Hail Messiah!! – A Guide to Cinematic Saviors (2005)

Originally published August 2005 in DVD Review magazine

They’ve come to save us! Whether it’s from slavery, evil machines or just really “bogus” music, they’re the chosen ones- the ordinary people thrown into the limelight to fulfil their destiny. Right from the moment the first movie about Jesus was made, filmmakers have loved taking the traditional Saviour story and twisting it into ever more exciting and bizarre shapes- so join us now, as we pay homage to the greatest Cinematic Messiahs of all time…

Jesus of Nazareth

Sightings: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Place of Birth: A little town called Bethlehem you may have heard of…

The Mission: Everybody thinks he’s the humble son of a carpenter- but the Son of God is here to take the burden of human sin, defeat Satan, and put up with a level of torture that’d have any sensible man running for the hills.

Messiah Fashions: He starts out in a fetching ethnic combo of cloaks and robes, but soon Jesus is sporting little more than a loincloth and a boggling number of flesh wounds.

Disciples: His mother Mary, Peter, John, and the highly gorgeous Mary Magdalene.

Enemies: Moustache-twiddling Jewish priest Caiphas, lots of beastly Roman Guards, and an androgynous Satan carrying a hairy baby for no apparent reason.

Miracles Performed: You name it- turning water into wine, feeding the five thousand, raising the dead, restoring a Jewish guard’s ear, and setting off a major earthquake with his death in a spectacular version of “I told you so”.

Final Destiny: Death by crucifixion, followed by resurrection and a distinctly annoyed Satan.

Messiah Speak: “Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.”

Paul Atredies

Sightings: Dune (1984)

Place of Birth: The planet Caladan, in the year 10,175.

The Mission: On the desert planet Arrakis (imaginatively known as “Dune”), Paul discovers he’s the warrior prophesised to lead the nomad race of the Fremen, while fighting for freedom and dodging mile-long phallic Sandworms.

Messiah Fashions: Initially, Paul dresses like a Ruritanian Prince, but he’s soon wearing enough black rubber to fit in a treat down the local fetish club.

Disciples: A whole race of Fremen waiting for the chance to bust some Harkonnen heads.

Enemies: The Harkonnens, leather-clad meglomaniacs who don’t believe in a proper skincare regime, and their obese leader, the Baron.

Miracles Performed: Scarcely a minute goes by without Paul tripping out on water-related visions, and by the end of the film he’s causing it to rain on Arrakis, as well as blowing poor old Sting to shreds with the sound of his voice.

Final Destiny: To rule the universe in wisdom- although those who’ve read the Dune books will be happy to know it all goes horribly wrong.

Messiah Speak: “Father!! The sleeper will awaken!!”

Thomas “Neo” Anderson

Sightings: The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Place of Birth: A gloopy stasis tube full of slime, somewhere in the future.

The Mission: Discovering that the everyday world is actually a computer-generated fantasy, Neo is “The One”- destined to save humanity, end the war against the machines, get insulted by a Frenchman and say “Whoah” as many times as he can.

Messiah Fashions: In the real world, it’s clothes apparently made out of potato sacks. As if to make up for this, in the Matrix it’s ultra-cool shades, leather trenchcoats and PVC all the way.

Disciples: The chubby guru known as Morpheus, wall-running sexbomb Trinity and lots of the rave-happy (if slightly boring) inhabitants of the city of Zion.

Enemies: Every single intelligent machine on the planet- but especially the effortlessly suave, self-duplicating villain Agent Smith.

Miracles Performed: As well as gravity-defying kung-fu abilities, Neo can raise the dead, beat up the super-cool Agents and blow up machines outside the Matrix with the power of his mind. He can also fly- but it only seems to occur to him after big fight sequences, rather than before…

Final Destiny: He dies saving the world. Or maybe he doesn’t. It’s all rather difficult to tell…

Messiah Speak: “There is no spoon…”

Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan

Sightings: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1987), Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1990)

Born: San Dimas, California, in 1979

Messiah Fashions: Eye-searing Eighties gear, complete with baggy shorts and midriff-exposing t-shirts.

The Mission: Adorably brain-dead teens Bill and Ted are as surprised as anyone to discover their band Wyld Stallynz is destined to bring about universal enlightenment. With help from the future they’re going to create, they zoom through time to complete their history report, and follow up with a trip to both Heaven and Hell.

Disciples: They’ve got the effortlessly cool future dude Rufus on their side- and they’re soon befriending historical figures like Freud, Beethoven, Socrates and Joan of Arc.

Enemies: Future megalomaniac Chuck De Nomolos, and Ted’s seriously bogus, army-obsessed father.

Miracles Performed: As if converting Genghis Khan to twinkies and Napoleon to the art of watersliding wasn’t enough, Bill and Ted also manage to come back from the dead after beating Death at Battleships, Cluedo and Twister.

Final Destiny: After completing their history report and foiling DeNomolos’ robot duplicates, their music ends war and poverty, as well as aligning the planets in universal harmony. Plus, it’s excellent for dancing…

Messiah Speak: “Be excellent to each other!”

Bethany Sloane

Sightings: Dogma (2000)

Place of Birth: McHenry, Illinois, in 1969.

Messiah Fashions: A white shirt, and black trousers- an unexciting ensemble, but she never gets the chance to change…

The Mission: A pair of psychotic angels set out to re-enter heaven- even though it’ll mean the end of all of existence. Abortion clinic worker Bethany is the befuddled last descendant of Jesus dragged in by the Heavenly powers to stop the angels- and also to have the plot explained to her by everyone within range.

Disciples: Foul-mouthed stoner Jay and his “hetero life-mate” Silent Bob, thirteenth apostle Rufus, Muse-turned-stripper Serendipity, plus the eternally moody “voice of God”, the Metatron.

Enemies: Killing-spree-happy angels Bartleby and Loki, devilish mastermind Azrael, plus a highly whiffy Excrement Demon…

Miracles Performed: Other than sanctifying a sink to deal with three demonic skaters, Bethany does save the world- but only by the atypical method of switching a hospitalised old man’s life support off.

Final Destiny: With existence safe once again, Bethany is unexpectedly (and miraculously) pregnant- but she’s also still got Jay bluntly attempting to get into her knickers.

Messiah Speak: “You know, yesterday I wasn’t even sure God existed- and now, I’m up to my ass in Christian Mythology…”

Brian Cohen

Sightings: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Place of Birth: A Bethlehem stable, just down the road from the birth place of a certain Mr J. Christ.

The Mission: All Brian’s trying to do is catch the eye of foxy revolutionary Judith. It’s not his fault that he ends up on the run from the Romans- and then gets mistaken for a Messiah just for telling people to be nice to each other…

Messiah Fashions: He usually sports a rough, smock-like ensemble and sandals- except for one unfortunate moment involving his followers, when he’s wearing nothing at all.

Disciples: The howlingly ineffective People’s Front of Judea, and a whole multitude of dim-witted followers who’ll misinterpret his every syllable.

Enemies: His monstrous mother Mandy, arrogant, word-mangling Roman tyrant Pontius Pilate and a grammar-correcting Centurion.

Miracles Performed: None, but it hardly seems to make any difference with a crowd that’ll interpret a dropped sandal as divine lore.

Final Destiny: As with Jesus, Brian ends up crucified- but going out singing “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” doesn’t seem too bad…

Messiah Talk: “Of course they’ve brought forth Juniper berries, they’re Juniper Bushes!! What did you expect?!?”


Sightings: The Ten Commandments (1956) .

Place of Birth: Egypt, circa 1400 B.C.

The Mission: Pampered prince turned religious saviour, Moses finds out that instead of being a Pharoah’s son, he was plucked from a basket on the Nile. One Burning Bush later, he’s parting seas and distributing plagues, all so his enslaved people can head for the “Promised Land”.

Messiah Fashions: He might start out wearing the funky duds of an Egyptian Prince, but soon Moses is decked out in burgundy robes and a spectacular blonde dye-job on his immaculately coiffured hair.

Disciples: Aaron, Miriam, and the traditionally Biblical cast of thousands.

Enemies: Ex-girlfriend turned heartbreaker Queen Nefertiti, and the brilliantly inscrutable Pharoah Ramses.

Miracles Performed: He turns staffs into snakes, brings down locusts, frogs and the angel of death- but the whole “Parting the Red Sea” thing was always going to be tough to follow.

Final Destiny: Liberates his people, spends forty years wandering with them in the desert, and then, in a glaring display of bad timing, goes and dies just as they finally reach the Promised Land.

Messiah Speak: “Let my people go!!”

John Connor

Sightings: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Place of Birth: Mexico, 1984.

The Mission: In the year 2029, John Connor will be leading the war against the machines in a wrecked future world. To do that, he’s got to survive the shape-changing robotic Terminators that have been sent back through time to showcase their funky morphing effects at every opportunity.

Messiah Fashions: Brown jacket, Public Enemy t-shirt- everything a punky L.A. kid would want to wear; while when older, he prefers practical brown fatigues.

Disciples: His entertainingly trigger-happy mother Sarah Connor, future girlfriend Kate Brewster, plus a very tall Austrian Cyborg with a taste for leather and Harley Davisons.

Enemies: The slick, tidy liquid metal T-1000, and the cleavage flaunting robo-minx called the T-X.

Miracles Performed: Aside from hacking a couple of computers, running lots and surviving an onslaught from a Truck, John mostly gets the Terminator to do all the tricky stuff.

Final Destiny: With the Governor of California on his side, how can Connor go wrong? Although he does end up appearing in Terminator 3, so it’s not all good news…

Messiah Speak: “Listen to me- you’re not a Terminator anymore, okay? You can’t just go around killing people!”

William Wallace

Sightings: Braveheart (1995)

Place of Birth: 13th Century Scotland

The Mission: He’s an educated commoner out to live a quiet existence- until the local English lord executes his girlfriend. Soon, he’s uniting the Scottish clans into a fighting force and lopping off a spectacular number of English heads.

Messiah Fashions: Kilts and tartan feature highly in Wallace’s fashion statements- he’s also not averse to daubing lots of blue paint on his face before a fun afternoon of English-slaying.

Disciples: Robert the Bruce, French princess Isabelle and thousands of fearsomely bearded Scots warriors itching for a scrap.

Enemies: All the dastardly English- but especially psycho king Edward I and his pasty-faced, horribly unmanly son.

Miracles Performed: Wallace wins against a vastly superior force at the battle of Stirling, and nearly mounts a full-scale invasion of England.

Final Destiny: He inspires generations of Scotsmen to fight back against their oppressors- but in the end, Wallace gets sold out by treacherous Scots noblemen to the English, who treat him to a disembowelling at dawn.

Messiah Speak: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!”

Annakin Skywalker

Sightings: Star Wars- Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Place of Birth: The desert planet Tatooine

The Mission: Conceived thanks to the least convincing plot device ever (aka the Force-creating “midi-chlorians”), he’s the brattish moppet turned moaning Jedi apprentice who’s prophecised to bring balance to the Force- if only he could stop aiming slushy looks at the gorgeous Senator Amidala…

Messiah Fashions: The traditional brown cloaks of the Jedi order- although nobody seems to notice his growing liking for black…

Disciples: Father figure Qui-Gon Jinn- at least until he’s run through with a lightsabre. Amidala- but for slightly more hormonal reasons.

Enemies: Nefarious, chin-stroking Count Dooku- but avuncular Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi could easily get onto the list…

Miracles Performed: To be honest, there’s little he does that any other Jedi wouldn’t be able to- unless you’re counting slaughtering an entire settlement of Sand People…

Final Destiny: Annakin does, in fact, eventually bring balance back to the Force. The fact that he has to dress up in black, develop a breathing problem and kill lots of people before doing this is something the prophecy chose to gloss over.

Messiah Speak: “Some day, I will be the most powerful Jedi ever! I promise you!”

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005



You don’t always have to be a Messiah to return from the grave…

The podgy, butt-ugly alien stranded on Earth sent an entire generation into floods of tears thanks to an untimely demise- and then did it again by rising from the dead to bid a sad farewell to his best friend Elliot.

There’s no explanation for the William Shatner-masked killer’s strange invulnerability. He just keeps coming back for more, no matter how many times he’s sliced, burned, decapitated or shouted at by Busta Rhymes…

Everybody’s favourite Vampire Slayer bites the bullet at the end of her Fifth TV Season- so the opening of Season Six sees her unwillingly brought back from the dead to once again battle the bloodsuckers.

Okay, she’s not exactly dead- but for sheer emerging-from-grave style, it’s difficult to beat Uma Thurman’s desperate (and rather painful looking) escape from being buried alive, thanks to Michael Madsen’s evil desperado.


The latest cinematic Christ might be able to handle plenty of violence and ketchup- but how would Jim Caviezel fare against other screen Jesuses?

TV JESUS (Robert Powell, Jesus of Nazareth)
Powell has the spooky staring eyes and the heavenly manner down pat- but then, he also ended up co-starring in a sitcom with Jasper Carrott, a fate Caviezel’s probably going to avoid…

MOVIE JESUS (Jeffrey Hunter, King of Kings)
He’s the clean-cut, soulful Jesus you wouldn’t mind taking home to meet your Grandma. Caviezel has the edge in terms of grit, but the late Hunter scored the ultimate comeback as the first Captain of the Enterprise… (Trek pilot episode “The Cage”)

CARTOON JESUS (Jesus, South Park)
Where Caviezel stands up to Satan, South Park’s cartoon version gets pounded embarresingly in the boxing ring. He does, however, have his own Cable talk show- a gig that Caviezel is unlikely to be able to top…

BOWLING JESUS (John Tuturro, The Big Lebowski)
Caviezel’s torture-enduring Son of God wouldn’t last long on the alley against a fast-shooting champion like Jesus Quintano- but, with his worrying bowling ball/tongue action and scary hairnet, he’s nobody’s idea of a Messiah.


0 AD: A child is born in Bethlehem.

1898 AD: The first film of the Jesus story is commissioned by a French Book company…

1926 AD: Movie supremo D.W. Griffith directs the first major Hollywood movie on the Son of God.

1961 AD: Rebel Without A Cause director Nicholas Ray helms King Of Kings- soon to be unofficially known as “I was a Teenage Jesus”….

1965 AD: John Wayne gets to say “Truly he was the Son of Gahhd!!” in Hollywood’s overblown The Greatest Story Ever Told…

1976 AD: Franco Zefferelli directs the TV drama Jesus of Nazareth- while producer Lew Grade asks if he can cut down the number of apostles…

1979 AD: The Monty Python team get accused of blasphemy, just for taking the mickey out of organised religion in Life of Brian

1988 AD: Everyone gets terribly upset by Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Box Office success, however, fails to follow…

1994 AD: The Stone Roses release The Second Coming. The Son of God is “unavailable for comment”…

2002 AD: Mel Gibson announces he’s filming The Passion of the Christ. In Latin. With subtitles. Everybody laughs.

2003 AD: The Second Coming turns up again- this time as a TV drama starring Christopher Eccleston as a Salford-based modern day Messiah.

