The Past Month on TV #40

In the fast-moving world of television nowadays (where whole seasons appear at once, daft uber-fans burn through them in a single sitting, and the conversation around them is over in a weekend), it’s easy to forget that the latest instalment of Netflix’s ever-shrinking Marvel offering — season three of Daredevil — came out within the last month. (Well, month-and-a-bit — this column’s a week later than usual.) Anyway, that’s where I’ll begin.

And there’s plenty more to cover after that, including a bunch of new Doctor Whos, the Inside No. 9 live Halloween special, the unusual finale of Upstart Crow, the latest Derren Brown special, and sundry episodes of other series too. So, as the Bard himself might say, without much further ado…

Daredevil  Season 3
Daredevil season 3For the 11th season of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV shows on Netflix, we make a long-awaited return to the hero who started it all: the Man Without Fear… the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen… Matt Murdock, Attorney at Law… Daredevil.

And “return” is a good word to describe this season, which sees Daredevil’s nemesis, crime boss Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, negotiate a semi-release from prison in exchange for informing to the FBI. While Daredevil’s second season veered off into more fantastical storylines from the character’s comic book adventures, which continued into team-up miniseries The Defenders, season three returns to the street-level, almost-real-world, grittily-toned world of organised crime of the show’s first season. It makes sense: season two didn’t go down that well (I loved it, personally, but it clearly wasn’t for everyone), and it seems The Defenders was pretty much a flop, but Daredevil’s first season remains one of the most popular instalments of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration. Returning to its playbook seems to have panned out, because season three has been getting strong notices across the board.

There are a lot of reasons for that, I think. Some are obvious: the show has always received acclaim for its superbly choreographed and filmed action sequences, and season three doesn’t drop the ball. Indeed, to mix metaphors, it raises the bar again, with an 11-minute single-take prison escape that is all kinds of impressive — and was done 100% for real, no hidden cuts (you can read more about that here). That may be the standout one this season (although there’s a four-way fight in the finale that’s a doozy), but there are numerous stunning sequences throughout all 13 episodes. They really put effort into making the action inventive and original, and that effort is appreciated. I guess if action sequences do nothing for you then it doesn’t matter either way, but seeing it be so well-executed is better than samey action-for-the-sake-of-action.

Back in blackThere’s a lot more to this season than that, though. New showrunner Erik Oleson has crafted a narrative for his 13 episodes that is better formed than most Marvel Netflix shows — heck, than most streaming series fullstop. It doesn’t seem to drag things out or go round in circles just to fill its episode count, but has a clear sense of pace and purpose. Okay, it’s still a streaming series — it still feels it can afford to devote entire episodes to things a network show might dash through in one sequence — but often that works to add depth. Spending a whole episode on Matt’s convalescence at the start of the season might seem indulgent, but it’s also important to his mindset for the rest of the season, which makes a big point of his morality, his religion, and his relationship with God — always a key aspect of the character, and foregrounded here without becoming objectionable to those of us with a less Catholicly inclined view of the world. The structural accomplishment really pays off in the final few episodes, too, with an array of surprising and game-changing twists and developments. My notes for later episodes were full of things like “shocking climax” and “oooh, twist!” and “ohhh shit!” At times Fisk feels genuinely unbeatable and you actually wonder how the heroes can win this one.

The return to gritty street-level criminal enterprises is more than just an aesthetic move, too. Well, that’s partly the joy of it — it makes for a refreshing change after multiple seasons of magic and mysticism if you watch all the Marvel/Netflix shows, after that side of the MCU even invaded the theoretically-grounded worlds of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, never mind Iron Fist. But it also allows Oleson to bring more genuine depth to his characters. He’s spoken about being driven by psychological realism — what would these characters really want and need, and therefore do? That might sound like Writing 101, but I think it’s easy for writers of comic book material to fall back on comic book tropes.

Hitting the BullseyeA good example of this is FBI Agent Benjamin Poindexter, who will turn out to be the villain Bullseye. Sorry if you think that’s a spoiler, but one of his first scenes shows off his mind-blowing marksmanship, so you ought to guess, really. In the comics, Bullseye has no backstory — he’s just a psychopathic killer — which is the kind of shit you can get away with if you’re being cartoonish. In the interests of psychological realism, however, Oleson wanted to give him one, to explore his origins, and they were basically free to do what they liked. They even spoke to psychiatrists and the like to make it genuinely realistic. I guess some may think this is unnecessary detail for what is still fundamentally a superhero-action show, but it has its rewards. It’s the same with giving the season a thematic weight to consider. According to Oleson, that was “fear” — how we’re all constrained by our fears and can’t be free until we face and overcome them. This applies to every character, hero and villain alike. Well, it’s a particularly pertinent choice for Daredevil, considering his sobriquet of “the man without fear”.

