Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Quatermass Experiment

The Quatermass Experiment
Sam Miller

The Quatermass Experiment is a very odd television movie, not only is it a loose remake of the original Quatermass Experiment mini-series from 1953 and the film version The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) but it was also produced as a live broadcast. It is an ambitious idea, taking a science-fiction story built on spectacle and trying to render it within the limitations of live television, but it never comes together in a satisfactory way. I imagine at the time of broadcast there was an element of tension since it was live and anything could go wrong. Viewing it now as a recorded story that element of tension is lost and there isn’t much left to replace it.

The plot is relatively close to that of the original. Professor Bernard Quatermass is the head of a rocketry group that is overseeing a mission into orbit with three astronauts. The ship flies too far into space and crashes on its return. Where there were three astronauts, there is now only one with no sign of the other two. From there we watch as Quatermass and his team slowly puzzle out the mystery while the rising specter of something unearthly and dangerous becomes more and more apparent.

This version spends a considerably longer time with surviving astronaut Victor Carroon (Andrew Tiernan). This is a wise move for a live drama and it delivers some of the strongest moments in the story as we explore the dawning horror that there is something terribly wrong with Victor and we connect with him as a human being to the extent that we can. This element can’t carry the whole story and when Victor escapes from his confines and begins to wander London things become much less interesting. Each scene is broken up by a lengthy transition which at the time allowed the live production to set-up the next scene but it kills much of the momentum.

I was also very interested to see how they were going to handle some of the make-up and monster effects, and the short answer is that they don’t. There are several opportunities for some fun stage make-up or miniature effects that could be done in-camera but The Quatermass Experiment steadily avoids them as much as possible. The climax of the story has an ethereal feel that almost rescues things, but it feels too slight by the end.

Performances are strong all around. David Tenet almost steals the show as Doctor Gordon Briscoe by demonstrating the charisma that will make him such a popular choice as The Doctor when Doctor Who picks him up shortly after this aired. Jason Flemyng’s turn as Quatermass lies somewhere between the brashness of Brian Donlevy in the first two Quatermass films and the haunted figure created by John Mills from The Quatermass Conclusion (1979).

In the end, The Quatermass Experiment doesn’t stand on its own. As a one-off live television event, it seems like it would have been fine if underwhelming. As a film it only feels relevant in conversation with the earlier productions of this story, there’s nothing compelling here that wasn’t done better in other versions. If you are a Quatermass completionist, it is worth checking out for curiosity’s sake but for everyone else The Quatermass Experiment crashes and burns.

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