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Prometheus (2012)

by Steve Habrat

It is no big surprise that Ridley Scott’s new science-fiction epic Prometheus is dividing those who have flocked to see it so far. The film deals with one of the most controversial topics around: creation of the human race. Set in the Alien universe, this semi-prequel to the 1979 classic indeed gives us quite a bit to think about after we have stumbled out of the theater and finally caught our breath. With Prometheus, Scott dares to ask a lot of really big questions. Where did we come from? Who created us and why? These are questions, whether viewed from a scientific angle or from a spiritual angle, that are not easily answered. At least not yet anyway. It appears that Scott and his writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, understand this and they opt to give us small answers to these big questions, which may frustrate many viewers but realistically, that is just the way it is. Frankly, I don’t believe that Scott and his writers ever truly set out to give crystal clear answers to the questions that Prometheus raises. Furthermore, my hat is off to Scott because he refuses to hold the audience’s hand throughout Prometheus, forcing them to do the unthinkable and (gasp!) think for themselves.

Prometheus begins in the year 2089 with archeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Played by Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Played by Logan Marshal-Green) discovering a star map in an ancient cave. They believe that the star map, which lines up with other star maps from several other seemingly unconnected ancient cultures, is an invitation from humanities creators called “Engineers” to travel to space and find them. Two years later, Shaw and Holloway are aboard the spaceship Prometheus traveling toward the distant moon LV-223, which is where they believe the “Engineers” are living. The acting head of this expedition is Meredith Vickers (Played by Charlize Theron), a snippy employee of the Weyland Corporation, which is the company that funded the expedition to LV-223. Upon arriving on the moon, the crew dashes out to explore what appears to be an ancient temple but they soon discover that this temple may be housing something that could spell doom for the human race. They also quickly realize that they are not alone in the curved tunnels of the ancient structure and that there may be individuals in their crew who are not there for scientific reasons.

The less you know about Prometheus going in to the film, the better it actually is, at least in my opinion. I was absolutely floored by how Scott has expanded his ash-colored universe from Alien and I was practically drooling at all the mesmerizing special effects. There is no doubt that this is the work of a true master of cinema. While many have raved about the visual presentation of Prometheus, it is the ideas here that many are in an uproar about. The film will no doubt cause controversy, especially when it answers the mother of all questions. Yet at times Scott and his writers tiptoe around certain definitive answers, partly because I don’t think they want to kick a hornet’s nest. Whether you believe in Darwinism or you believe a high power made us in his image, Prometheus makes sure it has everyone covered, from those who don’t know what to believe to those who clutch tightly to their crosses. Scott presents debate after debate between characters, bait to get our brains working and he is damn good at it too. On the surface, it could be read (and quickly dismissed) as a warning not to seek out your maker, but underneath, it is pushing us to at least ask a few questions to each other.

When you are not marveling at the special effects and your brain is not swimming from all the creation conversation, you will be glued to all the spellbinding acting from a handful of professions who are on top of their game. The standouts here are Rapace’s Shaw, Idris Elba’s Janek, the captain of the Prometheus, and Michael Fassbender’s slim and crafty android David. Shaw takes over for Sigourney Weaver’s level headed Ripley and gives us a much more subdued version of the Ripley character. She has a slower growth into full-blown ass-kicker and she gets one of the movie’s grossest moments (a self-surgery scene that requires her to cut in to her own stomach), a scene that is sure to become iconic. Near the end, I got chills of excitement when she grabbed an axe and readied herself for a brutal battle of life or death, a scene that was alive with Ripley’s spirit. Elba’s Janek, who is quick to tell Theron’s Vickers that he is “just the captain” has a lot more on his mind than just figuring out how to get the other sixteen passengers off LV-223 safely. I really enjoyed his weary compassion. While Elba and Rapace hold their own, the film belongs to Fassbender, who continues to impress me with each new film he is in. Early on, we see his character, alone on the Prometheus while the others are locked in their stasis chambers, hanging on every scene of Laurence of Arabia, playing basketball, dying his hair, and watching the dreams of the other crewmembers. He has a funny walk, beams when the elderly Peter Weyland (Played by Guy Pearce) tells him he has been like a son to him, and he longs to be viewed as one of the humans, even as darkness begins to creep into his mainframe.

The rest of the supporting cast does a good job, even if some of them get lost in all the action. Theron’s Vickers is a much more controlled villain here than she was in Snow White and the Huntsman. She is a lot more convincing as an evil corporate stooge rather than a cackling wicked witch. Guy Pearce shows up in a most unexpected (and surprisingly persuasive) role as the elderly Peter Weyland, a wealthy man who isn’t only interested in a new scientific discover. Logan Marshall-Green as Holloway was the only character I had a hard time liking. At times he felt a bit forced and even a bit cliché next to all the other characters that were much more vividly drawn. He is there only to be the love interest for Rapace’s Shaw and to cause some major problems later for our axe-wielding heroine. If I had one complaint about Prometheus, it would be him, especially since there was a lot of hype around him being the new up and coming actor of the moment. Rafe Spall and Sean Harris also show up memorably as Milburn and Fifiled, a botanist and a geologist who come face to face with some real nasty organisms.

Overall, Scott’s Prometheus is one big, expensive, flashy, 3D question mark of a movie and to be honest with you, I absolutely love that it is. I was mesmerized from the hypnotic opening sequence to the fiery finale that gives a nice big wink to the ’79 classic that inspired all of this (trust me, you’re going to love it). It may take some time for audiences to appreciate what Scott has done here, but as years pass, I see Prometheus becoming a chilling and grotesque classic that makes its way into film textbooks. If you get the chance, experience this sucker in 3D because it really adds to the film’s harsh and rocky environment. Many may tell you that Prometheus was an overhyped disappointment but I say that Prometheus has landed on movie screens to challenge us in ways most films refuse. It is nice to know that Hollywood still believes that some audience members like to use their intelligence at the movies from time to time and to be sent away with a lot to ponder.

Grade: A

Blade Runner (1982)

by Steve Habrat

What a hypnotic and transcendent film that Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction/neo-noir film Blade Runner is. An entrancing genre mashing of sounds, images, words, philosophy, and artistic vision that finds very few challengers to this day. One of the biggest cult films around, Blade Runner was a polarizing film when it was first released but has since gained a wider audience who yearn to be transported to Scott’s twinkling metropolis where it always rains, femme fatales strut in smoke filled rooms, and large neon corporations bear down on the dystopian Los Angeles from all angles. If Blade Runner chose to not say anything at all, it could exist solely as a visual work of art that could hold us in wide-eyed wonder, making us nervous to even blink for fear we would miss a tiny detail. Released almost thirty years ago, the film still has some of the most breathtaking effects that I have ever seen (seriously), not aging a day while continuing to maintain their rusty allure. The film has managed to reverberate with a wide ranger of viewers, from intellectuals eager to decipher the deeper code to science fiction fanatics just looking for a spaceships and laser guns spectacle, for its grand approach and bold pairing of two different genres that shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.

Blade Runner ushers us into the dystopian world of Los Angeles in 2019. We meet Rick Deckard (Played by Harrison Ford), a “blade-runner” who hunts down bioengineered beings known as replicants, who are banned on earth and incapable of showing empathy. These replicants are designed to perform tasks that could be dangerous to normal human begins and usually only live about four years. Deckard’s job is to track down and “retire” (kill) the replicants who get loose on earth. While dining on a meal of sushi and noodles one dreary evening, Deckard is detained by officer Gaff (Played by Edward James Olmos) and taken to his former supervisor, Bryant (Played by M. Emmet Walsh), and finds himself forced into taking on one last job. This one last job asks that Deckard track down four replicants who have come to earth to find their designer and are leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. These replicants, Roy Batty (Played by Rutger Hauer), Pris (Played by Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Played by Joanna Cassidy), and Leon (Played by Brion James), are extremely dangerous and capable of blending in with normal human begins. This last job pushes Deckard to the edge and introduces him to Tyrell (Played by Joe Turkel), head of the Tyrell Corporation who produces Nexus 6 replicants, which is what Deckard may be dealing with, and falling for an advanced experimental replicant named Rachael (Played by Sean Young), who believes herself to be human.

In a way, it is not surprising to know that Blade Runner didn’t cause too much of a stir when it was first released in June of 1982. By that time, George Lucas had shown us what could be done with science fiction and special effects with Star Wars. Coming just two short years after The Empire Strikes Back and a year before Return of the Jedi, science fiction gurus were most likely not on the prowl for a much more thoughtful and meditative futuristic thriller. By the early 80’s, it was all about the action and while Blade Runner does have some action (it is sporadic), it doesn’t have enough to satisfy the lust for explosions that a Star Wars fan has. The film was attacked for having a weak storyline and poor pacing, which today seems just downright absurd considering some of the garbage of today that is disinterested in any sort of build up. The first time you see Blade Runner, you will be caught off guard by the slower pace of the film (I was), but Scott clearly understands what he is doing and each step he takes toward the big finish seems like it is a completely necessary one and he refuses stop to give us dizzying flashes and blinding bangs of action. In all the rusted steel, dangling wires, and pulsing lights, Scott gives us a never-ending string of conversations about emotion and memories, making Blade Runner a very intimate and human encounter in a world with shimmering artificial advancement and consumerism.

Ford’s performance as Deckard also adds to the hushed pace of the film, a hushed hero who has been forced into taking on a job he really doesn’t want. He finds himself falling for Rachael, which he grapples with until he cannot resist the urge anymore. He sulks through rain soaked streets atmospherically lit by glowing neon advertisements, pulsing strip clubs, and ominous hotel rooms that belong to fugitives. He is far from the grinning, rip-roaring action hero in Indiana Jones and Star Wars. He is absolutely unforgettable as the drained hard-boiled detective. When the film gets to the final showdown between Deckard and Roy, Deckard is a normal flesh and blood guy getting pummeled rather than a superhero who can keep up an ultra-strong being. There has been some debate over whether Deckard is a replicant but his character wanders a dreary, decaying landscape where nothing seems sincere, where corporations dominate the never-ending steel labyrinth. It seems like his character has numbed to his backdrop, a world that doesn’t require any real feeling at all.

The supporting cast of Blade Runner is also memorable, the best being Hauer’s Roy Batty, who never seems like he is in any big rush. He is a mysterious villain who claims he has seen unforgettable things in his existence and craves an extended life as he stalks Ford’s disoriented Deckard. He is a villain that fights with his words rather than his superhuman strength, which are both terrifying when accompanied by the absolutely flawless lighting scheme and the one-of-a-kind score that allows Blade Runner to take on a life of its own. Also notable are Daryl Hannah as Pris, a leggy replicant who enjoys slinking around like a spider and using her innocence to manipulate her frail prey. She is just as unpredictable and dangerous as Roy. You will also find Young’s Rachael grabbing for your sympathies as she comes to terms with the fact that she is a replicant implanted with someone else’s memories. You feel her longing to be human and her spark when she begins to fall for Deckard. We also get small but equally great performances from William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, a designer who works closely with Turkel’s businessman Tyrell.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Blade Runner is the marvelous lighting that is strung throughout, effective lit to give maximum ambiance. It can be harsh but often ethereal and strangely soothing. The final showdown between Roy and Deckard is without question the best lighting sequence in the entire film, one that finds our characters backlit by beams of white light in a derelict prison of chain link fence, wood, and checkered tile. The climax does swell into a crescendo of run-down beauty, a dazzling mixture of glorious rays of light, moldy darkness, swirling score, and heady ideas of death and memories. For the casual viewer, it may take a few viewings to really allow you to make a final judgment on the film. I myself was a little unsure of how I felt about it on my first viewing but as years pass, I have grown fond of the film’s technical accomplishments, its neo-noir story, and Ford’s controlled performance. A busy work of art that demands we look closer, Blade Runner dares to challenge the viewer and push the boundaries of science fiction, creating something that still feels fresh to this day.

Grade: A+

Blade Runner is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Aliens (1986)

by Steve Habrat

After seeing the slow burner that was Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, you would never in a million years expect the follow up would be a breakneck action-thriller that refuses to let up. James Cameron’s Aliens is just that breakneck action-thriller, one that flaunts grand industrial style, chest-bursting thrills, and enough explosions that would make Michael Bay envious. Taking the world that was briefly seen in Alien, Cameron cleverly elaborates on Scott’s vision and delivers a world full of corrupt corporations, billowing doom, sleeveless masculinity, and hair-raising maternal protection (Both Ripley and the Queen!), all while strapping us in and sending us on a stomach dropping roller-coaster ride. Watch out, because you may get splashed with acidic alien blood! The true beauty of Aliens lies in the fact that, while most sequels resort to over-explaining everything, Cameron doesn’t explain, he just expertly expands the scope to give us a bit more breathing room.

Aliens begins with the rescue of Ellen Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), who is the only survivor of a horrific alien attack that left the rest of the crew of the space freighter Nostromo dead. Ripley goes before the board of her employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and explains what attacked the Nostromo crew. Her story is dismissed and as a result, she looses her space-flight license. To her horror, she learns that the planetoid that housed the strange ship and alien eggs is now home to a terraforming colony. After contact is lost with the colony, Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke (Played by Paul Reiser) and Lieutenant Gorman (Played by William Hope) approach Ripley about accompanying a unit of marines to investigate what has happened to the colonists. They tell her that if she agrees to accompany the marines and act as a consultant, they will allow her to have her flight license back. After finding the colony abandoned, the marines begin to search a nuclear-powered atmosphere processing station, where they believe the colonists are taking refuge. As their investigation continues, the marines begin making horrific discoveries within the station and soon find themselves getting attacked by seemingly endless hordes of bloodthirsty aliens.

Unlike Scott’s 1979 film, Cameron’s film isn’t as sly with its intellectual undertones and it quickly calls attention to aspects that should have been left to us to figure out. Aliens makes it very clear that the film is interested in ideas about motherhood and protection of a mother’s young. Ripley has to assume the role of mother and protector to a young girl who calls herself Newt (Played by Carrie Henn). I wish Cameron wouldn’t have thrown this aspect of Aliens in our face but sadly, he does. Early on, Newt begins calling Ripley mother and the two share an emotional scene where Ripley talks about a daughter she lost and then instantly claims Newt as her new daughter. Cameron also calls quite a bit of attention to the gender roles within the film, mostly playing with the idea of the tough guy marine who is all talk when nothing is happening but is revealed to be a coward when things get nice and violent. It is especially apparent in Hudson (Played by Bill Paxton), a mouthy marine who likes to talk big but is revealed to be a coward when attacked by the aliens. His character does begin to come around near the end, but he remains far from the hard ass he portrayed when we first meet him.

Cameron’s Aliens benefits from strong acting, mostly from Weaver, who ended up with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in this film. While Ripley doesn’t really reveal too much new about herself, her descent into protector is undeniably compelling. She is the toughest of all the flexing bad-asses around her. Her end confrontation with the Queen alien has to rank as one of the best movie showdowns of all time. She also gets one of the best one liners that science fiction has to offer: “Get away from her, you BITCH!” She is still the teeth-gritting feminist hero that she became in Scott’s Alien and here, she comes equipped with a bigger gun and flamethrower. While Ripley is all business 90% of the time, her quieter moments really resonated with me, especially when her eyes show a brief flash of a broken heart, one that I have to assume has made her the tough gal that she is.

As far as everyone else is concerned, Reiser is perfectly slimy as the corrupt Weyland-Yutani representative who has little regard for the human life around him. Michael Biehn punches in a perfectly measured macho role as Corporal Dwayne Hicks, who growls all of his dialogue but does reveal moments of vulnerability. I have to say that next to Ripley, Hicks has to be my other favorite character in Aliens. The young Henn wins us over as the adorable Newt, who salutes Hicks when he gives orders and quickly clings to Ripley. Lance Henrikson shows up as the android executive officer Bishop who has a hard time earning Ripley’s trust. Jenette Goldstein is another tough cookie as “smart gun” operator Private Jenette Vasquez, who shows just as much strength as Ripley. Paxton’s Hudson is the only character that I find slightly irritating and the one who gets the some of the worst dialogue in the film.

Aliens turns out to posses a large amount of the tension that made Alien such an prickly experience but it happens to be woven into white-knuckle action scenes. However, I wouldn’t be quick to call Aliens a horror movie, as there is more of an emphasis on action rather than scares. For all its palpable moments, Cameron still serves up a lean storyline that locks us in its icy grip for all two and a half hours. Cameron also offers up some heart-stopping sequences that are classic cinema moments as far as I’m concerned. I absolutely love the final fifteen minutes of the beastly thrill ride. I also have to say I am a fan of the marine’s first encounter with the aliens (shown through grainy camera footage shot by one of the marines) and a scene in which Ripley, Hudson, Hicks, Burke, Vasquez, and Newt await a slew of chomping aliens to attack will have your stomach doing somersaults. The downside to all of this is the fact that Aliens just isn’t as bright as Scott’s Alien, but you will be willing to forgive because Cameron does try his best to make this an intellectually rewarding experience in its own way. Practicing some remarkable discipline in the action department while also giving us exactly what we want, Cameron’s Aliens smartly builds upon Scott’s classic while leaving its own fingerprint on the Alien franchise.

Grade: A

Aliens is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Alien (1979)

by Steve Habrat

Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien is a film that truly understands how showing very little can scare us beyond belief. Taking place aboard the claustrophobic spaceship Nostromo, Scott terrorizes his audience by leaving basically no place for the crew to run, no place to barricade themselves in to wait out the sudden attacks by this slimy creature, and no weapon that can banish the beast to the fiery depths of Hell. While on the outside Scott has made a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow hallways and futuristic gunmetal wires, it is what Scott is doing on the inside that really gets under the viewers skin. Scott has made a film in which he reverses the sexual roles within the film. We don’t have some macho male hero to root for in Alien, one who resembles a bodybuilder with a buzz cut. Instead we have Sigourney Weaver’s feminist hero Ripley, a tough and stone-faced chick who finds herself being the last one standing against a goopy phallic creature that burst forth from a man’s chest.

