Archive for June 1999

Wild Wild West

June 30, 1999

When reviewing a bad movie — even a movie as wall-to-wall awful as Wild Wild West — one tries to come up with something good to talk about. Something. Anything. No movie is completely bereft of good points, right? I can report that I chuckled once — once — during the 107 minutes of Wild Wild West, but the rest of the film is so terrible that I no longer remember exactly what it was that tickled me. So this is not so much a review as an inquiry into memory, as I attempt to recover the one tiny redeeming virtue, the needle in a shitstack.

Was it Will Smith who made me laugh? No, and that surprised me, because I’ve found him funny since Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and he made Independence Day and Men in Black — his previous two July 4 blockbusters — bearable. Here, playing smooth government agent James West, he seems to have entered the arrogant territory of Eddie Murphy circa 1987. Smith shows little or no comic timing here; he basically shoots or bluffs his way through every scene, an 1869 cowboy version of Axel Foley. One scene that could have been funny, when West tries to get out of being hanged by a white lynch mob, instead sits there on the screen and dies of lameness. West comes up with some weak rationale for playfully slapping a woman’s breasts, then attempts to deconstruct the word “redneck,” and you sit there wondering how any of the dozens of people involved in the film failed to point out the simple fact that this scene isn’t funny.

Okay, what about Kevin Kline? He’s usually reliable. Not here, he isn’t. As the eccentric inventor and master of disguise Artemus Gordon, Kline appears in unconvincing drag and has a slew of gizmos stuffed up his sleeve like a 19th-century Inspector Gadget. Since we never actually see Gordon inventing or building anything, we’re that much more aware that his character doesn’t exist without the help of the film’s large team of FX techies. He reminded me of the title character in Dr. Giggles, who also had a variety of outlandish gizmos with no explanation of where they came from; and when a $100-million-plus movie reminds you of Dr. Giggles, it is in serious trouble. Gordon is also allegedly smart and witty, and in a good example of the film’s level of humor, he comes up with a name for his new flying machine: “Air Gordon.” That’s the sort of almost-a-joke that is the movie’s main currency.

“Oh, come now,” you may say, “surely Kenneth Branagh provides some amusing moments and goosed a laugh or two out of you.” Nope. Sorry. Branagh turns up as evil genius Dr. Arliss Loveless (also legless), and he is to this movie what Sean Connery was to The Avengers. “I’ll do this crappy summer movie as a lark,” I imagine Branagh saying to himself, “cash the check, make a bigger name for myself in American multiplexes, and maybe even get my own action figure. Should be a good laugh.” Again: nope, sorry. Actually (ironically), it’s a testament to Branagh’s integrity that he is so bad here, because it turns out he can’t fake it; his disgust towards the material shows (and, consummate pro that he is, he tries to use it as Loveless’ disgust towards the heroes). Near the end, when his torso is attached to four mechanical spider legs, I felt I was witnessing the logical conclusion of summer wrecks like this one: take a vibrant actor and turn him into a CGI effect.

All right, so how about Barry Sonnenfeld? Isn’t he a good comedy director? Well, the evidence grows less clear with each movie. I was a wholehearted fan of his two Addams Family films, but in retrospect those movies may have owed more to the casting and the writing touch of professional madcap Paul Rudnick. Get Shorty, for me, was an enjoyable but thin movie that essentially took the Elmore Leonard book and filmed it; the later Out of Sight was ten times the film Get Shorty was. And I was never a fan of the juvenile, overstuffed Men in Black. In Wild Wild West, Sonnenfeld goes further into blockbuster incoherence — the most memorable character is the 80-foot bionic tarantula — and he doesn’t shape the scenes or assemble them in any kind of rhythm. He just puts up a scene that doesn’t work, then kills it quickly and rushes ahead to the next scene that doesn’t work. Every scene is also edited with a Cuisinart; the result feels like Silverado directed by Joel Schumacher and rewritten by morons.

Salma Hayek? She’s in it for a total of, like, 12 minutes. Sorry, guys.

At this point I am reduced to thinking about the supporting players in my attempt to uncover what it was that made me chuckle. M. Emmet Walsh as the conductor of Artemis’ gizmo-laden train, the Wanderer? Nope. Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), unrecognizable as a scruffy villain named Bloodbath McGrath? No — but aha! He does appear in the scene that made me chuckle. I remember now. See, McGrath’s ear was blown off, and he has a horn-shaped earpiece sticking out of his head where his ear once was. He gets killed and falls, and a little white dog runs over. The pooch poses next to the earhorn, looking like the dog in the Victrola ads. Ha ha ha! Well, okay, so it’s not that much of a knee-slapper, but with a dud like Wild Wild West you take whatever you can get.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

