It’s alive!!!

life12017.41: Life (2017)

I always overthink movies. I know I do- especially those misfires that frustrate or are nearly great. Case in point: Life, a sci-fi thriller about scientists trapped on the ISS with an alien. Crikey, even that summary makes it sound bad- to be clear though, Life isn’t as bad as you might have heard. Admittedly it doesn’t need the A-list acting talent involved -indeed a cast of unknowns might even have been better- but that’s likely partly how the film and budget got greenlit anyway (studios love ‘names’ attached to give the  marketing boys a hand). At anyrate, the good cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada) being under-utilised by an undercooked script is not really what scuppers the film.

The best way to approach this film is as a b-movie with excellent production values, and as such it is a pretty solid, albeit partly frustrating sci-fi adventure. What I do like about it is how it functions in much the same way as those 1950s b-movies inspired by fears of radiation and Cold War-terror of alien menace and nuclear war. This film in thirty years will likely inform historians of modern anxieties regards our place in the universe and alien life.

The problem with this film is that it is far too easy -and lazy- to just summarise it as being another poor-man’s Alien. Yes, it does rather degenerate into that but here’s the thing about this film- it’s such a wasted opportunity; it could have been much more, particularly with this cast.  It should have been titled ‘The Fermi Paradox‘ (yeah I know, tough sell at the multiplex) because what it suggests and portrays is an answer to one of the biggest questions facing us today, but instead this film never even mentions it. Midway through the movie I thought- I know where this film is going, and they are going to say it soon…. but they don’t. It just needs one scene, one exchange of dialogue, and it could have made it a better, more profound movie. Instead the opportunity sales right by as if the scriptwriters never saw it coming.

The Fermi paradox is simply this- the universe is vast, and with all we learn about the tenacity of life in the harshest regions of the Earth, and the discoveries of so many worlds orbiting alien stars increasing the statistical probability of other habitable worlds and with that the likelihood of other  lifeforms and intelligences in the universe the question becomes not so much is there life out there but rather where is everybody?

In a weird way, this film offers up a solution to that question.

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The premise itself is intriguing. A robotic probe is returning from Mars with soil samples that are to be tested for signs of life on the ISS. It isn’t really explained (and this is one of my issues with the script) but I would imagine that back on Mars the robot probe detected something or the samples are particularly promising, because the ISS has been modified to be a safe laboratory to test the samples without risk of bringing the samples/organism to Earth. It could, after all, turn out to be as deadly as anthrax if let loose in the terran environment. The ISS crew and the station mission has been wholly redesigned for this duty over years of planning. Of course there is indeed more to the sample than originally hoped/feared, but it wouldn’t be a movie without that. This isn’t just ‘life’ – it is a particularly dangerous critter that will wipe out everything alive on Earth if it gets down from orbit- every human, every animal, every plant…. everything.

Here is the solution to the Fermi paradox in a nutshell. Life evolves. Life-forms develop and die out, destroyed by changes in environment or replaced by or out-evolved by other subsequent life-forms. In the film the scientists postulate that the creature brought back from Mars has lain dormant for thousands, perhaps millions of years. It can survive ultraviolet radiation, the intense cold of space and the harshest, slimmest of atmospheres. But they don’t raise the next possibility- what if it was not indigenous to Mars? What if it was extrasolar, brought to our solar system, and Mars, on cosmic winds, carried by dust or on a meteorite. What if it is a life-form that has existed millions of years, a life-form that like a virus is spread through space destroying other life forms and civilizations in its wake? What if the answer to the Fermi paradox is simply that there is nobody there anymore, because this thing destroyed it. And we are next. Alas, this film raises speculation about alien life but never rises the Fermi paradox or how what they have found informs a possible cautionary answer.

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Life looks pretty spectacular in places, and is always convincing in how it depicts the hardware, and the creature is horribly fascinating when it is onscreen – indeed it’s a notably successful alien creature most of the time- very nasty. On the whole this is a very successfully mounted film, particularly considering its not too-excessive budget (something around $60 million I think- certainly not as high as it might have been). It really is a case of a film having the cast, the budget and honest intent to be worthwhile, but let down by the script. It is so frustrating to think how good, how profound, this film could have been had it been as well-scripted as, say, Arrival was last year. There is a tantalising feeling that this film needed more time in gestation, it needed to evolve into a better script.

I guess this failing is easily noted from the start, with a wholly awkward set piece from the outset in which the returning probe has been hit by space debris and is off course and needs an action/effects sequence of the ISS changing its orbital path in order for an astronaut spacewalker to capture the hurtling probe with the ISS service arm. Its an unnecessary and unwieldy sequence that was there because the film-makers evidently thought thats how to get audience attention from the start; some big ‘event’/action sequence. But it’s not properly handled and  I think it lacks proper context- we can’t really feel any tension because we don’t know the crew/characters or the mission yet, which is partly handled via some clunky voiceover dialogue/exposition that doesn’t work at all. Better to have just calmy started the film with an explanation of the mission, the characters and calmly depict the probe docking and the samples transferred to the lab. Establish the setting, the mission parameters, the characters. Then let the shit hit the fan. And maybe, maybe midway when the scientists (who don’t really for a moment convince as scientists, that’s another problem) realise what they have on their hands, have one of them suggest, even in an offhand manner, that maybe they have stumbled on why SETI has never detected intelligent civilizations in space. Offer the tantalising -and scary- possibility that we really are the only ones listening, that there is no-one else. That we are really special. And yes, really in danger.

Alas, it seems that Life does not aspire to be the serious sci-fi flick that I think it could have been; indeed, perhaps a modern-day version of Alien is really all that was intended, and I’m simply over thinking a shallow movie. But it is certainly no disaster and certainly worth a rental.

 

 

Into The Depths

2017.37: Leviathan (1989)

levi4For any genre fan of my age, the cast is to die for: Peter Weller (Robocop, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Naked Lunch), Richard Crenna (Rambo 1, 2 & 3), Amanda Pays (Max Headroom), Daniel Stern (DOA, Diner, Blue Thunder), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Meg Foster (They Live)… A cast like that, you’d think Leviathan would at the very least be a poor-man’s The Abyss with a gloriously nostalgia-filled 1980’s genre cast- forget the movie, just bask in the nostalgic joy of seeing these stalwarts of 1980’s-era genre film and tv in something ‘new.’  Well, as ‘new’ as a film can be when you watch it for the first time when it is, what, something like 28 years old. You have to make allowances I guess, and just, yes, enjoy the nostalgia.

But it is so bad it isn’t even that- indeed, it’s just a stark reminder of just how good Alien, The Abyss and The Thing were, because this film is a horrible imitator of all three- a dodgy replicant, if you’ll forgive another reference to Blade Runner here, and a reminder that the fondest memories of actors can be sullied by the reality that they appeared in bad films too- talent no indicator of quality.  Actors are just working people looking for jobs/gigs, jumping from film to film, tv show to tv show. Just as long as it pays. Rarely the job turns out to be something classic or memorable. Over the years we tend to remember the good ones and forget/ignore the rest- well, this is clearly one of ‘the rest’.

Leviathan came out originally in 1989 at around the same time as Deepstar Six and The Abyss, imitation clearly the sincerest form of flattery and that year undersea thrillers were the next Big Thing (except it wasn’t, all three films failed at the box office). Well, I loved The Abyss, but steered clear of the other two. Until now, with Leviathan rising up from the depths and dragging me back down with it.

A deep-sea mining base on the ocean depths stumbles upon the sunken wreck of a Soviet vessel and unwittingly becomes contaminated by the genetic experiments that were taking place before the Soviets evidently scuttled the ship to destroy/hide their grisly work. The opening half of the film seem overly familiar but also almost gently quaint, in how the scene is set and the motley characters established- its all very Alien– indeed, the Alien nods in particular seem endless and continue behind the camera- Ron Cobb was a production designer, so the sets look like the Nostromo and indeed Deepcore from The Abyss (which he also worked on), and the score was by Jerry Goldsmith (although to be fair, it sounds nothing like his Alien score). But you know, as guilty pleasures such as Event Horizon (and better efforts like Sunshine) will tell you, there is nothing wrong with starting a sci-fi film with nods to Alien- it can almost be cosy and reassuring. The cast is along the lines of so many ensemble films like Alien, we see them at work, we see them come upon the derelict, watch them enter and stumble upon a horror that they unwittingly bring back aboard their own ship whereupon after a lull the true horror begins…. wait, what film am I watching here…? You get the idea.

But Leviathan is vastly inferior, not just to Alien and The Thing, but to both Event Horizon and Sunshine too- and if that statement makes you nervous then good for you, you’ll know to never give in to nostalgic temptation and ever give this film a try. Well, here’s one I took for the team then.

levi2Seeing Peter Weller and Amanda Pays and Richard Crenna back ‘in their prime’ as it were is always something good, but this film can’t even be saved by pleasant surprises such as seeing Amanda in the shower in her underwear, a reminder of something of a crush I had back in the day watching her in Max Headroom (God, I’d long forgotten, was I ever that young?)It’s really a pretty empty and banal film all told, sodden (well, it is underwater) with cliches and predictable plot points and general stupidity. Nothing really surprises, and to be honest it is the awful execution of everything- the cinematography and lighting (the sets are shot in such an unimaginative way devoid of tension or atmosphere), the creature effects are laughable (even with Stan Winston’s crew involved). In truth, the best thing about Leviathan is that it makes you appreciate the achievements of films like Alien and The Thing even more. It makes you realize just how difficult those films must have been to make and how much they just get so right. The casting, the photography, the music, the pacing, the visual/creature effects… they get so much so right, and that why they are deemed classics, decades later, when imitators like Leviathan just sink (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror!

matinee2017.35: Matinee (1993)

One of the few Joe Dante films I hadn’t seen, I admit I’m spectacularly late to the party with this one. As it turns out, it’s an utterly charming film that deserves a reappraisal- it may turn out to be one of Dante’s very best. It has the feel of The Burbs, and if you enjoy that film, I’m sure you will love this one. It has that same gentle tone of warm comedy and pokes fun at its characters and its situations- anyone who grew up watching the sci-fi b-movies made in the 1950s, full of Cold War paranoia and wild fears of radiation will find much to enjoy with its film-within-a-film, Mant! which serves as a delicious tribute to all those old movies (“oh, Bill….!”).

