A few years ago at a writing workshop someone described me as a cineast, based mostly on my ability to bang on about old movies at great length – as part of the workshop we were asked to bring in a number movies we admired and talk about them, their narrative construction and why we liked them. I chose some old favourites – The Searchers, Yojimbo, Django and Fistful of Dollars (the last three were an exercise in comparison, what I referred to as The Yojimbo Variations. I think it was my impassioned defense of The Searchers (one other participant described the film as ‘Saturday afternoon on BBC2’,) together with a length discourse on Kurosawa and Dashiell Hammett, particularly Red Harvest, that led to the accusation of being a cineast (which I’ve always regarded as a backhanded compliment, at best).
Of course, the truth is that I love cinema and always have, however over the past few years I’ve found myself drifting further and further away from mainstream cinema, in particular the sort of high-gloss, low nutrition fare that Hollywood has been producing. Now, it’s probably true to say that Hollywood as always produced a lot of fluff (I think it was Jack Warner who said that ‘you can never go broke playing to the lowest common denominator’) but things do seem to have grown worse over the last decade or so (or maybe it’s just me) so I tend to shy away from the big blockbusters, particularly when they’re blockbusters of the SF variety.
Which explains why it’s taken me until now to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, John Carter (of Mars) and Dredd (although, fair enough, Dredd is hardly a blockbuster in the same way as the other two since its budget was about a quarter of Star Trek’s and less than a quarter of John Carter’s, still I only saw it recently so it still counts).
I grew up with Star Trek, it was probably my first exposure to science fiction, and have always had a tremendous fondness for the original series (and the Next Generation) so, like a lot of casual Trekkers I approached the whole J.J Abrams remake/reboot with a certain sense of trepidation, Unfounded, as it turned out, since I enjoyed the first Abram’s Star Trek movie very much indeed.
Still, it’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle twice, so the same trepidation existed within me when it came to Into Darkness (if only because of the meaningless subtitle (right up there with Ghost Protocol and Shadow Recruit in terms of that ‘let’s just jam two words together’ approach).
I shouldn’t have worried. The same freewheeling approach to the original material is still there, the actors are settling beautifully into their roles (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto make an excellent Kirk and Spock, Karl Urban continues to delight as McCoy, even if the character is a wee bit sublimated at times) and there are loads of cheeky little references that long term fans (even fairly casual fans like me) can appreciate (such as the inversion of Wrath of Khan with Spock rather than Kirk howling Khaaaaaan!). Hopefully it’s no surprise to anyone out there that the main villain of the piece is Khan Noonien Singh (and my apologies if this is a spoiler) who is equally nicely reimagined with a cold-eyed venom courtesy of Benedict Cumberbatch. Good special effects, a decent plot, Peter Weller, Leonard Nimoy and a few chuckles along the way. What’s not to like?
Like Star Trek, Judge Dredd was one of my formative SF influences. I think I was about 12 when JD made his first appearance in 2000ad and, although I’ve drifted away from the character over the years, he still holds a place in my heart (enough of a place, certainly, to be outraged by the Stallone version that came out in the 1990s). Karl Urban makes an impressive Dredd (unlike Stallone, the iconic helmet stays firmly on this time), and like Into Darkness there’s a sense that the film makers have a real affection for the source material while doing their best to bring new fans into the fold. Good, violent stuff with a streak of black humour (just like the ‘real’ Dredd).
Which brings us to John Carter.
To be honest, I’ve never been much of an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan and only read (and enjoyed) the first couple of Mars novels fairly recently (or, more accurately, the Barsoom novels) so I came to John Carter with very few preconceptions other than to expect a train-wreck of a movie since the reports had been so bad.
Maybe it was that lack of familiarity with the original texts, maybe it was the lack of expectation, maybe it was the bottle of wine I consumed during the film, or maybe I was just in the right mood at the right time… but I really enjoyed John Carter. It’s high octane, silly fun, imbued with a real pulp SF sensibility that values action and spectacle over logic and character building (not always a bad thing as long as a certain lip service is paid to character and narrative). Taylor Kitsch, despite the name, gives his John Carter just the right amount of dignity and derring-do, the battle scenes are spectacular and Barsoom/Mars is vividly realized. Even those rather silly moments with Carter bounding around the Barsoomian landscape are handled with a certain dignity (as dignified as they can be, at any rate) and the cracks and holes in the plot are papered over with action, action and more action (as ERB himself was wont to do).
I’m not sure that I’ll be returning to the blockbuster fold any time soon (I also watched Men In Black 3 and The Watch quite recently, and the less said about that the better) but at least I came away thinking that SF cinema at its most popular is still capable of being good and that sometimes (just sometimes) it’s enough to entertain the audience.