Friday, 22 October 2010

What a howler!

Dr Strangelove, Mary Poppins, A Fistful of Dollars. and Onibaba; 1964 was not a bad year for movies. It also spawned one of my favourite childhood films: Charles H Schneer’s First Men in the Moonpenned by Quatermass creator, Nigel Kneale, based on HG Wells’ classic novel. It’s no surprise then, that similarly-aged-to-me Extraordinary Gentleman and sci-fi and horror fan, Mark Gatiss, when offered, grasped the opportunity to remake the adventure tale for the BBC. But, as Stan Lee said, speaking through Uncle Ben’s mouth, "With great power comes great responsibility."

The thing is, Schneer's movie is brilliant. Not only did Kneale cleverly adapt the book for a film audience by bookending the Victorian main story betwen a 1964 moon-landing, Professor Cavor was played by genius character actor Lionel Jeffries. It’s worth remembering too, that the film was made five years before Neil Armstrong clogged his soles with moondust, so some of the lunar surface scenes were fairly impressive. And with the news that the Moon may be lined with silver, the prospecting idea of the story holds up well.

The original love story upon which Wells based his novel (

The 2010 version starts in beautifully muted 1960s tones, when little Jim loses his parents at a summer fete on July 20th, 1969. He enters a tent promising ‘extraordinary kinematic delights!’ to find a bitter, elderly gentleman, Julius Bedford (Rory Kinnear), who claims that he was not only the first man on the moon, but the first man in the moon. He regales the lad with the tale of the time he first met Professor Cavor (Mark Gatiss), a throat-warbling scientific investigator, seventy years earlier who is on the verge of an Earth-shattering discovery.

Cavor demonstrates his gravity defying substance (cavorite) to Bedford who sees the business potential, and they set about building a sphere that, once painted in cavorite, will take them to the Moon. Once on the Moon, they discover a thin atmosphere and a race of Moon-dwellers that Cavor names Selenites, all recorded by Bedford on his kinematograph.

"No Greedo, I won't pay you; I brought a can of Raid with me." (

Gatiss has blended the bookended plot and some of the design elements of Schneer’s movie, while staying reasonably failthful with Wells’ book. Somehow,however, the charm of both has been lost with this version. The pacing of the story was dull from start to finish, each scene strolling into the next with no real sense of drama. Kinnear, with his RSC experience, came across as an earnest, but rather unsympathetic Bedford, but Gatiss played Gatiss with a fine set of lamb chops on his face. He is no Lionel Jeffries. There was never a sense of adventure, nor even danger.

Tellingly, there was a complete failure of plausible impossibilities; the ultimate no-no of sci-fi. The sphere was no match for the 1964 model, with a particularly flimsy structure (just look at Victorian engineering) and not decorated for the 'posh posh travelling life', and oh what fun could have been had with filling Cavor’s ceiling with gravity-less objects. The reused explanation (from the novel) of how the Earth’s atmosphere would be ‘peeled off like a banana skin’ should a plate of cavorite be left to do it’s business is utter tripe, and Cavor’s correction of Pythagoras’ theorem was stated incorrectly. It gets worse: the idea that ten days on the Moon feel like two on Earth doesn’t make sense, and neither does the very Earthlike running and falling when escaping the Selenites, nor the proximity of the Sun to the Moon during Bedford's escape.

"When I grow up, I want to be a scientific investigator." (

More? The English-speaking Selenite reminded me somehow of Jar Jar Binks (and if that doesn't send a shiver up your spine...), and how the hell did Bedford end up just a few miles from where he started after travelling an unpropulsioned, satnavless 250,000 miles. Finally, what was that Selenite doing on the Moon in 1969, and how was he breathing seeing how his atmosphere had been peeled off like a banana seventy years previous? A nod to Apollo 11’s ‘1202’ warning on the Moon approach, and the clever use of the greedy man at the end to lose the sphere are not enough to save the day.

There may be those who haven’t seen the 1964 version, or come from the Russell T Davies school of ‘it’s only sci-fi, so who cares if it doesn’t make sense’ and will have enjoyed this romp. But, the facts are that the characters were paper-thin, the acting iffy, the action lame, and the credibility AWOL. The League of Gentlemen remains one of my favourite TV series, and Dr Chinnery, and Mickey are brilliant characters, but Gatiss has shown his limitations with this effort. He should think twice about making another vanity project.

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