Detective Story

detect1.png2017.28: Detective Story (1951)

You know how in detective films and tv shows, they pin up clues on a wall, photos or other items, and use different-coloured pieces of string to connect them together? Like huge complex diagrams or charts, somehow the connections revealed by those webs of string solve the case. But the connections are the thing.

Sometimes it seems a little like that with films. You can watch films at random and suddenly be struck by odd coincidences or connections. As if hidden in the randomness there is some sort of pattern. Maybe there is a meaning to it.

Or maybe not. Why do I mention this?  Well, it was a little curious that only the other week on a whim triggered by TCM’s scheduling that I rewatched The Naked Jungle (1954) and now by sheer chance I was watching William Wyler’s 1951 film noir Detective Story, and it turns out they feature the same lead actress, Eleanor Parker. That coincidence of casting may not be a big deal, but its not the end of it though. The Naked Jungle starred Parker has a mail-order bride initially cast aside as “used goods” when her new husband learns of her previous marriage. In Detective Story, it turns out she again plays a wife with a rather shady past/secret. This time her husband, Det. Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) is unaware that her past is linked to a criminal he is chasing; “Dutchman” Karl Schneider, a New Jersey doctor suspected of being an abortionist linked to the deaths of young women. It transpires that she had an affair with a married man a few years before she met her McLeod and went to Schneider for an abortion. The revelation threatens to shatter both their marriage and McLeod’s obsessive worldview/attitude to policing and crime.

Poor Eleanor. Was she being typecast as reputable-looking women with hidden secrets?

Detective Story is a great little film- I say ‘little’ as it’s based on a stage-play and hence has few locations and  pretty much functions as a one-set acting ensemble akin to 12 Angry Men. Its a great, dramatic character piece where action is secondary to the plot and character arcs. Rather the exact opposite of most films that are made today. In that respect, the film is a curio. There are no action scenes, no stunts, no visual effects, just a story, told with characters in a drama set over the course of one evening.

Based on a Broadway play it naturally has the feel of something being performed on a stage. There is a sort of unreality about it that, with its film noir sensibilities, gives the film a curious atmosphere of a police procedural via the Twilight Zone. KIrk Douglas is as intense as ever- perhaps too intense, but that is perhaps because his character is as much damaged goods as anyone else, his character crumbling as he rushes headlong towards his inevitable destruction.

Much like The Naked Jungle, the sexual undertones and sensibilities of the film betray its age and era. The McLeods are happily married, albeit struggling to conceive a baby, but this apparent idyl is on shaky foundations- when his wife admits to having had an abortion in her past, the social stigma and its impact on the detective’s black and white worldview of absolutes cannot cope. Suddenly she is a tramp, as if the knowledge she wasn’t a virgin on their wedding night invalidates the whole marriage- she was used goods, just as Charlton Heston’s character rages in The Naked Jungle. In that film, it is at least inferred that he too is a virgin (as unintentionally funny the idea of Heston playing a virgin might seem to viewers now). Detective Story rather skirts this, as McLeod is clearly a man of the world and hardly subject to the same restrictions/moral limitations as women are in that world. However, the inferred betrayal, and its impact, inevitably lead to Mcleod’s end. Right and wrong, good and evil, are absolutes for McLeod; all criminals must pay for their crimes, regardless of their circumstances- it is something he ‘learned’ from his own terrible father and how he treated McLeods mother.

detect3If McLeod ever ‘sees the light’ it is only in the face of his own destruction. His wife has left him, knowing he cannot shake his moral beliefs or give her a second chance. But seeing the love of a young woman for a young first-time offender that he was previously adamant had to be prosecuted, McLeod tells his colleagues to the criminal go. He gives the man the second chance he refused his own wife, and as he draws his last breath the two lovers flee the Precinct… love conquers all after all, for a precious few at least.

 

 

All Aboard The Ghost Train… not.

train112017.27: The Girl On The Train (2016) 

Not exactly a bad film, or a particularly good one either. Just stuck in that awkward middle- mostly harmless I guess. To be honest, not knowing anything about either the film or the book it is based upon, I actually came into it expecting a ghost story. Too many childhood memories of being scared witless by The Ghost Train (1941) maybe- I don’t know why exactly I expected a ghost story, but there you go, one of the disadvantages of coming into a film blind sometimes.

