It Might Be a Classic, and I Might Even Like It

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My memory of the excellent novel by Jeff Vandermeer is shaky, but not THAT shaky. ANNIHILATION really is a case of a major book “inspiring” a big-budget movie. The director/writer Alex Garland is no slouch with a pen, and he wrote a loose adaptation of the book, with little worry about being faithful.

The result is an impressive attempt to bring an adult sensibility about life and love to a story of a quasi-military mission into a distorted region that may be a case of first contact with an alien life form. It’s part of the wave of mainstream non-action SF, and would appeal to fans of CONTACT, INTERSTELLAR and THE ARRIVAL.

Natalie Portman is very good as the lead, but Jennifer Jason Leigh really holds the screen as a scientist leading the expedition into “The Shimmer,” a region affected by a meteor strike, resulting in mutation of plants and animals.

Like The Zone in Tarkovsky’s STALKER, The Shimmer is a place of wild vegetation. This being a Hollywood flick, there are also mutated animals a.k.a. monsters. The encounters with these are highlights. I can imagine people talking about movies they’ve seen bringing this up, and in less than ten seconds someone says, “And what about that BEAR thing? That was messed up!”

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“You first.”

This has a small cast for a movie with such scale. That the team is made up of women is brought up and dispensed with in probably three seconds. We get snapshots of each of these people and understand who they are and why they’re interested in The Shimmer.

Where the movie goes off for me is in the reaching of the heart of The Shimmer. STALKER dealt with this issue by not penetrating the mystery, and making the reasons why the characters choose to NOT go into the room they’ve come to see the whole point–WHY would they not go in? You can only play that card so many times, though. ANNIHILATION climaxes with an encounter with the alien life inside The Shimmer, in a kind of biological version of the 2001 Star Gate sequence. Like another Tarkovsky, SOLARIS, the alien is TRULY alien; unlike something like STAR TREK, here the alien remains totally Other and incomprehensible. After discovering what happened/is happening to those who tried to explore The Shimmer before her, Portman confronts and interacts with the alien/aliens. We’re left with an “Is she or isn’t she?” ending, but it was like Garland shrugged and said, “Whatever.”

Worth seeing? Definitely. A masterpiece I’m too slow to grasp? Probably. But there’s something missing that makes ANNIHILATION feel thin, to me.

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My Own Private IDAHO TRANSFER. I’m sorry.

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“My Own Private–?” “I’m sorry.”

Peter Fonda followed up his fine revisionist western THE HIRED HAND with IDAHO TRANSFER. It’s as unusual a time-travel movie as HIRED HAND is an offbeat western. In both cases he’s much more interested in personal interaction than the traditions of their respective genres.

A government project for matter transference ends up being a means of time travel. Right off, IT has a good idea most time travel movies don’t deal with, the health risks of sending a human being through freakin’ TIME. Old people don’t do well, and die not long after transfer, so young people are used to go fifty-plus years into the future. There they find a rocky post-apocalyptic land. And then people start getting nutty.

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IT is about the human costs of this incredible technology, which is something few SF movies dealt with until then. The way MOON touched on the human costs of a moon base, IT is about the physical stress of time travel. One character doesn’t follow the rules precisely and pays a price.

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“Don’t touch this.” “But why–” “Don’t touch!” She touches.

Much of the movie is like an Outward Bound event, with young people wandering around this nowhere place, man. Young people said they were the future, but these kids don’t really have a lot of interest in setting up the new world they talked about. Fonda isn’t bashing young people, but he’s not taking a romantic view, either.

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Rebuilding civilization’s a bummer, man.

The movie’s view of human nature is a bleak one. One character, a former mental patient, gets nutty–is this because of human nature, or due to the man-made machinery? You decide! (Because the movie doesn’t tell.)

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Go ahead, look inside the scary hole, I’m sure it’s fine.

This was one of the first movies Keith Carradine acted in. He doesn’t make much of an impression, but it’s the nature of the movie. The characters are not sharply defined and the actors are mostly amateurs, and it shows.

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Scenic Idaho!

The final moments are clumsy and a letdown. The message its sending seems to be out of a different movie like SOYLENT GREEN. It’s okay, it’s just a bad fit for the rest of the movie.

