La Jetée (1962)

Post-apocalyptic time travel told through still images…

SYNOPSIS: After the outbreak of World War III, the surface of the Earth has become a radioactive wasteland. One man, who is a prisoner beneath the ruins of Paris, is chosen to participate in an experiment which has driven many to madness or killed them: he is to travel through time to the past, in order to retrieve supplies for the present. he meets a woman whose image he long remembers in his mind, and he is able to enjoy a strange, discontinuous life with her. That is, until his captors have another use for him…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: La Jetée is a 1962 French short film that gained a lot of popularity and is still recognisable due to its unique storytelling and production. The film is told entirely through a narrator and the use of still images (with a few seconds of moving footage), and paints a story of a post-apocalyptic world caused by World War III and the use of nuclear weapons…nothing special you may think, but the focus is not on building a complex world and back-story, and there is never any real detail given to it as that is not the focus of the film, but it presents a situation and context which has been dealt with before and has enough familiarity to place the viewer comfortably without needing too much exposition to cite the film. In these dark times, we are introduced to a man who has been selected by his captors to undergo an experiment to travel through time to help retrieve supplies for the blighted people of the present. None of the people we encounter throughout the film are given a name, and as with other films I’ve looked at, this does a good job of setting a scene in which any semblance of humanity we are accustomed to gets completely obliterated in the war, and not even names remain. We have to learn to recognise people by their faces and the sometimes strange head/eyewear they have. The use of the still images is quite useful in this regard to focus one’s attention on the image.

During the man’s travels through the past, he encounters a woman who he saw during pre-war times, and whose image has stayed with him through all of his life, and his connection to the past is strong enough is what allows him to survive the time travel. The inclusion of time travel is kept fairly simple and never leads to much confusion, as again this is not really the focus of the story, so it is good that it operates very smoothly. The relationship between this man and woman develops through the sporadic and discontinuous nature of the man’s appearances to her, and it focuses on the specific and often sporadic encounters that allow something to grow. Imagine if the most important events of a relationship or something were in fact the only parts of it you experienced without any of the lulls or unimportant padding? This would be similar to what the man seems to experience in his travels. Though the man is always eventually brought back to the reality of being a prisoner being subject to torturous experiments, it is in this state of being subjected to these experiments that he can be free in a previous era, or his memories.

As I have mentioned with regards to the production of this film. It is almost entirely done using still photographs: This was apparently due to the director only having enough money to hire a camera for one afternoon; but it is because of this unique filming style that it has become such an enduring piece of cinema. The grainy and rough black and white photographs really convey a sense of destruction and darkness in a post-apocalyptic world, and the discrete jump from image to image instead of a continuous flow of frames per second fits in very well considering the jumping between present and future through all different dates, and the two qualities mirror each other quite well, and also create an alternative sense of flow through the film, which is something that works very well. The soundtrack too really turns up the emotion with a full choir singing over photographs of dilapidated and destroyed urban environments which I believe may be of World War II, and really capture the destruction of war. For a film that is set after World War III it is perhaps a poetic reminder that war is a destructive force no matter what you call it, and can quite easily repeat itself and its ruinous aftermath.

Though only a short film running at just over twenty six minutes , La Jetée manages to tell a powerful and engaging story despite its technical limitations. I think it is best summed up as dealing with the power of the “expanded image”: It is not just the series of photographs that make up the image, but also the soundtrack and the narration all play a part in setting a scene (and multiple scenes) using these disparate elements to create a piece of cinema that creates this alternate sense of flow or story. the plot itself also reflects this, and its jumping through different points in time picks up on important events and even seemingly unimportant ones and puts them together to put this story together. The ending also manages to complete the narrative and resolve everything tidily (even if it is a little depressing). Overall it is a clever and ambitious piece of experimental cinema that deserves some attention just to show an alternate way of structuring film and stories.

Time After Time (1979)

H.G.Wells vs Jack the Ripper? Better grab some popcorn…

SYNOPSIS: In 1893 Victorian London, the serial killer Jack the Ripper has struck again. meanwhile, H,G,Wells has revealed to his close friends his latest invention: A Time machine to travel through time. His friends are far from convinced even when he shows them exactly how it works. they are interrupted by the police at the door, who are searching homes in the area as Jack has just struck. One of Wells’s friends, John Leslie Stevenson, has vanished, and when the police search his bag, they find bloodied items that lead them to believe that he is the killer. Wells checks the basement and finds his machine missing. Finding that John has escaped to 1979, he sets off in pursuit to try and bring is former friend to justice before he can wreak havoc in a new era…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Time After Time is a 1979 thriller that sees fiction writer Herbert George Wells pursuing legendary serial killer Jack the Ripper into the future. At a first glance, this does seem like a bizarre premise for a film, blending fiction and reality together with a very strange result. It’s not just fiction and reality which are mixed together either: The whole film is a cocktail of different genres, characters, and juxtaposed ideas. The film starts off with Jack the Ripper killing another victim, and though the killing is done off-screen, it is quite an edgy opening to the film as blood squirts across the screen, and the dark streets of Victorian London establish a very gruesome tone, and in the next scene we get a glimpse of Malcolm McDowell as H.G.Wells, and though he does look very over-the-top and so stereotypically a Victorian gentleman with the tweed suit, round spectacles and well-trimmed moustache, he does look very similar to images of Wells, so while it does look as if he is dressed to look very over-the-top, he is actually dressed very accurately. The opening dialogue between Wells and his friends serves to establish him as the free and liberal thinker he was, and you get a good sense of him as a person even if you did not know who he was beforehand. We also get a sense of the relationship between Wells and John (Jack) that shows how John is always a move ahead of Wells, and always beats him at chess, and the film is full of these little moments which end up returning to impact the story at a later point, and there is some good work done in tying everything up. The relationship between Wells and jack does have some clever and well-thought dialogue which gives these otherwise seemingly stereotypical characters some depth and motivation.

