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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

HubrisWeen Day 17: The Quatermass Conclusion (1978)

Written by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Piers Haggard

John Mills:  Professor Bernard Quatermass
Simon MacCorkindale:  Joe Kapp
Barbara Kellerman:  Clare Kapp
Ralph Arliss:  Kickalong

Professor Quatermass is one of those characters whose time appears to have come and gone; in the fifties he was the hero of three BBC serials that were turned into movies by Hammer Studios but now his name is barely recognized, even by fans of vintage science fiction. It doesn't help that at least in the States, the movies are long out of print on DVD and go for extortionate prices on the secondary market (though Warner Archives has a burn-on-demand disc of the first one now, which is great because it's regular price and horrible because if you like it enough to want to see the sequels you're going to spend a lot of money). Or resort to completely legitimate downloads of the material, I guess, but I'm enough of a square that I don't find that an acceptable alternative.

Today's film was produced by Thames Television and released on disc in Region 1 by A&E, who never met a British television production they didn't like. And thank goodness, because among other things I'd already reviewed Q:  The Winged Serpent and horror movies starting with this letter are pretty thin on the ground. Quatermass Conclusion is the cut-down-from-four-hourlong-episodes story intended for non-UK theatrical release; while searching for the poster image for this review I didn't find anything in English so it appears that the film didn't make that big a splash in its cinema release. At least in America, all of the films in the series were released with titles that didn't even mention the hero's name; The Creeping Terror, Enemy from Space and Five Million Years to Earth replaced The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass 2 and Quatermass and the Pit. Honestly, that was probably a good business decision in the fifties--look to John Carter for one possible box office result when you have a character that the audience hasn't heard of listed in the title of a science fiction movie.

I'm of two minds of this movie. There are some plot elements that don't make a huge amount of sense and the backstory can be summed up uncharitably as "all you kids stop playing loud music and listen to older people because they're smarter than you", but there are also some amazing images and an uncompromisingly bleak British SF ending. I was willing to take the goofy and reactionary with the Lovecraftian and chilling, but I'm a fan of the character and I've always taken my science fiction with a side of "from this point, things can only get better at great cost".

I should probably explain who Bernard Quatermass is at this point, right?  He's considered the essential science-fiction hero of the fifties in Britain; in the original three stories he was the head of the British Rocket Group, planning space exploration in the aftermath of the second world war. The first attempt to put an English crew in orbit leads to the death of two astronauts and the posession of the third by an alien parasite that will explode into infectious spores that will infect other people and continue the cycle until human life is extinguished on Earth. Quatermass manages to electrocute the monster before it can infect London, saving the world.

The second film features the discovery of a race of alien parasites mind-controlling politicians and industrialists to destroy mankind and colonize the Earth (and the people taken over by the alien intelligence are marked by black oil somewhere on their body; this is utterly different from the seasons-long plotline on "The X-Files" in that it was British and smart). Quatermass manages to end this threat as well, poisoning the aliens with Earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere and launching a rocket to destroy their orbiting asteroid base.

The third movie starts with the alien colonization attempts long finished, and the entire human race as the end result. We have been the monsters all along. A long-buried Martian spacecraft starts to transmit a psychic signal that drives people to attack each other, purging weak and substandard humans from the species in repetition of commands from the long-vanished masters of the proto ape men that lived on Earth when the Martians first arrived. Again, Quatermass disrupts the threat and saves the world from spiraling anarchy.

The thing that makes the British movies so compelling to me is that the hero is in a worse situation in each film; Quatermass goes from being the head of the British Rocket Group to a forward-looking scientist whose plans for moon bases are ignored by the government (and stolen by the alien conquerors, who adapt his designs to make a domed city that can support them while they're on Earth). In the third film the military takes over the Rocket Group and he's demoted. The man who saved the earth three times isn't important enough to reward with medal, a title or even a promotion. His fortunes have declined by the fourth movie to the point where he is essentially a hermit ignoring the rest of the world while it goes to hell, bitter over lost opportunities and full of regrets from a life poorly spent. Remember--this is a man who saved every human life on the planet three times over, and he thinks it was a complete waste of effort from the thanks that he got and the civilization that he preserved.

The film starts with a voiceover explaining that all the cultures of Earth have sickened towards anarchy and dissolution as the camera pans over a wrecked and garbage-strewn London street at night. A taxi (with steel grates over every window and the grill and NO CASH CARRIED spraypainted on the sides) drops off an elderly man with an upper-class accent; the working-class driver says he can't get any farther and leaves without collecting a cent. His passenger continues on down the street towards his destination till a trio of hippies steal his briefcase and beat him down. The intervention of a passing armored-up van driver drives his assailants off and it turns out both men are headed for a television studio for an on-air interview.

Chatting with Joe Kapp, his rescuer, Quatermass reveals that he's withdrawn from the world as it spasms its way towards the end; he lives near a loch in the west of Scotland and hasn't been paying attention to any of the conditions in London (or any other big city; Paris and Rotterdam are said to be handling the crisis worse than London is, and there are literally bodies lying in the streets outside the BBC studio). What's Quatermass doing getting ready for a TV interview if he's content to sit by a lake and let the world go insane? He's looking for his granddaughter, who was staying with him after her parents died. She ran away and the professor is willing to use his old notoriety in order to reach a wide audience and hopefully get information on her whereabouts.