If I have one complaint about the season, it’s the lack of crossover with other Marvel Netflix shows — not just for the sake of fan service, but for genuine reasons of in-universe plausibility. Oleson has said crossovers aren’t his style, because he’s focused on his characters and not shoehorning in others for the sake of it, but that adherence to the realism of the characters is why it’s silly that certain others don’t turn up. The most glaringly obvious omission is Frank Castle, aka the Punisher — who, in this iteration of the Marvel Universe, started out as a Daredevil supporting character (as one of the main threats in season two). The real-world reason he doesn’t pop up is probably that he’s got his own show now, so I guess scheduling didn’t work out. But (as this Collider article points out) it makes no sense that Castle wouldn’t turn up to help Karen, especially as the danger to her life is literally headline-making news. As that article summarises, “Frank Castle’s absence doesn’t ruin the season, not even close, but it’s a burden an otherwise Who WOULDN'T come to her rescue? I mean seriously...well-told story shouldn’t have to bear, and one that could have been easily remedied.” With Punisher season two on the way it’s possible this apparent plot hole could still be explained and/or retconned (whether they’ll bother is another matter, although Karen was a major character in Punisher season one so they ought to at least reference it), but it’s a shame it went unexplained in Daredevil itself.

Still, that’s the only major complaint I have about this whole season. Many are seeing it as a return to form — as I said, I loved season two, so for me it’s just Daredevil continuing to be excellent, just in a different way. Normally this would absolutely bode well for a fourth season, but with Iron Fist being cancelled (presumably due to ratings) and Luke Cage also canned (over bizarre creative differences, despite the season being half written), it seems like Marvel and Netflix don’t get along so well at the minute (might be something to do with that forthcoming Disney streaming service…) I really hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, because in my opinion Daredevil is still one of the best things to come out of the whole MCU, on the small or big screen.

Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 3-7
Doctor Who - RosaI let this post slip a week, so there are five episodes of Doctor Who to look back over. First up, the new team’s first historical adventure, Rosa (whew, it feels like more than a month since this aired!) I wrote last month about how there seemed to be a conscious effort to take Who back to its roots; to do things in a way perhaps not seen since the William Hartnell era of the mid-’60s. Rosa continues this. Back then, historical adventures didn’t have alien threats for the Doctor & co to battle, instead taking a genuine(ish) trip into the past. Rosa does give them a time-travelling criminal to battle, but he’s a relatively slight element in how things play out: he’s trying to alter history by nudging it out of place with small acts, so the TARDIS Team have to nudge it back. Mainly, the episode exists to be a timely commentary on racism. Co-written by acclaimed author Malorie Blackman, it was mostly a success… though, like episodes one and two, it saw the villain less being defeated, more just teleporting away.

Arachnids in the UK was more of a typical Doctor Who romp, as the supporting cast’s hometown of Sheffield was threatened by giant spiders, Trump-ish businessmen, and some dodgy thematic plotting (why is the villain bad for shooting an animal that was going to slowly die of asphyxiation otherwise?) Also, the villain is allowed to wander off at the end, like in episodes, one, two, and three. Continuing this less-revolutionary seam was The Tsuranga Conundrum, which saw the TARDIS Team trapped on a medical ship being torn apart by a metal-eating little critter. Strong design elements (the set looked great, as did the CGI monster) did little to hide some round-the-houses plotting and a cast too big to get enough adequate screen time. Also, it ended with the monster being set free into space, similarly to episodes one, two, three, and four. Was this a deliberate pattern?

TARDIS TeamEpisode six and seven say “no”. Well, a bit — the actual villain did survive the first. I still hope they’re going somewhere with this, because otherwise it’s very sloppy. Anyway, episode six itself, Demons of the Punjab, was one of the highlights of the season. Like Rosa, it sees the Doctor and co going into history and facing up to the real issues of the day, with the aliens popping in to add some spice rather than properly drive the story — like Rosa, you can imagine a not-that-different version of this episode without them. Preventing the Doctor from interfering and being ultra-heroic is certainly a change of pace from the “heroic god” version of the character we’ve had since the 2005 revival, but it’s not an unheard of vision — again, it harks back to the Hartnell era.

