The Day of the Triffids Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Not only one of the best entries in the apocalyptic genre, but also one of SF's most beloved notions, John Wyndham's classic parable of Man's fall from might in the face of a spiteful nature, The Day Of The Triffids has seen several dramatisations over the years. Most notably and, if we are honest, most lamentably, in 1962 when the predatory, flipper-vined monsters were battled by the miscast plank of wood that was Howard Keel in Steve Sekely's camp and far-removed exercise (actually an uncredited Freddie Francis helmed the famous lighthouse sub-plot that was infinitely better than anything Sekely came up with), but then again with the Beeb's lavish (for the time), and considerably more faithful 6-part series with John Duttine as the boffin-cum-world-saver. Now we have Nick Copus' tense and colourful reappraisal of the story from a screenplay by Patrick Harbinson that hit TV screens over Christmas 2009 in a two-part dramatisation that, as far as I am concerned, kicked into touch any of the Yuletide adventures that Aunty's premier SF show, Doctor Who, could muster, and remains possibly the most consistently entertaining version to date.

    The famous tale of survival against the relentless onslaught of predatory, carnivorous plants now seems as relevant as ever, what with super-viral bugs and genetically modified food staking a claim on our bodies and our morals. Harbinson and Triffid-loving producer Stephen Smallwood, who had long hankered after a chance at getting the tale rebooted, contrive to make the premise even more prescient by having their breed of Triffid exude a precious sap that can, and does, intervene successfully in the world energy crisis, making the farming and exploitation of these unusual plants something that is fundamentally vital. But, as science in this sort of story has a profound tendency to backfire on us, this one-sidedly happy and harmonious co-existence is utterly shattered almost overnight when a magnificent solar storm - a shower of meteors in the wake of a spectacular comet in the original book - blind the overwhelming human population of the planet, leaving only a relative handful of terrified survivors to fight off the Triffids, who have conveniently broken loose from their electrified pens and come looking for their favourite food source - which just happens to be us. Having missed the fateful solar show due to a nasty poison-sting from one of the critters down on his bio-farm that left him hospitalised and temporarily blindfolded, Triffid specialist Bill Mason (Dougray Scott), awakens to find a world of chaos and despair, the streets of London a swathe of wreckage, looting and lawlessness. The unscrupulous find easy targets in the multitudes of blind victims, and the blind, themselves, become a threat if they happen to catch hold of someone still sighted. Mason blunders into celebrity broadcaster Jo Playton (Joely Richardson), who has also survived the mass-blinding, and the two pick their way through the devastation in the hope of finding some sort of sanctuary. Mason, however, is in full realisation of the fact that things are only going to get worse when he discovers that the Triffids are on the march and devouring all those they can catch.

    With rival factions attempting to salvage something out of the dire situation - by fair means, or by vicious - Mason hopes to get out of the city and make the dangerous journey across the country to find his father, the esteemed scientist who helped bring the initial discovery of the Triffids to the world in the first place. But, as well as encountering rogue bands of survivalists and sacrificial sects, patrolling Triffids and incurring the wrath of a self-styled mini-dictator in Eddie Izzard's wonderfully deranged and fiercely determined demigod, Torrence, Mason will also have to face the trauma of his own past if he is to reforge a relationship with his estranged father (Brian Cox). Action, angst and psychological study ripple throughout the two-part film, threading a new vitality through the familiar plot and providing some interesting and intimate moments against an epic backdrop.

    Dougray Scott brings enormous charisma to the role of the beleaguered Triffid-battling scientist, supplying the sheer believability that was lacking in Keel, and a lot more warmth than the, otherwise, excellent John Duttine in the Beeb's earlier adaptation. He exudes a genuine warmth and compassion, and even during his Road Warrior-style departure from one promising cluster of soldiers, officials and civil servants, he carries that “greater good” nobility with a down-to-earth aura of hangdog charm.

