Alien³ – In which a movie is revisited and rating is revised.

(kabann)

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I swiped this picture from Screenrant.com, and while I don’t agree with the content of the article about the scariest movie monsters, this picture was great because it so excellently provides an example of something scarier than the alien in Alien³.

In our initial summary post, I placed this movie just behind Aliens and ahead of Prometheus and Resurrection.  To be fair, it had been a long time since I’d seen it, and I had some fond memories of the movie from a stylistic point of view.  Pretty sure that was retroactively supported by how well I think David Fincher did in his later films.  So Gwen and I watched it again (the extended Assembly Cut this time, which I hadn’t seen before) and it was certainly an illuminating experience.  If you’ve read my other posts you already know I’m nowhere near a REAL reviewer;  how about if I do something different this time around, and take you through the movie, soup to nuts, so you can follow what I was thinking as I watched it.

I love Blu-Ray as a format.  The menu on this new Anthology edition that I’m watching is pretty cool – it goes through an assortment of informational screens showing you where they are in space, what happened at the end of Aliens, a little bit about what’s going on as the movie opens, cam footage and schematics, etc.  Kind of cool.

ACT ONE

Okay, the movie opens.  Interesting style, with the beginning of the story told in a series of almost impressionistic flashes, as we see the cryogenically sleeping survivors of the last movie quietly OH NO attacked by a facehugger that hatched out of an egg that was hidden in plain sight, evidently.  You’d think after the kind of ordeal they had been through recently, someone would have done some kind of scan or sweep or quick look-around to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.  Okay, so Ripley’s compromised, there’s a fire, they’re dumped into an escape pod and they’re crashing.

Planet looks kind of cool;  dark, gloomy, bad weather, industrial.  A younger Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) appears, looking severe in his big coat.  He spots the washed up, oily-dirty-blackened Ripley and carries her to safety in a very Frank Miller-esque comic booky looking scene.

Now there are some cows.  Good, we know what else is gonna get aliened.

Short cuts alternating the discovery (gruesome!) of the other bodies with a computer monitor where someone is logging what’s going on.  It’s not the worst way of squeezing in a little more exposition, but zooming in on the text we’re supposed to find most horrifying and poignant?  That’s so very Cameron.  I’d expect more out of you, Fincher, but this is your first movie so I’ll cut you a little slack.

The sun sets.  I’ll put a pin in that.

Charles Dutton as a kind of creepy religious leader (Dillon).  Establishing shots of some interesting character actors, while they’re getting what we already know summarized for them.  From the inmates, odd professions of discomfort with a woman having appeared in this prison.  “We don’t like it because we’re trying to punish ourselves for our sins.”  Mmmmmkay.

Ripley wakes and meets Clemens (Charles Dance) for some more catching up, light on dialogue, which makes the scene work well.  More walkin’ around shots, show us a little of the facility, show Ripley a little of the wreckage.  Break the news that Hicks and Newt are dead, and Bishop is junked.  Emotion happens but it doesn’t come off the screen.  Hey look, acid burn.

The morgue is especially big, roomy, well lit.  Dead body, which looks remarkably whole considering the mangled mess we saw in the crash.  Ripley inexplicably investigates Newt’s mouth, neck and chest for signs of alien, then calls for an autopsy.

  • Side note:  one of my movie pet peeves is the “drawing your fingers down over a dead person’s eyes” to close them, without ever even touching the eyelids.  Wouldn’t work that way anyway.

Bloody autopsy.  This prison refinery doctor is really experienced and very well equipped.  Bad orchestral swelling to try, and fail, to build up tension.  Clemens does have good dialogue though.

“Now, since I’m not a complete idiot, would you like to tell me what we’re really looking for?”  Perfectly delivered.

Demonstration that there is internal conflict between Clemens and the superintendent and his apparently moronic henchman (Ralph Brown, an excellent actor in a weak role.)  Superintendent explains things to Ripley to try and scare her and convince her to stay out of the way of the horrible inmates.

The guy who played the head scientist from The Fifth Element (he regrew Leeloo) and some other guy bring a dead ox into a ridiculously bloodstained abattoir;  aside from silly dialog, it seems this is just a setup to show us where the alien will be born.

ACT TWO, i guess.

More establishing shots of people working in a foundry.  I guess this place is a foundry.  I’ll bet the molten metal will be important in act 3.  Ah, it’s a funeral scene where they are gonna drop the dead off in the molten stuff.  You know they’ll have to just collect the extra slag, right?  Okay, the alien is apparently being born very, very slowly while this is going on.  Hey, I didn’t catch this before:  Dillon the minister is yammering about new lives that begin whenever someone dies, as we see the cutest four-legged alien calf baby stand up and run off.  Awww!  It’s a stick puppet alien!  Ripley has a bit of a nosebleed.

