REVIEW: The Dark Tower (2017)

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Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel, Based on the Novels by Stephen King
Starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haybert, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earl Haley, Fran Kranz

Here we go, The Dark Tower. Stephen King’s magnum opus, the binding agent of his disparate and intricate literary multiverse, and umpteenth iteration of his own view of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. It has taken a decade to get it to the big screen, which is for sure a contributing factor to the confusion and dissatisfaction surrounding audience opinion to this film, but far from the only one.

Young Jake (Tom Taylor) is troubled by visions of another world. Deciding to investigate these strange dreams, he stumbles upon a portal into another dimension, where the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), also known as the Man in Black, determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.

Quick, how many movies can you get out of an epic, 8-book literary series? Most viewers would guess 8, maybe 7. An ambitious screenwriter could probably narrow it down to 3. For whatever reason, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and director Nikolaj Arcel decided that not only could they do it in one, but they could make that film just over 90 minutes. This seems to be heart of the backlash against The Dark Tower; why, oh why, would anybody think to take a chainsaw to one of the most beloved book series of recent memory?

The Dark Tower starts simply enough, albeit with a massive shift from King’s original work: focusing on Jake Chambers, the ordinary kid with extraordinary visions of the worlds beyond ours. By treating Jake as the main character of the story, The Dark Tower begins to take shape as an homage to some of the darker fantasy films of the 1980s, like Krull, The Gate, and The Dark Crystal–films that took young characters into threatening and often-times frightening situations during epic quests. Jake indeed follows this tradition, walking through a portal into the multiversal wasteland of Roland’s world.

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Idris Elba is a believable Roland Deschain, rugged and battle-ready. While he shows that many iconic roles are not and should not be bound to a certain race of actor, Elba never really makes the role his own, acting contently within the typical framework of the silent western hero. Like much of the droll supporting cast, Elba misses a great opportunity to combine Clint Eastwood cool with the knight-like mysticism of King’s original conception.

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Speaking of missed opportunities, back to that one-film thing. I’m beginning to think that, due to the many aborted attempts to make the series in the past, the studio sought to save as much money as possible by shaving it all down to a standard-length film, leaving an open end for possible sequels but tying up the main storyline in case of box office failure. This theory explains the other really big change to the storyline, the extended setting of Keystone Earth, or our world for King virgins. With the altered focus on Jake, he, Roland, and the Man in Black all make extended stops on our world, with the main plotline slowing to a crawl halfway through for Jake to return home to check on his parents. By bypassing the epic cycle of the journey through King’s other books that the Gunslinger takes originally, the film tragically castrates itself.

But there is good news. Despite all the bitching I just did, I actually enjoyed watching it. As mentioned before, the film evokes a dark fantasy quest from the decade of my birth, and the introduction of more technological elements into the richly magical world provided an interesting visual and thematic dichotomy. Arcel is adept at blocking action scenes, with Roland’s final showdown in the Dixie being a highlight. And finally, Matthew McConaughey. Playing the role of Walter, the Man in Black, a role he seems tailor-made to take on, McConaughey gives us a charming and vicious sorceror, a dark figure who has artificially made himself into a god for the ultimate purpose of destroying reality. Hopefully whoever ends up making the remake of The Stand or Eyes of the Dragon decides to bring him back.

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Is The Dark Tower worth watching? If one can put aside its massive departures from the books and abstain from comparing it to obviously superior adaptations like It, then I feel at least a weekday matinee or a DVD rental is warranted. King fans can still delight in the near-endless references to his other works, and may even come to eventually embrace it as an alternate version of the epic series set on yet another world in the multiverse. Time will tell, but for now, I’m content to say, “it’s okay entertainment.”

