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Strange Days 2: The Second Science Fiction Weirdness Wave

  Weird science fiction at the movies fell out of favour in the nineteen-eighties and into the nineteen-nineties, certainly there was the occasional release that gathered some attention and higher profile, but they tended to be expensive flops like David Lynch's Dune, or low budget cult movies where the usual rules would not apply, such as Shinya Tsukamoto's Testuo: The Iron Man. In the main, the effects of the Reagan years and a general conservatism in entertainment worldwide had the more out there efforts either not finding a mass audience, or not being made at all. But in 1997, that tide began to turn, and Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon was a big part of that. Not that it was a blockbuster at the time, hampered by Anderson's preferred edit being sickeningly violent according to those who saw it, therefore a toned down version was released to cinemas, and still managed to underperform when the spirit of the age was not quite ready for it.

On television, The X-Files was the most successful science fiction show, and it mixed its pseudoscience and UFO-related shenanigans with a genuine try at scaring its audience, often with very odd results, and in 1998 The X-Files (the movie) was put out in the world's theatres, though in effect it was not quite as boundary-pushing as it had been on the small screen. One director who had been up for the gig was Anderson, but he felt he wanted to follow his muse and go as extreme as possible, greatly influenced by Clive Barker whose writings had done much to advance the imagination in horror fiction, so Event Horizon was what he and screenwriter Philip Eisner concocted, a variation on The Shining (itself a curious beast) set, not in a haunted hotel, but a rediscovered spacecraft that had disappeared around the planet Neptune while experimenting with a new drive that folded space to reduce the problems of long distance space travel.

What we can tell, and the crew of the rescue ship cannot, is that by opening up the dimensions to enable these journeys, they have unleashed Hell itself, and what sounded like a hokey concept proved surprisingly potent thanks to a particularly unforgiving treatment of its characters. Anticipating the resurgence of religious horror as the new millennium arrived, Event Horizon (named after the damned ship) mixed hard sci-fi (or as hard as sci-fi got in the movies) with jump scares and gruesomeness as in classic slasher fashion the crew, led by Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, are picked off one by one as the Satanic asserts itself. Triggering a few other horrors and thrillers set in space, like Supernova or Sunshine, this picked up a strong cult following and seemed to encourage filmmakers to get as wacky as they liked with their ideas in the science fiction genre; a lot of people liked what they saw here, and the movies responded.

If there was one man who pioneered weirdo cinema, it was David Cronenberg: his Videodrome in 1984 was one of the few efforts of the day that really strived to place the viewer in an alien world, despite the fact it was set in contemporary Earth. Since then he had been adapting others' work, which had led his fans to hanker after the days when he shot his own screenplays, especially when some of those projects could not be described as science fiction or horror, or if they could, it was tangential to his other concerns. eXistenZ arrived in 1999 in the wake of a certain blockbuster called The Matrix, which like Videodrome presented a world similar to our own which was not, and since the Cronenberg item was set in a virtual reality, ostensibly a computer game, comparisons were inevitably made between it and what the Wachowskis had rustled up, their huge success really announcing the return of the mindbending to the style.

Looking back, we can set eXistenZ apart from The Matrix since they deal with different themes, and certainly took differing approaches. Inspired by the reaction of religious fundamentalist to Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, Cronenberg here substituted the ideas of faith in scripture with the very idea of what reality can be trusted, and the popularity of gaming, which had overtaken that of films (or so we were told) was depicted not as the ultimate freedom of imagination, but the ultimate in self-absorption where the self as regarded by the player mattered far more than anyone else in the so-called real world. If nothing counted except yourself that meant you could not merely go through a game behaving as badly as you liked, but do so in online encounters and eventually in your day to day life away from the game - though the terrorists here are obsessed with the danger that reality will be rejected in favour of a false God of fiction.

