It's okay. It's neither horrible nor brilliant, which might not sound like much of a recommendation but to be honest is less of a let-down than you'd think. I quite liked it. Yes, we're talking about John Carpenter, proven architect of greatness, but only in theory. In practice we're talking about the man most commonly referred to as Whatever Happened To Carpenter, Dammit (1995), a director whose films are best approached with moderated expectations. I'd read the reviews and my expectations had been moderated to hell and back, so I was safe enough there.
A bigger potential problem was the fact that this is based on a John Wyndham novel and he's been one of my favourite authors for about as long as I can remember. The Midwich Cuckoos died to give us this film. I'd climb mountains and swim rivers for Wyndham, but oddly enough I was fairly sanguine about what Carpenter was about to do to him. Of all the novels you could adapt, this must be one of the least cinematic. It's a charming piece, smoothing over its horrors with Wyndham's gentle authorial voice, but it appears to have one of the most throwaway endings in SF and it's a chronicle of nearly two decades' everyday life in the English village of Midwich. Lark Rise to Alderaan, if you like. Adapting it for the screen probably looks easy on the surface, but I can imagine a screenwriter simply never realising how daunting a job it is until we're watching the final results. How are you going to handle the passing of the years? Should the film try to be exciting? Scary?
With the John Carpenter version being set in an American small town rather than an English village, such comparisons never really worried me. To be honest, I don't think it would have even occurred to me to expect a faithful recreation of the tone of a John Wyndham novel in a John Carpenter movie. Besides, this isn't only based on Wyndham's novel but also on the 1960 film version.
In other words, there's little point in trying to make comparisons. So how's the film?
To be honest, it looks cheap. The cast is a gaggle of third-stringers who'll be familiar mostly to genre fans. This is a town populated by Superman, Luke Skywalker, Crocodile Dundee's girlfriend and Lieutenant Saavik from The Wrath of Khan. Fans of Cheers might be upset with me for only remembering Kirstie Alley from her first ever movie role, but what the hell. This is a slightly creepy line-up and not in a good way. I found it freaky seeing Christopher Reeve, especially since this is the last movie he ever made before his riding accident. Mark Hamill looks scary and mummified, but he's not playing a role where that was a requirement. It's easy to see why he does lots of voice work these days. Yeesh. However on the upside, I too would be happy to cast him as the Joker. Finally there's Kirstie Alley, who's... that's right, I was trying not to say "fat". She's fat. She's also rubbish. This is a distracting cast, but it's also not very good. Reeve has a couple of decent moments, I suppose.
Then you've got the children. That's always going to be a problem with a film like this, especially with Carpenter never managing to make a virtue out of the fact that they're sharing screen time with Reeve (about eight metres tall). The girls are wearing 1970s glam rocker wigs that would have looked good on a Movellan, while the acting varies from "can say the lines" to "can't say the lines". Seriously. What child of that age was going to have a clue about how to handle the "empathy" speech? Spielberg would have made it work and I'd eat my own fingers for the chance to see him do a Midwich Cuckoos adaptation, but Carpenter isn't really known for being an actors' director. He did well with that wrestler dude in They Live, for instance, but the children here are functional at best.
To be honest, the film only approximately works. Carpenter's overly interested in the horrible fates you'll meet if you annoy the children, which to be honest isn't an important part of the story. They don't have a problem with killing people. Yup, we worked that out. Whoop diddly do. I get the impression that Carpenter's trying to milk it for suspense and horror, which is always going to be a bit of a problem in a storyline that spans an entire decade. Not much urgency there. The biggest giveaway is the lack of a Zellaby, who's Wyndham's indispensible mouthpiece and alter ego in the original novel, forever speculating about the children's social and biological implications. The novel's more interested in everyday life in Midwich, not the rare occasions when the children are angry and homicidal. What's it like to share your home with a killer alien? What if it's also your daughter? That's a fascinating set of questions, but Carpenter steers entirely clear of them. I didn't really expect anything else, but it leaves a hole at the heart of this film that he never works out how to fill.
The film has a bit of gore. I liked that. It's a poor substitute for what a proper version of this story should be talking about, but it's a distraction from time to time. I also liked the ending, which is one of Carpenter's greatest gifts. He has a real knack for finding the most satisfying note on which to end his stories, or else if none exists he'll create one with a twist. He's come up with quite a good one here, clearly more satisfying than Wyndham's original ending in the context of a film like this, and it's just a shame that it's being deflated by the rest of the film being so limp. Had the preceding hour and a half been everything it could have been, that ending would have been a kick in the head.
"She was to be with me. We were to be together." I liked that too. It's a bit optimistic of the children to be assuming that much, but it's an angle we didn't see in the original novel and it's quite good. I have a feeling it's not in the 1960 film either, although I only have vague memories of that one.
It's easy to imagine different versions of this story, but that doesn't make this a write-off. On the contrary, it has a few nice moments. I liked the scene where Christopher Reeve doesn't have the expected reaction to the news of his wife's pregnancy, for instance. I'd have liked to see much more of that, but oddly Carpenter doesn't seem particularly confident when it comes to simply hanging out with the Midwich townsfolk. They're not especially convincing, with most of the married couples coming across like newlyweds, and most of their interactions with the children are aggressive and confrontational.
There isn't even any decent incidental music. Damn. I normally love Carpenter's music.
This isn't a good film, but it's not a failure either. It's flattening out one of my favourite novels in all the most clunkingly obvious ways, but I'm tempted to say that that's better than trying to compromise and be both fish and fowl. The story's skeleton is still intact and you've still got more than enough of Wyndham's original to set your imagination a-whirring if you're one of those people who likes painting pictures in their head. I quite enjoyed the results. Carpenter isn't aiming high, but he's made a perfectly passable film that for the most part hits the limited marks it's set itself. Surprisingly the thing that most disappointed me was the trivial point of the film only having nine evil children instead of the original's sixty-one. I dare say I'll watch it again one day. It's fine.