The Day That Time Stood Still

If you’re still lucky enough to have a job, especially one of the office variety, then no doubt you will have had to endure those sorts of training courses which have been deemed as “essential” for all staff. You know the sort I mean: data protection, financial regulations, health and safety; generic courses full of worthy-but-dull legal speak which merely serve to wash the employer’s hands clean of any liability should an employee do something wrong, stupid or naughty and get caught in the process.

I had the misfortune to sit through another one of these courses on a recent Tuesday afternoon. You can instantly tell when you are in the midst of one, because they share the same characteristics:

  1. Einstein’s theory of relativity is confirmed, by the manner in which time grinds to a halt. The clock in the training room, which is always large and prominently featured, takes great pride in displaying how long a single second can be drawn out.
  2. Other employees, the vast majority of whom you have never seen before and almost certainly never will again, turn up expressly for the purpose of engaging the trainer in long-winded, drawn out conversations about minute aspects of the subject which are only relevant to their area of work, thereby prolonging the agonising dullness of the course for everybody else.
  3. You take far greater interest in your fingernails than is normal.
  4. You start to envy the freedom of nature through the window, which will invariably show smug-looking birds flying around in the air in a deliberate attempt to taunt you.
  5. You begin to daydream…

This last one is a serious weakness of mine, something I am particularly susceptible to when the course in question is becoming bogged down in legalese jargon or has succumbed to ‘death by Powerpoint’. The upside to this is that I can amuse myself with fantasies of some never-to-be world where I have become impossibly successful or dashing. I shan’t bore you with the details, but these moments do help stimulate other thoughts. For instance:

  • Who would I cast as a new Ghostbuster in the upcoming sequel…?
  • Who should direct a new Alien film…?
  • What might make a good title for a new Indiana Jones movie…?
  • Which essential, must-have dvds are missing from my collection…?
  • How much would a new surround sound system cost…?

Alas, the problem with modern training courses is that one is not allowed to fall ever deeper in to these private thoughts, because all courses must now include some element of interactivity and, God help us, “role-play”. Role-play: one of my most dreaded words. Suddenly you’re thrust in to the centre of the room and forced to make an idiot of yourself, desperately trying to marshal whatever thoughts you can recall from the course so far, hoping that someone else will be just as bad or possibly even worse than you at whatever exercise you’ve been asked to do. It’s quite a shock to those of us who are more of the “sit-quietly-in-the-corner” ilk.

Eventually, after what seems like an eternity, freedom is granted and you make your way merrily back to the office, grateful to do something as uninteresting as checking emails. The problem is that the private thoughts tend to stay longer with me than the contents of the course, the latter usually managing to quietly sneak out of my brain that very same evening. Still, even if the course failed to linger for very long, at least I have a better idea of who should play the new Ghostbusters.

The new 1982

Blade Runner, E.T., The Thing, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Creepshow, Conan the Barbarian, Tron… all great films and all released in 1982, a year commonly picked as a golden one for genre cinema (just ask the Ghost). Men of a certain age may remember visiting their local cinema to catch these classics-in-the-making; sadly I was too young at the time to see most of them.

The one that I did get to watch was E.T., which my dad took me to see in a long-since closed one screen fleapit. Cinema trips were pretty rare for us back then, so it was a special treat to be taken (once a year was about it). The hype for E.T. had been steadily growing – the poster image of the iconic logo’s two letters, together with the moon and silhouetted bike rider, seemed to be everywhere. I remember the backs of a few breakfast cereal boxes at the time having background scenes from the movie painted on, and you could stick some free stickers of characters anywhere you liked in the scene. The story captured my imagination immediately, long before even seeing the movie. I don’t remember much at all about the actual day I went to see it, but I think it’s a safe bet I was entranced throughout. It’s a movie I still love today; more than any other film it instantly takes me back to my childhood, and its status as a children’s classic is indisputable.

Since then of course I have caught up with the other treasures of ’82, and it is a source of some regret that I could not catch them first time around (mind you, the same goes for many other movies). The fact that one year in particular is singled out by a generation as better than most suggests an unusual convergance of quality, something out of the ordinary – when ideas and scripts and directors and studio greenlights happily coincided, resulting in a number of special films being released over the same few months.

So the obvious question begged is: could it happen again? Or perhaps it has already happened? Are there more recent years that saw great genre films released which could also stand the test of time? I offer below three possible candidate years which could emerge in the future as a new 1982:

1. 1999

This is an obvious one, a year made especially memorable by the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The hype from years of expectation, the great teaser trailers, the posters – culminating in a film that simultaneously caused rejoicing and bitter disappointment for many. I enjoyed it the first time around, and there are still some aspects which are good fun, especially the duels with Darth Maul and the pod race.

Beyond Star Wars, 1999 also saw some other strong genre films released, especially of the horror variety. The big success story was The Sixth Sense, the film that refused to stop raking in money because everyone had to see it twice, thanks to its infamous twist. It’s still an effective ghost story, but to my mind not quite as good as Stir of Echoes, released the same year but which died a quick box-office death because of its perceived similarities with the Bruce Willis effort. Starring Kevin Bacon and based on a story by Richard Matheson, it’s well worth seeking out.

The other big horror film of the year was The Blair Witch Project, another money spinner but for quite different reasons. The first film that really used the internet to build awareness, it was very much a Marmite movie: you either love it or hate it. I was one of the ones that loved it, and it still gives me the creeps every time I see it.

For SF fans 1999 gave us The Matrix, which came out of nowhere to quickly become a new yardstick in mind-blowing sci-fi. Though it borrowed elements from earlier science fiction classics like The Terminator, it undeniably fashioned them in to a brilliant new whole, using the then-hot topic of hackers and the internet as a jumping off point in to a world of machine domination, human enslavement and rebellion.

Another children’s classic was born with The Iron Giant, a wonderfully intelligent and touching animation that in some ways was reminiscent of E.T. – following a young boy’s friendship with an alien outsider. Brad Bird’s film managed to be both a decent adaptation of a much-loved story, as well as a film that could be enjoyed by anyone. Its swift demise at the box office was attributed to a poor marketing campaign by Warner Bros.

There were other memorable films too: David Fincher’s brilliant dark satire Fight Club became an instant cult classic; The Mummy was a very likeable piece of Indiana Jones-style fantasy adventure escapism; and Austin Powers follow-up The Spy Who Shagged Me nicely lightened the mood with its extremely silly spy spoofery. There were other films technically released in 1999 like Sleepy Hollow, The Green Mile and Galaxy Quest, but they didn’t get released in the UK until 2000, so I’ve left them off.

2. 2002

2002’s crop of films also had several highlights amongst them. I could start with E.T.’s 20th anniversary re-release, but that seems a tad unfair so I’ll skip it. If 1999 was the year of Star Wars, then in 2002 it was all about Spider-Man. Long in the works, this eagerly anticipated superhero movie became a box-office phenomenon – not surprising considering that comic-book adaptations were all the rage, yet fellow iconic comic-book characters Batman and Superman were still in the wilderness, awaiting rebirth. Though not as good as the first Batman and Superman films, it was still fine entertainment, and it paved the way for its superior sequel two years later.

Marvel also found success with sequel Blade II, directed by Guillermo del Toro. A strong sequel to the 1998 original, it boasted plenty of action, del Toro’s trademark fantasy-horror atmosphere and a decent villain in Luke Goss. Some preferred the original, but I would say both are as good as each other, just in different ways.

My personal favourite of the prequels, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones tried to fix the problems evident in Episode I. Jar Jar Binks was relegated to a cameo, Natalie Portman was sexed up a bit, the action quotient was significantly increased and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan started to become the great Jedi knight spoken of in the original films. It also had a lighter tone than its much darker successor, and is the most purely enjoyable prequel as far as I’m concerned.

