Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

Alien: Covenant

August 14, 2017

aliencovenantClosing in on eighty years old, Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to be able to leave his legacy alone. October will bring a sequel to his Blade Runner, which he’s executive-producing but not directing, and he has now directed two prequels to the Alien saga, which he started in 1979. The first of them, 2012’s Prometheus, was a ponderous though gorgeous slog through questions of life’s origins — did he who made the xenomorph make thee? Now we have Alien: Covenant, a direct follow-up to Prometheus that bows to commercial demands and actually calls itself an Alien film. Which it is, more or less. Prometheus was dull but at least attempted something larger; Covenant (named after the spacecraft in the film) is a regression to the original Alien’s set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down schematic.

Michael Fassbender, at least, is back, this time in two roles: as David, the android from Prometheus, and Walter, a later, upgraded version of David. Walter serves on the crew of the Covenant, which seeks to colonize a remote planet. Two Fassbenders is even better news than one, and the actor plays the duty-bound Walter and the somewhat more emotional David with a variety of gradations. The rest of the crew are either non-entities or played with one or two notes, with the exception of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, whose close-cropped hair and general aura of torment (Daniels is widowed early in the film) reminded me of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Daniels is clearly being groomed as the new Ripley (the hero of the original four films, played by Sigourney Weaver), and as long as Waterston plays her, I’ll need to come back for more. She’s about the only dab of humanity in this aggressively designed, biomechanical movie, which like Prometheus has the best technical bona fides money can buy (returning editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) but labors under a convoluted plot overlaying the slasher-flick structure. The aliens, it seems, were deliberately created and have been maintained on some ghastly planet where they killed all the Engineers (the weird-looking folks who apparently created life). These critters keep being called “the perfect organisms,” but all they do is shriek and hiss and drool acid and reproduce. They were never the interesting aspect of the Alien series; that was Ripley.

Will Daniels be allowed to take on the metaphorical, #YesAllWomen struggles of Ripley, with the soulful Waterston stepping into Weaver’s boots? I hope so, because Alien: Covenant doesn’t otherwise point to a promising future for the franchise. The movie is sleek and morbid, with the usual ugly undercurrent of gnashing teeth, shredded flesh, misting blood. More than once, I heard myself sighing at the predictability not only of the film’s and-then-there-were-none structure but of the supposed twists. I called the big twist a mile off, and anyone who’s seen a movie before will, too; the reveal is delayed a bit, so that the real twist is that, oh yeah, there is a twist after all. It still does away with a character with no explanation and lazily expects us to accept and overlook that.

Alien: Covenant isn’t all bad. Some of the images have a dour beauty; the various alien landscapes glow like a sunrise in Hell. I was happy to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, minimalist theme for the first Alien, an echoing strain that has always sounded to me almost prophetic, prefiguring the newly remorseless sci-fi/horror blockbusters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It turns up in Covenant now and again, reminding us of the Ridley Scott who scared the crap out of us in 1979 without having to yoke the movie to some half-assed creation myth involving bodybuilders with Easter Island heads making life out of black liquid. I suspect that Scott, looking his eighth decade in the face, wanted to make his what’s-it-all-about saga with Prometheus but couldn’t get the budget unless it could be marketed as Ridley Scott’s return to the series that made his name. Alien: Covenant shows, rather dispiritingly, that Scott is not resentful about regressing; on the contrary, he has gotten comfortable in this old pair of slippers. And despite the blood and teeth, that’s what the movie feels like.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

May 14, 2017

resident-evil-the-final-chapter-clipOne thing horror fans remember well from the fourth Friday the 13th film: never trust a horror sequel that calls itself “The Final Chapter.” There may, however, be a reason to take Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s word for it. For one thing, franchise star Milla Jovovich isn’t getting any younger. Sure, she can leap and shoot and fight with as much éclat as ever at age 41, but for how much longer? And did she really intend to do six of these things in the first place? As of now, Jovovich has led the longest-running female-fronted action franchise in Hollywood history (the all-time record probably belongs to Lupe Vélez and her eight-film Mexican Spitfire comedy series from the ‘40s). She can safely rest now, and perhaps focus on other projects that don’t involve throngs of ravenous undead.

You probably don’t need to have seen the previous five movies to follow this one; the story (by director Paul W.S. Anderson, who is also Mr. Jovovich) is as violently incomprehensible as the others, anyway. The gist is that the cure for the T-virus (which created the zombie outbreak) exists in “the Hive” in the ruined Raccoon City, and Jovovich’s Alice must find it (within 48 hours, of course) and release it to save what’s left of humanity. Zombies and various other critters get in her way, as well as the nefarious Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who pursues Alice and her cadre of fellow warriors. Or it could be his clone. I’m still not sure. Along for the ride is returning comrade-in-arms Claire (Ali Larter), from two of the earlier movies.

Anderson has directed four of the six Resident Evil films (including the first one), and though editor Doobie White has been encouraged to make unreadable hash out of most of the action sequences, there actually is some apocalyptic-aesthetic beauty here and there. Often, the camera pulls back and back until it surveys the wreckage of a city from a great distance or height. The rubble contrasts sharply with the antiseptic white-on-white glossy surfaces of the villain’s lair. There’s poetry, too, in Jovovich’s husky snarl of a voice — this heroine may or may not be recognizably human after facing so much horror. I think after six films and fifteen years of this, both Jovovich and Alice have earned a respite.

The movie and the franchise in general sit largely humorlessly at the action-flick table, glowering with the higher purpose of saving humankind from the rotten Umbrella corporation. The films are more “badass” than fun, really. This could be why the series has never been especially lucrative in America — even the most domestically successful, 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, only made $60 million against a $60 million cost — but has blown up overseas; this last segment cleared a mere $27 million here, but pocketed $312 million globally, becoming by far the franchise’s top breadwinner. So … maybe there will be post-final chapters? The ending does leave the door open for more adventures.

More adventures with whom, though? Separate from the live-action series, there have been animated, direct-to-video Resident Evil features; the third, Resident Evil: Vendetta, will soon menace theaters and digital streaming platforms near you. These animated movies follow other folks besides Alice, like Leon S. Kennedy, a hero familiar from the RE videogame series. (Leon also turned up in the previous live-action outing, 2012’s Retribution, alongside Michelle Rodriguez, whose sullen presence is missed here; slight lookalike Ruby Rose represents instead as a tomboy mechanic, but she isn’t around long.) As for future live-action entries, who knows? Jovovich deserves a break, but I hate to think of these movies not anchored by her agility and her growl. It’s bad enough we now face Alien movies without Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and my growing sad suspicion is that if Warner Bros. could get away with putting out a Wonder Woman movie without Wonder Woman, they would.

Rogue One

April 23, 2017

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

Arrival

February 12, 2017

art-amy-adams-arrivalArrival, a Best Picture Oscar nominee that hits home video this week, is a poem about time. That may seem a lofty description of a sci-fi movie about a dozen alien spacecrafts hovering over various parts of Earth, but that’s what it shakes out as. Its direction, by Denis Villeneuve, is sure and deliberate and hushed; Villeneuve, I’m guessing, coached his cast seldom to speak much above a murmur. That befits a movie about human communication and its limits — limits founded in our equally limited understanding of time.

This is a pensive experience that evokes something very much like awe, though on some level it’s a bit of a letdown. Unlike, say, 2001 or Solaris (either version), it hews too closely to conventional narrative, to a Hollywood knot cinching things together for the popcorn-munchers. Ultimately it acquiesces to a human viewpoint, wedded to a third-act conflict ginned up by our brusque modern boogeyman China. (Then it wipes that conflict away conveniently with the gentle spectre of grief.) I am trying to step lightly around the plot, which is, in any event, not the best reason to see nor the best level on which to process Arrival.

