Movie Zone: Outland and Watchmen

I recently posted my 100th blog!  And it’s been huge fun to chatter away on this site.

I’m now aiming to post a little more regularly – this year has been a whirlwind for me and my blogging has suffered! And in particular, I want to introduce a new semi-regular feature of movie and TV show reviews and ‘stuff’ about movies and telly.  I’m going to call this MOVIE ZONE and, er, TV ZONE.  (Cue spooky ‘Twilight Zone’ music…)

In previous blogs, I’ve written about science and science fiction and movies and TV shows I like, and also generally about the movie and TV businesses.  I’ve also posted entries on what it’s like to script edit for telly, and my experiences of going to the Cannes Film Festival and the AFM. 

And the Movie Zone blogs are my way of combining my two passions and areas of work – science fiction, and film.  They’re also an excuse for me to watch some old classic genre movies, some for the second or nth time, some for the first time. And what the hell, TV Zone is reason to write about my favourite TV shows – Battlestar Galactica, The 4400, Supernatural, Smallville, and others.

So to launch this new ‘space’ on the Debatable Spaces site, here’s a comparison between two totally different films: Outland and Watchmen, whose only common factor is that they both belong to the movie SF genre, and I love ‘em both. (Watchman is pure genius; Outland is  half great, half crap – but love is love!)

 Outland (1981)

Logline:  High Noon on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.  An action SF thriller starring Sean Connery as a police marshal pitted against a evil mining corporation whose greedy conspiracy is causing miners to kill themselves, gorily.

Writer/director: Peter Hyams

Cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt

Composer Jerry Goldsmith (he of Star Trek fame!)

Watchmen (2009)

 Logline: I’m guessing you know the story…retired superheroes kick ass!

Writers: David Hayter (X2, XMen, Scorpion King) and Alex Tse.

Directed by Zack Snyder.

Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

Cinematography: Larry Fong

Music by Tyler Bates

Watchmen is cinema as sensory and moral overload; that’s what I love about it.  Alan Moore has disowned it, as is his wont; and most civilian critics found it to be rambling and digressive to an annoying degree.  But anyone who loves Alan Moore’s original graphic novel will find, I hope, little to rage against here; this is Moore’s vision, and Gibbons’ visual anarchy, rendered with love and as much accuracy as is desirable.

It is of course just so damned wicked. Former super-hero Edward Blake aka The Comedian is a rapist, and a monster.  And his fellow superhero Rorschach is a seriously disturbed individual who brutally murders a dwarf convict and exudes sleaze. Even squeaky-clean Nite Owl (Dan Dreiberg) learns to embrace the morality of evil-for-a-greater-good by the story’s shocking end.

Most readers of this blog wil have read the graphic novel, but I won’t take the risk of stumbling into plot spoilers for a film so recent.  Go and see the damned film!  And don’t wait for the DVD or the BluRay; this is a film designed to be seen on the big screen.  It’s full of explosive action and images that pound the retina.  Like Zach Synder’s previous movie 300, and Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City, this is a film which delights in the graphic novel’s exaggerative style and rich visual palette and renders it on to the big screen, with knobs on.  All three of these movies challenge the way films are normally shot – the colours, the framing, the preposterousness of the images – they’re all leached from the comic book artist’s crazed visual cortex.  They simply don’t look real.   They are more than real.

The Matrix also played this trick – it’s the greatest graphic novel adaptation that is not in fact based on a graphic novel.  I can still remember with awe the first time I saw that movie – and I still recall jolting foward in my seat when Neo started to fly and karate punch and zoom at superspeed. It felt as if the possibilities of the cinema image had just been expanded.  And when I read the screenplay, I felt it to be a masterpiece of intelligent allegory coupled with knock ‘em dead movie action – though admittedly it’s marred by often ponderous and humourless dialogue that only very great actors can render as credible, natural speech.

And this – the hallucinogenc hyper-reality – is to me is the great triumph of the Watchmen.  It takes a great story – it doesn’t screw it up – it organises the story material with care and  intelligence, unspooling a series of origin stories followed by a stand-out action climax – and along the way it makes images that shine and resonate.  The Nite Owl’s flying ship in erratic, ludicrous flight over the city; Doctor Manhattan, his resplendently blue male organ bobbing (bet he never gets emails inviting him to have his penis enlarged!) on his base on Mars; the shocking revelation that beneath his ink-shimmering bandage mask Rorshach is actually – normal.  All this for me is visual poetry.  I even found the gratutitous sex scenes between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre enchanting. My cineaste friend Archie Tait advises me that this scene is just, urggh, eggy! and over the top; but damn it all Archie! This sex scene is rich in truly beautiful images, in a film which devotes itself to celebrating beautiful and extraordinary images.

