“And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.”
Leviticus 26:29 KJV
A floating ziggurat towers up into a storm cloud sky. Lightening cracks, blasting it’s pinnacle. From the sky a diving bell drops lower and lower. Sirens sound and cannon-fire rips across the screen. Inside the bell a rubber clad figure in a WWI gas mask desperately pulls levers and turns dials. From the smoothness of the motion it’s almost hard to believe that the model inside is animated, so realistically does his hands work the controls.
So begins Phil Tippett’s ‘Mad God’. A masterpiece of stop motion animation that has been over thirty years in the making. Quite frankly there is nothing else like it. Or rather there has been, the closest comparison is Richard William’s‘The Thief and The Cobbler’. But that wonderful vision was betrayed and ultimately ruined by Disney. This one was not. To say the animation in either film is good is an understatement. They are both incredible.
In Mad God the detail of the model work, coupled with the lighting and subtlety of the motion control is particularly exquisite. A ‘simple’ walk cycle by the main character is sublimely hyper-realistic. With bulging rubber boots malformed by the weight of the foot as it crunches across a debris filled path. And that is just one little scene.
We follow the gas masked protagonist as he descends through a series of crumbling worlds that are post-everything-a-caust. Places where themes of decaying mutation and evolutionary violence abound. Dead world’s filled with fossils of our own making. Some of which are from Tippett’s earlier work. I spy ED-209 from Robocop amidst the ruins. It’s a trip that parallels Orpheus or Dante’s descent into their own respective Hell. As the figure navigates each one the map crumbles a little more..
Each one is a little more familiarly unfamiliar. A world of screaming giants strapped to electric chairs whose effluvia pours through a grate into the mouth of an even bigger beast. Who has been flayed and deconstructed, so that his organs, eyeball riddled and weeping, pump the bellowing workings of a great machine. Which in turn stamps out spindly figures, molded from dust and hair, born literally rotting to pieces into an industrial hellscape in which they are all too expendable. These figures labour to churn out metal blocks which zip through the air of this factory city. Crushing them as though they are of no consequence whatsoever.
Disney’s Fantasia this ain’t. It fact it’s a emphatic fuck you to all of that kind of schmaltzy classical Utopionist schtick. Like a Michelangelo made of plastic bags and dead seagulls, it is a parable comprised of Freudian offcuts from the grimmest of dark corners of human history. A howling glimpse of a future past that we are all complicit in. Which amidst our current pandemic and ecological collapse seems damn near prophetic.
This is reflected in the soundscape: Feet stomp. Babies scream. Bones crunch. Metal clangs. Amidst all this rotting shadow moments of poignancy do exist. One of the dust figures wants to escape and for a moment the person in the gas-mask holds out a hand.. It doesn’t end well though. There are just too many infantile heavy-footed monsters out there.
Several times the film seems to be heading towards an ending. Only to confound the viewer. One such moment takes places in a world of lost briefcases. Each one seemingly containing dynamite with a ticking clock that only requires winding. Time from this point on becomes a key theme.
This place we are journeying through is a place where time repeats itself. It slows. The hand ticks forward twice then back four time, stutters forward again then back. If mythology is set in ur-time then this one is is a rich expression of suffering time. The kind of time that happens when you break a leg or are having chemo. It drags on and all you can do is hope.
This is reflected in the scratched jerky effects of the film’s stock which turns fuzzy and static filled. Particularly as surgeon’s tear jewels out of the guts of the gasmasked hero, wrapped in gore and ichor, until they reach in to pull out the screaming spine of his or her inner child.
At this point you can make your own mind up about the direction of film. Though personally I found it rather cheering. What that says about me I don’t know exactly. I will say this was probably a sentiment not shared by my fellow cinema attendees. “What was that all about?” and “What a load of crazy shit!” Seemed to be a fairly common reaction as they staggered out of the auditorium. But then I’d shaved my ears, plucked my nose-hair and stolen a bag of donated clothes from outside a charity shop especially for this outing.
Mad God is released sometime soon hopfully. But will probably be showing at a film festival near you. Go and see it. Remember to take your kids too! They’ll love it.
