Noah (Darren Aronofsky 2014)

mv5bnde1mtkznzc0mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjyxndeymje-_v1_sx640_sy720_and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Noah (2014), Darren Aronofsky’s hilarious pro-genocide, anti-abortion, pro-incest, whitewashed  biblical epic, with additional rock-Autobots/Galaxy Quest homage, is the way in which Aronofksy, with the aid of the Bible, trolls Russell Crowe and Ray facking Winstone by setting them at each other’s throats in the presence of someone else called Ham…

Arrival (Villeneuve 2016)

arrivalIt’s fifteen years since I read ‘Story of Your Life’ (1998), so my memory of it was extremely vague, but I decided to not re-read Ted Chiang’s deservedly Nebula- and Sturgeon-winning novella until after seeing Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 adaptation of it. There will be more than enough people complaining that the film is not as good as the story – I find that kind of statement pretty meaningless, even if the screenplay is by the Eric ‘Hours‘ Heisserer, the man who also wrote 2011 The Thing remake/prequel.

Arrival very sensibly cuts a lot of the material about the investigation into the alien heptapods’ knowledge of physics in favour of an even stronger focus on learning to comprehend their language, on interspecies communication. Moreover, once the film has established the distinction between the heptapods’ spoken language (Heptapod A) and their semasiographic written language (Heptapod B), it focuses on the latter, which is presented with a beautiful simplicity visually extrapolated from the behaviour of the heptapods’ nearest terrestrial analogues – as is the sound of Heptapod A.

Indeed, as one might expect of Villeneuve, the consistently not-uninteresting but oddly over-rated director of Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015) and the in-production Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the overall look of the film is as picturesque as ever (no-one does helicopter shots looking down on and heading into non-urban terrain as well as him, whether his dp  is Roger Deakins (Sicario) or Bradford Young (Arrival)); and as always, this picturesque sensibility cannot avoid moments of tedious obviousness. The visual design of the aliens, their ships and their environment is quite beautiful, though. All of which is a real bonus, since Chiang’s story follows in the grand Asimov tradition of more or less indistinguishable heads talking to each other in barely described places (although the proleptic passages come closer to delineating character and human interaction).

The film does a lot to round out Chiang’s linguist protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the physicist, Gary, renamed Ian (Jeremy Renner), with whom she falls in love. In the novella, they are more (Gary) or less (Louise) ciphers. As in the novella, Louise is kept front and centre in the film, while Renner lurks, Hawkeye-like, in the background. Perfectly cast as a bit of a dick, he is slowly humanised with an early pratfall and even more so by the decision to sideline the physics. However, this, along with the reworking of the novella’s proleptic passages, exaggerates the gender politics in the story’s DNA. The woman does language, communication, intuition, caring, nurturing; the man does physics, reason, emotional stuntedness. Possibly the worst line in the film – ‘You want to know about science, ask your father’ – comes from Louise, herself not only a scientist but the one making all the breakthroughs with the aliens. And since the physics is pushed aside, Ian becomes sufficiently competent in linguistics in a matter of days to make a key breakthrough in the enigma posed by a mass download of Heptapod B (although since he ‘compliments’ Louise by saying she approaches language like a mathematician, maybe this is only him being better at maths than her, which of course he would be, being male and all).

imagesVilleneuve’s tricky reworking of the proleptic material from Chiang’s novella brings the story much closer to the kind of play with temporality found in European arthouse time travel movies, such as Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). This, despite the occasional picturesque cliché, adds a strong sense of melancholy, mourning and loss, as well as yearning and hope, to Chiang’s rather dry and unadventurous musings on free-will and determinism (those that are directly stated rather than those instantiated by the form his story takes).

However, this also reinforces (along with elements of the visual design) that always-present Hollywood tendency to equate women with motherhood (if not in quite the relentless over-the-top manner of The Girl on the Train (Taylor 2016)).

And the naming of Louise’s daughter is a nice touch, even if you spot the reason for it before it is explained – but not as nice a touch as the moment during the second ‘interview’ with the heptapods when, in contrast to the Voyager plaque, it is an active woman who steps forward with a raised hand to greet the aliens, while the man lingers passively behind.

Changing the nicknames of the two key heptapods – from the novella’s Flapper and Raspberry – is also a good move in terms of getting an to audience to take them seriously; and it makes sense, in terms of his character, for Ian to come up with Abbott and Costello, but why is it always the guy who gets to name shit, and why must the names he chooses be gendered ones? (Not being a fan of Jeremy Renner, who keeps saying dumb sexist things in interviews, helps at moments like this cos you can enjoy blaming him for things he is clearly not responsible for. See, he’s even made me end a sentence with a prepostion. Damn him.)

Chiang’s story happens, more or less, in a geopolitical vacuum. Arrival distributes the twelve vessels in which the aliens arrive around the globe (Russia, China, Sudan, Australia, the UK, Venezuela, Sierra Leone and others), leading to attempts at international cooperation and potential global conflict as – with the deluded self-righteousness of US cinema, it is China, Russia and Sudan who lead the way in escalating conflict. (There is a moment completely free from irony when the CIA guy points to examples of imperial powers trying to set factions against each other so as maintain their own power, but fails to mention the US backed coups in Venezuela.) In a similar unironic vein, when examples of colonial situations in which the coloniser all but eradicates the indigenous people, it is Australian Aboriginals who are mentioned, rather than, say, native American indians – and the words this time are put in the mouth of the black Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Rather unnervingly, for all its well-intentioned chatter about the need for humans to cooperate, regardless of nation or creed, the film resolves into a sort of hymn to ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

Some have claimed that  Arrival is the best sf film of the year (or decade). That seems to me more an indictment of sf cinema than a sensible response to a quite smart, unquestionably well-acted, film that is interesting on multiple levels – and it sure is purty to look at. It is well worth seeing. Especially if you want to know what lo-fi sci-fi[1] looks like when it has $50 million budget and goes all middlebrow.

Note
[1] I cannot endorse the presence of Her (2013) on this or any other list. I apologise for reminding you of its existence.

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel 2015)

macbeth_2015_posterand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Macbeth (2015) is not Michael Fassbender’s chameleon-like performance, in which his face alternates, depending on the line and the lighting, with those of Christian Bale, Ralph Fiennes, Jamie Dornan, Eddie Izzard and others, nor is it the decision to have everyone mumble the dialogue in Scottish accents broad to the point of caricature, even the actors with actual Scottish accents, nor the instruction from the tourist board to film in some of the most beautiful places north of the border but in a bleak way so as simultaneously to attract wealthy tourists and discourage the other kind who used to go on cheap and sunny European holidays before Brexit, no, the best thing about Macbeth is the way in which it relentlessly trolls the audience with bad audio-visual puns – from rethinking how to get Birnam woods to Dunsinane (the clue is in the name of the woods), to repeatedly standing  Macbeth’s best friend (Paddy Considine) next to a goat, to always shooting Duncan’s son (Jack Reynor) in between two other people – but then sneaking into the background of  Lady Macbeth’s (Marion Cottilard) hand-washing scene a black and white dog – who is piebald and never at any point dismissed…

From Beyond (Stuart Gordon 1986), adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ (1934)

frombeyondposter4[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.

Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.

Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.

Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl from-beyond2wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.

From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.

Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.

References
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.

 

Creator (Ivan Passer 1985), adapted from Jeremy Leven’s Creator (1980)

6a0mv5bmtqxmzm5ota0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0mzqxmde-_v1_uy1200_cr7706301200_al_[the penultimate piece written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Leven’s novel is presented as the notebooks of Harry Wolper, written during 1969 to record his ongoing efforts to produce a clone of his wife, Lucy, who died in 1936 – efforts he deludes himself are altruistic, since he believes that the human race is about to become infertile. The notebooks include recollections of his courtship and marriage, the experiments that led to his Nobel Prize, his discoveries that enabled the development of the contraceptive pill, and his illicit career as an abortionist before the pill became available. During 1969, Harry’s son, Arnold, schemes to have him committed; his friend, Paul, has a nervous breakdown; and Maury Halpern gets closer and closer to identifying the town’s secret abortionist, who he is determined to see prosecuted. While searching for a woman to carry Lucy’s clone to term, Harry becomes involved with Meli, a nineteen-year-old self-declared nymphomaniac, who wants to marry him.

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This is the edition I had. The egg shape is a cut-out, with image within it actually a frontispiece. Classy. All the way down.

The notebooks also chart Harry’s relationship with Boris Lafkin, a fictional character in the novel he is writing, increasingly lengthy extracts of which appear in the notebooks. Boris demands control over his own narrative – hitherto, a series of cruelly comical misadventures – and his life radically improves as he meets, fall in love with and proposes to Barbara. But then she suffers an aneurysm and slips into a coma. Boris finally agrees to turn off her life-support. The autopsy reveals that, with a little more time, she would have recovered from the seemingly irreversible brain damage.

