Baby Driver (2017 – Edgar Wright)
One of those films that gets inordinately over-praised because it is an ‘original idea’, Baby Driver had a few decent car chases (but don’t get carried away – these weren’t anything special) and a jukebox, almost musical, feel to the soundtrack. But aside from Jamie Foxx, the film struggled to find a single decent, engaging performance. Kevin Spacey sleep-walked, John Hamm was woefully out-of-his-depth (the man is little more than a small-screen actor) and Lily James took a role that could have been performed by any one of the attractive, capable performers that flood into Hollywood. But most egregious was the central performance from… christ, I can’t remember his name. And I am tempted to google it – as I have been tempted to research as to why exactly he was foisted upon us, given that I have never seen him before (is he on telly or something?) – but I can’t find the willpower, given how irritating his performance was. Much is made out of the fact that ‘Baby’ doesn’t talk much, but the reality of the film was that he wouldn’t shut up. His performance was needy and inhuman, so committed was he to dancing and prancing and posing in any conceivable situation.
In short; there was a much better film here if only there had been a decent cast.
Seen on a large screen at the Bluewater Showcase. Ticket cost £11 or so.
Song to Song (2017 – Terrence Malick)
In the UK this film has only been released for a two-week engagement on one solitary screen in London… so of course I went to see it.
By now, the critics have turned on Malick, and with the same level of predictability, a few lone voices have rushed to his defence. Both groups are as frustrating as the other, because this was a moderately engaging film that seemed to explore two ideas with a degree of inscrutable intensity. Firstly, that it takes an awful long time to figure out who you are, what your values are, and how you want to live in the modern world. And that secondly, during this process of figuring yourself out, you will make some compromises that you will live to regret.
Now, neither of those ideas are particularly earth-shattering. Nor are they permissible by those who see themselves surrounded by a generation of fecklessly indulgent millennials getting very passionate about various meaningless ideals (foremost of which are their own identities. Second of which is Buffy feminist?). But they are truthful (if not particularly honest) ideas, and this film, clearly suffering from Malick’s usual affectations, excavated them within a non-linear, but easily pieced together, narrative. I liked it.
(Plus, I took the day off work to see it, and movies are always better when you are playing truant.)
Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £4.50.
The Road Warrior (1981 – George Miller)
There’s only so much exploitation I can handle in my life, and Ozploitation can’t quite reach the upper echelons of my interest. I think it’s something to do with the insincerity of the accent. But this sequel becomes something radiant; a sweaty, almost impossible car chase that is littered with leaking petroleum and mangled carburettors. It presents the utter hopelessness of dystopia; where the last remaining semblances of dignity and compassion have been abandoned, and only the survival instinct remains.
Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost about £8.50. 35mm screening – a lovely print (that called it Mad Max 2)
The Warriors (1979 – Walter Hill)
Wonderful to see, not least because I’d only ever seen Walter Hill’s very silly director’s cut before. The heightened horror of New York City felt more and more perverse on the big screen… though I can’t help but feel that the ending just comes out of nowhere. It almost feels like the budget just ran out at some point. It doesn’t hold the same passion for me as some of Hill’s contemporaneous works, but it was still a delightful hour-and-a-half.
Seen immediately after the above on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £8.50, though why this wasn’t a double bill, I don’t know. 35mm screening and a lovely print.
The Beguiled (2017 – Sofia Coppola)
I had, rather shamefully, put an awful lot of hope into this film, such was my mealy-minded dismissal of some of the sexual politics at play in Don Seigel’s version of the same film. But those criticisms (available here) were shallow in their thinking, and susceptible to the quick condemnation of art that plagues my generation.
Because those hopes were ultimately misguided. This was a beautiful film, and full of some rich performances, but it was a superficial affair. Coppola displayed little inclination to examine any of the sexual (or indeed, racial) politics that are inherent to the set-up. Moments of heighted tension in the original film, such as the visit from the confederate soldiers and the destruction of the tortoise, seemed limp and lacklustre in this version. A beautiful waste.
Seen on one of the small, but still bigger than most, screens at the Bluewater Showcase. Ticket cost £9.
Dune (1984 – David Lynch)
You’re struck by just how fully realised the world the Lynch created on screen. It may be a little ridiculous in places, but you never feel that any performance or detail of set design is drawing attention to the unreality of it all. Everyone is fully committed to the world; a world that is clearly as much of a nightmare as the one presented in Eraserhead (1977 – David Lynch). This is not true of most science-fiction. These kinds of stories rely on an almost biblical sense of prophecy and world-building, and Dune is no exception. So much time is spent establishing the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, that his ultimate fulfilment of his potential seems a little rushed. It’s a film that makes you pine for a series of increasingly desperate sequels.
Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £11. 70mm screening!
Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – Stanley Kubrick)
I was very hungover when I saw this.
(Which is to say that it remains my favourite Kubrick, but the uncomfortable exploration of sexual desire that haunts this film was lost on me as I fell asleep on several occasions whilst watching the film. What I will say is that the quickly issued dismissals of certain affected aspects of Kubrick’s style, such as his use of rear projection, were almost unnoticeable when viewed on a big screen from a celluloid projection. It’s one of those many instances where the clarity of home viewing, and the easily accessible pause button, do no favours to a film.)
Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles. Ticket cost £8 or so. 35mm screening – lovely print.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017 – Matt Reeves)
Planet = good
Beneath = brilliant lunacy
Escape = bit dull
Conquest = oooh, this is really quite good
Battle = yawn
Planet = affection for, given this is the first one I saw in the cinema
Rise = much, much better than it deserved to be
Dawn = awful hideous mess
And now War which was pretty decent, but no matter how good the CGI gets, and no matter how manipulative the plots of these movies are, I can’t help but get distracted by the fact that I am watching a bunch of cartoon monkeys on screen. I suppose that at the end of the day I am going to root for a drunk, malicious Woody Harrelson over a bunch of anthropomorphic pixels. He’s a better special effect at the end of the day.
Seen on a medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase. Ticket cost 6.50.
My Cousin Rachel (2017 – Roger Michell)
Another film dampened by a particularly wet performance – this time from some overpromoted posh boy actor (whose name is also not worth looking up) – who struggles to bring any shade to his character. This is all that more pathetic when you consider that he essentially wants to sleep with his mum. It is the weakness of the film that his character is placed at its centre, when the interesting person is Rachel Weisz’s eponymous cousin Rachel. Indeed, Roger Michell’s (an above average director who always includes at least one breath-taking sequence in each of his films) direction only comes to life when she is on the screen. Beyond that, the film is little more than the extreme competence of mumbling yokels and lavish production design that comes with any British costume drama.
Seen on the small, but adequate screen at the Panton St. Odeon. Ticket cost £6.50.
Unstoppable (2010 – Tony Scott)
I just get really sad when I see a Tony Scott film. Because it just breaks my heart that I’ll never have a new one to see. He was (and is) my absolute favourite director, and… it’s really difficult to get this down.
