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The British Sci-Fi Revival


It’s Sci-Fi September here in sunny Hemlockshire (or would have been if I’d got this Blog in on time), so how about we take a gander at the current state of independent British science fiction features? That whole ‘British Horror Revival’ thing tends to overshadow whatever ‘British Sci-Fi Revival’ there may be, just as horror generally overshadows science fiction in cinematic terms: more festivals, more magazines and fanzines, more websites. So let me take this opportunity to answer the question which has been bubbling in your cerebellum since you read that first sentence above, which is something along the lines of: "Hang on - what independent British science fiction features?”

      Well, there have been a few in the past decade and a bit: some good, some bad. Probably the most high profile was Gareth Carrivick’s droll temporal conundrum Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, which benefitted from a smart script, a very British location (‘the pub’) and a recognisable face in Chris O’Dowd from The IT Crowd. Written by Being Human scripter Jamie Matheson and directed by TV sitcom helmer Gareth Carrivick, FAQ About Time Travel got a reasonably wide release with plenty of good marketing and scored good reviews. The only downside was that Carrivick passed away just a few months after its release (from leukemia, aged just 52).

      So that’s the one example you’re likely to have heard. As discerning horror fans, you may potentially also have heard of Jake West’s Evil Aliens - and if you haven’t, well maybe you should have bought my book. To be honest, although Jake’s OTT ‘splatstick’ comedy features extraterrestrials, that’s only because Jake had foreseen the forthcoming glut of zombie films and wanted a different antagonist. Unlike FAQ About Time Travel, and some of the films cited below, Evil Aliens doesn’t really explore any science fictional concepts. It doesn’t have any of what the late Bob Shaw used to call ‘wee thinky bits’. They’re aliens, they’re evil, we’ve got a combine harvester, let the blood flow.

      Similarly, James Eaves’ gory Bane has a foot in both camps. The set-up is certainly horror: four women wake in some sort of prison, their memories wiped, and are subjected to unexplained experiments and occasional nocturnal violence. But the rationale is science fiction, with extraterrestrials again, although these ones are only moderately evil and there are no combine harvesters. Truth be told, there are holes in the plot and it was a wise move to base the marketing on the amount of blood rather than whatever exploration of the human condition underlies the gore. Still, it’s a solid and original little B-movie, which received a DVD release on both sides of the Atlantic, and it’s well worth seeking out.

      The same sadly can’t be said of Dark Watchers: The Women in Black from prolific indie auteur Philip Gardiner, a man who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. This is Gardiner’s take on the whole MiB mythos, which is nowadays indelibly associated with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones but actually has a basis in loony-toons paranoia going back decades. So we have a good-looking, black, bald - with the requisite black suit, white shirt, black tie and dark glasses - who does, well, nothing really. He has no dialogue and doesn’t seem to interact in any way with the main characters who are three ghastly women with no obvious means of income. They have an overweight male friend who is a UFO nut, and they are losing portions of their memory, and then some black goop comes out of the drains or something. It would be cruel of me to say that this incoherent, incomprehensible rubbish is typical of Gardiner’s work and I have only seen one other film by him (he’s made loads!) but as that other is also incoherent, incomprehensible rubbish I’m certainly starting to see a pattern developing.

      Time for something altogether jollier. The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space is a 2008 short feature directed by Jan Manthey which is an unashamed love letter to 1970s British sex comedies. A hapless plumber is seduced by a policeman’s wife, discovered by the husband - and then all three are teleported to an alien planet where the matriarchal society requires human males to breed with. Cue much running around, saucy jokes, cardboard props and cheap slapstick – none of which will mean anything to those unfamiliar with the genre which it so lovingly pastiches. Among the jobbing film-makers who worked in that genre, incidentally, was Michael Armstrong (writer of Mark of the Devil, The Haunted House of Horror and House of Long Shadows) who was something of a mentor to Manthey on this production, makes a brief cameo appearance and even loaned the original sink plunger that was seen on screen in The Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate.

      Another science fiction comedy, albeit a much less broad one, is Mark Jeavons’ Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit. Rob Leetham stars in this as the eponymous grumpy loser. A wedding videographer by trade, he’s antisocial and angry with himself, and is still living with the wife he divorced, which can’t be a good thing. But perhaps Pete’s life can turn around when a series of weird things start happening to him, including abduction by aliens and a dimensional portal appearing inside his fridge. I say ‘perhaps’ because the biggest problem with Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit is that we simply never find out what happens to Pete Blaggit. Sincere and well-directed, the film’s story is simply too obtuse, its marketing promising some sort of fantastical offer of redemption in the manner of Groundhog Day or It’s a Wonderful Life, but the actual screenplay failing to cash that cheque, leaving viewers nonplussed and disappointed. Which is a shame.

