Saturday 23 April 2016

Films: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and Predestination (2014)

During the late 1960s lighthearted spy films and TV series were in vogue, the blend of adventure, glamour and comedy proving very appealing. A good example is the series of feature films starring Dean Martin as agent Matt Helm, and even the doyen of all such spies, James Bond, was increasingly playing it for laughs (although it didn't become a spoof of itself until Roger Moore took over from Sean Connery in the 1970s). Perhaps the most highly regarded of the TV shows (in the UK anyway) was the British series The Avengers - no, not the current lot, the one featuring agents John Steed and especially the marvellous Emma Peel. Into this particular niche dropped the extremely successful US series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which ran for 105 episodes between 1964 and 1968. I saw many of those when they first appeared on UK TV and remember the principal characters very well, but I've not watched them since, so I was prompted more by curiosity than anything else to view this remake.

The lead character is played by Henry Cavill (currently featuring as Superman, vs Batman that is) who plays Napoleon Solo in quite a similar way to the suave original, Robert Vaughn. His Russian sidekick Ilya Kuyakin is very different, however: I recall David McCallum as small and mild-mannered, but the tall and powerful Armie Hammer plays Ilya as a ruthless, humourless and downright psychotic killer. In the TV series these were the two main characters with only their boss Waverly also featuring regularly, but in this film they are joined by reluctant recruit Gaby, to whom the ubiquitous Alicia Vikander brings some star quality.

The 1960s-set plot isn't really the point, it's merely the necessary backdrop to the entertainment, but for what it's worth it involves the bad guys persuading a nuclear scientist to make an atom bomb for delivery to the remnants of the Nazis. Solo and Kuryakin, initially enemies, are directed to cooperate to thwart the evil plotters. Of course they succeed (sorry about the spoiler!) with various laughs on the way, and the finale prepares the way for a sequel. The film seems to have been moderately successful, so we'll have to wait and see if another appears.


The Australian film Predestination was not what I had expected. I had vaguely thought it was an action movie about time-travelling agents, but it turned out to be something much more subtle and complex than that, with very little action. It is based on Heinlein's short story "-All You Zombies-", which I don't remember reading. The plot did however remind me of another short story by the same author, By His Bootstraps, which is explained by the fact that AYZ is reportedly a kind of developed version of the ideas in BHB. It also reminded me of the more recent film Looper, reviewed on this blog in Febrary 2013.

Predestination is the kind of film which it is very difficult to write about without spoilers. So I will just say that it involves a whole layer-cake of time-travel paradoxes piling on each other, with scenes sometimes replayed from different viewpoints to reveal entirely different perspectives on events. It is clever and absorbing, but you have to be on your mental toes to keep up. The downside is that this is yet another film which demonstrates that single-timeline time-travel is really not possible for practical (as opposed to technological) reasons. I enjoyed the gradual revelation of what was actually going on, but at the end was left feeling "but that's completely impossible!", even though each individual element seemed logical (sort of). Despite this, if you like this kind of puzzle, watch the film!


Fred said...

I have read both of Heinlein's stories and have seen the film. The film is very close to the story, aside from the attempt to prevent a terrorist bombing. That was not part of the story. If one removes that from the film, then what remains is very faithful to "All You Zombies."

By the way, the title of the other story, "By His Bootstraps," is clearly related to the story, but I'm unable to relate "All You Zombies" to anything in the story. Perhaps "Zombies" is a futuristic slang term of some sort.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for the info, I suspect that turning a short story into a film generated the opposite problem that film makers experience when using a novel as the basis i.e. not enough material! So the terrorist plot gets added.

On reflection, the story could be used to demonstrate that single-timeline time travel is physically impossible: time-travel can only make sense in a multiverse, with each jump backwards creating a different time-line (as in The Proteus Operation I reviewed last week).

Fred said...

Yes, that was my reaction to the additional material in the film--needed to flesh it out to make a film of a decent length.

I have always had trouble with time travel stories, especially the sort where characters blithely climb into a machine and travel as easy as getting into one's vehicle and driving off. Usually I just increase tenfold my suspension of disbelief and go on.