Like, I accept that there will be a lot of art that I will never get on top of. I will never read all the books that I should read, or want to read. I get that there will be James Bond films made long after I die, and therefore, there will be Bond films I don’t get to see. But Tony Scott is finished. His work is accomplished. And there is part of me that desperately wants it to be unmanageable.
Because Unstoppable was so full of life and so focussed that you feel things would have started to turn around for him. The critical establishment (which had been very sniffy about the last decade of his work) would have been presented with a series of deliberate, spectacular thrillers. It felt like we were just about to enter a new phase of his work, that would have been as distinct as his 2000s work was from his nineties work.
The painterly exploration of image and editing had been mastered. And what strikes you when you see these films on the screen is how controlled the shots he uses are. He’s not cut-cut-cutting in that way that we simplify his style to; instead he only brings in the multiple camera presentation at moments of high tension, where he uses them to draw out the suspense and prolong the nervousness we feel whilst we watch the spectacle on screen.
And the film contains everything we love about him. The texture of celluloid. The verisimilitude of exact details within the production design and script. The dedication to practical effects. The central performance of such charm and charisma from Denzel Washington. It makes you wonder how some films still manage to be good without any of those ingredients.
Unstoppable is Scott’s exploration of how competence is something essential that we don’t value enough. We’re all looking for people with flair, but the reality is that it is the people who can get the job done, without fuss or arrogance, are the ones who ultimately prove to be exceptional.
Seeing this film made me go home and watch several other Tony Scott movies. Hell, I watched Man on Fire (2004) twice in two days. It’s that good. He was that good.
And god, I miss him.
Seen at the NFT screen 1 at the BFI Southbank. Ticket cost £8. 35mm screening – beautiful print.
In between fight scenes on Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone would feel light-headed. At this point he was subsisting on twenty-five cups of coffee a day, a few scoops of tunafish and a kind of oatmeal biscuit made from brown rice. It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving on such a small level of food whilst at the same time performing a physically arduous role AND directing a huge blockbuster motion picture. You have to return to the days of silent movie making to find directors who pursued physical perfection alongside artistic intent. For that alone, Stallone should command respect.
Within his body of work, Rocky III stands as a picture of interest as it chronicles a performer wallowing in hubris. Balboa has become convinced of his own talent; he becomes a shill for cheap products and lazily challenges unworthy competitors in the ring. It is a document of the excess that comes with the ‘new’ money of the eighties. The parallels between Balboa and Stallone can be easily drawn. For Stallone, the only guarantee of legitimacy and glory is to return to your roots and conquer your own demon of self-loathing. It’s a chronicled deconstruction of himself; a rejection of a simplistic vision of masculinity and denial of any intrinsic value of adulation. It is a path of forensically detailed self-examination that he would deny himself in the years to come. Balboa has always been an avatar for Stallone; an opportunity for his to explore his hopes and his fears.
Equally, he turned this perceptiveness onto the supporting cast. He began to respond to the representation of black culture in the previous instalments. Where previously the African-American members of the cast were presented at best as an alien ‘other’ and at worst, the villain, he begins to show how other cultures share as much in the struggle of survival in America as working-class Italian immigrants. Both Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang are presented as more deserving holders of the title belt; their determination and sacrifice are shown to be greater than Balboa’s. They understand the struggle you have to face to gain and maintain success; Balboa takes it, as most white people do, for granted.
Many of Stallone’s visual prompts come into play. There are low angled shots at the beginning of the film. Dialogue scenes are framed in close-up. There are freeze frames and slow-motion employed during moments of tension or suspense. Heavy shadow is used to show internal anguish. Sepia flashbacks are used to recall an earlier time. These are fairly superficial devices to be used. But Stallone is a workmanlike director. His priority is direct storytelling. He seeks to visually represent internal conflict; this results in a pure aesthetic effectiveness.
But Stallone was determined to push cinema into a new decade. He is pioneering in this regard as he sought to reject the dour reality of seventies American cinema and replace it with a dynamic, glowing attractiveness. The colours become heightened, and he regularly employed soft focus to create a dreamlike haze to scenes (the transfer on the BLU-RAY reveals the gauze applied to the lens in order to achieve this effect. Rather than appear distracting, if gives the scenes an almost pop art, Lichtenstein quality). Stallone escalated his use of montage; no longer restricted to training scenes, it became a narrative device used throughout the movie. Inspired by the burgeoning music video movement that sprung up with the rise of MTV, Stallone set these sequences to dynamic music, most notably here, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. Stallone was determined to move direction along with his audience; he understood that their aesthetic was changing, and there was no need to deny them this in cinema.
Despite the gruelling diet, Stallone has never appeared more beautiful. The lumpy awkwardness of his youth has been replaced by a lean grace. His lack of body fat ensured his slightly exaggerated bone structure came to the forefront. Coupled with an almost feather like haircut, he became a figure of elegance and desire. Few actors put as much effort into the physicality of their part as Stallone; Balboa is almost an entirely different person to John Rambo as Rambo is a physically distinct person to Cobra.
With its focussed runtime, aesthetic inventiveness and intelligent skewering of conventional masculinity, Rocky III represents the high point of the franchise, and a towering achievement in regards to physical magnificence on the part of Stallone.
The next film produced in the series was Justin Lin’s first contribution, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), but gluttony, and a love of Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-Oh character, meant that the following film in the franchise (which featured the return of Vin Diesel), was set chronologically before it. It gets increasingly entertaining to see the various heavy-handed mentions of Han going to Tokyo as they began to fit more and more films into this gap. It’s a bit like Narnia in the regard. Because I’m a masochist, I’ve decided to watch the series in chronological order, rather than production order.
But before we reach the next entry… a short film directed by Vin Diesel!
So Dom goes to the Dom(inican Republican). For a star who has relied on his racial ambiguity, it is curious that Los Bandoleros begins to tie Vin Diesel to a specific heritage. It doesn’t end there; the small touches of previous films begin to be reasserted as character traits. Meal times (a hugely pleasurable thing to watch – Hollywood neglects the vicarious thrill of watching people eat because of its industrial-strength eating disorders), Catholicism, the family unit, are all promoted to the forefront. At the same time, the series begins to recede in its use of its initial hook, that of street racing. Much like how the series has re-orientated characters in the past, it now begins to re-orientate the very texture of the film itself.
Eradicated from the previous movie, Los Bandoleros exists to reintroduce Vin Diesel’s superiority within the franchise. The twenty minute runtime is little more than an extended visual bon-mot for Toretto. Whilst Dom is sexualised (he openly flirts with several women) in a way that is quite unbecoming of his character, he is ultimately reigned in (and outshone in performance) by Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty. Little more than a supporting character in the first film, Los Bandoleros recognises the captivating intelligence of Rodriguez – one of the great, occasionally dangerous, screen presences of the modern era. The Fast and the Furious franchise relies on subtle shifts in character; histories are constantly rewritten and fresh explanations for behaviour are given for actions in each film. Dom and Letty become a wild, passionate romance… for no reason other than they are two attractive, compelling stars.
With his leap into directing, and his assertive dominance over the franchise through his role as a producer, Vin Diesel moves closer to adopting the career of Sylvester Stallone. Like Stallone, Diesel is a hyper-naturalistic, gravelly-voiced actor who relies on the sweaty thrill of the audience gazing at his body. Diesel begins to create a cinematic identity that is similar to Stallone’s too; conforming to a very specific paternal form of masculinity, where his character is unquestionably adored by the supporting cast.
Whilst the short films in the franchise have always been more visually adventurous than the main series, Los Bandoleros has some pretensions of documentary realism… if that documentary was some Jamie Oliver food tourism nonsense. Admirably, the dialogue is subtitled for much of the running time, but ultimately the short film is an elaborate set-up for the next entry in the series, with some rather reductive arthouse pretensions.
Fast & Furious rankings:
- The Fast and the Furious
- 2 Fast 2 Furious
- Los Bandoleros
- Turbo Charged Prelude
or, they tried everything to get you to see this film.
One of the more amusing aspects of Hollywood is observing the enormous disparity between how a star sees themselves and how we see them. I am convinced that Ben Affleck thinks he is charming; we all know that his appeal comes from his inherent sleaziness. Johnny Depp believes he is versatile. Ben Stiller sees himself as funny… True success only comes once you embrace your inner appeal – see how much more successful Alec Baldwin is since he denied his false heroism and embraced his inner malevolence.
Because being a star is a very specific thing. It’s absolutely not about having a broad range, it’s about an engagement of presence in scenes even when you are still, and a series of vocal performances and physical actions that charm your audience regardless of the role. We rely on our stars; they are the reasons we visit the cinema again and again (fuck auterism). In Tom Cruise we trust…
Will Smith could be one of those people. He is an almost effortlessly charming actor, and the affection the world has for him – in large part (and I mean this with no derision) for the joy of The Fresh Prince of Bell Air (part of the extraordinary post 6pm BBC2 line up of years gone by… The Simpsons, Buffy, Thunderbirds, the stuff dreams are made of. Oh, and the genius (and I mean genius, even if I don’t believe in the concept) of Big Willie Style. Right now, I am convinced there is no greater song in the universe than Miami (deal with it Bohemian Rhapsody and/or Imagine). Those two things give him a lifetime pass.
But Will Smith, the movie star, is singularly disinterested in exploiting that charm. Not since Hitch (2006 – Andy Tennant) has Will Smith been fully concerned with engaging the audience with Will Smith. Since then he has appeared in a stream of tedious, self-important, profoundly dull films. After Earth is no exception to this.
It is a sad day when an actor’s appearance on a chat show to publicise a film is more engaging than the film itself.
I hated this film. Hated… to the extent where I started swearing out loud at the screen during the inane final fifteen minutes. It was a profoundly dull film more concerned with providing endless exposition of a universe with a tedious history. And if Will Smith is a wilfully charmless performer in this film, Jaden Smith is impotently charmless. He speaks with the most un-placeable accent I’ve heard on screen since Shia LeBeouf’s cockney/Glaswegian/New York hybrid in Nymphomaniac (2013 – Lars Von Trier).
- The Village
- The Sixth Sense
- The Happening
- Lady in the Water
- The Last Airbender
- After Earth
Sequels, prequels and remakes. One of the greatest pleasures of movie obsession is seeing the films you love reimagined, seeing how different directors bring their own peccadillos to the proceedings. Remaking movies is as old as cinema itself, so quite why the concept is so frowned upon nowadays, I have no idea. Anyways. These are my personal favourites (though it bears underlining that in nearly every case the original movie is superior.) No Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg) sequels though because they’re all terrible.
41.Mission: Impossible II (2000 – John Woo)
Sequel to Mission: Impossible (1996 – Brian De Palma)
Somewhat maligned, John Woo’s deliriously hazy action movie downplays the paranoid interactions of De Palma’s opening entry but ramps up the action. It represents the moment that Tom Cruise chose to become an action star; up until this point he was content to work with as many ‘great’ directors as possible, but he saw that come the new millennium, auteur theory was an irrelevance, and the only way to stay alive was to remain number one at the box office. It’s a preposterous spectacle, but a spectacle nonetheless, with Cruise determined to punish his body within the red/green light of Woo’s fantasy milieu.
Mission: Impossible III (2006) has its moments, but like all J. J. Abrams’ films, one that trades on the half-remembered successes of other, better directors.
42. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011 – Brad Bird)
Fourth in the Mission: Impossible series
A film that succeeds largely with the confidence in which it defines its space. Car parks, motorways, skyscrapers are tangible locations – fully realised, they allow the body (Cruise’s lithe frame stretching with age) to presented compulsively with danger, largely the risk of falling from a great height. Cinema screens are so tall, it is strange that they rarely exploit the fear of falling. In a world of quick-cut, incomprehensible punch-ups, the film becomes a treasure, a rare jewel… something coherent.
43. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015 – Christopher McQuarrie)
Fifth in the Mission: Impossible series
The series’ endearing commitment to employing different directors for each entry ensures a distinct identity for each film. McQuarrie chooses to push the series as close to Bond as it can go, tuxedos, ballgowns and astonishing car chases. The Mission: Impossible series has never crept into the hostile misogyny that creeps within every entry in their canon – despite some skeevy bikini shots, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is a fully realised woman, with agency and ability. Limited only by the supporting cast lack of range (shouting is the only way to convey emotion apparently) it is an intensely gripping blockbuster.
44. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 – Irvin Kershner)
Sequel to Star Wars (1977 – George Lucas) and fifth in the Star Wars series
One of the most dispiriting waves of recent cinephilia has been the glee with which the new Star Wars films have been greeted – the pleasure with which the homogenized, micro-managed Disney product is presented as having been saved from the inanity of George Lucas.
Yet Lucas is a visionary. A pioneer of new technology, a disciple of space and form that harkens back the days of silent cinema, and a true iconoclast. Never again will we see independent films made free from studio interference with blockbuster budgets. The films are painfully personal – the hope of the initial entry is replaced with the disdain of the sequel once his marriage to Marcia Lucas breaks down (an individual who is key to the success of these first few films). The later prequel series present a man fully aware of powerful economic forces and how they can control and degrade an individual. They reduce performance to its broadest strokes, choosing instead to focus on classical movements of image, combining model shots, CGI, and reality against each other to create fully realised worlds. It was an unpopular vision (though unsurprising – Mark Hamill is hardly a charismatic screen presence), and whilst the now annual visit to the Star Wars universe is entertaining, it will never again be visionary, and thus of limited interest outside the simplistic guttural pleasures that come from the multiplex.
It is particularly pedestrian to state that Empire Strikes Back (or Star Wars II as I sometimes like to call it when feeling particularly contrary) is the strongest entry, but please don’t write those prequels off… they’re obsolete enough as it is.
