Saturday, March 28, 2015
In “No Drums, No Trumpets,” a ham radio operator, Fred (Mark Lambert) is irritated that he loses a science fair to a friend, Dorothy. At a crucial moment, his radio malfunctions, and he gets angry.
Fred speeds away from the scene in his car, and promptly drives it over a cliff.
Isis (Joanna Cameron) arrives just in time to save him, summoning the wind to blow the vehicle back to the road.
Later, Mrs. Thomas, Fred and Dorothy visit a nearby ghost-town, where local thieves are hiding out.
Mrs. Thomas loses her Isis amulet during a staircase collapse, meaning she can’t stop the thugs, or save the teens.
Instead, Fred must use his twitchy ham radio to contact the authorities.
“No Drums, No Trumpets” is slightly more than the run-of-the-mill Secrets of Isis episode. There’s still the Filmation standard here of the “lesson of the week” (in this case: sometimes you learn more by losing than by winning), but the danger is ratcheted up to a higher degree.
Specifically, Isis/Andrea loses her amulet in the middle of the story, which means she is unable to transform into the Goddess and save the day. Instead, she must rely on a temperamental teen, and on a different skill-set too, to deal with the menacing criminals hiding out in the ghost town.
It may not sound like much, but this formula deviation is enough to make “No Drums, No Trumpets” stand-out from the pack So many episodes of Isis drone on and repeat the exact same chronology and order of events that it is an actual relief to see something different happen for a change.
Also, the scene with the teen in a car – teetering on the verge of death -- is surprisingly well-vetted here.
Next week, Isis and Captain Marvel team up in "Funny Gal!"
Mystery Island (1977) is a sci-fi segment of the Hanna Barbera omnibus series called The Skatebirds (1977 – 1978).
It is a pulp sci-fi story about a mad scientist, Dr. Strange (Michael Kermoyan) who must acquire a robot called P.O.P.S. to complete his plans for world domination.
To do so, Dr. Strange brings down a plane on the remote island where he is headquartered.
P.O.P.S. (voice of Frank Welker) and his human friends, pilot Chuck Kelly (Stephen Parr), computer expert Sue Corwin (Lynn Marie Johnston) and her brother Sandy (Larry Volk) attempt to escape Dr. Strange’s minions, while avoiding the locals, including Lava Men and strange Mud People.
The most memorable aspect of this obscure Saturday morning series (which was rebroadcast on Boomerang ten years ago in 2005) is no doubt P.O.P.S. himself, the Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) robot re-painted, re-built and modified from his time with the Robinsons.
Now, the robot has bright blue accents, a new cake-tray like transparent dome, a bubble over his neck, and feet that allow humans to hitch a ride. Much of the first episode finds Sue and Sandy holding on to him as he scoots across the landscape.
In concept, Mystery Island isn’t very much different from Sid and Marty Krofft’s Doctor Shrinker (1976), a series which saw a trio of humans on a plane brought down to the island of a different mad-scientist. There, the scientist's minion (played by Billy Barty) tried to capture them each week.
What differentiates the two series, primarily, is visualization. Mystery Island heavily features exterior locations much of the time, whereas Dr. Shrinker was almost entirely studio-bound.
Mystery Island’s first episode is called “Matter of Gravity” and it begins with the humans and P.O.P.S. already on the island. Dr. Strange, a “scientific genius” has already brought the plane (named Nimbus) down by projecting a “beam ray” from his headquarters, the “Cave of Science.”
The minions chase Chuck, Sue, Sandy and the Robot and lead them right to the Mud People, but they escape, and flee….
As the description above suggests, Mystery Island plays a lot like a 1930s movie serial. Dr. Strange is the hissable, bearded, cape-wearing Ming the Merciless stand-in.
The people of the mysterious island represent the weekly threats and allies, and Sue is our damsel-in-distress. Thus far, however, there is no overt Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers type hero, only the human trio and their robot friend.
The big difference between Mystery Island and its cinematic chapter-play predecessors is not intent or sophistication, but rather color photography Mystery Island is very colorful, very brash and vivid in palette, whereas the old serials were constrained by their black-and-white nature.
Not all episodes of Mystery Island are currently available, but “Matter of Gravity” is up on YouTube, as are later episodes. So I’ll be skipping next week to Episode #5, “Valley of Fire!”