      Oddly, Rob Leetham also starred in another micro-budget British science fiction film a couple of years earlier. Waiting for Dawn, directed by James T Williams, is another time travel film set in a pub, though it predates FAQ About Time Travel and explores different ideas. It’s also more serious and much lower-budgeted, but that’s not to say it’s not a fine piece of film-making. Billed as a ‘metaphysical love story’, the film sees Leetham’s character nip into a watering hole while waiting to meet his girlfriend, only to find that time and space operate differently in this mysterious establishment. His attempts to escape this temporal trap and find his girlfriend form the plot, propelled by encounters with possibly metaphorical regulars who know more than they’re telling. The ending is a bit of a let-down but otherwise Waiting for Dawn is a fine example of micro-budget British SF, with no special effects whatsoever.

      On the other hand, Daniel J Fox’s visually stunning Dreamscape is almost non-stop effects, a parade of green-screened actors and CGI locations which demonstrate what can be done nowadays on a tiny budget if you have the right tools and the talent to use them wisely. Displaying an obvious debt to the works of Phiip K Dick (there’s even a Voigt-Kampf Machine in one shot!), Dreamscape is a futuristic sci-fi thriller about a businessman who signs up to a service that provides custom-made dreams. He wants to be a spy, but once he is involved in dangerous intrigue, he starts to question what is real and what is fantasy (as indeed do the audience). Originally running a not-quite-feature-length 63 minutes, Dreamscape was recut and extended following early reviews, adding a new third act while tightening up the first two. With a solid cast, impressive production values and terrific black and white cinematography that really plays up the film noir angle, Dreamscape is an excellent piece of film-making., But as with so many of these titles, it has yet to receive a proper release, even after five years, demonstrating that science fiction, however good, just doesn’t have the marketability of horror.

      As can be seen from the titles cited so far, British SF tends to be solidly Earth-based. So kudos to the Scottish guys behind The Planet for going fully extraterrestrial in their setting. Starting out with an impressive CGI space freighter attacked by smaller ships, the film proper begins when ten survivors from the crew make it to a desolate planet surface along with the single, hugely dangerous prisoner who was being transported. So shades of Pitch Black, mixed in with a bit of Forbidden Planet when the team are attacked by some sort of invisible id-monster, or something. Good production design, impressive effects and a good cast under adroit direction are unfortunately all let down by an incomprehensible plot that goes wandering off into the desert and comes back with severe heat-stroke. The prisoner turns out to be part of some space cult and finds a magical sword; there’s an alien blob and a giant, humanoid statue. Nothing is properly explained. Still, for 8,000 quid it’s a very impressive debut.

      Ray Brady’s Intergalactic Combat sounds like it ought to be impressive and space-based too, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it’s not only decidedly Earth-bound (a few insert shots of sub-Nintendo CGI aliens notwithstanding), it’s also dire beyond belief. Readers with long memories may remember Brady as the director of minimalist proto-torture porn nasty Boys Meets Girl, but Intergalactic Combat is very different indeed, an inept martial arts actioner within an ill-conceived sci-fi scenario. Having made first contact, Earth will only be allowed to join the league of planets (or whatever) if we field a team of top martial artists in some sort of interstellar gladiatorial games. (South Sudan had to do something very similar before they were allowed into the UN, I believe.)

      Despite its space-y sounding title, Intergalactic Combat is not about Earth vs aliens, it’s not even about the selection of the Earth team, it’s about the selection of the UK team who will then compete to be in the Earth team who will then compete against the aliens. So about as intergalactic as my back garden then. The only minor point of interest is the casting of Tom Wu, an excellent Chinese-British actor who you might recognise from Mutant Chronicles, Scorpion King 2, Kick-Ass 2, Ra-One or CBBC series Spirit Warriors. You would be better off watching any of these rather than Intergalactic Combat which is a hopeless series of lame martial arts fights without context or interest.

      Then there’s UFO: no, not the Gerry Anderson series and not the Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown movie (the principal reason why people don’t write books about British SF movies is to avoid having to watch that embarrassment). Directed by Dominic Burns (Cut, Airborne), this enjoyable SF/horror/action hybrid follows a small group of people surviving a global attack by malevolent aliens and is set, like so many modern British features, in Derby. BHR regular Simon Phillips gives probably his best performance in the lead role supported by an impressive cast that includes Pierce Brosnan’s son, Jean Claude Van Damme’s daughter and Sir Sean Pertwee. Most impressive of all, family connections roped in JCVD himself, inbetween Coors Light commercials, for a small role. This fun, slick feature actually played Derby Quad for a week making it the only one of these pictures, apart from FAQ and Evil Aliens, to have had a theatrical release.

      But if I had to pick one modern British science fiction film to recommend it wouldn’t any of the above, it would be a fascinating post-apocalypse movie from Northern Ireland called Ditching. We don’t really do ‘post-apocalypse’ in this country, preferring to leave such things to the Yanks, Aussies and Italians. In fact the only other example which comes to mind is The Bed Sitting Room. Ditching is an extraordinary piece, at once both bleak and wry, with no real story and not much by the way of characters but some unforgettable images. Don’t ask me where you can find a copy but if you get a chance – and you’re prepared to forego aliens, robots and explosions in favour of ‘wee thinky bits’ - watch it.

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.