June 30, 1999

In a comedy, a good strong beginning can win over the audience and make up for some flab in the middle, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut boasts perhaps the most uproarious first reel in recent memory. Our heroes, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, have nabbed tickets to a hot Canadian film — Terrance and Phillip in Asses of Fire. As Terrance and Phillip cavort around, farting copiously and blurting out words they can’t say on TV, and then as the boys leave the theater blurting out words they can’t say on Comedy Central, the audience laughter is like a wall of sound. It’s as if we were at a rock concert, with every “suck my balls, you pigfuckin’ son of a bitch” rolling out like a killer drum solo; it’s electrifying. We’ve heard the boys talk R-rated trash before, in the South Park precursor “The Spirit of Christmas,” but what’s fresh about it here is the delirious sense of discovery, the long-forgotten thrill of kids learning forbidden words and eagerly parroting them again and again. Among other things, the South Park movie restores the happy shock and exuberance of talking dirty.

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (Parker directed, he and Stone wrote the script with the show’s creative producer Pam Brady), are accomplished parodists and satirists. (Which are two different things. Some can do parody and some can do satire, but very few can do both, and do them well.) Some have said the show has lost steam lately, and the pair’s appearance in the poorly received BASEketball didn’t help their case, but this riotous and gleefully offensive outrage should put them right back on top. The movie is a gigantic joke on its audience and on itself; the audience in the film, watching the crudely animated Asses of Fire, is not terribly different from us. The film actually works on several levels, which Beavis & Butt-Head Do America didn’t, as rudely funny as it was. Parker and Stone butcher all past critics of the show and any future critics of the movie; arriving as it does like a fart at the somber post-Columbine funeral, it’s a sharp slap of common sense.

When the boys go off spouting the wondrous new phrases they’ve learned, their mothers react with predictable horror. The villain of this piece isn’t Satan or Saddam Hussein (both of whom appear, spooning in Hell, awaiting their chance to take over the world); it’s Sheila Broflovski, Kyle’s easily offended mom (“WhawhaWHAAT?”), who spearheads an assault on Terrance and Phillip’s homeland of Canada. In outline, the movie may seem like a feature-length reworking of the South Park episode “Death,” wherein Kyle’s mom took on the network showing T & P cartoons (and the network exec, in answer to parental protests, uttered the classic line “You can direct your complaints to that brick wall over there”). But in form it’s also a subversive skewering of the MPAA, which finally gave this movie an R rating (it had to be trimmed to avoid an NC-17) despite several mean and very funny shots at them. What good, for instance, is a ratings system that can be so easily circumvented by quick-thinking kids? Indeed, sitting in the audience at South Park, you may spot some kids who (as Parker and Stone pointed out in a recent appearance on The Tonight Show) bought a ticket to Wild Wild West and snuck into South Park, or just kids whose parents were lazy or imbecilic enough to bring them.

Well, if those parents are faced with post-movie questions about “donkey-raping shit-eaters” or clitorises, they deserve it. South Park the show is not for kids, and South Park the movie is not even for a lot of adults. There’s one cannon-fodder joke so stunningly cynical that many in the audience will be too uncomfortable to laugh; yet the joke cuts to the quick and makes its point more vividly than any op-ed column could. Some will regret the usual Parker-Stone frat-boy homophobia, represented here by dragging Big Gay Al onstage for a few queeny minutes, and I wanted a little less of the Satan-Saddam romance (Saddam is a threadbare target by now anyway), which weighs down the film’s midsection and has the unappetizing side effect of equating homosexuality with evil. You don’t have to be politically correct to question why, in 1999, gay men are still used so lazily as foils for humor, and that laziness, more than anything else, is what bothered me; Parker and Stone are smarter than that. They can get along just fine without having to resort to “Let’s laugh at the swishy fag” — and Big Gay Al’s big gay musical number isn’t all that funny anyway.

The movie also threatens to take a turn toward self-important martyrdom: Terrance and Phillip are scheduled to be executed — the way Parker and Stone expect to be crucified for their offenses to good taste? — and the blood they shed will unleash the hounds of chaos. “You brought enough intolerance into the world for me to take over,” Saddam editorializes, as if a boycott of South Park might mean a domino effect of shattered freedom everywhere. Parker and Stone sometimes get too self-congratulatory about their opposition to cultural fascism; even the best satirists can get caught up in preaching to the choir. A completely ballsy South Park movie might have skewered its own merchandising machine and openly questioned why the movie exists in the first place (answer: because Warner and Paramount want to make money). Why not put some satirical screws to the studio that releases Asses of Fire and then hides behind lofty rhetoric to defend songs like “Uncle Fucka”? The satire here, while 95% hilarious and dead-on, can also be awfully one-sided.

