Welcome to the second Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the pandemic, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll mostly be covering the Foundation series, in anticipation of the hopefully-as-good-as-it-looks television series coming out later in the year (which I will of course be reviewing). So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
If the movie were an animated feature that looked like this, it would be much better
After falling in love with it in the mid-70's, Julie Corman, the wife of the legendary Roger Corman, took about ten years to get a film version of "Nightfall" off the ground. Isaac Asimov, a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic of the idea of making films out of his work, declined to help, and so Corman secured the indie writer/director Paul Mayersberg. Mayersberg wrote the adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth, and as an admitted fan of that film, I was excited to see what Mayersberg could do with one of the greatest science-fiction stories ever told. My excitement was short-lived.
Before I get into why, let me disclaim a few things. I am not unsympathetic to the perils of low-budget filmmaking, and thus I try not to hold production values against a film unless they are egregiously bad. I also have no problem with film adaptations that deviate significantly from the source material (see, for instance, The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Omega Man), nor am I immediately turned off by more artsy films that favor innovation over standard film techniques or even narrative coherence. In fact, going into 1988's Nightfall knowing it was produced by Corman and written/directed by Paul Mayersberg, I expected it to have all of these hallmarks: low production values, deviations from the source material, and an artsy flavor. I was fully ready, if not eager, to be lenient about it.
If I grant the film such a considerable handicap, though, it still wildly misses the mark, spending most of its runtime in the rough and failing to come anywhere even close to par. The production values aren't just low; they are non-existent. The deviations from the source material aren't just wild; they are baffling. And the lack of narrative coherence is so profound, the movie is essentially unwatchable.
Alexis Kanner manages to shine
But before I dig into these complaints, let's pause for a brief moment and give the film the little credit it is due for the few things it does right. First, the cinematography is actually pretty good, although it's hard to go wrong when filming from the locations this film was shot in (Arcosanti, Arizona, and the Tonto National Forest). The cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski (Dark City, The Martian, Prometheus), still finds wonderful ways to frame and meditate on even the dullest scenes, and his work goes a long way to making the film barely tolerable enough to sit through.
The second highlight is undoubtably Alexis Kanner (The Prisoner), the actor who plays Sor, the blind leader of the cultists. He is mesmerizing in the role, even though he is given surprisingly little to do. Even when his monologues are over-written gibberish mixed with disjointed clichés, he manages to make his words sound meaningful, and he spends every scene acting circles around whoever else happens to be on set. Normally, I might accuse him of grandstanding or chewing the scenery, but the rest of the cast is so terrible, I can't imagine how any trained actor could do anything else. Kanner is trying desperately to elevate this film, and if he'd had better actors and a better script to work with, he might have succeeded.
The drama is pretty lame
Two bright spots, however, do not make for a brilliant piece of work. Everything else is so poorly done that the 1988 adaptation of "Nightfall" deserves the monosyllabic and trite moniker of "bad." For starters, the plot is total garbage, throwing away nearly everything about Asimov's story and instead focusing on mind-numbing and insultingly stereotypical love triangles that occasionally give lip-service to a bare-bones interpretation of the science/religion divide that provides the thematic backdrop. Gone are Asimov's thoughts on technology. Gone is the ambiguity. Gone is the actual science. Gone, even, is the provocative ending, replaced with what appears to be a happy conclusion that sees our surviving characters staring at the stars while a stagehand inexpertly dumps a giant bucket of fake snow on them from off-screen.
I cannot stress enough how dreadful these characters are. Aton, who retains little more than his name from Asimov's story, is so love-struck that he does literally nothing until the climax. Other characters are constantly going to him for help or to convince him to do something, but he barely even argues with them, going on instead about the mysterious Ana, a woman who apparently walked out of the desert one day and has never said anything about who she is or what she wants.
At least the cinematography is good
Ana is so lacking in depth, she is practically an anti-character, so lacking in dimension that she might be the first person to exist in negative dimensions. She is only in the story to serve as an object of lust for Aton and Kin (another utterly pointless character), and even though it is hinted obliquely that she might be a snake magically transformed into a human (seriously), she does more to set back the progress of female independence than the Mormons. I'd say she is objectified, but that would be an insult to objects. The other female leads don't help, either. One is Aton's ex-wife, who has joined the cult and is of course having sex with Sor, and the other is Aton's daughter, who whines her way through the first two acts before becoming a homicidal jilted lover in the third.
I could go on. I could talk about the unexpectedly violent and yet laughably executed third act, or the pathetic props that look like they were falling apart during filming, such as the goofy crystal "knives" that look like they came from the dollar store. I could talk about the incomprehensible editing or the thrift store costumes. I could talk about the visuals and sound--which really put the "special" in "special effects"--or I could talk about how long it took me to figure out what the Hell was going on before realizing that the plot is so stupid, my brain must have been refusing to accept it. However, the bottom line is, don't see this. It will make you dumber for having experienced it.
-e. magill 9/16/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: