FILM / Sailing the ocean blues: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (15) Ridley Scott (US); Prague (12) Ian Sellar (UK/Fr); Buffy the Vampire Slayer (12) Fran Rubel Kuzui (US); Moonrise (U) David Blyth (NZ); Tombstone for Fireflies (no cert) Isao Takahata (Jap)

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The Independent Culture
It was an enterprise on a vast, one might even say a heroic scale, undertaken against the odds and dogged by some bitter reversals. Other men got there first, and now the radicals and anti-imperialists are sneering at the accomplishment and saying that history would have been the better had it never been undertaken. And yet here it is. 1492: Conquest of Paradise, a film by Ridley Scott, and the last big cinematic flourish of a busy quincentennial year. A good thing, then, or a bad thing?

Well, the anti-Columbus faction will no doubt continue to be outraged at the almost unmitigatedly heroic light in which the film's central figure is cast. Brief hints that the navigator might have been a poor husband and father, a faker and a bit of a chancer are rapidly subsumed into the lumbering charm of Gerard Depardieu's portrayal. His Columbus is an archetypal Hollywood-style visionary who is part Renaissance Man (he models his first New World city on plans by Leonardo da Vinci), part rugged Frontiersman. Amerigo Vespucci may have beaten him to the mainland, but it is Columbus who is shown to have been truly and prematurely stuffed with the Yankee virtues of stubbornness, self-reliance and a refusal to knuckle down to Church or State.

Not that the film is overtly gung-ho: on the contrary, 1492 is crammed with ideological appeasement gestures, beginning with its sub-title - which nods to a book by the Green activist Kirkpatrick Sale - and encompass a view of the hero as a racial egalitarian and proto-ecologist. Even Islam gets a good notice, in the form of Spanish regret at the fall of Granada: 'It's a tragic victory for us, we're losing a great culture.' (Though the structure of her screenplay is solid enough, much of Roselyne Bosch's clunking dialogue is pitched at this Freshman Civics level.)

The film is concerned, that is, to identify the general murders, thefts and rapes brought in Columbus's wake as accidental rather than necessary features of the push west. Evil is an attribute reserved either for the Church, which conducts messy auto-da-fes, or for a few twisted aristocrats such as Adrian de Moxica (Michael Wincott), who wears a dandified black outfit so that it is easier to tell that he's a baddy. Apparent moral: if only Columbus had been left to his own devices, Eden would not have fallen.

Justifiable or not, Depardieu's Columbus needs this clean moral slate so that Scott can go about his business of whipping up visual thrills, shocks and uplift without provoking qualms. Much of this aspect of 1492 is splendid: the problem of underlining the drama of that first landfall has been solved with brilliant simplicity by setting it all in a fog which suddenly parts, like a curtain being drawn aside, to reveal sumptuous jungle. And when it comes to the sight of mainsails swelling, booms rising, lubbers straining and suchlike, well, dull would be the heart that did not stir.

Much of it is also quite crass, not least because of the score by Vangelis which booms and crashes away deafeningly even when Columbus is just having a minor tiff, let alone when the action turns bloody: in such moments, 1492 is the historical epic as rock video. The tropical storm that destroys Columbus's settlement is shot on eye-scorching strobes right out of Alien, and this is not the only moment which prompts comparison between the Santa Maria and the Nostromo, especially since Sigourney Weaver is on hand again to play Queen Isabel (sic) as a whimsical flirt.

There are too many scenes in 1492 which provoke winces, and yet the whole is surprisingly enjoyable: the elementary appeal of Columbus's adventure hasn't been betrayed, and while Depardieu doesn't invest Columbus with more than the rudiments of a personality, he's a humane and amiable presence, large enough not to be swamped by Scott's trademark razzle-dazzle.

Back in the Old World, something familiar is afoot. A man alone and abroad, in quest of a dark secret from the past; a beautiful, sphinx-like woman who leads him deeper into mystery and amour fou; her brooding older lover with equally inscrutable motives: at first sight, Prague has all the hallmarks of prime-cut existentialist dross. Despite the resonances of its location, though, the tone is often agreeably light - at times closer to Laurel and Hardy than to Kafka. Alexander Novak (Alan Cumming), its hero, is introduced to us as the kind of good-natured chump who will hurl himself into the river to save a dog, fail in the attempt, and struggle ashore to find that the mutt has urinated on his clothes.

Alexander is in Prague to hunt for a piece of archive film showing his mother's family swimming in the same river (bit of a leitmotif here?). Before too long he is part of a menage a trois with Sandrine Bonnaire and Bruno Ganz, and suspects that they and History are treating him just as the bad dog did. Prague is a slightly unsatisfying marriage of tragedy and farce, but Ian Sellar's direction is elegant and distinctive, and suggests that he may go on to make a comedy of real substance.

A film, that is, quite unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which isn't nearly as clever as it sounds. Though the idea of pitting ancient European evil (in the shape of Rutger Hauer, Prince of the Undead) against modern Californian idiocy (in the shape of Kristy Swanson, cheerleader and major space cadet) must have screamed High Concept] at the script conferences, the result is pitiful. Another vampire comedy, the New Zealand production Moonrise, is preferable, if only because it is aimed squarely at the pre-teenage audience, and stars Al Lewis, aka Grampa from The Munsters. Best line, delivered by a scandalised Kiwi lout: 'He's a vampire - you know what those bastards get up to, don't you?'

Also suitable for children: Isao Takahata's feature-length animation Tombstone for Fireflies, the first in the ICA's Manga] Manga] Manga] season. Set at the end of the Second World War, it follows two orphans from ruined city to countryside. The children suffer, starve, fall ill and meet nothing but cruelty and neglect. Takahata's pale drawings capture childish movement and expressions with scientific precision; hard-bitten adults, though, may find their minds drifting inexorably in the direction of Little Nell.