Friday, 29 June 2012

David Cameron: Vampire Hunter


A sharp-toothed slice of satire from Philip Challinor, The Curmudgeon.

Prometheus - a prequel, a sequel, a strange disappointment

Ridley Scott, USA, 2012

Notes before a film: indecipherable trailers & inappropriate audience members
It’s always a good thing to wander into the cinema after the adverts. It leaves your tarnished soul a little more complete if you miss the commercials, leaving it all more ready to welcome in the film you have paid to see. You still have the trailers, though. Incomprehensible trailers, edited as if by a chef super-slicing and dicing, ones that show you everything and nothing. What the fuck is happening? you wonder. Explosions? More explosions? Action? Vehicular action? Was that some kind of joke or punch-line? Who is that? Token romantic element? A bad guy? Wasn’t this a show ... is this a remake of something? Wait, that look likes something from that other one... What the fuck is happening x2?
For my trip to see “Prometheus”, I didn’t miss the wretched Orange “joke” skit or the pitiful M&M puff-piece (are these meant to contribute to our film-watching experience?), but I did see the trailers for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “The Amazing Spider-man”. Contemporary trailers do that thing of fading to black every second, even before you’ve registered what you’re actually seeing, and this is inevitably complimented by a big bass rumble like the sound of a small cosmos, far far away, being tossed on its rear. If a trailer is not changing every micro-second like someone simply fast-forwarding through the film you are meant to be enticed to see, they are fading to back. “Boom!” – to black, it goes again and again, apparently to denote tension and impending doom. I don’t know. Trailers don’t actually seem to want you to detect any story or to decipher what you are watching. It’s just a couple of seconds from here and a second or so from them, held together by action shots and explosions. Signifiers of drama, humour, action, and so on; just mostly signifiers rather than tantalising clues. It is trying to create sensation as if that is all we need to be seduced. This punch means you will get some violence thrills. This kiss means you will get some faux-sexual tension. This scream into the camera is... well... this monster face is...

Abraham Lincoln is fighting vampires with tedious 3-D enhancement, doing gravity-defying jumps and spins in slow-motion, pointing guns at the screen, waving an axe around and threatening some undead. Not sure there is any story at all but it looks to be, in the action-fantasy canon, a bit like that terrible “Van Helsing” more than anything else. I am sure that’s not what they intend. Wrong signifiers, pointing at tedious overwrought elements and at previous bad films and genre tropes. With nothing to entice other than action clips, why would I bother? The novelty premise alone isn’t enough. What are they telling me with it?

The AmazingSpiderman” trailer is odd [can't seem to find the extended trailer I'm about to describe]. Actions bits, fade-to-black booms; then the trailer stops to show an entire scene where Peter Parker tries to get over his embarrassment to chat up a girl in the school corridor. The scene goes on long enough to show that it’s awkwardly written and fails to be cute by not rooting down the conversation and relying upon they’re not saying much and it’s cute that they can’t actually agree to a date, but it just kind of implodes, really. Then the trailer skips back to action shots; indeed, too many action shots. I feel like I am seeing too much of what ought to hinted at, even if I am only seeing micro-slices. A trailer ought to promise something tangible and the film ought to deliver; trailer’s shouldn’t give away too much, but how they do, even though they are showing only a second of something here and another there. And you end up saying what? But not in a good way.
Two favourite trailers: “Europa” and “Blue Velvet”.
Anyway, there’s also a trailer for “Ted” which features a fellatio joke, and I wonder if that really is age-appropriate to go with “Prometheus”: I am wondering this because I did not really note that “Prometheus” is rated “15”, and there are two boys aged between 5-7 sitting with their dad a few rows down from me. Then the film proper starts and I see that indeed it is a “15” certificate. Wow. What on earth are these kids doing here and what the hell are they going to make of Ridley Scott’s prequel to one of the greatest sci-fi horror monster films ever made? Well, I’ll never know, but I would sure be curious to find out, and to wonder why their dad brought them there (I heard them call him dad, so that’s verified). Maybe they felt it was inferior to “Alien”.

An "Engineer" and Howard David Johnson's 1978 sketch  "Promethues Unbound"

A sequel-prequel; “Prometheus”
Well, what to make of “Prometheus” anyhow?

My first inkling that all may not be overwhelming with "Prometheus" was when I was in the toilets at the local popcorn palace (to see "The Raid") and I overheard somebody, whilst peeing, saying that "it" was everything he hated about science-fiction. I thought, Surely he can't mean "Prometheus"? But there was, however, no other science-fiction to be seen.

It sure looks good, that’s for sure. Huge. Vast. Expensive, pretty, beautifully filmed and all that, as we have come to expect from Ridley Scott. It doesn’t lack for ambition. It starts slow and it has one of the oldest and one of my favourite premises: people go to a mystery place and the mystery place holds things untold, wonder, horror, etc. Let’s investigate! It might be a horror house; it might be the deepest depths of the Amazon; it might be a deserted town or an alien planet. What happened here? What is lurking in the shadows? What is that? Uh-oh! – and so on. “Alien” was fantastic at this.
“Prometheus” follows almost step-to-step in the “Alien” plot, but then it’s an old and reliable template and, as I say, one of my favourites. But what comes out of the mystery is what really counts. What kinds of answers we get or don’t get is what elevates and differentiates one story using the template from another. Perhaps the problem and disappointment with “Prometheus” is that it is answering questions that didn’t necessarily need answering: when the crew of the “Nostromo” in the original “Alien” lands and discovers an extraterrestrial ship full of strange extraterrestrial corpses and artefacts, and once we have seen the eponymous alien in action, we can pretty much fill in the backstory ourselves. Did we need to have that backstory filled in with a tale of faith and the origins of man and some weak, vain clinging to crosses? That isn’t what we were really thinking of needing answering in the original film: the original was an exercise in being reminded that no matter how equally narcissistic, brutal and advanced we are, we are still terrified that something else is higher up on the food chain, just waiting to wipe us out. A quintessential monster film enhanced by simply asking H.R. Giger to design the extraterrestrial stuff. Boy, wasn’t that a smart move? One of the greatest man-in-a-suit nightmares was thus launched into popular culture. All vagina dentata, mouth rape and things bursting out of your stomach – take that male viewers! The sequels expanded on the alien life-cycle and broadened the premise, but really the simplicity of the original was beautiful and almost primal: there’s a monster and it’s going to get you and chances are that you can’t stop it. No need to know why. The sequel “Aliens” shifted gear and became a highpoint of sci-fi action cinema, and action cinema itself; it gave a little more about the alien, and more of them, plus an alien mother, but that’s fine: mystery enough still surrounded them. By the time we get to the “Alien vs Predator” fanboy series, we’re pretty far from the wonder of the original, and the thrills of the immediate sequel.

That is to say, the problem with “Prometheus” isn’t so much that it wants to fill in the backstory, but that what it fills in isn’t actually that interesting, and it’s not-interesting with pretensions. Perhaps we never needed these answers, but then again why not take the series in a different direction – “Prometheus”, after all, looks likely to be the start of a new trilogy and Scott has decided to go for a more “2010: A Space Odyssey” and “Quatermass and the Pit” approach, concerning the origins of man and the search for God and facing death and so on. We know this because the characters don’t leave it to the visuals and talk about all this. The characters are not particularly good, so this does the film’s themes no good.

 It also feels compromised. It says “caesarean” when it means “abortion”. It has concrete-looking cylinders rather than the icky, gooey, sex-organ-like alien eggs/pods of the original (although, ok, the eggs surely come later and these are forerunners). It has Giger-lite murals. It has mouth-rape and phallic-snake aliens that can break your arm – perhaps the film’s best moment? – but the squid-foetus and the mini-Cthulhu vagina-dentata behemoth it eventually turns into just can’t compare to those original man-in-suit Giger-designs.