2004 AD: After headline-grabbing accusations of anti-semitism, Passion of the Christ smashes US Box office records. Everybody stops laughing…

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004


Don’t You Forget About Me – A Brief History of the Brat Pack (2004)

(Originally published in DVD Review, September 2004)

It’s 1987, and the man who’ll one day be known as Jack Bauer is riding high at the Cinema Box Office, resplendent in leathers, punky blonde haircut, glowing eyes and fangs. Starring Kiefer Sutherland and a host of hot new acting talent, comedy horror flick THE LOST BOYS swept all in its path, combining the angst of adolescent rebellion with gothic vampire cool. Thanks to the film’s massive success, the ensemble cast were the latest actors to join the “Brat Pack”- the group of young stars who had conquered 1980s Hollywood, and all of whom seemed set for long, prosperous careers.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. THE LOST BOYS’ success should have been a shot in the arm for the Brat Pack, but instead turned out to be one of their last bows before their cinematic reign came to an end. They may not have been the greatest actors in the world, but they were cinema’s first teen stars- a group of performers who appeared in a multitude of movies during the 1980s, and ended up representing both the best and worst of the ambitious, materialistic “Me” generation.

Whether they were playing geeks, jocks, graduates or cowboys, actors like Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe were the faces that drove 1980s pop cinema- and they also became the first major example of how quickly it can go wrong for actors trumpeted as the official Next Big Thing™…


To understand how the Brat Pack happened, you have to go back to the 1970s, a world where teen movies didn’t yet exist. James Dean may have defined teenage rebellion in the 1955 classic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, but Hollywood has always been slow to catch on to new ideas, and terrified of taking risks. As a result, up until the early Seventies, films tailored specifically for a teenage audience were unheard of outside independent B-movies or exploitation flicks. Cinema was a dark, provocative, grown-up place for films like THE GODFATHER and THE FRENCH CONNECTION … until a filmmaker named George Lucas went for a change of direction.

Lucas was still smarting from the failure of his arty, low-budget science fiction movie THX-1138 in 1970, so he took the advice of filmmaker and friend Francis Ford Coppola and wrote a screenplay based on his own life growing up in small-town California. “It had become depressing to go to the movies,” said Lucas in 2000, “so I decided it was time for a film where people felt better coming out of the theatre than going in.” A warmly nostalgic tale of teen life in the early Sixties, AMERICAN GRAFITTI cost 750,000 dollars and earned a then-astounding 55.1 million by the end of 1973. Lucas now had enough money to spend more time developing a bizarre sci-fi script called THE STAR WARS, and Hollywood began realising there was money to be made in the teen dollar.

However, it still took the studios a long time to do anything about it, and a whole series of cheaper, independent successes like HALLOWEEN, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE and PORKY’S cleaned up at the box office before Hollywood finally got the message. Initially, the only result was a collection of horribly lame copycat comedies that focussed on getting laid and getting wasted at the expense of everything else- but a variety of young actors were getting themselves noticed, and potential stardom was lurking around the corner.


All it would take was the right film- and the Brat Pack’s official beginning came in 1983, thanks to GODFATHER director Francis Ford Coppola’s expensive musical ONE FOR THE HEART going belly-up at the box-office. In the wake of this mishap, Coppola opted for a safer project, and bought up the rights to school library favourite THE OUTSIDERS.

An edgy tale of 1950s teen gang members searching for a safer life, Coppola was soon casting his adaptation and, without realising it, he assembled a virtual “who’s who” of Eighties pop cinema. Along with E.T. bit-part player C. Thomas Howell and future KARATE KID star Ralph Macchio in the lead roles, there was Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze… and a short appearance from a little-known young actor named Tom Cruise.

The film was a healthy success, and soon more eye-catching examples of teen cinema were creeping their way into the mainstream. Between 1983 and 1984, cinema screens were displaying everything from computer thriller WARGAMES and satirical sex-comedy RISKY BUSINESS, to classic “Wax on! Wax off” martial arts drama THE KARATE KID and barking mad Commie-invasion flick RED DAWN.

The film that truly pointed the way to the future, however, was a low-budget drama which dealt with a teenage girl’s difficult birthday. SIXTEEN CANDLES added a much-needed dose of emotional reality and awkwardness to the teen movie, making the characters more relatable and empathetic. The stars were a couple of unknown young performers called Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, but the film was also the directorial debut of a man who’d end up laying down the rules for teen movies that would be followed for decades to come.

John Hughes fell into writing films thanks to working on the magazine National Lampoon, and after contributing to screenplays like MR. MOM and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, he finally notched up his first writer/director credit with SIXTEEN CANDLES. The film barely made an impression at the box office- but for Hughes, it was just a stepping stone to directing another screenplay that he’d set his heart on: THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

The story of five schoolkids (tagged by their archetypes in the opening narration as “a brain, an athlete, a princess, a basket case and a criminal”) connecting with each other while trapped in a Saturday detention, THE BREAKFAST CLUB was a deeply unappealing prospect to most studios. There were pages and pages of dialogue, only one location and none of the usual standards of teen cinema. One executive looked at Hughes’ script and said “Kids won’t sit through it! There’s no action, no party, no nudity!”, but Hughes stuck to his guns, and unintentionally kicked off the next phase of the Brat Pack’s life in the process.

Bringing together his SIXTEEN CANDLES stars Ringwald and Hall, Hughes also cast Ally Sheedy from WARGAMES, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson, and during 1985 the end result went onto earn $46 million at the US Box Office alone- a hugely impressive amount for what was essentially a filmed stage play. Away from the awesomely silly dance sequences, THE BREAKFAST CLUB’s timeless take on social cliques, conformity and loneliness in US High Schools was universal enough for the whole world to relate to, and the film became the blueprint for almost every single teen movie and TV series that would follow.

As if that wasn’t enough for the rising young stars, 1985 was also the year of the ultimate Brat Pack movie;- ST. ELMO’S FIRE. A masterwork of lurid fashions and dazzlingly large hair, this coming-of-age saga followed seven college graduates looking for direction in their lives, and was the perfect chance for the Brat Packers involved to simultaneously flex their acting muscles and wear fantastic clothes. BREAKFAST CLUB members Estevez, Nelson and Sheedy were drafted into the ensemble, along with Mare Winningham, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe.

With Lowe honking on his Saxophone while wearing a bright yellow vest covered in bat-prints, subtlety was out of the window- but underneath the glitz and glamour, the film at least attempted to make serious points about the negative side of 1980s materialism. Not that the Brat Packers ever took any notice- with the twin triumphs of THE BREAKFAST CLUB and ST. ELMO’S FIRE, they were the toast of Hollywood, splashed across the cover of Time Magazine, and partying hard at every opportunity. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Brat Pack had arrived in force.


And then, almost as quickly as it happened, it all started to fall apart. The end of the Brat Pack didn’t occur overnight, but it began as soon as the self-promoting actors involved suddenly started not wanting to be associated with the brand that made them famous. In interviews, they started denying the Brat Pack’s existance and downplaying their partying habits, while starting to distance themselves from the teen genre with more grown-up films like the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore relationship drama ABOUT LAST NIGHT.

Elsewhere, John Hughes was continuing his cycle of teen movies, but had yet to hit the same note as THE BREAKFAST CLUB, with sci-fi comedy WEIRD SCIENCE being too self-consciously wacky to be truly funny. PRETTY IN PINK was a step back in the right direction, with Molly Ringwald again taking centre stage as the high school misfit falling for Andrew McCarthy’s rich kid, unaware of the true feelings of her kooky best friend Jon Cryer. The film was another perfect example of Hughes’ patented brand of teen angst- although studio interference meant his original ending was jettisoned for the fairy-tale climax of Ringwald netting McCarthy rather than the far more entertaining Cryer.

McCarthy went on to appear with future SEX AND THE CITY star Kim Cattral in 1987’s MANNEQUIN, but the final product was a jaw-droppingly unfunny comic mess, as well as the first sign that Brat Packers were capable of making bad decisions. Another major clue came thanks to Anthony Michael Hall, who after starring in WEIRD SCIENCE was hired by Stanley Kubrick to play the lead role in his 1987 movie FULL METAL JACKET- but complained so much about the legendary director’s habit of shooting endless takes that he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Matthew Modine.

Bad decisions also proved to be Molly Ringwald’s downfall;- there were few young female actresses with as much clout in the late Eighties, but she squandered it on duff, forgotten projects like THE PICK-UP ARTIST, while managing to turn down leads roles in both BLUE VELVET and GHOST. Infamous ladies man Rob Lowe’s career also imploded but for very different reasons- a 1988 sex tape scandal involving Lowe and a 16 year old girl almost landed him in prison, and for the next few years he had to make do with small roles in comedies like WAYNE’S WORLD and AUSTIN POWERS.


There was yet another blow to the Brat Pack’s fortunes when they lost their firmest ally behind the cameras. After having written and directed the classic high school comedy FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, John Hughes bid a final farewell to the teen genre by writing the screenplay to SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, a reworking of PRETTY IN PINK with the ending restored to his original non-fairy tale climax. Hughes headed off to eventually strike gold with HOME ALONE, but the Brats were left without his understanding take on teenage life, and their attempts to shift into grown-up movies were haphazard at best.

Some of them were still capable of striking gold, though, as proved by Patrick Swayze when he hit the big time thanks to more 1950s nostalgia and the line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” in the 1987 smash hit DIRTY DANCING. The same year, however, saw director Joel Shumacher’s attempt to kick-start another phase of the Brat Pack with THE LOST BOYS fail to go according to plan. The film may have been a smash hit, but out of the ensemble cast, only Kiefer Sutherland managed to go on to anything resembling consistent success, while Jason Patric, Jami Gertz, Corey Haim and Corey Feldman all managed to press the “Career Detonation” button, ending up in Direct-to-Video purgatory, rehab, or- worst of all- the woefully dreadful SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL.

By 1988, the Brat Pack was running out of steam, and too many of their movies were ending up as forgettable wastes of time. It should, therefore, have been the worst possible point to attempt a Western revival- especially since the genre had been definitively dead and buried for over a decade- but Estevez, Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and LA BAMBA star Lou Diamond Phillips found themselves an unexpected hit thanks to the gloriously overblown Billy the Kid romp YOUNG GUNS. The film generated enough money for a sequel two years later, but even Jon Bon Jovi’s macho crooning on the title track couldn’t save YOUNG GUNS II: BLAZE OF GLORY from underperforming.


In the end, fashion caught up with the Brat Pack. The Nineties arrived, and the world was suddenly keen to leave the tacky excesses of the 1980s behind, while the teen drama was thrown into stasis by jet-black high school comedy HEATHERS, and it wasn’t until CLUELESS in 1994 that the genre got it’s groove back. Some of the Pack members disappeared into straight-to-video obscurity, some headed for the comfortable world of the small screen, while others carved out quietly respectable careers as character actors.

It’s no coincidence, however, that the one Brat Packer to maintain a massively successful career is also the one who jumped ship as soon as possible. The last remotely teen or Brat Pack-oriented movie that Tom Cruise made was over twenty years ago- and since then he’s worked with as many important directors as he can, leaping with unstoppable determination from popcorn fodder like TOP GUN to challenging Oscar-bait like BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, all the while showcasing that cocky, twinkle-toothed grin.

But, no matter what happens, the Brat Pack already have their place in cinematic history. Archetypal teen angst classics like THE BREAKFAST CLUB will live forever, no matter how quickly some of the participants’ careers may have been snuffed out by ambition, unfortunate choices or bad luck. And they’re also a lesson to all the young, up-and-coming, self assured modern day stars who think they’ll last forever. Fame might look like fun- but it’s terribly difficult to hold on to…

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004



They were the faces of a generation- but where exactly have the Brat Pack been hiding?

He keeps writing and directing extraordinarily bad movies starring himself and brother Charlie Sheen (MEN AT WORK, RATED X), but Estevez’s only significant success in the last decade came thanks to the three MIGHTY DUCKS movies. He also made an uncredited cameo in the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE instalment with old friend Tom Cruise.

After GHOST, INDECENT PROPOSAL, and posing naked for Vanity Fair at the drop of a hat, it seemed like nothing could stop the ambitious Ms. Moore. Then came the dreadful STRIPTEASE, and her career went into freefall. She’s now a successful film producer, but better known for dating toyboy Ashton Kutcher than for her little-used acting skills.

The sweetheart of the Brat Pack scored another big hit with 1986’s robot action comedy SHORT CIRCUIT- but Sheedy’s career soon dwindled, and her only major credits from then onwards were duff horror films like FEAR and MAN’S BEST FRIEND. She was last seen making a brief comeback in 1998 lesbian drama HIGH ART.

The 1988 sex scandal hit his career for six- but then, U.S. television came calling. Eventually, Lowe became a fixture on the massively popular White House drama THE WEST WING (along with Emilio Estevez’s dad Martin Sheen), although he recently quit the drama for his own production- which was quickly cancelled. Ooops…

After the magnificent career high of voicing Rodimus Prime in TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE in 1987, it was all downhill for Judd Nelson. His last major film role was NEW JACK CITY in 1991, and he was most recently seen in a cameo as a sherrif in JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK.

He beefed up to play Winona Ryder’s bullying boyfriend in Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, took the role of Bill Gates in a TV movie and then disappeared for a few years. Hall is now gaining success as the least likely replacement ever for Christopher Walken in the US TV series remix of Stephen King’s THE DEAD ZONE.

Once she’d blown her big chance in movies, most of Ringwald’s 1990s credits came thanks to TV- especially the epic Stephen King miniseries THE STAND, also starring Rob Lowe. She then moved to Paris, and as well as cameoing in films like NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE, she’s also appeared onstage in the West End in the theatrical version of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.

As a result of making FLATLINERS in 1990, Sutherland ended up one of the many men to have almost married Julia Roberts. Since then, he’s concentrated on quirky character parts or villains, growling menacingly in movies like PHONE BOOTH- but he’s now best known for having several terribly stressful days in smash hit TV series 24.

1990 corpse comedy WEEKEND AT BERNIES was hardly a career highlight- but that was the last major movie credit that he could manage, and McCarthy spent most of the Nineties working in TV movies. Recently, he made a comeback playing opposite a psychic anteater in Stephen King’s bizarre medical horror series KINGDOM HOSPITAL.

Best known for riding a BMX in E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, Howell hit paydirt in 1985 with Rutger Hauer psycho chiller THE HITCHER- but since then it’s been dodgy direct-to-video thrillers all the way. He was, however, recently spotted as a nefarious horse rider going up against Viggo Mortensen in HIDALGO.

The ultimate late-eighties heartthrob hit another peak in 1991 with surfing actioner POINT BREAK, but Swayze soon saw his career vanishing thanks to dull movies like THREE WISHES and FATHER HOOD (Unwisely playing a transvestite in TO WONG FOO probably didn’t help either…) He’s since bounced back with a brilliantly self-satirising turn in DONNIE DARKO.

