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Posts Tagged ‘Ridley Scott’

I’m aware that these little pieces which aspire to inform and educate about films can be a little on the long-winded side. It’s unusual for one of them to come in at less than eight hundred words, and most of them are over a thousand. Is all this verbiage strictly necessary to get my views across? Frankly, I’m not sure: I was at the pictures just today, and as the closing credits started to roll, my companion turned to look at me, and expressed his opinion eloquently and passionately using just one single monosyllabic word of Germanic derivation. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck; but on the other hand there’s also the fact that I have many empty hours to contend with and writing single-word film reviews wouldn’t do much to fill the time.

Anyway, the film which moved my friend to such a model of forthright concision was Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, which I think you’ll agree sounds jolly portentous. What dark deal has been struck, and how does it relate to H.R. Giger’s famous acid-blooded extraterrestrial killing machine? Well, um, er. The film has the portentous subtitle Covenant because it’s about a spaceship called the Covenant. Why is the spaceship called Covenant? Because the film needs a portentous subtitle and Alien: Saucy Sue or Alien: Spaceshippy McSpaceshipface just wouldn’t cut it. If this at all gives you the impression that the Alien franchise is showing signs of vanishing up one of its own glistening, biomechanical orifices, well, I commend you for your perspicacity, readers.

Scott’s last visit to this series, 2012’s Prometheus, enjoyed one of the most inescapable advertising campaigns I can remember and was generally hated by people expecting an Alien movie which had, you know, the actual alien in it. Things have been marginally more restrained publicity-wise this time around and it seems to me that a definite effort has been made to keep the fanbase on-side. Certainly the opening movements of the plot mimic those of the original 1979 film very closely: partway through a long-haul deep-space mission, the crew of the spaceship Covenant find themselves unexpectedly awakened, and detect a mysterious signal coming from a nearby planet. The captain (Billy Crudup) decides that they will go and take a look, much to the unease of his second in command (Katherine Waterston). The ship’s android (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion either way.

On arrival on the planet’s surface, the crew are presented with various mysteries, the primary one being a huge, horseshoe-shaped alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, one of the expedition is exposed to an alien life-form which uses his own flesh to gestate a vicious, lethal creature which puts everyone’s lives in danger…

Well, it’s not quite the play-by-play knock-off that I’m probably making it sound like – the relationships between the crew are different, not to mention their characters – Captain Oram is plagued by self-doubt and takes himself just a bit too seriously, for instance. But we are in rather familiar territory, and if you’ve seen the earlier movies you will certainly know the tune even if some of the words have been tweaked.

However, things go off in a new and slightly unexpected direction as the crew of the Covenant encounter David (Fassbender again), another android and apparently the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission, ten years earlier (in case you’re wondering, his body seems to have grown back since the last movie: this is handwaved away rather). The newcomers accept his offer of shelter against the perils of the planet’s ecosystem, but are startled when he takes them to an ancient ruined city built by alien humanoids. What happened to the planet’s original inhabitants? And exactly how has David been passing his time for the last ten years…?

One of the things we discussed while waiting for the movie to start were the similarities and differences between the Alien series and the stellar conflict franchise currently owned by the Disney corporation. Both started in the late 1970s, have dedicated fanbases, have provided many iconic screen moments, and have indulged in some dubious prequelising; you could argue that both ultimately owe an enormous debt to Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune movie. And, I would argue, both of them trade enormously on the reputation and quality of their initial couple of films: personally I didn’t find any of the stellar conflict movies completely satisfying between 1980 and last year (your mileage may differ, obviously), and while everyone seems to like Alien and Aliens, the other films in the franchise are much less loved (and a couple of them have apparently been stricken from the canon). The question in the case of the Alien series is quite simple: what new things can you find for this particular monster to do? Audiences, I suspect, just want more of the same experiences that they had during those two films.

When I eventually prevailed upon my companion to unpack his thoughts on the film a little, he complained that the new film wasn’t ever actually scary or particularly thrilling, and that all the most memorable and interesting bits should have gone into the Blade Runner sequel instead. He couldn’t understand why Ridley Scott had bothered to return to the Alien franchise if (as seemed the case) he had nothing new to bring to it, and even muttered darkly about the director going senile (note to Mr Scott’s lawyers: please don’t sue).

Well, my expectations were lower, I expect, because while I wasn’t tremendously impressed with Covenant, I found it fairly enjoyable for most of its running time. In many ways it’s much more of a direct sequel to Prometheus than I expected. One of the little commented-upon consequences of Prometheus’ release was Guillermo del Toro abandoning his long-cherished desire to film Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, on the grounds that the plot and atmosphere would be just too similar – and the Lovecraftian overtones carry on into Covenant to some extent, with the action taking place in and around cyclopean alien citadels, with terrible secrets of a hostile, impersonal universe coming to light.