Jason Bourne began his quest to regain his memory in The Bourne Identity, quite the best spy thriller for some years. Many reviewers preferred the Paul Greengrass-directed sequels, but Doug Liman’s original is just as good in my book, maybe even superior. Liman seems to have done his homework and studied the classic thrillers of the 70s – his film feels like an updating of those in many ways, with its concentration on plot rather than action. The action is still good of course: the car chase here was the best since 1998’s Ronin, and far more effective than those of its sequels.

Speilberg’s Minority Report was an impressive if flawed sci-fi thriller based on Philip K. Dick’s story; intelligent and exciting, it was highly anticipated given the potential of the material matched with the calibre of director. It wasn’t quite the classic it might have been; if Blade Runner proved anything, it was that Dick’s stories work best with a truly visionary director able to project a sense of darkness and paranoia, like Ridley Scott. Speilberg, for all his talents and strengths, doesn’t do ‘dark’ very well, but nevertheless it’s a fine SF film.

It was a good year for low-budget British horror, especially werewolves and the undead. 28 Days Later was Danny Boyle’s stab at reviving the zombie sub-genre, and, though derivative (harkening back to the likes of The Day of the Triffids), it was extremely effective. Shot on digital video, the film had an authentic ‘survivalist’ feel to it, and the bleak tone was a refreshing jolt. Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers on the other hand plundered from the likes of Aliens and The Evil Dead to concoct a highly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek horror thriller set in the wilds of Scotland – it was cheap and cheerful in the very best sense.

M. Night Shyamalan returned with Signs, a film about a global alien invasion but told from the perspective of a preacher and his family living out in the sticks. If you can look past the odd narrative weakness, it’s actually a pretty good yarn, but admittedly it does depend on your opinion of M. Night.

Other films worthy of note were Reign of Fire, an underrated apocalyptic tale of dragons taking over the British Isles; Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams, easily the best of the Spy Kids films and certainly a very likeable family film; and Eight Legged Freaks, that year’s Snakes on a Plane – a film that drew huge attention just from its great B-movie-esque title, and wound up being reasonable fun.

Finally, there was the double whammy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Harry Potter was fun, but The Two Towers was in a totally different league. Following on from The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson superbly juggled the three main narrative threads (Frodo and Sam, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and Merry and Pippin) whilst delivering an atmospheric and epic adventure. Though Fellowship may just edge ahead as the best of the trilogy, Two Towers is a very close second.

3. 2008

What, last year? Well yes, actually. There were some pretty damn good genre films in 2008, and top of the heap would probably have to be The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his 2005 caped crusader reboot, Batman Begins. Opening to staggeringly good reviews, TDK quickly became a fan favourite, and it’s not hard to see why. Continuing Bruce Wayne’s quest to rid Gotham City of crime, he finds himself up against The Joker, an insane(?) criminal who becomes Batman’s nemesis. A large part of the film’s success comes down to the late Heath Ledger, whose brilliant interpretation of the famous villain eclipses every previous portrayal. It has a few minor flaws certainly, but TDK as a Hollywood blockbuster is still a wonder to behold.

Most anticipated film of the year (for people of a certain age anyway) was surely Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long, long awaited return of cinema’s greatest archaeologist. Not seen on the big screen since 1989, Indy, like Episode I, had to shoulder the weight of enormous expectations, and unsurprisingly it failed to meet them for many people. I myself enjoyed it a lot, thanks mainly to the sure hands of Harrison Ford and Speilberg, though it probably ranks as the least of the four films so far. Sensibly updating the “teacher” (part-time) to the 1950s, it’s a great last hurrah for the venerable hero.

Iron Man surprised many by becoming one of the big successes of the year. Taking one of Marvel’s second tier superheroes and catapulting him in to the major league, Iron Man was quality entertainment, with Robert Downey Jr. giving a barnstorming performance in the lead role.

