Ah comedy robot sidekicks. When the hell did that start? I’m inclined to blame Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956) but I’m often wrong about things. I am however also a very lazy researcher so I’ll go with that until somebody says otherwise.
What I do know is that by the late seventies you couldn’t have a science fiction film without a silly cybernetic sidekick or two. Silent Running (an execrable film with one of sci-fi’s worst ever scripts and yet a reputation as a cherishable classic) kind of paved the way with the drones Huey, Dewey and Louie, but it was left to the maestro of passing other peoples’ ideas off as his own, George Lucas, to cement the tradition with R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars.
Their immediate fictional predecessors are the clumsy, slightly venal, tattered peasants from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (a film strip-mined by Lucas without much by the way of acknowledgement) and there are suggestions of Laurel and Hardy too. Whatever the alchemy was the droids were an instant and lucrative crowd-pleaser and a cute mech quickly became de rigueur if you wanted your film to appeal.
There were, by way of contrast, a couple of splendidly threatening robots (Hector in Saturn 3 and the gruesome Maximillian so perversely out of place in Disney’s The Black Hole). Mostly though the droids stayed cute: Muffit the Daggit, Johnny Five, Twikki, K9, Old B.O.B and V.I.N.Cent. For my closely guarded money though the nadir was reached with Bubo the clockwork owl in 1981’s Clash Of The Titans.
It was just so unnecessary. Clash was looking pretty old-fashioned even in 1981 – this was the summer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Escape from New York and Excalibur – but there was a lot of love for Ray Harryhausen the stop-motion genius behind it. There continues to be a lot of love in fact – not for nothing did the Monsters Inc folk at Pixar call their film’s restaurant Harryhausen’s.
This degree of reverence is quite appropriate. Harryhausen has quoted his primary influence as the original King Kong (1933) and his painstaking effects were marvels for decades, albeit marvels that relied on the willing suspension of disbelief. But that was the point. They were so believable that the fact they looked a little wonky and featured heavy matte lines didn’t matter.
As with Wallace and Gromit or Thunderbirds or Bagpuss you don’t really get hung-up on the nature of the “special” effects because you are so caught up in them. This is the point I keep inarticulately trying to make about modern effects blockbusters, or digital pudding as my mate Andy calls them. Photorealism has nothing to do with convincing your audience. It’s much more to do with what the audience’s hearts feel than what their eyes see.
So anyway, back to Clash of the Titans in 1981. The audience I was with was caught up in the magnificence of it until Bubo the clockwork owl appeared. At that point it felt like an embarrassing concession was being made to a modern section of the audience that didn’t really require pandering to.
R2-Bubo, I seem to remember someone saying, as though they were the cleverest person in the world.
It’s not quite the death of innocence but it felt to me like the shifting of something old to something newer.
This year’s remake of Clash of the Titans is not a terrible affair. In fact, given the surface-obsessed, cynical, spectacle-driven, intellect-despising hateful times in which we live, it’s a triumph right out of the old school.
Careful with its heritage (both classical and Harryhausen) it nonetheless easily finds its own identity, marrying the narrative ideas of a couple of decades and millennia ago with some, I thought, pretty spiffy CGI work. What the film mostly reminded me of was the quest-orientated fantasy stuff that got made after the first Conan movie in 1982. I love a film in which a band of diverse characters wander from threat to threat with a quest objective vaguely in mind, and that’s what I got here.
Bring em all on now I say. Big budget remakes of Conan the Destroyer, Beastmaster, The Sword and the Sorcerer and hopefully Hawk the Slayer with Danny Dyer in it.
Robin Hood is a different punnet of peaches though. It’s a classic story and yet, somehow, I don’t ever really look forward to another version of it. My favourite interpretations of the legend are the flamboyant Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and the eighties TV version, Robin of Sherwood.
The Flynn film gets by on pure exuberance. The TV version with Michael Praed on the other hand appealed to me because it tried to establish a bit of relevance by reinterpreting the merry men as a bunch of squalid insurgents bordering on terrorists. In the eighties this was open to a couple of interpretations and the ambiguity of the writing keeps things interesting even now. Unfortunately it does look horribly dated twenty-five years on. Man they had a lot of product in that forest. Herne the Hunter? Herne the bloody hairdresser more like.
As for the look of The Adventures of Robin Hood, well Technicolor tights never go out of fashion do they?
Anyway, here we all are in 2010 trying like hell in my case to pretend the ghastly Kevin Costner Robin Hood Prince of Thieves never happened, and we have, at last, Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the myth.
Ridley Scott, an Englishman in Hollywood, Rolls Royce film director of historical epics (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, The Duellists). What could go wrong?
I’m not sure, but something certainly did. Production closed down for a long time and I’m not sure all went well with Russell Crowe, a perplexing life form who is either Australia’s least articulate man or Australia’s most articulate tree stump. Hey, you decide.
It’s not a great film. More of a murky origins story than any kind of adventure it lumbers along for far longer than it needs to indulging in some eyebrow raising historical revisionism as it goes. The most gob-smacking is a kind of reverse D-day landings sequence in which the English rabble including Robin, his men, Maid Marian and King John (!) appear to fight off a French invasion fleet of amphibious landing vehicles.
I’m no historian but I am prepared to go out on a limb and say that that never happened.
The script by Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential, Mystic River, Green Zone) is jaunty enough and the supporting cast is stellar (Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow, Mark Strong, Mark Addy, William Hurt). The crippling ponderousness that overwhelms the film comes from Scott’s unenergised directing and Crowe’s inappropriate sulky acting.
Speaking of Russell Crowe, was he really the best choice for the role? No English actors available at all? It wouldn’t be so galling if (like Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes) he nailed the accent, but he barely even tries. He’s just gone for something that can best be described as “European”.