Friday, March 27, 2015
On a purely surface level, the science-fiction/horror film Event Horizon (1997) is a sturdy amalgamation of familiar imagery from the cinema’s storied past and traditions.
The film’s central visual of a haunted spaceship extruding blood by the gallon seems to emerge from a similar image (of an evil hotel elevator…) in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), for instance.
Meanwhile, the notion of an inscrutable -- and unseen -- alien entity manifesting living “guests” from the memories of bewildered human beings deliberately evokes memories of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Solaris (1972).
And certainly -- with doorways to Hell opening and closing willy-nilly, and one character’s transformation (or degradation…) into the Devil’s inquisitor -- there seem to be powerful echoes of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) evident here as well.
Ultimately, however, the familiarity of these images does subtract one iota from the film’s thematic coherence or its success as a compelling work of art.
On the contrary, these visuals are carefully marshaled by director Paul Anderson to convey the film’s overriding theme: Catholic guilt.
Specifically, at least three main characters in Event Horizon suffer from feelings of intense guilt about their past behavior.
I call it Catholic guilt because that’s an easy and familiar short-hand for many of us. Explicitly speaking, Catholic guilt arises from one’s knowledge of personal wrong-doing. It is felt by all people, however, who are intelligent and insightful enough to realize that they have committed moral trespasses.
The key aspect that makes this guilt “Catholic,” perhaps, is the knowledge that Jesus died for man’s sins, and yet in sinning again, we betray that merciful act. In sinning, we waste the greatest gift it is possible to receive.
Accordingly, those who suffer with the weight of guilt must decide how to harness and re-purpose their feelings. Knowledge of guilt can lead to great acts…or merely deeper shame.
That is the key leitmotif of Event Horizon.
There are two men -- mirror images -- in the film, who choose to succumb to darkness, but do so for utterly different reasons, and with very different objectives.
One succumbs as a direct, nihilistic renunciation of faith and goodness, and the other does so as an affirmative act; one of both a self-punishment and self-sacrifice.
Given this theme, Event Horizon is brilliantly constructed -- from sets and dialogue, to camera compositions and special effects -- as a direct expression of Catholicism, and specifically the harsh Catholicism of the Middle Ages.
“God help us.”
In 2047 AD, a small search and rescue ship, Lewis and Clark -- under command of Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) -- is dispatched to Neptune to respond to a distress call from a vessel that has been missing for seven years: Event Horizon.
Aboard the Lewis and Clark is one passenger, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill).
He is the scientist who designed Event Horizon, and he reports to the crew that it was a prototype with a “gravity drive,” an engine that could fold space-time by opening a doorway between dimensions.
After a rocky ride to Event Horizon, the crew of Lewis and Clark explores the derelict ship.
Lt. Starck (Joely Richardson) is perplexed by the fact that her scanners keep picking up trace life-forms on the ship, but at no specific location. It’s as though the whole ship is a life-form.
The ship’s doctor, Peters (Kathleen Quinlan), meanwhile, discovers carnage on the long-missing vessel’s bridge. All the crew died, and in grievously bloody circumstances.
Worse, Engineer Justin (Jack Noseworthy) explores the engineering section of the ship, and is pulled into a dark black vortex at the gravity drive site. He returns from his visit to the “other place’ in a state of shock and catatonia.
Although Weir insists the gravity drive could not have activated itself, Captain Miller begins to grow suspicious of the ship…especially after he sees a strange specter, himself: a burning man from his past.
While technician Cooper (Richard T. Jones) attempts to repair the Lewis and Clark, which was damaged when the gravity drive was apparently activated, the remainder of the ship’s crew starts seeing additional hallucinations.
Weir keeps seeing his wife, who committed suicide in a bath tub.
And Peters repeatedly sees phantasms of her crippled young son, whom she left at home on Earth.
The burning man witnessed by Miller is also someone from a personal and shameful past: an officer whom the captain was forced to leave behind in a catastrophe.
Soon another horror occurs.
The captain’s log is re-activated, and Miller’s crew sees the Event Horizon crew going mad…totally insane. The crew’s bizarre and violent behavior leads Dr. Weir to conclude that when it activated the gravity drive, Event Horizon entered a dimension of pure chaos and pure evil…Hell itself.
Now, the ship wants a new crew.
Miller hatches a strategy to destroy Event Horizon and return home, but first must contend with a demonic Weir, a man who has willingly given himself to the dark…
“It knows my fears. It knows my secrets.”
The men and women depicted throughout Event Horizon are all facing a very specific Monster from the Id: guilt.
First and foremost, Dr. Weir is ravaged by his feelings of guilt. When we first meet the character, he is alone in his quarters on a space station, and he looks longingly at a shrine he has set up to his dead wife.
He tenderly touches a photograph of her, and says aloud “I miss you.”
This opening sequence brilliantly telegraphs -- without overtly stating it -- the motivations for Weir’s intense guilt.
We see him use the rest room, and shave his face. But while he is shaving, his gaze wanders irrevocably over to the bath-tub, where water is dripping ever so slowly.
Then he stares at the straight razor in his hands…just inches from his own neck.
With no dialogue or weighty exposition, these visuals immediately convey the connection between objects. We understand instantly that Weir’s wife took her own life, and that, in some way, Weir feels responsible for her final, monstrous act.
Later, we learn more. When Weir sees the ghost of his wife, she is still nude, and bearing the wounds of her death in the tub. Weir tells her “I know I wasn’t there when you needed me. I let my work come between us.”
The source of Weir’s intense guilt is that he never helped his wife. He never went to her when she was hurting, when she needed him. And worse: he knew she needed him.
But Weir wanted to continue working (presumably on Event Horizon). In a very real sense, then, the ship is a child of their failed marriage, a product of his decision to remain away from her. It is his sin personified, and a haunted expression of his guilt.
Weir is tortured by his failure to save his wife, and he experiences visions of her in the “deep cold” of the gravity couch, even before returning to Event Horizon. She speaks words to him that she also no doubt said in real life: “I’m so alone.”
This is the call for help Weir willfully ignored.
She also says words that indicate her suffering has not ended, even in death. “Billy, I’m so cold…”
Late in the film, Weir is forced to relive his wife’s suicide in the bath-tub, and perhaps this is the final reckoning for him.
Instead of continuing to resist the darkness, or finding a constructive way to contend with his guilt, Weir surrenders to it. He gives over to it.
Weir realizes that his sin can’t be forgiven, and that he is truly a terrible sinner. When Miller tells him they must go home, Weir responds that he is already home. He believes he belongs in Hell…or at least aboard the physical manifestation of his sin, the Event Horizon.
In essence then, Weir doubles-down on his feelings of Catholic Guilt, and is not able to erect something constructive from his emotions or feelings. When his wife implores “Be with me…forever,” Weir consigns himself to damnation. He believes that’s what he deserves.
Captain Miller is the second character in the film suffering explicitly from terrible guilt.
He keeps seeing phantasms of a man named Corrick, a crewman whom he left behind to die in a fire.
Corrick’s death has haunted Miller in the same way that Weir’s wife’s suicide has haunted the good doctor. Miller has closed off all of his emotions and humanity, and become a sort of military martinet, one who shows no humanity towards his crew, and yet worries about them incessantly.
He can’t lose another one. That’s his worst fear: reliving the pain and the ensuing guilt.
Accordingly, the evil ship manifests the monster from Miller’s id. The burning man -- Corrick -- appears to Miller and begs him “Captain, don’t leave me…”
However, Miller finally does something that Weir never manages: he confesses his guilt. The captain tells one of his crew-members, Smith (Sean Pertwee) the entire story:
“I did the only thing I could. I closed the lifeboat hatch…and I left him.” Miller reveals.
Importantly, it is after this confession of sin and recognition of guilt that Miller starts to take away Event Horizon’s power over him.
The ship knows his “fears” and “secrets,” but now at least one member of his crew does so as well. With his options for survival narrowed, Miller makes a selfless decision (and one that honors Christ’s choice to “save” mankind): He remains on Event Horizon to stop Weir so that Starck, Cooper and Justin can live.
In essence, Miller gives his life for theirs, and thus exorcises his demon, his guilt. By staying behind, and making certain that his crew survives, Miller may go to a dimension of literal damnation, but there is little doubt that he has saved his soul.
Peters is the third major character who suffers from Catholic Guilt in Event Horizon. She was called back onto active duty for the search-and-rescue mission, and had to leave her young, badly-crippled son behind on Earth with her husband.