What I can tell you is that the aliens almost-land, and the military, represented by Forest Whitaker, recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find out what the visitors want. The visitors, when we see them, are foggily-seen critters the humans call “heptapods.” They look sinister as hell, and they communicate via inky, jagged circles drawn in the air (or their version of air — they are separated from the humans by a transparent barrier). Louise’s job is to figure out what the language-circles mean, and somewhere offscreen she devises a code. It’s clear Villeneuve and scripter Eric Heisserer aren’t interested in the linguistic nuts and bolts of how Louise deciphers the heptapods’ scribbles. The real point of the film isn’t the literal meaning of the language but its shape.

I suppose this is old news to veteran science-fiction readers; even if we discount the movie’s source material, Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life,” there’s Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and its Tralfamadorians with their apprehension of time as simultaneity. A man, or a teenage girl, who is alive now is also dead elsewhere in time, and vice versa. Arrival hints and feints at a new way of reckoning life, time, and lifetime, but then wraps it neatly in a Chicken Soup for the Soul formulation along the lines of “If you knew how your life would play out, would you do the same things?” This yokes the story’s metaphysical concerns to a comforting tale of someone who knows that certain choices she will make will lead to heartbreak eventually, but who makes them anyway.

It’s comforting because we in the audience can’t know our future, but are reassured that whatever choice we do make will be for the best — Desiderata and its “the universe is unfolding as it should” writ large (tell that to the Syrians). That remains to be seen, always. The movie falters at the end zone. I don’t know what it should have done; maybe the accumulation of awe and mystique sort of paints the film into a literalist corner. But most of it is masterfully assembled, with great near-wordless performances from Renner (whose gobsmacked smile after his first trip inside the spacecraft is perfect) and especially Adams, who conveys everything we want from a hero without stepping outside the bounds of a fallible human. “HUMAN,” reads Louise’s first volley of English language to the visitors, as if that were the most impressive fact about her instead of the equivalent of a gnat holding up a sign to us reading “GNAT.” As best I can recall, the aliens, in one of the film’s very few concessions to humor, politely let that slide.

Shivers

October 16, 2016

shivers-1975_022Sometimes a writer-director might want to make a film solely to capture one scene, one performance, even one bit of dialogue. For the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, making his feature debut with 1975’s Shivers (aka Frissons, The Parasite Murders, or They Came from Within), the impetus may have been a monologue late in the game, when a nurse (Lynn Lowry, that cult fan favorite with features as pristine as a doll’s) tells her doctor lover (Paul Hampton) about a dream she had:

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old… and dying… and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.        

This is essentially an Arthur Schnitzler moment out of Traumnovelle given the standard perverse tweak by Cronenberg, whose cinema of tortured flesh runs long on ruminations like this. The thing that sets Shivers apart, of course, is that under Cronenberg’s watch it takes the point of view of the monster — the disease, the parasite. In form, the movie is sort of Night of the Copulating Dead. A community bound together by convenience, an island apartment complex peopled by the moderately well-to-do, is invaded by a parasite that passes from body to body. Ensuring its survival, it also creates powerful lustful feelings in its host body. So the film is also pornographic in structure, though not in practice (it’s erotic but not very explicit).

The doctor, an upright, Graham Chapman-resembling sort, is the putative hero, though it’s a while before we figure out that this is Cronenberg territory and that the parasites (slimy, red, phallic things made by special-effects guru Joe Blasco) are the heroes. Cronenberg takes a relaxed, measured, very Canadian approach to the parasite; he asks, in effect, why it shouldn’t survive, why it shouldn’t get what it wants. What it wants, in brief, is to procreate and to be, just like the rest of us. This was, and remains, a prickly and unique way of looking at horror. The horror, if any, resides in leaving the known and comfortable behind en route to a new and radical way of thinking, feeling, living.

Because Shivers is also Canadian tax-shelter pulp and not just Cronenbergian art, naturally, there’s nudity and gore and taboos not so much broken as dismissed and tossed aside. Intimations of pedophilia and incest stand alongside more upfront depictions of male and female homosexuality. Since this is the supremely nonjudgmental Cronenberg, though, we know that as long as it’s consensual he doesn’t have a problem with any of it — at least within the context of this film. People will be messily infected but will stride into a more authentic and less repressed future.

