The Old Guard (2020)

old1You waited long enough. Why Now?  What? This thing only dropped on Netflix 16 days ago. I know most people these days only seem to have very limited attention-spans, but this impatience for reviews of new content is getting a bit nuts. I was 41 years ‘late’ with my review of Play Misty For Me yesterday; I figure 16 days is bang-up-to-the-moment of whatever cultural zeitgeist Netflix is. Unless The Old Guard really is distant history already. I can’t keep up, frankly.

So whats it about, then? Ah, well, to go into any detail on this threatens some spoilers, although I have to wonder if I’m spoiling anything when the film’s trailer/teaser pretty much does it anyway. About fifteen or so minutes in, there’s a ‘twist’ or event that lays out the central premise of the film and… well, if someone went into the film blind they’d be gifted a genuine surprise, and as such things are bloody rare in film etc these days, I’ll make this effort to assist it (we’ll add a Spoiler section down the bottom? Okay then I’ll see you down there). Basically, its about Charlize Theron and her team of heroes shooting the shit out of bad guys.

Any good? You know, I thought it was- Charlize Theron is beautiful and a great actress and she can really do these physical movies very well. I remember first seeing her in the Mighty Joe Young remake back in the R1 DVD-import days, in 1998/1999. She’s come a long way since then. The fact that she was so wasted in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a constant bucket of ice-cold water down my pants. The Old Guard‘s action sequences are great, not terribly over-the-top or frenetically edited with shakycam, the cast is great, the story genuinely interesting with a few surprises and tantalising possibilities. The bad guy probably isn’t all he could have been, but the teaser at the end of the film hints that a sequel won’t have that particular problem.

So worth waiting for? What? It came out on July 10th, we already went over this (calm down ghost). I will just say this- in this era of Covid 19-induced lockdowns and cinemas closed for months everywhere (and film releases getting delays upon delays, to the point I’m actually getting concerned for Villeneuve’s Dune in December) its a strange sign of the times that a film like The Old Guard with a cast such as it has, with a budget of some $70 million and international shooting locations, can be made/purchased by Netflix and just casually dropped onto the service, into people’s homes ostensibly ‘free’.  Of course many people will be rushing back to cinemas when they reopen, but one has top wonder if this pandemic has been a huge opportunity for platforms like Netflix and Amazon to push the entertainment history further towards the inevitable streaming future.

Worthless observation? Well I might have already made such an observation in the paragraph above, but as usual of late this is another film based on a comic or graphic novel, so inevitably is a little immature and aimed clearly at a teenage/young audience. Which is fine, its a little disguised but it is clearly a superhero movie (see spoilers below), so one gets used to making allowances, you know? The Old Guard is a fun action film with a neat premise, its just such a shame that novel premises seem to be the domain of comic adaptations these days, and that film producers don’t look at actual old-fashioned books for ideas. There’s plenty of great science-fiction books from the past twenty years that would make for great science-fiction movies, for instance, and I’m sure authors are still writing great westerns etc.

(And a final warning!) Go on then, where be the Spoilers? They are IMMORTALS! There is a great scene early on when the team goes into a stockade in Sudan to free some abducted schoolchildren and it turns out to be a trap and the team are massacred. But then after a few moments they get back up and wreak bloody revenge on their ‘murderers’. Its a good scene that has lost much of its impact simply because the trailer gives the premise away, but, you know, that’s… tricky, I mean how else do you sell this movie? Seems to me that the graphic novel series is clearly indebted to Jack Kirby’s The Eternals from the mid-seventies (one of my favourite comics, can’t wait for the Omnibus later this year – although that is likely to slip to 2021, I suppose, damn you Covid 19) and that this film possibly steals a little thunder from Disney’s movie adaptation.

