Tuesday, 24 August 2010

James Bond's science fiction imaginary

By any standard, even by the standards of other Bond movies, Moonraker is a bad film. Though Roger Moore was yet to truly descend into his immobile, parodic, geriatric mid-1980s self, Moonraker carried on the flatulent, throwaway feel of The Spy Who Loved Me, an overlong bore of a film that traded on the curio attraction of Richard Kiel's 'Jaws' villain, the underwater Lotus Espirit and Ken Adam's grandiose sets (the interior of the sub-swallowing supertanker was one of the most expensive and largest sets ever constructed on a sound stage).

Moonraker, released in 1979 in the wake of the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, doubled-down on the spectacle and tried to avert our eyes from the plot holes. The film begins with a Space Shuttle being transported to Britain on the back of a 747, echoing NASA publicity footage of the late 70s (before the Shuttle's first orbital mission in 1981). The Shuttle was made by Drax Industries, and when the 747 crashes (but no trace of 'Britain's shuttle' can be found) Bond is sent to the United States to investigate Sir Hugo Drax, played by Michael Lonsdale as a man so consumed by dyspepsia and ennui that he transplants a French chateau to the American desert in order to shoot quail (in deerstalker and cape), and has cultic dreams of wiping out humanity and replacing them with a hand-picked group of new Adams and Eves. (Is he one? It's never made quite clear.)

Fleming's Moonraker is a different animal altogether. Set in Britain, Drax is an industrialist whose company makes the 'Moonraker', a nuclear missile. Bond investigates some goings on and discovers that Drax (who cheats at cards - always the sign of a villian, like Goldfinger) is in fact an ex-German Army commando officer who is bent on revenging the Third Reich by using the Moonraker to destroy London.

The Moonraker is essentially an upgraded V-2 rocket, and the shadow of Peenemunde is long over the Cold War and Space Race. It was Wernher von Braun, of course, the famous former V-2 rocket scientist, who was the architect of NASA's post-war ambitions to journey into space, and both Americans and Soviet military and scientific establishments co-opted former Third Reich rocket scientists into their own missile programs. The American Rocket State, as Dale Carter named it, was driven by V-missile technology.

Very different, then, to the 1979 film. For Britain in the late 1950s, remaining a player in the changing geo-political landscape of superpower conflict and Cold War (and low-intensity combat theatres) was contingent on the prestige and status accorded a 'nuclear power'. Britain obtained and detonated a nuclear device in 1952, but the dreams of an independent nuclear deterrent (along the lines of the French 'force de frappe') were laid to rest with the cancellation of the Blue Streak missile in 1960. Fleming's Moonraker missile is a clear analogue of the Blue Streak, and the narrative surrounding it in his novel attests to his usual mixture of geo-political adventurism and the anxieties attendent on the withdrawal from Empire, ongoing throughout the 1950s.

Cold War missile imagery, in Fleming's Moonraker, therefore has a political urgency entirely absent from the film. What exactly would the British government do with a Shuttle? They couldn't launch it. It becomes a status symbol ad absurdum, an entirely redundant piece of technology that could only be piggy-backed around airshows on a converted 747. By 1979, Britain's imperial dreams are reduced to the image of an orbital plane which could most usefully be deployed as a giant paperweight. Little wonder that in 1981's For Your Eyes Only, which deliberately cut back on the gadgetry despite Moonraker's big box office, the technological MacGuffin that Bond searches for is a missile command system that fits into a briefcase.

The plot of the Moonraker film deteriorates into outright absurdity towards the end. It is revealed that Drax has a huge launch complex hidden away in the Amazonian jungle, from which he has constructed a huge orbital space station: which no-one knows is there. It has, Bond says, radar-jamming technology. Clearly military intelligence, NASA, astronomers and so on did not record the number of space-flights needed to transport the materials from Earth into orbit in the first place, so no suspicion arose. And what happened to 'our' Shuttle? Drax faked the crash so he could steal back the Shuttle that his own corporation had built, sold and was delivering to the British! Why? Why didn't they build another, or even put off the British (who are used to long delays in the delivery of major military contracts)? Lonsdale almost seems to shrug his shoulders at this point. It's Bond villain as Homer Simpson-with-beard: 'I dunno.'

