Classic Review: Aliens

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  ‘Alien’ is a popular film that I have issues with, ‘Aliens’ is a popular film that I have no issues with.

Review:  I disliked ‘Alien’ because, despite great design and an interesting story, it was ultimately underwhelming.  It was a box office hit, though, and in 1986 20th Century Fox released a sequel, directed by then-newcomer James Cameron.  Cameron had already proven his worth on the 1984 hit ‘The Terminator’, a surprisingly powerful film that paired heart and depth with adrenaline fueled action.   Cameron would use this same approach to ‘Aliens’, and so it fixes everything wrong with the original ‘Alien’, salvaging and improving the sense of atmosphere, isolation, and terror that people enjoyed from it.  The result is one of the best action, science fiction, and horror movies ever made.

Though this is a three-genre movie, Cameron thankfully avoided the clichés and the tropes of each.   Unlike most space pictures, the future presented here isn’t particularly happy or hopeful.   It has neither the mysticism of ‘Star Wars’ nor the optimism of ‘Star Trek’.   Rather, it goes for that gritty ‘Blade Runner’ feel.  The world is still corporate and capitalist, we still have soldiers and fight wars, and space seems cold and ugly.  It’s a fresher, albeit darker, take on our view of outer space.

Unlike many action films (and, in my opinion, the first ‘Alien’), the characters in ‘Aliens’ are not two-dimensional or stock.  Ellen Ripley, the central character, is one of the best and most complex heroines of recent years.  She is strong, formidable, brave, fierce, and mother-like at the same time.  Most importantly, she seems human and, therefore, relatable.  The intimacy of her character is what draws us into the story and makes it compelling.  The other characters in the film are just as fleshed out, and so it is becomes easier to care about them and feel fear for them.

This does wonders for the sense of horror and terror in the film, as does its pacing and design.  Where as ‘Alien’ was very slow and, at times, even boring, ‘Aliens’ makes effective use of suspense.  People wander into rooms where we know great monsters are hiding, but Cameron allows for time to pass, and thus, for tension to build up before an attack or chase is on.  He doesn’t go for low blow shock-value, such as sudden kills from creatures out-of-nowhere, but rather for legitimate, well-timed terror.

Cameron and co also out-did themselves when it came to design on this picture.  They take the atmosphere from the original film and greatly expound upon it.  The aliens’ look is wonderfully frightening, especially the Alien Queen; the sets are intricate; and the models used are so detailed that it’s impossible to recognize them as such.  Despite being nearly 25 years old, modern CGI would not improve the look or believability of the effects, it’s that good.  James Horner also delivers an electrifying score that has proven so popular that it is still used in movie-trailers to this day.

The filmmakers really pulled out all the stops on ‘Aliens’.  It is an intelligent, suspenseful, and very enjoyable film.  It is the best of the ‘Alien’ franchise as well as a high point in Cameron’s career.  For a well-made and involving picture, check this one out.

Patrick’s Top Five Villainesses

Usually the antagonists in films are men. But every so often, a women comes along in a film who’s so cruel, nasty, and just plain evil that you can’t help but say, “Wow, what a b****!” Anyways, here’s my pick for the best (worst) villainesses of all time.

5. Dr. Elsa Schneider – ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989)

She was such a sexy love-interest for ‘Indy. Too bad she was a double-crossing Nazi.

4. Rossa Klebb – ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963)

By far the single most troublesome (and ugly) woman in James Bond’s life, she spends most of the film trying to kill him. Kuddos to the poison-tipped shoes though.

3. The Alien Queen – ‘Aliens’ (1986)

One ugly, disgusting creature. She’s got two mouths, a fifty-foot egg sack, and the ability to summon other aliens at her whim. Not only that, but she tries to kill the film’s little girl (gasp!). Thank goodness Ripley (and a military-grade power suit) was there to save the day.

2. The Wicked Witch of the West – ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

She’s a witch, she’s got an army of flying monkeys, she can wield fire, and she’s pure evil. Need I say more?

1. Mrs. Robinson – ‘The Graduate’ (1967)

She’s manipulative, creepy, and slightly insane. She seduces Dustin Hoffman only to turn psycho on him when he starts dating her daughter. She’s as deranged and frightening as they come, and there’s a look in her eyes that keeps me awake at night. No villainess has been more disturbing, conniving, or just plain evil.