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FAN EDIT REVIEW: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – Revisited

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Original Film Directed by Irvin Kershner, Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Adywan
Category: FanFix

The home video history of Star Wars and of the art of fan editing itself are heavily intertwined. Beginning in 2000 with Mike J. Nichols’ The Phantom Edit, the resultant “remix culture” that has surrounded George Lucas’ more controversial 21st Century fingerprints on his magnum opus has now ballooned into a complete community as extensive as cosplay culture. Needless to say, there are now tons of Star Wars fan edits out there, and are as varied as the selection at a Baskin-Robbins; you have Harmy’s Despecialized Edition restorations of the original unaltered trilogy, grindhouse mixes like The Man Behind the Mask”s War of the Stars, Christopher Nolan-style time-benders like Star Wars: Renascent, and you have your basic fanfixes, like The Phantom Edit.

Emerging in the late 2000s with several restorations, editor Adrian Sayce–better known as Adywan–soon established his own indelible mark upon the Star Wars fan editing nation with Star Wars Revisited, a massive reimagining of the modern state of the original trilogy. While seeing the merit in the concept of a Special Edition, Adywan set out to heavily alter Lucas’ re-edited versions, in an attempt to produce “what the Special Editions should have been.”

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Adywan’s Revisited version of Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 2009, and quickly became a popular edit with its intricately-crafted new visual effects, massive color regrading, and subtle fixes to stupid mistakes that Lucasfilm should have repaired long ago (Obi-Wan’s lightsaber changing to a dimly-lit pole comes to mind). After 7 years of hard work, his long-awaited followup, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited, is finally here, and it was so worth the wait.

As of this writing, it is only available as a 720p x264 file at a size of around seven gigabites, but even on this relatively shrimpy format the edit is simply stunning. Even a cursory scroll-through of the screenshots from the x264 version reveals a picture far superior to even the official Blu-rays. While liberties are taken with many elements in order to bring the film in line with Adywan’s vision of a functional director’s cut, ESB-R is second only to Harmy’s Despecialized Edition in fidelity to the original theatrical image.

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Even the majority of his changes seem to minimize the shock inherent to seeing an altered version of a movie so many remember so well. For example, Obi-Wan’s Force ghost on Hoth is no longer lacking the characteristic edge sparkle it and all the others possess, but Adywan keeps the brightness on it down low enough to not break the mirage-like effect that particular ghost was always meant to have. Many other changes, while substantially more noticeable, always make sense: the Battle of Hoth now contains more AT-STs to offset the out-of-place original occurrence of the vehicle; the swamps of Dagobah are a little more crawling with exotic creatures; the asteroid field is even more intense with an expansion of the field on the z axis. Every change is not forced or full of nonsense.

Like with A New Hope Revisited, the film has been through a complete color re-grading, although this time it seems less noticeable, no doubt due to how screwed up the previous film’s color palette was by Lucasfilm. In addition, various technical gaffes and limitations have been fixed, including all new starfields and smoothed out jump cuts. Lightsaber and blaster effects have all been completely rotoscoped by Adywan.

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Not every change is perfection, however; in what I believe will be his most controversial, Adywan has used CG to further animate the Yoda puppet’s mouth. In some scenes it works, in others it’s just distracting. Hey, at least it’s not a full CG Yoda, right?

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With ESB-R, Adywan has reclaimed his place at the top of the fan edit mountain. With picture and sound even better than the official blu-rays, and additions and fixes that, for the most part, greatly improve upon Lucas’ own hair-brained ideas, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited should be in everyone’s fan edit collection.

HOW TO GET IT:
Visit Adywan’s how-to-download page for details on getting the 8gb .mkv. DVD-5, DVD-9 and Blu-ray versions will be available sometime in the future.

 

REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, Based on Characters Created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary

The Apes Origins Trilogy (feel free to steal that name) has to be one of the best examples of a hard reboot yet. Respecting the core tenents of the original film series while branching out to tell its own story with complex themes of inter-species relations and survival in a post-apocalyptic environment, this series of films presents a top-notch blockbuster experience. While Rise may have stumbled just a bit in its execution, I felt Dawn was near-perfect, so with War, hopes are riding quite high.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

It’s funny that the above synopsis refers to an epic battle, because while there is a traditional military battle at the end of the film, the conflict it actually refers to is the ideological and philosophical battle between both The Colonel and Caesar, and between Caesar’s better and darker natures. Like Rise and Dawn before it, War is a very nuanced and brooding type of film, more content to let its characters suffer in a world dying with a whimper.

