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: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson, Based on the comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer

Luc Besson is probably one of the most risk-taking filmmakers out there today, although that declaration should come with a qualifier; his risks aren’t in innovation or narrative, style, or visual effects techniques, but in the simple fact that he always sets out to please his own violence-loving tendencies. A glance through his filmography reveals an almost Hong Kong filmmaking-esque fetishizing of martial arts, gunfights, and balls-to-the-wall action is evident, and when coupled with his unique French perspective on the camera lens it makes for at least a good time, if not always a breathtaking time. Valerian is somewhere towards the bottom part of his middle ground, breathtaking to the eyes but not so much the head and heart, but is that really a bad thing?

In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha: an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. 

Based on the popular Franco-Belgian comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson’s film is a very obvious labor of love by the French auteur, having grown up reading the comic since it’s beginning in the yesteryear of 1967. Financed with a combination of crowd-sourcing and his own pocket, totaling 210 million dollars, Valerian is now the most expensive independent film ever made. Not that it matters much now that the film is tanking in the box office, but I suspect Valerian will have longer legs on home video and in the streaming market, where its spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element carved out a cult following.

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Valerian begins with what is now among my top-ten opening sequences of the past decade: the progression of the Alpha Space Station over two centuries, presenting all sorts of human and alien peoples joining hands with a succession of welcoming captains in mutual cooperation–and it’s set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Solid start. Continuing onto probably the best full-out visual effects sequence since anything seen in Avatar, we are introduced to the Pearls, a race of peaceful, nature-oriented aliens who fish magical, energy-giving pearls from the oceans, using small creatures called converters, that can replicate a hundred-fold anything they consume, to replenish the planet’s supply. But, just as quickly as we come to admire them, the Pearls’ paradise is shattered by the falling wrecks of a space fleet, and they seem to be obliterated by a war that they had no part in.

Without having actually read Valerian, I can’t say for certain that this is an accurate assessment, but from what I do know, this opening is an excellent demonstration of Christin’s humanist and liberal leanings in his writing, which comes more and more to the forefront through Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, as independent and humanist as they come, compared to her partner and superior, Major Valerian, who’s womanizing ways and adherence to protocol and law do more than infuriate his partner and the object of his desires throughout the story.

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Unfortunately, with their introduction is where I start to tune out. While Delevingne’s performance is a bit wooden in places, this is all a part of the package, as a glance through the comics reveals their Golden Age Space Opera origins, ’30s dialogue and all. In fact, in many scenes, I found her to be the breath of fresh air compared to Dane DeHaan, who in this critic’s opinion, should never have been allowed near the role of Valerian. His cheap imitation at a manly comic strip hero’s voice betrays how shrimpy he looks in the role, as if he were a ten-year-old boy playing astronaut dress-up. He has absolutely no chemistry with Delevingne, and his stunted delivery during some of the most pivotal and emotional moments destroys the drama almost as much as Besson’s barely passable writing.

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Oh yeah, the script. Honestly, past the mentioned opening, I’m not too impressed with the story. The comic was a space opera with heavy time travel elements, with Laureline literally having been an 11th Century French villager before being recruited into the Spatio-Temporal Service. The film makes little-to-no mention of time travel at all, presumably to streamline things for a wider audience, but that is no excuse for robbing Valerian of what could have been another major selling point besides the amazing visuals. Even worse is Besson’s handling of the romantic subplot and Commander Filitt’s (Clive Owen) motivations; while Filitt’s endgame is needlessly drawn out over ten minutes of precious climactic screentime, Valerian is established as already wanting to get into Laureline’s pants, and after only 20 minutes, is to the point of proposing to her. May I remind you this film is almost 140 minutes long?

Past these immense problems, the film starts to present some redemption. Everyone else in front of the camera does a pretty good job with their material, even when their roles amount to little more than extended cameo’s like Ethan Hawke and the great Rutger Hauer. And for once, Rihanna was actually one of the better parts of a movie.

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However, the real star of Valerian is the immense and immersive world created on screen through some of the best CGI work in a long time. Created by a unified team of ILM and Weta Digital artists, everything from the massive world of Alpha to the myriad species of alien beings are created lovingly and in textures that appear incredibly lifelike in Besson’s neon-lit style employed in this picture.

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So, what is my final verdict? While the casting of Valerian himself and Besson’s writing are huge flaws that pull the film down from the potential it could have had, ultimately, it isn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, the immersive world on display and the thrilling alien action are enough to convince me to give this film another go around when it hits blu-ray. Until then, I’d say proceed with caution on a matinee or discount night at your local cinema. Wait until a more worthy independent project comes along to pay full price.

REVIEW: Independence Day (1996)

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Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox

A bonefide 90s blockbuster, a certified pop culture phenomenon, and a patriotic mainstay of 4th of July movie marathons nationwide. Can you get anymore entertaining than Independence Day?

On July 2nd, communications systems worldwide are sent into chaos by a strange atmospheric interference, revealed to be gigantic spacecraft, piloted by a mysterious alien species. After attempts to communicate with the aliens go nowhere, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an ex-scientist turned cable technician, discovers that the aliens are going to attack major points around the globe in less than a day. On July 3rd, the aliens all but obliterate New York, Los Angeles and Washington, as well as Paris, London, Houston and Moscow. The survivors set out in convoys towards Area 51, a strange government testing ground where the military has a captured alien spacecraft of their own. The survivors, led by the President of the United States (Bill Pullman), devise a plan to fight back against the enslaving aliens, and July 4th becomes the day humanity will fight for its freedom from extermination.

With ID4, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin established themselves as the big budget dream team of the 1990s. Taking in over $300 million in the box office and becoming as equally big a hit on video, ID4 is still fondly remembered by most moviegoers today. Sure, some critics still turn their noses to it, but by now, one has to admire the staying power this one has.

And this is directly attributed to Emmerich and Devlin, whose script balances any of the cheesier aspects of the alien invasion genre with disaster film tropes and surprisingly sharp drama. Devlin is on record as stating that, “you can have the greatest special effects shot in existence, but if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t matter at all.” Luckily he was able to live by his words in this instance, because his characters are all as top-rate as possible in a film like this.

In his first post-Fresh Prince role, Will Smith swoops in as one of the three main protagonists, holding his own against Golblum and Pullman. Though Goldblum’s character David is my favorite of the bunch, Smith’s macho air captain Steven Hiller is riot to watch and laugh at. And that sense of fun only gets better once they both pair up for their final mission, cramped together in an alien ship, matching wit for gut-busting wit.

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Pullman’s character, President Whitmore, is a different beast: written to be a largely ineffective leader who is bullied around by his more ambitious Secretary of Defense (James Rebhorn), Pullman conveys enough of a heart to be genuinely likable and sympathetic, even if as an Executive he makes the worst decisions ever.

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Rounding out the ensemble cast are a collection of some of the finest character actors and topical stars of the time, including solid performances from Loggia and Colin. Randy Quaid, however, is the main scene stealer, followed by a pleasant surprise in Brent Spiner, who relishes getting out of his Data persona to play a hilariously-eccentric Area 51 scientist.

But the main draw, really, behind ID4 was the impressive array of visual and special effects on display. ID4 was made at an interesting time in the industry, in which Jurassic Park had just displayed what was possible with photo-realistic CGI. ID4 happily took advantage of the technology, present in the swarms of alien attackers and F/A-18s buzzing in and out of the frame. Emmerich, however, thankfully preserves a heavy in-camera miniature element, and this decision pays dividends. Many of the buildings and cities erupting in spectacular explosions are scale models and pyrotechnics, and they still are as breathtaking as they were back in the day. The White House’s destruction even became an indelible cultural image, thanks to the saturation of the moment in the film’s marketing. The visual effects earned an Academy Award in 1997.

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ID4 is available in the home video market with two versions, the 145-minute theatrical version and the 155-minute Special Edition. The theatrical cut is already a well-put-together, narratively solid piece, so any added material in the Special Edition, even when fleshing out Quaid’s role, feels somewhat redundant. It doesn’t help that the sound mix in these scenes seems to be incomplete, and the excellent pacing of the first act is the most shattered by additions. I recommend the theatrical cut heartily.