Aside from these flaws, which I would only notice and point out in a movie that is otherwise as incisive as a razor, South Park consistently hits its targets and our funnybone. With the help of veteran composer Marc Shaiman (past purveyor of musical schmaltz for such weepies as Patch Adams, Shaiman must have spent some time wondering how he ever got involved in this project), Parker crafts no less than 14 show-stopping musical numbers, which usually have wicked fun with some form of kiddie music. Mr. Mackie’s instructional ditty “It’s Easy, MmmKay,” for instance, sounds to these ears like a roughhouse goof on Schoolhouse Rock (I hear a bit of Sesame Street and Electric Company in it as well), and Satan’s big stirring anthem “Up There” is a pitch-perfect gutting of the typical Oscar-winning Disney song. Then there’s the “international” version of Cartman’s barnstorming “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch,” which must be seen and heard to be believed; all that’s missing is a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along.

The thoroughgoing filthiness of South Park can be a cleansing experience. As a society, we’ve gotten too damn self-righteous lately, acting as moral cops for other countries and our own citizens; Trey Parker and Matt Stone are saying, “Fuck that — all of us are fucked up; we’ve always been fucked up, we always will be fucked up.” Which is a nihilistic worldview but not necessarily a false one — Jonathan Swift got a lot of mileage out of it, and people considered him crass and offensive, too. God only knows what the Sheila Broflovskis of America would make of him, if they actually picked up a book.

Big Daddy

June 25, 1999

1219848227_big-daddy-1999-hdtvBy now, you either think Adam Sandler is a likable schlub or you hate his guts. If you are in the latter camp, nothing I can say will convince you that Big Daddy is anything more than Adam doing more of the same. If you’re in the former group, the only relevant information is that … Adam does more of the same. That’s enough for a lot of his fans, and it’s enough for me; the guy has grown on me, and Big Daddy is yet another pleasantly unambitious Sandler vehicle, as comfortable and sloppy as an old hockey jersey. No one will ever mistake these movies for inspired comedies, but you can relax into them and have a good no-brainer evening.

Problem is, how long can Adam Sandler go on playing the doofus who won’t grow up? That’s been his M.O. as far back as 1995’s Billy Madison, where he was an overgrown kid among schoolchildren. Since then, his movies have followed a sort of dual thematic thread. You have your Adam-the-caveman-jock movies (Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy) and your Adam-tries-to-grow-up movies. The runaway hit The Wedding Singer was a grow-up movie, and Big Daddy is another. It’s almost as if the jock movies were for the guys and the grow-up movies were for their girlfriends, who have some hope that the baseball-cap-wearing Sandler fans in their lives will eventually make something of themselves.

Sandler’s character this time, Sonny Koufax, is a lackadaisical toll-booth collector living off a court settlement (a taxi cab ran over his foot). His girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) sees he’s going nowhere and dumps him, as all Sandler first-act girlfriends must do. When a five-year-old boy, Julian (Cole and Dylan Sprouse), lands in Sonny’s lap, he decides to adopt the kid as proof that he’s ready to get serious. While he waits for Social Services to find Julian a new home, though, Sonny takes surrogate fatherhood as a cue to forestall adulthood even longer.

The element of Big Daddy that has annoyed some critics (particularly Roger Ebert, who seems to have a knee-jerk hatred of Sandler) is precisely the one that appealed to me. We live in an age where parents are worrying more than ever about how to raise their kids; the result, I think, has been a generation of neurotic kids, shuttled from soccer practice to soccer practice, and raised by TV and the Internet. Parents talk a good game about parenting, but forget the basic concept of just relaxing with their kids. Sonny, on the other hand, is the least stressed-out dad you could imagine. He can relate to Julian because he’s basically on Julian’s level, and his parenting amounts to goofing off a lot with the kid. The movie comes close to saying that the best parents are the ones with a lot of free time, i.e. without a career.

Big Daddy was directed by Dennis Dugan, who also helmed Sandler’s ode to slapshot hostility Happy Gilmore, so even when the plot gets a little too poignant, Dugan has the sense to treat it lightly. (Even a potentially tearjerking separation scene is played for laughs.) In his jock movies, Sandler plays the undomesticated slob who gets the girl without having to be false to himself; in his grow-up movies, he presents himself as plausible husband and father material. Having done that, where can he go from here? Adam Sandler represents the Atari generation of guys passing uneasily into adulthood, and it will be interesting to see where his instincts take him in the next decade or so.