And of course, being a Joe Dante picture, there are plenty of actor cameos from other Dante films, which offers a great drinking game for genre fans- it is like meeting old friends and it is fun noting them and the other Dante films they appeared in. It even has a great little score by Jerry Goldsmith that serves to remind us how much films have lacked since his passing, and how much soundtrack music has changed for the worse.

What surprised me was just how substantial the film is. It doesn’t just poke fun at old 1950s b-movies, it recalls with some sincerity the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and an era when nuclear apocalypse was a very real fear. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of the real crisis and the real drama, reflected in  the exploitation of horror movies of the time with their giant insects and science gone horribly wrong.

Sometimes films are made and released at just the wrong time, and for no fault of their own fail to find an audience. Thankfully, sometimes they eventually get their due and I suspect that this Arrow edition on Blu-ray will ensure that Matinee is now discovered by genre fans who missed it first time around, if only they will give it a try. Certainly it is a must-see for any Joe Dante fan. Why in the world is he no longer making films?

 

Jerry Goldsmith’s Thriller (and Prince’s Purple Rain)

tadthrillrWhilst on the subject of Jerry Goldsmith in my previous post, I thought it timely to raise the release by Tadlow Music just recently of a re-recording of some of the Jerry Goldsmith scores from the 1960 tv series Thriller. While I grew up thrilled and scared by classic anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, I never saw Thriller, so I was unfamiliar with the particular episodes Goldsmith scored or the music itself. But really, it’s Goldsmith. Classic, vintage Goldsmith. No-brainer.

Turns out the music is great. Innovative orchestrations with some creepy music, some of it akin to the original tv Star Trek music from the sixties (which is perhaps odd, as Goldsmith had no involvement in that- likely it’s just me, or something related to the limited orchestras involved in tv scoring back then, the ensuing creativity in tv scores of the time). In anycase, it is a great disc and sales have been good enough to encourage a second volume, so it’s all good news. How odd that stuff like this surfaces even now with cd sales falling through the floor and so long after the work was originally created- it’s the very definition of ‘niche’ market and likely means nothing at all to most who read this.

purpleRecently I’ve been following the rather tortured path to release of the remastered Purple Rain remaster/expanded edition due this month. Following Prince’s death last year there has been great interest in the artist’s fabled vault that houses hundreds, perhaps thousands of unreleased songs and abandoned album projects etc. From what I gather, this Purple Rain release may have unreleased tracks but they are not likely to be sourced from original masters within the vault itself- Warners seem to have their own copies of material from around that period which are second-generation. At any rate, there has been endless legal wrangling over rights to the music within the vault and whether it will be properly archived/restored and released one day. Some Prince fans feel that proper archive releases are likely years away, possibly decades- and indeed, some speculate they will never live to see/hear them (some of us Prince fans, as he ‘peaked’ in the ‘eighties, are getting a little long in the tooth now). After all, the recent deluxe Sgt Pepper remaster/expansion is 50 years after its original release.

The complication is simply that the cd, and physical music formats in general, are becoming increasingly marginalised in an ever-more digital market. So even if, say, work began on a series of properly mastered, deluxe vault releases tomorrow, would there even be a physical format and market for them over the coming decade/s? Or if there was, would it be so niche that prices/limited numbers would make them unviable? Of course we fans would like to think that Prince was a huge megastar, and he was a great performer/musician, but how popular/relevant is his music to the general public (and younger generations) today? Hardcore fans would likely pay any price but the general public? Perhaps this reality is why this Purple Rain release seems to be so low-budget and unambitious packaging-wise compared to some deluxe packages doing the rounds, with some Prince fans looking at the Sgt Pepper deluxe with envious eyes and wondering of what might have been. Warners seem to be dumping out a cardboard cheapie in order to keep the price down (and keep impulse purchases up?).

Naturally in this there are parallels to movies being released on disc. With streaming and downloads increasing in popularity, we have to wonder how long we will be so spoilt by films -particularly older, catalogue films- being released on disc. It can already be seen that some of those expansive, intensive bells and whistles releases of new films are becoming all the more rare. We’re lucky to get a commentary track days- usually its just EPK fluff thats no interest at all. So whats the future for film lovers who just want to treasure their fave films and have them pride of place on a shelf as part of a collection?