Worse, this is another case of an apparent group of specialists going on a special, one-of-a-kind mission and acting: juvenile, incompetent, argumentative, unprofessional, untrained, etc. Smoking in their space-suits; argumentatively splitting up from the rest of the group on an alien planet, for example. The black captain is too busy being nonchalant and sexually available, as well as playing his accordion; so busy being inept on an alien planet, in fact, that he doesn’t seem to be paying attention to evidence of a potential threat, even though, you know, he is on a space mission to find alien life. Is there no round-the-clock monitoring of the nifty gadgets that are flying around the alien craft and mapping it out? Why do they seem to get a briefing of the mission only once they have woken from a two year cryogenic sleep? Didn’t they know what they were getting into? In the future, do apparent specialists just leap into cryogenic sleep and hope for the best mission when they are woken? And if the ‘robot’ is meant to not understand or experience many human emotions, why does he keep smiling to himself with satisfaction and awe when discovering the secrets of the alien race? Science-fiction always has a problem with emotionless characters because, well, melodrama has a hard time accepting the truly ‘other’ and letting it be itself. What’s the point of Charlize Theron pulling her boardroom-career-bitch act? Where does that get them? And this all hinges upon the protagonist’s crisis of faith and the fact that she lost her dad? Hey, there’s no God and it’s pretty much meat and murder, although there is the fascinating conflict of our inherent animal natures and our highly developed technology (the spaceships look great) and confused emotional states. She’s gone in search of God? Hell, “Star Trek” did that most weeks.

Unleash the aliens. That’s all we ask.

There’s eeriness and dazzling sci-fi spectacle, but any answers are mundane, and I’ve a sneaky feeling that they feel redundant; the characters are nonentities, the squid-impregnation-abortion seems faintly distasteful and stupid and her physical recovery and persistence afterwards unlikely. The revelation that the aliens are some biological warfare (I think) is ok, but I preferred the idea that they were simply a development of their own, travelling across space and wiping out whomever they met far more resonant. That the alien “engineers” simply turn out to be bad guys also feels dissatisfying. And when they are woken, they get right back at continuing their mission, even though, well, was this the only ship meant to be targeting the Earth?

Not that Scott ought to have simply thrown up another “monster house in space” scenario, although that would have been fine, but “Prometheus” seems to be a victim of its own mythos, forgetting the thrills and simplicity of its original premise and relying too much on silly and uninteresting characterisation to carry the weight of the drama. “The Thing” re-make/prequel was arguably narratively better simply for being more modest in its intent. Well, “The Thing” is probably more redundant that “Prometheus”, but no one expected much from “The Thing” and it mostly delivered more than expected. “Prometheus” is a whole other weirdness and clash of sequel redundancy and state-of-the-art cinema.

Awe-inspiring for the eye; underwhelming in other details. It will likely attract those who love to rush off and write essays on the religious symbolism and themes, which are inevitably masquerade as profundity rather than the human narcissism they are, throwing the far more interesting themes of survival and the expanse and alienness of outer space. I don’t really feel inclined to be thoroughly dismissive or unkind to “Prometheus”, but neither did I feel invigorated by it. A kind of apathy is surely not the intended response, and there are those that seem to loathe it, but it’s really just an expensively dressed average science-fiction thriller. So - Question: one of the most disappointing and eagerly-awaited franchise entries in a long time? Answer: probably.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind": the wonder of a man-child.

Steven Spielberg, 1977, USA

I remember going caravan camping with my father when I was 12 and finding inside, on a shelf, a book called “Alien Encounter” by Flanna Devin. I remember most clearly deciding that it was about time that I started to read adult book, to abandon the kid stuff and start seeing what big books dense with prose were like. Also, I was besotted with the alien encounter idea. The cover had a spaceship flying through the great void, but that had nothing to do with the story within, a tale of an encounter that changes a small American town. It was one of those books you would always find in the bargain bins, along with a lot of crap horror, but which often bore great cover art. Anyhow, extraterrestrials making creepy visits occupied much of the same fear-space in my head as cemetery ghosts and attic monsters. I recall that UFOs were big in the Seventies, and that carried over in my thoughts when I was an adolescent in the eighties. Much of my sense of what alien visitations would be like was rendered in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It certainly felt like the culmination of many anxieties and expectations of the UFO generation.
Having produced one of the greatest suspense-horror-adventure films of all time in “Jaws”... well, let’s add “Duel” in there and make it two ... Steven Spielberg turned his attention to science fiction with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. He imagined alien encounters as a series of dazzling light shows and a touch of meeting the angels. For the most part, “Close Encounters” provides a wonderful realisation of the UFO enthusiast’s dream, delivering a number of set-pieces that reach a sense of the genuinely awe-inspiring. It’s uneven, but it’s pace is deliberate, delivering encounters early but still holding back until the first act transcends itself with the abduction of a small boy: his house seems to be under siege by lights, bringing his toys alive, seemingly taking the house apart by its screws to get to him. It is certainly one of greatest cinematic alien abductions in cinema, effortlessly combining childish wonder and audience terror. Indeed “wonder” itself seems to be the very subject matter and certainly one of Spielberg’s abiding themes (and somewhat tediously too).
The curious thing about Close Encounters it that its protagonist, Rob Neary, is one of those All-American All-Annoying Man-Child characters, part clown, part asshole, selfish, tediously goofball, and Dreyfuss also plays him like a Robin Williams knock-off. That is probably not the intention, but Neary is a bad, self-centred and immature father from the start when he can’t be bothered to stop tinkering with his train set to help his eldest child with his homework. Spielberg says:

I think in casting “Close Encounters”, what I was really looking for were actors who were still closer to their own memories of their own childhoods. Richard Dreyfuss was a bigger kid than the children he was raising in his suburban house.

Spielberg is probably thinking that a child’s-eye is the eye of wonder, which probably makes him the perfect Hollywood wunderkind, but the net effect is imagining American Suburban families as immature and easily distracted by shiny objects. This just does not cohere with the moment where all the scientists and specialists and whomever, when faced with the mothership, simply stop what they are doing, barely remember to do their jobs and simply stand in true awe, and the audience does much the same: what we are doing is connecting with our adult sense of wonder. That is: we are not being infantalised; awe is not solely the domain of the child. When anointed with the vision of Devil’s Tower, Neary-Dreyfuss – the kind of whacky guy who drives against the traffic with maps in front of the windscreen, because, you know, he's obsessed! – character flaws go into overdrive, reaching its nadir in the embarrassing comedy sequence where he starts throwing plants and bricks through his kitchen window and fighting the trashman for trash bins. He drives his family away and has no attachment to them to make him think twice about, in the end, joining the aliens.

He’s lost his job, alienated his wife, and spooked his kids, yet he can’t bring himself to care about any of it – not since the universe slipped in through the car window. [1]

says Eric Hynes. But actually he is a one-note character that just gets worse. Since he starts out with little interest in paying attention to family matters and, it seems, adult concerns, the summons and pilgrimage to the mothership looks like a calling for all emotionally stunted adults, especially the man-child characters that dominate the American mainstream and sit-coms, to leave those responsibilities aside and join child-like aliens to head to the stars. The adults are left behind to clean up the mess and go back to work. However, Neary’s cracking-up does provide one splendid moment of domestic breakdown which feels quintessentially Spielberg, a scene that momentarily matches all the special effects around it: Neary is at the dinner table making his mashed/creamed potato into the likeness of “Devil’s Tower” and the family just look back of him and start crying with a kind of abstract despair and a realisation, surely, that he has deserted them in some way. It is the one moment of true emotional effect before Neary’s behaviour becomes a dumping ground for slapstick and man-child narcissism.
The Special Edition of “Close Encounters” – one of at least three varying versions –provides the film with one of those Spielberg sentimental touches that ruins almost all his films, making them one half brilliant and one half ridiculous. In this revised edition, Dreyfus walks into the spaceship and both the light show and orchestra goes into overdrive. Spielberg later realised that we should never really see inside the ship, as that ought to be all up to the audience imagination: something eerie still remains by not seeing, not only promises of unknowable wonder. But worse, as John Williams whips his string section into ecstasy, he also drops in a motif from “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Indeed, the way to imagine a fantastic and benign alien contact is to throw in a tribute to Disney. Such crassness breaks the spell.

But let’s leave the Special Edition aside.