It’s available on a couple of cheap DVDs, but IDAHO TRANSFER deserves the full Criterion treatment.

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When Great Scenes Happen to Bad Movies: FIRE IN THE SKY

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This didn’t get much play or acclaim when it came out in 1993. Written by a writer of Star Trek the Next Rest Stop and Saturday Night Live episodes, directed by a future genre TV director, it stars Robert Patrick aka the Cop Terminator/guy who actually did a good job replacing Duchovney on X-Files, and D.B. Sweeney, who was one of those guys who kept making movies even though no one was asking for more D.B. Sweeney movies. Not being mean, just sayin’. Stop looking at my Amazon rank.

It’s a movie about alien abduction, based on a book supposedly based on an actual abduction. It’s not a great movie.

BUT…

Some of us watch this stuff, including the X-Files, to see how they’re going to portray alien encounters. X-Files did an okay job once or twice, and I suspect the production crew watched this scene.

Why? Watch it. At night. When you’re alone. But don’t put anything up your butt to set the mood.

Heaven Help Us, John’s Talking About ALIEN Again: RIDLEY SCOTT

As with all artists, Ridley Scottth.jpg
has ups and downs. He’s got his blind spots when it comes to screenplays, as so many moviemakers do, but his vision is so clear on so many aspects of filmmaking. There is an essential lack in his work that keeps him from making the leap from the list of directors I really, REALLY like to the much smaller list of those I see as the great artists of the medium. Things like Brett wandering off to be killed in ALIEN and Camron Diaz having sex with a car in THE COUNSELOR. There’s a spark lacking in his movies, a certain American energy that someone like Tarantino has an over-abundance of (which is all Q.T. has got). 
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BUT…
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I hate seeing people putting Scott down so casually. His first three movies are still among my favorites (that’s DUELLISTS, ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER). He’s done several others almost on that level, and some late-career movies I think are underrated and near-great–PROMETHEUS and THE COUNSELOR. The dumb stuff in PROMETHEUS is the most explicit example of Scott’s misjudgments, but the good stuff in the movie is so very good.
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The ALIEN franchise was really hurt when Scott listened to “fans” and made COVENANT with the original alien. The origin of it now being linked to humans through David is a terrible miscalculation. Scott said he changed his plans when he read online reaction, and COVENANT fails for me because it’s like Scott tried to do two different things, based on what he THOUGHT people wanted.
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The hard fact is the alien just isn’t as shocking as it was in ALIEN. Even the much-loved ALIENS turns them into the horror equivalent of STAR WARS stormtroopers. They’ve lost their specialness. I think Scott was on the right track when he created different mutations in PROMETHEUS, because the aliens are NOT the core of the story–they were in ALIEN, but that’s over. What created them is the focus in PROMETHEUS; in COVENANT, the focus is David. He’s a good character but I liked him better when he was a being with his/its own agenda that conflicted with Shaw’s.
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Giger photo used because I like it. And I wish Scott and HRG did more together than they did.

 

PROMETHEUS did something I never thought I’d see in this franchise–feature a lead character different but just as interesting as Ripley. And now she’s been tossed aside in favor of David, who was far more interesting as a supporting player.
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COVENANT was amazing in its own way, for me: A Ridley Scott ALIEN movie that bored me.
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He should do another, but really do what he wants to do to repair the damage of COVENANT, and possibly rescue it by putting it in context. The aliens are like any slasher movie monster now, no longer scary. But they can be something else, in a science fiction story that puts the franchise in a SF framework that rescues it from the poor choices that threaten to swallow the whole, messy series.
I hope he does this.
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The 2001st Blog Commentary on The 50th Anniversary of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Random Thoughts on a monumental film:

It’s boring.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a classic, or a great movie. It’s both. AND I love it–I’ve watched it many times. The boredom is part of the charm in that the talk of ham sandwiches contrasts with the talk of previous space-set films.

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Ever think of all  the good and the beautiful in the universe?

