Saturday, 19 January 2019
REVIEW: Sci-fi Double Bill (films) - HOME, Manchester.
What better way to spend a Friday night than at the movies watching a double bill of digitally restored 1950s sci-fi classics at HOME.
The first feature was The Day The Earth Stood Still (Dir: Wise, R. 1951) and, having seen the film before, I fondly remember its pertinent message and striking imagery, but was trepidatious about the slow pace. Nevertheless, I was really looking forward to it. Memory had not served me well, because the film has a surprisingly efficient script, so any recollections of it dragging were misplaced. The tale of a Flying Saucer landing on the Mall in Washington DC, with a pilot bent on delivering a message to all the leaders of the world which could save mankind, is tightly plotted and rife with allegorical and polemical meanings. Klaatu (played compellingly by Michael Rennie) is a new testament messiah who even uses the alias Mr Carpenter, whilst his robot Gort is an old testament deity, prone to smiting and threatening biblical catastrophe.
Robert Wise’s direction leans towards the chiaroscuro shadows of noir to maintain an air of menace and ambiguity to Klaatu, who appears benevolent and persecuted, whilst the mysterious message he carries appears to contain an underlying threat. The effects, art direction and sound design are all excellently orchestrated by the director to make it highly watchable and the digital restoration brings out every detail so well.
The writing leaves every scene moving forward, with developments, enigmas and crises all woven to keep the film gripping throughout. I was struck by the excellent characterisation of Helen Benson, a working widow, with a son, who proudly explains his mum’s job; “Department of commerce. She’s a secretary. They have a man they call the secretary, but he isn’t at all. My mother’s a ‘real’ secretary.” This line, and her independent lifestyle, are a good reminder that Hollywood used to have a rich tradition of writing for women and having adult, grown-up women as feisty love interests or foils as standard. Yes, Helen cowers and in fear when faced with the monstrous robot Gort, but it is she that has bravely approached it, and she who has been entrusted with the code to stop him from going on a destructive rampage. Once again, sci-fi is a genre in which female characters thrive and Helen Benson’s courageous steps towards this monster reminded me of Alien’s Ellen Ripley.
Made at the same time as McCarthy was publicly interrogating Hollywood stars in the ‘House Of Un-American Activites Committee’ hearings and whipping up a ‘red scare’, The Day The Earth Stood Still is a glorious evocation of that era, with a strong anti-nuclear message, that ultimately pulls its punch at the end, perhaps to ensure that director Wise wasn’t labelled a 'commie' hisself.
Second on the bill was The Forbidden Planet (Dir: McLeod Wilcox, F. 1956), a film which I recall switching off on at least two previous attempts to watch it, so perhaps here on the big screen and amongst the knowledgeable, enthusiastic HOME crowd, I’d finally get to appreciate it. Perhaps not.
I find The Forbidden Planet, a retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, to be turgid and nonsensical. Everything creaks, but despite even having comedy legend Leslie Nielson in an early straight role, there is no camp fun to be had. One or two incredulous splutters at innuendo soon gave way to stony silence as the characters are led on endless tours or lectures; “here’s our mission”, “here’s how the robot works”, “here is the place I’ve built” and “here is the secret other world”, it is so boring it’s like having to sit through Avatar again, only that was guilty of even worse exposition.
What is so dated is the dreadful gender politics, from leery direction to some really uncomfortable exchanges in dialogue. Audiences can be guilty of applying 21st century sensibilities to well-meaning films from early last century, but having seen The Day The Earth Stood Still, made 5 years earlier than this film, The Forbidden Planet’s portrayal of female sexuality amongst 'gropey' men competing for, not affection but possession of the girl, should never have been acceptable.
There is a lot to enjoy visually in the effects, brilliant matte paintings and overall art direction, as well as the mind-bending score, called “electronic tonalities” in the opening credits, and there are great pleasures to be had in spotting the DNA of Star Trek and a scene which James Cameron’s Aliens pays direct homage to, but it was not enough. For me, The Forbidden Planet is a narratively directionless, poorly paced film and despite promising camp pleasures early on, is too po-faced to be fun.
However, nothing could dampen my spirits for too long, because HOME’s atmosphere and the brilliant The Day The Earth Stood Still, were still enough to make this sci-fi double bill and excellent night out.
Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 18/1/19