Emilio’s little brother hasn’t ever vanished from view since 1990, appearing in SCARY MOVIE 3 and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH among many others, as well as a run on TV sitcom SPIN CITY. Unfortunately, he’s now better known for his massive drug appetites, as well as dalliances with Hollywood “madam” Heidi Fleiss, than for having any kind of consistent career.

The five Brat Pack classics you have to own…

One set, lots of dialogue- and an evergreen 1980s classic. Ignore the duff makeover scene or the bizarre dance freakouts- just watch in awe as John Hughes gives the Brat Pack their best ever script, and defines Teen Angst for a whole generation.

Director and future Bat-Franchise destroyer Joel Shumacher lights the blue touch paper on the Brat Pack with this brilliantly OTT ensemble drama, as Judd, Emilio, Ally, Rob, Andy, Mare and Demi discover the downside to the 1980s while wearing eye-opening clothes.

Tom Cruise’s career was blown into the stratosphere by this classy, raunchy 1983 sex comedy, which follows Cruise on a wild weekend without his parents, falling for Rebcca DeMornay’s hooker and accidentally sinking his Dad’s porche.

Matthew Broderick is the smug underachiever putting his all into bunking off school with his friends, and all the while teacher Jeffrey Jones is going through comic hell trying to catch him in John Hughes’ brilliantly madcap teen classic.

Jason Patric falls in with the wrong crowd in a new town, and soon he’s wearing shades during the day, drinking blood and missing his reflection. Colourfully daft vampire fun, with Kiefer Sutherland on villain duties and a classic 1980s soundtrack.
Five Brat Pack movies you’d do well to avoid….

It’s the old story- boy meets shop dummy, boy falls in love with shop dummy, shop dummy turns out to be re-incarnated ancient Egyptian princess- but wrapped up with screaming gay stereotypes and some of the lamest gags in Christendom.

Possibly the most unintentionally hilarious and homo-erotic action movie ever made, Patrick Swayze stars in this monstrously dated hymn to country music and big hair, unwisely trying to do an Eastwood as enigmatic nightclub bouncer Dalton.

Another “high-concept” Brat Pack comedy, this laugh-free wasteland stars C. Thomas Howell as a teen who overdoses on tanning pills, turns black and- hey presto!- takes advantage of an all-black college scholarship. Even more reprehensible than it sounds.

Rob Lowe grins and mugs his way through every Brit movie cliché in the book, as a gormless Las Vegas car park attendant who, after to a spot of hacking, gets a place at Oxford University and shows those stiff-upper-lipped Limeys some American know-how.

For anyone who’s ever wanted to see Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen take on the entire Russian Army, John Milius’ staggeringly paranoid war flick is a cinematic car-crash that sees the vodka-swilling commies mount a mainland U.S. invasion for no readily apparent reason.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004


The Secret History of Monsters (2005)

A guide to the ups and downs of Cinema’s
greatest Creatures…

(Originally published in Hotdog, December 2005)

Ever wondered what Kong was getting up to between his infrequent movie appearances? Wonder no longer, as we unearth the behind-the-scenes lives of cinema’s greatest (and not so greatest) monsters…

KONG (King Kong, 1933)

He may have initially struggled to match his 1933 success, but Kong finally found massive acclaim on the London Stage, particularly during his unbroken two-year run as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romantically linked with a string of screen beauties including Jean Harlow and Katherine Hepburn, Kong remained a committed bachelor, spending most of the Forties and Fifties as a representative of the World Wildlife Fund. Probably the most unexpected turn in his lengthy career was his Avant-Garde period in the Sixties, immortalised in the Andy Warhol film “Kongdom”- a four and a half hour single shot of the giant ape asleep in front of New York’s Carnegie Hall. Appearing in the unsuccesful1974 King Kong remake was an unwise move, resulting in Kong losing out on a role in Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, while his self-written sitcom “Who Brought The Ape?” was eventually cancelled after two seasons. He now lives in Northern California running his own vineyard, and is credited as an “Executive Consultant” on Peter Jackson’s remake.

GODZILLA (Godzilla, 1953)

Fondly referred to as ‘the hardest working Monster in show-business’, the 50-metre tall radioactive lizard and self-confessed ‘Renaissance Beast’ has barely stopped working between his 28 movies. Since 1964, he’s appeared regularly on Japanese television in the Sesame Street-style education show Gojira Chikara Kazu!! (Number Power Godzilla), where he teaches children to count how many buildings he’s just knocked down. The Eighties saw the start of the Big G’s infamous talk show Shiawasena Gojira (Godzilla Happy Chat), while he’s recently moved into directing with a series of highly acclaimed (and destruction-heavy) arthouse dramas.

T-REX (Jurassic Park, 1993)

The star of Jurassic Park started developing a substance abuse problem when his starring role in the mooted remake of One Million Years B.C. failed to materialise. After being overshadowed in Jurassic Park III by the supposedly scarier Spinosaurus, the T-Rex was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct on the Universal Studios lot. In and out of rehab for the next few years, the T-Rex has now cleaned up its act, spending much of its time hanging out with Corey Feldman, and is strongly tipped for a comeback with a vital role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards.

THE SCORPION KING (The Mummy Returns, 2001)

Widely mocked at the time for his unconvincing, CGI-like appearance, the Scorpion King made the move into professional wrestling, but was booted out of the sport for accidentally slicing the heads off some of his opponents. After an unwise attempt at shifting careers into Telemarketing, he was declared bankrupt in 2004, and is currently living as a derelict on the streets of Downtown L.A. According to reports, he can regularly be found flexing his claws outside the Bradbury Building wearing a cardboard sign that says “Will Raise Eyebrow For Food”.

THE BALROG (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

Already a legend on the Lord of the Rings set for his practical jokes involving banana skins and lava, the Balrog’s hard-drinking lifestyle was exposed after he publicly brawled with one of the Nazgul’s Fell Beasts at a 2003 post-Oscar party. Despite this, he remains friends with all the Rings cast members, and his cameo opposite Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown will be re-instated on the forthcoming DVD release. He lives in a New Zealand volcano, and is currently suing Peter Jackson for a percentage of the profits from Fellowship of the Ring,

BRUCE THE SHARK (Jaws, 1975)

After many years trying to get out of the iron-clad contracts that forced him into the shoddy Jaws sequels, Bruce The Shark has finally left the world of Hollywood far behind. He now lives at an exclusive resort in the Cayman Islands, where he’s allowed to snack on any guests who don’t pay their bills on time, and is strongly rumoured to be writing a candid expose of his film career that will ‘set the record straight’ on the supposed rift between him and Steven Spielberg.

THE SKELETONS (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963)

The sword-wielding stars were an instant success in the early Sixties thanks to their novelty hit record version of “Dem Bones”. Sadly, the sextet soon split for artistic reasons, with one Skeleton recording a 3-volume concept album, and another launching a series of pop art “happenings” with fellow Argonauts star Talos. Thankfully, the group was re-united in the mid-Eighties as a result of the “We Are The World” Ethiopia charity single, and today can still be found performing their spectacular “Boneyard” theatrical extravaganza at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

DRACO (Dragonheart, 1996)

Despite Dragonheart’s lack of success, Draco the last dragon did, briefly, manage to carve out a successful career as a witty, urbane sidekick in TV shows like Dragon P.I. and Flaming Hell, but his flippant attitude soon stalled his film career when he got himself fired from As Good As It Gets, with his role being switftly rewritten to fit his replacement Greg Kinnear. Draco currently runs his own Flame Grilled Barbecue restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, as well as earning money on the side doing Sean Connery-impersonating prank calls.

Superheroes Made Easy!

A Practical Guide to being a Superhero

Originally published October 2005
in DVD Review magazine 

We love them, we want to be them- but actually living the life of a superhero isn’t as easy as it looks. There are world-conquering villains to defeat and grumpy landlords to avoid, but those wishing to begin a career as a costumed vigilante can relax- help is at hand. Since SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE in 1978, superhero films have provided a plethora of useful hints and tips, so any wannabes would do well to follow our guide to the Crime-Fighting lifestyle…


It’s the starting point to your career, and there are important decisions to be made. Are you going to battle criminals with just your wits and a powerful right hook, or is it time to obtain a set of exciting superpowers? Getting your special abilities is a risky and unpredictable route, and while lucky heroes like Superman or the X-Men are born with their gifts, netting yourself the full “Flying/Super Speed/Invulnerability” combo is no simple task.

The most likely routes are hanging around toxic waste dumps, hoping the radiation either blinds you and enhances your other senses to superhuman levels (Daredevil), or turns you into an anger-activated green goliath with infinitely expandable purple pants (The Hulk). Your other main option is hanging out in expensive research labs waiting for a genetically enhanced animal to bite you (Spider-Man)- a choice that carries many potential dangers, from fleas and rabies to accidentally ending up with fantastic night-vision as the heroic “Bunny-Man”.

On the other hand, the powers-free route usually requires either years of weapons training, a convenient multi-billion dollar fortune or a serious anger management problem- but at least they’re predictable routes with a guaranteed end result. Even if you’re an utterly hopeless powers-free superhero such as the fork-wielding Blue Rajah (Mystery Men), your plucky persistence will mean you win through in the end; while the fact that expert vigilantes like Batman don’t have super-abilities to aid their crime crusades just makes the ladies love them even more.


All superheroes need motivation, and there’s no better reason for fighting evil than the Tragic Past. Thankfully, there’s a wide variety to choose from, although the most obvious is a death in the family- you don’t have to go as far as Peter Parker in Spider-Man and be directly responsible for the death, but, to be honest, it does help. Being extreme can also be a good thing- the brutal murder of Frank Castle’s entire family turns him into the glowering vigilante known as the Punisher, but having your entire home planet blown up in order to get that genuine Superman-style “Last Son of Krypton” feeling may be going too far.

For the morbidly inclined, there’s always the option of getting yourself killed and returning from the grave to wreak havoc. This can go one of two ways- you’ll either (a) return as a scarred vigilante in a big red cloak and be insulted by an obese satanic clown (Spawn), or (b) dress in funky clothes, paint your face like Marilyn Manson’s bass player and look like the sexiest undead goth on the planet (The Crow). The ultimate Tragic Past is, as in The Crow, avenging a murdered lover, which gives you complete licence to indulge in insane ultraviolence, but also means you can spend your downtime doomily hanging out in deserted buildings, quoting poetry, and playing endless free-form guitar solos. Or, you could take a leaf out of the amnesiac Wolverine’s book (X-Men), and have no idea what your tragic past actually is…


There are certain rules when choosing your costume. It should either be pitch black, or brightly coloured as possible; thin and flexible enough so that you can wear it under your clothes; cool enough to avoid unsightly sweat-patches, and with an eye-catching logo displayed prominently on the chest, allowing you to dramatically rip your shirt open in times of crisis.

However, there’s one big question: Do you say yes or no to Spandex? It’s the unofficial uniform for the superhero lifestyle, but the whole figure-hugging body stocking look can easily backfire. You might be able to carry it off as a brightly coloured crime fighter dispensing fast-witted quips, but if you’re aiming to be a dark, violent vigilante and avenge yourself on society, doing it in spandex is only going to make you look like a particularly menacing fitness instructor.

Even the smallest alterations to a costume can pitch it into daftness- you could have an imposingly sculpted suit of body armour, but add shiny nipples and a gigantic codpiece and you’ll have supervillains rolling in the aisles. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal taste and practicality, but female superheroes should beware: skimpy costumes aren’t always a good idea. It might sound alluring and empowering to expose as much skin and cleavage as possible, but chances are you’ll end up looking like an escapee from a Hen night that’s just ram-raided the local Anne Summers shop, and any hope of being taken seriously will fly out of the window.


Getting yourself around town is your next priority- and the forward-thinking superhero will actually get himself a mode of transportation as part of his powers. Flight is the obvious choice, although not everyone can carry off wearing a cape without looking like an idiot, and teleportation is another great option- even if you can’t do it without leaving a trail of smoke and a loud “BAMMF!!” noise. Swinging from building to building via super-strong webs has its advantages, but emitting a sticky white substance from your wrists opens you up to some frankly rather crass puberty-related gags, and if you get too stressed with your dual life you’ll find your web abilities failing mid-air, and have the embarrassment of having to take the elevator.

In fact, it might be far less hassle to have a funkily designed super vehicle for getting around. Along with the costume, the superhero vehicle is a statement to the world that says “I’m here, I’m scary, and I like to fight evil!” While the X-Men’s turbo-powered X-Jet is an undoubtedly impressive piece of hardware, Batman is the model to aim for, as virtually every incarnation of the Batmobile has been effortlessly cool, and he’s even branched out into excitingly spiky Bat-boats and Bat-planes. Unfortunately, he always seems to forget the rather important detail of making them bullet-proof, with the result that one well-placed shot will blast them into pieces. Try to avoid this, as running costs are high enough on super-vehicles without having to build the whole thing again from scratch.


In the course of your career as a super powered crime-fighter, you’re going to need a devastatingly attractive love interest- someone who can be placed in certain-death situations and relied on to scream like mad when abducted by a gibbering supervillain. Women like Lois Lane, Vicki Vale and Mary Jane Watson will initially appear to be capable, strong-minded ladies, but they’re always atrocious in a fight and you’ll be able to fool them into thinking you’re someone else by simply putting on a pair of glasses. Thankfully, there are edgier, dangerous females like the Selina Kyle version of Catwoman (Batman Returns), or flirty knife-wielding killer babe Elektra Natchios (Daredevil)- but be careful. Women like Elektra can be so foxy and exciting that they’ll get a spin-off movie all of their own, and you’ll be left without a sequel to your name…

On the other hand, if you’re a female superhero like Patience Prince in Catwoman or Kara in Supergirl, then it’s vitally important that your male object of lust be as bland as possible. Ideally, he should be a police detective who looks like he moonlights as an underwear model, and spends his time romancing your meek everyday self while getting all hot-under-the-collar for your scantily-clad alter ego. As with his female equivalent, despite being a supposedly intelligent police officer, he’ll take a small eternity to work out that the two women he’s attracted to are the same person, despite having the same voice, the same height, the same build, and even the same coloured eyes as each other…


Your next target is a secret lair- somewhere to store vehicles, build gadgets and sit moodily in the corner fuming about how nobody appreciates you. Size is everything here- the bigger the lair, the more impressed your love interest will be when you bring them around for a swift visit. One trip to Superman’s secret hideout in Superman II was enough to swing Lois Lane’s undying love- and it’s safe to say Peter Parker would have a much easier time of it if he had a spectacular, cavernous Spider-themed lair to woo the ladies with.

