A perfectly imperfect organism: The beautiful metamorphosis of the ‘Alien’ quadrilogy

“Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I’m going through” – David Bowie, Changes

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a f**king tourist.” – Guillermo del Toro

“Do what you haven’t done is the key, I think.” – Ridley Scott

Over the past few days there has been quite the influx of retrospectives regarding the Alien franchise. Such is the cycle of a franchise, particularly one that’s been around as long as this one.

Surely there will be much to be said of the first two film’s influence. There will be in-depth histories into the making of each, focusing once again (most likely) on the first two films and rightly so. Both Alien and Aliens are absolute masterclasses, representing the pinnacle of what can be achieved in their respective genres and their influence is obvious in just about subsequent, similar film that came afterwards. Released in 1979, Alien remains the standard of the wonders of horror and science fiction. Its sequel, Aliens, bares one of the distinct honors of being a rare sequel that meets the level of success its iconic predecessor if not wholly surpassing it. Much can also be said about the franchise’s refreshing and outright progressive steps in showcasing a genuinely badass female protagonist in the form of one Ellen Ripley, who actually showcases characterization outside of “badass female protagonist.” -COUGHJYNERSOCOUGH-

Reviewers will be quick to praise the success of these two films, all while quickly dismissing the two films that followed them (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection respectively). Now while these films are far, far, FAR from perfect, I argue they are also very far from terrible and in some respects even almost secretly phenomenal. Now you are well within your right to argue to the contrary but I posit that each and every one of these movies have merit and that’s what I’m here to convince you of here and now.

I’m here to put forth that this franchise deserves commendation for a reason I don’t see cited all that often by critics or fans and if I can somehow convince you to see this series out, then I call that a win for both of us.

The first four Alien films stand singularly as a franchise benefited by multiple cooks in the kitchen, not least of which is the fact that each sports a different director at the helm with Ridley Scott tasked with the first film, James Cameron the second, David Fincher the troubled-third and Jean-Pierre Jeunet bringing in the rear with the utterly insane (once thought to be) final chapter. The utterly unique thing about them combined is that none remotely resemble each other in regards to their tone. Each perfectly represents what their respective director brings the table and I absolutely love that. I’d argue it may just be the most director-driven franchise we’ve yet to see.

Much like the xenomorph itself, each entry adapts to the vision of its host or in this case, the director. Over the years, this monster has evolved and warped to whoever oversaw it. Like the Mad Max films, there isn’t too much of an emphasis on continuity but there is, at the very least, a through-line through the first four; that being Ripley (Signourney Weaver), the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and the xenomorph itself. So there is a cannon and I’m all for that, but there’s also wiggle room to take the story in directions free from the constraints of your typical, more episodic narrative. I’d almost argue the DVD/Blu-ray collection should be called the Alien Anthology rather than the Quadrilogy.

Now it’d be ridiculous to fully credit each of these movies to the efforts of a single person. As someone whose never fully subscribed to the auteur theory, I think the individuality of each entry can be attributed to small armies worth of folks both in-front of and behind the camera. Watch the bonus features on the Alien Quadrilogy box set (perhaps the greatest DVD/Blu-ray release of the past decade given the absolute wealth of material) and you’ll lose track of just how many people played in important part in each, a fact we often lose sight of with every movie. The BTS material on this set covers every single aspect of the production of each film, beginning with their origins and spanning all the way to the final product’s release and reception. Every individual interviewed is refreshingly candid, unafraid to share their personal thoughts regardless of whether it paints them in a pretty picture. The making of each entry is as interesting (if not more so) as the films themselves.

Also important to note that I’m really only going to get into the first four films as well as a little on Prometheus later on so that means no Alien vs. Predator or its equally terrible sequel.  I don’t really consider either of those movies to be honest-to-Ripley sequels because outside of featuring xenomorphs, they largely stand apart. The sooner I, and the world, can forget about scenes like the one below, the sooner we can heal.

Also those movie are lack any sort of merit beyond just being bad and I’m trying to bring us up rather than down…at least in relation to the first four films. There will be plenty of Prometheus-bashing soon.

I’m not divulging that in-depth in relation to the plot of these movies but there will be some frank discussion about plot points in each film in the series meaning of course the ending or major twists will come up at one point or another.

So yeah there are some spoilers, Nick.

Alien

The gist:

“After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious life-form, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.” – IMDb.com

So here’s our template, the movie that sets the tone for all that comes afterward. Almost all the major beats that take place a viewer from today may pass off as cliché neglecting the fact this is the film that not only created the cliché but perfected it. Typically, when EVERYTHING about a movie is iconic, it’s because more than one person was doing their job.

But another thing it deserves all the credit in the world for is just how dadgum relatable everything is. Yeah, I know. It takes place in space. Yeah, I know. There’s a face-hugging, chest-bursting monster at the center of it all. But as with the rest of these films, it’s really smart in its execution.

Our crew isn’t a group of scientists like in Prometheus. Nor are they an elite group of marines as in Aliens (with the term “elite” being used very, VERY liberally in this instance). They’re space truckers, and only one of them makes it out alive by the end. Even then, it’s by the absolute skin of her teeth. I think a lot of this reflects on the time this came out in the 1970s, where there was this larger push for the realistic; where films began to mirror documentaries in their presentation. Like A New Hope, Alien does not exist in a pristine future. It’s a world that’s been lived-in, where dated technology still exists and the grime carries over. This goes hand-in-hand with the way our character’s talk to one another. A lot has been said of the subtle yet noticeable way the crew talks over one another, similar to the way large groups of people do in real life. This is due to Scott trusting his actors in this case, allowing them to play off one another rather than fully adhering to the script.

It’s also incredibly important to point out how simple the whole affair is. The original theatrical cut clocks in at 117 minutes, chump change compared to today’s standard tent-pole but by no means a breezy movie either. But I can count only one hand how many major plot points there are, and I stress that the movie isn’t filler. It all comes down to the power of good pacing, matched with clever dialogue and stunning presentation.

In more cases than not, simple is the best option. Scott was setting out to make Dune (an adaptation he was originally supposed to direct funny enough before opting to do Blade Runner instead). There’s a much larger world in Alien, yes, but it’s at the service of the characters first. Go back and watch Alien and make a point to notice how all (or most) of the world-building is subjected largely to the background. That’s because Scott, at his best, is a MASTER CLASS world builder. When matched with a great screenplay, I argue he works best. It doesn’t hurt that he had the insight to bring in Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger to form his monster but everything involving the alien, ensuring a visual consistency on LV-426 and the crashed Space Jockey ship. I could go on but YouTuber kaptainkristian spoke in-depth on the matter and I’ll pass the baton off to him.

Another reason just about everyone loves (snobs and paupers alike) is that it appeases everyone’s sensibilities without ever once being condescending. It’s moody and dark, building tension to white-knuckle levels (Dallas in the vents), and it provides the ever-important gore (the chest-burster). Science fiction fans love the hardware, but those who don’t are never bored with techno-babble. It’s progressive in how it doesn’t fit any of its character into a box. No one is a damsel or tasteless stereotype. 

It checks off every box, making for as perfect of a film as there ever has been. I’d be lying if I thought it even needed a sequel let alone a franchise. But seeing as it made an estimated ALL OF THE MONEY in 1979, a sequel was all but assured. The question was however would said sequel be more of the same, but on a bigger scale or a different experience altogether set within the same world. The answer was a resounding….yes/no.

Aliens

“Fifty seven years after Ellen Ripley survived her disastrous ordeal, her escape vessel is recovered after drifting across the galaxy as she slept in cryogenic stasis. Back on Earth, nobody believed her story about the “Aliens” on the moon LV-426. After the “Company” orders the colony on LV-426 to investigate, however, all communication with the colony is lost. The Company enlists Ripley to aid a team of tough, rugged space marines on a rescue mission to the now partially terraformed moon to find out if there are aliens or survivors. As the mission unfolds, Ripley will be forced to come to grips with her worst nightmare, but even as she does, she finds that the worst is yet to come.” – IMDb.com

Hard to ever really accurately gauge but if I were to make an informed guess, I’d say Aliens is the fan favorite. I’d certainly argue this as I’d say it is hands-down my favorite two films as well.

Something that’s been noted in recent years is that Aliens, for all its bells and whistles, is practically the exact same movie as Alien in that it hits a lot of the same narrative beats. The key difference is where Scott took us inward, favoring claustrophobia and paranoia; director James Cameron went much bigger, favoring action beats and encompassing scope. The connecting tissue (at least thematically) is that bigger themes weren’t lost in the shuffle.

Cameron took the mantle from Scott effortlessly, taking the world he had established without going too large. This is a tight-rope too many sequels fall short of, simply taking a “bigger is better” approach. Aliens growth all flows naturally. Informed by the insect-like design of the monster, Cameron built on that and made his monsters hive-based going so far as to have a queen. Informed by the treachery of Ash in the last film, Cameron plays with our expectations with Bishop and allows for ready-made tension. 

