Friday, May 31, 2013

Alien 3 Times the Error

Coming on the heels of two of the best science-fiction movies ever produced, it’s understandable why filmgoers held Alien 3 to such a high standard.  Had that movie been based on an inferior franchise like Predator or the infamous Star Trek film adaptations, then it’s possible that Alien 3 would not have inherited the notoriety which is its signature.  In reality, though, Alien 3 is a mere mimicry of its predecessors, a product so alien to the ideas which defined the series’ former entries that it bears almost no semblance to its host and will forever be remembered as a parasite that fed on hopeful fans but had no life of its own (yeah, that whole sentence was one big pun).

In the course of reviewing this film, I won’t refrain from giving spoilers, as Alien 3 is itself a spoiler of the worst kind.  The movie opens within the Sulaco, where a fire alarm triggered by a facehugger forces Ripley and her companions into an escape pod which lands on a dreary, lice-infested planet called Fiorina.  Ripley is retrieved from the craft and taken to a kind of rehabilitative prison inhabited by a lot of reformed thugs who claim to have “found God”.  Although Bishop was injured beyond repair (no surprise there, as he was brutally Mauled by the queen in Aliens) and the ship’s two other human passengers were found dead for no apparent reason other than to start Ripley off with a blank slate, an unfortunate dog soon learns firsthand that our intrepid heroine was not the only survivor aboard the pod.  As the prisoners mourn the deaths of Ripley’s friends, new life is born violently elsewhere in the facility, and so the terror begins for the 3rd time.  Without guns, intellect, or solidarity of purpose, the inmates must nevertheless withstand a force swifter and deadlier than all the prior xenos save the queen.  At least that’s what the writers intended us to believe, despite the fact that it takes this canine-based alien far longer to eliminate a far dumber and weaker contingent than it took the basic drone of the first film.  We also learn that Ripley has somehow been impregnated with a queen alien, an inexplicable plot twist that leads the Weyland-Yutani Corp. to dispatch a rescue party to secure the woman and her precious cargo.  While the newborn canine-based alien refuses to harm Ripley, the other inhabitants of Fiorina are not so fortunate, and without any real weapons to counter the beast, they’ll be challenged to hold out until the ship’s arrival.

To be a fair critic, I must recognize that the first 40 or so minutes of Alien 3 are halfway decent.  Early shots of the alien are promising, the setting looks cool from what few glimpses we get of Fiorina’s landscape, and the actors, especially Sigourney Weaver and Charles Dance, convincingly portray their characters, however stereotyped they are on paper.  The prison’s bleak atmosphere is augmented by shadows and orange hues, the score is equal parts mysterious and grand, and the editor initially manages to maintain suspense similar to Alien’s.  The scene in which the alien bursts from the dog is spectacularly well made yet heartwrenching at the same time, which is oddly sad because it illustrates how people often esteem animals higher than their fellow men, labeling a scene of human suffering as entertainment but that of animal suffering as “cruelty”.  But that’s irrelevant to the movie itself.  While Alien 3 starts strongly, it all falls apart once the prisoners go on a bug hunt and the movie’s pace grinds to a near-halt.

Alien 3’s errors can be simply condensed to a lack of clarity, plausibility, pacing, and pathos.  One of the marks of Alien and Aliens is that they rarely slowed down in their 120-140 minute run times and hardly ever wasted time with exposition or developments that were unnecessary to advancing the main plot.  Alien 3 is fraught with scenes that should have been heavily trimmed or cut entirely.  One early example is the scene where the doctor performs an autopsy on Newt, only to confirm that she did indeed drown and was not impregnated by an alien.  The only valid reason for inserting said scene into the movie would be to reveal that the initial theory concerning Newt’s demise was gravely incorrect; otherwise, the scene only eats up time and restates information that the audience has already received, albeit with less blood and guts.  Another instance of unnecessary narrative shortly follows when Ripley revisits the EEV to retrieve Bishop’s remains and almost gets raped by 4 thugs in the process.  I suppose this scene was meant to substantiate earlier dialogue which identified the prisoners as a bunch of violent rapists and murderers, but it serves no purpose in the grand picture of the movie and ultimately seems tacked on for the filmmakers’ sick pleasure.  Later in the movie, Ripley finally persuades her romantic interest, the doctor, to explain the barcode on his head and confess his rather ignoble background.  This scene establishes the doctor as one of the movie’s few characters who’s remotely developed, but mere seconds after the man concludes his “long and sad” story, the alien sneaks up and rams its jaw through his skull, thus nullifying any impact the doctor’s monologue might have had on the rest of the movie.  What’s the point of fleshing out a given character only to kill him off immediately afterwards?   Wouldn’t it be more time-efficient to simply kill him before he monologues?  Having finally discovered the beast, the inmates and Ripley devise a Mystery Inc.-worthy plan to trap it in a sealed room; to make a long story short, the plan fails, a lot of people get burned, and the prisoners spew obscenities at each other in the aftermath.  Eventually, after much more unnecessary exposition, the prisoners convene and formulate another plan to kill the beast, which also fails but takes up at least 10 choppily edited minutes of film time regardless.  Since both plans were doomed to failure, most audiences would appreciate it if the filmmakers spent less time dwelling on a wasted effort that doesn’t progress the overall plot, but Alien 3 delights in wasting time.  In reality, the movie is only 2 hours, but thanks to a bloated script and poor time-management it comes across as a 3 hour bore.

Alien 3’s defenders have cast the film as a kind of dark tragedy, as opposed to the horror and action movies which preceded it, but in order for a story to be tragic, the audience must be at least partially sympathetic to the characters, and Alien 3 fails to conjure even a single likeable person.  In fact, Fiorina’s prison-dwellers almost rival Commodus, Hannibal Lecter, The Joker, and Emperor Palpatine as the most unpleasant and repelling figures ever put to film, and they’re supposed to be the good guys.  The movie makes a weak attempt to cast them as reformed, holy men who have found God in the sewers of Fury 161, but their actions indicate they’ve never even looked at a Bible.  These “spiritual” men spew obscenities at Ripley throughout the movie, curse her essentially for being a beautiful woman, beat her, and generally speak most unchivalrously of their fellow brothers in Christ.  At times I thought the screenwriter was conducting a strange exercise in profanity, testing how many F-bombs he could string together while still maintaining the original meaning of the dialogue.  In all, I think the word is slung at least a hundred times in Alien 3, particularly in situations when there’s no emotional or physical tension to warrant its use.  The constant stream of vulgarity eventually starts to grate on the ears, causing sighs of relief amongst the viewers when the alien rips its victims’ throats out and silences their sailor talk.  As if the new additions weren’t bad enough, the writer also felt the need to ruin the story’s protagonist by exposing a different, weaker dimension of her character.  By the time Alien 3 was released, Ripley had attained an iconic status in pop culture for being the first strong, independent, and masculine female lead in a science-fiction movie and perhaps all the cinema.  The girl power theme of the Alien films would inspire such legendary franchises as Metroid, Buffy, and countless other series.  For some reason, the girl power formula didn’t appeal to the Alien 3 team, as this movie reduces Ripley from a courageous and able-bodied heroine to a sniveling, helpless wimp.  Perhaps the convenient passing of her daughter-figure Newt and comrade Hicks contributed to this change, yet she had managed to hold her composure amidst the horrors of the 1st and 2nd movies.  Whatever the cause of Ripley’s evolution, it’s inconceivable why the writer would kill off Hicks after Michael Biehn expressed his interest in an Aliens sequel.  Bringing back Newt would obviously have been difficult without recasting the girl or retreading the 2nd movie, but having Hicks return would seem like a feasible and expedient course for the 3rd movie.  Alas, Bishop is the only likeable character to return in Alien 3, and he only appears for a short minute before Ripley pulls his plug.

Alien 3 borrows a page from Prometheus by introducing several narrative trains whicch are never sufficiently explained or justified.  How did an egg get on the Sulaco?  Exactly how was Ripley impregnated with an alien queen?  Why are there no arms to speak of but axes and knives in the allegedly “maximum-security” prison (maybe it’s a New York City facility)?  Why does the alien slaughter its prey and feed on them like a carnivore when Aliens clearly established that the xenos cocoon their victims, preparing them to be new subjects for impregnation?  Why does the movie’s final quarter consist of a really cheesy “alien-cam” chase sequence when H.R. Giger, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and other distinguished people involved in the series’ production have all argued that one of the alien’s scariest attributes is its lack of eyes?  Some questions just stem from the movie’s poor screenplay.  In the course of planning the 1st trap, the cult’s leader Dillon asks Ripley why he and his men should put their butts on the line for her, as if the alien is hunting her exclusively and couldn’t care less about the prisoners. Ripley curtly tells him his butt’s already on the line, but one would think he already knew that.  Why in the world does Dillon drop his axe to drag one of his fellows, clearly beyond rescue, out of the creature’s jaws?  Why do all the inmates mess around and smack talk each other when they’re supposed to be cooperating to catch the alien?  Why have the inmates “taken a vow of celibacy” when their home is completely severed from any planet women might inhabit?  Gosh, that'd be a hard oath to keep.

Like post-1920s America, Alien 3 tragically regressed into something worse by trying vainly to progress into something better.  While the trilogy's conclusion isn’t exactly horrible and has some fine moments, however brief, it’s incredibly disappointing and fails to capture the suspense and breathtaking action of the first two installments.  Much like the alien itself, which can’t decide whether it’s a parasite or a predator, the movie can’t even attach itself to even a basic genre, be it horror, action, or even Alien.  From a movie so deceptively titled Alien Cubed, one would expect to see more than just a few momentary shots of a single monster.  Perhaps it meant illegal aliens.  HAHAHAHA… Wrong movie.

Grade rating: C.  Hardly a magnificent specimen.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Nitoc 2013

Here's a summary of all the Arkansas nonsense you never took the mental or financial pains to see.

For the enlightenment of the low-information judging crowd, this is what all those champion debaters meant by "advocacy" in 90% of the rounds.

Vadore Postol, a self-described expert in basically everything with a Ph.D. in midichlorian physics, weighs in on the tournament's events, including disregard of the stock issues and general anti-Americanism.  Here are excerpts from his 100 page article, available to view after the round.

Policy theory on solvency is an odd paradox indeed.  By most judging philosophies at Nitoc, plans that intentionally solve something (toppling the Syrian regime, sabotaging Iran's nuclear program, invading North Korea, disrupting drug cartels) don't solve enough, but plans that deliberately solve nothing (withdrawing thousands of troops because two of them raped a girl, cutting AK-47 shipments to some puny African/Middle Eastern country, and ending the use of X weapon that kills people) are perfectly solvent.  It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Postol's ultimate reaction to the tournament (and indeed the entire season):

Friday, May 24, 2013

Aliens – The More the Scarier

Throughout the history of the film industry, few sequels have been worthy of bearing their source’s name, and even fewer have matched their predecessor in quality.  In 1986, Aliens delivered an exhilarating and extremely entertaining experience which was markedly different from the horror offered by Alien but just as effective in its own right.  In the same way that Ridley Scott made Alien the face of the science-fiction horror genre, so too did James Cameron establish Aliens as the face of the sci-fi action genre.  Rather than recycling the structure and narrative style of the original film, the director of Aliens opted to take another approach that retained the essence of the series’ appeal, humans surviving an extraterrestial threat, while significantly enlarging the story’s scope, altering its tone, and exploring new themes.