The Midnight Gospel on Netflix* is the best animated show you are probably not watching. It is a beautifully drawn and thoroughly moving exploration of the human condition. You’ll either love it, hate it or both. Maybe you’ll ‘get it’ or maybe there is nothing there to get. It’s all in your head and what are you exactly inside there? Pulsating meat masquerading as sentience or something greater?
The show is about Death and the ‘primal reality’ thereof. It is also about guilt, acceptance and coming to terms with failure. Which is probably not entirely accurate but that was my impression. I’ve re-watched it a few times. It’s be one of those shows that densely packed with ideas and concepts where the interpreting could shift depending on how you feel at the time.
For instance if you watch it before doing something like going on holiday, with all the expectation of happiness that such an event brings, you might feel differently about the show. The circumstances when I watched it may have affected my slant. It is also very, very funny.
This Isn’t Really a Review.
I went home for Christmas on the 19th of December, hours before yet another lockdown was announced and ‘enforced’ in the UK. I’m not especially proud of it but it happened. Now the end is in sight maybe I can come clean. I do not have a big family and it seemed particularly important to go and see my mother who is elderly, as much as it pains me to say that. And whose short term memory is a long term worry for me.
It was a long journey from here to there. A good eight hours as the road flies. Doing it in the midst of a resurgent pandemic meant only a bare minimum of stops for petrol and the inevitable bio-break. I had tested negative. I had self isolated. I had spent a week worrying about it. I was committed to making the journey.
The coronavirus has challenged everyone slightly differently. It’s made us all redundant in one way or another. One big shared aspect of virus culture has been the slow existential dripping away of time. Isolated from solitary family members living distantly atomised lives. Silently contemplating all the worst of questions of ‘How Will I Cope If such and such dies?’ By pondering the immediate mortality of loved ones considered most vulnerable and considering the brute realities of this new era should they succumb.
How would you feel watching them slowly die via fucking conferencing software? Robbed of being 100% present in such an acutely important moment. Remember all those great things you intended to do together over the last year? It’s now a road to your own personal Hell. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
Am I Part of the Problem?
I took to that road at the last minute. Sensing lockdown was about to hit like a rake to the face, I threw everything I didn’t need into the back of my 22 year old import. Along with a cantankerous cockatiel and a half ounce of very strong weed called Stardawg. Once I was out there my carefully planned smuggler’s route over the high ground seemed silly in hindsight.
The motorways were just a big series of empty lanes, HGV’s and low level paranoia. The spectre of police patrols sweeping up drivers in between road blocks, checking and fining every car traveling beyond a certain distance on the ANPR cameras was just that: a spectre. A big bellowing paper tiger roaring from all forms of mass media. ‘Stay home! Save lives!’ (except in this case).
I saw only two cop cars on the whole journey. They were pulled up having a chat and a coffee at a popular services on the A1. Inside the building a naked woman screamed at her coven of teenaged children from the doorway of the ladies toilets. For their sakes I wish I had made that up. But I just walked right past them pretending I saw nothing. Eight hours later I drove into a deserted tier 4 city. Eyes bleeding, head thrumming with the cosmic vibrations of a radial tyres thumping four hundred odd miles over tarmac and hardcore.
I was happy to be back. Happy to see the dog, the cat, the parrot. The messiness of home. To be present with my mother and sharing memories once more. I took up residence in the basement in a bed next to the wine rack. Eager to be diminished by soft drugs and alcohol over Yule. I plugged in my eight year old laptop to the TV and HDMI’d my ambitions away until mid January.
The show I started with was The Midnight Gospel.
I’d been saving it for months for this moment. Like I hoard all animations, good or bad, on a special hard drive committed to animated piracy. Four terabytes of brightly coloured escapism of varying quality and theme. Series, feature films, one offs. The collected works of Jan Švankmajer and hundreds of film festival shorts rubbing shoulders with Tom & Jerry, Ugly Americans, Pingu and Thingu. It’s my own little Erebor and like the hoard under that particular hill, it has driven me more than slightly mad.
I’ll say this; I don’t remember much about watching the entire run the first time. I interspersed it with cycling fast, thrashy laps around Regent’s park. Still stoned of course. Then I went back for more. I don’t think I knew how to feel about it at first either.