Harry, who suffers from Mazel’s Syndrome, dies within a month of marrying Meli. The final journal entry is by Boris, who wonders why he ever needed to invent Harry in the first place. Just as his story has taken over the journal, so now he becomes the author of Harry – at least until Harry tries to have the final word.

Leven’s novel is an awkward patchwork of tones, ranging from pseudoscientific patter to cod-philosophising, from the clumsily lascivious (a feature also of his second novel, Satan, His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr Kassler, JSPS (1982)) to the tediously prolonged sentimental (Leven’s screenplays include The Legend of Bagger Vance (Redford 2000), The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004) and a draft of The Time Traveler’s Wife (Schwentke 2009)). The novel’s metaleptic play between ontological levels, hardly groundbreaking in 1980, is a victim of the increasing familiarity of such postmodern fictional techniques (which Leven was even able to deploy in his romantic comedy screenplay, Alex & Emma (Reiner 2003)). Its bawdiness repeatedly runs aground on the characters’ unlikeability, and its attempts at profundity keep running into the problem of not actually having anything profound to say.

MSDCREA EC001Ivan Passer’s film, scripted by Leven, jettisons vast swathes of material. It retains Harry’s (Peter O’Toole) private cloning experiment and relationship with Meli (Mariel Hemingway), and relocates Boris’ (Vincent Spano) story to the primary diegesis, where he is a graduate student Harry poaches from a rival scientist, Sid Kullenbeck (David Ogden Stiers). By locating both narratives on the same ontic level, it loses any self-reflexive edge; 6a0creator1rather than competing with and commenting upon each other, they become nothing more than strands in a poorly focused (rather than multi-centred) story. Just as the complexly layered and multi-accented novel is transformed into a mildly comic sentimental drama, so Harry is recast as a genial eccentric, given to impish misbehaviour and flouting authority. O’Toole’s beautiful laziness lends the character an otherworldly air, as if he were a saint or a fool, but Hemingway is merely annoying as Meli – a character one is supposed, presumably, to find kooky and charming, if only to allay any distaste at the substantial age gap between her and her lover. Similarly, as Boris and Barbara Spano and Virginia Madsen (and their director) struggle with a script that seems incapable of them as anything more than characters in a poorly conceived novel. It is difficult to tell whether a tear-jerking ending in which Barbara died would have been any more disastrous than the one Leven actually opted for, in which Harry uses his authority to buy Boris sufficient time to talk her – successfully and without lasting health problems – out of a coma. No trace of the camp cruelty with which the novel’s adolescent ironies break Boris survives.

A new subplot involves Harry’s rivalry with Sid Kullenbeck, who schemes to get Harry relocated to Northfield, an unfunded research centre, where elderly scientists are put out to pasture, so that he can gain control of the funding Harry commands. Kullenbeck does not realise that the money follows the recipient, rather than staying with the institution, so when Harry’s masterful presentation to representatives of a research-funding organisation attracts even more money, everyone relocates with him to Northfield. It is unclear, however, what this adds to the film, other than some gentle humour at the expense of Stiers’s familiar pompous persona.

6aocreator-year-1985-director-ivan-passer-peter-o-toole-based-upon-jeremy-a1apnk

Ivan Passer, whose Intimni osvetleni/Intimate Lightning (1965) remains an important film of the Czech New Wave, has never seemed comfortable making films in America, despite emigrating there in the late 1960s. Indeed, his cult hit Cutter’s Way (1981) mostly succeeds as a character-driven crime thriller because of the piquancy of its angular failures. While Passer’s direction of Creator is never less than competent, it is rarely more than that. His attempts to make the film freewheeling and quirky repeatedly stall in the face of a screenplay that is incapable of imagining people or human emotion.

Timescape (David Twohy 1992), adapted from ‘Vintage Season’ (1946) by Lawrence O’Donnell (CL Moore and Henry Kuttner)

1eaffiche[yet another of those pieces I wrote for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Lawrence O’Donnell is one of the many pseudonyms under which C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, both already established sf authors, published collaborative fiction after their 1940 marriage until Kuttner’s death in 1958. The extent and nature of their co-authorship in any individual story is never clear. ‘Vintage Season’ is generally considered to be ‘probably a full collaboration’, drawing out both author’s ‘concerns’ in a ‘perfect blend of Kuttner’s logic, Moore’s emotional depth, and their combined irony and stylistic sophistication’ (Attebery 175).

In the final days of a glorious May, Oliver Wilson, who owns a run-down mansion overlooking a small-town, faces a dilemma. Omerie, Kleph and Klia Sancisco have rented rooms until the end of the month, but his fiancée, Sue, wants him to accept a mysterious, lucrative offer to buy the house.

There is something peculiar about the Sansiscos: ‘the beautiful clothing they wore so confidently was not clothing they were accustomed to’ and they speak ‘as trained singers sing, with perfect breath control and voice placement’ (O’Donnell 264, 265). Their queerness – they are often described as effeminate, flamboyant and decadent – intrigues him; and others like them begin to appear in town. There is sadness in Kleph’s eyes when she looks at Oliver. She shows him marvels he does not quite comprehend, intoxicates him with euphoriac tea and seduces him. She is enraptured by a recording of an uncompleted three-dimensional, audio-visual symphonia about human suffering in the face of catastrophe, but it sickens Oliver ‘to the depths of his mind’ (286). He tricks her into revealing the truth: the tourists are time-travellers from an idyllic future, but there is more to their trip than merely visiting perfect seasons – they have come to watch a meteorite destroy the town.

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Lawrence O’Donnell

Oliver wakes up several days later. The tourists have gone, replaced by Cenbe, who is observing the aftermath to help him complete his symphonia. He lets slip that the time-travellers were inoculated to prevent a virulent disease accidentally being taken back to their own time. Oliver, already infected by the meteorite-borne disease, leaves an account of all that he has learned so that time-travellers can be identified and thus future disasters averted. But his house is dynamited in ‘the futile attempt to halt the relentless spread of the Blue Death’ (306). Cenbe’s symphonia is a ‘crowning triumph’ (306).

David Twohy’s directorial debut, intended for theatrical release as The Grand Tour, was instead released to US cable as Disaster in Time and straight to video as Timescape (it is also sometimes called The Grand Tour: Disaster in Time). It rather effectively reworks ‘Vintage Season’ as a tightly budgeted Frank Capra picture channelled through Steven Spielberg, but maintains a sufficiently dark edge to keep it from falling into the kind of sentimentalism typical of cable movies that combine problematic family relationships with fantastical elements.

1ec0414f592bfafc5c7c4df01daaeWidower Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) is converting a mansion into a guesthouse. He has a young teenage daughter, Hillary (Ariana Richards), a drink problem and recurring nightmares about the death of his wife Carolyn (Mimi Craven) in a car crash – he was seen fleeing the scene, but insists he was running for help. When the mysterious Madame Iovine (Marilyn Lightstone), a reworking of the pushy Hollia into Omerie’s role, arrives with half a dozen tourists, including the striking Reeve (Emilia Crow), as Kleph is renamed, Ben agrees to let them stay for a few days, despite the renovations being incomplete.

Whereas O’Donnell introduced the tourists’ strangeness by comparing them to foreigners and to people too wealthy to understand the ways of ordinary folk, Twohy depicts them as aloof, restricts their screen time, and reveals their unfamiliarity with everyday things through subtle touches, such as the bumbling Quish (David Wells) not understanding shoe laces. They claim to be from ‘south California’ and come across as European yuppies adrift in the American mid-west. Twohy also reduces the interaction between Ben and Reeve, sidestepping the demands that Kleph’s extravagant décor and advanced technology would have made on the budget; but his depiction of the initial attraction between them – Ben peers at the nearly-naked Reeve through the plastic sheeting over her doorway – looks like something from a straight-to-cable erotic thriller of the period. When Ben works out from Quish’s hints that the tourists are time-travelling ‘disaster groupies’ and moves to a hotel in town, Reeve seduces and intoxicates him to keep him from interfering in their plans.

Twohy focuses on Ben’s relationship with his daughter, and the bitterness of his dead wife’s father, Judge Caldwell (George Murdock), who obtains a writ of temporary custody over Hillary. When the meteor hits, destroying the west end of town, Ben’s concern is entirely for her. Once she is safe, he joins the search for survivors. The tourists – Quish insists he is not a sightseer but a ‘retropologist’ – are busy taking it all in. Next day, while Hillary helps out at the emergency centre established in the school, Ben discovers that the tourists have relocated to a new vantage point from which to observe a gas explosion destroying the school.

