Monday, 10 April 2017

Sub-standard movies.

I went back into work today after a lovely week off to find that my office colleagues Davydd and Ian had been having a very productive conversation last week with the following question:

Has there ever been a bad submarine film?

The thoughts in the office are that, no, there hasn't. I'm not convinced I agree with this as I was unfortunate enough to have paid good money to watch U-571, and if you've you've seen Jon Bon Jovi in any movies you'll know how well that one plays out. But that aside, it's a sub-genre (see what I did there?) that has a very high hit rate of great movies attached to it.

Not even Harvey and Bill could save this one.

Maybe it's something about the inherent tension in films where the inhabitants are constantly in peril, where every move could spell disaster. Where silent running is as important as action, and where there's no end to the tense enjoyment gleaned from watching close-ups of sweating men staring upwards praying that water won't pour through a crack in the ceiling at any moment.

Films with submarines are tense enough at the best of times. And what elevates these films to greater status is the addition of a bit of conflict. If you combine submarines and war then you've pretty much got a nail-biter of a movie on your hands. There's something delightfully terrifying about listening to the pings of a sonar readout as the shadow of an enemy battleship passes overhead. And when the external threat gets too much, well there's little better than working out if there is a saboteur onboard who could scupper it all at any moment.

Full-on hipsters.

And the beards. By God the beards! It's not a submarine movie if the entire crew haven't got a face full of fuzz by the end of the first act. There's always that one radio operator who somehow manages to stay clean shaven, but the rest of the crew look like they decamped to Shoreditch for the duration of the movie. Combine that with roll-neck sweaters and pea jackets and you're suddenly watching a film that is bang on trend and giving you inspiration for your latest winter fashion look-book on Pinterest.

Here's Jurgen knocking the autumn-winter collection out of the park.

Dive! Dive!

And then there's the camaraderie. Submarine war films all have a subtext. Men, in an enclosed space, working together against the odds with nothing but their ingenuity to get them through. Cut off from the rest of the world they fight a shadow war from beneath the waves. In the best examples this is turned into a noble dignity where the submarines and their crews resemble sharks beneath the ocean picking off their unsuspecting prey. Coming up for air every so often risks being attacked by hunting packs of battleships and frigates.

Sub quality films...

If you do a quick Google search there have been hundreds of submarine movies. Below are my favourites, and they're not all war films.

  • Crimson Tide - It's Gene "born old" Hackman versus Denzel "never been in a bad movie yet" Washington in an ego driven undersea drama. Minus points for the "You have to be my Scotty" moment (thanks very much Tarantino).
  • The Hunt For Red October - Sean Connery plays a Scots/Russian submarine commander attempting to defect to the west. Or is he? Only Alec Baldwin can find out.
  • Das Boot - Jurgen Prochnow has the beard, the jumper, the pea coat and the hat (because he's the Captain).
  • The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - Wes Anderson and Bill Murray team up again in surreal submarine movie.
  • The Abyss - James Cameron's underatted classic. Close Encounters of the underwater kind. 

We all live in a...

There is one film that was mentioned to me today by Davydd that could take this genre off the charts. It's called The Atomic Submarine. No-one has seen it but judging by the poster it looks amazing. Submarines and UFO's? That's got to be a winner right?

Sub vs UFO. Sub wins!
Let me know if there's a submarine movie you think I've overlooked. I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Final Fantasy?

Whatever happened to His Dark Materials?

The film, not the books. I feel as though I may have had a dream a few years ago because I'm pretty sure a version of the first book (The Golden Compass) was made into a film with all sorts of fanfare. I recall watching it in an actual cinema, waiting with baited breath as the trailers made way for the main event and then settled down for two hours of massive disappointment.

Let me just put this in perspective for a moment. The Philip Pullman novels are some of my favourite books. Aimed at children/young adults but containing themes that resonate even as a grown up. They are simply fantastic, a great example of the art of storytelling. Starting in a skewed version of reality they soon expand to describe a fantasy setting that takes the reader on an astonishing journey.

The lead character of Lyra is wonderful, both inquisitive and vulnerable, and always resourceful. The adults in the book, whilst apparently in charge are as flawed as anyone, and frequently upstaged by the younger protagonists. Whilst the added dimension of alternate realities enables the story to shift it's pitch and create unforeseen adventures.

So back to the film.

Daniel Craig. With a beard!
Budget blown on actors.

What happened? It had a pretty good cast. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig took the lead adult roles, supported by the voice of Ian McKellan and Ian McShane, Sam Elliott played Lee Scorseby (a Cowboy, no surprises there) and Christopher Lee even got in on the act.

They cast a relative unknown in the lead role, and Dakota Blue Richards did a pretty decent job. But the film missed all the marks of the book. It was a case of all surface and no feeling. Yes, it looked sumptuous but they rattled through the story at breakneck speed, evidently worried that dwelling on the characters, their relationships and their motivations would get in the way of the next piece of epic fantasy.

Epic wide shot.

And it served to make everything formulaic. This felt like a cynical attempt to mirror the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (both this and The Golden Compass were produced by New Line Cinema). Almost every other scene opened with an "Epic Wide Shot". Stirring music wailed as the camera flew between mountains, city roofs, or down rivers before alighting on a party of adventurers. Cue close-up to pivotal lead actor; wide shot to the group; close-up of another party member; over shoulder shot of "insert important speech"; camera whizzes around; cut to next scene.

And this all served to miss the point of the books. The characters and their interplay where the things that glued the story together. The fantasy was the backdrop (important, but there to support the development of the protagonists). The film seems to want to serve this up the other way round. For all the money spent on CGI (which looked lovely by the way) you end up wishing more of it could have been spent on a script doctor.

And the worst part is there was no attempt made to finish the trilogy. It was left behind without a word. Almost as if the filmmakers were embarrassed to carry on. No doubt it didn't make the money it needed to. And this is the worst part, as a fan of the books it would've been great to see if they could have turned this around. But instead they chose to leave the series alone, and leave a potential audience behind.

After the grand success of The Lord of The Rings trilogy I fully expected the reawakening of the fantasy genre in cinema. But it never happened. Maybe audiences weren't ready. Maybe their aren't actually that many great fantasy series' that would make it into decent films (television seems to have cornered this market today). But His Dark Materials was worth a shot. Hell, it had flying boats, armoured bears and daemons in it. It's just a shame that it seemed to succumb to derivative film making, and totally failed to do justice to the books.