Mutant Popcorn #8

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 serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – Mannequin, Space Camp, and a round-up – appeared first in Interzone #21 (Autumn 1987).

Other celebrations apart, it’s the tenth anniversary of the summer of fun: the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters and what seemed at the time the dawn of a new golden age in science fiction film. At this commemorative moment, it seems mean-hearted to regret some of the dicky windfalls borne in on that first gust of fresh air. It takes a real effort of memory to recapture just how blah films were in the seventies, when all the good movies were either French, Australian, or East Coast Catholic, and the box office was dominated by middle-aged stars in off-the-peg urban thrillers. In those far-off flared-leg days the future was either a plastic whimsy or a lugubrious warning; it took the advent of the Force to get us to see that the future was really just another comic strip, and whatever the crassnesses of the Star Wars era it’s hard to deny it’s been something of a decennium mirabile in sf cinema. The all-time top ten box office chart, stagnant till the mid-seventies, has been swamped by fantasy adventures. The 80s phenomenon of long-running series titles continues to print money, with Star Trek now pulling ahead of RockySupermanStar Wars thanks to the increasing threat of elderly stars dying on the picture. We’ve seen amazing technical strides in effects, editing, and design; the emergence of a whole class of eminently bankable specialist fantasy directors like Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, Cameron, Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, John Badham, Jim Henson, Ron Howard, Leonard Nimoy (haha, just kidding); even a new generation of performers (Ford, Lambert, Reeve, Hauer, Gibson, Schwarzenegger) who’ve made international reputations primarily through their fantasy roles. By contrast, even the better seventies product like SleeperA Boy and his DogDark StarRocky HorrorDeath Race 2000 has mostly dated past the point of watchability with pleasure. I suppose it’s conceivable that ten years hence we’ll think the same about BrazilAlien and progeny, ETBlade RunnerMad Max 2Back to the FutureSplash!Time BanditsSupermanThe Fly, and a host of lesser hits that feature fondly on personal lists; it is, after all, an endearing feature of cinema that the artform’s still young enough for its products to date rapidly, passing from chic to nostalgia with barely a blink between. But I’d defy anyone to come up with a list of ten really wonderful sf films from the seventies, or to limit such a list from the eighties to ten.

Of course it would be naive to credit all this to the Star Wars phenomenon. Sf movies have found themselves at the happy intersection of a number of genre booms: the surge in stunt movies, horror and suspense, teen pictures, even lamebrain comedy has all helped the genre to float, and the emergent homevid market planted an invaluable breakeven safety net for modest genre entertainments, allowing far more oddball cheapies to get made and seen. Pop video, too, has contributed, inputting a flash period style heavy on visual flair, fast edits, and technical innovation; and new technology has kept sfx achievements in a perpetual leapfrog of progress. After the initial blurge of imitations, Star Wars itself has proved a film of only limited direct influence, a door-opener rather than a model in its own right. With hindsight, the most mimicked film of the eighties could turn out to have been Blade Runner, chief pioneer of the distinctive (and already fast-dating) film bleu urban romanticism so glumly prevalent in heavy metal promos and ads for financial services. But it couldn’t have happened without a phenomenon unique in motion picture history, a durable and lucrative genre market created almost overnight by a single motion picture.