More than the others, War contains numerous references to the original films, including but certainly not limited to: a new strain of the Simian Flu that robs humans of their speech and motor-functions, turning them into the primitive slaves of the original series; the X-crosses that used to mark the Forbidden Zones now used to string up captured Apes by the Alpha and Omega army, itself a references to the underground mutants of the second film; Maurice’s supposed rise as the Lawgiver character; I could go on and on. Obviously, Reeves and Bomback have great love and respect for the franchise.

But more importantly, they also know how to write their own story, and War is just as much proof of their prowess as Dawn was. All of these references are skillfully folded into a narrative quest undertaken by Caesar, in which he opens up the depths of his sin and confronts every choice he has ever made in a veritable Heart of Darkness-esque film is arresting, to say the least. As he agonizes over the losses suffered to humans over the years, and his crime against his own kind with the haunting spectre of Koba, Caesar trudges on through cold Northern wastes, racing toward a final confrontation with the Kurtz of this story, played menacingly by Woody Harrelson. Along the way, Andy Serkis, Terry Notary, Steve Zahn, and Karin Konoval make tremendous use of the near-perfect motion-capture method employed by Reeves’ technical wizards, and achieve scary-good performances that are, more often than not, way too realistic to disbelieve.

As strong as the visual effects and Michael Giacchino’s classical score are, the screenplay and the acting continuously roar back into the spotlight, especially with the film’s second half, set at the Alpha and Omega base within an abandoned weapons depot on the Canadian border. Here, Caesar and the Colonel match wits and emotions as each is forced to confront their very beings in a series of scenes that rank as some of the best acted moments I’ve seen all year. And one of them isn’t even truly onscreen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that a fourth film is being prepped by 20th Century Fox. However, I feel Planet of the Apes would be better served if the franchise stopped here for now. Pretty much every loose end has been tied, and the story has already come full circle, leaving a straight remake of the original film as the only way forward. And when it comes down to it, there isn’t much point in doing so. The Apes Origin Trilogy, having begun as a nature-fights-back franchise before evolving into an uncompromising and devastating meditation on the self-destructive nature of human civilization, is over in my eyes, with its final note as beautiful as it can possibly be.

REVIEW: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

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Directed by Kazuki Omori
Written by Kazuki Omori
Starring Kosuke Toyohara, Anne Nakagawa, Megumi Odaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya

I always wonder what the Heisei series of Godzilla films would have been like had Godzilla vs. Biollante not been a box office disappointment. The seeds were all there for an interesting science fiction franchise: a return to big-budget productions, new monster characters, a strong emphasis on high sci-fi concepts with consistent narratives. Such a shame that Toho decided to play it safe and redo the Showa series for the 90s. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy these films, but I ponder what could have been.

When a mysterious UFO is seen flying over Tokyo, tensions mount as the craft lands–and the occupants reveal themselves to be time travelers from the 23rd Century. Their mission: to warn mankind that Godzilla will soon awaken and wreak havoc upon the Earth unless he is destroyed. Meanwhile, a double-threat emerges in the form of King Ghidorah, a massive, flying three-headed dragon. The suspense builds to terrifying levels as the time travelers’ sinister true objective in the present is gradually revealed, and Godzilla must wage a solo battle against those who would destroy our future.

For Godzilla’s third outing in the Heisei continuity, Toho brought back his old nemesis, King Ghidorah, but more importantly, decided to create a trilogy cycle by delving into the origin of the second Godzilla. While I could argue all day about the dramatic deficiency of this move, namely, the destruction of the mystery surrounding this Godzilla’s existence, the end result is a bit more complicated than that.

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Beginning with a UFO streaking across the skies of Tokyo, GvKG quickly sets up the Godzilla origin arc with the main players of Terasawa (Kasuke Toyohara), a non-fiction writer investigating the kaiju’s past, dinosaur expert Professor Mazaki (Katsuhiko Sasaki), and the psychic from GvB, Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka). Their investigation reveals the existence of a massive dinosaur, a survivor of the KT Extinction, on Lagos Island in 1944, saving a garrison of Japanese soldiers from an American landing party. This revelation collides with the UFO story when the craft’s occupants reveal themselves as humans from the 23rd Century, come to save Japan from the devastation Godzilla will soon bring.

