Why I Write Fantasy: The Three Fours #1: Highlander

Spoilers for a 30+ year old movie follow. And for Alien3 too. You’ve been warned.

There are only three movies I’ve paid to see more than once in rapid succession, and each time I ended up seeing the film four times in the theatre. In each case I was lured into the atmosphere of the movie, and the rich universe it created, I went again and again because I wanted to participate again in that fantasy, be fascinated by its characters (especially its villains, I can’t lie) but most of all to relive the rich experience of being, temporarily, in that world.

The first was Highlander. I recently rewatched it after probably a twenty year gap, and it still rocks, though some of the 80’s incidental music that never used to register as out of place does intrude now. Many are the nitpicks you could have with this film, (Egyptian Spaniard played by a Scotsman, anyone?) but I loved the world it created, the leapfrogs through time, the scene shifts, the way, right from the opening monologue by Sean Connery, it very successfully created its own world, alongside our own.

It is a great example of the creation of a mythology in very quick steps, doesn’t explain everything because it doesn’t have to, just flows along showing us what we need to see to stay engaged, propelled by a fantastic soundtrack by Queen, which unlike the incidental music has entirely stood the test of time. I cried again when watching the “who wants to live forever” scene, even though I’ve seen it god knows how many times, just a perfect mixture of setting, acting, and music. It also, very rarely of all the movies I’ve watched, successfully uses flashbacks to give itself more depth, even though you maybe saw the fashback originally only half an hour ago, in terms of the movie’s time line it seems like hours back, and really works.

And of course it was largely set in my homeland, which was a plus. How beautiful Scotland looks in that film. It really is that beautiful in life too, moreso. The scenery was a star, of Scotland and New York, the scene cuts fun to start anticipating, a film made consciously in an overt style, which is still refreshing to see today, after all these years. The New York cops deserved their own TV show, especially the captain!

And yes, there is cheese. Not everything works, but a lot does, and the film was filled to the brim with imagination and audacity, enough to carry the absurd plot right the way through to its Headhunter 4 – Cops 0 finale! “What does baffled mean?” I loved it! And when you love something, the absurdities either fall away, or get embraced as part of the charm.

We don’t talk about the sequel. We just don’t. I watched all the other movies in the vain hope something could be salvaged. I liked the Mario Van Peebles entry, to be honest, but it was still unnecessary. The TV series did nothing for me. Highlander is best considered in isolation. Man that sequel, it eclipsed Alien3 as the most anticipated and then most disappointing cinema experience I ever had – (we don’t talk about The Last Jedi either) it took me a very long time to forgive Alien3 for killing Hicks and Newt at the start, along with the very improbable magical mystery emergency egg that somehow got on the Sulaco – yes I’ve heard the arguments, they are all utter balls. There is no way an uber paranoid Ripley would not scour and scan that ship from top to bottom before going into cryo, just sayin’.

But unlike Alien3, which I have rewatched multiple times and have come to really appreciate, there is no saving Highlander 2. So let’s just pretend it never happened.

Highlander also boasts one of the greatest cinematic villains ever. In my opinion. The Kurgan is a total boss at being evil, and the film perhaps revels too much in his violence, his amorality, his charisma, but it also explains why he must lose. He himself yells it out in the cathedral scene. “It’s better to burn out, than fade away!” Becoming a mortal doomed to fade and die would have been a nightmare for him. He is destined to lose because if he won he’d lose his reason for existence. It is the Kurgan, and Clancy Brown playing him that elevates the film from standard escapist hero’s journey with swords (always a plus for a fan of fantasy, and this is a fantasy) to something more interesting: a treatment also of the antagonist’s motivations, why he is powerful and terrifying, but also showing why he can and should be defeated, why in a sense he might welcome that, burning out as a human roman candle rather than fading away as a feeble old man.

And yes, I saw the wires on the second viewing, and every time after. The DVD I just bought did a good job of making them less obvious.

So there you have it, the first movie I just had to keep going back for, to sit in the dark and let another world welcome me in. There were two more films like that to come in the next decade, and if they don’t directly inspire the stories I write, they certainly influence the way my imagination shapes scenes and settings, and my desire to create worlds that people just might like to dive into over and over again.

12 thoughts on “Why I Write Fantasy: The Three Fours #1: Highlander

  1. A friend of mine once had a nightmare about Highlander 2. Nay, make that, a nightmare about being forced to WATCH Highlander 2. And that was after the he’d seen the Directors Cut where they make it time travelers and not aliens. Or vice versa? I’ve blocked it out.

    1. I had a realisation today. I think the Highlander 2 writers based the movie on the Queen song Princes of the Universe in the OG movie soundtrack, and took “We’ve come to be the rulers of your world!” line seriously. I have not watched the directors cut. No planet zeist/zygote/whatever. Gads, I only watched it once and it is still seared into my unwilling memory….

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  3. Mighty Jo

    Cool post. I am especially impressed by your capacity for forgiveness in the case of Aliens 3. I never really go over the callous way Hicks and newt were treated. Just remembering now gets me all riled up and hostile!

    1. LOL! It took a long time! I think Alien 3, especially the production cut, just became more interesting in its own right over time, especialy as other, ahem, not so good films came out with aliens in them. (Though I’m in a significant minority that actually quite likes AvP, within its limited confines. Sanaa Lathan was worthy of an interstellar adventure! AvP Requiem is a dumpster fire, and again, maybe makes AvP look better by comparison. Why can’t they just make a movie of the AvP 2 PC game, that would be awesome…) I’d have been happy with the proposed Neil Blomkamp reboot of a sequel to Aliens, but that got stymied by Alien: Covenant, and now doesn’t ever look like happening. Ahh, the craziness of the movies!!

      1. Mighty Jo

        I must admit I also didn’t mind AvP. Certainly didn’t instill the level of rage in me that some of the others did.

        Loved Neil Blomkamp’s District 9. Would have liked to have seen what he could have done with the Alien franchise.

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