Whether 87 will prove a worthy anniversary is hard yet to judge, though it’s had a good share of blockbusters in the first half and will no doubt managed at least one in the second half out of SpaceballsSuperman IV, and The Princess Bride. A strong New Year (The FlyPeggy Sue) was spoiled by a generally damp spring (Flight of the NavigatorLittle Shop of Horrors) – though it was nice to see the extremely strange Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension get a UK release at last, even if it closed the only cinema that showed it and slid straight off on to video. The Voyage Home had a grating sense of barrel-scraping to me, but a lot of people were quite entertained, perhaps because they’d just seen the other big spring import, in comparison with which Logan’s Run would have seemed scintillating. The thing that makes Mannequin remarkable is that nobody, neither the critics nor the movie business, can understand why it was such a massive hit, or indeed why it was a hit at all. It’s not as if there’s a gaping hole in the market for films about a legendary princess from a vanished era magically reincarnated as a plastic dummy (who said Grace Slick? let’s keep the cheap shots out of it). And apart from the vacuous plot, forlorn performances, and gags that would need jump-leads just to get them to turn over, it manages to sustain a seamless run of moments any one of which would be kiss of death to any normal movie. ‘Epru, Egypt,’ runs the first title, and after a pause: ‘A Really Long Time Ago.’ Another, slightly longer pause. ‘Right Before Lunch.’ Anyone who doesn’t run out screaming then has to sit mesmerised through what has to be the worst credit sequence since Carry On at your Convenience. Everyone, actors included, seems embarrassed by the witlessness of the basic concept, and the film almost falls over itself to apologise; there’s little more depressing than a protractedly hysterical ‘I must be going mad! This is too wacky!’ sequence – something wisely avoided in the prototype Splash!, whose premise was after all even more idiotic. So why the Stateside success? I can only blame it on this mush about true love across the millennia/light-years/species barrier, which needs a lot of nerve to try these days and Starman wimped out on by trying to be sensible. Presumably once the studios crack the formula we can look forward to zany romantic comedies about a boy’s love for his bitch labrador, headless cadaver, oven-ready chicken, or transient viral infection. Serve us all right.

In fact, there’s only been one sf film this year that’s so astonished me by its daring and ingenuity as to leave me in a kind of physical shock, and it’s a film that cleverly bypassed altogether the audience that would have understood it best. I don’t suppose anybody over the age of consent would be seen dead going into a movie called Space Camp without the help of horn-rim specs, a heavy blond wig and false droopy moustache, so let me, without exaggeration, spill the story. Three or four years hence, five variously unlovely stereotype adolescents sign up for NASA’s Space Camp at Huntsville, Alabama. Kit includes one spunky feminist who wants to be the world’s first woman Shuttle commander, one brash dickhead who wants to get off with her, one girl genius who dresses keen and giggles a lot, one underprivileged black youth who really digs science and needs to show the world he can cut it intellectually, and for the, ehem, younger element in the audience one ghastly ten-year-old who dreams he’s Luke Skywalker. (This is Leaf Phoenix, brother of the more talented River, whose toked-out hippie parents clearly have a lot to answer for. Didn’t Leaf use to be the name of Robin Williamson’s dog?) They spend the first half training under tuff starlady role-model Kate Capshaw, learning astronaut skills in an uncanny approximation to a certain kind of grisly management course, and setting up character goals and plot devices for the second half with brisk transparency (‘Why do I have to learn to take orders/make decisions in an emergency/bring the shuttle out of a spin?’) For reasons passed over, kid Phoenix is able to steal a $27m baby robot, reprogram it with a screwdriver, and keep it holed up in his wardrobe without any of the NASA staff seeming too bothered; and this pukey machine determines to fix his human chum a ride in space by converting a cockpit Shuttle trial to a real launch. A dull plot comes to life at last after an engineered accident forces blastoff with insufficient oxygen, no radio link, and only Capshaw’s experience to draw on (with clear signals she’s due for imminent decommissioning from the story); and successive nail-biting crises are overcome by the resourceful kids in a series of increasingly preposterous plunges through the credibility barrier.

The audacity of all this (let it be said at once) lies not in any breadth of invention or ground-breaking novelty in this dusty old plotline, but in the film’s quite shameless promotion of a partisan political interest at a carefully-targeted juvenile audience. Of course this movie was in planning well before February 1986; of course to an extent the moment found its film rather than vice-versa. But the disingenuousness is staggering all the same. ‘The cooperation,’ runs the end-credit disclaimer, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the making of this motion picture does not indicate approval of its contents or the treatment of the characters depicted therein.’ (Somebody obviously fought hard to get that last clause included; why?)

