Alien

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“Feeling Alien-ated”

alien1The lack of a seal of approval here is less a comment on the quality of the film, than the fact that it only starts to qualify as an action heroine flick in the final twenty minutes. [Though for sheer influence, omitting it entirely here would be unthinkable] For most of the film, Ripley (Weaver) has been just another one of the crew; if you found someone unaware of the series, and showed them the first two-thirds, they’d probably have Dallas (Skerritt) down both as the hero, and the character most likely to survive.

But it is one of the central rules of horror movies – or, at least, good horror movies – that anyone can die at any time. This is a rule to which Alien adheres, and makes it as much an entry in the haunted house genre as a science-fiction film. True, it’s set in space, with the main threat an extra-terrestrial creature, but outside of these elements, and in both tone and structure, possesses little in common with contemporaries like Star Trek and The Empire Strikes Back.

Indeed, perhaps the closest relation this film has, is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Like Ripley, Bruce Campbell’s Ash (oddly, a name shared with the Nostromo crewman played by Holm) only assumes a heroic posture late in proceedings, forced by adversity to tap unexpected reserves of courage and strength. The movies also share characters trapped in a location from which they can’t escape, by a creature whose presence is in part self-inflicted, and at the same time wildly beyond their understanding. Their enemy is also pissed.

A plot synopsis hardly seems necessary, but here goes. [A spoiler warning is also in effect, albeit one probably relevant only for any Bantu tribesmen who happen to be surfing this site] The spaceship Nostromo, on its way home, picks up an unexplained signal from a planet and goes to investigate. On landing, they find an alien craft, and a lot of eggs, from one of which a creature leaps, attaching itself to crew member Kane (John Hurt). It later falls off, but not, as it turns out, until he has been implanted with a larva which bursts out of him during a meal, and scurries off into the ship. From there, it picks off the crew one by one, growing bigger and badder all the time.

Scott barely lets us see the monster for most of the film, probably a wise move given the budget, which at $11m was below average for the time, especially for a film with so many effects. While the designs, by Swiss weirdo H.R.Giger, are fabulous, their realization sometimes leaves a little to be desired. The scene of the critter scurrying away from Kane’s body is more likely to provoke sniggers these days, as are some of the model shots.

 It helps enormously having a great cast: Ian Holm and John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and of course, Sigourney Weaver, in her feature debut. They are a million light-years away from clean and shiny SF characters, and the film owes more to Dark Star than 2001. It does start off at a very leisurely pace, perhaps too leisurely for an informed viewer, who knows that almost all these lovingly-detailed characters are going to bite the big one before long.

alien2Once Kane gets infected, and especially after the alien gets loose, the pace picks up significantly, with tension being ratcheted to the max. The final sequences rank among the most memorable of all time, when Ripley realises all her crewmates are dead – it’s just her and the monster. And just when you think the film is over, with Ripley blowing up the Nostromo [in space, it appears, no-one can hear you scream, but you can hear a ship explode] and escaping by shuttle, clad in the smallest pair of knickers imaginable…it isn’t.

alien3The film’s most important contribution to the girls-with-guns genre was in creating a plausible heroine, capable of surviving through her own skills, rather than being saved by the macho hero. This was a cliche particularly relevant in SF films, where women were usually passive, and though Alien‘s place in that genre is questionable, as discussed earlier, it opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities. Without Ripley, there quite probably would be no Sarah Connor, Lara Croft or Sidney Bristow.

The director’s cut, released 25 years after the film’s initial release, isn’t as much an alteration as some – as with Blade Runner, Scott opted to trim as well as insert, leaving the new version almost the same length as the original. The main addition is a sequence where Ripley discovers the remains of two of her colleagues, cocooned in preparation for the next step of the alien’s life-cycle. Otherwise, it is simply a joy to experience this film in the darkness of a theatre, where its understated creepiness is undeniably at its most effective.

Its critical and popular acclaim – adjusted for inflation, it’s the best-grossing girls-with-guns film ever at the box-office – inevitably meant that a sequel would follow. While Scott would return to similarly empowering themes more than once, first in Thelma and Louise, and then, less successfully in G.I. Jane, the reins were handed over to another director, James Cameron. He took the franchise in a radically different direction, arguably to even greater success. But that’s another story…

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

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“Old and Busted – New Hotness”

I feel a certain camaraderie with Arnie, since I’ve largely grown up alongside this series of movies, which is probably his finest work. I was at university when the first one came out; the second saw me living the life of a bachelor in London; and the latest installment finds me a happily married man in Arizona. Just as I’ve evolved, so have his opponents: they’ve become harder, faster and more difficult to kill; my sarcasm has been honed to a lethal edge, thanks to living with two teenagers and a pair of dogs.

One good thing about the series is that they haven’t rushed into quick-buck sequels – three movies over 19 years is unlikely to leave the audience jaded. It’s been more than a decade since the last part, leaving a lot of people wondering if Schwarzenegger could still cut it, especially after a slew of underwhelming films like End of Days and Collateral Damage. Those, however, required him to act: I’m happy to report there is no such pretense here, and the results are all the better for it.

The twist this time, and why it’s covered on this site, is that his nemesis is female. The latest model – an appropriate term given Loken’s background – is a T-X, and comes fully equipped with DNA-analysing tongue, throat-box modem, and a broad selection of interesting weaponry, though regrettably, we only get to see a couple in actual operation. They are, however, pretty damn cool.

The plot is effectively a retread of the previous entry, with John Connor (Stahl) a drug-confused member of the underclass since his mother died of leukemia (possibly Hollywoodese for “Linda Hamilton wanted too much money”). He goes on the run with former schoolmate Kate (Danes), whose father just happens to be the guy in charge of SkyNet. What are the odds against that? These two are supposed to meet and fall in love, but there’s a bump on their road to happiness, in the shape of a nuclear war due to start at 6:18 pm that night.

This romantic angle has all the excitement of a pound of herring, and may be safely ignored. What you’re here for is things hitting other things, and there’s certainly plenty of that. It is perhaps significant that the two best sequences largely eschew whizzy CGI, in favour of actual physical destruction. There is a fabulous chase, involving a mobile crane driven by the T-X, which for my money surpasses the summer’s other big helping of road-rage, served up in Matrix Reloaded. She demonstrates an almost human appetite for destruction that borders on endearing; such wilful chaos is likely counter-productive to her mission, yet she goes ahead anyway.

The other chunk that will stick in your memory is when the T-X and T-101 go toe-to-toe. No wirework, no Matrix-fu, just full-on, hardcore brutality, a brawl surely permitted by the MPAA, only because the two protagonists are robots. Walls, floors, urinals – all are just tools into which your opponent can have his/her head driven. Repeatedly. With venom.

One interesting point, is that nobody ever mentions the T-X’s gender. The concept certainly held potential for a lot of PMS-type comments, but save for one minor joke involving Victoria’s Secret, sexuality is entirely kept out of things. The T-X, with her impossibly perfect hair and the coolest red leather jacket worn by a actress playing a superviolent female robot since Eve of Destruction, just goes about her business like an evil babysitter.

After what had been a disappointing year for high-end action movies so far, Terminator 3 restores my faith in the genre. It may be a pip below the first two entries, since you get little in the way of intelligence or innovation, but it’s still a entry worthy of the name. Despite James Cameron being notable by his directorial absence, Mostow delivers everything you could want from a summer film. Here’s to Terminator 4 in 2010!

Dir: Jonathan Mostow
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes