ESSENTIAL NEW SF DVD’S AND BOOKS!
Below is a brief evaluation of some new, very cool stuff I have recently perused (which would make very good X-mas gifts, too). All of the following coincide with the fabulous Days of Fear and Wonder science fiction film and events season, currently happening at the BFI, London, and around the UK. Info: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sci-fi-days-fear-wonder
OUT OF THE UNKNOWN DVD box set
This is an absolutely awesome collection of rarely seen BBC TV plays, originally broadcast as an anthology series, between 1965 and 1971, and featuring some brilliant adaptations of classic SF stories by authors like J G Ballard, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, William Tenn, Frederick Pohl, CM Kornbluth, Clifford D Simak, John Brunner and Isaac Asimov, amongst others. It’s a beautifully packaged box set of 7 DVD’s, bringing together all 20 (digitally remastered) surviving episodes, as well as loads of extras, including a fascinating and insightful new documentary about the series, 11 audio commentaries, plus 4 episode reconstructions (which assemble the extant clips and photo stills of the particular episodes which were stupidly wiped from the video source tapes by the BBC, back in the 70’s, as they also did with many Doctor Who episodes).
I was really surprised at the (relatively) superb quality of these TV films. The acting is – in general – excellent and quite subtle, as would be expected from the likes of David Hemmings, George Cole and Milo O’ Shea (who played ‘Durand Durand’ in Barbarella!). Some of the more expository dialogue is kept within a realistic context (unlike other rambling, incredulous TV SF of the time), and some of the sets, props, special effects, make-up and costumes, in the more far-out, ‘psychedelic’ stories, are very weird and convey a suitably otherworldly ambiance.
In this sense these films were very radical for a mainstream viewing audience, at the time, and seeing as they tackled such weighty subjects as Artificial Intelligence, dystopian futures and alien life, amongst much else, they did a fantastic, very sophisticated job, on meagre TV budgets. Needless to say, Out of the Unknown was incredibly influential to later, classic science fiction TV and film.
Most of these films haven’t been seen in decades, and we are very lucky to have these surviving 20 episodes, out of a total of 49. Out of the Unknown can easily stand alongside some of the legendary, yet just as (relatively) obscure American SF TV series of the 1950’s and 60’s, like Science Fiction Theatre, Out There and The Outer Limits. At least two thirds of the episodes in this collection are indispensable classics of the SF genre and some are bizarre, hallucinatory masterpieces of TV film in their own right: two of the most amazing and inventive episodes essay similar themes – that of enforced life underground. ‘Level Seven’, is a bleak, but superb dystopian nightmare, based on the cult, extremely obscure SF novel of the same name by Mordecai Roshwald and dramatised for TV by JB Priestley, and the version of ‘The Machine Stops’, by E.M Forster, an early, turn of the 20th century SF classic, which examines themes of totalitarianism and the mechanisation of humanity. And that’s just two episodes!
All in all, if you are at all interested in the history of science fiction, or just 20th century pop-culture, in general, then this box set is essential (I will post up some detailed reviews of some of the episodes, later on).
BFI FILM CLASSICS
As anyone who already knows the BFI Film Classics series well, will tell you, these books, which have been going since the early 1990’s, and amount to over 100 published titles, are some of the most incisive, intelligent, brilliantly written short monographs on the history of cinema. Each book focuses, in detail, on one particular exceptional film, divulging, analysing and interpreting its creation, history, themes and subtexts, within the context of the SF genre, and film cannon, in general, as well as much else. I cannot recommend this series highly enough, and especially the 9 new books on exemplary science fiction films, just published.
