30 December, 2009

What the Papers Say: "The Day of the Triffids"


Brian Viner, The Independent

"As for the passage of time blunting the impact of television, I watched the first episode of The Day of the Triffids with my children, expecting at least the youngest of them to be as spooked as I was when, at about the same age, I watched the 1962 film on the telly. Yet he pronounced it no scarier than an average episode of Doctor Who.

Still, we all thought it was jolly good. Writer Patrick Harbinson had a creditable stab at updating John Wyndham's 1951 story for the 21st century, presenting the psychopathic plants as the source of an oil that has replaced diminishing fossil fuels and saved the planet from global warming. And the acting was as splendid as you would expect of a cast including Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and, entering the fray tonight, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox. Not to mention Eddie Izzard, who might in fact be the scariest thing of all about the production, the amiable comedian looking entirely at home as the sinister villain of the piece.

All credit to director Nick Copus, too, for making the Triffids about as intimidating as he could, and not allowing them to look too much like killer rhubarb. I wonder, though, whether he might have missed a trick. At this time of year, there is a ubiquitous plant that frankly alarms the hell out of me: poinsettias are taking over the world, and nobody seems to have noticed."

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Alex Hardy,
The Times

"You know that scene in Scary Movie, in which they pastiche the sexing up of horror movies by having Carmen Electra flee, screaming, nearly naked, through a sprinkler system? Well, that’s how the opening seconds of the
Day of the Triffids remake felt — only this wasn’t a parody. A lovely-looking lady screamed, soaking wet in the jungle rain — and I knew straight away that the daft bits of the Triffids makeover were going to utterly eclipse any good stuff that an extra 28 years of special effects could pour on.

And lo, this became a study in how we now make telly shows big and sexy. Gone the theatrical stillness of the original mini-series — the stagnant faces of the opening titles enough to have you hiding behind the sofa — that was like so 1981! No, here’s what we need for sexy 2009 TV!

Let’s big up an X Factor-style tragic back story for Bill! Give him a pretty mum (the wet lady) and have her killed by triffids in Zaire! And his dad, they don’t talk any more, but he was the one who genetically modified the plants so they could replace fossil fuels! Cue Dougray Scott earnestly debating: my dad — hero or villain; in between dazzling flashbacks to his dying mum and a load of bonkers tribal masks! Let’s not give Bill one love interest, but two! (One implied, and killed of course, at the start; the second, a stiff Joely Richardson as Jo — if they don’t cosy up in tonight’s finale, I’ll wear the original Jo’s yellow jumpsuit throughout 2010 . . .) Oo, and we need a mass-media angle, so let’s make Jo a radio star!

Everything, everything, faster, bigger! If one silhouetted hand pawing a frosted window did it in 1981 — we’ll have Shaun of the Dead-style blind zombie crowds! And triffids, not just a few clacking quietly like overgrown celery, but huge epidemics that eat you from the sky! Might as well, given that we’ve spewed the whole triffids-bad premise within minutes.

Yes, yes; different times, different values. Or perhaps even a starker message for more urgent times: Triffids’ enviro-gospel made it absolutely ripe for a remake; many of the bigwigs who recently had a mini-break in Copenhagen would doubtless sell someone else’s right arm to solve global warming. And some of the effects were epic: the light shows above beautifully devastated city skylines.(They couldn’t do much for the triffids though — giant celery is still giant celery, whether it’s made from papier mâché or a million megapixels of CGI fairy dust.)

But the remake could have done with hanging on to more of the less-is-best of the original. Some slower deliciousness arrived by necessity when each sighted person was handcuffed to a blind charge — but mostly this quality was reserved for Eddie Izzard’s very bad baddie. On the backdrop of the more-is-more chaos, how could you not be charmed by his arched-eyebrow expressiveness as he sauntered silently around a crashing plane to steal everyone’s life jackets; quietly bonded with a Churchill statue; or stopped to tell the person he’d kidnapped: “Seatbelt on please, Hilda.” Will I watch tonight? Probably, if only to see what Izzard’s eyebrows did next, and how preposterous the tribal-mask subplot gets."

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Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

"In the land of the blind, Gordon Brown should be king. But he doesn't even seem to be prime minister any more; he is nowhere to be seen, Downing Street has been deserted and Eddie Izzard has taken over. That could make for a refreshing change. Should we worry for the economy?

