Quatermass and the Pit / Five Million Miles to Earth (1967) ****

Five million dollars.  That’s roughly the budgetary difference between Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit and Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage. Although the protagonists in the latter face the unexpected, the movie is (as would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) an exercise in awe, in controlled exploration of wonder, whereas Quatermass, lacking the money for special effects, concentrates more on story and human impact. The government funds the experiment in Fantastic Voyage while Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds nothing but obstruction from his superiors.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of stealthy exposition. Virtually every minute brings another development, gradually building tension, stoking fear. The principals – Dr Roney (James Donald), Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the professor – are cleverly kept apart during the early stages. A human skull discovered on a building site for a London Underground station is followed by a skeleton. Palaeontologist Roney determines it is five million years old, older than any previous find.

A metallic object is found nearby. First guess is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But it’s not ticking. And a magnet won’t stick to it. Col Breen (Julian Glover) is called in along with hostile rocket expert Quatermass. They have been locking horns from the outset.

There’s a whole bunch of apparent red herrings, mostly of the demonic variety. The location, historically associated with weird occurrences, is a nickname for the Devil. A pentagram is detected. Touching the object can give you frostbite. Col Breen argues it’s a leftover German propaganda machine from World War Two. A hideous dwarf and other spectral images are sighted. Telekinesis is involved. And tremendous vibrations.

Some people, such as Barbara, have a more receptive brain and can play memories millions of years old that reveal the alien truth. But this is an alien race with genocidal tendencies and able to unleash psychic energy.

The genre requires the scientists to discover an improbable solution which of course they do. Given the miserly budget, the special effects are not remotely in the Fantastic Voyage league. But that hardly matters. The movie coasts home on ideas, marrying sci-fi, the demonic, dormant and institutionalized evil, the militarization of the Moon and the ancient infiltration of Earth by Martians, no mean achievement, and a vivid narrative.

Director Roy Ward Baker (aka Roy Baker) provides many fine cinematic moments as he chisels away at the story, finding clever methods of revealing as much of the aliens as the budget will permit, focusing on very grounded characters, concentrating on conflict, and human emotions, mainlining fear rather than awe, building to an excellent climactic battle between man and monster.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the stars, in part because she is at such a remove from her normal Hammer scream-queen persona, but more importantly because she brings such screen dynamism to the role. It’s refreshing to see her step up, as she carries a significant element of the story. Oddlyenough, although she has as good a movie portfolio as Andrew Keir and is certainly superior to James Donald, the denoted star, in that department, she is only billed third.

While Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967), warm-hearted for an intellectual, and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963), trying to keep a cool head in the middle of inclination to panic, are good, they don’t bring anything we haven’t seen before. Julian Glover (Alfred the Great, 1969) is never anything but imperious and/or irascible, so ideal casting here.

The innovative electronic music was down to Tristram Cary and the unsettling credit sequence deserves some recognition. Nigel Kneale, who originally explored similar ideas for the character on television, came up with the screenplay.

Moonfall (2022) ***- Seen at the Cinema

Whether you enjoy the latest offering of Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 1996) depends very much on how you liked your sci-fi served up. If you require your characters to wear long robes, spout cod philosophy, use superpowers and exist in empires with deposed heirs and family conflict, and whose story cannot be told in one sitting, this may not be for you. Emmerich protagonists tend to be ordinary people, albeit of the planet-saving variety if push comes to shove, and in this case not only does he prioritize diversity but the two most courageous are the wrong shape for heroes.

Where his previous films have enjoyed a longer build-up before catastrophe or invasion, here we are almost straight into the action. The moon is out of orbit, the government wants to hush it up against the advice of senior scientist Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), but conspiracy theory geek K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) activates social media to send the world into panic. Into the mix comes disgraced astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and it falls to these three not to just save the world, but first save the moon in order to prevent Earth’s destruction. They are certainly not quick enough off the mark to stop tidal waves swamping Manhattan, a bombardment of moon debris, and assorted earthquakes and tectonic activity, and in a piece of sfx bravura a gigantic gravity wave.

The trio leave behind loved ones, who are basically left to their own devices to combat the onslaught of destruction. And that is in stark contrast to officials in high office who abandon their positions in order to head for the hills (literally). In one spicy exchange two generals who hold the keys to a nuclear weapon are divided over who to save. In the various sub-plots which all coalesce, the theme is character transition.

The trailer doesn’t give away the movie’s big secret and I’m not about to either but it’s a whopper as Emmerich tracks back to favored ruminations about Earth’s origins. You can chuck away Genesis and the Big Bang as he settles on a different explanation. There are nods to Ridley Scott and even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the end Emmerich ploughs his own path of originality. The second half is amazing and really lifts the picture.

One of the problems of science fiction movies is that virtually every one falls apart under micro examination. They are filled with plot holes and make up for lack of genuine characterization by having heroes plagued by preposterous villains and back stories that lack any sense. But who the hell cares?

Emmerich films tend to take a hammering because the hero is a close relative of Tom Hanks, the dependable guy whose life has gone a little awry but wants to make amends. Here, both Brian and Jo have family issues and make wrong decisions, both, in effect, abandoning their children for the greater good, and while that might seem to set up a series of sub plots it’s no different to any superhero picture where a beloved relative is put in harm’s way because  said superhero unleashes devastation in order to rein in the villain.

Emmerich could easily have anchored this with younger talent. Will Smith was in his late 20s when he starred in Independence Day. But going for older actors allows Emmerich more leeway with the family issues he brings to the fore. Nor do his disaster movies tend to top-bill a female star. That changes here with Oscar-winning Halle Berry (Bruised, 2020), who hasn’t had a hit in years, receiving a well-deserved career boost for a thoughtful role. Patrick Wilson, usually relegated to horror, also steps up.

John Bradley (Game of Thrones) is the wide-eyed geek who sees disaster as another name for adventure and as far removed from the clever-clogs Jeff Goldblum of Independence Day as you can get. Michael Pena (Fantasy Island, 2020) is the pick of the supporting roles. Donald Sutherland (The Hunger Games) has a cameo. Younger players worth a mention are Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World, 2017) and Wenwen Yu (Forever Passion, 2021) and

Admittedly, the dialogue is cheesy in places, occasionally overburdened with scientific gibberish, but that’s par for the course.

A good old-fashioned fun ride.  

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