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Star Trek Beyond – The phaser, the furious

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Insert captain here: Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk, with Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov

The rebooted Star Trek universe has become a curious success story. The first entry, 2009’s minimalist-titled Star Trek, gave the franchise new vigour, while breaking the series’ longstanding ‘odds are bad, evens are great’ rule, being the eleventh adventure, and one of the betters. The less said about the 2013 ‘Rehash of Khan’ Star Trek Into Darkness, a cine-cesspool I have already emptied into at length, the better, but it’s fair to say that both films played a major role in giving their director J. J. Abrams the impetus to resurrect the flatlining Star Wars saga with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Trek Beyond, the first of the series without Abrams in the captain’s seat, was likely to prove a challenge to succeed, and yet, here we are. It’s a fun ’un!

Originally set to be the directorial debut of Star Trek and STID (and, ugh, Transformers 2) co-writer Roberto Orci, that idea was thankfully jettisoned into space early on, like so much dead Spock. Justin Lin, whose revitalisation of the Fast & Furious franchise (entries 3 thru 6) will no doubt result in statues being built to his memory some day, was brought in to take the wheel. He’s suitably made it the most high-octane entry in the franchise’s history, no matter how much that jars with the legacy of a show about space diplomacy and thinly veiled arguments against racial prejudice. (Actually, come to think of it, given how racially progressive the Fast & Furious franchise became under Lin’s watch, maybe there’s a direct connection there…)

Lin directs from a script by Doug Jung and ensemble member Simon Pegg, which finds the crew of the Enterprise crash-landing on an uncharted planet, with an angry alien warlord hunting them. Our heroes Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are facing nicely paralleled mortality issues: Kirk has just passed the age his father was when he was killed in film 1; whereas Spock has just learned that his time-travelling alt-future self has died (allowing the film to delicately mourn Leonard Nimoy) – an intriguing metaphysical ball of angst that the film never dares dig into, but deserves much credit for addressing. The idea of the fear of death trickles in and out of the film, but it’s all just basic emotional dressing for the grander set pieces.

The first of these sees the Enterprise grounded as a fleet of compact armoured alien ships tears through its hull, whipping about in a swarm of black darts. It’s frightening stuff, although the speed of the ships (and their being black on black of space) does make it all a tad hard to see. That the starship’s fall to earth is with a crunching thud and not an enormous Bayhemic explosion is a rare but admirable show of restraint. The death toll unclear (thousands?), the villains seize most of the survivors, barring a few of our principles, of course. Scotty, absent for a sizeable chunk of STID, gets the most to do here; perhaps Simon Pegg taking advantage of his new status. He teams up with orphaned alien scavenger/engineer Jaylah (think Newt from Aliens mixed with, um, that guy Laurence Fishburne played in Predators) to help rescue the team and find their way off the planet. Jaylah, played by Kingsman henchman Sofia Boutella, is the film’s crowning glory – impish, stubborn, and extremely competent, never overly sexualised; she sits comfortably amongst the leading ladies of the recent feminist action hero wave.

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You’ve got me on my knees, Jaylah: Sofia Boutella as alien newcomer Jaylah, with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban)

When the crew finally reunites, it’s a few skirmishes to take down the villain (although thankfully there’s room between them to breathe, which was the undoing of STID). Lin determinedly inserts a motorbike for Kirk to ride both fast and moderately furiously. The Enterprise crew then goes up against the swarm again in a delightful over-the-top (and LOUD) space battle that is one of the most joyous in recent memory. It’s dumb fun made by smart people.

Like too many recent blockbusters, the villain is the weakest element. Played by Idris Elba in alien Nosferatu makeup so thick you’d never know it was him, Krall is another angry-with-the-system rebel, whose rants against the Federation sound more BREXIT than ISIS. As cool as his army of hive-minded spaceships is, his sinister plan to kill lots of people with a bio-weapon is so old-hat you’d imagine it was outlawed in the future along with anti-gay prejudice.

