Monday, 5 August 2013

Review: Alien Tetralogy (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997)

Spoilers ahead!

Alien (1979)

This is the first and the creepiest of all Alien movies. It's the only part that actually works as a horror movie. As everybody even remotely interested in the matter knows only too well, blood and gore don’t really scare people. The Unknown does. This is brilliantly used in this movie. The first appearance of the title character is delayed to the last possible moment, and it’s used sparingly afterwards; neither could be said of the sequels. And the first movie, of course, has one great advantage by default: you know nothing of the alien. What it looks like, what it can do, what it wants… Feel the cold sweat on your forehead already?

The crew: four men, two women, an android, and a cat. 
But it's the characters that make this movie a classic. All of them are remarkably individual, compelling and superbly acted. There is no depth or development, but you're not looking for them in this kind of movie, are you? Sigourney Weaver, very young and surprisingly pretty here, steals the show as Ellen Ripley, and as intended for this is the movie destined to end the misogynistic era of sci-fi, but the rest includes solid performances by Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto. I was especially impressed by the sinister android of Ian Holm. He freaked me out completely. But this is not to say he isn’t thought-provoking; his concise and dispassionate analysis of the Alien is worth quoting:

I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

"Delusions of morality". Wonderful phrase. This definition of purity applies to Shakespeare's villains also, especially Iago and Edmund.

John Hurt with a fine piece of costume.
The pace was a little slow, but the direction, as one might expect from Ridley Scott, was quite great enough to compensate for that. I was rather impressed with the plot. It flowed very smoothly and felt perfectly natural, including the android-twist and the ending. This is not always the case with movies in general and sci-fi in particular, is it? Visually stunning for 1979, I'd also say. All space ships, functional and derelict, as well as the mysterious and misty planet look beautiful. The Alien doesn’t, of course, but it’s marvellously, and horrifyingly, real.

In four words, hackneyed story, superlative execution. In other words, a true classic.

PS I was mightily pleased that the cat survived.

Aliens (1986)

To be blunt, I liked this one every bit as the first – and certainly more than the third. It's far less scarier than the original, but it's a good deal more exciting. And it delivers more than mere excitement; there is some food for thought, too. Just like Alien is sci-fi horror with a difference, Aliens is sci-fi action with a difference.

These are the movies really worth seeing: the ones with a difference. Mafia sagas with a difference like The Godfather and Scarface, westerns with a difference like Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven, cops-and-robbers chases with a difference like Heat, historical epics with a difference like Gladiator... But let's get back to Aliens.

A termite-inspired Alien queen is about to get burned... 
Ruby has suggested that the finale with the Alien – but not Ripley – flying away into the vacuum of space is highly improbable, and she may be right; my physics education has always been neglected. But I greatly enjoyed the boxing match before that. That was an ingenious idea. Nothing succeeds like simplicity, and what could be simpler than a face-to-face fight with “bare limbs”? My only qualm is that the first finale was a trifle overblown (mighty explosions, mass destruction, last-second salvation, you know the drill). But that's not exactly something untypical for Jimmy Cameron. It’s part and parcel of the man, and one has to take it or leave it. Considering his virtues as director and screenwriter, a mild degree of epic megalomania is a small price to pay.

(Well, one more thing to complain about. Newt's proclivity to scream was unbearable. The pitch was way too high, not to mention the dynamics. Probably it has to be marked "fffff" in the score.)

Such a cutie!
Unlike Ruby, I found the macho marines rather amusing. Wasn't Bill Paxton's yellowish character hilarious? When in the beginning, knowing nothing of what they are about to face, he was bragging to Ripley what amazing guns they have, I laughed a great deal. Personally I would have added a Ripley rejoinder in the script, something like [since they have so many so great guns] "Have you got any brains and guts as well?" As it turned out, he didn't have either in excess.

Also, not all marines were hot-air balloons just about to burst under the pressure of testosterone. Michael Biehn's character was rather more human – and humane. It was nice that he survived, no? And there were some cool gender jokes among the rest:

Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
No. Have you?

