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George R.R. Martin’s Nightflyers – film review

September 10, 2014

NIGHTFLYERS

Psycho’s murderous mom goes all apeshit HAL in space.

nightflyers praed and stewart

Directed by Robert Collector (credited as T.C. Blake). Screenplay by Robert Jaffe, based on the novella ‘Nightflyers’ by George R.R. Martin. Starring Catherine Mary Stewart, Michael Praed, John Standing, Lisa Blount, Michael des Barres, Glenn Withrow and James Avery. Year of release: 1987. Running time: 89 minutes.

SPOILER WARNING – this in-depth review contains plot spoilers for both the book and film versions of George R.R. Martin’s novella ‘Nightflyers’ – so tread carefully.

Nightflyers is a late, if unremarkable addition to the ‘horror in space’ subgenre popularized in the early 1980s by the success of Alien in 1979 (with other notable entries including Galaxy Of Terror, Inseminoid, Forbidden World, Saturn 3 and Titan Find). Adapted from a 103 page novella originally published in an expanded form in 1981 by noted sci-fi and fantasy author George R.R. Martin (the man responsible for birthing the television champ that is Game Of Thrones), this curious oddity from 1987 is essentially a ‘ten little indians’ survival story set in deep space aboard a spacecraft under the control of a sentient and murderous computer; wherein the spacecraft itself (dubbed The Nightflyer) becomes an inescapable death trap. Set some 400 years in the future (although the filmmakers oddly chose to relocate it to the 21st Century),     the story takes place in a far flung corner of the galaxy where a scientific team of humans is assembled to embark on a deep space mission of discovery – a journey which may well lead to first contact with a mythical alien race. Team leader Karoly d’Branin is keen to seek out a nomadic race of aliens known as the Volcryn, whom     he suspects to be the oldest beings in the galaxy (an intriguing idea, but frustratingly, one which ultimately has no bearing on the outcome of the actual plot and is only introduced as a catalyst to set the story in motion). D’Branin’s monomaniacal obsession with the Volcryn is referrenced throughout the novella – but barely     touched upon in the film.

Genre darling Catherine Mary Stewart (The Last Starfighter, Night Of The Comet) leaped at the chance to play her first adult role; here essaying project co-ordinator Miranda Dorlac (Melantha Jhirl in the book), who is described in the novella as being ‘… big in every way: a head taller than anyone else on board, large-framed, large-breasted, long-legged, strong, muscles moving fluidly beneath shiny coal-black skin.’ Oh yeah, and she ‘sexes’ with pretty much the entire cast of characters in the book (alas, none of which happens in the film). Interestingly, nearly all the character names (aside from Royd Eris) have been made less futuristic and exotic-sounding and I guess more mainstream friendly – for example Karoly d’Branin becomes Michael D’Brannin (played by British thesp John Standing, who also appeared in The Elephant Man). Fellow limey Michael Praed (best known at the time for playing the titular Robin Of Sherwood in the popular British TV series) plays the mysterious Royd Eris, here making his first big screen appearance in a major role. Aside from Catherine Mary Stewart, Praed and British rocker-turned-actor Michael Des Barres; who plays ‘class 10 telepath’ Jon Winderman (Thale Lasamer in the book) – the rest of the cast           is mostly made up of relative unknowns; Lisa Blount being perhaps the only recognizable face (filling a pivotal role in John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness that same year). Here playing linguist Audrey Zale (Lindren in the book), however, she is given little to do beyond type stuff and look pretty. Originally there was a second linguist (Dannel) in the novella, but the two characters have been merged into one for the film. Then there’s Glenn Withrow as biologist Keelor (Rojan Christopheris in the book) – a character who drops his shit way too fast and for no apparent reason other than being THAT GUY who drops his shit way too fast and for no apparent reason – at least Veronica Cartwright lost her bundle with grace and believability in Alien and Bill Paxton with endearing humor in Aliens. Veteren TV actor the late James Avery plays visual documentarian Darryl Fontaine (a character who was originally a female xenotech Alys Northwind in the book). Another britisher Helene Udy plays Lilly (cyberneticist Lommie Thorne in the book) – a computer cryptologist who prefers the company of machines more so than humans. And finally rounding out the supporting cast is newcomer Annabel Brooks who plays Eliza, Winderman’s personal physician and class 3 telepath (Agatha Marij-Black in the book).