Of course, the spectacular finale has Bond and American astronauts (who seem to have formed a kind of NASA SEAL unit) battle it out with Drax's minions with laser rifles in orbit, and the Yanks win. It all seems much like the underwater battles in Bond films like Thunderball, whose overall effect is somewhat underwhelming. Instead of harpoon guns, substitute lasers; instead of frogmen, substitute astronauts in tin-foil spacesuits; instead of Curt Jurgens's underwater lair in The Spy Who Loved Me, substitute a massively expensive space station set.

Speaking of massively expensive sets, 1967's You Only Live Twice is the first truly Space Race Bond, where Donald Pleasance as Blofeld launches Mercury-capsule-eating rockets from a hollow volcano somewhere in Japan. (As in Moonraker, with all the tracking devices at work, you'd think someone in Intelligence would have noticed.) Bond's ascent into space is halted at the door of the capsule, in this film: Blofeld is suspicious and recalls the disguised would-be astronaut. While this film is curiously dominated by helicopter shots (and has an autogyro/ helicopter dogfight), it stays pretty much Earth-bound.

The first Bond film to really use NASA imagery is 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. This film is largely set in Las Vegas: the testing grounds of Groom Lake, and Edwards Air Force base, are close at hand. This is why, perhaps, along with the desert imagery that often accompanies NASA-inspired films (The Right Stuff, Capricorn One), that Bond in Diamonds Are Forever breaks into an aerospace facility, trespasses across a mock-up lunar landscape (while dodging 'moonwalking' men in environment suits) and finally steals a kind of moon buggy, outrunning security cars and trike-riding goons in his getaway across the dunes.

Diamonds Are Forever is a rotten film in many ways (in the way that Hunter Thompson would use the word 'rotten' about Las Vegas), but there's a gaudy vulgarity and even perverseness to it that I find quite entertaining. It was released while the Apollo missions were still ongoing, of course, and while the 'old' Las vegas of the Mob and the Rat Pack still stood, and Diamonds Are Forever - very much an American film - feels like the decadent days of a grand power going to ruin. The grand power is no longer Britain, and its narrative of post-imperial 'decline', but the USA.

Moonraker, by comparison, is a vapid bore. The entire film seems a set-up for the final, devastating double-entendre: disturbed in zero-g, mid-coitus, by a live satellite feed meant to congratulate him, shocked politicos ask what Bond thinks he is doing. 'Attempting re-entry, sir', says Q.

While Fleming's novel negotiates the science fictional imaginary also traversed by Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (V-2s, the Space Programme, the legacies of WW2), the film of Moonraker ascends to a hyperbolic realm where British post-imperial geo-political anxieties are articulated in a manner so palpably absurd, so science fictional, that they no longer seem meaningful. And that's the point of the film, really.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

At the beginning of the film, I thought to myself. 'Why 1957?' With Indy the subject of a barely-credible FBI investigation of Reds Under the Bed, and the author of a barely-credible escape from a nearby H-bomb test in a lead-lined Fridgidaire, I wondered why the film wasn't set earlier in the 50s (despite Ford's apparent superannuation). In the hallowed phrase of Toy Story 2's Stinky Pete: 'Two words: Sput Nik.'

Where the original Raiders conjured with World War 2 films and adventure serials with the Nazis as villains, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays with an amusing series of Cold War science-fictional pop-mythologies: the so-called 'Area 51' at Groom Lake, Nevada (where it transpires that the Ark of the Covenant is stored, revealed in a visual aside); the Roswell crash; the Soviet experiments in parapsychology, ESP, psychokinesis and so on; von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods; and of course the 'Rooshians' as ubiquitous baddies and competitiors in the Space Race.

Of course, the Indiana Jones franchise has always played its colonial adventurism (cum archaeological investigations) against some kind of threat, the Nazis in films 1 and 3 or (more problematically) the Thuggees in Temple of Doom. What's interesting about the fourth film isn't its father/ son dynamic (mirroring that between Indy and his own father in The Last Crusade), or rather creaky chase structure, or Cate Blanchett's campy, black-bobbed turn as the over-reaching and amoral Soviet scientist Irina Spalko: it's that the film stitches Close Encounters onto the Indiana Jones franchise by way of George Lucas, who co-wrote the film. It's a 'sci-fi' Indy, complete with real flying saucer at the end, but this film insists on the perils of seeking knowledge of the transcendental, rather than the wonderment experienced by Roy Neary in Close Encounters.