Aliens picks up on Ripley’s 57th year in hypersleep, during which her escape vessel finally makes its way back to the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.  Ripley’s efforts to convince her employers of her ordeal fall mostly on deaf ears, but her story intrigues a man named Burke (played by Paul Reiser), who masks his true motives with an unconvincing display of benevolence.  When the company loses contact with a terraforming colony on LV-426, the same barren planet from the first film, Burke organizes a team of U.S. Colonial Marines to investigate the scene and persuades Ripley to accompany them as an advisor, with the promise that they’re “going to destroy them, not to study”.  Upon arriving at the colony, the marines find it deserted save for a frightened, young girl who was recently orphaned by xenomorphs and has been hiding in the center’s ducts ever since.  The girl, Newt, soon draws close to Ripley, who tries in vain to reassure the child and herself of their safety.  “These men are soldiers,” she says, but Newt grimly observes that “it won’t make any difference.”  The rest of the movie basically serves to fulfill the young girl’s prediction, showing us the marines shift from offense to defense to panic and flight as their advanced technology is quickly nullified by the hive’s overwhelming strength of numbers and intelligence; the most fortunate victims are incinerated, crushed, or impaled by xeno jaws, while the least are dragged off to be cocooned and forcefully impregnated in the alien nest, presided over by the vicious and towering queen.  Aliens is arguably a more intense movie than the first installment, not because it has more violence but because the stakes are higher for its central characters than they were beforehand.  In Alien, Ripley had only to save her own skin, but the conflict in Aliens forces her to become a protector as well as a survivor, to sacrifice her own safety at times to rescue a girl whom she loves as a mother does her child.  Newt represents the daughter that Ripley bore but lost in her decades of absence; her presence exposes aspects of Ripley’s character that the first film never had the opportunity to explore, and through her we learn that Ripley’s strength and determination are equaled by her compassion and unfaltering loyalty.

Yet the movie is not merely a character analysis of Ripley, for it also oversees the development of the alien itself from a frightful image into a fully articulated antagonist.  While its role as a mostly symbolic figure sufficed for the purposes of Alien’s story, the xenomorph had to become a complete character for an interesting sequel.  Aliens brings the creature out of the shadows and into its own territory, where it shows its true colors as an intelligent and relentless pack hunter.  Whereas the alien from the first film was forced by circumstance to be a lone wolf, in Aliens we see its real nature as a mere element in an intricate, multi-leveled hive of parasitical lifeforms, which cooperate ruthlessly to protect their social order and harvest all outsiders as hosts to prolong their existence.  The xenomorph hierarchy in Aliens is so well defined, so magnificently depicted, and so representative of nature’s raw brutality as to make it one of if not the most plausible and terrifying species in all of fiction.

Even so, all of Aliens’ finesse in narrative would be wasted if not for the film’s glorious execution.  Aliens is altogether one of the best-looking movies I’ve ever seen, whether evaluated in terms of special effects, art direction, costume design, sound, or cinematography.  Scenes which look fantastical on paper are made credible by the excellent use of natural effects and real sets; unlike the action of modern pictures that use exorbitant amounts of CGI to tell stories, most of what the viewer witnesses in Aliens is real, captured in the camera frame and not on a computer program, and thus the movie is far more believable to the eyes than recent sci-fi pictures such as John Carter (actually a decent movie) or Cowboys and Aliens (a really, really bad movie that didn’t warrant a full review for this AVP series).  From the first appearance of the aliens to the final showdown against their wrathful queen, the movie never ceases to amaze the viewer.  The pacing of Aliens is also impeccable.  Cameron devotes about an hour to quietly building up tension, establishing setting, and introducing characters, then lets action and explosive gunplay dominate most of the second half, pausing only to make room for now iconic one-liners (“They mostly come at night. Mostly.”  “Get away from her, you b___!”) and give the characters time to breathe.  This emphasis on action over exposition is one that’s been lost in many self-professed “action films”, including a long lineup of superhero flicks (Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2) and Predator, as I stated earlier.  Aliens is more akin to the Transformers movies than to Predator, and as such it makes for marvelous entertainment.

It’s just unfortunate that Aliens’ brilliant storytelling gets so bogged down with the abrasive political views its director so liberally (ha ha) stamped all over it.  As with quite literally all his movies, James Cameron utilized Aliens as a vehicle to sow leftism in the minds of audiences by conspicuously attacking corporations, the U.S. military, and men in general while hammering the audience with cheesy girl-power feminism.  The first hour of the movie is basically an indulgent caricature of soldiers as vulgar, dull-witted, brutish, trigger-happy thugs characterized by a complete lack of honor and chivalry.  Moreover, they’re portrayed as a bunch of whiny, spineless cowards who disintegrate in battle and quaver in the face of death, with the only exceptions being women, i.e. Ripley and Vasquez, or a robot.  Hey, James Cameron, anyone ever mistake you for a man?  You may wonder how I can possibly praise Aliens in light of its flamingly un-American views; had the movie been conceived as political commentary first and science-fiction thriller second, then I would not regard it as highly, but Aliens is an exceedingly strong action film and merits commendation for excelling in its genre.  One could also argue that the movie is a scathing invective of environmental extremists, who esteem animals higher than their fellow men and willfully subjugate human life to the preservation of nature.  “This is clearly an important species we’re dealing with and I don’t think that you or I or anybody has the right to arbitrarily exterminate them,” says the romantically minded conservationist Burke.  As happens so often in the real world, the environmentalist’s efforts to save nature result in his own destruction at the jaws of the very beasts he revered.  Aliens is essentially the counterpart to James Cameron’s later feature, Avatar, a movie that celebrated earth worship rather than ridiculing it.  The former movie gives a strictly realistic view of the untamed, natural world, while the latter endorses idealistic fantasies about a peaceful earth wherein animals may coexist without violence or strife.