Marvel also found success with their Incredible Hulk sequel/reboot. Not as successful (critically or commercially) as Iron Man, it still by and large pleased the fan community, supplying the popcorn thrills missing from Ang Lee’s original. I liked it a lot, though no more than Lee’s effort – both are very different takes on the character, but both have qualities I enjoy. Surely the perfect Hulk film must lie somewhere between the two?

More comic-book shenanigans came in the form of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro’s sequel to his 2004 original. Upping the fantasy elements considerably from Hellboy part one, this was a rich, majestic-looking work that many felt was an improvement on the original. Again, I felt the sequel complemented rather than significantly surpassed the first film. But great entertainment once again.

The summer’s best family film came courtesy of Pixar: Wall-E was hailed as an instant classic, and it’s difficult to argue against that view. The bravura opening 20 minutes or so as the audience is introduced to the charming titular waste collecting machine are utterly beguiling, and though the film feels a little long (a common nitpick of mine with most of Pixar’s films), it’s difficult to point out unnecessary scenes. A fantastic piece of work from start to finish.

Bookending the year was Cloverfield, the ‘Godzilla-meets-The Blair Witch Project handheld video monster movie’ that proved to be much better than it sounds, and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig’s highly anticipated return to the role of James Bond following the superb Casino Royale.

So, are any of these candidates worthy of comparison to 1982? Or is there another year I’ve overlooked?

Bitter Reality of Life (or Why I Should Never Have Watched Superman IV)

A friend was telling me the other day how he distinctly remembers, as a child, the very first time he came out of the cinema disappointed with what he had seen. This is an extremely unusual experience for a kid; they seem to happily enjoy anything they’re taken to see at the flicks. But this was an exception. It was the 1980s, and the film was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

If, like me, you remember pestering your parents to take you see the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the local fleapit (no shiny new multiplexes in those days, thank you very much), then you probably also remember being told: ‘No’. How cruel it seemed at the time. Why on earth would they not want to go and see that amazing new film being advertised everywhere? It’s clearly going to be the most amazing thing ever! Maybe it was because there was no time to be spared on trivial things like cinema, or maybe it was just too expensive to do on a regular basis. Or maybe, just maybe, they were trying to protect us (and themselves) from the whiff of a cinematic stinker.

Now I got taken to some pretty cool things in my youth: E.T., Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I was even taken to see the original Transformers movie, God bless my father – what a wretched waste of time and space that must have seemed to him. Even I must acknowledge that what seemed great then is now revealed to be a pretty lousy and cheap piece of animation. But as I have described in earlier posts, I lived and breathed Transformers. I begged and begged at the time to go and see it, and I actually got my wish.

The following year, I begged and begged to go and see Superman IV: the Quest for Peace. I loved Superman back then – they showed the films pretty frequently on tv. The original still stands today as the very model of a comic-book adaptation. And now there was a brand new one being advertised in the papers, with the familiar 3D logo emblazened on the cinema listings in the local paper. Fantastic! But try as I might, there was no persuading the holders of the purse-strings. I was doomed to grudging disappointment.

Fast forward to 2007 – twenty years later. I have just purchased the Chistopher Reeve Superman dvd boxset, and, having enjoyed the wonderful first two films, and the patchy (I’m feeling charitable) third one, it was time to finally see what Superman IV was really like. Somehow I had managed to avoid the various tv showings over the years, though I had became aware of the critical drubbing it constantly received in all quarters. Surely it can’t be all that bad, I thought – just expect a disappointing film, not a bad one.

Oh boy – there’s no getting around it, the film is a travesty. A complete travesty. From the terrible opening credits to the dire storyline to the abysmal special effects, the film is barely better than a school’s end-of-year play production. Christopher Reeve of course rises above the mess as always, proving to be the definitive Superman. But even he can’t save this stinker.

So my parents were right after all – they did me a favour all those years ago. A childhood dream may finally have been realised, but then again, perhaps some dreams are better off forgotten.