The show is about a some dood called Clancy Gilroy who lives a dimension called the Chromatic Ribbon. He owns an unlicenced computer thingy that grants him access to multiple worlds in multiple universes. He visits these worlds to generate content for his podcasts. Clancy has a single loyal subscriber for his podcasts, though he never questions whether they are worth doing. Of course they are. How else can he escape the pain of existence? Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
Due to Operator Error there are No Longer Living Things on This Planet.
While I watched and rewatched I had a lot of questions. Are the podcasts real podcasts? (They are sort of, being adapted from episodes of the The Duncan Trussell Family Hour). Was the whole thing an exercise in Pendleton Ward‘s slow slide into guru led fart-sniffing whimsy? (No it isn’t) Why did it feel so fucking ‘Californian’? Was it some new age religious bullshit masquerading as philosophy? Why was I simultaneously annoyed and overjoyed by it? Halfway through I got the theme. I shrugged. I wrestled with it. I felt uncomfortable. I went out for another bike ride. I poured another drink.
I am not fan of podcasts. They aren’t a part of my cultural diet. There’s something about the format that I find self-indulgent and it doesn’t chime with me. Which is more than a little hypocritical. Though I understand the appeal and have listened to a fair share of them second-hand: Lore, Marc Maron’s podcast, Behind the Bastards, a bit of Louis Theroux. Maybe it’s because I’m full of rage and jealousy. So it’s weird I would enjoy The Midnight Gospel when other people I know who love podcasts do not like it. At all. I think because it’s almost a pseudo fake podcast backed by really good fucking animation that I managed to initially get on board with it.
I could also see a fair bit of myself in Clancy. His rejection of the multiverse simulator as a economically viable workhorse. His unsuccessful podcast. His quixotic dedication to escapism and his embrace of the moment. His clutter. His souvenirs. His solitude. Not that these are all positives. Just similarities.
The second time around I watched odd episodes out of order. The ones I remembered thinking that I enjoyed watching. The ones where I began to realise the whole series was about the grim experience of trying and failing to cope with the inevitability of Death. These were episode four: ‘Blinded By My End’ and episode five: ‘The Annihilation of Joy’.
When I say failing to cope. I mean that in a partial sense. We all fail. It’s a condition of life. How ‘well’ you deal with it is a phenomenological question. You can be an emotional wreck and still bring home the bacon and or a zen bum without a pot to piss in but living a rich existence. What you make of existence is subjectively your life to live.
Of course visually its a real treat. Gorgeously drawn and wonderfully psychedelic and surreal with oodles of charm and neat little animated stories occurring in the background. Each illustrating in a way the underlying theme of each episode, though in some episodes this is more enigmatic than in others. Aesthetically it resembles Superjail, although thinking about it is maybe it’s more like the lesser known King Star King. Which are produced by Titmouse studios (I actually said ‘Chirp’ from their ident when I first saw the opening scene of the first episode.) Who over the last 10-12 years have really carved out their own stylistic ouevre in animation.
As I said before, The Midnight Gospel is show about death and coming to terms with it. This isn’t a hidden theme. Clancy interviews the grim reaper in one later episode but it also isn’t entirely apparent from the earlier episodes.
What struck me most was how well it deals with the both the practical and dysfunctional aspects of grief. The former is much more up front, especially in episode 7: Turtles of the Eclipse, where Caitlin Doughty explains how important and cathartic it is to simply take time to sit with a loved one once they have died. She also outlines how exploitative the funeral industry is in this regard too.
The themes of dysfunction and of how loss can make you behave in certain ways it is much more implicit in the character arc of Clancy. Especially as more of his backstory is revealed. The final episode it very moving. Although I don’t want to give anything away that might spoil it. In this manner I found it sort of similar to ‘Flowers’, which is another brilliant dark’ comedy’ about dysfunctional, traumatised people pursuing what others might deem to be irresponsible dreams. Rather than dealing with the tedious nitty-gritty of life.
As Dr Wong said in another popular cartoon: “..[T]he bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.”
