Sunday 1 March 2015

Stonehenge Apocalypse

Director: Paul Ziller
Writers: Paul Ziller, Brad Abraham
Producer: John Prince
Cast: Misha Collins, Peter Wingfield, Torri Higginson
Country: Canada
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: screener (Anchor Bay)

Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man's a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan

It is impossible to watch this film without thinking of that classic Spinal Tap song. Not just the obvious thematic connection but because Stonehenge Apocalypse is like that song turned into a feature-length movie. It is unbelievably crass and stupid, utterly without any sense of its own ridiculousness and completely divorced from any notion of what Stonehenge actually is.

The difference of course is that, with the song, all of that was done deliberately for laughs. With the movie, it’s serious.

Nevertheless Stonehenge Apocalypse does have one other thing in common with This is Spinal Tap. It is laugh-out-loud funny. This is one of the funniest films I have seen for quite some time, all the more so because it is not in any way or at any point intended to be funny. There’s not a shred of humour here, which just makes it funnier, right down to the pretentious, stupid title which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Tap B-side.

Here is a film with a script by an eight-year-old, directed by someone whose knowledge of science fiction cinema inexplicably ends in about 1956 and starring a cast of nobodies who are, without exception, the most embarrassed-looking actors ever to appear on screen. Is it ‘so bad it’s good’? Well, it really is unremittingly terrible. And the level and manner of its badness is such that it ends up being entertaining despite itself. Let me assure you, I wasn’t laughing with this film, I was laughing at it.

We start with a radio presenter telling his listeners that he is interested in ‘the strange’. The camera pans across a bunch of fake newspaper clippings, one of which manages to spell the word ‘calendar’ wrong in its headline. Then suddenly we’re in an archaeological dig ‘10,000 feet’ below Maine. Hang about - that’s nearly two miles. Whoever heard of archaeologists working at that depth (and in a very clean and well-lit tunnel to boot)?

There’s a young black guy in charge and his team have found a wall covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Because not only did the Ancient Egyptians often construct tombs 1.8 miles below ground level, they also did it in North America. In the centre of the hieroglyphics, which are carved rather than painted, is an ankh symbol. Our lead archaeologist measures this and it’s exactly the right size for something which proves his point. From a padded case he removes a golden ankh which magically flies out of his hand and attaches itself to the wall where the ankh-shape is carved.

Meanwhile, over at ‘Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, South West England’ (which is accurate, to be fair) a tour guide is showing half a dozen tourists around Stonehenge, which as everyone knows has been inaccessible to the public for many years. Mind you, ‘Salisbury Plain’ is, in this context, a quite large field. And Stonehenge is variously represented by very artificial-looking polystyrene rocks or even worse-looking CGI.

Suddenly the group is startled by an Earth tremor (which we do get quite regularly here in England) and then - the circle of stones rotates! The giant stones, many of which are only upright because they have been set into cement bases at various times over previous decades, somehow circle around each other without tipping over and without any of the balanced cross-stones even wobbling. Blue CGI lightning flickers between the circle stones and the ‘altar stone’ in the middle. Only then do the tourists and their guide think to run away but some sort of something zaps them and they fizzle into into nothingness.

We are less than five minutes into the film and already it is seriously stupid. And very funny.

Our hero is that radio presenter whom we now finally get to see properly. He is Jacob Glaser (Misha Collins: Supernatural) and the film-makers don’t seem to have got much beyond the idea that he’s a radio presenter, like actually thinking how that might work. Glaser evidently broadcasts from his basement, taking questions from callers, which suggests he’s live on air, but when he wants to do something else he just says, “We’ll leave it there for a moment.” Way to lose your listeners, dude.

Is he meant to be a professional? An amateur? Is he broadcasting over the internet? If so, why does he use really archaic-looking equipment which seems to be only a few years past the valve era? In fact, the internet is kind of funny in this film because it is completely ignored apart from this one brief scene in Glaser’s basement studio. Everything that subsequently happens and is somehow kept hush-hush by the authorities would be impossible to keep hush-hush, it would be all over the web within seconds. This could have been set in some sort of alternative universe where the net doesn’t exist. But it isn’t.

Because when Glaser announces that he has picked up an ‘energy burst’ moving on ‘the Earth’s electromagnetic grid’ between Maine and England, a caller rings in to tell him that “Stonehenge moved!”. Glaser checks some websites - badly designed and poorly written, so actually very accurate for conspiracy theory sites - and finds stuff about how Stonehenge is now sealed off and under quarantine.

Glaser has a map on his wall showing this ‘electromagnetic grid’ with lines connecting various places, although the node in Britain where lines connect is conspicuously nowhere near ‘Salisbury Plain, South West England’ but somewhere in the vicinity of Cumberland.

Realising that this is ‘the strange’ that he’s interested in, Glaser takes a plane to the UK and arrives at Salisbury Plain in a London taxi! But by then the whole area has been cordoned off. Nevertheless, Glaser is able to sneak through the cordon by the clever trick of, er, just walking straight up to Stonehenge because there’s no actual cordon.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A military-scientific command base has been set up in ‘Salisbury Plain Primary School’ which suggests that the bozos who made this think Salisbury Plain is some sort of town. This functional building is made to look like a school by having a few pictures on one wall. Butting heads in the team are straight, by-the-book Dr Trousdale (Cardiff-born Peter Wingfield: Highlander: Endgame, Catwoman, Baby Geniuses 2, Holby City, Highlander: The Source - my god, the poor man’s been in some shite, hasn’t he?) and the more intuitive and open-minded Dr Kaycee Leeds (Torri Higginson: Stargate: Atlantis, Tekwar). They are supported by various low-rent boffins in lab coats and assorted squaddies because, even though this is a Canadian film, it’s set in Britain and is therefore legally required to feature squaddies.

It’s in this school-turned-command base where much of the great dialogue occurs. Here’s a typical exchange:

“Looks like radio waves.”
“They are - and those particular waves are only between the stones.”
“They’re not part of the electromagnetic interference?”
“No, those wavelengths are structured.”

See how the writers are using words that they have heard on television without actually bothering to look them up in a dictionary - or even on Wikipedia. Throughout this film there is a massive over-reliance on the concept of electromagnetism as if it is something strange or fantastical rather than just, you know, ordinary electricity and ordinary magnetism. The writers have no idea what ‘electromagnetism’ actually means but it’s the longest word they know how to spell. There’s a great drinking game to be had here, every time anyone says ‘electromagnetic’ or ‘electromagnetism’. Trouble is, it’s difficult to drink while you’re writing down jaw-droppingly crappy dialogue and even harder to do it while you’re laughing so much.

From these amazing radio waves, represented by a simple, regular, unannotated sine wave on a computer screen, the techies somehow extract a digital read-out, starting at 37:01:56 - fortunately the audience don’t have to sit through another 37 hours of this crap.

Shortly before this. About two hours, 58 minutes and four seconds before this, the Stonehenge stones rearrange themselves again, there’s more blue lightning and, over on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, an Aztec pyramid erupts like a volcano.

There follows a whole load of malarkey which must taken seven hours by the clock, although no-one gets tired, stops to eat or changes their clothes. The malarkey includes a helicopter lowering some sort of radar into the centre of the stone circle but the chopper goes the same way that the tourists did. Then when the readout reaches 30:00:00 there’s more movement of the stones and another pyramid erupts, this one in Java.

By now US General Forshaw (Michael Kopsa: Watchmen, Hollow Man 2, Fantastic Four, Carrie remake and the voice of Dr X in the Action Man cartoon) is on site and he is a no-nonsense guy, as shown in this response to a concerned lab coat:

“Oh my God, Indonesia has been flattened.”
“This ends the debate about whether or not Stonehenge is causing disasters.”

Their one hope, if only they realised, is Glaser, who has by now been captured by squaddies and imprisoned in a corridor of the primary school along with some never-explained other people. He knows what’s going on - and it’s all connected with the Antikythera Mechanism. As you probably know, this is a rusty lump of metal, about 2,000 years old, which appears to be a remnant of a sophisticated mechanical device. It resides in a museum in Greece although for the purposes of this film it’s in a museum in New York called the American Foundation for Archaeology.

Dr Leeds manages to smuggle Glaser out of the school, past all the guards, off to Heathrow, onto a transatlantic flight and before you know it they’re at this museum, which is represented by a large dark room with assorted, unlabelled statues scattered randomly about. It is, without a doubt, the least believable museum ever represented on film. It seems that the people who made this film had not only never been to Stonehenge but had never actually been in an archaeology museum either.

In the ‘museum’ there’s a gun-battle with the black archaeologist from the prologue who is an old mate of Glaser’s named Joseph Leshem (Hill Harper: CSI: New York, The Breed, The Skulls, Pumpkinhead 2). Leshem escapes with the Antikythera Mechanism which he needs to activate the ‘lost pyramid’ which he has discovered nearly two miles below Maine.

