On Her Majesty’s Marty McFly Scape

What a droll old cove that Christopher Nolan is. He claimed with Inception that he wanted to create the same kind of effect that Star Wars had had on him as a child. He had no idea, he said, what Star Wars was about when he went to see it for the first time, and that sense of explosive discovery was what he wanted to emulate with his first movie since 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Well, I can’t speak for Christopher Nolan’s childhood, but I do know that by the time Star Wars opened in Leeds (and I went to see it first pretty early in its first run) I already had the souvenir magazine, four poster magazines, the soundtrack and 65 of the 66 bubble gum cards.

I had read the novelization by “George Lucas” four times through. Man, I was pretty much word perfect the first time I took my seat in Odeon 1, and I was still blown away.

With Inception Nolan has done more of a job of emulating one of science fiction’s more recalcitrant movies: Back to the Future Part II. And I mean that as a compliment of the highest order.

Back to the Future Part II confounded quite a lot of its audience in 1989 with its stark refusal to adhere to narrative convention. It did quite a lot of literal retreading as the characters time-travel back to events they already time-travelled to in the first film, and then have to avoid meeting themselves. It is still an astounding coup of interstitial narrative, predating Lost by decades.

But what Back to the Future Part II has, beyond all other films, to make me love it is that half way through the film one of the characters brings things to a halt and has to draw a map of the film’s plot on a blackboard.

It’s not a monumentally complicated time tripping story, but from an original starting point several alternative presents and futures have branched off, and Doc Brown has to sketch out for Marty (and sadly quite a lot of the audience) exactly what is happening. It is an elegant solution to what could have been a problem. They side-stepped the whole issue in Part III by sticking everything on train tracks. Actual, non-metaphorical train tracks.

Inception does not go quite so far as to draw a map, but Nolan’s deft script never lets an opportunity pass to have a character tell you where you are in the nested oneiric realities. This is never artless, and is frequently useful, particularly as, towards the end, some of the sequences are taking place in a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream within what may or may not be consensus reality.

Not exactly like Star Wars then.

I cannot praise Inception too highly. It is not an intellectual movie in the way that Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001 are intellectual movies, but if you stick Inception next to Avatar and let them compete as blockbusters it is quickly apparent which one has an informed intelligence behind it and which is a derivative linear spectacle.

Nolan has never made a film that is less than wonderful (Memento, the Insomnia remake, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), in fact the only director currently working who matches him for consistent high quality is David Fincher. Nolan has a meticulous, assured style verging on the obsessive, and a repertory company of devastating power: Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy and Ken Watanabe to name but three.

I don’t want to write too much about the plot now. The film has only been out a matter of days. But I do want to enthuse about the structure a bit more. This is a script which has no qualms about adding layer after layer to the characters’ perceived reality, and that was a real thrill for me.

Although the Matrix won me round eventually (mostly through its uncompromisingly dense sequels) I found it hugely unconvincing the first couple of times I saw it. I couldn’t credit that the characters were raised from one reality to another, and just quietly accepted the fact without ever wondering whether or not there were other “more real” realities above that. No time I guess. Too much shooting to be done.

Anyway, it’s almost the first concept introduced in Inception. If we can dream within dreams, then why can’t we dream within dreams within dreams? Which is what they proceed to do, with abandon. I love the fact also that each layer of dream down is much madder than the one above.

The third one down is a brilliant and sustained James Bond joke, complete with convincing music cues, and it offers one of the characters an opportunity for heroism well beyond anything he was capable of in any of the higher realities.

This is above all great fun, and the funnest bit is the satisfaction of watching Leonardo Di Caprio revel in his transition from childish parvenu to one of the most flexible and interesting actors of his generation.

Oh and it reminded me of the terrific 1985 flick Dreamscape starring faces of the eighties Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw. I haven’t seen that in ages. Oh, Amazon…

***

Predators is a slightly different kettle of fish, can of worms, bucket of frogs… Whatever.

Bottle of newts?

The original Predator (1987) is a phenomenal work. A film which is actually beyond criticism. One which transcends its idiocy so effortlessly that if it doesn’t actually reach the level of art, it certainly reaches the level where it can look up art’s skirt.

In Predator an elite bunch of mercenary-types are sent into the jungle to rescue some political hostages. They are led by Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a character called Dutch, possibly a half-arsed attempt to explain his variably-penetrable accent.

“Vhy don’t you use the reg-uh-larmy?” he asks at one point.

Anyway it turns out the thing with the hostages (“har-stitches” as Arnie calls them) is a ruse. The soldiers get stalked and killed by an elaborately-mandibled alien bounty hunter until last-man-standing Arnie kills it. The end.