45. Psycho II (1983 – Richard Franklin)
Sequel to Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)
With some particularly fantastic kills, and a genuinely unsettling insight into a psychopath, Psycho II is a delight, not least for the very pure pleasure of Anthony Perkins reprising his role as cinema’s most likeable serial killer (suck it Hopkins!). Taking the intrinsic sympathy we felt for Bates as he discussed his mother with Janet Leigh over sandwiches, milk and taxidermy to its limit, we are forced to occasionally believe that this man was maybe the victim after all. Maybe that final scene in the basement in Psycho wasn’t real? Maybe that ridiculous explanation for his behaviour given in the parent film was a lie? Rare that it is that a sequel so confounds our expectations for the entirety of its running time.
46. Psycho III (1986 – Anthony Perkins)
Third in the Psycho series
Imagining living as an icon who wasn’t you. Typecasting is increasingly an irrelevance, so desperately we adore even the most minor of a celebrity, but in the past, some actors suffered in the shadow of one good role. Here, Perkins refuses to make it a millstone, and acts and directs in a dynamic exploration of living in the detritus of both his legendary role, and the director who begat his whole career.
47. Psycho (1998 – Gus Van Sant)
Remake of Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)
Van Sant’s colour cover version remains interesting for the ways in which it deviates from its source text as much as follows it. Where Psycho is a queer film made by a heterosexual (disgustingly so as it appears) filmmaker, this is a heteronormative film made by a gay filmmaker, and as such, a more accurate depiction of the reality of murder within our world. The flashes of blue sky within the infamous shower scene underline the power of the Saul Bass structured cuts and emphasise the universality of women being destroyed by men.
48. Aliens (1986 – James Cameron)
Sequel to Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)
Cameron explores the emotional depravity that comes from returning to trauma, yet provides catharsis in the sublimation of this trauma when presented with the maternal instinct. The Alien, the ultimate expression of both penile and vaginal horror overwhelms any construct of society, as if sex is unstoppable. The need to procreate is necessary and instinctive and no intellectual (or religious artificial construct of asceticism found in the next film in the series) can escape it. Cameron transforms the deliberate horror of the first film into a glorious, visceral survival story.
49. Alien3 (1992 – David Fincher)
Third in the Alien franchise
There is a great pleasure is seeing Hollywood’s one pessimist David Fincher destroy the peace provided by its ultimate optimist (Cameron) explored in the previous film in the series. Until this point the Alien films had explored the fear of sex that many secretly feel. So naturally a film has to come along and impose a religious doctrine upon it. The sex/death drive is ultimately stronger than the imaginative drive that fuels religion – it occurs later in our evolutionary development as a species. But the semi-monastic ramblings of the penal colony are unable to dominate, and even the fiery crucifixion of Ripley cannot provide atonement.
50. Prometheus (2012 – Ridley Scott)
Prequel to Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)
Ridley Scott has little interest in scripts. He takes them as they come, choosing to focus on the images he can construct for the big screen. He is a master co-ordinator, and able to produce a big budget film at nearly 80 years of age. As such, his films show little thematic consistency – the overt (and nauseous) Christianity of Prometheus, sits against the timid atheism of Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). The banal explorations of faith are peculiar within a film that features the ultimate expression of a cruel, senseless universe that seeks to kill lesser beings in the form of the Alien. Despite this, the film has moments of extra-ordinary body horror, portrayed by a range of fine character actors. And Noomi Rapace.
I saw the poster for this movie long before I saw the film itself. Sitting for forty minutes on a bus each way to-and-from school ensured that the smallest change in the landscape became an event in and of itself. Advertising was scrutinised from a distance whilst we waited for red lights to change. Movie posters were the best… imagining what pleasure were in store once I could eventually see the film. The cinema was, as it is now, a treat, and trailers and posters and articles in Empire magazine only built the anticipation and developed that treat.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Nicolas Cage’s name was above Sean Connery’s head though…
My dad’s favourite film is Sliding Doors (1998 – Peter Howitt). I don’t know why, because he finds Gwyneth Paltrow as insufferable as the rest of us, but he adores it (I resist the inner arsehole in me that wants to tell him about Blind Chance (1987 – Krysztof Kiewslowski)). Sometimes, our love of a film has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather the people we saw it with, childhood friends, first dates, our dads. I wonder if this is the case for him. I should ask him.
So much of the appeal of an action movie can come from sitting there beside your father whilst watching it. It’s a kind of paternal imprimatur that defines a sense of masculinity. Which is so unhelpful for anyone sitting outside the most basic definition of a man. So many of these types of films are grounded in a pathetic conventional denotation, that the movie stars that exist outside this – for us this has most clearly been Keanu Reeves (others may find it in the nerdy, sexually-ambiguous determination of Tom Cruise) – that their mere presence on screen becomes something essential. They stand in opposition to a preening, overwhelmingly narrow idea of gender roles, and move queerly within worlds defined by the most toxic causalities of the male ego, namely violence, both physical and sexual.
Nicolas Cage is one these essential movies stars.
In recent years, Liam Neeson has become one of western action cinema’s cornerstones. His shambling, lumbering, haunted frame looms onto our screens once or twice a year in some cheaply made vaguely European action thriller. His move away from what is traditionally called ‘serious’ acting into a more pulpy genre has often been lazily presented as a reaction to the sudden death of his wife and the realisation that existence is meaningless. It’s an attractive idea (and only really psychically manifests itself Joe Carnahan’s 2011 masterpiece The Grey) and one that speaks to an admission of purposeless existence that we are quick to deny ourselves. But the casual sidesteps between action cinema and other less enjoyable forms of acting, have been made by numerous actors. Sylvester Stallone, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, and Nic Cage, all have as many Oscar-bait pictures to their name as they do action flicks. But Nic Cage stands apart from them as a unique screen presence and a pioneer of a new style of screen acting.
Rather simplistically, the first screen performers were often fighting against the technical limitations that surrounded them and were thus forced into a heightened, expressionistic style of performance – one that clearly held its roots in the theatre (I can’t be alone in finding every trip to the theatre profoundly embarrassing… It’s unbearable to know that the ridiculous, artificial acts on stage are being performed by an actual person.) As sound entered the frame, and movies stopped moving, the dominant mode of performance was an unnaturalistic rapid-fire rattling of dialogue. In the fifties, movie performance began to shift towards naturalism, which was often convincing, and often dull. British actors rarely succumbed to the artificial stammering and bizarre speech-rhythms that even the laziest American television actor is capable of bringing to a part. Across every decade, movie stars relied on the same bag of highly charismatic quirks and moments that they would bring to every part, whether they were playing a poet, priest or politician.
Alongside the movie stars, were the less attractive actors. They played best friends. And below them, the ordinary looking people. They were (and are) by physical definition, known as character actors. No less quirky than the stars, they just employed a slightly wider range of moments and tics across their roles. By the eighties, a number of up-and-coming actors were trying to blend a movie star career with character actor performances. Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp and Nic Cage can all clearly be lumped together in this sub-genre of acting. But where Hanks and Deep provide clear demarcation between their ‘straight’ and ‘performance’ movies, Cage refused to do so. He would often perform both within the same scene.
