Demon Seed 1977 ***

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With the world moving towards an as-yet-undefined period of self-loathing circa March 2020, it’s worth looking back to another cultural and social crisis point, 1977. Star Wars was round the corner, and a new era of family-friendly fare was about to dawn, but in 1977, things were tough all over. Attendances were down, terrorism was on the up, oil prices were rising, governments were failing, dystopian sci-fi, horror and pornography were the hot subjects of the day, and in an alternate universe, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed would have been the movie that caught and reflected the bleakness of the time.

The Exorcist has married old-school fire and brimstone with new-fangled medical detail, and Demon Seed takes energy from that, as well as science-gone-wrong entries like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Hal in Kubrick’s 2001. Filmed in Germany, it’s the story of an artificial intelligence called Proteus who turns on his creator Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and incubates a child via his wife Susan (Julie Christie). The method of Proteus’s take-over was tricky to understand in 1977, but makes more sense in 2020. The Harris house-hold is supervised by a voice-activated computer (think Siri or Alexa), and Proteus takes over the home by supplanting the existing program, trapping Susan.

Demon Seed has a few wild stabs at visualising this; unfortunately these involve a wheelchair with a metal arm attached, which looks easy to resist. More effective is the sight of Proteus forming itself in an elemental way, a kind of Rubic’s snake which coils around and then decapitates a suspicious scientist. And oddly, Proteus speaks with the silky, saturnine tones of Robert Vaughn, rarely betraying anything but omnipotent power. With the action largely confined to one location, Demon Seed needs a good actress for the central role, and in Julie Christie, it gets a great actress, with Christie remaining empathetic through some difficult narrative transformations.

The kind of movie that the BBC used to show as a prime-time, 9pm, Saturday night treat in the early 80’s, Demon Seed is dark, unpleasant and eventually psychedelic, as might be expected from the visionary behind Performance. Horror would seem a reasonable reaction, and yet Cammell, a Scotsman raised with an interest in Aleister Crowley, seems to be clinically interested rather than repulsed by this formation of a new being that fuses flesh and metal. The final scenes involve a baby with a metal shell which Alex and Susan gingerly remove; after a series of bombastic light-show effects, the effect is strangely tender.

Demon Seed is a pretty horrid film, but it’s a way-ahead-of-it’s time entry in the sci-fi stakes; this was the third time I’ve seen it, but the first with proper framing, and it really makes a difference. What seemed murky and undefined in pan-and-scan seems more precise in widescreen; Cammell was a genuine talent and visionary, even if what he saw was disturbing and hard to fathom.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (NA-no award)

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The cancellation of both a blockbusting James Bond film and the South by Southwest festival circa March 2020 should give pause to all lovers of cinema; a viral outbreak takes no prisoners, and worse things are happening worldwide, to be sure, but the disruption of the cinematic calendar does not bode well for a business already wrestling with falling attendances; the disruptive antics of Netflix now seem somewhat unnecessary at a time when the whole year’s schedule seem under threat.

A tactical retreat to home entertainment is the only excuse for watching Pacific Rim: Uprising, a sequel which has seemed like in-essential viewing until now, and seems even less essential after last night’s viewing. 2013’s Pacific Rim was a real time-waster for Guillermo del Toro, a Transformers-style punch up between giant robots and aliens. It presumably made enough to make an off-brand sequel viable, and so Pacific Rim: Uprising offers a smaller scale conflict without zeroing in on anything particularly interesting.

Much as the dreadful Independence Day: Resurgence tried to establish continuity by having characters look lovingly at photographs of Will Smith, Stephen DeKnight’s film features John Boyega looking wistfully at photographs of Idris Elba, who presumably didn’t need to produce a letter from his parent or guardian to avoid this mess because his character died in the first film. Charlie Hunnam survived whatever happened in Pacific Rim, but presumably had such a roster of awful films to make that he couldn’t fit this sequel in. Instead, Boyega is paired with Amara (Cailee Spaeney), a sassy street-orphan mechanic, as they armour themselves in giant robot costumes to defend earth from aliens.