In the end, Aliens is not just a perfect sequel but a near perfect movie in its own right.  A work that was faithful to its roots but innovative in its own storytelling, Aliens rightly continues to inspire countless filmmakers and franchises, most prominently Halo, and to this day it sets the standard by which all sci-fi action pictures should be judged.  Let movies like this never perish from cinema, or it’ll be game over, man, game over.

Grade rating: A, as in “Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events, but that Predator just got its A__ kicked, pal!”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life of Pi

When it comes to deceptive promotion and marketing, there are few films that can compete with Life of Pi.  The movie’s commercials and trailers seemed to represent a happy-go-lucky family-friendly adventure flick that empathized CGI animals and globe-trecking over a substantive story.  In reality, Life of Pi is a rather somber and philosophical survival movie about theology and man’s relationship to the natural world. Although Ang Lee’s award-winning drama is beautifully crafted and gripping entertainment, it rises above its peers primarily because of its challenge for audiences to reflect on themes that other movies dare not broach.

Like that catchy Coldplay song? TOO BAD – IT WASN'T IN THE MOVIE.

* Mild spoilers ahead.

As a young Indian boy, Pi is intrigued by different religious faiths; raised a Hindu, he once worshiped thousands of naturalistic deities, but soon opened his mind to other beliefs, most notably Islam and Christianity, which he originally questioned.  Pi privately develops a kind of all-inclusive religion that incorporates elements of all faiths he may draw upon depending on his circumstance.  His doctrine draws disdain from his nonbelieving older brother and materialistic father, a firm proponent of “science” who chides his son, “Believing in everything is no better than believing in nothing.” Eventually, due to financial struggles, Pi’s family elects to move their zoo to Canada, where the business climate is more stable.  On the voyage to North America, a seemingly spontaneous tempest besets the family’s cruise ship, yet Pi and a quartet of animals manage to board a lifeboat.  It is here that Pi’s faith begins to face its greatest test; lost in the Pacific as the only human survivor of a catastrophic wreck, he must endure weeks of severe hunger, thirst, and looming insanity while also caring for Richard Parker, the massive tiger that previously devoured the lifeboat’s other passengers and looks on him hungrily.  In truth, the only reason Pi persists so long is his unyielding trust in God and commitment to the tiger.  All of this story is encapsulated within a conversation between a grown Pi and a friend whom he hopes to persuade of God’s existence.  While I compliment the film’s writer, David Magee, for attempting a non-linear approach to storytelling, the technique wasn’t nearly as effective here as in The Princess Bride, partly because of the bad acting by Pi’s friend but mostly because it dumbed down the movie’s message so far as to strip it of all subtlety and render it preachy to Atheist viewers, whom the story wouldn’t likely persuade anyway, as I’ll explain later.

As entertainment and visual spectacle, Life of Pi is an extraordinary movie to behold, much like Ang Lee's former work, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Contrary to many viewers’ remarks that the film is slow and boring, I found it to be an emotionally intense and captivating story about survival at sea and a young man who lives in constant peril of nature’s fury.  The movie takes some time getting to the narrative’s turning point, i.e. the storm that serves as the catalyst for Pi’s struggles, but all good adventure films by necessity have high and low points.  Movies like Transformers 3 that strive to be fast-paced and action-packed from beginning to conclusion often turn out boring.  A visually beautiful work with excellent computer animation and art design, Life of Pi should be held alongside Prometheus, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises as one of 2012’s most dazzling pictures.  I was initially skeptical about the heavy use of CGI in the scenes involving animals, but was pleasantly surprised by how effectively the filmmakers used it as a substitute where real animals would not be a feasible option.  In some scenes the tiger is obviously a digital creation, but it behaves so realistically throughout the film that I didn’t really mind the CG.  Life of Pi gives a more accurate portrayal of wildlife than many other films; the tiger here is a ferocious and intimidating beast who only accepts Pi’s presence after the boy forcefully asserts his own dominance.  Indeed, for much of the movie the two castaways remain separated on different platforms due to the tiger’s ravenous appetite, which eventually drives the animal to brave the ocean’s waters to seize its companion as a potential meal (most of the “happy scenes” in the trailer aren’t that happy in the actual movie).

