The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be….

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It feels a bit like we’re drifting away from the post-apocalypse. In the 80’s, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting some crappy film with a bunch of street punks dumped into the desert to fight in knackered old cars. I suppose Mad Max was to blame, maybe with the remake surfacing fairly soon, we’ll see the genre re-embraced. Maybe not. It kind of feels like we are living in the future now. All of the technology we dreamed about two or three decades ago has arrived, been surpassed and all feels a little moribund now. Except for jetpacks. And, honestly, did we ever really want jetpacks? Politically, also, it feels a bit like we’re already living in Orwell’s 1984. The government’s oppressive and pushing more and more people towards poverty, the corporations have taken over. The aesthetic of Blade Runner now feels fairly current. These visions feel kind of parallel universe rather than nightmare future.

Anyway, the post-apocalypse has always been a genre which showcases innovation and imagination, so I wanted to share with you a few you might have missed…

REIGN OF FIRE (2002):

Well, the trailer does it no justice whatsoever. In fact, it makes it look a bit shoddy and one of the things I adore about this film is the level of attention to detail which it has been made with. It’s an incredibly tight film, it’s a unique vision, it’s well written, well directed and the acting is fantastic. I think they undersold it by trying to take it to an action audience. I think all of the action in the whole film is in that trailer. It’s actually quite a slow mover. It’s contemplative and more about human relationships and community than kick-ass dragon killing (although when that comes, it does kick ass!). Set mostly in Northumberland of the future, it shows an England completely destroyed. Twenty or so years after excavations in central London awoke a long buried Dragon, the beasts have bred quickly and burned the world so they could eat the ash. Everything is gone. Some communities remain in hiding but life is hard and communication between them poor.

Christian Bale plays Quinn, he leads the Northumbrian community, all holed up in an old castle and living the Hell’s kibbutz lifestyle. There is unrest in the people, hungry, tired and pessimistic but Quinn manages to somewhat hold it together. There’s a brilliant down-at-heel reality to all of this which could only be achieved with a magnificently crotchety British cast. It’s a rare glimpse at what could be possible if the British film industry had Hollywood budgets and told Richard Curtis to fuck right off. But, of course, this is a Hollywood film and, right on queue in the second act, America invades in the form of a troop of crack dragon marines led by Van Zan – played by a gloriously charismatic Matthew McConaughey who seems to have accidentally wandered for two minutes away from the constant effluent stream of romantic comedies he’s spent the last couple of decades heading up. And thank god he did. This is an alternate universe McConaughey – shaved, tattooed, ‘roided up and manic. He’s fantastic. And then the film turns into an interesting study of the culture difference between the UK and US. Quinn advocates caution and security, Van Zan fights for a mission to London to take down the only male dragon in a death-or-glory bid.

This is a really special film for me. It’s become the film I watch if I’m ill, that means it’s replaced the Star Wars Trilogy (yes, trilogy). In fairness to Star Wars, I think I’d just found the limit for how many times you can watch it without going insane. As a film, it hints at what the action genre could become, should aspire to become. It doesn’t need to be a shitty, completely derivative genre, when injected with just a little bit of thought and intelligence, it can become transcendental. As evidenced most recently in The Grey which is an amazing film, as if Pinter had been hired by Joel Silver. Anyway, Reign of Fire – if you haven’t, you should!

SIX STRING SAMURAI (1988):

Here’s a film which makes me sad. OK, the film itself makes me grin from ear-to-ear but what makes me sad is that NOBODY I speak to has even heard of it, let alone seen it. It makes me sad that its writer-director Lance Mungia is not currently a decade and a half into a huge-budget Hollywood career and it makes me sad that the world he created was never allowed to expand. There should have been sequels, TV series, comics (there was one comic which accompanied the film’s minimal release). The world should know about Six String Samurai.

Set in an America in which the atom bomb was dropped in ’57, the tale begins with the death of the king. Elvis, who had been declared leader in the aftermath. With Elvis dead, a battle ensues for the throne drawing contenders from all over the country to journey on foot across the desert to reach Lost Vegas and stake their claim. Our hero is Buddy, a post-apocalypse-not-dead-in-a-plane-crash version of what Buddy Holly might have been had he needed to fight for his life. He keeps his samurai sword sheathed on the back of his guitar and is equally prone to shredding out some riffs as slicing and dicing his opponents. He is pursued by Death himself (looking not unlike Slash) and his heavy metal band. Buddy is played by Jeffrey Falcon, a martial artist who co-wrote the film. It can definitely be classed as a martial arts film, it is a journey in which Buddy has to fight at every stage, but it’s a martial arts film like no other. It has none of the standard tropes. This film is a pop-culture mash-up which should have had Tarantino quaking in his boots. It’s Bruce Lee as Buddy Holly versus the Russian Military in The Wizard of Oz.

