully cryptic one for ‘Pneumatik’, so maybe the script just dropped something in translation.) And don’t forget environmental bandits, a new criminal breed with big development potential – just don’t suggest that car owners, electricity consumers, or supermarket shoppers are part of the problem, or that Manekha Gandhi has a point about the cleanup bill.

For these, and all kinds of connected reasons, it was a smart move to engage Frank Miller to write RoboCop 2. RoboCop, after all, isn’t an easy character to find enemies for. He’s very good at punching out tanks, but no better than your average undead schizo cyborg avenger at adjusting inequalities of social opportunity and restoring accountability to the mechanisms of political control. Ergo, it’s important that the evil he combats should (a) peddle drugs, pollute the environment, and engage in systematic corporate corruption and (b) furnish him the odd tank to punch out. Miller’s solution is RoboCop 2, a replacement model sponsored by the villainous corporation who are bent on lock & stock privatising the city of Detroit, and built from the brain of a psychopathic drug baron thirsting for revenge on the chicken-walking steel lawman who put him on a drip in the first place.

A couple of neat devices here betray their author’s hand. First, it’s a very comics solution. RoboCop is the cinema’s first original out-and-out superhero, and only a writer who’s had to work within the wretched, shrivelled world of superhero mythology can deal with the storylining troubles involved. In fact, RoboCop 2 is a textbook demonstration of a standard genre dilemma. Superheroes have no direct competence to fight organised crime or corporate frightfulness: even if you corner the Kingpin, it’s caddish bullying to throw him through a wall. So what you do is you get the organisation to sponsor a supervillain, and then the hero throws him through a wall. Simple, but not yet a cliche on screen; and I actually can’t recall a movie before this one that actually ran the full repertoire of superhero combat motifs. Here, indestructible antagonists really do knock one another through buildings, fall off skyscrapers and crash through five levels of underground parking before dusting off and re-engaging fisticuffs. It’s familiar and refreshing at once, and the finale finds something even more absurd than the bomb-in-the-drug-fix routine you’re sure he’s going to use.

But any reasonably shameless Marvel graduate could go this far. The personal touch of the world’s mightiest grafico is much more distinctively evident in the lead-up, which goes through a couple of preliminary acts explaining why the ideology of superhero vigilantism is the only realistic solution. Early on, there’s a fascinating round-the-table story conference (another favourite comics device) between the interested parties of villainous corporatchiks, tough-but-righteous cops, and well-meaning-but-woolly liberal politicoes who don’t like the role model RoboCop presents to their youth. The fight against crime, they argue, is caricatured by reduction to a few secondhand Dredd mannerisms (I’m sure the old RoboCop never called perps ‘creep’) and a fistful of firepower. So our luckless hero gets reprogrammed with a mass of new directives that effectively disable him as a crimebusting force. ‘They’ve put all this nonsense into his brain!’ wails Nancy Allen as the display scrolls up: ‘Avoid premature value judgments. Always pool opinions before expressing yourself…’ Luckily a quick self-imposed short circuit burns all this mealy-mouthed (and, it’s got to be said, pretty funny) moral gobbledygook out of the system, and RoboCop is soon ready as ever to kick funky behind.

As a joke, this all fills screen time well. But fans will know Miller has sometimes shown a nasty tendency, most notoriously in Dark Knight, to take this kind of moral survivalism rather more seriously than makes for comfortable entertainment. And it’s certainly in the vision of crime and punishment that the writer’s hand is most distinctively on view here. The bad guys peddle a drug called Nuke; the scientist baddie is called Dr Juliette Faxx, and even looks drawn by Frankie; and the criminal scum conduct their crusade of violence with a kind of exaggerated street naff that may ring familiar. If you can overlook all this, technically it’s not at all a bad script – no worse, in its way, than the original’s, and certainly an impressive if rather unstretching crossover debut. (Keep an eye for Frank’s uncredited cameo, by the way: not hard. Of course he gets blown up.)

What badly brings the film down, though, is the directorial handmedown from Paul Verhoeven to Irvin Kershner, which seems to strip the package of much of the essential wit and sadistic irony that made the first RoboCop spark. They try hard here, but it’s still like The Fly II after Cronenberg: nobody, really, has a clue. Peter Weller still does wonderful things with an impossible role, and the throwaway gag ads are there and sometimes funny. But still the whole thing emits a persistent clanking, and there’s no excuse for the dreadful way the shades-of-Swamp-Thing human metaphysics get perfunctorily shunted off at the end. Comparison with Total Recall, a minor script made magnificent, suggests just how much of the first film’s impact was directorial. We won’t have seen the last of Frank Miller on screen; but we surely won’t see more of Pete ’n’ Nancy’s RoboFunnies.

Otherwise, the season’s brood of sequels were better than most. I still don’t know who Biff’s mysterious granny was back in Future 2, but anything can be forgiven in a film that has the nerve to talk the audience through a papier-mache model of the ending (with a handpainted sign labelling ‘Point of No Return’, no less), and ‘I never met a girl who liked Jules Verne before’ is really kind of deep, considering. And the new Gremlins were extraordinary, a perfect metaphor as well as vehicle for the whole exploding-nuclear-cigar style of Dante’s postchaotic terrorist slapstick, where the veering quality of the gags is made up by the unbelievable speed and superabundance of their delivery. The lab bottle marked ‘Danger – Acid. Do Not Throw in Face’ more or less spoke for it all.

Thanks to a pesky Y chromosome, I won’t be here next month. But I can’t sign out without a word for Tremors, the only serious surprise in the summer’s pleasures. Unlike all the costly followons and barnstormers, this first postCameronian production from Gale Anne Hurd triumphantly proclaims the virtues of old-fashioned narrative technology, as giant burrowing things – I use the term advisedly – terrorise the tiny interSierran community of Perfection, pop. 14 (count ’em as they get picked off) assorted lovable losers, survivalists, and dippoes with one attractive postgrad geologist to explain the plot. After the initial tease phase, it turns out there are precisely four of the beastly things – just the right number of set pieces for a no-nonsense creature thriller, so long as you take care to take out each in a more inventive way than the last. Tremors is a wonderful picture with nothing whatever going for it beyond a deft script, great ensemble of unknowns, fine use of a gorgeous setting, and unembarrassed joy in the mechanics of entertainment. It just shows, you don’t need moral convolutions of sin and sanctimony so long as you’ve forty-foot killer plonkers from beneath the earth. I think you’ll agree there’s a lesson for humanity there. Yours very sincerely.

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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