Mutant Popcorn #5

Nick Lowe

Aliens (1986)

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 serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – Highlander, Static, and Aliens – appeared first in Interzone #17 (Autumn 1986).

It’s late 1980s, the ten-year boom in fantasy film is dipping towards the horizon, and science fiction in the movies aspires as never before to the condition of pop. Wit, style, and energy are the axes of the current aesthetic; saurian values like speculative ambition and intellectual consistency even sound middle-aged, and aspirations to seriousness need heavy disguise before they’re even allowed on the dancefloor. What counts in today’s darkened rooms is an efficient product that can administer a swift dose of transient fun to an increasingly sharp audience of young consumers, which is why the action comedy like Superman and Indiana Jones is so definitively the film genre of the 80s. I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about this, particularly; on the contrary, I welcome the best of these empty-headed, hi-speed confections for their lively sense of irony and virtuosic manipulation of audience. Nobody’s demeaned by a film like Aliens, least of all the audience – the fashionable lightning edits, the sly games with genre and narrative conventions all testify to the immense sophistication of the current movie audience, such that the language of contemporary pop cinema would be incomprehensible to their counterparts fifty years back. I positively look forward to the inevitable day when films outstrip my power to follow the darting edit and half-ingested dialogue; when the ever-evolving codes of cinematic narrative leave the written word, and those it nurtured, permanently behind in the march of signs.

But this assimilation of film to pop is, I’m sure, the reason why flavour of the year in sf films is Silly, and why the year’s inadvertent new genre is bastard midAtlantic pastiches of our great national myths. Who, even half a decade ago, could have imagined we’d ever be watching a film called Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear? Who could have conceived we’d hear Peter Cushing, clearly cast for his legendary straightness of face, explain ‘Biggles is your time twin’? For better or worse, silly is the chic of the moment. The surest sign of the times is the one authentic supernova on the scene at present: the astonishing expansion of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, who have progressed from witty low-budget fantasy entertainment like Trancers and Re-Animator to exactly the same but in twelve times the volume. This year’s crop have been middle-rank productions, with only Zone Troopers making UK cinemas; but with a good twenty features currently pipelined, including the Herbert West sequel already in the cans, some heavy action in the coming year seems assured. In the world of cinepop, Empire dominate the indie charts; they don’t score too many top ten hits, but they turn over comfortably on inexpensive invention and sheer idiot cheek.

It’s against this background you have to appreciate Highlander, a film as perfectly of its time as It Conquered the WorldFantastic Voyage, or Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It’s impossible to categorise such films by everyday critical labels like ‘good’, ‘flawed’, or ‘unsuccessful’, any more than you can water your plants with a barometer. They simply express their epoch with complete and unnerving frankness. Generations to come, who have no concept of the meaning of such resonant artistic contextualisers as ‘songs by Queen’, will discard this film in bafflement. But inhabitants of the brief cultural timezone in which Highlander has its ephemeral being will understand that the terse credit ‘songs by Queen’ makes a richer statement about the film’s milieu, affinities, and pretensions than any amount of directorial manifesto ever could.

If it weren’t for Biggles, which in many ways it uncannily recalls, Highlander would romp home as the silliest film of this year or any. The premise alone, of immortal Scotsmen roaming the world with concealed swords trying to chop each other’s heads off, should be enough to send giggling queues all round the block and away into Chinatown. Oz wizard Russell Mulcahy directs this extraordinary intercontinental farrago with the bravura visual aggression, insistent editing, and jolly indifference to stylistic coherence we recognise from those absurd Duran Duran videos.

In Highlander, Christophe Lambert dons again his cosmopolitan R and re-engages his long-suffering accent coach to create Connor McLeod, a strapping highland laddie who in 1532 recovers mysteriously from a mortal wound dealt him in battle by the lumbering Kurgan (wonderful Arniesque realisation by Clancy Brown, whose monster performance nearly redeemed The Bride); and is banished from his clan to take up residence in a disused castle with a nice but regrettably mortal lass called Heather, Sean Connery, and latter’s extremely silly false moustache. Connery explains how he and our hero and unfortunately also the Kurgan are of a select band of ageless heroes who can only be killed by severing of the head, and who are destined to Gather at a Time that shall Come to Pass and duel till Only One Remains to collect The Prize (all capitals faithfully enunciated in the script). Re-enter Kurgan to decapitate Connery, and the stage is set for a fight to the finish in present-day New York – the Kurgan having polished all the rest off while Christophe is lying low getting rich on antique dealing. To wind it up further our hero is smitten, against his resolve and despite a curse of sterility which goes with the job, by forensic metallurgist Roxanne Hart, who isn’t a patch on Heather but at least doesn’t talk like the Sunday Post. Out come the swords for the final showdown, and anyone who can’t guess The Prize by this stage is condemned to sit through the noxious final scene of an otherwise passable entertainment.

