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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Nightfall': A Classic Asimov Tale Gone Bad

September 26, 1988|CHRIS WILLMAN

Isaac Asimov's seminal 1941 space saga "Nightfall" has intrigued many film makers, with good reason: Though it might fulfill genre detractors' stereotypes in being short on characterization and long on concept, Asimov's tireless theme--of science and reason versus superstition and religion--continues to have new resonances each year.

Now the tale (voted the best science-fiction short story of all time by his writer peers three decades later) has finally been brought to the screen.

With a low, low budget and high, high pretensions, "Nightfall" the film (citywide) dims and crashes down faster and harder than an Alaskan winter sunset. Genre fans and reluctant dates alike may find it as insufferable a sit-through as any science-fiction movie this decade.

Asimov's conceit was to imagine a distant planet lit by so many suns that most of its generations never experience a moment's darkness. Those that do live through a rare, complete sundown descend into total madness, leaving their ancestors to pick up the pieces and rebuild civilization from scratch until the next nightfall.

The film reiterates the core conflict between the astronomer and city father Aton (a long-haired David Birney wearing an open-chest robe and looking like a cross between David Copperfield and Conan) and the prophet Sor (Alexis Kanner, whose prissy, halting speech seems more an interpretation of post-brain-damage Caligula than a highly charismatic religious leader).

Sor warns of impending disaster that only the faithful will survive; Aton eventually realizes that the prophecy is based in scientific inevitability, even if the superstitions attached to the "apocalypse" are fallacious unless self-fulfilling.

If there was little suspense in which side Asimov was on in the science-vs.-religion battle, writer-director Paul Mayersberg (the writer of Nicolas Roeg's genuine sci-fi classic "The Man Who Fell to Earth") at least paints the movie's rationalists as being as messed-up as its ignoramuses. Unfortunately, this he does with a "Dynasty"-style series of sexual affairs and murderously jealous cross-affairs, resulting in many gratuitous shots of writhing limbs. He also shows a ridiculous flair for ineptly affecting Roeg's editing style, resulting in many quick flashbacks to the gratuitous sex.

He has made the Sor character blind (as in "blind faith"--get it?). This does lead to "Nightfall's" (MPAA-rated PG-13) one truly visceral scene--guaranteed to produce walkouts in any theater--in which Sor blinds his willing girlfriend, Aton's ex-wife Roa (Sarah Douglas), by having birds peck out her eyes. Later, Roa tells Aton, "Blindness is so necessary! You must see that!"

Any hope that Mayersberg the writer meant that to be a punch line is obliterated by Mayersberg the director's utter, pompous humorlessness.

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