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.
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.
Aliens is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Galaxy of Terror (1981)
by Steve Habrat
You’d think that a film that has Robert Englund, Sid Haig, and Erin Moran starring in it would be this stuff that cult movie dreams are made of. Well, then you need to see the atrocious 1981 Alien rip-off Galaxy of Terror, a Z-grade lemon from legendary producer Roger Corman, the man who churned out countless cult movie classics. Galaxy of Terror, or Mind Warp, as it is sometimes called, is a trippy glow-in-the-dark poser that scrambles the viewer’s brain with vague dialogue, musty storyline, rickety sets, and bland acting. The three things that Galaxy of Terror has going for it is some fairly decent gore for those who are simply looking for that, Tron-like lighting, and a scene in which a gigantic maggot rapes a curvy blonde. Yes, you read that correctly, a rape scene actually acts as a highlight moment for this piece of junk. I was pretty surprised too when the film ended and I found THAT one of the most interesting aspects of the whole experience.
Galaxy of Terror follows a group of space explorers who are sent to the desolate planet of Morganthus to locate another space crew who have all been killed by a mysterious unseen force. The newly landed crew consists of the troubled Captain Trantor (Played by Grace Zabriskie), Commander Ilvar (Played by Bernard Behrens), empath Alluma (Played by Erin Moran), cocky team leader Baelon (Played by Zalman King), the ship’s cook Kore (Played by Ray Walston), the wise space veteran Cabren (Played by Edward Albert), the ship’s technical officer Dameia (Played by Taaffe O’Connell), crewmember Ranger (Played by Robert Englund), and crystal thrower Quuhod (Played by Sid Haig). When the crew arrives, they discover a strange pyramid and slimy alien creatures that begin attack them one by one. Soon, they realize that the aliens are not the only things that they need to fear on this strange planet.
First, lets discuss the rotten aspects of Galaxy of Terror. Director Bruce D. Clark realizes there isn’t much meat to his storyline, a problem that he covers up with colorful lighting, special effects, forced depth from his characters, and lots of gruesome violence. He also doesn’t offer up anything in the way of likeable characters, allowing none of them to fully develop so we start rooting for them. All of the crew members walk around sulking and complaining about shaky events in their past, but it is all so hazily illustrated that you will find yourself not caring in the slightest. Half way through the film, Clark also sloppily establishes that Cabren is going to be the main protagonist. Everyone else that consists of the space crew is there simply to die in some off beat way; the most outrageous is the maggot rape, which just acts as an excuse for Clark to show off O’Connell’s body.
As far as the good aspects are concerned, it’s basically everything that Clark used to cover up his weak storyline. The film contains several scenes that will drive the gore audiences wild. There is death by constricting wires, an alien ripping one crew members stomach open with its claws, that certain rape scene, and more. I will say that the filmmakers did a good job with all of these effects; obviously more care was put into the gross stuff rather than anything truly substantial. The filmmakers also effectively light the sets, which are clearly cheap in their construction, making the planet itself fairly unsettling and surprisingly expansive. The film also benefits from having a few neat monsters lurking about, even if they are uninspired. These monsters are wisely kept largely in the dark or lit in extreme reds or blues, but it is anyone’s guess if they did that purposely because they’d be creepier or if they are really that cheap. Another layer of gross is added to the monsters by Clark’s use of nasty sound effects which accompany their icky attacks.
As far as twisty science fiction horror is concerned, you can do a hell of a lot better than Galaxy of Terror. The only other real reason to see this film is to see a familiar name in the opening credits department. That name would be James Cameron, director of such little films like Avatar and Titanic. Here, he is listed as Production Designer and Second Unit Director. It has been said that he was the one who designed the maggoty severed arm and designed it so the fake maggots would slither around the arm. There have been stories passed around about how Roger Corman used to make bets about how quickly he could shoot a film, the shortest being two days and one night, a rumor that seems to confirm the idea that Corman really didn’t care about the quality of the products he was producing. I could very easily see Galaxy of Terror being a film that was shot quickly, with no real artistic vision or care poured into the craft. Fun only as a did-you-know experience, make Galaxy of Terror a double feature with Alien and make sure Galaxy of Terror is played first. That way, Alien will make up for how letdown you are in Galaxy of Terror.
Galaxy of Terror is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Thing (1982)
by Steve Habrat
Around Halloween, if one was unsure what horror film or films to make the hairs on their arm stand at attention, you can find many in the John Carpenter department. In 1978, Carpenter crafted the classic serial killer flick with Halloween, which spawned several god-awful imitations and limp sequels. In 1980, he spooked us with his campfire ghost tale The Fog, a favorite of mine come Halloween with its disfigured ghost zombies and its ominous atmosphere. In 1982, he delivered The Thing, a heart pounding science fiction horror film that features some truly hideous make-up and puppet effects that have yet to be topped. They fill us to the brink with pure fear and it has one of the most memorable heroes aside from Ripley in Alien: MacReady. Carpenter heavily relies on atmosphere in his horror films, making the environment just as much of a character as Laurie Strode, Stevie Wayne, and MacReady. Whether it’s the stillness of Haddonfield, the looming evil in the small town of Antonio Bay, or the howling winds and whipping snow in Antarctica, these films could scare you without their otherworldly monsters lurking in the shadows. The Thing makes the best use of environment, making the bone freezing chill in the air just as deadly as the enigmatic alien copying it’s prey and becoming almost indistinguishable copies of the paranoid researchers who are slowly turning on each other.
I still believe that Halloween is Carpenter’s masterpiece, the ultimate slasher flick and also one of his most thought provoking films. The Thing, however, is an exercise in how to scare the living hell out of an innocent viewer. From the start, this film is disorienting, gloomy, and isolated, lacking even the slightest bit of hope that help could swoop in at any given moment and save the group of scientists. The way the film springs it’s infected antagonists on the viewer makes every frame an unpredictable nightmare and cloaks us in mistrust. But what really puts The Thing in another world completely is the jaw dropping make-up and puppets that leap out at us and make our skin crawl off the bone and hide under the couch we sit on to watch it. There is some disturbing imagery in this film, steeped more in gore than Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter has a way with monsters and I wish he would grace the silver screen again with another horror film. We need another reason to be afraid of the dark.
Set in the secluded Arctic, a group of American researchers witness a bizarre event when a Norwegian helicopter shows up on the premises tracking a fleeing dog. The helicopter has a sniper on board firing at the dog, desperately trying to kill it. After a freak accident, the helicopter crashes in the American outpost, leaving one American wounded by a stray bullet. Pilot R.J. MacReady (Played by the ultimate cinematic badass Kurt Russell) and Dr. Blair (Played by Wilford Brimley) venture out to find the Norwegian research camp, only to find the camp in ruin and all the foreign researchers dead. The evidence at the foreign camp hints at the discovery of extraterrestrial life, a deadly organism that copies it’s prey and imitates them. After returning to the American outpost with a charred alien body, paranoia grips the group with the researchers turning on each other. After a string of horrifying discoveries and the alien showing it’s repugnant face, the group finds themselves trying to protect themselves from the alien and each other.
Isolation is key in any great horror film, a touch that shakes the viewer up and fries the nerves. There is no hope in this story and things will end badly. THAT is what scares most people. Look at Night of the Living Dead, a film that boasts a remote setting and the threat that no one will help the desperate survivors locked in that iconic farmhouse. I’d compare The Thing to Night of the Living Dead in that regard, along with its jumpy Cold War paranoia. Furthermore, the uninfected men are just as dangerous as the ones who are being mimicked. The isolation, however, is what really makes this film a keeper. Carpenter really gets under our skin by driving the point home that these men are alone. Every time they venture out into the cold and snow, there is an unsettling dread that washes over us. And what if one gets trapped outside? The conditions outside are just as deadly as the ones lurking in the hallways and rec rooms. Carpenter hits us with two monsters, a natural one and an alien one. As their numbers slowly trickle down, you may start to consider getting up and hitting the pause button just to have a moment to calm yourself down.
There are two other reasons The Thing is a horror masterwork even though it was a bomb upon its initial release. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is a classic movie hero and the monster effects that are downright staggering. You can always count on Russell to be an ultimate hardass in any movie that announces his presence. The man is Snake Plissken! Yet I like MacReady for his resourcefulness and his bursts of sarcasm. He will always be standing proud in my mind, armed with dynamite and a flamethrower, looking the roaring beast in the face and after the roaring ends and the growls begin, dryly yelling “Yeah?! Well fuck you too!” and sending a lit stick of dynamite right at the alien. His reassured buoyancy in himself that he is not infected is also positively noted by this movie fan and this lets him sit securely on the great protagonists list. His antagonist is also beyond belief, a true beast from Hell that looks like Satan himself created it. Making awful howling noises and gurgling growls, severed heads sprout legs and walk off, stomachs open up and rip off arms, heads split open and turn into fang riddled jaws, and dogs grow tentacles and morph into towering juggernauts. Some of it really has to be seen to get a good mental image. It’s that rare film where the more you see; the more it leaves you looking like a heap of shivering jelly. It keeps topping itself, only finding competition with that other legendary extraterrestrial horror in Alien.
A nice break from the ghoulies, ghosts, classic movie monsters, zombies, vampires, and slashers, The Thing is a good Halloween freak out. It’s twisting halls forebodingly lit, it’s monsters constantly up to the challenge to leap out and genuinely scare the life out of you, and with a final showdown that only Carpenter himself could pull off, there is a reason this film has evolved into a massive fan favorite in the horror genre. More horror than actual science fiction, The Thing is perfect for Halloween simply because, much like the Halloween season, it’s dependent on the atmosphere. Lacking a clear explanation about the beast (Jason Zinoman would be proud!) and shrouded in mystery, The Thing is a modern classic in monster horror, coming from the studio that knows monsters—Universal Studios. The Thing is a flawless achievement featuring one of the greatest one-liners in movie history. Grade: A