The lead, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), was a game designer and the centre of a worldwide cult of celebrity thanks to her way with allowing the participants to lose themselves in her constructs, though this being Cronenberg part of his straightfaced sense of humour was that once we are shown the game - eXistenZ - it comes across as curiously unappealing, not the kung fu capers of The Matrix and its sequels. Indeed, its chief appeal is purely that it is something immersive away from the world outside the game, no matter that the activities you get up to are pretty disgusting, from eating revolting food and making a gun that fires teeth out of the leftovers to actually killing someone, which in the typically twisted ideals of gaming is preferable to the Cronenbergian ickiness. With its staid, observant and sardonic air, this was not the most exciting virtual reality movie you would experience, but as a fetishist Hitchcock pastiche, it succeeded.

Speaking of the Master of Suspense, his shadow loomed large over Vincenzo Natali's Cypher in 2002, part of the American director's run of distinctive, fantastical plots that followed on from his cult hit Cube. His stock in trade was simple concepts you could describe in a short sentence that nevertheless had resonance you may not have anticipated, and the hero of this film, which came before Natali's mad science movie Splice, could have been a typical Hitchcock protagonist, an ordinary fellow in extraordinary circumstances. In this case Jeremy Northam played a white collar worker who decided to spice up his working day by living out his adventurous fantasies corporate spy, his mild-mannered demeanour regarded as the ideal cover since he is so, well, boring that nobody would suspect him of carrying, for example, a steel pen that is actually a recording device for transmitting the business speeches at endless conventions back to his bosses.

Northam was essaying just the right sort of unimpressive man to be regularly overlooked, with his nasal voice and diffident approach, though he is emboldened enough to go up to supposed single lady Lucy Liu in a bar and try to chat her up. In a century where the question, "What do you identify as?" gained an uneasy traction, our hero here identified as a supercool man of mystery, when for the most part it was everyone else who held the most enigma, especially Liu's femme fatale who we realise was a plant in that bar to get Northam to reveal various secrets to her. But the point was the old Kurt Vonnegut adage, "Be careful who you pretend to be, for we are who we pretend to be", and Northam went through a number of names before the end credits rolled on a film that was plot heavy, yet that self-same plot mattered a lot less than Brian King's script playing fast and loose with not only his characters, but the audience into the bargain.

There was a sense of humour here, it was the humour of situations rather than of quips and gags, and the whole storyline had the structure of a set of jokes, or one long shaggy dog story. As with Cronenberg, the writings of Philip K. Dick played a role, the mindbending author whose novels and short stories had begun to influence science fiction on the screen with increasing regularity. Paul Verhoeven had brought some of that to his Total Recall in 1990, though maybe not enough when Cronenberg had been the initial choice to adapt the Dick yarn and in comparison, they took alternate paths in science fiction. With Cypher, if someone had told you it was a lost tale from the troubled, paranoid author you wouldn't have been a bit surprised, it resembled a sleek, stylish near-parody of what he had conveyed, wrapped up in the aforementioned Hitch trappings of classic thriller cinema to put into question whether anything anyone says to describe themselves can be trusted.

Quite often a plotline that succeeds in a novel or short story falters when it reaches the screen, no matter how much it appealed to the filmmakers, and the fantastical genres can be particularly prone to this. Not that the book of Dreamcatcher, from 2003, was the very picture of sensible, being one of the works Stephen King penned while he was in recovery from his near-fatal accident and as a result, maybe it was the painkillers, maybe he was high on relief at surviving, but his output was some of the strangest he had ever crafted around this era. Memorably for Dark Tower fans, he wrote himself as a character into that multi-book epic, just to give an instance of his mind going to places most writers would have rejected as too outré. In the case of Dreamcatcher, it was more poo-tre, as it started off with characters suffering enormously bad wind then proceeding to excrete what were known as "shit weasels" from their anuses.

The idea, according to King, was to take horror into a place it did not often go, and that was the bathroom - not in the shower, that had been done plenty of times since Hitchcock's Psycho, but the toilet, therefore it was actual poo that became the enemy, feral eel-like creatures with razor sharp teeth that will eat as much of you as they can. They were certainly memorable in a B-movie kind of way, as Dreamcatcher was at heart a fifties alien invasion flick with more lavatorial and violent trappings than Jack Arnold could ever have got away with, for there was a crashed spaceship in the snowy woods these critters were emerging from (shades of Quatermass and the Pit, one of King's favourites, also referenced in The Tommyknockers). There were shapeshifting "greys", one of whom is named Mr Grey, funnily enough, who takes over the body of tourist Damian Lewis and heads off on a snowmobile to spread the infection across the globe.