The ending, which reveals that the aliens aren't tourists or invaders but inter-dimensional archaeologists, collecting artefacts from ancient Terran cultures, is the ultimate validation of Indiana's expeditions in search of 'lost civilizations' and their artefacts. It's not exploitation, but the pursuit of 'knowledge' that is key, disinterested, benign, and NOT imperial. Indiana is not only set against Blanchett's hubristic desire to 'know everything', but also against the venality of former friend and double-agent Mac (Ray Winstone). Both antagonists come to an inevitably sticky end while Indy is rewarded with marriage, a son and the restoration of his fortunes.

Science fiction is used in the film as an ideological alibi for the archaeological/ ethnographic discourses of the First World scientists abroad (the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, South America). While we have the old chestnut that Blanchett would use the parapsychological power of the alien crystal skulls as the ultimate weapon in order to differentiate her from Indy, in fact very little seems to separate them: they both place the acquisition of knowledge above material or political concerns. Indy knows when to look (or run) away, however.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, in many ways, a very silly film, full of narrative non sequiturs. What happens to the FBI investigation? There is no-one to tell the story of the defeat of Spalko except Indy, his son, wife-to-be Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and fellow archaeologist Oxley (John Hurt), and all evidence is destroyed in a flood. What puts Indy back in good odour with the FBI and the University of Chicago? Who knows. The ending is sealed with a marriage, and the suggestion that the son will follow in the footsteps of the father, just as we saw in the third film. The really transsformative knowledge in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that 'Mutt Williams' is really Henry Jones III, and the son's aspirational, conservative path is beginning to be mapped out in his change from biker garb to preppy slacks and sports jacket. The quiff stays in place: but it's probably held there with hair pomade rather than Coca-Cola.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Me, James Bond and hyper-mobility

Coming soon, an essay on Casino Royale and mobility, in Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale, edited by Christoph Lindner, with Wallflower Press.


Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Star Wars (Marvel Comics)

I've been watching a lot of Star Wars recently. My nearly-5-year-old daughter had massive thing for the Clone Wars, and now watches the films themselves repetitively, though she favours three strongly: Star Wars (A New Hope), Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace. After reading Will Brooker's excellent BFI Classic essay on Star Wars, which made the prequel trilogy seem a lot more interesting and thoughtfully constructed, I've been thinking about the films as well as enjoying the elements of spectacle and world-creation again (and again and again).

I was also sent, by a good friend (thankyou Andy), an omnibus edition of the Marvel Star Wars comics that were produced from 1977 to 1986, in monthly format in the USA and in weekly editions in the UK. The early episodes, including a multi-part comic book adaptation of Star Wars itself, was drawn by Howard Chaykin, who would have a notable later career as a writer/artist on titles such as American Flagg!.

What primarily struck me about the comic, after the initial adapted episodes, was the fairly universal failure to adequately convey the worldness that Lucas was able to construct in Star Wars, and which is probably the lasting achievement of the original trilogy: a used world, full of detritus, people wearing working clothes in grubby environments, ships held together with fuse-wire and retrofitted parts. ('Futurologist' Syd Mead, who designed the 'retrofitted' world of Blade Runner, must surely have taken notes from the world(s) of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.)

The Marvel comics largely abandon this aesthetic, and it is in the absence of Lucas's highly-wrought detail that the texture of the Star Wars films truly becomes apparent. In the first story that follows the conclusion of the Star Wars film narrative, the comic takes Han and Chewbacca off to transport their 'reward' to Tatooine, to pay off Jabba's bounty. On the way, they meet a 'space pirate', one Crimson Jack, who sports a red beard and a kind of all-in-one wrestler's leotard that shows off his bare legs to great advantage. He is a red-headed, before-the-fact version of Brian Blessed's Prince Vultan in the 1980 Flash Gordon. The references to pirate narratives and to the cliches of Golden Age sf indicate that the writers and artists don't really know where to take the narrative in terms of a consistent universe; a later story has Luke marooned on an oceanic world where another crew of pirates or 'wreckers' cruise the seas in nothing less than a three-masted wooden man o'war.