Now that's cute. On the whole, the characterisation in this movie is not on par with the previous one, but at least Ripley is further developed from the somewhat one-dimensional, if vivid, creature from Alien. In this respect, the mother-and-daughter relationship with Newt adds a special flavour. It will never strike you as something original or profound, but it’s kind of touching. Of course there’s a spooky android, brilliantly played by Lance Henriksen, who easily outshines the bunch of marines and comes to a most memorable fate in the end.   

One thing I liked more than in the first film was the expanded role of the nasty company (Blackmail & Co. it must be named). It's an effective counterpoint to the mass slaughter of the already-much-too-familiar monsters. What I disliked was that the company guy was played by a thoroughly mediocre fellow and that some of his arguments were a tad too blatantly expressed. He should be smarter than that. Still, it was nice to have a wider social dimension of the story.

In conclusion, I'm afraid I have to be considered a Cameron fan by now. Nobody's perfect, after all. For my money, the man provides stupendous visual entertainment with just the right dose of substance not to feel like I’m wasting my time.

Alien3 (1992)

Visually this movie is not unlike Beethoven’s late string quartets. It is a chamber piece of almost unrelieved gloominess, regularly descending into primordial and acutely claustrophobic primitivism. Here the musical analogy ends completely. What makes Alien3 a forgettable one-off affair, as opposed to timeless masterpiece which bears regular rediscovery, is that the visual appeal is its only virtue as far as I’m concerned.

The plot is simple, effective and rather original, but it gives little scope for development and characterization – and even that is not fully realised. Ripley is the lone survivor from a rescue capsule that crashes on a desolate planet inhabited by the cream of crime: murderers and rapists accompanied by a few unarmed guards and an awfully altruistic doctor with a dark past. What follows is a standard monster-hunt – or manhunt, depends on the point of view – which builds up to a fine climax that seems to preclude any further sequels. It must be said in defence of this movie that it never tries to impress you with childish methods like vast amounts of pancake syrup or gorgeous technological vistas of space exploration. The last part of the Alien film franchise all too obviously does (see below).

The most annoying thing about this movie is the strong religious streak that permeates it. I find it tedious, dated and puerile. And it's hard for me to believe that such human “monsters” could be fooled with proto-Christian fairy tales. Then again, though prominent enough to elicit an ironic smile, the religious stuff was certainly not overdone, and many of the charming inmates didn't seem to take it very seriously; besides, most of them not being terribly bright, I daresay it’s not so fantastic that they should fall for it.

It is much to the screenwriters’ credit that all prisoners are presented with sympathy and without any empty moralizing. Their religious leader (Charles Dutton) is a most fascinating character, a man of remarkable common sense, integrity and courage. Common sense and religion sound like mutually exclusive qualities, but they somehow manage to co-exist quite happily in this character. As for the prestige he enjoys among his flock of delinquent teenagers, it says something that the axe he was holding towards the end seemed to add very little to it.

Ruby has made a perceptive point about Ripley's "Christ-on-the-cross image" in the Grand Finale. It does fit with the pseudo-Christian inanity that occupies a minor yet unduly prominent place in the plot. I may add that Ripley went one better than Jesus. She saved the whole universe from the Alien, not just the miserable human race. Also, the concept of being eaten by a fierce predator is a wonderfully practical proposition to deal with, quite unlike the vague concept of sin.

Nevertheless, despite a nice touch here and there, the prisoners as a bunch of religious converts didn’t work for me. Neither did I find the gender issue especially memorable. Frankly, I didn't expect to. I understand Ripley should carry the banner of feminine strength and prevent sci-fi epics from descending again in the Dark Ages when the gentle sex was treated as though it was convenient furniture. I appreciate that and I enjoyed how stylishly it was done in the first two movies. Not so in this one. A lone woman among a herd of male perverts is hardly the right place for subtlety, insight or humour. If there were any, I missed them. In the good old days, Ripley had to cope with shipmates and marines, groups better suited to imaginative screenwriting than convicts with double Y chromosome.