Of course, pretty images do not a great movie make. But the story was already great!  And Synder, Hayter and Tse had the courage of Moore’s convictions; they didn’t try to rebuild and sanitse the story, to make it suitable for the target movie demographic.  (As the makers of Wanted, shame on ‘em, did – it’s a fun movie but a pale imitation of Mark Millar’s scurrilous, vicious, amoral graphic novel satire.)  And in three staggering hours, Snyder does more than not screw up a good plot; he makes us live in a land of image.

In 300, he did the same.  It is, at one level, a preposterous erotic fantasy for gay guys (and nothing wrong with that!) And it’s also, for me, a daring movie made up of pure myth, rendered in images that are beyond-real.

And I think films like this mark one of the futures for cinema – even more visual, even more spectacular, even more extraordinary.  As an SF novelist, I’m a lover of amazing heart-stopping images; and it’s movies like Watchmen that inspire me to write words that aim to conjure wondrous images in the reader’s mind.

But compare and contrast that with Outland!  Outland is a really fun movie, but in many ways it’s a relic of an older style of (relatively) lower-budget film-making.  It’s a chamber piece with extras, a studio drama enlivened by a few great images of Io floating above the great red globe of Jupiter.

It’s also a film cursed with dialogue even clunkier than that which clunked through The Matrix.  There are some painful scenes in Outland, especially those in which Sean is declaring his love for his saccharine wife and son.  And Mr Connery has one speech in which he laboriously utters a series of repetitious platitudes, when he visibly struggles to find a way to add vocal variety to lines which are all saying the same thing - sure evidence that the screenwriter doesn’t read his own damned stuff.

But mixed in with the dross is a gem of a story.  It’s an old fashioned, horny handed SF yarn.  Miners on one of the moons of Jupiter are commiting suicide; and only the marshal can find out why, and save the day.  The Western parallels are overt, from the poster image to the naming of Connery’s rank (not ‘Captain’ or ‘Lieutenant’ or any of the other police ranks, but ‘marshal’) And there are two stand-out action sequences.  In one, Connery’s character O’Niel (they sure can’t spell in the far future!) spots someone with a sac of the (fictional) drug that is killing miners (polydichloric euthimal, no less). And he sprints athletically through futuristic corridors and recreation rooms before finally confronting the bad guy in the kitchen – where he has to plunge his own hand in boiling water to retrieve the vital evidence. And then – he winces – just a tiny bit. Now that’s what I call a tough guy…

And in the final setpiece, which I won’t describe for fear of spoiling, Connery fights to the death against assorted bad guys, assisted on by the ship’s cranky female doctor, played superbly by Frances Sternhagen.  The rapport between her and the lean, tanned, older but still shockingly sexy Connery is one of the highlights of the film.  Sternhagen has no glamour, she’s no looker,  she’s rude and irritable; but the two of them together light up the screen!  Screen chemistry like this isn’t about looks; it’s about two vivid personalities interacting.  Who gives a shit about Connery’s pretty but pallid wife, when there’s a wily old bird like this to make him come alive!

The story is genuinely clever, and it’s a really gripping movie.  I’d recommend it strongly. But it’s the contrast between the visuals of this movie and Watchmen that intrigues me.  Outland wasn’t a cheap ‘quota quickie’ film made by an impoverished British company.  It was a Hollywood epic, made with state-of-the-art special effects (it was the first film to use Intro Vision to create credible backdrops.)

And the budget for the film was around $16 million – which was a lot back in 1981! But you got far fewer bangs for your bucks in those days; and the film has that hemmed-in TV studio feel that for me is evocative of Doomwatch and the old Dr Who. So all in all, it’s not visual poetry; it’s just an oldfashioned great yarn.

And yet, though I admire the visual poetry approach, and get wonderfully overexcited at show-off action sequences, I do like this pared-back aesthetic too.  Not every movie can be an X Man or a Watchmen or a Matrix; the eyes can eat too many sweets. So I’m very attracted to the idea of SF films that focus more tightly on character and world-building, rather than going for the phantasmagoria SFX route.  As such, Outland is a template for a whole subgenre – suspense SF that’s about people, not just about action. (Even if the character writing in that particular movie isn’t ALL that it might be.)

We need both sorts of movie of course!  And I’d love, also, to see more special effects visual-smorgasbord movies that ALSO make us care about the characters. Because all too often, action films deliver nothing but action.  In particlar, I found the various X Men movies, which I’d been looking forward to for decades,  to be terrifically enjoyable – but over complicated, and ultimately heartless.  There are so many damned people on screen, it’s hard to root for any of them!  And there was never any time to explore the psychology of each and every X Man, as the comics have done so richly. (So I’m hoping the X Men Origins: Wolverine will redress that balance. On the basis of the trailer the prospects look good.

So let’s live in hope that we get some rich science fictional variety in the movie theatres in the years to come – character-based SF that moves us, and touches us, existing side by side with Snyder-style eye-banquets.

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