    It is no longer a surprise to find Eddie Izzard delivering a fine performance. After showy supporting roles in Valkyrie and then, as he would put it, learning the craft in the US TV show, The Riches, opposite Minnie Driver, he more than meets the pumped-up role of the power-mad Torrence and his phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the fallen airliner, out of which he walks, unscathed, at the start of the "End". Bringing a winningly devious charisma to the part, literally reinventing himself in the reflection of the flames of the wreckage, he reveals a deeper, darker slant to the persona that is unavoidably more contemporary and, perhaps, a little cliché, but is convincing, nonetheless. What is surprising, however, is just how menacing the transvestite comedian can look at times. Dressed in dapper Saville Row, with that devilish goatee-beard and hefting a shotgun over his shoulder, he is the epitome of modern-day Satanism, almost a Reaganite figure of commercial diabolism. Showing him prowling around the shell of 10 Downing Street and slyly formulating his manipulative plans for a hostile takeover are a great, and occasionally surreal treat of sociopathic embellishment. In the original book, Torrence was a character very pointedly of the times and it is to both Harbinson and Izzard's credit that the new Torrence gains an equally, if not more resonant dimension.

    Villainy of a more overt and immediate variety is bestowed upon Shane Taylor, who, as pint-sized thug, Osman, looks like a half-starved Danny Dyer and comes across with almost as much of a detestable character. Sporting the kind of co-opted “hoodie” mentality that makes you immediately hate him, he is actually very good at bringing a violent, self-centred and wholly credible skulduggery to his rat-faced antagonist. On the other side of the societal rift, we have an almost unrecognisable Jason Priestley as the maverick US Air Force pilot called Coker. Trying, in vain, to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds, he strikes a chord of damned optimism. Looking a little akin to Matthew McConnaughy's dragon-smiting tank commander in Reign Of Fire (another film that levelled Britain), his bond with Mason is a likeable, if strangely ineffectual one, but the two actors play well off one another.

    And then there is Joely Richardson. Although still good in the part, and giving life to a central and, possibly even more important character than depicted in the original book, the actress never quite hits the mark as the broadcasting celebrity and familiar voice of the airwaves, who must deliver important sermons of hope to a blighted civilisation and become the other half in the love story subtext of the saga. Whilst nothing actually goes wrong with this romance amidst the anarchy and despair, and both she and Scott certainly give their characters plenty of inner strength and personality, the bond between them never really registers as anything other than plot-mapping. Likewise, the relationship that she fosters with the two young girls that Mason picks up along the tortuous route back home seems rather forced and by-the-numbers. Of course, the scenario dictates that surrogate mothering and familial affection by proxy - and, indeed, necessity - will take place, so a certain falseness is probably only right. However, there are no such issues with Brian Cox, who, as always, delivers a gruff, abrupt and yet still inordinately "human" performance as the obsessed plant-tinkerer at pains to discover a means of reaching an understanding with the Triffids that killed his wife, and Bill's mother, so many years ago. No matter how preposterous the script or the scenario, Cox almost always finds a way of investing his characters with a brusque dignity and darkly flippant turn of phrase, and his turning up in the second half of the story is a welcome addition.

    If the major notion of the classic story is about how Man responds to the collapse of society - badly, as a rule - then Copus' version gets it right, as well. The splintering of groups into factions and the shifting of power-bases is almost certainly as authentic as that which a calamity such as this would surely produce. This is a dynamic that has been played-out in everything from Lord Of The Flies to Dawn Of The Dead to The Mist, and the marvellous thing is that it proves, quite conclusively, our own ongoing mistrust of ourselves in a crisis. Once law and order has given way, there is literally nothing to stop the stampede of primal instincts taking over. But the genre always throws a few stalwart heroes and moral defenders into the maelstrom to counter-balance the depravities. What is great about this adaptation of Wyndham's accusatory concept is the step that it takes away from the original prose with regards to the lengths that some people will go to in order to protect themselves. The seemingly idyllic haven of an isolated rural nunnery, overruled by the suspiciously benevolent Durrant, played with zealous relish by Vanessa Redgrave, is brilliantly undone with the dreadful secret that it hides. Such regimented and desperate cruelty is almost worse than the savage, street-level survival instincts of Osman and his opportunist ilk. Redgrave delivers a brief, but powerful jolt to the story to accompany the growing sense of paranoia and futility.

    And, thankfully, the film is visually very impressive, too. Extensive location shooting in and around London of streets either deserted, or full of distressed blind-people, make a total mockery of similar scenes in, say, Doctor Who, with its ridiculous and now boring Cardiff stand-ins. The 28 Days Later vogue is in full effect with 6.30 AM shots of Scott and Richardson crossing Tower Bridge against the backdrop of a dead capital. Green-screen stuff looks fine and reasonably well-integrated of crashed passenger planes and ransacked city streets. The solar carousel that blinds the majority of the world's population is a beatific delight though, relatively speaking, this is possibly the most vivid visual blanket that the film offers, with the rest of the story gritty and downtrodden. But what of the Triffids, themselves? Well, between you and me, I've never found the physical aspect of the lumbering, snake-tendrilled vegasaurs all that frightening. The book inspires shudders because you use your imagination, but all of the live-action renditions that I've seen have been, well, considerably unthreatening, to say the least. Having said that, their depiction here, in CG-augmented ranks that give them vast numbers, is about the best that you could hope for. Cut-aways allow for little snippets of the shambling danger in some nifty shots of them descending on London - teetering at the end of streets, or dragging themselves along train tracks. Torrence's remark, towards the end, about them not playing fair and using the underground and the sewers to move ever-closer to those last remaining munchable humans is a great little insight into the species' conniving tactics. The CG root-play is always skin-crawling and there are plenty of small alien-like fingers creeping about the frame, once some unsuspecting victim has wandered a little bit too close. Tension is certainly elevated once we are trapped with the swaying critters, and more of them seem to be trundling-in for the kill. A great device is the recording of them communicating with one-another, something that it is nicely reminiscent of the stridulation of the giant ants in Them!

    Despite their rubbery, bulbous-headed appeal, the carnage these beasts cause is actually pretty gruesome. Cobra-like strikes from those venomous stingers, and unfurling, catch-all root-grabbers make the various kills all the more swiftly unpredictable and unpleasant. Shots of them dragging corpses through the undergrowth are strong and quite disturbing, even if their overall appearance cannot help but straddle the line between fantastical and farcical. There has been an attempt to make their flower-heads resemble demonic cowls, though this is only partially unsettling. Skirmishes between man and Triffid are well done, however, and this is where the new show is a clear winner. Jo's volatile tussle with a round-up posse of the brutes on the London streets in the second part is nice and exciting, as is Mason's mission in the dark much later on. People plucked off their feet and enmeshed in smothering vines are potent images, too. But it is simply the lurking silhouettes of them slowly converging through the mist and shadows of a forest that best instil the unease that they deserve to provoke.

    Viewers who are, perhaps, new to the story, will possibly take it for some kind of eco-riff on 28 Days/Weeks Later, but the truth is that Danny Boyle's Anglicised Armageddon took its cue from Wyndham's book, as well as George Romero's societal zombie side-swipe which, itself, was hugely influenced by the 1951 novel. At three hours long, the film actually whistles by, cramming in a lot of incident and drama and never forgetting that both parts need to have their peaks and troughs as well as a clear narrative thrust. Deviations made from the source are, for once, wise and hold up to this new interpretation and we should be thankful that this production wasn't handled by Hollywood suits, who would have demanded some sort of Mother-Triffid, or Root-Queen to be vanquished at the climax. Or, worse yet, that dreadful salt-water remedy that mired the conclusion of the 1962 version. No, this one, with only a smattering of modern genre conventions, fits the bill very nicely and adheres well to what the author originally set out to do. The producers have even made references to a potential follow-up, and there is enormous scope for one. But, for now, this is an excellent and well-mounted SF drama that does Wyndham's novel justice and bludgeons its way into the surprisingly crowded post-apocalyptic genre with some gusto.

    Highly enjoyable and definitely recommended.

    Please note that although the main feature on this UK Blu-ray plays fine on Region A machines, the PAL extras will not.

    The Rundown

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