For all intents and purposes Aliens is an action blockbuster but as with a majority of Cameron’s films, it is an exceedingly intelligent one. Too often I see folks criticize the space marines for being one-dimensional, but Cameron and the cast do an incredibly skillful job at characterizing them all. Who is to say we really need to hear the life-story of all of these guys and gals? There’s a great deal many more of them than there were Nostromo crew members, so efficiency is key. Largely, we get all the info we really need within a few seconds of meeting each new squad member.

I love, love, love that most action-oriented of the series is the most about female empowerment as well. The image of Ripley we so often see is the one she becomes in this movie, and the great thing is that it doesn’t just happen. Ripley just barely survived the film and it had a great deal to do with luck. This is Weaver’s best outing with the character by a large margin reflected by the fact she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her efforts; something typically unheard of for science fiction and horror.

She plays Ripley as a woman looking to find her footing in an unfamiliar world. In the Director’s Cut, we learn that her daughter died while she was floating around in space. The only thing left to her is her cat (who really needed an epilogue now that I think about it). Deciding to return to LV-426, she finds a new purpose in Newt and in doing so reclaims that lost motherhood.

This plays larger into her conflict with the Alien Queen during the film’s climax (given Ripley saw fit to torch all of her babies), which boils down the movie to a knock-out, drag-down war for motherhood told through the prism of an old-fashioned war story.

It’s easily the most accessible of the four as well. Where Alien and Alien 3 may (wrongly) be accused of being “boring” and Resurrection too weird, Aliens is just the right mix of action/horror/comedy that reaches a wide audience. It’s no coincidence that, in many cases, some saw this movie before Alien.

And that accessibility without sacrificing genuine storytelling is something I don’t think Cameron gets nearly enough kudos for.  He’s been credited for raising the bar of where effects can take us time and time again, but he always does so in a way that compliments the story too. Sure, he can be written off as unoriginal but more often than not he’s falling back on the grand tradition of acquiring a previous work and running with it.

Aliens represents a sequel done not just well, but perfectly. Anything that followed would have considerable shoes to fill. Unfortunately, the series really never recaptures the glory of its first two films. But as I said before, that doesn’t mean the two final films were failures. In fact, I argue they’re secret successes.

Alien 3

“After escaping from the alien moon, the ship carrying Ellen Ripley crashes onto a remote and inhabited ore refinery. While living in the ore refinery until she is rescued by her employers, Ripley discovers the horrifying reason for her crash: An alien stowaway. As the alien matures and begins to kill off the inhabitants, Ripley is unaware that her true enemy is more than just the killer alien.” – IMDb.com

When I talk about Alien 3, I get kind of defensive due in no small part to the involvement of director David Fincher, a man for whom I give a great deal of admiration to.

I’ll concede that the theatrical cut is a bit of a mess, a clear victim of retooling and cuts. The effects are also a series low point when it comes to seeing a dog-like xenomorph (or a cow as is the case in the Director’s cut) fully in motion. This is something I think speaks more to the limitations of technology at the time and its an admittedly a cool idea to give us a new type of creature, enhanced by a canine rather than a human. It branches out the mythos in a subtle way rather than immediately throwing elephant xenos or tiger xenos. That said the effect looks pretty bad even by early 90’s standards and probably could have used some re-tooling.

I’m mainly drawing from the 2003 Assembly Cut, a version of the film that is exactly what it sounds like. Adding in about 37 minutes of new or unused footage, this version fits in line more with Fincher’s original vision. Now it too isn’t a perfect movie, but I’d wager it’s a much more complete, comprehensible of the narrative. Not that I fault the studio all that much for making the cuts they did.

If one watches the BTS features on the Quadrilogy set (something I once again whole heartedly recommend), you’ll pick up on the fact that making each one of these movies was an absolute nightmare. Based on the production stories from Alien 3‘s surprisingly frank making-of documentaries, it’s a minor miracle that the either cut of the film is watchable at all.

Where Aliens was a big, loud, bombastic statement, Alien 3 brings everything inward; it cleans the slate, bringing everything back to a simplistic core. What it lacks in scope however it more than makes up with lofty ideas and imagery. It’s the closest the series has to an art film, something I attribute to Fincher and the early involvement of Vincent Ward, who brought forth a lot of religious context and themes to his original vision before Fincher took over. Fincher, to his credit, scaled things back considerably in favor of taking the series back to its roots. 

The last film sought to build Ripley up, elevating her to the badass we see often in the iconography.  Too often we neglect Alien 3 however, the movie that brought her right back down to lowest point we had yet to see her.

I think a lot of the hate this movie receives deals largely with the fact it is almost nothing like its largely revered predecessor. It’s in no way a fun movie and it isn’t a summer blockbuster. Hell, our movie opens with the death of Newt and Hicks. In the Assembly Cut, Newt’s autopsy is a critical scene for Ripley. There are very, very few scenes of levity to balance everything out so it is a really long, dour affair at the end of the day. I argue Fincher’s best stuff is pretty bleak though. He’s dabbled in darker comedy (Fight Club) and even prestige, feel-good whimsy (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but his greatest movies (Seven, Zodiac, Gone Girl) match his (presumably) dark soul.

In Fincher’s hands, Alien 3 is an excursion into nihilism on a dilapidated, claustrophobic prison planet populated by celibate fundamentalist prisoners so it at least removes the immediate threat of sexual violence where they’re concerned which is refreshing. The xenomorph, in all its forms, is kind of one big sexual allegory any way so to add that unpleasant layer would have in no doubt been a major detractor given this series is sort of built upon “subtle” sexual imagery due in no small part to the involvement of Giger.

However I must concede that Alien 3 never fully recovers from just how bleak it is. Still there is a lot to be said about its stylistic bravado and the courage it has in taking the series’ darkest turns. Killing of Ripley was a bold, fitting move and one almost wishes this had been the final chapter. She and the xenomorph go down together, their fates forever entwined and closed.

But alas, nothing ends in Hollywood as long as there is money to be made.

Alien: Resurrection

“200 years after the conclusion of Alien 3, the Company is able to resurrect Ripley through the process of cloning and the scientists successfully take the Queen Alien out of her. But, Ripley’s DNA gets mixed up with the Queen’s and she begins to develop certain alien characteristics. The scientists begin breeding the aliens, but they later escape. Soon the Xeno-morphs are running amok on the ship, which is on course to Earth. The Queen then gives birth to a deadly new breed of alien, which could spell disaster for the entire human race. It’s up to Ripley and a band of space pirates to stop the ship before it reaches Earth.” – IMDb.com

At last, we arrive at the black sheep of the family.

Alien: Resurrection is hands down one of the most insane wide-releases I think a major studio has put out in the past 3 or 4 decades. It’s just so utterly bizarre it deserves a litany of think-pieces examining just how this storm came together.

Weirdly enough, it’s also the one that seems to have gotten the least amount of studio notes.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had only done two movies at this point and had yet to complete the film for which he will forever be associated: Amélie.

Suffice to say, he doesn’t automatically scream franchise material. Let alone the million dollar behemoth that the Alien franchise represented at the time and unlike Fincher, I don’t think the studio hired him to be some puppet to blindly accept notes. I think this movie really only represents Jeunet’s single stab at making a Hollywood movie, and it’s really fun to see what exactly he brought to the table having since seen him find his groove outside of the system.

Oh and did I mention the screenplay comes from nerd messiah Joss Whedon? Now this may seem like an odd fit, but if you actually watch the movie you see Whedon’s finger prints all over the damn thing with all of its quippy dialogue (at inopportune times) and playful jabs at genre conventions. There’s even a pre-Firefly wacky family dynamic with the crew of the Beatty; not to mention Whedon inherits one of the most empowered female leads in cinematic history, something he made a staple throughout his work. (That said, it makes no logical sense to have Ripley be in this outside of just finding an excuse to include Weaver and the reason provided for Ripley’s “resurrection” is quite the stretch. Then again, a stupid cloning aspect fits in perfectly with all of the other stupid shit celebrated therein.)

To be fair to Whedon, he’s gone on record more than once that he’s not a fan of the final product. He’s quoted as saying:

“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”

All credit to Whedon and he is fully entitled to his own opinion (it is a screenplay he wrote after all), but I humbly disagree. I think this a movie exudes a confidence that a lot of others of its scale at the time lacked and in that we find the spectacle.

You can almost get the sense Jeunet wanted to go crazier but was limited by plausibility and budget…probably the studio to a degree as well. This is the rare entry that probably could have used a bit more supervision to be sure. Frustratingly enough however, its utter insanity is what most elevates the movie from a forgettable chapter to arguably the most memorable if only for what your mind is assaulted with. It carries an odd integrity, consisting more of half-formed ideas combined with the ambitions of a French madman.

The one (of many) stupid things that probably could have used a touch up was….this stupid thing.

Look at its stupid face.