Apart from Charlie Day’s weird alien sex scene, the sole positive here is Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, and seemingly intent on mirroring the least successful era of his father’s career, the ‘bit part player in 1950’s sci-fi’ phase. Eastwood is actually a more-than-decent performer who seems to be contend with sixth banana roles in franchises like this, Suicide Squad or Fast and Furious. His appearance and delivery are striking, but when you’re playing support to John Boyega or Charlie Day, there’s not much a guy can do.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is a brightly-coloured and technically adept movie, and yet is fully deserving of the uncovered ‘NA-no award’ classification. The multi-cultural cast lack any actual characters, the action is expensive and yet bland and forgettable, and the whole project feels lifeless and drained of emotion. Cinema is still the place where exciting and original IP is created, and such lavish yet disposable efforts as Pacific Rim: Uprising may feel like fiddling while Rome burned if and when the going gets tough for cinema circa 2020.

 

Alita: Battle Angel 2019 *****

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Alita: Battle Angel was a much anticipated James Cameron/ Robert Rodriguez manga adaptation that became a lot less anticipated after missing several release dates. Shifted from last summer to Xmas to Feb 2019, it’s been in development for nearly 20 years. The team behind Alita seemed to have little confidence that this $200 million film would have made a dent in the packed Xmas market. They were probably right, but it would be a shame to write off Alita because of the delay; it’s actually quite a mind-blower. Most comic book adaptations come from an ancient IP (Batman, Superman and so on are all from the 40’s and 50’s) and the world male-dominated, violent and tediously All-American in outlook. Alita is none of these things, a comparatively recent Japanese comic with a strong (in every sense) female main character and a twisted dystopian world-view. Alita (Rosa Salazar) starts out as a girl soldier’s head attached by a scientist (Christoph Waltz) to the limbs of his dead daughter. Alita sets out to train up as a bounty hunter to discover her true self, but gets dismantled by authority-figure villains (Mahershala Ali and his henchman Ed Skrein) only to be reborn in a battle-angel’s armour. After showing off her moves in a mad Rollerball sports tournament, Alita sets out after those who wronged her to extract revenge, with a little romance on the side. Although the teenage boy Alita falls for is typical Rodriquez hero, complete with bandana. this is very much Cameron’s vision, with Terminator-style mechanical creatures and a healthy cynicism about technology running alongside an amazing production design. Best of all is Alita, with her massive eyes, looking kind of like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Grey-beards and old fogeys won’t like it, but if you can get your head around the fresh sci-fi concepts, Alita is strong, thoughtful fare, rendered in ground-breaking style. It’s a shame that the fan-boys who wet themselves over antiquated Marvel and DC movies won’t give this kind of thing a chance, like the character in the film, Alita is a vastly superior product.

On digital in the UK July 12th, on disc July 22nd 2019.

Android 1982 ***

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While Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is quite rightly remembered as the one-stop shop for robots who think they’re human circa 1982, there’s a case to be made for Aaron Lipstadt’s ingenious little sleeper. Android Max 404 (Don Keith Opper) works for Dr Daniel (Klaus Kinski) in a remote space station, but the arrival of three fugitive from interplanetary justice changes the dynamics on board. Maggie (Brie Howard) becomes an object of affection for both the doctor and his machine-tooled servant, and Max 404 begins to understand the complexities of human relationships. Shot in 20 days on only two locations, Android is a small-scale realisation of big ideas, well played by a cast of relative unknowns who gamely match up to Kinski’s bigger than life persona.

https://www.amazon.com/android-Klaus-Kinski/dp/B01KBYA4O6/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=android+1982&qid=1563462238&s=gateway&sr=8-2

Short Circuit 2 ***

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Marking an abrupt tonal shift in the adventures of sentient robot Johnny 5, this sequel pitches him into the bowels of an unnamed city where is talents are exploited by ruthless diamond thieves. Ally Sheedy contributes a phone message and Steve Guttenberg doesn’t appear at all; instead the focus is on Ben (Fisher Stevens) who partners up with Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean to mass-produce a range of Johnny 5 toys. But their warehouse space is also inhabited by crooks, who plan to use Johnny for a heist. Short Circuit 2 doesn’t have the same gravity as the first film, but it’s a brisk family entertainment, and engineers a beguilingly odd, off-kilter pathos as Johnny is bumped and bruised by city life before emerging victorious with a Tarzan yell; his ability to consume and regurgitate pop-culture ephemera makes Johnny 5 a somewhat prescient figure in a pre-internet world.