Cage is a singular screen presence. He is magnetic and maniacal and entirely concerned with moments. He has little interest in creating fully-rounded roles and instead ensures that he is as interesting and engaging as possible in every second he is on screen. As such, his parts don’t often make sense – in The Rock alone he plays a violent, Beatle-loving, supposedly stream-of-conscious spouting chemical scientist, who sits in pants for no reason; one of these traits alone would be enough for most actors. But because of this, he is never anything less than interesting. He has an utter conviction to his performance that most screen actors lazily refuse to explore, such is their preciousness towards their ego.
Fairly early in his career, Cage played the part of a literary agent (one of those jobs people only have in movies – Jeremy Piven’s ‘obituary writer’ in Serendipity (2001 – Peter Chelsom) is a personal favourite) in Vampire’s Kiss (1989 – Robert Bierman) who begins to lose his sanity. An insanity that manifests itself in his character’s conviction that he has become a vampire. A sister-piece to writer Joseph Minion’s After Hours (1985 – Martin Scorsese), it is the story of an ordinary man drowning in bizarre, only slightly-off key characters and situations that are only found in the movies. The film does not readily present what is reality and what is a delusion of Cage’s character. Most actors would let the audience know, primarily to illicit sympathy from them. Cage has no such qualms, instead walking the fine line of conviction, hysteria and violence with a dedication and energy that belies his talent. He is a joy to watch and utterly compelling in every strange, nostril-flaring moment that he has conjured up.
As such, Cage was pioneering a whole new style of acting. One that had little interest in naturalism or stage theory. It harkened back to the earliest days of cinema; it is expressionistic. Entirely formed from subjective reactions to isolated moments and scenes, it is heightened and defiant and one of the greatest special effects the world has ever seen.
It has, of course, been completely rejected by the vast majority of other actors. The humourless wankers.
There’s a tendency to reduce action films to elevator pitches – where plot is boiled down into one-sentence, high-concept ideas. It’s a frustrating punishment for action cinema, which so often relies on tone, mood and framing to create its identity. The Rock, can be simply described as ‘a scientist and an aging James Bond break into Alcatraz.’ We’ve seen how ‘scientist’ utterly fails to describe the mania of a Nic Cage performance, but the fact that he is an ordinary working man, clearly puts this movie in the tradition of Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan), whereby an everyday, albeit habitually wise-cracking, man is placed into a thoroughly dangerous circumstance.
An ‘aging James Bond’ is a more difficult position. Clearly, John Mason is an elderly version of the Connery Bond – he’s a snobbish thug, who was explicitly incarcerated for being a spy and makes a series of asides and double-entendres. Whilst he lacks Bond’s naval background, his complete disregard for authority marks him out as the same man. This is a Bond who was disowned by the officers who replace Bernard Lee’s M, and he is filled with nothing but contempt for the order of things.
The James Bond films have often been cornerstones of action cinema. The nasty, quick-cutting violence of From Russia with Love (1963 – Terence Young) proved highly influential. Never again would a karate-chop to a shoulder suffice. In the seventies, the Roger Moore Bond films pioneered the family-friendly, humorous and spectacular action film tradition that The Rock clearly belongs to. By the time the series had reached the eighties, Moore and Connery, returning to the role in Never Say Never Again (1983 – Irvin Kershner), ensured that audience believed that Bond would always be an old man – a tired remnant of the British Empire.
But in 1996, the series had managed to have one of its regular ‘return-to-forms’. Pierce Brosnan had become Bond’s latest regeneration in GoldenEye (1995 – Martin Campbell) – a glorious, unravelling of tattered British and Russian Empires that led to betrayal, explosions and sex. Whilst the remaining Brosnan Bonds were to become some of the most tedious entries in the series, Brosnan himself was being hailed as the best-Bond-since-Connery. In that regard, The Rock can be clearly seen as a defiant marking of territory. Despite his difficult relationship with the role that made him famous, he had returned to it twice before, and The Rock is his way of showing that even as an old man, and wearing another one of his preposterous hairpieces, he was still a more engaging, charismatic screen presence than the breathy interloper who was beginning to get good reviews.
‘Alcatraz’ is a whole other prospect. Films set in San Francisco occupy a special place in the cinematic canon. The surrounding sea and immediate weather patterns give it an openness within its urban spaces that no other cinematic American metropolitan area can propose. The acceptance of the local community has proven ripe for direct contrast with some of the most sickening aspects of society. And the steeply hilled streets have been responsible for – directly echoed in The Rock – of some of the most thrilling, dangerous car chases in the history of cinema. It’s close enough to L.A. to be neighbours, but far away enough to be a world apart.
By setting his film in and around San Francisco, Bay has sought to tie it into the pervy obsession of Vertigo (1958 – Alfred Hitchcock), Out of the Past (1947 – Jacques Tourneur) and Basic Instinct (1992 – Paul Verhoeven); the seedy, dystopian nothingness of Point Blank (1967 – John Boorman), Bullitt (1968 – Peter Yates) and The Conversation (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola); the dark underside and brutality of Dirty Harry (1971 – Don Seigel) and The Game (1997 – David Fincher); the action adventure of Big Trouble in Little China (1986 – John Carpenter) and the fevered desperation of Escape from Alcatraz (1979 – Don Seigel). His creates a cinematic landscape within which his movie can play, drawing upon the beauty of the landscape and the weight of image to lend tension to his film. Ultimately, we are more invested when we care about what is going to be destroyed.
For an action director, Michael Bay rarely employs monsters. He refrains from using the snivelling, often British, traditional villains that dominate the genre, and has rarely resorted to the CGI nonsense that is found when someone like Alan Rickman or Jonathan Pryce isn’t available (the Transformers films are a notable exception to this.) Bay will always seek to make the antagonist of the piece an individual with at least some reasonable motivation. The military are often presented as failures within his films – and resourcefulness comes not from institutions, but from the work of individuals. Which presents a quandary for Bay in this movie; he wants us to sympathise with Ed Harris, but at the same time understand the misguided cruelty of his actions. To achieve this, he first places Harris as working alongside/against unscrupulous mercenaries, and then by placing him in direct opposition to Bay’s biggest enemy… politicians. Those working in politics are unfailingly presented as pathetically self-aggrandising and intellectually weak. It’s hard to disagree with this presentation.
As much as Bay has sought to place this film within a long tradition of San Francisco movies, he also seeks to use the cinematic shorthand of placing characters and moments within other films in order to elicit understanding from the audience. There are the car chases from Bullitt, an aging James Bond, cart chases from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 – Steven Spielberg), and heart-piercing from Pulp Fiction (1994 – Quentin Tarantino). These references allow Bay to use a broader canvas than the frame allows. Whilst he is not fully in in his quick-cutting, multiple camera, different format style of shooting, he still relies on an audience working quicker than 24 frames a second. Similarly, this film lacks the soft-rock ballad that would come to play a part in his style of filmmaking over the next few years. The formula is not quite complete.