The final thirty minutes is a fantastic prolonged set-piece of wonder and revelation on top of more wonder and light-shows. It is quite a feat, leaving narrative to one side to show what the visual medium can do. The other remarkable achievement of Spielberg’s film is in “producing a seventies-set drama so devoid of cynicism.” [2] Indeed. However unrealistically the scenario may play out, it probably is a splendid indulgence to see an alien encounter rendered so benignly without the military rushing in to shoot up anything vaguely un-American; or, indeed, to rush forward and immediately throw the people who come out of the mothership into horrifying decontamination process and post-abduction tests (or maybe they do, but in the film’s world it seems unlikely). Considering that a key part of the authorities cover-up strategy is to use ideas such as contaminated air, the ignoring of the possibility of alien viruses is somewhat disingenuous,  (indeed, what should we make of the toddler that was abducted simply being taken out from under the noses of the scientists to simply pop back home?).
But no matter: the "Close Encounters"  opening visions are unnerving and thrilling and the prolonged finale is jaw-dropping, so side-stepping concerns about aggressive aliens and the fall-out from the encounter is part of the delight of this encounter. And, seemingly despite itself, its sense of wonder is not really so juvenile. It's looking upwards and being amazed and scared and back again, and that is not totally the domain of the child.


Nightmares of "This Island Earth"

"This Island Earth"
Joseph M Newman, 1955, USA

One of my fondest film-watching memories is when I was about eleven and living at my grandparent’s house after my parents split and getting to watch the b-movie season playing over months and months on television. I was about eleven or twelve and I loved getting into my pyjamas and watching these films on a Sunday evening before bed. I saw so many of the black-and-white creature features this way; my private education to the drive-in horror and science-fiction era, as if I had been born decades earlier. I know for sure that I saw “The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms” and “King Kong” and “It Came From Outer Space” that way, as well as “It! The Terror Beyond Space”, “Earth versus the Flying Saucers” and “This Island Earth”.

“This Island Earth” is kind of an honorary classic: it’s not a classic due to story and execution, but the whole is definitely greater than the parts. It looks and sounds like a tacky Fifties sci-fi, but it is much more if you play into it. It has decent and decidedly adult characters; it has a nice air of menace and mystery and a fascinatingly ambiguous relationship with its aliens. The aliens are the kind you are likely to meet in “Star Trek” – intelligent and humanoid with over-sized foreheads, but can seemingly pass for human. They are a threat in that they are a civilisation – from Metaluna –  on the brink of being wiped out by their enemies and both need Earth’s help and intend on moving their population to Earth too. The film’s classic status is surely down to the fact that it is quintessential Fifties-era pulp sci-fi, and that’s a lot of fun and no bad thing. It also has a slow build-up that is rewarded with a fantastic if brief visit to Metaluna itself, a gorgeous cosmic vision with comic-book colours and mutants, one which rivals anything from “Forbidden Planet”.

“This Island Earth” is full of green rays, flying saucers, manipulative but super-smart aliens, unlikely square-jawed scientists (Rex Reason) and equally unlikely science. It looks and acts like something out of “Astounding Science Fiction” magazine, and that is no bad thing. The worries about other cultures being smarter, manipulative and colonialist, but trusts its square-jaws and female vulnerability to get an Earthman through an extraterrestrial encounter. It is dated, but that doesn’t seem to do it any harm. It gets better and balmier as it goes on and has the good sense to throw in some alien mutants too to spice up things.

Yes: the mutants. These insectoid aliens gave me a nightmare that I never quite forgot. They were lumbering, soundless and – well, you can’t get much more alien than insects. I dreamt that I was on the spaceship standing inside the giant transparent tubes it had to condition people to different environments; my dream was paraphrasing the spaceship and a scene from the film. One of the mutants was going crazy on the flight deck, just as in the film, and I was stuck in the tube. The difference was that there was a gap at the bottom of the tubes so that feet, ankles and lower shins were horrible exposed. The alien came attacking the tubes and I was trapped inside and, eventually, it started to attack my feet at the gap at the base of the tube. I suspect I woke up during the attack. Oh yes, it was quite a nightmare and I’ve never forgotten it. For this reason, I have quite a soft spot for “This Island Earth”.

It remains a delightful slice of pulp hokum with an odd charm all its own. It doesn’t have the resonance and deep chills of, say, “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers”, but it is old school fun and possessed of enough intelligence and gorgeous alien scenery to more than hold its own.