Nearly all of the films selected are bone fide ‘classics’, and all are worth reading about (even though I do think that films like Brazil are still somewhat over-rated). They are:
Silent Running (Mark Kermode)
Akira (Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell)
Alien (Roger Luckhurst)
Brazil (Paul McAuley)
Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Peter Krämer)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Andrew M. Butler)
Quatermass and the Pit (Kim Newman)
Solaris (Mark Bould)
The War of the Worlds (Barry Forshaw)
I’ve read some of these recently, and what I liked especially about (most of) them is their very ‘personal’ mode of enquiry into each film. Nearly all of the authors are academics, but – thankfully – their evaluation of each film is not bogged down by ‘academese’, i.e. overly technical jargon and film theory pretentiousness. The pieces employ objective critical reasoning, mixed with the authors’ more subjective reactions – sometimes flavoured by reminiscences of childhood discovery of the given film, in their critical dissection. Many such experiences will mirror the reader’s own relationship with the film, and this makes for a very enjoyable, as well as enlightening argument, in defence of such great cinema.
The fact that a few of the chosen films have been unfairly undervalued, and hence somewhat neglected, in the past – like the Anime masterpiece, Akira, for instance – makes these celebrations of their merits additionally welcome. The other estimable thing about these finely focused investigations is that they reveal so many minute details, subtly hidden ideas and eternally re-interpretable symbolism, which would otherwise get lost in a more over-arching, convoluted thesis. Essentially they are digestible little nuggets of revelatory fact and theory, succinctly encapsulating the aesthetic and intellectual purity of said film, within a wider context of socio-culture.
Out of this new selection on SF films, I would especially recommend the brilliant books on Solaris (Tarkovsky’s 1972 iteration, of course), Akira, Dr. Strangelove…, Alien, Silent Running and Quatermass and the Pit (which is an excellent, short overview of all of Nigel Kneale’s incredible ‘Quatermass’ work, not just the1967 film, by the esteemed film critic Kim Newman). Many exemplary stills from the stated film illustrate, or parallel, the author’s points and they are ‘pocket-sized’ enough to carry around easily and dip into. As you gradually add each title to the others, they become a beautiful collection of vital studies of film masterpieces.
DAYS OF FEAR AND WONDER BOOK
To support the BFI season of science fiction cinema, this beautifully produced and wide-ranging compendium elucidates many of the more complex themes, ideas and traits explored and evinced, throughout the history of SF films. This lavishly illustrated, large format, 160 page book comprises a plethora of captivating, highly entertaining articles written by all manner of experts and aficionado’s of SF film. The roster of star writers draws from the worlds of science fiction literature, journalism, science and academia and includes Ken Hollings, Kim Newman, John Clute, Graham Sleight, Simon Ings, Vic Pratt, Laura Adams, William Fowler, Byrony Dixon, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, Mathew Sweet, Stephen Baxter and Josephine Botting, amongst many others.
The features cover almost every aspect of science fiction cinema, and you couldn’t ask for a better, easy to assimilate general introduction to the subject, from early, silent SF cinema, to the most recent special effects in films (like Interstellar), from those old standbys of time travel, alien invasions and robots/cyborgs, to virtual realities and future tech, from genetic cloning and evolutionary mutations to outer and inner space, from British TV SF and space operas, to women in SF and cold war SF, from SF costumes and computers/artificial intelligences to Afrofuturism and catastrophe SF, this tome runs the gamut of SF cinema, in a concise, yet very eclectic, informative manner.
And, as it is an anthology of essays on a myriad of subjects and sub categories of SF, there are obviously many differing viewpoints, most of which I am sure you will agree with, and perhaps a few you may not. No matter, as all of the articles will get you thinking about the various philosophical questions, metaphorical strands and subtle undertones which run throughout the history of SF cinema, be they aesthetic, socio-political or multicultural.
I admired pretty much all of the articles, and was pleasantly surprised by some of them, in terms of learning new facts and seeing familiar old favourites from an original new angle (I was especially enamoured by the section relating the connections between extremely obscure, experimental Avant Garde cinema of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s and later SF blockbusters like 2001 and Star Wars, and the piece about low budget SF B-movies of the 50’s and their indie SF cinema brethren of the 70’s) . The articles are in-depth and challenging enough whilst staying the right side of easy going and pleasurable, which is perfect for the novice and aficionado of SF, alike. 8 out of 10 and highly recommended.