Side plot happens about Dillon dealing with dissent in the ranks because some of his guys don’t like one of the other guys (Golic) cause he’s stinky and crazy.  Hey, he looks like – yuuuup, it’s Paul McGann, a one-time one-off Doctor Who.  Dillon, inconsistent in his attitude, is now hostile towards Ripley because he is a “murderer and rapist of women” and her being there is offensive to him and his disciples.  I’m starting to get kind of bored here.

Ripley and Clemens talk, she tries to find out what his history is, he deflects.  He tries to find out what she’s hiding, she deflects with sex talk.  It’s all defense in this game.

Prisoner cleaning crap in a fan tube finds nasty shed skin, then finds alien, then finds fan blade.  Bloody, but not shocking at all.

Ripley and Clemens do some sex, then deflect each other’s questions some more.  Wow, he is so reluctant to say why he’s there, and as bad as that place is it must be something INCREDIBLE.

Ripley’s tearing apart the wreckage when swelling tension music suddenly leads to her jumping as the camera reveals… Clemens standing there.  There’s nothing shocking here.  Aren’t we used to seeing the Alien first, when it’s about to attack?  Come on, there’s no surprise monster here anymore.  Ripley is strangely nonchalant about finding out about the dead guy.

Another pissing match between Clemens and the superintendent, in which it is insinuated that Clemens did something really horrific, and the super threatens to reveal it to Ripley if he doesn’t keep her wrapped up.  I’ll bet this is gonna be really spectacular when it comes out in the open!  I’m kind of glad I didn’t remember the details of the movie, because this is the closest thing to an interesting, mysterious plot point that this movie has offered so far.

Ripley goes to the dump to salvage the remains of Bishop when she’s attacked by a rape squad of Dillon’s religious followers who look like they’re trying to star in a David Fincher music video.   She’s saved by Dillon, now protective of her for some reason.

Apparently there’s a traditional ritual in their weird apocalyptic church that if someone dies they have to light a bunch of candles in a long row, in a secluded underground chamber, in such a fashion that it sets up a great alien attack scene.  This time it’s Man in an Alien Suit Alien!   And they have to carry smoky torches made of sparklers even when the place is really well lit.  Probably because they film well.  The alien lets Golic run off after the blood-soaked double kill.  That’s marginally interesting.

Ripley hooks Bishop up so he can talk, and then has to cajole him into telling her that the alien was indeed on board their ship and that the company knows about what happened.  Golic is even crazier than he was before (we assume, because we didn’t see anything he did before) now that he’s seen the alien and his mind has snapped.

Finally, something I can get behind… when Ripley gets a boring dressing-down from the super, we get the kind of dialogue that Cameron won’t do, and even Ridley Scott doesn’t do as succinctly.

“We’re fucked.”  “No, you’re fucked.”

I guess this is as good a place for ACT THREE as any other.

Finally, just as Ripley indicates that maybe she’s not feeling all that well, and we’re thinking “how the hell has she not had this alien baby yet anyway?  It’s been a couple of days at this point, and the cow had its big calf alien at the beginning of the movie.”  Clemens tells his “Long, Sad Story.”  He already said he’s not a prisoner there but he was at one time, and now he tells Ripley about what atrocities he committed to land him there in the first place.  It’s a real letdown.

Alien attack!  This time, it’s Animatronic Alien Head and then Composited Stick Puppet Alien, and it won’t kill Ripley for some reason.  It leaves Golic alone again.  Damn!  That guy is so stinky even an alien won’t attack him!  So Clemens is down.  Then the superintendent is snatched before Ripley can get to the rest of them to warn them that the alien is coming.

It’s at this point the first movie ends and the second movie begins.  the second half of the movie is now a frantic sequence of events, where the alien chases the people who are chasing the alien, while they are waiting for the “rescue” ship to arrive.  Aaron (the super’s dumb henchman) is now Ripley’s assistant, as she and Dillon effectively share command.

A weak attempt at lightheartedness is finally attempted with revealing Aaron’s “85” nickname as stemming from the other inmates learning his IQ.

They attempt a complicated tactical mission which they could only have come up with by watching the first two movies.  A bunch of barrels of flammable shit are uncovered because the story needed them.  Ripley starts to feel worse, but it’s not scary or tense.

