Turbo Kid (2015)

2016 #64
François Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Canada & New Zealand / English | 15

I’ve observed before that the ’80s seem to be everywhere in film these days, and here’s another example: Turbo Kid is in every respect an homage to low-budget ’80s genre fare.

Set in the future year 1997, after an unspecified apocalypse has devastated the world and made water a rare commodity, orphaned teen The Kid (Munro Chambers) survives by scavenging junk and enjoying the comic book adventures of BMX-riding superhero Turbo Rider. The Kid encounters and accidentally befriends the quirkily obsessive Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), who is promptly kidnapped by agents of water-controlling maniac Zeus (Michael Ironside). While escaping the kidnappers, the Kid stumbles across the remains of the real Turbo Rider, including his energy gauntlet weapon — perfect for rescuing his new friend and living his dreams.

All of which is semi-incidental, because the point of Turbo Kid is not this storyline, but the genre and era elements that have been used to build it, and the stylistic elements that have been cribbed to execute it. I can’t cite many specific points of reference, because I’m not au fait enough with the kind of cheapo, grindhouse-y, watched-on-video-by-’80s-kids genre films that the film’s trio of writer-directors are riffing off (beyond the obvious “Mad Max on BMXs”, one reviewer’s observance of which is regularly featured on the film’s posters and DVD/Blu-ray covers), but the general feel of those kind of films is certainly evoked. It’s there in the bonkers plot; the bizarre characters, like a kick-ass arm-wrestling-champion cowboy (Aaron Jeffery); the post-apocalyptic world that’s just a quarry somewhere; and the very gory practical special effects. Very, very gory. Gleefully, perversely gory. It’s so over-the-top that it’s not genuinely disgusting, of course, but it’s certainly over the top. Way over the top. At times, inventively, hilariously over the top.

Then there’s the score, which is of course all ’80s synths, in a similar style to the score of The Guest. Unfortunately, the score is often indiscriminately applied, like someone composed a generic ’80s score and then slapped it on with minimal regard to what was occurring on screen, meaning some moments fly past without the requisite emphasis. But perhaps this was deliberate — I can well believe that’s what cheapo efforts of the era did, and doing it here is a deliberate reference. This is a bit of a problem with the whole film: points where you can’t be sure if it’s being deliberately wonky or poorly-done as part of the homage, or if there’s some tweaking required. The pace could certainly do with some attention, especially early on. It’s only 93 minutes long, but it would be even better if it was only 85.

However, when it’s on form, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Turbo Kid. I imagine its greatest admirers will be those who lived through and enjoyed the era it’s acting as tribute to, but it’s also entertaining for those who have a broad-strokes familiarity with that period. Although some tightening and polishing would make it even more effective, viewers happy to indulge in its self-consciously retro mindset should find enough to like, and may also consider this score a little harsh:

3 out of 5

Turbo Kid is available on Netflix UK from today.

Scanners (1981)

2015 #93
David Cronenberg | 103 mins | TV | 16:9 | Canada / English | 18 / R

If you’re versed in sci-fi/fantasy cinema, you’ve heard of Scanners even if you haven’t seen it: it’s the one with the (in)famous exploding head. That moment is distinctly less shocking for those of us coming to the film as a new viewer at this point: gore perpetuates genre cinema nowadays, so it’s less striking,* and the scene it’s in is quite obvious, so you know it’s coming. Fortunately, Scanners is so much more than one famous moment.

Social outcast Cameron (Steven Lack) can hear other people’s thoughts. When he’s apprehended by weapons firm ConSec, he discovers from scientist Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) that he is far from alone. ConSec have been attempting to control these so-called scanners and weaponise them; one, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has other ideas, and is waging a counter war. Ruth wants to enlist Cameron to stop Revok. So begins what I suppose you might call a sci-fi espionage thriller, as Cameron finds his way into the underground scanner community and Revok’s spies in ConSec learn of their plans…

Scanners seems to have a mixed level of appreciation within writer-director David Cronenberg’s CV — even going no further than Wikipedia, you can find review quotes that swing between calling it “an especially important masterwork” and a movie that “might have been a Grand Guignol treat [but is marred by] essential foolishness”. Whether it’s a masterwork or not I wouldn’t care to say, but as a rough-round-the-edges genre thriller, I found it mightily entertaining.

As our hero, Lack isn’t much cop. If you were being kind you could write his oddness off as a product of Cameron’s reclusive lifestyle, but I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice. There are worse performances in the history of genre cinema though, and it’s not like his emotional journey or something is the core of the film. As if to make up for it, McGoohan is of course excellent, acting everyone else off the screen, while Ironside makes for an excellent villain, naturally. Some say that the final psychic battle, between Lack and Ironside, is underwhelming, but I thought it was excellently realised, a tense and effective struggle. Such brilliant effects and sequences are scattered throughout the film.

I do like a good genre movie, and Scanners manages to mash together a couple of my favourites — primarily, science fiction and espionage/undercover mystery-thrillers — in a way that, unless I’m forgetting something, we’ve seen surprisingly rarely. It’s not quite “a Bond film with telekinetics”, but if it were, that’s perhaps the only way I’d’ve found it more enjoyable.

4 out of 5

Scanners is on the Horror Channel tonight at 9pm, and again tomorrow night at 2:15am.

* Though, in isolation, bad enough that I changed my mind about using it as the header image for this review. ^

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.