Kick the Can (and kick that horrible Twilight Zone movie)

kickcanLast night I rewatched some of Twilight Zone: The Movie– in particular the dreadful prologue featuring Dan Aykroyd and the Kick the Can segment directed by Steven Spielberg. Its a pretty miserable, leaden movie, with the awful on-set accident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children hanging over the whole enterprise like some terrible spectre. Indeed, considering that accident it is a wonder the film ever got released at all- it would have been little loss to film, as it turned out.

The film made money though, enough to ensure a 1980s revival of the show got made. But in truth it’s a poor imitation of the classic original show.  I know there is much appreciation for the segment that remakes the Nightmare at 20,000 feet episode, but I didn’t get that far into the movie.  In truth, the only reason I watched the Kick the Can segment was Jerry Goldsmith’s music. I remember watching the Twilight Zone: The Movie for the first time decades ago when it was aired on television, and that Goldsmith score was really the only thing that really caught my attention in any favourable way. Eventually I bought the FSM CD, pretty much solely due to Goldsmiths score for that segment. Its a tender, romantic sequence of music, perhaps a little over the saccharin limit for most tastes, perhaps as excessive as Spielberg’s particularly unsubtle direction. Indeed, watching it again last night, it seemed obvious to me that this segment highlights all the worst shortcomings of Spielberg back then. But anyway, I watched it again just to see a reminder of how Goldsmith’s score functioned within it.

Its such a genuinely 1980s movie. The ‘look’, how it sounds, the actors featured, the directors involved. It really should have been a better movie considering the talent. It really should have had more bite. Probably would have been better served by having original stories rather than remaking episodes from the classic series. You can’t capture ‘lightning in a bottle’ twice, and it is clear that the black and white photography really allowed the original a life and mood utterly lost by bringing it into colour and a modern setting. The stories should be universal, yes, but it clearly doesn’t work, remaking them- the truth is, its the episodes that are universal.

I have the complete classic series on Blu-ray on the shelf. I really should return to them, if ever time allows. But this movie? Wouldn’t be surprised if I never watch any of it ever again. Its done.

The Naked Jungle (1954)

naked1This is one of those films that made an impact on me when I was lad-  the threat of the relentless army of soldier ants was pretty scary and the experience of watching this film bugged me (sic) for years. An airing on TCM offered me an opportunity to revisit the film after those many years, and in HD to boot. In all honesty, its another one of those situations where a film hasn’t aged at all well, and I guess this was me saying farewell to it as I doubt I’ll ever watch it again- perhaps some films should stay in our childhood past, and we should revisit them with extreme caution.

While the ants no longer dominate the film quite as much as I thought they would according to my memories (they are actually regulated to the last half of the picture), what does rather dominate the film are the sexual undercurrents that quite completely passed me by as a young lad. For a young lad murderous ants are far more interesting than sexual frustrations and heaving bosoms, but with me older now and the ants relegated to the background…

The Naked Jungle betrays its era with a frankly offensive treatment of its native South Americans. It is 1901, and Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is the indomitable White Man who has spent 15 years carving his own plantation out of the wild jungle, bringing civilisation to the wild natives who work his land for him and serve him. Having been there since the age of 19, he realises he should be raising a family in this kingdom he has created, so he marries an American woman by proxy and has her sent down to him like some mail-order bride. The feisty redhead that has been selected for Leiningen (he has never met her) is Joanna (the beautiful Eleanor Parker), but he balks at the fact that she is actually a widow, declaring her to be ‘used goods’.  The sexual undercurrents are quite obvious; Parker pouts and sighs and Heston scowls and snarls with frustrated desires. There is some wonderful innuendo, as in the line when Parker snaps  “If you knew anything about music, you’d know that the best piano is one that’s been played!” 

naked2It’s a terrific potboiler really and the sexual tension is almost palpable. In spite of her protestations, since Leiningen is a virgin and Joanna does not reach his standards of propriety, Joanna must return from whence she came, but this is interrupted by the onslaught of an army of soldier ants that threatens the plantation and their very lives. Yeah, well, this is the part of the film that I remember from watching it as a lad. Again, the film betrays its age and ‘acceptable’ politics of its day, as the natives threaten to flee but are shamed into staying by Joanna who cries “Leiningen doesn’t run! Leiningen’s woman doesn’t run!” Yes, she gets her man, and he gets his woman, and again its up to the white man to save the day as he single-handedly races into the army of ants to blow the dam that will destroy the horde, sweeping the army aside in a torrent of water as the jungle reclaims the plantation.

Well, with me older and wiser now in more enlightened times, the film does leave a rather bitter taste in the mouth. Its a film of its time, I guess, but the vivid and rather blatant sexual intrigues that dominate the first half of the film made it a quite surprising watch after all these years. And it is rather curious to see such a young Charlton Heston so soon after having seen him in The Omega Man– he’s almost funny in this, a brooding man mountain wracked by sexual frustrations. Some would describe his performance as wooden, but of course its actually pure Heston.

