The dismal future of 'R'-rated fantasy and sci-fi movies
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Watchmen. It's the 'Alamo' that a generation of film producers will never forget...
Whilst posting today's review of an entry in the Alpha Gods: Betrayal comic series, I noted that Scorpio studios have optioned this racy-looking comic strip, and I can only sigh at the prospect of what will be left of the original's flavour in the event that Alpha Gods should become a movie franchise. I have no feelings one way or the other about Alpha Gods (which I have not read), but a look at some of the panels - and the diminutive wardrobe of its heroines - tells me that any adaptation is likely to head the way of all (bare) flesh - years of development hell, with the only prospect of resolution a dreadfully under-funded straight-to-disc effort or an adaptation that pretty much jettisons the endomorphic ass-kicking heroines that inevitably draw in a 14 year-old male demographic.
Ask Robert Rodriguez, who had such a long yet slippery grasp on the Barbarella remake in the late noughties. Since the movie has not been made, it's hard to say whether or not it will/would have been effectively a remake of the 1968 Roger Vadim movie or more authentically derived from the long-running Jean-Claude Forest French comic strip (which lived up to that title more than most of its competitors). Either way, the prospect of funding a CGI-heavy erotic space opera that retains any semblance of the spirit of the original is pretty remote when US distributors are still twitching from the less-than-stellar performance of the incredibly faithful Zack Snyder 2008 R-rated version of the Watchmen graphic novel.
One time, they let a big-budget fantasy film be made 'the fans' way', one time...and got so badly burned that even their kids will be born with blisters.
And yet a Barbarella movie happened once before - there is something to remake, and it's a cult kitsch SF classic. What isn't taken into account are the unusual - almost unique - circumstances under which Barbarella came to be on the big screen. Firstly, it was a euro-pudding production, back when the participating countries really had some cachet, cash and clout in the United States; a French and Italian co-production, it was distributed in the US by Paramount Pictures but had a strong commercial demographic both in the country that originated the strip and the surrounding European regions, which had a more relaxed attitude to sexual content in movies. Barbarella could fall flat in the US and still be redeemed. Indeed the very nature of the Barbarella euro-pudding is evidenced by the presence of a lead with strong American appeal (Jane Fonda in the title role) surrounded by trendy British and European actors of the day such as David Hemmings and Anita Pallenberg; faces able to cross continents, if not galaxies (though the sympathetic hero angel Pygar is, naturally, played by an American, the late John Philip Law).
The revealing Paco Rabanne costumes combined with the general kinkiness of the depraved SoGo City to make Barbarella one of the primary fonts of modern cosplay, and the film's opening zero-gravity striptease also helped to guarantee some kind of low-rent return on the production's $9 million budget.
But this was 1967-68, and just inside the era when the film studios of the day were seeking to monetise the nudity-loving, sex-obsessed hippies who wanted to watch psychedelic happenings whilst stoned.
A year earlier, and the project would have been too hot a prospect for a US public that was just barely ready to cope with a subliminal flash of a nude body double for Anne Bancroft in Mike Nichols' scandalising The Graduate. Two years later, and the general amnesty on sexual content in movies would have changed the commercial parameters of Barbarella so much that the production would likely have retreated to strictly European backers and distributors, with the makers re-inserting the scene of robot-human sex that was excised from Fonda's Barbarella, and generally being a lot naughtier. And a lot cheaper than the $9m budget that Vadim got. There was only one chance for Barbarella to be both relatively faithful to the source comic (even if the title character was an outlaw in the original comic-strip and a space-cop in the movie) and still be a major studio movie. And that was it.
After a great deal of behind-the -scenes wrangling and speculation as to whether a remake of Barbarella could possibly be both sexy and commercial, Robert Rodriguez finished up in pretty much the only place he was likely to: Germany. The French and Italian film scenes had retreated back into local product decades earlier, the age of the US-saleable 'europudding' was long-gone, and there was no affording Industrial Light And Magic in a film with kinkiness, nudity and/or the other types of Strong Sexual Themes that would guarantee Barbarella V.2.0 an 'R'-rating in its core market. And though we'll never know exactly what the film's German backers were proposing for the new Barbarella, Rodriguez's retreat from Germany, citing reasons of not wanting to move his family there for an extended period and not wanting to make a Barbarella movie 'oriented towards the German audience'...all these things strongly indicate that the project was, and continues to be unable to preserve its core themes and still maintain the production values that audiences now expect of a mainstream SF/fantasymovie.
Before we move on to the other film-makers and producers who struggle to get adult-oriented SF/fantasy made, we should mention that Rodriguez has been through the entire Barbarella conundrum twice (and simultaneously), both times with then-girlfriend Rose McGowan slated for the lead role. Despite the controversially sexy Red Sonja promo photos that were unveiled at Comic Con in 2008, the project's future according to McGowan is entirely 'based on...how Conan does', and in fact McGowan plays the female lead 'Marique' in Marcus Nispel's remake of the John Milius 1981 Arnie classic, now in post-production.