Not all of us, however, can get our lairs handed to us on a plate like that eternally lucky bastard Superman and his “Instant Fortress of Solitude” crystal (Superman: The Movie). If you live in a gigantic mansion, then it’s 99.99% likely there’ll be a conveniently huge cavern situated directly underneath you can convert with ease. Alternatively, you can always buy yourself a school and build lots of exciting Thunderbirds-style hatchways in the grounds (X-Men). While the X-Men’s gleaming techno-lair has certain attractions, you can’t go wrong with gothic grandeur. There should be shadows, plenty of computer screens flashing up symbols nobody understands, and lots of narrow walkways alongside gigantic chasms without the slightest hint of a safety rail. Above all, it should be both highly secret, and ridiculously easy to break into when the latest overacting supervillain or wannabe sidekick decides that he wants to discover your secret identity.


While you may tackle the occasional petty crook, you’ll spend most of your crime fighting career battling nefarious supervillains and their plans to enslave/destroy/purchase the world. Nobody knows why there are so many lunatics out there ready to accidentally bond themselves to mechanical arms, throw themselves into pools of chemicals or put on truly appalling Goblin costumes, but they fall into three distinct categories:

These are the villains who know exactly how to do their job. Adversaries like Lex Luthor, Magneto and General Zod are cool, quiet and subtle, only throttling a subordinate when it’s absolutely necessary. They will try to kill you, but they’ll be terribly polite about it.

Flamboyant, scenery-chomping villains who like dressing up in bright colours and shouting at their henchmen. People like The Joker, Mr. Freeze and the Green Goblin sound like fun to be around- but they’ll hog all the public’s attention, and will always be spouting dreadful puns like “Ice to see you!”

The dregs of the barrel- villains so weak and bland, you wonder why they bothered turning up in the first place. They may be convinced they’re the top banana, but you’ll forget bad guys like Xander Drax (The Phantom), Max Schrek (Batman Returns) and Laurel Hedare (Catwoman) within moments.

Defeating these villains will often be rather difficult, and many of them will insist on coming back again and again- but if you’d rather this didn’t happen, simply drop them off the tallest building available, and we guarantee you won’t be seeing them again.


You’re out in the world, fighting for truth, justice and the Superhero way, but it’s time for you to meet your biggest challenge- the general public. Everyday men and women going about their business, they’re also a tremendous liability in a crisis, always taking a small eternity to realise they should be running in the opposite direction. You can also be guaranteed that if any heavy objects ever plummet towards the ground, there’ll be at least one member of the public unwittingly standing underneath it- usually a mother with a pram.

While practicing, it’s important to perfect your rescue strategy- do you go for strong and silent, or chanting snappy catchphrases? Either way, the rescuee will be so astonished by the experience they’ll forget to say thank you, but most other people will be delighted to stand around pointing, waving fists in the air and shouting “Yeah!! Alright!!” every single time you score a major victory, or rescue a kitten from a tree.

Despite this popularity, the Media will have you on their hate-list from day one. There’s something about a masked vigilante that brings out the “Terror Stalks Our City!!” headlines, and each paper will have a fast-talking 1940s-style editor who’ll adore putting the boot in at your lowest moment. However, being misunderstood by the media is the one true sign you’ve arrived- you now have full licence to stand dramatically on top of buildings and indulge in the Olympian level of angst that no self-respecting modern superhero should do without.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005


There’s many different styles of superhero. Which one will you be?

You’re a fast-talking charmer with a wicked dress sense. You’ll get to kiss Cameron Diaz. Lucky you!

You’re pure machismo, with a world of hurt hidden behind those magnificent sideburns. Work those pectorals!

You’re sensitive and lonely, but you’ve also got a thing for leather and playing with knives. Even blind men will fall for you!

THE ANGST MAN (Spider-man)
You’re very heroic- but nobody understands how difficult your life is. Now stop mooning over that girl, and go and get drunk!


If you’re aiming to be remembered, it’s best not to follow these guys…

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” The answer is Alec Baldwin in a fedora and a giant false nose, but this legendary pistol-packing thirties vigilante made precious little impact.

Kal-El’s cousin gets the shallow end of the superhero gene pool, kissing mirrors and posing as a schoolgirl before blandly taking on evil forces for control of an unconvincing glowing ball.

He’s the latest in a line of jungle bound heroes. He’s the “Ghost that walks”. And yet, however heroic he is, Billy Zane still looks a complete idiot in that purple Spandex suit.

When wearing the funky art deco helmet and flying around with a rocket pack, he’s an instant smash. Sadly, the minute he takes the helmet off, he’s dull as dishwater. Put it back on, for heaven’s sake!!


It’s hero vs hero. And the Judge’s decision is final…

The nefarious Green Goblin sets Spidey a challenge worthy of the Krypton Factor- choose between saving Mary Jane or a Cable Car full of cute children as they both plummet towards the river.
JUDGES DECISION: Spidey shows great panache with his webs, and completes both parts of this difficult challenge- but points are deducted for relying on friendly New Yorkers throwing heavy objects at his arch-nemesis…

Not only do the X-Men have to rescue the teenager Rogue from on top of the Statue of Liberty, they’ve also got to stop a deadly machine that’s about to turn the inhabitants of New York into amorphous CGI blobs.
JUDGES DECISION: A good team effort, with each of the X-Men showing control of their powers- although deduct one point for leaving without attempting to pay for all that damage to Lady Liberty.

With gadgets, body armour and a very fast car, Bruce Wayne must rescue squealing reporter Vicki Vale from the lecherous intentions and monumental overacting of the Joker.
JUDGES DECISION: Wayne shows good control of his gadgets, and deploys the Batmobile with style. However, that rubber costume slows him down, and he also comes within inches of being unmasked- hardly a professional way of going about things…

THE BURIED CAR (Superman: The Movie)
Lois Lane is trapped in a car that’s being sucked into the ground by an earthquake, while Superman is elsewhere stopping a nuclear missile. Will the Man of Steel be in time to rescue her?
JUDGES DECISION: First of all, Superman fails to complete the challenge in the allotted time. Then, behaving like an incredibly bad loser, he reverses the flow of time, and rearranges events so he can succeed! Cheating is still cheating, no matter how funky you look in your cape…
FINAL SCORE: Disqualified!!

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005

The House That Jack Built – An Interview with Alan Moore (2002)

An interview with Alan Moore, comics legend and creator of the epic Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell.

Originally published in What DVD, October 2002

“Murder’s an extreme human event of a kind that doesn’t happen to most of us. It’s a little apocalypse… where social constraints, all the barriers of the world have suddenly fallen away and there’s something immensely powerful and primeval going on;- something able to affect society, and send out ripples. It struck me that if you observed an intense human event like murder in enough detail, you might be able to make some broader conclusions about the world in which it happened.”

The name Jack the Ripper holds a host of associations, most of them involving buxom prostitutes being stalked through foggy Whitechapel streets by a menacing figure in a cloak and top hat. It’s over a hundred years since the five brutal murders in London’s East End, and thanks to the lack of a definite culprit and the rise of the early tabloid press, the killings have lodged in the collective consciousness and taken on a life of their own. Most of the popular retellings of the Ripper killings bear little resemblance to reality, and every few years a new book appears claiming to hold the definitive “unmasking” of the infamous serial murderer.

FROM HELL, however, is something different. A massive graphic novel by British writer Alan Moore, who’s been creating highly acclaimed and breathtaking comics such as WATCHMEN, V FOR VENDETTA and SWAMP THING for the past twenty years, FROM HELL is an intensely researched examination of the Jack the Ripper murders, taking one particularly lurid theory concerning the killings, and using this as a backdrop to paint a harrowing social history of London in the 1880s. An absorbing and deeply unsettling read which goes out of it’s way to present a realistic view of life in the Victorian age, it combines a chilly, detached documentary style with bursts of hallucinatory menace and unflinchingly brutal recreations of the Ripper’s crimes.

“It started from wanting to do a lengthy comic book about a murder.” says Moore, “Something with enough scope to treat it properly- instead of regarding it as a standard murder mystery, where once you’ve got a forensic solution and ticked off the boxes on your Cluedo scorecard, the case is solved. I wanted a holistic view, to examine the murder as happening within a whole system, and the kind of effects it can have on society.”

“Initially, I disregarded Jack the Ripper;- too played out and obvious. This was at the end of 1988 though, on the centenary of the Ripper murders, and while I looked at other possibilities there was this sudden barrage of material on the Ripper;- most of it very unsatisfying… but it did make me start considering if there was something which would allow for a different way of telling this familiar story.”

The way was found in JACK THE RIPPER- THE FINAL SOLUTION by Stephen Knight (1987), a book which details a complex theory and alleges that the five prostitutes killed were victims of a conspiracy of Freemasons to cover up the existence of an illegitimate Royal baby, and were murdered by the Queen’s Surgeon, Sir William Withey Gull. “Once I read the florid and fabulous allegations in Knight’s book, I thought ‘This has got the bones of something’,” says Moore, “and then I read everything on the subject I could find, starting to put it all together into this huge edifice. I was fitting in all kinds of different stuff into the story- about the architecture of London, and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Freemasons, the Dionysiac architects, patterns in time… and as the story grew, my understanding of the murders grew as well. The original idea was so elastic that if some new material surfaced, as it occasionally did, it could be slotted into the story with very little difficulty.”

The result is an intensely researched fiction, not afraid to place particular interpretations on the detailed evidence, but also including as many theories and possibilities as Moore could get away with. “In fact, I was unnerved and amazed by the amount of confirming “evidence” that turned up to support my “theory”, precisely because I knew it wasn’t a theory: it was fiction. I really didn’t want to put a toe into the inviting pool of “the truth”, because Truth is a well-documented pathological liar. Self-proclaimed fiction, on the other hand, is entirely honest- it says “I’m a Liar” right there on the dust jacket. If I read a biography of Tony Blair, at the end of it I still wouldn’t know where I stood with him. I do, however, know where I stand with Hannibal Lecter and the Wizard of Oz.”

Following the terrifying “mission” of Dr Gull, as well as the attempts by Inspector Fred Abberline to solve the crimes, FROM HELL is an examination of the Ripper phenomenon and the Victorian era itself, rather than simply about the Ripper. An atmosphere of grimy reality pervades the book, assisted ably by the dark and atmospheric artwork of the Australian-based independent comic artist Eddie Campbell. “I knew I wanted something that wasn’t an ordinary comics style,” says Moore of his collaborator, “and once the idea came up, I really couldn’t think of anyone other than Eddie for the book.”

“I’ve heard less-informed people describe his art as scratchy, or unfinished and unrealistic, and these are generally people whose idea of realism is over-rendered superhero comics. Eddie’s stuff is actually very realistic, because when you look at things in life they don’t have a fine line drawn around them, every detail is not immediately apparent. He creates an incredibly believable naturalism and all the scenes look like they’re taking place in the same world;- there’s no sudden excursion into “Horror World”. If the characters are having sex, or buying a candle at the corner shop, or having a conversation, or ritually disembowelling a prostitute…. it all happens in the same absolutely credible world.”

The choice of Eddie Campbell affected the whole visual language of the story, and is one of the reasons why FROM HELL manages to create such an effective sense of unease. “The thinking behind the choice of Eddie is probably best illustrated by the old British boys comic ACTION. It was kind of a pre-2000AD which was very violent, and one of the strips in it was a lame JAWS knock-off called HOOKJAW. The original artist on this was very much in the in-your face, grue and gore EC tradition;- if the script for a severed arm to be found on the beach, then the way he’d draw it would be to have your point of view down in the sand, and the bloody stump thrust up in the foreground towards you so that you could see every glistening vein and fractured bone… and all the horrified people would be staring down with exaggerated expressions of terror.”

“While it’s all good fun, there’s something about that which signals straight away that you’re now in “Horror Comic world”. When you see the severed heads and the gore, the effect is pretty much the same as in a contemporary horror film. You know that it’s all ketchup, that it’s grand guignol, and you don’t take it seriously.”

“On this HOOKJAW strip, the original artist was replaced by someone who’d only previously worked upon the British girl’s comics of the period- which were always very sedate stories about the three pluckiest girls in the Lower Fourth. The visual storytelling would always be pretty well unvarying middle distance shots of people standing around talking, and the range of emotions on their faces and their body language was very limited in comparison to what was allowed in action or horror strips. If he was asked to draw a severed arm on the beach, it would be a middle-distance shot, and there would be a group of people, none of them reacting them much, which would give an eerie air of credibility to the scene, staring down on this little strip of coastline at a human arm lying there in the sand. There was something about the detachment of that which made it ten times more horrible, because it wasn’t saying “horror film” it was saying “girls adventure story”… and then there’s a severed arm on the beach. And it struck me that with Eddie Campbell you could get much the same kind of effect.”

This detachment is shown to the full during the most disturbing aspects of the book;- the graphic and detailed reconstructions of the Ripper murders. Gruesome in the extreme, they’re a harrowing read, particularly in Chapter 10, which shows in intense detail the last killing and the mutilation that follows. The scenes are horrific and disturbing in their treatment, and have resulted in the series being banned in a number of countries, but Moore maintains this full-on treatment was the only possible way of doing it. “Most of the treatments of the Ripper murders in the past have verged on the pornographic- there are so many cliches used, and most of them are there to “dress it up” and make it exciting. I can’t be the only person who thinks doing that is completely inappropriate when you’re talking about the murder of a woman in a miserable backstreet of Whitechapel.”

Moore’s aim was to recreate the murders as closely as possible, and he did a massive amount of research to describe them from the point of view of the murderer and the victim, without making the sequences voyeuristic. “The first four murders don’t take very long;- they’re sudden, brutal, and they happen as closely as possible to the way they were described forensically. The final killing- Marie Kelly- is the emblematic Ripper murder, the one everyone remembers. To get it right, I knew I was going to have to go into that room in Miller’s Court with the reader, and stay there as long as the Ripper did. He was there for a couple of hours, and I was going to have to try to reconstruct those couple of hours in painful detail.”

“It wasn’t something I was looking forward to, but I felt that in order to be respectful to the women and the circumstance that I was fictionalising… I had to show it exactly as it was, so that any “armchair murderers” in the audience would be made aware of exactly what it was like spending two hours in an overheated, stifling little East End flat cutting up a woman, and to do it in a way which was not glamorous or at all exciting. I wanted to make it into the kind of apocalyptic scene that I felt it was, and to make it a scene of the cultural importance I felt it was. There’s a quote from Gull just after that scene where he says that he has “delivered the Twentieth Century”, and in a sense it was a kind of ghastly nativity. That was where the Twentieth Century was born… in that little room in Millers Court, in November 1888.

The Star Wars Effect (2007)

The Films and TV that were influenced and shaped by George Lucas’ classic sci-fi adventure

Originally published as a separate book with the May 2007 issue of DVD Review

(A brief note: This article was written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars – and the idea was to explore the 30 films and TV shows that were directly (or indirectly) influenced by ‘A New Hope’. The book was co-written by Jayne Nelson, and we essentially wrote half each – what’s printed below is my half, and fifteen movies worth. Enjoy!)