That said, they are careful to put some proper aliens into this one, including at least one interesting new variation on the classic beastie. The notion of a whole alien-influenced ecosystem is a fascinating one, but unfortunately not much gone into. The same can really be said for some of the film’s ideas about human teleology and ontology: there are scenes which set up this film as having some grand philosophical ground to cover, but in the end it just devolves into highly familiar running and screaming and shouting. It looks fabulous throughout, and Fassbender gives a brilliant double performance – through the magic of digital effects he gets to do all manner of things to and with himself, and the realisation of this is flawless.

However, this kind of leads us to the stuff about Covenant which I didn’t like, and this is a not inconsiderable matter. If the film-makers want to rewrite the ‘rules’ of the series, that’s their prerogative – the alien life cycle, which used to operate over a period of hours, if not days, is here compressed to a matter of minutes or seconds – but no amount of authorial wriggling can remove the problem that the plot of this movie is built around a reversal that simply doesn’t make sense, in terms of how it’s presented on screen at least. You can also argue that a key plot twist is extremely guessable. I liked much of Alien: Covenant enough to indulge it for most of its running time, but together these things conspired to kick me out of the movie for its final segment.

The film concludes with a relatively short concluding section which seems, again, designed to resonate and chime with fans of the first couple of movies. I suppose it works on some level, but it – along with much of the ‘traditional’ Alien-themed material – almost feels like a contractual obligation in a film which is perhaps at its best tackling the same kind of grand philosophical concepts as Prometheus.

The problem is that Prometheus arguably failed, as an Alien sequel at least. The job of this kind of sequel is essentially to remind you of what a good time you had watching the original film, by restaging it in a slightly modified form. Innovation in a sequel is always a risky proposition and one best done very sparingly. Alien: Covenant works hard to include all the key scenes, concepts, and tropes you might expect from a film in this series, and if the result is something that feels like a karaoke version of one of the original films, with a slightly odd new arrangement of the melody, then I expect that will do the producers very nicely and allow the franchise to trundle on for a good while yet. But the fact remains that, although good-looking and often well-acted, Alien: Covenant is just too incoherent and slavishly derivative a movie to give the audience the same delighted sense of intertwined novelty and familiarity provided by the last stellar conflict prequel. In space, no-one can hear you scream – but in a movie theatre, you can certainly hear the person next to you grumble, and with pretty good reason in this case.

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Rather unexpectedly, we seem to have found ourselves in the middle of an Officially Recognised Golden Age of Space Movies (if only there was a convenient way of referring to it suitable for a family readership). Even NASA seem to have cottoned on to this, timing their recent press announcement of the discovery of salt water on Mars to coincide with a peak of media interest in the red planet – mostly courtesy of Ridley Scott and his chums, whose new movie The Martian is hitting screens even as I type.

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Ridley Scott’s track record when it comes to SF movies is… well, let’s just say I’m less of a fan of them than many people, but even so they are invariably never less than interesting to watch, and I’ve been a bit of a sucker for hard SF about Mars since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Trois Coleurs trilogy many years ago. And one should always make the best of a golden age of anything while it lasts.

Based on Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian opens with an American mission already in situ, commanded by Jessica Chastain and featuring a number of moderately well-known faces (Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, that sort of people) amongst the crew. Inclement Martian weather (i.e. a colossally violent sandstorm) forces an early evacuation of their outpost, but in the chaos mission botanist Matt Damon is struck by flying debris. With all contact lost, Chastain is forced to leave without him, believing him dead.

However – spoiler alert – Matt Damon is not dead, just resting, and accepts that he is effectively Home Alone on Mars with good grace, once he has finished stapling himself back together. A spot of DIY hydroponics provides him with a food supply of sorts, but the fact remains: NASA and the folks back on Earth remain blissfully unaware of his survival, and it’s a long walk home…

Well, it’s an unfortunate fact that Matt Damon’s service record when it comes to long-haul one-man deep space missions is not entirely unblemished, even when Jessica Chastain is involved, but even so, this is the kind of movie which leads sensible people to say things like ‘It’s hard to imagine Matt Damon making a bad film’ (Stuck on You and The Brothers Grimm clearly don’t linger long in the memory). The Martian may rest very comfortably in the same subgenre as Gravity and Interstellar, but I suspect it’s a more certain crowdpleaser than either of those.

This is despite the fact that, on some levels, it is actually a deeply nerdy film. Large sections of the plot revolve around fairly abstruse problems of hydroponics, astrodynamics, engineering and maths – the film seems to be trying as hard as it possibly can to get the science as right as the expectations of a major Hollywood movie will allow. (That said, there is a considerable amount of licence employed, particularly in the closing scenes, where the twelve-minute lag in communication between Earth and Mars is fudged for dramatic effect.)

Despite all this, it remains an extremely likeable and accessible film. This is largely due to the presence of the always-engaging Damon in the central role (he does, after all, have to carry lengthy sections of the film unaccompanied), but also the result of a script which works extremely hard to put a human face on the story. On one level this works simply as an adventure story about the power of human ingenuity and the will to survive, and it’s a good one: it’s really rather refreshing to find a film with such an upbeat view of humanity, without a single really unsympathetic character, especially when it works so well as a story. The film-makers work hard to fill the movie with little moments of lightness and humour, many of them arising from an unexpectedly eclectic soundtrack, including performers like Abba, Hot Chocolate, and David Bowie (not even the song you might be expecting, either). A strong supporting cast including the likes of Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who I note has ascended to the point where he qualifies for the ‘and’ position in the credits) helps a lot, of course.

Even as I was watching the film, and thoroughly enjoying it, I couldn’t help but find myself reflecting on the fact that the more science you put into a movie, the more certain it is that you’ll make tiny slips or compromises in the service of the story, and the more criticism you’re inevitably going to draw from the very same nerdy audience you were trying to satisfy in the first place. Both Gravity and Interstellar drew more of this kind of nitpicking than they really deserved, and I don’t doubt that some of The Martian‘s more striking plot twists will be savaged in the same way.

Oh well, there’s no pleasing some people. Speaking for myself, I found The Martian to be much more enjoyable than I would ever have expected a Ridley Scott-directed SF movie to be. The film is immaculately realised and – in terms of its setting – thoroughly plausible, but, more importantly, Scott seems wholly focused on simply telling the story, rather than dwelling on landscapes and set dressing. I might even go so far to say that this is challenging the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven as my favourite Scott movie.

As I said, The Martian sets out to be a number of things – a convincing piece of hard SF, a full-blooded adventure story, and a character study in human resilience, to name but three. Does it succeed perfectly at all of these things? No, not really – but it comes close enough to be considered a terrific achievement as a piece of film-making. It is sure to be lumped in with Gravity and Interstellar when people talk about this type of movie – but for once, the comparison is entirely justified. This is a seriously good, seriously entertaining film.

 

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I turned up to see Ridley Scott’s new-style biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings in keen expectation of an energetically bad movie. As chance would have it, I happened to see it at the Blackpool branch of Odeon. This will be my final visit to this particular cinema, and I must confess the occasion was not without a degree of emotion – I have been watching films there for over fifteen years, on and off, and the place did play a small but significant role in keeping me sane during what I suppose I should call my wilderness years. Not having been there for a while, I was somewhat dismayed to find the cinema showing every sign of struggling – no sign of a ticket desk at all, with punters obliged to use the concessions counter, tickets themselves going for insanely low prices, and no allocated seating either. I was saddened, to be honest.

The first film I saw there was Payback, starring Mel Gibson back when he was acceptable, and Exodus is if nothing else rather better than that. Although, to be honest, my enjoyment of the film was given a unexpected spin by the fact I’d unwittingly turned up to a subtitled showing. The subtitling was rather zealously done, with every vocalisation from every performer painstakingly committed to the screen – a lot of (sigh), (exhale), (incoherent scream), and so on. As a result of this I can be very certain when I tell you that the defining sound of Exodus is ‘indistinct shouting’.

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Based on the book of the same name by some guys in Babylon, this is the stirring tale of stuff going on in ancient Egypt and the surrounding area. Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro in a brave choice of hat) is in charge, though he does a lot of delegating to his son Ramses (Joel Edgerton, sadly looking not unlike Ricky Gervais in drag) and adopted son Moses (Christian Bale, looking not unlike Christian Bale with a beard). Seti secretly thinks Moses is a safer bet as a future leader, partly because the self-regarding Ramses spends much of his spare time stroking his python, but this is not to be. Especially not when Moses discovers his secret heritage as a member of the Hebrew slave underclass.

A life-long atheist, Moses isn’t interested, but when Ramses ascends the throne it forms a good enough pretext for the new boss to have Moses exiled. Moses does not seem to take this very personally and trades in being a top Egyptian court official and general for shepherding and being a loving family man. However, one day he receives a bang on the head and finds himself confronted with the vision of a burning bush and a surly ten-year-old boy (Issac Andrews), who is actually God. God tells Moses to go and get the Hebrews out of Egypt toot-sweet, and – not without a degree of justified grumbling – Moses heads off to get on with the job…

Well, I will be astounded if Exodus wins any major awards, but I did not find it to be quite the artistic failure or absurd fiasco some of the reviews I’ve seen suggested. Then again, I am the kind of person for whom the word ‘absurd’ does not necessarily carry wholly negative connotations, and parts of this movie are definitely absurd. We are spared the climactic sword-fight between Moses and Pharaoh on the bed of the Red Sea, though it’s a close thing, but one of the final scenes of the film is set in a cave up Mount Sinai, with Moses hard at work with hammer and chisel on some stone tablets, God fixing the pair of them some drinks, and the duo idly bickering about the Ten Commandments. If that’s not the most ridiculous scene to appear in a serious film this year, I don’t know what is.

It’s certainly an odd choice for a film which must, on some level, have hoped to tap into a religiously-motivated audience for some of its ticket sales. Then again, there are plenty of others – the film is specifically dated to 1300 BCE, not BC, and there’s a half-hearted attempt at providing a rational explanation for all the apparently miraculous events that occur. As I mentioned, Moses gets a crack on the head before his first meeting with God, and even he admits he sounds like a delusional person. Ewen Bremner comes on as a Scottish-Egyptian clever-clogs who explains the Plagues as a quasi-scientifically based series of events.

To be honest the whole Plagues sequence is the closest the film comes to toppling over into Monty Python silliness, although it also includes some fun CGI crocodiles and frogs: the various Egyptian characters initially react with annoyance and exasperation rather than anything more serious, at least until God sends in the Angel of Death to slay all the first-born. This is a rather effective and well-mounted sequence.

On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly present God in the most flattering light: the Almighty comes across as rather petulant and unpredictably bad-tempered. Having packed Moses off to lead the Hebrews in their struggle for freedom, He then turns up to give our hero a rollocking for taking too long about it. ‘They’ve been slaves here for 400 years! Why are you in such a hurry now?’ cries Moses paraphrastically. ‘Just am,’ sniffs God, and brings on the CGI carnage.

Oh well. I suppose you shouldn’t expect very much more from a film which presents the revelation of Moses’ Hebrew roots as some sort of unexpected plot twist – it often seems to have little idea who its target audience is, or indeed what it’s fundamentally about. Is it about the relationship between the heroic Moses and the resentful, lesser Ramses, two men who grew up together but forced into conflict? (Shades of Ben-Hur – not to mention Gladiator, in places.) Is it about Moses coming to terms with being a Hebrew? Or is it about an atheist who finds himself forced into faith? The film plays with all of these things and more, but usually just settles for another show-stopping CGI sequence.

This being a Ridley Scott film, of course, he at least gives good epic – Scott throws in a pretty big battle just to get things warmed up, and never spares the spectacle. I know that in the past I’ve criticised him for being much more interested in arty, beautiful visuals than in actually telling a coherent story, but he keeps everything under control here, and events – while frequently a bit bonkers – are always easy to follow.

There is a lot to enjoy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, provided you don’t take any of it too seriously and are prepared to engage with the film on its own terms. It’s never dull and it always looks good, even bits of it are silly, it squanders some of its most capable cast members, and it doesn’t seem to really have much idea of what it’s actually supposed to be about. Whatever it is, it’s vague, and rather loud: indistinct shouting, indeed.

 

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Under a spreading chestnut tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

Except when he’s played by Orlando Bloom, in which case none of the foregoing really applies (there isn’t even much of a chestnut tree near the smithy). But such is the situation at the start of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a 2005 movie dipping its toe in the treacherous waters of medieval history, in particular, the Crusades.

Landy plays Balian, a soldier-turned-blacksmith somewhere rustic in France. Following the death of his wife and child he is struggling to find a reason to live, but one arrives in the imposing form of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a baron of the Crusader Kingdom of Palestine.  Surely no-one would describe Landy as a little bastard, but it turns out that’s just what he is, and Godfrey wants to make peace with his illegitimate son and indeed make him his heir too. Balian is initially resistant, but realises that fighting in the Holy Land could grant absolution not just of his own sins, but the ones which have consigned his wife’s soul to Hell.

However, on finally arriving in Jerusalem – this takes a rather long time, involving many appearances by the staples of Ridley Scott movies, i.e. beautiful shots of landscapes and brutal gory violence – Balian discovers a kingdom in peril. The truce with the Saracens will only endure as long as the King (Ed Norton) lives, and unfortunately he’s come down with a severe case of leprosy. Fanatical elements at court are pressing for Holy War against the unbelievers. Balian finds himself sucked into the power politics of the court, not least because he gets involved with the King’s married sister (Eva Green). Sooner or later Landy’s going to have to break out the chain-mail…

Well, I saw Kingdom of Heaven on its theatrical release, thought it was, mmm, okay, for a long time would probably have expressed no desire to experience (‘sit through’) it again. So why go back to it now? First off, as is his slightly tedious wont, Sir Ridley has revisited the movie and produced a director’s cut: and this has received universally glowing notices as a vast improvement on the original. Secondly, I recently digested (‘ploughed through’) Simon Sebag Montefiore’s whopping, superlative book on the history of Jerusalem, which includes a fairly detailed section on the events which this movie purports to retell. So I was interested to see if the director’s cut was any good, and if the history was remotely accurate.

The answer to the first is that it certainly is, if you like your epic widescreen historical action dramas, and the answer to the second is that it’s frankly a bit dodgy (no pun intended, history buffs out there). Scott can produce lavish, beautiful cinematic worlds in his sleep, and this film is no exception to that – my issue with his films is that the quality of the narrative often doesn’t match that of the visuals.

The story here certainly rambles on a bit – the movie is somewhere around the three hour mark – but the world it portrays is interesting enough for this not to be a major problem. Scott’s helped by the quality of the supporting cast, which is excellent, and stuffed with well-known faces – Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, amongst others. Even Landy is not, as one critic charmingly put it, ‘actively bad’ (bear in mind that Arnie was attached to star in this project for a while during its long gestation period). And, certainly in the extended version, there seems to have been a serious effort to portray the texture of medieval life with reasonable accuracy – these aren’t just modern-day action heroes playing dress-up. Admittedly, some of this is put to the service of rather obvious themes and metaphors: most of the characters on both the Christian and Islamic sides are fond of proclaiming everything that happens to be the will of God – it’s just a bit too thumpingly driven home that a) using religion as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility is the cause of all the trouble and b) they’re all the same anyway.

And I found it a bit of a problem that the characters we’re supposed to identify with and care about – Balian, the King, and to a lesser extent Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) – all share a very modern attitude to the issue of religion and how much it should dictate one’s actions and morality. I suppose this is necessary in order for them to be characters we engage with at all, but it’s still not just getting the details of history wrong, but the whole tone.

Of course, Kingdom of Heaven cheerfully engages in getting the details of history wrong too. Perhaps that’s putting it a mite strong, as there is such a thing as justified artistic licence – the historical Balian obviously wasn’t a bastard blacksmith, but neither was he such an identifiable character. Some of the stuff that’s crept back into the extended cut is a bit more dubious – the leprosy that afflicted Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is a recorded fact, but the movie opts to give his nephew and successor, Baldwin V, exactly the same disease (to lose one King of Jerusalem to leprosy is unfortunate, to lose two is an obvious plot contrivance). Baldwin V died very young, it’s true, but there’s no evidence he was bumped off by his mum as an extremely pre-emptive mercy killing, as the movie depicts.

More problematic, yet also understandable, is the movie’s portrayal of the major religions involved. There are many more nutters on the Christian side than the Islamic one, and Saladin is portrayed as the civilised, enlightened statesman of popular legend. At the end of the movie he lets the Christian population of Jerusalem walk free – historically, he was rather less generous. Of course, there are perfectly sound reasons for not wanting to annoy Muslims these days, and it’s difficult not to see Kingdom of Heaven as being, on some level, a comment on the state of the modern world. ‘To this day, peace remains elusive in the Kingdom of Heaven,’ states the closing caption, in a masterpiece of understatement.

Well, true enough, but there I think the movie is falling into a trap decried by one modern historian – that of treating the Crusades as somehow emblematic of an age-old, inevitable, irresolvable clash between different philosophies, the start of something which has continued to this day. The Crusades were nearly a millennium ago and no more influential on the modern world than any other event of that time.

Still, it’s not many big-budget Hollywood movies that cause one to engage in this kind of thought process, and this is surely to the movie’s credit. That it does so without neglecting the impressive spectacle and well-mounted violent action one would expect from a movie on this subject only increases my admiration for its achievement. The movie is still fundamentally troubled by the lack of a stronger leading man, but I found the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven a huge improvement over the theatrical version – quite possibly this is now my favourite of all Ridley Scott’s films.

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In this world, there are advertising campaigns, and there are Advertising Campaigns – and, let there be no doubt, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has well and truly been the recipient of the latter. It feels like every time I’ve been to a film with a vaguely appropriate certificate over the last few months, it has been preceded not simply by the trailer for this movie, but also by a short film ‘introducing’ it – basically talking heads of the creative people involved come on and talk about how great it is, while behind the scenes footage rolls. Long ago I learned to be skeptical about this sort of thing.

(And, while we’re on the subject of advertisorial film nonsense, it appears that winsome Kim has been sacked from the reliably irksome Live From The Red Carpet slot in the commercials. What the hell…? Winsome Kim was just about the only thing that made this exercise in utter bumf tolerable, and there are surely few women in the world who can complete a handover to an animated piece of chocolate with the same degree of self-possession and charm that Kim did. Bring back Kim at once!)

Anyway, the promotional carpet-bombing is arguably a dodgy move as it manages to be inescapable across all media, to the point of actually becoming annoying, while remaining irritatingly coy about all the things about Prometheus most people are going to be interested in: namely, this film’s connections with a particular series of well-regarded and hugely successful SF-horror movies.

Scott’s movie opens with breathtaking landscapes and the strange death of an alien traveller, apparently by his own hand. It’s a powerful, striking moment, setting the film’s tone well – everything is reserved, thoughtful, visually awesome, and not a little oblique: there’s something Kubrickian about Prometheus in its most majestic scenes.

From here the story shifts and we meet late-21st century scientists Elizabeth Shaw (insert Doctor Who gag here if you’re so minded), played by Noomi Rapace, and Charlie Holloway, played by Logan Marshall-Green. They have discovered a series of obscure archaeological sites which not only suggest extraterrestrial contacts occurring in humanity’s remote past, but also provide a map to the visitors’ point of origin.

Some years later, the privately-funded science ship Prometheus is approaching that very planet. Shaw and Holloway are on board, leading a science team. Also present are Idris Elba’s rough-diamond space captain, Charlize Theron’s fearsome corporate enforcer, and – most charismatically – Michael Fassbender’s impeccably-behaved android factotum. As the ship touches down on the bleak alien world, a chain of events is set in motion which will reveal much about the origins of the human race – and other things as well. The designation of the planet is LV-233…

So, you’ve got a feisty female lead, a corporate apparatchik with a personal agenda, a reliable old space veteran, an inscrutable android, crews coming out of stasis over unknown worlds, foreboding alien structures, lots of slime… on one level, the makers of this film are enthusiastically revisiting old territory. However, the one question which most people really want answered is the one not even touched upon by the advertising – the question of whether it actually features aliens. Or, to be more precise, the Alien, from the 1979 film of the same name.

Prometheus doesn’t just copy the style and some of the tropes of Alien – from the moment the name of the planet is mentioned, it’s clear that this is openly going to be a prequel of sorts to that film. As well as the characters being drawn from the same set of archetypes, at least one key location reappears, and – rather like in The Bourne Ultimatum – there are moments and lines of dialogue seemingly designed to make you recall moments from the earlier films. Mostly the first two, as you might expect, and the Paul W.S. Anderson take on the franchise is ignored – continuity cops may have fun trying to figure out a way to reconcile those films with this one, but I digress. You yourself may be wondering – does Giger’s masterpiece-offspring make an in-the-biomechanical-flesh appearance? In short, are faces hugged? Do chests burst? All I feel able to say is that I think this element is not handled as well as it could have been.

This is not a major problem, though, as this is a beautifully-designed and lavishly-made SF movie, not afraid to explore big ideas and take, it seemed to me, a genuine delight in doing so. It doesn’t do so in great detail, to be sure, but then again one’s expectations of a $130m studio movie released in 3D must necessarily be limited. Nevertheless, this film is a cut above in most departments, with strong performances from Rapace and especially Fassbender a major plus.

I’m on record as not being a great fan of the original film, to be honest, feeling that Scott’s rather stately and restrained direction didn’t work to best advantage in what was basically an (atypically brainy) exploitation movie. I have to say that, on the whole, I’m rather more impressed with his work on Prometheus – as I said, this is primarily a film concerned with all sorts of big ideas, not an adrenaline thrill-ride or nerve-jangling exercise in suspense. This is not to say that the film is completely cerebral – there’s a memorably grisly sequence about two-thirds of the way through, about which all I will say is that ‘it’s not a traditional foetus’ is a comment no girl wants to hear during a medical check-up – but the plot does seem written to facilitate the ideas rather than vice versa, and the story as a whole never quite engages the emotions.