This referencing shorthand, and non-traditional framing of movies has led many to dismiss Bay. There are legitimate reasons to criticise him – the presence of a few too many angry black people in minor roles is uncomfortable viewing – but what is rarely appreciated is how Bay is a director who treats his audience with respect. He knows that we can make quick connections as spectacle unfolds in front of us, and that subtext should be as visual as it is textual in cinema.
What is rarely commented upon though, is how much Bay uses talented actors to lend real weight to the unfolding action. He ensures that throwaway lines, quick gags written by uncredited punch-up writers, and nonsense exposition are as engaging as any special effect. In addition to Cage, Connery and Harris, The Rock features John Spencer, William Forsyth, Michael Biehn, John C. MicGinley, Philip Baker Hall, Xander Berkeley and Tony Todd in supporting roles. Any one of these actors is enough to light up the screen. The fact that Bay spends so much of his budget on employing such talent in minor parts should not be neglected. It is impossible to find a Michael Bay movie tedious; the reason we have stars is because we don’t want to ever be bored in the cinema – Bay promises us that even in the moments the stars aren’t on screen, we will have an image lit up by prominent character actors spitting out dialogue far beneath them.
The movie lacks any significant female presence – only nineties babe Claire Forlani pops up to reduce the alarming levels of testosterone dominating the screen. But Bay ensures that his men are defined as being in opposition to traditional masculine structures. Nic Cage is regularly belittled in the movie, and denigrated by his inability to perform essential male roles, such as ejaculating a gun. By ensuring that his hero is a strange, socially awkward man, and one defined by his intellect and not his physical prowess, he ensures that his presentation of gender is more nuanced than the movie poster would have you believe. The ideal man is heroic, but not essentially violent. Equally, his heroes will often be outsiders due to their class or race. Heroism is an outcome, not a character trait, a distinction rarely qualified within action cinema.
In many ways, Bay was the perfect director for Cage – both were concerned with immediacy above all else. Towards the end of the movie, when Bay shoots a desperate Cage silhouetted against a setting sun, he has little concern as to whether this aesthetically aligns with the shadow and blue of the rest of the movie; no, it is a beautiful image and thus one worthy of putting on screen. Complete coherence is not a priority. Bay’s tendency towards this would only grow as he widened his use of multiple camera set-ups using different film stocks – ultimately mixing formats completely when digital video gained primacy over traditional film. What worked in the moment, worked in the moment.
The Rock is often belittled by contemporary cinephiliacs for its status as one of the early releases from the Criterion Collection. But its use of cinematic shorthand, non-conventional presentation of masculinity and sheer visual pleasure ensure that it rightly deserves to be canonised. After all, no-one like Vertigo when it came out…
We’ll continue Nicolas Cage’s career in Chapter VIII.
Broadly speaking, directors who came to prominence in the sixties made their name in television (Altman, Lumet etc.). In the seventies they became known for their student films (Carpenter, De Palma, Scorsese). In the eighties it was for their work in advertising (Ridley Scott) and in the nineties it was for their work on music videos (David Fincher). Bay was firmly in the latter group, and his early motion pictures cemented him as a key figure in the future of action cinema. Previously, we have looked at the figures who achieved success initially in the eighties (McTiernan, Cameron), or directors whose impact was limited (Woo), but now we were starting to glimpse the future.
Bay would begin by making the Spielbergian move into producing. This is often an act of folly by most directors – their energy is spent wasted on support lesser filmmakers or tossing-off half-arsed ideas that have little appeal – but allows certain directors to cement their dominance in the market. By creating the Platinum Dunes studio he moved himself into a brand. The films produced by the studio are of limited appeal, and broadly consist of accessible remakes of seventies horror classics – is the A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010 – Samuel Bayer) significantly more interesting for using CGI effects rather than practical effects, or for making Freddy Krueger’s paedophilia explicit?
Bay himself would forge an interesting, if somewhat inconsistent career. His success was cemented in Armageddon (1998), a preposterous but spectacular affair where he would cast blank male leads surrounded by a plethora of talented character actors to work their way through some nonsense plot. A soft-AOR song would soundtrack the blandest of heteronormative relationships. But it seemed like a successful formula, and Bay was determined to repeat it.
Pearl Harbor (2001), isn’t quite as bad as any lazy internet joke would have you believe, but it’s a long way from being good. In the most part it suffers because the climax of the movie, the veritable attack on Pearl Harbor, comes at the centre of the film’s running time. Which of course, as an isolated incident, was a failure for America. Familiarity with the victory of history was not enough for cinema’s audience, so Bay adds a further hour or so to the film’s length to ensure that there is a significant act of revenge for Ben Affleck. It leads to a disjointed, arrhythmic movie.
The most enjoyable movies Bay has made since this presumptuous disaster are the more personal, non-franchise projects. The Island (2005) and Pain & Gain (2013) are crass, colourful and employ a unique visual style. Bay has delighted in placing cameras in any number of bizarre places, ensuring his movies are full of shots that no-one has ever seen before. Developments in technology have only aided this interest. He employs a rapid-editing style, with cameras largely placed low to the ground. Exceptions to this are his rapid crane work shots, where the image will soar in and around the actors. This style comes alive in the wonderful car chases he makes sure he includes in every film. He has maintained an integrity of physical performance and stunt work when most of cinema has denigrated into CGI slush. He has a specific sense of place, and the Miami of Bad Boys II (2003) is as real as the San Francisco of The Rock.
Even in the dross that passes for the Transformers movies he is capable of producing work of sublime beauty. Mark Kermode, a critic paid largely by an inescapable tax to repeat the same opinions across a number of media outlets, has called these films ‘the death of narrative cinema,’ which only seems to be an insult if you believe that narrative cinema deserves to be the dominant use of the form. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is complete sensory experience produced (as is explicitly referenced in the film) during the dying days of physical form. Using nine different recording mediums, Bay crafted a story of visual wonder, where the very nature of reality was questioned. The films no longer sought to present a threat to the real world, instead subversively documented an imagined world where hostility was an everyday experience. Within this, his usual plethora of talented actors grounded the film against the extraordinary stereoscopic action scenes that were unfolding in front of our eyes.
Bay, and by consequence The Rock, began to point the way forward. Action stars could also be some of the most talented, interesting actors of their generation, not just muscle-bound freaks of nature. Physical performance and stuntwork would still have a major role to play. But equally, he moved action cinema towards a space where it would rely on a safe formula than one where a director’s vision reigned supreme. Women would continue to be pushed towards the margins, a he would present a visual style that was easily misunderstood, ensuring a legion of incoherent images would smudge he screen in years to come.
Bay was the last director to get in through the door; he should have left it further ajar.
