Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive? 

Another Sunshine Reprise

sun1Sunshine (2007)

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something endlessly rewatchable about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. I must watch it once, sometimes two or more, times a year. Infact, of all the films made in the last twenty years, its one of the few that I have rewatched several times since its release, and possibly the one I have rewatched the most. It’s not a huge blockbuster, it wasn’t even particularly a success, either financially or critically, on its release, but something about the film just ‘clicks’.

Part of it might be that it’s like a Sci-Fi Greatest Hits. It takes elements of Alien, The Black Hole, Event Horizon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst others. There’s all sorts of stuff in the film that can be recognised from other films, but for once it doesn’t really irritate. For one thing, it might be imitating other films but it’s doing so with a small budget and pulling it off well too. It looks fantastic on a budget of something like $30 million- compared to bigger films it looks remarkable and shows what is possible with careful planning and craftsmanship.  Really it’s astonishing how good the film looks for what it cost and it stands as some kind of testament to what can be done. Most importantly, the film has a genuine sincerity to how it borrows from the other films, a genuine care and appreciation and respect to those films. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off, or anything remotely negative.

sun2When the crew sits down around a table to eat together, of course it brings to mind the similar scenes from Alien; the set design, the banter, all of that, but you sense that Boyle is being respectful of Alien, not simply ripping it off. Its something that resonates so well from Alien that Boyle and writer Alex Garland obviously felt it was the right way to introduce the characters and the setting. Some shots even seem choreographed to echo shots from Alien– look at the scene when Cillian Murphy’s Capa fills the foreground and extreme right of the frame when he is informed its his decision regards diverting to the Icarus One: it perfectly copies an early scene in Alien with Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert filling the same part of the frame when she is told she is on the excursion team and she mutters “shit” in response, just as Capa voices his own bitterness at having to make his decision.

The characters are a big part of Sunshine. The cast is diverse and top-class, but wisely lacking huge ‘star’ names that might distract (although inevitably some of the cast are certainly ‘star’ names now from more successful ventures since). All of the cast bring their A-game and something to their characters, and the film is carefully threaded with character beats and moments that are important. Not all of them are likeable- some of them irritate but only because they seem so genuine and convincing with their flaws and mistakes. There is a sense that they have been stuck together for sixteen months and frictions are brewing as well as friendships. It always seems convincing to me, how they relate to one another and interact. It’s all very well-written, well performed and well-observed/directed.
sun3Some moments in Sunshine are extraordinary, like when the crew all gather at the viewing port to witness the transit of Mercury across the Sun. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring spectacle, with a real sense of the wonder and majesty of space that most films would make us think mundane. But more than just the magnificent visuals and music, Boyle takes time to examine the faces of the crew so we can compare and contrast their seperate reactions to what they are watching. It informs us subtly what they are thinking, and where they are ‘at’ regards the mission, in a much more profound way than simply through dialogue and exposition. Its one of my favourite moments from any science fiction film.

Its when Sunshine slips into Event Horizon territory that most viewers seem to think it jumps the shark. I like Event Horizon, I think it’s the best Alien film that isn’t part of the official franchise (and to my mind is likely a better Alien film than Resurrection or Prometheus or even -controversial!-  Aliens). And I certainly don’t mind when things go all apeshit as the Space Madness-inflicted Pinbacker runs amok. What’s so nuts about a Captain whose mind has collapsed under the stress of his mission, in the face of sights no human has likely witnessed before? Its something that the transit of Mercury scene surely portends, in how the Icarus 2 crew react to what they see. Some are awed, some are bored.  Pinbacker saw stuff like that and saw God. His brain pulls a Hal 9000 and he kills his crew and aborts the mission thinking he’s doing The Right Thing.  Boyle and Garland are reaching to 2001 here even when they slip towards exploitation-horror territory. What does ‘Space’ really mean, or our place in this vast unthinking/unfeeling universe when you are millions of miles from home trapped in a steel can on a likely one-way mission probably destined to fail? What does that mean when that failure dooms all of humanity? You can’t wrap your head around stuff like that. It could drive you nuts and with Pinbacker it does (even the name Pinbacker nods to a character in the John Carpenter comedy Dark Star, itself an anti-2001, another example of the thought and respect running throughout Sunshine with its nods to past films).

Yes, Sunshine suddenly shifts in tone from semi-serious 2001/Alien hybrid towards a slasher flick, but you have to appreciate what Garland and Boyle are doing. They are making a science fiction film to entertain, and are no doubt enjoying taking the risk in pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet.  Its also adding dramatic conflict to the piece and ramping up the tensions regards will they/won’t they succeed in nuking the sun. It’s putting greater and greater obstacles in front of Capa and forcing sacrifices from the remainder of the Icarus 2 crew. And even though they succeed, no-one on Earth will ever know what happened or what sacrifices they had to make or tasks they endured.

You either buy it or you don’t, I guess. But I think Sunshine is a hugely satisfying and rewarding little film far superior to so many bigger-budgeted blockbusters. I wish it might have been successful enough to enable more similarly-themed, similarly-budgeted films. You don’t have to spend $200 million to make a convincing and entertaining space movie, and for all that critics moan about its last third, it still isn’t likely as daft and nonsensical as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for instance. Sunshine is the little guy that done good.  I only wish Garland and Boyle might one day return to the genre again, and make another great little sci-fi movie together.