Unfortunately, Life of Pi’s philosophical teachings are not nearly as strong as its storytelling.  The movie basically confronts the issue of theism vs. materialism, using Pi’s fantastical story to endorse the former and shed doubt on the latter.  Our titular hero eventually washes up on the shores of Mexico, where he gives his rescuers two vastly opposed accounts of his ordeal on the high seas.  The one the audience has witnessed is allegedly one of miracles and wonders, orchestrated by an omnipotent God, while the second story he relates is devoid of spiritual influence and utterly dull in comparison.  When Pi asks his friend, and by extension the film’s audience, which story he prefers, the man answers that he favors the one with the tiger, to which Pi remarks, “And so it goes with God,” as if that’s sufficient to prove his religious faith.  By Pi’s reasoning, since both narratives leave gaping questions unanswered, such as why the boat sunk, and since neither can be proven by evidence, the truth concerning his journey is completely relative, determined purely by what the individual wants to believe.  Through analogy, Pi insinuates that God must be real because a world of miracles and magic governed by a sovereign deity makes for a far better story than a chaotic, disordered, and godless world where matter alone exists.  Neither religious documents nor scientific theories offer complete explanations of the universe and neither (supposedly) can be supported with physical proof, but goshdarnit, Genesis is a far better read than The Origin of Species, so it probably has more truth to it.  The writer’s argument is downright simplistic: by this same logic, geocentric astronomical theories expressed in Dante’s Paradise and Greek mythology are to be deemed more accurate than the heliocentric revelations of Galileo and Copernicus, now held to be objective, scientific truth, merely because Helios’ laps around the globe and Dante’s experiences beyond the Fixed Earth are more entertaining fables.  It’s nicer to think that the universe revolves around us, but that’s an even greater fantasy than Pi’s adventures.  Likewise, there are a variety of narratives one could accept on the fate of Osama Bin Laden, none of which tell the full story or are substantiated by a shred of evidence other than empty testimony.  You can believe that he passed away due to old age or disease years before 2011, a rather dull but down-to-earth hypothesis, or that he was violently terminated in a glorious raid on a Pakistani compound by Navy Seals, a more dramatic and thrilling account told with countless variations, one of which was depicted in the popular film Zero Dark Thirty.  Of these two accounts, the former is more plausible, but Life of Pi’s philosophy would defend the latter simply because it’s more satisfying to think, “We got him,” than to acknowledge, “He got away.”  The movie’s argument for theism just isn’t persuasive and seems more like a thesis on relativism (reality is whatever makes you feel good) than on religion.

Even if Life of Pi does manage to spark a flame of religious belief in some secular viewers, the movie’s message is so vague that it’s unlikely to deeply service Christianity, Islam, or any of the churches Pi experimentally follows.  The wisdom of Pi’s father, that believing everything is equivalent to believing nothing, goes woefully overlooked not only by his son but also by the movie's writer, who ultimately endorses a kind of polytheistic relativism instead of a concrete faith in one true and sovereign God.  Pi dabbles in a wide variety of religions, asking Jesus for deliverance, shouting "Allah Akbar!" at the heavens, and apologizing to some fish god as he hacks it open, but never really commits himself to a single deity.  Like its main character, the movie sways back and forth between a thousand spirits and fails to point towards one God in three persons; its assertion that believers can accept some Biblical truths while discarding others they don’t agree with is antithetical to Scripture and egregiously misleading to audiences.

Life of Pi is far from profound, but at least it’s thought-provoking, which is an attribute most movies can’t claim.  A film that’s well acted, visually captivating, and philosophically challenging, it’s without a doubt one of the best movies of the year, however cheesy that sounds.  I only wish that I could compare it to its Oscar-winning competitor Argo, filmmaker Ben Affleck’s Democrat fundraiser heartfelt tribute to Canadians and filmmakers, which I have not yet seen.  Evidently, that won’t stop me from making comparisons.

Grade rating: A-

Side-note that doesn't fit into the rest of the review: The 3D gimmick in this movie is dumb, unless you like seeing people’s faces and a tiger jutting out at you for two hours.  I saw it at home and the 3D effect (or lack thereof) basically ruined at least one of the scenes.  “Oh, the flying fishes are gratuitously trying to jump out at me!! - but it's not working because I'm not wearing those heavy, obnoxious glasses...”

Friday, May 17, 2013

Alien – Space Horror's Founding Document

A friend of mine once remarked that Alien is a movie about splitting up and looking for clues.  While there’s a grain of truth to that statement, it’s equally true that Alien is one of the best “splitting up” movies ever made.  Due to its excellent production design, impeccable storytelling, and strong performances, Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic remains an effective horror film more than 30 years after its release and proves that suspense and cinematography, not blood and guts, are the key components of a truly terrifying movie.

A party of seven astronauts is returning from a mining expedition when the master-computer of their ship, the Nostromo, detects a distress signal from an uncharted, desolate planet.  Although most of the members would rather run home and “get their share”, their company’s code requires them to probe situations like these; reluctantly they land Nostromo and a group of three embarks to find the signal’s origin while the ship’s Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, played by then-newcomer Sigourney Weaver, and the others stay behind to make repairs.  While navigating the rocky, featureless landscape, the trio happens upon a downed alien ship, inside of which they discover a tall, deceased humanoid (later identified as an Engineer in Scott’s own prequel Prometheus) whose chest has mysteriously exploded.  Revolted at and rather disturbed by their findings, they decide to leave the apparently abandoned ship, but on his way out, one of the scientists enters a large chamber that contains several eggs, one of which hatches literally right before his eyes.  What happens next I shall not spoil for those unfamiliar with the film’s plot and titular character.  One of Alien’s strongest attributes is its story, which contains a bounty of surprising and horrifying twists; audiences should ideally approach the movie with as little foreknowledge as possible to experience the full impact of it tale.