The design is solid, especially the space station Yorktown, which is all crisp white futurism and glass, but toys with gravity like Norman Foster playing Super Mario Galaxy. Lighting is all too dark in some sequences, and the edits during the action can be a little sharp, but mostly it’s a pleasantly bright and thrilling adventure, a strong blockbuster in a summer of flops and stillbirths. Even the acting has gotten better. Pegg no longer grates as Scotty, and Pine finally begins to feel right for the role of captain. Once again, Karl Urban steals the show as Dr. McCoy, given the best of the bantery dialogue to snarl in Spock’s face. Sadly, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is largely sidelined, as is, more tragically, the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, a glorified extra in his last space adventure.

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The old and the new: An iconic reference

It’s curious that the marketing for the film chose so strongly to reference the original 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the film in this series this latest least resembles. Beyond is a hyperactive adventure, contrasting sharply with the unjustly disliked but criminally overlong TMP, with its true-sci-fi mystery plot. But there are fleeting references, such as the villains in Beyond using old Starfleet probes for reconnaissance, while the “villain” of TMP was the Voyager probe made sentient. One shot, sped up to rapidly circle the entirety of the Enterprise in all its glory, seems to josh TMP’s notorious three-minute ogling of its famous model. Indeed, while Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk suffering the malaise of his mission, and considering relinquishing the captaincy to become an admiral, TMP saw Kirk’s frustration with the admiralty return him to his rightful place. With Nimoy, and thus Spock-Prime, now gone, the original adventure is truly brought to a close. Star Trek Beyond is just another bump on the new road, but it’s one that offers one hell of a thrill.

3/5

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Oblivion – Ob-li-vi, Ob-li-va, Earth goes on, bra!

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Torturing us all for the shock success of Battle: Los Angeles back in early 2011, Hollywood has begun its own alien onslaught, flinging some half dozen end-of-the-world science fiction films at us this year.

The first up is Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to the flashy and distracting, if slightly moronic and empty, Tron: Legacy. An eye-wateringly glossy post-apocalyptic mystery adventure, it is a finely assembled work, that has been finely assembled from other, better films.

Seventy years after a war with alien scavengers, the Scavs, Earth has seen better days. The destruction of the Moon has caused geographical discombobulation on an Emmerichian scale, and the plundering of the resources of what used to be the blue planet has meant that mankind has had to relocate to one of the moons of Saturn. The Scavs, defeated, have scurried in fragmented numbers underground.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the last humans remaining on Earth, as part of a clean-up detail. A high-tech mechanic, he repairs the drones and devices that keep the Scavs at bay and recoup the last of Earth’s energy for the new human homeworld. His only contact is with his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who keeps him advised on every move he makes. They live together in a Big Brother house in the sky, and, at the slightly creepy encouragement of their mission commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), who directs them in fractured messages from beyond the stratosphere, to engage in carnal discourse, because that’s what makes “an effective team”.

But not everything is as it seems. Jack has incomprehensible flashbacks to a time before the war, despite his memory having been wiped for mission security reasons. He collects trinkets from the once great civilisation of New York, now flooded in silt and rubble: toys, records, books, a Yankees cap. Soon the Scavs begin to take a personal interest in Jack’s movement, and then the woman of his dreams literally comes crashing back into his life. What, exactly, is Jack and Victoria’s mission?

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

If any of this sounds familiar, you shouldn’t be surprised; it should. “Derivative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and in relation to science fiction it’s as commonly used as “darker” is in superhero movie reviews. But Oblivion might just be the most derivative film ever made. Like, class action lawsuit derivative. Its central ideas and themes are fused from a number of recent and classic science fiction films. Visually, its space pods and structures hearken back to countless other sci-fi designs. Even its action scenes seem overly familiar in pace and choreography.

Take the drones – almost identical to the pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, they are similarly controlled by a red electric eye. Instead of claw arms, they have cannons which fold out from their sides like EVE from WALL•E (and they share her iPod veneer). But reacting to Cruise’s raising of his weapon, and failing to react to his lowering of it, the drones show an identical programming to ED209 from RoboCop. When a drone is summoned for termination purposes, a drone without a minty white coating appears, revealing a black skeletal series of patterns across it in the vein of a T-800. At a moment of supposed high tension the Terminator allusion is simply guffawable. That’s four films unmistakably sampled in one brilliantly realised prop.