And my problem is more of nitpick because this…thing is supposed to be a half xenomorph/half human hybrid….even though the xenomorph is already supposed to be a half human hybrid. That said, I give it a pass because we get to see it die in a fashion that remains unmatched in the annals of cinema.

An element worth commendation that the movie never really executes is how it finally somewhat explores  the series-long thread of weaponizing the xenomorph. There’s a truly unsettling scene early on where the military is “farming” the aliens with live, human hosts they’ve essentially kidnapped. Unfortunately really never goes too in-depth with this aspect. It’d be interesting if a future movie examined this further.

While Resurrection is probably the weakest movie of all four, it features enough strong scenes like the one I just mentioned to keep it from devolving into simple schlock. It’s a roundtable movie, demanding discussion that all fall prey to it.

So while far from perfect, the Alien franchise had submitted its place as perhaps the most diverse cinematic franchise up to that point in that each entry represented something new, something different, something exciting. No two entries were ever the same. They didn’t always land, but they were distinct. In a world where studios are more concerned with consistency and inter-connecting episodic threads rather than something so risky, these movies would be downright revolutionary. 

Then Ridley Scott came back and fucked everything up…

Perhaps it’s unfair to join the masses in beating a long dead horse, airing my complains about a movie I’ve made sure to harp on in the past so I’m going to be as concise as I can before I send you out on your way. I could dedicate more than a few thousand words regarding plot holes, but that would be screaming into the abyss at this point. Add in the fact redlettermedia took on that task much more eloquently and concisely than I ever could.

Unlike AliensPrometheus doesn’t take risks with tone. It plays things safe, something no other entry had done up to that point. I can’t really stand on a chair above it, pretending I know what would have made a better movie or even that it’s a lazy movie. The production design and effects, for what they’re worth, clearly had a lot of effort put into them. It’s nice to say basic effort at least carried over where the visuals were concerned.

It would be unfair to say the movie is without merit and had it nothing to do with the world Scott helped begin all those decades ago, I’m sure my displeasure with it would have been tempered. In fact, I may have even enjoyed it a little bit more…not by much, but at least a little. The notion of Scott returning to a genre he helped define was enough to make one giddy. However it instead came off as Scott painting-by-numbers rather than be the innovator we all know him to be.

It was Alien but with a shittier coat of paint. Sure, it looks nice and new but the old layer hadn’t remotely begun to chip yet. There’s nothing distinctly praise-worthy about Prometheus outside of its visuals, a couple of half-baked unanswered questions and Michael Fassender’s turn as the android David, a character so developed and nuanced he’s a disservice to everyone else who comes off as flat and one-dimensional.

The comparisons to its forebear would have been there with Scott’s involvement alone but instead its hitched its trailer to a franchise it initially appears to share very little connective tissue with outside of its hard R-rating. I think this can possibly be faulted to pre-release build up that really wasn’t clear whether the film was indeed a prequel rather than a science fiction in the same vein as Alien. Given we now know it is a prequel, I believe comparisons are completely fair.

I hate accusations that a lot of hardcore Alien fans dismiss this movie because it “breaks from the formula.” This is something Scott has said in promoting the newest film, adding this is what led to said film’s creation and implying he’s “giving us what we want to see.”

I’ll get into it more in a bit, but this is probably the thing that enrages me most about Prometheus as a whole. It suggests we want to be spoon-fed rather than surprised. I could be wrong given how much money movies like the Beauty and the Beast remake make every year. It suggests audiences typically only want the same thing time after time. Sure, we love familiarity but there’s room for new stuff too…he said kind of simplistically.

Well if you want the same thing, look no further than Prometheus; a movie that could best be described as if Alien thought its audience consisted of nothing but morons. Where Alien had characters that felt like actual people, Prometheus “elevates” itself with dialogue no human being (not even a scientist) would utter.

Maybe it just falls back to personal preference. Where the characters in Alien were largely concerned about things like overtime and pay checks, the Prometheus crew are concerned with intangible concepts. “Is there a God?’ “Who made us?” “Why did he/she/it make us?” “Did I leave the stove light on?” These are not inherently boring ideas. They could be pretty interesting if framed properly. But Prometheus doesn’t really go for that. It largely hinges on the mystery. But in asking so many questions, it never really feels the need to answer any of them, leading to frustration. In a way, it undermines what made the original so great in the first place, complicating things that shouldn’t be all that complicated.

And it extends to matters beyond just dialogue as well. Whenever a new threat presents itself, the crew of the Nostromo make a point to map out to a degree their next course of action and in turn this allows us a chance to know them specifically as characters. The Prometheus crew, which I must remind you we are led to believe is a group of trained scientists that represent the highest potential in their respective fields (otherwise why else would they be recruited for potentially THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY OF ALL TIME), lumber around like idiots, never really taking any time to discuss any intimidate action. We’re granted plenty of questions, but literally no payoff.

Hence my lack of excitement for the impending release of Alien: Covenant, yet another entry by Scott. From the grapevine I hear word that it is a soft reboot, meaning it is a reboot in everything but name so therefore could also be considered a prequel and/or sequel. There’s connective threads to what came before, but everything else is entirely new. Think of the Force Awakens, Jurassic World or the movie I just got done bitching about Prometheus as recent examples.

I have yet to see it, but I predict my reaction may be akin to how I gradually felt about Jurassic World, another soft reboot. I’m excited at first, seeing a franchise return to its roots but cools every single time I watch afterword.

Given it’s attached to Prometheus (thereby….sigh….attaching the two franchises), I also assume it’s a prequel. If there’s anything I didn’t need it was where the xenomorph came from. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but this is a monster that was much more interesting when my mind was allowed to fill in the gaps. Given they’re creatures that we’re not really ever asked to feel sympathy for (well, most of the time), in what instance is an origin needed.

One of the great joys in Alien is our characters land on LV-426, find a downed space ship they know nothing about. All we know is some insane parasitic creature has killed everyone on said ship, thereby making the jump to humans. Who is to say what they originally looked like? That’s never been a question lingering in my mind. I always viewed as this brilliant/terrifying coincidence that humans ran into this species at all. And as kaptainkristian pointed out so truthfully in his video essay, this is a creature we understand without any explanation. Thanks to the design, we fundamentally understand all three life stages of the xenomorph without all our characters gathered around a table to exposit each stage’s purpose.

And that’s why it sucks (to me) why Scott has saw fit to apparently take this series back under his wing, favoring a unified vision rather than experimentation. I fear we’re only going to get the same variation of the same movie year after year, joining the rank-and-file series it once set itself apart from. This isn’t to say I’m not in favor of a director overseeing an entire series. Without going down the entire list we have Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, James Gunn with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy for some prime examples. I’m simply arguing we could use more room for franchises that mix things up by letting new directors with different visions mess around and not in the same way as the James Bond series does, a franchise so beholden to its own formula it’s a point of humor in later installments.

Imagine how much more interesting if the Pirates of Caribbean series would have been if it ditched an over-arching narrative in favor of new directions with each entry? Much like the Back to the Future films, it dedicated its second and third to go hand-in-hand, leading to two movies that just sort of bleed into another without each really making a substantial impression. Whereas I argue the latter BtF films are marginally better, Pirates kept going after its original trilogy and appears to be going for something I’d initially consider a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it kind of comes too late. On Stranger Tides was so forgettable I struggle to remember a single thing that happened in or if I saw it all, and Dead Men Tell No Tales looks to be in the same vein. What that series could have benefited from is a new director each time, maybe focusing on someone other than Jack Sparrow and ditching a traditional arc; opting instead to bring us to new locales and adventures each outing.

This all wraps into why I’m here today, making a case for a series many dismiss as formulaic when in fact it’s a franchise (that once) was something special, something that changed from movie in the way a musical artist plays around with different genres; artists like Kanye West, Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Gorillaz and Bob Dylan.

I think we’ve largely grown complacent with sequels that barely register as mildly entertaining, and for what’s worth that’s not exactly the worst thing, but it also doesn’t really get the blood-pumping in a serious way either.

When you look back at the original four Alien films, you see a new vision each time. You see risk rather than safe, lazy imitation. For all its faults, Fox inadvertently created a highly, unique franchise (something that’s clear given they kept trying to bring back Scott and Cameron throughout the years), set apart from just about anything else of its scale in the Western studio system.

Does everything work? No. Not by a long shot but in a cinescape dominated by the “safe” and “episodic” there should still be room for a series that doesn’t adhere to a code, and mixes things up even if there are mistakes. So what if every beat doesn’t always land when the jump was completely watchable?

I argue these movies are anything but formulaic. There may be beats you expect, but tonally they could not be any more different. They match the tastes of four incredibly masterful and diverse directors, each sporting an entirely different feel than the last.

I can’t sit here and tell you what I want out of an Alien movie because my “dream Alien film” is one that I wouldn’t expect or at the very least one that is set apart from its predecessors. It would be one that does what this series and its monster (used) to do best: evolve.

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‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ impresses with its maturity and continued personality

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to keep some resemblance of consistency, I’m actually getting another review out the gate faster than I thought I would. I’ve written a review for almost every Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World and Ant Man) since Iron Man so I wanted to get this out there as quickly as I could. Actually really liking the movie didn’t hurt either. 

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is definitively my favorite of the Marvel Studios’ canon at present period. I wouldn’t say there was a single terrible movie in the batch. It mainly falls to some being much more memorable than the others, and out of all of them I’d wager Guardians is the one to beat in that regard.

My review of the first film can be found here.

Writer/director James Gunn just brought such a voice to that film movie it  transcended beyond anything the company had done up to that point. Much credit to Marvel for actually allowing the guy to down his thing albeit within the confines of their big picture. I just wish the same sort of situation could have worked out for Edgar Wright and his Ant Man movie which I would have thought to the be the one that topped Guardians but I digress.

Going into the sequel, I didn’t have much doubt I’d enjoy it particularly since Gunn was coming back along with the entire original cast. The question was whether it could actually surpass the original. Too often sequels go too big, favoring familiar rather than innovation. Luckily Gunn is a smart enough filmmaker to largely bypass some sequel (Chris) prat falls other directors do, delivering a product that may not be as good as its predecessor but comes mighty damn close in some respects.

This will be a spoiler free review, Nick.

The plot:

“Set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

Thankfully that all important personality I was drowning on and on about in the preface carries over here, almost even more so. There are so many weird things I want to talk about because Gunn goes for some off-the-beaten path pulls this time around. I remember freaking out in the first film when he went so far as to include Howard the Duck (who returns briefly) near the end. Here we have Ego the Living Planet as a major character as well as shout-outs to the original Guardians of the Galaxy (led by an actor I’m surprised wasn’t included in the marketing more) and even the Watchers.

Pardon me as a scratch off yet another thing I assumed I’d NEVER see in a major motion picture.

It’s also a movie bursting to the brim with color, unafraid to embrace an entire palate rather than brood in the shadows providing yet another line-in-the-sand for Marvel against their distinguished competition over at DC.

Gunn is our sole credited writer this time out and it shows, given this movie does something almost unthinkable in relation to the sequel-dominated cinescape we find ourselves in today: rather than expanding this insane universe, Gunn brings us inward. At times, this movie is downright intimate; given that once again a talking raccoon and sentient tree are major characters, this is all the more shocking.

From the offset, Gunn shows us how these characters have changed since last we met. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is a little less reckless, recognizing himself as the caretaker of his team’s larger-than-life personalities. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is less hardened, actually opening herself up to genuine care and affection. The same could be said of Drax (Dave Bautista), who is downright jovial this time around. Conversely, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a much more bitter; his wise cracks sporting a sharper edge.

Also Groot (Vin Diesel) is now a baby….referred to as Baby Groot, obviously.

Oh by the way, Gunn communicates all this subtly within the first ten minutes of the film; no easy feat to be sure, particularly just how many characters I just listed without even getting to the rest of the returning cast and new recruits.

Largely focused on the idea of a family being what you make of it (much like the first film), Vol 2 splits our characters off from one another for portions of the film, partnering them up with another guardian as to allow for some further development/playing of each other in different ways. 

Think of it like the fourth season of Arrested Development only here we actually have multiple scenes of the entire family altogether.

As you may have guessed, the story kind of takes a back seat in this entry leaving a film that is much more leisurely in its pacing. The larger MCU doesn’t really factor into the events, leaving our characters to take the reigns which I actually ended up liking quite a bit. It doesn’t hurt that these are such lovable and weird characters obviously.

The cast is again uniformly outstanding. Dave Bautista’s Drax is yet again the comedic highlight and in many ways come to represent the heart of this franchise. He gets to spend some quality time with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a personal favorite of mine from the comics. Their interactions are basically everything I wanted and more, leading to some of the movie’s funniest bits.

I was kind of worried Marvel was going to lean in really hard on Baby Groot, who is obviously very adorable, but luckily he’s used effectively and more or less sparingly.

If the movie were to belong to anyone in front of the camera, it’d be Gunn mainstay Michael Rooker pictured below with a local drunk.

Rooker’s Yondu is partnered with Rocket and the two really get down to the nitty gritty as to why their characters are they way that they are, both of whom share arguably the best arcs in the entire film. Quill’s notion of “building your family around” is something that obviously stemmed from Yondu, and is explored to poignant effect here.

Rooker’s one of those character actors that is basically good in everything he appears in, which is no easy feat given the sheer scope of his body of work as a character is. Seriously go check out his IMDb page and come back. So know I’m serious when I say this may just be his best performance to date. I won’t divulge into specifics but the movie’s best beats (both comedic and dramatic) all go to him, and I feel it’s a performance we’ll all be talking about for a while. Given the guys super talented, it should come as no surprise and it’s awesome to see Gunn give his friend such a hefty role in such a huge movie. Not that he needs it, but I hope this means we’ll only see more of him in bigger films.

This film also passes the bechdel test, which is something I always like noting in major blockbusters. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, perhaps the least developed of the guardians, is given much more time with her adopted “sister” Nebula, played by my favorite companion Karen Gillan. The two share quite a few nice story beats throughout, playing once again into the whole family theme.

If anyone gets shortchanged, oddly enough it’d be Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, who is paired with his father Ego (of course he’s played by Kurt Russell). Pratt really doesn’t do a whole lot another the final act and it’s not like he’s out of commission a majority of the movie. He’s just a lot lest dynamic to the plot outside of he’s just met his apparent father. To go another further would be too spoiler-y, but even though it’s kind of late in the game, Pratt is consistently in his element here. Unlike Jurassic World or Interstellar, Pratt is the perfect quasi-level headed mantle piece for this insane galaxy to rest its shoulders. He’s an insanely charismatic everyman, unafraid to look stupid or take a joke at his expense.

So if I were to take any qualms with this one it’d be that it’s almost too easy on plotting, drifting off in some sections where some tightening could have been beneficial. This becomes increasingly apparent during the middle section where we linger on beats that drag on just a tad too long. This becomes jarring once things ramp up in the third act and we have action happening at a lighting fast rate.

The film’s soundtrack, following in the footsteps of the unlikely mega-hit that was the Awesome Mix, Vol 1, is similar to the film itself in that it is perfectly great but just not up to the exact bar of its predecessor. Their are certainly some stellar tracks put into play here though with my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all time being the largest standout for me personally.

Although Glen Campbell’s inclusion was also a worthy of note too, particularly the ludicrously silly scene it accompanies.

To be a nitpick, I’d argue the songs in the first film “fit better” in that each and every one was obviously carefully picked one-by-one as to go specifically with each scene in which it appears. Vol. 2‘s soundtrack, while also doing this to a degree, feels just a little bit more like an oldies jukebox. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It kind of just boils down to personal preference. It comes no where near the level of ego/incompetence behind the ADD music cues in Suicide Squad, which were part showing off and part shamelessly attempting to emulate the success of the first Guardian‘s soundtrack.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release.

I for one can’t wait to see this motley crew back in both Avengers 3 and the third (and presumably final) film with Gunn on writing and directing duties. Like it or not (why would you not), Gunn has carved out a whole universe for himself; largely undictated by the larger demands of the MCU and a sandbox for which he and his team may let their collective imagination run rampant.

‘The Martian’ and ‘Sicario’ highlight the best and worst humanity has to offer

Curious how two major releases this past weekend would, while being utterly different, compliment each other so well.

As I write this, I am laying on my bed hating life. Today I had to have 5 cavities filled and I now know the valuable lesson of going to the dentist every six months. (Ah to have dental coverage again. I’m going to  soak it up as long as I can.) I write this only as an excuse to how drug-addled my ramblings are about to be.

Let me be upfront and say that you aren’t going to go wrong with either one of these movies. It just boils down to what you’re in the mood for. If you’re ready for some hope, excitement, and fun than I’d say The Martian is probably your best bet. But if you’re in the mood for some white-knuckle tension, haunting yet often-time stunning visuals and a cinematic experience that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater, than give Sicario a shot.

The Martian 

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The plot:

“During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I am in no way, shape or form a scientist. I do not claim to be an expert in any sort of scientific field. If anything, I take the Jesse Pinkman route when it comes to understanding any given science. I know very little but what I do know I get very excited about…

Or better yet…

That being said, I love a good “Huzzaw for science!”  movie. They’re starting to come out with a somewhat relative frequency, particularly ones that take place in space. Last year we saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the year before that we got Gravity. (I’m sure I’m missing some fantastic examples in the interim but let’s keep it general.) The Martian is the newest addition to the canon (if we can even call it that) and it may just well be the most enjoyable of the bunch. (I still love Gravity but I’d be a stone-faced liar if I didn’t say that is a movie not made for viewing on anything less than the biggest screen possible.)

Ridley Scott may just be the most prolific director Western cinema has to offer. You name a genre and the man has dabbled in it one way or another. Perhaps what he is best associated with though is his work in the science fiction genre. That being said, a great deal of his cinematic output over the past decade has been less than stellar to say the very least. I cannot stress this enough: RIDLEY SCOTT HAS NOTHING TO PROVE. He can make whatever he damn well pleases and I will see it nonetheless. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a return to form for the man. I mean, it’s Ridley Scott, but this movie is the return of Ridley Scott having fun or at the very least the fun he is having is being conveyed by the movie itself and the us, the audience, being allowed to have fun as well.

The Martian is a fairly simple story with a lot of complicated science thrown in that held the possibility of alienating a grand portion of the audience (myself included). Luckily the movie never (well sometimes) talks down to the audience for the most part. None of the scientists (well except one played by Donald Glover) act like this…

They work like actual scientists. There are only brief glimpses of nerdy high horses here. (One being an admittedly hilarious scene with Lord of the Rings references dropped made all the more hilarious with involvement of Sean Bean.) We also get a very likable main character that we actually want to see make it through this ordeal.

Matt Damon is perhaps the best choice to play Mark Watney. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Damon has this everyman charm that really sells the fucked situation he now finds himself in. It’s rather important we like the character (and actor) that we are about to be stuck with for the next two hours, and Damon’s Watney is that right mix of really smart but lighthearted enough to where we actually want to see him make it through this and not feel like being with him and him alone is a chore. Damon does a really good job at keeping the situation light by cracking a lot of jokes (the guy is an incredibly underrated comedic actor as his 30 Rock appearances would attest) but he is a good enough dramatic actor to sell us on some of the more dire scenes as well. There is a scene after an airlock explosion when he’s trying to count potatoes during the storm just floored me. He has created flimsy protection to cover the gaping hole that is now in his shelter. He knows full well that if his makeshift repair gives out, that’s it he’s dead. He portrayed that raw emotion of refusing to give in yet knowing that he could literally die at any moment amazingly well. Their is an incredibly annoying noise from the tarp reminding him how close to death he is while he’s trying to concentrate was so clearly grating on him without him saying anything or even looking at it. I doubt he’ll be in the Best Actor race come awards season but he did a great job here in a role that could have easily been annoying or bland.

The rest of the cast (Watney’s crew mates on the Aries III returning back from Mars and NASA back on earth) is comprised of characters that basically serve as means to an end but are played by some of the best actors and actresses Hollywood has to offer. Scott pulled no punches in casting this thing. Big names like Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Sean Bean and Donald Glover all appear and if this movie were to have any sort of major flaw it would be that some of these utterly great talents feel kind of wasted. It’s like casting Bryan Cranston in your movie and killing him off 30 minutes in. 

Having just read the bestselling book this movie is based over the summer, I still have a pretty good handle on what the filmmakers kept and did away with in the adaptation process and for the most part everything made it through. There were some tweaks here and there (the climax is a bit different here and goes a bit more fantastical than the science-first stance the book takes) but all of the major beats are the same with even some of Mark’s best one-liners coming to life such as the now famous, “Science the shit out of this” and “Fuck you, Mars.”

Speaking of Mars, this movie is assisted immensely by the decision not to show Mars as a CGI-exclusive landscape. Instead, the filmmakers opted to go out and use actual (remember those?!) locations in Jordan as well as enormous sound stages. The immensity and barrenness of these locations help add a further isolation to Watney’s situation as well as give some stunning visuals assisted by CGI rather than depending on them.

I also need to go out on the record and say this movie was so much easier to sit through than last year’s Interstellar. While it may not be fair to compare the two, the have similar themes beyond just being “space movies.” Whereas that movie often felt almost too self-important (Love truly is the only thing that transcends time and space, guys!) and often monotonous, this movie was pretty breezy and never once felt its length. I attribute that to neither of the parallel story-lines (one in space, one back on earth) felt more important and more entertaining than the other. In Interstellar, the earth sections felt unnecessary and could have easily been trimmed or cut completely. Here, both stories are compelling enough to sustain their own respective film but this movie finds that sweet spot where both play off one another in way that neither is cheated for time. This movie also doesn’t force a contrived villain in the story (which Matt Damon played in the earlier movie ironically enough). The only “villain” is space, and the conflict is survival. It’s rather refreshing to have a movie where scientists are allowed to act like scientists and face actually scientist problems. There are no cliched asshole politician characters nor another survivor on Mars that is trying to kill Mark for his supplies.

And that leads me to this film’s biggest strength (at least in my non-professional opinion) and that is how much it fucking cheers for humanity. More often than not, science fiction is genre that speaks to our failings as a species. It serves as a commentary for whatever short fall we find ourselves in now. There isn’t a lot of hope in our future according science fiction. So it’s refreshing to see a quasi-movement in the genre to fight for a better tomorrow.  While it was flawed, Tomorrowland was another movie that tried to spell out how fucking great humans can be when we get past our in-fighting and such nonsense. Similarly, The Martian gives us a world where people of different nationalities put aside all the bullshit to bring back one guy safely. When we see someone in trouble, the best of us rise to the occasion. When we see some psycho has committed some heinous deed, we shouldn’t look to the pathetic asshole committed the crime but the people stepping up to undo the damage. When a natural disaster hits and we see the devastation; don’t look to the wreckage, look to those rushing in asking what they can do to help. This isn’t a “Fuck yeah, USA!” movie. This is a “Fuck yeah, the human race!” movie, and I often need a reminder of how great, just how fucking great, we can be sometimes even if it has to take place in a fictional world where NASA is acutally afforded the money to reach its potential.

Sicario

sicario

The plot:

“When the drug raid worsens in the USA and Mexico border region, the USA government sent a passionate and idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macer in a mission to eradicate the drug cartel network of Manuel Diaz, who responsible for a bombing which killed the members of her team- with the help from Alejandro, a hit-man- which in Spanish called ‘Sicario’.” – IMDb.com

The review:

God, I love a good bleak movie to counterpoint all that “hope” from the last movie. I love a movie that sings a siren song to the bitter, slimy, heaving, little pustule that is my cynical heart. Oh, Sicario. Sing me your bleak, drug-funded, blood-soaked melody!

Denis Villeneuve has risen to the ranks as one of the best directors currently working today. His last four films (IncendiesPrisonersEnemy and now Sicario) are all bitter pills but all equally stunning in different ways. As a director, he reminds me of David Fincher (not in a copycat way, but in his choice of scripts and the way his movies are paced and directed as well as his constant collaboration with only the best cinematographers in the business) which if you know anything about my taste in movies that that is a very, VERY good thing.

Speaking of Fincher, this movie reminded me a lot of Se7en, in that this movie is incredibly tense and incredibly bleak. All those looking for a movie to provide you with a happy little narrative bow need not apply as you will not find it here. This movie is an unflinching look at the War on Drugs, and without spoon feeding or sugar coating it for the audience, and informs us just how fucked up and utterly hopeless the situation is.

The action is played for tenseness(?) instead of spectacle which to me is a million times more effective. For example, there is a shootout that takes place on a crowded highway. A more conventional director probably would have actually had the focus be the shootout with guys doing badass moves highlighted with flashy, over-the-top editing or lots and lots of slow motion. Here, the build up to the shoot out is the main course with the actual shoot out being the cherry on top. Like any good horror movie, it is almost a billion times more memorable to raise the tension so high that aftermath is almost irrelevant. You need to feel like you have literal anchor in your stomach that only gets heavier with each passing second. That tension is what sucks you into the scene. The release will come but until then you are the utter mercy of the director, editor, and all involved. A truly talented team makes this shit look easy buy pulling you in so close that you forget you’re watching a movie only have them surprise you with a knife right to the heart.

Before I get to the actors, I have to talk about who the most obvious star of this movie is and that is of course Roger Deakins’ cinematography. I think I’ve spent more time drooling over this man’s work than any other person (director, actor, actress, screenwriter, etc) working in the film industry. It’s just absolutely incredible what this man does with lighting, camera placement and tracking. AND HE STILL HAS YET TO WIN AN OSCAR.

I highly expect him to get nominated next year only to lose once again to Emmanuel “I have won two years in a row” Lubezki’s work on the upcoming The Revenant, which by all accounts is going to be revolutionary. (Hard to argue given what we see in the trailer AND the fact that the man only worked with natural lighting which is just downright insane given this movie appears to take place exclusively outdoors.) Still, Deakins delivers visuals that escalate the story beyond anything a lesser cinematographer would have brought to the table. His flyover shots here. Be still my beating heart. The pair (Villeneuve and Deakins) are apparently set to team up once again for the upcoming (and no longer unnecessary given these two are working on it) Blade Runner sequel.

Now onto the cast. All are great but I want to speak specifically about two in particular. A lot has been said about Emily Blunt’s role here. Some say its sexist how she’s edged out of her own movie in favor of a man. Others counter that it is a larger statement on women’s role in the world as a whole. I can’t argue for either. I personally saw her as the perfect lead (until a point) for the kind of story being told here. Much like the audience, she isn’t informed on the situation. When she gets information, so do we. She isn’t some unstoppable badass. She’s someone who is good at her job, but not an unstoppable force.  She is an audience surrogate and a very-well written and acted one at that.

-Mild Spoilers Ahead-

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It should be no secret (as the marketing has made it pretty clear) that there is something rather..let’s say shady about Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro. Well there is, and then some! I won’t spoil the reveal (although it isn’t THAT big of a shocker if you’ve seen any movie or television show relating to the cartel) but it is dramatically important that viewers not be spoiled given some of the big surprises this movie throws at you with his characters involvement. Throughout the most of the movie, he is a presence. His often lurking silently, more of a presence than a character, only giving us little glimpses at the man beneath instead of the animal we eventually see the U.S. has unleashed upon cartel. (Never have I seen a wet willy used so menacingly.) It’s about the last quarter of the movie where the film switches perspectives from Blunt’s character to del Toro’s and once it happens the film kicks from an already high 10 to an incendiary 11. The scene at the dinner table combined with the scene back at Kate’s apartment will have to fight it out as the flat out most tense scene of the year, and the power from the both truly stem from del Toro’s performance, and that isn’t to take away from Blunt’s performance either. She gives a career best performance here and the switch off from her character’s perspective to  del Toro’s makes complete thematic sense.

It’s been a good long while since del Toro has had the opportunity to really shine in a role. Hell, he hasn’t had a staring role in a major release since 2010’s The Wolfman. He’s been great in the few supporting roles he’s appeared in since then, but this guy deserves to be back in the big leagues with actors like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Given he’s just been cast in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII, Hollywood seems to agree. I’m hoping this role leads to another Best Actor nomination for him, because he is just phenomenal here. His last shot in the movie is an absolute stunner and the testament to the “less is more” approach to acting. He says nothing yet everything with one look.

-Mild Spoilers Over-

I guess it should go without saying that I rather enjoyed this movie. I like movies without easy answers. Movies that challenge you and shake you. While it sports a rather simple (I’d even go so far as to say cliched at times) story, Sicario is a movie made by some of the best in the industry with the acting needed to elevate it from your average, run-of-the-mill cartel movie.

“Terminator Genisys” is the cinematic equivalent of a bad cover band

Is it possible to feel absolutely nothing during a movie? Movies are designed to make you feel things by their very nature. You are supposed to laugh. You are supposed to cry. You are supposed to be scared. You are supposed to be astonished. Even terrible movies like Miami Connection make you feel SOMETHING.

(In this particular scene, you are meant to feel embarrassment.)

Terminator Genisys may be the first movie of the year (and maybe since the last GI:JOE flick) in which I felt nothing. I just started at the screen, throwing the occasional sarcastic comment or joke to my friend. There was never a point that I actually was invested in anything going on. It’s almost impressive.

Sure, there were parts that made me mad (more on that later) but for large stretches of its over 2-hour run time, I felt empty during Terminator Genisys. There were certainly moments where the movie TOLD me to feel things but to no avail.

Let me preface by saying that I don’t particularly like to bad mouth movies. At least in the written form. I never want to come off as a bully or mean spirited. BUT given that my opinion matters very little to anyone involved in this particular production so that alleviates some of the guilt I feel. Just know that I think just about everyone involved in this is talented. It’s just a shame that all of their hard work turned out a mediocre product.

 

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The plot:

“When John Connor (Jason Clarke), leader of the human resistance, sends Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and safeguard the future, an unexpected turn of events creates a fractured timeline. Now, Sgt. Reese finds himself in a new and unfamiliar version of the past, where he is faced with unlikely allies, including the Guardian (Arnold Schwarzenegger), dangerous new enemies, and an unexpected new mission: To reset the future…” – IMDb.com

The review:

I am a massive fan of the first two movies. The first film is a masterpiece, on just about every single level. It expresses complex ideas and exciting set pieces with minimal budget and minimal story. The second did what all good sequels do and expanded on the first by bringing new elements to the table (I’d even go so far as to say it is different genre of movie as well) while staying true to the universe established beforehand. It’s a lot more cheesy and schmaltzy than the first film, but I believe that was writer/director James Cameron’s intention. He wanted to make a movie that appealed to mass audiences while not talking down to them and it succeeded. It also wraps up the series in a nice little bow. As Sarah Conner concludes, “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” I don’t want to go into this topic too much (as I could rant about it for an embarrassingly long period) but it’s because of this ending that I find each Terminator sequel since T2 more and more infuriating. They posit the idea that Judgement Day is inevitable. Remember the whole notion of “the future is unwritten?” Well, fuck that because there is money to be made! I know the future is fucked, but I rather like ending on a somewhat hopeful note. None of the sequels after T2 provide that.

I can tell the filmmakers behind Genisys are at least fans of these movies (both Rise of the Machines and Salvation are completely ignored here) as the amount of detail paid to recreating shots from the first Terminator film is just about the only truly impressive thing about this turd. The shots of a young Arnold brought back through the magic of CGI are actually kind of mind-blowing. Unfortunately everything just feels off. As I said in the title, watching this movie is like listening to a cover band. You know the songs, but they doesn’t sound right. Someone is trying desperately to recapture the magic someone else already bottled. It’s by no means an impossible task to accomplish but it certainly isn’t easy either. James Cameron himself has done it before, but Alan Taylor  is no James Cameron.

I sort of appreciated at least the minor attempt at shaking things up. The writers/studio opted for the same approach J.J. Abrams and company took in rebooting/restarting the Star Trek films. When in doubt, alternate time lines! That way you can cast young, sexy people as well as repeat…er…I mean “re- imagine” classic moments from earlier films without pissing any fans of the original off. It’s fool-proof, right?

Credit to Abrams and co, they at least did a pretty competent job at rebooting Star Trek by at least making an entertaining movie. Sure, they did away with the intergalactic diplomacy and pursuit of science in favor of bombastic, high-flying, super-shooting space antics but you aren’t going to get a slow, nuanced Star Trek movie these days. Also, they didn’t tap the well too much in the first film… before they ultimately did that in Into Darkness. Urgh…

Not only does Genisys follow the sins of Into Darkness, it fucking reinvents the game of simply stealing elements from its own mythos. (I have a big, overriding fear that Neil Blomkamp is going to do something similar when he “re-imagines” the Alien franchise in the near future.)

Similar to Jurassic World, this entire movie feels like a big budget fan film. Unlike Jurassic World however, Genisys feels as if it was made by people that lacked the basic understanding of what makes the good movies work. Instead it fits right in line with the latter two sequels that lack any sort of charm or memorability that made the first two iconic. At least I felt anger during those two. I was just apathetic during this. Sure, Jurassic World mined our good will of the first movie but at least new elements were introduced. Of all the summer reboots however Mad Max:Fury Road still remains supreme if only for the sheer fact that George Miller (the creator of the franchise) stepped back into the directing chair.

It’s gotten to the point where the series is cannibalizing itself. The two major emotional beats are directly lifted from the first two films.

1) It attempts to make us care about the paternal relationship between Sarah Conner and “Pops” much like T2  did with John Conner and the T-800 and fails. There was more emotion in the single thumb up the T-800 gives to John as his dropped into the lava than the entirety of this movie.

2)The romance between Kyle Reese and Sarah Conner which was a major plot point in the first film is brought back….and fails. They even posit a somewhat interesting idea (that doesn’t land or is ever brought up again) about Kyle and Sarah only getting together because they have to. Now that John Conner is evil, (not a spoiler as it was revealed in the fucking trailer) do they even need to be together? Well they end up together so this movie went ahead and dropped the only remotely interesting idea it had.

Yet another issue arises when the movie takes the Prometheus  method to presenting questions and leaving the answers for potential sequels. For example: we never learn who sent back Pops. It’s brought up, but quickly abandoned. That’s a pretty big plot point that is simply dropped in order to bait for a sequel. In Guardians of the Galaxy, we don’t learn who Peter Quill’s father is. It’s simply set up and left to be resolved for a later movie. That works because Peter’s heritage isn’t a major factor in the movie. I wasn’t left feeling unsatisfied because that plot point was a smaller part of a bigger picture.

That’s one of the many egregious plot holes that litter this movie that I only take issue with because they keep going back to them. Apparently Skynet just exists outside of time now? Which makes any sort of tension impossible. (A countdown to when Skynet is activated is presented but quickly done away with as it is revealed that the clock can randomly jump ahead in time as the program is evolving faster? I don’t really remember as I had completely checked out by this point.) As long as their is money to be made, Skynet will never die.

Here’s my pitch: send a Terminator back really far. Like the Wild West or the American Revolution to kill a great, great ancestor of John Conner. Then you at least of have the spin of a technology disconnect. Sure, it’s fucking stupid but it at least seems somewhat entertaining in my head.

