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Posts tagged “alien

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Star Trek The Motion PictureI had thought I had reviewed all of the past Star Trek films I was going to review, but I figured, “Why the hell not?”  I’m not going to run through all the back story of the production of this movie because it’s been documented in great detail already elsewhere.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture is definitely very far from being the best of the franchise, and is rightfully ranked low on the scale.  However, there are some elements of it that I have always liked, and have never heard anyone else give credit to.  So, here I am to provide you my perspective on this misstep in taking this 1960’s television series into a feature film franchise.

When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise to take command away from the young and driven Will Decker (Stephen Collins).  Kirk’s entire trusted crew is reunited with the addition of the alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the surprise return of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who seeks deep, soul searching answers from the mysterious intruder.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must intercept and find a way to stop this alien intelligence before it destroys every human life on Earth.

Okay, let’s get the obvious critiques out of the way.  This movie is especially dated in so many ways.  Even though this was made because Star Wars was a big success, this is distinctly a science fiction film more akin to those made before Star Wars existed.  The grindingly slow pace and the very cerebral focus fall more into a 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run mentality.  The costuming and general look of the film are quite 1970’s like Battlestar Galactica.  The one piece jumpsuits with their muted color palettes don’t have much of a progressive feel from the vibrant, yet simple uniforms of the television series.  There’s a definite reason why these uniforms never reappeared anywhere in Star Trek – they’re instantly dated, impractical, and unappealing.  The cast utterly hated wearing them.  There’s so much in this film that feels like a step backwards for its time.  Amidst films like Star Wars, Alien, and even Superman: The Movie, which all made large leaps forward with the science fiction and fantasy genres with special effects, exciting storytelling, and progressive filmmaking innovations, Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was lagging behind the times on all fronts.

The more immediate problem here is how little resemblance this bares to the television series.  Star Trek was an exciting piece of episodic science fiction.  It was usually quite intelligently written, and it had action, peril, consequence, and danger making for thrilling entertainment.  This film has almost none of that.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been called The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture by many people.  I do enjoy a slow burn, methodically paced film, but this is slow pacing simply for indulgence sake.  For example, this film takes almost an hour before the crew of the Enterprise actually encounters V’Ger at all, and every plot element is almost agonizingly drawn out with next to no impact.  Instead, this film concerns itself with a drawn out briefing scene, a malfunctioning transporter, a malfunctioning warp drive, and many graceful, yet frivolously time sucking visual effects sequences.  So much of this content could be chopped out entirely for an exceedingly tighter story structure, and leave room for building more substance and momentum into its intended story.

While there are character dynamics at play, the film takes no real time to develop a particular story to be engrossed in.  While Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta put in good performances as Decker and Ilia, respectively, not enough effort is put into developing them to the point where an audience is invested in their plight.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, just self-contained within this film alone, are infinitely more fascinating than Decker and Ilia.  This is firstly a script problem, and secondly, a directorial issue.  Robert Wise had a very highly acclaimed career, but nothing in his filmography says he was the right man to direct a feature film version of Star Trek.  This is the director who did several musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and methodically paced thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep.  He could do critically acclaimed science fiction such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, but none of his work aligns with the exciting, innovative style that was Star Trek.  Apparently, Wise really only directed this film because his wife was a fan of the television series.

Circa 1983, George Lucas did a very intelligent interview that coincidentally details the problem of this film, and unfortunately, makes you wonder where that George Lucas disappeared to.  He said, and I quote, “One of the fatal mistakes that almost every science fiction film makes is that they spend so much time on the settings, creating the environment, that they spend film time on it.  And you don’t have to spend too much film time creating an environment.  What they are doing is showing off the amount of work that they generated, and it slows the pace of the film down.  The story is not the settings.  The story is the story, the plot.”  Star Trek: The Motion Picture spends so much film time gushing over the exquisite detail of its models and visual effects that it forgets to actually tell an engaging, thrilling story.  I will admit that the models are excellent, but due to a rushed production schedule to meet an unrealistic release date, many of the film’s visual effects were less than what they were supposed to be.  The director’s cut released in 2001 went a long way to rectify that, but the fact still remains that this film is better suited as a dazzling visual effects reel than a well constructed and smartly conceived narrative movie.  However, while the script is terribly misguided, and the choice of director was way off the mark, there is one great element that flows through both the good and the bad first six Star Trek films – the core cast.

The one actual strength of this film are the character interactions.  The foundation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is retained as solidly as ever.  When Bones first beams on board the Enterprise, I really love the exchange between him and Kirk.  How McCoy is still as fiery and cranky as ever is great, and how Kirk pleads with his friend because of how desperately he needs him on this mission has always been a favorite moment of mine.  It shows that the characters that we know are intact and the actors know exactly who they are inside and out.  Jim Kirk knows he can’t do it alone.  He’s already without Spock at this point, and so, he has to draft Dr. McCoy back into service.  Spock and McCoy balance out Kirk’s ego, passions, humanity, rationale, and decisiveness.  You can see this in the first minute that McCoy steps foot on the bridge, and once Spock joins them, the equation is complete.  DeForest Kelley did get all the best dialogue, and constantly proved to be an excellent talent in this role.  He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this movie, but the moments he does have are pitch perfectly filled with passion, depth, emotion, and wit.  Kelley is actually one of the few to inject a humorous, smart quip every now and then, which this film greatly needed to break up its monotonous tone.  It’s amazing that the entire original series cast did not miss a single beat slipping back into these classic characters after so many years, and that comfortable, sharp chemistry is part of what always made them work so greatly in any medium.

What I really like about James T. Kirk is that he is a man with an ego, but he’s not so consumed with it to not be aware of it.  He’s able to correct himself when he realizes he’s in the wrong, and that becomes clear when dealing with Decker.  When Kirk learns that his objection to Decker countermanding his phaser order was justified, he retracts his stance and acknowledges his error.  Later on, he catches himself quicker when Decker offers an alternative course of action in defending the ship, and it shows that he’s tempering his actions.  William Shatner really does a lot to enhance Kirk in this story as a man who is a little older and a little out of touch with his own ship.  He stumbles here and there, but is able to stay on his feet, on his toes.  The sort of ticking clock of V’Ger coming closer and closer to Earth forces him to make brash, impulsive decisions.  They may not be the wisest ones, but they are the chances he has to take as a Starfleet Captain.

The finest performance in this film, by far, is from Leonard Nimoy.  While other characters lack a through line arc, Spock is given one that is prominently at play throughout the movie.  In the midst of a Vulcan ritual that would purge all emotion from him, Spock telepathically connects with V’Ger, and begins to question if logic is enough.  He then abandons the Kolinahr ritual to seek out V’Ger in hopes of finding answers to his questions.  Early on, you can see Spock is troubled and distant.  Nimoy utilizes such subtlety in these moments, and it is very compelling seeing that unfold behind his masterful facial expressions.  Yet, we gradually see the more comfortable and familiar Spock take stage on the bridge.  The intelligent insight and perceptiveness of Spock is hit perfectly on the mark showing us exactly what value this character brings to this crew.  Spock progresses and develops as he explores V’Ger in depth, and he once again becomes whole through a introspective, soul searching journey.  What story there is in this film is really Spock’s in relation to V’Ger, but it certainly feels like a subplot that is almost drowned out by the constantly dull banality of the weak main plot.

What you have to give credit to is that despite all the blatantly obvious flaws of this movie, it does treat its characters with respect, and features some good character development.  At the beginning, Kirk is restless as an Admiral pushing the proverbial paper work around, and Spock is empty, incomplete, and searching.  By the end, Kirk has found his home and his purpose again as the commander of a starship, and Spock has embraced more than just logic.  And it is clear to me that there was supposed to be more going on with Decker.  He starts out ambitious and driven, a man who wanted this command, but had it robbed form him by the very man who endorsed him for the position.  In the end, he finds another purpose and path for himself.  While the film doesn’t convincingly drive him down that road at all, you can see there was an intention there for it.  The fact of the matter is, even if the movie is bad and ill-conceived, as long as the characters are treated with respect and the actors are solid in their portrayals, I can find some enjoyment and a little admiration for any Star Trek film with the original cast.

Now, I firmly believe that Jerry Goldsmith was the quintessential feature film composer for Star Trek.  I only find it unfortunate that he just happened to end up scoring some of the worst regarded films in the franchise.  While this film has its excessively long, drawn out sequences, they translate into some very inspired and wonderful compositions by Goldsmith.  Beyond the new main title theme, I have always loved his Klingon theme as it just encapsulates the feel of them perfectly.  Overall, Goldsmith sets the right tone with his score adding in cues that evoke danger, mystery, and the unknown.  Even if you can’t bare to sit through this film, listening to Goldsmith’s score is a pleasure.  I own the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition CD, and it is one of the late maestro’s finest epic scores.

While the film has visual spectacle, is fairly well directed, and is technically sound, it was a severely misguided attempt plagued with problems.  Nobody was happy with this movie during production or upon release.  There were constant creative disputes amongst Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, Nimoy and Shatner, and the studio to where rewrites happened daily with the ending being conceived essentially on the spot.  Today, a movie like this would kill any chance for a franchise, but Paramount was willing to revamp the creative team and it resulted in what is widely regarded as the absolute best of this film franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  With this first movie, I suppose if, by some slim chance, this film does engage your interest and attention, it could be fairly thought provoking about your place in the universe, but there’s a long way it could go to improve upon that material by simply adding more substance into its proceedings.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture simply does not have enough meat on the bone to satisfy, and instead, fills itself out with a lot of pointless fat in the form of mind numbingly long visual effects sequences.  There are certainly fan edits out there which trim this movie down to under ninety minutes, and it’s likely a little better off for it.  I think it is important to say that this is not so much a bad movie as it is a mostly unexciting and dull one.  I can’t really urge anyone to go see it if you haven’t already, but if you have seen it, I hope that what I’ve had to say here at least opens you up to seeing that it does have some merits, even if they are lost in a vast sea of stillness.

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Predators (2010)

PredatorsFor whatever reason, the Predator film franchise lied dormant after the release of Predator 2 in 1990.  It wasn’t until 2004 that we got the highly anticipated Alien vs. Predator films.  The first one I hated, and I still consider it the worst overall movie I’ve ever seen theatrically.  The second film I did a rather positive review of as one of the last Forever Horror website reviews and one of the first Forever Cinematic reviews.  However, the general consensus of both movies was decidedly negative, and thus, someone thought it was time to bring the Predator franchise back into its own.  Such a person was producer Robert Rodriguez known best for making big scale action on tight budgets.  Thus, twenty years after Predator 2, we are given another proper sequel.  The question is, was it good enough to breathe life into a damaged franchise?

Awakening in freefall, a collection of strangers find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar land with danger awaiting them.  Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary who reluctantly leads this group of elite warriors in a mysterious mission on an alien planet.  Except for a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers – mercenaries, mobsters, convicts and death squad members – human “predators.”  But when they begin to be systematically hunted and eliminated by a new Predator breed, it becomes clear that suddenly, they are the prey!

I will admit that I wasn’t sold on this film pre-release.  I thought the premise of Predators abducting humans from Earth and dropping them on another planet to be hunted was against the idea of what a big game hunter would do.  You don’t take a lion out of his natural environment and throw him in your backyard to hunt him.  However, a positive reaction from a strongly opinionated friend of mine motivated me to see it theatrically.  Indeed, I really liked Predators.  I would still rank it third in my list of favorites, but all three films are ranked very tightly together.  They are all extremely well made with their own unique ideas, visual styles, and approaches which all work superbly.

Much like with Predator 2, you must find it peculiar to cast Adrien Brody as the lead in an action movie.  This film will entirely change your perspective on that.  He delivers incredibly in this role.  Brody can play tough bad ass with the best of them.  He brings the charisma of a leader, but clearly shows Royce is a man of sketchy origins and doesn’t mind being a loner.  Royce is also very smart and perceptive.  He would be fine going at it solo, but he sees that even his own survival holds better odds sticking with them than without.  You also see that he’s not a cold-blooded man, but he can be a savage, hardened killer when he needs to be.  The film’s climax sells every awesome thing about Royce, and solidifies that I want to see more of him.

Brody has very touching and honest chemistry with Alice Braga, portraying the Israeli sniper Isabelle.  They surely butt heads in certain circumstances, but they connect on an emotional level that does resonate.  They build a mutual trust and respect as the film progresses.  The rest of these trained killers, including the Rodriguez obligatory Danny Trejo, certainly don’t measure up to Dutch’s elite team from the first film, but they are a mismatched group that are weary to trust one another.  My favorite, who has extremely little dialogue, is the Yakuza member Hanzo.  He creates a very intriguing mystique around him through some interesting actions, and demonstrates a unique sense of honor.  Topher Grace portrays the aforementioned disgraced physician Edwin, and surely, the film didn’t require the presence of this character.  He just adds an extra wild card element late in the game which may or may not be easy to spot early on.  I think I had this reveal spoiled for me before I initially saw the movie.  The concept behind Edwin is a clever one, but probably not executed nearly as smartly as it could have been.

Laurence Fishburne makes a wickedly cool appearance as Noland, a soldier whose been trapped and has survived this planet for several years.  The result of that is hat Noland’s gone quite crazy in a delusional, psychotic type of way.  He’s more than skillfully dangerous, he’s psychologically dangerous.  Fishburne is entertaining and awesome in this fairly brief, very off-kilter role.  More than anything, this character is designed to sell the futility of an escape from the planet, and the idea of two rival tribes of Predators hunting out there, making it all the more difficult to survive.

The film’s first act of sorts might seem a little drawn out to some.  I believe I felt that way upon first viewing.  The characters are exploring this world, trying to understand where they are, and even the first action sequence is not until more than twenty-five minutes in.  Strange alien animals are throw at these characters as a test first, and so, there is a prolonged wait before the first Predator is actually revealed.  However, once that occurs, the film settles into a very familiar feel and tone.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal studied the first Predator in great detail to nail the vibe perfectly, and I think they got it just about dead-on while still adding to it.  Antal focuses on building the atmosphere and tension so that there is a pay-off with the action.

The overall feel is great with some rich color schemes which still evoke a dark, ominous feeling.  The cinematography gives this film scale and scope while still maintaining the isolated feeling.  The night scenes look great with a more subdued color palette, but with an excellent use of light and shadow for a beautiful moody vibe.  This really is a remarkably well shot movie with an abundance of artistic merit and dramatic visual weight.

The way the action plays out is very intelligent focusing on tension and imminent danger.  There’s plenty of intense gunplay, but it’s definitely used in conjunction with smart tactics and strategies by these characters.  The ominous feeling of being stalked and hunted is executed with great skill.  It’s a whole package of the visual style, stellar editing, and a music score that stays true to Alan Silvestri’s work.  This film definitely takes the filmmaking style and techniques from John McTiernan’s movie, and gives it a little more polish.  Nimrod Antal definitely puts his own stamp on the film, but was able to make this feel cohesive with the rest of the main Predator franchise.  The action scenes definitely reflect this as there’s really none of that modern shaky cam mayhem.  It’s well plotted, shot, and cut together for an extremely coherent and effective experience.  Beyond anything else, this film enhances the ferocity and frightening quality of the Predators.  They feel even more merciless and relentless than before, if you could even imagine such a thing.

I can’t help but love two fight scenes in Predators.  The first has Hanzo squaring off with his katana against the Predator.  This is beautifully setup, and is shot so gorgeously with a lot of wide angles and a wonderful overhead shot showing the wind blowing through the high grass.  It’s a graceful work of art.  What trumps it on the bad assery scale is when the New Predator battles the Classic Predator, which is portrayed by Derek Mears.  While I didn’t care for the remake of Friday The 13th, Mears was an awesome Jason Voorhees, and he makes for an awesome Predator.  Two Predators ripping and tearing at one another is pure gold, and the scene doesn’t disappoint at all.  This is savage, gory, and everything you’d hope it to be.

And indeed, the creature effects are excellent.  Oddly, neither Stan Winston Studios or Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. – who were responsible for all of the previous Predator effects – returned to work on this film.  Instead, the impeccable talents of KNB EFX were tapped, and they delivered on an amazing level.  There are some familiar designs with the Classic Predator, but the newer, larger Predators are even more impressive.  They do feel like a different breed, but are given a much better approach than what we saw in Alien vs. Predator.  And of course, the gore returns in abundance, and no one better to also fill that task than KNB EFX.  They’ve been the standard bearers for physical effects, especially those in the horror genre, for the last twenty years, and that quality is vastly on display here.

Predators does a great job of taking cues from the first movie, and adding its own flavor and ideas to them.  The climax is a great example as Royce uses some of the same tactics as Dutch with the mud, but uses it in a different context.  Instead of giving the Predator nothing to lock on to, he overloads the senses, and takes him on full boar while retreading some of Arnold’s quotable dialogue.  It all really works greatly while delivering the graphic violence quota that fans crave from this franchise.  The film ends on an excellent note that left me wanting to see where yet another sequel could go.