They set the trap and lose some folks when an alien-initiated accident causes a premature explosion.  The guy who tried to rape Ripley earlier ends up sacrificing himself to trap the alien.  Hey, it’s Badly Composited Stick Puppet Alien this time!  It’s not scary or tense.

There’s some guys who actually have real flashlights now for some reason.

Golic, the crazy guy, finds out it’s trapped then lets it out because he’s worshipping it or something, and it kills him.  Not scary or tense.

Ripley contacts the company to inform them they’ve trapped the xenomorph and – I’m about to use that word again – inexplicably requests permission to kill it.  I can only assume she doesn’t need to be told they will refuse, but she needs to prompt them to transmit a response saying permission denied, so the camera can zoom in on those words.

Golic, the crazy guy, having found out it’s trapped, lets it out because he’s worshipping it or something, and it kills him.  Not scary or tense.

Dillon’s back to not wanting to help Ripley again.  Then the quite small group of remaining guys discover the xenomorph is loose, and start fighting amongst themselves.

Ripley, with 85’s help, scans herself with a remarkably intact medical scanner on the formerly wrecked escape vessel’s remarkably intact cryo pod.  yeah, there’s a baby alien.  It’s a queen?  Well I guess that’s a conclusion which can be drawn based on the alien’s behavior earlier when it wouldn’t kill her.  After another brief non-killing encounter with Man In An Alien Suit Alien, Ripley decides to try to get Dillon to kill her to put a stop to the baby queen.  Instead, they decide to use her as bait to try to give it a molten lead bath.

Really, really bad running alien chase sequence with Composited Stick Puppet Alien.  The special effects here are remarkably bad.  I can only assume it’s sticking to the walls and ceiling while it chases them because it’s bored.  The pattering of alien feet sounds like they’re being chased by Stewie Griffin.  Man In An Alien Suit makes another couple of appearances, and Stick Puppet too, sometimes in a nice greenish color.  There are more alien-cam tunnel chase shots and each person who gets killed explodes more drastically and bloodily.

So Ripley finally lures it to the furnace and the bath happens when Dillon sacrifices himself inexplicably to keep the alien in place.  But after getting dumped on by many tons of molten lead, which are accompanied by a triumphant victory theme, it pulls a Jason Voorhees and comes back with a lovely dull silvery sheen.  So they shower it in water, blowing it up spectacularly by thermal shock.  Good thing that cold water dispenser was there!  I don’t know how lead foundries work, but I’m sure that’s standard.

  • Side note:  I’m pretty sure this is fine, scientifically, even though it’s been pointed out that these things have shown themselves capable of surviving the temperature change from a shuttle to outer space.  That would be about 500-550 degrees (F) difference, while molten lead to non-boiling water would be, like, 1500 degrees, so much, much more drastic.  Carry on.

Now the company folks are here, and there’s an appearance by Bishop, only it’s the human who designed the android.  They try to convince her, now, that they will destroy it, but she’s not buying it.  As she’s getting ready to end it all, Bishop comes back and admits that they have to have the specimen, as if that would convince her to change her mind.  She times her leap perfectly and falls into the molten lead green screen just as the little one makes its debut.

No, wait, that was in the theatrical version!  In the Assembly Cut, she just falls in.

Now that it’s all over, the sun comes up.  Oh good, the sunset/sunrise thing framed the action.  First year film students can talk about that.

The last survivor is hauled off from the facility by the company team as they leave.  The recording of Ripley’s log from the first Alien movie, inexplicably, plays in the wreckage of the shuttle, and a noisy computer readout tells us that they’re scrapping the place.  Whatever.

So unfortunately the atmosphere of the first half of the film was completely undone by the pacing of the second half.  The Clemens character was interesting, but his  backstory was weak and after he was killed off halfway through and replaced, there was no longer anyone interesting to identify with.  Ripley was kind of exactly the same as she was in Aliens, so I found her kind of boring.  Dillon was inconsistent with unfathomable motivations.  Pete Poslethwaite was in it, did you know that?  Utterly wasted, by the way.

The creature effects were an exercise in bad decisions.  When the xenomorph was a Man In An Alien Suit, it looked good, but when it was Composited Stick Puppet it was ridiculous.

So I originally rated this a 6, but having paid closer attention I can’t give it more than a 4.

Congratulations, Prometheus, I think you’ve now been promoted to the third best movie in the franchise.

That’s because she’s made of plastic.