While the story itself seems sound, what really fails in GvKG for me is, well, everything else. Omori’s screenwriting takes a turn for the worse in this film, with his first deficiency being in his time-travel logic. Early on, one of the ‘Futurians’ insists that an individual from one time cannot coexist with his past-self at the same time, but this assertion is clearly proven wrong at several points later on, and the consistency of time theory is way off (at one point, their actions cause already established events to happen, and at others they change events). While this isn’t too grievous of a gaffe, as time travel is a messy storytelling subject, Omori’s seeming glorification of Japanese nationalism and the Imperial Army certainly is.

Image result for godzilla vs king ghidorah stillsYes, I’m going to toss my hat into this little controversy. I do indeed recognize the argument of the old guard and Ishiro Honda that perhaps depicting the killing of American soldiers by the Godzillasaurus went a little too far, considering the context in which these men fighting for an imperialist power would go on to become the founders of the modern Japan, in the case of Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya). However, this is rooted in historical fact, and the theme of the country’s roots in the war have been done with relative respect even in American films such as The Wolverine and Letters from Iwo Jima. Additionally, Shindo’s arc isn’t even indicative of the typical conservative Japanese attitudes, as he ends up at the mercy of his ‘savior’ at the end, perishing in the nuclear fire of a destructive god that does not, in fact, take sides, effectively nullifying any nationalistic fervor Omori may have fostered. In short, Shindo may have thought the divine wind was at his back, but he found in his tragic fall that it never cared about him at all.

As for the visual side of things, it doesn’t fare much better. Much of the futuristic elements are hokey at best and laughable at worst, with the biggest offender being the M-11 android. With his soft, almost unintelligable voice and dopey still-face, he already obliterates the Terminator-like image I’m sure Omori wanted to convey, and that’s long before we get “the run.”

I’m sure the suitmation technique did not change at all since GvB, but the emphasis on daytime battles in this film limits the believability of the kaiju action, and doesn’t do the action scenes any favors while the special effects artists grapple with new problems introduced by the heavy new Ghidorah suits. What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, Ghidorah can’t even walk anymore. This unfortunate side effect of the new suit leads to the proliferation of the Heisei series’ beam battles, which are spectacular to a child on his first viewing but to my eyes, very boring. And while the great Akira Ifukube returns to score the film, his themes are simple rehashes of old pieces, most notably the use of the King Kong vs. Godzilla theme as Ghidorah’s. Great piece, just not every original to reuse it.

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I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on GvKG, as it did introduce Mecha-King Ghidorah and played with the idea of Godzilla being a more elemental being, a god of destruction to his Japanese homeland. I just wish there were a better way to do it than what Omori and Tanaka came up with. For the rest of the Heisei series, the emphasis would be on monster mashes with returning Showa characters and threats, and while even those tired concepts would prove to be interesting later on in the Millennium series, they just don’t have the same power here. Sorry fellow G-fans, but Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah started the 90s downfall that led straight to Emmerich’s odd one out, and that can’t be changed with a time-travelling mothership.

REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!

EDITORIAL: Aliens Ruined the Alien Franchise

Before I begin, I just want to say that I, in fact, do not hate Aliens at all. Actually, I find it to be fine piece of cinema, heavily influential and paced to entertain at breakneck speed. If you don’t believe me, check out my review.

But as I found myself halfway through a viewing earlier this year for Alien Week, I began to realize something I never had considered before. It felt…different. Not different from the other films, it already is that in spades. I mean different as in I was seeing the film itself in a light I had never seen before. As Ripley and the Marines huddled together in formation, their backs to the wall, awaiting the alien horde with rifles at the ready, I began to remember the numerous complaints of Prometheus viewers at the movie theater where I work, five years ago.

“It’s too confusing; I couldn’t understand it.”

Hicks is spooked. He fires blindly into the ceiling.