District 9

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Extremely well produced and extremely tense, this sci-fi actioner for the thinking man exceeds the expectations of its template.

No, they haven't taken over the world.  Far from it.

No, they haven't taken over the world. Far from it.

Review:  The aliens haven’t landed.  Their ship has floated to a halt over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, apparently out of gas.  They don’t emerge from their ship, so after three months of arguments, the human race allows the South African government to cut their way in.

The aliens are confused, malnourished, and apparently without hope.  Humanity brings them down to earth and organizes them in a camp known as District 9, on a temporary basis.  It eventually turns into a violent, crime-filled slum, and alien unrest threatens to bring down the hammer of humanity’s bigotry.  Super corporation and mercenary force Multi-National United is sent in to evict the “prawns” and send them to a concentration camp far from the thick human population.  The MNU task force is headed up by Wikus van de Merwe, a married man in his 30s who shows a surprising amount of cruelty to the prawns.  During the mission to evict the aliens, however, he is sprayed by a mysterious black fluid, and horrific things start occurring in his body…

‘District 9’ is played like a history, a documentary, and a lightning-quick chase narrative, and they are meshed together remarkably well.  It’s wound up tight and the action is brutal.  The whole movie is brutal, a justified assault on the senses.  Violence and gore abound, but if they did not, then ‘District 9′ wouldn’t have nearly the edge it needs to be an effective story.  The gruesome makes it organic and much more emotional.  We feel the pain of Wikus’ transformation, and the devastating effect of alien weaponry, which literally causes people to explode, but not in the way that this year’s ‘Watchmen’ showed the same effect.  This is much more realistic, which oddly enough makes it less disturbing.

Once the action heats up, it becomes very focused and gratifying.  It becomes about personal sacrifice, and the heroes save each others lives over and over again.

The CGI, accomplished by Weta, The Embassy Visual Studios, and Zoic Studios, is nearly seamless.  I wasn’t wowed in the way that I was by ‘Star Trek’, but it accomplished its goal.  The art direction, on the other hand, did indeed blow me away.  I felt like I was watching a 1980s sci-fi action movie, realized with 21st century technology and the appropriate zeal.  Excellent, excellent stuff.

Despite an insane amount of gruesome imagery, violence, and other objectionable content, the message of the movie is ultimately positive.

Definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Classic Review: Alien

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★☆☆

Inside that egg theres a facehugger even a mother couldnt love.

Inside that egg there's a facehugger even a mother couldn't love.

The nineteen seventies was a dark time for many.  The economy was bad, morality was degrading, and the United States had been cursed with a string of sub-par presidents, not to mention several global wars and conflicts.  In this dark and grim decade, therefore, it is no surprise to find a string of pioneering horror films, including ‘Jaws’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘The Omen’, and ‘Halloween’.  These films were darker in tone and more serious than previous horror films, and they are largely responsible for helping to modernize and reinvigorate the horror movie genre.  The last entry in this line of horror films is ‘Alien’, in 1979.  Despite praise from many a critic, this cosmic odyssey lacks the elements which make it truly great, and more importantly scary.

After the title assimilates across a panorama of outer space, we are shown the Nostromo, a rather gothic looking mining ship slowly drifting through the cosmos.  Its seven crew members are suddenly and abruptly awakened from long-term hibernation by the ships computer, dubbed MOTHER, and are ordered to investigate a strange S.O.S. signal from a nearby planet.

Upon landing on this strange, dissident sort of world, they discover the ruins of a gigantic and long crashed alien ship with an enormous chamber of eggs inside.  One of the eggs unleashes a strange hand-like creature that attaches itself to a member of the crew, putting him into a coma.  After bringing him back to the ship and unsuccessfully attempting to control or even understand this life form, the “hand” all of the sudden falls off, and all is at peace.  That is, until another creature bursts out of the man via chest in a now iconic movie scene.  The remaining part of the movie chronicles the crew as they attempt to combat and kill “the eighth passenger”.

For what it’s worth, the plot is an intriguing one.  It’s sort of a 50’s B movie on steroids.  There is also an interesting implied message on workers rights in this movie, as this crew finds its life being compromised by the desires of a company-controlled computer, perhaps a nod to the tough economic years of the seventies.  There is also a kind of sexual undertone that is inferable from this movie, as much of the artwork and even the look of the alien are reminiscent of human sexuality.

