Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"The Terror of Alien" Retrospective: Part 2.

Welcome back, and let's continue our coverage of the Alien saga. Today, we take a look at the single most divisive entries in the series.

Alien: Resurrection:
In spite of Alien 3's underwhelming reception, it did manage to give the franchise a definitive end that most may have agreed was the natural place to close. But apparently the studio couldn't leave well enough alone, milking the series for one last entry. Alien: Resurrection was a disparate anomaly that seemed puzzling to the film buff, not only bringing back Weaver for her final outing as Ripley to date, but enlisting for their intense horror franchise Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, as well as future Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in his English-language (and solo credit) debut. To no one's surprise, the result was a glorious trainwreck so bad, no one would dare touch the franchise for fifteen years.

And my oh my, is it ever such a mesmerizing trainwreck. Right off the bat, the pure campiness and absurdity of the project rears its ugly head. Even though she had been killed off in the previous film, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is brought back to life via cloning. They try and legitimize the action by pointing to some excess DNA and blood found on the scene from her stay on the prison planet (not that I remember her leaving any traces), but just feels like a convoluted yet glossed over detail to shoehorn her back in, and only gives the film the vibe of the cheesiest Roger Corman sci-fi's, and gets weirder from there.

Weaver herself plays the role like the "evil" clone it unsubtly emulates, but even though she's clearly having fun subverting her older appearances, she really strikes me as completely flat and disingenuous, almost as if she's just coasting her way to a pay check. And it's tough to really feel for Ripley in the same way considering the clone aspect, as her very definition of a clone renders that same connection moot. Largely, it just feels like a completely different character, with Ripley having developed into a predator-like state with heightened awareness and hunting skills, and apparently sharing DNA with the Queen Alien baby has made her hypersexual, shown through sexual tension between her and Winona Ryder's Call that screams "I need an adult!" And yet, despite being free to basically reinvent Ripley from scratch, the film tries to shoehorn all of her old personality traits back in, undermining what the film was even trying to accomplish in the first place.

And because it must be stressed once more, yes, the movie is written by Joss Whedon, who I can't stress enough, as talented a writer as he is, his style is the absolute worst fit for an Alien film. Whedon is many things, but scary isn't one of them, and because of his preference for snappy writing and sarcastic character interactions (then again, even those are lacking here), with the crew of this band of space outlaws led by Ron Perlman as his usual gruff self, it makes the film feel stylistically detached from the rest of the franchise. Not to say that he's without ideas, including a scene where the Xenomorphs cannibalize one of their own to escape their prison cell (got to hand it to the film, that's something I can buy them doing), but the overall vibe of the film is more goofy than it is terrifying. To be honest, the film left me laughing quite a lot, but because of how badly delivered it is, it's always at the movie's expense, not with it.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet himself is also quite a quirky artist, with his own touches behind the camera that feel unlike the rest of the Alien series, constantly pointing the camera up people's noses, almost as if he feels dedicated to counting the pores on Winona Ryder's eternally youthful face. Despite his assembly of onscreen talent, including the aforementioned likes of Weaver, Ryder, and Perlman, each of them are graced with unfathomably ridiculous writing and lapses in logic, including one character who doesn't even think to kick a dangling Xenomorph off his boot. Brad Dourif has it the worst, playing a goofy scientist fascinated by the creatures to the point of arousal, in a way that I don't think any future performance in the franchise could be less dignified.

Anybody looking for the tightly wound tension and horror of the Alien franchise need not look here, because despite the film featuring plenty of grotesque and gory imagery for those people, there's nothing in the film that ever feels scary. In fact, it's almost as if the film is unintentionally satirizing the Alien franchise, playing out like pure farce of the most ironic nature, and seems hilariously determined to keep bewildering the viewer with every passing second. Some of my favorite moments include; A man exploding via liquid-nitrogen, a soldier hurling a grenade into an escape pod and saluting, that same soldier shrugging off getting his head punctured by a Xenomorph, a long drawn-out silence for a jump scare that doesn't even pay off, Ripley coming across a badly mangled previous clone, Ripley prying off a facehugger, characters with such bad aim they even can't hit an alien three feet in front of them, and a man going into a berserker rage against the villain and killing him with the chestburster inside him. The cream of the crop has to be the newly designed "Humamorph", that tries to milk sympathy from cutesy expressions and a mommy complex, yet the film still needs it to be an aggressive and bloodthirsty final threat. Don't get me wrong, this is all garbage and so is the film, but believe me when I say I couldn't stop laughing all the way through this.

