War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) | Ape-ocalypse Now! Adventure and spectacle never looked so awesome
Imagine if Cecil B De Mille and Irwin Allen created a Planet of Apes sequel and decided to fuse elements from The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai, while also paying homage to the original Ape movies… boom! You’ve got War for the Planet of the Apes aka Ape-ocalypse Now! – where spectacle and adventure collide on a colossal scale – but with a complex morality fable racing through.
Did I like it? Hell yes! Picking up two after the events of Dawn, Caesar and the surviving ape colony have been hiding out deep in the forest when they come under attack from a band of soldiers, who are quickly subdued. In an act of mercy, Caesar spares the lives of the survivors, but their leader, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), launches a devastating counter-attack.
With knowledge that forces from the North are heading their way, Caesar plans to send the colony out of the forest to a safe haven in the desert – but there’s a little matter of revenge against the ape-hating McCullough to sort out first…
[WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD]
What follows is Caesar undergoing an existential crisis as he struggles between becoming like his nemesis Koba whom he defeated in Dawn (but who still haunts Caesar) by getting violent revenge on the humans, and also dealing with the challenge of leading his tribe (just like Moses) to a Promised Land.
Of course he can’t do it without some help: so we have the ever-reliable Rocket (the brawn) and Maurice (the brains and Caesar’s conscience) accompanying him, along with Steve Zahn’s former zoo inmate, Bad Ape (who supplies the film’s only comic relief) and an orphaned girl (Amiah Miller) who Maurice takes under his protection – giving her the name Nova (could she be Chuck Heston’s rescued damsel from Planet of the Apes?).
The fact that little Nova can’t speak is another link to POTA where all of the humans were mute. Seems that pesky virus from Rise has had far-reaching effects. It could also provide a clue as to where this reboot franchise could be heading if War does just as well at the box office as the first two.
Caesar is soon into Heart of Darkness territory when Harrelson’s shaven-headed Kurtz-like Colonel captures the apes – including Caesar’s young son Cornelius – and forces them to work as slaves. Now, its time for Caesar to put on Dickie Attenborough’s officier’s hat and devise a Great Escape with the help of his sidekicks…
Like I said before, I loved War and those movie riffs, especially to the original Ape movies of which I’m a huge lifelong fan were a treat. The one that really tickled me was when Caesar is seen in silhouette as fires burn around him, which recalls the closing shot in Conquest of the Planet of Apes when Roddy McDowall’s Caesar delivers his ‘birth of the Planet of the Apes’ speech after defeating his captors. And those scary crucifixes seen in the first two movies also feature.
But while some may think it lazy film-making creating a movie based on the best scenes from classic big screen adventures, what makes this adventure so enthralling is the epic cinematography and the genuinely touching performances of all the motion-capture ape characters – with Andy Serkis providing some richly deep commanding vocal talent to his slightly greying and grizzled Caesar and Karin Konoval returning as my favourite – the marvellous Maurice. Then there’s the solid screenplay which brings brings lots of light and shadow and complexity to what could be seen as another ‘Apes good, Man bad’ scenario.
This is what summer blockbusters should be all about – adventure and spectacle on an awesome scale – but with a bit of heart and soul and moral complexity.
Essex Spacebin (2016) | Is this British indie sci-fi inspired lunacy or what?
Honestly, I really cannot begin the describe how ‘bad’ Essex Spacebin is – and I use those commas because I think that’s the point – or so it seems.
Meet Lorraine Willy (Lorraine Malby), a middle-aged woman with mental health issues who believes she and some intergalactic Rasta dude called Hogan have a psychic link with beings from another dimension. Armed with a PDF of Amen-Ra’s specs for an Essex-built pyramid, Lorraine sets out to locate a star key, which will gain her access to the parallel world…
Written and directed by David Hollinshead and Philip Thompson (who don’t appear to have done anything else according to the IMDB), Essex Spacebin is a low-rent sci-fi take on the Wizard of Oz with production values akin to the VHS shorts that I used to make on a lark with my university friends back in the 1980s. But it’s shot in glimmering 35mm film stock, which leads me to suspect that the whole thing is a joke on us viewers, and that its ‘badness’ is intentional.