Year Released: 1987
Director: Mel Brooks
Starring: Mel Brooks, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, John Candy

Modern films are mocked and parodied almost as soon as they’ve hit the silver screen – but despite Star Wars changing the face of cinema, a decade had to pass before a filmmaker finally took comical pot-shots at it. Mel Brooks’ gleefully silly, hit-and-miss satire Spaceballs hi-jacks enough of the story and look of Episode IV to be recognisable, while still throwing in his own brand of goof-ball comedy and some fantastically groan-worthy gags.

It’s the saga of the evil Spaceballs, led by the diminutive Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis in over-sized Darth Vader-style headgear) and President Skroob (Brooks), who are out to steal the atmosphere of neighbouring planet Druidia. To do this, they’ve got to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), but standing in their way are the spoof versions of Han and Chewie- Lone Star (Bill Pullman), and his half-man, half-dog sidekick Barf (John Candy).

Add a bewigged C3PO-esque robot voiced by Joan Rivers, a space-fairing Winnebago with wings, and gags targeting everything from Star Trek and Alien to Planet of the Apes, and you’ve got a deliriously silly space-age spoof. It doesn’t quite equal Brooks’ brilliant Western satire Blazing Saddles, but still offers plenty of daft giggles, as well as more affection for its target than you’d expect. The jokes range from the groaningly obvious- a corpulent alien gangster called Pizza the Hutt, a short mystic called Yoghurt who teaches Lone Star the ways of “The Schwartz”- to the brilliantly left-field, where a lightsabre fight accidentally kills one of the film crew, and the movie is gradually invaded by its own fake merchandise (“Spaceballs: The Flame Thrower!”).

Brooks also understood the importance of a spoof being accurate, and the effects work is surprisingly good for the time, as well as featuring plenty of gags (such as the opening shot of a gigantic, Star Destroyer-like craft cruising endlessly past the camera, finally revealing a bumper sticker: WE BRAKE FOR NOBODY). Knockabout enough for kids and with enough loopy left-field humour for adults, Spaceballs is trademark Brooks lunacy with the kind of light-hearted goofiness that many modern-day spoofs could learn from. May the Schwartz be with you…


1: Brooks asked George Lucas’ permission before going ahead and spoofing Star Wars- and was told he could, as long as there wasn’t any merchandise generated from the film.

2: The lightsabres used in the climactic duel between Lone Star and Dark Helmet were actually constructed by Lucas’ special effects company Industrial Light and Magic.

3: One of the apes in the Planet of the Apes gag is voiced by Michael York, an actor who’s been in everything from Austin Powers to 70s sci-fi spectacular Logan’s Run.

4: While playing the part of ‘Schwartz’ master Yoghurt, Brooks had a major allergic reaction to the make-up, meaning all of the scenes had to be shot out of sequence.

Year Released: 1996
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Bill Pullman, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch        

Movie sci-fi might have fallen into a rut in the early Nineties, but by 1996 it was back in full force, and there was ironclad proof thanks to the first major SF blockbuster in years to truly rule the box-office. Delivering the kind of daffy, escapist thrills that up until then had been the realm of Spielberg and Lucas, producer/director team Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich brought the Fifties-style Alien invasion flick kicking and screaming into the present day, and set off a tidal wave of sci-fi epics and copycats in the process.

The story, summed up succinctly in the trailers- “Day 1: They Arrive, Day 2: They Attack, Day 3: We Fight Back…”- is simplicity itself, as fifteen-mile-wide flying saucers appear across the planet, and are soon blowing the living hell out of every famous landmark in sight, from the Empire State Building to the White House. Demolishing entire cities, it’s up to a gang of plucky survivors, led by heroic President Bill Pullman, pilot Will Smith and techno-genius Jeff Goldbum, to counter-attack the evil tentacled hordes, and also sort out their tangled personal lives in the process.

From the thrilling dogfights between the US jets and the enemy fighters, to the final journey into the aliens’ colossal, Death Star-sized mothership, the film wears its Star Wars influences proudly, but also references Spielberg’s moviemaking (especially with Randy Quaid channelling John Belushi’s nutty pilot from 1941). It even uses the same casting method Spielberg employed with Jurassic Park, populating the film with decent B-level actors (Yes- there was a time when Will Smith wasn’t a star…) and therefore freeing up most of the budget on the all-important special effects.

There are obvious nods to Fifties sci-fi, with the sequence showing an attempted nuclear attack on one of the Saucers being a direct lift from 1953’s The War of the Worlds- but Independence Day’s biggest storytelling debt is to cheesy Seventies Disaster movies, especially the actor-stuffed epics of producer Irwin Allen, such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure.

So, even with a death toll in the millions, we’re more worried about whether Goldblum will make up with his estranged wife and White House press secretary Margaret Colin, or if Will Smith will be reunited with his stripper girlfriend Vivacia A. Fox. Astutely keeping most of the death offscreen (especially when First Lady (and future Galactica President) Mary McDonnell expires), it’s the kind of film where a towering wall of fiery destruction can be out-run by a plucky golden retriever, and where the Aliens’ computer system is so fiendishly constructed that anyone with a laptop can tap into it.

Realism is an early casualty, and decent dialogue is fairly close behind (with even the much-spoofed disaster movie line “I picked a hell of a day to quit drinking” making an appearance), but who cares when you’ve got New York, Washington and L.A. being pulverised into rubble? Painting fiery apocalyptic destruction on a level that simply hadn’t been seen before, what’s most surprising is that Independence Day is actually one of the last blockbusters to achieve most of its effects through the traditional means created by ILM for Star Wars. CGI was used for the saucer’s destruction beams, but everything else was done with detailed models, using digital effects only to paste the multiple layers together, and resulting in a level of scale and realism CGI simply wasn’t up to achieving in 1997.

Not only did Independence Day clean up at the box office, but it also turned out to be massively influential, with cinemas soon crammed full of CGI-enhanced updates of old fashioned disaster movie formats. Everything from tidal waves to volcanoes and asteroids was unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences, but most of these carbon copies didn’t get close to Independence Day’s success- including Devlin and Emmerich’s deeply unwise attempt to turn Japanese monster icon Godzilla into a big-chinned CGI lizard. After the events of September 11, 2001, the appetite for watching cities being trashed at the cinema understandably reduced, but while the Big Dumb Disaster movie may be out of fashion, Independence Day is still a shamelessly entertaining, nonsensically patriotic mix of thrills, effects, and good old-fashioned Hollywood cheese.


1: The effect of the flames travelling down the streets was achieved by tilting a model on its side- the camera was at the top, and explosives were placed at the bottom.

2: The line “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!” from the President’s speech wasn’t in the script, and was put in to hopefully avoid a legal battle over the title.

3: Friends star Matthew Perry was originally supposed to play the part of Jimmy “Raven” Wilder, but dropped out just before filming began, and the part was taken by Harry Connick Jr.

4: Another budgetary saving was made thanks to the sets of the White House, the submarine and the Stealth Bombers actually being re-used from The American President, Crimson Tide, and Broken Arrow.

5: Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos came up with two designs for the aliens- and Roland Emmerich liked them so much he used both, as the alien and the biomechanical suit the aliens wear.

6: Originally Randy Quaid’s character was supposed to fly his crop duster in the final battle with the aliens, but the resulting footage was laughed at by test audiences, and quickly reshot.

7: In a similar move to The Lord of the Rings movies years later, the miniatures were constructed on a gigantic scale, with the alien saucer model being a massive 65 feet wide.

8: Due to budgetary limitations, only one Jet fighter model was built- and multiple explosions were created by blowing it up, and filming the explosion from a number of different angles.

Year Released: 1984
Director: Peter Hyams
Starring: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea

Sequels are hard enough at the best of times- but trying to follow up one of the most notoriously impenetrable sci-fi movies of all time is downright dangerous. It’s just as well, then, that director Peter Hyams’ follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 brain-bender 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t try replicating the original’s trippy nature, instead adapting Odyssey co-writer Arthur C. Clarke’s novel sequel into an engaging mix of hard sci-fi and nuts-and-bolts space adventure.

Science fiction in 1984 was still coasting on Star Wars’ success, and Hyams had a whole selection of special effects techniques to play with, meaning 2010 placed as much emphasis on funky techno-spectacle as on the ideas behind it. The story picks up nine years after 2001, with Doctor Heywood Floyd (a minor character in the first film, here played by Jaws star Roy Scheider) finally making the journey to Jupiter and the abandoned spacecraft Discovery to try and find out the truth behind the murder spree of supercomputer HAL 9000, and the mysterious disappearance of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea).

This being a pre-Glasnost version of the future, Floyd hitches a ride through space with a gang of imperious Russians (headed by our own future Dame Helen Mirren, no less), and the Yanks and Ruskies naturally have to eventually set aside their differences and work together in order to survive. The politics may have dated, but the central ideas of 2010 are strong, and it’s still rare to see a sci-fi flick trying hard to stick to genuine scientific fact. Hyams does his best to weld Kubrick’s rigorous detail with a Star Wars-style sense of wonder at the hugeness and potential of deep space, and for the most part manages to pull it off. He even tips a nod at the weirder elements of 2001 as a ghost-like Dullea returns with a warning, and all the Discovery sets from the original film are perfectly recreated. Add Third Rock From The Sun’s John Lithgow on top form as a grumpy Engineer, and you’ve got an impressive space adventure right the way through to its cosmic, planet-busting climax.


1: Arthur C. Clarke makes a cameo appearance in the film, feeding bread to some pigeons outside the White House, while Floyd is planning his mission to the Discovery.

2: One of the first Internet lines outside the academic community was set up so that Peter Hyams could communicate with the Sri Lanka-based Arthur C. Clarke during the screenwriting process.

3: On one of the fake covers for Time Magazine shown in the film, the picture of the Soviet premier is actually 2001: A Space Oddyssey director Stanley Kubrick.

4: The film’s music was originally supposed to be written by Tony Banks from rock band Genesis, but his soundtrack was dropped, and David Shire was brought in to score the film.

Year Released: 1999
Directors: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano

It was the end of the second millennium, and sci-fi geeks across the world were waiting for one thing- a film that would redefine onscreen SF, thrill them beyond measure, and take them back to the sheer excitement Episode IV had created back in 1977. As it turned out, they got exactly what they expected- except the name of the film wasn’t The Phantom Menace. The jury may still be out on whether Episode I is frothy fun or a galactic, Jar-Jar-afflicted bore, but what can’t be denied is 1999 was the most seismic year in onscreen sci-fi since Star Wars erupted onto the scene, and it was all thanks to The Matrix.

Created by a pair of screenwriter brothers whose only previous directing work was lesbian-chic noir thriller Bound, The Matrix was a film nobody expected to like- especially since Keanu Reeves’ last dabble in ‘virtual reality’ thrillers had been the disastrous cyberpunk adaptation Johnny Mnemonic (1995). As it turned out, however, the Wachowskis had created a dense and multi-layered philosophical action saga so extravagantly exciting, nobody seemed to mind that they’d hi-jacked massive chunks of their dark apocalyptic saga from Japanese animation, The Terminator, the works of Blade Runner author Phillip K. Dick, old kung-fu flicks, and a dozen other sources.

A story where the ‘real world’ is an illusion perpetrated by evil insectoid machines, and where only a small number of super-powered freedom fighters know the truth, it’s a thrilling, imaginative adventure that melds Jean-Paul Sartre with John Woo, and left cinema audiences reeling with astonishment. As Reeves’ Neo peels back the layers of reality, learns the truth about his machine-controlled existence and says ‘Whoah’ a lot, the film also ends up owing much of its mythic structure to the same pattern followed by the original Star Wars trilogy.

Like Luke Skywalker, Neo is plucked out of a dull life into a world of adventure, trained up by a wise mentor, ends up battling against the bad guys, and is presented with a choice where he has to put himself in danger for the greater good. Admittedly, Luke didn’t deal with his problems in Episode V by strolling into Cloud City dressed in a trenchcoat and blowing the crap out of everyone within range, but the principle’s the same, and it’s the classic storytelling at the heart of The Matrix that makes it such an engaging, universal story.

It also helped that The Matrix featured one of the best villains since Vader wheezed his way onscreen. With the moves of Bruce Lee and the voice of a Fifties Newscaster, sentient program Agent Smith is an incredible adversary who, thanks to Hugo Weaving’s stony-faced performance, almost hi-jacks the movie away from the stunning visuals. That he doesn’t quite manage it is a testament to the still jaw-dropping special effects, and while the classic ‘Bullet-Time’ sequences may now have been parodied to death, in 1999, they were the epoch-shaking equivalent of  Episode IV’s opening Star Destroyer shot, and made it seem like we were entering a saga where anything was possible.

Sadly, of course, it all went rather wrong. After riding the crest of the Phantom Menace backlash in 1999, the Wachowskis got a taste of their own medicine when, in 2003, their hugely anticipated back-to-back sequels Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions turned out to be pretentious messes. Yes, there was plenty of groundbreaking action, but both movies were also far too ambitious for their own good, introducing dozens of characters nobody cared about, and cranking the philosophy up to brain-aching levels. Worst offender for this was the infamous ‘Architect’ sequence, which was supposed to explain the secret behind the Matrix, and instead left audiences worldwide scratching their heads in confusion.

Without the classic structure of the original movie, the Wachowskis were lost, and thanks to the spectacular but underwhelming climax, the Matrix ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. What it didn’t do, however, was take away from the first movie’s achievement, and while the trilogy might be a mess, The Matrix itself can still hold its head up proudly as one of Episode IV’s only true rivals, and a film that truly expanded the limits of what cinematic sci-fi could achieve.


1: The Matrix actually bears a strong resemblance to anarchic comic book saga The Invisibles, to the extent that the comic’s writer, Grant Morrison, was seriously considering legal action.

2: A number of sets from sci-fi thriller Dark City (which shares certain themes with The Matrix) were re-used in the film, including the rooftops that Trinity runs across in the opening sequence.

3: The film’s casting went through plenty of changes – Johnny Depp was the Wachowski’s first choice for Neo, while both Val Kilmer and Sean Connery were offered Morpheus, but turned it down.

4: The ‘Bullet Time’ effect wasn’t actually invented for The Matrix- it had been used several years previously in adverts by director Michel Gondry, and was refined by the Matrix F/X team.

5: All the maps shown in the film, most of the signage and the street names suggest that the city setting (at least in the first movie) is Chicago, the Wachowski’s home town.

6: The ‘Woman in Red’ sequence- where Morpheus takes Neo through a simulation of the Matrix- features a massive number of identical twins, to suggest the idea of a repeating program.

7: The film was nearly shut-down as a result of the sequence with Neo and Morpheus dangling from a helicopter, because the copter accidentally strayed into restricted airspace.

8: The bizarre footage seen on a TV during the film of giant rabbits bounding along a road is a genuine sci-fi B-movie made in 1972 called Night of the Lepus.