Normally I don’t let time travel plot holes spoil the experience as long as the movie has a heart. I love movies like Back to the Future and Looper  but they are just as guilty of manipulating the plot to fit certain cinematic troupes. Looper actually has a pretty ingenious simple scene that addresses this:

Genysis does the exact opposite. ENTIRE FUCKING SCENES are dedicated to explaining what is happening in terms of the time-line. It’s needlessly complicated for no reason whatsoever as it opens to floodgates to more nitpicking and confusion. Terminator NEED to be simple, not fucking physics lessons. Otherwise you have a movie that is the equivalent of a man opening his chest and telling you where to stick the knife. I don’t like to nitpick, but when you are openly challenging me to, I have no choice!

The cast is almost uniformly bad with some exceptions just being wasted. Emilia Clarke, who is normally killing it on a weekly basis as the Mother of Dragons over at Game of Thrones, is just terrible and bland as Sarah Conner here. It’s not even a matter of living up to Linda Hamilton. (Which I doubt anyone would ever be able to realistically.) She’s just wrong for this part and it simply reeks as stunt casting. Coincidentally Clarke’s GoT co-star Lena Headey did a much better job as Conner in the short lived TV series, Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles.

Move over, Mother of Dragons.

Move over, Mother of Dragons.

 In the original film, Sarah Conner is a scared, helpless woman that only narrowly defeats the Terminator. In the second, she becomes a badass of the highest caliber. It’s one of my favorite character arcs in all of cinema. Clarke comes off as a whiny teenager, not the baddass she is purported to be. And it is such a shame given the level acting I know she is able to bring given past examples.

And Jai Courtney. My non-existant god, where do I begin with Jai Courtney?

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Nothing against the guy personally, but he has been the utter definition of white bread in the past few movies I’ve seen him in. He just may be the next Sam Worthington in that he gets all these high level parts but is completely forgettable in them. Here, he brings next to 0 charisma or memorability to the rebooted Kyle Reese. In the original film, Kyle Reese is not the super buff super solider that he is presented as here. He is desperate, skinny and ultimately ill-equipped to take on the killing machine that he must protect Sarah from. Jai Courtney gives us nothing even close to that. There is no tension regarding whether he will fail or not. He was actually pretty good in Jack Reacher so here’s hoping he finds some sort of niche or part that plays to his strengths because the good-looking hero isn’t going to get him much further.

Recent Oscar winner JK Simmons also shows up for a thankless role that provides the movie with a smidgen of spark if only for a few minutes.

Can I also complain about how the ‘Cops’ theme is played? Because the fucking ‘Cops’ theme gets played in a movie made in 2015.

I hardly ever do this but I also want to stretch out some of my criticism to the marketing department on this movie. I don’t know if it was ultimately them or the studio who elected to include all of the major twists in the film in the trailers. Who ever did it dropped the ball as it eliminated any sort of tension this movie was trying to build. (Maybe it was a warning for how bad the movie is.) It represents a larger problem I have with general movie marketing these days in general. I completely understand the need to show off the most catchy imagery in order to get asses in the seats, but I (and a believe a majority of people so I doubt this notion is controversial) prefer to be teased. I don’t want to go into a movie knowing the twists. I go in for the ride. Take this teaser for Spectre:

I get the gist of the story, but I am intrigued enough in that I want more. A trailer needs to leave you wanting more, not giving you everything.

I am in a rare position in which I have next to no positive things to say about this movie. Schwarzengger was easily the best part of the movie. (Isn’t saying much given he is playing an emotionless machine.) He is and never has been a great actor, but he has a charm and charisma that has carried him through a pretty impressive career. He is utterly watchable in just about everything I’ve seen him in and the same goes for this. The downside is that a great portion of his dialogue are the mandatory exposition dumps.

The action pieces were serviceable as were the visual effects but they were ultimately at the service of nothing. It all amounts to white noise when I don’t fucking feel anything about what’s going on in front of me. This movie is more soulless than the goddamn Terminator!

I really, really, REALLY want this series to die or at the very least bring something different to the table. Unless the studio brings someone completely out of the box like a Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson to take it in DRASTICALLY different direction (No, I don’t believe this would ever happen in a 100,000,000,000,000,000 years, but I will continue to dream about it know that I’ve thought about it.) this franchise is OFFICIALLY milked dry. Hell, it was milked dry by the time this came along. At least Salvation brought something new to the table. It failed in doing anything remotely memorable but at least it kind of swung for the fences.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Pixar’s latest flick Inside Out. (I did not write a review for it as I was/still am going through some not-so-fun-personal bullshit and just wasn’t up to it.) This is a movie that makes you fucking feel everything. I mean a majority of the characters are the living embodiment of emotions for goodness sake! Now I openly admit it isn’t altogether fair to draw comparisons between Genisys and an actual movie. I just wanted to highlight the jump between a film that accomplished exactly what it set out to do and a movie that accomplished nothing…except maybe make some money which it also apparently failed to do.

This movie didn’t make me angry or sad. It made me feel nothing, and to me that is a whole lot worse.

‘Jupiter Ascending’ is pure, cinematic cheesecake

I really like cheesecake. Scratch that. I FUCKING love cheesecake, but I ultimately know it is terrible for me. It has no real nutritional value and only serves to make me a fatter piece of shit than I already am. And yet it not only tastes good, but it looks good. Every once and a while, I need to eat cheesecake, because I mean…

Oh my....

Oh my….

 

…it’s just so…

 

Holy...

Holy…

…like I have to…

Are you fucking kidding me?! This is just obscene food porn!

I’ll be in my bunk…

…what were we talking about? Oh yeah, cheesecake. The Wachowskis’ latest film, Jupiter Ascending, is the cinematic equivalent of cheesecake. It can be mind0-numbingly stupid at times, but the world it creates is so vast and intricate you almost want to pause every frame to savor all of the beauty laid out before you. The characters are pretty one-dimensional across the board, but everything is bizarre and, at times, flat-out crazy I caught myself with the biggest fucking grin across my face that something this weird got the level of funding that it did. It’s as if our most ridiculous childhood stories and make-believe sessions were pitched to a teenager that happened to have $200 million to throw around and let you make it, regardless of sense.

They have their critics, but one thing that should never be stated about the Wachowskis as filmmakers is that they lack the balls to go big. When they make a movie, they go all out. Sometimes that fails spectacularly (the Matrix sequels) and other times the gamble pays off, resulting in a movie that is utterly spectacular on both a narrative and visual level. (Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas) Lana and Andy also happen to be master chefs when it comes to making cinematic cheesecake. So let’s see what ingredients they chose when cooking their latest offering.

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THE PLOT:

“Jupiter Jones was born under a night sky, with signs predicting that she was destined for great things. Now grown, Jupiter dreams of the stars but wakes up to the cold reality of a job cleaning toilets and an endless run of bad breaks. Only when Caine, a genetically engineered ex-military hunter, arrives on Earth to track her down does Jupiter begin to glimpse the fate that has been waiting for her all along – her genetic signature marks her as next in line for an extraordinary inheritance that could alter the balance of the cosmos.” – IMDb.com

THE REVIEW:

First and foremost, the best thing about this movie is the visuals. The Wachowskis are renowned world-builders (at least in my opinion), and the evidence is on full display here. Sure, we have boring space politics from time to time, but when this movie steps into gear, watch out. I wish I had a pause button so I could look at every frame during the space sections. If only we could get something like Dune with such vision as this. It is an utterly massive creation that we only get a sliver of in this two hour film. It stars two of Hollywood’s most attractive people, and they play second banana to some of the backgrounds we see here.

The other strongest positive is just how creatively bonkers it is. This movie is science fiction far off the fringes of plausibility, and instead opts for the science fiction of Douglas Adams and Terry Gilliam (who makes a phenomenal geeky cameo in a sequence that had to be inspired by Brazil). It’s weird, and it knows it. Modern science fiction films, for the most part, are dominated by often cynical views of humanity. They are dark, gloomy, and brooding. Jupiter Ascending is none of the above. Much like another fantastic science fiction bomb, John Carter, this is science fiction at it’s most gleeful and we don’t get to see shit like this for the most part anymore. Gone are risky movies like this and Flash Gordon. Let alone shit like this on a budget this massive. One of the main characters is part dog. Sean Bean is a half-bee man for Christ’s sake!

You could argue that a lot of the performances are phoned in with massive exception of Eddie Redmayne.

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A lot has been said about his performance as Balem Abrasax, one of the three Abrasax siblings that make up the film’s core antagonists. He is over the top and whispers just about all of his lines. Some have said this is a performance of someone trying to collect a paycheck. I argue the exact opposite of the case. This is someone with a firm grasp on what the material is, and is a making a choice. The right choice. It reminded me of Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons.

Now that movie is an unimaginative piece of shit, but you can tell Irons is having a blast playing the part. The same could be said of Redmayne here. The material is absolutely insane so it requires a performance that is as equally insane. I just wish more of the cast was on his level of commitment.

Now lets talk about the negatives, and there are quite a few.