It is clear that Peters feels she abandoned her child, and early in the film we see her watching home-video footage of the sick boy.
Once aboard Event Horizon, the ship manifests Peters’ son (though he is actually still alive, on Earth), and her feelings of guilt go into overdrive. She sees him, in particular, as sick and vulnerable.
Then, at the very moment Peters should be trying to escape the ship, she takes a wrong turn instead. She goes the wrong way…pursuing the phantasm of her boy instead of her own survival. It is as if she wants the boy to forgive her, to negate her feelings of guilt. Instead, he leads her to her death.
Peters’ fate is a demonstration of the fact that guilt -- while sometimes useful -- can also lead one astray, or down blind alleys.
Even a fourth character – a supporting one -- Justin also makes some key references to guilt in Event Horizon.
When he awakens after his journey to “the Other Place” (Hell…), Justin notes that it showed him “the dark place inside” himself, and that seems a veritable definition of how guilt feels.
“It shows you horrible things,” he adds, but importantly, all those horrible things are inside him, and that too defines guilt well: the internal memory of bad deeds committed.
In keeping with the overarching concept of guilt, Event Horizon is dominated by Catholic imagery and allusions. For example, the exterior of the malevolent spaceship -- when seen from precisely the right angle -- resembles a high-tech crucifix.
Worse, if inverted it could be interpreted as an upside-down crucifix, suggesting the Hellish nature of the thing. It is a place of sin and guilt made flesh.
At least one window at the fore of the ship, on the bridge, likewise resembles a crucifix.
In an unforgettable composition from the film’s opening act, a dead human figure floats weightlessly before such a window, his arms outstretched in a Christ-on-the-cross pose. He has been crucified for his sins, and left for dead.
Similarly, much of the interior of the haunted old ship deliberately reflects the Gothic architecture of European cathedrals, right down to the frequent appearance of arches.
The main hallway connecting forward life boat and rear propulsion section is but a series of ridged, pointed arches, for example.
Even the ship’s airlocks are labeled rather unconventionally with Medieval Roman numerals. Although invented, of course, in Ancient Rome, these numbers were also used extensively in the Middle Ages in a regnal fashion…to denote the reigns/identities of Popes, and national rulers.
And when Weir re-appears one last time for the film’s final sting, just look at his attire. He wears a space helmet that resembles something out of the Spanish Inquisition, the tribunal tasked with maintaining Catholic orthodoxy.
In popular culture, the Inquisition has come to symbolize intolerance or a capricious, arbitrary justice. In Event Horizon, the guilty Weir becomes the chief inquisitor of the ship itself -- the chief torturer – and so the helmet seems appropriate.
Further intimating Catholicism, the first message received from Event Horizon upon her return to our universe from Hell is spoken in Latin, like the liturgy of the Mass.
The words are: “liberate tutame ex infernis.”
The translation is literally “Save me from Hell.”
As I’ve written before, I believe that a movie reaches its apex of artistry when form and content intermingle meaningfully. In Event Horizon, the idea of Catholic guilt informs several characters, and the film’s singular, horrifying setting -- a haunted, Catholic spaceship, essentially -- visualizes their strife and turmoil, reflecting the nature of their conflict.
It is also significant that so many figures in the film lose their eyes -- or gouge them out -- from Weir and his wife to Justin and the original Event Horizon crew.
The idea seems to be that if you can cut out your eyes (the window to the soul?) you can't see your guilt anymore. You can't recognize it.
Of course, that isn't true. Guilt isn't about something external that you can look away from. It's an internal quality of the mind that is always there, even with your eyes shut, even without eyes at all.
There are those who will gaze at this film and see only the visual quotations, the many resonances of popular culture or the horror genre. They are present, to be certain.
However, Event Horizon travels some distance beyond mere homage to cogently express its riveting (and frequently grotesque…) tale of guilt and regret, damnation, and salvation.
The film serves as a brilliant "yang" to the "yin" of another 1997 genre film, Contact. The light, new age mysticism of that Jodie Foster movie contrasts very strongly with the heavy, almost dungeon-like Medieval exterior and interior architecture of Event Horizon.
Both films concern "portals" that open to other dimensions, and reveal something of human spirituality. Here, many of the discoveries are dark ones, but Miller's sacrifice, while grim, is a positive takeaway.
