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Robert Zemeckis

MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 10th, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars

At the tail end of the 90’s, and before the rise of the dominant multi-picture franchise, every year was marked by films which covered similar blockbuster ground. 

1996 had aliens with Independence Day and soon after through a comedy lens in 1997’s Men in Black or Mars Attacks! That same year brought us the ‘volcano’ movies – Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both front-lined by rugged men of action. 1998 was the ‘asteroid’ year, marked by Michael Bay’s excess in Armageddon and the more philosophical (and far superior) Deep Impact. 2000’s variant on this trend was the Mars mission, with critical misfire Red Planet dropping at the tail end of the year, and before it Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, arguably the superior of two films which projected humanity forward deeper into the 21st century and toward the next frontier. We remained hopeful, back then, that humanity might reach for the stars. Twenty years on, the best we can hope for is that Donald Trump’s vaunted ‘Space Force’ ends up with eggs on its vacuumed face.

Mission to Mars, in a quirk of fate, actually takes place in the year 2020. The Mars mission, in an even stranger quirk, launches in the film on my birthday. With significant confidence, I am pretty sure that my 38th birthday this year will not be marked by another giant leap for mankind, which places Mission to Mars even more firmly into the science-fiction territory it already covers. Mars missions are promised or hoped for perhaps in the 2030’s, and now Red Planet’s 2056 looks far more likely (if we even have a habitable planet to launch from by then).

Mission to Mars, as a result, is hopeful and optimistic about our chances as a species, in a similar vein to its tonal bedfellow, 1997’s Contact, from Robert Zemeckis. They are films with different journeys but similar destinations. Both are riding the crest of Western hopes in the 1990’s that we may be about to embark, in the 21st century, on a great new adventure. That makes it all the more disappointing that Mission to Mars, the first significant high-concept blockbuster movie released in 2000–it’s only real challenger on opening weekend being Roman Polanski’s Johnny Depp-starring slow burn horror The Ninth Gate–is an underwhelming, strangely mournful and frequently corny experience. …

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TV, Book, Movie and Podcast Roundup – Summer 2019

Welcome to September! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on the blog but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black. This edition covers both July and August collectively.

Let’s start this month with TV…

Blu-Ray Review: Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars epitomises both the end of a depressed, cynical 1970’s for America and the birth of a gaudy, loud, colourful 1980’s.

The used car salesman is one of the almost cliched examples of textbook hucksterism in the Western world, we are almost programmed to distrust the line of fast-talking, buddy buddy technique exuded here by Kurt Russell’s salesman Rudy Russo. Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale rely on that textual assumption on the audience’s part to sell Used Cars, which pits Rudy’s aspirational salesman and his ageing, low-fi boss Luke against their rival, over the road, slick car sales operation led by Luke’s loud and nasty twin brother, Roy L. Fuchs (both parts being played by veteran character actor Jack Warden). It’s a traditional high concept comedic set up, with the audience designed to root for Rudy’s crooked underdog as he tries to stick it to an even more crooked Man.

Used Cars, in that respect, works as a piece both then and indeed now. We are not short of salesmanship and crooked hucksterism in our modern age, and Rudy’s aspirations to run for state Senate and combine his penchant for selling dodgy cars with a political bent feel particularly acute given the White House is currently home to the biggest con man in modern history. Released during the Carter Administration, the short period of a lesser-known President who inherited the shock of Nixon’s disgrace and a subsequent economic downturn, Used Cars has one eye on the glitzy rhetoric and showmanship of the coming Ronald Reagan, whose neoliberal approach mixed with a halcyon yearning for a simpler, greater America, ushered in an era in which the Rudy Russo’s of the world would profit while millions still suffer the consequences today.

While a comedy of its time, and one which has lost some punch over time, Used Cars still makes sense, when it could have ended up lost to the ages.

Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.

Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.

Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel. 

Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising. It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just *the* signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.

What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.

The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.