Category: Classic Sci-Fi & Fantasy


Alien1

I’m going to posit a fairly unpopular opinion right now, but it’s one that I’ve held for a long time now (and my most current viewing of the film didn’t dispossess me of this belief), the original 1979 Alien is one of the more over-rated science fiction films of all time. It is generally held up as one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, and if that’s true, sci-fi horror must be a sadly dull genre of cinema. Even now, 34 years later, it’s clear that Alien was a crowning technical achievement. And much like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down, it should be obvious to everyone that Ridley Scott is a masterful director with a keen visual eye. Sadly, the pacing in Alien is downright tedious at times and the film never frightened me once. Through in the fact that, outside of Ripley and the character played by Yaphet Kotto, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film, Alien is a sadly stale if exceptionally technically well made sci-fi horror.

Alien is considered to be one of the premier films of the “less is more” philosophy of horror film-making. And I am a huge supporter of that genre. The original Paranormal Activity crafted a genuine modern horror classic on that principle, and Roman Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion is also from the same vein. But those films succeed where Alien often fails with an understanding of how to fill the scenes in between the horror. Paranormal Activity had the great banter between Micah and Katie and Repulsion had its omnipresent social commentary on the dangers of sexual repression. Alien has its plot and practically nothing else besides its admittedly suffocating atmosphere. If Alien had found a way to breathe life to the characters portrayed by its star-studded cast, it might have been a great film. As it is, Alien simply is not.

Alien2

In the future, the commercial towing ship Nostromo holds 7 passengers (plus a cat) as it returns to Earth after a successful mining operation. However, before the ship can reach Earth, the crew is prematurely awakened from its cryogenic stasis when they intercept an emergency distress beacon on a remote planet. An away team consisting of the ship’s two commanding officers, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt), as well as the navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), heads down to the planet’s surface to investigate the distress beacon where they find a crashed, derelict space craft with nothing left alive on board. Or so they think. Kane finds an egg in one of the ship’s chambers and a mysterious alien life form attaches itself to his face, even breaking through his helmet, creating a parasitic attachment to Kane’s head. When the chief science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), breaks quarantine rules and let’s the away team back on the ship, the whole crew’s lives is put in danger.

It is quickly apparent once the away team returns that the alien attached to Kane’s face is very dangerous. Warrant officer Ripley (The Village‘s Sigourney Weaver) is angry enough that they let the alien on the ship in the first place, and the engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) aren’t too pleased about it either. No one knows what the alien is or why it’s attached itself to Kane’s face, but there’s a ray of hope when the alien seemingly disappears. Kane seems to be alright until an infamous dinner sequence where an evolved version of the alien bursts forth from his chest. And from that point forward, it’s a race against time to either kill the alien or be killed as it evolves and starts to take more and more of the ship’s crew down with it.

Alien3

I’ll give Alien credit for the things it does astoundingly well. As I’ve said, this movie is 34 years old now. Other than a hilariously 1970s/1980s idea of what computers will look like in the future (apparently they all still run on DOS), the special effects and general feel of Alien has aged remarkably well. There were only a couple occasions where I thought the effects looked laughably aged (an explosion at the very end of the film being the most prominent one), and like the original Star Wars films, Alien is a film you could show to today’s kids and they wouldn’t laugh at its look. And, beyond the effects, Ridley Scott makes the atmosphere and look of the ship absolutely suffocating and dripping with dread (even if nothing especially scary ever happens). The lighting and camerawork of the movie are superb, and I just wish it’d had a better script supporting it.

The film is also chock full of some of the best character actors of the 1970s and is the film that shot Sigourney Weaver to stardom. And the performances are great. While the characterizations of the people aboard the ship are paper-thin, the actors have a strong chemistry, and the animosity between Ash and Ripley is so strong that one almost wonders if they disliked each other in real life. They legitimately gave the impression that they simply couldn’t stand to be around one another. Sigourney Weaver helped to encapsulate one of the ultimate female bad-asses in movie history, and her turn as Ripley is one of the great parts of the film, although I loved the consistently scheming and disapponted Parker played by Yaphet Kotto. Parker and Ripley were the only two characters in the film that seemed to have any bite to them.

Alien4

I’ll draw this review to a close. I hope you can tell that I don’t dislike Alien. It is an inarguably well-crafted film, and it helped bring Ridley Scott’s talents to mainstream prominence. Unfortunately, it’s script is simply alright, and it doesn’t do justice to Scott’s artistic vision and talent. Black Rain is one of the least remembered/discussed of Ridley Scott’s films, but I honestly think it’s better than Alien. It is smart and stylish from beginning to end, and though it’s not some shining example of cinematic art, it always remains fun. Alien wants to be cinematic art, but it isn’t good enough to pull it off. I think everyone should watch Alien. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s required sci-fi horror viewing 101; I just don’t think it’s the timeless classic that everyone else does.