And thus, I do believe that Predators was indeed good enough to potentially breathe life back into this franchise.  Everyone involved steered it back in the right direction where exciting new stories could be told, and even on its own, this is a very solid and satisfying science fiction action movie.  However, with the same budget as Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, it pulled in just about the same amount at the box office, but the reviews and reactions to this film were substantially higher.  Predators set a good foundation for the franchise to build upon, but three years later, no news of a sequel has surfaced from Twentieth Century Fox.  That is quite unfortunate, but I think there is a great deal of potential to tap with this series which is evident here.  Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job bringing everything back to its roots, and while they chose not to acknowledge Predator 2, they did nothing to contradict it either.  Again, I’d love to see more of Adrien Brody as Royce.  He’s flat out awesome.  While I’m sure some will view the film as leaning a little too heavily on the first movie, I really believe that what it takes from that movie was largely to its benefit, and the filmmakers still injected their own ideas and creativity to allow the franchise to move forward.  They expanded the universe and possibilities in a lot of very good and intriguing ways.  I do really like Predators, and I give it a strong recommendation.  If this film has slipped under your radar for the last three years, definitely give it your attention.  This is a franchise that deserves to live and thrive again under the watch of some really sharp and talented creative individuals.


Predator 2 (1990)

Predator 2There seems to be an idea out there somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, that Predator 2 is a markedly inferior sequel.  This is wholly unjustified.  Surely, everyone has their own opinions on how this measures up to the original classic, but to me, this is a great follow-up which expands on the ideas and premise in exciting new ways.  Predator 2 contains numerous admirable qualities, and is helmed by a director with a great eye for sleek visuals.  Anything it doesn’t recreate from the original it replaces with a higher energy and larger scale action.

In the urban jungles of Los Angeles, Detective Lieutenant Mike Harrigan’s (Danny Glover) police force is at war with drug lords and gangs. But just as Harrigan admits he’s losing the fight, one by one, gang lords are killed by a mysterious, fierce adversary with almost supernatural powers – the Predator.  Before long, the vicious creature begins to hunt the hunters – Harrigan’s men.  Now, Harrigan doesn’t just want to bring the creature in – he wants to bring it down.  However, he is hindered along the way by government Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) who has a shady motive to his secretive investigation who knows more about this ultimate hunter than Harrigan even suspects.

Surely, you would think going from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Danny Glover would be a strange swerve.  I always imagined that if this was made a few years later that it would be Wesley Snipes as Mike Harrigan, but I’ll be damned if Glover doesn’t deliver here.  The character is designed as a seasoned cop who’s been fighting this unrelenting war on the Los Angeles streets for a long time.  He’s dogged, inventive, and is a cop who plays by his own rules, taking a backseat to no one.  Glover portrays this with the rugged determination of a consummate street cop.  He doesn’t like the politics that get rammed down his throat, and he slickly, yet passionately sticks it back in their faces.  However, he is wholly loyal to his team, and treats them with respect as comrades in arms because they are fighting a war.  Glover also demonstrates the emotional depth of Harrigan when his closest friend, Danny Archuleta portrayed by Rubén Blades, is gruesomely killed by the Predator.  The flashes of enraged vengeance, and the heartfelt moment at the gravesite show Glover had the talent and skill for this role, which also demanded a lot from him physically.  He greatly delivers on that end, too.  I think making him a distinctly different protagonist than Dutch was the right way to go.

Many will indeed enjoy Bill Paxton’s performance as the jokey Jerry Lambert.  He’s the newest member of Harrigan’s team known as “The Lone Ranger.”  He’s a guy that’s gotten a lot of ego stroking and glory, but he quickly becomes an enthusiastic team player.  This is Paxton at his full charismatic and comedic richness.  He adds the levity to break up the grisly heaviness of the film.  The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by Rubén Blades and Maria Conchita Alonso as the seasoned members of Harrigan’s team.  Both bring their top level enthusiasm and talent adding to the cast’s vibrancy.  Then, we get the late, great original king of trash television Morton Downey, Jr. as the appropriately cast tabloid sleaze-miester Tony Pope.  He’s puts in a fantastically entertaining performance.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to return for this film, but he turned it down to do Terminator 2.  Thus, his role was rewritten as Peter Keyes and re-cast with Gary Busey.  I think this was an equally beneficial turn of events.  The story works supremely better not knowing what Keyes’ agenda is, and allowing for him to be an adversary and foil for Harrigan.  Busey does an excellent job bringing forth his signature energy and leaning Keyes towards the smarmy, shady side.  He’s smart and cunning, but still a self-serving government agent who cares more about his findings for the military than Harrigan’s war on violent gang crime.

Also, I love the Jamaican gang here.  They are totally savage and chilling with King Willie being fantastically awesome.  He brings the mysticism into the fold with a wickedly cool scene opposite Harrigan, but also, a greatly visualized confrontation with the Predator.  Calvin Lockhart is so awesome in this role.  The theatricality, mystique, and powerful presence he brings entirely does justice to his Royal Shakespeare Company roots.  He delivers my favorite performance of the movie.  Knowing that director Stephen Hopkins was born in Jamaica, it doesn’t surprise me how rich and memorable these characters are here.

The visual effects are distinctly improved from the first movie.  The Predator vision is the most obvious example as the infrared and other modes have more distinct color separation and possibly are of a higher resolution.  The optical effects of the Predator’s cloak are used more dynamically and are integrated into more complex environments.  We see it in more motion and detail.  My favorite effects shots in the whole movie are when the Predator squares off with King Willie.  First off, the tracking shot of the cloaked feet walking through the water is brilliant work, and then, the reveal of the Predator in the rippling puddle is awesome.  Seeing how these are done in the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD are astounding and what I’ve always loved about movie magic.  These striking, innovative images are largely due to do director Stephen Hopkins’ great visual style.

Teamed with regular director of photography Peter Levy, Hopkins gives Predator 2 its own unique visual sleekness.  It has a great use of dynamic, intriguing angles.  The action is captured remarkably well, and we even get a few scenes of atmospheric, moody lighting.  Two of the best shot scenes are, first, inside the slaughterhouse bathed in blue light where the Predators assaults Keyes’ team, and then, the entire climax inside the Predator spacecraft.  Counterbalancing that blue with a largely orange color scheme there is another sign of Hopkins’ great visual sensibilities.  Beyond just the color schemes, these sequences have great use of sweeping cranes and steadicams shots enhancing the production and artistic value of the film.

This new Predator is recognizable, but has a bit different look and feel to him.  He feels more brazen.  He’s taking bigger chances, and taking on greater numbers.  Hunting in a major metropolitan area means he’s attracting more attention to his work.  So, he’s not as calculated, in general, but when he finds a prey he really likes, such as Harrigan, he takes his time to study him.  He also taunts Harrigan as if he’s issuing an honorable challenge.  I very much like that the filmmakers did this to show, even subtly, that this is another unique individual with his own personality, but with the same objective.  It’s also great seeing the arsenal expand with the telescoping spear, the projectile net, and the flying disc.  It gives the impression of a larger safari at hand where he’s equipped for bigger game.  Kevin Peter Hall, yet again, does an awesome, exceptional job overall.  He defined this role so perfectly, and it is a terrible shame that his life ended only a few years later.  However, what he did laid the template for others to succeed him in this franchise.

The strengths of Predator 2 is that it is much more energetic and diversely entertaining than the original.  The pace is faster as there is more going on here between the gang wars, Peter Keyes’ shady dealings, and Harrigan’s own dogged investigation.  The action sequences are bigger and more dynamic allowing for a higher body count, but not as much gore.  The film originally gained an NC-17 rating, but likely, Fox panicked and did more aggressive editing to secure an R rating.  There is still blood abound and plenty of violence, but far less cadavers begin ripped apart.  What we do see in that regard is obscured or done in heavy shadow.  So, it ups the energy and action, but reduces the graphic content a little.

I would agree that these characters are not quite as captivating as those in the original.  Neither film delves deeply into their characters, but it’s just the nature of battle hardened soldiers in a ominous jungle versus tough, seasoned cops on the streets of Los Angeles.  One if inherently more intriguing than the other.  There’s a little more levity in this film akin to a wisecracking John McClane in areas as Harrigan’s fear manifests in a few humorous quips.  Since the film focuses more on an energetic pace with a more divided focus, there’s little mystique about the Predator himself.  Again, he’s much more blunt and brazen, but you do lose that intensely dramatic build up to the third act.  The Peter Keyes subplot sort of veers the emotional drive of Harrigan off-track, and the climax just becomes about having to stop this alien one way or another.  There’s no more survival aspect, just hero versus villain.  There is some peril throughout the third act, but none of it rivals the dire lethality and immediacy of the first film.