Alien: Covenant… Frankenstein meets Giger

2017.25: Alien: Covenant (CInema)

I usually avoid too many spoilers with cinema reviews, so I’ll warn now that spoilers lie ahead this time. There’s simply no other way of writing a review of this latest Alien film.

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The importance of, and reliance on, the San Diego Comic-Con and other similar Cons all over the world, is a modern calamity and something that I consider with despair. The pandering to the tastes of geeks by Studios and film-makers and television producers is, frankly, a terrible mistake. Associated with this is the power of social media and the internet in sharing and disseminating opinions and observations. Why on Earth a professional film director or producer with years of experience and training suddenly has to pander to the opinions of a snotty twelve-year-old from the middle of Nowheresville to validate a multi-million dollar project created by hundreds or thousands of craftsman and technicians is a mystery to me.  I would include this blog in this horror but I know it has such limited visibility that this blog’s effect on the world is utterly inconsequential (so I consider myself not guilty, thanks).

I’ve mentioned this before- that the geeks have inherited the Earth, and we have all these bad genre movies now to thank for it.

First things first- I did not hate Alien: Covenant. I really quite enjoyed it. I found it disturbing and horrific and fascinating. And yes, frustrating too, which I’ll come to soon enough. Its clearly a better film than Prometheus, but what bugs me now is that it is clearly a lesser film than it might have been, because Ridley Scott, post-Prometheus, seems to have reconsidered his new Alien film projects largely due to the outraged geeks who criticised Prometheus for not having Giger’s alien in it. Simply put, with Alien: Covenant Ridley is giving the geeks what they want. The irony is, that might not be enough for them- or they may have gotten too much of what they asked for.

Yeah, I’m going to blame those geeks as much as Ridley for what Alien: Covenant is, and I’m going to be mighty pissed reading and hearing from all those angry geeks complaining that they have seen all this alien action before. They bloody demanded it, and now they have got it. Which raises issues regards movie ownership, and the influence of fandom on genre films and franchises today. The blame for Prometheus‘ faults lie wholly with Ridley, but I’m not so sure regards the faults in Alien: Covenant.

Back when Prometheus was released, Ridley was quoted, alluding to why that film was devoid of Giger’s creature, that he felt the alien was done, the creature exhausted by over exposure in the sequels to the original film (and of course those terrible AvP films too). It seemed a strange thing to say, but you know, Ridley was probably right. Prometheus has its problems, but the lack of Giger’s Alien isn’t really the worst of them.

cov3So Alien: Covenant has lots of alien action- Neomorphs, Xenomorphs, Alien eggs, Facehuggers, Chestbursters… its like Ridley is checking off a geek’s Christmas wishlist. And yes, he does so with considerable style and skill. The backburster/chestburster are beautifully and convincingly staged way beyond what the 1979 film could have managed. The Alien (or an evolutionary pre-version of the 1979 creature) is more mobile and convincing than previously depicted on film. Even the Facehugger manages to swiftly leap and creep around better than before. But they also seem the most disinteresting moments of this film, even if the sheer amount of gore and brutality tellingly inform the changes in films since 1979 (and yet, just as in 1979, it is the inferred horrors that are most effective here). The familiarity is this films biggest weakness. This is perhaps inadvertently reinforced by the soundtrack using so much of Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score. At least Prometheus, with its original score, had its own identity. Alien: Covenant rather lacks this, and frequently hearing Goldsmith’s score doesn’t help matters- instead it just increases that sense of familiarity and reminders of the (superior) original. Its inevitable, I guess, that familiarity with the franchise impacts on successive entries- at its worst, Alien: Covenant feels like another reboot, like those awful Star Trek films or The Force Awakens.

This film improves whenever it deviates from this Alien heritage. At its best, this film is Prometheus 1.5 as it continues the story of the synth David and Elizabeth Shaw from the ending of Prometheus, and their quest to the Engineer homeworld. Seeded within it are fascinating glimpses of what Ridley perhaps originally intended to be Prometheus 2- but you always have the feeling that this is not the film that Ridley originally intended to follow Prometheus.

(Then again, I still remember my surprise that Prometheus was getting a sequel at all, and feel pretty lucky to have Alien: Covenant; at the very least we get a continuation from Prometheus‘ frustratingly open-ended conclusion).

Just as he was in Prometheus, the highlight of Alien: Covenant is Michael Fassbender and his deranged synth David, whose God-complex issues are further amplified by too much time on the Juggernaut contemplating the mysteries of the Engineers. Just as he has found humanity wanting, so too has he found the Engineers wanting. In a moment of truly apocalyptic  horror he dispatches an entire world of its life, bombarding the Engineer homeworld with the juggernaut’s payload of Black Death. Also, David’s search for perfection and desire/need to create life has resulted in Elizabeth Shaw suffering a truly horrific fate (for Prometheus fans, her fate must be as ill-met as the fates of Hicks and Newt in Alien 3, and there’s certainly an interesting symmetry there, one that raises its head for Daniels, too, at the very end of Covenant- what is it with the Alien franchise punishing viewer’s investment into its characters?).