Robot and Frank 2012 ***

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The idea of humans interacting with robots is often exploited for dark storytelling; Jake Schreier’s 20012 film finds something sweeter in the relationship between man and machine. Cat burglar Frank (Frank Langella) is getting past his prime, and his idyllic countryside retirement is interrupted when his son (James Marsden) insists on getting him a robot helper. Frank enlists the robot’s help for more nefarious purposes, but the onset of dementia means that the robot’s steady personality proves to have a more stabilising effect on Frank. Robot and Frank deals with dementia in an intelligent way, contrasting Frank’s radical ideas with his inability to achieve them, with his unwilling partnership with the robot giving him a temporary new lease of life. Peter Sarsgaard provides the voice of Robot, and Susan Sarandon is the librarian that Frank has designs on. A sci-fi film for people who aren’t into sci-fi, Robot and Frank is a moving and intelligent film about old age and technology.

The Iron Giant 1999 ****

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A pre-Pixar Brad Bird creates a wonderful family film with this 1999 adaptation of Ted Hughes book, a bromance between a young boy Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and a huge rusting robot called The Iron Giant, voiced by Vin Diesel. Falling to earth, the giant is discovered in the small beatnik-era Maine town of Rockwell by Hogarth, who determines to keep his metal friend a secret from the authorities and his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston). Presumably the unfashionability of animation at the time stopped The Iron Giant from making a big impact, but Bird’s film deserves a cult-following; it’s smart characters and thoughtful life-lessons make it a moving experience for young and old alike.

Return To Oz 1985 ***

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An indirect sequel to the classic film, Return To Oz junks the musical numbers and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion characters, and pushes Dorothy into darker territory. Played by Fairuza Balk, she’s initially introduced going through strange psychiatric experiments by the sinister Dr Worley (Nicol Williamson). Dorothy escapes the electro-shock treatment and returns to Oz, to find it transformed into a macabre wasteland. Frank L Baum’s imagination was the source for characters like robot Tik Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, but while these innovations are true to the source novels, the result is nightmarishly entertaining, making some off parallels between Kansas life and Oz that go far beyond the original film in their incisive, disturbing commentary. Return to Oz gave a generation of children sleepless nights, and it’s not hard to see why, but Return to Oz is far more ambitious than Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful.

The Humanoid 1979 ***

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Some films are ‘so bad they’re good’; The Humanoid is so bad, it’s very nearly brilliant. A Star Wars rip-off seemingly rushed into production without viewing anything more than stills of the George Lucas epic, Aldo Lado’s Italian opus offers interplanetary intrigue and diplomacy riddled with funny performances. Richard Kiel, Jaws from the James Bond films, stretches his abilities as a leading man in his portrayal of Golob, a mercenary who travels through space with his side-kick Robodog. He ends up on a mission to rescue Barbara Gibson (Corrine Clery) from the clutches of Lord Graal (Ivan Rassimov), whose pals Dr Kraspin (Arthur Kennedy) and Lady Agatha (Barbara Bach) have designs on her. In a plethora of badly costumed buffoonery, the mystical nonsense spouted by golden child Tom Tom (Marco Yeh) marks a highpoint, but the dialogue is consistently brilliant; ‘What in Helios does that space jockey think he’s doing?” exclaims Golob and another bit of cardboard falls off his spaceship. A hoot from beginning to end for bad-movie lovers.

The Black Hole 1980 ***

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Disney’s first contribution to the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom is a curious mismatch of styles; the plot marries the kind of rollicking adventure of 20,000 League Beneath The Sea to the kind of mysticism of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, with cute robots (VINCENT and Old Bob) for the kids.

Maximillian Schell plays Dr Hans Reinhart, whose spaceship The Cygnus is boarded by an intrepid crew including Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster and Yvette Mimieux. The secret of what lies beyond the black hole turns out to be something of a damp squib, but director Gary Nelson handles a beautiful production design with great skill, with dazzling visuals including a ball of flame demolishing the innards of the craft. Too slow for kids, and too silly for adults, The Black Hole is still a handsome production for sci-fi addicts.