Finally for now, Kerblam! is the first-ever Who story with an exclamation mark in the title. Truly groundbreaking, this season is. I also thought it was the most successful sci-fi episode of the season thus far, feeling like the kind of excitement-filled runaround that would’ve fit in the Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, or Capaldi eras. Its satirisation of Amazon was quite fun, the design work was once again superb, and there was even a budget-busting action sequence. And the villain didn’t escape to live another day! Although, did they really deserve to die? Even when an episode succeeds this season, it still leaves you with questions…

Inside No. 9  Dead Line
Inside No. 9: Dead LineI’ve never watched Inside No. 9 before, though I’ve always meant to get round to it. For those equally in the dark, it’s a comedy-horror anthology series from writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, aka half of the League of Gentlemen, with each half-hour episode a self-contained tale. The reason I’ve jumped in here was because this was a live Halloween special. For some reason I’m always intrigued by live TV drama (I even watched episodes of Eastenders and Coronation Street just because they were going out live), and Inside No. 9’s standalone nature made just dropping in feasible. Anyway, the episode itself was a typically playful endeavour — many fans switched off halfway through, genuinely duped by one of the episode’s tricks. The episode also managed to genuinely integrate the fact it was live, roping in a news broadcast from another channel and having one of the characters tweet. That means it played better live than it would, say, on iPlayer (where it’s still available), though it’s still worth a watch as an effective piece of drama — the way it played with the form of live TV was the best bit, but alongside that it snuck in an interestingly-constructed narrative. You can also view it as a half-hour homage to infamous BBC drama Ghostwatch, which is no bad thing. (That also reminds me I’ve still not got round to watching Ghostwatch…)

Upstart Crow  Series 3 Episode 6
Go On and I Will FollowI always wondered if this day would come. As many (though I would guess not all) viewers must know, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in childhood. Not exactly traditional material for a multi-camera sitcom, so I wondered if the series would just never go there; equally, it’s by Ben Elton, co-writer of the famously tragic final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, a work of unequivocal genius. And so in the final episode of this series, Go On and I Will Follow, Upstart Crow does go there… eventually, in the final moments of an episode that’s mostly fluff about theatre awards. It makes for a somewhat bizarre ending. Hamnet was never much of a character in the show, so while his passing’s effect on the characters is obvious, it has little meaning to us viewers. Then there’s the dedication to him at the end, which just reads like a spoof. The only bit that truly worked for me was the final lines: read in solemn voiceover, a passage by Shakespeare himself about grief. Perhaps that’s fitting. Perhaps if the whole episode had been about it in some way, then it would’ve worked — it’s part of why that Blackadder finale is so effective: the whole episode is about going “over the top”, or trying to avoid it, and so the unity of plot and theme and character and historical fact builds to an emotional gut punch of an ending. But rather than do that, Hamnet’s untimely end is just one scene tacked onto the end of some achingly obvious satire about something inherently vacuous. Well, maybe that was Elton’s point, but I don’t think the contrast was sharply enough drawn if so. Without that consistency across the whole episode, the ending just feels… odd. Ah well, at least we know there’s definitely a Christmas special to look forward to.

