Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Nightflyers

Director: 'TC Blake'
Writer: Robert Jaffe
Producer: Robert Jaffe
Cast: Catherine Mary Stewart, Michael Praed, John Standing
Country: USA
Year of release: 1987
Reviewed from UK VHS


Nightflyers is another one those films which is unsure of its own title. It's one word on screen but two - Night Flyers - on the sleeve of this ex-rental VHS. I shall use the former, not because of some Kim Newman-esque obsession with 'right' and 'wrong' titles but because it is shorter and involves less use of the shift key. Though I have probably undone any saving in that respect by typing this explanation.

This is a notoriously incomprehensible film. I didn't understand it when I first watched it about ten years ago and I didn't understand it when I rewatched it this week. Ostensibly it involves a search for some sort of semi-mythical meta-being called the Volkron which travels through the galaxy creating stars. A scientist named D'Brannin (John Standing: Torture Garden, The Eagle Has Landed, The Elephant Man, Pandaemonium) has assembled a team to help him locate the Volkron and has hired a spaceship called the Nightflyer (or possibly Night Flyer - we never see it written down) to take them there.

There's cryptologist Lilly Cant (Helene Udy: My Bloody Valentine, The Dead Zone, Witches of the Caribbean); linguist Audrey Zale (Lisa Blount: Dead and Buried, John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness); biologist Keelor (Glenn Withrow: Peggy Sue Got Married, Beverly Hills Cop II) whose bleached blonde hair, youthful visage and large spectacles make him look alarmingly like children's TV presenter Timmy Mallett; Darryl Fontane (James Avery: Will Smith's uncle in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, also in Deadly Daphne's Revenge and Beastmaster II) who is aboard as 'visual documentarian' and chef; and 'class 10 telepath' Jon Winderman (singer/actor Michael Des Barres: Ghoulies, Lost in Time, The High Crusade) with his accompanying empath Eliza Scott (Annabel Brooks: Cherry 2000, The Witches). What function a telepath's empath might serve is just one of many things left unexplained. All these characters are introduced to us in voice-over by 'project co-ordinator' Miranda Dorlac (Catherine Mary Stewart: Night of the Comet, Weekend at Bernie's, Reaper) who also has limited telepathic abilities. Although a caption tells us the story is set in the 21st century, everything looks very 1980s and everyone wears plenty of hair mousse and eye-liner (except Darryl who doesn't need either, being both black and bald).

The Nightflyer is described as a freighter, and as such it has plenty of vast echoing chambers where the cast bed down in their futuristic sleeping bags. The main area is a luxurious lounge, with sunken sofas, coffee tables, a small kitchen to one side and, for some reason, a pipe organ. It looks like a bizarre amalgam of the sets from Blake's 7, The Abominable Dr Phibes, Ready Steady Cook and TV-am. There's no suggestion of anyone strapping themselves down for take-off or anything like that, nor is any sort of uniform on display, with everyone wearing their own individual, awful 1980s clothes which they all brought aboard in small shoulder bags.

But what of the ship itself? Do you recall that episode of Blackadder II when Tom Baker, as a mad ship's captain, explained that there were two schools of thought on the need for a crew: all the other captains said you needed one, and he said you didn't? Well, something similar seems to be in operation here. The captain is Royd Eris (Robin of Sherwood/Dynasty star Michael Praed) who appears to the passengers in the form of a hologram. He explains that the ship doesn't have a crew because the hologram technology allows him to be in two places at once. Well, yes I suppose so - but since the hologram can't operate any controls and in fact can't actually do anything except communicate with the passengers, it's not much more use than, say, a standard intercom. Or a telephone.

While some of the folk on board are very suspicious of this whole set-up - indeed, some of them suspecting that Royd is nothing more than an avatar created by the computer which is really flying the ship - Royd forms a friendship with Miranda (based on, well, nothing in particular) and explains to her what is really going on. His mother Adara owned the Nightflyer which she operated on her own, but she became lonely and so created him as a 'cross-sex clone'. However, she died just before he was 'born' from the jar where he was incubated so he was raised by the ship's computer. This means, apparently, that he is too weak to ever set foot on a planet and even the artificial gravity generated on the ship is agony to him. When we finally get to see Royd for real, he is lying recumbent in a sort of comfortable-looking and very streamlined coffin.

While Darryl is preparing dinner for everyone, there is an explosion in the kitchen which sends the whole team hurtling across the lounge amid a shockwave of candelabras and canap├ęs and somehow tears off four of Darryl's fingers. There follows a hilarious medical room scene with D'Brannin using a computerised surgery system to reattached the digits. We see a graphic of a half-finger being moved towards a hand, magically joining at the knuckle - and then we see it for real! The missing part of the finger is carefully positioned next to the stump and then some sort of laser welds/cauterises the join. That might work if a finger was just a bone with some flesh around the outside, but aren't there, I don't know, nerves and blood vessels and things which might need aligning?