Red Sonja really is 'Conan's Rib': created (as a very different character) by Conan scribe Robert E. Howard, the flaxen-haired fighter was reworked by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith into a new character for Marvel Comics' Conan series in the 1970s, eventually getting her own comic for a few years before entering the twilight of specials and special appearances. The 1985 Brigitte Nielson adaptation (a sad conclusion to director Richard Fleischer's career) was enabled by the commercial success of both the Schwarzeneggar Conan movies and a new interest in rustic fantasy films in the wake of the dwindling Star Wars SF-movie boom.
Red Sonja (1985) is probably one of the worst movies ever made - so bad that it is absolutely compulsive repeat viewing. From a character conceived in a decade that was throwing forth a number of other scantily-clad female fighting-machines (such as Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman and Charlie's Angels), Big Screen Sonja found herself in the 'double-Y chromosome' decade that feminism forgot - and in which only Ripley was to prosper as a viable female action hero, and only then by 'manning up' in Aliens.
The burly and statuesque Brigitte Nielson was a pretty convincing fighter, but lacking in any of the comic character's original wit, flair or severely limited garments. Rose McGowan looks much more like the comics' Sonja, but doesn't look like she could lift the sword (and really, should she be licking that sword...?).
Even in such a masculine incarnation as Nielson's, the producers still demanded that Arnold Schwarzenegger turn up in a guest-role to guarantee the project's credibility; and, to boot, threw in an annoying little kid. And a dog, if I remember..? The Marvel comics character was a red-headed, mostly-naked psychopath hacking her way through Hyperboria, showing and severing such amounts of flesh as could never hope to command a mainstream audience, and occupying an expensive-to-render world that needs a mainstream audience to fund it, after the standards set by Peter Jackson in the last ten years. Xena was about as near to the comics version of Red Sonja as anyone ever got.
And now Simon West is apparently trying to get Red Sonja onscreen again with Amber Heard in the title role, in a climate where female-lead actioners such as Æon Flux and Catwoman have died over and over again whilst the Underworld movies leveraged the popular vampire/fantasy angle in combination with S&M couture to create a viable franchise. A climate that loves violence and 'chicks that kick ass' but won't tolerate exhibitionism.
A new screen version of Red Sonja has more complicated demographic problems to contend with than a new Barbarella, but is in equal need of the 'family ticket' in order to get made as anything but a straight-to-disc project.
Or straight-to-video, as they used to call it back when 25 years of development hell resulted in 1995's appalling Vampirella. In an age of kick-ass heroines, an age where 'vampire' is the word that will loosen any producer's checkbook, this solidly established 42 year-old comic franchise, which has contributed so much to geek conventions and cosplay in general, has not a hope of a viable movie version - because the demographics that gave the dire 1995 Talisa Soto outing a sixty-buck budget are still in operation now. Change the costume and it's not 'Vampirella'. Don't change the costume - and it's unfilmable for more than sixty bucks.
For the earlier-mentioned Æon Flux, they did in fact 'change the costume'...
No choice really, and the movie was bad for a whole bunch of other reasons than that.
I wonder if David Fincher really understands, in his oft-thwarted effort to get a new CGI/3D Heavy Metal movie made, just how much a product of the sexy/sexist 1970s Metal Hurlant magazine really was..? The director lamented in 2008 that the vast vistas of CGI are only available to movies with the broadest demographics - a strange comment from a great artist who sprung from the commercial background of music videos and advertisements.
It isn't that no adult-oriented SF has ever been made outside of Barbarella and the SF/horror genre (Alien, Species, et al); it's just that most of it is either woefully underfunded or frankly pornographic. Or both, as in the case of 1974's sex-spoof Flesh Gordon - almost certainly an indication of what Barbarella (which had fourteen times the budget) would have looked like if they had delayed the movie any longer.
Perhaps the only solution for well-funded 'R'-rated SF/fantasy features is the one that allowed two versions of both 1978 John Travolta blockbusters Saturday Night Fever and Grease to get hugely successful audiences across all demographic ranges: each movie was released as an 'R' and 'PG' version, with sexual references or incidents removed from the latter. In the case of something as involved as Heavy Metal, that might mean shooting entire scenes twice, but there's ample precedent for that. Under the current sensibilities of American film distributors, I can't see any other way the grown-ups are ever going to get to play with the kids' toys.
So, anyway, if you're reading Alpha Gods for the racy pics and anticipating any kind of accurate rendition, do bear in mind that Scorpio Studios have a track record of producing family-friendly fare. Chances are you're just going to have use your imagination, you dirty little tykes.
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