Also watched…
  • Batman: The Animated Series Heart of Ice, Deep Freeze, Cold Comfort / Batman Beyond Meltdown — Watched these specific episodes to accompany my viewing of the film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. Heart of Ice may be one of the show’s best episodes, but the other two suggest it was in serious decline by the end. Meltdown is pretty good, though.
  • Children in Need 2018 — I used to watch the BBC’s annual charity telethon religiously, but I’ve lapsed in the last few years. I unintentionally caught some of it this year, which just confirmed it’s continued downhill. What I saw was mostly either trailers for forthcoming (BBC) shows or pop singers just singing — where have all the original sketches and specials gone? There were still a couple, and they were the highlights.
  • Derren Brown: Sacrifice — Derren’s third Netflix “Original” is the first that’s actually new. In it, he tries to programme an anti-immigrant American to stand between an illegal immigrant and a gun-wielding biker. It’s not his best special (it feels like a recombination of previous techniques to an ending that’s only new in its specifics), but it’s not a bad one either. I imagine if you’ve not seen what he can do before, it’d be more impressive. Assuming you believe it, that is; which you should, because what would be the point if it was fake?
  • The Great Model Railway Challenge Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — Reader, I did end up watching the rest of the series. My review of the first two pretty much covers it all. It’s not a hobby I’d ever take up (I was never much good at arts & crafts or building model kits or any of that kind of stuff), but for some reason I’ve always liked miniature things (love a model village) and the creations here are often very impressive.
  • Great News Season 1 — This newsroom sitcom limped to two seasons on network TV in the US, but recently made its way to UK shores as a Netflix “Original” — but only after it had already been cancelled in the US. That’s a shame, because once it settles into its stride its often pretty funny, and one of those “save our show, Netflix” campaigns might’ve been warranted. Oh well, at least I’ve got season two to look forward to.
  • Mars Season 1 Episode 1 — There’s been a spate of dramas about mankind’s first mission to Mars in recent years, but this was one of the most high-profile: produced by Ron Howard, it mixes documentary footage with the drama to show the present-day reality behind what we’re seeing in the fiction. Unfortunately, the fiction part is bloody awful, at least on the basis of this first episode. I’ve had the series on Blu-ray for years and finally started watching it because season two was beginning, but I’m not sure I’ll even make it on to episode two.
  • What Do Artists Do All Day? Peter Jackson — Despite the general-sounding title, this is a straight-up behind-the-scenes about the making of They Shall Not Grow Old. Well worth a look if you’re interested in how they did it. (They Shall Not Grow Old was also on TV this month, of course. My review is here.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Little Drummer GirlThis month, I have mostly been missing The Little Drummer Girl, the BBC’s new John le Carré adaptation from the makers of The Night Manager, their last (and very successful) John le Carré adaptation. As regular readers may know, I have a proclivity for saving series like this up and watching them back-to-back over about a week once they’re done — truly, I am of the Netflix generation. Dammit. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it, so expect me to get right on it and review it next month.

    And speaking of Netflix, I’ve still not got round to the new Sabrina or the much-discussed and recommended Haunting of Hill House. Whether I’ll be able to make time for those once Christmas TV ramps up, who can say. Oh God, and I’ve just remembered there’s still Killing Eve on iPlayer, too. Eesh.

    Next month… the final few episodes of Doctor Who, and an Arrowverse crossover or two.

  • Ghosts of Mars (2001)

    2016 #76
    John Carpenter | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    There are a good number of well-regarded John Carpenter films I’ve not seen that I could spend my time on, but I chose to expend it on this critically-mauled sci-fi-horror-Western from the first year of the current millennium. But sometimes watching poorly-regarded films pays off, because while Ghosts of Mars is no classic, it is actually pretty entertaining.

    Set in a future where Mars has been almost completely terraformed, a group of police officers are dispatched to a remote mining outpost to escort a dangerous prisoner. On arrival they find the town mysteriously deserted, but soon discover the inhabitants have been possessed and basically turned into Reavers (…wait, did Joss Whedon just rip off Ghosts of Mars?!) Holed up in the jail, police and criminals must join forces to fend off their attackers. Yes, it’s basically Assault on Space Precinct 13.

    It’s not just the plot that recalls older films: although the film was released in 2001, the quality of the acting, photography, sets, and effects are all like something made 15 years earlier. (In these technical aspects it reminded me a lot of Total Recall, and not just because it’s set on Mars.) It’s almost hard to equate it with other films made around the same time, and maybe that’s part of why it was so poorly received on release: it felt dated. Watched with 15 years distance, however, it’s an Old Film, so it’s as easy to mentally lump it in with stuff made 30 years ago as with stuff made 15 years ago. That doesn’t magically wipe out its other faults, but it does make me think about the level of forgiveness people are willing to apply to films based on extra-filmic knowledge of when they were made, etc. If people thought this had been made in the ’80s, would they view it as kindly as they do some ’80s genre-classics that are just as bad and/or dated?

    I mean, I’m not saying it stands up to something like The Thing, which by comparison is a classy movie (bet no one in 1982 ever thought The Thing would get called “classy”!), but I don’t think it’s any less accomplished (at least in technical categories) than, say, Big Trouble in Little China. However, it’s swapped out some of the kooky fun of that film for a sci-fi-horror milieu, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t wash as well — it doesn’t have the comicalness to let the weaker aspects slide.