Hell is just a word, as Dr. Weir notes here, but Event Horizon visualizes the grim reality of that word in ways that are unforgettable, horrifying, and, finally, aesthetically coherent.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
I'm Finding a Lot of Things Funny Lately, but I Don't Think They Are: The Ups and Downs of Alien Resurrection (1997)
It’s intriguing to consider how all the Alien films differ in tone, approach and theme or message.
The 1979 film from Ridley Scott is all about feelings of isolation and terror in the loneliest, darkest corner of deep space. Underlying the film is a comparison between three distinctive beings that qualify as survivors: the alien, Jones the cat, and, of course, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).
Each one survives or endures a harrowing crisis based on its biological or “natural” make-up (instincts) and individual intelligence.
By contrast, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is a gut-crunching, nail-biting war film that forges a space age comparison to the Vietnam conflict. The Colonial Marines go into a combat situation with the best technology, the best training and the finest experience in order to battle an enemy considered “primitive,” but which nonetheless challenges their assumptions of dominance.
The film also sets up a dynamic battle between maternal figures: Ripley and the Alien Queen.
David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) categorically eschews thrills and action in favor of a dark, intimate story about Ripley’s soul.
Is it worth it to survive if the entire human race is jeopardized by pursuit of that end? In this case, Ripley confronts her own strength -- her innate ability to survive and adapt to difficult scenarios -- and judges that there is a higher human value than continued existence. The film serves as a space-age Christ parable and an exploration of spirituality, and sacrifice.
And Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997)?
I must confess my own bias here, before I continue with another word of this analysis. I have always found this 1997 sequel to be the least successful and least worthwhile of the Alien films. I awarded it just two stars (out of four) in Horror Films of the 1990s (2011), for example. My review was pretty harsh, and I wrote that the film began the “stupid-ification” of the beloved franchise.
But on a new screening of the film this week – probably may seventh or eighth viewing over the decades -- I began to detect that there are indeed virtues embedded in Alien Resurrection. However, they are -- in some ways -- very difficult to highlight or enumerate. Why?
Primarily because of tone.
Unlike all the others, this Alien film is a dark comedy.
Yes, you read that right. Alien Resurrection is a grim comedy about, among other things, human folly. The film’s main character, a clone of Ripley, stands outside humanity and quips about the circumstances and nature of the failings she sees.
It’s all very….French.
Alien Resurrections acts, overall, as a cynical observation not about the qualities that separate humans from the xenomorphs, but rather those that connect us or tie us to them.
In Aliens, Ripley tells Burke that she isn’t certain which species is worse. At least you don’t see the xenomorphs trying to fuck each other over for “a goddamned percentage.”
That statement or observation seems to be the guiding principle, the overarching leitmotif of Alien Resurrection. The film goes to some length to eliminate the distance, essentially, between aliens and humans, and asks us to put aside moral absolutes or precepts about good and evil, and consider them in more relativistic terms.
But the rub here is that the filmmakers undertake this task in Joss Whedon’s trademark glib fashion, often through quips, jokes, and moments that puncture the “seriousness” of the enterprise. The humor in the film is not straight-up funny, but rather cold, caustic…even bitter. It arises at a considerable distance from humanity itself.
It’s as if the Ripley clone -- no longer entirely human – wrote the film herself.
Alien Resurrection finds a lot of things about the human race funny, but understands, simultaneously -- as Ripley explicitly observes in the movie -- that they aren’t really funny at all.
No, those things are actually really sad.
The things that Ripley sees and comes to understand speak poorly of us as a species. The only way to treat these problems involving human nature, therefore, is through absurdist humor. Otherwise, the mode of expression will be…tears.
The problem, I believe, with Alien Resurrection is that some touches of humor are downright dreadful, and thereby corrupt the sense of “reality” we have come to expect in the Alien films. Yet by the same token, “the dark comedy” approach accomplishes two things.
Firstly, it reflects a cynical, caustic view of mankind. The film notes that man is, finally, no better than acid-bleeding, chest-bursting aliens. The gap between species has been bridged.
Secondly, the attempt to take on an Alien movie with a different, fresh tone (the dark comedy), honors the lineage and tradition of these films. No two films in the series are the same; no two films cover the same territory.
