Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lost in Space


  I should start off by saying that I have a very weird relationship with this movie. I grew up with Lost in Space as a family favorite, right alongside Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Two movies I found no fault with as a kid. I saw them so many times when I was younger that they were sort of impervious to critique. I just accepted them as they were, and I never thought twice about it. But now that I'm older, I can pick apart these movies quite well. ...But I still like it just as much. I suppose it's due in no small part to the nostalgic brainwashing that still allows me to enjoy things like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and the live action Masters of the Universe .

  Getting right to it though, I think the biggest problem with Lost in Space is pacing. Which is something that never occurred to me before because it's not a slow movie. Something is always happening. But movies like this should always look back to the original Star Wars, and Aliens. You set everything up in the first half, and the second half is just a total roller coaster. No brakes. Lost in Space has fits of intensity, and then it stops. It's like one of those sitcom moments where a teenager is learning to drive for the first time?
Go... brake. Go... brake. Go... brake. Thus the movie never picks up a consistent and steady pace. It's choppy rhythm makes it's subplots feel shoehorned and the story comes out staggered. The actors have to contend with this, as I can only imagine the script itself had the same issues. When the actors are given opportunity to finally emote, it's always cut short by another big spectacle moment. Although character development does show up, it creeps in at the oddest moments, and it always seems to be like too little, too late.

  I have no issue with the silly space monkey. I'm immune to that sort of thing. Not even Jar Jar Binks annoys me. I can recognize how they would be off putting, or even insulting to a more discerning audience, but I always sort of just accepted their existence and it never bothered me. The worst crime this movie commits (beyond not having Bill Mumy play future Will Robinson) will always be the spectacular waste of talent it contains. William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, Jared Harris, and well... yeah, Matt LeBlanc? (Actually, I should point out I don't feel LeBlanc was wasted here at all.) The cast was ultimately not given good enough material to work with, except LeBlanc. His Major West is a reason to watch this movie again. He's just delightfully fun. A total bad boy archetype, but he's having fun with the role and it shows. Gary Oldman is reduced to chewing scenery, which he does well... but c'mon. They could've pulled a better villainous performance out of this guy. William Hurt is totally acceptable as the absentee father who has to make "apology videos" to his kids all the time. When his arc comes full circle, you can feel the genuine paternal concern, but like I said... too little, too late.

  This movie should've been capable of pulling down Oscar noms! Instead it has like a 20 something percent on rotten tomatoes and is not-so-fondly remembered as a piece of junk. I personally don't consider it a piece of junk. I think it's flawed for sure, but no more so than a lot of other movies people, en masse, have made tons of excuses in favor of. (I'm looking at you Star Trek Into Darkness) When it takes off and flies, it soars. When it decides to stop and dole out some exposition, it comes to a screeching halt... and just about crashes. It's two hours of this stop-n-start pacing. If you enjoy the good parts enough to sit through all of it, I don't think you'll really have a problem with the movie. It's fun, but it's not what it could've been. It could've been the Star Wars of the 90's. But instead it feels like an aborted TV pilot, high production values aside.

  Though speaking of high production values, they're through the roof here. I notice this shit now. The bridge of the Jupiter II actually moves and jolts, they don't just shake the camera around. (something they still do to this day in Star Trek movies) The production design is just so friggin cool. I love it. The new design of the Robot (which is definitely a highlight of the movie, albeit a short-lived one), the design of the Jupiter II, the look and style of everything from the bio-suits, to the weaponry and Major West's show stopping mechanical armor plating... it's all fantastic. Also, the movie is also cited as having very dated effects, and for the most part I agree, but what people often overlook is that Lost in Space was made in the sweet spot of special effects movies. It was only partly fueled by CGI. Maybe a third of the way.  There's a LOT of practical effects here. Matte paintings, miniatures, animatronics, and entire sets that seem to be built on hydraulics to collapse and give way under the actors.

  The scenes that showcase the fantastic practical effects work are great. Those fits of intensity? Highlights of the movie. The insane first action scene in which the Robot goes haywire, Judy is dying, and the ship is plummeting directly into the sun. The alien spider shootout on the Proteus. Escaping the Proteus. The iconic crash landing. And last but not least, the climax in which West pilots the Jupiter II through an exploding planet. I don't care who you are or how badly you hate this movie, that was some straight up exciting stuff. Even now, more than a decade on- it's totally thrilling. I could go on and on about the stilted acting, the absolute waste of Heather Graham, how awesome LeBlanc is when he gets to be a macho bad boy (would've loved more roles with him like this) and how fun the movie is when you just accept it for how it is... but I also know it's not exactly a good movie.

  Being that it was a major part of my childhood, I own Lost in Space on VHS (the same copy I bought way back when it first came out) and Blu Ray, I own the comic book tie-in that Dark Horse published, a movie companion book from Scholastic that I got as a kid, I have the soundtrack on my computer, and I even collect the toys. Yep. (eBay is a godsend) I even got super excited when I saw a pack of the movie trading cards at a flea market last month. It takes a very special brand of nostalgia to engender that sort of fanboy mentality, but what can I say? I'd like to be generous and just say that the movie was divisive, but it wasn't. Not really. The majority consensus is that it really rather sucked. I'm not going to argue with anyone who holds that opinion, but in my opinion, I've been cut a better deal. I got all the fond memories, the nostalgia, and I can still enjoy this movie, and that's one more movie for me to enjoy that they never will.