All in all, ID4 is still a blast to watch. The humor is on-point without overbearing the natural drama, the special effects are still convincing, and the musical score by David Arnold has aged very well. I honestly can’t find any fatal faults with the picture. If you’re looking for a good War of the Worlds-style throwback that isn’t a stretch for non-viewers of sci-fi in general, Independence Day is your ticket.

REVIEW: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey

Sandwiched in between two of the greatest works of his career, Jaws and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while recognized as a significant and important film, doesn’t enjoy nearly as much popularity and exposure in pop culture as those other two films. This is quite the shame, as Close Encounters represents some of the finest work Spielberg has ever accomplished.

Cableman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountain-like image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy, the agents, and a desperate mother named Jillian (Melinda Dillon) follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.

Coming hot off the mega success of Jaws, Spielberg turned his attention for his fourth effort to the stars, revisiting an old idea of his centered around the UFO phenomenon. After many un-credited rewrites from such writers as Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson, Spielberg’s pet project transformed from Watch the Skies, the story of a government agent’s attempts to contact aliens, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, featuring the more decidedly blue-collar, everyman characters of Richard Deyfuss’s Roy Neary and Melinda Dillon’s Jillian Guiler. A most fortunate decision, as this shift into the ordinary Americana gives Close Encounters a wonderfully nostalgic flavor to complement its out-of-this-world premise.

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Structured into three distinct acts, Close Encounters begins by introducing the three sets of main characters in the midst of some truly remarkable and unexplainable happenings. French director Francois Truffaut, in a rare acting role, plays an official named Lacombe, working with clandestine government agents who are beginning to discover signs that an extrasolar intelligence may be ready to make contact. At the same time, in the suburbs of Muncie, Indiana, Jillian Guiler’s young son Barry takes off into the night after unseen playmates from the sky, and Roy Neary experiences the fright of his life while on the roads during a power outage. Both of their extraordinary sightings change their lives completely, especially in the case of Roy, whose journey to learn the source of a persistent vision of a nameless mountain becomes the crux of the second act.

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The first act is a masterclass of setup writing. Lacombe’s team are introduced in a mysterious Mexican set piece that adds to an already palpable sense of mystery and intrigue before an impressive transition takes the audience to an air traffic control room, where operators are held on the edge of their seats listening to a UFO encounter reported by two different commercial airliners. Much of the first half of the film is skillfully packed with the cultural zeitgeist of the UFO phenomenon and its corresponding conspiracy theories, making Close Encounters perhaps a sort of precursor to Chris Carter’s infamous television series The X-Files.

Image result for close encounters of the third kind royWhere Spielberg’s touch comes in is with the second act, displaying Roy’s descent into near madness by both the unshaking vision and his obsession with finding some shred of proof that he wasn’t just seeing things that night. Some of Spielberg’s most well-known narrative trademarks begin here, most notably the absent father, personified in Roy’s forsaking of family life in pursuit of the truth. These scenes, often juxtaposed with flashes of brilliant humor by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr as his bewildered wife Ronnie, begin to set the film apart from its ufological brethren, which seem more concerned with blood-sucking monsters or evil humanoids bent on universal domination. Close Encounters is a film with two ambitions: to present as scientific and realistic a depiction of the UFO phenomenon as possible, and to provide a family drama that seems to exorcise some of Spielberg’s own personal demons.

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The third act, seeing Roy and Jillian close in on a secret government operation by Lacombe’s team at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, is where the sci-fi roots of the picture take center stage. For a good 40 minutes of the final runtime, Roy and Jillian are witness to Lacombe’s attempt to make contact with the aliens with the use of musical motifs that they have been using during their repeated visits to Earth. In this sequence, typical science fiction archetypes of natural technological progression and utopian ideals are married with Judeo-Christian symbolism to present Roy with the ultimate door to the Heavens. It’s an increasingly wonderful vision of cinema that just builds and compounds as the viewing unfolds.

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Just as important as the narrative are the technical lords of the film, best personified in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and composer John Williams. Zsigmond’s photography is vast array of landscapes, ranging from far-flung deserts with unexplainable sights to everyday suburban life, and not once does his camera falter and present an insincere image. On-set lighting effects, especially during the third act, blend convincingly with Trumbull’s work, which employs the same kind of lens flare-inducing spotlighting that would later make his work on Blade Runner so memorable. Undoubtedly, however, Williams would prove to be the MVP of the three, with a score that successfully combines eerie, alien drones and swells with his signature, classical orchestra sound. His score on Close Encounters is a marvel, and easily ties with the original Star Wars score for his best work.