(kabann)

It’s late, my team just won at a trivia game, and I have to work tomorrow, but I’m gonna try to bang this thing out before bed so Ryan can get some frustration off his chest. That sounded better before I wrote it down. He agreed to endure a fresh viewing of Aliens so he could write an informed post about why he hates it SO MUCH. Good on ya, Ryan, and tell Jenny I’m sorry, I know how much you guys hate it and she could have just sat there and played angry birds or something, but she didn’t, and I salute you.

So anyway, directing a movie is as much about personal growth as it is about artistic expression. I pulled that out of my ass, but let’s explore it anyway, briefly.

Steven Spielberg hit it out of the park very early in his career, with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, all in fairly short order. A.I., Minority Report and Indiana Jones and the Fuck All Nuclear Fridge Aliens weren’t until much later when I can only assume all the money and accolades made him stop really giving a shit.

George Lucas hit that stage much, much faster. I don’t need to tell you, though.

Our good friend James Cameron, though, had to grow a bit; after cutting his teeth on Piranha 2, and accidentally creating a modern sci-fi classic cautionary tale with The Terminator, Aliens was, for all intents and purposes, a necessary exercise for a growing directorial talent to develop his skills characters plot devices bank account so that he could eventually involve himself with a series of increasingly megalomaniacally ridiculous projects (Titanic on the big screen, some shit about the real Titanic, Avatar, more Avatar nonsense, becoming a real life blue alien thing I can only assume) culminating in what I can only guess is some sort of godhood. Be that as it may, he hit his personal sweet spot between ’86 and ’89 with Aliens and The Abyss, in both of which he combined adolescent wish-fulfillment, silly characters, initially just-short-of-overly-ambitious plots, and no directorial restraint, and accidentally came away with just the right amount of fun. This is why we went to the movies in the late 80’s.

Maybe Ryan was just born too late, and reared on too much quality. I had just graduated from high school when Aliens hit the theater, and for me, this was a big step up from most of the other stuff out at the time.

I’m rambling.

Characters: pretty friggin’ hokey. I was talking in my last post about crews that had to hit every preset personality niche. You had Vasquez and Drake, the tough marines. Hudson, the joker. Hicks, the quiet, reluctant hero. Gorman, the green Lieutenant. Apone, the battle-hardened sergeant. The greasy company stooge, Burke. A handful of redshirts with no defined personality. Holy crap, the only thing missing is the Professor and Mary Ann. This cast could have been plucked out and dropped into any war movie or teenage slasher flick.

But it worked. Stupid as it was on paper, this movie was responsible for some of the most memorable, quotable lines in american cinema history.

“Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen!”

“I like to keep this handy… for close encounters.”

“Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
“No. Have you?”

“We’re on an express elevator to hell; going down!”

Come to think of it, Bill Paxton was involved in most of the movie’s great interactions. He was just goofy and loud and recalcitrant, and I can’t think of another role he’s been in where he was as much fun to watch. That includes Weird Science.

Remember I mentioned adolescent wish-fulfillment? I’m talking about things like broadly showing everyone this ludicrous walking forklift at the beginning of the movie, then too predictably using it for the boss fight at the end. The whole Chekov’s Gun trope is one of my pet peeves in movies, and the egregious use of it here is one of the reasons I consider my 7 rating generous. But for all that I hate how Cameron resorts to such cheap devices, I like the technical execution of it. The action sequences in general are tight, frenetic, and exciting, without quite losing it completely and entering Michael Bay territory.

In this film’s superior predecessor, Ian Holm was chilling as the robot artificial human – his performance was one of the high points of the movie, and the transformation from creepy emotionless bastard apparently human science officer to creepy emotionless homicidal bastard android was a master stroke of subtlety. Cameron obviously wanted to go a different route here, and gave Bishop (Lance Henriksen in perhaps the best role he’s ever had) more personality, using that to defuse the audience’s anticipated hostility and mistrust, and placing it on Ripley, letting the viewer watch it evolve. I think this was a very interesting move, and it was satisfying enough to watch it, that it minimized the disappointment towards the end, when you realize you’ve just been suckered into watching two enemies become friends.

There’s a great scene about halfway through, I think, when the surviving team members realize they’re fucked, and are trying to bug out and get back into orbit. They’ve called the dropship, and predictably, just before it takes off to retrieve the evacuees, the never-vigilant dropship crew are shown to have let down their guard, predictably, and let a xenomorph on board. It kills the pilot, predictably, and the ship crashes. The survivors, watching their rescue hopes disintegrate spectacularly, are completely stunned, realizing they have to go back inside.

“We’d better get back, ’cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly.”

