Some time in the early 1980s, when I was about eight years old, my primary school teacher would gather the class into the one room that had a TV and we'd watch the BBC's schools programming so she could have a snooze or a gin or whatever it was she did when nobody was looking. These programmes were usually about dorky kids having humdrum adventures, and were frequently interrupted every five minutes so that an annoying puppet could teach us how to use apostrophe's.
The above recollection is based entirely on some reading I did about BBC shools programming last week; personally, I don't remember any of those programmes at all. Except for one. One of them is seared into the deepest, darkest crevice of my cerebral cortex and comes for me in my most vulnerable moments, because it is literally the most terrifying thing I have ever clapped eyes on. It was called The Boy From Space, and after thirty-something years of me trying to forget it, the BFI are about to unleash it on the world in DVD format.
As a grown man who is definitely still in his thirties, I decided to face my nightmares head on and watch The Boy From Space again, in the hope that it might make me realise how silly it is to fear a kids' programme made before I was born. That hope was futile; within fifteen minutes I had assumed the foetal position and was rocking back and forth in my chair and calling for my mum.
As well as the ten-part, 200-minute-long series (including interrupting puppet waffle), the BFI's new release of The Boy From Space includes a 70-minute edit of the whole story that strips out all the punctuation and grammar lessons and presents the story as a feature-length sci-fi drama. It's the best way to watch it (unless you can't punctuatify or grammarise properly), and enormoprops to Peter Stanley at the BFI for a sterling editing job. Although having had to watch it over and over again I imagine he's now locked in a special home for the terminally disturbed.
The story concerns two irritating siblings, Dan and Helen, who are keen amateur stargazers. There's a bunch of guff about telescopes and astronomy, in an attempt to teach young viewers about the boring mechanics of staring into space, and then the programme forgets all that and takes a turn for the utterly mental. Searching an empty quarry (a favourite location of 1970s BBC filmmakers), Dan and Helen hear a mysterious sound: a squeaky, squelchy, backwardsy noise that triggered all sorts of palpitations when I heard it again. Before they can investigate, a car pulls up, and THIS GUY gets out of it and chases the kids for no apparent reason.
Hope this is the right image, I had my eyes screwed up in fear when I uploaded it
"The Thin Man", as they call him (rather than the more accurate "The Embodiment Of All That Is Unholy And Evil"), haunted my nightmares for WEEKS as a child. When I went to sleep I would have to clear a path from the bed to the door, so that when I turned the light off at the switch by the door I could leg it back into bed as quickly as was humanly possible so The Thin Man didn't get me. The fucker was TERRIFYING. Not only did he look like that, but he spoke by just holding his mouth open, and sounds not of this earth would fall out. Also he walked in slow motion: not slowly as such, but the film was slowed down just enough to make it look unnatural without an eight-year-old audience knowing exactly how. Why would you do that to a child?
But worse was to come. After The Thin Man gives up the chase (also for no apparent reason), Dan and Helen discover the source of the mysterious sound. A boy, maybe ten years old, appears and moves unsteadily towards the children. With white hair and a silvery complexion, he looks like the result of a carnal meeting between Game Of Thrones' Joffrey and one of the aliens from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The look on his face is one of abject terror and helplessness, and as he stumbles towards the camera, arms outstretched, I genuinely felt more unsettled and anxious than at any point during Under The Skin. I mean look at this:
nope NOPE NOPE
The facial expressions and gestures that young actor Colin Mayes employs in his role as the unearthly child - irritatingly called Peep-Peep by the kids, as if he's a cuddly toy rather than an absolute living dreadmonger - are remarkable, and are almost certainly to blame for my reaction as both boy and man. The programme itself, I discovered upon rewatching, is also responsible for my lifelong distrust of observatories and deserted quarries.
The rest of The Boy From Space plods on predictably and, obviously, somewhat childishly; writer Richard Carpenter claimed he was restricted to the first 200 words of the English language (although I didn't hear anyone say "aardvark", which is the third word in my Collins Gem dictionary). But it doesn't get any less deeply creepy, and for all of these reasons I can't see that I'll ever put myself through it again. Just posting the pictures in this blog post has made me clench my nethers out of extreme anxiety.
Available from today, it will almost certainly appear completely benign, if not downright silly, to any fully-formed adult who hasn't seen it before. But anyone similarly afflicted by its distressing approach to educating children will be hard-pressed to resist a curious revisit. Don't hold me responsible for what it does to you though, my dry-cleaning bill is big enough.
For a few minutes towards the beginning of Lucy, you might start asking some questions. Like, as Scarlett Johansson's helpless heroine is drawn into a trap that will result in her unwillingly smuggling a pouch of drugs inside her guts, why does director Luc Besson keep cutting away to shots of gazelles being stalked by leopards? I mean, the parallels are obvious, but really, why? What motivates a director to do something like that? What's the point?
Ninety minutes later you'll piss yourself at the thought that you ever questioned something so insignificant, because as Lucy barrels towards its brain-liquifying climax, the last thing you should be doing is asking questions. Besson requires you to let go of the armrests of your comfy cinema seat and allow yourself to be sucked into the maddest final act in mainstream cinema this summer, and if it doesn't make a jot of sense then you're not really entering into the spirit of things.