Sequels, prequels and remakes. One of the greatest pleasures of movie obsession is seeing the films you love reimagined, seeing how different directors bring their own peccadillos to the proceedings. Remaking movies is as old as cinema itself, so quite why the concept is so frowned upon nowadays, I have no idea. Anyways. These are my personal favourites (though it bears underlining that in nearly every case the original movie is superior.) No Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg) sequels though because they’re all terrible.
- The Outfit (1973 – John Flynn)
Unrelated sequel to Point Blank (1967 – John Boorman)
All the movies that have been based on Richard Stark’s Parker series of fictions have been completely unrelated in cast, direction, form and style. They are not without their pleasures, particularly the Jim Brown starring heist film The Split (1968 – Gordon Flemyng), but The Outfit remains an enjoyable slice of seventies American crime cinema. Robert Duvall, a reliably dominant actor, spends the movie screwing over the mob as best he can by holding up as many of their operations as possible in as short a space of time. The grottiness of these endeavours ensures you are a watching a sweaty, desperate of cinema that can only end in a recognisable form of failure.
- Texasville (1990 – Peter Bogdanovich)
Sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971 – Peter Bogdanovich)
You never really grow up. You never really leave home. You hold the memories of people and places from your past in your head. They live with you every day. Every now and then you bump into a ghost from your past and you see how wildly different their reality is compared to your imaginings. In Texasville Bogdanovich allows us to experience this on the screen, using the warmth of colour to impress upon us how lives continue way beyond the silver screen.
- The Raid 2 (2014 – Gareth Evans)
Sequel to The Raid (2011 – Gareth Evans)
Despite losing the claustrophobia found within the enclosed environments of its predecessor, The Raid 2 is a spectacular piece of action cinema. There is a sense, in the same way that Raging Bull (1980 – Martin Scorsese) displays, that this is a filmmaker’s last shot, and they are going to show everything that they can do. Car chases, fight scenes, random characters… the film drives on and on, further into the murkiness of the underbelly of society that oppresses our everyday.
- The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997 – Steven Spielberg)
Sequel to Jurassic Park (1993 – Steven Spielberg)
Despite featuring a typically irritating child performance, this movie demonstrates that it is impossible for Spielberg to stop entertaining. There is a sequence of a landrover falling over a cliff’s edge that ranks among the most competently spectacular moments in any of his movies. Plus, this movie takes the very wise choice of releasing a dinosaur into a modern San Diego, which is something you can only see in the movies. And isn’t that why we go? To see spectacle.
- Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977 – John Boorman)
Sequel to The Exorcist (1973 – William Friedkin)
Utterly despised upon release, this sequel makes the curious decision that the appeal of its predecessor was Linda Blair. Though she has a dance routine in this film that is more horrific than anything seen in the first film, the real appeal of this maligned sequel comes in the central performance of Richard Burton. A man wrestling with the weight of his past and the understanding that all men of faith are men of doubt. Called into being a living representation of Christianity, he has to trust his god, and act almost impossible for any man of sense. Burton physically seems to carry the souls of those he is exorcising around with him. This is no depiction of pure evil, this is a depiction of humanity, and thus a far less manageable film for us to watch.
- The Exorcist III (1990 – William Peter Blatty)
Third in The Exorcist series
Whereas this film returns to a reality of supernatural evil. The true strength of this film comes in its moments of utter terror, some of the finest cinema has to offer. Blatty displayed an enormous capacity of understanding how camera placement and movement could induce feelings of discomfort in the audience, and how he could use it to build tension to an almost unbearable degree.
There was a fourth film in The Exorcist series, which is available in two substantially different cuts – one directed by Renny Harlin and one by Paul Schrader. The Shrader effort is marginally superior, attempting to wrestle with some notions of belief, but neither are able to convince you of the reality of physical or metaphysical evil, despite liberally employing Nazis within their narratives.
- The French Connection II (1975 – John Frankenheimer)
Sequel to The French Connection (1971 – William Friedkin)
Moving away from the documentary style of the first film this film exists as a showcase for Gene Hackman. Which is not a bad thing, given he is one of the strongest screen presences in American cinema. Here he is thrown through the wringer, given a forced addiction to heroin, and sent to France. Frankenheimer, a master of the chase sequence, wisely chooses a foot chase rather than a car chase… some things could/should never be bettered.
- Magnum Force (1973 – Ted Post)
Sequel to Dirty Harry (1971 – Don Siegel)
Moving away from the widescreen heat of Siegel’s entry, Magnum Force explored the true limits of the right wing fantasy of the unconstrained law enforcement officer. By pitching Callahan against a group of vigilante policemen his own brand of ‘justice’ is seen to be unreal – the true consequence of individuals deciding who is right or wrong leads to chaos. Justice isn’t a whim. It’s interesting that by the second film they had already begun to test the boundaries of the character… as if no one really believed in him at all.
- Sudden Impact (1983 – Clint Eastwood)
Fourth in the Dirty Harry series
Whilst it could on occasions seem like the Dirty Harry films existed simply to maintain Clint Eastwood’s eclectic directorial career, on the one occasion where the two coincided, it produced something quite remarkable. Returning to the progenitor film’s concept of Harry Callahan versus a serial killer, the film explores the consequences of patriarchal society (which Callahan typifies.) His foe is a woman seeking revenge for an attack she experienced – she represents the oppressed woman fighting back, regaining control of her body after it has been violated. Eastwood always had a strange relationship with women, and by causing Callahan and his oppressor to be lovers, he demonstrates the belief of this man as a saviour, but you remain unconvinced that she ever needed it.
There is a fifth film in the series that features an early performance from Jim Carrey as a coked-up rock star. It is simultaneously a very good and very bad thing.
- Bad Boys II (2003 – Michael Bay)
Sequel to Bad Boys (1995 – Michael Bay)
In Bad Boys II Michael Bay sought to refine his filmmaking to its purest form. Violent, colourful, and often outrageous, it is an eclectic assault on the senses. At times the film veers into crassness, but it is never less than entertaining, anchored by the charm of Martin Lawrence and the platinum talent of Will Smith. The spectacle of its action sequences, particularly its car chase, has been cribbed by many other filmmakers in the subsequent years.
Like all histories, much of Doctor Who is unknown. It is out of reach. Now, after fifty years or so of the show, we must accept that it will continue far beyond our own lives – our list of favourite Doctors will be irrelevant because there will be entire Doctors we will never meet. Even now, with shiny plastic discs on our shelves, so much of Who is hidden from me.
Which is strange, because some of my favourite stories are amongst this hidden Who. The Massacre (not of St. Bartholomew’s Eve – a title that makes not an iota of sense) is sublime. An unsettlingly hopeless drama where history overwhelms a personal narrative and William Hartnell gives a fine performance as both the Abbott and the Doctor with his most profoundly delivered speech. But is it that? I mean, I’ve never seen it. Pretty much no one has. It is lost. Absolutely lost. There is not a second of footage of it left in the archives.