The plain dialogue shows how phony so many films set in spaceships were with their talk of interstellar justice and retro-rockets firing. All on its own it invalidates the Captain Video-level babble. Still didn’t prevent STAR TREK from feeding fake science to fans who bragged about the scientific accuracy of firing a sub-ionic pulse at something that saves the galaxy at the last minute, which of course is how so many science problems have been resolved in our time.

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2001 deals with one of the issues 99% of space-set movies simply ignore: artificial gravity. That’s a HUGE issue, and without the use of centripetal force pretty damned close to impossible. But imagine all that Star Trek with everyone floating around? Sure makes tilting the camera and everyone falling THAT way less exciting.

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The Alex North score would have been a mistake, and the classical selections work. I’m not sure any traditional scoring could’ve saturated the movie with Kubrick’s grimly-amused tone. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke weren’t into Lucas-like heroism in space. The most heroic thing done in the movie is turning off a computer, something you can do right now. Of course, that action shows mankind still can master its creations, and sets up humanity for its next step in evolution. Or something.

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SPACE: 1999 is what you’d get if someone not as smart or artistically-capable as Clarke and Kubrick. The mystical aspects in season one are more supernatural than the LSD-trip climax here.

2001 is one of the great Hard Science Fiction films…or so we’ve been told by Clarke fans. But Clarke had a mystical streak, too.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – ACC

This is one of those quotes fans think is neat, but it doesn’t seem particularly deep to me. What is it saying, really? The microwave oven is magic to someone from the fourth century, but what does that get us?

Clarke seems to introduce a lot of fantasy to the climax of 2001.

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The visuals are still beautiful, which just shows it’s about concept and artistry, not the latest gadgetry. See FANTASTIC VOYAGE, which won the Oscar for effects within a year of Kubrick winning for this.

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No windows to wash, but the floor lightbulbs are a pain in the ass to change.

For all the talk of 2001 being a most philosophical movie, what is its philosophy? Mankind needed a nudge to become technological, then had to catch up to his own machines. THEN he could be given another nudge to Star Childhood?

So what?

It’s value to me is in setting us in several beautifully-evoked settings and giving us the room to think about them. Kubrick nudges us along with the monolith, its presence forcing us to wonder, why THIS moment? What’s significant about it in Kubrick and Clarke’s idea of humanity’s rise?

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Creepy-ass starbaby

The Day the Earth Stood Still and Took It

I’ve never understood the praise lavished on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

I love the score by Bernard Herrmann. The acting is good. The few visual effects are expertly done. “Klaatu Barada Necco” is the coolest way to ask for the worst candy.

I THINK it’s beloved because it is unabashedly anti-war while the Cold War was on. It’s loved today because it shows that Hollywood could make mainstream entertainment with Progressive themes.

My response to that is–Well, who was STOPPING you?

And who’s stopping you TODAY?

The same folks who were behind blacklisting: Hollywood.

That’s a whole ‘nother topic I won’t get into here. Maybe on my rampaging politics-almost-only Twitter feed, which I do not recommend. Stay away from it.

The thing is, if DAY could be made as ‘intelligent’ science fiction, there was no outside governmental or conservative force preventing more such films from being made and accepted by the public. Instead, Hollywood liberals talked the talk, then ran and hid when their wallets were at risk. I’m not putting them down, but one good development from the current Red Scare is that Hollywood’s finally STFU about the McCarthy era, which for decades was up there with concentration camps and Soviet show trials (which you rarely heard about here) as the worst thing ever to be done by anyone. Just step around those piles of Soviet and Nazi and Chinese bodies, a handful of people had to use pen names… This is why I avoid politics here.

But man, what an overrated bore this movie is. Overrated meaning “Everyone else thinks it’s a classic but I don’t like it.”

WARNING: Don’t read this if you think DAY is an untouchable masterpiece or have no sense of humor. But I repeat myself…

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“It’s message of peace is cool, but cooler is when Gort kills people and destroys things!”

I like how Hugh Marlowe is shown to be a villain by saying his bride-to-be will be proud of him once she sees him in the paper for turning in Public Enemy #1. Everyone in Hollywood would kill to be on the front page of the paper for anything short of eating a living baby.