If I can honestly commend Alien3 for the same virtue (originality), I must assess Alien Resurrection in the same light. I can maintain (and I do maintain) that Alien3 is more coherent and more cohesive than Alien Resurrection, but I can’t fault the latter for attempting something new.
In the past, I viewed the movie as a retreat to Aliens territory: big muscles, big guns, lots of fighting. Now, I see that there are virtues beneath those surface values.
In fact, one illuminating way to view Alien Resurrection is as the first movement of a (not realized) second trilogy. The separate setting (200 years in the future), the new heroine (not Ripley, but a hybrid clone), and even the enemy (not the Company, but the military), all encourage this reading. If you look at the film as laying down future markers for the series, exploring the interaction of aliens and humans in a much closer, much more intertwined fashion, Alien Resurrection seems to open up in a more gratifying or satisfactory fashion.
I still like Alien Resurrection the least of the four original films, because of the wobbly tonal changes, but I can also see that the film boasts some intriguing ideas, and at the very least, attempts to take the series into new territory.
“I’m the Monster’s Mother.” How Alien Resurrection Succeeds
Alien Resurrection goes a long way towards making the point that “true” evil may not come down to the physical properties that divide species. Rather, the film suggests, an organism who attempts to co-opt the life another organism for its own agenda is the true face of evil.
The aliens, of course, utilize human beings as breeding material for their life-cycle. They do this, however, by instinct, not out of malice. It’s “what” they are.”
But the humans of Alien Resurrection absolutely use other human beings to make money, to make weapons, or otherwise further selfish needs and agendas. They put these needs, these desires, ahead of humanity, ahead, in fact, of human life. Their decision to co-opt other organisms is conscious, determined. It’s “who” they are.
This idea is played out in regards to Ripley -- now a clone -- and the fact that seven previous versions of her were produced and discarded without thought, as merely a means to an end. The clones are just “meat,” with no thought given to what they feel or require to survive. Quality of life isn’t even a consideration. The Ripley clone is permitted to live only because the scientists on the Auriga possess a certain level of curiosity about her. Importantly, that’s a reason that involves them and their needs, not Ripley or hers.
Dr. Gediman (Brad Dourif) and Dr. Wren (J.E. Freeman) treat the aliens in much the same way as they treat Ripley: as meat. They clone the alien queen, induce her life-cycle (egg-laying) and then attempt to control (using a steam button in the laboratory for punishment)), the behavior of her progeny. The mission of the scientists is to make a new weapon for General Perez (Dan Hedaya), and to control that new weapon with force. No thought is given to these creatures as living organisms. They are bio-weapons, that’s it.
Even the apparent “protagonists” of Alien Resurrection -- the crew of the Betty -- undertake action for an evil agenda. They steal a traveling spaceship crew in hyper-sleep and sell them for cash so they can get rich. Like the scientists or the general, the crew people have decided that their selfish needs are more important than self-determination or quality of life. Johner, in particular, derives pleasure from hurting people. He drops knives into Vriesse’s paralyzed leg.
The only person for whom this observation of avarice, greed and desire is not true is the Ripley clone.
She is a creature of two worlds, of two separate physiologies and she doesn’t attempt to “use” others for her own purposes. In fact, her mission is often the opposite of that behavior. For example, Ripley elects to burn the surviving clones, 1-7, because one of them begs for death; for peace. Ripley obliges because the creature is doomed not just to pain, but to slavery at the hands of those who would use it. Ripley assesses that such slavery is no way to live, and it is right (and noble) to obey the clone’s wishes and terminate her.
At the same time that Ripley can see the humanity of the clones, she can recognize the innocence of the Newborn -- another alien/human fusion -- and regret its death. For the first time in the series, Ripley is in the position, then, of weighing or mediating the two sides of this conflict. In the past, she has always tried to destroy the aliens at all costs, as a danger to mankind and the universe. In Alien Resurrection, the plot develops in such a way that it is, finally, crystal clear, that humans are no better than the aliens; that both species are dangerous to the safety of the universe. Consider again, there are no really “good humans” in the film. Call is the most humane character, but she’s an android. Vriess and Christie are okay, but they still go along with the mission to hijack the cryo-tubes, don’t they?
