Mary Poppins Returns
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Features all the good - and all the bad - of 70s sci-fi cheese.
... a sickly satirical parody of the free world.
With the decline of the theatrical double bill and the rise of multi-million-dollar movie marketing, the term 'B-movie' has become derogatory shorthand used to dismiss a film's content or production values. This is a shame when you consider both the innate ropey charm of certain B-movies and in many cases their ability to explore more interesting and edgy ideas than many of their mainstream competitors. The Clonus Horror (a.k.a. Parts or Clonus) is a good illustration of both arguments.
The Clonus Horror is part of a wave of low-budget dystopian sci-fi films which reached their peak in the 1970s. Like Soylent Green it depicts a future in which mankind literally feeds on itself to survive, shrouding the modern equivalents of cannibalism behind a veil of scientific endeavour and an appeal to old-fashioned values. There are also nods to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the perfect nature of the compound monitored by constant surveillance, and the ear tags worn by the clones are similar to those in George Lucas' debut, THX 1138.
But by far the film's closest cousin is The Stepford Wives. The clones are conceived as perfect specimens of men and women both physically and mentally. They are regularly tested to ensure their development and are instilled with the values of the American dream - only instead of serving their husbands both domestically and sexually, they are insanely ambitious and go all wide-eyed at the very mention of America. As a bonus, the very stilted delivery that we would expect from this unique conditioning helps to disguise any real deficiencies in the acting department.
Other problems with The Clonus Horror, however, are far more noticeable and less easy to forgive. The production values are very low - as with Gregory's Girl, it looks like a film in which everyone was asked to bring their own clothes to use as costumes. The film is shot on low-quality stock and the director, Robert S. Fiveson, resorts to a lot of exterior shooting, presumably to save time and money on interior set-ups.
While this decision on its own might make sense, it also results in a number of visual shortcomings. The film is not well-directed by any means, and the abundance of exterior shoots leads to a multitude of unnecessary lens-flares or distracting light changes. The composition of certain shots is ramshackle to the point of being unintentionally funny - for instance, the scene of the woman sitting in front of the campfire in such a way that her backside looks like it is smoking. And there are lots of cheap 1970s shots of women's chests and short shorts, coupled with a typically unnecessary sex scene.
The plot of The Clonus Horror also has a number of shortcomings, with a story which is lacking in nuance and very contrived. We buy the idea of Richard breaking into 'America' to try and find out what is going on, but with all the cameras around he surely would have been discovered sooner. Certainly he wouldn't have had nearly enough time to read through all the files and watch a promotional tape about the Clonus project. Likewise it's strangely fortunate that the first person Richard runs into the real world just happens to be a friendly journalist who genuinely wants to help.
Not only is the film contrived, it is also frequently silly. Part of this silliness comes from bad continuity - in one scene Richard goes from limping down a street, having been shot in the leg and the shoulder, to riding full-pelt on a child's bicycle to outrun a guard on a motorbike. The conversations between the retired journalist and his wife unintentionally wander into Dark Star territory, as if this is what Sergeant Pinback would have ended up doing had he made it safely back to Earth. And then there is the sequence in which said characters are dispatched - not by shooting, or being arrested, but by their entire house being suddenly blown up, for no apparent reason.
In additional to these issues, the film is on one level very televisual. Its story is slim enough to have been handled easily as a one-hour mystery drama or an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. The repeated use of monitors and computer screens give the film a small-screen feel, and there are hints of the work of Gerry Anderson in both the visuals and the characters; the drop-down microphones used by the guards wouldn't look out of place in an episode of Captain Scarlet.
All that has been said so far makes out that The Clonus Horror is an abject failure in filmmaking. But in spite of its myriad flaws, the film manages to be sustained by its commitment to the ideas it explores, ideas which have subsequently formed the basis of Michael Bay's The Island and most recently Never Let Me Go. But unlike the former, The Clonus Horror could never be accused to allowing its ideas to get lost in favour of popcorn-pleasing spectacle.
This is confirmed by the film's somewhat misleading title. Despite its 18 certificate (downgraded to 15 in some territories) there is very little actual horror involved, whether gory or chilling. There is a certain amount of blood in the lobotomy scene, and the sequence of the clone being wrapped in plastic and screaming on the operating table, but that aside it's less The Clonus Horror than The Clonus Mystery. The creepiest scene finds Richard wandering into the underground freezer along the lines of plastic-covered clones, which both nods to the ending of The Stepford Wives and foreshadows David's revelation in the middle of AI.
The central idea of The Clonus Horror is that people have been cloned, sometimes against their will, to provide a steady supply of replacement organs that will allow the political elite to all but live forever. The film satirises the concept of the American dream by equating 'America' with ordinary people unwittingly and unwillingly giving up their lives to benefit the wealthy and powerful. And unlike Soylent Green, the beneficiaries of this scheme are far from faceless, with Peter Graves' up-and-coming politician carrying himself like an elderly JFK.
There are numerous scenes in the film which address the ethics of cloning, with long conversations about whether the practice of cloning is moral and whether or not clones are human. Graves argues that cloning as a means of immortality would lead to many great world leaders being able to continue doing good: his brother argues the same could apply for Hitler and Stalin. The treatment of clones as second-class citizens, people who are capable of free will and emotion but viewed purely as a physical accessory, foreshadows the examination of replicants in Blade Runner.
There are other interesting ideas which the film touches on. As part of their weekly programme, the clones go to 'confession', whereby they ask questions to a computer about things they don't understand. The computer's responses are carefully filtered by the powers-that-be to reassure the clones - an action which depicts organised religion is something which uses ignorance to manipulate ordinary people. Likewise there are the legions of doctors on whose every word the clones hang without question. The film is hinting at the privileged position of doctors and medicine in our society, who have taken over from priests as the main source of societal guidance which is never questioned and consistently held up as trustworthy.
The Clonus Horror is a good example of a film which works mainly if not solely because of the strength of its convictions. For all the things that are wrong with it - and there is an awful lot - its ideas are interesting and intriguing enough to just about carry it through 90 minutes. It's not as in-depth an examination as Blade Runner, and it can't hold a candle to The Stepford Wives, but its constant commitment to its core ideas makes it more than the sum of its parts.
The little film Michael Bay completely ripped off for The Island. However, this is a chilling allegory with a lot of heart and a much darker feel. An excellent story with lots of sympathetic characters, some of them not even human, and dark political satire along with some very cool scenes and imagery. Very good stuff.
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