1evlcsnap-2011-04-24-22h37m40s174Ben wakes up to find a new time traveller, the Undersecretary (Robert Colbert), investigating Quish’s death while saving Ben from the explosion. Before leaving, an apologetic Reeve slips Quish’s passport, which contains a time-travelling device, to Ben. He travels back to before the meteor impact, but is caught trying to sneak Hillary out of the judge’s house. Nobody will listen to his warnings, and he has to phone his pre-disaster self to break him out of jail. Two minor plot points – the reverend’s (Time Winters) attempts to get Ben to mend the church bells, which have not rung for eighteen years, and repeated references to Für Elise, which Carolyn used to play – come together as the two Bens bash out Beethoven’s familiar bagatelle with sledgehammers on the bells. People pour in from the west end of town to find out what is going on, and are thus saved. Ben convinces them not to use the school as an emergency centre. The Undersecretary returns the time-travelling Ben to where he belongs.

In a brief coda, Ben looks at photos of Carolyn. Hillary finds his chair empty and Quish’s passport on the table beside it. From the next room comes the sound of Für Elise, played perfectly on the piano. ‘Mom?’, she asks.

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It is not uncommon to use a short story as a film’s opening act or sequence, deriving name recognition or kudos from the pre-sold property before finding ways to elaborate upon material that is too scanty to sustain an entire film. Timescape does not quite fit this pattern. Based on a substantial novella, which provides almost half of the film, it makes nothing of its source or authorship, which are probably too little known to be particularly marketable anyway. Twohy discards the O’Donnell’s selfish, bullying Sue, freeing Oliver to become less of a dupe as he is transformed – thanks to Jeff Daniels’ typically precise performance – into the loving and vulnerable Ben. While the film eschews O’Donnell’s sweetly detached, apocalyptic ironies, preferring to reassert the nuclear family and a safe domestic sphere, Twohy’s simple time-loop narrative results in a more persuasive vision of a man learning the error of his ways than the better-known Groundhog Day (Ramis 1993). The key scene comes after the prison breakout as the two Bens drive to the judge’s house to grab Hillary and flee the town. The pre-disaster Ben, on learning of the imminent catastrophes, accuses the post-disaster Ben of cowardice, just like when he – they – fled the car-crash rather than saving Carolyn. In this moment of heightened anxiety, Ben voices what he has known all along, and earns redemption by drawing on this self-knowledge to save others. It is not the kind of thing one finds in the fiction of Moore and Kuttner, individually or collaboratively, but in moving away from the substance and tone of their story, Twohy creates an affecting and genuinely science-fictional moment. It is unsurprising that his subsequent career as a writer and director of sf films has been pretty successful: while accommodating the demands of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, he continues to display kinds of sf thinking more typically associated with the literary tradition.

References
Brian Attebery. ‘C[atherine] L[ucille] Moore (1911–87)’. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 171–76.

Lawrence O’Donnell. ‘Vintage Season’. The Astounding-Analog Reader, Book Two. Ed. Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss. London: Sphere, 1973. 263–30.

The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor 2016)

girl-train-posterand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Girl on the Train (2016) is not the way Tate Taylor translates this gaslight melodrama hokum, mixed with a bit of Rear Window and The 4.50 from Paddington, not merely into a contemporary setting but also into a work of significance through a brilliant central performance by Emily Blunt, made all the more endearing when, in the first scene she shares with Luke Evans, both of them temporarily forget their American accents (although his oddly slips back into English rather than Welsh), through studied pacing, through a narrative and temporal slipperiness that makes the plot holes look like enigmas rather than plot holes, and through serious-looking but trivialising invocations of trauma, addiction and therapy, no, the best thing about The Girl on the Train is the way in which, in an era in which political correctness has not only gone mad but is rampaging like a berserker through American culture, as we can see from the current Presidential election, it has has the balls-to-the-wall guts to base its narrative in the scientific truths of sociobiology: that men are driven by the swashbuckling need to put their dicks in every woman they meet, especially if in doing so they can dominate a) other women that a sick society forces them into providing for financially even when they cannot produce offspring or are not always available for penetration, and b) other men, particularly if they live next door; and that the only goal, drive and desire of women is to reproduce – and possibly to be blonde, since things seem to go better for blondes than brunettes, at least for a while…