It may be to the Alien franchise what Jurassic Park 3 was to its franchise (although the former doesn't anger me nearly as much as the latter), but it is such a glorious disaster that it's almost worth recommending to any bad movie lover. But the fact still remains that the final product was horrible, single-handedly killing the franchise, and paving the way for the reviled Alien vs Predator spin-offs (I haven't bothered to watch either). Any plans for an Alien 5 were immediately ditched, but maybe with enough time for the dust to settle, maybe someone could revive it...

* / *****

Dissatisfied with how the franchise had been left in tatters, Ridley Scott took it upon himself to restore the Alien series back to its good name. In a very different turn for the series, the film shifted away from the Xenomorph, instead choosing to focus on the origins of the Space Jockey, the massive humanoid creature within the derelict ship in the first film. Intended to be the first of a new trilogy (initially), the film received a great surge of hype before its release. Largely owed to (to quote the Blu-Ray) Ridley Scott's return to his sci-fi origins, Prometheus was not just a film; it was an event. However, once the film finally made its way to multiplexes, a very sharp divide was drawn between audiences and critics, and even some viewers who looked positively to the film still felt disappointment, something I actually predicted considering Scott's generally weak output in the last decade.

I myself wasn't too enamored with the film upon its release (at a time when my reviews weren't particularly well polished), and having given it another evaluation, I find that it has both improved and worsened since my first viewing. It's an atmospheric and perfectly watchable film, no doubt, but one that's also riddled with frustrating and disappointing shortcomings.

Mainly these issues are related to the script, headed by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. I've voiced my issues with Lindelof at length in the past, in that he's wonderful at constructing ideas and characters, and a fantastic producer, but when tackling an actual full screenplay on his own, he too often gets lost in his numerous loose ends, perplexing character motivations, and a nasty habit of mistaking vaguery for mystery. I don't think any product better exemplifies these issues than Prometheus does.

I didn't go in expecting the film to spell out its mysteries in bold red type (and I get irritated by that defense being thrown around as some sort of invalidation), but the actual content here feels like it pays absolute lip service to all the concepts it wants to set up. There's a heavy theme at play of existential levels, of the battle between Christian Dogma and natural selection, and the very foundations of creation itself. Questions are raised concerning why a man's creators (if there are any) would bring them to life, and what spurs them to let terrible harms come their way? Has mankind essentially abandoned or destroyed their creators, and become their own gods?

Those sound like interesting ideas, but Lindelof doesn't bother to flesh any of them out beyond the mere concepts that they are. For instance, Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw is shown to be a devout Christian, carrying the symbol of a cross around her neck, a comforting personal shield for her on the long journey. It's an interesting character trait, but the film never attempts to get any mileage out of the topic. Throughout the film, she's making discoveries that directly contradict her entire belief system, but rather than examine why she still believes so firmly, it instead opts to change the subject or intentionally avoid direct affirmation anytime it's brought up. Not only that, but it tends to make some of her decisions feel less like faith, and more like blindly jumping into fire.

But lackluster themes aren't the only vice in Lindelof's work here. It seems the spirit of the modern horror movie just had to rear its ugly head here, because in an effort to get the plot going, the film has to rely on a heavy level of contrivance, and that often involves this group of supposedly intelligent characters making incredibly stupid decisions, whether they be scared of dead bodies (you are aware, you were brought on an *archeological dig*, right), touching strange goo or coaxing obviously dangerous snake creatures, leaping to insane conclusions, or the fact that no one seems to know basic quarantine procedures. And without spoiling the ending, let me just say *TURN LEFT, YOU IDIOTS!* The characters themselves are not much to write home about, many barely managing to stand apart from the crowd, and failing to secure any connection with the viewer. It wants to recreate the mood of the original Alien, but I don't think it's best to be doing so to the point that you're copying moments from the original film to do so (something Lindelof would carry on with Star Trek: Into Darkness), and largely the film feels like a missed opportunity that doesn't give much time for the viewer to breathe.