Highlander is a major product of the new silliness, and woe betide the punter who looks for narrative logic or rational explanation to glue this astounding assemblage together. Highlander is held together by Fun, which has structural rules of its own, and pokes its tongue at the faculty of reason. Beguiling as is the momentary conceit that we might be confronted with some authentic 16th-century Scottish history (‘Hullo! Ah’m Wee Johnnie Knox, and ah’d like a wurd wi’ yiz aboot the relationship between feudal authority structures, neotribal social organisation, an’ the historical crisis of popery…’), it’s clear from the start that this is the Scotland where everyone is called Angus and Dougal and speaks in the dialect of Brigadoon; and that this 16th century was spent hacking at one another with claymores and traipsing round the most photogenic prospects of Eilean Donan. As the screenplay comes from a class project by a UCLA film student, it would be rash to expect more. It’s entertaining drivel packaged with professionalism and flair, free of the trammels of substance and signifying nothing but its own cockeyed cultural moment. With songs by Queen.

At the other end of the pop spectrum we have Mark Romanek’s Static, which nails its colours just as firmly to music from The The, Brian Eno and Japan. Static’s a quiet, almost painfully unassuming little film that shrinks away nearly to nothing the instant you try to summarise the story, analyse its pleasures, or draw the inevitable comparisons with Repo Man, from which it can only suffer. It has a similar desert highway look, a wide-eyed teen hero, a nice line in weirdo supports and off-the-wall throwaway humour, and a completely absurd central sf conceit that has to qualify for the cheapest special effects budget of the decade. But the pellmell pace and modish street wit that animated Repo Man have no part in the muted, affectionate humour of Static, despite some nifty French-style narrative cuts in the early sequences; and after a magical opening half-hour, the pace of ideas and developments slows abruptly. What we get is the story of two grown-up kids in smalltown Arizona: Julie, who got out, became a minor pop star, and comes home for Christmas to see how much hasn’t changed; and Ernie, her best friend, who stayed behind after his parents’ tragic death to work on a secret invention of devastating simplicity that will change the world beyond recognition and make people happy instead of sad. Against a leisurely backcloth of screwy local characters and surreal vignettes of desert American life, Ernie unveils his invention; but an unforeseen technical drawback drives him to desperate means to advertise his work to the world…

I could understand anyone’s dissatisfaction with Static. The central idea is so whimsical it almost blows away; the central performances are, for all their delicacy and freshness, a touch over-directed, and the jokes slightly too widely spaced to support a mood of manic lunacy. Perhaps the eccentricities of Ernie and his survivalist preacher uncle are too strainedly wacky to convince; perhaps the soundtrack is an overdeliberate collage of tacky Xmas music and teen-cred guitar bashing. It doesn’t help that the final scenes hint at pretensions to meaning way beyond the capricious substance of the film to deliver – after all, if you’ve been told what Ernie’s invention is and what happens to him at the end, there isn’t any more story to know, and you’ll have to be content with watching the delicate touches of incidental humour and gently observed characterisation. But these are ample reward, so long as you’re not expecting a shotgun massage of all sensory inputs.

Unfortunately, in these days of audiovisual overload, virtuoso editing, and slickly ridiculous screen relationships, a sweetly whimsical tragicom about ideals and maturity and boys and girls being just best friends is an idea whose time hasn’t come. I wouldn’t say Static is a better or even a more substantial film than Highlander; they’re both adroit pop films movies, in more than a single sense, in tune with the moment. But no Prize for guessing which one is even now packing in the public at a cinema near you, while the other ticks over quietly on the provincial arthouse circuit.

Which inevitably brings us to Aliens, as pure and pulsating a specimen of dancefloor cinema as we’ll see all year: an amazingly accomplished and immaculately content-free 12’ buzz of hot adrenalin in which Ripley returns to that horrid planet with a troop of funky space-marine slime-fodder to find out what’s happened to a colony of settlers. (Can you guess?) At once a sequel and a kind of back-handed hommage to its famous original, it pastes most of the plot of the first film, little disguised, into its own while determinedly junking all the Ridley Scott affectations of art. The lighting and focus are harder, the strong supporting cast banishes star names, the production design scraps those clean overlit whites for a grimier, more factory look, and Sigourney Weaver gets a much meatier part and (to the film’s great credit) is allowed not to look pretty for a change. What James Cameron delivers is just what The Terminator promised: a state-of-the-art suspenser that punches all the buttons with complete technical assurance, climaxing in another nerve-thumping succession of false endings and a cheer-yourself-hoarse finale – the last welded elegantly out of one strand of genuine plotting and a handful of favourite moments from the original, affectionately lifted and inventively surpassed. Idea content is, of course, nil, unless you count the continuing theme of evil duplicitous commercial forces in the exploitation of space. But it’s just the kind of film that’s being done better now than ever before, a clever, well-written entertainment that respects its audience’s intelligence even as it yanks mechanistically on their strings; and it couldn’t have been done at all without the visual range and narrative shorthand of genre science fiction. It’s tremendous testimony to the vitality of sf that it can so enlarge the compulsive power of even this kind of blatantly formular product. Never mind the lyrics, just feel that hotfoot rhythm.

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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