Year Released: 1979
Director: Gary Nelson
Starring: Robert Foster, Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgenine, Roddy McDowell

The biggest sign of sci-fi’s explosive popularity in the late Seventies was when the Walt Disney company looked at Star Wars’ success and said “Hmmm- maybe we’ll have some of that!” What they eventually served up to the general public was a loose SF remake of their fifties live-action classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, but hurled into the darkness of outer space with all the cute robots, killer droids and stately special effects you could ever wish for.

It’s the story of the crew of the good ship Palomino as they encounter the gigantic, long-lost spacecraft USS Cygnus parked on the edge of a Black Hole in space. Investigating the colossal ship, they find that the only human onboard is the eminently potty scientist Reinhardt (Schell), who’s been there for twenty years, with his own evil Vader-esque pet robot named Maximillian, and a ship full of droid servants. Already doing well in the evil genius stakes, Reinhardt welcomes the new arrivals, and is soon politely suggesting the Palomino crew accompany him for a journey into the gravity-defying Black Hole- or else.

Played with the determined seriousness of 2001, and occasionally livened up by comic relief from flying robot Vincent (a combination of R2-D2 and C3PO, voiced by Roddy McDowell), it’s a gloriously po-faced film that almost completely misses out on the sense of frothy fun that Lucas captured in Star Wars. Even the impressive cast, featuring Ernest Borgenine and ex-Psycho Anthony Perkins, are on the seriously stiff side, but if The Black Hole doesn’t deliver in terms of story, it’s still a surprisingly impressive spectacle. There’s a thrilling, graceful music score from classic Bond composer John Barry that rivals anything John Williams has done, and the effects work is fantastic, featuring pioneering matte work for the time, along with a whole selection of sweeping model shots and funky design. All the way through to the fabulously perplexing, psychedelic climax, it’s beautifully designed sci-fi eye candy- although someone should have told the director that making a Black Hole look more dramatic by painting it red was bending the laws of physics a little too far…


1: As with many other films, The Black Hole had to be retitled when released in some foreign countries- especially Russia, where the title is actually an obscene phrase…

2: In the original script, the whole film was supposed to take place in a weightless, zero-gravity environment, but budgetary restrictions meant that idea had to be swiftly dropped.

3: Dr. Strangelove star Slim Pickens is responsible for voicing the battered droid Old Bob – and neither he nor Roddy McDowell are listed on the film’s opening or closing credits.

4: The wireframe graphics shown over the movie’s title sequence may be rather basic, but  are also the longest computer graphics sequence ever seen in a movie at that time.

Year Released: 1984
Director: Nick Castle
Starring: Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart, Robert Preston, Norman Snow 

There wasn’t a teenager in the early Eighties who didn’t dream at least once of getting to do a Luke Skywalker, escape their dull lives, and adventure off into a world of intergalactic action- but, for all those dreamers, there was an answer in the form of The Last Starfighter. Combining two win-win concepts- space fantasy and video games- it’s a gleeful comic strip that’s a Star Wars for the arcade generation, as well as the first film to truly point the way towards the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today.

Plot-wise, things are fairly thin- Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is desperate to escape his mundane trailer-park life, and the only relief he finds is playing the Starfighter arcade game. Then, he’s abruptly whisked off into outer space, and discovers the game is actually a training device designed to find pilots to fight in a major intergalactic war. He might initially balk at being called up to kick the arse of the villainous Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada, but eventually, with a single ship available to stand against the oncoming hordes, he’s the only one who can save the galaxy.

It’s the kind of daft, cheesy space adventure that highlights how well George Lucas did this kind of fairy-tale fantasy by not being anywhere near as good, and the design has a ludicrously dated Buck Rogers feel, with no computer being complete without rows and rows of flashing light. At the least, it’s good-natured, comic-strip fun with a couple of surprisingly gruesome shocks but the main draw is the use of computer graphics. CGI had made its first cinematic appearance two years earlier in Tron (ironically, another computer game-themed movie), but it was The Last Starfighter that first used digital images to achieve the spacecraft, the landscapes- in fact, every special effect aside from make-up and the numerous explosions. The graphics may now be stunningly quaint, but they give the film the sense of big-scale comic strip action it desperately needs- and also points the way towards Lucas finally embracing the digital revolution seventeen years later with The Phantom Menace.


1: The four-gun design of the Gun-Star ships was a big influence on the Star Fury fighters in the TV series Babylon 5, which were also realised via CGI.

2: Lance Guest’s film career never really took off- his only other role was as Michael Brody in the spectacularly awful Jaws: The Revenge, and he now works mainly in television.

3: Wil Wheaton, aka Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation played one of the kids at the trailer park, but his role was cut from the final edit.

4: In what’s possibly the most unexpected theatrical adaptation of recent years, The Last Starfighter was turned into an off-Broadway musical in 2004, and played to some suprirsingly good reviews.

Year Released: 1980
Director: Stanley Donen
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, Harvey Keitel   

Take the stars of Spartacus, the Charlie’s Angels TV series, and Reservoir Dogs, throw them together with the director of Singin’ in the Rain, and what you end up with is possibly the oddest of all the movies to emerge from the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. A British space psycho-thriller with a screenplay from novelist Martin Amis, the Lucas influences are obvious right from the opening shot of a very big spacecraft passing ultra-slowly across the screen, although the kinkier aspects of both the script and the design owe a bigger debt to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

It’s the tale of two researchers on the third moon of Saturn, played by Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett, who spend their lives researching hydroponics and wearing suspect fashions, until the arrival of military officer Harvey Keitel. He’s there to deliver the latest robot in the ‘Demi-God’ series- an eight-foot tall hydraulic humanoid called Hector, who’ll be taking over the management of the station once he’s fully programmed. Unfortunately, Keitel is both an imposter and a dangerous psycho, who’s soon obsessing over Fawcett, and then makes the mistake of imprinting his brain-patterns onto Hector’s blank slate of a mind.

The end result is one seriously deranged and desire-crazed robot, who’s soon causing a surprising amount of mayhem and gore, as well as one scene of gratuitous nudity from the then-64 year old Douglas the world could easily have done without. Plenty of Saturn 3 qualifies for the ‘so bad it’s good’ rating, and yet there’s also lots to admire, from the kooky design, to the lush soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein that fuses John Williams with electro-funk, and especially its mechanical villain. A world away from the blocky dustbins and men-in-suit droids of Episode IV, Hector is a realistically clunky mass of hydraulic pipes, wires and circuits that exudes a considerable amount of menace. Achieved in the pre-CGI days by a mixture of camera tricks and puppetry, it’s a precursor to the mechanical effects in The Terminator, and Hector scores as one of cinema’s more distinctive robots- even if he never accelerates beyond a brisk stroll…


1: Anyone watching Saturn 3 who thinks that Harvey Keitel sounds peculiar with an English accent would be right- all of his dialogue was actually dubbed by English actor Roy Dotrice.

2: Saturn 3 was to be the directorial debut of John Barry (no relation to the composer), the production designer of Episode IV and Superman, but he was replaced early into filming by Donen.

3: The robotic form of Hector was dreamed up by Special Effects designer Colin Chilvers, and its organic structure was heavily modelled on an anatomical drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci.

4: A fantasy sequence that involved Farrah Fawcett being put in a skimpy PVC jumpsuit- for tasteful, artistic reasons, of course- was shot, but eventually left out of the film’s final edit.

Year Released: 1988-1999
Director: Various
Starring: Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Norman Lovett

Plenty of post-Star Wars sci-fi has been influenced by the Original Trilogy if only by reacting against it- and there’s little better to counter Lucas’ fairy tale optimism than the downbeat lunacy of surreal sitcom Red Dwarf. Building a long-running sci-fi franchise around a concept described as “Steptoe and Son in Space” wasn’t easy, and nobody who saw the show’s first low-budget run back in 1988 would ever have predicted the eight-season saga that was going to follow.

Largely co-written and overseen by writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, the late-Eighties BBC show began as a small-scale, character based slice of nuttiness set on the massive mining craft Red Dwarf. The story follows Dave Lister (Craig Charles), who wakes from suspended animation to find that three million years have passed, the rest of the crew is dead, and the only company he now has is a hologram of his deceased bunkmate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), a creature who evolved from the Ship’s cat (Danny John-Jules), and the semi-senile supercomputer Holly (Norman Lovett).

For two seasons, Red Dwarf ploughed it’s own distinctive furrow, building a small but loyal cult audience, and centering most of its humour around the clash between everyman slob Lister and the terminally neurotic Rimmer. Lacking a hefty budget, most of the adventures were like a blue-collar cross between Star Wars, Alien and anarchic sitcom The Young Ones, with the crew voyaging into virtual realities, encountering manifestations of their own Confidence and Paranoia, or entering a parallel universe and meeting their own female alter-egos (resulting in Lister inadvertently making himself pregnant…)

The third season in 1989, however, saw a steep increase in the budget, and suddenly the special effects improved, the all-grey sets were swapped for funkier, more technological environments, and cleaning mech Kryten- who originally appeared at the beginning of season 2, played by David Ross- was added permanently to the cast in the form of actor Robert Llewellyn. With shape-changing, emotion-devouring mutants, body-swaps, shuttle crashes and a visit to a backwards reality, this was where the popularity of the boys from the Dwarf began to sky-rocket- and also, arguably, the point where the show reached its creative peak.

The fourth and fifth seasons got ever-more ambitious, imaginative and spectacular, but also started to prove, in the same way as the Star Wars prequel trilogy, that bigger budgets and improved special effects don’t always equal better. The show was never less than entertaining, featuring plenty of classics like the appearance of Rimmer’s heroic, Top Gun-style alter-ego Ace, and the episode where the characters were all apparently killed, only to discover that their lives up until then had been an immersive computer game. However, the ratio of great episodes to less memorable began to decrease, the ideas started to get repetitive, and some episodes were even given tidy moral messages, particularly the clumsy anti-war fourth season adventure ‘Meltdown’.

From there onwards, the show went into a serious decline, with co-creator Rob Grant leaving the series, and star Chris Barrie briefly jumping ship in Season 7, although he was persuaded back for the largely forgettable Season 8. Left on a flat cliffhanger, the story was potentially going to be continued or reworked in a big-budget film – but despite plenty of rumours, the Red Dwarf movie is still firmly stuck in the bowels of Development Hell.

At the peak of its popularity in the early Nineties, however, the show was arguably the most successful (and virtually the only) British sci-fi show on TV, eclipsing the then-dormant Doctor Who, and generally being hip and cool enough to be the SF series it was okay to like. Along with this, there was a torrent of merchandise, a sequence of novels written by Grant and Naylor that did a fine job of expanding the show’s universe, and even an unwise Lucas-style ‘remastering’ of early episodes with new CGI effects, which proved so unpopular that they’ve been buried since and left off the recent DVD releases. In short, Red Dwarf kept the SF flag flying even when everybody else seemed to have given up the ghost, as well as coming up with more creative uses of the word “Smeg” than the mind can comfortably contemplate…


1: Before being recast in seasons 7 and 8 as Chloe Annet, the character of Kristine Kochanski was originally played by Claire Grogan, ex-lead singer from Scottish pop band Altered Images.

2: Red Dwarf came very close to being cancelled only two days into the initial rehearsals of the first series, thanks to a threatened electricians strike at the BBC.

3: The first choices for the roles of Lister and Rimmer were- rather bizarrely- Alfred Molina and Alan Rickman, and were only discounted because they were unlikely to commit to further series.

4: The casting for the show still could have gone very differently- Chris Barrie originally auditioned for the role of Lister, while Norman Lovett originally auditioned as Rimmer.

5: Two pilot episodes for an American TV remake of Red Dwarf were made in 1992, still featuring Robert Llewellyn, along with Frasier star Jane Leeves, but never got commissioned for a full series.

6: The BBC effects department destroyed their only model of Red Dwarf for the Fifth season episode ‘Demons and Angels’. In subsequent appearances, either archive footage or a CGI Red Dwarf was used.

7: Kryten was actually named after the title character from Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s play ‘The Admirable Crichton’, about an incredibly efficient butler to a Victorian family.

8: The seventh series of Red Dwarf was the only season not to be filmed in front of a live studio audience, in order to give greater freedom for lighting and camera set-ups.

Year Released: 1997
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside      

One of the unsung heroes of the original Star Wars trilogy, Special Effects expert Phil Tippet was the man responsible for the AT-AT walkers, the Taun-Tauns, and the Gamorrean-munching Rancor Beast. Virtually anything involving old-fashioned Stop-Motion animation in Episodes IV-VI was supervised by him, and he’s widely renowned as an expert in bringing weird and wonderful creatures to life- meaning Robocop director Paul Verhoeven knew exactly who to call when he signed to direct this gleefully insane, satirical sci-fi monster mash.

Based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers is a Fifties-style explosion of pulp future SF that pitches humanity against giant marauding alien bugs from the planet Klendathnu. As Earth comes under attack, and a gigantic military fleet heads out into deep space to kick some insect bottom, the film charts the journey of square-jawed beefcake Johnny Rico (Van Dien) from wide-eyed rookie to rugged veteran, and throws in every military ‘coming of age’ cliché under the sun.

It also, courtesy of Tippet’s brilliant creature effects and the rise of CGI, stars the most impressively gruesome collection of aliens to hit the cinema screens in years. From the spiky Warrior bugs to the flame-spewing Tank bugs and the gigantic, mind-sucking ‘Brain Bugs’, they’re a jaw-dropping symphony of effects that leaves gallons of ketchup, torn-off limbs and decapitated corpses in its wake. What’s more, they’re even more impressive for the fact that instead of lurking in shadowy ducts like the Xenomorphs from the Alien films, most of the ultraviolence in Starship Troopers happens in broad daylight, leading up to a gob-smacking homage to classic Brit war movie Zulu, where a small band of marines hold an outpost against a tidal wave of thousands of Warrior bugs.

Hilariously gory, and with Paul Verhoeven’s usual ‘anything goes’ attitude to violence, swearing and nudity, it’s a brutal, relentlessly action-packed space war saga – but what singles it out from simply being Aliens on a bigger budget is the way it takes the traditions of comic-strip style sci-fi set down from Star Wars onwards, and completely up-ends them.

Before Starship Troopers, we knew that the good guys generally wore white, behaved nobly, and were almost always American, while the bad guys lurked in the background wearing black leather, throttling their subordinates and speaking in rascally English accents. Starship Troopers uses the same manipulative, fairy-tale like devices to tell its story- but while the ‘good guys’ in Starship Troopers might be handsome, blue-eyed and American, they’re also representing an oppressive, brutal, pro-violence Fascist state where only those who serve in the Armed Forces get the vote.