Don't worry about it. It's all fine.
As the unfortunate student who finds herself miraculously accessing the previously dormant 90% of her brainpower after the aforementioned narcotics leak into her system, Johansson gets her money's worth out of her Under The Skin performance. She becomes a stone cold killer, blowing away gangsters and trashing cars in Paris streets with the same emotionless demeanour with which she cruised Glasgow in Jonathan Glazer's equally crackers (but for different reasons) sci-fi horror. It's actually a bit of a shame she couldn't have been allowed to have more fun with the role, because it really is completely fucking ludicrous.
As her powers increase exponentially, she goes from ex-drug mule to X-Man, then all of the X-Men in one, then she's Neo from The Matrix, no hang on Bradley Cooper in Limitless, erm Arnold Rimmer in that episode of Red Dwarf where he downloads a genius into his mind and operates two computers at once wait a minute now she's Akira's Tetsuo no I mean Dave Bowman at the end of 2001 no now she's God and even Morgan Freeman can't get his head round it. And to think you actually gave a shit about those wildlife cutaways.
"Sorry, can you... can you start again? I lost you
when you grew an extra hand for some reason."
Considering all the madness on display, Lucy is occasionally a little po-faced, and it suffers from the invincibility of its heroine; where's the threat against someone who can manipulate space and time without getting a hair out of place? And considering her powers are apparently limitless, Lucy often fails to do the bleeding obvious simply because it's not convenient for the plot at that point. Still, by the time you get to the space-spunk and the dinosaurs it's absolutely futile to argue with what you're seeing. You're better off just devoting what's left of your mental capacity to soaking up the bonkers and praying they never make Lucy Reloaded.
I finally caught up with Guardians Of The Galaxy, the fourth and penultimate film in what I alarmingly find myself referring to as Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as if I'm some kind of comic book movie geek hahaha. Remember when Guardians was announced and we were all like, "a Marvel film set in space with a talking raccoon and a sentient tree, how's THAT gonna work?" as if Phase One, with its Norse gods and interdimensional aliens, was somehow the height of social realism? Well now it feels to me like the real question we should have been asking is "what if it's just not very good?", because then I could have prepared myself better for the fact that, well, it's just not very good.
To be fair, it's nowhere near as catastrophic as Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk. It motors along with impressive momentum, kicked off by a Raiders Of The Lost Ark-y opening and fuelled by the spirit of Star Wars, with its likeable heroes thrown together and pitted against the forces of darkness through no desire of their own. That's about all it takes from the original Star Wars trilogy though; Guardians appears, ill-advisedly, to more thoroughly plunder the prequel trilogy for its roster of unconvincing CG environments and convoluted plotting.
An episodic jaunt through a series of interchangeable fights and confusing aerial battles, Guardians Of The Galaxy isn't afraid to bust out the old stop-the Macguffin-falling-into-the-hands-of-the-enemy plot, and it attempts to cover the fact that you've seen this story dozens of times by introducing an over-abundance of secondary characters. If you can keep up with all the players mentioned in the first act then you're doing well, especially when many of them are either suspiciously similar to each other, almost entirely without motivation or just plain extraneous.
Two minutes of screen time is still enough to warrant your own character poster.
Even some of the leads struggle to make their mark: Drax The Destroyer is just a strong man, whose habit of taking everything anyone says literally is a wasted opportunity for potential shenanigans, while Zoe Saldana's Gamora feels like she should be far more untrustworthy, duplicitous and therefore interesting than she ends up being. Only Bradley Cooper's permanently-enraged Rocket, the talking raccoon, comes close to any kind of existential introspection; it's not that the film requires Bergmanesque levels of navel gazing, it's just that we barely get under the skin, fur or bark of anyone. Chris Pratt's rogueish Peter Quill is merely Han Solo-lite, and Groot, the sentient tree, is literally a wooden Chewbacca.
Its tongue is planted squarely in its cheek, and it's comfortably aware of its own ridiculousness, but Guardians Of The Galaxy isn't nearly as funny or clever as it thinks it is. The one-liners are weak, the gags half-hearted, and the one joke aimed high above the heads of the younger audience - i.e. it's about semen - is in incongruously dubious taste. And when it reaches its inevitably overblown finale, Guardians commits the cardinal sin of making up its own rules to explain away the ending, and it's hard not to feel a little cheated. It's not even as if you can take any especially memorable scenes or moments away with you, because there aren't any.
Although the bit where this extra reveals her
true feelings towards Glenn Close is quite good.
How much any of this will impact on next summer's reassembling of the Avengers remains to be seen. Despite a run of below-par entries, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still coasting on enough goodwill from Phase One to ensure the success of Phase Two's grand finale. But while Joss Whedon made surprisingly impressive lemonade from some of the lemons he was handed last time round; one can only hope he's stocked up on sugar over the last few years because, Iron Man Three excepted, this batch of the MCU is beginning to turn a little too sour.