Totally wasn't kidding about the toys.
And I'll be damned if the theme song by Apollo Four Forty isn't the catchiest shit ever.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Aliens


  This review is going to seem a bit odd coming from a guy who jumps at the opportunity to remind people that Aliens is his all time favorite movie. Ever. Of all time. Yes, it is a masterfully crafted experience that on it's own merits is close to being flawless... yet, it robs the original of it's mystery and subsequently takes away some of the inherent scariness. Aliens was the movie to franchise things. The term 'xenomorph' was coined for the alien creature, the colonial marines were introduced into the universe, Ripley says "Get away from her, you bitch!" and thus... things would never be the same again. Comic books, trading cards, action figures, video games, novels, you name it- Aliens is the movie that spawned all of that. Decades on, and with a legacy to boot, it's easy to look back on Aliens as the pinnacle of the franchise... but the unpopular opinion that I have been fostering myself, is that it was indeed the beginning of the end.

  The plot of Aliens is pretty straight-forward like the first one. The lone survivor of Alien, Ellen Ripley, is found on the escape shuttle from the Nostromo (the ship from the first movie) floating through space in hypersleep... after 57 years. The people who find her don't believe her wild claims about the alien creature, until they lose contact with the terraforming colonies they established on the planet from the first movie, now called LV-426. They offer Ripley her old job back if she accompanies a team of Colonial Space Marines to the planet, in case it turns out to be a "bug hunt", she can 'advise'. She agrees, under the condition that they're going back not to study the creatures or to bring them back... but to wipe them out. It's a great set up honestly. Most sequels struggle with a good plot, but this isn't bad at all. The film's tagline fits perfectly: "This time it's war."

  And war it is. As they descend to the planet, which in comparison to the pacing of the first movie, seems like at a breakneck pace- one of the marines remarks, "Express elevator to Hell, going down!" It's a catchy line, but it also perfectly describes the movie too. The closer we get to the end of the movie, the crazier things get. I mean, obviously, that's basic movie logic. Yet, director James Cameron poured so much raw intensity into the last 45 minutes of this movie, you practically have to remind yourself to breathe.  The climax of this movie seems to have multiple parts to it, each eclipsing the last in sheer tension and spectacle until we finally end with the iconic power loader vs. Queen Alien fight. At this point, you want to cheer. This time, we get to see Ripley fight back.

  On the note of the Queen Alien though, I feel like in a way, that's where things went screwy. Not that she's not an iconic and breathtaking onscreen presence... but the life cycle of the xenomorph is completely explained now. They are animals, they operate much like an insect hive, with a hunt/gather mentality. The queen lays the eggs, the eggs propagate more worker drones and the hive expands. Gone is wondering whether or not the alien is malicious or sadistic. It's not. It's just an animal, doing what it was programmed to do. A single one of these things doesn't seem so scary anymore, which is why Cameron has legitimate swarms of xenomorphs attacking the protagonists at any given moment. It's the sheer number of them that manages to be frightening now, but in a very basic way. There's nothing Lovecraftian about this movie, no sir.

  There's no mystery left to the alien creature. Something which all the subsequent movies struggled to undo to a certain extent. We had a perfect cinematic killing machine which was surrounded by this impenetrable fog of mystery, danger, and death. It easily ranks as vicious and scary as any iconic movie antagonist. Freddy, Jason, Dracula, The Terminator, you name it. However the sequel sort of strips that mystery away from it. It reduces it's actions to that of a simple animal, working on natural instinct. Which is still frightening, in the way that coming face to face with a hungry Panther might be frightening... but the alien creature is no longer the outer-space boogeyman it was in the first movie. That is why I feel that Aliens was the beginning of the end.

  Regardless of how it changed the mythos, in my opinion it is one of the best movies ever made. Due in no small part to it's heart. Ripley forms a maternal bond with a little orphaned girl who's survived against the aliens for a long time. There's just something more intense about having to put your life on the line to save someone else as opposed to the entire push of the movie being about self-preservation. Putting a kid into a mix like this was ballsy in my opinion. It's disturbing situation. Yet I think that just strengthens the bond between her and Ripley and makes for one of the most memorable on-screen dynamics ever. That's what saves this movie from being just really good, and makes it absolutely fantastic. It has heart, surprisingly.

