Retrospective Peter Hyams & John Hyams
In interviews, Peter Hyams often stresses how difficult it is for him to watch his own films again. With most
filmmakers who, like Hyams, can look back on a career in Hollywood that spans more than 40 years, this would
sound like coquetry, but not with the director from New York who was born in 1943 and who has also been his
own screenwriter for several films as well as his own cinematographer for all of his work. The modesty he
shows when he talks about his work in interviews comes across as absolutely honest, because his films are
also characterized by precisely this kind of modesty.
The restraint that characterizes Peter Hyams’ cinema is first of all wonderful. But, a look at the films and series
episodes that his son John Hyams has directed over the past 20 years reveals that it hardly has a place in the
film industry anymore. John, who already steered the pulp fiction of those years into com-pletely new waters
that were inspired by the Nouvelle Vague with his completely independently produced film debut »One Dog
Day« (1997), should actually be one of the most famous American filmmakers of our time. One who breathes
new life into the great franchises while setting industry standards with original productions. But ultimately,
like his father’s, his grandiose genre works are filled with a humility toward cinema and its laws, which are
something quite different from genre conventions, and thus radically at odds with the mechanisms of today’s
Unlike many of his contemporaries, who either founded the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960s or paved the way for the blockbuster cinema of the 1980s a few years later, Peter Hyams is not a graduate of a film
school. He studied music and fine arts, worked as a journalist and news anchor, and eventually established
himself as a writer and director in Hollywood with his first two television films in which he was able to perfectly exploit the possibilities of the medium. Even these two television works from 1972, »Rolling Man« and »Goodnight, My Love«, testify to Hyams’ impressively precise intuition for the musicality of cinematic movements.
They are not only extremely efficiently staged; they also positively sparkle with elegance, the very elegance that
all of his feature films from the cop comedy »Busting« (1974) to the action thriller »Enemies Closer« (2013)
The elegance of Hyams’ direction, which always goes hand in hand with the elegance of his camerawork, is a
form of nobility long forgotten in the 1970s. Its roots lie in classical Hollywood, where filmmakers were first
and foremost storytellers and knew the value of working collectively. Like Hyams, these directors of the great
age of American cinema put themselves at the service of the movies. And it was the virtuosity they mastered
their craft with that ultimately made their films works of art. That virtuosity earned filmmakers like King Vidor
and John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch and Nicholas Ray the honorary title of ‚auteur‘ in the 1950s and ‚60s.
This ‚auteur‘ term was then given a different meaning by the egomaniacal artistic figures of New Hollywood.
They were auteurs in the sense of working entirely for themselves. Such a form of genial artistry is entirely
alien to Peter Hyams, who in conversation continually evokes the wonder of collective labor in film production, and to his films. And this is precisely what makes him perhaps the last true ‚auteur‘ of Hollwood.
It’s time to rediscover his work. Because films like »Capricorn One« (1977) and »2010: The Year We Make
Contact« (1984), »Outland« (1981) and »Timecop« (1994), »Star Chamber« (1983) and »Narrow Margin« (1990), can make
you believe in cinema as a place of great stories that make you wonder and think again. Stories that just
speak to you in a direct, emotional way, but do not manipulate you.
One of the filmmakers who cmpletely internalized the lessons that Peter Hyams’ oeuvre holds for all of us is
John Hyams, who has been involved in several of his father‘s films in one capacity or another since the late1980s. In an interview, he once described filmmaking in a way that at first seems quite idiosyncratic. For him, a film
shoot is an attempt to »put together a report of a fictional event.« It’s certainly not a phrase that first comes to mind
when thinking about the making of a film. But that‘s what makes it so fascinating. Hyams thus robs cinema of some
of its mythical aura. But he also draws attention to a central aspect of filmmaking.
Such a »report on a fictional event« can only emerge from the organization of movements in a limited space.
And this is precisely where John Hyams and his father are true masters. While Peter Hyams perfected the narrowing of space in films like »Outland« and »Narrow Margin«, John primarily focuses on the plasticity of places.
It doesn’t matter whether the setting of his films is a vacant nuclear power plant that has mutated into a battlefield, as in »Universal Soldier: Regeneration« (2009), or a forest in the northern United States, as in »Alone« (2020).
One always has the feeling of being on location with Hyams’ protagonists. As in his father‘s films, the spaces
envelop you, drawing you into the characters‘ inner world.
Like Peter, John Hyams is an ‚auteur‘ in the most classical sense. That is, a filmmaker who appropriates the material he works with, thus shifting the often very narrow genre boundaries in remarkable ways. His two »Universal
Soldier« films, »Regeneration« (2009) and »Day of Reckoning« (2012), like his two horror thrillers, »Alone« (2020)
and »Sick« (2022), are characterized by a very clear knowledge of the necessities of their respective genres.
Necessities that John Hyams not only respects. Instead, he meets them with the same wonderful elegance that
is so characteristic of Peter’s films. In this respect, it’s not surprising that he has remained an outsider in an era
when cinema is dominated by big comic book adaptations and sequels that are as spectacular as possible, but also
entirely faceless. His films are far too personal and at the same time far too classic for an industry that has long
lost sight of its greatest strengths. Perhaps, directors like Vincente Minnelli and Fritz Lang would also have to work
in the niches where John Hyams has found his artistic home today.