If you read this in its book form, King's way with internal monologue, and indeed dialogue, helped the outrageousness along, but director Lawrence Kasdan, assisted by Misery adapter William Goldman, struggled to make this anything but preposterous in their movie. They pared down the story as far as they could but were hamstrung by needing to feature the other main plot, where a man with learning difficulties called Duddits (Donny Wahlberg!) proves to have unexplained psychic powers he has passed onto Lewis and his three friends, a favour after they saved him from bullies as a child. Again, what seemed acceptable in the source simply looked farcical in the film, the result being a picture that was held up to ridicule at the time, not least the decision to keep King's most eccentric dialogue, yet has gone onto cult status as one of those efforts where the audience cannot believe what they are seeing, in a "who thought this was a good idea?!" fashion.

In 2009, British writer and director Christopher Smith served up Triangle, as the title suggested a variation on the Bermuda Triangle mystery that came to popularity in the seventies, and was debunked not long after though as was the case with these mysteries, the enigma proved more enticing than the truth and there are still those who believe in that region of the Atlantic there was a peculiarity causing ships and aeroplanes to disappear without trace. Not to say there were no unexplained disappearances there, but that sort of incident happens all over the world and there is no real hotspot in that location, which was large enough to take in a number of stories and claim them for its own. Nevertheless, as noted it was a potent concept and Triangle was reminiscent of the shortlived seventies television series out of America, The Fantastic Journey, as well as the half-forgotten horror from the early eighties Death Ship.

This was more structurally ambitious, however, as it took the time loop idea that could have explained in a pseudoscientific way an anomaly like The Bermuda Triangle and ran with it to trap a young mother played by Melissa George in it, though as it progresses she begins to see a way out of it, the tension arising from wondering if she will, and indeed whether she is on the right track in the first place. We meet her tending to her autistic son who has been acting up, unaware that we are seeing glimpses of things that will be significant later on, such was Smith's keen handling of his material, his confidence that this will all add up a good reason why it succeeded as well as it did. What offered this resonance was that George's predicament was never explained, only glancingly indicated as possibly some higher power toying with her as she goes on her friend's yacht and meets his friends in turn, in what should be a pleasurable day out.

It's all set to be very relaxing, the sun in the clear sky and the water not too choppy, the wind not too strong, but then they notice a storm nearing, which may be some kind of time distortion effect. The yacht capsizes and the tourists are rescued by a passing ocean liner - or are they? Once onboard there is nobody around, or at least nobody who wants to be seen, and the stage is set for what turns increasingly violent when somebody or something starts trying to kill them. Only George's protest - "I have a son!" - seems to save her, though as we find out that may have damned her also, a possibly unintentional theme of the film being how motherhood renders women one step away from insanity if they're not careful. The final sequence, where the pieces slot into place like some hellish jigsaw puzzle, was both satisfying in that you had the bigger picture at last, and frustrating since the solution was harsh and bleak.

Richard Kelly needs to be mentioned when discussing the resurgence of science fiction weirdness around the turn of the millennium, as his three films from 2001-2009 all opened to poor box office and reviews, then went on to amass loyal cult followings once they were discovered by an audience for whom their studied oddness and apocalyptic themes chimed with the times they were living through. First, Donnie Darko arrived with its tale of a teenage Jake Gyllenhaal finding himself in one of those time loops (efforts as diverse as 2007's Timecrimes and 2014's Predestination implemented that same device), suggesting a growing panic in the ether about how much control we as individuals had over our lives as the future became a reality. 2006's Southland Tales was his follow-up, and even the cult for that one is small as it wrestled with political satire and Armageddon with an absurdly star-studded cast. Many felt Kelly had sabotaged his promising career.

