Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Silent running on a dark star

"Bombed out in space with a spaced out bomb"

SILENT RUNNING -Catching up with this1972 sci-fi drama now it plays as a serious fiction, not fantasy, about isolation, alienation, lost causes, and the inevitable future - directed by Douglas Trumbull, legendary for Special Photographic Effects Supervisors for Kubrick's 2001, as well as special effects on Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and BLADE RUNNER and others.

In a future Earth barren of all flora and fauna, the planet's ecosystems exist only in large pods attached to spacecraft. When word comes in that the pods are to be jettisoned into space and destroyed, most of the crew of the Valley Forge rejoice at the prospect of going home. Not so for botanist Freeman Lowell who loves the forest and its creatures. He kills his colleagues taking the ship deep into space. Alone on the craft with his only companions being three small robots, Lowell revels in joys of nature. When colleagues appear to "rescue" him, he realizes he has only one option available to him.

Everything about this film works: music, effects, photography, sets, acting, editing, direction - there are no action sequences or stunning CGI but it does not need them to tell is simple story. It conjures up a dystopian future as we share life on the ramshackle space freighter with our bored astronauts zooming around in their little karts. Bruce Dern has his most iconic role as the one astronaut who loves the forests he tends and the animals with them - he is alone on screen a lot once the other guys are disposed of. Then there are the two drones Huey and Dewey, little robots .... The only annoying features now are the very dated Joan Baez songs, though they may have seen apt back in the early 70s. The final image of the forests being tended by the drone all alone in space is both moving and spell-binding. Its a marvellous companion piece to 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or E.T.

DARK STAR - John Carpenter's pulp science fiction classic - this brilliantly clever and funny parody of Kubrick's 2001 follows a warped intergalactic mission to blow up unstable planets. Four bored astronauts fill in time between missions catching up on their tans with the help of a sun-lamp, playing with a suspiciously plastic-looking alien  mascot they are taking back to Earth, and in conversation with their female version of HAL. Things start to go horribly wrong when the spaceship computer misfires and a 'smart bomb' thinks it is God. 

This was popular on the indie circuit back in 1974 and following years, before the arrival of STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. We loved being in space with those spaced out astronauts, and that talking bomb that wants to explode, and the cute little alien, so obviously a rubber beach ball. Dan O'Bannion wrote the original story, and plays one of the 4 bored astronauts, as well as doing the production design and editing, before he went on to the ALIEN films, TOTAL RECALL (we loved that at the time), and others. DARK STAR is drollly amusing as our hippie astronauts cope with that talking bomb and the ending is just perfect. DARK STAR is of course amatuerish, but only 5 years later cinema had come up with those Spielberg, Lucas and Ridley Scott classics.... it and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 set up John Carpenter for his his great decade.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, 1976, turned up as well; screened last week by the BBC as part of a Bowie night, this was fascinating to see after some decades. 

Thomas Jerome Newton is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. He starts a high technology company to get the billions of dollars he needs to build a return spacecraft, and meets Mary-Lou, a girl who falls in love with him. He does not count on the greed and ruthlessness of business here on Earth, however.

Making apt use of the pallid, zonked-out look that its star David Bowie had at the time, Nicolas Roeg's arty sci-fi movie casts the singer as an alien who struggles to adjust to life on our watery planet. Even native earthlings might have trouble following the (wilfully) splintered narrative, but the film is a curio in all sorts of ways, not least as an example of how wayward movies were in the '70s. It is not though as accessible as Roeg's WALKABOUT, DON'T LOOK NOW or even BAD TIMING, that one that chilled us in 1980, but Roeg used the Bowie persona as well as he did the Jagger one in PERFORMANCE. For all its fascinating moments (the alien showing his real self to Candy Clarke, never better, who wets herself; the deaths of Buck Henry and friends, snippets of life on his planet, and that curious timewarp moment when he in his car and some earlier settlers see each other across time, plus the ageing of other characters), THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is not a film one can actually like or want to see too often ..... despite its great sub-plots of big business taking over the alien's business ventures, its visuals and razor-sharp editing, but it seems to run out of steam eventually. Script by Paul Mayersberg from a Walter Tevis novel, it was good to see again at this remove.

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