And so it becomes my holy grail. The story I’d want to see more than any others. I try to shift the order of the recovered season three stories around so that it would exist, but then regret that The Gunfighters would be absent. And no one would ever read that story redemptively again. So much of the success of the story depends upon Hartnell’s multiple roles – without seeing this, how can we tell if it was good or not?
And so I hope for the return of the episodes. I don’t even need all of them. Just one. Or two. Maybe there’ll turn up in some archive somewhere. Or in the shed of a former BBC engineer. I check internet forums and ridicule the preposterous fables of recoveries, yet secretly wish them to be true. I read books tracing how the episodes wormed their way across the world. Maybe the episodes are buried in a tip in Sierra Leone…
But do I really want to see The Massacre? Why not a moment of Marco Polo (surely one of the most important, unusual stories recorded), why doesn’t that story exist when it was so widely sold? And how do three episodes of The Dalek’s Master Plan exist when it wasn’t sold anywhere? Don’t I actually really want to see the final, horrific episode of that serial? What about The Myth Makers – that story is a classic (three episodes of comedy followed by one of tragedy) that needs a wider respect. How many episodes were saved from the returned haul from Australia to be junked? We know some of them have ended up in private hands, why not some more? Those recoveries can show us that any episode returned has extreme value. Galaxy 4 was ignored for the most part, but now we can see from Air Lock how boldly it was directed with its confrontational performances and strong sense of depth of field. What other reassessments need to take place? Is The Space Pirates a secret masterpiece?
I want the recoveries of these episodes more than I want new episodes themselves. I immerse myself in them – watching animated reconstructions on DVD, listening to the audio and looking at telesnaps (I loved experiencing Marco Polo like that), viewing the Loose Cannon reconstructions online. The stories are vivid and unknown and the fact that they are so removed from me makes me want them all that more. It reminds me of the limits of my understanding of this brilliant, textured show. I imagine histories of the show where nothing was returned to the BBC and our knowledge of the black-and-white era of the show is as reductive as our understanding of the first season of The Avengers. This period of Who is neglected enough as it is; the sheer weight of missing material, obsolete production methods and limited presentation all diminish it in the eyes of the audience. For so many, Doctor Who doesn’t even really begin until Spearhead from Space.
I know that The Massacre isn’t really the holy grail. That’s meant to be The Tenth Planet episode four. But we know what that looks like, and Blue Peter means that we’ve got the regeneration. So maybe we can live without that one. So shouldn’t the holy grail be The Power of the Daleks episode one? To see Patrick Troughton’s dazzling take on the Doctor for the first time? But honestly, that part feels like filler, and he feels like he’s killing time and it isn’t until the second episode that his take on the character becomes fully apparent.
Maybe this is our holy grail…
The most important thing to note is that we’re still not actually watching The Power of the Daleks. We’re watching something that is close to an approximation of it. There are moments in the animated version where we see the limits of the budget and the technology. Characters bob up and down and constantly stand in positions closer to hieroglyphs than performances. There are other moments when we are witnessing another fan re-visioning of the show; the backgrounds have enormous depth – completely unlike the cramped sets of reality. Thousands of Daleks mass on Vulcan, rather than the two or three and the pile of cardboard cut-outs that existed before. We won’t even mention the incorrect aspect ratio. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that Doctor Who always looks cheap regardless of the format it is produced in.
Through a number of byzantine budgeting opportunities that come from a super-massive corporation such as the BBC (which is funded via an exploitative tax), fifteen episodes have been reconstructed via animation.
- Cosgrove Hall animated the two missing episodes of The Invasion in 2006 using leftover money from an abandoned Scream of the Shalka It is more fully realised than the simplistic flash animation of that story.
- Planet 55 animated the two missing episodes of The Reign of Terror, one of The Tenth Planet and two of The Moonbase. They began with a deliberately confrontational quick editing structure that angered purists, before moving onto some highly sophisticated rotoscoped motion in later efforts.
- Quiros Entertainment animated two episodes of The Ice Warriors which is the least satisfying effort; little attempt has been made to frame the motion in anything close to the original staging, and movement is akin to split-pin puppets. The company went bust after this one effort.
- BBC studios animated the whole of The Power of the Daleks reasoning that this story was unlikely to ever be recovered. Ambitious, and impressive in moments (the Daleks seem particularly well-realised) it suffers from little attempt to capture the nuances of performance. The charm and interplay of Patrick Troughton and Anneke Wills (seen on off-air 8mm clips) is completely ignored.
It remains to be seen if any further episodes are restored in this manner – or why stories such as The Crusade or The Underwater Menace were not afforded the same luxury. By animating The Power of the Daleks, we see the potential for re-assessing entire serials of Doctor Who. Previously it was used to fill gaps and maintain a coherent viewing experience on DVD. Now we have the potential to rediscover the great scars of our history. The Macra Terror feels so close to being a masterpiece… would animation prove that correct or not?
Watching the episodes for the first time, I kept waiting for Anneke Wills narration to kick in. My experience of the story was reliant on my previous viewings. When I trace the vein of Who in my life, I feel like the realisation that huge chunks of it were deleted should have been devastating. But when I was young I had seen so little of the programme I adored. It was all missing to me…
Troughton does in two episodes what Hartnell does in a whole season. Which, whilst completely true, is a little unfair. It’s easier to imitate than innovate after all. But it is astonishing how quickly Troughton establishes what is a clearly definitive take on the role. He exudes charm and delights in dancing around the edges of the plot. But when called into focus, when demanding the destruction of the Daleks, he is rage and fury and utterly in control. This interplay between mischievousness and heroism come to become ultimate attributes of the role. He is a picaresque hero.
Delightfully, David Whittaker has created a plot that allows for Doctor Pat to come alive in. His first episode is deliberately unsettling, proposing that an interloper has come to destroy the show that we love (and that he was fundamental in evolving). For the rest of the story he creates a society of treachery and intrigue, allowing well-defined characters to come to the forefront at different times. It speaks to the arrogance of humanity that the rebels are not really rebelling against anything; the society they operate within seems pretty benign and they offer no real alternative beyond the vanity of power. Within this the Doctor and the Daleks listen and adapt to the developments around them, before cumulating in a blood-thirsty final instalment.
Whittaker was a master at mercurial stories; ones that change and evolve as they unfold. His serials start in one place and end up in a completely different situation. It was he, along with Terry Nation, who truly understood that they were writing for serialised television, and that the aim was to engage children for twenty-five minutes and ensure they came back next week. By crafting deliberately transgressive cliffhangers (the sheer, unsettling majesty of ‘I AM YOUR SERVANT!’ has never been bettered) and creating a serial that ranged from bizarre character interactions to a murder mystery to an enclosed drama before ending as an action movie, he ensured that Doctor Who could never be easily limited.
The Power of the Daleks is a masterpiece. It works in a shittily-written novel, on telesnaps or on a narrated audio. It is this story, and Shada, that the BBC have chosen to present in so many different formats. It remains to be seen whether the new slightly-too-wide-for-my-liking animation leads to a significant re-evaluation of the story. After all, the history of Who is being constantly rewritten.