Glaser knows what’s really going on: the planet Earth is being terraformed. Erm, wouldn’t that leave it exactly as it is? Well no, it would cause the thing to start again from scratch. All these pyramids and other monuments, built at vastly different times by entirely unconnected civilisations, are part of some vast reset mechanism which will destroy humanity - except Leshem’s cult followers who will be safe within the buried pyramid.

Meanwhile, back at Salisbury Plain Primary School, General Forshaw explains his plans to Dr Trousdale:

“Stonehenge has become a destructive force. It is a security threat and must be treated as such.”
“General, we need to be certain of the properties of this anomaly before we take any further action.”
“I’ve spoken with world leaders who think otherwise. We’re going to demolish it.”

That’s right, they’re going to save the world by dropping a nuclear bomb on Stonehenge, but all the squaddies and lab coats will be safe because they’re going to retreat to a safe distance, the way you do.

Meanwhile, over in Maine, Dr Leeds and Glaser are driving around in a Humvee with a couple of random special ops guys trying to find the buried pyramid. To do this, Glaser uses his standard device - a simple meter measuring milligauss. Well, to be fair, that is the unit of electromagnetic flux, so the writers got one correct thing off Wikipedia. Quite how it will help you to detect a stone pyramid buried two miles underground I don’t know but apparently for it to function at all you need to lean right out of the window of a speeding Humvee.

Anyway, don’t worry because the buried pyramid now rises to the surface, blasting through the green grass of Maine and causing huge cracks in the roads which chase after Glaser’s Humvee but don’t quite catch it. The special ops guys then approach a very convenient door in the pyramid, armed with a riot shield, and go in, followed by the unarmed and unshielded Glaser and Leeds.

It all ends up somehow back at Stonehenge (after another conveniently unmentioned transatlantic flight) with a desperate battle between Glaser and a rogue lab coat who was actually, for some reason and in some way, working for Leshem. It’s a last-second struggle to place the Antikythera Mechanism on the Stonehenge altar stone and thereby somehow switch the whole thing off, although by then it’s too late for North Africa as the Pyramids of Giza have erupted (“Oh my God, the Mediterranean Sea is flooding into Egypt.”)

Good gravy, I’ve seen some bollocks in my life but this really takes the biscuit. It is, in every sense you can imagine, monumentally bad. The plot is insultingly stupid, the characters are paper-thin and the special effects seems to have been done using something with about the same computing power as my wristwatch.

There’s a long history of crappy SF/fantasy films about conspiracy theories but this seems more influenced by the National Treasure-style sub/post-Indiana Jones bollocks than all those awful 1970s TV movies about the Bermuda Triangle. It really seems like the film-makers cobbled some ideas together randomly and then called it a plot. Nothing makes a shred of sense, not one single character ever acts believably and the whole thing is presented with a po-faced sincerity which utterly belies the absolutely insulting stupidity of the whole thing.

Given how cheap transatlantic flights can be, you would have thought that at least one of the people involved would have come over to Stonehenge to take a look but no-one mentions this in the half-hour Making Of so we must assume that the nearest they came to Salisbury Plain was the Eastern side of Toronto. No, this whole thing has been cobbled together from some vague notion of what they think Stonehenge is, unfettered by any hint of reality. Little things like the fact that half the stones are now lying down and/or broken, like the additional rings of four-tonne ‘bluestones’ within the main ring of 50-tonne ‘sarsens’, like the circular earthworks around the monument.

Also, let me note here without contradiction that the stones in this version of Stonehenge (about 60% polystyrene, about 40% CGI according to the Making Of) are hopeless, weedy things that are utterly, utterly different from the massive , robust sarsens at the real monument.

That Making Of does in fact offer additional guffaws. For example, director Paul Ziller offers the traditional moron’s validation of a stupid story, which is: I’m either not clever enough or too lazy to do the absolutely minimal, simple research required to understand this so I think nobody understands it. Or as he puts it:

“It’s very possible that we’re not the first civilisation to occupy this planet. The planet’s been here for billions of years. That’s a really long time. We don’t know what happened billions of years ago. I’ve always been open to any plausible theory about what may have happened before we were here. This planet has gone through a lot of changes, a lot of geological transformations. I think we just don’t know who was here, and when, before us.”

Yes we do, Paul. We do know who was here before us. A combination of archaeology and Darwinian genetics enables us to know precisely who was here before us. And it wasn’t ocean-hopping Ancient Egyptians with a penchant for electromagnetism.