Books to films. Is it the film’s fault if it follows too closely to the book, suffering from the same issues inherent in the original? Some books are in no way cinematic but people try to make films out of them anyway. Maybe they should follow the lead of Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Blade Runner took the basic ideas and core plot of the original book but went off and did its own thing as a movie. The Girl On The Train has an odd construction, layers of reveals jumping around timelines and pov, which might well work well in the book (I assume the book has that structure) but possibly just comes across as confusing in the film. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention (waiting for those damned ghosties, or a reveal that the girl was the ghost of a previous murder victim or… well, I was clearly watching/imagining a different movie to what I was watching).

Emily Blunt plays a good drunk but… do actors/actresses sometimes carry over personnas from other films, albeit unintentionally, blurring the effect of their performance? Not her fault, but I don’t think she was exactly right for this part. Too beautiful? Too many prior films leaking in and affecting my perception of her in this one? Whatever, she isn’t a complete success.  Sometimes I wish there was an opportunity for more unknown actors in films, a clean slate as it were. I think the films might be more effective, more a step into the unknown for the audience.

Sir Roger Moore has died

bondmooreThe news that Sir Roger Moore, famous for playing James Bond, has died, at the grand age of 89, is sad indeed (especially on what has been a pretty grim news day here in the UK anyway). While Moore is not my favourite Bond, the appeal of his humorous, tongue-in-cheek spy is undeniable, particularly now, with Daniel Craig’s gritty, darker Bond inevitably reflecting these darker days we live in. There is a wonderful escapism, a sense of returning to simpler, more innocent times with many of Roger Moore’s Bond films. Which is not to suggest they were simpler films for simpler times. Of course, the real world was pretty rough even then, but those Bond films seem (with hindsight) to have been a reaction to rather than a reflection of, those times, in just the same way perhaps as Star Wars appealed with its own escape from reality. Bond fans were taken all over the world and Bond faced many a peril, but always with an arched eyebrow and sardonic one-liner. Yes, I’m thinking of John Brosnan again- its as if Moore was often winking at the audience and reminding them ‘it’s only a movie’.

Ironically, my own favourite Roger Moore Bond movie has always been For Your Eyes Only, which itself was a reaction to the excesses of the preceding Bond film, Moonraker. It was a more realistic Bond film which had less of the humour and crazy gadgets. But I’m also rather partial to The Spy Who Loved Me, which seems the definitive Roger Moore Bond film. Yes it is daft hokum, but its always charming, in no small way due to Roger Moore. If I had the opportunity (and I have not, unfortunately, as alas real-life rears its ugly head- apologies for sporadic postings of late), I would probably pop The Spy Who Loved Me on tonight. I’m sure many of us could do with an escape into the simpler pleasures of a Roger Moore Bond film these days.

 

Breaking into Breaking Bad

break12017.26: Breaking Bad Series One (2008)

Over the past few years I’ve received many recommendations to watch this show. I’m not sure why exactly it has taken this long, except for the obvious pressures on time. It sounds almost ridiculous, writing that, but its true- indeed, watching this series, like any other tv boxset, by its very nature impacts time for other watching other stuff. Or reading stuff. Or chores. Or work. Maybe I should leave all this for when I retire. God knows I have plenty of discs etc that seem like they will have to wait that long.

How do we manage our time when you like watching movies/good tv shows or reading books or… its like saturation bombing, which is to say, this seems to be a very modern contemporary problem that our parents/grandparents didn’t need to deal with and I’m at a loss in how to deal with it. Time, my freinds, is at a premium these days and there is just too much content. There are many shows I have not watched simply for lack of time.

So I’ve finally gotten around to Breaking Bad. And it is as wonderful as everybody has told me. Its dark, its funny, its sad, its thrilling and yes, its amazing how well the show juggles all that- thats an element of this show that is pretty marvelous. Its perfectly acted with a fine cast and sharply witty scripts. Its wonderful to think there are several seasons yet ahead of me. It just feels odd, being so ‘behind the curve’ so to speak, marvelling at actors new to me who have presumably since moved on to other stuff (or in the case of Bryan Cranston, shaking off the first experience of him in the Godzilla movie from a few years back).