January came and I had a birthday that I tried desperately to run and hide from. On the day I was blixxzd. Haunted and nervous. I sang karaoke and was red wine sick all over a floor. I laughed about it later while I was hungover. But was I really present for it?
There’s a saying my mother has: ‘guests are like fish, after a week they stink.’ After three weeks I really stank out the whole joint. It was time to head North again. Lockdown was still ongoing, still is in fact. But a viable vaccine seemed to be just around the corner and it wasn’t like I had options.
I drove back up with the cockatiel on my shoulder, shitting on me all the way. Shared memories are important and it had been reassuring for everyone to have a moment we could look back on and say remember what happened over pandemic Christmas? I really feel for those who haven’t been able to have that. For now at least the thought of that inevitable loss was one that I could push aside and make smaller for the time being.
I hope I didn’t kill anybody. I don’t think I did. But who the fuck knows.
This is IT folks, the real deal. A great concept beautifully realised. A perfect slice of speculative techno horror and a fantastic feature length debut from Brandon Cronenberg.
First lets give the elephant in the room a fat sack of peanuts: Brandon Cronenberg is, yes, the son of that David Cronenberg and, yes, he has certainly picked up a few things from dear papa:
Grisly subject matter: Check. Grim technology used for nefarious ends: Check. Icy performances from emotionally damaged characters: Check. Lashings of gore and blood pumping in spurts from open wounds? Check.
In this regard Brandon is certainly carrying on the family tradition regarding the Cronenbergian approach to surreal and grotesque (and in so doing transcending the usual genre niches). But he also puts his own stylistic flourishes into the film that fortifies Possessor into a prescient and substantial work that can stand quite comfortably on it’s own merits and be a part of the Cronenberg f̶r̶a̶n̶c̶h̶i̶s̶e̶ dynasty. It’s not flawless! Hell what film is. But it is pretty gosh darn good. And it is very pretty to look at too! More so than the muddy ’70’s turd browns of Cronenburg senior’s palette choice anyway.
The story in ‘Possessor’ is thus: Andrea Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, an agent who works for a Black Ops organisation who implant targets with a mind controlling device operated remotely by their agents in order to perform high level assassinations. The film opens with Tasya in the body of a professional hostess. Crying her eyes out as he emotionally calibrates with the body of her host, right before she enters a bar and savagely carves up a wealthy looking gentleman with a dinner knife. After that she slices open her host’s throat and wakes up in her own body.
Of course Tasya loves her work! So much so that she simply can’t wait to leave her perfect family behind to get back to it! Her boss, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (channeling a certain meaty surgically enhanced facial aesthetic perfected by Mickey Rourke) can’t help but sympathise. And offers her a hit in which she must inhabit the body of Colin Tate, played aptly by Christopher Abbott. A small time coke dealer who happens to be the boyfriend of a billionaire’s daughter.
Tasya follows Colin, getting his diction and mannerisms right, so that when she inhabits him she can more easily ‘pass’ as him in front of his nearest and dearest. Kind of like Konstantin Stanislavski combined with Richard Kuklinski. Anyway, Colin has an interesting day job courtesy of his girlfriend’s father and intended target John Parse, played by Sean Bean. Colin, via virtual reality goggles must quickly catalog the interior furniture of video streamers. Cue a quite a graphic sex scene in the uncut version where Tasya as Colin fails to concentrate on describing the curtains in the bedroom of a couple of active amateur webcam pornographers. Of course, with Tasya masquerading as Colin, within Colin, things don’t go according to plan…
So far so Cronenburgian. But Brandon is doing things a little differently. The first stamp of his own auteurship (yes I know it sounds wanky but fuck it) is his eye for detail. Nothing is placed in front of the camera lens without an intense degree of thought and consideration. The sets are both sumptuous, chilling and very unsettling. From the very beginning in the opening scenes where the first ‘possessee’ walks up a flight of stairs into some vaulted cellar ceilinged bar located in a sky scraper (!), you get a strong sense of matter out of place. Of one thing masquerading as another. Indeed in that initial opening the camera follows a spine like sculpture along the ceiling of the bar which made me wonder if that sculpture was made for the film or something Brandon had seen and marked.