“The characters are dumb, they make terrible, stupid decisions. Totally unbelievable.”

Hudson and Vazquez let loose. Alien after alien leaps down from the ceiling panels.

“It’s nothing like Aliens. That movie was good.”

Ripley finally fires, and now I get it.

Indeed, James Cameron’s “perfect sequel” is a good movie. And it was a good thing for the franchise at the time, keeping it alive at a crucial juncture, spawning comics, novels, and yes, more films. But as history has shown time and again, good things can inadvertently lead to bad things. And that night, as Ripley and Newt faced extraterrestrial death in my living room for what was probably the 100th time, I finally saw that Aliens had done just that.

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Damn right, I just blamed Aliens for this.

So how did a seminal sci-fi flick with substantial success, both in profit and influence, singlehandedly destroy the future of its own franchise? To answer that question, it is necessary to look back at Ridley Scott’s original horror classic as well as Cameron’s follow-up, to determine what made Scott’s film stand out, and what Cameron dropped from his to achieve greater success.

THE ORIGINAL FILM

Conceived mainly by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the script for Alien quickly made a splash among industry insiders in the mid-70s for bleak atmosphere and innovative monster, heavily inspired by the art of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Nothing like Alien had been seen on screen before; while images of extraterrestrial creatures eating people were standard EC Comics fare and the main “space trucker” characters seemed to be blue-collar revisions of the scientific crews of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World, Giger’s beast was a nightmarish creature of incredible sensuality–qualities which are usually mutually exclusive to one another. And the way in which it enters the story–by raping a human male and forcing a bloody birth upon him–is so horrifyingly innovative that the original scene still holds the same shock that it did in 1979.

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But as much as Alien is O’Bannon’s baby, it was Ridley Scott who did the child-rearing that resulted in a brilliant piece of celluloid. Known for both a meticulous attention to even the smallest detail and his penchant for perfectionism behind the camera, Scott’s direction over both the actors and the design crew, consisting of Giger, Ron Cobb, and comic legends Chris Foss and Jean Moebius Giraud, is as sublime as it is epic. Resolving to push for the maximum effort, Scott was able to attain highly-technical and realistic sets for the space tug Nostromo, and truly eerie and inhuman sights for the crashed Derelict, and of course, the Alien itself. Just two years after Star Wars, Alien changed sci-fi again.

As detailed in The Long Take’s excellent video analysis, the menace of the Alien is wholly unconventional, covered in semen-like slime as it approaches its prey with a sexual cunning. At every stage of its monstrous life cycle, its body takes on alternatively vaginal and phallic forms, stalking men and women alike in an apparent play on both toxic masculinity and the transgender boogeyman of the ’70s feminist movement. Combined with the post-Nixon distrust of authority and the outstanding character of Ripley, played with both masculine grit and feminine intuition by Sigourney Weaver, Alien cracks the mold of both space films and horror.

THE SEQUEL

Immediately after Alien, Ridley Scott had his own designs for a sequel, spit-balling back and forth between a story involving LV-426 exploding, sending eggs through the vastness of space to eventually reach Earth, where Ripley arrives at the start, and another, interesting notion of a prequel detailing how the Derelict and its Space Jockey pilot came to be on their barren world. With the departure of Alan Ladd, Jr. from Twentieth Century Fox, these ideas would not come to fruition, and Scott decided to pursue other projects.

It is intriguing to see the genesis of two very different directions that the Alien franchise would be destined to explore. The first, with an Alien horde reaching Earth, resembles many of the early drafts for Alien 3 and the driving plot element of Alien Resurrection, while the prequel concept obviously became Scott’s preferred vision with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. In either case, Scott’s ambitions were clear: he wanted to explore the origins and nature of the Xenomorph creature, and dabble in the depiction of the Space Jockey.