Nevertheless, I was quietly impressed by Prometheus and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not sure if people wholly unacquainted with the Alien series will find it especially rewarding, while as for people turning up expecting a bona fide new installment, dripping with fresh acid… hmm. Personally I enjoyed the links, subtle and otherwise, to the other films, while the fact that much of the back-story of this movie is left to the viewer to decipher and come to their own conclusions about was not a problem: it’s nice to be treated with intelligence for a change. Prometheus is a superior SF blockbuster; it may be only a distant and slightly strained relation to Alien, but it does its progenitors no disgrace.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 29th 2001:

A long time ago (well, the late 1970s), in a galaxy not that far away, the film studio 20th Century Fox had had a big hit with a movie called Star Wars (you may have heard of it). The Fox suits decided they could use a bit more of this spaceship stuff, seeing as it was so popular, and rang round the junior suits who did all the work. ‘Any scripts with spaceships in them knocking about?’ And they were brought the script for Battlestar Galactica, which they promptly sent away again, because even suits have standards. Finally a script called Star Beast appeared, which even sounded a bit like Star Wars, and they decided to make it as a sort of low-budget exploitation film. Unfortunately they forgot to tell this to Mr Ridley Scott, the director, with peculiar results…

Surely everyone reading this knows the plot of Alien, the movie Star Beast turned into? All right, just in brief… Most of the movie occurs on the Nostromo, an interstellar tug with a crew of seven (plus one pet cat – all great horror movies should have animals in them). The crew spend most of the time asleep in fridges, which makes you wonder why they’re there at all, especially as the plot establishes that a sophisticated android workforce is available. However, they’re rudely awakened by an alien signal emanating from a blasted rockball, and their contracts insist they go and investigate. Down on the planet three of the crew find a huge alien vessel and luckless First Officer Kane (a fairly pre-stardom John Hurt) has a close encounter of an intimate and rather icky kind with the occupant of an alien egg. Despite the concerns of Third Officer Ripley (a definitely pre-stardom Sigourney Weaver, here in her signature role), the landing party are let back on board by twitchy Science Officer Ash (a pre-Baggins Ian Holm). The alien parasite seems to die and Kane recovers. However the ship’s supply of indigestion tablets is insufficient to stop him rudely bursting open in the middle of the crew’s supper, and a metallic-dentured alien emerges and does a runner (or the equivalent) for the bowels of the ship. The rest of the crew are forced to engage in a battle to survive, or else the franchise will never get going and The Terminator will never have any competition for the title of James Cameron’s best film…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Fox may have wanted another Star Wars, but this ain’t it. It’s a weird clash of several different styles of film-making, and arguably the wrong style wins. I’ve never been able to force myself to believe all the hype about Alien, and here’s why…

Style number one is indeed Star Wars influenced: there are frequent loving flybys of bloomin’ big spaceships, and the technology of the Nostromo has a dirty, used look to it, rather like the Millenium Falcon et al. It looks sort of convincing as a working starship. This flows rather neatly into style number two – a naturalistic, almost docudrama approach to the crew mooching about, all talking at the same time over their meals, and complaining about their pay. It’s an effect that reminds me most strongly of a Howard Hawks movie. Hawks was a director and producer of many genres, active from the 1930s to the 50s, and amongst his films was the original Thing From Another World. The Thing was one of the best 50s SF scare movies, and clearly an ancestor of Alien, right down to the traitor in the human camp. Alien was conceived of and pitched as an updated scare movie, a suspense-thriller-horror movie – the haunted house in space.

But the most important name for the Alien saga at this point in time was not Ripley but Ridley – Scott, that is, the director. Here I go into a minority of one, but I’ve never been hugely impressed by a Ridley Scott film. His visual sense is undeniably superb, and his movies are nearly all stunningly beautiful to look at. But it always seems to me that he’s much more interested in filling the screen with pretty pictures than with engaging the audience with the characters or even telling the story.

The next time you see Alien just look at how much of the time is filled with languid sequences where the camera roams around actionless, silent sets, simply showing off how beautiful the production designs are. This drains the film of a lot of the nervous energy it should have, particularly as a suspense horror. Sure, there are ‘jump’ moments, such as when the facehugger falls on Ripley’s shoulder or the Alien appears with Dallas in the air duct – but anyone can contrive that sort of thing. Creating and sustaining true tension is much more difficult and, for me, Alien rarely manages it for long – I just don’t feel drawn into the story.

This isn’t a bad film – of course it isn’t. HR Giger’s creations are incredible and iconic, the rest of the sets equally good. There’s a good ensemble performance by the cast, and it’s interesting that it isn’t until very late on that Ripley emerges as the survivor/heroine figure. Also noteworthy is Ian Holm’s peculiar, nervy performance as Ash – a performance that seems even more peculiar on repeated viewings of the movie.

