Archive for the Ridley Scott Category

In the Spooklight: ALIEN (1979)

Posted in 2006, 70s Horror, Alien Worlds, Aliens, Classic Films, Cult Movies, Horror, In the Spooklight, Michael Arruda Reviews, Outer Space, Ridley Scott, Science Fiction with tags , , , , , , on June 15, 2012 by knifefighter

Since we just reviewed PROMETHEUS (2012), here’s an IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on ALIEN (1979), first published in the HWA NEWSLETTER in January 2006. It will also be appearing—shameless plug! —in my new IN THE SPOOKLIGHT ebook, set to come out later this year by NECON EBooks!

—Michael Arruda, 6/13/12

In The Spooklight: ALIEN (1979)
By Michael Arruda

When I first saw ALIEN (1979) at the movies in the summer of ’79, as a 15-year-old kid and budding movie critic, I remember leaving the theater disappointed. I thought the scares were too few and far between, and it simply wasn’t as gross and disgusting as I had been led to believe. See, in those days, there was nothing like the thrill of being grossed out at the movies ah, youth!

But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthoodALIEN grew scarier.

ALIEN is a film that, in spite of its reputation as an all-out-stomach-churning-gross-fest back in 1979, really draws its strength from a combination of strong acting performances and taut direction.

The alien itself isn’t really on screen that much, but when it is, it scares the you-know-what out of you. Watching the alien in ALIEN reminds me of watching Christopher Lee as Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Both menaces are so scary they trick you into believing they’re on screen more, because when they’re off screen, you’re still frightened and carry that fright with you, similar to the way a flash bulb remains in your vision after it’s flashed, only longer.

ALIEN sports an outstanding cast, led by Sigourney Weaver and Tom Skerritt, as the leaders on the spaceship, The Nostromo, which answers a distress call in deep space from a mysterious derelict spaceship on an equally mysterious planet. The strong cast also includes John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and Veronica Cartwright, all playing crew members of The Nostromo.

The trek along the alien landscape towards the derelict ship is weird and creepy, and is another reason why ALIEN works so well. It gets under your skin long before the titled alien even appears.

A strange squid-like creature attaches itself to the head of one of the crew (John Hurt) and lays an egg inside his body, which leads to the most famous scene from the movie, where the baby alien bursts through the chest of actor John Hurt. This scene is gross, and still packs a punch. Thus the alien is born, and now the fun really begins. Of course, for the rest of the film, the crew has to fight for their lives against a seemingly unstoppable creature. (Too bad the makers of the recent ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004) forgot this and reduced the aliens in that film to target practice.).

The direction by Ridley Scott is right on the money. He makes ALIEN a nail-biter and fills the film with suspense scenes that make you very uncomfortable. My favorite is crew member Dallas’s (Tom Skerritt) search for the alien inside the air ducts, which, suffice to say, doesn’t end in the man’s favor.

There’s a great music score by Jerry Goldsmith, which also adds to the mood, and the sets are dark and grim. They give the film a real gritty feel. You get the sense this is the way a spaceship of the future would look, as opposed to the fantasy images from say, STAR WARS. The special effects won an Oscar.

Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay is full of realistic dialogue, and the crew members seem like real people, even griping about low pay.

ALIEN is a fine example of how some films get better with age. Today, years after its initial release, it’s scarier than ever. “In space no one can you hear scream,” warned the tagline in 1979, but in your living room they sure can, so to be safe, when you watch ALIEN, you might want to warn your neighbors.

—END—

© Copyright 2006 by Michael Arruda

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PROMETHEUS (2012)

Posted in 2012, 3-D, Alien Worlds, Aliens, Blockbusters, Cinema Knife Fights, Monsters, Prequels, Ridley Scott, ROBOTS!, Scares!, Science Fiction with tags , , , , , , , on June 11, 2012 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: PROMETHEUS (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

(THE SCENE: An alien world, much of which is composed of desert. L.L. SOARES is sitting on a lawn chair next to a tent. He’s stretched back, getting rays, when MICHAEL ARRUDA happens by, driving a moon rover)

MA: Hey. You do realize that excessive sun isn’t good for you.

LS: Who are you, my mother?

MA (dressed as an elderly woman): What are you doing sitting around all day! Clean your damn room!

LS: Now there’s a scary image—you as someone’s mother!! Anyway, there’s six more hours of daylight. Leave me alone and let me get a tan.

MA: I would, but we’ve got a movie to review.

LS: Oh yes, the much-anticipated PROMETHEUS. I almost forgot.

MA: Almost forgot? I think the sun has fried your brain! PROMETHEUS is one of the movies you and I have been most looking forward to in 2012. How could you “almost forget” about it?

(In the distance, a humongous space ship takes off into the sky)

MA: Wow. It sure is nice to have an unlimited budget here in Cinema Knife Fight Land.

LS: Oh yes, in the realm of the imagination, we can do anything!

MA: Okay. If you can do anything, how about starting with a review of PROMETHEUS?

LS: All right I will, if that will make you happy.

MA: Please do.

LS: Ridley Scott’s new film, PROMETHEUS, is a prequel to his 1979 masterpiece, ALIEN. Let’s make that clear from the get-go, shall we? Scott and other people involved have been very cagey about whether or not the events of this movie occur before the story of ALIEN. Well, wonder no more. The ambiguity is gone. PROMETHEUS is clearly a prequel.

MA: Yes it is, although I would have enjoyed it more had there been more references to ALIEN.

LS: PROMETHEUS begins with an odd scene where a muscular albino alien is standing on a cliff over a waterfall.

MA: I liked this scene. I thought it was a very cinematic way to open the movie.

LS: He ingests something that appears to be acid (and also appears to be alive) and commits suicide, falling into the raging waters below. We’ll be seeing him (or, more of his kind, at least) later on.

The story then shifts to Scotland. It is the year 2089, and scientists Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover a cave that has prehistoric drawings on the walls. The drawings include an image they have seen many times before: a giant figure reaching out to the sky, in the direction of five spheres. They believe this image is a message, since they have found it in other caves, in other parts of the world.

Using the image as a map, they are able to track down a planet in a solar system far away that has an earth-like atmosphere (although the carbon dioxide levels are rather high). Charlie and Elizabeth are sure the messages are telling them that this planet is the cradle of civilization—the place where aliens they call “Engineers” came from, and came to Earth to create us.

To get there, the scientists need cash, and this is readily provided by the Weyland Corporation, a mega-corporation with seemingly unlimited funds, headed by Peter Weyland (an unrecognizable Guy Pearce, in heavy old man make-up). Weyland, through a hologram, tells them he was very eager to find out if the scientists are right about their findings, but he has appeared to have died in the meantime (the craft has taken a few years to get there). In his place, as the corporate person in charge of the expedition, is the cold and authoritative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). She makes it clear from the get-go that while Charlie and Elizabeth are the ones who initiated this expedition, Meredith is calling the shots, since it is her firm’s money that bankrolled it.

(Sigourney Weaver’s character from ALIEN—RIPLEY—comes by, carrying a very large gun)

RIPLEY: You guys see a big ALIEN go by here?

MA: No, we haven’t.

LS (points): He went that-a-away!

RIPLEY: Thanks (she goes in that direction)

(The tent behind LS shakes)

MA: What was that all about?

LS: Who knows? As I was saying….The ship is piloted by a man named Janek (Idris Elba) and his team. The expedition is made up of a several other scientists, as well as an android named David (Michael Fassbender) who was created by Weyland to be his eyes and ears. David clearly has his own agenda when it comes to the mission, and often does things that everyone else is unaware of (things that are not always in their best interest). During the initial voyage in space, David is only one “awake” in the ship, while the rest of the travelers are in suspended animation.

Once they reach the planet, they find strange dome-like structures there, that clearly were not made by nature. Too eager to wait, a group of them immediately go out to investigate one of the domes. What they find there is rather remarkable, and potentially very dangerous.

The rest of PROMETHEUS shows us what they find in that dome, what it represents, and the can of worms the scientists open up by disturbing the site.

I went into this one with very high hopes, and clearly PROMETHEUS is one of the movies Michael and I have been most looking forward to in 2012. Personally, I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, and the idea of Scott returning to the “world” of that movie was rather exciting. Scott is a top-notch director, who was not involved with the various ALIEN sequels, so his directing the prequel is something of an event. He also hasn’t made a science fiction movie in decades, and since this is also the man who made BLADE RUNNER (1982), a lot of people were eager to see him return to the genre. After all, how many filmmakers can be credited with creating two films that many people consider to be among the best of cinematic science fiction?

So, considering the expectations I had going in, it is almost impossible that PROMETHEUS could have lived up to them. That said, the film is very good.

MA: Nah, I’m disagreeing here right away. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed with PROMETHEUS, and for me, it didn’t have to do with high expectations. I just didn’t find PROMETHEUS to be a great movie. It’s a good movie, but it has a lot of flaws.

But I’m jumping the gun here. You were about to say why you thought the film was so good. So, what did you like about it?

LS: First off, the direction is top-notch, as you would expect in a Ridley Scott film.