Fast-forward to 1984. James Cameron, hot off the success of The Terminator, is suddenly in demand among the Hollywood elite. Having been working on the Alien sequel for some time, he and his producing partner Gale Anne Hurd were finally given the complete reigns over the project to finish in 1986. Cameron’s final script, incorporating ideas from an earlier sci-fi story he had written entitled Mother, signaled a massive shift in formula and tone from Scott’s entry. While preserving continuity and retaining Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Aliens shifted away from the horror elements of its ancestor and planted its roots as a combat-driven action film. Gone were allusions to gender identity and sexual psychology, replaced by an allegory of the Vietnam War that serves to provide Ripley with the chance to assert her maternal identity with Newt, the young sole survivor of the LV-426 colony.

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Cameron has been quoted as saying that he wanted his film to be “less horror, more terror.” Whatever that is supposed to mean, it is clear that Aliens doesn’t fit in with the pure existential and predatory dread of the first film. Aliens is scary, but in a different fashion, opting for more traditional jumps and creeps in between pulse-pounding scenes of futuristic combat. In what is probably his biggest contribution to the Alien mythos, Cameron introduces the final piece of the Alien’s reproductive cycle, the Queen. A powerful leadership caste that control the Warrior drones by simple gesture, the Queen is more than a match for the crafty Ripley, and can even hold a grudge–it pursues her in a decidedly intelligent quest for revenge after Ripley destroys its nest.

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On the surface, this seems to be a good change, focusing the menace into a bigger and meaner creature that can think its way out of a jam. However, closer comparison between the films reveals that the concept of the Queen stands in opposition to the original idea of the Alien. The Alien of the first film is a solitary creature, slowly crawling out of the shadows to attack in startling displays of sexual sadism, and in the original screenplay and Director’s Cut, horrifically transform its victims into new eggs while they remain awake for the entire ordeal. And yet, for everything known about the Alien, Scott’s greatest contribution to it was the mystery surrounding it.

The Alien’s life cycle may have been complete in the beginning, but even this does not fully account for the sheer number of eggs within the Derelict’s cargo hold. Indeed, perhaps the hold contained more than just Xenomorph eggs. Perhaps there were untold varieties of beastly horrors locked away in its ancient walls. Their origin is also kept a tantalizing mystery; could they have been the remains of the rest of the Space Jockey crew? Or scientific specimens of an exploratory vessel? Or perhaps they were a biological weapon, as Scott liked to opine in the decades after finishing Alien. Even the true nature of the titular “Big Chap,” originally revealed as a highly intelligent being after biting Ripley’s head off and mimicking her voice to set an interstellar trap, was wisely dropped from the final cut. All of this adds to the eerie atmosphere of Scott’s film, intertwining with the cultural zeitgeist of the uncertain ’70s to unleash a truly horrifying experience that still captures minds today.

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Cameron, on the other hand, seemed uninterested in mystery. His creation of the Queen is the biggest indication as to his preferred depiction of the Xenomorph, no doubt heavily influenced more by the Arachnids of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers than by Giger’s artwork and concepts. The Queen simultaneously removes the mystery of the Alien and the universe at large outside of the walls of Hadley’s Hope, reducing the invincible monster of Alien to an expendable foot soldier, able to be defeated by a simple barrage of caseless rifle fire. If only Dallas had one of those, right? Further more, the enigma of the eggs in the cargo hold isn’t so unfathomable anymore.

This rejection of the unknown continues to seep into every facet of Aliens. Early on, the faceless, evil Company is laid bare as a bureaucratic mess, more concerned with the loss of an iron ore shipment than with the prospect of a race of monsters at Earth’s doorstep. And Special Order 937? Replaced by a lowly Company agent with greedy aspirations of profiting from the creatures, revealing the influence of the materialistic ’80s upon Cameron’s story, where capitalism is still the bees knees, its just a few bad apples that muck things up. The only thematic content more pervasive than this is the specter of Reagan’s America, present in the nuclear family of Ripley, Hicks, and Newt as the survivors of the film, triumphing unequivocally over the promiscuous Anti-Mother by seemingly destroying the Xenomorph race once and for all.

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THE AFTERMATH

When times are good, people will respond to stories that reinforce the world around them. Aliens was released at the height of an American economic boom, presenting just enough of Alien‘s creature to be recognizable while jettisoning the uncertainty and pessimism of the ’70s inherent in that film. This turned out to be a recipe for success, propelling Aliens to box office and pop culture glory.