Alien and Prometheus are similar in that both are technical masterpieces with credible effects, intriguing production design, and skillful direction.  Alien is rightfully renowned for using dim and claustrophobic sets to amplify the audience’s apprehension of the creature.  If I could make one complaint about the production design, it would be that there’s an odd lack of lights on the futuristic, hyper-advanced spaceship, but setting the movie in a brightly lit environment would obviously detract from the horror and be the greater of two evils.  Aside from that, the sets are magnificent in scope and detail, proving demonstrably that green-screen stages are a poor substitute for real sets.  Alien’s visuals also exemplify the enduring appeal of traditional, computer-free effects, for while old CG-heavy movies like Tron have grown outdated and somewhat laughable because of constantly improving computer graphics, the miniatures, puppetry, and makeup of the earlier Alien films have never lost their impact.  Nor has the alien itself, a vicious, repulsive, and terrifying parasite whose on-screen presence is brief but unforgettable.  When Scott meshes all these elements together and complements them with his cinematography, the result is some of the most iconic movie scenes ever, predominantly the one in which the alien first bursts onto screen.

The distinction between Alien and Prometheus is that the former appeals to the ears as well as to the eyes.  The 1979 film is a plausible, complete, and gripping work that has believable characters and leaves no glaring unanswered questions.  Alien could easily have been based on a Michael Crichton novel, as it concerns a small group of talented but otherwise ordinary scientists who confront terror and forces beyond their control in a location that’s seemingly secure from all threats but is woefully vulnerable in reality.  The themes of contamination, impending doom, isolation, and betrayal are precisely what give Alien its tension and maintain the audience’s dread even when the creature is off screen.  Indeed, the most horrifying part of Alien is not the monster itself, which appears only momentarily in all its forms, but the realization that the crew’s safety was never a priority.  Furthermore, one can more readily empathize with the Nostromo’s crewmates, who are mostly just average people trying to earn a living, than with Prometheus’, who embrace phony, supernatural science, make outrageous decisions, and border on horror movie stereotypes.  Both crews make grave mistakes throughout their films and in each case the progression of the plot largely hinges on these tactical errors, but it’s far easier to justify the actions of Alien’s characters, who act not out of forced stupidity but out of loyalty to their companions and a na├»ve ignorance of the galaxy’s dangers.

Prometheus raises more philosophical questions than Alien but offers clear answers to none of them, and its attempt to flesh out the background of the Alien universe only adds confusion to a premise which didn’t need clarification.  In contrast, Alien tells a simple but satisfying story about 7 people struggling for survival against a demonic force in the far reaches of space, where salvation is remote and no one can hear them scream.  It’s not thought-provoking science fiction by any means, but it’s an extremely well made and effective horror film which will continue to frighten spectators many years into the future.

Grade rating: A

1. The special, behind-the-scenes features compiled for this film are rather amusing in the way they reveal the ridiculous sense of entitlement so many millionaire actors possess.  Some of the cast members complained about passing out in uncomfortable space suits and doing multiple takes on certain scenes.  What aspiring, up-and-coming actor in his right mind would refuse a million dollar check to appear in one of the most successful science-fiction movies ever produced?

2. Spoiler: Anyone who says that the alien looks like a male organ has to be on some pretty powerful crack.  Certainly one can reason that the facehugger “rapes” Kane by impregnating him against his will, but neither the egg, nor the alien, nor the spaceships, nor the space jockey, nor the whatever look anything like a human crotch, unless your idea of a crotch has arms, legs, spines, fingers, slime, and fangs like daggers.  Overthinking, elitist film commentators be damned.  These parrots need a little more GRAVITAS.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Predator: one who preys on gullible filmgoers

This begins a five-part series of weekly reviews analyzing the greatest dual franchise of all time.

“The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”  So let it be with Arnold Schwarzennager, whom history will remember not for the Terminator movies, Kindergarten Cop, or Total Recall, but for Predator, a plodding mess of an action movie with very little action which has gained notoriety primarily for its chance association with a superior science-fiction franchise.

Predator follows a half-dozen military guys, led by Ahnold’s Dutch (no, not the interesting Dutch from ODST), who are tasked with rescuing several hostages in a South-American jungle.  After gunning down scores of rebels and torching an encampment in magnificently over the top Hollywood style, the team finds only a native girl, whom they take captive despite the reservations of Dutch that she’ll be a hindrance and a burden.  As the team proceeds through the jungle, what started as a simple rescue mission quickly evolves into a game of survival as the men are gradually eliminated by an unseen hunter that “uses the trees”, tracks his targets with heat vision, and disguises himself as the surrounding environment.  Whatever’s hunting them isn’t human.  With this in mind, Billy the Indian laconically summarizes their chances: “We’re all gonna die.”  All except the Governator, of course, who’s destined for a protracted final battle against the beast in the movie’s final quarter, but not before he belts out the movie’s most famous line: “Run. Go! Get to the CHOPPA.”

Would that good one-liners made a good movie, because Predator is filled to the brim with catchy, often corny dialogue.  “The C.I.A. got you pushing too many pencils?”  “I ain’t got time to bleed.”  “My men aren’t expendable, and I don’t do this kind of vurk.”  “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”   Etc. etc.  Regrettably, Predator’s story and presentation don’t match up to its one-liners, as the movie feels like a half-hour jungle-hunt that’s elongated to 107 minutes.  For an action movie, Predator is only about 10% action with the other 90% focusing on our intrepid commandos as they amble through the jungle aimlessly, take choppa rides, and investigate the messy remains of the Predator’s former engagements.  What little action we do get is boring because the humans are hopelessly outmatched by the Predator, which gleefully utilizes his wrist-blades and shoulder-mounted plasma sniping cannon to dispatch his prey before they even notice him.  The Predator, by virtue of his active camouflage and other high-tech, alien gadgets, basically gets to cheat, which makes him a rather dull and unlikable bad guy.

Being an action movie, Predator has its share of special effects, but they’re mostly a mixed bag.  The Predator’s camoflauge is a cool non-CG effect and looks fairly believable; the tradeoff is that it hides the villain for most of the movie.  When the Predator finally does remove his mask to intimidate Schwarzennager, the result is almost laughable.  Yes, he is “one ugly mother” (just like the rest of the movie) – primarily because of a cheesy makeup job and not due to great design.  With a little more development time in the art department, the Predator could easily have been a rather awesome alien, like the sangheili/elites of the Halo saga, another alien species with split mandibles which is undoubtedly more frightful than this flick’s monster.  Then again, perhaps the movie’s concept artists were intentionally aiming to create a humorously corny, sci-fi monstrosity, in which case they achieved precisely what they wanted.  Predator aside, the action itself leaves a lot to be desired, as most of it happens off-camera or in quick shots that don’t require any special effects.   For example, the Predator’s first victim gets knifed and dragged off screen in a sequence that lasts no more a second.  Schwarzennager dissects the murder scene, but finds only a tiny pile of red mush, presumably the guy’s guts, in a clearing.  Later on, the Predator snipes another guy in the head, filling the camera lens with red glare and nothing much else.  These are not the marks of a great action film.

Had Arnold Schwarzennager chosen to star in another movie, Predator would not have survived to this day, but thanks to the Governator’s unforgettably bad performance alongside some unforgettably bad special effects work, the Predator can live to fight another Alien in some D-grade spinoff disaster.  If anything, the past and present success of Predator proves the old adage true: If there’s blood, they can sell it.

Bottom line: By the end of this movie, you'll be screaming, "Come on.  Do it!  KILL ME!"

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Brave New World of the 21st Century

George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are possibly the two most compared English novels of the 20th century.  While the stories are similar in many respects, they differ in that while readers tend to agree on the message of 1984, the exact meaning of Huxley’s work is widely disputed.  Most English-speaking people would read 1984 as a condemnation of totalitarianism and communism, the only dissenters being illiterate 60 Minutes viewers who somehow interpret it to be a warning against sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation, and waterboarding.  That’s Orwellian stuff, dude…  On the other hand, opinions on Brave New World are far more diversified.  A considerable number have hailed it as the antithesis to Orwell’s message, arguing that the book envisions a world of capitalism-run-amok, where the people’s dignity is downtrodden by a mega-corporation that sells them junk they don’t need.  Others have sought to frame the novel as a critique of Marxism, and still more have noted it for its cynicism of scientific techniques like cloning.  In my view, Brave New World deals with all the above things to some extent, but it’s primarily a dissertation on the true meaning of liberty and the consequences society incurs when it trades freedom for an illusion of pleasure and happiness.

In the year A.F. (After Ford) 652, all of earth’s governments have united under one World State presided over by 10 Controllers.  This futuristic civilization, guided by the ideals of community, identity, and stability, idolizes physical pleasure and communal unity while eschewing philosophy, religion, disease, labor, unpleasant virtue, and all other potential causes of discomfort.  Children are grown and “decanted” in factories rather than born to a married mother and father, terms which have become indecent and obscene. Many women, dubbed freemartins, are genetically engineered to lack reproductive capabilities and those women who can produce offspring are strictly disciplined to use contraceptives.  Although marriage is forbidden, casual sex is strongly encouraged, even mandated, and stands as one of the prime facets of life in the World State.  Children fresh out of kindergarten are educated to participate in “erotic play” and ultimately bred to satisfy different partners every week as adults. Virginity and “monogamy” are viewed not as virtues but as perversions of the gravest nature, being violations of each human’s communal duty to share his or her body with every other member of society.  Although it never gets overly graphic, Brave New World delves on incredibly disgusting but timely subject matter which is all the more relevant in an age of moral relativism, taxpayer-funded abortions, and a culture which glorifies promiscuity at every turn.  When citizens aren’t “having” each other (like all good science-fiction, this book has a strong application of euphemisms) or executing their assigned societal position, they enjoy the reprieve of recreational, often lewd games, the excitement of 4D porn flicks called “feelies”, and the euphoria imparted by the state’s official narcotic, soma.  Huxley envisions a nation which has eradicated any semblance of moral boundaries and given itself over to animal impulses, a path that American residents seems to view more favorably with every passing generation.

Further parallels to modern America are manifest in the way that the World State rears its citizens, shaping their minds through repetitious sleep-teaching called hypnopaedia which “conditions” them for their specific employment in the grand community, be it an elite or servile position, and fills their heads with meaningless drivel encapsulated in simplistic, 3rd-grade sentences like “Progress is lovely,” “A gramme is better than a damn”, “Even Epsilons are useful”, “Was and will make me ill; I take a gramme and only am”, “Every one belongs to every one else,” and the oft stressed “Everybody’s happy now.”  These empty catch phrases mirror the mindless “debates” of modern politics which so often are driven not by logic or evidence but by meaningless, feel-good sound bytes.  Candidates often pepper their campaign speeches with hypnopaedia to win over the more fickle elements of the masses: e.g. “the same, top-down policies that got us in the mess in the first place”, “sustainable energy”, “we are in this together”, “our gay brothers and sisters”, “put two wars on a credit card”, “asking people like myself at the top to do a little more”, “military-style assault weapons of war”, “doing a fair share, getting a fair shot”, “taking a balanced, responsible approach”, and a host of other tired terms and phrases permeate the dialogue of modern Americans, purely out of gross repetition on the part of political celebrities.  Government school education/indoctrination techniques are disturbingly similar to the hypnopaedia envisioned by Huxley.  By the time the average high schooler graduates, he’s been taught to love progress “five hundred times once a week from thirteen to seventeen”.  Self-perceived college radicals make robotic demands for social justice and equality because the state has conditioned them since childhood to believe that America is unfair as founded; the Occupy Wall Street and homosexual marriage riots are direct results of hypnopaedic teachings in public schools, which promote such simplistic ideals as tolerance, diversity, and equality over more meaningful values such as liberty and virtue.