“I don’t care about the rest of the world!” And thus, Hugh is revealed as a total villain, or just a regular person who makes a bad judgment and spouts off during an argument. So understanding of human flaws, folks in Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey’s line of work.

“Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” The message of every conquering warlord ever.

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Scientist with flyaway hair = Einstein

“I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.” How? Eugenics, or just deleting any opposing viewpoints?

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War is bad. Deep.

“We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” And then there’s the whole ‘turn your planet into a burned-out cinder’ thing.

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The worst thing about DAY?

White hero, white villain(s), white heroine, white supporting characters…and a couple cuts to non-white faces (no speaking roles) during the big speech at the end. See CURSE/NIGHT OF THE DEMON for a living, breathing, talking Indian supporting character, oh Progressive self-congratulating Hollywoodies.

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Special effects are used carefully, and all are nicely-done.

Fear and ignorance are what Bad People have in the world of this movie. Why would anyone be afraid of an alien being approaching them holding what looks like a lethal dildo, which spouts spines while a stranger is holding it like a weapon?

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It’s a radio. Oh, maybe I should’ve told you that before I pointed it at you and made the pointy things pop out threateningly.

People get really pretentious when writing about this movie. “And so begins one of Hollywood’s greatest…” “Iconic” and “undisputed” and “masterpiece” must show up in any article written about this.

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Clearly, a tale of peace and understanding, not like those sci fi flicks we watch over and over, because, uh…

Do what we say, or we’ll kill you with our Death Star-level weapon. AH, THE POWER OF RATIONAL THOUGHT! Attack of the Clones should’ve gotten a Nobel Peace Prize. The idea is floated to give the UN the equipment and manpower to put down aggression.

Where is all this peace stuff coming from?

Robert Wise was a good, efficient, no-nonsense director who has been elevated to greatness he doesn’t deserve. His rep is used to claim STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE is an overlooked classic, and that’s just going too far. ANDROMEDA STRAIN is cold, efficient and very well-written, a unique way of doing an ‘alien virus’ movie. Like DAY, it’s sci fi for people who’re otherwise embarrassed to be watching sci fi.

(Yes, I know the comic book came years and years later, I’m trying not to get too heavy.)

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Hi, I’m Jesus, can I have a room?

The nods to Mr. Carpenter as Christlike savior would be laughed out of any other movie. Ditto all of Klaatu’s talk about honor and Mr. Lincoln. “Patriotic flag-waving flapdoodle, I say!” – DAY fan in alternate reality

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He can destroy planets but he moves like an arthritic old man, knocking over furniture.

How stupid the way you respond to fear! Now watch us turn off all power on Earth! Doesn’t that make you happy?!?!

In 1950, Klaus Fuchs, German scientist, gave Soviets nuclear secrets. The ‘witch hunt’ the makers and fans of this movie talk about in the DVD extras is a bit more complex than that.

Maybe if those folks weren’t so self-satisfied that liking a cool little SF movie makes them so much smarter than those silly folks who’d recently put  a world war behind them, I might go easier on this. But probably not.

Sorry, I know people like this movie. But as is the case with many things we experience in childhood (ex. breast milk), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL has a very inflated reputation. It’s not awful, it’s decent. But it’s not the unimpeachable classic it’s made out to be. For me, it’s not even in the top ten best SF of the fifties.

Rant over.

Things I Don’t Like About ALIENS

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THE ALIENS

We see too much of them. Clearly, they couldn’t repeat the approach of ALIEN with this story, since by the end of ALIEN the creature has been fully revealed. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re just not very interesting this time–they screech and get blow’d up. We see MORE of them, more often. In ALIEN we saw glimpses of them–the head upside-down, the “jazz hands!” flash, the silhouette in the hallway.

This time they are lit the same way every time, and they look like suits. (Many in the group shots are foam pieces glued to body stockings.)

When I saw ALIENS opening night, the audience sat there munching its popcorn as these things popped up. Because they’re not scary.

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THE QUEEN

I cannot stand the alien queen.

It makes no sense to even have one, based on what ALIEN set up about the life cycle. But Cameron needed to go BIG at the climax, because that’s what he does. Cameron is a showman, and his movies always have a big “You thought THAT was something, well…!” event at the climax.