And yes, I’m in the position of binge-watching the first few series. Certainly, being able to watch this first season over the course of one week is something that original viewers years ago might have been quite envious of. Its something that occurs to me very often with these box sets; as an episode ends, usually with a bit of a cliffhanger, original viewers had to wait a week for the next episode. This frustration, I do not know- consequently the show possibly performs actually better than on its original broadcast (a friend at work waits for each season of The Walking Dead to finish before watching it and finds it a far superior experience to the long slow lingering death of suffering weekly episodes in which little happens or characters disappear from the narrative for weeks on end).

Like the very best television, Breaking Bad is a character-driven show that clearly demonstrates the superiority that television can have over movies. I have heard it said that we are living in a Golden Age of television, which seems strange when you consider all the game-shows and reality-TV shows that dominate the schedules.  The simple fact is that most of my tv watching is via box-sets, whether physical sets or streaming seasons via Amazon, and sometimes it feels like I do not watch any ‘ordinary’ television programming at all. I am watching fewer movies though. There simply is not the time for everything, especially with how many hours these tv shows tend to entail- on that front, season one of Breaking Bad is not an offender as it encompasses only seven episodes. But it isn’t really just seven episodes is it- not with season two following after…

(But please, do me a favour- if you have seen all this show, don’t spill the beans about what happens later on…. just have a bit of a chuckle about this damn fool being ridiculously late to the party.)

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.

My REH Bookshelf Pt.1

Last week I received the three most recent Robert E Howard books from the REH Foundation Press, so I thought it timely to post some pictures of my Robert E Howard collection. I’ve been collecting REH books since 1978, and I think it is true to say that REH fans have never had it as good as they do now, thanks to the efforts of the folks at the REHFP. There is still, and always will be, a unique thrill to receiving a box from them postmarked from the post office at Cross Plains, Texas, a special place in Howard lore.

reh1So here’s my first photograph, and this is pretty much my collection from the last few years and it clearly demonstrates how much I have benefited from the REHFP. While many of these books contain stories I already owned in earlier books, they also contain a wealth of fragments and drafts, and informative essays. And of course they are handsomely collected in hardback format in very limited editions, usually only 200 copies. I can never figure out how REH fandom is so limited that these books don’t seem to sell-out. They aren’t cheap, but when I think back to the bad old days of buying paperbacks these are more that worth the investment, and will hopefully last the rest of this REH readers life.

Highlights are almost too numerous too mention. The Collected Poetry is a hugely important volume, and the Collected Letters also. If these were the only books that the REHFP had ever printed, that would have been more than enough to satisfy collectors. In all honesty though I adore all of these books and only wish I could make the time to properly re-read them all enough. I often think that if ever I manage to retire one day I will enjoy the fruits of my collecting by spending years reading and re-reading these volumes -I only hope I can keep my marbles in order to do so! But I’m certain in the meantime I’ll give it a good go whenever I have time- currently I’m reading through the Breckinridge Elkins books. At any rate, though their frequency of books is somewhat haphazard, I’m certain that the REHFP have yet more books in the pipeline.

One anecdote I must make- my copy of the Collected Poetry was actually delivered across town as the address hadn’t been written properly on the package. As it wasn’t tracked, I had no idea, but thankfully it was delivered to me by the recipient of the package who had subsequently managed to track me down. I don’t think I ever had opportunity to thank him enough, as I was quite bewildered when he turned up at my door late one summer evening with the box. I’m really not usually that lucky a person -the ghost of Howard was looking over me that night!

This second photograph is a sample of the REH volumes I’ve collected over the past few decades-

reh2Now this picture contains a few real finds that REH collectors out there will likely recognise and which will mean nothing at all to most everyone else, so please bear with me. First is The Last Celt, which I bought from Forbidden Planet back in, 1985 I think, on a rare trip down to London. I couldn’t really afford the book but I couldn’t resist it. Its a hugely influential book about REH, at one point the bible of REH collecting. Written and compiled by the late Glenn Lord, who was the most important REH fan there ever was, its a cornerstone of my collection. Glenn was kind enough to reply to an email from me many years ago.

