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 – Innerspace, Friendship’s Death, RoboCop, and a round-up – appeared first in Interzone #23 (Spring 1988).
Christmas is traditionally the season when the US studios dump crateloads of the year’s failed blockbusters into the UK release schedules, on the shrewd enough reckoning that for six weeks of each year the cultural tastebuds of a mighty people go into profound hibernation, only to wake up on Twelfth Night with stacks of Rick Astley records and inexplicable boardgames they can’t remember ever having wanted. This is the time of the year to watch Masters of the Universe (killing fun if the audience is right), Bigfoot and the Hendersons (woeful), or in grave desperation Spaceballs. (I’ve always found Mel Brooks’ archaic gag movies pretty grim stuff, but this is the first that actually sounds like its script was lifted from a Mad magazine parody circa 1978: reflex jokes at wearily obvious targets, panel-by-panel dialogue with an exclamation at the end of each balloon.) But there’s always one seasonal offload that lay down and died transatlantic simply because it was too quirky, too patchy, or too far off the wall to plumb the necessary common denominators; and odds are even it’s another Joe Dante film.
Innerspace, of course, is the lovingly ludicrous tribute to Fantastic Voyage in which the miniaturised submarine finds itself injected not into an injured scientist’s brain but into the bum of a supermarket attendant. Felicitously enough, it coincides with Dr Asimov’s own back-handed homage to the original, as he continues the immolation of his best-loved works with a leaden update of the 1967 novelisation. As you might expect from past form, the Dante is the one that shows a real affection for the genre and the sixties sense of gosh that the original so beautifully captures. Growing in appeal the more it dates, Fantastic Voyage seems more and more the perfect sixties movie: a period blend of cold war politics, technological chic (nuclear subs, lasers, miracle surgery), and psychadelic exploration of the inner self, all lavishly decked out with comic-book dialogue, Raquel Welch, and amazing bubble-lamp production design. The one incongruous element is that its initial concept is actually one of the few authentically original and breathtaking ideas ever launched in a big-budget fantasy movie. In short, it’s ideal material for the opportunistic Dante blend of nostalgia, wide-eye fantasy and poorly-disciplined wackiness.
More so even than most Dante, Innerspace is a sublimely idiotic film by any standards, and gambles a lot on seducing its audience early on by sheer accumulation of absurdity. Dennis Quaid brings his usual sensitivity and grace of nuance to the loudmouthed alcoholic test pilot marooned in the bloodstream of nerdy checkout boy Martin Short, as both get embroiled in a chase’n’caper espionage plot with all the structure and resilience of a Mr Kipling sponge. Along the way Short gets a crash course in assertiveness and Quaid makes up with his feisty reporter girlfriend, culminating in a plot twist so desperate it strains a credulity you didn’t think you had left. It’s a lot to sustain on momentum and silliness alone, but this is home territory to Dante, and the film gains a lot of sympathy from strapping Quaid into a four-foot box for most of his part and leaving Short (the nice surprise in Three Amigos!) to shoulder the main work. In-joke nods at the original abound, and the script makes exhilaratingly short shrift of the few logical constraints observed by its more sober model. Above all, it has the distinctive Dante touch of ghastly consumer mayhem, especially in the early supermarket and mall scenes. It also, predictably enough, suffers from some increasingly characteristic Dante vices: erratic pacing, gratuitous set-pieces against the narrative grain, awkward open-ended coda, inane music sequences (this is not a picture Sam Cooke would have been grateful for), and recurrent attacks of serious dumbness throughout. Stateside business was lukewarm; I only hope we’ll prove less discriminating.
In all, it was another pretty good year for sf movies, and another disastrous year for sf films. Two pictures summed it up between them, both coincidentally marking the genre debuts of European arthouse veterans, but at opposite extremes of budget and commerciality on opposite sides of the ocean. It says a lot about the present state of fantasy cinema that the one that aims low, spends high, and exploits its audience ruthlessly is the easier work to admire, but let’s hold a while on the shoestring number first. Friendship’s Death is the first solo feature from Peter Wollen, so active in the seventies as critic, screenwriter, and enfant terrible (as the film establishment liked to call structuralists in those days), and later as co-director of a series of variously infuriating feature films with longtime collaborator Laura Mulvey. Since their rather unhappy video translation of Emma Tennant’s The Bad Sister for the first Film on Four season, Wollen has been limited to short subjects, and the BFI-produced Friendship’s Death has perhaps suffered as a project from overlong gestation. The film derives from a much better short story first published (by Tennant) in Bananas in the mid-seventies, and rooted in Wollen’s own experiences reporting on the Jordanian war in 1970. In the story, a PLO-sympathetic British journalist in Amman falls in with a man calling himself Friendship and claiming to be a robot emissary from an alien civilisation whose mission to MIT had landed disastrously off-target. The journalist, sceptical at first, finds himself progressively intrigued by Friendship’s bizarre perception of the human universe of language, desire, and self-definition, as the displaced environment of war-torn Amman begins to erode his programmed mission. Finally his introspective crisis resolves in a strong identification with the Palestinian cause: Friendship joins the PLO as a volunteer, and is presumed killed by the Jordanian recapture of the city. He leaves behind, as the journalist’s sole evidence of his existence, a strangely robotic non-translation of Mallarme, with which the story ends.