Quatermass decides to burn every possible bridge during his interview (which coincides with a joint US-Soviet space mission), lambasting both superpowers as corrupt and diseased entities sickening the smaller nations of the world through mere proximity and direct influence. The only reason he agreed to the interview at all was to get his granddaughter's picture on the screen and hope that someone in the audience could help him find her. Seconds after Quatermass finishes his tirade, the space lab breaks apart and kills everyone on board; he and Kapp flee the studio and for lack of any better alternatives, Quatermass joins the other scientist at his radio-telescope observatory.

On the way there, they encounter a group of hippies that Kapp refers to as "Planet People", who expect to be magically whisked away to a better world. Quatermass asks them if they've seen his granddaughter (they ignore him at first, then accuse him of being a cop). Once the lines of communication are open they try to school him on the ethics of the old British Rocket Group, accusing him of tearing holes in the skin of the world with his old research. Kapp sensibly but angrily points out that any other planet in the solar system would kill them instantly even if they got there, and that the rockets they hate would take hundreds of millenia to reach the nearest conceivable planet with a biosphere that wouldn't murder them. They wander off in a pack, chanting "ley" over and over and following a signal that their leader can apparently detect with a plumb-bob on a chain.

Clare Kapp, Joe's wife, turns out to be a professional-caliber archaeologist in a world that's burnt all its museums and libraries; for her own enlightenment and practice she's been conducting a dig on a burial mound off in the countryside near the two radio telescopes that Joe and his team maintain. Of interest to both Clare and to a roving pack of Planet People is Ringstone Round, a circle of standing stones that date back centuries at the very least. Joe and his astronomy team try to frighten the wanderers off. His wife persuades him to let them go to the stone circle and with nobody trying to smash up his equipment or interfere with his science, Joe relents. And when the Planet People get to the stone circle, two things happen:  First, they push past the riot police that are intent on keeping them out of the circle (the only one who manages to get them to shut up is Quatermass, who loudly agrees with their beliefs that the world is poisoned and poisonous); second, a beam of light cascades down from the sky and strikes the Planet People in the stone ring, leaving behind hundreds of pounds of fine white ash scattered on the ground.and drifting on the breeze. They left the planet, all right, but only Kickalong, the leader of this mob of Planet People, thinks they made it to their alien paradise. Everyone else on the scene can smell the powdered human remains on the wind and they arrive at a different conclusion.

Back at the observatory, Kapp's team starts examining their data to see what they can determine about the attack. The remnants of the British government try to contact Professor Quatermass--he thinks they're going to have him killed on suspicion of sabotaging the space mission earlier, but instead they want to know what he can do about the attack. It's far too soon for anyone to have noticed the beam of light incinerating the kids at Ringstone Round, and instead the government functionary shows news footage of the aftermath of a gathering of children at a stone circle in Brazil. Twelve thousand children were vaporized by the physics-defying heat weapon (my interpretation is that the alien intelligences are feeding on the agony of everyone being burned to death, but the film doesn't come down on the side of this hypothesis, or indeed any other one). All that Quatermass has to do now is figure out what's going on despite his years of seclusion and inactivity, then marshal the dwindling resources of a world that is dying by inches in order to stop it. A tall order indeed, and one that requires him to stop looking for the one person in the world that got him out of his seclusion to save...

I truly love this movie. I actually prefer it at 102 minutes than to the four-hour miniseries, possibly because it's the Good Bits snipped from the other version's full length and therefore full of incident and action. I appreciate and enjoy how alien the menace is, and how little the characters and the viewer learn about their intentions or methods even while figuring out how to spoof it and strike back. The budget was high enough to spring for film stock and location shooting, so it plays at least a little like a high-budget Doctor Who episode where a really smart person has to defeat an interdimensional menace--just one where the humans have to fix their own problems without the intercession of a time-traveling benevolent alien.

Yes, there's a certain amount of "you kids get off my lawn" to Nigel Kneale's script, but he also points out that the Planet People and the rioters are victims of the early effects of the attack, unnoticed at the time as anything but an increase in aggression and violence worldwide. I also prefer to think that the use of hippies instead of punks as a countercultural threat is the fault of the Thames TV executives rather than Nigel Kneale--at a time when the Pistols and Clash were selling hundreds of thousands of copies of the Daily Sun with their calculated provocations I have to think that Kneale would have been thinking of them and their followers more than the counterculture of the previous decade. And Kickalong, the head of the Planet People, is dressed more in line with the 1970s idea of a rebel against societal norms--leather pants and studded wristbands instead of caftans and face painting. Another thing to admire is the sheer scope of the production--seeing Wembley Stadium absolutely empty and covered with ash after another harvest strikes a deep chord with the viewer, at least partly because the amount of effort and inconvenience that went into getting that brief sequence of shots pays off in the scope and scale of the threat.

The way Quatermass goes about fighting the threat is another joy to behold--he goes from a cranky old man angry at the world to an avenging force of rationality after the first attack. I prefer to think that the transformation of his personality was an inspiration for Clint Eastwood for his performance in Unforgiven, and given that Eastwood was the Big Damn Spider killer in Tarantula it's at least possible that he kept up with his science fiction viewing on his own time. When it's time to figure out a plan to defend the world, Quatermass leaps into action as only a man no longer capable of leaping can do. He compiles all the information he can about the attacks, from radio telescope data to centuries-old nursery rhymes about the stone circle at Ringstone Round. His action team, made up of scientists in their sixties and older (they're less vulnerable to the alien lemming signals) is another quiet delight of the film; since this project was completed, most world-saving alien fighters have been under 30 in the movies. It's a rare pleasure to see some grownups take on the big jobs in the realm of fiction.

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