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Celluloid lessons

Why do lives take the courses that they do? Wherefrom the motives that push some people into accountancy, some into social work, some into crime, some to be butchers, or bakers, or neon-light fitters? Is it the money? The desire to help others? A love of the profession?

With careers in science, it’s certainly not the money. Philanthropy? – well, sometimes, perhaps, in the cases of those who quest for cures for cancer or malaria. Mostly, though, it seems to be just plain old curiosity, driven to ridiculous extremes.

And what sparked this? Well, my memory, treacherous device that it is, suggests that it wasn’t the standard school lessons that played much of a role. (Memory, though also clings affectionately to the more relaxed and freeform classroom improvisations; in dark moments, therefore, I wonder whether the increasing regimentation of education might not be having a long-term effect precisely the opposite of that intended). 

No, my early enthusiasms were fuelled by to a significant extent by trash culture: comics, read and re-read, and science-fiction, which seemed, then, to paint worlds of infinite possibilities. The lurid covers of sixpenny dreadfuls were an irresistible invitation to curl up in an armchair and be transported into a world of, say, arch-villains, death-rays and daring space-cadets, stalking each other amid Venusian jungles. 

There’s nothing here, I hasten to add, which anyone might call contemporary. Today’s sci-fi seems, by contrast, serious and frighteningly well-informed. In this age of fact-checking, its calculated science sometimes has a real impact on research. Just think of the research papers provoked by Jurassic Park, as people raced to find out just how likely it was to spawn dinosaurs from an amberful of DNA. And The Day after Tomorrow is already touted to affect international climate policy. 

But old sci-fi? Merely quaint, and camp, and the most dated of genres, now served up for us to delightedly ridicule. Memory begs to protest, though, that it wasn't always so.

For example: One Million Years BC. I remember it from childhood as the newest, brightest, marvellousest spectacle of prehistoric adventures, a wonderful canvas of recreated delights, that helped spark enthusiasm for all things ancient and monstrous: complete with Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, an impressive sight for any young passionate enquirer after scientific truth. Recently this filmic icon returned to fill a TV time slot in the small hours. Should one preserve intact innocent – well, almost innocent - childhood remembrances? Or should one swing the adult boot of delighted ridicule? There was, of course, no contest.

I found that I had entirely forgotten the storyline. It's a morality tale. There's the Bad Tribe. Beetle-browed brutes who exterminate each other indiscriminately, with fear and loathing reigning in a cave where the feng shui is simply dreadful: a kind of a cross between a modern boardroom and the Millwall fan club (provisional wing), ca 1971 after 23 successive home defeats. 

But wait: there's the hero in there. His loutishness lacks conviction, his brow beetles less and his face betrays a confused yearning for Arsene Wenger's coaching style. It’s obvious that we’re going to join him on a journey of inner discovery. 

Cut to the Good Tribe. They murmer harmoniously as they take fur crochet-work to a new peak of achievement. Their cave just glows with good feng shui. Raquel Welch is there, compiling the local Soroptimist membership list and pretending that a fur bikini isn't even the teensiest bit naughty. Her name isn't given, but Rocks Anne seems about right. She meets Our Hero, who has been thrown out of the Bad Tribe for good behaviour. They yearn. They set off into the wilderness together.

They meet monsters. Everyone remembers the dinosaurs in this film. But the temporal mismatch is fascinatingly more complex. The voiceover on the credits proclaims the world recreated as young and the landscape as unevolved. There's no vegetation to speak of. So we're in the Early Palaeozoic? Volcanoes smoulder and erupt, so possibly the early Pre-Cambrian. The world as young? - well, with humans around, about 99.995 per cent of its present age. Intriguing. 

The monsters include a couple of generalized Thugosauruses (not half bad, I thought), a Stegosaurus, a very large turtle, an even larger tarantula, an enormous lizard of suspicious iguanishness and pterodactyls who flap their wings faster than hummingbirds. The Thugosauruses are distressingly stupid. Our Hero dispatches one by pointing a stick at it, while the other tries to fight the Stegosaurus by gnawing one of its horns. A bad move: fatal, in fact. It was obviously tough being a top predator in those days. 

The intrepid pair also run across Even More Primitive Man, cladistically linked to the Bad Tribe. Although Even More Primitive, they know that it is important to get a head in life. Some had collected several, mainly energetically detached from the shoulders of their peers. 

Bad Tribe steal Rocks Anne. Our Hero recaptures her after a stunning display of clubwork. They yearn some more, and tentatively rub cheeks. Our Hero nobly averts his eyes from Rocks Anne's bikini, which is leading a life all of its own. Does one hear rhyming couplets, murmered sotto grunte? His identity becomes suddenly apparent. Why - this is Cyrano de Bergerocks! Rocks Anne and Cyrano push through social reforms. Pausing only to dust off some 3000 ton boulders that a passing volcano had buried them with, they lead the tribes forward to a brightly lit future.

Risible? Of course. Inaccurate? The very inverse of accuracy. Fun? Lots. Misleading? Yes, but the slippery half-truths of Jurassic Park probably spread more serious misconceptions. 

In its way, it did the difficult trick of firing the imagination while not being in any danger of being taken seriously. So let's celebrate honest sci-fi vulgarity. It must be time for a sequel. One has to move with the times, obviously. So I can't wait for 999, 990 Million Years BC. This show should run and run.

Jan Zalasiewicz

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