Consisting of human and alien nature for the first time, Ripley now understands both species, and develops a gallows sense of humor or irony about them. She finds death funny. Not because suffering is funny. But because the behavior of the two species surrounding her have made death inevitable, a predictable punch line to a very bad joke
Essentially, Alien Resurrection re-positions Ripley. In the first movement of an apparent new trilogy, she is not the savior of mankind as she was in the first three films, but instead the arbiter or decider of values, weighing one side against the other; keeping in check the worst proclivities of each.
And her ultimate determination of evil comes down to a simple choice of control. Evil attempts to control the life of others without any regard for its feelings, suffering, or emotional needs and desires. The Newborn, finally, must die, because it kills without reason. The clones must die, because they have been created not to live, but to serve an end that makes them suffer interminable pain.
When Alien Resurrection works its cold, bitter best, it is as an examination not of a good species and a bad species, but two species that hurt people. Ripley -- the only one who can empathize with both viewpoints -- becomes the one to weigh the scales.
This idea could have really developed in future films, and it would have been interesting to see where the idea went had a second full trilogy developed. Imagine two films in which the alien and human worlds grow closer and closer, more alike than unlike, and you start to get a notion of where the material could go.
How are such ideas expressed in the film? Well, Ripley’s biology is an indicator of her new position. She bleeds red acid, which signifies her mixed heritage. Similarly, the cartoony, two-dimensional nature of the scientists in the film -- one mad (Gediman), one evil (Wrenn) -- makes us understand that humanity’s villainy has risen to the same extreme level as that of the aliens…or become even worse. Ripley, “the fast learner” sees the humans for what they are pretenders to power, and is, overall, disconnected from human concerns.
There really is no human character in the film to like, and that makes the movie’s point, but in some way, it also distances the viewer from the players.
Ripley’s inappropriate sense of humor -- “who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?” -- is similarly a signifier that she no longer is exclusively on our side. She finds things funny, but knows they aren’t. They are funny to her because her new genetic make-up has changed her very nature. She is now the child (and mother, simultaneously) of the aliens, as well as, physiologically-speaking, mostly human.
The Southland Times called Alien Resurrection “grotesque and captivating” and the “best” of the Alien series (January 9, 1998, page 12). I agree with the first observation, if not the second. The film is unbelievably grotesque, perhaps the most so of the series. And it is captivating in the sense that we must ask ourselves, for the first time, about Ripley’s loyalties and motivations.
As the center of the film, she stands as an ambiguous figure, one who could side with either species. Alien Resurrection succeeds to the level it does, perhaps, because it is the first film that suggests a balance between human and alien perspectives, and posits a force – the Ripley clone – who can navigate such a balance.
“Father’s Dead, asshole:” How Alien Resurrection Fails
A bitter, caustic film that acknowledges man’s fatal flaws, Alien Resurrection’s ideas are often superior to the execution of the material.
It’s one thing to add a certain level of detached glibness to Ripley’s mode of expression. It’s quite another to go for dumb physical comedy in the body of the film itself. In its ambitious attempt to be a dark, observational comedy about human foibles and transport the series in a new direction, Alien Resurrection sometimes makes the characters and world of Ripley and the aliens a live-action cartoon.
Specifically, the frightful strength and power of the aliens has been made a laughing-stock, particularly during the horrendous sequence in which the monster’s signature inner jaw pulps the head of General Perez (a grievously miscast Dan Hedaya).
Perez stands there, not even unbalanced by the impact, and picks out the back of his skull and brain…presumably while the alien stands there waiting for him to make his next move.
The scene is so poorly acted, so poorly presented that you can’t tell if it’s supposed to be funny or horrific.
Instead, it’s just a mess. It is a reality-breaking moment that takes you out of the film.
Also, the film -- forged in the unfortunate and unsubtle era of Face-Off (1997) and Con-Air (1997) -- is mired in stupid, macho BMF-ism.
That’s Bad Motherfucker-ism, in case you weren’t sure.
Johner is a bad MF.
Christie is a bad MF.
Vriess – a fellow in a wheelchair – is also a bad MF.
Of course, Ripley is a bad MF too.
Instead of genuine characterization, we’re asked again and again to like these characters because they’re too cool for school. Ooh, look at those big guns. Look at how Christie can shoot ricochet shots!