This bald narrative encapsulation makes it sound like pretty thin gruel, but believe me Predator is a master-class in action film directing. It is a key film in eighties American cinema and it is endlessly re-watchable. The characters are all fleshed out just enough for you to care about them as they become imperilled, but they are played by tough guys and wrestlers giving the whole film a semi-cartoonish sense of hyper-reality.

One of the mercs, the only one who isn’t an out and out tough guy, is played by Shane Black, the writer responsible for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

The film was directed by John McTiernan who would then go on to direct Die Hard, another key movie and the primogenitor of an entire genre of film.

These guys weren’t just messing around.

Predator has had several sequels over the years. I am quite fond of the urban-set Predator 2 starring Danny Glover and Gary Busey, but it didn’t find favour with Predator fans generally and now appears to have been written out of the continuity.

And then there are the two Alien Versus Predator films which are perplexing to say the least. Sparsely populated with humans, the films instead rely on the supposedly thrilling spectacle of two feebly rendered special effects duking it out for an hour and a half.

There is a fundamental problem with these “wouldn’t it be cool if…” fight stories be it Alien Versus Predator, Batman Versus Judge Dredd or Cloverfield Monsters Versus the bloody Clangers. And the problem is that there can’t ever really be a winner. The status quo will be preserved and the tedious spectacle of the two parties scrapping at feature length is difficult to enjoy for anyone not quite far up the autistic spectrum.

With Predators (2010) the film-makers have junked everything from Predator 2 and the two Alien Versus Predator films and have made a direct sequel to the original. Fair enough. The obvious touchstone here is James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) which successfully inverted the shape of Alien (1979) whilst simultaneously providing a satisfying sequel.

Predators is not quite in this league, but it acquits itself admirably. Produced by the economical and energetic Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal (Kontroll and Vacancy) it avoids the pitfalls of hubris and grandiosity, functioning instead at a down and dirty level.

It was interesting watching this immediately after Inception. The Nolan film makes specific reference to the way that there is no transition time in dreams, that you are just suddenly there. And this follows in the film with scene after scene starting in the middle of the action.

Exactly the same happens in Predators with perhaps one of the most extreme in media res openings I can remember seeing. As the film begins Adrien Brody is plummeting through thin air, unconscious.

He awakens in time to deploy his parachute, and once on the ground realises that there are other people in the same position as he is. There isn’t much cocking around. No-one acts like an idiot and, with gratifying speed, we get to familiar ground. The eight humans are all killers of some sort (Spetnaz guy, Yakuza guy, Special Forces guy, woman guy…). They all come to accept quite quickly that they have been kidnapped, plonked on to an alien planet, and they all get on speedily with the business of being hunted by Predators.

It is a little bit by the numbers. Even though the eight characters are all pretty reprehensible the script, nevertheless, establishes an approximate hierarchy of worthiness. This will be familiar to anyone who is a veteran of stalk and slash films, and it will come as no surprise that the characters are then bumped off in order of nastiness.

It is, exactly what it purports to be. If you spend your money expecting a Predator movie then you will not be disappointed.

It is disturbing though how Adrien Brody, once he’s been roughed up a bit, starts looking like a young Jimmy Nail.

Predator Shoes…

***

Doctor Who news.

Everybody stop complaining about Doctor Who’s “inappropriate” sexiness now, please. It was ever thus.

My favourite Doctor was the third. Jon Pertwee’s interpretation happened along just when I was at the right age. And I had such a crush on his assistant Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning) too. There was something just very cheerful and decorous about her.

Katy Manning disarming a Dalek

She’s reprising the role in the next series of The Sarah Jane Adventures y’know.

3 comments on “On Her Majesty’s Marty McFly Scape

  1. Excelent bit of writing that I won’t try and comment on as I’ll look like an arse who can’t write. Except for the last bit.

    I fancied Ace. In the was 8 year old boys fancy women on telly but don’t know what fancy means. I thought that was the point of the assistants?

  2. Hi John. Was it you or Andrew who came up with a fantastically detailed map of the timelines for the Back to the Future trilogy about 20 years ago? I remember a mound of computer printouts that I tried to interpret, but eventually just took it on trust that it all worked out.

    Oh, and I wish there was some warning about NSFW images at the end. 🙂 I’m reading this in what I thought was a text-only RSS reader at work, but it turns out it’s not so text-only after all …

    • Hello David.

      It must have been Andrew. Sounds dorky enough for me, but probably a bit too logically demanding.

      Thanks for your comment. Great to hear from you!

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