Skip to main content

This cannot be the Rhondda Valley.

At the Earth’s Core
(1976)

(SPOILERS) It’s worth making the most basic of compare-and-contrasts between this cheep and cheerful Amicus follow up to their reasonably successful 1974 Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation The Land that Time Forgot (which also happens to be reasonably decent) and the subsequent year’s game-changer Star Wars. Because while a slew of cheap and cheerful Star Wars rip-offs would follow that wouldn’t look so out of place in At the Earth’s Core’s company, George Lucas’ movie instantly relegated this kind of picture to the status of a dinosaur (or Mahar).

I enjoyed the movie when I first saw it on TV, of course (my guess would have been its 1980 BBC premiere). Not nearly as much as The Land that Time Forgot, which really fired my young imagination. But still. It had dinosaurs… okay, Mahars… And a giant drill breaking through to a land in the centre of the Earth… that looked the spit of a studio set exotically set off beneath multi-coloured lighting gels. And it had Peter Cushing… And also Troy, I mean Doug McClure. The latter’s curious tenure as a British American movie star – as if Bob Hope decided to flex his muscles – lasted about half a decade, and one can only assume he was so prolific because he was dirt cheap. But McClure also seems right for these period pictures, and his pairing with Cushing makes for an effective mix and match.

Much as the monsters in At the Earth’s Core are entirely unconvincing men in suits – albeit using some of the same blue screen techniques as the Rancor in Return of the Jedi, just less effectively – it fares better in other areas. The steam-punk drill is really quite good, and if Kevin Connor’s far from the most versatile of directors, I rather like the cramped staging of the machine’s send-off, as if posed for a faded dusty Victorian photograph (and the cute ending, with the drill breaking surface on the White House lawn).

Cinematographer Alan Hume was no slouch, and if you’re never less than conscious of At the Earth’s Core’s set-bound realisation, it also has a suitably intense, sweaty lustre (Hume worked on everything from the Carry On films to The Avengers to Bond to the aforementioned Return of the Jedi). Mike Vickers’ score at times has the semblance of early John Carpenter, and some of the sound effects – the telepathic signals – could have been dropped seamlessly into Star Wars’ hugely innovative sound design.

Then there’s Peter Cushing, here playing the doddery, prat-falling daffy professor very broadly – it’s in the lineage of his earlier turn as Doctor Who in the two Amicus Dalek movies. Fast forward five months and he’s the cool, calculating evil core of Star Wars. You know, the one who orders his plodding black-clad minder about to do his dirty work. No one else makes much of an impression, which is a shame. There’s Keith Barron, who had also been in The Land that Time Forgot, and the adolescent’s fever dream that is Caroline Munro. In contrast to Land, which had German antagonists going for it too, there’s little in the way of engaging conflict here (the inner-Earth humans fortuitously speak English, but they’re a bland bunch, even the bad eggs).

Perhaps the presentation of the Mahars is a problem; since they’re telepathic, Connor communicates a sense of their sonic control of the Sagoths, but it’s all fairly basic and rudimentary. There’s a visualised disconnect in attempting a highly intelligent race – they have books and all in the novels – depicted as lumbering men in suits that would have embarrassed Tomoyuki Tanaka. Their most salient activity is decidedly bestial, showing off their hang-gliding skills in picking off human prey.

Then there are their Sagoth servants, nominally designated ape men but visualised with a curiously porcine aspect and a slightly dubious oriental quality. Of course, such racially suggestive aspects of the movie don’t seem altogether a bad fit for Burroughs, often identified as racist in disposition and finding good company with a “proud” rank of literary eugenicists, including Huxley, Wells and Lovecraft. He was also big on forced sterilisation, so he’d doubtless approve of the mass effect currently sweeping the globe. Not much of that is overly driving At the Earth’s Core, though. There are allusions to the Sagoth – “They seem a pretty subhuman species, and yet the master race” – that fit the bill, but screenwriter Milton Subotsky is also happy to mock assumed imperialist superiority (“You can’t hypnotise me! I’m British!”)

Also absent are some of Burroughs’ more intriguing ideas – time is subjective in Pellucidar – but that seems entirely in keeping with a movie featuring rugged Doug leading the way. Ray Bradbury had it that Burroughs was “probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world” but that’s a pretty big statement to quantify (his context was stimulating a whole generation of boys).

He certainly had a capacity for tapping the mythic and evocative, a strain that filtered and mixed and matched science (fiction) – life on other planets, most notably Mars – and the influence of the new spiritualism – lost continents, fabled ones beneath the Earth (but not flat ones; doubtless if he thought he could have made a mint, he’d have based a series on that too). And with an advance reptile race feeding on humans, perhaps he wasn’t so far from modern mutations of such concepts. As we’ve seen, attempts to bring his storytelling to a modern era have met with mixed results, requiring both revisionism to his attitudes – The Legend of Tarzan – and the realisation that his influence is so profoundly infused in stories since that a diligent adaptation could only be a little dated (the underrated John Carter).

My feeling is that Burroughs’ most mythically potent works – Pellucidar and Caspak – are the ones that ought to be looked to by any budding movie producers, as their subjects are relatively untapped in modern iterations. Perhaps because they are “scientifically” outmoded (really, that’s exactly why they represent fertile ground). Back when Burroughs was churning out his pulp, “The world may not be as we know it” was an entirely legitimate starting point. Now, with it ever-more pinned down and yet perversely less scrutinised, this may be the time to return to his imaginings.

Amicus had an adaptation of John Carter of Mars in the planning stages, but couldn’t make it happen, which is why they resorted to disappointing sequel The People that Time Forgot. It’s more the shame that some bright spark didn’t attempt to mount one of these Burroughs series with the kind of production values Lucas and Spielberg were flourishing at that time. Whether the reason is a lack of a sufficiently sympathetic filmmaker, or inherent datedness, these earlier works – and the likes of Flash Gordon, Alan Quatermain and Doc Savage – haven’t fulfilled their undoubted potential on the big screen.


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .