A Taste of Tumblr and The Subversive Genius of Alien: Covenant

Last night, I threw in my Alien: Covenant blu-ray for my first viewing of Ridley Scott’s divisive return to the universe of the Xenomorph since May. Before, I knew I could see merit and even inspiration in Covenant, but I was still a bit on the fence. And then the blu-ray kicked back into the menu, I took to my Tumblr account to spill the excited beans. This was supposed to stay exclusive, but I felt it was too good to let my blog readers go without, so enjoy:

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For more of the same, follow @damoviemaestro on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram!

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.

EDITORIAL: Why Armageddon is the Most American Movie Ever

This 4th of July will be celebrated across the nation of the Untied States like every other one has–in a million different ways. Most citizens will be doing it the old fashioned way at barbecues with beers aplenty or at large, open fields, eagerly awaiting the colorful explosions of Independence Day fireworks. But a select few will probably be like me; when not otherwise engaged with outdoor festivities or (sadly) work, some will probably put on an appropriate movie or two.

What makes an appropriate movie seems to be up to debate among us cinephiles. Some prefer films with a heavy patriotic edge, like Rocky 4 or Born on the Fourth of July. Others ironically pick films that focus on big bangs and nationalistic machismo, like Independence Day or Olympus Has Fallen. While I like to mix it up with my July 4th marathon, by the time of the big day I put on a film that I think best exemplifies both qualities, one that has made me a black sheep within the rabble of filmic patriots. That film is Armageddon.

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Michael Bay’s third film and released in 1998 in direct competition with the similarly-plotted Deep Impact, Armageddon is not widely thought of as a “patriotic” picture per say, let alone a good one; most moviegoers tend to dismiss it along with Pearl Harbor and the Transformers films, although I believe this is a sorely unfair comparison. Namely, Armageddon is much smarter and more meaningful than Transformers, and definitely more fun. But most of all, for the purposes of this article, I submit to you, dear reader, that Armageddon is the quintessential Independence Day film, solely because of how it captures the essence of the American Dream.

Crazy, you call me? Well, prepare to have your minds blown (away).

The first indication to Armageddon‘s rather bombastic American identity is the fact that it is on visual display everywhere throughout the film. I kid you not; there are American flags everywhere.

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Even Will Patton’s kid is wearing an Old Glory t-shirt in the end.

But this is a Michael Bay trademark by now, I grant you, and simply not enough to support my argument. That’s why a second go-around of the evidence reveals even more subtle visual hints, like a large hay barn on a farm, an old barber shop on Main Street, a woman listening to the radio of a 1940s pickup truck while yet another American flag flutters in the breeze. The inclusion of these iconic sights of Americana serves to connect Armageddon to our nation’s past in a way that, say, Independence Day or Rocky 4 could never muster.

A most interesting observation of these shots is that most of it seems firmly rooted in the 50s-70s era, the so-called “good old days” of the Boomer generation, but more importantly, the age of the Space Race, when the United States was locked in an idealogical battle with the Soviet Union over both the world and its ultimate high ground, outer space. This front of the Cold War brought us probably the greatest achievement not only in American history, but in the story of the human race; the manned landing on the Moon. How fitting then that Bay’s film, stuffed to the brim of iconographic sights of American exceptionalism, is centered around NASA and a manned space mission? Very fitting, indeed.

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However, unlike other certain films which deal with this uniquely American pride in space like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, Armageddon depicts the scientists of NASA as being unable to pull of the job themselves, and so they resort to calling in outside talent, namely the oil drilling team of Harry Stamper. Setting aside all concerns about believability or scientific accuracy, this reveals Bay and the screenwriters to be employing an old, epic cinematic trope: the working man rising to save the day.

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The following has been taken from the liner notes of the Criterion Collection DVD, written by Jeanine Basinger, one of Bay’s professors of Film Studies at Wesleyan Univerity:

“At its core, Armageddon is a genre picture, and like all genre pictures that arrive late in the cycle, it has been subjected to misinterpretation. Although it qualifies as a science fiction/disaster movie, I see it as an epic form of the old Warner Brothers movies about working-class men who have to step up and rescue a situation through their courage, true grit, and knowledge of machines—productions such as Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941) and Alfred E. Green’s Flowing Gold (1940). The “science fiction” or “disaster movie” elements of Armageddon fit into the epic form—a form that exists to make movie stories we already know grander, larger, and more “real” in historic setting. (A failed epic settles for the definition put forth in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film In a Lonely Place: “. . . a picture that’s real long and has lots and lots going on.”) Armageddon is grand, large, and set at NASA, but, the story of Stamper, his daughter, and his hard-living, oil-drilling buddies is the kind of movie that has previously been smaller and tighter. This film makes these ordinary men noble, lifting their efforts up into an epic event. Here, working men are not only saving the overeducated scientists and politicians who can’t do anything (and who probably went to Yale and Harvard), but, incidentally, the entire population of the planet.”

