Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****


‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

Geostorm 2017 ***


Gerry Butler’s name is so synonymous with so-bad-it’s good films that he’s likely to gain a cult status alongside his status as a box office draw. Dean Devlin’s Geostorm made over $220 million at the box-office worldwide, despite being identified by pretty much everyone as a turkey. But what a greased and freshly basted turkey it is; Butler plays Jake Lawson a satellite designer who has created ‘Dutch Boy’, a climate control system which protects the world from the potential ravages of climate change. A farcical exposition dump establishing this unlikely scenario ends with Jake being hauled before the U.S. Senate and getting his knuckles rapped for his fly-by-the-seat-of your-pants attitude. But Jake has no chance to sulk, because his brother Max (bad movie eminence grise Jim Sturgess) gets wind that someone is sabotaging Dutch Boy, creating abnormal weather conditions. Jake heads straight to the International Space Station to sort things out in a whodunit scenario, while Max stays on earth to wrestle with his boss (Ed Harris) and the President (Andy Garcia). Geostorm bears evidence of multiple reshoots, rewrites and a general lack of confidence in paper-thin material; an Independence Day-style spectacle is the intention, but Devlin’s film works best as a comedy, which several notably silly scenes particularly the risible limo vs rocket launcher action scene and Jake and Max creating secret school-boy conversational codes to avoid surveillance-camera attention. Geostorm feels more like a parody than a real movie; all concerned would rather you forgot it, but it finally crept out on DVD and VOD last year.

The Fountain 2006 ****


Sometimes, a film is worth some second thoughts; first viewers of Darren Aronofky’s sci-fi epic The Fountain were quick to point out that this was not a commercial proposition; for sure, watching one of the main characters becoming a tree during the finale didn’t suggest the public would be champing at the bit. So it’s probably for the best from the POV of Warner Brothers that Aronofsky’s original $70 million version starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett didn’t happen, but this discount $35 million version has much to comment it. Three stories are intercut, one involving Conquistadors, one involving a scientist who, tending to his dying wife, resolves to cure death itself, and one involving a space traveller. Hugh Jackman does what he can with various characters which are little more than ciphers, while Rachel Weisz has even less to play with as the object of his love. This is not the sci-fi universe of lazer-guns and action, but more of a Last Year in Marienbad-style mind-zonker, and judged within the latter terms, The Fountain works really well, with unique micro-photographed visuals and a Clint Mansel score. When discussing the film after the Venice Film Festival premiere, Aronofsky and Weisz seems to be not quite on the same page when discussing the film’s meaning, and critics were in the same boat; seen at a decade’s distance, The Fountain is a highly original if compromised artwork that should be retuned and revised. For those interested in spirituality, and re-incarnation in particular, a single viewing is not enough for this strange, mind-boggling epic, one of the greatest, grandest follies of recent cinema.

Hidden Figures 2016 ****


Is there an element of the despised ‘white saviour’ trope in Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi’s popular drama about the black women behind many of the key calculations of the US space programme in the 1960’s? Possibly; there’s certainly big name support for the girls from Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Glenn Powell. But Hidden Figures can only play what’s in front of it, and the story of Katherine Gobel Johnson (Taraj P Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Moae) is inspiring enough to make such accusations churlish. The white characters are portrayed as well-meaning if rather insensitive; Hidden Figures has it’s focus firmly on the battles that the three women overcame on their own terms, and the help they got is only one factor in the equation. Spencer steals the show; her justification for stealing a library book tells you all you need to know about the film’s worldly attitude, and even if a few fictions creep in, Hidden Figures will make you wonder as to which other historical events are in need of having their credits reconsidered.

Apollo 11 2019 ***

The super-doc format requires a huge amount of contemporaneous footage to work; fortunately for the makers of Apollo 11, pretty much everyone twigged to the significance of their mission to the moon and back, and pretty much every second of the voyage that could be filmed, was filmed. Of course, some moments, like the docking and return of the module, have to be covered via simple animation, but there’s still a few unseen gems here, like a view from the spaceship window as the craft smashes through into Earth’s atmosphere. The lack of talking heads or commentary makes Apollo 11 something of an ambient experience in the cinema; the impact of the moon-landing sequence in particular will be diminished at home, but Apollo 11 will remain a key artefact in our future understanding that Stanley Kubrick did not fake these events in a  film studio.

High Life 2018 ***

Every year, the cinematic season brings at least one psychedelic freak out, and following on the coat-tales of mother!, Claire Denis’s super-weird and defiantly original High Life arrives to test the patience of the unwary. Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a criminal who joins a group of convicts working in space, harvesting black holes in a way that’s not entirely clear. Due to the distances involved, it’s a suicide mission, although Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is seeking a loophole through her experiments with some form of artificial insemination. Their story is bookended with lengthy framing scenes involving Monte clearing the dead-bodies of the crew out of the ship, so there’s no suspense about the outcome, only how Monte and the crew got to this point. Throw in Mia Goth and Andre 3000 and you’ve got a very odd package for Denis’s first English language film, which plays down the conventions of sci-fi in favour of something rather more elusive. Pattinson is excellent as ever, and even if the scripts reflections on human sexuality are unclear, High Life has an uncompromising stance on the deadly DNA of selfish human behaviour.

Aloha 2015 ***


Maybe how much we invest in films colors our judgment; people put so much weight on the Marvel universe that casting Tilda Swinton as a Asian character in Dr Strange was deemed acceptable practice, but for Cameron Crowe to cast Emma Stone as a part Asian in Aloha elicited howls of derision and led to public apologies from both film-maker and star. This mistake aside, there’s always something of interest to mine from a Crowe film, and Aloha has some hidden merits. Crowe is a Billy Wilder fan, and there’s elements of classic character-clash here as Brian (Bradley Cooper) travels to Hawaii and has to make a choice between his ex (Rachel McAdams) and his liaison (Stone). The sub-plot is unwieldy, but pertinent, as Bill Murray’s mogul Carson Welch attempts to ‘buy space’ through his satellite launches. Aloha doesn’t quite work, but has a few moment of greatness, particularly a space-docking scene scored to the Blue Nile’s haunting Let’s Go Out Tonight. Like Crowe’s Elizabethtown, Aloha is a misfire, but it’s not a complete bust and deserves a little forgiveness for its casting sins.