Still, the little teases we get at the end with both the Alien skull in the trophy room, the reveal of the half dozen other Predators onboard the spacecraft, and the flintlock pistol with the engraving of the year 1715 on it lay big seeds for a follow-up.  However one might have felt about this movie, it surely left you intrigued to see how the next film could expand on these concepts further, but a proper third movie would not see fruition for another twenty years.

Predator 2 may not hit all the great qualities of the film first, but has entertaining trade-offs making it a more lively, faster paced action film.  It again has a solid cast filling their roles with vibrancy.  The violence and intense action are enhanced by stylish, sleek visuals and excellent editing.  The optical visual effects are stunningly impressive pushing the ambition further, and with more time to plan, Stan Winston Studios developed the Predator further with great new weaponry and a fresh look.  Alan Silvestri also returns adding some new flavors to his original themes, and adapting some of the feel to this film’s style and content.   I would like to pay tribute to Kevin Peter Hall, Calvin Lockhart, and Stan Winston who have all passed on since this film’s release.  All three did stunning work here that deserves notable credit and praise.  This franchise, outside of the AVP films, has maintained a fairly steady stream of quality.  The screenwriters of the first movie returned to expand on their own concepts, and it was executed very well by a competent and capable director.  Predator 2 s definitely worth your while.  It’s not as slam bang amazing as the first, but it’s a largely worthy sequel.


Predator (1987)

PredatorI think it goes without me saying that Predator is one of the best action films, ever.  More importantly, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie.  Smartly directed by John McTiernan, who would helm Die Hard the following year, this is an excellently plotted and cleverly devised concept utilizing a stellar cast to great effect.  With an alien hunter designed by the masterful Stan Winston, and backed by some of the best visual effects of the time, Predator was an instant classic that truly solidified Schwarzenegger’s career as a blockbuster action star.

Recruited by the CIA to rescue hostages held by guerrilla fighters in a Central American country, Major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team encounter an enemy unimaginably more deadly than any on Earth – because the Predator is not of this Earth.

The film starts out wasting no time by keeping the exposition succinct, and allowing for this team to progress to their objective quickly while still relating these characters to us.  No one’s explored in depth, but you get a clear, personality rich snapshot of each man.  Blain’s a hard ass, Hawkins is kind of a joker, Billy’s the stoic warrior, and so on.  The entire first act sets up who these guys are, and what they are capable of.  We see this is an expertly efficient team able to wipe out a legion of about thirty Central American soldiers within a few minutes.  They are tactically sound striking hard and fast using the element of surprise.  When Dutch’s team is referred to as “the best” early on in the briefing scene, we see that is not at all an exaggerated statement.  They prove they are the elite, but even then, you can see these guys are spooked by this jungle.  “Makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” sets the tone for how unnerved they are by its terrain and ominous feeling.  Encountering the previous team’s skinned corpses surely rattles them a bit, but they never lose their wits.  In fact, it practically heightens them for the more lethal danger that is stalking them.

Schwarzenegger shines here as Dutch.  In addition to everyone else, this is possibly his most quotable movie.  Arnold’s got that charisma going here with energy and authority.  I love that Dutch is a soldier with a code of ethics for his men.  He states straight out that his men are not assassins, merely an elite rescue team, and we see that conviction arise when he learns of Dillion’s deception.  Schwarzenegger shows Dutch to be an honorable and sharply intelligent soldier commanding his men with precision.  He proves himself to be a cunning warrior gradually picking up on the Predator’s methods, and adapting to them in order to survive.  He’s perceptive and level headed, which is undoubtedly the sign of a great soldier.  I think this definitely one of Schwarzenegger’s finest performances demonstrating the ability to realize a very authentic, dimensional, and smart character.  Not to mention, I don’t think he’s looked so awesome on-screen without delving into a cheesy or campy tone.

Bill Duke especially does a touchingly effective job.  Early on, he is a hardened soldier, but after Blain is lost, you see the grief and turmoil wash over him.  Carl Weathers is great here as well portraying a man who was once a trusted friend of Dutch’s that has been corrupted by the “everyone’s expendable” mentality of a pencil pushing desk jockey.  He’s lost sight of the qualities of a soldier and the value of life.  However, we see him turning the corner as he rushes into his final battle, and I really like seeing that small character arc.  Overall, this is a rock solid cast flexing both their acting muscles and their real ones in pure 80’s action movie bad assery.  They all exhibit distinct personality that are vibrant, memorable, and straight up killer.

What it is that we lose with CGI monsters as opposed to a real life performer is exquisitely evident here.  Kevin Peter Hall inhabited that beautifully textured and crafted Stan Winston suit, and created a character to live and breathe through it.  Compare it to the personality deprived CGI creatures from Cowboys & Aliens.  They were, as I said in that review, “just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.”  They had no distinct characteristics that made them any better than the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars.  The Predator has nuanced qualities that reflect an intelligence and cunning behavior.  He’s a unique individual amongst a unique race.  How he moves, reacts, and assesses a situation bring a subtle and intriguing depth created by Kevin Peter Hall’s amazing performance.  It has all the traits of a talented performer crafting a character, and I am so tremendously glad that this franchise has never abandoned the performer in the suit approach.

As I’ve said in many previous reviews, the work of Stan Winston is legendary, and stands the test of time.  He clearly revolutionized the creature effects industry with his artistic craftsmanship and captivating imagination.  The Predator is an astonishing creation in all facets.  The original creature the filmmakers put together for this film was ridiculous and was quickly jettisoned after only a few days of filming.  Winston was called in, and with a little input about mandibles from James Cameron, this iconic, ferocious, and frightening creature was born.  Beyond that, this is a very graphic and brutal film showing you skinned human bodies, spinal cords ripped from carcasses, and a disemboweled Jesse Ventura.  Everything feels so grisly and textured for a greatly realistic feeling.  This is some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen.

And these visual effects essentially still hold up to this day.  Certainly, the sequels have shown how digital effects can be used to improve and enhance them, but this is impressive work that hardly feels dated.  This is mainly between the Predator’s cloaking technology where he appears as transparent ripples, and the laser sighting and discharges from his plasma cannon.  There are some especially impressive shots featuring the cloak with more dynamic camera angles and motion where you get the real three dimensional quality of it.  You see it’s not some animated effect, but a real optical composite of a real performer.  These are all excellent visual effects.

This all blends perfectly with the gritty, sometimes smoky atmosphere of the film’s look.  I think John McTiernan’s great eye for composition, interesting angles, and well constructed action shines through.  In this jungle, we get the feel of the dangerous terrain and mysterious qualities of the dense foliage.  The grit grounds this science fiction premise in a visceral reality where consequences are severely violent and lethal.  Great camera movements and stylish, dramatic imagery highlight the artist merit of the cinematography, and it is all expertly edited together for a tight film which propels itself forward from the get go. .

Alan Silvestri put together one amazing score for Predator that has endured for the whole franchise.  He incredibly blends a militaristic march and drive with a primal tribal, jungle beat.  He builds a sense of ominous foreboding reflecting the reality that there is something out there stalking these men.  For the majority of the climax, there is next to no dialogue of any sort.  It is carried along by the action, the visuals, and the exhilarating score which enhances all of the tension, apprehension, and danger that is unfolding.  It is perfect, superb work.

The action hits you at a regular clip, and the first main sequence is majorly explosive.  It sets the bar high for the remaining runtime, and McTiernan is able to meet that challenge.  It’s the mix of tension, the unknown, and the sheer scale of this rapid fire, big gun toting, grenade launching explosiveness that makes that possible.  Yet, McTiernan knows how to build it up, and work the subtle strings of an audience’s anticipation.  The danger escalates, and the peril becomes more immediate as the Predator moves in closer and closer to its prey.  He starts out attacking from a distance, but gradually engages his ultimate trophy – Dutch – in close combat because the Predator views him as a highly worthy adversary

And that entire third act where it’s just down to Dutch and the Predator is a masterpiece.  The strategy and makeshift tactics that Dutch puts together play out brilliantly.  He uses the Predator’s own method of invisibility and striking from a distance to his advantage.  However, it all elevates when the two finally meet face-to-face in a straight physical confrontation.  Everyone knows that Arnold is a BIG guy, but next to this hulking seven foot tall alien beast, he looks small and nearly ineffectual.  It’s only by his smarts and wits is he able to survive.