Nightflyers-Catherine-Mary-Stewart

Yup, like it or not – eighties glam makes a comeback.

The novella’s straight-forward narrative initially unfolds as an engaging Agatha Christie-style mystery; with the perpetrator’s identity concealed and suspicions immediately pointing towards the ship’s elusive captain Royd Eris – before shifting more appropriately to the ship itself. As various members of the research team become intrigued with delving into the mysterious and reclusive behaviour of the ship’s captain (he never appears in person; preferring instead to interact with his passengers via a holographic projection from inside his sealed-off command deck) and each person attempts to insinuate themselves into his privacy for the sake of sating their own curiosity (is Royd a psychic assassin?) – a series of gruesome and seemingly freak accidents begin to befall the inquisitive interlopers. In a somewhat bizarre and creepy backstory; we soon learn that Royd’s sociopathic mother had Royd cloned from her own DNA as a sexual plaything for herself, but died soon after his inception. Possessing powerful psychic abilities; his mother was able to imprint aspects of her own personality on the ship’s artificial intelligence – where she has essentially become a literal ghost in the machine; living on as the very ship itself. There is no denying the second half of the novella isn’t nearly as focussed or compelling as the first – becoming dangerously convoluted once the ship is forced     to interrupt its journey for repairs when the hull is breached due to explosive decompression and all the characters are required to leave the ship in order to carry out these repairs. It is a stretch to believe that every single member of the research team would be adept at piloting EVA pods while conducting emergency repairs in zero gravity – but hey, what do I know? Perhaps in 400 years time skills like these will be as common as changing a tyre.

michael praed - nightflyers

Michael Praed based his look on every Duran Duran video ever made.

The biggest problem with the film though occurs when Royd is essentially side-lined from the narrative for a good half hour or so at the end of Act One; while Winderman becomes the main antagonist; the story shifting suddenly from being all about Royd and his ship being ‘possessed’ by the evil presence of his dead mother – to being nothing more than yet another run-of-the-mill ‘homicidal killer on the loose in the confines of a spaceship’ scenario (much like Sunshine and Event Horizon). The result of this lazy plotting being that interest quickly evaporates and the film never fully recovers. This unnecessary expanding of Winderman’s role really is at the core of what essentially drains all mystery and intrigue from proceedings – thus leaving us feeling oddly nonplussed and disengaged. And much of the background exposition regarding Royd’s mother (and her telekinetic abilities branding her a witch and social outcast) has also been taken from Royd and given to Winderman to explain. The ending of the novella too is quite different from the film; with Karoly d’Branin left to drift alone in space finally encountering his beloved Volcryn, while aboard the Nightflyer; Royd is killed by his mother, but is able to imprint himself successfully on the ship’s AI (thus gaining control of her) – as Melantha (Flying Dutchman-like) takes on the role of ship’s captain, determined to continue her pursuit of the Volcryn. The film, however, jettisons all this in favor of something far less interesting; where Royd’s mother (here named Adara) is revealed to be an actual physical presence aboard the ship (being kept all this time in a secret cryonic freezer vault) – only to be reawakened in a murderous rage; as she attempts to kill Miranda and Royd with Sith lightning; before the two escape her pyrotechnic clutches in the latter’s pod and the ship explodes (of course).

MSDNIGH EC024

Sure, kinda’ creepy – but where’s all the blood?