My other favourite comment in the Making Of comes from Peter Wingfield who gamely tries to make the script sound better than it is, or possibly he’s trying to apologise for the general shittiness of the film, by claiming that it’s full of technobabble. Except it very plainly isn’t.

“As an actor, the thing that I’m finding most challenging in this movie is the incredible amount of technical stuff. ‘The electromagnetic shockwave that a nuclear bomb creates is the only weapon we have capable enough (sic) of disrupting the magnetic forcefield protecting Stonehenge.’ And you’ve got to say that like it’s just tripping off your tongue because they’re words you just use every day.”

You know, Pete mate, pretty much all of those are words that lots of people do use on a regular basis. It’s hardly the sort of technobabble that we find in Doctor Who or Star Trek TNG, is it? Stop trying to pretend that this crap is some sort of intricately crafted slice of sci-fi, it’s just primary-school level make-it-up-as-we-go-along nonsense based on a script that is clearly slightly easier to read than a Mr Men book.

Among the actors trying desperately to get this job finished so they can go back to making real films which they can include on their resume are Lauro Chartrand (who was in the Michelangelo costume in the late 1990s TMNT series), Adrian Holmes (White Noise 2, Smallville), Nimet Kanji (Blood Ties), Colin Lawrence (Battlestar Galactica redux, Watchmen, Hollow Man 2, House of the Dead, Ripper 2), David Lewis (Wyvern, Day the Earth Stood Still remake, Beyond Loch Ness, Halloween: Resurrection, Lake Placid), Shaw Madson (Tron: Legacy, A-Team movie, The Skulls), Aaron Pearl (White Noise 2, Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon, Black Christmas remake), Brent Stait (Omen IV, Andromeda, Troglodyte and Guy of Gisborne in a 2009 Robin Hood film) as a major who gets shot in the museum and Dolores Drake (Sanctimony) as the tour guide. I feel for all these people, I really do. Their pain and their shame is all very evident on screen. What were their agents thinking? It’s not like there’s no acting work in Canada, virtually everyone in the cast has been in assorted episodes of Highlander, Outer Limits redux, Stargate this or that and in a few cases Police Academy: The Series.

The principal blame for this atrocity must lie with Paul Ziller, a man who has made a good career out of this sort of Sci-Fi Channel DTV rubbish: Android Apocalypse, Snakehead Terror, Swarmed and several of the dodgier titles mentioned in the previous paragraph such as Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon and Beyond Loch Ness. Good grief, if he can make a film like this without visiting Stonehenge it’s quite likely that he’s never been near Loch Ness either. On this evidence, he might have represented it as a large circular pond.

The thing is: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this sort of Sci-Fi Channel DTV rubbish. Some of it is very entertaining. I’m not belittling Stonehenge Apocalypse because of the type of movie it is, I’m belittling it because it’s infantile bollocks. The other credited writer is Brad Abraham who co-wrote the RoboCop: Prime Directives mini-series and also did an abandoned draft of the Black Christmas remake.

You might well be thinking: but Mike, you give good ratings and positive reviews to all sorts of shite. Why does Stonehenge Apocalypse get a kicking when you rave over rubbish like Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus? Here’s the point: there’s a difference between silly and stupid. A big difference. They’re both versions of dumb but they’re very different types of dumbness. I’ve got nothing against dumb movies that are silly-dumb. Heck, I could watch them all day, but those are movies where people have at least made an effort.

Stonehenge Apocalypse is stupid-dumb. It could only be as bad as it is if the principal people behind it - writers, producers, director - really didn’t give a tinker’s cuss. It treats the audience like idiots. Silly-dumb is ‘this makes no sense and we don’t care because it’s fun’. Stupid-dumb is ‘this may or may not make sense and we neither know nor care’. It’s cynical, lazy film-making.

Let’s put it another way. Stonehenge Apocalypse turned up in the same package of screener discs as Sharktopus. This is a film which is more insultingly stupid than a story about hybridising a cartilaginous fish with a cephalopod. I don’t think I can make it any clearer than that.

That’s about it. I’m not going to list the various production crew heads; some of them have interesting credits but it wouldn’t be fair to link them to this crap. Instead, I’ll just leave you with another gem from a script which consists almost entirely of eminently quotable bad dialogue:

“General, I have to be honest. Nuking Stonehenge - there’s a chance it may backfire on us.”

MJS rating: D

Review originally posted 10th March 2011

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