From then on, every location seems to have a particular purpose and significance, imbuing the film with a distinct feeling of geodemographic horror. From Tasya Vos’s grotesque modern McMansion that she lives in with her unsuspecting husband and daughter. Which overlooks an interminable row of garages, with apartments attached as afterthought. All with exposed electricity meters. To the stunningly disorientating skyline of Toronto; presented as a cornucopia of glass office-scape apartments reflecting garishly back at each other. As though the whole city were some true to life urban panopticon of blank indifference. Even Tom Parse, the targeted billionaire entrepreneur has his own terrible ostentatious interior displayed in over-carved, over-veined marble and golden gilt.
Honestly I’ve not seen anything this good regarding the dystopian horror of architecture since Gattaca  and High Rise . The latter of which is surely no coincidence, considering Cronenberg senior made a pretty decent stab of filming JG Ballard with Crash in 1996.
As for the rest of the story. Well I don’t want to give away too much. There are stories with twists and there are stories with turns. Compared to those Possessor is a helter-skelter standing tall above the rest of the fair. Let’s just say that Andrea Risborough imbues Tasya Vos with not only a chilling enjoyment of her work but also a certain amount of sleight of hand. Certainly it is grim grim grim, but beautifully so. Go and watch it dammit and get an uncut copy if possible.
I was really looking forward to this film, the overall premise seemed so promising! A teen Vampire film with an interesting subtext regarding gentrification sucking the lifeblood out of urban areas. Hopes were high when I fired it up on the big screen TV, assuming it would be a woke mashup between Fright Night, Lost Boys and possibly Vampire in Brooklyn.
For the first half it seemed like the film might deliver. But unfortunately for the second half ‘Vampires Vs. The Bronx’ turns into a flapping rubber bat of a film. It toothlessly ditches the gentrification angle, trades characterisations for stereotypes and shamelessly rips-off better teen Vampire films of yesteryear.
Credit where credit is due. The film does starts brightly enough. The post title screen montage shows neighborhood kid ‘Lil Mayor’ Miguel as he cycles through the Bronx putting up posters for a Block Party benefit to save the local Bodega, which is run by his friend Tony. It’s a pretty good way to introduce all the named characters and setup all the locations, showing the spread of blood-sucking real estate company ‘Murnau Properties’ as it aggressively takes over the local small businesses in the Bronx.
In addition to turning nail salons into hipster coffee shops and artisan cheese bars, Murnau has also bought up the local creepy looking courthouse. Which it plans to turn into luxury apartment vampire nests. It’s not exactly super subtle but it’s a campy kind of fun befitting the genre. Plus there are so many po-faced, clangingly scored horror films out there now that a fun bit of pop horror goes a long way. In VVtB you get precisely 37 minutes of fun and then it loses itself.
For me, the film starts to fall apart when the main trio get arrested for trespassing on one of the Murnau properties. The boys are trying to get proof that vampires exist. But of course vampires don’t show up on video! So when they show their phone camera footage to the cops and the gathered chorus of community members and nothing shows up on screen, cue the drama.
So far, so formulaic. However this is the Bronx! Suddenly having all the generations of assorted adults become law abiding to the point of screeching authoritarianism felt especially jarring. It didn’t stop there either. The V-Blogging character, the neighborhood girls and the two aspiring rappers all get their licks of disapproval in on poor Miguel and friends. You’d think the whole neighborhood had never known anybody who’d sat in the back of a squad car. At first it just seemed unrealistic. But the longer it went on the whole sequence came across as condescendingly moralistic. In the age of Black Lives matter and the victimisation of so many young people of color by the police, it hit a bit of a bum note.
In fact, regarding the characterisation of ‘the community’, which is always a problematic construct. The portrayal is not exactly deep and meaningful. Being comprised mainly by the usual mish-mash of urban stereotypes that commonly stand in for cultural heterogeneity; Friendly street drinkers playing cards, a couple of aspiring street corner rappers, a handful of gangsters and then the god fearing parents who work 8 days a week as office cleaners or full-time grandmas.
Another issue is that the ‘kids’ are supposed to 14 or 15 but they’re presented as though if they are dorky ten year olds instead of being urbane and street-wise teens. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Miguel’s mother goes ape-shit at Tony the Bodega guy for letting the main trio watch Blade. Fucking Blade. As though a 1997 comic book movie was too adult for teens.
