Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

ConanBarbarian

Watched: 7 September 2019
Format: A DVD found in a charity shop.
Seen before? Nope.

Review: In the 1970s and 80s there was a glut of films that mixed medieval settings with magic and fantasy. This sword-and-scorcery fad took in such varied movies as Jabberwocky (1977), Hawk the Slayer (1980), Excalibur (1981), Ladyhawke (1985) and others of a less interesting aspect. Conan the Barbarian, based on the pulp stories of Robert E Howard, was one of the most successful, taking nearly 10 times its budget at the box office. Sadly, it’s possibly the most boring of the whole genre.

Large portions of the film play like a silent movie. Dialogue is sparse, with director John Milius preferring to tell his simplistic revenge story via action, violence, gesture, close-up and an awful lot of Basil Poledouris’s strident, energetic incidental music. Not a bad idea per se, but a bizarre notion if you’ve cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first leading role of note. Playing Conan – an orphaned prisoner in a time before recorded history who hunts down the warlord who murdered his family – Arnie certainly has the physique. But as a character he’s a big blank space where our emotional connection should be.

The film looks handsome enough, thanks to the genius of production designer Ron Cobb, and there are some striking visual sequences such as ethereal demons attempting to abduct an ill and injured Conan. You can also, no doubt, read any number of historical subtexts and precedents in John Milius’s fetishistic love of weaponry and ritual. But the story drags interminably and the cast is variable (ranging from James Earl Jones to a mate of the director’s). It’s often very difficult to care what happens next.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘For Milius, Conan was making a statement that went way beyond action movies and comic books. It all went back to Nietzsche… When Conan opened nationwide on May 14 [1982], it became the first blockbuster of what is still talked about as the best movie summer ever. That summer also brought us The Road Warrior [aka Mad Max 2], Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The World According to Garp, Poltergeist, An Officer and a Gentleman, Tron, The Thing, and, of course, E.T. Conan the Barbarian held its own among them all.’

Four giant snakes out of 10

Next: Sabotage

First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff)

First Blood

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A former Special Forces soldier is harassed by a small-town police sheriff so decides to fight back…

What does Stallone do? When offered the lead in a new film based on a novel by David Morrell, Sylvester Stallone agreed if he could also work on the script. Sly’s contribution was largely to make Vietnam veteran John Rambo a more sympathetic man. In Stallone’s draft, for example, unlike in the book, the character avoids directly killing people… Rambo is a former Green Beret and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Like Stallone’s other key character, Rocky Balboa, he’s also fundamentally a decent guy. But as the story begins, he’s depressed that so many of his old army buddies have died. He wanders into a small town looking for somewhere to eat, but his rough appearance and long(ish) hair rile the local sheriff, who promptly arrests him. Then, during a humiliating booking procedure, John suffers flashbacks to his time in ’Nam. (He was tortured by the Viet Cong and now clearly has post-traumatic stress as well as physical scars.) He snaps, attacks several cops, and flees into the massive woods outside the town. Fashioning improvised weapons and traps, John then evades a manhunt and defends himself when the police get too close… Stallone gives a stoic and largely silent performance based on stillness and stealth (at least until an over-the-top emotional scene towards the end of the film).

Other main characters:
* Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) knows everyone in his small town. But his affable manner with the locals hides the fact he’s a wannabe Dirty Harry. He sees himself as the law incarnate, a man who can dish out summary justice. So when he spots a glum stranger looking slightly unkempt, and fears he might be a troublemaker, Teasle tries to shepherd the guy out of town. A defiant John Rambo ignores the advice – so a pissed-off Teasle arrests him for vagrancy. After Rambo beats up several policemen and escapes custody, Teasle leads the chase into the forests. He thinks he can hunt his prey down, but John is far too well trained – and even sneaks up on the sheriff at one point (with a knife to his throat, he asks him to ‘let it go’). Dennehy – a bear of a man with steel in his eye – is terrific in the role. Teasle’s not a nice man, but neither is he a moron, and the actor plays both elements.
* One of Teasle’s officers is a twatty brute called Art Galt (Jack Starrett). He’s the ringleader who treats John so appallingly when he’s arrested – beating him, blasting him with cold water, generally treating him like scum – then later falls fatally from a helicopter while trying to shoot his nemesis in the woods. A young David Caruso is one of the other cops.
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up when the manhunt gets underway. He’s John’s former Special Forces CO and knows full well how dangerous he can be. ‘I didn’t come here to rescue Rambo from you,’ he tells Teasle when the two men butt heads. ‘I came here to rescue you from him.’ He can’t at first convince his protégé to come in, but later confronts him when John returns to the town… (Kirk Douglas was initially hired to play Trautman, but then quit soon into filming: creative differences, it seems.)