This is the really interesting stuff to me. Ridley seems to have turned the Lovecraftian horrors of Alien into a modern re-working of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which tellingly itself had the subtitle The Modern Prometheus). Okay, none of its particularly subtle. David’s chamber of horrors, in which he stores/analyses his monster creations (including the awful cadaver of Shaw), is one of the finest creations of the Alien series. Its truly horrific and is enough to give one nightmares. Ridley seems to be saying that David is the real monster of the Alien films, and Fassbender is brilliant. In hindsight, maybe the android Ash in the original Alien was an indication of how the Alien series would become centered on artificial intelligence and its dangers for mankind?  2001‘s themes of alien intelligence and its part in the creation and evolution of man (a preoccupation of Prometheus) seems to have mutated into this Heavy Metal-styled Frankenstein abomination of xenomorphs, body horror and worldwide mass destruction.  Its heady, fascinating stuff.

cov4The corporate paranoia seems to have been noticeably dialed down, but a prologue with cold-hearted creator Peter Weyland clearly suggests and maintains his part in David’s deranged sense of superiority over all things and the responsibility Weyland has for all that ensues. Just as the Engineer’s Black Goo creation destroyed them, will artificial intelligence destroy man?

Alien: Covenant brings Walter, an ‘improved’ model of David, again played by Fassbender, into the story as a counter-balance to David’s (insane? corrupted?) programing. Lacking the feeling and emotion of David, Walter is governed by a sense of duty and responsibility and lacks David’s creative instinct. Perhaps Weyland Industries realised their initial mistake, but is it too late with David running amok in the heavens? One of Alien: Covenants worst offences is the poor ‘twist’ near the end involving ‘Walters’ real identity, which seemingly seal’s Daniels to Shaw’s earlier fate. Had it been better handled, it might have ensured one of the most brutally downbeat endings of the franchise. Intellectually it’s still fascinating but it lacks the punch that it deserved.

These new Alien films may be frustrating but they are also oddly interesting and I really hope that Ridley gets to make his intended next Alien film. Now that the geeks have had their fill of Giger’s creations perhaps Ridley will be able to further exploit the Frankenstein themes that interest him so much. What will David do next? What horrors will Daniels and Tennessee be forced to endure? Will the Engineers return, or some Space God that created them? Is the fate of all civilizations their own destruction at the hands of what they create as they achieve God-like technologies?

People forget, perhaps, how execrable Alien: Resurrection was or those AvP films- compared to them, these new films are almost high art. Maybe, Xenomorph aside, these new films aren’t really Alien movies but that doesn’t make them redundant.  For all the faults of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, Ridley has at least for me made the Alien franchise interesting again.

If nothing else, I’ll always remember Alien:Covenant for putting a huge guilty smile on my face with the line “That’s the spirit!”  Ha ha. Priceless. And was that nail that Shaw keeps another reference to Batty, or some reference to the crucifixion (re: my Prometheus theory raised in yesterdays post)? Or am I over thinking things? Sometimes we have to remind ourselves, its only a movie, as John Brosnan used to say.

Prometheus Bound

The night before watching Alien: Covenant, I gave Prometheus another spin.

Here’s my thoughts.

prom1Somewhere in Prometheus there is a great movie, but we’ll never see it. Its lost somewhere in the jumble of hints and mysteries and confused logic, in the unfocused script that doesn’t know if it’s more interested in Space Gods and mythology than aliens and corporate monsters. Its no disaster, but it is a frustrating mess.

It doesn’t lack for ambition. Essentially it shares the same story as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you don’t get more ambitious than that.  The fact that it feels wrong to mention 2001 and Prometheus in the same sentence speaks volumes. 2001 had Monoliths shaping and influencing human evolution (and perhaps, although its never shown, even humanity’s creation). Prometheus has humanoid aliens, the Engineers, doing it. The paintings on cave walls indicating a star atlas serves the same purpose as burying a monolith on the moon; its a test to establish a civilization’s technological ability. As usual though, the logic of Prometheus breaks down- sure, show a map for the Engineer’s homeworld, in order for humanity to meet its creator, but instead it turns out it is a map to the Engineers military installation where they create/store weapons of mass destruction; the logic simply doesn’t follow through, and this occurs time and again.

But anyway, we’ll cut Prometheus some slack for asking the Big Questions.  So Engineers use the Black Goo to shape human creation and through repeated visits over millennia shape our evolution, visiting primitive cultures and indicating where they come from. It might strike some as a leap of logic to assume all this is some invitation- perhaps if it had been described as a ‘test’ it might have been more plausible/interesting to the plot.