Run Lola Run

June 18, 1999

The young woman has twenty minutes to get 100,000 marks for her boyfriend, or else a local gangster will kill him. Her moped has been stolen, so she has to run all over the streets of Berlin, and the camera runs with her. Run Lola Run, which broke records in its native Germany, is the revolutionary back-to-basics movie some of us have been waiting for. It’s pure movement, pure adrenaline, pure cinema. As you watch, you know you’re seeing a reminder of what movies can do better than any other medium. The movie’s antecedents are clearly Natural Born Killers and Trainspotting — it has a similar whiplash style, fracturing linear narrative, batting us around the way a cat plays with a mouse — yet it has a pulse all its own. It’s ecstatically show-offy, deeply in love with its own editing-table whiz-bang, and that takes a little getting used to. The hip MTV style, it turns out, is a cover for most unhip ruminations on existence and the meaning of love. Run Lola Run is ironic only in form, not in content.

Lola (Franka Potente) is our heroine, a tight woman with fierce red hair that flies about as she runs, as if her brain were burning with purpose. Her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) is in serious trouble: He left a bag on a subway train, a bag containing the 100,000 marks he owes a fearsome gangster, and a subway bum has made off with the bag. Lola makes a beeline for her dad, a banker who is having an affair with a co-worker. The young writer-director, Tom Tykwer, shows us three possible versions of Lola’s quest. Each time, slight variations in the journey — does Lola bump into this old woman or avoid that car? — affect everything else that follows. The subject of the movie appears to be nothing less than the randomness and fragility of life itself.

Yet in 81 rocketing minutes, Tykwer is able to give us three stories that feel distinct, that feel like mini-movies in and of themselves. You’re never bored with seeing the movie start up again, because you want to see how it unfolds this time, what minuscule events will send it spinning off the tracks. I believe it was Roger Ebert who likened the form of the movie to a video game: The second and third versions hit the ground running, just like the restart in a game, and Lola gets another chance — but only for our benefit, never for hers. Watching a movie or playing a video game holds no lasting consequences for us, but within the experience, we know that everything that happens has consequences. Lola has no extra awareness in each new variation of the story: she can’t go into the second part and learn from the mistakes she made in the first. In any event, it doesn’t matter, because her actions are so dependent on the smallest disturbances that either happen or don’t happen.

If there’s any justice, Franka Potente should emerge as a new international star. Her work in Run Lola Run doesn’t just amount to running. Her features have the severity of Lili Taylor or Amanda Plummer, with a little vulnerable hint of Elisabeth Shue (from certain angles) to soften them. Potente is aptly named: she’s potent, all right — she has a hard-driving force as Lola that might be a little scary if we weren’t rooting for Lola to burst through her obstacles. When she gets upset or excited and shrieks loud enough to shatter glass, we believe it. (I don’t really know why this detail is there, other than to terrify everyone else onscreen; it’s a cool, cathartic effect, though. It may also be a nod to the little boy in The Tin Drum, who did the same thing.) Lola has strength and speed; she’s the perfect post-feminist icon, a riot grrrl with wings of desire. Unburdened by psychological muck, she identifies what she wants and just goes after it. Her mission has the mad purity of relentlessness, and so does Potente’s near-wordless performance, which is just about the last word in character defined by action.

On some level, Run Lola Run is just masterful eye candy. That red hair, the blue tanktop and jeans, hurtling through the vertical maze of Berlin. You could conceivably not care at all about Lola’s quest and still sit there trancing out on the color and movement. But Tykwer, for all his mixmaster tricks, isn’t a detached hipster. His games bring us closer to the characters, whether it’s a cartoon vision of Lola running down a long, long flight of stairs or a gallery of near-subliminal snapshots that brief us on the futures of some of the people Lola runs into. (The futures are different each time; the effect of a life summed up with brutal efficiency in five seconds is both funny and chilling.) Early on, Lola stands in her room with the camera circling her, and we get strobed with images of people we don’t know; we get ready to rebel at the pretentiousness of this until we realize that Lola is flipping through her mental Rolodex, thinking of people who can give her the 100,000 marks. She decides on her dad, and we never see any of the other people again; she doesn’t have time to go to anyone else.

Is Run Lola Run a great movie? I think it’s a great ride, great moviemaking — the art film as high-powered entertainment. Once again, someone outside the studio system has shown Hollywood how it should be done. You set up a conflict, you set your characters in motion, you leave out anything unnecessary, and you let the meanings emerge organically from the material instead of throwing the meanings onto the material like an ill-fitting coat. You engage the eye and the mind, and you resolve the conflict. How hard is that? Apparently very hard, since so few Hollywood movies manage to check off any of the goals on that list, but Tom Tykwer makes it all look easy and natural.

Run Lola Run has gotten some critical acclaim in America, but it hasn’t really broken out to become the cult smash it deserves to be, and that’s a shame: This should have been the youth hit of the summer, not the empty Blair Witch Project, with its calculated stabs at sending the audience out buzzing. Run Lola Run sends us out buzzed; we come out feeling cooler, sharper, refreshed. We feel ready to take another run.