Key scene: After hiding in the woods for more than 24 hours, Rambo is eventually flushed out and returns to the town of Hope, Washington (or ‘Jerkwater, USA’ as Trautman sarcastically calls it). Before this point, First Blood has been a grungy, down-and-dirty drama; now it takes on an expressionistic, mythical feel. The town has become a hellish reflection of Rambo’s state of mind: it’s night-time, it’s deserted, and thanks to John’s covert diversion tactics, there are fires rages at several locations. The stage is set for a showdown…

Review: This efficiently directed movie – no fuss, no fat – takes place in the Pacific Northwest of America, so there’s plenty of low cloud, mountains, mud, rain, woodland and mist. But despite this setting, which obviously echoes the kind of terrain John Rambo will have crossed in Vietnam, the plot is straight out of a Western. John is the iconoclastic stranger of few words who wanders into a new town and clashes with a powerful figure – akin to Clint Eastwood in, say, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) or High Plains Drifter (1973). Teasle is obviously the corrupt sheriff. (Additionally, like many Westerns, First Blood has no interest in female characters.) Barrelling along, with both action and a bit of subtext about how society treats its ‘heroes’, this is an entertaining and well-made film. Whether the brave, emotional finale hits home will depend on personal taste, however. Perhaps Stallone’s manic, garbled delivery when Trautman elicits a cathartic breakdown from Rambo is appropriate for a man so traumatised by a savage war. Or maybe it’s just bad acting.

Eight water hoses out of 10

Next: Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rocky III (1982, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyIII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now the world champion, Rocky Balboa faces a threat from a young new fighter…

What does Stallone do? Sly wrote the script, directed the film, and obviously reprised the role of Rocky Balboa. A few years after the events of Rocky II, our lead character is now world heavyweight boxing champ. We see a quickly cut montage of him easily beating various challengers in the ring, becoming a major celebrity (even appearing on The Muppet Show – the footage comes from when Stallone was in an episode for real), meeting presidents and raising a family. However, his world come crashing down when he loses his title to a young upstart from Chicago. Down and out, and having also lost his father figure, Rocky resolves to win the rematch… This film maybe sees Stallone’s acting talent stretched a bit thin. It’s a pretty docile performance and lacks the charm of the first two movies. Nevertheless, Rocky remains a compelling character because he’s a nice guy – unlike other famous boxer characters. He’s not a violent, quick-to-temper thug like Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, neither does he carry the anguish of On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy. And that makes us root for him even more.

Other main characters:
* Up-and-coming boxer Clubber Lang (Mr T) watches on as Rocky fights a string of no-hopers. When the Italian Stallion then announces his retirement at a public event, Lang steps forward, confronts his rival and demands a shot at the championship. Affronted by the younger man’s arrogance and brashness, Rocky has little choice but to agree. Clubber wins the bout easily – his punches sound like shotgun blasts, his arms look like pneumatic pistons – which sets up the second half of the film as Rocky works towards a redemptive rematch… More a force of nature than an actor, Mr T plays Clubber with a snarling, fuck-you attitude at all times. And yes, at one point he says, ‘I pity the fool.’ This film is where the catchphrase comes from.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) has not benefitted from his brother-in-law’s success; as the story begins, he’s still a bitter dullard stuck in a Mean Streets-style life. When he lashes out drunkenly and breaks a Rocky-branded pinball machine, Rock has to bail him out of jail. Rocky then agrees to give him a job, which involves Paulie standing around for the rest of the movie and doing a lot of moaning.
* Early on, Rocky takes part in an exhibition fight against Thunderlips, the reigning world wrestling champion played by real-life wrestler Hulk Hogan. Given all the razzmatazz and the fact the event is for charity, Rocky assumes it’s going to be a faux fight – a bit of fun for the punters – but Thunderlips then attacks him for real, forcing Rocky to respond in kind. Balboa wins eventually, and to his credit Thunderlips’s aggression drops instantly: it *was* just an act.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) is still Rocky’s trainer, but suffers from severe chest pains a couple of times. When Rocky says he’ll take on Lang, Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with it because he reckons Rocky can’t win. Lang has the hunger that Rocky has long since lost (and, admits Mickey, Rocky has been fighting handpicked below-par boxers since film two). Rocky soon talks him round into helping, but just before the fight with Lang, Mickey has a heart attack. Soon after Rocky loses his championship belt, Mick dies in the locker room. (In the storytelling handbook, this is called the lowest ebb.)
* At Rocky’s first bout with Clubber, former champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is ringside doing media work – and he takes an instant dislike to the disrespectful Lang. So after Rocky’s defeat and Mickey’s death, Apollo offers to train his old foe for the rematch. He takes Rocky to a rundown gym in LA, away from all the hype in Philadelphia, but Rocky struggles with Apollo’s techniques.
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) mostly stays in the background of her husband’s story. Her only big moment is a scene on a Californian beach where she and Rocky spell out the subtext to each other: ‘You gotta [fight Lang] for the right reasons – not for the guilt over Mickey, not for the people, not for the title, not for the money or me. But for you.’
* The Balboas’ son, Rocky Jnr (Ian Fried), looks to be about six years old now, which kinda makes sense when you consider that Rocky II (1979) was only set a few months after Rocky (1976).

Key scene: By this point in the series, training montages have become as much a part of the idiom as Stallone’s slurred delivery and fights with a thousand punches per round. Rocky III contains more than one. The best, which comes directly before Rocky and Lang’s rematch, is a whopping 205 seconds of Rocky running on beaches, hitting punching bags, sparring with Apollo and learning how to be nimble on his feet.

Review: The song Eye of the Tiger by Survivor is heard a few times in this movie, but it’s not just a catchy bit of soft rock to keep us entertained and flog the soundtrack album. Its title phrase becomes a mantra given to Rocky during prep for the rematch – ‘Eye of the tiger, Rock,’ calls out Apollo. ‘Eye of the tiger!’ – while the tune’s lyrics tie in directly to the film’s theme of celebrity. ‘You trade your passion for glory,’ counsels lead singer Dave Bickler. ‘Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past/You must fight just to keep them alive.’ Rocky III has several scenes that reflect this idea – while Rocky appears on TV and gets a taste of the showbiz word of pro-wrestling, his fame and money are making him soft. His training sessions for the first fight with Clubber are glitzy, open-to-the-public events with bunting and a house band. Clubber, meanwhile, trains hard and wins. Away from this thematic thread, there’s nothing much new to the Rocky format: it’s the third movie in a row with the same basic structure and a very similar finale. But it’s passable fun.

Six has-beens messin’ in my corner out of 10

Next: First Blood

Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)

RoyBatty

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

1. The script.
Los Angeles, November 2019. Six replicants – strong, skilful, synthetic humans – have escaped and are on the run. So a detective called Deckard is pulled out of retirement to hunt them down… Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a thoughtful book set in a post-apocalyptic world and is full of complex sci-fi ideas. However, in adapting it for the cinema, writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples unashamedly stripped the story down and repurposed it as a film noir. There’s a world-weary detective on one last job, a gruff boss who wants results, a classy broad with a secret past, a dark, rain-sodden city… Despite being about robots, it’s a pleasingly old-fashioned plot. And it’s remarkably simple: detective Deckard simply moves from A to B, following clues and tracking down the ‘bad guys’. There’s virtually no intrigue. Director Ridley Scott’s previous film, Alien, was about a dispassionate creature killing a group one-by-one. Here’s the same concept, but from the killer’s point of view. But with so much going on visually and thematically, the story needs to be linear and clear. (The combination of sci-fi concepts and film-noir conventions resulted in a new sub-genre called Tech Noir, named for a nightclub in 1984’s The Terminator. Blade Runner is its definitive text.)

2. Deckard.
This is Harrison Ford in the middle of one of *the* great CV runs. For a decade or so from 1973, he appeared in American Graffiti, The Conversation, a Star Wars trilogy, Apocalypse Now, two Indiana Jones movies and Blade Runner (and was cut out of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). Not too shabby. Philip K Dick certainly approved of the casting, calling Ford “more like Rick Deckard than I could have ever imagined… Seeing him as a character I created is a stunning and almost supernatural experience to me.” Here, Ford’s hair is closely cropped rather than Han Solo shaggy, while the Indy charisma has gone too. It’s a terrifically controlled, unshowy performance. Deckard is a classic film-noir gumshoe – he works reluctantly for the police’s Blade Runner Unit (what the name means is never explained), is a loner (the droll voiceover tells us he has an ex-wife) and barely raises a smile. The character’s name is a pun on René Descartes, a philosopher whose most famous maxim was “I think therefore I am.” And that rings with the film’s central question: what does it mean to be alive? Deckard is initially cruel to Rachel, the first robot he meets, because he doesn’t see her as a genuine person. But he gradually grows fascinated by her, falls in love, and this helps with his mission: he only starts finding the rogue replicants once he accepts they have emotions and personalities… In one scene, Ford gets to step outside the private-eye persona. When he meets Zhora, he pretends to be an unctuous union rep with a whiny voice. It’s a better bit of acting than Harrison Ford’s Scottish accent when does a similar thing in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Note: because it’s less relevant to this version of the film, I’ll save discussion of who Deckard really is for the next review.)

3. Futurism.
When released, the movie was set 37 years into the future – a date we’re now only 36 months away from hitting. But like all the best science fiction, it looks back as much as it looks forward. This is not a Star Trek world of gleaming perfection and utopian lushness. The city still has garish 1980s commercialism, such as billboards for Coke, Atari and Pan Am; there are flying cars, but they mostly have the silhouette of vehicles from the mid-20th century; and every street is full of bustling, chaotic crowds. There’s just as much decay as there is progress. As a fictional setting, it’s *totally* convincing. (It’s also constantly raining. This helps with the relentlessly gloomy vibe, but Ridley Scott had a more prosaic reason: the water disguised how small the exterior sets were.) Blade Runner is also the key example of cinematic cyberpunk, which is perhaps surprising given that it pointedly sidelines computers and has little concept of a digital world. Machines here are functional and analogue. (Check out Deckard’s chunky, juddering photo scanner!) But the clash of ‘high tech and low life’ is what cyberpunk is all about – the more advanced the technology gets, the more rotten the society becomes. And Blade Runner’s world is built on that conflict.

4. The design.
The aesthetic of the sets, costumes, vehicles, props and locations is *extraordinary*. Numerous cinematic geniuses worked on the film’s physical look, among them concept artist Syd Mead (Tron, Aliens), production designer Lawrence G Paull (Back to the Future), special-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters, Silent Running) and of course Ridley Scott. Their Los Angeles is a masterpiece. From a wide shot of the city, we see familiar sprawl – but with additional power plants, flaming towers and flying vehicles. Thick smog hangs over the whole area. Then when we go down to ground level, everywhere is busy, textured, overflowing with people and vehicles and activity. Again, it’s about imagining a future culture by using what’s gone before – specifically the early 20th century. To suit the story’s film-noir mood, sets and costumes (including men’s hats) often feel like they’re from the 1940s. Meanwhile, because he’s detached from the rest of the population, Tyrell’s office building is shaped like a pyramid and has a vaguely Egyptian feel inside (another logical throwback: after Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, a streak of Egyptology ran through American theatre, film and fashion). The 1920s and 30s are also evident in the flashes of Art Deco architecture and the decadent nightclub where Deckard finds Zhora. But playing on the rise of Japanese technology in the early 80s, the city has been laced with an Asian influence – colourful neon signs pop out of almost every exterior shot, many in eastern languages, while fast-food stalls sell noodles. Ridley Scott mostly used sets, including a heavily redressed section of a pre-existing fake street, but there are also carefully chosen real locations: the cavernous Los Angeles Union Station for the police HQ, the Bradbury Building for Sebastian’s apartment, a glistening road tunnel… All of these elements build a stunning universe for the story to take place in. There is enormous detail – extras, shop fronts, stalls, vehicles, signage, screens, umbrella, bicycles, hovering sky-ships – but it’s never overwhelming or cluttered like a lumbering CGI blockbuster. Instead, the world feels alive and vibrant and menacing and fresh and dangerous and seductive. On each viewing, I want the camera to follow every single extra to see who they are and where they’re going.