Well, pull the other one, John. The whole movie is a blatant and spectacularly-timed PR job for NASA which someone, presumably not the divine hand of providence, has tailored with considerable shrewdness to current centres of public suspicion about the Administration. There is, understandably, no reference even in passing to events of 1986, unless you count the unfortunate way Capshaw’s makeup highlights her passing resemblance to Christa McAuliffe. The setting is an optimistic couple of years on, when the Shuttle programme is back on top, space station Dedalus is well under way, and the Huntsville Space Camp is a national institution. The film’s publicity has in fact been careful to stress NASA’s full collaboration in the quest for authenticity, and in particular that the accidental launch scenario was developed with NASA’s help to be technically possible. But just look what you get when NASA is let loose to create its own designer cockup. Even if you discount the ex machina role of a $27m animated espresso machine, you’re still left with the odds-against of once in four million launches so carefully quoted in the script. And even if the unthinkable were to happen, this born-again shuttle is so safe and the ground admin so scrupulous that a random bunch of Hollywood zitbags could pilot it into orbit and back to base more or less unaided. One by one, in fact, all the dodgy myths line up. ‘What’s the point of going into space when we’re all going to get nuked?’ grumps the occasionally-perceptive dickhead. ‘Maybe,’ says the idealistic heroine, ‘we won’t screw up like we have down here.’ ‘That sounds terrific. Let’s really total this planet and blast off into space in the distant hope of finding another,’ he mysteriously fails to quip back. When disaster strikes, it’s emphatically not NASA’s fault, and the crew, far from frying helpless in their can or plummeting out of the sky, have all means to save themselves within their own control. Most suspect of all, the space programme is presented throughout as a mission of human enlightenment, all ‘golly wow doesn’t it look beautiful from up here’ and not a military payload in sight. And the creepy thing is that it’s very, very effective. I didn’t realise I still had all those buttons fully-functional, just waiting to be hit: the great sixties space myth, the glory glory up-with-the-stars images and aspirations that bring the water in your eyes, the floating round cabins and watching the blue earth turn and all the rest of that technopoetical childhood dream. You think you can beat it, but film is just so seductive; and like any well-made youth exploitation pictures (and this one gives a new meaning to the term), Space Camp keeps a sure hold on its audience by deft pacing of the tension, a cast rather better than their parts deserve, and the simple, effective manipulation of some solidly primitive story ideas. It has the nostalgic buzz of technological suspense remembered from Fantastic VoyageMarooned, or those once-wonderful Hugh Walters juveniles you either lived on or lived without, and for an untrained new generation it’s irresistible. When radio contact with ground control is finally established on re-entry, and Kelly Preston shrieks ‘It’s NASA!’, the Bank Holiday matinee juves cheered the name with whoops and applause. Not one of them stayed for the disclaimer.

So what can we prognose for the next decade? I know what I’d like to see, though I can’t imagine it bears much likeness to anyone else’s shopping list or to what we’ll eventually be made to consume. I’d like to see Empire of the Sun sweep the 1988 Oscars (probable) and deserve it (optimistic). I’d like to see Jeff Goldblum play Richard Feynman, Martin Scorsese win the 1992 Democratic nomination, and lots more films about depressive architects photocopying the navel of Augustus Caesar. But most of all I want faster films for shrinking attention spans, more snazzy whiplash editing, stuff that reeducates our popular semiology by forcing us to process images at hitherto undreamed-of speeds. I suppose I could offer a pious wish for scripts with imagination, intelligence, and political and emotional maturity, but who would I be kidding? If you can’t live without that stuff, you’ll have a pretty wretched time at the movies. Film is at heart a manipulative medium, a throat-grabber; great films should crush your resistance and nail you to your seat, then turn on your emotions like playing a bank of switches. If, some time in the next ten years, they evolve the first primitive glintings of intelligence as well, I’ll be more than satisfied.

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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