Friday, 1 January 2010

The Day Of The Triffids (2009)

Friday, 1 January 2010

[SPOILERS] John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day Of The Triffids always felt like two ideas fused together to me (a catastrophe where the majority of the world are blinded by a meteor shower, resulting in the collapse of society; and a doomsday action-drama about walking, man-eating plants called Triffids.) But those ideas never gelled on the page for me, mainly because the Triffids were fictional beasts that Wyndham just asked us to accept outright, but their odd existence always dragged me out of the story. To this day I believe the killer plants should have arrived on Earth as alien spores carried on said meteorites, but maybe another remake will make that alteration some day...

This two-part BBC miniseries (which would have worked better as a four-part series, and seemed to be paced thus), spiced up Wyndham's book by keeping a few updates from the revered 1981 BBC TV series (the notion of humanity farming Triffids for their oil, for e.g.), adding some new plot-points/characters of its own, and stirring in 28 Days Later's sensibility and chilly aesthetic. The irony being that Danny Boyle's own post-apocalyptic film owed a debt to Wyndham's tome, as both feature a protagonist spared from harm after being hospitalized.

The recap the basic premise: Dr. Bill Masen (Dougray Scott) is a scientist working for "Triffoil" -- a company that farm giant plants called Triffids as a source of environmentally-friendly fuel that prevented global warming. Bill's mother was killed by a Triffid's sting while working in Zaire when he was a young boy, and he's grown up to become a world authority on the dangerous plants himself, which are secretly imprisoned for harvesting inside Triffoil's huge en masse. After suffering a sting to the eyes while preventing an activist releasing captive plants, Bill is fortunate enough to miss a solar storm that burns the world's skies a pinkish hue – resulting in mass blindness.

Bill's sight is protected behind his bandages, and he awakens to find himself one of very few sighted people left in the world. Others include celebrity broadcaster Jo Playton (Joely Richardson); a sleeping passenger aboard an aeroplane (Eddie Izzard), who survived the ensuing crash by stealing everyone's inflatable life-jackets and using them to pad the toilet cubicle; and dashing American Major Coker (Jason Priestly) who's angry that the remnants of the British government are unwilling to help their blind citizens.

What followed was a very entertaining take on the source material from screenwriter Patrick Harbinson (ER, Millennium), although the first part suffered from a rushed feel and the inevitable problems of representing the chaos that would befall London if the country went blind overnight. Day Of The Triffids certainly did a far better job than the BBC's recent Survivors remake, but there was still a feeling that you need a Hollywood-sized budget to do Wyndham's prose justice. It goes without saying that this '09 remake did a slicker job than the '81 TV series in every aspect of its production design, although the '80s series had a more relaxed pace that allowed you to absorb the characters and feel the passage of time.

Certainly, the one big flaw of this version was how events felt very rushed at times: Bill and Jo fell in love simply because they're opposite sexes and the lead characters, a storyline involving a group of nuns protecting their village community by sacrificing the elderly to Triffids lasted all of 20-minutes, and after Bill met two orphaned children they started to consider Bill and Jo their "parents" within what felt like minutes! Like I said, I think the BBC should have aired this as a four-part weekly series (so such leaps didn't feel quite so awkward), or else have insisted on a full-length series so the scripts could have breathed.

However, there was still much to enjoy about Day Of The Triffids '09. Dougray Scott's airy voiceover was irritatingly coy, but the Scottish actor made for a decent lead -- both believable as a macho action-man and as a skilled botanist. Joely Richardson was less interesting, but didn't embarrass herself. Eddie Izzard left the strongest impression, mainly because opportunistic Torrence was a very interesting wrinkle in the story -- only letdown by the fact we didn't grow to understand his backstory or motivations too well. Jason Priestly appeared to be following the lead of fellow Beverly Hills 90210 co-star Brian Austin Green (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), in attempting to rebrand himself as a hunky action-man, but he was unfortunately given the laziest, two-dimensional character in Major Coker. Brian Cox also appeared as Bill's father in the final part -- which was a believable piece of casting that really worked well -- as well as Vanessa Redgrave (Richardson's real-life mother), as a misguided nun.

The special effects were very good, with enough scenes of large-scale disaster to sell the idea of a global catastrophe, and the eponymous killer plants were recreated well via a mix of CGI and animatronics. Making walking plants appear scary is tough (it's what still causes sniggers about Wyndham's book), but this miniseries did a competent job -- the Triffids walking upright on a seething mass of roots, their purple "hoodies" spitting dangerous tendrils toward their prey's eyes. I was never truly scared by them, but they were a fun enemy that didn't come across as totally laughable for once.

Overall, Day Of The Triffids may upset fans who would have preferred a straightforward adaptation of the book without so many changes, but I think enough of Wyndham's narrative and spirit was retained to make these alterations welcome. I'd have been bored if the exact same story was being told again, so I rather enjoyed seeing new ideas weaved into the narrative. The direction from Nick Copus (The 4400) was also first-rate; creating a smoky-green atmosphere of dread and tension that helped keep the miniseries feeling cold and bleak at all times. I also enjoyed its many World War overtones: Coker's US airman's bomber jacket, scenes of nightly devastation across London resembling the Blitz, the climactic siege of Triffids resembling Germans advancing across No Man's Land to a barbed-wire trench, and megalomaniac Torrence's fascination with Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

28 & 29 December 2009
BBC1/BBC HD, 9pm

written by: Patrick Harbinson directed by: Nick Copus starring: Dougray Scott (Bill Masen), Joely Richardson (Jo Playton), Eddie Izzard (Torrence), Brian Cox (Bill's Dad), Vanessa Redgrave (Durrant), Jason Priestley (Coker), Ewen Bremner (Walter Strange), Shane Taylor (Osman), Andreas Hoppe (Professor Vorless), Nora-Jane Noone (Lucy), Genevieve O'Reilly (Michelle Beadley), Tim Frances (Colonel), Steven Elder (Doctor Koch), Adam Sinclair (Ashdown), Jenn Murray (Susan), Julia Joyce (Imogen), Rosalind Halstead (Cordelia), Lizzie Hopley (Hilda), William Ilkley (Jeff), John Wilson Goddard (Charlie), Paul Chahidi (Vronsky), Troy Glasgow (Troy), Philip Anthony (Father Thomas) & Sam Williams (Young Bill)