So, are the film-makers hoping to pay homage to the likes of John Waters (Multiple Maniacs is back in UK cinemas in a restored version – yeah!!!) and the warped comedy of Troma’s 1980s output (in London, it was paired with Tromeo & Juliet, alongside a personal appearance of Lloyd Kaufman), and that their intentionally ‘bad’ film will take its place in the Midnight Movie pantheon alongside Rocky Horror, Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, or is it really just a waste of everyone’s time and effort? I’ve sat through it twice now and I really can’t make up my mind. So, if you have seen it, please do leave a comment below, and let me know if I have missed something?
Kudos, however, do go to crazy collection of characters that populate this mad, bad, non-star trek, and to the evocative techno soundtrack (from Ceephax Acid Crew aka Andy Jenkinson).
Essex Spacebin is available on Amazon Prime Video.
Dead-End Drive-In (1986) | Catch the day-glo Ozploitation thrills on Blu-ray
In an apocalyptic Australia, where lawlessness prevails, outcasts and misfits are being secretly herded into concentration camps disguised as drive-in movie theatres. When young petrolhead Crabs (Neil Manning) takes Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to the local drives in his brother’s ’56 Chevy, they soon face the terrible realisation that they have become the latest inmates of this bizarre social experiment. Can they escape before becoming resigned to a hellish existence of all-day parties, round-the-clock movie shows, and all the radioactive junk food they can eat?
Dead-End Drive-In is a prime slice of crazed Ozploitation from Brian Trenchard-Smith (aka Australia’s answer Roger Corman), who was responsible for Australia’s first martial arts thriller The Man From Hong Kong and the cult prison actioner Turkey Shoot. When it was released Down Under in 1986, it was written off as a bargain bin Mad Max rip-off, while its unconvincing cast of day-glo punks, freaks and loons looked like they had stepped out of an issue of the era’s über-trendy i-D magazine.
But it does have its fans, including this (Australian-born) writer, especially as it popularised German Bundeswehr vests and featured some rocking new wave tunes from those legendary Aussie alternative bands, Hunters + Collectors and Kids in the Kitchen. It’s also a great reminder of the now lost Australia tradition of going to the Drives.
Originally put out under the ArrowDrome label on DVD in 2013, Dead-End Drive-In is now out on Blu-ray, featuring a 2k restoration print, and packed with new extras, including an audio commentary from Trenchard-Smith and a documentary by the director on Australian stuntman Grant Page. Which only makes this the perfect excuse to revisit the much-maligned futuristic thriller.
Wizards (1977) | Rediscover Ralph Bakshi’s trailblazing animated fantasy
Praised by Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas, Wizards is an epic sci-fi fantasy adventure created by the legendary animator Ralph Bakshi in 1977, and it’s now available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK featuring a new high definition print.
Millions of years after a nuclear holocaust, the Earth is divided between the Badlands, where goblins and demons dwell, and the Goodlands, which is home to fairies and elves. During a violent storm, the queen of Montagar gives birth to two wizards– Avatar and Blackwolf, who are fated to enter into a deadly battle between magic and technology.
‘A cross between Tolkien’s Hobbit, Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man, and Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck’ according to Tarantino, Wizards is without doubt a fantastical animated adventure from a master craftsman, but it also works as a none-to-subtle allegory on the creation of the state of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust.
Featuring the vocal talents of Bob Holt (Hong Kong Phooey), Jesse Welles (The Return of Count Yorga), and a pre-Star Wars Mark Hamill, this was the subversive cartoonist’s boldest gamble following his adult-themed flicks Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic. But it is also became a trailblazing calling card for his next foray into animated fantasy, 1978’s The Lord of the Rings.
The 2016 Fabulous Films region 2 DVD and Blu-ray release includes a new high-definition transfer, audio commentary from Bakshi, isolated music and effect audio track, a featurette on Bakshi, trailers and a gallery including conceptual drawings.
David Bowie honoured in London with two 40th-anniversary screenings of The Man Who Fell to Earth
To mark the 40th anniversary of the UK release of director Nicolas Roeg’s iconic sci-fi, The Man Who Fell to Earth, a new director’s approved 4k restoration is being released into London cinemas on 9 September, with a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray and DVD following on 24 October.
