January 18, 2011

One of the fun things about science-fiction novels is the way they create a complex world unto themselves, a world full of fresh history, science, rules and regulations, with weird new names for everything.

The problem with adapting such an ambitious work—Dune, for instance—for the movies is that a movie doesn’t have 400 or 800 pages in which to detail and describe its brave new world. A movie has to do it in two hours.

Perhaps this is why a movie such as Dune, despite the interesting contributions of director David Lynch, doesn’t really come alive on the screen. In trying to acknowledge the novel’s many subplots and details a film can end up giving short shrift to everything.

That seems to be the case with Nightfall, a movie based on Isaac Asimov’s novel. I haven’t read the book, but from the outset, the film is obviously trying to catch us up on a huge amount of information.

It’s an onslaught, really, of plot: a community, on a planet somewhere, ruled by a man of reason and science (David Birney). Three suns have provided a millennium of constant daylight.

However, there is a group of naysayers who run around in purple terrycloth robes and quote from the Book of Illuminations, which sayeth that a nightfall will come and plunge the planet into darkness. The natives, not thinking that nighttime might be survivable and even enjoyable, regard the coming sunset as apocalyptic. One by one, the suns start dropping below the horizon.

It’s a fine idea for a sci-fi story, but writer-director Paul Mayersberg has decided to cram in as much of the story’s paraphernalia as he can. This means that scenes tend to last about 30 seconds or so, and it’s all exposition.

Much of it is incomprehensible, unless, I suppose, you’ve read the book. We never have any idea why the ruler’s first wife (Sarah Douglas) would go over and join the purple terrycloth people, or why she would be so eager to have her eyes pecked out by hawks (the movie’s big oooh-yecch scene).

Nightfall is so bewildering that I began to look forward to appearances by the chief villain, a blind prophet of doom played by Alexis Kanner, who chews each word of dialogue as though he were paid by the minute. Kanner hams it up so mercilessly that he’s always a welcome presence; he would’ve made a great Roman crazy in those biblical epics of the 1950s.

By the way, the movie carries one of the raunchier PG-13 ratings in recent memory, with a couple of peekaboo sex scenes. It also has the year’s most gratuitous snakebite scene, in which a woman must suck the poison out of a man’s thigh. Both people are naked at the time, as bad luck would have it.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1988

It will be obvious to Asimov fans that this entire review is based on a false assumption: indeed I had not read the “novel,” which is actually a short story. So yes, a valid argument about the principle of abridging novels into movies is somewhat invalid here. I can only defend myself by noting that this movie is indeed so complicated and subplot-heavy that it feels as though it had been adapted from a sprawling novel. If you saw this movie you’d wouldn’t care where it came from either, and you wouldn’t care about much else, for that matter.

So Paul Mayersberg co-founded Movie magazine in Britain in the early Sixties, wrote the screenplays for The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and Croupier, and also directed this crazy thing. I’m not sure how that happened, but you can read more about him here. It was odd to see David Birney in the lead role of a big-screen movie, but that’s what this picture is like.