Final Score: B

 

(Quick aside before my actual review. In my Song of the Day post for today, I promised to reveal why it was that my blogging had slowed down some this week even though I had only worked two days at the mall. It’s because I finally got around to starting on a screenplay. I know I’ve talked about that a lot of times on here, but I actually sat down and tried to write for the first time in a long while. And it’s going really well so far. I started Tuesday or Wednesday I guess. I’m not sure for sure, but I’ve written 30 pages since then. The average screenplay is either 90 or 120 minutes long so I’m either a third of the way there or a fourth for my first draft. I’m not going to share it with anyone until I’ve finished my first draft and done some proofreading/minor editing, but when it’s taken real shape, I will let all of my loyal readers know. Now, on to Star Wars!)

When this blog was in its infant stages, one of the first 50 films that I reviewed was Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Nearly the entire saga is on my list (except for The Phantom Menace because I will never voluntarily subject myself to that film again), and it’s taken a year and a half for the random number gods determining which films I watch from my master list to provide me with another entry in the series. The Star Wars franchise is one of the most beloved film series of all time, and although I think that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is superior to the original Star Wars trilogy (it’s not even a competition about being better than the prequels), there’s still something magical about watching the original films. That magic is never greater than in Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back which remains the crowning achievement of the franchise.

After destroying the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back picks up three years later with the Rebel Alliance in hiding on the ice planet of Hoth. After Luke gets stranded over-night in the frozen wastes when his tauntaun (basically a reptile horse alien creature) is killed, he sees a vision from his old mentor Obi-Wan telling him to visit the planet of Dagobah to find the Jedi Master Yoda. Luke is rescued from Hoth by Han Solo only for the planet to be invaded the next day by the Empire. After holding off the Imperial forces, Luke heads to Dagobah (with R2-D2) while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO escape on the Millennium Falcon while evading constant pursuit from the Empire. As Luke is trained in the ways of the Jedi by the mysterious and tiny Yoda, his friends must stay one step ahead of the Empire if they want to avoid the clutches of Darth Vader.

Many of my thoughts about the original film remain relevant here. Outside of Han (and now Billy Dee William’s Lando Calrissian who appears in Empire), most of the film’s characters are more of an archetype than actually well defined characters in their own right. Luke is still your classical hero-in-training/messianic archetype (although actually, it’s hard to decide whether Luke or Anakin is actually the one who brought balance to the force and I don’t want to spark that nerd debate here). Leia is your rebellious princess. Darth Vader is the fallen hero (though you don’t find that out til the next film), and The Emperor is… the evil emperor. Only Han’s loveable rogue breaks the rules of mainstream storytelling, and it’s a testament to his character’s popularity that Han himself has become nearly a stock character type since the series began.

Similarly, the acting itself remains hit or miss. Harrison Ford is as charming and rakish as always, and the decision to play with the sexual chemistry between himself and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia was wise. Let’s face it. Han telling Leia “I know” when she says that she loves him remains one of the most bad-ass moments in film history (rivaling any of the actual action sequences of the series). Carrie Fisher is appealingly tough as the Princess even if there isn’t much going on beneath the surface there. However, Mark Hamill, the center of the franchise as Luke, avoids being the worst leading actor in the series only because Hayden Christensen would show up later to ruin Anakin Skywalker forever. He’s wooden, weird inflections, and his angry face is more hilarious than dramatic. Thank god James Earl Jones is still around to add some gravitas to the interactions between Luke and Darth Vader.

What makes Empire Strikes Back my favorite entry in the franchise is the way that it expands the universe in consistently interesting ways without falling prey to any of the “cutesy” trappings that would mar Return of the Jedi (fucking Ewoks man) and straight up ruin the first two prequel films. A New Hope can basically be summed up as Tatooine, escaping the Death Star, destroying the Death Star. Empire Strikes Back is more willing to diversify the settings as well as the act structure. The film also introduces many of the most famous and beloved characters of the franchise. We see Boba Fett, the Emperor, Lando Calrissian, and Yoda all for the first time in Empire. If you really pay attention to the dialogue of the film, you will walk away knowing much more about the Star Wars universe than you did at the end of A New Hope.