Returning to Annihilation

anni2Last night I re-watched Alex Garland’s Annihilation, this time on 4K UHD disc rather than streamed on Netflix. The film holds up very well indeed, and remains one of the very best science fiction films in recent memory. Its dark and sombre and horrifying and disturbing. The ending of course is challenging/refreshing/infuriating and I would imagine what people think of the film largely depends on how well they accept such vague and obtuse storytelling. Some of the best science fiction films (looking at you, 2001: A Space Odyssey) leave things open to interpretation and conjecture, leaving some work required from the audience.

What excites me most regards Annihilation‘s ending is that it maintains the sense of the alien, the unknowable, that permeates the entirety of the film. Throughout the film the nature of the Shimmer, its what and why escapes the characters caught up in it. In science fiction films of decades ago (or indeed not even all that long ago), a somebody, whether it be scientist or alien, would be obliged to explain everything in a long monologue to reassure viewers that they are not stupid for not understanding or fathoming it all out, but thank goodness films can be more mature now. Characters in Annihilation offer up suggestions but none of it is ever really taken for truth or final solution. There is a sense that Reality cannot be relied upon, something in the light and the air is wrong and changed and the creatures that exist in this swampish, wooded dreamscape are strange  and twisted. Time seems to pass differently, days can be lost from memory, A monster howls the last screams of one of its victims. Shapes shift under skin, plants sprout from arms, fingerprints shift into new patterns: our bodies betray us (simplest solution: its a film about cancer?). I love that this film leaves it open for me to think about, to ruminate over. There seems all sorts of possibilities and readings to consider on future viewings; I find that exciting. Lena keeps telling her interrogator “I don’t know” when questioned about what happened to her. I don’t know what happens either, but I can have fun thinking about it.

Something fell out of the sky and infected reality with something like cancer, multiplying, creating and destroying without reason, likely without concious intent.

We cannot grasp the real size of the universe or our place in it, and can never really ‘know’ what an alien would be like, or think, if it thought at all. All too often aliens are depicted in film as dudes with Californian accents and a desire for the nearest hot chick (I didn’t intend to reference the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 but I think I just did) and I much rather films go the Giger’s Alien route when they can (the biggest crime of Prometheus is trying to dispel the 1979 films bloody mystery).

So anyway, Annihilation is bloody brilliant. Absolutely loved it. This time I had the added bonus (as I have the film on disc) of being able to watch the extra features and was surprised to discover that they are pretty substantial, totalling close to 90 minutes all told and being really quite informative and not the EPK filler we usually get these days. Behind the scenes footage of some key sequences with insights from cast and crew, some of the pre-production work and as usual Garland is quite open regards how he adapted the original novel (a journey “from suburbia to psychedelia” is one of his observations) and his thoughts on the cast (shame there wasn’t a commentary track though, I suspect Garland would be a great company for a run through the film, but the lack of commentary just perpetuates the mystery I guess).

Great film, though.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomicClearly an example of style over substance, I nonetheless really enjoyed this one- no doubt partly because I enjoyed the John Wick films so much and this has a distinct whiff of being John Wick from a female perspective (oddly timely, I guess, if you can look past the sexual objectifying thats going on throughout). Certainly, from where I’m looking, Charlize Theron is far easier on the eye than Keanu Reeves (can I get away with mentioning that in this day and age without offending someone?), and she handles the physicality of the role very well indeed- she looks gorgeous and you rather believe she’s deadly too the way she carries herself in a fight Those fights are well choreographed and pack a real punch (sic), and the film succeeds, in just the same way as the first John Wick  did, to revitalise the action flick genre. Seems the era of Bruce, Arnie and Sly is well and truly over, and there’s a new boy and girl in town. Indeed, recalling Theron’s film-stealing turn in the recent Mad Max reboot, she’s scored again here in spite of originally seeming more of a serious actress than an action girl. Ridley perhaps miscast her in Prometheus, I think she’d have carried that film better as Dr Elizabeth Shaw on the evidence of her physicality here.

Atomic Blonde looks and sounds quite gorgeous, shot on digital with an ultra-stylized look (neon-drenched one minute, dreary grey the next) that will be familiar to most- when it ‘pops’ it ‘POPS’, and the 1980s setting allows lots of music from the period to be liberally applied to every scene. As might be expected, the plot is fairly thin -it is set mostly in East Germany of 1989 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and both sides of the Iron curtain are after a list of agents that threatens to extend the Cold War if it gets in the wrong hands. To be honest, the plots almost a macguffin in the best Hitchcock fashion, as it didn’t really matter,  and to be honest I didn’t quite understand the logic of the films twists and turns at all.  Its a Russian list which a Russian is selling to the West, but the West doesn’t want the Russians to get it because it could cause the deaths of lots of Western assets. But surely its Russian spies on a Russian list, not a list of Western assets that the Russians need to get hold of, and there’s a double-agent on the list who wants to derail the whole deal in the most long-winded way and there’s a French female operative who doesn’t really fit in but she’s just there for Charlize to enjoy some lesbian sex thrills with… I don’t know. Ultimately it really doesn’t matter, it just sets up lots of fights and stunts and double-crosses. There’s a last epilogue twist that is perhaps one twist too far (actually there’s two twists there -first she’s a double agent working for the Russians and then she’s a double agent working for Langley, and neither makes sense).  Its no classic spy flick, anyway. but I suppose it’s really just an action flick posing as a spy flick, so maybe it gets a pass.

Besides, the cast, while somewhat wasted, is pretty great- John Goodman, Toby Jones, James McAvoy all ably support Theron who is, yes, great in the main role. Its hardly demanding stuff but it is what it is. Complaining about it would be like bitching about a Star Wars film being all effects and wasted actors…. oh, wait…

I expect this film was designed, as so many are these days, to launch a franchise and I certainly wouldn’t mind another outing for Charlize in another one of these.  I suppose that depends on its box office, so we’ll see. A better script that develops her character beyond the ‘beautiful-but-deadly’ protagonist demonstrated here would be nice to see.

A Good Year?

We’re rushing into that time of year when we all start to realise that the year is fast becoming a whole new last year, and inevitably begin to take stock. For my part, it’s begun to dawn on me that it hasn’t been a bad year at all for movies.

We have, after all, seen the release of Blade Runner 2049, and it was everything any Blade Runner fan could have hoped for.  Its struggles at the American Box Office, as if in direct opposition to wondrous reviews, just add more to it somehow, an added pathos. If nothing else, it likely means we won’t have to worry ourselves silly over a third entry anytime soon. Maybe. Alcon did spend a lot of money for the rights, and it is still a well-known IP, so I’d rule nothing out- maybe we’ll see a smaller, less-blockbuster-budget outing next, or even a series on some cable channel.

Beyond the long shadow of BR2049, which has frankly ruined me for any other cinema outings this year (I saw it THREE times!)  and leaves me rather burned-out in the face of another Star Wars entry (still not excited, and it’s only weeks away now), there have been some pretty nice surprises this year. Genre films like Logan, Kong: Skull Island and War for  the Planet of the Apes have all impressed me greatly. Even the live-action Ghost in the Shell was rather fun with a lot to offer once you get your head around a live-action GITS existing in the first place.

On the tv front, things may have been even more impressive- Westworld was fantastic, as was The Leftovers, but another long-remembered favourite (with just as huge expectations/fears as the big-screen’s BR2049), the new Twin Peaks, proved to be utterly sublime. 18 hours of prime David Lynch, a labour of love as scary and bemusing and funny and baffling as anything he ever did. David Lynch at his very best, on tv for goodness sake- who needs cinemas? I just got the blu-ray box this week, can’t wait to plunge into it all over again (just want to rewatch Fire Walk With Me first this time).

