Monday, November 14, 2011

Space Invaders: Moonraker and Alien

It's 1979. After ten Bond movies, the eleventh one gets to dispose entirely with Fleming's original plot (Nazis! With nukes! Hiding under the South Downs!) and keep just the title, which is ... well, which is a pretty rubbish title. Oh well. And things don't start that well, given we have another lamentable attempt at comedy in the shape of Richard Kiel falling out of the sky. Some nitwits must have assumed "big bloke" equals "physical comedy" and left it there; every scene with Jaws has him shamelessly mugging to the camera, while just out of earshot must be the swanee whistle that (ruinously) soundtracked Bond's superlative barrel roll in The Man With The Golden Gun. What's annoying here is that the chase from the airplane is a terrific stunt: why did it have to have a giant circus clown gurning throughout?
What a cunning stunt

The opening credits don't improve matters. I remember Bond title sequences being exciting, titillating, classy silhouettes against exotic backgrounds. But that was in the 1980s, long before any British people had seen anything nude. Now when I watch a bint swimming about in front of the camera, it feels crass, and badly executed. It's not classy, it's not titillating, it's a woman who isn't wearing any clothes but doesn't appear to have been fitted with nipples. And if I wanted an underwater skank ballet, I'd go watch Piranha 3D again. And again. And again...

However, things get better, much better. For a while. The tragedy of this episode of the Bond franchise is going to be at the end, but the main body of the film holds up surprisingly well. Moonraker's a special film, because it stands on the cusp of something. Before Moonraker, Bond films are sexist, racist, old fogeyish garbage but full of excitement. After Moonraker, everyone knows it's just Roger Moore taking the piss. But Moonraker is the film where you can visibly see that change happen, quite clearly to the naked eye.

It's interesting to note that as well as there being plenty of reference in Moonraker to earlier Bonds, there are also foreshadowings of things to come: when Roger Moore leaps from the airplane and chases after the only available parachute, it will be echoed in sixteen years time when Pierce Brosnan chases after an airplane.

Speaking of planes, Concorde, that strange and beautiful yet fairly pointless mechanism for flinging rich people across the Atlantic is not just a metaphor for James Bond (both white, privileged, killed lots of foreigners) but itself part of a product placement arc that will end up in Casino Royale with the cough-don't-call-it-an-Airbus-A380 - by 2007 everyone gets to be glamourous, and we'll all be flying in planes. Or be fatter. Oh, whatever.7

What I was saying before I digressed into that cloud of metaphor is that this film is stripmining its heritage for events and imagery. There's so much that sometimes you can't be sure how it's ripping itself off:

The Centrifuge Of Death - is that Thunderball's Wobbleboard Of Mild Discomfort writ large? Or are all the straps that constrain Bond in that tight space a call back to The Plane Of (Almost) Certain Doom in You Only Live Twice?

Dangerous Furniture or it it a Lethal Vehicle? Either way, when Bond pushes a man out of an ambulance on a trolley, we've sort of seen this before. And when the trolley ends up speared into a billboard, it's probably a homage to Very Dangerous Enormous Faces from From Russia With Love:

It's not all bad, of course. While Chang is a less-than-faithful retread of the Deadly Oriental Fella of yore1, at least we finally get a halfway decent carnival (remember that terrible one in Thunderball? I wish I couldn't.)

And in between spotting these callbacks, you find yourself asking other questions. Did Drax really bring that chateau over from France, or did he get it on the cheap from Spectre Island? It looks awfully familiar. Or if you're going to depopulate the world and reboot humanity, why are you picking from European aristocrats? Surely you're fishing in the shallow end of the gene pool. Only deference to the upper classes could blind you to the horrific prospect of an entire race of jugeared, inbred toffs, clad in matching tracksuits.