Beyond the out-of-this world visuals, the core story is disappointingly conventional. It basically amounts to a tweaked version of the Neo arc in the Matrix trilogy with a young hero plucked from an boring life into world they never knew existed. Not only that, but the hero is also the savior of this world. Somehow they’ve created a lead that is even more boring than Neo. Mila Kunis, an actress known for bringing life to even the most thankless of roles, plays Jupiter as a feisty albeit vulnerable woman. Beyond that though, she doesn’t have much in the personality department. She barely even registers as a cliche. Not only that but she is also constantly being saved time after time, and never feels like an active participant in the action going on. The film essentially has two climaxes. Both of which has Jupiter being saved from one of the Abrasax brothers while she is on the verge of making a choice that would ultimately lead to her death. It’s as if to say the Wachowskis knew this wouldn’t get a sequel, and threw the last half of the second movie in this one.

When you boil it down, this movie is stupid. Utterly and unequivocally stupid, but where does it say that we can’t have fun with stupid science fiction that at least aims for the stars. As the great Weird Al once said, “Dare to be stupid!” This isn’t a 2-and-half hour chore like the Transformers movies have become. This is a ride on the crazy train that is actually just as much fun as it is confounding. We have almost a full year before Star Wars pulls out its massive, multi-million dollar wang and decimates every film record that lays in its wake. Consider this the desert you steal before the massive main course. Science fiction outside of Star Wars can be fun, people. Writers (i.e. people that actually get paid to do this) have shit all over this film and others have praised it. Neither is wrong. I fall somewhere firmly in the middle. I LOVED aspects of it, and was lukewarm to a majority of it. I don’t particularly care about the “themes” or the bigger meaning that may or may not be at play because ultimately I don’t think the filmmakers did either. (I think it had something to do with space inheritance law?) I think this movie was in the same ballpark as something like Battlefield Earth, but actually does things right and provides moments of sheer excitement, all while having laughably stupid moments to keep you invested. It’s schlock, but it’s passionate schlock. I’d rather have a shitty movie that went for it, than a shitty movie that played it safe. The script and most of the cast is lazy, but everything else is a goddamn treat. Call it a guilty pleasure. I won’t disagree, but every once in a while I NEED cheesecake.

‘Snowpiercer’: A white, hot look at a cold, dark future

This movie has been out for the rest of the world for almost a year now, but The Weinstein Company in its infinite wisdom withheld it from American and U.K. audiences. This is due to Harvey Weinstein, the man in charge of the aforementioned distribution, and his infamous cutting process. See, Weinstein is known for cutting large portions of films under his control in order to make them “more digestible and marketable for an American audience.” (See Hero and just about any other film by an Asian director he picked up over the past decade.) This was certainly the case when Weinstein saw fit to cut a good 25 minutes from the original cut of ‘Snowpiercer.’ This was no good for Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host and Mother), who disputed the cuts which led to a lengthy negotiation process. Eventually Joon-ho won out and the movie available is the version he intended for audiences to see. Unfortunately this cost the film its marketing and widespread immediate distribution. This basically means this multi-million dollar blockbuster is being treated like an indie art house flick. One must applaud or at least respect Joon-ho for taking his craft over his paycheck. Not many other directors working today can say the same. -COUGHMICHAELBAYCOUGH-

Now I don’t want to dismiss editing movies down to a digestible length. I can think of a few films that have come out recently that could use a length cutting process. -COUGHANYTHINGBYMICHAELBAYCOUGH- Wow. I must be coming down with something. I digress. Was Joon-ho in the right fighting for his cut? Is this risky big-budget obscure French comic book adaptation worth all of that trouble? Yes. Very, very, VERY yes.

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 The Plot:

In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off all life on the planet except for a lucky few that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system evolves and the threat of revolution is ever present.

The Review:

 I am a casual fan of Mr. Joon-ho’s directorial efforts. 2009’s The Host (not to be confused with the 2013 adaptation of the Stephanie Meyer novel) is easily one of the better giant monster movies of the past decade and Mother is a somber drama perforated by lighter breaks. Other than those two films, I am not too familiar with his work. After seeing Snowpiercer however, I will now follow this man’s career with fevered interest.

This film is truly one of the most uniquely fascinating, exiting, and down-right disturbing big-budget science fiction films to come out in a good long while. Count this as one of the biggest cinematic surprises of the year. Not only did it have zero marketing, but it is based around a pretty ludicrous premise: a second ice age has forced the remaining remnants of humanity onto a single train and all of the action in the film takes place on said train.

And it is in this bizarre plot that the film finds its greatest strengths. Joon-ho, along with his set designers, conceptional artists, etc., have created a beautiful film with expertly designed spaces that change from scene to scene. The “What’s behind the next door?” set-up pays off magnificently as the film never jumps ahead to any of the cars and allows the audience to travel with the core characters from set-piece to set-piece, accompanied by some well-written and never smultzy political symbolism.

Speaking of, what’s good sci-fi without a healthy dose of political undertones? The template of the social hierarchy are replicated on the train with the rich near the front and the poor in the back. (It is almost impossible to not see the similarities this film shares with Bioware’s Bioshock video game series.) The train’s conductor, the mysterious Wilford, insists that there is a natural order to things and that a certain status quo must be maintained. Therefore poverty is imposed, wealth is imposed, vast shortages are imposed, and an overall social conformity is imposed. As humanity broke the world with global warming and its ill-advised attempts to correct it, it’s only fitting that it begins to implement the same self-destructive patterns within the confines of the train; the train being a figurative cornucopia for possible metaphors and individual interpretations. The train’s structure is a metaphor for our society, its isolation as our separation from our constructed world from the natural, and its never-ending path represents our seemingly never ending self-destructive tendencies masked as our attempts at self-elevation.

The message of the film, or at least what I took away from it, is that if we don’t want to break the world again, we need to break the social systems in order to survive. Unfortunately for those at the bottom though, those social systems move at their own speed at a relentless momentum, just like the train.

Like with Joon-ho’s previous films, there are quite of few tough/disturbing sequences throughout Snowpiercer. Some characters pay a hefty price for their respective plights unlike with other science fiction blockbusters out right now… let’s say Transformers: Age of Extinction. I know. I know. I am taking a lot of shots at Mr. Bay. I haven’t even seen the newest installment in his Transformer franchise, but I have seen the previous three and I think it is a fair assumption that the fourth film isn’t exactly a break from the mold he built with those films. It is also interesting to note that these films and Snowpiercer share more than one thing in common. That being the case, I will finally arrive at my point. Those movies continually threaten the lives of its characters and kills off a number of them. I feel little to no connection to ANY of the characters in Transformers, most likely to the fact that they are thinly constructed illusions that barely count as characters and the movie is filled to the brim with them. This movie features quite a few characters. They are given notable traits and limited screen time, but they never devolve into caricatures. When one of the good guys bites it, you feel the loss. The action scenes are constructed in such a way that you feel each hit along with the characters, and their mission’s importance is never lost in the maelstrom of violence and mayhem that they find themselves in.

As you could have guessed by the trailer, this film sports a pretty impressive cast led most notably by Chris Evans. Evans has always been a top-tier actor to me as he traverses between big Hollywood spectacles like Captain America: The Winter Solider to quieter, character driven films like Puncture. This film is the happy marriage between the two for Evans, and it is a testament to his skills as an actor and his first true star-making performance. His character, Curtis, is not unlike Steve Rodgers. He is quietly driven to protect but is also haunted by a very dark past, perpetually carrying a nearly visible chip on his shoulder. He never sees himself as a leader, but often finds himself forced into that role. His heroics often mask a terrible knowledge that eats away at him There are not many scenes in which he directly addresses his internal conflict, but when he does, Evans proves his a master at nuance and leveling his emotions without forcing the scene into eye-rolling melodrama.   It’s hard to believe that the same man who can pull off this scene so brilliantly can also pull off this one equally so. Fingers crossed Mr. Evans doesn’t call it quits too soon.

The rest of the cast is more than up to par with Evans’ efforts with recognizable faces like John Hurt, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ewen Bremner and Alison Pill all making appearances. The film also sports some new faces to Western audiences and shows off that this really is an international effort. Joon-ho regulars Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung round out the main cast as a drug addicted father/daughter team who specialize in cracking the train’s electric doors. Just like in The Host these two are scene stealers in their own right, but work even better when they are paired together. Also appearing is Romanian actor  Vlad Ivanov of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days fame as Franco the Elder, one of the most hatable villains in recent memory. Seriously. You are going to cheering for this guy’s death in the same way you did for this little cunt’s.

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Miss me?

Snowpiercer is many things. It’s bold, daring, and ambitious. It looks like a stupid and enjoyable summer tentpole film and carries the themes of a devastating indie drama.  Its a movie where the questions are big and existential and the answers are grim and tough. The ending, while hopeful, leaves the audience with a lot to thing about long after the credits quit rolling. This is a movie that looks to challenge you and deserves your attention.