Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sequels to Prometheus

Today is the world premiere date of the highly anticipated new Ridley Scott film Prometheus. Unless I'm much mistaken, it will make a mint at the box office. And in Hollywood, success means sequels! But fortunately, since I'm currently traveling through time, I had the good chance to see actually four different sequels to Prometheus, each directed by a well-known name! So keep your eyes peeled because I have a feeling we haven't heard the last from the universe of Prometheus yet!

Alien (1979)
Director: Ridley Scott

OK, time to come clean. The link-bait that I am, I actually took on to review the Alien saga as "Aliens" is one of the most regular search results that has brought visitors here. And like Ridley Scott has taught us before, those strange and wonderful visitors are something we should fear, if we are to keep our virginal faces intact.

With the rate it's been parodied, remade, homaged and flat-out stolen (it seems, by Ridley Scott himself as well), it's hard to believe there is still someone who doesn't know the story of the film. The mining ship Nostromo lands on a distant planet to look for the sender of a distress signal. They find the planet deserted and the distress signal to be ancient. But one of the crew members, Kane (John Hurt), has an unfortunate run-in with a creature described as a "face-hugger", that latches itself in his face and won't let go. A day passes and the hugger drops dead. But Kane and the others have some all new worries, as an infant alien creature bursts through his belly. it's up to the other crew members to find the alien, hiding somewhere in the Nostromo, before it kills again.

At it's core, Alien is a serious remake of John Carpenter's Dark Star, co-written by Dan O'Bannon. O'Bannon had a lot of fun with blue-collar space workers with Carpenter's film, and it featured them searching for a deadly alien on board their spaceship. In that case, the alien was a red beach ball with some tentacles. Scott wisely elected for something more sinister and went to the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger for designs. Suitably for a film that concerns sexual subtexts, the main alien was to look like a combination of a huge penis and vagina dentata.

Scott's film is a seminal ponderous 70's sci-fi film, and that is why it moves along quite slowly. Viewers accustomed to the faster pace of the sequels might well forget that. But we also get to hang around with the crew quite a lot, and see that the future isn't as glamorous and fabled as it's seen in most other sci-fi epics. They still need working class slobs to do the heavy work. One of the theses of the film is as to how far are these poor souls expendable for company's gains. The person representing these views is in fact discovered to not even be human, but an artificial copy. The maternal spaceship computer also shows HAL-like qualities while being completely true to her actual mission. These ideas are quite progressive to be found on a film made in an age before the neo-liberal profit-before-everything-else agenda has poisoned all businesses and politics.

The other major subtext, as I mentioned, is sexuality. Scott made sure as to write every character as asexual before casting the actors. The alien presents the primordial sexual fears of penetration and castration at the same time. Rape and pregnancy are fears here for the both sexes, and the aftermath of them both are bloody. There are no clear romances between the crewmen aboard, so there's no cheap teen slasher flick moralizing. At the time the film was made it was very progressive to see who would in the end turn out to be the strongest-minded and the one person able to destroy the sexual threat. But there is a sense of exploitation and stripping down just for the hell of it to get asses into seats.

Alien is an impressive work, but for me at least, impossible to look nowadays without seeing the legacy it left behind, which wasn't for smart thrillers, sci-fi, or horror movies with subtext to emerge, but to bring back the monster movie, and try to duplicate everything on display here as cheap as possible.


Aliens (1986)
Director: James Cameron

The sequel, on the other hand, kicks unholy ass. James Cameron didn't rely on making as subtext-heavy sequel, but had enough gravy to make the beef tastier. This is an action film about the war traumas of Vietnam and the mentality of an American soldier (or rather, space marine).

Ripley's (Sigourney Weaver) escape capsule is found 57 years after floating in space in suspended animation. When finally rescued and awoken, Ripley finds out that no one knows of the Alien threat. In fact, the planet Nostromo's crewmembers found facehugger eggs on, has been colonized. Contact with the colony has also recently been abruptly ended. A team of hard-assed space marines are sent to investigate and to rescue the survivors, with Ripley working on a consultant should they run into Aliens. And they do.