This also includes Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith who plays the local priest. I was holding a fucking votive candle for Method Man’s big appearance for the entire film. Considering how many times the film mentions ‘Blade’, I really hoped he would turn up as a kickboxing ecclesiastical vampire slayer. Possibly sporting a bitchin’ Wes Snipes high top fade and wearing a pair of $300 Oakleys. Nope! Method Man’s big line is and I shit you not “They stole my Sprite.” That’s it. That’s fucking it. That’s all he gets. What a fucking waste.
He’s not the only one. Rita played by Coco Jones, is one of the better characters of the film’s second half. She gets to go with the ‘boys’ on the climactic vampire hunt and has some funny lines. But it still feels like she was tacked on as an afterthought rather than given anything meaningful to do. Overall it’s like if some dry-drunk supply teacher who’d just speed read a pamphlet on inclusion, was asked to direct a school cast version of ‘Lost Boys’. It lacks the wit and nuance.
The dry sarcastic wit of those 80’s vampire films was what made them great. The two Corys in the Lost Boys and Roddy McDowell in Fright Night had bags of it. These were knowing films that didn’t take themselves too seriously, and reveled in playing up the comedy horror angle whenever they could. Even the more serious remake of Fright Night with Colin Farrell was still a comedy horror, though in an darker toned noughties style. So VVtB should be part of a good comedy horror genre lineage.
Unfortunately it’s a lineage VVtB chooses to squander. If not actively ignore in favor of theft, hoping we won’t notice. The scene where the kids go searching for the vampires in their den. Only to find them hanging upside down above them is lifted outright from Lost Boys, almost shot for shot in fact. But is entirely lacking the humor and originality of that scene. In fact at this stage of the film the vampires aren’t even a credible threat anymore and this really is the big problem with this film. It coddles the main characters so much that you know nothing bad will happen to them.
It also means that the character’s lack any real flaws which squashes any agency or growth. If they are good to begin with then what have they learned by the end of the film? There is no journey for them to take. No arc. Just plain old return to normality. All of this totally screws with the flow of any movie. This is doubly compounded when you have three little Mary Sue’s versus your stereotypically unoriginal pale Goth bloodsuckers*. Along with any sense of suspense and drama, the cartoonish thrill of the genre itself just evaporates.
As for the plot about gentrification? Well, that is forgotten about so rapidly it’s insulting. It leaves so many unanswered questions. What happens to the area now that Murnau Properties has been staked through the heart? Who takes over the stolen businesses? Does a law firm run by Werewolves buy up the vacant properties? Why even bother with a gentrification angle to begin with?
Moving to the suburbs is portrayed again and again in the film as good thing. As something nakedly aspirational, even though these character’s spend their lives in a tight-knit urban community. In my experience young people and small business owners living in the real world city are completely loathe to move. Especially to some fucking car-centric suburb well away from their friends and customers. The film just lets this whole subtext go in favour of a superficial and shallow idea of community. One that is defined by block parties rather than daily lives lived enmeshed via the pressures of circumstance.
In fact by the end the whole film is unsatisfying and anemic. Phwooshing off into the ether like one of it’s vampires in daylight. It really needs some fucking hot blooded passion coursing through it’s veins. Instead we get a hollow streaming service cash-in masquerading as young adult ‘wokeness’. It’s fake, insincere and symptomatic of the recent trend of teen movies spoon feeding their target demographic de-politicised milky pap.
Stay for the first half, fall asleep before the end and you’ll think it’s just dandy. Otherwise, do yourself a favour and watch something else this Halloween. For a good fix of nostalgia horror, and if you find people in big mascot costumes creepy I thoroughly recommend the Banana Splits Movie instead.
Last night I got around to watching Russian Sci-Fi / Horror film Sputnik which is a clever, compelling and beautifully shot post soviet rethink of the xenomorph body-horror genre.