Other films blatantly referenced or “borrowed from” in Oblivion include (in alphabetical order to avoid spoilers): Aliens, I Am Legend, Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Matrix Revolutions, Moon, Planet of the Apes, Predator, The Road Warrior, Silent Running, Solaris, Star Wars, Stargate, Total Recall, Transformers: The Movie, War of the Worlds. It’s actually a fun game to count them, although repeatedly it forces you out of the film, as Oblivion makes you think of beloved classics instead of, well, the story in progress. Kosinski, directing from a script polished by Toy Story 3’s Michael Arndt and The Departed’s William Monahan but based on an unpublished graphic novel he had written himself some years back, is all too unsubtle in his inspirations, and they cloud the fact that at many levels Oblivion is quite a strong film.

Cruise takes a role that only a select few actors could have made work and, despite limited characterisation, holds the movie together when it is at its weakest, most ramshackle points. Riseborough plays the increasingly Pod Peopled Victoria with some admirable restraint. Olga Kurylenko does her best in a role the film’s four writers all managed to overlook, while Morgan Freeman shows up to take the most relish he has in any role since Wanted.

On a technical side, the movie looks sublime, and not much of that can be handed to its… influences. Kosinski has a great feel for the visual, and refusing to shoot in 3D to keep the whites dazzling and the blacks standing out  was a great decision that shows a huge amount of confidence in the director on behalf of production studio Universal. Life of Pi’s D.P. Claudio Miranda brings every image sharply to life, while the soundtrack by French electronic outfit M83 pulses with an energy that drives much of the film forward and escalates some of the weaker drama.

In the end, Oblivion falls on its own laser sword*. It looks and sounds great throughout, but assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster from so many superior films not only dilutes the enjoyment but dilutes its own sincerity. “Earth is a memory worth fighting for” runs the tagline, but the memories on display here are all film memories, scavenged from the sci-fi greats of the ’50s to the present. They are worth fighting for, and remembering their origins and not the film that dared to harvest them all is what matters.

Oblivion is a superbly crafted film, but its memory will not be long for this world.

3/5

 

 

*Laser swords are one of the only clichés of the genre Oblivion skipped, thankfully.

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Prometheus – Game over, man. Game over.

It’s behind you…

Thirty-three years ago we were told that in space no one could hear you scream. But with massive financial and critical success and an enormous fanbase that extends beyond the remits of traditional science fiction, millions heard Alien’s call.

Ridley Scott’s “serial killer loose in a haunted house… in space” movie managed to do two things that have made it one of American cinema’s most iconic films: it utilised the ideal horror movie pacing perfected during the 1970s; and it gave audiences more iconic visuals than most directors can create in a career – including three creatures (or rather stages of a single creature) that are burned into the public consciousness forever more.

Yeah, that’s the one

Where the franchise went next is well known; a hugely successful (and worthy) action movie sequel followed before diminishing returns struck with a vengeance, resulting in cash-in crossovers with the Predator movies. Now Scott has returned to the franchise and the genre that made his name, setting a sci-fi epic in the universe that he, writer Dan O’Bannon, Walter Hill, James Cameron, H. R. Giger and others have built over the years.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m going to compare Prometheus to Alien. Because the comparison is drawn in the material, it is drawn in the film’s advertising and it is drawn by their shared director. I will, however, also critique this film with my Alien cap off (if I had an Alien cap, it would look like a facehugger for the top of my head), lest anyone accuse me of being a fanboy disappointed that Prometheus did not live up to expectations.

Because expectations aside, in front, wherever; Prometheus is a troubled beast.

The film is set mostly in 2093, aboard the exploratory spaceship Prometheus. The crew have come to a newly discovered planet, deep in space, following archaeological evidence that points to early human contact with alien life forms. These creatures may or may not be the creators of all life on Earth, and are therefore our gods. Either way, they left us a way of finding them.

Now that’s a spaceship!

We are first introduced to David, an android, played with perfect disconnect and scene-stealing dryness by Michael Fassbender. His mechanical motives are for the most part unclear, but he is a welcome reintroduction to the Alien universe. He bears a somewhat unhealthy fascination for the archaeologist couple at the film’s centre, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). The pair argue about her faith even as their exploration clearly shows her faith to be erroneous. Sure, why not? Aren’t these the kind of questions sci-fi should be dealing with in absolutes?

It is not long after exploring one of the structures they find on this alien world that things begin to look a little suspicious. What are these ominous holograms and murals? Why does that giant statue look human? And why is very little still alive? Also, since this is an Alien movie, what secrets are the corporate types back on the ship hiding from the team?

The story soon transitions smoothly into a tense horror/thriller as the mission goes suitably haywire and things that should never have been uncovered are unleashed. But much like the mysterious black goo that the crew of Prometheus find on the planet, the plot and its themes soon morph into something far more nasty, indescribable and, well, terrible.

Let’s just say this now and be done with it, Ridley Scott is a superb filmmaker who has been on the front line of the craft technically, ever since he got into the game. Even the biggest detractors of films from Legend to Kingdom of Heaven cannot fault his technical skills. Prometheus is not only no exception, but it is arguably his greatest-made film – his camera marries ultra-detailed sets with crisp, realistic CGI (let down by some very bland, darkening 3D), while his editor keeps the story flowing and the tension, for the most part, bubbling. This is a well made movie. But it is also a badly misjudged one.

At the core of Prometheus’ troubles is a schizophrenic script that suffers as much from meddling and rewrites as it does from a blatant case of just-not-ready-to-shoot-yet. This falls under three categories: dialogue, character and story.

The dialogue is the most noticeably embarrassing. When the crew begin to awaken from their sleep aboard the ship, we are subjected to the sort of chat that we might expect of a mismatched band in space, but eschewing the charm of the crew of Alien’s Nostromo (and other movie vessels, it’s just fun to reference Alien) in favour of ad-libbed banter. This adds realism, one supposes, but it lacks purpose or entertainment. Later, a geologist character says the word “rocks” as much as possible – we have to conclude the script had no written dialogue for his character; he was just given flashcards that said “rocks” on them. The ship’s two co-pilots engage in a bet about what they will find on the alien world, assumedly as stand-ins for the audience. But it’s all so forced; the audience isn’t stupid, it can question these things itself. Sadly, patronising the audience is one of the Prometheus script’s nastiest habits – towards the end Charlize Theron’s character reveals a minor (utterly unnecessary) plot twist throwing EMPHASIS on one word (accompanied by a spike in the music) as if to ensure that everyone down the back of the class understood and processed this already very clear twist (that remains utterly unnecessary to the story).

And then there are the characters; flimsy at best. Rapace’s Elizabeth gets the best of it, as a proto-Ripley with genuine aims within the film. These are undermined however by the character’s religious faith, apparently deriving from severe daddy issues, that like the pastor in M. Night Shyamalan’s preposterous Signs remains steadfastly Christian in spite of insurmountable evidence contradicting such traditions. She is also unable to have children, which without a Newt (the girl in Aliens) or a Jones (the cat in Alien) for her to redirect her affections to, says nothing about her character other than forcing an underwhelming dramatic scene with her lover. Charlie, played by the hopelessly uninspired Marshall-Green, is another anomaly of the script – it is unclear if we are meant to be on his side at all, agree with his opinions in any way, even care about him. Through clumsy writing and a humdrum performance, most of Prometheus is spent hoping he will be killed off sooner rather than later.

He was better in the ads.

David at least has some characterisation, but alas too much. An unsuccessful fusion of Alien’s psychotic robot Ash (Ian Holm) and Aliens’ heroic robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the character is the result of clear indecision on behalf of the writers, who also throw clumsy references to his passion for Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence into the mix. While drawing allusions to Ash (and by extension, it must be added, 2001’s HAL) in his uncertain directive, his dangerousness is undermined by a rewrite blatantly designed to make Fassbender’s character more heroic (he is so hot right now, in fairness). But the constant backpedalling between hero and could-be villain offers us nothing other than a few fun lines delivered by a truly talented actor. If only it worked with the story.

Charlize Theron is farcically misused as the film’s token corporate henchwoman; playing the Paul Reiser role from Aliens if he were lobotomised. Idris Elba at least gets to have some fun with his role as the ship’s captain, but his best lines all sound ad-libbed, and his character cannot be described using any more complex words than “cool and good”. Other than that there is the angry one and the nervous one (are these dwarves or intergalactic scientists?) and a dozen or so redshirts who no one even tried to give lines to. Ellen Ripley is a more complex character than the whole cast of Prometheus thrown in together.