  On it's own merits, it's an amazing thrill ride of a movie. It's been decades since it's release and to this day, you'd be hard pressed to find a sci-fi, action, horror movie any better than this. It has all the perfect elements for a big space-action/horror extravaganza. It's exciting, thrilling, scary, unnerving, and it manages to be all of this without being cheap about it, or insulting your intelligence. Complete with stunning battle sequences, a memorable cast of characters, and a fantastic score, Aliens is one movie I can easily watch over and over. I simply never tire of it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Alien


  My feelings for this franchise is well documented. Aliens is my all time favorite movie. Ever. I love Alien 3, and I just kinda... occasionally tolerate Alien Resurrection. Yet I'm here to talk about the first movie. Alien. The genesis of the franchise. While it's not my favorite movie ever, I have come to the conclusion it is the best movie of the franchise, one of the best movies ever, and perhaps a perfect movie in general. I say a perfect movie, not the perfect movie. The difference is important. There will never be the perfect movie. There are too many genres and too many differing opinions on the receiving end. Yet under the singular sci-fi/horror genre of movies, in which there is a select audience to appreciate it... Alien is the holy grail.

  The opening titles fade in and out slowly over a glacially paced shot of a planet panning across the screen. The title "ALIEN" is slowly formed, piece by piece at the top of the screen. Eerie and haunting music plays over all of it. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It's slow, creepy, haunting, and in a sinister way... beautiful. It's often imitated, but never duplicated. It has a specific combination of elements that make it so great, and iconic. The worn down, lived-in aesthetic of the ship and it's crew. The atmosphere of the planet. The visual design of the derelict alien spacecraft. The look of the alien itself. All of it. It all contributes to this nightmarish movie that still has the ability to shock and scare more than 30 years after it was released.

  The plot is simple. A group of space workers are woken up from hypersleep by their computer, on company orders to investigate a mysterious alien signal. The mysterious signal ends up leading them to an uninhabited planet with a derelict spacecraft crashed on it. Inside the ship, they find a hive of massive eggs, and well... they end up retreating to their shuttle plus one unidentified parasitic life form. I think it's the simplicity of the plot that allows this film to work so well. I think a complex narrative would have hindered it from being so damn effective. Speaking of how effective it is, I think that's due in no small part to it's lack of answers. The movie isn't vague or ambiguous, it lays things out for you fairly well. Except... when it comes to the alien itself.

  Where did it come from? Well, the immediate answer is that derelict spacecraft. Yeah... but where did that ship come from? Why were there so many eggs on board? Furthermore, why does the alien kill? To eat? For sustenance? For pleasure? There are clues and cues for both notions throughout the movie. Ultimately, ignoring the subsequent mythos and sequels, it's up to you. The alien seems content to finish off it's prey quickly until it confronts a female. It toys with her, lets her scream, and kills her slowly, off screen. The next time we see her, her corpse is mostly obscured but we can see her legs. Her bare legs. I know it raises uncomfortable questions, but wouldn't that make the alien even more sinister? Even more mysterious? Even more scary?

  It's no secret that the alien's design is highly phallic. Yet the subtly suggestive imagery heightens the scariness of it. As well as not knowing it's intent. Is it sentient? Malicious? Or is it acting out of a basic hunt/gather instinct? We don't know. We know as much as the human characters in the movie. Which is enough to propel the story forward and sink us into the suspense. The lack of answers about the creature and it's origins are fantastic. Hitchcockian even. It's like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. The look of it, it's behavior, all of it. In fact, there's a decent description brewing here. Alien takes a monster from a Lovecraftian nightmare, and places it squarely in a situation that Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of. The ultimate locked room murder story can only take place in space.

  The story is a vehicle for mind blowing imagery, haunting alien landscapes and futuristic tech-grunge interiors. It's all an arena for this creature to stalk and prey on the human characters, one by one. Starting the movie, it isn't even clear who the main protagonist is, which is probably one of the very few plot twists the movie has in store for us.  It is almost hard for me to write a lengthy review about Alien because I believe it to be a perfect movie. There's no extra paragraph or two dedicated to discussing it's flaws. I can't even find any. The music, the mood, the setting, the acting, the casting, the pacing... it's all perfect. It's all deliberate and meticulously handled.

  I think another reason why this movie works so well, is the cast. They have a real chemistry amongst themselves. They feel like real down to Earth people. Average working class Joes. They are essentially intergalactic... truckers. Each and every one of them has a personality type that seems familiar, but it seems like less of a cliche and more like something that's simply relatable. Elaborate backstories aren't needed in order for us to care about them and not want to see them die. It ratchets the tension and suspense up a notch, that's for sure. I only wish a few of the subsequent sequels would've gone back to this one for inspiration, a couple did, and those worked... but a few didn't, and those suffered for it.

  Nevertheless, I don't think it's a huge spoiler to say that towards the end, only one crew member is left alive. Alone, on the ship, being stalked by the alien, rushing through the strobe lit corridors with steam vents popping off in front of you every few feet... the entire aesthetic has become iconic. Imitated endlessly by countless rip-offs, but never entirely successfully duplicated. It's a hell of a climax, and one that still gets me on the edge of my seat, no matter how many times I've seen it.  It is hard to not love Alien. I'm sure there are those that do, but I'm not one of them. I've seen it three times this year, and I think it might be worming it's way into my top ten movies of all time. I still really believe that it is a perfect movie. See it, if you haven't, and see it again if you have. It's always worth it.