However this story carries with it an inordinately large amount of shortcomings.  The most notable and most important flaw lies with the acting.  It is difficult to tell what makes for a bad performance in a movie, whether it be the performance itself or the writing.  It seems that a little bit of both is at fault here in ‘Alien’.  For the first 45 minutes of the movie or so, nothing anybody utters possesses a trace of emotion.  It’s all bland scientific terminology and company policy.  This is only worsened by the actors, who evidently were told to deliver every line in a lifeless manner.  Unfortunately, this is not good for creating horror.  I cannot feel much fear for characters who don’t seem human.  When they did start showing real emotion, a whopping hour into the film, I could have cared less if they lived or died.

There are other problems with plot.  There are inconsistencies or questions left unanswered at the end of the film.  For instance, why show literally thousands and thousands of eggs if only one of them proves to be a threat.  Or why show a bizarre alien skeleton in the old ship?  Just so the characters can spend one minute examining it before proceeding onward and completely forgetting about it?  Or why bother to let the audience know halfway through the movie that MOTHER wants the alien unharmed without telling us why.  It feels unfinished, unpolished.  Sure, some of these questions are answered in the sequel, too bad it took seven years to make.  Lastly, this movie is just too slow going.  An early trailer for the movie indicated a rather frantic pacing for this movie, but that’s really not the case.  It’s close to 45 minutes before the audience actually sees the eggs and about another 30 minutes before the true Alien makes its appearance. Even after that, the creature just makes short cameos interspersed by boring dialogue.

Other aspects of this film are hit and miss.  The set designs are perhaps the most elaborate and well done I’ve ever seen.  They don’t feel like gigantic movie sets, they feel like real places, real confined spaces, which is good for making claustrophobia.  Also, this movie is notable for its heavy use of handheld camera work, which adds, at times to the lost and confined feeling of this movie.  The special effects in general are pretty good for 1979, but they tend to slump in key places.  Take the famous “chest burst” scene.  From a believability standpoint, it’s absolutely brilliant—until the creature runs across a table, fully revealing that it is being pulled across on a metal track.  This sort of flaw is a disaster for this movie, because it so easily undermines credibility, which is not something that this film can afford to lose if it wants to be affective.  Another example is the alien suit.  It was wise for the filmmakers to cast a 7-foot Kenyan in the role of the creature, because it helps to make him appear less human when in full attire.  However, a man in a suit is just that, and at the end of the day it simply is a little too noticeable that this is a stuntman walking around the set.  Again, complete and total belief in this creature is crucial to making this film work, but they didn’t quite get it, and it compromises the whole premise.

Lastly there is Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  It’s interesting in how unnoticeable it is.  There is no real strong theme holding it all together, and it is altogether too sedated to make much impact.  Not only that, but often at what are presumably the scariest points in the movie, the music is simply stopped.  This is a bad idea, because, coupled with the issues with special effects, it doesn’t quite pull of fear as well as it should.  It’s a shame too, because Goldsmith has proven on other occasions how capable of creating a mood he is.

In conclusion, ‘Alien’ simply does not support its own premise well enough.  Its not that it couldn’t have, but it doesn’t.  A few key rewrites would probably have saved it, but as it stands, it is simply an average film.  At times it can scare, but it’s rarely for a better reason than for shock.  However, if there is one good thing that came out of ‘Alien’, it’s the other movies it had an influence on.  For instance, the sequel, 1986’s ‘Aliens’, was a much more balanced and entertaining affair.  Also, Ridley Scott, the director, would go on to refine his bleak-future style with the classic film ‘Blade Runner’, while a group of other filmmakers would create the masterpiece known as ‘The Thing’—a much better update of science-fiction horror—just three years later, borrowing elements from this film.  ‘Alien’ serves as an important lesson to filmmakers: Don’t let a film be overshadowed by its legacy.

Know1ng

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A divisive but effective, philosophical thriller.

Review: So I pretty much geeked out over this movie when I first saw it. I’ve mellowed since then, and gotten control of my mind, so perhaps I can reflect more effectively on the ‘Knowing’ experience.  Director Alex Proyas has constructed a very effective philosophical thriller, but you have to be the kind of person (open to the concept of wonder, which is rare these days) that can take it in.