Ugh. There’s not a single supporting character in the film who deserves to eat at the same lunch table where Parker, Brett, Hudson, Hicks, Bishop, 85 or Clements do. They are all walking/talking clichés with only the most basic of “qualities.”
And, incidentally, they are also pretty clearly the early versions of Serenity’s crew.
Johner is the same dumb soldier guy/comic relief as Firefly’s Jayne. And the Captain, Elgyn, navigates with the same sort of amoral, do-whatever-it-takes-to-survive moral compass as Mal Reynolds does. The Betty’s mechanic is the much-lusted after but diminutive Call, a good stand-in for Kaylee, except she’s an android. Even the cockpit of the Betty resembles -- at least a little -- Serenity’s command deck. Whedon demonstrated how, in a continuing series, he could take characters of such broad strokes and transform them into beloved, nuanced individuals. The crew of the Betty doesn’t quite get there.
Instead, the macho approach of rampant BMF-ism reaches the height of idiocy when Larry Purvis (Leland Orser) -- a man carrying a chest-buster inside of him -- also ascends to that territory. During his last moments of life, he assaults an evil scientist, Dr. Wrenn and manages to position his opponent at just the right place, in just the right moment, so that the emerging ches-tbuster breaks not just through his own ruptured chest, but -- conveniently -- through Wrenn’s skull too. It’s a ludicrous, over-the-top moment meant to be intense and manic but in concept and execution, like the Hedaya scenes, proves stupid beyond measure.
It’s difficult to like the film, and its “dark comedy” approach when so many moments pander to dumb action convention.
Also, some of the verbal humor in Alien Resurrection doesn’t work in either concept or delivery. “Who were you expecting, Santa Claus?” asks Vriess at a crucial juncture, and the moment flat-lines. The humor in the film is so hit-or-miss that Alien Resurrection veers between groans and giggles throughout most of its run.
Whedon once noted that it wasn’t that his script was altered that made Alien Resurrection so poor, it was everything that came in the production after the script: the casting, the costumes, even the creature design. You can see his point. Winona Ryder is underwhelming as Call, and Hedaya never manages to be convincing as a military general. He could get the job, but he couldn’t do the job.
In terms of costumes, Alien Resurrection dresses all of its evil scientist in -- wait for it -- futuristic white coats, just so the audience understands that, you know, they are scientists. The cartoony aspects of this once realistic universe have been ramped up to a ludicrous degree.
Similarly, the film lacks any driving sense of momentum. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is one obvious template for the story: survivors of a disaster must make their way through a wrecked ship.
But there’s no sense of how close or how far the survivors are at any given moment from their destination. There’s no sense that they are making progress. There’s a stop at the clone lab, a stop at the face-hugger lab, an underwater swim, a stop at a chapel, and then a dash for the dock. The incidents feel episodic and don’t build towards anything significant or meaningful. Similarly, this is the first Alien film in which the alien doesn’t cast a shadow over the movie even when it is not on-screen. The aliens are missing in action for long spells in Alien Resurrection, and you just don’t feel the danger of their (hidden) presence. There’s no belief that they could be hiding around any corner.
Oppositely, Alien Resurrection’s big set piece is visually arresting indeed. It involves the survivors aboard the Auriga swimming through a flooded compartment of the ship in hopes of reaching safety. It’s a long swim too, and the scene culminates with swimming aliens in pursuit. The scene is tense and well-shot, as characters struggle to hold their breaths and swim for their lives as the aliens, the equivalent of great white sharks, circle in for the kill. And even better, it’s all a trap, set to make the oxygen-starved swimmers open up wide…in a room of eggs and face-huggers. This sequence possesses a lot of energy, and gives the movie a real kick. If the rest of the movie had lived up to this set-piece, Alien Resurrection might be remembered differently.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of Alien Resurrection is that it attempts something different, and now that thing is behind us. The dark comedy angle -- the exaggerated colors and characters -- has been done, and now the series can move on and attempt another, hopefully more fruitful approach. So I champion Alien Resurrection for its decision to, in honor of the series, try something new. But I assess, finally, that “dark comedy” is not the most successful approach for the franchise.
Even acknowledging that judgment, I can’t help but wonder what might have been: what a second trilogy -- with Resurrection as the start point, not a dead end -- might have looked like. There are moments and images of greatness in Alien Resurrection, but overall, the film doesn’t capitalize well on them.