Despite the sheer excellence of the film, Spielberg felt that it was compromised by a reduced schedule, and in 1980 successfully lobbied Columbia Studios to allow him to finish shooting several sequences to complete the picture. Released as the Special Edition, it incorporates seven minutes of new footage while deleting or reordering several sequences from the original theatrical version. The reordering works very well, spreading the disparate journeys of Roy and Lacombe evenly across the second act whilst trimming some unneeded fat. However, one sequence in particular, Roy’s destruction of his house by the introduction of all sorts of trash to build his Devil’s Tower replica, has been foolishly removed by a squeamish Spielberg. Even worse, Columbia required him to shoot a new ending depicting the interior of the mothership as Roy enters it, killing the mystery while stopping the perfect emotional climax cold. Luckily, Spielberg was as bothered by these choices as I was, and in 1998, released a third cut known as the Director’s Cut, incorporating most of the better Special Edition cuts and ordering while thankfully reinserting Roy’s trash collection and omitting the mothership interior. All versions are readily available on DVD and blu-ray in collector’s sets.

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One of the earliest films I remember watching over and over again as a child was Close Encounters. The little astronaut in me couldn’t get enough to the alien ships buzzing overhead, and its Indiana suburban setting was almost identical to my Ohio home, which certainly helps me get all nostalgic watching it now. Along with Star Wars and later Blade Runner, I consider it to be one of my “cinematic parents,” forming in me a deep fascination and curiosity with the universe above my head. How appropriate it is that Close Encounters, as Spielberg has so often articulated, seems to be told from a youthful viewpoint, a sentiment best exemplified by Barry opening the door to welcome the alien travelers into his house. While his mother reacts with fear, Barry is unafraid, trusting the light as only a child can. Much can be said of the frankly unwise and hurtful effect Roy’s decisions had upon his family, but in the end, one has to put aside these adult notions and approach Close Encounters as young Barry would. This film is all about the childhood wonder of the world around us, and as Roy walks into the light, joining his metaphorical Gods as an orphan would his long-lost parents, I still shed tears of joy on my living room couch. It is a wonderful vision, and one I am unafraid to hang on to, forever.

REVIEW: Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper, Story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, Based on Characters Created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katharine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz

Prometheus may indeed be the unrecognized classic that I believe it to be, but there is no denying that it’s shortfalls have influenced the future of the Alien series just as much as its original concept. While Alien: Covenant is a step back into the creature horror that made the franchise, well, a franchise, it seeks to meld this approach with a continuation for Prometheus‘ higher speculations on life and creation through the last remaining character of that film. It’s an effort not unlike that of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, however whether it is doomed to fail still has to be seen.

The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, suffers a near-catastrophic setback that leaves their options limited. At this critical juncture, the crew discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, a habitable world seemingly missed by all surveys of the area. Entering orbit, a scouting team descends to the surface, where an unusual mystery begins to unravel. Somebody has been there. And something else awaits them.

If there was a prevailing theme from my viewing of Covenant, it was that of mild confusion. I saw it after the opening weekend, so while I had not actually read any professional reviews in depth or absorbed spoilers, I was able to discern a large swath of general opinions on the film. In truth, I’m hard-pressed to remember a film that was more divisive than this one. And while confusion usually denotes disappointment with a film, in this case, it’s much more positive. Complicated, but positive.

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Covenant‘s opening is much more reminiscent of Scott’s Blade Runner than any other entry in the Alien series, beginning with an extreme close-up shot of an eye. David’s eye, in fact, during the first day of his existence, in the company of his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce). After a philosophically-weighty conversation brought on by David’s rendition of a Wagner piece, David asks a pointed question that not only harkens back to events in Prometheus, but becomes a focal point of this story: “You created me. Who created you?”