The General’s Daughter

June 18, 1999

Of the many questions swirling through my head after seeing The General’s Daughter, a lurid and ludicrous new thriller, one question in particular stands out: Do the filmmakers think we’re morons? We’re certainly treated as such, right from the beginning. A military officer (John Travolta) is called to investigate the murder of a young female captain. When he sees her face, he recognizes her — and we do, too, because we’ve just seen him share two scenes with her. Yet the movie gives us a fleeting image of her from one of those scenes, as if we needed the reminder. Also, who else would we think it is? At this point, she’s the only woman we’ve seen.

The movie doesn’t trust us to make that connection, and it also thinks we’re too dumb to make other connections that undermine the plot. The General’s Daughter, based on a Nelson DeMille bestseller, never makes any sense. The characters (aside from Travolta’s hero) exist only as red herrings. The young woman is found dead, naked, and bound spread-eagled in the middle of an army complex. Who put her there? Who killed her? Our natural desire to know gives the movie’s first half a slight interest. But as the explanations pour in, like buckets of water drenching a mound of dirt, they just muddy the plot rather than clearing it up.

The young woman, as we might have guessed from the title, was the daughter of the army base general (James Cromwell). She also, apparently, had some rather colorful hobbies off duty, involving whips and chains. All this, and she’s an expert in psychological warfare, too. The movie itself engages in psych warfare, flashing us with ugly images of the woman’s past traumas, as if to explain both her kinks and her violent end, and as if she meant anything other than being a dead naked chick to titillate multiplex audiences.

Travolta is joined by a rape investigator, Madeline Stowe, who tries to keep her dignity despite having very little to do. She and Travolta often engage in the sort of verbal ping-pong cherished so much by co-scripter William Goldman, who never met a zinger he didn’t like. Mostly, the snappy patter produces not laughter but impatience. Goldman does, however, write a deft scene between Travolta and James Woods, as the deceased’s “mentor.” Woods, amusing himself by batting his dialogue around as a cat toys with a mouse, is easily the best thing in the movie¹; he’s also not around for long, but the film unwisely goes on without him.

Indeed, The General’s Daughter continues to bore and insult us; the director, Simon West (Con Air), obviously thinks he’s still working for Jerry Bruckheimer, and we get an early action scene — involving Travolta, an angry soldier, and a boat propeller — that seems to be tossed in so as not to lose us dummies in the audience. There is also an allegedly nail-biting climax in a mine field, which ends the only way such a formulaic thriller can end: the bad guy gets blown sky-high. Whoopee! Those who go to this movie expecting a serious military thriller had better be in the mood to laugh bitterly at their own expense.

The bitterest laugh comes at the very end, when a card informs us that “200,000 women are in the military.” Well, what does that mean, given what we’ve just seen? Is the movie saying that atrocities perpetrated on female soldiers by male soldiers should be covered up so that women can continue to be allowed into the military? Or that women shouldn’t be allowed into the military because things like this might happen? None of this, of course, matters a damn, since the dead woman is meant only as a corpse to animate a contrived whodunit. That important-sounding card at the end is the final insult to our intelligence, and the final nail in the movie’s coffin.

¹To this day I enjoy quoting Woods’ line “What a truly excellent question.”

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

June 11, 1999

From the descriptions of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, we know that Austin has lost his “mojo,” and has to get it back from his nemesis Dr. Evil. But what about the Austin Powers franchise — does it still have its mojo? Judging from the reactions of those around me in the theater (not to mention my own response, a largely constant stream of laughter), the answer is a resounding “Yeah, baby, yeah.” The movie delivers on its promise.

Yet, sitting here away from the laughter, I feel a slight sense of loss. Austin Powers is no longer the quirky little comedy you recommended to friends, the cult item passed back and forth on videotape, watched and rewatched, memorized. It’s gone from being a hip little party to being a big bash where the stars turn out (there are a few celeb cameos in AP2). Also, the humor is much broader now, emphasizing gross-out jokes to the near-exclusion of some of the deadpan absurdity in AP1 — such as Dr. Evil’s baffling monologue in the support group (“In the spring we would make meat helmets”), or Dr. Evil leading his cohorts in diabolical laughter that eventually petered out until they all just kind of stood around looking at each other.

With that out of the way — along with my official disapproval of the way Elizabeth Hurley’s character Vanessa Kensington from AP1 is dealt with — let us praise AP2, not bury it. Like its predecessor, the sequel never wants to be anything more than silly and colorful, a clothesline for slapstick and sexual innuendo; the AP movies pick up where the Naked Gun series left off, reviving the old ZAZ what-the-hell, anything-for-a-laugh mojo that ZAZ themselves seem to have lost these days.