So Jack (or John, I’m not sure what to call him) escapes to 1979 (The year the film was released) in Wells’s time machine, and feeling responsible for his escape, Wells travels after him, where he arrives in San Francisco. Here the film switches tack and gives us the very typical “out-of-timer trying to deal with the present” situation, with Wells narrowly avoiding being run over, visiting a McDonalds (calling it “that Scottish place”), and trying to hail a taxi. the humour is perhaps nothing unique but it is done well, and there is a lot of fun in its execution that makes the film quite enjoyable. There are also some more subtle and clever comedic moments which give the film some variety in its humour. The film is constantly shifting between the typical comedy and a more dark and serious thriller, with Jack resuming his killings in 1979.

The scene in which Wells and John come to blows in the hotel room is a very clever scene in which John remarks at the degraded nature of 1979, full of war and degeneracy, and how this era “Has surpassed him” it terms of its brutality, which contrasts to Wells’s vision of a socialist utopia for the future, which now lies in ruin, as John has once again been shown the wiser of the two. This is one of the best scenes in the film, and really solidifies the relationship between these two as once friends, now enemies, and each pursuing their own goals with their own motivations and personalities, which allows the rest of the film to centre on these two characters and their difference: They are not just characters that have the name of (in)famous people from history, they have a real personality of their own to relate to, and developing them into actual people instead of historical figures is a big win, otherwise this film would have been in trouble. The rest of the characters don’t really get much development, but they’re not as interesting as the main two anyway. Through all the twists and turns there is something very lively about the film which makes it very enjoyable. the only part which is perhaps anti-climatic is the finale, in which Wells finally defeats John simply by pulling a part from the time machine. It perhaps doesn’t feel as rewarding as it should when Wells finally outwits his old friend, but it doesn’t spoil the rest of the film, and the film ends up being a lot more than just a cat-and-mouse game through time.

The special effects in Time After Time do look quite like they have been pulled directly from Star Trek and look quite basic (Fun fact: Star Trek IV also involves time travel to a present day San Francisco from around the same time), but there are only a very few instances where such effects are used in the operation of the time machine, so there isn’t any real need for anything excessive. The Victorian sets look very highly detailed, and set the right tone, but the film’s main focus is to bring the city of San Francisco of 1979 to life, and it does this with shots which are busy and full of life, along with continual movement through all the landmarks which are recognisable. This is director Nicholas Meyer’s first film, and it shows that some shots are a little awkward or wobbly, but on the whole its still a well produced film that is able to have fun with the concept of time travel while still mingling it with a more sinister side.

Time After Time is a film that does a lot of things: It is a comedy, a thriller, a time travel story and a romance. On top of that using the absurd premise of H.G.Wells squaring off against Jack the Ripper could have led to this film becoming very congested very quickly. However, Wells and Jack are established and developed well, and do not feel in any way like a forced gimmick; this is done very well through developing the characters that conflict and complement each other, and provide the required depth of personality to tie things together, without becoming preachy or bloated. The key to this film is that it never loses its sense of fun and adventure, and keeps things going at an enjoyable pace to make a very watchable film. It has its flaws, but that should not stop you from checking it out.

Time of Roses (Ruusujen Aika) (1969)

Utopia imagined by 1960’s Finland…

SYNOPSIS: In the year 2012, Raimo is a filmmaker who creates films that conform to the ideology of the democratic utopia he lives in. His next project is to create a documentary on the life of Saara Turunen, an ordinary woman and part-time model who died in 1976. He seeks to create a documentary on an ordinary person of the past to support the current state of society. He meets a woman named Kisse Haavisto, who looks remarkable similar to Saara, and persuades her to take on the role in the film. However, there is some political dissent about the state of affairs in the country and some associates of Raimo’s are looking to expose his methods of falsely representing people of the past to support the current regime…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Time of Roses (Original title: Ruusujen Aika ) is a 1969 Finnish sci-fi film that looks at life in a utopian future. The story primarily concerns Raimo, a documentary maker who is looking to make a new film based on the life of Saara Turunen, an ordinary person who died over 30 years ago, in order to show her life as conforming to the current social order. From the start we get a bit of exposition in the development of the world between the time the film was released, and the “present day” of the film in 2012. We learn that the Nordic democracies (surprise surprise considering this film comes from one of them) are able to weather a number of global troubles including famine, and they are able to develop this utopia based on democratic and socialist principles, where everyone is given roles based on their nature. But while all is well on the surface, there are those that feel their individuality suppressed, and their access to the truth denied by a big, overarching government. The film investigates the structure of individuality and the ideal through the lens of the filmmaker, and his role that essentially bends the truth to the will of the government. There is no real villain in this film, it is perhaps apt that we never see the faces or hear the words of any big government official or leader; they operate invisibly in the background, not being seen to obstruct people and get in their way. The film’s plot points are very much scattered, and its hard to pinpoint precise trajectories along which things developed. There are a number of plot points (The strike in the nuclear plant) and characters which pop up but never really add anything to the central narrative, and they seem quite redundant. They offer interesting glimpses at this society, but much more could have been done with them.

Though the film starts off in such way that is difficult to get a sense of what is happening, this is done almost as if to show the element of humanity that is missing in this future state (whether this is intentional or just poor pacing is up for debate), but as the film progresses, the cracks in the system start to show, and a much more human story begins to emerge, mainly through the more we learn about the tragic life of Saara and the difficulty she lived in during the 1970’s. As the woman Raimo hires takes up this part, she becomes ever more attuned to the pains of this woman and her inability to fit in, and having to be someone she’s not; which is emphasised in the utopian society of 2012, where real individuality is tricky to define. The state paints politics as useless, and the politicians of the 70’s and 80’s being essentially useless in solving any of the world’s major crises, and instead advocates a “progress of impartiality”. The film itself seems to make the point that a negation or removal of politics is not much of a solution to any problem, and if politics goes, then so does any ability for people to fight for change; indeed, remaining neutral on all matters and maintaining a status quo is eventually going to lead into difficulty, and the film goes about slowly revealing that. It is a deep and complex film that tells its story subtely and with some very strange scenes: The basketball-like game that involves men and women caressing and kissing each other is never explained, and highlights this strange new world and its rules that are completely different to our own. As you would expect, this is one for an older audience, and the film does feature quite a lot of swearing and nudity, which is quite explicit for its time, and offers a little rawness in an otherwise sterilised future. It is a very deep and provocative film, but sometimes lacks the direction required to deliver its intended impact.

The future A Time of Roses paints is a mixture of things that are futuristic and advanced, but also many things which don’t seem to have changed that much. There is the food dispensers, automatic doors and the clear plastic inflatable furniture that one would expect to see in films from this era. Alongside that, there are the images of cars, trains and brutalist architecture that don’t look so futuristic at all…not to someone living in the present anyway, perhaps it looked moreso to the people of 1969. The film seems to predict videophones and GPS navigation in cars (complete with voiced directions) with a degree of accuracy too. The film as a whole is a mixture of some things which are overly advanced, and things which seem rather ordinary which makes up for a very strange future if you focus on it. Everything looks quite nicely produced though, with enough attention to detail to make it convincing and to create a believeable future; we don’t see much of it, but what we do see gives us some idea of what is going on as a whole.

So, is Time of Roses a good film? It starts off slow and loose, but eventually brings something together with a political message and a tragic look at the fate of the individual if the state remains at a distance. It tells its story slowly and reveals the mechanics of its world in a subtle manner, and offers a political critique in its telling of the stories of the individuals. You have to focus to get everything that is going on, but by the end, even though I knew what was going to happen, Time of Roses managed to used its clever way of using imagery and portrayal of characters did manage to leave an impression and deliver an interesting political message.

The Last Starfighter (1984)

How well does one of the earliest films to rely on CGI hold up?

SYNOPSIS: Alex Rogen lives in Starlight Starbrite, a trailer park in the middle of nowhere; but he dreams of leaving his mundane life behind and seeing the world. Currently however, the only escape he gets is playing the “Starfighter” video game. One night however, he manages to get the high score, and learns that the video game was a test put there (on accident) by an alien named Centauri, who wants Alex to become a Starfighter for real, having passed Centauri’s test of beating the game. Meanwhile, while he’s away, Alex’s girlfriend has to deal with a less than stellar clone of him, which gets the real Alex into trouble. Alex decides to not become a starfighter and heads home, but when he is attacked by an assassin and the rest of the starfighters are killed, he decides to becomes the last starfighter, and to take on the Ka-don empire with only the help of his navigator Grig.

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Sometimes all you need is a classic 80’s film…The Last Starfighter is a 1984 film that tells the story of Alex, a teenager who lives in a trailer park who dreams of leaving his home to find bigger things when he is recruited by a quirky old man to fight in an intergalactic war…sound familiar? If it does sound extremely similar to Star Wars, then that’s because it probably is, but by this time, most sci-fi films were taking bits and pieces of one of the most successful film series ever, so its no surprise. The question now becomes is it any good and does it bring anything original to cinema?

So as I mentioned, the plot is very much a re-worked Star Wars: You have the young hero going to fight in a war that did not concern him, the old man mentor that dies half way through, the spaceship battles, the evil emperor villain…it’s all there. Nevertheless, The Last Starfighter does try to do its own thing a few times. The fact that it is set on Earth instead of “A galaxy, far, far away” does bring in something that perhaps the Star Wars franchise did not have: A relateability and familiarity to the people that would watch this film, which allows the viewer to become more quickly absorbed in the film and understand the workings of the characters and personalities that show up. It doesn’t rely on any pop culture references (though the film looks and feels very 80s), but tells a timeless story of wanting to escape and see the world (or beyond it, as the case may be here), and perhaps finding a younger demographic than the one Star Wars was going for. The film has a great spirit of adventure that gets entangled in Alex’s wish to escape his trailer park existence, and when he is finally give that opportunity to fight in an intergalactic war he initially refuses as he would rather not die in his adventures. The cast of characters is fairly bland bunch, but there’s enough to establish some sub-plots and add a little variety to the mix, even if they’re not very memorable. The film manages to throw in a few funny moments too, which helps to lighten the mood and bring back some familiarity when things get very bizarre.

One of the most significant feature of this film is its use of CGI to produce its special effects instead of miniature models. Like Tron (released around 2 years prior), it is one of the first films to fully embrace computers to produce 3D renderings, and the film does make itself stand out from the competition with this decision. The planets and spaceships that are created in this way are large and colourful, and really helps extend the imagination into this new world. Obviously it all looks very dated now, but it still has a unique charm, as not many film were using this kind of technology back then, and it does allow the film to stand out amongst all of the other Star Wars-esque sci-fi films of the era. The space battle scenes are quick and fluid, and offer up a whole new perspective on action and spaceship combat which traditional models could not really do. The more traditional sets do look very much like the usual sci-fi sterile white settings full of blinking lights and control panels, but they are all done on a large scale, with lots of extras and there’s plenty of room to move around which makes them feel very much alive, and shows off the work that was put into the film to make it happen. Another one of the film’s strong points is its soundtrack, which again is clearly inspired by Star Wars, with its grand orchestral score and its emphasis on wind instruments, but perhaps it is a little too ambitious, considering the film doesn’t really create enough tension and drama to accompany the music. It is a very good soundtrack, but sometimes it doesn’t quite match up.

The Last Starfighter stands out as one of the best and memorable Star Wars clones that emerged in the 1980’s; there is a lot of effort put into this film, and its use of the experimental and barely tested CGI makes it a bit of a landmark in cinema. Apparently it endured so successfully in those that remember seeing it growing up that a musical was released based on the film back in 2004, which perhaps shows how this film was able to stay in people’s minds and make a name for itself. When all is said and done, The Last Starfighter is a Star Wars clone, and does not deviate from it enough to make something more truely original, but that’s okay, because it manages to make a decent film regardless, and out of the many clones that showed up in the 80s, this one is one of the best, and manages to do something to appeal to a wide enough audience, through more dedicated sci-fi fans, to the more casual teenage movie-goer to make itself a success. Is it a good film? Yes, because it is using a formula that has worked in the past, and also because it has a vision to expand and experiment a little with it: not much, but enough to make it a memorable film for a young person growing up in the 80’s, and that is where it has its endurance.

Automatons (2006)

Death to the automatons…

SYNOPSIS: In a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth’s surface is flooded with radiation and no one can live there, in a base under the Earth’s surface lives The Girl, who lives her life alone, with only robots she re-programs for company, and the video logs of The Scientist who raised her when she was a little girl. She is constantly fighting off attacks from an enemy that uses radio signals to try to take control of her robots and destroy her…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Automatons is a 2006 sci-horror set in a post-apocalyptic earth where there is very little left of value: The Earth’s surface is uninhabitable, and the only surviving people are a lone girl in an underground bunker, who attempts to stop her enemy, who keeps sending robots after her and using radio signals to control the girl’s robots. The film takes full advantage of the post-apocalyptic setting by portraying a world that has no rules, order or very little aspects of humanity left. The fact that none of the characters are referred to as even having a name just reinforces that fact of any recognisable features of humanity have simply disappeared in the setting. This also extends to the war that seems to be fought throughout the film, which also has a way of making people’s names irrelevant on a battlefield. As such there is no real sense of good or evil in this film, and it feels as if survival is the only driving force behind everything. The film does almost completely revolve around The Girl, and her playback of videos made by The Scientist that raised her give a little backstory as to why the world is the way it is. There is never anything particularly concrete though, and again this filters back into any sense of humanity or meaning being slowly wiped out, and what is left is nothing but a tale of survival. The only other characters that have an impact are the automatons themselves, who barely say or do anything, but do take on some substance seeing there is no one else to. The sense of isolation is very important to the film’s structure, and so there is a minimal amount of dialogue, and periods of sustained silence that really help set the tone. In light of this, the film tells its story visually with very busy sets and letting the action and familiar aesthetics do the talking.

I review a lot of films that pay tribute to the B-movie aesthetics of yesteryear, and incorporate their styles or plot elements into themselves. This is usually done however in a comedy genre, and setting up the classic movies as targets for mockery or satire. Automatons is different: It is very much a horror film that takes the old cinematic style that tried to be scary but ended up being mostly humourous, and succeeds at making it scary. It reminds me of the very early Doctor Who episodes with the minimal music, the static sets and the bizarre looking robots. But there is something sinister about how the film all hangs together. Automatons is filmed on 8mm black and white film, just as low budget films would have been filmed back in the 1950’s and 60’s: The black and white and the grain on the film is authentic, and sets the film up to be dark and sinister. The scenes which are action-based are usually the only ones accompanied by music, and it is a very heavy and dramatic score that really brings the film and story to life, only for it to end and for the next scene to go back to the silence, which is even more exaggerated after the moments of danger or action. The film stretches out these scenes and like a good horror movie there is no real pattern to when the danger will crop up, as the enemy can strike at any time, and this makes the film very tense.

Despite the crudeness of the robots and the sets full of old machinery, there is a real sense of terror, and the deadly setting really comes out in certain moments. The repetition of certain effects and visuals (The radar screen) for instance highlights the odd sense of time in a world which doesn’t really need it, and the cloud of fear that goes with always remaining alert. The ending of the film really kicks up the action, and there is an extended battle scene between the robots forces, and finally the assault on the remaining humans ups the ante again when the film shows some extremely gore-filled scenes of the robots mutilating the humans by cutting off arms and blowing holes in people’s faces. Despite the grainy nature of the film, there is clearly still a lot of effort that has gone into making the gore seem incredibly realistic and brutal, and this scene goes on for quite a while, so it becomes quite an endurance test. The final scene brings things back down to the quietness of isolation, as The Girl loses even her robots, and becomes truely all alone: No robots, no light, no enemies…a sombre note to end on, but there was never really any other way this film was going to end. Automatons does something dramatic and impacting with the classic staples of sci-fi, and makes them scary again…perhaps more so than they were originally. It is slow in parts and it has very little story or character development, but that is the point: Automatons shows a world where the rules and systems of humanity are all but gone, and manages to tell a story in a setting where there is hardly any meaning at all. It’s clever but never pretentious, and beneath its trashy, low-tech exterior is a smart and provocative story, which is just what good old-fashioned sci-fi does best.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabít Jessii?) (1966)