Moonraker also feels like the first film to dispense with plot, in favour of just sending Bond to as many exotic destinations as possible. America no longer exciting? Let's have a fake chateau there. Bored with Louis XVth decor? Go to Venice instead. Or Rio! Or a monastery! Or an Aztec temple! Or deep space! Unfortunately, just like a kid in a sweetshop, it can get to be too much. Or maybe there were just too many different foreigners for a proper stereotyping of all of them. Still, as Drax's multinational corporation is described, you can almost hear Bond yelling 'ROADTRIP!' and scheming on all the duty free he'll be able to pick up. That's a thing of joy, really.

And here's the thing: for much of it, Moonraker is really enjoyable. It's got witty remarks:
Make sure he comes to some harm
I have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery
Why are you so late?
I fell out of a plane without a parachute
It's got the funniest fight to date, with Chang going bull-in-a-china-shop in a room full of priceless glass. It has two boat chases which bury the interminable spectre2 of the Louisiana bayou. It zips along at speed, not bothering to explain or apologise, even as it rehashes the last film's spy-on-spy romance, or names a character Goodhead.

And then... And then we go into space. Early on it already suffered from fairytale logic (if you were going to shoot Bond from a tree, why not just shoot him when he's stood next to you?) but it's entirely appropriate that Drax's scheme is called Operation Orchid because it's a load of bollocks.3
  • Drax built a perfectly good meeting room in the blast zone of a space shuttle.
  • The US can scramble a space shuttle full of marines at ten minutes notice.
  • There's a person somewhere who thought running around with toy guns that literally go peeeow! was a worthy addition to James Bond.
  • The entire security of a space station can be subverted by a giant lunk in braces (mouth and trousers, apparently) and he'll still get rescued because Jaws. Must. Not. Die.
You can understand why the people in the space station are such idiots - as we saw before, they're upper class and no doubt permanently concussed from polo mallets and croquet. Hence sloppy security. But what idiot wrote a script requiring idiots like that?

So the space station, even before it cleaves apart and explodes4, symbolises that cleavage between Bond films you could take seriously, and the absolute testicle-festival of utter bollocks that succeeded them, where Moore's raised eyebrow was his only ironic defence against the crimes he would be accused of.

And having used the words 'cleavage' and 'testicle' while describing a Bond film (when we only ever see the first) I think it's best to stop here, and go deeper into outer space.

This too may have been a mistake.  I had to fly across the Pacific this weekend, so I thought nothing would be better than to watch Alien and Aliens.  Unfortunately, both films have dated.  Alien does ok because it's just a ghost story set in a haunted house (which happens to be a spaceship named after a Joseph Conrad story (see The Duellists last month).  Aliens suffers once you view it in the cold light of jetlagged confusion.  Why do we elide the decision that Ripley makes to return to LV-426, rather than just stay on the marines' spaceship?  What economic justification is there for sending a spaceship the size of Manhattan to transport 8 marines across the galaxy, when you could just as easily send an entire regiment and do the job properly?  Why does everyone working for the Weyland Corporation wear such awful clothes?  Why didn't they teach the marines to shoot straight?  Should we really believe that in several centuries time, all the marines will be wearing US flags on their sleeves?

But ... well, you probably liked Aliens because you were 12 years old.  Now you're not, you'll probably find that it's not actually The Greatest Action Film Ever Made.  But never mind about James Cameron mucking about (we'll probably get back to him about the time of True Lies) - for now, let's concentrate on Ridley Scott and Alien.

After all the exotic travel Bond gets, it turns out that space flight is going to be quotidien; boring, time-consuming and everyone smokes all the time.  And the gloom!  My god, the gloom!  Here's one of the joyous interiors of the Nostromo:
While Drax's space lair may have felt like a load of rubbish, it probably didn't suck the happiness out of you as fast as the Nostromo does.  Just like Moonraker, all technology in 1979 is hilariously outdated.  Drax's place is ruined as soon as you pull a few wires out of a console, and the Nostromo is run by a ZX81 loading Jet Set Willy from a tape deck (apologies here to anyone born after 1980).