Predator is filled with chest pounding action and excitement wrapped in a smart concept and script.  Backed up by an excellent action director, and a vibrant, colorful cast lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a surefire formula for success.  This is why I love Predator.  It never lags anywhere as the pacing is tight and the rhythm is consistent throughout right from the start.  It’s really a near brilliant structure which constantly keeps you invested and intrigued by what’s developing here.  You also can’t not quote the living hell out of this movie.  It’s sharp, witty, but never betraying the serious tone of danger and lethality it sets from the beginning.  It’s an absolute success that holds up incredibly well over time.  I entirely intend to give you reviews on both Predator 2 and Predators sooner than later.  Until then, revisit this classic.


Alien (1979)

AlienRidley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now.  I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time.  However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut.  I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way.  I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.

When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate.  After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning.  Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite.  When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.

The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing.  While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something.  It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story.  The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security.  This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end.  You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty.  There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge.  When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience.  And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.

Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo.  This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design.  The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience.  And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment.  This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat.  Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat.  I don’t find this to be jump scares.  This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience.  It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.

How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo.  Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin.  There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements.  Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times.  The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere.  Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness.  As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act.  It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span.  Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials.  What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.

Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars.  Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in.  The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs.  It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience.  It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings.  And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects.  It has a dark, gothic elegance to it.  Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters.  Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology.  The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen.  This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter.  How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it.  It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill.  It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy.  I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle.  First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall!  There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above.  This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew.  Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there.  I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.

Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity.  I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny.  Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges.  Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.

Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas.  He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader.  Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors.  At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.

Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise.  This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen.  She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley.  Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver.  She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.

This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character.  Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.

Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant.  It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash.  You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment.  Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene.  This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.

The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people.  They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers.  They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like.  They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them.  These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue.  The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them.  That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing.  You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors.  And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here.  While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.

The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted.  Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall.  Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness.  It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt.  Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted.  The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.

Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective.  However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary.  I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it.  Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined.  It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience.  Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.

It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself.  Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example.  Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of.  He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you.  It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect.  The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces.  Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it.  He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws.  Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly.  There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many.  Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.


Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Transformers The MovieOutside of Star Wars, this is the film I grew up on, and loved with a severe passion.  I never owned the VHS as a child.  It was only by renting it incessantly over many, many years that I ever got to see it after the theatres.  My dad actually took me to see this in 1986 at the discount theatre that actually closed down about a decade ago, much to my dismay.  There were countless wonderful memories at that theatre in addition to the video arcade across the way in that mall.  In the late 90s, I found a Canadian website selling new VHS tapes of the movie featuring the American version, and with the help of a friend, I was able to purchase it. I prized this tape, and you couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I happened upon a DVD release of it years later.  So, what is it about this movie that has kept it a beloved favorite of mine for more than a quarter of a century?  Read on and find out!

It is the year 2005, and the battle between the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, has escalated all the way to their home planet of Cybertron, which the Decepticons have reclaimed.  The Autobots secretly plan to retake the planet from secret outposts, but the Decepticons move to thwart their efforts by waging a full-on assault against Autobot City on Earth.  Here, a new generation of heroic Autobots stand ready to fight including the young, impulsive Hot Rod, the consummate soldier Ultra Magnus, the elderly war veteran Kup, the compassionate Arcee, the triple changing Springer, and many more.  However, a greater threat to them all looms closer in the form of the evil entity known as Unicron, who’s ready to consume anything that stands in its way, but the only thing that he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.  Along the way, lives are lost, battles are fought, an old enemy is re-forged by Unicron, and a new Autobot leader is born as another dies.

This movie really was the pinnacle of any six year’s old life at the time.  You had a big, epic story with huge consequences, and the most climactic final confrontation between the heroic Optimus Prime and the vile Megatron.  To me, this was bigger than Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, bigger than anything else on the planet!  Prime was the ultimate John Wayne style hero, always sticking to his principles and morality, but able to throw down with the best of them.  Megatron was the most deceitful, ruthless villain around, and after two seasons of the television series, you finally got to see them collide like never before.  The movie was even marketed as showcasing their final battle, and it did not disappoint.  It starts with Prime proclaiming that, “Megatron must be stopped.  No matter the cost,” and then, proceeds to plow down and blast away a whole slew of Decepticons.  It firmly establishes that Optimus is a real bad ass worth rooting for.  This is the big hero of the Autobots, and anyone who gets in his way has got a real problem.  The fight between Megatron and Prime is them putting it all out on the line, and it couldn’t be more climactic.  It’s also an awesome looking sequence with great dramatic angles, and an awesome Stan Bush song backing it up.  Then, it ends on a wholly unexpected note.  The filmmakers really hit you for a big one in more ways than one.  Optimus Prime dies.  However, it happens within the first third of the film creating a sense of ultimate peril for everyone.  If Optimus Prime can perish in this movie, then, nobody at all is safe, and even before this, the Deceptions slaughter an entire ship of Autobots in fairly graphic fashion.  This film tells you just about from the start that it’s taking no prisoners, and the danger is real and imminent.  This creates huge odds for the surviving Autobots to overcome, especially in the face of Unicron.

With so many of the classic characters dying, the movie introduces us to a group of new Autobots which hooked me in immediately.  I loved Hot Rod, and was really behind him all the way through the story.  Judd Nelson did a great job voicing him giving the young, brash Autobot a lot of charm, charisma, energy, and humor.  Yet, where it counted, Hot Rod was heroic, and did show some depth to really rise up and come into his own.  The weathered and seasoned warrior Kup is given great texture by Lionel Stander making him a fun character with his incessant war stories, but also striking a good chemistry with Nelson’s Hot Rod.  The older mentor and the young hero is nothing new, but here, it feels like these two were friends more than teacher and student, which makes for a fun pairing.

Springer feels like a solid lieutenant in the Autobot ranks as the reliable, capable soldier, and has strong characterization with dashes of levity.  And you can say what you will about Ultra Magnus.  He’s certainly not the inspiring leader that Optimus was, but he was voiced by the late, great Robert Stack.  Being an old school Unsolved Mysteries fan, I could never slight Mr. Stack’s performance.  He does give Ultra Magnus some humanity and a steady confidence, but I think, by design, the filmmakers didn’t want Magnus living up to Optimus’ stature.  This becomes apparent by the film’s end.

The villains are given some new life with two impressive names added to the cast.  First, there is Leonard Nimoy voicing Galvatron in amazing fashion giving the new Deception leader an even more vicious streak than he had as Megatron.  After his brutal fight with Optimus Prime, Megatron is recreated as this far more powerful Galvatron, and that injects a far more menacing and cutthroat villain into the story.  Nimoy pushed his voice into a deeper, more guttural place for this performance, and it really served the character beautifully.  Galvatron is Megatron pushed to the next level, and I really love that idea.  However, the real major name involved here is Orson Welles as Unicron.  This was actually the legendary filmmaker’s final performance.  His heart attack death occurred five days after finishing this voice work.  Reportedly, Welles was pleased do the job stating an admiration for animated films.  While Welles could be an intimidating man, I’ve seen interviews of him being very friendly, humble, and enjoyable.  Still, that voice was gold, and there were not many actors who could’ve naturally given such a booming, massive presence to Unicron’s voice as Welles did.

With all these great characters, old and new, we are given endlessly quotable dialogue.  Nary a scene goes by without a great line being said which became a classic amongst fans.  These range from the dramatic to the comedic, and are all executed perfectly by this great voice cast.  They really deserve a vast amount of credit for inhabiting the personalities of their characters, and meshing so well together.  It sounds like every single one of them gave it their all, and likely had a real fun time working on this animated movie.  The regular cast of voice actors maintain their usual high standards, especially Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, among others.  The Dinobots are especially funny while still remaining formidable.  This is some very exceptional casting and voice directing in my opinion.

What really strikes me about the movie today is how briskly paced it is.  There is nary a slow point in the whole thing, and at 84 minutes long, one could hardly expect one.  Surely, these days, I would’ve loved to have seen it reach a full 90 minutes because that third act really hits you before you know it.  Regardless, the steady pace and rhythm of the movie creates so much excitement and fun.  There is no shortage of action, and any scenes of exposition are very succinct.  The regular progression of the story taking our heroes to new worlds and environments keeps it interesting.  Both the planet of Junk and of the Quintessons are dangerous in their own unique ways with great visual designs.  They give the film scope that was rarely offered on the television series.  Everything about this movie is amped up substantially from the episodic cartoon, and the action is no exception.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie, animated or live action, jam pack this much stellar and original action into such a compact run time while still maintaining such a rich sense of character and competency in its plot.  There’s so much energy pulsating through this movie it’s almost unreal, and it never becomes a mess.  Screenwriter Ron Friedman did a rather admirable job on this script, and it was put into the right hands to make it a reality.