Image courtesy of Rob Clifford.

Ripley, alone, abandoned and confused, puts her trust into new people in the film's beginning. As it turns out, the slimy yuppies are untrustworthy and just want to use her for their own gains. The decades that have passed have changed nothing. This time the real people representing the company were much less humane than the artificial man. Ripley overcomes her prejudicm against androids by the end of the film. But Ripley's real triumph is to build a new core family.

Newt (Carrie Henn) is a ten-year-old that has been the sole survivor of the Alien attack. Ripley shows her responsibility by taking her under her wing. By the end that also means she has to go out her way to protect her. Ripley embraces he motherhood instincts she didn't have the chance to with her own daughter 57 years ago, as she was far away, mining planets. Ripley also manages to find a suitable suitor (altough this is only implied) with Michael Biehn's Cpl. Hicks. He's the only man level-headed enough to survive, while others are prone to be over-confidently macho (William Hope's Lt. Gorman) dumb, or too whining and immasculine (Bill Paxton's Pvt. Hudson).

The men break their true character when they, for the first time, see war as a chaotic battle with no means of control. The American idea of going in headfirst and just shooting everything that moves is not such a good idea against a hidden, organized enemy that knows their surroundings better than the invaders. Unlike Vietcong, Aliens can also move underneath the floorboards and have acid for blood. The loss of control and attempts at gaining them are core issues here, as is rooting for the underdogs to survive while the jocks can't figure out what to do. And all the while it is ridiculously entertaining to watch it. Aliens is truly one of the very best action films of the 80's, a big dose of both masculinity and critique of it.

Aliens proved to be at least as influential as the film that preceded it. And not just in movies, but in videogames. Space marines fighting off huge hoards of disgusting alien monsters has become a haystay of the medium ever since, and probably will stay that way. 


Alien^3 (1992)
Director: David Fincher

If a franchise has spawned two genre-defining classics, then it should be hard work to get the second sequel off the ground. Sadly, more often than not the makers just embarrass themselves, Godfather III style. The third Alien movie went through years of development hell. 20th Century Fox couldn't even come to terms on what exactly should be the main setting or the main hook. Some ideas were quite interesting (a wooden monk planet directed by Paul Schrader), while some seemed doomed to fail (Renny Harlin directing an even bigger action film set on Earth). What was clear that in many aspects, the ending of Aliens had to be undone.

So, our hard-luck heroine still couldn't get rid of all those pesky xenomorphs. A face-hugger crept into their ship at the end of Aliens and caused it to crash. Hicks and Newt die, and Bishop is junk metal. Ripley wakes up to find she's the sole woman on a prison planet. A new xenomorph is born out of a dog (or a slaughtered ox depending on which version you are watching), and runs amok on the planet.

The former music video director Fincher had a horrible time shooting the film. Fox executives seemed intent on watering down every idea he had, and thus the film simply cannot break any new ground. This is his Dune, a film he loathes so much he still renowns the film (every cut of it, no less). It is for all intents and purposes a retread of the first Alien, with attempts at a moody thriller where people get killed one by one. But rather than to cube all the fear, paranoia and social commentary, the return diminishes on all these categories. What is left is a cynical, overtly Christian fable of self-sacrifice. Which is made so cheesy that one can't get at all worked up about it.