But for me, Alien is fatally flawed: written and designed as a nerve-jangling horror movie in space, it’s actually directed like an arthouse film, with beautiful compositions and visual effects taking precedence over effective storytelling. The very beauty which makes it so exceptional also deprives it of truly working as it was intended to.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 24th 2002:

There are ominous similarities between Ridley Scott’s latest offering Black Hawk Down and last year’s uber-turkey Pearl Harbor. Both are blockbuster retellings of notorious American military disasters, and both have Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore and Ewen Bremner somewhere on the cast list. And as I’m not a fan of Ridley Scott’s work at the best of times, I turned up to the cinema with quite a few misgivings.

Black Hawk Down is set in war-torn Somalia in late 1993. As part of an international taskforce, a mixed group of American elite troops – Rangers, Marines, etc – is attempting to eliminate the genocidal warlord Mohamed Aidid, who’s based in the city of Mogadishu. Their ability to act is hampered by the protocols established by the UN and they pass much of their time in the traditional pursuits of off-duty war-movie soldiers: doing jigsaws, playing scrabble, illustrating children’s books and listening to classic pop-rock songs. All this changes when authorisation is given for a raid on a meeting of Aidid’s senior advisors. But a series of misjudgements leads to the mission going spectacularly pear-shaped…

1993 isn’t that long ago – I remember seeing the news of these events on TV at the time they occurred. Probably because of this, the producers appear to have stuck closer to the facts than is usually the case even in ‘based on a true event’ pictures like this one. Even so, it’s still a big-budget action movie – and as a result Black Hawk Down has something of an identity crisis which it never quite recovers from.

The problem is that the characters on the screen are all instantly familiar from a hundred other war films – there’s the idealistic young noncom, the naive rookie, the grizzled veteran, and so on: Ewen McGregor plays a clerk who gets his first chance at front line duty (he suffers slightly from Wandering Accent Syndrome), Eric Bana (okay, he’s not very well-known now, but he’s toplining Ang Lee’s Hulk, one of next year’s blockbusters) is a taciturn covert ops officer who learns to respect the grunts, and Sam Shepherd plays the CO who watches his command engulfed in what’s almost literally a nightmare scenario. All verging on the stereotypical, but, that said, most of the acting is pretty good – though the most memorable performance is a cameo by George Harris as a Somali arms dealer.

But the situation at the heart of the film is absolutely not your typical well-choreographed action-movie scenario. It’s an escalating disaster as the soldiers are misdirected, split up, and surrounded by apparently limitless numbers of Kalashnikov-wielding local militiamen. The presentation of this very realistic chaos is the film’s great achievement, but it jars weirdly with the glossy Hollywoodism of the stock characters and the famous faces portraying them. Band of Brothers, which this resembles at times, got round this by hiring a cast of relative unknowns – a step Black Hawk Down‘s producers should have considered.

As it is, and credit where it’s due, Ridley Scott’s direction holds the film together. As you’d expect, it’s visually ravishing, but most of the time Scott manages to stay focussed on telling the story – an unexpected but welcome development. He does a brilliant job of communicating the confusion and panic of the troops in the streets as the mission disintegrates, while simultaneously ensuring that the viewer is aware of the situation and the positions of the various different groups involved (mainly through computer game-like aerial shots and expository dialogue from Shepherd and his staff). There are genuinely horrific and moving moments as the crisis deepens. Even so, this is pretty much a one-note movie and after a while I felt I wouldn’t have minded if I never heard another hammering assault rifle or saw another dancing shell casing ever again. There’s no light and shade here, no leavening humour or romance, and not really much of a plot. But if you like unrelenting realism, grit, military hardware and carnage you should have few complaints.

Post-September 11th, of course, any film about the American armed forces’ engagement in the Third World brings a whole load of new baggage with it. You may argue that it’d be unfair to review it in terms of its politics, and had Black Hawk Down not had its release date actually advanced to cash in on the current mood of the USA, I might have agreed. But as things stand, I don’t, so here goes.

It goes without saying that this is an unreservedly pro-American movie. It doesn’t scale quite the same heights of sanctimony as Pearl Harbor, thank God, but there’s absolutely no ambiguity on display. Well – the one exception to this is in the apportioning of blame for the debacle: armed forces overconfidence and the UN rules of engagement both get the finger pointed at them, but not as much as ‘Washington’ – a blatant criticism of the Clinton administration and thus one that’s very unlikely to irk the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s oversimplistic. It’s not always the case of Americans suffering for the sins of the rest of the world, no matter what the film suggests. The mission it recounts may be a confused, chaotic mess, but the film’s moral and political viewpoint is cleanly and uncompromisingly black-and-white. The film itself is all right, but its attempts to promote a set agenda in this way are insultingly obvious. There’s an awful lot of spinning going on in Black Hawk Down – and I’m not talking about helicopter rotor blades.

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