But it throws the truckers-in-space universe Scott created into silly comic book heroics. The queen doesn’t expand the parameters of the alien life form. In ALIEN, it was truly alien because just what the hell it is and what it does is a mystery. Here, it’s just an animal that lays eggs and the things eat people. The queen creation itself is just a large, clumsy toy. Its teeth look like they’re made of plastic and its body has limited mobility. It doesn’t move like something dangerous. (ALIEN 3’s effects were poorly married to the set footage, but the idea of a FAST alien was smart and different.)

The cocoon sequence was cut from ALIEN for sound reasons, but ultimately it robbed the movie of a great “OHHHH” moment, in which we see the alien life cycle: Egg, Facehugger, Chestburster, Adult captures prey and turns them into egg, and the process continues, in a loop of life and death with no purpose other than to create more of itself.

“Where are all these eggs coming from?” The cocooned colonists birth chestbursters (not 1/10th as effective as the first one), an alien is born, and the aliens…capture people to make them hosts. But in the original they just slaughtered people and used them to make a new EGG.

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It’s not nearly as elegant and logical as the original idea.

(And the dead space jockey was scarier than anything in this one.)

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JAMES HORNER’S SCORE

Film music fans LOVE this score. Part of it is the use of two of the tracks in other movies and trailers. They sound neat. “Bishop’s Countdown” is cool, especially if you don’t mind that it’s just a beefed-up version of a cue from his Star Trek 2 score.

The problem with this is it was the beginning of James Horner’s long habit of reusing his own past work and ‘borrowing’ from others. That opening sound familiar? Kinda…2001-ish? “Futile Escape” opens with a ‘tribute’ to Goldsmith’s Capricorn One. And so on.

There are maybe ten good minutes in this. The rest are rip-offs of Penderecki (the “Shining” music), Goldsmith (he uses that Alien-like echoplex A LOT), and himself.

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THE MINIATURES ALL LOOK LIKE MINIATURES

Same as with THE TERMINATOR’s model effects. Vroom-vroom!

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I’m getting bummed out at being such a crank, better wrap this up.

NEWT

Kids in action movies are a nod to the audience that things aren’t gonna get THAT bad. (An exception: the little horrors at the start of THE WILD BUNCH.)

(Imagine if Peckinpah had lived and directed an ALIEN sequel…)

 

 

PLASTIC SETS

The sets all look like they’re made of plastic, except for the elevator made of chicken wire–an odd choice in a nuclear facility.

 

And finally…

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THIS MOVIE IS DUMB

The all-powerful Company sends some space truckers to the source of an alien signal. That actually makes sense–what could be the find of all time can be handled discretely, but one droid, before anyone is the wiser.

Jump to ALIENS.

The Corporation just FORGOT about the thing they wanted for their bio-weapons division? Why look for the lifeboat Ripley took, which might have that precious cargo aboard? Whoops, it just slipped right through our fingers, oh well… 57 years of floating later (how does it stay out that long? How come no one found it? How did they find it NOW?)…

Ripley’s tale reminds the company of this great thing they were looking for back in the day. They send one guy and his wife and kids to the alien ship. The colony is wiped out. So the Company sends a bunch of wisecrackin’ jackoffs who fall apart on contact with the enemy, led by a guy who’s been on ONE mission previously–THAT’S who leads your commando unit to get the most precious thing in the universe?

Paul Reiser’s ‘plan,’ which he didn’t even need (if The Company is all-powerful, just make taking the damned aliens the priority, who cares what Ripley thinks?), Bishop NOT being programmed to HELP Reiser, the crack MARINE unit that’s taken over by a civilian with zero combat experience. And the goddamned forklift, with a flame unit on it for no practical reason, but like the queen its kewl…

Enough.

I appreciate that lots of people love ALIENS. I’m not one of them, mostly because the original ALIEN was made in a way that opened the viewer’s mind to a universe other movies hadn’t shown us before.

ALIENS is a silly B movie. That’s fine. Everyone else can call it a classic. No one’s making me watch it. So everyone’s happy.

But Sam Peckinpah’s ALIENS would have been…