You do have to give early Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt. His filmmaking hadn’t yet really caught up with his ideas; a lot of the movie, borderline boring, has the inert compositions and staging of ‘70s television drama. But the film is wild where it counts, and in various ringers — Lowry, genre queen Barbara Steele, deep-voiced Joe Silver creating a fresh portrait of casually insensitive intellectualism — Cronenberg has the actors he needs. (God knows the dull, top-billed Paul Hampton doesn’t light any fires.) Shivers announced to general audiences (at least those who hadn’t caught his short films) a genuinely original voice in horror cinema — maybe the only one who owed more to literature than to Hitchcock or to Universal monsters. Has there been another since?

 

 

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

October 1, 2016

brain-wouldnt-die-122215How can anyone not love a movie in which a woman’s bitter disembodied head snarls to a mutant locked in a closet, “I’m only a head … and you’re whatever you are…”? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is amazingly sleazy and ghastly and cheap and, yes, deeply lovable. It has as its proto-feminist heroine a woman who has been whittled down to her mind, which gives her new psychic powers that she doesn’t hesitate to use against the men of science who presume to shape her destiny. Playing this woman, Jan Compton, in the early scenes, Virginia Leith is somewhat interchangeable with the film’s other female characters; once reduced to a head, though, Leith hisses and growls in her newly husky voice, and she becomes an image of perverse beauty and strength.

What happens to Jan is that she’s decapitated in a car wreck; fortunately, or unfortunately, her fiancé Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a maverick surgeon obsessed with experimenting on humans. A past experiment has already resulted in the aforementioned mutant in the closet, and now Dr. Bill wants to find Jan a new body upon which to transplant her head. This appalls Jan, who simply wants to die, but while she’s kept alive she must figure she may as well wreak some havoc. She develops a telepathic bond with the hidden mutant, who is responsible for most of the movie’s inky, black-and-white bloodshed.

Brain has a sweaty, lowdown, skid-row charm. Dr. Bill keeps frequenting places of ill repute (a strip club, a beauty contest) while Abie Baker’s dirty instrumental ditty “The Web” honks and fidgets suggestively. Meanwhile, his disabled assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels) taunts Jan and cringes from the thumps made by the closeted mutant, who seems to function as Jan’s id. The movie, made in 1959 but not released until 1962, has a deep streak of misandry. Women in the film are targeted by men, abused, scarred, robbed of their agency. Jan alone, having forfeited her physique, has the power to burn the rampant misogyny down to the ground.

All of this comes packaged in a movie whose technique is, to put it gently, basic. I’m annoyed by the mundane reviews calling it “inept,” though. Brain creates and sustains an eerie, clammy psychosexual mood. Dr. Bill, who resembles a cross between Vince Vaughn and a young Aidan Quinn, bops along smugly to havens of pulchritude; of course he’d go to strippers or beauty contestants when body-shopping for his fiancée. He settles on Doris (Adele Lamont), a photographers’ model with a scarred face from an abusive ex. She loathes men, but goes home with Dr. Bill because he promises corrective plastic surgery. Also, she senses that he doesn’t want her for sex, which is true; he just wants her for her body. Heh heh heh. At times Brain is interchangeable tonally with several classic E.C. Comics horror tales, the vicious and morally polluted kind written so indelibly by Al Feldman.

The mutant, when we see him finally, is played by Diane Arbus giant Eddie Carmel wearing make-up that turns his entire head into a riot of mismatched patchwork flesh. He’s supposed to be a failed experiment, but seems more like something pinched together like Play-Doh out of leftover meat by a bored, spiteful god. The mutant, who kills every man he sees and rescues Doris under Jan’s command, is the movie’s only sympathetic male — or is he male? Anyway, he or she is Monster, allied with no-bodied Jan and disfigured Doris, maimed by man, or created as their current ruined selves by man. I’m sorry, but a movie that tucks this many discordant but reverberant subtexts and ideas into a grindhouse narrative deserves so much better than to be derided by hipsters. A refugee from the mad-lab Z-budget pictures of the ‘50s, Brain in its seamy and leering way agitates more loudly for the then-nascent second-wave feminism than a squarer, more conscientious work could hope to.