    Conversely, if you made it today it would probably be seen as a throwback/homage and everyone would do backflips over it. They’d have a similar reaction to its diverse cast: a female lead hero, a black co-lead who’s also the cast’s biggest name (at the time), a lesbian commanding officer… If they could manage that in a studio picture 15 years ago, why does it seem to be such a big problem nowadays?

    Anyway, it’s not “good”, but it is cheesily fun — and I reckon if it had been made 15 years earlier, exactly as it is, it would have a lot more fans.

    3 out of 5

    The Martian (2015)

    2016 #25
    Ridley Scott | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

    Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
    7 nominations

    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.



    Ridley Scott’s latest arrives on Blu-ray in the UK today, with a disappointing dearth of special features (disliked Exodus gets a 2½-hour making-of, four hours of additional features, plus a commentary; award-winning The Martian gets 24 minutes plus a few in-universe documentaries — what?!) Never mind that, though: how good is the film deemed the best comedy or musical of 2015? (If you somehow missed that news, you’ll appreciate the addition of a “seriously” here.)

    In the relatively near future, mankind is on its third manned mission to Mars. When a colossal storm rolls in, the decision to made to evacuate the Mars base. During the escape, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and apparently killed, and his crew mates are forced to leave him for dead. He isn’t dead, though, but he is injured and alone on a planet 140 million miles from home, with no way to communicate with Earth, and not enough energy, oxygen, or food to see him through the four years until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. Refusing to give in to inevitable death, Watney only has one choice: science the shit out of this.

    That sounds like a laugh-a-minute premise, right? And there’s a major subplot about disco music, so it’s practically a musical too!

    No, the HFPA are just idiots — The Martian is neither a comedy nor a musical. It is the latest in a growing subgenre of serious-minded near-future sci-fi adventures, though, following in the footsteps of 2013 Oscar winner Gravity and 2014 Oscar washout Interstellar. Where The Martian differs is in the element that tricked Golden Globes voters into thinking they could get away with giving it a comedy nomination (and win): rather than being stuffed to bursting with po-faced peril, it has a lightness of touch and regular doses of humour, making it probably the most feel-good serious sci-fi movie since ever.

    Whether that’s appropriate or not is another matter. A well-argued review by the ghost of 82 assesses that the film has none of the darkness or loneliness you should expect of a man stranded alone on an alien world with a slim chance of survival or rescue. I don’t disagree that the film doesn’t contain much of that feeling, nor would I argue that such a tone isn’t a viable way to frame this narrative, but I don’t think that’s what Scott was aiming to convey. This telling of the story (I haven’t read the original novel, so can’t say how it compares tonally) is an adventure; a feel-good tale of hope and survival against the odds. The film doesn’t offer us despair because Watney doesn’t despair — he just gets on with trying to fix it. On the couple of occasions when his fixes go wrong, his chirpiness breaks down, his frustration comes out, and in some respects it’s all the more effective for being limited to those handful of occasions — we’re suddenly reminded that, in spite of his optimism and his success and all the fun we’re having watching it, he’s stranded 140 million miles away and even the slightest mistake can spell total disaster.

    Matt Damon is a talented enough actor to lead us through all of this. Best remembered in recent years for serious fare like the Bourne films (“serious” in the sense of “not comedic” as opposed to “realistic”), Damon has done his fair share of comedies before now, and skits for TV shows and the like too. This is perhaps his first film to bring those two sides together as equally necessary parts of the whole — serious when he’s struggling with science problems or facing the reality of his situation, funny when he’s taking it all as light-heartedly as he can. Sometimes, such as in emotional conversations with friends or colleagues stuck millions of miles away, he even has to do both at once.

    While Damon is stuck on Mars by himself, a starry supporting cast actually get to interact with each other. This is a quality ensemble and, short of writing an epic essay of a review where I just praise them all one by one, there’s little to do but list their names. That said, Jessica Chastain gets the most brazenly emotional beats as the commander who chose to leave Watney behind and has to face the consequences of her decision; Jeff Daniels treads a line between being an evil bureaucrat and just a regular bureaucrat (apparently consideration was given to turning him into a full-blown villain; thank goodness they swerved that bullet); Chiwetel Ejiofor brings easy gravitas to NASA’s director of Mars missions; Michael Peña provides some additional comic relief, if not as strikingly as he did in Ant-Man then at least as effectively; and Sean Bean doesn’t die. No offence to Sean Bean, but let’s be honest, at this point in his career that is the most notable facet of his appearance here. That and the Lord of the Rings reference.