Perhaps here we can see the influence of the Star Trek tv series, where Kirk and the crew would end up in alien worlds that resembled Nazi Germany, or the Wild West. The Western influence can be seen again in a story where Han and Chewie, forced to land on the backwater world of Aduba-3. There, in an overt recapitulation of The Magnificent Seven, Han is enlisted to help out a community who are menaced by one 'Sergi-X', a local bandit shown in a large splash-panel as a two-fisted Mexican outlaw, complete with scar, unshaven chin and nasty leer.

Even more curious is the group of fighters Han recruits. One, called Don-Wan Kihotay (nudge-nudge), lives a waking fantasy of being a Jedi Knight; another is a man-size green carnivorous rabbit with outsize ears called Jaxxon. Clearly here we're in the space of parody, but it's jarring nonetheless. Not only because this rabbit is a hard-boiled, ass-kicking, wise-cracking street rabbit, but through the absurdly cavalier way with world-creation. How can Star Wars have a rabbit in it, that Han Solo calls a rabbit? Star Wars itself is marked with an extremely careful mapping out of alien biologies and ecologies. Banthas might look a bit like shaggy elephants, but they're never called elephants. How would Luke know what an elephant was? He knows a swamp-rat, and can bulls-eye it, but whatever the creature is it surely isn't like a Terran rat.

So, not only do the comics reveal the density of texture in the films through absence, but also the very careful way Lucas imagines his alien world (Tatooine) in Star Wars. Lucas's conceptualisation of politics may be revealed in the prequel trilogy as niave in the extreme, but he does have a good eye for social, biological and spatial ecologies.

A final note: the Marvel Star Wars is much more heroic even than A New Hope. Luke is a jut-jawed, fist-clenched action hero; Obi-Wan a grizzled warrior, still very mcuh the Jedi Knight; Chewbacca is about twice the breadth of Peter Mayhew and is much disposed to violence; Threepio is lantern-jawed; and even Leia, swannning about in her white dress, wields a blaster with aggressive gusto. The key word, in terms of characterisation and the style of artwork, is aggression, with strong inking, garish colour and a regular six-panel page with plenty of white gutter. This is definitely Star Wars Drawn The Marvel Way, and the oddness of having Luke in his Tatooine white wrapped-around jacket, or Leia in her white dress whatever the narrative or place indicates that dress is conceptualised as a kind of uniform or costume in the comics, as much as it is for Iron Man, or Thor, or Spider-Man.

It's a retro-kick for me, reading these comics now. I was definitely a 2000AD kid, but bought Star Wars alongside it for quite a few years - I remember a story called 'Pariah' that wasn't published until 1982 (thanks Wookieepedia), after Empire was released and serialised, for instance. And thinking about it, one thing that is definitely missing from most of the stories in the first Omnibus is the Empire itself: Stormtroopers, TIE fighters, Imperial destroyers, Darth Vader. No wonder the worlds of the comic feel like generic Golden Age sf: the recognisable icons are largely left unused. The reason? A desire to keep clear of politics? The need not to interfere too much with the film continuity (though all stories were cleared pre-publication by Lucasfilm)? Whatever it is, it does leave the book feeling very far, far away from what we know now as the Star Wars universe.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Available Publications | University Of Chester

Meanwhile, available now, a collection of essays on screen adaptation, edited by myself (and containing an essay by me on the adaptation of PKD's 'The Minority Report'):

Available Publications | University Of Chester

After the hiatus

So much for new beginnings. After I started this new blog, which was meant to accompany a period of study leave, myself and my daughter succumbed to what seemed like months of low-level illnesses, infections, and so on, which meant all my plans came to nought. And then back to work in April, and exam season, which for me is a descent into the maelstrom...

But I have returned!

Planned or possible upcoming posts:

Anna Kavan
Christine Brooke-Rose
James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
Hunter S. Thompson (as science fiction)
SF and music (dub, space-rock, Afrofuturism, electronic/ scanning, the android, Krautrock)

and more...

Check back shortly.