This classic shot actually comes from the far-from-classic third movie.
 On the whole, I found little to admire in this movie. The Good Doctor (Charles Dance) had a lot of potential, but most of it remained unfulfilled; and he became a breakfast much too soon. Few of the prisoners were interesting in a quirky sort of way, but nothing terribly original or funny there. Ripley's character was already quite fleshed out in the first two films, and there was little the screenwriters could add here. Perhaps the slight carnal element was the only novelty. It wasn't exactly necessary, though.

But the visual side is truly extraordinary. And yet, even that was compromised by the disappointingly artificial monster: it was so obviously computer-generated that sometimes I was tempted to shout to the running victims something like "It's a hologram, stupid!" That's a strange thing to say, but the Alien in the first two movies, without the benefit of FX miracles, was much more realistic. It just looked terrifyingly real. This one didn't. Technology is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t always produce the best results.

Apart from that slight hitch, the movie's a visual tour de force. The spacious sets of the old prison, decrepit to the extreme and illuminated by an ominous yellowish light, are quite haunting. Very apocalypse-like, very otherworldly, very effective. Such sets achieve that arrest of time of which Tennessee Williams wisely wrote in one of his essays, that sense of timelessness which is characteristic of all great art and which transforms mere occurrences into significant events.

Sadly, it was not enough in this case. Actually, it never is. There always must be some profound insight lurking behind the facade. This is what this movie lacks more or less completely.

Spanish poster
Alien Resurrection (1997)

As fourth parts of famous series go, this is quite good; I mean, it’s better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). But there is another, more unfortunate, similarity between the two famous classics: the fourth instalment undoubtedly marks the lowest point. The good news is that Alien Resurrection is almost as mediocre as Alien3, even if neither is even remotely on par with the first two movies.

The major fault with this movie is that it tries to impress you in the most blatant ways. The profundity of slimy monsters is so great that is has the opposite effect: I am amused rather than scared. Towards the end a brand new species is born, as ugly and violent as they come, which comes to a very sticky end that’s indeed quite comical. Throughout the whole movie, the amount of gratuitous gore is stupendous. There are plenty of stunning space ships and stations, but that’s something of which I can easily have enough. It all builds up to a tremendously preposterous climax in the end. A final shot of post-apocalyptic Earth out of the blue is yet another irrelevant moment.

The basic idea of the plot makes sense. This is the first movie which tries to show how the human race might deal with the aliens when they are held in captivity and used for research. This is a stimulating direction. We have potential here. Sadly, it is never realized. After the first half an hour or so, which is confused enough anyway, the movie degenerates into monster movie pure and simple. It does not at any moment attempt to engage your central nervous system in anything more than a mental “Yuck” – or a physical “LOL”.

An Alien love story. 
The characters don’t really help the matter. Cloning Ripley completely from blood samples is fantasy, not science fiction, but the real problem is that she has been transformed into Superwoman who, moreover, is something like a close relative to the aliens. Whoever she is, she is certainly not Ellen Ripley from the previous movies. Apart from Call, an android character indifferently played by Winona Ryder, Ripley is surrounded by a bunch of black-and-white, cardboard stereotypes. The mad scientist and the dumb army officer dominate the scene but, despite the promising presence of Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott, all are equally dull.

The strained-to-cordial relationship between Ripley and the android is the only one that raises the script a little above the mental junk level. But like so much else in the movie it is poorly developed and often trite, dialogue-wise. When Ripley discovers Call’s robotic nature, which (surprise! surprise!) has been kept secret, she delivers one of the very few memorable lines: “I should have known. No human being is that humane.” Otherwise the dialogue is consistently pedestrian, occasionally adorned by hackneyed humour.

On the whole, this is not a bad movie. It just is totally mediocre and quite forgettable. It suffers badly in comparison even with the third film, not to mention the first two. A nice way to kill two hours but nothing more. 

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