The other major issue which seriously affects the film is a complete lack of actual horror – with the gore being toned down considerably from how it is depicted in the book. The novella’s one big shock moment – where the mentally unstable telepath Thale Lasamer’s skull explodes Scanners-style in front of everyone (after he is administered a psychic sensitivity-enhancing drug called esperon; in an attempt to get a better fix on a sinister presence he senses onboard the ship) – is a supremely important, not to mention hugely visceral shock moment, which is sadly missing in the film. It’s a scene which should serve the same purpose as the shower scene in Psycho or the chest-burster in Alien – something so shocking as to let us know in     no uncertain terms that suddenly all bets are off and we are now at the mercy of the unexpected. Winderman in the movie does eventually succumb to a fairly graphic demise thanks to an automated surgical unit under Adara’s telekinetic control (a rogue laser scalpel amputates his left arm at the shoulder and cuts his skull in half at the jaw, all with an astounding lack of blood) – but this has virtually nothing to do with him taking esperon. The only effect on his character from taking the drug in the movie is that it allows him to mind-meld with the ship’s AI and receive a massive info-dump about Royd’s backstory with his mother (exposition which was originally given to Melantha by Royd himself in the novella). Without this gruesome exploding of Winderman’s skull being the catalyzing event which creates an urgency in the research team to learn if Royd himself is responsible (thereby giving them justification in delving into his personal affairs) – their preoccupation with uncovering the truth isn’t nearly as convincingly motivated as it really should be; thereby creating a major lack in credibility as far as character motivation is concerned. Also, this moment when Winderman’s skull explodes could have been – and should have been – the tour de force shock moment of the entire film. Just why the filmmakers shied away from exploiting this remains a total mystery. The info-dump, by the way, which Winderman delivers to Miranda in the film flat-out states that Adara’s ‘spirit’ considers her son’s romantic yearnings towards Miranda as a threat in presenting the possibility that he may be taken away from her by this ‘other woman’ – an intriguing, if admitedly ‘on     the nose’ idea which is never touched upon in the novella – but seems more likely inspired by Norman Bates and his mother issues as seen in Psycho.

nightlyers michael praed - catherine mary stewart

Wait – a pipe organ in space?

The finished film is fairly brimming with a litany of other plot contrivances which aren’t in the original source. A good example of this is the demise of D’ Branin – which is also handled in a clumsily-staged and ludicrous manner. With the uncertainty of his ultimate fate in an earlier draft screenplay I read (and the source novel ie: being left     to drift alone in space in an EVA pod) being, I guess, deemed to be lacking in drama and replaced instead with Adara (somehow) conjuring up a vision of what I guess     is meant to be the Volcryn; which acts as a decoy in luring D’ Branin in his pod to investigate; before (once again, somehow) blowing him to smithereens with a bolt     of Sith lightning – wait, what? When was this ever justified as being an ability Adara possesses? The earlier draft of the Nightflyers script does stay truer in many respects to the source novella (Winderman’s death, for example, happens much sooner – and in a more gruesome fashion), although the ending again climaxes with the destruction of the ship – albeit not at the hands of a revived Adara, but due to a collision with the Volcryn itself. It remains unclear just who was responsible for the radical changes this earlier and arguably more faithful draft seems to have undergone in subsequent rewrites (as reflected in the completed film) and why these changes were made.

NIGHTFLYERS, 1987. ©New Century Vista Film

I do get the impression these wildly unnecessary (and not very good) departures from the source material may point to production difficulties; a possibility backed up by     the fact that helmer Robert Collector reportedly left the production during editing and requested his name be removed from the credits: hence the pseudonym T.C. Blake. Collector later went on to pen the shamefully underappreciated big screen adaptation of H.F. Saint’s brilliantly-conceived yet unfilmable novel ‘Memoirs Of An Invisible Man’ for Chevy Chase in 1992. The screenplay adaptation for Nightflyers itself was handled by the film’s writer/producer Robert Jaffe; a genre vet best known for his memorable adaptation of Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed in 1977 and his original screenplay for the horror comedy Motel Hell in 1980. The wildly eclectic production design by John Muto (Night Of The Comet, Species) is interesting in its blending       of various cultural aesthetics: Art Deco, Goth and Moroccan – while there definetly seems to be an Overlook Hotel vibe from Kubrick’s The Shining going on here as well. And the visual effects by Gene Warren’s Fantasy II company (who had previously supplied visual effects for The Terminator) are fine for the most part         in spite of the obvious budgetary limitations. While the synth-heavy score by first-time film composer Doug Timm (tragically murdered two years after composing this; his one and only film score) is sadly lacking in setting the appropriate tone with its jarringly jaunty opening theme. I cannot seriously recommend this film to anyone really; aside from those obsessed with everything George R.R. Martin and lovers     of 80s low budget sci-fi splatter films (and 80s glam hair and lip-gloss). And even     then I’d be inclined to say give it a miss and read the book. Actually, considering     the film has never been released officially on DVD and is only currently available     as a manufactured-on-demand VHS-sourced ‘grey market’ rip – this shouldn’t be     hard to do.

2 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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