The other (and pretty much primary) reason that I prefer The Empire Strikes Back to any other film in the franchise is that it’s easily the darkest entry in the series. Well, perhaps Revenge of the Sith is darker, but it also ultimately falls apart when it’s examined too closely (cause George Lucas did not write a compelling enough downfall for Anakin) so it’s disqualified from this race. Nearly every aspect of the final act of Empire Strikes Back is a downer. If you somehow haven’t seen the film stop reading now because you’re about to get some spoilers. Star Wars is the original blockbuster film series, and it’s decision to have its middle chapter end on the stark note of Luke losing his hand and finding out his father is his sworn enemy as well as Han Solo being captured and frozen in carbonite would ultimately shape the narrative structure of future series such as The Matrix.

I haven’t actually worked on my screenplay any today because I slept in til nearly 2 (even though I went to bed before 11 last night. I just slipped into a minor coma) so I’m going to keep this review short and try to write about 5 or so pages of my screenplay before I go to bed and get ready for class tomorrow. I’m sure at some point, I will review Return of the Jedi (I’ve now decided that even if my list has Revenge of the Sith or Attack of the Clones first, I’m just going to watch the films in the order they were released) although I don’t know when. I just hope that my earlier statement where I expressed my love for Lord of the Rings over Star Wars doesn’t inspire a Clerk 2-esque flame war in the comments section of this page. May the force be with you.

Final Score: A

Is there anything more frustrating than a film with honest moments of pure brilliance and a gorgeous aesthetic that is dragged down by the complete lack of a keen editorial eye? It’s become almost a recurring theme on this blog that there are movies I want to love but can’t because they are either A) excessively long (Das Boot,Inland Empire although I still love those films. Their interminable length simply kept them from receiving perfect scores) or B) prone to absurdist and pretentious flights of fancy that seem to have no place in the film (The Shop on Main Street, Stroszek man I keep talking about movies I really do love regardless of their flaws. I’m sure their are films that frustrate me like this. This review will be one of these films!). Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most beloved films in all of science fiction and considered a masterpiece by many. While it assuredly has a unique and distinct visual style with special effects that have stood the test of time and a brilliant sound track, the moments of the film that truly work are more often than not offset by the moments that make you wonder if Stanley Kubrick had ingested large amounts of acid (and not in that good Hunter S. Thompson kind of way) or had any idea what kind of story he wanted to tell while dragging the film on a good 30-40 minutes than it should have lasted.

Describing the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a little bit tricky as it is a mostly episodic affair with recurring themes and symbols tying the episodes together. Beginning with the “dawn of man,” the film chronicles early human-like ancestors exposure to a black monolith that bestows intelligence upon them. This of course leads to the discover of weapons as a tool for violence and the film suddenly fast-forwards to 2001 where man is in space. The moon (which is now some sort of colony) has been quarantined from the rest of humanity for initially unknown reasons. It turns out that another of these black monoliths has been discovered and its effects are so powerful and potentially dangerous that its existence is kept a secret from the public. The meatiest plot of the film occurs next when 18 months later, two astronauts (and three scientists in hibernation) are on a spaceship to Jupiter alongside the artificial intelligence, H.A.L. 9000, when HAL suddenly decides to kill everyone on the ship. The last segment of the film goes “beyond the infinite” and to be completely honest, I still have no clue what that section of the film was about.

The film remains an almost unparalleled visual delight. Were it not for Kubrick’s attempts to shoehorn a Arthur C. Clarke story into things, I would almost be willing to simply look at the still gorgeous effects of the film and be okay. Whether it’s the film’s soundtrack which makes expert use of many classical music tracks (“Also Sprach Zarathustra” is the most obvious example) or the stellar sound design which really draws you into the film’s world, the movie combines technical wizardry with aesthetic pleasure. Anyone who has ever seen a Stanley Kubrick film knows that he is one of the undisputed masters of style, and 2001: A Space Odyssey could very well be exhibit A for these claims. The color palette is rich and evocative, and when the vast majority of pre-Star Wars science fiction has aged so bad to the point of being absurd, Kubrick’s vision of a near future doesn’t seem that unrealistic and the effects that brought it to life will likely age far better than any of the computer graphics of today’s so called cutting edge films. To boot, the film’s transfer to Blu-Ray was simply stunning.

The film’s problems are legion however. It’s only 2 and a half hours long (which while lengthy is nowhere near the marathons that are Das Boot or Lawrence of Arabia) but it seems like it lasts an eternity. The only section of the film which can be said to contain an actual plot that progresses somewhere is the section with HAL (which is by far the most interesting section of the film and the scene where Dave [one of the astronauts on the ship] essentially murders HAL as HAL begs for his life is the best scene of the film). Too much time is spent on mind-numbingly slow sequences of little to no import of the actual story of the film. For the most part, they help to create the setting of the film and establish Kubrick’s theory that humanity has changed very little over its existence, but there have to be ways to do that and keep the film entertaining. The film’s biggest sin though is its final section, “Beyond the Infinite,” whose meaning is completely beyond me. I enjoy David Lynch mind screws but I can always theorize as to what his films are about. I have no clue what was happening there and that to me seems to be a problem. I can’t even begin to guess as to what Kubrick was trying to achieve.