    It would be too damning to describe Ridley Scott’s direction as unremarkable, but at the same time it feels lacking in distinctiveness. Apparently there was some interview where he commented on how easy he found directing The Martian, I think with intended reference to the use of digital photography, but I think you get a sense of that from the film as a whole. That stops it from being over-directed, at least, and it’s certainly not poorly made, but if you didn’t know then you wouldn’t be nodding along going, “oh yes, this is definitely a Ridley Scott movie.” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Considering his fiddling is what scuppered the promising screenplays that initiated both Robin Hood and Prometheus, and his other works this decade (The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings) haven’t exactly met with great acclaim, maybe his dropping in almost as a director-for-hire (screenwriter Drew Goddard was attached to direct, but got sidetracked into the now-cancelled Sinister Six Amazing Spider-Man spin-off), and helming the film in a kind of directorial autopilot, is part of what saved it from a similar fate.

    I’ve read at least one review that described The Martian as “an instant sci-fi classic”, and at least one other that described it as “no sci-fi classic”. I’m going to sit on the fence of that debate for the time being. What I will say is that it is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of entertainment. For a film that primarily concerns itself with a man applying scientific principles to tasks like “growing potatoes”, that’s surely some kind of achievement. In our current climate (both in society in general and in the “more explosions less talking, please” state of blockbuster cinema), to make space travel — and science in general — seem fun and appealing to the masses is no bad thing whatsoever.

    5 out of 5

    As mentioned, The Martian is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    It placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    The Last Days on Mars (2013)

    2015 #22
    Ruairí Robinson | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Ireland / English | 15 / R

    The Last Days on MarsThe first manned mission to Mars is reaching the end of its six-month tour. As they count down the final hours, battling a dust storm and its attendant power outages and communications blackouts, one of the team secretly discovers bacterial life on the surface. Attempting to recover further samples, a sink hole opens beneath him. When the rest of the crew try to recover his body, it’s not there. Then he arrives back at base… only, he’s not quite himself anymore…

    Starting as a sophisticated, plausible vision of what a manned Mars mission might look like in the relatively-near future, The Last Days on Mars attempts an awkward transition into schlocky B-movie horror when Space Zombies turn up about half-an-hour in. Unfortunately, it’s not really trashy enough to work on that level, but equally, it’s not classily written enough to transcend the genre limitations the undead bring. The attempts at a kind of realist sci-fi are to be appreciated, particularly by genre fans who might fancy a change (though in the wake of Gravity, near-future realism may be in vogue), but it doesn’t gel with the often-rote zombie elements. To really succeed it needs a more original threat. These may not be zombies in the “magically brought back to life” sense, but having a semi-scientific explanation for their existence doesn’t negate their storytelling function, which is very trad.

    People who aren’t normally in sci-fi moviesThese faults persist despite the best efforts of a quality cast, particularly Romola Garai as (in functional terms) the capable sidekick, and Olivia Williams as the bitch whose heartless practicality becomes an asset when the going gets tough. First-time feature director Ruairí Robinson assembled his cast on the principle of “people who aren’t normally in sci-fi movies”, and that does feed in to the sense of realism. It also looks great, the production, costume and effects designs gelling to create a believable Mars mission, all in spite of a tiny budget (funded by the BFI and the Irish Film Board, it had about a tenth of Gravity’s budget, for example). Credit, too, to cinematographer Robbie Ryan for lensing the Martian surface convincingly (it’s actually the Jordanian desert). The editing may descend into fast-cut blurriness during action scenes — only emphasised by Max Richter’s predictably derivative horror movie score — but during calmer moments the film looks very good.