Brave New World also addresses socio-economic issues like class separation.  In the World State, citizens are divided into different castes upon birth and are henceforth raised though distinct conditioning to fulfill their assigned duties to the rest of society.  Alphas reside at the top of the social ladder and live a life of relative ease, while Deltas and Epsiolons are forced to execute the most menial and toilsome tasks for the state.  However, far from envying their superiors in rank and intellect, the state’s lowest members shun the high lifestyle and embrace their slavelike status, having been conditioned and brainwashed throughout childhood to love none other than their own occupation.  “Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down the rails along which he’s got to run.  He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed.”  The caste system and its enforcement in Brave New World not only call to mind the way in which African-Americans were once conditioned for the walk of slavery, but also reflect the way that modern governments, including America, raise large segments of the population to become a permanent underclass, ever dependent on government elites and a productive overclass for their welfare and survival.  The country’s underclass does not loathe its own inferiority, but rather celebrates mediocrity, dutifully eating up state handouts, worshipping their compassionate leaders/caretakers, and casting a vote for “Fairness” and “Democracy” every election cycle.  America’s Epsilons never strive for a greater destiny because they’ve been brainwashed by the state to revile prosperity and individuality; such concepts are ruthlessly savaged as selfish, unpatriotic, unequitable, and racist.  The curse of the World State, like that of modern America, is state-sponsored immobility and class stigma, a system under which is everyone is doled out a societal role and no one has the freedom to pursue his own ambitions.

Although Huxley’ works examines a broad array of political issues, the book is primarily a dark and satirical critique of a secular, liberal utopia, where virtue is nonexistent and “liberty” is respected only in one’s freedom to have pointless fun and amusement.  In the World State, people have a right, nay a requirement, to lead a life of sexual perversity, drug addiction, and service to the community.  Most individuals in this society, including the ditsy Lenina Crowne, embrace this model unquestionably and take delight in indulging their baser impulses.  Only a minority of the population’s Alphas, represented by the physically dwarfish and ideologically rebellious Bernard Marx, finds discontent with the state’s pleasure-driven system.  “Don’t you wish you were free?” he asks Lenina, who answers, “I don’t know what you mean. I am free.  Free to have the most wonderful time.”  Freedom in the Worse State is only valued in so far as it brings pleasure, comfort, and security to people, while the “right to be unhappy” is admonished and those claiming it are ostracized to tribal islands.  The 2nd half of Brave New World is told mostly from the perspective of an islander named John the Savage, a God-fearing man and Shakespeare scholar who is introduced to civilization by Lenina and Bernard.  The Savage is naturally disgusted by the behavior he witnesses in society, and eventually his strident attempts to sell people their liberty win him an earnest conversation with the World Controller of Western Europe, Mustapha Mond.  The Controller himself acknowledges the moral depravity of his state, but argues that ethical conduct is incompatible with social stability, the critical component to all civilizations.  “Chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia.  And passion and neurasthenia mean instability.  And instability means the end of civilization.  You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”  As a result of his idolatry for “stability”, Mond bans religion, artistic expression, scientific research, and all natural rights that might cause unrest in his utopian community.  The World State upholds happiness as the highest value for a functioning society, and thus it subordinates freedom and ethics to the people’s contentment.  “Our world is not the same as Othello’s world,” Mond muses, explaining prohibition of Shakespearean drama.  “You can’t make flivvers without steel – and you can’t make tragedies without social instability.  The world’s stable now.  People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get… You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art.  We’ve sacrificed the high art.  We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”  So-called high art, he argues, can only be written in an unstable environment, for true art requires conflict, and conflict requires instability.  As an extension, nobility and chivalry are possible only in an imperfect state, for acts of heroics are prompted by perilous, unstable conditions; in Mond’s mind, the ideal state is not the one traced out by heroes and legends but the one where heroes and legends cannot exist.  “In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has opportunities for being noble or heroic.  Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise.  Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended – there, obviously, nobility and heroism make some sense.  But there aren’t any wars today.  The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much.  There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.  And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to exist… And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering… Anybody can be virtuous now… Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is.”  This is the main question that Brave New World poses: is the ideal society based on “Christianity without tears”, on communion and harmony without God, on pleasure without virtue, on stability without sacrifice?

Analysts often compare modern states to 1984’s Oceania, whose Inner Party uses terror and violence keep the citizenry in check, but few people have noted America’s similarities to the Brave New World envisioned by Huxley, wherein people are suppressed not by force but by their own passions, enslaved not to others but to themselves.  The only “rights” respected in the status quo are purely hedonistic in the nature: the right to promiscuity without pregnancy, the right to have sex with whomever and however you please, the right to consume powerful narcotics, the right to immunity from criticism over this conduct, and the right to financial reimbursement by the state for whatever consequences you incur by these godless practices.  However, those who defend religious liberty and the freedom to decry sinful behavior commonly endure hateful attacks, often accompanied by calls for censorship, from the mainstream media, which accuses them of “bigotry” and obstructing human rights.  So far have we regressed as a country that the United States’ very president takes it upon himself to personally console vocal sex addicts and to congratulate “courageous” homosexuals simply for being homosexual.  O brave new world that has such people in it!