Only devoted cinephiles should sit through this. The average movie-goer will be even more bored than I was because they won’t be interested in devouring the technical and aesthetic aspects of the film. However, if you are a cinephile, the odds are that you’ve already seen this film. It remains one of the most polarizing films of an already polarizing director. I’ve gotten to the point with Stanley Kubrick where I’m convinced that his only two masterpieces are A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove. With every other film, he is simply a master of style over substance, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps his most pretentious undertaking because he wants you to believe so completely that there are higher meanings to this film when it seems apparent to this viewer that those higher meanings simply aren’t there or aren’t as profound as many of this film’s fans seem to believe.

Final Score: B

A long time ago (about 30 years ago), in a galaxy not far away at all (our own), George Lucas dropped on the world a movie that would prove (if inflation is taken into account) to be the highest grossing film ever made and would go on to spawn 5 more films, a seemingly endless series of official novel tie-ins, a bunch of video games, and more licensed merchandise than I even want to begin to think about. That movie was, of course, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. With just one movie, George Lucas would change not just the face of science fiction in film forever but the very nature of blockbuster films for all of eternity. The first outing isn’t necessarily as perfect as history wants it to be, and I think The Empire Strikes Back is definitely the far better film, but this film’s place in cinema history is locked and guaranteed like few others.

I wish I could say that I literally don’t know a single person who has never seen the Star Wars films but that’s not true anymore, literally as of this watching, because my roommate’s girlfriend walked into the living room while I was watching this and told me she had never seen Star Wars before. I had to pause the movie so I could pick my jaw up off the floor and let that information sink in before I continued watching it. So, if you’re like my roommate’s girlfriend and have never seen a Star Wars picture, here’s a basic plot synopsis. Young farmer Luke Skywalker gets mixed up in an intergalactic battle between the evil Empire, headed by Emperor Palpatine (not named or even mentioned in this film) and Darth Vader against the Rebellion, led by Princess Leia. Luke is introduced to the concept of the Force, a mystical energy that flows through all life in the universe and gives us our strength and power, by an old Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi. With this new found power and a rag tag group of comrades like Han Solo, a mercenary, and his Wookie Chewbacca, along with robots R2-D2 and C3PO, Luke sets off on a journey to rescue the galaxy from the Empire.

If you thought the effects in this movie would age fairly poorly for something that’s over 30 years old, you’d be wrong, and I really am incapable of comprehending why George Lucas feels the need to go back and ruin his old classics by inserting digital upgrades and new scenes and computer graphics that weren’t in the original and feel completely out of place and forced. His effects and his genius still look great now and he really should just leave his own movies alone. South Park had it right when they devoted an entire episode to skewering this particularly sad trend of his. A shout out must be given to John Williams who gives perhaps one of the most iconic scores in film history in this movie. A lot of his scores have gained an iconic status, and there’s definitely a reason for this. He is simply one of the most talented scorers in the history of cinema.

The movie is not perfect despite what some people like to claim. Mark Hamill is an absolutely atrocious actor. It has its fair share of pacing problems. The character development is pretty bone dry and a lot of the characters are, in this movie and it’s fixed with the other two, caricatures of archetypal figures in fiction. However, there are a lot of great things working for it too. Despite being the most copied and mimicked movie ever made, its story and plot still hold up as genuinely entertaining despite all of the dopplegangers out there. Alec Guinness is spectacular in his Oscar-nominated role as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Harrison Ford has never been cooler than when he’s Han Solo. C3PO and R2D2 are my favorite characters in the entire series despite the fact that R2D2 can literally only make indecipherable beeps and bloops. They just give the film the comic touch it definitely needs.

What is there left to say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been said. If these films (I’m referring to the original trilogy here, not the let’s just say less than fantastic new ones) weren’t as amazing as they truly are, the Star Wars franchise wouldn’t still be making more money in merchandise alone than whatever the biggest box office draw of the year makes in theaters. The Star Wars saga holds an absolutely special place in the hearts of countless people, and it’s really a shame that George Lucas hasn’t made a truly great film since The Empire Strikes Back. While A New Hope isn’t my favorite film in the series, it is still one of the finest science fiction epics ever made.

Final Score: A