Verhoeven has a history of cramming films like Robocop with off-beat, subversive subtexts, and here he goes even further, loading Starship Troopers with spoof patriotic newscasts, and turning it into a sly satire of American Imperialism. “It’s looking at the potential for fascism, even in American society,” said Verhoeven at the time,  “because the film’s saying, ‘Yes, you might get a more puritanical state, and abolish crime and racism, but are you aware how that can be achieved?’ Its there as an idea, but it doesn’t get in the way of the story.” With elite officers striding around in replica Gestapo uniforms and a ‘kill first, ask questions later’ ethic, along with the gradual realisation that the repellent, brain-sucking bugs may be smarter and more sympathetic than we thought, it’s Star Wars recast with the evil Empire as the heroes- and naturally, most of the film’s audience didn’t get the joke.

In fact, plenty of critics accused the film of being pro-fascist, and while the subtle satire is present, it’s also combined with a streak of outrageous, ironic camp, and a cast seemingly assembled from Beverly Hills 90210 cast-offs. With oaken hunk Casper Van Dien caught between lusting after Denise Richards and being lusted over by Dina Meyer, all the while spouting hilarious dialogue like; “I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say- kill ’em all!”, it’s not a film to be taken too seriously. Starship Troopers may not have set the box-office alight, but it still proved that SF can be lurid, outrageous fun, as well as having something important to say…


1: While not a box office smash, the film was successful enough to spawn a straight-to-DVD sequel, plus a 37-episode computer animated TV spin-off entitled Roughnecks.

2: On a dare from actress Dina Meyer, Verhoeven and his cinematographer Jost Vacano shot a take of the nudity-heavy communal shower scene in the nude themselves.

3: Most of the rifles used by the Mobile Infantry in Starship Troopers are actually redressed Pulse Rifle props that had been originally created for James Cameron’s Aliens.

4: In 1997, Starship Troopers managed to break the record for the amount of ammunition used during the making of a movie (although it’s undoubtedly been broken since…)

5: The graduation party sequence features a version of the David Bowie song “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, with reworked lyrics, and sung by Zoe Poledouris, daughter of film composer Basil Poledouris.

6: The film’s producer Jon Davison has a cameo in the ‘media breaks’ as a dog owner who shouts “The only good bug is a dead bug!”, while writer Ed Neumeier appears briefly as a criminal.

7: The footage seen in the film involving the explosions and fire after the destruction of Buenos Aires is actually video of the fires that occurred in Oakland, California in October, 1991.

8: Paul Verhoeven says he never actually made it more than a few chapters into Heinlen’s original novel, claiming he gave up after finding it “boring and depressing”.

Year Released: 1997
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker

Based on a story dreamed up when he was a teenager, French action director Luc Besson’s deliciously barmy sci-fi romp stormed onto the scene in the wake of Independence Day, and tapped straight into the bright escapism that was Star Wars’ stock-in-trade. The Blade Runner-style flying car sequences and the presence of Bruce Willis had plenty of people expecting a larger, more polished version of edgy, violent blockbusters like Total Recall or Demolition Man. In fact, Besson’s approach to the SF shenanigans is part fantasy adventure, part demented comedy, and heavily influenced by European comic books by artists like Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud.

The shambolic plot follows 22nd-century cab driver Korbin Dallas (Willis) as he unexpectedly rescues a mystery girl (Jovovich) from the police, only to discover she’s the mythical ‘fifth element’- part of a weapon that’s the only defence against an incoming ball of intergalactic evil about to envelop the Earth. Nefarious mastermind Gary Oldman, wise priest Ian Holm and a gang of shape-changing aliens are also involved, but really it’s just a blatant excuse for Besson and his design team (including fashion designer Jean Paul-Gautier on costume duties) to go wild and produce the nuttiest, most colourful version of the future possible. One of the first digital blockbusters to truly display how much scale and spectacle CGI could accomplish in sci-fi, it’s packed with all kinds of surreal gags and inventive gadgets, as well as providing breathtaking future landscapes that still look downright impressive a decade later.

Transforming kooky supermodel Jovovich into an arse-kicking action heroine, it also properly introduced cinema audiences to the helium-voiced motormouth named Chris Tucker. Singled out as the worst aspect of the film by countless reviews, Tucker’s staggeringly camp DJ Ruby Rhod (heavily modelled on rock star Prince) is actually one of the film’s most shamelessly enjoyable elements, hitting the exact level of outrageous comic-strip insanity that Besson was aiming for. The Fifth Element is sci-fi letting its hair down and simply having fun, and there aren’t many recent SF blockbusters that have come close to its blend of lurid, brightly-coloured mayhem.


1: The explosion at the end of the main action sequence in Fhloston’s Paradise was the biggest indoor explosion ever filmed, and the resulting fire almost got out of control.

2: The language spoken by Milla Jovovich’s character was invented by Besson, and refined by the actress to the extent that she and Besson could converse in it by the end of the shoot.

3: The sequences in the future New York are actually full of in-jokes and references from the Digital Domain effects technicians who created the sequences, including e-mail disputes and real pizza company logos.

4: Not only was the role of camp DJ Ruby Rhod inspired by Prince, but the rock star was considered to play the role, as was fellow rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Year Released: 2000
Director: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
Starring: (Voices) Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Janeanne Garofolo 

Sci-fi and animation should be a marriage made in heaven. Stories only limited by the imagination of the artists? No need for gigantic sets? No troublesome actors refusing to leave their trailers? Logistically, it’s a slam-dunk- and yet, while Japanese animation has embraced SF for decades, Hollywood’s cartoon scene is a trickier proposition, and only one animated movie has genuinely tried to follow in George Lucas’ footsteps.

Helmed by ex-Disney animators turned independent directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (Anastasia), Titan A.E. is a manga-influenced space adventure set in the thirty-first century, where Earth has been destroyed by evil energy beings called the Drej, and the few remaining humans have been scattered across the galaxy. The only hope for the human race is finding the mythical Titan project, a ship which escaped Earth just before destruction, and the only map showing the way is in the hands of Cale Tucker (Damon).

Naturally, Cale is a blonde, rugged hero type with father-related issues, while there’s a sassy Princess Leia substitute in the curvaceous form of Akima (Barrymore), and a more cynical version of Han Solo named Corso (Pullman, in a very different role from his Spaceballs hero). With plenty of escapes, explosions, weird aliens and unexpected reversals (including one plot-twist that’s straight from The Empire Strikes Back), it’s a colourful adventure with lots of impressive set-pieces, including a Star Trek II-style stealth pursuit through a field of colossal ice crystals.

Despite all the spectacle, the story is a little too indebted to Star Wars, while the soft-rock soundtrack eventually gets deeply wearying. Added to this, it’s too dark and apocalyptic for the usual Disney audience, while it also doesn’t have enough edge to capture the teenage geek crowd. The box-office failure of Titan A.E. and the subsequent poor turn-out for Disney’s SF-themed Treasure Planet means intergalactic adventures are likely to remain off-limits for most US animation. At the least, however, Titan A.E. gave co-screenwriter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon a chance to explore his ideas about gritty space frontier life, which he’d later spin into the short-lived Firefly and its big-screen spin-off Serenity…


1: Titan A.E.’s poor showing at the U.S. box office resulted in Twentieth Century Fox closing down its in-house animation production company after only two movies (The first was Don Bluth’s Anastasia).

2: Don Bluth was responsible for designing and animating a short fantasy sequence for the pop band Scissor Sisters, which was featured in the music video to their track “Mary.”

3: Titan A.E. was the first film to be shown in a preview screening using a completely digital system that eliminated the need for any kind of film print to be made.

4: Almost 90% of the film is generated using CGI, including all the scenes involving the Drej, with traditional animation only used for the characters and occasional painted backgrounds.

Year Released: 1980
Director: Mike Hodges
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Topol, Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed

The original Star Wars faced plenty of production problems- but if it wasn’t for one little decision relating to the rights to an old comic book character, we’d never even have gotten to that galaxy far, far away. When George Lucas thought of telling a light, fairy-tale space adventure, what he wanted to make was an updated version of classic sci-fi action hero Flash Gordon, who adventured his way through countless Saturday morning serial adventures in the 1930s- but he couldn’t afford to get permission to use the character. As a result, Lucas went back to the drawing board, and dreamed up a universe of Wookies, Sith Lords and weird hairstyles, while three years after his ‘little sci-fi movie’ made science fiction into the latest hot property, Flash finally made it to the screen accompanied by a shower of special effects and a title song proclaiming that “he’ll save every one of us…”

Redefining the phrase ‘over the top’, Flash Gordon comes from producer Dino De Laurentis, the man behind Barbarella and the dodgy Seventies King Kong remake, and hurls its American Football star hero (Sam J. Jones) along with reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) onto the planet Mongo for a confrontation with evil intergalactic overlord Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow). There’s a countdown to Earth’s destruction, a saucy alien princess with an eye for Flash, and a selection of weird and fearlessly camp alien creatures to contend with, all told via a selection of bright colours, kooky camera angles and psychedelic cloud effects. Embracing the source material’s 1930s retro vibe in both design and tone, it’s the polar opposite of Star Wars, banishing grime and sprinting towards the camper, sillier aspects of SF like they’re going out of style.

There’s distinct echoes of 1978’s Superman as well, with a brief appearance from an Otis-like tubby comedy sidekick, and the selection of the two unknowns in the lead roles goes to prove how easily the casting in Superman could have gone wrong. A far cry from Christopher Reeve’s instant success as the Man of Steel, blonde bombshell Sam J. Jones is an oaken, charisma-free zone, while Melody Anderson matches him in the woodenly unconvincing stakes- even though she does get to deliver the legendary line: “Flash! I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!!!”

Bizarrely enough, Get Carter director Mike Hodges seems to have realised his two leads were going to be a problem, and surrounds them with one of the most loopy and eclectic supporting cast in cinema history. One scene alone features future Bond Timothy Dalton, Rocky Horror creator and star Richard O’Brien, respected playwright John Osborne and Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan. Elsewhere, there’s everyone from Fiddler on the Roof’s  Topol as the nutty Professor Zarkoff, The Exorcist’s Max Von Sydow sporting fantastic eyebrows, to the fearsomely bearded, god-like prescence of Brian Blessed as Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as wolf it down in gigantic, movie-hijacking chunks.

The plot-twists get ever more ludicrous, the escapes get tighter and tighter, and by the time Flash is piloting a stolen war-rocket on a crash dive towards Mongo City, it’s almost impossible not to be swept along by the giddy comic-strip insanity of it all. It’s also possibly the kinkiest family SF film ever made, with plenty of bondage, whips, chains and suspiciously tight leather underpants on display, while the fabulously outrageous rock soundtrack cranks the ridiculousness level up to eleven (All together now- “Flash…. Aaaahhhhhhhh!!!”).

Perfectly complementing the barmy visuals, it’s impossible to imagine the film without Queen’s gleefully OTT score, and everything leads the film towards one of the most exuberantly enjoyable sci-fi action climaxes ever seen. Star Wars may be aiming to be a new myth for our times, but Flash Gordon just wants to dress up in daft colours and entertain us with the most wild, lurid and shameless nonsense it can possibly invent. The poor box-office showing might have denied us any further adventures from Flash and his mighty hair- but as far as the film’s enduring status as a cult classic goes, Gordon is most definitely alive.


1: The mind-bending psychedelic cloud effects used to create the ‘Imperial Vortex’ and the clouds around Mongo were generated by swirling multi-coloured dyes through a tank of water.

2: Dino De Laurentis originally wanted Federico Fellini to direct the film, while Nicolas Roeg was attached to direct for a time, but left the movie as a result of “creative differences’.

3: In two exceptionally bizarre casting alternatives, Kurt Russell auditioned for the central role of Flash, while Dennis Hopper was considered as a strong possibility for Dr. Hans Zarkoff.

4: Sam J. Jones was actually cast as a result of being spotted by Dino De Laurentis’ mother-in-law while appearing as a contestant on US game show ‘The Dating Game’.

5: Max Von Sydow’s flamboyant costume as Ming the Merciless weighed 70 pounds, and the actor could only manage to stand in it for a few minutes at a time.

6: Princess Aurora’s ‘pet’ Fellini is played by diminutive Nairobi-born actor Deep Roy, who’s best known for playing the Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

7: Mike Hodges considered getting prog-rock legends Pink Floyd to compose the film’s music, before eventually settling on the altogether camper choice of Queen, along with some orchestral material by Howard Blake.

8: Cracker’s Robbie Coltrane has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo appearance, as the man who closing a door on Flash and Dale’s plane just before it takes off at the beginning of the movie.

Year Released: 1994-1998
Director: Various
Starring: Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Andreas Katsulas 

One thing used to be certain – the only place you’d find Star Wars-style epic action and intergalactic intrigue was the big screen. Things have changed, however, and the one show that started it all off was Nineties SF saga Babylon 5. At first glance, it might have looked like a typical Star Trek rip-off, but series supremo J. Michael Straczynski had a masterplan. Structuring each season like chapters in a novel, it was going to be a series which wouldn’t simply hit the reset button at the end of each episode – alleigances would change, characters would evolve, and a gigantic, intricate plot was going to unfold over five years of television.

Years before story-arc heavy shows like Buffy, 24 and Lost, most people thought Straczynski was barking mad- but he went ahead and did it anyway, crafting a ferociously complex saga that’s less Star Trek, and more a combination of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, set around an interplanetary equivalent of the United Nations, where conflicts between aliens can hopefully be settled.

Featuring funky Tatooine Cantina-style aliens that were far from Trek’s usual humanoids-with-cornflakes-on-their-faces creations, Babylon 5’s rich blend of space opera built up momentum over each season, and by its third year was essential viewing for any SF fan. Plus, it also benefited massively from the growth of CGI effects, utilising computer graphics to render all the space sequences and many of the sets and locations (a technique George Lucas would perfect in the Star Wars prequels). Digital effects gave Babylon 5 a huge sense of scale on a TV budget, and meant it could produce thrilling space action sequences rivalling anything in Episode IV-VI.

Sadly, Straczynski’s ambitions got the better of him when a cancellation threat meant he had to wrap up the saga a year early- only to then unexpectedly get a fifth season after all, resulting in an aimless, overlong epilogue. While the show had its major ups and downs, it threw open the borders for what could be achieved on television, and left every serialised drama that followed seriously in its debt…


1: After completing the third season of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski became the first writer in history to ever have written an entire 22-episode run of a TV show on his own.

2: Actress Claudia Christian, who played Commander Susan Ivanova in the show, auditioned for the role of female Borg and eventual crew member Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager.

3: During the show’s original run, the design of the Star Fury fighters was actually borrowed by NASA for potential use as a combined forklift/tug vehicle on the International Space Station.

4: Ex Star Trek star Walter Koenig, aka Pavel Chekov, appeared frequently on the show as psi-cop Alfred Bester, named after the famed sci-fi author of classic novel ‘The Stars My Destination’.