Now, granted, there’s hardly a major through-line plot for our heroes.  In the most part, the Autobots are just trying to survive every new threat that surfaces in their path while Unicron sort of looms over everything in the background.  The action really just pushes them along from one dire scenario to the next until they must confront Unicron.  These are adventures which have the heroes proving their merit to the audience more than to each other.  It’s about us learning about the characters, and coming to care about them instead of developing them at length.  Transformers: The Movie doesn’t have the character growth or thematic exploration of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but for what it is meant to be, a fun and exciting animated movie for kids, I think it is rather exceptional.  It doesn’t go much into heavy subject matter, save for the deaths early on, but it doesn’t treat its young audience as stupid.  It’s a smartly written story that keeps it simple enough to follow, but exciting enough to keep it interesting.  This is definitely a film that can be entertaining from the age of six all the way through to thirty-two.

One thing that strongly helps in that aspect is that the animation style is still amazing to my eyes today.  At the time of the film’s release, it was a style and quality not previously seen by mainstream American audiences.  The detail, shading, and dramatic, epic imagery created a vast cinematic visual impact.  The film remained vibrant and colorful despite having some very dark moments, and could have real moments of beauty.  While there are occasional animation gaffes and shots of lower grade artwork, on the whole, the artistry on display is really stunning adding a sense of edge and texture to everything never before given to the cartoon series.  This feels like a major motion picture event, and in comparison to the series, you can clearly see the vast amount of time and hard work put into the visual quality of this movie.

Probably the biggest thing that kept the film alive in my mind and heart between rentals was the amazing rock soundtrack!  I cherished that audio cassette for over a decade.  I made the vow to myself that when the tape eventually broke, I would buy the CD immediately, and that’s exactly what happened.  Most of these acts were generally unknowns like Lion, N.R.G., and Kick Axe (who were credited as Spectre General by decree of the record company), but contributed very solid songs that gave a lot of hard and heavy excitement to the film.  Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic was quite well known at the time.  He contributed his quirky track “Dare to be Stupid,” which fit the catch-phrase referencing Junkions perfectly.  Stan Bush’s tracks have probably become the biggest hits amongst fans with the driving rock rhythm of “Dare,” and the inspirational “The Touch.”  The latter is a song that has come to really be able to pull me through into a stronger, more determined mindset when I’m feeling down.  It pushes me back up on my feet, and it does much the same within the context of the movie highlighting the biggest standing tall moment for our main heroes.  This is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and it is only enhanced further by Vince DiCola’s very dynamic, electronic style score.

The climax of Transformers: The Movie is just flat out amazing!  I like the intercutting between the battle outside of Unicron as he fends off the attacks from Cybertron, and the multiple stories going on inside of him.  However, it hits its great crescendo in glorious fashion when the Autobot Matrix of Leadership comes into the right hands, and signals a new era for the Autobots.  The movie is filled with great, iconic moments such as this, but few as great as this.  In retrospect, it’s only a shame that the movie ends so quickly after this, but I suppose, in that regard, it’s a film that leaves you wanting more.  That’s rarely a bad thing, and it’s far better than overstaying its welcome or leaving itself open for any letdowns after such a great climax.

Despite the efforts of Michael Bay, this still remains the absolute best Transformers movie in existence.  It features a tight, exciting, and heroic story centered on the Autobots and Decepticons themselves that is vibrant as well as genuinely funny and entertaining for the whole family.  Of course, most versions contain a swear word or two that are surprising they made it into the PG rated film in 1986, but for fans, they wouldn’t want the movie any other way.  This 1986 movie treats its characters with respect and integrity, and gives many of them poignant weight at their most pivotal moments.  The new characters are just as exciting and colorful as the classic ones, and they give the film a real boost of energy and sense of discovery.  You’re going along for the ride with them as they rise to the epic task before them.  As I said, I was hooked in with Hot Rod from the start, and unlike many who saw the film as a kid, I actually didn’t cry during Optimus Prime’s death scene.  It’s unheard of, I know, but I was just enjoying the living hell of this movie.  At one time, I definitely would have listed this as my favorite movie of all time, and it is still among my favorites, as this review has undoubtedly shown.  While the film bombed at the box office, it has gained immense popularity throughout the fan base, and remains a major high point in the franchise.  All around, this is just a wildly fun movie that I will never get tired of.  While the television series doesn’t hold up nearly as well, this movie feels damn near timeless to me, and I don’t believe I am alone in that feeling.


Star Wars (1977)

In 1977, an extraordinary motion picture was released that changed filmmaking forever.  It captured the imagination of millions across the world, and has remained a magical and beloved treasure of cinema for more than three decades.  That film was Star Wars, and I am going to share my love and admiration for this film as it was originally released.  Before a mess of mixed quality digital effects were inserted, and other arguable changes were incorporated into the context of this masterpiece, there was the film I grew up with in the age of VHS and cable television.  This film was a major part of my childhood, and I could not even estimate how many times I have watched it.  This was the first program recorded onto my family’s first VHS tape from when it aired on ShowTime.  So, is it any surprise that this is one of the most important films of my life?

In a galaxy far, far away, a brave rebellion fights against a tyrannical Galactic Empire.  When the ship of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is attacked and boarded by Imperials troops, she hides secret plans to the Empire’s planet destroying space station – the Death Star – into the memory banks of an Astrodroid – R2-D2.  Along with his fellow droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the two escape to the barren desert planet of Tatoonie where they come under the ownership of Owen & Beru Lars and their farm boy nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Luke yearns for a life away from this dead end planet, but soon, he finds adventure when R2-D2 seeks out Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guiness).  Princess Leia recorded a holographic message for the former Jedi Knight and General of the Old Republic to help her in delivering the Death Star plans safely into the hands of the rebellion.  After securing passage aboard the smuggling freighter the Millennium Falcon by way of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and his wooly alien co-pilot Chewbacca, Luke, Ben, and the droids must evade Imperial troops and starships to rescue the Princess before she is executed by the vile Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the powerful Lord Darth Vader.  Along this journey, Kenobi begins to teach Luke the ways of The Force, a mystical energy field that surrounds all living things, binding the galaxy together, and may hold the power to defeating the Empire.

I believe what captured my young mind with this film is the level of wonder and fun.  Having being born in 1980, I only lived in the era following the innovations of Star Wars, but that doesn’t lessen the amazing cinematic visual brilliance of this film.  I didn’t see a widescreen version until the films started airing on the SciFi Channel in the mid-1990s.  So, that’s saying something special about Star Wars.  The quality of everything is so great with dramatic angles, dynamic special effects, and fascinating locations that even only having half the frame still brought massive impact to my eyes.  Just based on nostalgia alone, I can still watch those old grainy VHS tapes in pan-and-scan for that youthful feeling of watching these films on some quiet afternoon in the 1980s.  Of course, no presentation rivals that of the full widescreen aspect ratio.  The compositions are immensely intelligent and rock solid presenting a film that shows it has a solid foundation in the technical qualities of smart filmmaking.

Simply everything about this film inspired my creativity throughout the years.  George Lucas was an ambitious visionary who knew what he wanted to achieve, but had to do some building to make it happen.  Industrial Light & Magic was created with a slew of young and passionate people who wanted to create innovative special effects.  They had to build the equipment with some of the first computer controlled cameras to do the blue screen visual effects shots, and basically, they had to invent new ways of doing this type of work.  Watching documentary footage of them doing all of this is immensely historic, and it looks like the pioneers of the industry taking those first major steps forward into a grander future.  Every ounce of sweat, hard work, and long hours paid off.  This is one of the absolute finest special effects pictures ever made.  While there had been other films that had done amazing outer space-based visual effects prior to this, they had never done anything as exciting or dynamic as was done here.  The fast paced motion of ships flying by in dogfights had never been seen before, and made this an intense feast for the eyes.  The scope of these effects were awe-inspiring such as the opening shot of the Rebel Blockade Runner being pursued by the relatively massive Star Destroyer, or the Millennium Falcon’s approach to the gigantic Death Star.  These filmmakers knew how to convey size, weight, and scope with these shots to give them a believable reality.  The laser blasts throughout the film, accompanied by the amazing sound design, are vibrant and intense.  They always convey power and danger.  Of course, while the lightsaber rotoscope effects were still a little rough, one could not help but be fascinated and enthralled by their appearance.

In the late 1970s, films were rarely using traditional orchestral scores since disco and synthesizers were so popular.  However, George Lucas knew that something big, epic, and rich was needed to make this a timeless adventure film.  John Williams had already worked with George’s friend Steven Spielberg on the brilliant blockbuster Jaws, and it was Steven’s suggestion to employ Williams for this task.  In retrospect, there surely was no other way to go.  Star Wars is filled with iconic elements, but those gorgeous, masterful themes of John Williams go above and beyond anything else.  Williams has since defined what a rousing adventurous film score is, and that began here.  He captured every single emotion in this film from big and exciting to low and menacing to quiet and meaningful to magical and mysterious to deeply touching.  Star Wars itself does touch on a wide range of emotions and dramatic tones, and every single one is given such depth and soaring richness with this score.  The iconic scene of Luke peering out at the twin suns of Tatoonie yearning for something greater than himself is wonderfully punctuated with a powerful rendition of the main theme.  The flourishes Williams adds throughout just bring such beautiful life to every moment striking the perfect chords every time.  The musical brilliance of John Williams is lushly on display here, and he more than earned the Academy Award for Best Original Score here.  It’s one of the finest achievements of musical art ever committed to film, and he would still be able to build upon and surpass himself later on in this trilogy.

I believe the casting of Alec Guiness was an invaluable one.  He instilled such a wonderful depth of wisdom, warmth, wit, and world weariness to Ben Kenobi.  Guiness carries a sense of history about him that makes Kenobi fascinating and intriguing.  When Ben speaks of the Old Republic, there’s a heartbreaking weight behind it.  You feel the burden of history upon Kenobi’s heart and mind.  While Lucas had not yet concretely decided upon the back story of Star Wars as we’ve come to know it, you can surely read all that we do know into Guiness’ subtle, intelligent, and emotional performance.  His is one of the most powerful and textured performances of the entire saga.  He easily endears himself to an audience with his compassion and good nature.  It doesn’t take long for Ben’s wisdom and caring manner to influence Luke.  While the young Skywalker could still be a little brash, the trust is built right from the start, and it’s very much the tempered wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi that guides Luke down the right path.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mark Hamill as an actor.  Seeing how he grew with the character of Luke Skywalker is a remarkable achievement that I don’t think enough people give him credit for.  Here, he starts out as an eager young man who is in awe of the wide, adventurous galaxy out there, and frustrated with being stuck on this barren world on the outer rim of that galaxy.  Through Luke, an audience is introduced to and experiences the excitement, danger, and wonder of this galaxy far, far away.  Mark Hamill brings that fresh faced youthful energy and desire to the role.  He feels natural and authentic in everything he puts into the role.  He embodies the wide-eyed and open minded innocence of Luke Skywalker perfectly.  Some have called Hamill whiny as Luke.  They’re not looking close enough at what he’s doing opposite such great talents as Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford.  I like the banter between Luke and Han.  The eager, young kid creating friction with the weathered ego of Solo results in some great funny moments that work very well.  Luke has no problem challenging Han’s ego, and eventually, I think Han comes to respect that spirit in him.

Of course, no one else could’ve portrayed Han Solo as well as Harrison Ford.  He brought a cool swagger and sex appeal which really popped off the screen.  The laid back confidence and charisma made the character feel seedy and dangerous.  He’s a guy who could casually fry an alien bounty hunter in a shady cantina without hesitation or breaking a sweat.  He doesn’t wait for Greedo to make a move.  He intends on shooting him right from the start, and only strings Greedo along until the moment is right.  He’s a definite rogue out for himself only, along with his loyal Wookie friend Chewbacca, but I love seeing how that loner attitude slowly softens as he starts to care for Luke.  Ford nicely shows that transition from rugged, egotistical outlaw to reliable, hopeful friend.  I find it sly and clever how Harrison Ford worked off of Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca.  How Ford leans up against his seven foot tall, lanky frame in certain scenes reinforces that casual swagger of Solo.  These two really felt like two old buddies who had seen it all and been through it all.  They’ll back one another up every step of the way, and aren’t afraid to rush into danger, whether it’s wise or not.

Princess Leia is a great change of pace.  She’s not a helpless damsel in distress.  She can easily handle herself in tough situations whether it’s trading stinging words with the icy Grand Moff Tarkin, or grabbing up a blaster and fending off Stormtroopers in a firefight.  She has solid, inspiring leadership qualities mixed with a sense of warmth and compassion that are strongly brought to life by Carrie Fisher.  It’s great seeing that this young woman can be a very diplomatic, even tempered person in addition to being sternly intelligent and aggressive.  She is not intimidated by Vader or Tarkin, but when others are threatened, you clearly see the humanity that is her core.  It’s also a great dynamic between Leia and Han Solo.  She’s not going to take any of his ego or machismo, and he clearly doesn’t want to suffer any of her insults.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing and chemistry that both Fisher and Ford play up well to comedic effect.  It’s a very nice building block for where the following film would take their characters.

The cast overall is great.  The characters are very distinct and diverse ranging all the way from Anthony Daniels’ sophisticated, yet cowardly droid C-3PO to the amazing Peter Cushing’s razor sharp, authoritative, cold-blooded Tarkin.  It’s interesting that Darth Vader is handled as a secondary villain under Tarkin’s command.  Vader has an undoubtedly powerful, imposing presence that makes him more mysterious and intriguing than Tarkin.  He’s truly a definite dark opposite to Ben Kenobi, but I take nothing away from Peter Cushing’s chillingly theatrical performance.  Having the voice of Vader being provided by the exceptional James Earl Jones was a stroke of genius.  Along with that brilliant respirator sound effect, Jones was integral in making the character as powerful and commanding as he has become.  While he looked immensely awesome and striking, with the wrong voice it never would have worked.

Now, there are people that regard the lightsaber duel between Vader and Kenobi here as the most boring.  I greatly disagree.  It’s actually one of my favorites.  It has a great sense of two old Samurai from a war long ago meeting again to close out unfinished business.  They are not the vigorous young men they once were, but there’s a matter of honor or revenge to settle that neither can deny.  There’s something to prove in one way or another for them both, and it is that aura which elevates the sequence for me.  Their words hold great weight on a very deep personal level, but for Kenobi, there’s something greater at stake than himself.

I believe the writing of humor here is very smart.  It’s always a natural product of the situation or contrasting personalities.  R2-D2 is kind of spunky, and C-3PO is certainly a little uppity.  So, there’s some magical comedic gold which extends from that, but never hijacks the tone of the film.  It adds to the fun and entertainment value.  It accentuates the personalities of the characters, and builds relationships.  The humor is used as an excellent tool to bond these characters together.  They might irritate one another, but eventually, they build a mutual respect through all the shared emotions in these intense life-or-death situations.

The film really does have a wonderful story structure.  We follow these two lowly droids firstly who constantly push the story towards introducing Luke, then Ben Kenobi.  Their actions initiate this slow assembling of an unlikely heroic team built through unexpected situations.  The story nicely transitions into Luke Skywalker being the audience’s guide through this world, allowing us to feel his plight, and incorporating his journey with that of the overall plot.  Ultimately, it comes down to an ensemble piece where each character has a purpose and opportunity to be heroic.  They all have their threads, either plot or character based, that carry them through this adventure, and that’s a clever achievement.  No one’s ever just tagging along without something to contribute or gain from this experience.

The Empire is firmly established right from the start as a dominant, oppressive entity in opposition of the smaller rebel forces.  It’s also a nice juxtaposition where the Imperial Stormtroopers are fully armored, masking their human features while the rebel troopers are clearly human.  It shows that the Empire is rather cold and lacking in humanity while the rebellion is very much about people.  This is a motif carried through the whole film.  Even the TIE Fighter pilots have full respirator gear on while the X-Wing pilots can clearly be seen to the audience.  It’s a very smart visual idea that is realized strongest in Darth Vader.

I also love the seedy parts of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence.  Touching upon Han Solo’s shady world of smuggling, bounty hunters, and gangsters gives even more flavor and depth to this universe.  It adds an extra layer of danger and treachery to this greater galaxy that we are being introduced to.  The alien designs, while rough with limited rubber masks, still remain effective today.  I can see and understand what George Lucas’ frustrations were with this sequence as he hoped for much higher quality masks and such, it’s still an iconic scene that really captured the imagination of audiences.

While Star Wars is generally a fun, rousing adventure film, it doesn’t shy away from the darker dramatic beats.  The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a very striking moment that penetrates deep inside Luke’s heart and soul, as it does for the audience.  It’s an unsettling, grim scene followed directly after by Darth Vader about to implement a very foreboding interrogation upon Princess Leia.  These setup the dangers our heroes have to face that will motivate them forward.  However, it’s great seeing that Luke never goes down the path of vengeance.  He remains true to who he is and to his friends.  He also knows there’s a greater good to fight for, and he is fully committed to that.  These heavier dramatic beats throughout the film create emotional obstacles for Luke.  The loss of family and friends test his strength of spirit, and pushes him further towards believing in The Force.