AP1 transplanted the late-’60s swinger Austin to 1997; the new movie sends him back to 1969, along with Dr. Evil and his derisive son Scott (Seth Green, having fun popping the old man’s balloon again), and I can’t help thinking the sequel missed a neat opportunity to have the very ’90s Scott adjust to life in 1969. As it is, Scott spends his time rolling his eyes at Dad and competing with a new “brother” — a diminutive Dr. Evil clone named Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) who gets so many laughs that he may swiftly replace Anakin Skywalker as the summer’s most popular character under four feet tall. Austin, too, gets a new partner in 1969: the alluringly named CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham).

As before, Mike Myers plays both Austin and Dr. Evil, and he adds a new character to his repertoire — Fat Bastard, who gives Myers the chance to work on his Scottish brogue through pounds of latex flab. Of the three, Dr. Evil easily wins the belt. Whether he’s favoring his minions with a little rap number (a parody of Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us”) or dealing with the “weirdness” of interoffice sex, Dr. Evil is the real hero of the movie by right of sheer comic inventiveness; he has dimensions, whereas the amiable Austin just has mannerisms — often funny ones, but nothing too surprising, nothing you didn’t see in AP1.

I enjoyed AP2, enjoyed seeing these characters again and revisiting Myers’ loving, candy-colored homage to British ’60s culture. The only slight bummer in it, as I said, is that you can’t go home again — you can only see Austin Powers for the first time once, and a sequel, by definition, is just same-only-different. I had the same reaction to Scream 2, another sequel good enough to make me wish its talented creators would do something with the same impact as Scream, but not another Scream. Similarly, having seen that Mike Myers can create something as fresh as Austin Powers (and as naggingly funny as Dr. Evil), and then craft a worthy, often hilarious sequel, I look forward to his next creation.

Getting Alienated

June 7, 1999

With all the hubbub over Star Wars, I’m glad 20th Century-Fox hasn’t overlooked the 20th anniversary of its other enduring sci-fi franchise. The Alien Legacy, a gorgeous new DVD package of all four films, has just been released, giving us longtime Alien followers a chance to revisit the series, and introducing its complex pleasures to a whole new audience. In deference to that new audience, I must register the following SPOILER ALERT. Below, in discussing various motifs and themes in the Alien quartet, I’m not shy about disclosing plot points. This piece is meant as a thematic overview of the saga, to shed new light on the films for those who’ll be revisiting them. If you haven’t seen them yet, buy ‘em, pop ‘em into your home-video player of choice and enjoy; then meet us back here for the deep-dish discussion.

I admit I’m probably as much of a fanboy about the Alien films as Lucasheads are about Star Wars. People said Alien³ sucked and Alien Resurrection was weak, but I loved them anyway. For my money, the Alien quartet is the most fascinating ongoing movie series ever to emerge from Hollywood. Alien began as a moody rewrite of It! The Terror from Beyond Space and evolved into something much richer and deeper, using the twin bastard genres of sci-fi and horror to get at issues of biological, sexual, and political terror.

It is also the only ongoing American movie franchise supported by a female character — Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, a role Sigourney Weaver originally accepted so flippantly that the studio didn’t want her. Weaver has been fine in other movies, but the Alien movies have made special demands on her, and one of the happier pleasures of the new boxed set is monitoring how much she grew as an actress between 1979 and 1997. Ripley’s reaction to the news of her daughter’s death in the director’s cut of Aliens; her face twitching ever so slightly when she and Newt are trapped in a room with a facehugger, and she sees her weapon in the next room; her long, anguished flame-out in Alien³ and her living-dead-girl blend of cynicism and innocence in Alien Resurrection — Weaver plays a symphony of notes in these films, and those who look down on the Alien series are missing, cumulatively, one of the most stunning performances in American film.

On a related note, those who went through Buffy withdrawal two weeks ago have the Alien movies to thank, in large part, for the Slayer. Forget Joyce Summers — Ripley is Buffy’s real pop-culture mom, a strong woman jousting with otherworldly demons and inner demons. Perhaps, in light of this, it’s not so surprising that Buffy creator Joss Whedon also wrote Alien Resurrection (and may direct the next installment, which for a while was rumored to be titled Alien Revelation). You see, everything is connected.

Herewith, some things to look for when you sit down to reacquaint yourself with Ripley and her pal the alien….

WAKE UP, TIME TO DIE

That line from Blade Runner (directed by Alien inaugurator Ridley Scott) could just as easily describe the Alien movies. All of them open with Ripley in some state of sleep or unconsciousness; all but the last film end with her going back to peaceful sleep, in one form or another. (In Alien³ it’s the big sleep — from which she’s rudely awakened in the next movie.) The motif suggests, to paraphrase a line Pauline Kael used in her review of The Shining, waking up into a nightmare instead of falling asleep into one. The real nightmare is the waking nightmare, though even sleep is deceptively restful — at the beginning of each film, Ripley discovers ugly things that happened while she was sleeping. Good morning — the ship has changed course and you’re not going home for another ten months! Good morning — it’s 57 years later and your daughter is dead! Good morning — you’re on a godforsaken prison planet and Newt and Hicks are dead! Good morning — we cloned you along with the alien that was inside you! Want some coffee?