I love that scene.

Anyway, 7 out of 10. It’s a pure popcorn flick, and I don’t usually like those, but I will always be able to watch this one again.

Alien, too

kabann

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I was tempted to start commenting in line with Ryan’s thoughts during his Alien post, but I don’t wanna step on his toes quite yet.  Especially since I pretty much agree with his assessments on this fine film.  So your post can stay intact this time.  But I know you’re going to say some pretty crazy shit really, really soon.  Won’t that be fun?

So why a 9 from me?  Ryan explained himself very well, but in the process implied that the only thing preventing him from rating it 10/10, although it was essentially a perfect movie, is that he gave that rating to Blade Runner.  Does this mean that there can be only one 10 in moviedom?  I’m not so sure that’s the kind of scale I’m willing to use.

For me, I gave Alien a 9, because as close as it is to a perfectly executed artistic piece, I don’t believe it’s perfect.  Is perfection possible?  I don’t think so, but that means you either start refining your scale so that you can draw ever closer to perfection as needed, eventually creating a scale of 100, or 1000, so you can start offering ratings of 998 or thereabouts, or you can just define a “perfect” movie as one that expresses what it was intended to express, perfectly, with little or no room for improvement.  Whatever, I could go on all day about redefining standards.

Here’s the thing:  Alien‘s great strength was that its atmosphere so effectively evoked dread and helplessness.  Giger’s design sense was so uncomfortably organic and obscene that a receptive viewer can’t help but feel kind of violated just by watching the pivotal scenes;  the discovery of the horrible eggs and penetrating assault of Cain, the overwhelmingly violent emergence of the young chestburster, the cornering and inescapable fate of Parker and Lambert when they’re trying to gather the supplies needed for a desparate escape.  It’s hard to be an impartial observer when the surroundings are so claustrophobic.  There’s a cliched horror movie trope where the victims are constantly making the wrong decisions, and the audience is left exasperatedly wondering why the fool teenagers, being stalked by the relentless murderer, keep going upstairs, instead of out to the street to find a neighbor.  In Alien it doesn’t take long to realize they don’t have anywhere to go.  Can’t they just stay in one place, backs to the wall, and wait for it?  Not really – this thing has countless places to hide and can wait, and wait.  They’re fucked.

I loved the cast, and it’s a testament to the actors’ talent, and the director’s, that they weren’t playing the obligatory spaceship crew, but a group of workers with a job to do.  Within a couple of years, it started to become a tradition that every time a movie contained a crew of characters, they had to each portray a specific personality niche – the tough captain, the funny guy, the rough-around-the-edges hero, the bully, the quiet innocent.  Watch anything by James Cameron and you’ll be able to identify them all.

On the Nostromo — not an exploratory vessel, or a warship, or a rescue ship, but an honest-to-goodness tug towing a refinery back to Earth (I always loved the practicality of that) — The captain was a competent but weary company man, just trying to follow his orders and do the job so they can get back home.  His lieutenant (Ripley) was a competent and no-nonsense company woman trying to stand up to subordinates who are often a pain in the ass.  Cain (poor bastard) was competent and no-nonsense, and just wanted to do the job and get home.  Same with Lambert;  you could just hear it in Veronica Cartwright’s voice when she talked, that she didn’t want to be there from the beginning.  One of my favorite characters was Parker, portrayed by the spectacular Yaphet Kotto, who was exactly the kind of disgruntled facilities mechanic who does exactly as much as necessary to get by, but is so fed up with the system that he makes his superiors jump through hoops to get anything more, even though it’s no sweat to him.  I’ve worked with people like this in my life, and my guess is these actors have as well, to be able to capture the personalities so accurately.

Lots of people talk about the motherhood concept in this and the following movies, but I’m reluctant to subscribe to that as any important underlying theme, because it’s run up the flagpole way too obviously to be anything more than just set decoration.  I think what they were trying to do in Alien was make you, the oserver, afraid of being stuck where you can’t run away, stalked by something with which you can’t reason, and violated in a way you can’t (and won’t) live through.  That’s horror.

Extra props for the incredibly moody and subtle musical composition, the incredible set design (the ship itself becomes a character in the film), and perfect pacing.

There are a couple of scenes that, after so many years and so many viewings, just seem comical.  When Dallas is trying to drive the alien through the air shafts, and the tables are turned, leaving him to be surprised by the waiting beast, the reveal shot of the alien thrusting its arms out (for a hug?) comes across a little bit silly.  I imagine it’s still an effective shock for a first time viewer, though.