Just a scientist, a cowboy and an evil superhero apparently…

SYNOPSIS: Rose and Henry are a married couple who are both scientists.While Rose in on track for a Nobel prize for her invention with a machine that can view the dreams of people and change bad dreams into good ones, Henry is having problems with some equipment, and starts looking for solutions in a comic book called “Who wants to kill Jessie?”, a series starring a scantily-clad woman who invents anti-gravity gloves. This starts to give him dreams about her and the story, and when Rose secretly looks at his dreams, she finds his husband dreaming about this young woman, and so she decides to change Henry’s dream. However, their is one unforeseen  consequence of the machine: The old dreams become real, and when Henry wakes up with Jessie appearing in his bed, a farcical story starts to unfold…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabit Jessii? in its native Cezch) is a 1966 sci-fi comedy film that tells the story of an invention that can change people’s dreams, only to have the bizarre side-effect of having the original dreams being forced out into reality and taking on a life of their own. From the outset we are introduced to the two main characters, a husband and wife named Henry and Rose, who come across initially as two dull characters with a rather typical and mundane married existence. A lot of the comedy from the start is based on a kind of domestic humour: A long-time married couple who are focused on their work and the spark completely gone from any romantic element in their relationship. Their constant disagreement and accommodating each other perhaps has a relate-ability to it and their interactions do have a certain dry humour to them, as there’s always a distance between them that sets them up as separate characters trying to tolerate each other under the same roof.

In contrast to the quirks of married life and their humours, they are subverted and turned around when Rose tries to alter her Husband’s dream of another woman (which is for purely scientific interests, but she doesn’t see it that way) which inadvertently ends up making this woman real. From then on there is a new kind of humour that dominates which is farcical, subversive and destructive, utilising a kind of logic that the real world is completely unable to handle. It is important to remember that there is a catalogue of these Czech sci-fi comedy films that take a satirical stab at the politics and various institutions by introducing a dose of the ridiculous and unexpected which the established system: There is a certain political “bite” in these new wave films that is refreshing to try and overturn conventional ways of doing things which is certainly coming from the time this film was released in the mid-late 1960’s. The Czech movements were perhaps not so in the open as they were in more Western countries, so perhaps this film wasn’t so successful or widely released, and perhaps seem a little tame compared to what was happening in other countries, but the film does seem to do its best to take on established ways of thinking and doing things, especially the perceived nature of science being a laborious task filled with technical jargon, and married life sucking the spark out of life. The character of Jessie, the short skirt wearing, highly animated young woman from the comic books gives a good performance, especially since she cannot speak, and does a good job of finding other ways to express herself, and as a comic book character this fits her nicely. Her interaction with Henry, the scientist stuck in his laboratory, is able to shake him loose of his dreary existence and bring in some fun and excitement into his life, and serves metaphorically for this new movement of bringing in new styles, fashions and lifestyles to tackle the status quo.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is shot in black and white, which works twofold: It shows the settings of the laboratory, the factory and the lecture halls as being devoid of colour and life but it also mimics the black and white productions of serial comic books, which is key to the film’s aesthetic. Whether the decision to produce this film without colour was a stylistic choice or a technical limitation, it certainly adds something to the political current that runs underneath it. The film makes use of the comic book visuals in its special effects, mainly through the use of speech bubbles, which take on a reality in place of the characters from the comic book speaking, and instead these speech bubbles pop up. Seeing the characters from the real world interacting with this material text is quite amusing, and offers a lot of interesting possibilities, which the film makes use of. When the comic book characters make their entrance, they bring with them a lot of destruction, and the settings get severely destroyed and objects smashed all over the place. Alongside this, there is a lot of humour that deals with these characters that can do the impossible and defy the laws of physics, and the film shows this off well despite lacking perhaps the technical ability to pull off some more advanced effects the film resorts to speeding up footage sometimes, but on the whole it is a very creative effort, and the dream sequences especially are full of imagination.

Overall, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is a fun film that can get a few laughs. It chooses a style it can execute well, and gets really creative with its interactions between the real world and the fictional one. It’s strength lies in dealing literal and metaphorical blows to established ways of doing things, and the idea of comic books and science-fiction influencing science itself is always good to see; in general, the film shakes up a number of systems and does things its own way, influenced by the New Wave movement of the time. Perhaps some of its humour is outdated and the farcical comedy doesn’t have much hold anymore, but there’s more than enough going on in this film to make it worth a watch.

Godzilla (Gojira) (1954)

The original king of monsters in his original film…

SYNOPSIS: Off the coast of Japan, a number of boats have been mysteriously destroyed, sparking strange rumours about what could have caused such carnage. On nearby Odo Island, a legend exists of a giant sea monster named “Godzilla”, whom in time gone by, girls were sacrificed to so that fishing yields would be good. An investigative team is sent by the Japanese government lead by Professor Yaname to the island to see if the legends could be true. While there, Yaname finds a giant footprint, and when an alarm sounds, the team and the villagers head up to the top of a hill, only to find a huge monster peering over the edge with a terrifying roar: Godzilla is real, and he’s angry: Another victim of nuclear weapons, Godzilla starts to take out his rage on the Japanese mainland, bent on destruction of everything in his path…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Godzilla (Gojira in its native Japan) is a 1954 science-fiction that really needs no introduction. Frequently called “King of the Monsters” after the sub-title for the 1956 U.S. re-release is a cultural icon, and easily the most famous of the “Kaiju” monsters that have come from Japanese cinema. The plot does not need explaining: Godzilla turns up and starts destroying everything. It’s simple…deceptively simple; for while you can look at a distance and see just the destruction and the big monster, there is a lot going on in this movie that makes a powerful commentary on issues of the day…some of which are still relevant today. This film however is about Godzilla, and what is impressive about this film is its pacing: One of the problems that I could forsee is leaving Godzilla’s big reveal too late or doing it too early. However, the film manages to prepare for the big entrance well, and does not leave it too late. We are never shown the full figure of Godzilla in daylight, and each time the monster shows up, he is shown in different lighting and at different angles; sometimes you can only see the top-half, sometimes you see him from the ground up, so there is a good variety of cinematic techniques to shake things up when Godzilla starts destroying things for the fourth or fifth time: It never gets old, and the black and white filming certainly helps cover Godzilla in dark shadows to give him a more sinister look where as a colour production might have looked less real or terrifying by showing the limits of special effects at the time (and the sense of terror is vitally important to the film, which I shall soon explain). The plot switches between Godzilla and the stories of a small number of people, bringing in their lives, and some scientific exposition that helps put Godzilla into context and gives the story a lot of relevance politically and scientifically.

Let’s talk production: The scenes which centre on human interaction and dialogue are usually full of extras, and gives the film a lot of life; these crowds also kick up a lot of noise, which is what you’d expect in the high tension incidents of a monster destroying the city. You get a real sense of the sort of pandemonium that Godzilla is creating and the human impact of the whole event from this. Of course the biggest challenge in this film is going to be bringing Godzilla to life and doing it convincingly: The film uses a lot of small-scale models to achieve the sense of destruction it requires, and on the whole, it does it well with the tools it has, some of the models do look rather fake, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film or detach any emotional investment. Godzilla’s design is of some importance here too; it is easy to forget that Godzilla is the original monster, taking various aesthetics off a number of dinosaurs and putting them together into one terrifying fifty-metre beast. As I have mentioned, the dark, black and white filming perhaps makes Godzilla look more menacing than he would be, considering its actually played by a man in a rubber suit destroying model sets. There are moments where Godzilla’s eyes seem to glow as the only real source of light on the screen and it creates a brilliant effect. Even with the non-model sets, the film clearly isn’t afraid to get destructive and tear things apart, and it gives Godzilla a big reach, granting the feeling that nothing is safe and he really can destroy anything. i wonder how much of this film is inspired by western cinema…the monster genre is something that Japan owns and excels at, but I’m thinking the sporadic newspaper headlines that fill the screen from time to time and I wonder if it is trying to take on some western cinematic techniques or not…it doesn’t really matter though; this film comes together tightly

While the monstrous effects of Godzilla destroying everything in his path, it is perhaps missed on those who haven’t seen the film the massive political dimension at work throughout. Nine years prior to the release of Godzilla, Japan was of course subject to the power of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and Godzilla works as a giant metaphor for the bomb (sometimes a very literal metaphor when it shows Godzilla is himself radioactive). Odd references are made to the atomic bomb, but mostly the Godzilla metaphor does the work all by itself. Interweaved with the destructive force of Godzilla are scenes of ordinary people running, screaming or packed into emergency shelters: This is a Japan still struggling with the fallout (literal and emotional) from nuclear weapons, and the film captures the feelings of a whole country as a victim of destruction against innocent people. The film does not start out declaring any of this, but somehow through its storytelling, one is drawn into the horrors of witnessing the power of such awesome destruction firsthand, and how it scars ordinary people. The storyline of the people involved in this crisis could just have played second-rate to the monster antics, but the characters struggling to deal with nuclear weapons and the horror of having to use one of their own in order to save themselves; a decision that is shown is not taken lightly. By the end of the film I was thoroughly invested in the human dilemma of nuclear destruction, perhaps even more so than in Godzilla himself. It must be quite difficult to make a monster like Godzilla seem relevant to everyday lives, but this film certainly achieves it: Not only is the film well made and creative, it is also emotionally engaging and powerful, with a resonating relevance to the state of the world. It tells a story and delivers something visually impressive and ambitious at the same time. I enjoyed this film a lot more than I thought I would, and it is easy to see why it started off a massive legacy, inspiring a whole genre of monster movies.

Hokuto No Ken (Fist of the North Star) (1986)

Well can you make someone’s head explode just by punching it?

SYNOPSIS: In 199X, a nuclear war has turned the Earth into a post-apocalyptic and barren wasteland, where nothing can grow. Kenshiro, a master of the fighting style Hokuto Shinken, is ambushed by his former friend Shin, who leaves him for dead and takes his fiancee Yuria. A year later, Kenshiro returns and teams up with Rei, a fighter of the Nanto Seiken discipline who is looking for his sister Airi, who has been kidnapped by Kenshiro’s older “brother” Jagi. after Kenshiro rescues a pair of children named Bat and Lynn from bandits, the team head to rescue Rei’s Sister, Kenshiro’s fiancee, and try to bring some order to this post-apocalyptic world…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Hokuto No Ken (Fist of the North Star in English translations) is a 1986 Japanese animation film based on the manga and television series of the same name. The plot concerns Kenshiro, a master of a specific martial art called “Hokuto Shinken”, which has the ability to attack specific pressure points on the body which makes people explode (seriously), and his various struggles in a world turned barren after a nuclear war. If that sounds ridiculous that’s because it is: The story in this film is really loose and just serves as set-up for the outlandish and over-the-top fight scenes. the film comes in at just under 2 hours long, but it does have a lot to cram into it: The film is based on an extensive manga and television series, so trying to condense the majority of the story into a single film does mean that some details are skipped over, and as a whole the plot does come off as disjointed and inconsistent. There’s enough to make the film work, but it does seem that there are a lot of details missed out.