Next along the shelf are, like The Last Celt,  a number of REH books from Donald M Grant, one of the most important publishers of REH material, certainly in the 1970s/1980s- the highlight of these is the rare Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, a semi-autobiographical novel by Howard. Another favourite from my collection is a book about Howard rather than one by him- a memoir by Novalyne Price Ellis titled One Who Walked Alone. She was a friend of Howard and was the only girl he ever dated or had any kind of relationship with, and as she had literary leanings herself, she kept journals and diaries of their times together. This book is a particularly candid, first-hand document about Howard and formed the basis of a later film. Remarkably vivid, reading this book is like stepping into a time machine and the closest one can get to meeting Howard.

Then we come upon the expensive section of my collection- back before the REHFP rescued Howard collectors, the British publisher Wandering Star instigated an ultimately too-ambitious project of luxury limited editions. The books proved a contentious issue in REH fandom, but I well remember my thrill back when they first came out and I’m grateful to everyone involved in the (ultimately abortive) project. Having had to put up with cheap paperbacks and those old second-hand Donald M Grant editions that I could get hold of, new, luxury hardbacks of curated Howard material were a godsend. I remember picking up a flyer in Forbidden Planet announcing the three-volume Conan books. It was like winning some kind of lottery, it was so exciting! The first Wandering Star book was the Solomon Kane book, lavishly illustrated and bound, complete in slipcase with prints and a cd of some recited Kane material.  I bought that from the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham- it was an expensive purchase but I never regretted it.

Further along the shelf you will see my copy of the Neville Spearman edition of Skull-Face Omnibus. In the history of REH publishing, this is one of the important volumes, originally published in 1946 by Arkham House. Dating from 1975, I bought this copy of the Neville Spearman edition from Andromeda Bookshop in 1983. Although I had bought some Conan paperbacks years earlier, it was this book that truly sealed my fate regards collecting REH books. The typeface is so small just reading a paragraph now is enough to induce a major headache, but fortunately all the books material has since been reprinted elsewhere and more legibly.

A few more Donald M Grant editions follow, and L Sprague de Camp’s rather inflammatory biography of Howard that I bought for £8.75 in 1986 (I know, because I have the receipt slipped inside the book), back when I was deep into buying the many REH  paperbacks of the time. I don’t have any of those paperbacks at hand to display, as they are stored up in boxes in the loft- but there were lots of them.

Finally (for now) on the shelf are two deluxe reprint volumes of the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics that pretty much started my whole affair with REH when I first read the weekly reprints here in the UK in 1975. So in a way they bring things full circle.

I have some other REH books I haven’t photographed here -the Bison books from several years ago, the Del Rey books based on unpublished Wandering Star volumes, the aforementioned paperback pile from the 1970s-1980s boxed away and several volumes of critical works about Howard’s work, as well as a number of comic collections from Dark Horse. Plenty there for an eventual Pt.2 indeed,  but what I have featured here is pretty much the bulk of my collection. I certainly don’t consider myself an hardcore REH collector but it has become something of a lengthy fascination that somehow defines me- any other REH collectors care to share details of their collections?

 

Warner Herald, Sept/October 1982

br herald2.jpgHere’s a curio that I discovered in some old papers today. It might be rather rare after all these years so I thought it worth posting about. Its the first issue of a four-page newspaper titled the Warner Herald, which I picked up in my ABC cinema when I first saw Blade Runner back in September of 1982.  Evidently it is something Warner Bros tried back then to publicise its current movies. No idea if it ever managed a second issue, although a column within this does ask for letters for a future Letter to the Editor page. I kept it as a keepsake and stored it away all these long years, occasionally digging it out for a nostalgic read. Anyway, here’s a few photos of those sections concerning my favourite film, as this may be interesting to other Blade Runner fans. The photos aren’t brilliant, I guess I can scan the pages in if anyone really wants to read it properly. If nothing else, its an insight of how the film was marketed back during its initial release. You know, back in the Dark Ages when the world was pre-Internet.

br herald1

br herald3br herald4

 

 

 

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.

cov1

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.