Flashing forward, the colony ship Covenant encounters a solar flare that damages the ship and rocks its crew awake from hypersleep. After unceremoniously killing off the Captain (in a hilariously short cameo by James Franco), the film settles into a stretch of character building. Katharine Waterston plays this film’s Ripley-counterpart, Daniels, with a believable hyper-attentiveness and concern for the crew, as the dead Captain was her husband. She is surrounded by a core of likeable people, chief among them being Danny McBride’s Tennessee and Amy Seimetz’s Faris, a rough-around-the-edges couple with Earthy roots and healthy senses of humor. Billy Crudup is Oram, the Covenant’s new Captain and presumably a man of faith, however more so a man punctuated by deep insecurities.

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During repairs, the Covenant receives a mysterious transmission from a previously-undiscovered planet, and from here, the characters freeze in mid-evolution from this point on in favor of sheer mystery. The high-tech interiors of the Covenant, which seem even more related to the Nostromo than the Prometheus, give way to a world known by the filmmakers as Paradise, lush with vegetation and spectacular views but devoid of any animal life. It is here that Covenant achieves its finest and most subtle melding of Alien and Prometheus; a foreboding and eerie environment, cloaked in earthen beauty and wonder.

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Once the eponymous Aliens show up, the film kickstarts into a more familiar gear, even if the new creatures themselves aren’t quite so familiar. The new birthing scenes are horrendously bloody and gruesome, and in my mind reach the same level of shock as the original chestbursting scene from 1979. The new beasts themselves are also incredibly ferocious, clawing through bodies like hot butter. The frenetic pace and incredible amount of bloodletting in these alien scenes does a swell job of distracting from the shaky CGI and often-times idiotic decisions by their victims.

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And I’m absolutely sure that this is how the rest of the film would have played out, were it not for the impeccable talents of Michael Fassbender. Playing dual roles as David and the Covenant’s more advanced yet emotionally-lacking synthetic Walter, Fassbender gets to eat up the screentime with breathtaking examples of acting prowess. Walter is stunted intellectually yet immensely likeable in the bond he forms with Daniels, quite the opposite persona to David. The curious android has changed much since Prometheus, having found a purpose for himself in the guise of artistic and biological creation. He’s become his father, filled with delusions of greatness coupled with the intense desire to make something that improves upon him. His quest for perfection even extends to his scenes with Walter as they spew weighty dialogue in masterful long-takes by Scott (as if he were composing the cinematic form of baroque), with two in particular taking me by surprise with an undercurrent of homo-eroticism between the two supposedly sexless automatons.

David’s evolution into a more villainous character is quite the welcome shift, and almost merits Covenant dropping ‘Alien’ from the title. Yes, the classic Xenomorph does show up for the climax, but he’s only there to please the crowd. David is the true man of the hour. He eschews classic Shelley poetry and commits horrendous acts of sexual violence and Frankenstein-ian meddling in creation that dangerously borders camp but pulls through quite nicely, echoing the pulpy roots of the Alien series. While Covenant may begin and end much like Alien did, its meaty middle is stuffed to the brim with the same bold ambition that Prometheus had, this time not swirling around ancient aliens and questions of the afterlife, but compacted into the metaphorical monster David has become. “Serve in Heaven, or reign in Hell,” he asks Walter. It’s clear which choice he has made.

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Alien: Covenant is an interesting film, one that I feel is both a compromise and a gamble. Ridley Scott has long felt an unneeded urge to overexplain the mystery behind his original film, and while this one seems to answer the big enigma of the nature and origin of the Alien itself (I don’t believe it does, however, as my fan theory can still hold up), Scott also reigns himself in, listening to his better artistic muses while saving enough time to deliver the guts and gore that he admits moviegoers wanted out of him. And in creating a series villain that dwarfs even the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, Scott may have landed his extraterrestrial baby into biblical waters of existential terror that were more hinted at in his previous effort. I had no idea what to expect going into Covenant, and I didn’t walk out of the film cheering; rather, I was pondering what a subversive work of genius Covenant might actually be. It may definitely be rooted in horror conventions, but Scott is obviously unconcerned with that. Time will tell, but for now, I’m slowly realizing that I have what I wanted from this film.

Something new to think about. Thanks for the brain-grain, Ridley.