It might be worthwhile to mention the Prometheus timeline here as I think that might solve one of the films many mysteries/confusions. Ridley Scott suggested during the press for Prometheus that Jesus might have been an Engineer. I think that may have been more than an offhand remark- it may actually be a clue. The expedition exploring the Engineer’s base soon find the corpse of an Engineer which is carbon-dated to over two thousand years old- a holographic recording indicates he was killed during some moment of panic in which several engineers were fleeing some danger. We later see the hapless Fifield and Millburn stumble upon a pile of dead Engineers, having suffered some violent calamity likely linked to those fleeing engineers. Later, David reviews a holographic recording on the Juggernaut’s bridge in which the engineers access a star map and set their destination as Earth- these Engineers seem calm and to not be in immediate danger, so I would suggest this scene predates the earlier one.

So I would suggest this. Two thousand years ago, the Engineers revisit Earth to see how things have progressed. One of them is who we know now as Jesus, who teaches some words of wisdom to the primitive Terrans. Some of it gets lost in translation. Jesus the Engineer gets crucified, begs forgiveness of ‘God’ for this sin. But the Engineers are not so forgiving and decide this particular evolutionary experiment is at an end. So back at the military installation it is decided to send a juggernaut to Earth and bomb it with its vases of Black Goo, wipe out all life and start the experiment all over again. Hence the scene of the star map and the Engineers planning the route. However, things go awry loading up the vases of death and there is a breakout of the Black Goo, resulting in all the dead corpses, the hologram of the fleeing Engineers and the abandoned state of the installation. The last surviving Engineer puts himself into suspended animation to await rescue, which apparently never comes.

Fast forward just over two thousand years, and guess who shows up? Our heroes of the Prometheus. The Engineer is understandably pissed off at his very target waking him up. He kills them for this affront and decides there is no further time to waste,  activating the ship and setting off to bomb Earth all by himself.

You know… it sort of makes sense. And usually I love this kind of stuff; films that foster all kinds of thinking and theorising. 2001 itself was the master of this- people still debate that film today. But Prometheus is no 2001, and the film’s mysteries seem more from ill-judgement and confused storytelling than any deliberate master plan.  Instead it spends too much time getting audiences side-tracked with superfluous nonsense:

prom2You find the head of an alien being and take it back to your ship. Its the biggest discovery in all of history. Instead of quarantining it or starting labwork, you go all Frankenstein and start trying to reanimate it, after its been dead for two thousand years, somehow causing it to explode. What the hell is all that about? What do they expect it to do- wake up and start chatting with them?

Expedition lead Meredith Vickers tries her hardest to be an utter corporate bitch. She shares few scenes and little empathy with ship captain Janek. Then all of a sudden she turns up at the bridge flirting with him and they go off for casual sex. It doesn’t add anything to the plot; the ensuing relationship has no impact on what happens later. What’s it doing in this movie?

A little earlier, Janek has spotted life signs from one of the robot scanners mapping the alien installation. Signs of life! Set the alert sirens! This is the biggest discovery ever! Instead, he shrugs it off and doesn’t tell anyone, thinking that maybe the scanner is faulty (I think it’s actually picking up the intermittent/cryogenic signs of the sleeping Engineer but that’s never explained either). Janek instead rings up Fifield and Millburn who you remember got lost and are still back in the installation, to tip them off. One of them – I think it’s Millburn- actually checks his map on his forearm and reports his location to Janek. But hang on, I thought they were lost. They’ve got a map all this time and know where they are? My brain hurts. Nothing is making sense.

Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, our star-crossed lovers/archeologists (thats star-crossed lovers with zero screen chemistry- there is some terrible casting in Prometheus). Charlie is pretty upbeat, wildly ecstatic even, at what they have discovered and realises the magnitude of what they have found on the planet. But something in the alien decor doesn’t appeal to him and he suddenly decides it’s ‘just a tomb’ and his mood goes a complete 180 and he hits the bottle and acts like a complete jerk. What? Later he comments about giving life and Shaw pouts that she cannot have kids and boom with the subtlety of a xenomorph crashing into the room its set up for Shaw to get impossibly pregnant from Holloway’s Black Goo-infested sperm.

No, subtlety is not Prometheus‘ strong point. Which is infuriating, really, because it’s trying to be a science fiction film of Big Ideas instead of just another bug hunt, and it looks utterly gorgeous. Advance word on Alien: Covenant seems to indicate that Ridley has second-thought things and is heading back to familiar bug-hunt territory, which might cheer Alien/Aliens fans but actually has me rather uneasy. In just the same way as I really like the film noir/doomladen nightmare of Alien 3,  I quite like Prometheus going  somewhere else, into Space Gods territory-  it is just so annoying how clumsy and stupid and, yes, bad it is at the same time. Maybe going back to Alien basics is the right way to go.

I suppose there is a line of thought that Prometheus only really goes wrong when it is trying to wrap itself around the whole Alien mythology. Certainly the Engineers being the Space Jockey’s of the original, dispelling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the 1979 film, is a major misstep which threatens to derail the whole franchise. I sincerely wish someone had found some other way of linking Prometheus with Alien, if even just that the hunt for the Engineers would eventually lead humanity into deep space and the signal that the Nostromo was sent to investigate-  leading to it instead of the Engineers being the architects of it. Indeed, perhaps the Engineers having fallen foul of it themselves. You go find the Engineers homeworld and they are all dead. You investigate the horror that overcame them and stumble on a derelict and some eggs. Something as simple as that, while developing all sorts of Space Gods stuff about creation and evolution.