MA: I would agree, up to a point.

LS: The cast is also above-average. I thought everyone did an excellent job here, and the cast includes many of my favorite actors. Noomi Rapace was Lizbeth Salander in the original Swedish films based on THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy. She was intense and extremely believable in those movies. Here, her Elizabeth Shaw is softer and less guarded—dare I say it, more human—but in her way, is just as tough.

MA: No arguments here. I liked Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw a lot. Rapace created a very resilient heroine in Shaw, and I thought she was strong enough to carry this movie.

LS: Idris Elba is someone Michael and I have been watching for a while now, first noticing him for stand-out performances in movies like 28 WEEKS LATER (2007), THE UNBORN (2009) and the remake of the slasher film PROM NIGHT (2008).

MA: Yep, I’m a big fan of Elba.

LS: I thought that he often was better than the movies he was in. More recently, he appeared in last year’s THOR and was an alcoholic Vatican enforcer in GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. But his star has actually shone brighter on television than in feature films, for the most part, especially his role as Stringer Bell in the stellar HBO series,. THE WIRE, and his lead role in the current BBC series, LUTHER, which has been earning him much acclaim. He’s quite good in PROMETHEUS as Captain Janek, and even brings a sense of humor to the role, like in a scene where he tries to talk ice queen Martha Vickers into bed.

MA: Yeah, I liked that scene, but for the most part, I thought Captain Janek was just your standard good guy captain. I had no problem at all with Elba’s performance, which I enjoyed, but I thought the character was one-dimensional and not that exciting. I expected him to take on a more heroic and central role as the movie goes on, but that didn’t really happen.

LS: Actually, it did. He does do something very heroic toward the end.

MA: Yeah, I know, but for me it was too little too late. I mean, the action he takes is dramatic enough, but long before that, I wanted him to be a key player, and I didn’t feel he was.

LS: Let’s face it, Janek was a supporting character. Everyone can’t be the lead. Considering how many strong characters there are in the movie, I think they did a good job of giving everyone ample screen time.

MA: Oh, he’s in it enough. He’s just not that interesting.

LS: As for Vickers, it seems like actress Charlize Theron can do no wrong lately. I loved her in last year’s dark dramedy, YOUNG ADULT. And we just saw her as the evil queen, Ravenna, one of the high points in the movie SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. Here, she’s another cold, unapproachable woman—a type she’s done several times before, and which she’s good at. I have to admit, I like it when she plays characters that are more outside of the “ice queen” box—characters who are a little more vulnerable, perhaps—but she makes the best of this role.

MA: Theron’s fine, but I thought Vickers was terribly underwritten. I wanted to know much more about her, and I wanted her to have more screen time, and play a more prominent role towards the end of the movie. She’s a very cold character and is almost more robotic than the actual robot character, David, in this one. I wanted to know why.

LS: Well, there is a scene where Idris Elba’s character asks her if she’s a robot!

As for Michael Fassbender, as the robot David, he might just be the most interesting character in PROMETHEUS.

MA: I think he is.

LS: Created to act and appear human in every way, David is not as subservient as he first appears, and clearly is more in control of the situations the crew comes across than anyone else. It should come as no surprise that Fassbender is so good in this one. He’s been impressing us in a lot of movies lately. Fassbender was also in 300 (2006) and was the British Lt. Archie Hicox, a memorable role, in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Since then, his star has only continued to ascend. Last year alone he was Magneto in the above-average superhero flick X-MEN: FIRST CLASS; played psychiatry pioneer Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD; and played a sex addict, in a fearless performance in British director Steve McQueen’s movie, SHAME. Fassbender just seems to be very good at everything he does, and his role here, as David, is no exception.

MA: I agree. I like Fassbender a lot, and I think he gave the best performance in PROMETHEUS. The only problem I have with his character David is we’ve seen this before. David is an android with a private agenda, apparently working in secret for the Weyland Corporation. This is clearly reminiscent of the character Ash (Ian Holm) in the original ALIEN, who had the same agenda, and was working for the same company.

LS: I think that was intentional, don’t you?

MA: Absolutely, but I still found it repetitive.

(One of the monsters from the PREDATOR movies comes by, carrying a gigantic gun)

PREDATOR: You guys see an ALIEN come by here?

MA: Nope. We’re reviewing a movie here.

LS (points): He went that-a-away!

PREDATOR (closes his helmet): Thanks!

(PREDATOR runs in that direction, turning on his cloaking device to become invisible)

(Tent next to LS shakes again, and there is the faint sound of giggling)

MA: Hmm. What’s the deal with the tent?

LS: How should I know?

MA: What are you up to?

LS: Nothing. Let’s just finish our review.

The rest of the cast is also quite good, with other stand-outs including Logan Marshall-Green as Elizabeth Shaw’s fellow scientist (and lover) Charlie Holloway. He plays just the right combination of cockiness and earnestness here. And Sean Harris is also a stand-out as the unorthodox geologist Fifield, who seems more like punk rocker than a man of science at times (however, I’m sure it’s quite possible to be both).

The effects are pretty impressive here as well. The movie was released in both regular and 3D versions, and while I didn’t get to see this one in 3D, I bet it looked pretty good in that format as well. The spaceships, the alien landscapes, and the alien creatures we see are all pretty flawless and believable, which only enhances a movie like this.

MA: I saw it in 3D, and while I enjoyed the visuals of the alien landscapes and spaceships in 3D, I have a feeling it looked just as good in 2D. Let’s put it this way. There weren’t any scenes where I sat there thinking, “this is so cool in 3D. I’m glad I saw this in 3D!” As has been the case with most 3D movies we’ve seen in the past few years, the 3D effects are almost an afterthought.

LS: If I have any complaint at all, it is the pacing. At just over two hours, I found that certain parts of the movie seemed stretched out and slow, throwing off the movie’s pace a bit. It was something I almost “felt” more than saw. And it’s funny, because early on, things move pretty briskly. We’re not in Scotland looking at caves very long, before we’re suddenly on a spaceship, approaching an alien planet. But once on the planet, there were just some scenes that seemed longer and slower than they should have been.

MA: Yeah, the pacing was slow in places, but interestingly enough, the pacing isn’t one of the things that bothered me about this movie.

LS: Considering how excited I was to see this one, I thought it might be that rare film that passes the four knife mark. But after seeing it, I was actually on the fence about whether to give it 3 ½ or 4 knives. A very good film, but not a masterpiece. I really expected even more from Ridley Scott, if you can believe it.

But what the hell, I ended up giving PROMETHEUS, four knives out of five, one of the best ratings I’ve given for a movie this year. It’s smart, it’s ambitious, and I really enjoyed it.

MA: I gave THE AVENGERS four knives, which is the highest rating I give movies (a five knife movie would have to be perfect, and that’s never going to happen!) and I think THE AVENGERS blows PROMETHEUS out of the water.

LS: No way! They’re two very different kinds of movies: one is pure fun, and the other tries to be much more than that. But I think PROMETHEUS is as good as THE AVENGERS. In fact, I think it’s better.

MA: Yes, they are two very different movies, but THE AVENGERS pushes all the right buttons and is nearly flawless, whereas PROMETHEUS, while good, falls short.

LS: And while it’s going to be very rare that we rate anything higher than four knives, it is possible. I gave KILL LIST four and a half knives earlier this year.

MA: PROMETHEUS could have been something truly special. It asks great questions—who made us? where did we come from? where do we go when we die? — but it gives us answers that are clearly inferior to these questions. I kept thinking, these are the answers the writers came up with?

LS: What if we found out the answers and they really were a letdown? Wouldn’t that be rather ironic?

MA: I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of PROMETHEUS. The movie had an awe-inspiring science fiction feel to it, and I thought the film was heading towards moments akin to things found in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I enjoyed the story, the visuals, and I liked the idea of humans on a quest to find our creators. I was definitely going along for the ride.

LS: I’m glad you brought that up, because I thought there were a lot of parallels between this movie and Kubrick’s 2001. From the clues that scientists find that tell them there was life on other worlds (in PROMETHEUS, it’s the cave paintings providing a map, in 2001, it was the more physical artifact of the Monolith), to a machine that has its own agenda and turns on the people who think they are its masters, to even the pacing and some of the visuals (the alien space ship here looks somewhat like the orbiting space station in 2001).

MA: And there’s some good suspense along the way as well. The scene in the cave with the weird snake creatures is one of the more intense scenes in the movie, and I absolutely loved the scene where Elizabeth has to perform surgery on herself to remove a certain “addition” inside her body. It’s by far the most intense scene in the film.

LS: Thanks for bringing that up! The surgery scene is one of the best in the movie! I loved that scene.

MA: But that’s about as intense as the movie gets. Later, as it builds towards its conclusion, I found the suspense lacking.

And in terms of awe-inspiring science fiction, the film hits its climax in a really cool scene when David discovers, among other things, a 3D map of our solar system, and at this point I was looking forward to the “where do we go from here” stuff. Unfortunately, where we go is strictly standard drama.

Compared to ALIEN, for example, PROMETHEUS is a dud when it comes to that kind of suspense. It’s not that scary.

LS: Yes, I think this is one thing that should be pointed out. Even though PROMETHEUS is a prequel to ALIEN, it is not a horror movie. Sure, there are some scary creatures here, but overall, PROMETHEUS is more a movie about ideas. Maybe that’s what threw off the pacing for me. I thought it was building like a horror film, slowly ratcheting up the suspense, and it wasn’t. It’s not that kind of movie. While ALIEN was unabashedly a horror movie set on a space ship, PROMETHEUS is a science fiction film that doesn’t follow the same blueprint at all. It’s not meant to be a rehash of ALIEN. It’s a completely different animal.

MA: I agree with you, but the problem I have is that in spite of this, PROMETHEUS still gravitates towards the horrific, but unfortunately it’s rather tame horror. And then, getting back to it being a movie about ideas, it doesn’t finish the job by giving us a big payoff. I liked the fact that it was about ideas, but I wanted these thought-provoking ideas to take me somewhere.

The “Engineers,” for example, prove to be about as intellectual as the alien monsters themselves. PROMETHEUS is missing that grand moment when everything comes together and you say, “Wow!”

There’s no Wow.

LS: I think I agree with you on that. I think that’s another reason why I had a problem with the pacing. In a way, there is really no payoff. There is an ending—and a set up for a sequel, I should add—there are major things that happen, but you’re right. There’s no big Wow. The question is—can it still be a great movie without one?

MA: I found the screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof to be muddled. There were several moments where I found myself scratching my head, like when Captain Janek is suddenly talking about having to protect Earth from this alien race who has been building weapons of mass destruction. What weapons of mass destruction? And how does Janek know this?

LS: The weapons of mass destruction here are biological. The things in the pods. Those are the weapons. The alien ship is full of them. That’s how Janek knows—the same way we know.

MA: Yeah, I get that, but I found it an odd way of saying it, and for me it was a distraction. Why not just say these dudes are messing around with biological experiments so let’s get the hell out of here!

I also wondered why Peter Weyland was played by Guy Pearce in “old man” make-up. I thought perhaps it was because at some point in the story he’d somehow be getting younger. Nope.

I was also disappointed with the answer to the “Why were we created?” question. I don’t want to give anything away here, but I found the answer unimaginative and disappointing, which goes back to there not being a grand “Wow” moment.

LS: I didn’t think it was unimaginative at all. And if it was disappointing—well sometimes things in life are much more underwhelming than we had hoped.

MA: And I also was disappointed that the famous discovery early on in ALIEN, where the astronauts discover the giant alien pilot sitting in his ship with his chest cavity exploded, isn’t recreated here in PROMETHEUS. I thought sure that image would be one of the last images seen in this movie, but that’s not how things play out.

LS: Yes, that’s strange. The giant alien pilot is explained. In fact, it sounds like that’s the germ of where PROMETHEUS, the movie, springs from, in a way. But, you’re right, there’s no scene that exactly replicates that image from ALIEN.

MA: I wanted more of a direct connection between PROMETHEUS and ALIEN.

With or without the hype, I expected more from PROMETHEUS. I liked its imaginative visuals and storyline early on, but later, when I expected it to become very suspenseful and dark, it doesn’t cut it, mostly because it never gets all that dark. And I didn’t like the answers it provided to its thought-provoking questions.

LS: I think you were looking for a movie that was much more like ALIEN, and PROMETHEUS isn’t it, because it wasn’t meant to be. It’s a different kind of movie, and I actually found it refreshing that it didn’t follow the rules we expect from sequels and prequels. As for the answers, just because you are disappointed in them doesn’t mean they aren’t thought-provoking.

MA: But that’s why I was disappointed. I didn’t find them thought-provoking. Seriously, in terms of it being a movie about ideas, it’s no 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, that’s for sure!

I give it two knives.

LS: We sure disagree on this one. I think you’re the one who’s been sitting in the sun too long. Speaking of which, I think I’ll go back to working on my sun tan now.

MA: Okay. I think I’ll take this moon rover for a spin. Sure you don’t want to come along?

LS: Nah. I’m in the mood to relax and contemplate some thought-provoking questions.

MA: Really? Like life, the universe, and everything?

LS: No. Since we’ve got an unlimited budget here, I was wondering more about what I’m going to have for dinner. Steak or lobster?

(One of the monsters from ALIEN pops its oversized head out of the tent)

ALIEN: I’d recommend the steak! (hands LS a beer) Here you go buddy, thanks for watching my back!

MA: I should have known..

—END—.

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives PROMETHEUS ~ two knives!

LL Soares gives PROMETHEUS ~four knives.