The Box was what he designed to prove his critics wrong, an adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story, a writer who can be credited with anything from kickstarting Steven Spielberg's career to inspiring George A. Romero's flesh-eating zombies, one of the most influential creators of his era, or any era, really. His stock in trade was the short horror or science fiction story which were gifts to such anthology series as The Twilight Zone, and indeed his original story Button, Button had been made into an episode of the rebooted Rod Serling series in the eighties. That yarn was a simple one with a twist at the end, a format much beloved of the fantasy authors of the day, but Kelly took its premise and spun it off into various tangents that suggested after a strong start he was allowing his material to get out of control, a charge you could level at his other two directorial efforts, and one explanation, aside from bad luck, he has not helmed anything since.

The Box took place at Christmastime 1976 when English teacher Cameron Diaz and NASA scientist James Marsden receive an early "present": the titular box, which has a button on top and a note saying they will be visited the next day. This visitor turns out to be Frank Langella with a disfigured face (lightning did that, we are later told in one of many plot points that go nowhere) and tells Diaz that if she or Marsden presses the button, then they will win a million dollars, not bad when they are both suffering setbacks at work. There is, however, a catch: if they do press it, they will be responsible for the death of a complete stranger, so dare they have that on their conscience? Any question Langella may be bluffing is swiftly dispelled by the tone of cosmic paranoia throughout, somehow linked to the Mars missions and an alien intelligence it is revealed is testing humanity for... some reason. Say what you liked about Kelly, he truly committed to his far out concepts.

Far out concepts were not the sole province of Hollywood filmmakers, as Bong Joon-ho demonstrated with Snowpiercer in 2013, a film that fell victim to poor distribution yet picked up admirers nonetheless, not solely in its homeland of South Korea. If science fiction is about creating new worlds, be they wondrous or dystopian, then the weirder offerings could supply both those things; in the eighties and nineties, efforts like City of Lost Children or the work of Terry Gilliam kept the strangeness flag flying, and indeed Bong called the John Hurt character here in his post-apocalyptic epic Gilliam as tribute. The setting was a train, one of the lengthiest ever built in terms of carriages, which thunders along the tracks through the snowy wastelands that have resulted after a disastrous attempt to correct the effects of global warming, as in a cruel twist of fate humanity has gone too far in the opposite direction and a new Ice Age has gripped the planet.

It was best not pick apart the science here, for what Bong was dealing with was allegory, the train itself a stand-in for the injustices of global society as he saw them. We open with the plight of the tail enders, who exist in the last carriage eating unidentified protein blocks and subject to all sorts of indignities from the machine gun-wielding guards who order them about in seemingly pointless tasks, occasionally taking one or two to go further up the train for mysterious motives. Leader of the insurgents is Chris Evans, who with the help of Hurt and sidekick Jamie Bell plan a revolt against what appears to be the leader, Tilda Swinton in what we were told was a parody of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, though the send-up was so off the wall that you would need prompting to latch onto any straightforward similarities. Nevertheless, Swinton was a memorable villain and stand-in for the evil in this community.

Evans did not get much in the way of personality to his role, however, not compared to others here, more a representation of heroic battling against a cliched science fiction foe as we had seen for a century, though the final revelation lifting its twist from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from 1971 was not one that many could have foreseen. As the tail enders advanced along the carriages, each one more surreal than the one before, Bong took the opportunity to get as wacky as he could, which was always a good sign if you liked your speculative fiction on the bizarre side, no matter how much of a sincere aura they placed on them: anything from Shane Carruth's Primer in 2004 to Panos Cosmatos's Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2010 had paved the way for this kind of attraction, and to marry the sci-fi to the action movie genre was a development that had seen the genre thrive for decades. If Snowpiercer was too grimfaced for its own good, then that's a charge that can be levelled at science fiction all round, but we should embrace its oddities and eccentricities: when they succeed, they're like nothing else, and can bend your brains round their little fingers. Trust me, that can be enjoyable.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018