Fan Edit Review: Derelict

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Original Films Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Prometheus written by Jon Spaights and Damon Lindelof
Fan Edit by JobWillins
Category: FanMix

Not all fan edits exist to simply extend a film or fix some perceived problem with its story or pacing. Sometimes, an editor wants to make a work of art. An interesting mix of elements from different films can be combined to create an incredibly unique experience, and that is just what JobWillins has done here with Derelict, a combination of Prometheus and Alien.

Obviously, it isn’t as easy as sticking both films together at the ends and calling it a day. JobWillins’ vision calls for a marrying of both films’ stories, shifting back and forth between each film. This creates a unique dual narrative structure that increases the mystery element in each film and heightens the dread surrounding each cast of characters.

Roughly 30 or so minutes of Prometheus has been cut and replaced with an hour of Alien, staggered at varying intervals according to how well each scene fits. Beginning with David aboard the Prometheus, Derelict aims for maximum ambiguity: without the beginning of time opening or the Isle of Skye scene, the voyage and David’s role in it become a mystery, one that only heightens when the ship reaches its destination, only for the film to jump 30 years later to the Nostromo.

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The unknown elements of Alien gain even more of a sinister edge with this approach. The repeated beacon that calls the Nostromo is now implied to have something to do with the Prometheus mission. The derelict vessel becomes an even bigger enigma once the Juggernaut is revealed. David and Ash become even more intrinsically linked. All of these new revelations aren’t specifically stated by the edit, just implied by the new ordering.

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The best bits of this edit are in how the films transition into each other. The touchdown of the Prometheus cuts directly to the Nostromo’s rocky landing from inside the cockpit. Shaw, Holloway, and David’s escape from the storm cuts directly to Dallas and Lambert with Kane at the Nostromo airlock. An excellent montage of Weyland’s group entering the Engineer pyramid plays over Ash’s speech on the perfection of the Alien. And don’t get me started on how tense the new, combined climax is. With each cut of three decades, this edit’s legitimacy as FanEdit.org’s Fan Edit of the Month gets more and more solidified.

As mentioned before, large swaths of both films have been cut. Dropped is most of Prometheus‘ first act, sadly losing some of the better character moments between Shaw, Holloway, and Vickers (poor Vickers suffers the most from the cutting). Gone too is some of Alien‘s better bits of banter between Brett and Parker and some of the third act scares, but it’s all in the name of creating a pacing that fits in both stories effectively without turning the project into a 4-hour monstrosity. Two deleted scenes from Prometheus are also used.

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Video and sound are presented at the internet standard of 15 mbps, at 720p resolution with a 2-channel soundtrack. Presented in high contrast black-and-white to cover the obvious differences between the films’ visual styles, Derelict does a great job at emphasizing Ridley Scott’s use of light and shadow. Sound is dynamic enough for a stereo mix and quite adequate.

Derelict is an example of the talent that exists outside the Hollywood system. Taking two films separated by 32 years and combining them into a single, flowing story is not an easy feat, let alone making it a unique and entertaining venture when both films have been pored over to death. JobWillins makes the project look easy-peasy. Highly recommended.

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HOW TO GET IT:
Derelict has been taken from Vimeo’s public listings, however, it still exists as an unlisted video. If you have a Tumblr account, hop on and follow @JobWillins. On his blog there he has the video link posted along with the password required to watch. Enjoy!

REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Jon Spaights and Damon Lindelof, Based on Elements Created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Guy Pierce, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall

Prometheus had been my favorite film of 2012 for a long time, and while I may have rethought my position on that moniker, it still remains high in my ranking of science fiction cinema, despite whatever mixed reputation it may have. While it remains an easy target for naysayers, Prometheus was a bold and fresh journey into an underexplored facet of the Alien universe, and while we may be turning back toward creature horror with Alien: Covenant, the effects of it’s unconventional premise are still being felt.

A group of explorers, including archaeologists Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), are on an “undisclosed” mission whose destination is a moon trillions of miles away from Earth. There, they find the remains of an ancient alien civilization which may be the forerunners of the human race. But some of the explorers have an ulterior motive for being there, including Weyland Corporation representative Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the android David (Michael Fassbender).