Like his previous films, Proyas gives ‘Knowing’ a really distinct atmosphere that sticks with you.  The man-on-the-ground perspective gives the intense, apocalyptic imagery a poignancy that big, dumb disaster movies can’t touch.  The disaster sequences are elemental, focusing on fire, dust, darkness and light, respectively.  Since it was shot on digital, it has an eerie, documentary feel.  The story is divisive because it doesn’t try to justify its supernatural elements.  They’re simply present, and confusing, and at once terrifying and comforting.  This is much like real world religions.  Every one of them has fear and love mixed together down to the core, and it indeed takes faith to turn confusion into catharsis.  Due to the rise of scientism, faith is considered childish and unevolved, and its hard to apply it even to fiction.  Its a sad thing, because faith is a crucial component of imagination.

The performances at the heart of the film are very strong.  Nicolas Cage is an underrated, oft-derided actor, and he carries the emotional burden of his character very well.  The supporting cast is good, especially the child actors, whose characters seem to be the only ones at relative ease with the impending doom of the world.

‘Knowing’ is proof that Alex Proyas isn’t out of ideas nor has he lost the ability to realize them.  I look forward to his next dream.

Classic Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A splendidly photographed parable that would go on to set the standards for sci-fi films for decades.

This scene never happens, but that what 21st century fan fiction is for.

This scene never happens, but that's what 21st century fan fiction is for.

Review:  Military officials throughout the world track an unidentified object in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is speeding in for a landing.  The United States deals with panicking citizens as the vessel from another world lands in Washington D.C.  The military creates a perimeter, and just in time; an alien emerges, claiming to have come in peace.

It all sounds so… cliche.

Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ created this formula, which would be imitated and aped by inferior directors with inferiors stories ever since.  Though suspenseful, ‘Day’ is not a horror movie.  It is intelligent, thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction, its focus on character, not carnage.

The film opens in what I just described.  What happens next is simple, but interesting.  The alien- a very human-like being named Klaatu -is shot by a nervous soldier, bringing the wrath of his robot protector, the now famous Gort.  The machine unleashes a ray that vaporizes many of the soldiers’ weapons, until Klaatu orders him to stop.  He then allows the military to take him in for medical treatment and examination.  At the hospital, he meets with a government official, attempting to convince him to arrange a meeting of all the world’s leaders.  Due to the Cold War attitudes, the official laments, this will be impossible.  Klaatu insists.  When nothing is done, he escapes military custody.

The film chronicles his attempts to accomplish his mission on Earth, namely warning the world of some danger.  Eventually he works with Gort to cut off all the world’s power for a limited period of time, hence the title.

The cinematography and editing is very easy on the eyes.  There seems to be little about the photography that is special, but it is very pleasant to watch.  The special effects, though, are truly innovative.  The shots of Klaatu’s saucer landing and taking off are impressive, as are the various effects of Gort.  The ship design is elegant and utilitarian.

Bernard Herrmann, famous for his work on ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Psycho’, among many others, composed the music.  Utilizing the eerie, ethereal sound of the theremin, he created a signature soundscape that is pulsating, emotive, iconic and unsettling.  The themes would go on to be parodied and imitated like every other aspect of the film.

The acting is not striking, but workable.  The lead, Michael Rennie as Klaatu, surpasses all the others.  He carries both the warmth and wrath of his character equally well.

The film is in direct response to the Cold War.  Klaatu’s mission, it is revealed, is to warn Earth’s nations that they must give up their violence, or at least severely limit it, or else the federation he represents will be forced to intervene.  The execution of the final scenes, though memorable, seems forced and contrived.  Nevertheless, the message he brings raises several questions.  Is it ethical for a third party, such as Klaatu’s federation, to enter into a strange conflict and dictate terms?  Isn’t Klaatu’s threat of annihilation just perpetuating the same ideas that were fueling the Cold War in the first place?  After all, isn’t he taking the position that the U.S. often takes, being the nation with the bigger guns?  What makes his message, from a more advanced civilization, so much more progressive than our own collective culture?

The film suffers from a dated feeling in some cases, yet it is still a breath of fresh air.  I gave it three stars for its ideas, but I removed one for a contrived ending and a dragging second act.  All things considered, if you are a fan of sci-fi, this film is required viewing, and if you are a film buff, this is a guilty pleasure.