Sputnik, is misleadingly not about the first satellite to orbit the Earth. Instead it’s a fairly well crafted sci-fi/thriller/horror set in 1983. Russian Cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) crash lands back to earth when something sinister causes his Soyuz capsule to malfunction. He has no memory of the catastrophic re-entry which may or may not have killed his Co-pilot. Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), suspects something funny regarding his claims of amnesia and recruits unorthodox and controversial neuro-physiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to treat him at distant military facility in Kazahkstan. Of course, as the promotional poster makes clear, Konstantin did not come back to earth alone..
Ok, but is it any good?
So this film is Egor Abramenko’s full feature directorial debut and certainly marks him out as one to watch in the future. The setting of the film at the just before Perestroika and subsequent fall of the USSR is particularly interesting as it makes it feel like Post-Soviet-Soviet film! No really. I’ve always thought that period of USSR history would make a brilliant setting for a whole series of films. (A vampire film set in Soviet Norilsk anyone? Mutant Siberian Tigers terrorising a gulag?)
Anyways the Eastern Bloc has a long and storied history of producing great science fiction films. If you haven’t seen any I strongly urge you to check out the films of Andrey Tarkovsky. One of the hallmarks of the classic Soviet sci-fi films is it they push well away from convention; ‘Stalker’ 1979 and ‘Kin-Dza-Dza’ 1986 respectively being both well-feted internationally as genre breaking films that don’t rely on the conventional sci-fi tropes.
However even within the well trodden science fiction conventions i.e. space ships, robots and aliens, etcetera, there are Soviet era films such as Ikarie X-B1 1963 and Solaris 1972 that have subtle cerebral and culturally salient takes on such thematic standards. That both those films are based on Stanislaw Lem stories is also rather telling.
In any event Sputnik is more akin to the latter genre of Soviet sci-fi films. For it is essentially a reworking of Alien (1979) and this isn’t a bad thing, but the parallels are fairly obvious:
For instance the main protagonist is a strong female lead and the creature is a violent, body-horror xenomorph not too distantly related to the H.R Giger vision we all know and love. That the powers that be also wish to control it in order weaponise it, and in so doing allow it to munch men in body armour like popcorn, also relates it to the second and third Alien films.
What Abramenko does do differently is add a more intimate and complicit relationship between man and xeno than we might normally expect. Without overly fetishising the creature itself as an intrusively sexual or pointlessly savage. Though visually the beast is well actualised via CGI, it’s not really anything genre aficionados haven’t seen before. But it is suitably alien both in design and behaviour, straddling the line initially between gross and disarmingly menacing. When we are shown it in full in the third act it is not disappointing as it still manages to be inscrutably intelligent and a credible threat.
VISUALS & THEMES
As far as looks go, Abramenko perfectly captures a stylised and aesthetically pleasing version of early 1980’s USSR. The sets and locations are striking and completely of the era and Abramenko makes full use of Brutalist space. The period buildings and internal sets are all heavy concrete and stained birch veneer. Their frontages and auditoriums both massive and gloomy yet seemingly empty and underpopulated. This is clearly the USSR of committees and reports. Indeed we are introduced to Dr Klimova, who is being censured for her unorthodox clinical treatments by just such a committee.
Although much of the film is primarily set inside a military base, there are exterior shots of the Kazahk steppe. Frequently Abramenko has the wide-open slate skies and distant rolling hills bisected by an almost needless chainlink fence. Which is a nice touch regarding other subtle themes about illusions of constraint and control present in the film.
The characterisations in Sputnick are fairly robust and well construed. Dr Klimova is suitably hard willed and humanistic, Konstantin the Cosmonaut is funny, rueful ambitious and sly. Anton Vasiliev as Dr Rigel provides a decent cowardly turn. But the standout for me though is Colonel Semiradov who rather than being the hard nosed military man associated with the stereotype in such films is warm, considerate and forward thinking. This also muddies the waters somewhat between whether there is a definite ‘good or bad side’ in the film, which is when it is at it’s most interesting.
My main negative criticism of the film is that I found the score un-necessarily intrusive at key moments, being thumping and fast paced. Others may not mind it so much. There is also a more schmaltzy subplot that does not detract from the film but does feel that it is there mainly to provide closure at the end. All in all I highly it’s an interesting film that provides a decent twist on the genre and it is well worth a watch.