Quite the analysis, there. But even a cursory look-over of the film proves what Basinger is saying. Stamper and his crew are coarse, uncouth, and horribly politically-incorrect, representing the lowest rung of the working class of America, employed in one of its biggest industries: oil drilling. When NASA’s chief director (played in a very down-home, country-boy drawl by Billy Bob Thornton) realizes that they need the Image result for armageddon harry stamperbest drillers in the world to execute their mission, they look to Stamper, first to help them iron out the kinks in their drill design, stolen from Stamper himself. In a scene typical of Bay’s alpha-male wit, Stamper crushes their inefficiencies with his no-nonsense approach, and negotiates bringing his own men along.

These men aren’t the well-spoken, foreign elites of Truman’s scientific team, but are men you could picture all hanging out in a small town bar. They come from all walks of life: Chick is a Nevada native who is addicted to the craps table; Bear is lone biker; Oscar owns a ranch in Nebraska, and A.J. seems to be walking in Harry’s footsteps as an oil driller. A lot of the men even have rocky and sordid histories, best exemplified by Rockhound’s continuous inside joke of being…uh, “horny.” Together, they are truly a motley crew and one that not everyone can trust…not unlike a group of immigrants waiting to enter through Ellis Island, rough from a life of work and sometimes sin. But in taking the job and surviving NASA training, they blast off in defense of humanity, but more importantly, in symbolic defense of the American dream that they so benefit from.

Bay may have dumbed-down the dialogue of the past epic examples Basinger provided, but the spirit of these films is very much intact. In Armageddon, we are seeing a classic ideal, the American Dream, made into visual form. These men, woefully unqualified and completely out of their element in a world of intelligentsia and privilege, save the day, in fact, the entire world, with nothing but their indomitable will and hard-worked hands. And when they triumph, what are they greeted to, other than another serving of Americana:

Feel free to consider me wrong, but I can’t help but feel patriotic in a way that The Patriot or Air Force One never could. All arguments about how well the message came across aside, I for one believe that Michael Bay intended for Armageddon to spur these feelings as the best allegory he could manage. Is it nuanced? Hell no. Is it good? This is subjective. But if you are one of the few who still likes to watch Armageddon, go ahead and give it a viewing this 4th. Chances are you’ll be watching it after a few beers and before fireworks, so it should fit quite nicely.

REVIEW: Armageddon (1998)

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Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and  J.J. Abrams, Adapted by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, Story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormaire, Keith David, Jason Isaacs

I would call Armageddon my greatest guilty pleasure….if I considered it a guilty pleasure. But I don’t. In fact, I am going to go all black sheep on you and say Armageddon is secretly a great film, simply misunderstood by the masses who tolerate unbelievable and trite premises in other films because they simply do not have Michael Bay listed as their director. Indefensible? Misguided? Just plain wrong? Nope, I’ll prove it to you.

With the space shuttle Atlantis’s unfortunate demise in outer space and the devastation of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States by meteor showers, NASA becomes aware of a doomsday asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. After numerous plans are tabled, it seems that the only way to knock it off course is to drill into its surface and detonate a nuclear weapon. But as NASA’s under-funded yet resourceful team train the world’s best drillers for the job, under the auspices of their boss Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the social order of the world begins to break down as the information reaches the public and hysteria results. As high-ranking officials play politics with the effort, the drilling team all faces deep personal issues which may jeopardize humanity’s last chance…

So what makes Armageddon a good movie in my eyes? Well, the first indication is that Michael Bay most certainly has the favor of the cinematic gods when it comes to an eye for composition. Even Bay’s critics have always been quick to point out that his visual style is distinctive and even beautiful at times, and that style is present in force within Armageddon. Every shot is incredibly dynamic, with sweeping camera and character movement that achieves a high parallax, coupled with equally dynamic editing in which the average shot length is about 1.5 seconds. It sounds like a cacophony of undecipherable images, and I grant you, the nameless reader in my head, that in most of his more recent films, like Transformers, this causes quite the headache, but it works for Armageddon, which commands a more J.J. Abrams-esque command of light and color and most certainly doesn’t have to deal with alien shards of sentient metal constantly shifting in the frame.

Still, Armageddon is not for the viewer who is even the least bit slow-eyed, because every one of their senses will be under assault by deafening loudness, both physical and metaphorical. Everything about Armageddon is decidedly unsubtle, and I think this is what works against the film in the eyes of its detractors. Okay, that was a nice way of saying that’s why the film is so hated. But, and let’s be honest here, what other films are like that? If you said just about every superhero film put out by Marvel and Warner Brothers today, than you would be correct. So maybe it’s high time to knock it off with the hypocrisy, shall we?

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What truly works in Armageddon are the characters. Before we even meet our main heroes, we are treated to the denizens of the NASA control room, headed by Director Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texan throwback to the days of the early Space Race, full of Southern charm and fire. He works as an excellent bridge and confidant between the military and scientific elites and the drill team of oilman Harry Stamper, played in the usual lunkhead everyman caricature by Die Hard‘s own Bruce Willis. Stamper’s team are a veritable Dirty Dozen, composed of an array of blue-collar types who range from dependable to shaky to downright crazy. Luckily, some of the best character actors of the decade were assembled to play them, giving us the likes of Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, and in a special note, the absolutely hilarious Steve Buscemi.