The original story has obvious affinities with two major films of the early seventies: Antionioni’s The Passenger, which Wollen co-wrote, and Roeg’s Man Who Fell to Earth. In translating it to the screen, Wollen has wisely distanced his film from any reminiscence of either, aiming for a virtuoso chamber epic in which the entire war, and in a sense the entire human species, is viewed from the window of a besieged hotel room. Friendship is this time a young woman, the unfilmable and rather silly Mallarme coda is replaced by a transcript of alien fieldnotes, and a contemporary epilogue reviews the traumatic events of autumn 1970 with a suitably melancholic sense of lessons unlearned. But the film remains, like its Bananas contemporary The Company of Wolves, a misconceived project in almost every respect. The story “Friendship’s Death” had no dialogue, no developed scenes, just a bald first-person narrative full of judicious uncertainties and ambiguities of detail. Friendship’s Death the movie consists instead of a camera watching two people talking, and the change is disastrous. Two persistent problems with Wollen’s previous features have been his weakness in writing dialogue and his inability to direct actors, and on the evidence here not a lot has changed. Wollen is an ingenious man, and his film constructs a clever network of correspondence between the Palestinian politics, Friendship’s predicament, and larger theoretical questions of human nature and identity. But everything is spelled out, over and over, where the poetry of suggestion would be amply sufficient. When Friendship announces near the end of the film “I haven’t had time to tell you my theory of the relationship between bipedalism and the suppression of women,” you feel one time too often you’re in the power of an author who doesn’t know when to chuck an idea away; and a script so remorselessly heavy on explicit abstraction is the death of a thousand tiny needles to its hapless performers. The last Mulvey-Wollen theatrical feature Crystal Gazing was mainly notable for an astonishing quasi-performance by punk sax goddess Lora Logic, who promptly turned to Krishna on the film’s release. Here even Bill Paterson, who under normal conditions could make the ingredients off a Weetabix packet sound like Chekhov, has trouble bringing a Wollen script to convincing life, and poor Tilda Swinton is just an embarrassment. If the part can be played by any human being, which I doubt, it seems to invite some kind of enigmatic screen goddess, which Swinton unfortunately is not, for all her resilience in surviving three Jarman films and still remaining employable. Perhaps more seriously, the film’s use of genre is squirmingly naive, combining antique sf cliches with the kind of cod-scientific technical explanation mainstream movies realise you just can’t get away with nowadays. Anachronistic references (by the Paterson character) to cloning and chip technology jostle with zimmer-frame stuff about sexless computer civilisations and how all the higher cultures of the galaxy are terribly concerned about our warlike race destroying itself. It wouldn’t be so bad, perhaps, if this wasn’t a serious film about serious history and some genuinely difficult politics. You either have to be very seventies or very mad to think Middle Eastern politics and pop semiotics belong in the same film. I don’t see anyone standing up in the UN to explain that the root of the Palestinian problem is that they’ve been decontextualised.
In a curious way, you’ll find more real political nous in the film that’s made the biggest dent in the year’s genre boxoffice, for all it’s a cynical big-budget action spectacular of exceptional sadism and speed. RoboCop is an intelligent, nasty satirical thriller with a shrewd sense of audience and technique, building its appeal on the Rambo mythology at the same time as it dismantles it from within. A weird meld of Judge Dredd with Hill Street Blues, RoboCop offers an early-nineties world in which SDI is deployed (with a throwaway glitch that takes out Santa Barbara), white South Africa is a nuclear fortress, and the city of Detroit has privatised its police force. Early attempts to improve the alarming fatality rate among officers through innovative technology go disastrously awry, and as a fallback the latest victim (Peter Weller, ex-Buckaroo Banzai) is reanimated as a prototype bionic supercop. At first things go well: his memory wiped, his body a walking tank, Weller functions as a perfect law-enforcement machine. But as he pursues the chain of corruption from small fry to bigger, he finds himself taking on more than his makers intended. Meanwhile, he becomes troubled by recurrent traumatic glimpses of his stolen human memory, and begins to struggle against the system that made him…
The first thing to say about RoboCop is that it’s an extraordinarily violent film, far more so than anything comparable in its genre. Many punters will find this exhilarating, and many will find it merely sickening. Neither is at all what the film is after, though obviously there’s a difficult tightrope of taste to be negotiated here. There are certainly moments when rascally characters meet deservedly gruesome and lingering ends, but the film is very careful to attribute all its premeditated brutality to the bad guys, to such an extent that a real and unresolved narrative imbalance results. Weller’s protracted, sadistic execution by the psychos early in the film is so stomach-inverting, and so unexpected out of its natural schlocko-horror genre, that it gives a momentum to the revenge plot that the relatively anticlimactic, minimum-force death of the lead nasty at the end of the film can’t hope to satisfy. But that, I can’t help feeling, is the audience’s problem, not the film’s. Otherwise, the violence is an essential part of the texture of its world, and that texture is the film’s great strength: a brutal, hairtrigger future on the edge of self-destruction, driven by the boardroom politics of corporations and governments unconcerned with the street-level lives of the citizens. While a lot of the credit must go to the witty and pointed script, much too is due to the distinctive black irony of the amazing Dutch director Paul Verhoeven in this, his second English-language feature after the undervalued essay in sword-and-sorcery verite Flesh + Blood. It would be absurd to credit Verhoeven, of all people, with some kind of moral crusade, and in the end I’m not sure the political satire is anything more than a meretricious pretext for some high-adrenalin blow-’em-away comic capers. But the casual nastiness towards his characters that so identifies Verhoeven’s touch is well at home in the cynical consumerverse revealed in RoboCop’s superb dry snippets of ghastly adverts, newscasts, and ratings winners: a very eighties nightmare, and at the same time a very Verhoeven vision. It’s hard to think of another figure who’s made the transition from European art-house auteur to Hollywood studio whiz with such cheerful versatility and so little loss of individuality; nor, for that matter, of another recent sf movie that’s given so many punters precisely the cinema they deserve.
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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