Eddie was snoozing on a 747 with an eye mask on when the Big Flash happened, so he got to keep his sight; then he survived the plane crash by locking himself in the loo with a load of inflated life jackets (would that even work?). Now, inspired by Winston Churchill's statue in Parliament Square, he's gone power crazy. There are a few other lucky ones, including Joely Richardson, who kept her sight but appears to have lost the ability to act, and Dougray Scott, who's still going to fall for her – as well as trying to save the world. Otherwise, it's just the blind . . . well, you know who they're leading. Plus the killer plants, of course, whose day this is.

We met them – the killer plants – early in part one of The Day of the Triffids (BBC1) on Monday night, after which it became very hard to take any of it very seriously. No screen adaptation of John Wyndham's classic post-apocalyptic novel can ever really compete with the book: when it comes to creating menacing flora, special effects and computer graphics still lag a long way behind the human imagination. These triffids are laughable. They seem to be based on quite a common species of cactus (I don't know the name, but I've definitely seen them in the plant section of Homebase). Then, rising from the centre of the plant, is a kind of red hoodie – possibly playing, like a Daily Mail editorial, to our fear of modern feral youths. The Day of the Asbo Cacti. Pah! They don't frighten me: they're cute, I want one, for my conservatory. Well, I call it a conservatory . . .

The triffids' collective performance is still better, and less wooden, than Joely's. In last night's second and concluding part, her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, attempted to restore some dignity to the family's reputation with a spirited performance as the mother superior of a rural convent. Dougray has ended up there, injured and in need of help if he's to save mankind, though Vanessa turns out not to be the saint she appears to be. (Was anyone else concerned about the wound by Dougray's right eye, I wonder, and the way it seemed to appear and disappear? Maybe that's just symptomatic of a triffid sting).

Anyway, the convent is a beautiful place, filmed – I think – at the Hospital of St Cross in Hampshire, with St Catherine's Hill covered in snow (and waving triffids) behind. I enjoyed all the locations, and trying to identify them – the views over London, the Gherkin in the City, the Ark at Hammersmith, the A4, Cobstone Windmill (possibly) in the Chilterns. This was a big-name, all-singing, all-dancing, big-budget production and, hoodie triffids aside, it looked fabulous.

It was also pretty faithful to the novel, in terms of character and plot. So they modernised it a bit, gave it a new eco makeover, with the triffids being grown as a source of renewable, clean energy, instead of something to do with the Soviet Union. And it's a loony plant-rights activist who liberates the triffids in the first place – for which he pays, as he should do, with his life.

Under these bodywork modifications though, the chassis is basically the same. I'm glad they kept the ending, too – the Isle of Wight and an uncertain future for mankind – instead of the happy discovery that seawater works as a triffidicide, which is what one screen adaptation had.

But – and it's a big but – what it doesn't do is anything the book doesn't. In fact, it does a lot less – there is none of that feeling of foreboding or doom. Maybe it's because I was (much) younger when I read it, but I remember a certain darkness. I'd like to have tried it out on some children, but unfortunately there weren't any to hand. I've been more scared watching Doctor Who. I don't think I'm even going to have a problem going to the plant section of Homebase."

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Catch up with iPlayer:

Part 1

Part 2

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Overnights:

Part 1 = 6.1m

Part 2 = 5.6m

5 comments:

Adaddinsane said...

As the last reviewer said: lack of menace - that was my take.

In an orgy of self-promotion I shall mention the fact that I have writ my own review :-)

(And today's verification word is "boarbidi" - a little old lady who tells tedious stories.)

Robin Kelly said...

I agree with the first reviewer.

Plants are not scary (apart from cabbage. Ugh!)but this version managed to make them more scary than the previous versions I've seen where I had to struggle not to laugh.

Oli said...

Cabbage is awesome. I won't hear a word about it.

I refuse to believe that going blind would turn everyone into evil looters though.

Verification keyword: Distreth. The distress one feels at having a lisp.

Jonathan said...

Agree with the last reviewer: enjoyable as this modernisation was, it lacked the menace of Wyndham's original novel. A pity.

Robin Kelly said...

Oli, OK, I'll give cabbage another go :-) I could believe the panic. Most people try not to think about disability, imagine suddenly going blind and there is no family, charity, social services to help you as they've all gone blind as well. And maybe people didn't become evil because they were blind but were evil before.

Jonathan, lots of people have mentioned this and I understand the disappointment but I think the drama has to stand on its own as if the book didn't exist and judged for what it is: a primetime drama for BBC1.