The funny thing is, for a pretty frustrating movie, I’ve rewatched it several times now and its generated all sorts of writing here on my blog and elsewhere on the internet. So while it did many things wrong, it must have done something right, to generate so much attention and thinking? Will Alien: Covenant, I wonder?

I still wonder if Ridley has a Prometheus: Director’s Cut or Prometheus Unbound somewhere that, while it cannot possibly fix it, might actually be a better movie.

 

Thanks a lot, you cheating bastard…

omega1I don’t care what anyone says, The Omega Man is a cool film, and a great old-fashioned sci-fi film. Whatever ‘old-fashioned’ means- maybe its just the lack of any cgi or virtual sets, or its blatantly dated 1970s fashions and cars. Its odd that, for all its possible faults as a movie, it remains just plain cool, and gets cooler as the 1970s get more distant. Maybe you had to live in the 1970s and remember that decade with some fondness, but whenever I watch The Omega Man I’m rushed back to my childhood. Not that my childhood featured desolate streets and bad guys in spooky hoods prowling in the night, but… Likely people born in the 1980s or 1990s look back at something like The Omega Man rather differently, with the wrong kind of horror. But to me, its a cool film, a film made back when August 1977 was still in the future. Can you even get your head around that?

For one thing, it stars movie legend Charlton Heston. Say what you like about him as an actor or his real-life politics, but thanks to his Biblical epics he always seemed larger than life (Omega Man’s love-interest Rosalind Cash remarked to Heston  “It feels strange to screw Moses”). Certainly, Heston oozes a screen charisma so lacking in actors of our generation.  He had such a run of films back then, fighting a planet of talking apes in 1968, playing the last man on Earth here in 1971, and then discovering the horrifying secret of Soylent Green in 1973. I never really think of him as a sci-fi actor, but he made three solid genre films back then, and his presence is a big part of their success. Somehow a big ‘name’ like him gives them a certain gravitas and allows them to stand the test of time better than others. I remember an issue of Fantastic Films that had an interview with Heston discussing his genre films- I’d love to dig that out sometime. As I recall, Heston was fairly critical of The Omega Man, believing it to be one of his lesser films. He was probably right, but if he were alive today, I think he might be surprised how the film has survived and gained a cult status.

Sure, The Omega Man is patently a film from 1971 that was trying just too hard to be relevant in those turbulent times, with its interracial romance, casual female nudity, ‘hip’ slang/dialogue and its fashions (that jacket with the logo on the back sticking the finger to ‘the man’). There is something about the music score, funky and cool and jazzy, which I have mentioned here before. Its dated in places but when the main Neville theme kicks in its irresistable. But maybe all that is just what makes it so cool? Its like a film from some other planet (maybe the 1970s is some other planet), likely part of its appeal- it isn’t sophisticated, it is just a simple thriller with the good guy at odds with lots of hooded bad guys in an urban wilderness.omega2It is a little odd that they don’t even go for any matte paintings to give some scale to the ruined desolation, going instead with panoramic ‘live’ shots usually filmed in LA on Sunday mornings in deserted streets. I’m told you can actually see other cars moving in the far distance in wider shots but what the hell, I don’t even look for them; I’m enjoying watching the movie too much to care.  Why look for goofs when you’re enjoying a movie?

One of the films clear failings is that the director Boris Sagal was the wrong director for a film like this. While its actually fairly effective, given its limitations, in depicting its dystopian, nightmare vision of the end of the world from a monstrous man-made plague, I’ll admit there’s a certain lack of imagination in the direction of the film. ‘Functional’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe it. Heston suggested the closing shot of him lying, arms open as if in  Christ-like crucifixion, that is a flash of imagination (perhaps ill-judged, by which I mean it crudely sticks out) that the rest of the film lacks. Of course the shot also inevitably references Heston’s earlier Biblical epics, as much as possibly the Hollywood star’s ego.

I’m pleased to report that the Blu-ray edition of The Omega Man, whether you buy the HMV-exclusive or import the triple-feature edition that I did, sports a pretty solid picture. Its sharp and has fine detail (maybe a little too much for some make-up effects) and is no doubt the best the film has looked since its theatrical showing back in 1971. The extras are slim, unsurprisingly; a few minor featurettes, one of them a promo featurette from when it was made that particularly dates the film. They are rather interesting, but a commentary would have been nice.

Damn, this poster is cool…

AlienCovenantI refuse to get suckered by those marketing boys, but crikey, they seem to be doing everything right with Ridley’s latest, Alien: Covenant. First the trailer looked great, then they released a really nice video short/prologue to set the film up, and now they go release this fantastic poster. Even those of us burned by Prometheus will be getting the hots for this movie. I guess job done, publicity boys. Over to you Ridley…