NOBODY STAYS DEAD

In these movies, you can’t even die to get away from the horror: someone is always wrenching you back to unwanted life. In Alien Resurrection, of course, it’s Ripley. But you find this thread running through the earlier movies, too. The devious android Ash in Alien is relieved of his head, which would seem to put an exclamation point on his existence, but he’s reactivated in order to deliver some exposition. Same thing happens to the bashed-up Bishop in Alien³. In Aliens, our intrepid team of Marines discover a cocooned woman who begs, “Kill me…” — echoing the pleas of Dallas in the famous deleted scene in Alien. The cocooning scenes illustrate that the aliens would rather not just kill you. They want you semi-alive as a vessel for their young to hatch. The alien life cycle is fairly complex. The Queen Alien lays the egg. From the egg comes the facehugger, which attaches to the human and lays the egg for the chestburster, who grows into the Xenomorph as we know and love it. In Alien Resurrection, significantly, the grown Queen Alien has developed reproductive organs similar to that of a human female — a byproduct of its DNA combined with Ripley’s — and its first offspring violently rejects the Queen in favor of Ripley. Hey, I can relate.

SUICIDE IS PAINLESS

In addition to the pleas for mercy killings by the cocooned victims, other characters voice sentiments such as you might find in Final Exit. In Aliens, Ripley tells Hicks to kill her if things look hopeless; he replies, “If it comes to that, I’ll do us both.” In the same movie, the disabled Vasquez and the previously clueless Gorman (redeeming himself in a final moment of bravery) trigger a grenade clasped tightly in their hands, in order to shitcan the encroaching beasts. In Alien³, Ripley spends half the movie fixin’ to die, and Bishop asks Ripley to shut him off because he’d rather be gone than function at a lesser capacity. Ripley does so, and he expires with an exhalation of relief — an odd detail considering that, as an android, he shouldn’t be breathing even if he weren’t gone from the chest down. In Alien Resurrection, one of the most disturbing moments in all of the series comes when Ripley finds a lab full of botched clone attempts; she finds a grotesquely malformed early Ripley clone, who also begs for death. If Ridley Scott had kept the Dallas cocooning scene, and if James Cameron had restored the scene in Aliens when Ripley hands the cocooned Burke a grenade to snuff himself with, we would’ve seen Ripley-as-Kevorkian in all four films.

FEMINIST HORROR

For a series of films largely conceived by men, the Alien quartet has been remarkably attentive to female nightmares. Alien set the tone with its ghastly rape subtext; think of the bizarre moment when Ash tries to suffocate Ripley by jamming a rolled-up magazine into her mouth, or when Lambert is impaled by the monster’s tail, we’re given to understand, through her vagina. The alien’s violation of the human body leads to horrific, fatal births throughout the films. Aliens takes the horror into maternity: Ripley’s daughter Amanda has died while Ripley was in hypersleep, and she adopts Newt and spends half the movie protecting her.

Alien³ was a grim pro-choice movie: Ripley has a Queen alien inside her, and she wants to die so that it will die too, but the Company won’t let her — they want to extract the alien for the usual bioweapon research. (Even the inmates on Fiorina 361 won’t let her die — the alien won’t kill her because she’s carrying a Queen, so the inmates figure she’s useful as a way to ward off the beast. This is the one movie where Ripley wants to die, and even the alien won’t oblige her.) Alien Resurrection throws genetic horror into the stew, inspiring us to ponder the ways in which science has betrayed women — how much money goes into weapons research as opposed to breast-cancer research? — and once again illustrating that the patriarchy doesn’t give a damn about a woman’s right to anything: “You thought it was all over, bitch? We’re not even gonna let you stay dead.”

One way or another, Ripley has been through everything a woman can go through; that’s why she’s such an ironic, nail-tough, and poignant heroine in Alien Resurrection. What can you do to her? She’s already died once.

MIRRORS ON THE TIMES

Without being particularly ripped-from-the-headlines, the Alien movies have always intriguingly suggested the mood of the day. Alien was released in 1979, during the last gasp of the Carter administration — not exactly America’s most optimistic era. You see it reflected in the characters’ weary cynicism, the sense that they’re all up there in this rusty piece of shit the Nostromo, doing boring jobs, arguing over the shares they’ll get when they return to Earth.

Aliens, coming smack in the middle of the Reagan years, is a kick-ass rock-and-roll assault on any threat to the nuclear family. Gone is the claustrophobic tension of Alien, replaced by a trigger-finger xenophobia. “All I need to know is one thing,” says Pvt. Vasquez, miming a gun, “where they are.” Shoot! Kill! Lock and load! In other words, it’s textbook James Cameron — and the result is a massively entertaining war movie.