Thus Alien is in direct opposition to Star Wars, the putative inspiration for Moonraker's space idiocy.  Instead of everything being magic or the consequence of handwavium (midochlorianswankers more like), technology is broken down, or frustrating, or (very occasionally) much more high tech than Bond could ever manage:
Perhaps it's a rip off of 2001, but everyone else is going to rip this off too. Yes, very funny with the door unlock codes, Mr Moonraker...

Throughout the Alien cycle, the eponymous alien reinvents itself.  If you wanted to be utterly pretentious5 you'd draw some parallel with Bond, also adapting himself to new environments in every film (and trying to kill as many of the occupants as possible). Yet there are some distinctive differences, not least the lack of luxury: no exotic locale6, no fine food - the coffee (as Yaphet Kotto, another Bond refugee) points out
it's the only thing good on this ship.
There there.

The two films aren't cut from the same cloth. Whereas Moonraker starts strong, and packs as much action as possible into every minute until it lapses into idiocy at the finale, in Alien nothing much happens for quite a long while - although it's fairly clear something bad is going to happen. But really, the first half hour of Alien wouldn't exist if that film was made now (and the last ten minutes involve a lot of sitting around without doing much too.)

Both films smuggle something else into the cinema. The Bond series is putatively about spying, but is really a fable about how to consumer as much of the [P]layboy lifestyle as possible. Alien is not really sci-fi, but a pirate-of-the-caribbean/haunted house story, where (bizarrely) some of the early video footage from Cain and Dallas reminds me of the idiots in the woods from the Blair Witch Project.

And if going forwards in time is an improbable comparison to make, going backwards we see that both films employ a Dickensian naming structure - Cain is the one with the original mark of sin attached to him, Ash is not human, just detritus, Dallas is a city in Texas full of guntoting nutjobs8 - just like Goldfinger (a bloke who likes gold), Pussy Galore (a woman with ... uh), Mr Bastard, etc.

There's also Ash's attack with a rolled-up magazine, which foreshadows the rolled-up-newspaper antics of Jason Bourne, a small-time 2000s rip-off of James Bond, but we're not even going to go there. Instead we'll just think about the theological parallel between both films. In each, the hero[ine] may be considered to be in Purgatory, having to go through similar experiences again and again. Bond has to have sex with a series of one-dimensional stereotypes, never forming a proper relationship after On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Ripley has to battle slimy blokes in slimy rubber suits again and again, with ever increasing levels of realism. (Sad that the first two are fine examples of Man In Rubber Suit cinema...). Thus it's not really formula that these films stick to, but dogma; whether it's the bog-standard romantic involvement at the end of every Bond film, or the way that every woman who boards a vehicle with Bond ends up pushing up daisies soon after, we're following a text, not a formula. Likewise, when each Alien film has to end with a massive destruction, avoided by the heroine at the last moment, we start to wonder what the screenwriters were up to (apart from photocopying, that is).

But there's only so much wittering one can do about Alien and how deep and meaningful it is, and what spiritual lessons it can provide. The most important lesson here is that although the Bond films may be a stream of ludicrous plots and daft gadgets, they do at least have things happening, and that may trump a man in a rubber suit and a bloke in Switzerland with a line in pervy drawings.

1He runs away from Bond at one point, for goodness' sake.
2 Sorry.
3 No, really. Check out the etymology of the word 'orchid', and then read about orchidectomies without wincing.
4We'll say nothing about all the abuses of science like the sound of explosions, the shuttles that have no exhaust burning as they travel through space, the ...
5Well, more pretentious than using the word "eponymous".
6Given that the whole film is set in Outer Spaaaace, making it seem so grim and un-unworldly is a masterful achievement.
7 Ping! That's the sound of a metaphor being stretched beyond breaking point.
8 I don't want to offend anyone with guns, mind you.


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