Cornerhouse continues to live up to its reputation for pushing the cinematic envelope with its latest all-night screenings aimed at addressing cult followings of specific film genres. Following on from their hugely successful My Noir all-nighter last year is Insomniac Invasion, an eclectic smorgasbord of six sci-fi films. It’s an unashamed collection of the iconic and the downright obscure.

Judging by the healthy numbers who turned up, the local appetite for sci-fi is very healthy indeed. Cornerhouse’s offering, made possible by Film Hub NWC and the BFI, forms part of the BFI-wide sci-fi season Days of Fear and Wonder. It’s a hugely appropriate title given that the Cornerhouse event was staged over the night of 15 to 16 November, at the end of a week which culminated in the audacious achievement of European scientists landing the Rosetta camera probe on a comet. It really doesn’t get more sci-fi than that.

Given that it took 25 years to plan, including a 10-year journey of 20 million miles, I sincerely hope that the plot of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, the first film of the night, takes considerably longer to become reality. However, once again seeing his emotionless, unrelenting quest for his mother in a time warp mix of future and past made me realise how elements of the film – in particular his reliance on a phone book for tracking down where she lives – gave an unsettling glimpse into our lives today, now that we are so visibly traceable thanks to Google Maps and our mobile phones. Never has Arnie’s iconic promise to the hapless police receptionist seemed so menacing. “I’ll be back,” indeed.

And so to Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla which, despite using film technology 30 years younger than that available to James Cameron in Terminator, created a truly harrowing sceptre of a prehistoric monster wreaking death and destruction on the Pacific island of Odo. The discovery of radioactive footprints and fossils by a team of palaeontologists sets up the key narrative to a story which, for Japanese audiences at least, must have provided some much-needed catharsis after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The investigative premise of the film, namely that sustained nuclear testing programmes in the Pacific Ocean unleashed a destructive monster on Japan and its people, shows how sci-fi presents fictional possibilities with almost plausible raisons d’être for very pressing modern realities. At its very basic level, Godzilla is a metaphor for the monstrosity of nuclear war, which is in itself a sci-fi apocalyptic nightmare.

I’m no sci-fi buff, but I was reliably informed that the screening of Czechoslovakian director Jan Schmidt’s Late August at the Hotel Ozone was a rare event. Presenting a barren, bleak and cold post-apocalyptic world, this visceral and frankly depressing film was unrelenting in its dystopian take on a new world. The population is a small troupe of wild women survivors who are led around a forest by a mistress – born before the undetermined apocalyptic event – until they eventually stumble upon a lone man in a derelict hotel. The generation gap between the young women, born post-apocalypse, and their leader, who retains memories of the past, provides inevitable metaphors for the old order and the new hopefuls clutching to the prospect of a brighter future. Given the tense political landscape during its filming, and the soulless – perhaps Terminator-esque – advance of communism through Eastern Europe in the late 60s, Late August at the Hotel Ozone is very much a political essay in sci-fi wrapping. After 96 minutes of viewing at way past midnight, it’s a nihilistic use of the genre.

Feeling mildly suicidal after a monochromatic nightmare vision of the future devoid of anything resembling hope, it was great to see director Elio Petri’s unashamedly stylish, tongue-in-cheek swinging 60s offering, The Tenth Victim. The Franco-Italian collaboration, starring the hugely watchable Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni, depicts a future world – albeit with strong 60s fashion and design references – where people with violent tendencies take part in what is, in effect, a televised game show where, if they achieve their tenth victim, they become hideously wealthy and famous. In parts it feels like a mix between Blow Up and A Clockwork Orange, but doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be as menacing. What is clever in hindsight is the film’s prescient depiction of a game show culture in which filming inane acts relates to fame, fortune and entertainment. The Tenth Victim culminates in Andress, in her role as Caroline Meredith, negotiating the perfect televised kill (her tenth) after securing a lucrative film sponsor. It’s funny how commercial sponsorship weaves its way into sci-fi, predicting a lamentable part of today’s world where money, celebrity and commerce are intrinsically entwined.

I didn’t make it through all six films, but the final two of the evening were Richard Fleischer’s 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, a caper of science and biological innovation pitching the US against the USSR (so no Cold War analogies there then), and the 1980s remake of Flash Gordon (which I saw when it first came out), showing itself to be very much of its time while paying loose homage to the shaky, low-tech original 1950s franchise. Taking in six sci-fi films in one sitting clearly requires an android implant for those who can’t quite endure nigh on 12 hours of film time and I’m sorry I didn’t last the night – so massive respect to those who did.

Congratulations also to the Cornerhouse team for delivering a stunning event and a really thought-provoking line-up of films which showed the complexity, audacity and unsettling wisdom of a film genre that we dismiss at our peril.

 

Tom Warman