5. Lighting.
Let’s not equivocate. Blade Runner is the best-lit film there is. The director of photography was Jordan Cronenweth, who was responsible for two hours of sensationally beautiful images. Not one single frame is boring or ugly. There’s a lot of smoke and shadow, flares and florescence, Venetian blinds and fan blades. Almost the entire film is set at night, yet for such a dark film there’s beauty, atmosphere and texture in *everything*.

6. Rachel.
A dame right out of the 1940s – clock her vintage outfits and victory-rolls hairdo! – Rachel is introduced with an archly lit shot where she walks into a spotlight. The camera loves her. When Deckard realises that she’s actually a replicant, he starts referring to her as ‘it’. Sean Young is maybe not the strongest actress, but you can’t help but feel the character’s pain when he then rudely confirms her fears that she’s not real. Sadly, Rachel later drops out of the story while Deckard hunts down Roy Batty. She returns for the ending, though: Rachel escapes the city with Deckard and they drive off into the countryside. For the first time in the film, it’s daytime. Ridley Scott hated being forced to include the scene, and it’s been dropped from subsequent versions. But I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s not a cosy happy-ever-after; it’s a brief glimpse of hope…

7. Music.
The famous score is by Vangelis. It’s electronica with Pink Floyd prog-rock grandeur. Elegant, seductive, hypnotic. Later, it turns appropriately grubby when Deckard’s detective works leads him deep into the bazaar-like streets. (The whole sound mix is generally terrific. Multiple viewings keep throwing up new details.)

8. Roy Batty.
We first see the film’s antagonist on a computer screen. A caption tells us that his ‘incept date’ – ie, his date of birth – is 8 January 2016. Billy Idol blond, he’s a combat model and is the leader of the replicants who have got loose. In some ways, Roy is the most human character in the story. He certainly has the biggest lust for life. His tragedy is that he’s fatally aware that his time is running out – and that means he appreciates experiences more vividly. Roy isn’t actually in the film very much, but like any great ‘villain’ he’s really charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off him. His pre-death soliloquy – partly written by actor Rutger Hauer – is rightly lauded. An action film where the climax is the baddie saving the hero’s life, sitting down, and quietly dying? That’s a pretty decent trick.

9. The rest of the cast.
We meet three other replicants… The kooky and sweet Pris (Daryl Hannah) has a punk look and is euphemistically called a leisure model. Ironically, her incept date is 14 February 2016. Tough guy Leon (Brion James) is uncovered in the opening scene, so attacks his boss and later tries to kill Deckard. The youngest of the gang, his incept date is 10 April 2017. And the beautiful Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is hiding as an exotic dancer at a seedy nightclub. Her incept date is 12 June 2016. Sadly, her death scene features a very obvious stuntwoman in a very bad wig. Roy and Pris befriend a nervous, naïve man called JF Sebastian (William Sanderson), who lives with a gaggle of animatronic toys. They force him to take them to their creator, Tyrell (Joe Turkel), who lives in a palatial apartment of drapes and candles. Meanwhile, Deckard has two colleagues of note. His boss is Bryant (M Emmet Walsh), while a man called Gaff (Edward James Olmos) seems to have a watching brief over the Blade Runner agents. The latter uses a cane, enjoys origami and talks in Cityspeak, a mishmash of various languages.

10. Cuts.
One of the minor reasons Blade Runner has such a lasting legacy is that there are five different edits available, some with really interesting differences. For a kick-off, there were two versions released in 1982: in the rest of the world, we got 16 seconds of violence that had been trimmed from the US print. This review is based on that slightly longer ‘international version’. The bits not seen in America come during Tyrell’s murder, Deckard’s fight with Pris, and a moment when Batty pushes a nail through his own hand. I’ll discuss the other versions in the next two reviews.

Review: There’s a recurring motif of eyes in this movie. A close-up of a pupil is one of the first things we see; the machine that assesses replicants uses an iris-scanner; Leon threatens to poke Deckard’s eyes out; an ocular technician gives Roy some vital information; Batty pushes Tyrell’s eyes into his head; replicants’ eyes sometimes glint red in the light… The eyeball is a product of evolution, but is so complex and useful that many assume it must have been designed. That tension – evolution vs design, human vs replicant – runs through the whole film. Nominally a standard manhunt movie, Blade Runner is a discussion of what it means to be alive. Are the humans (evolution) any more ‘alive’ than the replicants (designed)? Do they have more right to life? The film’s biggest achievement may be that it’s so stylised, so constructed, so designed, yet feel totally organic and real. Just like a replicant. It’s also, as mentioned, the best-looking movie of all time. The craft on show in the design work, the photography and the special effects has yet to be bettered. Unfortunately, before the film was released, poor audience reactions at test screenings led to a voiceover being added against the wishes of the director and star. As a storytelling device, it’s fine in concept – it really does fit the Sam Spade idiom – but is just bad writing. All it does is spell out things we would rather be left to infer. The crassest example comes just seconds after Roy has died: the narration cuts in, spoiling the moment, to tell you the bleeding obvious. Make no mistake: this film is a masterpiece. It’s one of the most imperishable examples of popular culture. But that voiceover, man… I just can’t justify a 10. Let’s cheat:

Nine and a half Voight-Kampff machines out of 10

Next time… Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer)

WrathofKhan

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Khan Noonien Singh escapes the planet he was marooned on by James T Kirk 15 years earlier, he seeks his revenge…

For the first time in this film series, we hear Star Trek’s famous narration. It’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and appears at the end of the movie. The wording is: “Space, the final frontier. These are the continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before…”

Regulars: As the film begins, Kirk is training recruits rather than commanding a starship because “galloping round the cosmos is a game for the young.” It’s also his birthday: another reminder that he’s getting on a bit. Ghosts from his past – his ex, his son, a former foe – dominate the story. Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities for his birthday, then counsels him to take command when the crisis begins. We also see Spock meditating in his quarters. At the climax, he risks – and loses – his life to save the Enterprise from a reactor overload. Dr McCoy gives Kirk some reading glasses and a bottle of Romulan ale as presents, and has a classic squabble about morality with Spock (“You green-blooded, inhuman–”). Chekov is now first officer on the starship Reliant, which is searching for a test site for the Genesis project. When they stumble across Khan and his followers, Chekov seems to remember the events of Space Seed (the TV episode that introduced Khan) even though it was made before actor Walter Koenig joined the show. Along with his new captain, Chekov is captured by Khan and forced to help him. During a battle, Scotty is so cut up by the severe injuries to a colleague that he carries the burnt body up to the bridge; he later plays the bagpipes (!) at Spock’s funeral. Sulu and Uhura are still basically just background characters who get the odd line of perfunctory dialogue. The Enterprise has a new crewmember, though – Vulcan officer Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley. She’s uptight, naïve, inexperienced and quotes regulations. (When Alley was in Cheers a few years later, she was an enormous adolescent crush of mine.)

Guest stars: Bibi Besch plays Carol Marcus, a Genesis scientist and old flame of Kirk’s. Their son, David, is played by Merritt Butrick. Carol has some nice scenes with Kirk, but David is very bland. Paul Winfield off of The Terminator appears as Terrell, the captain of the Reliant. The main guest star is Ricardo Montalban, who reprises Khan from the TV series. He’s a raving loon with a giant intellect and superhuman strength who likes showing off his tits.

Best bits:

* James Horner’s music, especially the opening theme.

* The first shot of Saavik: she spins round in the captain’s chair to face the camera. Sex. On. A. Stick.

* The Kobayashi Maru training session, with its apparent injuries/deaths to regular characters. The reveal it’s a simulation comes with an arch, backlit shot of Kirk striding in.

* “Aren’t you dead?” Kirk jokes to Spock early on – a deliberate foreshadowing.

* Kirk’s flat, with its view of San Francisco Bay and maritime antiques on the walls.

* The surface of Ceti Alpha V (Khan’s planet) – disorientating sandstorms, hazy sun, weird rocks: all achieved on a sound stage.

* The little slug thing going inside Chekov’s ear. Urgh. (It’s even more unsettling when it later crawls out.)

* Saavik observes that Kirk is “so… human.” Spock replies: “Nobody’s perfect.”

* A cute circular camera move arcing around the Genesis scientists as the have an argument.

* The fact that Khan puts on a Starfleet jacket when he takes over the Reliant.

* The Genesis demonstration film – some groundbreaking special effects.

* The Reliant attacking the Enterprise, and then Kirk realizing Khan’s on board.

* The horror-movie shock of McCoy bumping into a corpse hanging from the ceiling.

* The twist that Chekov and Terrell are still under Khan’s thrall.

* “KHAAAN! KHAAAN!”

* Kirk admitting he cheated at the Kobayashi Maru test, which is immediately followed by the revelation that he’s done a similar thing with Khan’s trap.

* The two ships in the nebula cloud. Unable to see each other, they stalk silently like submarines. Very tense stuff.

* “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!”

* Spock’s death scene.

* The shot of Spock’s coffin in a newly grown jungle on the Genesis planet: a teaser for the next movie…

TV tie-in: Space Seed from the original TV show’s opening season is a good little episode. The Enterprise crew find a ship containing cryogenically frozen people. Their leader, Khan Noonien Singh, awakens and attempts to take over with the help of an Enterprise crewmember, Marla, who’s fallen under his spell. Marla goes off with Khan to an empty planet at the end of the episode. By the time of The Wrath of Khan, however, she’s died. Cutely, Space Seed concludes with Spock wondering what the planet would be like if they returned to it many years in the future…

Review: There’s so much more life, energy and depth to this than there was in The Motion Picture. It’s just in a different class. Famously, Spock’s sacrifice at the end packs a real punch (even when you know full well he’s coming back!). William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are both excellent in their characters’ final moment together. And the fact that the key dialogue from this scene – “The needs of the many,” etc – has been seeded earlier in the film is a great example of how smart the script it. For a kick-off, rather than the first film’s simplistic story, this has a great ‘movie’ plot. The Genesis project both ignites Khan’s journey and is vital to his actions, while there are plenty of character insights, which are always integral. There’s the running theme of Kirk’s age, for example. He has a birthday, feels over-the-hill, meets his son, and loses his best friend. The entire film is about his past catching up with him. It might be strange that Kirk and Khan never actually meet, aside from one chat over a vid-screen, but it’s also great to have a proper villain. Meanwhile, the look of the film is simply wonderful. The slick Starfleet sets and costumes, the grotty cargo container on Ceti Alpha V, Khan and his Mad Max-style gang – these designs are always plausible, interesting and full of telling details that imply back-story. This film is engaging, witty, dramatic and never dull.

Ten no-win scenarios out of 10.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

ET

When an alien gets left behind on Earth, he’s befriended by a boy called Elliott but hunted by government agents…

Seen before? This was the first film I ever saw at the cinema. My parents took me while we were on holiday in the Lake District around Christmas 1982. I was three years old and have memories of hiding under my seat (my mum tells me that early scenes of men with guns had scared me). I’ve seen it a few times in the 32 years since, but sadly and unintentionally the version I watched for #SpielbergWatch was the 2002 special edition. This recut of the movie digitally replaces guns with walkie-talkies, adds in a deleted scene or two (though not Harrison Ford’s cameo – tinyurl.com/ypgufc ) and CGIs up some shots of ET. A shame: it was perfect to begin with.

Best performance: All three of the kids – Henry Thomas as Elliott, Robert MacNaughton as Michael and Drew Barrymore as Gertie – are terrific.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The scene where ET is getting drunk while Elliott himself is at school, increasingly affected by the alcohol, is fantastic.

Review: Watching these films in context highlights how this is a spiritual sequel to Close Encounters. Again, we have aliens encroaching into lower-middle-class suburbia and being met with both fascination and paranoia. But now the story is from an actual child’s point of view (rather than CE’s manchild) and has added BMXs, Star Wars toys and general 1980sness. The whole film is so beautiful – the camerawork, the imagery, the music, the emotion. What’s obvious, as ever with Spielberg, is just how strong and clear the storytelling is – you always know where you are and what’s happening in a Spielberg film. He understands better than perhaps anyone else how to pace a story, how to reveal information, what to focus on and how to dramatise events. ET is an astonishing achievement, a timeless gem.

Ten Speak & Spells out of 10.

Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper)

poltergeist

Malevolent ghosts invade a suburban house and soon the family’s young daughter goes missing…

Seen before? Yes.

Best performance: JoBeth Williams and Craig T Nelson are both very good as the frantic, frightened parents.

Best scene/moment/sequence: When the sinister shit hits the family fan and the house is first invaded.

Review: The movie’s officially credited to Tobe Hooper, but the rumours are that writer/producer Steven Spielberg was the de facto director on set. The first half is an engaging and scary horror movie, but then the pace slows and the film loses momentum.

Seven static television out of 10.