Mungia is an incredible director. Remember that this was a low budget, independent movie. The visuals are breathtaking in their epic scope and quirky idiosyncrasy. Gorgeous shots of wide, empty canyons with a lone figure, guitar and sword strapped to back, carrying a tattered old umbrella walking nonchalantly through them. Despite being epic, beautiful, thrilling and unique, Six String Samurai is just a huge amount of fun. In writing this, I discovered that it’s finally been released on DVD in the UK, so that tatty old NTSC VHS in the photo above is soon to be replaced.

SLIPSTREAM (1989)

Imagine this:

From the Director of Tron and the producer of Star Wars. An epic air-based post-apocalyptic sci-fi action/adventure starring Bill Paxton in the lead, backed up by Luke Skywalker as the bad guy and with supporting roles from Ben Kingsley and F. Murray Abraham.

It happened. It’s real. But the film was a difficult production, it bankrupted producer Gary Kurtz and misfired hideously, it didn’t even get a cinema release in the U.S., which seems crazy. I’m not going to pretend this film is a masterpiece but it’s a fascinating watch and well worth a Sunday afternoon. You can see every piston firing on this film but, sadly, just not quite in unison.

The story is of an earth ravaged by an apocalyptic wind (and, yes, it is hard to watch without being aware of the constant possibility in every line of dialogue for fart-based euphemism) which has seen humanity scatter into the cliffs or below ground. The only way to travel now is by ‘riding the slipstream’ (I know), only the most talented pilots can venture out in their light aircraft. The film opens with Mark Hamill and Kitty Aldridge as Tasker and Belitski, what remains of the law, pursuing an enigmatic man in a suit – Bob Peck as Byron – for murder. They catch him but are quickly gazumped by Paxton’s Matt Owens, a roguish chancer, who can see a large bounty for being the man who brings Byron in.

Bob Peck’s performance is central to this film. It quickly transpires that he is an android but one who is becoming aware of life. Obviously, this theme is explored better in the tedious A.I. but Peck brings a really edgy quality to the role. Even he’s not sure whether he is dangerous or not but his constant self-exploration and openness puts the behaviour of the film’s real human beings to shame. Hamill turns in a solid bad-ass performance, Paxton – so rarely offered a lead role – is ebullient and fun and unexpected supporting roles from Kingsley and Abraham actually lend the picture a lot of gravitas. It’s intelligently written and always interesting in what it is trying to show and say.

So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is the director. Steven Lisberger, he only ever directed three films. Tron was the first, this the last (bizarrely the middle one was a crappy 80’s John Cusack teen movie called Hot Pursuit). It showcases a similar problem to one that has always sullied Tron for me. Here’s a director who understands how to make an epic film. He has vision and a strong sense of dynamic aesthetic yet he seems to have no interest in directing, or even particularly turning the camera on to, actors. The character sequences seem like a necessary evil to him which he plods through to get back to showing gorgeous shots of crazy vehicles in crazy environments. He does gliders, kites and hot air balloons like nobody else. I think in both films he landed on his feet by casting strong actors but the director’s job is to hold these performances together, to fit them around each other, to make sense of them. What we end up with here is a whole which is significantly less than the sum of its parts. I think the script is fascinating, I think every individual performance is great, I think the visuals are stunning but the problem is that they just don’t all sit together well. That said, I’d take an interesting film over an unadventurous one any day of the week. I’d watch this three times in a row over having to sit through that new Die Hard film. It deserves better than it got and it’s worth seeing just as a curiosity.

So, what do you think? What are your favourite post-apocalyptic flicks?

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6 responses »

  1. Great Blog Jon, I love a post-apocalyptic movie. Outside of the obvious George Miller and Romero films some of the lesser known one’s in my list would be:

    A Boy and His Dog
    Don Johnson and a telepathic mongrel that is smarter than he is wander an irradiated wasteland. Harlan Ellison!

    Salute of the Jugger
    Actually a bit crap, but I have a soft spot for the only post apocalyptic sports movie I can think of. Written and directed by David Webb Peoples.

    Stakeland
    The apocalypse with vampires. Really inventively filmed using found locations to create a convincingly devestated world.

    On The Beach
    Fabulous realistic post nuclear drepression fest.

    • A Boy and His Dog is one of my dad’s favourite films! I never really went for it. I meant to pick up Stakeland recently and I’ll try to watch the other two – can’t go wrong with a bit of Rutger. Did you ever see Split Second?

      • Is that the movie where the monster is a skinny guy in a lycra catsuit wearing a crash helmet with teeth drawn on it?

        If so, maybe, it came out in a somewhat hazy period in my life (University)

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