The latest Game of Thrones season suffered from its headlong rush to the finish line of season eight. It was just three episodes too short and risked jumping the shark with a few of its questionable plot-turns. Here’s hoping the last season delivers when we finally see it. Back on the movies front, Ridley risked losing the plot along with his nerve, when his Prometheus 2 became Prometheus 1.5 with 0.5 of an unnecessary Alien prequel thrown in. Maybe he was right about Giger’s alien being all done- if Ridley can’t make the Alien scary again, who can? Meanwhile while Marvel soared (particularly with the triumphant Spiderman: Homecoming) DC floundered yet again with the frankly risible Justice League. Maybe an Ultimate Cut will fix that… who knows?

So yeah, an interesting year and one that 2018 will struggle to live up to, I suspect. Afterall, new Blade Runner films and Twin Peaks series don’t come along every decade, do they, nevermind every year. Hell, if those two projects were the only worthy efforts of the year, it would still have been a Good Year.

And I haven’t mentioned the new two-disc Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack on its way across the pond, possibly in time for Christmas….

Alien meets its nemesis

…and it’s the US Box Office. Years ago one of the my favourite articles in the monthly Starburst magazine  would be Tony Crawleys annual box office charts, summarising the performance of genre films from the  year before. This was long before the internet, and it was always enlightening to see how certain films had managed at the box office. It was, of course,  no indication of quality -‘the cruelest cut of all’ was how Blade Runner‘s dismal performance was summarised; I’ll remember that line forever. Ever since, I’ve always been curious about box office, the vagaries of cinemagoers taste, critic influence and marketing issues.

So here is the sad case of Alien Covenant, which after a reasonable launch plunged in its second week at the US box office, with a 71% drop in takings. A current final tally of $71 million domestic is a pretty poor showing, and foreign return of $110 million won’t really help the film even break even on a purported $97-110 million (depending who you listen to) budget.

a1
ah, the good old days…

Its funny- the original Alien is perceived as being a huge hit and you have to allow for post-1979 inflation to really know what its then-£80 million domestic equates to in 2017 dollars, but I recall stories back then that the film never actually turned a profit for Fox (rumour  had it that creative accounting was at work to nullify people’s percentages on the profits). For curiosities sake: Aliens $85 million domestic in 1986, Alien 3 $55 million in 1992…

So does this signal another hiatus for the Alien films, despite Ridley Scott’s intention to shoot another sequel next year?

I wonder, what did the studio expect? We are living in a strange world for movies, where studios now have to dodge Marvel blockbusters and DC blockbuster-wannabes and -God help ’em- Star Wars films, and maybe the odd Fox superhero flick or Transformers movie. Where on earth Jim Camerons’ four Avatar sequels eventually fit in is beyond me. Indeed, there seem to be new blockbusters dropped every week in summer- its carnage out there (as King Arthur proved).  

Covenant was originally intended to be released later this year but was brought forward to May- unfortunately two weeks after the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 juggernaut ($336 million domestic, $461 million foreign) and just a week before the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie ($135 million domestic, $392 foreign). When you look at it like that, an R-rated movie (and belated sequel to the ill-received Prometheus) doesn’t really have much hope, does it? A telling comparison is the similarly R-rated Mad Max: Fury Road, universally acclaimed (which Covenant wasn’t) and assumed a hit, which earned $154 domestic and $224 foreign- superior by some margin but on a $154 million budget. So its hard to make out Covenant as some kind of disaster- disappointing yes, but these Alien films have long shelf-lives.

But does it kill any sequel? For all Covenant‘s faults (and I actually quite liked it) I would like to see that sequel, if only to put that Prometheus/Covenant storyline to a rest. It does seem rather doubtful at the moment. Clearly Covenant wasn’t a great film, but was its quality at fault here or rather the swamping of the box office with far too frequent blockbusters and cinemagoers always turning to the Next Thing? I have read that the Pirates of the Caribbean flick is actually deemed the more disappointing by its studio – particularly due to its $230 million budget (foreign box office saved the day for that one). So I guess all things are relative. Maybe Ridley will get one more shot after all.

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.

 

Loving the Alien

alien1.jpgAlien (1979) – Blu-ray

So I watched Alien again. The last time I watched the film was just before Prometheus was released. Back then I was cautious about what Prometheus might be, what its effects on Alien might be. This time, well, I was pretty much of the same mind, watching it for the first time since Prometheus, wondering what it would like with the knowledge of Space Engineers etc sullying my experience of it.

I won’t go on about Prometheus, it’s a divisive movie and certainly not all it might have been. As time has gone on, I look back on it with a some disappointment- it is really two films conflicting for supremacy. Its partly a (‘proper’?) science fiction film about human evolution and how that was orchestrated by alien Engineers, and it is partly an Alien prequel, handicapped by having to put all those references to Alien in it whilst maintaining some kind of logic. I hope Ridley Scott’s next attempt, Alien: Covenant, gets it right next time by being either one or the other (it certainly seems to be going the route of  full-on Alien prequel, which isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself).

So Alien. Well, thankfully I can report it isn’t ruined by Prometheus, even my favourite scene of the Space Jockey reveal. Fortunately Alien is its own thing, a utterly gorgeous Lovecraftian horror, and no meddling of the chronology/mythology can spoil that. To be honest I’m of a mind that everything else -prequels, sequels, everything- is all some other alternate universe anyway. Alien works best as its own, unique thing. Its a beautifully shot, wonderfully designed, perfectly cast/acted film about space truckers stumbling upon an alien derelict and unwittingly unleashing their own doom. Thats all that it is. Rather like fans of Jaws (and I count myself among them) can watch that film blissfully discounting the existence of its own horrible sequels.

Its the conflict between art and commerciality.  Each is a perfect work of art and each has been subjected to the normal Hollywood methodology of milking a successful property for every dollar it can make. As fans we are always tempted by the prospect of ‘more’ but rarely is that ‘more’ ever properly realised, rarely does that ‘more’ really mean more of what we love and admire. I think one example of where that worked was Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, or maybe Back to the Future 1 & 2, but such examples are rare (I rather hope Blade Runner and its as yet-unnamed sequel proves to be another, but we’ll have to wait and see).

alien2I think that what helps Alien remain so unique, so indomitably unaffected by Prometheus or the sequels  is that it is so much a product of the 1970s. It looks and feels and sounds so different to everything else that has followed. The cast is middle-aged, down to earth and ‘real’, they don’t seem like a cast of actors, and even the usual roles each performs seems against type (so very 1970s). Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is the nominal leader but he’s really an ineffectual one, laid-back to the point of being disinterested in what is to him just another job. That tired, job-like attitude to travelling between worlds infects most of the characters, at once a Dark Star-inspired commentary on the soulless astronauts of 2001 and riposte to the heroes of Star Trek.  If the audience expects Dallas to be the leader, the hero by example, the source of a solution, they are rather mistaken. In most of his decisions, Dallas is usually proved wrong. Its an example of authority being fallible, another ‘1970s thing’ I think in the post-Nixon era.  That last point is further echoed in the conspiracy of Ash and ‘the Company’ using the crew as expendable pawns in an investigation of the alien- it’s not a plot point really convincing or successful but its a further example of the film being a product of its time.

Of all the films that have followed it, I don’t think there has ever been as convincing an ensemble, it’s a major part of the sense of reality of the film.  Likewise the slow pace, or the (mandated by the limits effects tech of the time) strictly functional visual effects that don’t pull us out of the film by being ‘wow’ moments. The horror of the Giger-designed creature is more from what we don’t see than what we do. A film today would feel more inclined to show us everything and ‘wow’ us with impressive visuals, as Prometheus did. If characters in Alien behave dumb, we don’t really mind, they are ordinary people who are terrified or not aware of their real situation; if the characters in Prometheus behave dumb, its because they are stupid (or written badly).