Opening on a primordial world, presumably Earth, Prometheus wastes no time in displaying the talents of Scott’s now go-to visual team of photographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Pietro Scalia. Together, they weave us through spellbinding sights of this ancient paradise, bolstered by Marc Streitenfeld’s romantic score, painting a picture of the wonder of a cosmic beginning. Stepping into this landscape is a lone humanoid figure, pale white and naked, who drinks an unknown liquid that dissolves his body into a nearby waterfall, where his DNA recombines, revealing the overture of the picture to be the start of life as we know it.

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If Alien was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by way of 2001, then Prometheus is 2001 by way of Alien. The first hint of this influence is the cut from the primordial Earth to the 2090s, far eclipsing the millennia-jumping cut of Kubrick’s film in terms of history. A brief scene in Scotland establishes the main scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charles Holloway (Marshall-Green), and their mission, to find the alien source of ancient human pictograms, and then we are in space and on our way to the main narrative.

Here we get a more clean meld of 2001 and Alien, as the android David goes about his day, alone while the crew is in hypersleep, aboard the exploratory vessel Prometheus. It’s sleek lines and heavily-digital control surfaces evoke 2001, but underneath, there is a heavy current of the Nostromo to the design, inherent in the meticulous attention to detail and the familiar motifs of motion-activated lighting and European influence to its interior design. In short, one can tell that these ships definitely belong to the same universe, separated only by their purposes and the money spent in building them.

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David, however, is a far cry from his future counterparts Ash and Bishop. He is naturally curious and full of inquisitive insight. He even finds a role model in his solace; Lawrence of Arabia, as played by the great Peter O’Toole. David sees them both as equals, out of place among their peers yet superior, and deserving of praise. It is a role Michael Fassbender was born to play, injecting him with a starry-eyed happiness that later gives way to a sinister lack of empathy for his masters as the picture goes on.

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Dear God, I would kill to have that as my home theater….

While David steals the picture, Holloway and Shaw are an impressive couple in their own right. Holloway, a militant atheist, and Shaw, a devout Christian, display an impressive bit of character writing, as both have come to the same belief that extraterrestrials created us. Rounding out the main cast are Charlize Theron as Vickers, a no-nonsense, mean-spirited Weyland Corp. representative, and Idris Elba as Janek, the Prometheus’s working man captain, obviously cut from the same cloth as the Venture’s sensible skipper from King Kong.

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At their destination, the moon LV-223, the film ventures into Alien territory, taking the explorers into an ancient underground installation which appears straight out of H.R. Giger’s original concept work on that 1979 film. These Engineers are definitely familiar creatures, and every bit of the environment pays beautiful homage to Giger’s art.

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While Prometheus begins to morph into a horror film at this point, it is most certainly a thinking-man’s horror film. Instances of creature horror and jump scares are present, but play second-fiddle to an existential horror that evokes H.P. Lovecraft: the Gods are angry, and they will kill us all. The sense of wonder and cosmic purpose pervading the first half of the film subtly shifts to this fear of the known, rather than the unknown, as the crew slowly figures out that the base our forefathers guided us to may not have a benevolent purpose. Even if the Engineers aren’t evil, David once again swipes the spotlight to posit to Holloway, after the drunk scientist claims humans made the android because we could, “How disappointing would it be to hear the same thing from your Maker?”

But this isn’t even the most ambitious part of Lindelof’s and Spaight’s screenplay. The film’s boldest aspect isn’t that it raises these questions, it’s that it doesn’t answer them. This has been one of the chief knocks against the film, but Prometheus isn’t Aliens. Just as we will never truly be sure of our own answers, neither will Shaw or David. Prometheus is a film that is meant to be talked about, discussed, and theorized over.

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A Prometheus hater watching Prometheus.

That being said, even I have to recognize the shortcomings, mostly inherent in the supporting character writing. While I defend the characters of Millburn and Fifield as the comic relief-archetype, I will admit they are not written to the same standard as, say, Brett and Parker where in the first film. And yes, Vickers’ end was incredibly dumb.

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Whether or not one likes Prometheus, everyone had better start getting used to it, as Alien: Covenant, from early reviews, aims to continue its themes of human origins and the power of creation. It is well acted, superbly written (for the most part), and a nice experience for the senses. I suggest that if you are on the fence about it, now is the best time to give it another try.