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All is not well among them, however, as Harry has a daughter (or rather, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith’s daughter, Liv Tyler) who is being courted by none other than Ben Affleck as Harry’s young hot-shot A.J. The less that can be said about this subplot however, the better, because it just isn’t up to scratch with the rest of the picture.

Image result for armageddon aj graceSomewhere out there, a hater is thinking, “The whole picture isn’t up to scratch. WTF are you talking about?”

Once we get off the ground, the full force of “Bayhem,” as his visual style is so often derided or praised as, hits the audience and propels them into satisfying blend of action and disaster genres, throwing our already likeable heroes into intense situations such as the destruction of a Russian space station in orbit or the insanely difficult landing maneuvers onto the asteroid. The script attempts to inject some political turmoil into this script with the President and his advisors deciding to blow the bomb early due to their doubts that the drillers can succeed, and as you would have guessed, it is handled with the subtlety of a nine-year-old who’s found his dad’s gun.

But, again, this is okay. Not every science fiction film can be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the case, the farcical and over-the-top nature of the narrative and the people that move it along are a main feature, meant to be enjoyed as spectacle, not nuance. Hell, I’ve even made the argument that Armageddon should be considered a quintessential 4th of July movie, and that allegorical connection is about as unsubtle as a Donald Trump rally. That is the point. America is never subtle. Neither is Bay, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I hope I’ve been able to get somewhere with this argument, but in the end, I guess it comes down to preferences. Those who prefer their entertainment more simple-minded will love this movie, as will people who are flexible like myself, while those who demand narrative and technical perfection will never listen to a word I say. But for those who may be undecided, I feel that early Bay, from Bad Boys to Pearl Harbor, offered excellent spectacle filmmaking, before he let his juvenile frat-boy streak take over. Since Armageddon fits firmly in the middle of this part of his career, I hope that you will give at least one more chance.

 

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: Apollo 13 (1995)

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, Based on the Book “Lost Moon” by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris

How can you tell a historical drama is good? When it keeps you at the edge of your seat despite you knowing the outcome because–after all–it already happened. Apollo 13 is that good and more.

It had been less than a year since man first walked on the Moon, but as far as the American public was concerned, Apollo 13 was just another “routine” space flight–until these words pierced the immense void of space: “Houston, we have a problem.” Stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) fight a desperate battle to survive. Meanwhile, at Mission Control, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), and a heroic ground crew race against time–and the odds–to bring them home.

If I were teaching a film class, Apollo 13 would be under the suspense category, despite being more a drama than anything. It can roll with the best Hitchcock ever put out, and the reason is obvious. It is so damn suspenseful despite have the handicap that the events it portrays already occurred that I’m always on edge during the drama and moved to tears by the end. Call me sentimental, call me ridiculous, but this is among Ron Howard’s finest works, if not his absolute best.

Beginning with a watch party at Jim Lovell’s house during Neil Armstrong’s historic moon walk, Apollo 13 already steams full ahead into creating  flawless period atmosphere, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and optimism of the era in just under a few minutes. From there, we enter a protracted period before the fateful mission in which human drama over personnel changes force Ken Mattingly off of the 13 crew. Gary Sinise, one of my favorite actors of his generation, easily pulls ahead of his peers in the film, going through a whirlwind of emotion in the film from his devastating grounding to becoming the tireless professional working to save the men when their spacecraft is suddenly crippled in space.

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With Mattingly on the ground are a heaping of wonderfully-relatable character actors portraying the Houston flight control team, headed by the great Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz. Playing a very different character than his rendition of John Glenn in The Right Stuff, Harris’ Kranz is unpolished and upfront, ready to move mountains to bring his men home, all while keeping a straight face that only contorts to shout when the more doubtful of his team suggest failure is inevitable.

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But of course, the real stars of the film are Hanks, Paxton, Swigert, and the incredible depiction of spaceflight by Howard and his crew. The three astronauts, despite already being big names by the time of the film, are completely convincing, helped along in their jobs by the great strides made toward total scientific accuracy. The interiors of the Odyssey and the Aquarius are faithfully recreated with stunning attention to detail, and Howard even managed to stuff the sets into a KC-135 to create believable microgravity conditions, resulting in shots that leave the audience shaking their head in disbelief before finally accepting that, “they must have really gone into space to make this movie!”

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One more actor to mention is the exquisite Kathleen Quinlan, playing Lovell’s wife Marilyn. Quinlan could have easily disappeared into the background with this role, but she is so stunningly authentic that not only did she garner an Oscar nomination, but she impressed the real Marilyn Lovell herself, who heeped the highest praise upon Quinlan when the film was released.

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In the end, Apollo 13 stands on its own as great film and as a worthy companion piece to another Space Race film I have recently reviewed, The Right Stuff. Both depict a time when America was at a difficult and painful crossroads but still had a heaping of pride to swell over that was pure and incredible. And even when that pride turned to fear and terror before our very eyes as three courageous men faced death in the most inhospitable environment known to life, we pulled through together, and showed that anything is possible when humanity feels that it is.