Oddly enough, had Scott worked on a director's cut, some of the deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray would have gone quite a way in fixing those logic lapses, building atmosphere and loosening up the pace, and better establishing character interplay and motivations. But as is the case, those are still deleted scenes, so the movie is worse off for it.

But in spite of that, I think you would be very hard pressed to find anyone who thinks of the film as completely irredeemable. Having developed and honed his abilities for over three decades now, Scott still proves one of the unmatchable masters of his craft. As flimsy as he can be with scripts, his way with visual storytelling is still to be envied, showcasing his usual tightly focused and assured precision behind the camera, and creating an equal sense of fear and wonder as he looms over new locations and new revelations. The scale of the film certainly feels massive, owing a clear debt to series veteran H.R. Giger's original designs, and sparking wonderful usage of CGI (although, one must wonder why the technology in this prequel feels more advanced than those of Alien). Furthermore, while individual scenes may not always feel like a piece of one cohesive whole, these segments can still be enrapturing and terrific moments in their own right.

And despite his bad luck in the actual characterization of the film, he does manage to get excellent commitment from his assembled cast. Noomi Rapace may barely scrape the Ripley podium that she clearly wants to be apart of, and her character's actions can be unthinking, but she's a capable and well-natured presence that supplies the film with a sense of wonder and heart amidst all the chaos, even as the utter horror and gore of the situation start taking place. The ever awesome Idris Elba is a charming figurehead of the team as their captain, Logan Marshall-Green is rock solid as a skeptic desperate for definitive truth, and Charlize Theron casts a strong and mysterious shadow as the looming eye over the mission, even if her actual reasons for being aboard the ship and her personal revelations don't hold much weight. The only true bad apple here is Guy Pearce as the elderly Peter Weyland, who is trying his hardest despite the makeup work making him look like a rubbery Monty Burns mock-up, but whose character and spirit are so completely irrelevant to the movie, one must wonder why they couldn't have been left out altogether, or at least recast with an actual older actor.

But if Prometheus has any one perfect match between character and actor, it's the mission's android David, as played by Michael Fassbender. Giving the film another watch since its release, I realized that his performance was actually better than I initially gave him credit for, and he is easily the film's best quality. One thing that keeps the movie quite suspenseful is that throughout the entire film, we're never entirely certain of David's intentions. He aids the mission as something of an interpreter and chaperone, but is also driven to his own goals outside the main mission. He's a very nuanced and calculated character who looms over the proceedings with sinister mannerisms and dark ambitions, and while often serving as a pleasant and conversational fellow, feels internally deceptive in a way that not even the viewer always knows what's going through his mind. But in spite of those dark qualities, David does feel like the only character - save Shaw - not weighed down by any true sense of cynicism. The character still has this childlike innocence to his actions that are infectious to witness (even down to copying his hero Peter O'Toole), and he manages to imbue the film with the sense of wonder, curiosity, and discovery that few of the other elements manage to capture as well. For something described early on as lacking a soul, it's remarkable how much emotion Fassbender manages to bring out of this android.

But how will time ultimately treat Prometheus? The film ends with a deliberate anticlimax setting up for more sequels, of which Scott had once said will answer more of the mysteries established within the film. However, I'm not entirely certain that such a thing will happen depending on how Alien: Covenant spreads its time. Scott initially stated that he had no intentions of going back to the Xenomorph side of the story (leaving the closing shot an eternal dead-end), but now he seems to have gone back on his word, making the Xenomorph the main focus again, as well as reportedly limiting whatever role Shaw and David have to play. In fact, at one point, he was considering not even featuring Shaw in the film, and Fassbender looks to be playing a separate android character. I can't even begin to understand what he's thinking as I write this. Could it be that future films in the Alien universe simply treat Prometheus as an anomaly? Will those answers that people craved ever really come to light? Is Ridley really that determined to keep Neill Blomkamp away from that Alien 5 he's been planning?

Whatever the future holds for Prometheus, none of it matters right now. Even if those answers do come to light and are addressed in sequels, they won't answer for the frustrating waste of potential, even if the film is not all that bad. It's a fabulously polished and fascinating film, but also a disappointing and half-baked one.

**1/2 / *****

And so we close another chapter for another series, and I'll be here with more thoughts on the Alien franchise soon, when I finally tackle Alien: Covenant.

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