And the Jerry Goldsmith score; what a wonderfully unsettling, perfectly toned work. Even the uses of his earlier score from Freud, something Goldsmith himself was annoyed by, seems perfect- that fragile, haunting melody that accompanies Dallas crawling through the air ducts (I bought the soundtrack to Freud on CD some years ago- it sounds very much like the score to an Alien sequel that never was).

Well here’s a reality check:  Alien is some 37 years old now. That fact alone feels scarier than anything in the bloody movie but yeah, 37 years old and yet to be equaled as a sci-fi horror film. I’m not going to suggest it is a classic like Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or 2001 but its surely up there in that group of films as far as being  in a league of their own, never to be really equalled.

ff137 years ago… I remember picking up this issue of Fantastic Films, arrested by the image on its cover and the unsettling pictures inside of strange alien places and unusual-looking spacesuits. It was the start of a long love affair with what would be one of my very favourite films. I remember reading the Movie Novel of the film, in hindsight a remarkable way of experiencing a film that has sadly been made redundant by home video (I would have loved, and would still love, a Movie Novel of Blade Runner for example).

So Alien lives on, in spite of and utterly independent of, Prometheus and any of the other Alien-themed spinoff films. Its an unsettling, powerful piece of work that somehow transcends its b-movie origins. Long may it reign.

 

 

The Martian (2015)

marty1As I write this, Ridley Scott’s The Martian has reached a US domestic haul of more than $197 million, with foreign receipts added its worldwide take is some $459 million, making it one of the directors most successful films. It hasn’t been released in China or Japan yet either so there’s plenty yet to be added, so it is sure to cross that magical $500 million barrier. It’s nice to see Scott with a genuine hit under his hat after a decade of his films struggling to find a sizeable audience.

It’s just a pity its The Martian. It is easy to assess why it has been so successful- it is based on a very popular book, has a likeable and popular lead, and is pretty much the perfect Ridley Scott vehicle for mainstream audiences- a simple story told with great visuals. It’s a good movie. But it’s a pretty weak Ridley Scott movie. Think Thelma & Louise over 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

marty2Maybe ‘weak’ isn’t the right word. Its just that… well it didn’t involve me somehow. Maybe its unfair, I read the book so I knew what to expect. Other than an unnecessary coda the film is largely faithful to the book and doesn’t take any liberties so any weakness in the film is surely inherent in the source material. And it certainly looks as spectacular as you’d expect for a Ridley Scott film. Indeed, how he manages to make a film as ‘big’ as this for ‘just’ $108 million is quite astonishing, frankly (something he likewise achieved with Prometheus). You certainly get plenty bang for your buck. And yes its great to see Ridley back in the sci-fi groove now after so many decades. There are some amazing sets and shots in The Martian that reminded me of 2001, and hints at what a film like that might look like if done today. But that’s just it; 2001 would never get made today. We can do better visuals now than Kubrick could ever have dreamed of, but we cannot tell the same kind of story. There is no room for the awe, the strangeness, the alien-ness of space anymore. Its more cosy and familiar now. I don’t think there is any moment in The Martian where we doubt our hero will ever fail to survive, or we really feel the stark terror and loneliness of life alone on an alien world. We’re too busy smirking at disco music.

God that planetoid in Alien was so strange and alien… so dark and moody and dangerous and nightmarish. Mars looks spectacular enough but its just another desert, frankly. I guess I just prefer Scott’s more arthouse, darker, rawer works, those films with his flair for visuals coupled with a darker twist. They are inevitably more esoteric, less audience-friendly. Not necessarily better movies, I’ll admit that, certainly, but I do find even a flawed film like The Counsellor rather more interesting and rewarding. However some might say that I’m talking utter tosh and The Martian proves that Ridley is better when he keeps it simple. The box-office would seem to confirm that. The tone of the film just felt wrong, somehow. Maybe it was just that disco music. It rather worked in the book, but onscreen, it was just distracting, undermining any tension.

Maybe I’ll enjoy it more second time around. I just expected Ridley to stamp some of his darkness on the project but it just turned out light and fluffy and entertaining like the book. I expect that, knowing that now, I’ll react to the film better next time. But I’ll still wonder at what it might have been. Maybe he’s keeping a three-hour version under his hat for a Directors Cut edition that will add some of that darkness and awe. You never know with Ridley. Afterall, Kingdom of Heaven was pretty poor at the cinema, but its later extended version is one of the very best films he has ever made.

Tomorrowland (2015)

t2With an estimated budget of $190 million and a worldwide-box office tally of $208 million, Disney stands to lose something in the region of $100-150 million on this one summer film. Which is a pity, not because the film is particularly good, but rather because it is an original property rather than a sequel or a reboot. I couldn’t care less that Fox’s Fantastic Four stands to lose its studio much more – that film should never have been made; the world didn’t need another Fantastic Four film anymore than it needed another Terminator film- but I do feel sad about an original film failing to find an audience in an industry where originality is at a premium.

Hopes were high pre-release; Brad Bird is the director of The Iron Giant and  Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille, three remarkable films. Tomorrowland looked intriguing from the first teasers and trailers. I was rather rooting for Tomorrowland. Yet something seems to have gone wrong, it’s turned out messy and confusing. If I was to suggest that, when I think back on it, too much of Tomorrowland doesn’t really make a lot of sense, then maybe that is sort of explained by Damon Lindelof’s attachment as co-writer to the project. Oh yeah, that guy again.

t3I just think it needed reigning in- or maybe Lindelof needed reigning in/kicking out the door. It’s such a good concept with a valid Message that is pure Disney. The modern world is going to hell; NASA is shut down, the public buried under the weight of terrorism, global warming, famine, all the problems of the world, with all the hope and positivity of the sixties (and in particular The 1964 Worlds Fair and its Tomorrowland theme park) all forgotten. The solution to our woes is the City of Tomorrow which somehow sits Out There, a symbol of hope and promise, but even that beacon of The Future can’t survive the pessimism and despair which threatens the world with an impending Doomsday.

The central mystery of what/where Tomorrowland is, and what its purpose is, is engrossing, and it has a refreshingly positive message; but the whole thing just flounders towards the end. It sort of collapses under the weight of its lofty ambitions (but hell, at least it has those ambitions, right?) Its just so frustrating, this should have been so great. I hesitate to go much further because I rather like my reviews to be spoiler-free for fairly recent films (its fair game on older films, most readers will have seen them by now, but new films? Nah). I do suspect, like Prometheus before it, that Tomorrowland suffers from the Lindelof factor. It shouldn’t really so simple, film-making is a huge endeavour with many hands involved, but that Lindelof connection is too hard to ignore. The central idea of Prometheus was great but it got too twisted up in ideas that conflict with each other and just confuse, and Tomorrowland rather goes the same way. The more I think about Tomorrowland the less it makes sense, plot-points seem to flounder, so much is left unexplained. But it is so beguiling. Maybe it deserves to find its audience someday.
t1That all said, I rather liked the film, and a few days after watching it I find myself thinking about it a lot and curious to re-watch it again. Tomorrowland isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t the great film it might have been. It’s funny and thoughtful and the cast are fine. Some sequences are just astonishing, particularly one where a character has an all-too brief ‘visit’ to the wondrous City of Tomorrow and all its wonders (jetpacks, anti-grav pools, giant robots, levitating trains, rockets, all in a retro sixties-future-look) depicted by ILM in breathtaking photo-real CGI. I hate to sound like an effects junkie, but some of the visuals in this film are worth the price of entry alone. It’s all rather bewitching.

Go into this film with cautionary expectations, and you just might fall under its strange spell too.