Alien³ came near the end of the Bush administration; its pessimism speaks volumes about the sick soul of America post-Rodney King and post-Gulf War. The movie says that things aren’t going to get worse before they get better; they’re just going to get worse.

Alien Resurrection, only 19 months old as I write this, may take a while to disclose its full resonance in retrospect; at the moment it seems to rattle and hum with suspicions about where technology is taking us, and what we will become as a result. That’s a question that deserves to be on the table as we near the millennium — much more so than worrying about whether Johnny is watching too much violence on TV. [2001 update: With the whole cloning and stem-cell research brouhaha, this fourth chapter has now become relevant as hell.]

THE COMPANY

Throughout the series, people take their orders from Weyland-Yutani, aka the Company. Oh, dear, the Company. Always doing things that make no sense, like wanting to capture the alien for research, or even trying to train it. Those who love to nitpick movies have had a field day with the Company’s suicidally stupid agenda. What organization could possibly be so reckless? Oh, I don’t know — perhaps a government that develops a bomb capable of snuffing out all life on Earth for a million years? Or a government that allows citizens to stockpile assault rifles? The Company’s plans for the aliens are ingenious in comparison. Besides that, we’ve all worked for the Company one way or another; we’ve all had to abide by policies that make no sense. Why then do we expect fictional policies in films to make any sense? In Alien, the Nostromo is diverted to check out the unknown signal even though it’s an oil refinery ship, not a rescue ship. Why? It makes no fucking sense! Of course it doesn’t. That’s the Company for you. (In Alien Resurrection, the long-defunct Company is replaced by United Systems. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.)

WHO’S THE REAL ALIEN?

The Xenomorphs, after all, are only trying to survive and reproduce, regardless of what other species it destroys — much like, say, a virus or the human race. As Ripley says in the aliens’ defense, “At least they don’t fuck each other over for a percentage.” The aliens emerge as a threat that brings out the best and worst — notably the worst — in their human foes. They’re certainly a hell of a lot more efficient and organized than we are; they are, according to Ash, “a perfect organism…unclouded by remorse, conscience, or morality.” (Sounds like an Ayn Rand character.)

But the true alien in this series is Ripley, who manages to find one or two smart, capable allies in each film but is otherwise surrounded by idiots, who are often more dangerous than the creatures. In the three sequels in particular, Ripley is the odd woman out — a flight officer among Marines, a woman among celibate male inmates, a clone among humans — and she has to struggle with them at least as much as she does with the aliens.

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE

The sensibility of the series continues to be very post-Vietnam, betraying the franchise’s genesis in the mid-’70s. As Ripley tells the inmates in Alien³, “The first time they heard about this thing, it was ‘Crew Expendable.’ The second time, they sent some Marines; they were expendable, too. What makes you think they’re going to care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass end of space?” So the Company is willing to risk human lives — even to the extent, in Aliens, of terraforming a known alien hang-out — to no efficient purpose; having committed to their alien policy, they can’t pull out. In opposition to this, the protagonists in the Alien movies — whether an oil refinery crew, a platoon of grunts, a society of imprisoned monks, or a cadre of space pirates — are scruffy, working-class, jaded. They’ve seen it all and they expect to get screwed, because to the Company, the little guy is expendable. I prefer the bitter, realistic politics of the Alien series to those of, say, Star Wars, which tends to be about good royalty threatened by evil royalty. In the Alien text, there is no good royalty; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

RIPLEY’S CHARACTER ARC

Very few film actresses get to take a character up to death and beyond in the space of about eight hours, and Ripley has been exceptionally kind to Sigourney Weaver over the years. In Alien, Ripley is merely one of seven crew members aboard the Nostromo; with a combination of brains and luck, she manages to survive after the others take the pipe. Aliens finds her haunted by her experience yet driven to exterminate the aliens once and for all. Alien³ nudges her into suicidal despair that resolves itself into self-sacrificing heroism. Alien Resurrection clones her — she both is and isn’t the Ripley we know; she’s torn between her old obsession with killing the beasts and a new maternal instinct toward them (since her DNA is mingled with that of the Queen alien the original Ripley had been carrying).

To me, the Alien³ saga is about Ripley; the aliens are merely her dark half, the Moriarty to her Sherlock. There had been early talk of an Alien³ sans Ripley, but you could no more have an Alien movie without Sigourney Weaver than you could have an Indiana Jones film without Harrison Ford. Ripley and Weaver are the heart and soul of the Alien series. The producers lucked into a character who could be expanded upon and deepened, and they lucked into an unknown 29-year-old theater actress who could bring Ripley to life, and death, and beyond.


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