I'm prepared to admit I'm a little extra bitter about the film just because it so willfully destroys my beloved Aliens. On the one hand, I appreciate that the film is willing to distance it so much with a very well-loved genre film. These days with internet fanboy outrage it probably couldn't be done. But, as with every other good idea the filmmakers may have had making this film, they don't manage to take the idea anywhere. The result is that the film repeats the early scenes of Aliens, with Ripley disoriented feeling the loss of her family and seeing only the future of dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed. Also, Alien^3 doesn't get going as fast as Cameron could, but lingers on the melancholia and sadness. I'm all for cynicality if it is based on some insight. Here, it just works to remind that the world is bad and the people are rotten. The film's sex-hungry prisoners are so bad, they even have two Y chromosomes (this is a joke, right?). The faux-british accents and horrible dialogue don't do any favors. Even they are saints when compared to their self-obsessed wardens.

One can see at embryonic states some ideas that Fincher came to develop in Se7en, such as a "pregnant" soon-to-be-mother having doubts whether the world is too rotten to raise a child. Here, of course, the baby is a xenomorph, and the people in the film are worse than they are. The worst thing about the film is that it's so goddamn boring. It's easy to see where it is heading at each time, so it won't come as a surprise that everyone else dies, except Ripley and that she decides to do the ultimate sacrifice instead of allowing the xenomorphs be exploited by the Weyland-Yutani corporation. The imagery is once again stark, creepy and beautiful, particularly in the Special Edition, where Fincher is allowed to linger on them for a little more. That cut is a vast improvement otherwise, too, with some of the stupidest scenes removed from the film. But there really isn't that much interesting stuff to replace it with, either. The thing doesn't develop the characters, or the situation, enough for it to be in any way worth watching, whatever the cut is.

Theatrical Cut: ★ 1/2
Special Edition: ★★

Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

The most maligned of all the sequels is Amélie and Delicatessen director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's attempt to revitalize the genre. The film does have a huge share of flaws, but at least it attempts to break some new ground and the end result is more watchable than Alien^3 in every way. I only have very few films that I feel a bit guilty about liking, but this is so hated, it is definitely in my short list of actual guilty pleasures.

200 years after the events of Alien^3, Ripley and the Alien queen inside her are cloned. The Queen is successfully removed from her body, but the cloning process has given them both some qualities from the other. Ripley is all, "here we go again", and "you gonna die, boyeee". And she's right, because soon the Aliens attack the Resurrection ship and it's passengers. Some of whom are Space Pirates for some reason.

Pirates need water to survive!
The actors and characters in the film are both its greatest strength and it's biggest weakness. One cares infinitely more about Winona Ryder's Call, Dominique Pinon's Vriess and Ron Perlman's Johner than anyone except Ripley in Pt. III. But still, the direction for the actors is simply atrocious. One can easily see Jeunet couldn't speak much English and thus the quality varies form here to here. Dan Hedaya steals the early film with his delightfully malicious General Martin Perez that's so over-the-top he wouldn't be out of place from Romero's zombie films. Jeunet also brings a lot of goofiness and comedy to the film. I almost had a vibe as if the film had been engineered to destroy the franchise, much like Joe Dante's Gremlins 2. But it is probably unintentional.

But in any way, the film captures the zeitgeist of the 90's much in the same way the first two films did. The film concerns itself with the problems of genetic engineering and cloning. The most telling scene about this is the one where Ripley meets an incomplete clone of herself that begs to be killed. What rights to the dead have to be cloned? Are people the property of their genetic code holders? The military complex's biological warfare has developed a whole new layer of evil. And also the sexual undertones of the Alien films are taken to grotesque new levels, with disturbing imagery that's borderline pornographic. Jeunet also knows how to handle the visual side, and the dark, technical spaceship interiors feel familiar and brand new at the same time.

There are plenty of thrilling scenes, the underwater dive with Facehugger eggs on the surface is easily the most exciting and well-executed. But then, they had to spoil the whole thing with the unbelievably stupid last twenty minutes with one of the worst monsters in motion picture history. I would like to think Kevin Smith got the inspiration for the Golgatan in Dogma from this Newborn creature. Still, the film is a lot better than Delicatessen co-director Marc Caro's attempt at sci-fi Dante 01, so Jeunet should be proud.

★★ 1/2

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