For reasons which, like much else in this film, are never clearly explained, Adara's body is still on board the ship, underneath a stone slab, but before she died she downloaded her mind/soul/spirit/consciousness/whatever into the ship's computer. Royd tells Miranda that when the mission is finished he wants to leave the ship, even though that would kill him, because he would rather spend five minutes as a human being on a real world than spend the rest of his life as he is. Adara becomes jealous of this and seeks to protect her baby by trying to kill the crew, initially by possessing Winderman (played by Des Barres with the sort of 'mockney' accent that sounds British to Americans but sounds like God knows what to British audiences).

Most of the second half of the film consists of the surviving crew members flying around inside and outside the spaceship (which has had its gravity turned off) in little personal vehicles that look like glass-topped dustbins, eventually joined by Royd in his coffin which can, of course, fly. Near the end, Winderman's semi-decapitated body is reanimated by Adara in an attempt to kill Miranda (who is now riding shotgun on Royd's flying coffin) and the final confrontation is between Royd and the reanimated body of his mother. (It's difficult to see, but as no actor is credited for Adara and bearing in mind that Royd is supposed to be a 'cross-sex clone', presumably that's Praed under the make-up facing off against himself.)

After all the science fiction hoopla the culmination is two immobile characters straining as they channel lightning-style energy bolts at each other. Oh great, it's Wizards of the Demon Sword in space. And we finish with the Nightflyer exploding, leaving Royd and Miranda to head off into the inky void in his (very cramped) coffin. Miranda's final voice-over discusses the Volkron again, even though that has barely been mentioned since the start of the movie and seems to have no connection with anything else at all.

What a load of old tat. This is the sort of quasi-philosophical, ideas-beyond-its-reach science fiction movie that might be acceptable if it had been made in the mid-1970s or if it was Russian or Polish, but as a US production from the late 1980s it just looks daft, not helped by the costumes and hairstyles. Once everyone climbs into their flying dustbins any semblance of structure disappears and of course we never again have any actual face-to-face scenes with more than one person - until we reach Royd and his mother doing their impression of the final scene in an Indonesian telemovie.

Nightflyers is based on a 1985 novella by George RR Martin, author of the Song of Fire and Ice series of novels. He was story editor on the Ron Perlman/Linda Hamilton TV series Beauty and the Beast and also wrote some episodes of the 1980s Twilight Zone as well as the feature-length pilot for the 1990s Outer Limits, but he seems to have had no direct connection with this movie, which is probably a good thing for him. The screenplay is credited to producer Robert Jaffe (Demon Seed, Motel Hell, Scarab). Director 'TC Blake' is actually Robert Collector trying to distance himself from the movie. He wrote and directed a 1985 thriller called Red Heat, starring the unlikely pairing of Silvia Kristel and Linda Blair, and also wrote another film with unlikely bedfellows in its credits, the John Carpenter/Chevy Chase collaboration Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

This was an early credit for DP Shelly Johnson, later on Quicksilver Highway, Jurassic Park III and the Shining mini-series, though its difficult to judge the cinematography from this rather ropy VHS. The film's biggest asset seems to be its production design, courtesy of John Muto who started out doing odd jobs on movies such as Battle Beyond the Stars and Strange Invaders and worked up to major credits on Species and the Terminator II 3-D theme park ride. Set decorator Anne Huntley-Ahrens had previously worked on House, Critters and A Nightmare on Elm Street and between them they came up with some impressive sets for Nightflyers. No fewer than 42 carpenters and 20 painters are credited and it's easy to see where the money went. It certainly didn't go on the script which was altered out of all recognition in a radical and inexplicable last-minute rewrite by the producer.

The special effects vary enormously, although praise must be given to the miniatures in the launch sequence. Those credited include Robert Short (Piranha, ET, Beetlejuice) and Roger George (whose career goes right back to The Amazing Transparent Man and Beyond the Time Barrier in the early 1960s through such notable films as Blacula, The Howling, Repo Man, The Terminator, Ghoulies, Munchies and Night of the Demons). The flying dustbin sequences which dominate the second half of the film were handled by Bob Wiesinger (Labyrinth, The Bride, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Judge Dredd, Cheap Rate Gravity) and Bob Harman (Superman, Time Bandits, Return of the Jedi, Arena, The Rocketeer).

Ultimately Nightflyers' biggest failing is that it is boring and completely unengaging. Since we have no idea what the hell these people are trying to do or what is preventing them from doing it, we don't care a jot whether they succeed or not. At present this movie is not available on DVD - but that's no great loss.

MJS rating: C-

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