Year Released: 1981
Director: Alan J.W. Bell
Starring: Peter Jones, Simon Jones, David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, Sandra Dickinson

Star Wars’ success back in 1977 opened all kinds of doors for different forms of sci-fi- but one of the very strangest was unleashed in the head of a then-struggling radio scriptwriter named Douglas Adams. In 1979, he was able to take an idea he’d had years previously in a field in Innsbruck- namely, why wasn’t there a Hitch Hiker’s guide for the galaxy?- and turn it into one of the most memorably weird radio series ever recorded, which was then adapted for television by the BBC in 1981

The story follows the permanently annoyed Arthur Dent (Simon Jones), as he’s rescued from the demolition of the Earth by his unexpectedly alien friend Ford Prefect (David Dixon) and taken on a surreal adventure across the cosmos. Cramming in discoveries like the importance of Towels, and the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything (which turns out to be 42), it’s a wildly unpredictable ride that uses most of the show’s original cast, and lets loose the full might of the BBC Special Effects department.

Admittedly, the end results of this are somewhat rickety, especially when it comes to two-headed, three-armed ex-President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Wing-Davey), whose animatronic second head spends most of the series lolling vacantly. While the sight of the early eighties Beeb trying to compete with Star Wars levels of spectacle is laughable at times, the show also fights back with plenty of inventive moments. Chief among these are the hilarious animated entries from the titular Guide, that are overloaded with the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail which left the pre-video audiences reeling in astonishment.

All the way through to the beautifully bleak finale, the show spins an absorbing spell, mainly thanks to Adams’ ceaseless imagination and utterly British world-view. The 2005 big-budget movie adaptation might easily trump it in the visual stakes, but it doesn’t quite capture the original’s stream-of-consciousness style, while the least said about the unnecessary romantic subplot, the better. For those wanting to sample Adams’ humour at 100% proof, the 1981 TV version is the way to go- just make certain you know exactly where your towel is…


1: The first episode was so expensive, the production was shut down for a time- resulting in a budget reduction, and the noticeable change in David Dixon’s hair from episode 2 onwards.

2: The Hitch-Hiker’s theme is a song called ‘The Journey of the Sorcerer” by Bernie Leadon. The radio series used a cover version by the Eagles, but it was re-recorded for television.

3: The character name Hotblack Desiato- used for the intergalactic rock star spending a year dead for tax reasons- is actually the name of a firm of Estate Agents in North London.

4: Douglas Adams appears several times during the series- in the pub near Arthur’s house, in several of the animations, and striding naked into the sea during one of the narration sequences.

Year Released: 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

In 1982, two aliens arrived on Earth. One of them was a shape-changing monstrosity that impersonated whatever it ate, and chowed its way through an Antarctic research team. The other was a squat, ugly, yet strangely adorable creature whose tastes were no more exotic than chocolate, sweets and beer. Guess which one earned £700 million at the box office?

The showdown between John Carpenter’s gruesome remake of The Thing and Steven Spielberg’s warmly emotional E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial might seem like an obvious result now, but back in 1982, things weren’t so clean cut. For Spielberg, E.T. was a bit of a risk- he might have bounced back from the major flop of 1941 with the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he still wasn’t quite the cinematic titan we know today, and a quiet tale of a boy and his alien hardly had ‘guaranteed box office smash’ written all over it.

The film actually began development after Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s success in 1977, with Spielberg keen to explore the darker side of aliens (a desire he finally achieve in 2005’s War of the Worlds). Night Skies was going to be a creepy tale of a group of evil extra-terrestrials stranded on Earth, and how they affect a normal suburban family- but as the idea progressed, it became something very different from the blockbusters that had made his name. Small-scale, mostly set in one house, and with almost all the lead roles played by children, it was something he looked on as a change of pace- and which he doubted would make that much money.

In fact, E.T.’s small scale is its biggest advantage, as Spielberg brought the weird and limitless world of sci-fi down to earth, and into the home. When the pug-ugly alien botanist misses his flight off Earth thanks to the arrival of pesky government officials, he’s forced to hide out with an ordinary, everyday family, befriending the young, lonely Elliot (Thomas), and Spielberg keeps the whole film from the kids’ perspectives. The only adult face seen onscreen for the first two thirds of the story is Dee Wallace as Elliot’s mother- and otherwise, the adults are faceless, menacing figures, mainly represented by Peter Coyote’s sinister investigator and his ever-jangling set of keys.

Even more affecting is that, despite his reputation for sentimentality, Spielberg doesn’t sugar-coat the setting of a post-divorce family. The kids swear, play with their Star Wars figures, call each other ‘Penis breath!’ and occasionally act like complete sods in a way that’s totally realistic. It’s also thanks to their believable reactions that we never doubt a collection of weird-looking animatronics is actually a living, breathing alien.

Drew Barrymore is fantastic and adorable in the role that made her a star at only seven years old (and led to some worryingly swift teenage stints in rehab), but the real star is Henry Thomas, who at ten years old pulls off the friendship Elliot develops with E.T. without once descending into cuteness. It’s that central relationship that made the film work, and which opened the door to previously unheard of box-office receipts- as well as a torrent of merchandising which briefly eclipsed Star Wars for sheer volume, and wasn’t truly outdone until the dawning of the mega-blockbuster with Batman in 1989.

A film sequel called ‘Nocturnal Fears’ was rumoured, which would have revolved around Elliot and his friends being kidnapped by aliens, and rescued by E.T., but saner minds prevailed as Spielberg realised lightning was unlikely to strike twice. He couldn’t however restrain himself from pulling a Lucas with the 20th Anniversary re-release, and not only using CGI to tidy up some of the creakier moments of the E.T. puppet, but also controversially swapping the police’s guns in the final chase sequence for the more politically correct alternative of walkie talkies. Whether in the original version or the spruced-up remix, however, E.T. still remains the pinnacle of warm-hearted, optimistic early Eighties SF filmmaking for which Star Wars opened the way, and one of the few films that can still reduce even the most stone-hearted cynic to complaining that there’s ‘something in their eye.’


1: Harrison Ford filmed a cameo appearance for E.T, and would have been the Principal at Elliot’s school, but Spielberg thought his presence would be too distracting and cut the scene.

2: The girl Elliot kisses in the school sequence (which references a scene from John Wayne movie The Quiet Man) is Erika Eleniak, who later starred in jiggle-heavy beach saga Baywatch.

3: Unlike most movie shoots, Spielberg shot the film in chronological order, in order to get the right kind of emotional reactions from the kids when they finally said goodbye to E.T.

4: The design concept for E.T.’s bizarre, elongated face was created by combining several photographs together- including poet Carl Sandberg, Relativity genius Albert Einstien, and a pug dog.

5: E.T.’s spacecraft was designed by famed conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, who was responsible for most of the pre-production art and visual designs on the original Star Wars trilogy.

6: The script was developed at Columbia Pictures, at the same time as another alien movie. Columbia wouldn’t make both, so they let E.T. go and made the considerably less successful Starman instead. Ooops…

7: Spielberg’s original idea for a family being terrorised by aliens ended up being recycled in the Spielberg produced Poltergeist, which was shot almost simultaneously with E.T.

8: E.T.’s voice was created by combining the voices of actresses Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment) and Pat Welsh, who’d been responsible for the voice of Boushh in Return of the Jedi.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
©Future Publishing 2007

Atom Bomb Blues – The Birth of the Watchmen (2009)

(Originally published in an SFX Special in 2009)

Remember ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ Remember how it was a gritty and realistic saga of superheroes in a world on the verge of nuclear apocalypse? Remember how the story started off with the murder of government-sponsored superhero the Peacemaker? Remember how it put a new spin on comic-book characters like the Blue Beetle, the Question, Thunderbolt, Captain Atom and Nightshade?

Of course, you don’t remember that. Like the alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still President, the classic comic miniseries Watchmen never actually happened that way – but it could have, very easily. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking saga has been a landmark of quality for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t around, but Watchmen had humble beginnings, and there were many ways this influential classic could have gone in a very different direction.

In fact, it started life in the mid-Eighties simply as a way for legendarily hairy comics mastermind Moore to continue exploring his daring ideas for a different kind of superhero story. His incredible work on horror comic Swamp Thing had netted him awards and acclaim, but what he planned next was to team up with artist Dave Gibbons for a potentially challenging take on the classic superhero.

The basic starting point for Watchmen was the thought of playing with an entire superhero world – ideally using characters no longer being published – and treating them in a different and much more realistic way; subverting rather than following the usual rigid superhero continuity imposed by the big comics publishers. It was an idea that meshed with what Moore had already achieved with radical Brit superhero saga Marvelman (first published in 1982, and also known (for very complicated copyright-related reasons) as Miracleman), where he’d taken a familiar character and pushed it in a new and often shocking direction.

Soon, Moore had a loose concept for his story: one member of a superhero team would die, and the whodunnit mystery would allow him to explore interesting aspects of the superhero equation. And what was best was that it didn’t matter exactly which characters they used, as long as they were familiar. Instead of the usual super-powered action, this would be a tale *about* superheroes, and the emotional resonance and nostalgia of familiar characters would give the story a sense of shock and surprise when the reality of their world became clear.

At least, that was the theory – and after initially considering a team of heroes called the Mighty Crusaders (first published by MLJ / Archie comics), Moore eventually found a firmer structure when DC offered him the chance to use characters originally published by Charlton Comics – the rights were now owned by DC, they weren’t being published and were potentially ripe for reinvention. Moore and Gibbons leapt into action, and it’s here that the Watchmen alternate version ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ came together.

Thanks to most of the proposal being printed in the 1988 Graphitti Hardback edition of Watchmen (and reprinted in 2005’s Absolute Edition), we can get an idea of how ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ would have looked – and at first glance, the two projects are pretty similar in both plot and characterisation.

Each Watchmen cast member has their predecessor in the Charlton Comics heroes, and out of all of them, it’s the Question (who’d eventually become Rorschach) and the Blue Beetle (Nite Owl) who are closest to their Watchmen counterparts. The Blue Beetle is actually the oldest of all the characters, first seeing publication in 1939, and was always planned to be the most empathetic and human of Moore’s group, a Batman-style inventor and crime-fighter who’s sometimes aided by the powers of a mystic scarab.

Moore even worked the fact that there had been a previous Blue Beetle into the story (leading to the creation of Hollis Mason, the 1940s-era Nite Owl), while he also stayed close to the source material when dealing with the Question. One of the more distinctive characters created by famed comics artist Steve Dikto, he was a frequently ruthless crime-fighter who used an artificial skin known as ‘psuedoderm’ to render himself literally faceless.

Despite being a toned-down version of a previous Dikto character, the independently published Mr A, the Question is still a much darker, more extreme superhero, and Dikto’s right-wing beliefs in moral absolutes often came across very strongly in his Question stories. Moore’s own outlook was very different, but the uncompromising portrayal of the ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ version of the Question (and eventually Rorschach) owed just as much to Steve Dikto’s politics as it did to his characters.

Another cast member superficially close to his counterpart was Thunderbolt, who’d soon become Watchmen’s Ozymandias. Orphaned and raised in a Himalayan lamasery, Thunderbolt was both physically and mentally powerful, able to access the unused portions of his brain – but while Moore finally cast him as the ultimate villain of the piece, things got sketchier when it came to some of the other characters.

Destined to die at the story’s opening, the Peacemaker was a pacifist diplomat so committed to peace that he decided to fight corrupt warlords and dictators as a costumed superhero (with the splendidly ridiculous tagline – “A man who loves peace so much that he is willing TO FIGHT FOR IT!!”). Moore’s plans didn’t go much further than him being a patriotic superhero who stumbled across a shocking secret that led to his death, and this version was a long way from his Watchmen replacement, the Comedian.

Things were even looser when it came to Nightshade (soon to be Silk Spectre) – Moore basically admits in the proposal that “she’s the one I know least about and have least ideas on”, and the only firm detail set down was that the US Senator’s daughter with mysterious, shadow-based superpowers would be Captain Atom’s only emotional link to the world.

However, it was with Captain Atom, the direct predecessor of Doctor Manhattan, that the project’s real potential became clear. The original Captain Atom was a fairly clichéd nuclear-powered hero, a military official transformed by an accident that gave him a selection of nuclear-related powers – but Moore’s idea was to tackle what being an immensely powerful superhero would do to a person, and to the world around him. A distant and emotionally isolated character, the Captain Atom of ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ pointed to the depths the project would reach, as well as being definitively unlike any superhero who’d come before.

If ‘Who Killed the Peacemaker?’ had been given the go-ahead at this point, it would have been an interesting, gritty bit of superhero intrigue. However, so much of what made Watchmen unique was the detail around the characters, the way they transcended their origins and went in unexpected directions – developments that might not have happened if Moore and Gibbons had stuck with their ‘remixes’ of the Charlton characters.

As it turned out, though, things went very differently. The proposal was submitted, but DC’s reaction was a polite “No”. They liked the idea, but didn’t want to leave the Charlton characters in a state where they were either dead, or so psychologically messed-up that they wouldn’t be usable.

This could have been the moment where everything came to a screaming halt – but instead it became the turning point for the Project Soon To Be Known As Watchmen. Intially unsure that brand new characters could achieve the same emotional effect as established ones, Moore finally realised if he used the Charlton characters as a loose basis, he could still tap into the sense of familiarity and nostalgia he was aiming to both use and subvert.

On top of that, severing the links with the Charlton originals meant the story was now completely self-contained – and one of Watchmen’s ultimate strengths is that unlike many ferociously complex superhero mythologies, it doesn’t require any outside knowledge.

The proposal was reworked from the ground up, with the Charlton characters morphing into their new versions – and as they did so, the breadth and scale of the project started to increase. Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, and his quantum-related powers became even stranger, leading to the ambitiously structured time-hopping chapter “Watchmaker”. The Peacemaker transformed into the brutal, morally ambiguous Comedian, while the world of the story started getting more complex, and the characters became deeper.

Bolder experiments started to happen – like the Tales of the Black Freighter pirate storyline that mirrored the main plot, and the symmetrical design of issue 5’s chapter ‘Fearful Symmetry’. It was all adventurous, groundbreaking stuff, but at best, Moore and Gibbons were hoping to carry off a daring piece of storytelling. What they weren’t expecting was to transform the comic book industry forever…

Over twenty years on, and Watchmen has had a truly gigantic effect. Even more than Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it’s the title that kicked off the ‘graphic novel’ revolution – it proved comics could be just as legitimate and adult an art form as any other, and its intelligent, multi-layered approach to characterisation and storytelling has been felt in countless titles ever since.

Unfortunately, it also unleashed a torrent of two-dimensional copycats, with every other superhero title embracing ‘grim and gritty’ for over a decade, and comics suddenly being crammed full of shocking violence and near-psychotic costumed avengers. Even today, despite occasional stone-cold classics like The Ultimates and All-Star Superman, there’s the sense that superheroes are still trapped in the shadow of what Moore and Gibbons achieved.

Maybe it’s not beyond belief that some enterprising writer-artist team will one day achieve a superhero tale that goes way beyond Watchmen – but Moore and Gibbons have certainly given them a hell of an act to follow…