Alien follows the crew aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, who are currently hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to good old Earth. The crew soon discovers what they believe to be a distress call from a nearby planetoid, causing them to take a detour to check out what exactly is the signal is. When they land on the craggy, windy, and gloomy planetoid, Captain Dallas (Played by Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (Played by John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Played by Veronica Cartwright) discover a strange ship that contains several bizarre eggs. One egg breaks open and the organism inside attaches to the face of Kane. On board the Nostromo, Warrant Officer Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Played by Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Played by Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Played by Yaphet Kotto) fear allowing Kane back on the ship, but Ash is excited about the discover of this new alien life form. As they begin attempting to dissect the organism, they realize they are dealing with something extremely dangerous. Without warning, a new life form bursts from Kane’s chest, fleeing into the ship and rapidly growing to a gigantic size. As the crew is bumped off one by one by the hungry creature, they have to quickly figure out how to get this bloodthirsty alien off their ship and make it home alive.

Perhaps my favorite trait that Alien possesses is the way Scott blends the alien in with the Nostromo itself. I always found it so eerie the way the alien would suddenly pop out, having been in plain sight but we the viewer oblivious to the fact that it was right in front of us. It gives Alien the feel that this twisting labyrinth of a ship is coming alive and claiming victims one by one. My two favorite sequences have to be when Captain Dallas faces the alien in a tight space, the alien’s arms shooting out of the darkness but appearing almost like a tangle of wires and hardware until we see its gaping jaw as it goes in for a penetrating kill. My other favorite scene is when Ripley is in the escape pod in the final minutes of the film, the alien crouched in the fetal position inside a darkened crevice. The creature’s phallic head resembling part of the ship until it suddenly moves and roars at Ripley. Talk about a neat effect!

The alien itself, conceived by artist H.R. Giger, ranks as one of the most iconic movie monsters in the long history of the genre. Show a picture of it to anyone and they can instantly identify what the creature is. The beast, which is kept mostly in the shadows throughout Alien, is a true marvel, one that is a skin crawling vision while also having a faint phallic look to it. The creature grows more horrifying with each small reveal that Scott places strategically throughout the runtime of Alien, revealing the entire beast at the climax but blasting it with strobe lights, a blue glow, and blurred camera angles to keep some layer of mystery to it. Scott doesn’t simply use the alien to scare us, but applies it as a thought provoking monster that is used to make comments on the male fear of childbirth (as a baby, it is flesh colored and vaguely erect, burst forth in a shower of gore fro Kane’s chest) and used to make a comment on the battle between the sexes. At the end, the empowered Ripley strips down to just her underwear and an ill fitting t-shirt as the phallic alien, with a stinger that resembles an erect penis shooting from its mouth, bears down on her. It’s a classic sequence that is both memorable for its events and the underlying subject matter, suggesting attempted rape and penetration.

Any discussion of Alien would not be complete without praising the work of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the empowered, no nonsense heroine who finds herself being the last woman standing in the battle between the crew and the alien. She is unrepressed and liberated, finding herself in charge of the ship in the wake of the deaths of the two men who ranked above her. Yet even from the first time she is introduced to us, she overshadows the men, all who seem slightly weak and unable to protect themselves from this monster bearing down on them. One male victim just stares in horror and disbelief as it shoots its erect stinger out of its mouth at the wide-eyed pile of flesh. Yet Ripley never falls apart, instead owning every scene she is in, even when she is placed next to Cartwright’s Lambert, who is reduced to shrieks and tears when the alien closes in. She is one tough broad and she is proud of it. Looking at the time in which Alien was made, released in 1979, right in the midst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ripley stands for tough and uncompromising feminism, looking this phallic monstrosity in the face and refusing to back down from it. She was a far throw from the female cliché that ran rampant in mainstream horror films at the time, the ones who ran away from the monster, the caricatures that Lambert appears to represent.

Alien is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking exercise in horror. It is an industrial mash-up of futuristic science fiction and dramatic slasher horror. Much has been made about the sexual undertones, many critics pointing out male fear of rape and penetration, the most recognizable being the fear of childbirth with the show stopping chest burst sequence, a scene that is glaringly obvious. Each and every scene has an epic gusto that tears right through it, yet each scene works in synch with the next, culminating in a strobe-like burst of seething feminism. The cut-off feeling, soggy claustrophobia, and lack of a thorough explanation of the alien all make Alien a classic among the science-fiction horror genre. Alien ultimately turns out to be B-movie material approached with an A-list touch and an extreme confidence in itself. This is an intelligent must-see horror masterpiece from the heyday of the genre.

Grade: A-

Alien is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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