The subsequent sequels would not be so lucky. Alien 3 would prove to be Sisyphean struggle to produce, with many early drafts took on narratives that echoed Aliens, featuring military combat against swarms of the creatures. Despite some interesting drafts that presented truly nightmarish and ghastly depictions of the Aliens, each version retained this emphasis on action, until Vincent Ward’s legendary, ethereal lost story. Set on an artificial world made of wood and populated by Neo-Luddite monks, Ward’s Alien 3 became one of the greatest unmade films ever conceived, boldly removing the ’80s social certainty by killing Hicks and Newt and throwing Ripley into her own personal hell as the host for the last Alien. After Ward’s departure and the scrapping of the wooden world concept, the final Alien 3 as directed by David Fincher retained much of Ward’s themes, and pushed an increasingly nihilistic film upon an audience that expected a retread of Aliens, which is understandable given the misleading marketing of the film. As I’ve noted before, Alien 3 is uncompromising and brave in its conviction to emotional disturbance, betraying an almost gothic sense of horror that evokes the original but still remains its own beast. Unfortunately, audiences disagreed and many still do.

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Alien Resurrection, despite benefiting early on from the French expressionism of Jean-Pierre Jeunette and some of the most ghastly sights of the franchise, ends up playing as a light-hearted Aliens clone by the end, and the AVP entries of the 2000s were cynical cash grabs, with the second film literally remaking the plot of Aliens on present day Earth. Quickly, one can see a pattern emerging: nobody wanted to leave Cameron’s film behind.

Nobody except Ridley Scott himself, who regained the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, a soft reboot that sought to explore the Space Jockey race, now called Engineers, in a bit of world-building that returned to the series the Eldritch threat of existential terror. Believing that Alien itself was a “cooked” beast, Scott strayed away from it, keeping the more recognizable beats of bodily horror while focusing on a demonic twist to humanity’s origins and the creeping threat of A.I. This led to a polarizing film, with opinions split down the middle; devotees of Scott’s original film feel it is a nice return of the tone of that piece, while critics deride it as shallow, confusing, and lacking of the main creature that makes the franchise what it is. Looking at the divide, it seems obvious where it came from.

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These days, the split among Alien fans remains firmly in place. Half seems to side more with Scott’s vision of a terrible, Lovecraftian universe of uncaring horrors, while the other prefers the human-centric adventure of Ripley and the Space Marines, barreling toward a war with the Alien species. What’s worse, this split has affected Scott’s plans for the prequel series. Originally planning a direct sequel to Prometheus entitled Paradise, the lukewarm reaction to that film caused him to drop many of the concepts he was building and shoehorn in the Alien for the even more polarizing Alien: Covenant, in which he seeks to assert ownership over the creature and its life cycle by presenting David, his murderous android character (and rebuke to the heroic Bishop) as the creator of the species. While I have my own thoughts on that little development, one cannot overstate how drastic a change this is from even his own first ideas, let alone the intentions of Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger. This can be unequivocally traced back to the success of Aliens, and the embracing by the fans of its simpler nature.

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With Alien: Covenant failing to make a splash at the box office, the future of the series is now uncertain. Scott’s Alien: Awakening project, even if it isn’t canceled, seems mired in its own intentions to reveal the last shred of mystery the franchise had, while the online outrage at the termination of Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 film, which would be another retread of Aliens with Ripley and Hicks returning to wipe away Alien 3 and Resurrection from continuity, has reached fever pitch, signalling that Fox could head in that direction. I would hope that they don’t, because I’ve had enough of Aliens. I’m fine with the one film, and would rather like to see more thought-provoking and eerie movies in the vein of the original. Attempting to recapture the Cameron version of the beast almost always ends in disappointment, and further dilutes the impact of the creature itself. But as it stands, it looks like the Alien will have to get used to disappointing its many devotees, because while Cameron seems more interested in friendlier E.T.s from Pandora, he’s still leaving his mark upon the cold evil of space.

REVIEW: Lucy (2014)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.