    All things considered, it plays a bit like an R-rated, traditional-zombie-emphasised remake of Doctor Who adventure The Waters of Mars (it’s actually adapted from a 1975 short story, but hey-ho). From the tail end of David Tennant’s time in the role, the award-winning Who episode concerns the first manned mission to Mars battling a previously-undiscovered alien menace that mysteriously turns them into zombie-like creatures and prevents them leaving the planet. And the similarities go further than that, including sequences involving a hydroponic dome, a race down the tunnel that links said dome to the main base, and fears about bringing the deadly virus back to Earth. Thinking through the comparison perhaps enlightens some of where the film goes wrong, as the Who episode had a more effective and original enemy, had more thematic weight to explore (in fairness, concerning Who-specific time travel issues), had characters who were better drawn than the repeated “I’d like to see my kids again” simplicity of the ones here, There's a storm comingand was more sure of its tone. There may be elements to commend The Last Days of Mars in this comparison (the much bigger budget pays off in the scope of the visuals, of course), but as a story and viewing experience, The Waters of Mars wins hands down.

    It’s not just Doctor Who — despite the film’s plus points, most of what The Last Days on Mars has to offer has been done better elsewhere. There are certainly superior zombie thrills to be found. The well-realised plausible Mars mission makes the movie more enticing for sci-fi fans, though your mileage will vary on how much that justifies the investment.

    3 out of 5

    The Last Days on Mars debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 10am and 9pm.

    John Carter (2012)

    2014 #131
    Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

    Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

    There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

    That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

    Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

    This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

    Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

    The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

    Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

    2 out of 5

    The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.

    Total Recall (1990)

    2010 #77
    Paul Verhoeven | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 18 / R

    Post Inception, it feels like we should be seeing a revival of interest in all things Total Recall, concerned as it is with dreams, fake memories, and what’s real and what isn’t. On the other hand, aside from an ambiguity about whether the lead character is dreaming or not — which adds texture but, arguably, is unimportant to the film’s primary thrills — there’s not that much to read into it.

    For me, the joy of Total Recall is in discovering another ’80s blockbuster (ignore the fact it was released in 1990), the kind of thing I grew up watching on rented videos and BBC One Bank Holiday schedules; films like the Indiana Joneses, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Burton’s Batman, and all the rest (I feel I’ve used these examples before; I must have some others), whose practical effects and general style and tone — not a conscious effort by these filmmakers, I’m sure, but instead just How Hollywood Films Were Then — vividly recalls that era for me; films that at the time were, to my young eyes and understanding, enduring classics of cinema that had always existed… despite the fact most were just a few years old.

    I suspect it’s for this reason that my top note on Total Recall is “fantastic effects”. But, still, they are; from the wide shots of a Martian landscape and its complex of buildings, to the mutants, disguises, and blood ‘n’ gore. That it all becomes slightly cartoony — albeit the nastiest, gruesomest cartoon (apart from, y’know, some of That Japanese Stuff) — just adds to the charm. Similarly, a lot of the ‘science’ is utterly implausible or impossible — which, Open widedepending on your point of view, either supports the “it was all a dream” reading or is just a case of artistic licence, hardly uncommon in SF cinema.

    Also very much ‘of the era’ is the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as if you needed telling). He really isn’t cut out for any role more demanding than the Terminator, though his laboured delivery and awkward presence injects a certain amateurish, humorous charm to any scene he’s in — ergo, much of the film. Conversely, Michael Ironside makes an excellent villain. Though his death is suitably dramatic, it’s a shame he’s not The Big Bad Guy — the film follows the blockbuster rule of dispatching villains in order of importance well enough, but Ronny Cox doesn’t come close to the commanding presence required to create a memorable villain in such little screen time. It leaves the viewer longing for Ironside to be featured during the final climax instead of Cox’s limp boss.

    I suppose Total Recall endures in that way successful films do, because they provide a point of shared cultural awareness. I feel its influence has diminished with time — this is entirely subjective, but it doesn’t seem to come up as much as it used to — and presumably will continue to do so, as its not-unjustified absence from Best Of lists means fewer new viewers come to it and so its cultural cachet diminishes. Take this pill to forget... how to actPerhaps it’s ultimately destined for an afterlife as a film representative of its era; the kind of thing that comes up as a footnote or personal favourite in texts & documentaries specifically discussing things like The Sci-fi Cinema of the ’90s. Or perhaps I’m doing it a disservice. We shouldn’t really try to predict these things too much, it’ll only lead to embarrassment when the opposite happens.

    So, Total Recall. Good fun. Quite funny. Bit gory. I liked the effects.

    4 out of 5

    Total Recall is on Syfy (UK) tonight, Monday 10th November 2014, at 9pm.