Featuring a career defining lead performance from David Bowie and based on the cult novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth endures as, not only a bitingly caustic indictment of the modern world but, also, a poignant commentary on the loneliness of the outsider.
Friday 9 September has been declared a one-off David Bowie day by Curzon Soho as part of their campaign to save the cinema from demolition. After a special Save Curzon Soho edition of David Bowie Is Walking In Soho tour of the Thin White Duke’s locations, you can enjoy a special screening of The Man Who Fell to Earth introduced by its costume designer May Routh. Book tickets here.
Meanwhile, over in Hackney on the same night, Oscar-winning Director Danny Boyle introduces a special screening at Hackney Picturehouse. This is one of his favourite films and he has often sited Nicolas Roeg as a key influence on his career (he even referred to the film in the London Olympic opening ceremony). Book tickets here.
For more on the Collector’s Edition release, check out: www.facebook.com/vintageclassicsfilm
And there’s more… The original soundtrack album will be released for first time on CD on 9 September and on vinyl on 28 October; while the musical Lazarus, inspired by Walter Tevis’ novel, debuts at the Kings Cross Theatre, London from 25 October. Check it out here: lazarusmusical.com. Plus, a book on the making of the film, limited to just 1000 copies, is available for pre-order from 27 August: www.themanwhofelltoearth.co.uk
Identicals (2015) | This British indie sci-fi wants to be Blade Runner meets The Man Who Haunted Himself
In a futuristic Britain, a mysterious organisation called Brand New-U offers customers the chance to upgrade themselves by becoming ‘Identicals’ – doppelgängers that may walk and talk like you, but are living much better lives than you. Good-looking lad about town Slater (Lachlan Nieboer) seems to have it all, including the love of his life, Nadia (Nora-Jane Noone).
When she suddenly disappears, Slater is led to Brand New-U, where he makes a deal to take on a new identity in a bid to find Nadia. But as his quest turns into obsession, his identities start to blur, and what he must find in the end is himself…
This Irish-made British sci-fi indie thriller from Bafta-winning short-film director Simon Pummell is a brave attempt at fusing the futuristic worlds of Blade Runner, William Gibson and a Total Recall-styled story with a heavy dose of existential dramatics – the kind that was tackled so brilliantly by Basil Dearden in The Man Who Haunted Himself (check out my review of the Blu-ray release here).
Newcomer Lachlan Neibor (whose appeared in Torchwood and Downton Abbey) is certainly the one to watch, as he dominates nearly every scene as the wideboy Slater and his various doppelgängers, who operates as a conduit for Pummell’s exploration about ‘the strangeness of our contemporary world’.
With his brooding good looks and action man heroics, Neibor could give Jack O’Connell a run for his money (and he could be his double). As for the film itself, well it certainly looks super stylish, but it seems that Pummel (making his feature debut here) and his team have spent so much time on the film’s production design that they’ve forgotten to give the film’s difficult to follow story some heart and soul in which audiences can empathise with. Still, it could be the making of Neibor.
Identicals is out on VOD now and DVD on 22 August 2016 from Arrow Films
Timeslip (1970) | It’s back to the future with the British TV children’s sci-fi fantasy
The groundbreaking 1970s British TV children’s drama, Timeslip, gets a limited edition DVD set, featuring all 26 episodes of the four serials, a host of special features, and a ‘making of’ book from Network Releasing this week.
Devised by Ruth Boswell (The Tomorrow People and Shadows), Timeslip fused hard science and fantasy in its tale of two teenagers who discover the existence of a ‘time barrier’ that enables them to travel to different periods and locations – from World War Two to chilling visions of the future.
In The Wrong End of Time, teenagers Liz (Cheryl Burfield) and Simon (Spencer Banks), who are holidaying in St Oswald in the Midlands, are sent back in time to 1940 when the local naval base was taken over by German marines. In The Time of the Ice Box, they find themselves mistaken for scientific guinea pigs at an Arctic research station 20 years in the future.
The third serial, The Year of the Burn Up, sees our young heroes in an alternate 1990, where the misuse of science threatens the Earth. And, returning to the present day in The Day of the Clone, Simon goes in search of a missing Liz and has a fateful encounter with Charles Traynor (Dennis Quilley) – the man who put the duo on their time-travels in the first place.
Wasn’t the series made in colour?
With the exception of four episodes (parts 2 to 5 of Day of the Clone), the series was filmed in colour. However, the colour master tapes were found to be badly damaged in the 1980s – with only episode six of Time of the Ice Box remaining intact. This meant that only 16mm black and white film recordings, originally made for overseas sales, were all that remained. It was these that have been used for all subsequent video releases. However, the Time of the Ice Box colour episode is included in Network’s release.
• Behind the Barrier: 2009 feature-length documentary
• Beyond the Barrier: mini-episode
• ‘Making Of’ book by archive TV historian Andrew Pixley
• Back to the Barrier 2003: the cast return to the series location
• Day of the Clone 2007: Convention footage
• PDF archive featuring scripts and production paperwork
• Image gallery
• Disc text features – including an overview of Timeslip comic strip artist Mike Noble
Timeslip is released by Network as a limited edition DVD box-set (buy it here)
For more on the show check out the fan website: http://www.timeslip.org.uk/
The Call Up (2016) | Inventive thrills make this Brit indie sci-fi a winner
Are You Tough Enough to Play?
When eight elite online gamers are invited to beta-test a fully immersive virtual reality game on the 25th-floor of a New York City office tower, it’s an offer too good to resist. Donning hi-tech armour and helmet, the group step into the game, which puts them in the middle of a war zone that’s frighteningly realistic. But events take a sinister turn when the group discover that their helmets emit a deadly sonic shock if they try to leave the game…
With heaps of imagination, a handful of up-and-coming talent, and a just few rooms in an office block (in London and Birmingham) to play with, first-time director Charles Barker and his tech savvy production team have cooked up a smart British indie sci-fi with a nightmare scenario that grips you until the final explosive level.
Having worked in the gaming industry, Barker’s concept is pure gaming nirvana. It also gives him the opportunity to explore what happens when you take a group of loners, socially inept nerds and online obsessives out of their comfort zone and put them into a real-life survival situation.
The motley group includes grieving Carl (Max Deacon), sharp-shooting ex-soldier Andre (Parker Sawyers), nerdy Adam (Douggie McMeekin), apologetic ‘T3rrorist#1’ Zahid (Boris Ler), City boy narcissist ‘DaChief’ Ed (Ali Cook), macho ‘I like to kill shit’ Marco (Tom Benedict Knight), tomboy goth Shelly (Morfydd Clark), and ‘Slayer Girl’ Taylor (Adriana Randall).
As expected, the body bags at the ready as, one-by-one, our gamers fall foul of the loaded game, which only serves to highlight a very important message that ‘war’ is not a game and should be treated with respect. The big pay off, meanwhile, is a sly dig at the big soulless corporations who are manipulating our morals while insidiously taking control of our lives and our leisure pursuits.
Looking way more expensive than it ought to, and boasting a cool Carpenter-esque score, this intelligent Brit sci-fi is a winner.
The Call Up is out on DVD and digital download in the UK from Altitude Film Distibution, and gets it’s US cinema release on 24 June
Doomwatch (1970-1972) | The prophetic British sci-fi series gets a UK DVD release
In the early 1970s, the BBC1 sci-fi drama series Doomwatch made for compulsive viewing with its persuasive and frighteningly prescient storylines about science and technology gone awry. The series followed a group of dedicated scientists at the semi-secret The Department of Measurement of Scientific Work and their efforts to keep check on unprincipled scientific research which was creating hyper intelligent rats, plastic eating bacteria and genetic mutations, while also facing off volatile corporations, smug civil servants and government bureaucrats.
Heading up Doomwatch was the abrasive but dedicated Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), and he was supported by former intelligence agent and ladies man Dr John Ridge (Simon Oates); young researcher Toby Wren (Robert Powell), who meets tragic end in the season one finale; computer specialist Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard); and secretary Pat Hunnisett (Wendy Hall).
Doomwatch was the brainchild of Doctor Who screenwriters Kid Pedler and Gerry Davis, who tapped directly into the era’s zeitgeist by taking real scientific concepts to their terrifying extreme – which led Pedler to describe the show as ‘sci-fact’. This made for great drama, but also provoked headlines and debates on issues including growth hormones, subliminal advertising, sonic booms and dangers of lead petrol. Questions were even raised in Parliament when the fourth episode about killer rats was aired.
The show was certainly controversial, and not just for environmental reasons. Being a product of its times, it had an unenlightened portrayal of women – something that the producers attempted to redress by introducing female scientists like Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard) later in the run. Also dating the show are the 1970s stylings and location shots (which makes all of the UK look grey and grubby), and you’ll get a laugh from the scenes in which the actors flub their lines and bump into furniture (the show was shot as live). But these slight annoyances shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of this prophetic, dark-edged and hugely influential sci-fi series. The BBC certainly don’t make them like this anymore.
Never before available on DVD, all of Doomwatch’s existing episodes (the show met with the same fate as many other BBC shows that got wiped or destroyed after their initial transmission) have now been released from Simply Media in one box set which includes the unseen episode, Sex and Violence (deemed too much for British audiences of the day owing to the use of stock footage of a public execution) and the BBC documentary The Cult of Doomwatch.
The episodes presented here include eight from the first series (unfortunately Robert Powell’s dramatic exit from the show in the episode Survival Code is one those missing, believed wiped), all 13 episodes from series two, and three episodes from the final series (which many believe was not as good owing to the departure of Pedler and Davis at the end of the second series).
Doomwatch is out on DVD from Simply Media
• For more about the series, check out this fantastic fansite: Doomwatch Blogger
The Atomic Submarine (1959) | It’s Destination Inner Space for this Boy’s Own adventure
When several atomic submarines disappear in the North Pole, pride of the US fleet, the Tiger Shark, embarks on its most strangest and fearful voyage ever. Hitting an underwater electrical storm, the sub’s crew discover extraterrestrial forces are at work and begin to stalk an alien craft they dub, Cyclops, 1200-feet below the surface. When the two titanic craft become locked together in a death grip, the sub’s commander Reef Holloway (Arthur Franz) and his young rival, scientist Carl Neilsen (Brett Halsey), head inside the mysterious craft with a team of frogman. Coming face-to-face with a gigantic one-eyed inhabitant, they learn of its plans for colonising the Earth and set in motion a plan to take the alien menace down. But first they must escape its radioactive death ray…
Now this one of those old sci-fi films that I remember so well as a kid as two things really stood out: the electro-sonic soundtrack which combines a Bela Bartok-inspired piano score with Hammond organ and theremin; and the gigantic one-eyed alien. That memorable score is by Alexander Laszlo, a film composer who scored dozens of features in the 1940s and 1950s. A big experimenter in electronica, he also did an inventive score for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, called The World of Century Twenty First, narrated by Vincent Price. This is a collector’s item today, fetching upwards of $US100 for the original record.
Now there’s no question that the film’s special effects are sub-par. It consists mainly of a kid’s spinning top toy for the flying saucer and a submarine model kit that youngsters of the period got in boxes of Cheerios. I had one too, but rather than firing little torpedoes, it had a receptacle where’d you put an aspirin (I think) which made the sub dive then float back to the surface. It made bath-times were so much fun. Ah, but back to our Boy’s Own adventure.
The interior of the Cyclops is just a large expanse of blackness with a console of lights and a hand puppet for the alien. But that eyeball in a sock is quite something – especially for an eight-year-old back in the 1960s and 1970s. Given that this was made only a few years before Irwin Allen brought his outer and inner space adventures to our TV screens, this film most certainly inspired The Derelict episode in Lost in Space (both settings as vitually identical), and it could have served as the entire premise for Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea film and TV series. The stock characters and the use of stock footage are also trademark Irwin Allen, while the narration is a device he used for the Lost in Space pilot. Then there’s the Explorer diving bell itself. In Voyage it became the flying sub, while in Lost in Space it was the pod.
This new DVD release from Screenbound is based on a print struck in 1987, and it really shows up those poverty row effects. But who cares? This nostalgic sci-fi is a whole lot of fun and great treat for a rainy day. The only extra is an unrestored trailer (watch it below) that plays like a war propaganda film complete with newsreel styled music.