Where too many have gone before

Scream 3 (18) | Director: Wes Craven | Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox Arquette; 118 mins Galaxy Quest (PG) | Director: Dean Parisot | Starring: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman; 102 mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

There was a sound quite impossible to ignore during the first screening of Wes Craven's Scream back in 1996. It wasn't particularly loud or histrionic, but it was eerie: it was the sound of an audience whimpering. Every time the phone rang - the killer's signature calling-card - there was an audible sense of collective alarm, and the suddenness with which that Munch Scream mask loomed out of the dark, hunting-knife glinting through the air, made us jump, perhaps even yelp with shock. Forget The Blair Witch Project - the prologue in which Drew Barrymore is stalked amid the popcorn ("Do you like scary movies?") was a blast of pure horripilating terror.

Part of the reason why Scream distinguished itself from the slasher circuit - and why it could afford to run to a sequel - was the subversive wit and irony which writer Kevin Williamson invested in the screenplay. This wasn't just a horror movie, it was a droll commentary on horror movies. By the time Scream 2 came along, the ironies had multiplied to the point where the film had become a commentary on itself: one of the best scenes involved a bunch of film students discussing whether sequels could ever improve on the original. (The conclusion was that they couldn't, aside from Godfather 2, the exception that proved the rule).

With Scream 3, the needle on the irony meter hovers permanently around red. Kevin Williamson has ceded screenwriting duties to Ehren Kruger (no relation to Freddie, one presumes), but the level of self-referential cuteness has still climbed to a vertiginous height. Where Scream 2 opened at the premiere of a teen slasher flick called Stab, now we're propelled into the Hollywood set on which Stab 3 is being filmed. And before you can say "I'm not sure second sequels are a good idea", cast members are being carved up by the man in the Munch mask. It helps to know something about movies here - it might even save your life. A Stab 3 bit player (Jenny McCarthy) has already made one gaffe ("The shower scene's been done. I mean, Vertigo, hello?") but she's not to know that the killer is dispatching the cast in the same order they die in the script of Stab 3.

News of the murders forces our heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) out of her hillside retreat, where she's been hiding since the last time she almost got skewered. Leading the media charge is bitch-on-wheels tabloid hack Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox Arquette), eager to capitalise on the book she wrote about the original murders. On set she encounters old flame Dewey (David Arquette), now a technical adviser on Stab 3 and squiring actress Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey) who is playing Gale on screen. Doubles and doppelgängers abound in this looking-glass world; everything is duplicated from something else, including an exact replica of Sidney's house from the original Scream. We are encouraged to regard this as part and parcel of a trilogy, the conventions of which, according to a posthumous message left by film nerd Randy (Jamie Kennedy), demand "unexpected back story and a preponderance of exposition". Well, it's a nice try.

The problem with Scream 3 is that irony, however deep you layer it, simply isn't a substitute for tension. Joke cameos by Carrie Fisher and the cult film-maker Roger Corman are amusing in their way, but they cannot generate much beyond a knowing snigger. This may be the most sophisticated of the three films, and in its distribution of red herrings, it's even more gleefully misleading. Indeed, the energy that Craven and co have devoted to fooling us looks increasingly like a red herring itself; they're trying to steer us away from the accepted truth that movies with "3" appended to the title are bound to disappoint. And this time The Godfather isn't an exception.

Irony is also the prevailing mode of Galaxy Quest, a spoof on Star Trek and its fanatical followers. Tim Allen plays the one-time space commander of a cancelled TV series who leads his co-stars where they have boldly gone too many times before - namely, Galaxy Quest conventions, where they bitch at one another backstage and moan about the careers they might have had. The cast are surprisingly game, notably Sigourney Weaver as the blonde crew member whose only function is to talk to the spaceship's computer, and Alan Rickman as a classically trained thespian mortified by his role as the humanoid science officer Dr Lazarus.

The fun starts when a group of space-suited weirdies buttonhole the "commander" with a petition; little realising that they are, in fact, an actual alien race named the Thermians, Allen and co are beamed up to their spaceship, which turns out to be an exact replica of the Galaxy Quest set. The Thermians have modelled their whole existence on the TV show (which they believe to be historical documents) and now want the commander and his crew to help save their civilisation from a tentacled spacelord bent on enslaving them. The comedy resides in the gap between the Thermians' perception of the GQ team as saviours of the universe and our knowledge of them as a bunch of clueless actors. Obliged to maintain the pretence, they have to deal with space technology ('there's a red thingy moving toward the green thingy") and the realisation that they're no longer dealing with the cardboard and plywood of a set: "You broke the bloody ship!" Rickman wails after Allen exceeds the galactic speed limit. It plies the same art/reality divide as Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo - think of Jeff Daniels pith-helmeted hero jumping into a getaway car and wondering why it doesn't start instantly - even if it gets nowhere near the same poignancy or invention. A palpable hit, all the same.