You won’t be watching this film primarily for the story anyway, as the highlights of this film are the fight scenes, which make up almost all of the movie. There’s not much variety in the fight scenes either; but then again, when you can make people’s head explode just by punching them, you really don’t need much else. From fight scene to fight scene with little exposition in between, it knows what it wants to focus on, and does so unashamedly. There is a little bit of narration in the opening sequences concerning the background of the nuclear war and the powers of the martial arts, but other than that there are a few lines of dialogue before/after each fight which tie the whole thing together. There are points in the film which do seem a little samey; the scene jumps from one fight against a bandit to another battle with a bandit and there’s very little in terms of making progress story-wise. It also doesn’t help that most of the characters look the same: It is almost an entire roster comprised of macho men with 80’s mullets or punk mohawks. All of these characters seem to have muscles on their muscles at some points at the sheer over-the-topness of the designs (also the characters size seems to vary quite a lot, I can’t tell whether this is intentional or not?). One can’t be too hard on the film though; it is very much a classic martial arts film just animated so it can be a bit more inventive and fantastical. Though the characters do all seem very similar, there is a nice amount of detail and creativity gone into the finer details if you get a chance to appreciate them before they explode and die…

In terms of production, this film seems a little weak. This was released back in 1986 so it wouldn’t have the polish of special effects, but still I think that there are animations from that time that were much better; the characters feel a little stiff and restricted, but on the other hand, the animation does allow you to get footage of people levelling skyscrapers, so that’s fun. The film does look very 1980’s, with the mullets, the flashy costumes and just a lot of flare thinly veiled behind lots of muscles and fist fights. The post-apocalypse setting of having the world succumb to nuclear catastrophe in 199X is not uncommon for the cold-war context of the 1980’s, but the film does not really bring in any sci-fi elements for the future it supposedly takes place in. Instead it focuses moreso on fantasy elements such as ancient martial arts, strange powers, and a battle against the Gods. It’s an interesting mix of Sci-fi and fantasy elements, and provides an interesting backstory to a martial arts film (which as I have mentioned is the core of this film).

Just a brief note about the amount of gore in this film…there is a lot of gore in this film. Barely a scene goes by without someone bleeding profusely or exploding. When I say exploding, I don’t mean some offscreen nonsense; heads start splitting and internal organs are spread far and wide throughout the film. I managed to watch an uncut version of the film (Such a version has not seen any official release) and you certainly could not get these sort of effects back in 1986 with prosthetic effects. If you are of the opinion that animated films are for children, then this film may help you to re-think that notion. I suppose there is certainly an element of humour in the over-the-top deaths and the incessant amount of gore, but its the sort of dark, dry humour that would appeal to an older audience. Overall, despite the flaws, Hokuto no Ken is not too bad of a film: It certainly has problems and is somewhat outdated, but it really makes an effort to bring this gorey, bloody and altogether extravagant tale to life. Perhaps its not the best introduction to the franchise (the television series and manga probably are best for that), but its a martial arts film at heart, and it delivers this in spades.

The 25th Reich (2012)

Time travelling robot spider Nazis? Count me in...

SYNOPSIS: In 1943,five allied soldiers are selected for a special mission in the Australian outback to retrieve some Pumas that have escaped. However, when they reach their destination they are told of the real purpose of their mission: To use a time machine to travel back 50,000 years to take control of an alien spaceship that crash landed on Earth, and use it to defeat the Nazis. But even then, there are more surprises in store for the unlucky soldiers…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: …This film is just…weird. The 25th Reich is a 2012 Australian film that is a homage to the sci-fi B-movies of yesteryear. The film concerns five soldiers sent into the Australian outback to retrieve/kill some pumas that have escaped (apparently, this part is based on a true story), however, the real purpose of their mission is to travel back in time to recover an alien spaceship that in the present day is ruined. If that doesn’t sound equal parts intriguing and ridiculous, then you may not get what this film has in store for you. Anyway, the start of the film introduces us to the only five characters in this film; each of them being very much a stereotypical character: We have the cigar-smoking trigger happy American, a young, nerdy kid, an Italian whose personality consists of being Italian…There’s nothing special to define these characters from the outset, but at least you get to know them fairly quickly, even if there’s not much to really get to know. As I mentioned, this film is an homage to classic sci-fi films, and the characters here are just caricatures of the sort of people that you would find in those films. One problem with the first twenty or so minutes is that it consists primarily of these soldiers walking through the Australian outback engaging in dialogue; which itself isn’t so bad, but the fact that it is near impossible to make out anything anyone is saying in their exaggerated accents. It doesn’t really make much difference to the plot, so I suppose that nothing important is really lost. Still, it is a bit annoying that it isn’t a little clearer.

As the film goes on, it certainly gets more interesting, as a number of twists and revelations slowly draw the viewer into this bizarre story. There is a mix of comedy, action and terror that works quite well throughout, though there is little depth to it. These continual revelations and developments slowly unfold a story that gets more and more bizarre as it goes along, and strange new things come out of nowhere. In a moment, the fairly grounded nature of the film in these five ordinary soldiers takes a turn when time travel becomes a concept, then the alien spaceship turns up, and the travelling to the future again shakes up the rules and it is continually breaking the frame of expectations and it’s connection to reality to keep viewers on their toes. From the title, you just know that something crazy is going to happen, but the film still manages to pull off some surprises and take it to some ridiculous places, especially in the final sequence, where all the rules just seem to go out of the window. There is a particular scene that I would rank as one of the most disturbing, weird, over-the-top and altogether ludicrous I have ever seen…I don’t think I can even describe what happens in it, you really have to see it for yourself (If you’ve seen the film, you know which one I’m talking about…). The film really tries to be overly ridiculous, and it certainly succeeds, and by the time the film is at its climax and the characters are being hunted by robot spider Nazis, you can just accept it and enjoy the ride.

The production of this film again tries to stick close to the B-films it pays tribute to while incorporating a little bit of new techniques as well. One of the first thing that struck me was the vivid colours - the film uses an old “technicolour” effect to bring that old sci-fi look to it. This is highlighted further in the expansive landscape shots that adorn this film which while add nothing to the story, certainly look good. It is interesting to note that in those old B-films, films like this would probably have been done in a studio and all landscape shots would have been stock footage or models: In this sense, The 25th Reich has a little ambition in going a little further. The use of CGI is pretty bad for a film of its time, and it is very jarring, but again in the context of older films, it makes sense and feels right at home. All of this adds up to a strange sort of rawness to the film, and it has a sort of materiality you just don’t get from big-budget Hollywood. This film is a generally low budget affair, but it doesn’t need a lot of money to do what it needs to. The 25th Reich is an insane ride through some ridiculous and over-the-top ideas, while paying homage to its roots. It’s not the most compelling and polished film you’ll ever watch, but if you just let it be what it is, then you can probably enjoy it as it defies rationality or correctness and just does its own thing. The end of the film promises a sequel, and I hope they do one, just to see where they can take it next…

Defending Your Life (1991)

Death is only the beginning…

SYNOPSIS: Daniel Miller has just died after crashing his new car into a bus…however, that’s only the start of his troubles, as he has now arrived into Judgment City, a place where people are sent after they die. Here, people have to defend their lives as they are examined in a trial to determine whether they conquered their fear, and so can “move forward”, or if they need to be sent back to Earth to try again.

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Defending Your Life is a 1991 comedy film written and directed by Albert Brooks. It’s not science-fiction, but I’ve chosen to review it for reasons I’ll go into. The plot concerns a man named Daniel, who has shuffled off his mortal coil in an accident, and finds himself and his life being judged of any value, specifically by looking at whether he has conquered his fears. The film is set in Judgment City, where apparently everyone goes after they die to have their life evaluated. Starting the film off with the main character dying perhaps would seem a little dark, but it is handled in a delicate and light manner, and it’s never lingered on throughout the film, the characters not being particularly bothered about their death is put down to an effect of the place they are in, which makes the transition easier. Daniel is shown to be a guy that doesn’t really live life to the full (but he doesn’t do too badly), and we don’t see any other character before they die, so again there’s no real way to linger on the concept of death if it’s never really shown.

Just like the characters that are eased into this transition, the viewer too is eased into this strange new world, and while for the characters it’s the soft-talking workers and the ability to eat all you want and never get fat, for the viewer we are treated to colourful wide shots of an expansive, always-sunny city, full of life despite everyone being dead…There are a number of characters that provide the set-ups for some comedic scenes that again bring in some fun to a rather grim theme. Since the film introduces a whole new world after death with a whole new set of rules, regulations and processes, and one of the film’s strongest points is being able to explain everything cleanly and fun in a way that doesn’t make it merely a lot of exposition: It does this along with Daniel, who is of course new to the whole dying thing, and we experience his confused state with him. When the laws of Judgement city are explained, they are intermingled with the dialogue and comedy, so it never seems tacked on. The film also uses the need to explain things to subtly satire bureaucracy in this new place, and show it’s just as bad there as here, and certainly helps this world feel a little more familiar. Essentially, it doesn’t explain everything, including what happens as one “moves forward” to the next stage, and leaving some mystery to what happens after death is important too.

Despite the comedic element of this theme, there is a serious element that is dealt with in the story. The reason I chose to review this film even though it isn’t science-fiction based is that the Judgment City does have the look and feel of a “Utopia” that you might see in sci-fi. The film is all about looking back at one’s life and seeing if one has conquered “fear” that holds one back to prove one can “move forward” to the next step. Through looking at Daniel’s life, we see how different situations in people’s lives can be viewed differently, and whether that person acted out of fear or they conquered it. It is thoroughly thought-provoking stuff, and the staging of the “trial” sets the stage for the viewer to consider what they see on screen too. the pacing for these elements is exceptionally well done, as the film presents moments of silence and inactivity at just the right time to allow the viewer to gather their thoughts and reflect on what the film is showing them. The tone of the film is fairly light throughout, so one can really do this anytime no matter what is onscreen. the romance element fits in perfectly with this too, and really brings it home.

Overall, Defending Your Life packs in a lot of detail and variety in what it wants to portray, be it comedic, serious, romantic or otherwise, and all the while it balances everything in a terrific way. Taking on the idea of death and judgment and getting to work in a film is no easy task (even more so when you want to involve comedy), but the film is respectful, well thought-out and still leaves room for interpretation about the afterlife, which gives it a good breadth. There is a real sense of ambition in this film in setting old stories in a new setting, and there is a lot of creative effort gone into this to make it something unique and enjoyable to watch, while simultaneously being provocative and inquisitive.The film has little in the way of action, tension or adrenaline moments, and the humour is a little cheesy sometimes, but this is a fantastic film, and deserves watching by just about everyone.