Characters, apparently

Finally, there’s the themes. And what big themes they are. Creation, death, the afterlife, rebirth. Prometheus should be admired for aiming so high. But it should be condemned for not knowing what it is even talking about. Aside from the universe-contradicting religious issues discussed earlier (somehow faith sort of wins in the end), there is the schizophrenic role (and yes, I’ve used that word again) of the alien “Engineers” – known in traditional Alien lore as “Space Jockeys”.

What was I thinking?

These creatures play the dual, oxymoronic role of creator and destroyer, but their methods are perverse and inexplicable. The film’s title alludes to the Olympians of Greek mythology, destroying earlier races of man due to their wickedness and keeping fire from later men as punishment. But in mythology the Olympians created law, and were thus able to judge mankind. But the Engineers do no such thing. They plant and leave, and while they might predict the creatures that arise they cannot judge them when they develop thought and morality within their civilisations. A gardener who returns to a garden to find it overgrown with weeds does some pruning, they don’t light the place up with napalm.

Are these godlike Space Jockeys good or bad, wise or insane? Well, we learn nothing, and depending on the likelihood of sequels and what they contain we may never. One of the film’s two writers, Damon Lindelof, was the primary writer on the TV series Lost; but while that show often meandered between questions without answering them, it never completely doubled back on a question without answering it either way – why did they make us? Why did they destroy us?

By the film’s conclusion we know so little we are left uncaring. The film turns the Space Jockeys into villains because it is easier than actually dealing with the fascinating questions it raised. A good mystery is a good thing, but a mystery for the sake of it is not. By the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the audience is left free to interpret what happened. In Prometheus we are not, we are simply not told, left in the dark, unentertained.

It is just sad that Prometheus was made when it was not ready. The production values are superb, but based so strongly on imagery from Alien, the template was already there to work with. The film’s one standout scene, an intense, nightmarish surgery, remains an homage to that most famous scene from Alien. The rush job isn’t just noticeable in the script, it can be heard in the music. While the film’s action scenes have a suitable pulse-pounding musical accompaniment, many of its slower, tenser scenes are backed by an utterly inappropriate piece of triumphant bombast that sounds a little like someone strangling the Star Wars overture. Miscommunication is the only thing that can explain such a disconnect between sound and image.

Another of the film’s most troubling decisions is to cast Guy Pearce as the nonagenarian Peter Weyland, the financier of the expedition. The 44-year-old is covered in barely successful old man makeup for the role. Two better courses of action might have worked here. One would be to take the smarter Alien Vs Predator approach (yes, I just used those words), where Lance Henriksen was cast as a member of the Weyland family, named Bishop, suggesting the robot in Aliens was built in his image – thus casting Fassbender in old man makeup as David’s maker would have been at least witty, if odd-looking. Alternatively, they might have CAST SOMEBODY THE CHARACTER’S AGE! There are certainly enough actors available over 70. If you wanted to be very smart with your references, cast Peter O’Toole! Pearce’s casting comes down to the fact that Pearce, sans makeup, played a younger Weyland in promotional material for the film. But what was Scott thinking? How could the master filmmaker be foolish enough to sacrifice our suspension of disbelief for the sake of an ad campaign?

Note: not a scene in this movie

As a slow-building horror film Prometheus works reasonably well, but with this budget and skill behind and in front of the camera it is ludicrous that you don’t care for the main characters any more than you might the errant teenagers in a bad slasher movie. The preposterous, unanswerable grand questions the film raises only serve to distract from the jump scares and body horror.

Prometheus is so well made, but so poorly handled. Perhaps it would have worked well outside of the Alien universe, with less to live up to and no need to attempt a (failed) tie-in at its climax. But that would have robbed the film of its gorgeous design, which, in the end, is the sole superb feature to recommend it on. Alien aside, it does the film no service that the two films it references most often are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia, which are, simply put, the two best-made films I have ever seen. It raises the bar far too high for even a spaceship to soar over.

In the end, this all comes down to Scott’s hubris. Knowing full well he has helped create one of the most iconic creatures and indeed images in the history of cinema, he has foolishly decided that somehow this creature is linked to the very meaning of existence. The result is confused and clumsy, with its ambitions reduced to pretensions of genius.

It’s a mess. A beautiful, terrifying mess.

Oh, and don’t get me started on that “the secret is in the music” nonsense…

2/5

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