The idea of The Force is an excellent one that plays into the mystical, spiritual, and magical.  Luke must believe in something beyond himself to tap into this power.  He learns to trust in himself by way of The Force to accomplish great things.  We are gradually shown the extent of The Force with subtle feelings and tricks at first, but it all builds up to and pays off largely in the climax as Luke lets go of the cold technology to embrace The Force to defeat the cold, oppressive Galactic Empire.  Kenobi becoming “More powerful than you can possibly imagine” to guide Luke in this assault on the Death Star enhances the depth of The Force overall.  It’s something greater than any one person or thing, but if you trust in it fully, it can be yours to command to achieve the incredible.

Speaking of which, Star Wars is filled with incredible action that brings back that swashbuckling mentality of those old serials George Lucas grew up loving.  Backed by that thrilling John Williams score, these are sequence that satisfy in a big way.  In an era of film where things had gotten mostly dark, gritty, and explicitly violent, Star Wars made action fun again without sacrificing suspense, tension, or danger.  The heroes keep getting into increasingly more perilous scenarios where they have to be smart and innovative to escape and survive.  It’s one bad turn after another, which brings the film some humor and excitement, but these situations are never played lightly.  There’s always a real, imminent threat.  This maintains a tight, solid pace.  The film simply has exceptional editing along with superb cinematography.  George Lucas had a great approach to the editing in having the edits dictate the rhythm and pace of scenes instead of the performances.  This ultimately created a much sharper and snappier pace.

The entire climactic assault on the Death Star is one of the best space battle sequences ever.  The amazing, dynamic visual effects cinematography creates an exhilarating cinematic experience.  George Lucas has always been fascinated by speed, and he accentuates that with this sequence.  The fighters are always in motion with an environment that blurs by at a breakneck speed.  The dogfights are nothing short of amazing.  It all builds to a nerve racking apex, and how it ends must have had audiences on their feet cheering back in 1977.

Star Wars remains a triumphant motion picture that should stand and be preserved for all time.  It’s a massive part of cinematic history which revolutionized filmmaking in every aspect.  It was innovative and marvelous on a technical level.  Still, despite all these awe-inspiring visual effects and technical achievements, this is a story that is all about its characters.  It never loses sight of the human aspect, and that is what drives this film into excellence.  George Lucas once said that special effects are just a means of telling a story, and that without a story, they mean nothing.  At this point in time, he showed us exactly what that meant.  He crafted a wondrous, exciting, adventurous, and emotional story first, and then, incorporated those groundbreaking special effects to tell that story in the most original and powerful way possible.  For the last thirty-five years, this film has excited audiences like few other films can.  Lucas took classic archetypes of literature and the classic hero’s journey, and molded and melded them into one of the best adventure films of all time.  Audiences at the time had never seen anything like this before, and could never imagine that another Star Wars film could equal, let alone surpass this one.  It would not be an easy feat, but in the right hands, it would become possible.


Prometheus (2012)

For those not in the know, Prometheus was developed as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science ficition / horror classic Alien.  While it still is that, Scott admitted a long time ago that it evolved into something more than that.  After seeing the film, I certainly see the broader canvas that this story is told upon, and how it can branch out beyond that far more narrow storyline of Alien.  I can’t say I was expecting anything specific with this film, just that I anticipated something amazing.  It’s hard to say if I exactly got that, overall, but let’s break it down a little at a time.

In the late twenty-first century, a team of scientists lead by Drs. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover clues to the origins of mankind on Earth.  With the aid of the Weyland Corporation, headed by the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), they launch a journey into deep space aboard the spaceship Prometheus.  Cave paintings from various ancient civilizations that had no contact with one another point to a distant star system where these scientists believe the answer to our origins lie.  Among the ship’s crew and other specialists in various scientific fields, the voyage is aided by the advanced Weyland Corporation android David (Michael Fassbender) who is caretaker of the craft who has been learning countless languages in order to potentially communicate with these alien “engineers,” if and when they find them.  Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is a liaison for the Weyland Corporation itself, and is overseeing the mission to make sure its interests are maintained.  As they explore this alien planet, dubbed LV-223, they face discoveries both amazing and frightening.  Eventually, what they seek becomes not what they hoped for, and they must battle a horrifying reality in order to save the future of the human race.

Before the review starts, which is in the next paragraph, two things about my theatre experience to note are that, one, there were no trailers screened ahead of this.  It went right into the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, and that was it.  No time was given to let the audience settle in and get ready for the movie once the lights went down.  It was exceptionally strange, and it took several minutes beyond the opening credits to sink myself into the movie. Why the theatre did this, I have no idea.  I’m very interested to know if this was an isolated incident or more wide spread.  Someone even had to run out of the theatre to grab a theatre employee because the curtains were drawn for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio when this was the wider 2.40:1 format.  So, for part of the opening credits, the partially drawn curtains were distracting.  The second thing is that I like sitting all the way in the back of the theatre.  Last row, top of the stadium seating.  When I saw The Avengers, the sound was a little low even sitting further down into the theatre.  This time, the surround sound speaker right next to me was very loud, and at times, the film’s score was louder than the dialogue.  And with all the reverb rich environments in the film, it made for a strange audio experience at times.  This certainly got better as the film went on, but early on, it was difficult to understand all of the dialogue sitting where I was.  Because of this, it took a long time to actually catch all of the main character’s names.  Thankfully, for this review, I have website resources to inform me better.  So, now, on with the review of Prometheus.

This is a film with a deliberate, methodical pace.  It certainly takes a while for the film to really get into the meat of the story.  It will certainly require your patience.  I surely do not mind a slow build, but the first act of a story is designed for you to get to know the characters and connect with them.  However, learning their names or not, I really didn’t start feeling much of a connection or distinction with anyone until the final act.  I think this is partly because there are so many characters populating the early half of the film that no one really stands out, aside from David, and so, it’s hard for the film to spend a lot of time with any particular character for long.  For at least the first hour of the film, no one is an obvious protagonist.  In Alien, it felt more like an ensemble piece, and you generally latched onto and cared about all of these characters.  Here, it’s not at all handled that way.  The film feels like it’s waiting for the heard to thin out before giving anyone a moment of prominence, and that contributes to a lack of character driven focus.

Something that contributes to this issue is that no one is explored in any real depth until the panic starts driving the story.  For instance, Dr. Shaw states what she believes this mission is all about, but at no time does she tells us why she believes this.  We’re just supposed to take it for granted that she does, and not ask those questions, yet the entire purpose of the movie is to ask questions.  It’s a scientific exploration, and science is all about being inquisitive.  She wears a holy cross necklace, and I’m not sure if that’s meant to imply that her scientific beliefs should have no more definite explanation than religious faith.  Scientists should be able to explain what they believe, especially when you’re dragging a good dozen or more people on a two year voyage into deep space.  It would add so much more depth and purpose to the character if she actually explained why she believes that the human race was birthed from an alien species to justify this large expedition.

On the stronger side, Michael Fassbender’s android character of David is remarkable.  His performance is the real highlight here.  In him, you see wonder, awe, foreboding, sinister intent, and child-like innocence.  He maintains a nice through line with the performances of Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen as the other droids of the Alien series, but makes David all his own.  He is clearly not human with a unique off-center performance.  No authentic emotion comes from him, but he can still appear personable, thoughtful, and courteous.  He is designed to be indistinguishable from humans, but over time, he clearly becomes well aware of his superior brilliance, making him truly feel superior to them in every way.  He has fascination with everything he observes and consumes.  He is, partially, a character we can see things through, experience them through his sense of amazement.  However, as the film goes on, you see ulterior motives surface in him, and that kept me highly intrigued as I did not know where they were coming from.  Were they his own personal twisted perversions, or part of someone else’s agenda?  The answer was quite satisfying to me, and cohesively tied in with the overall storyline.  Fassbender is truly the standout talent in this film, and David is an impressive creative achievement.

Now, I was rather put off by the fact that Guy Pearce appears here as only an elderly Peter Weyland.  He is only ever seen under heavy make-up and prosthetics to make him appear to be of advanced age.  It seems like an odd choice, but putting that aside, Pearce is excellent.  He has remained a captivating talent through the years, and really brings some poignant gravitas to the role.  Weyland’s motives behind supporting this expedition are entirely relatable, and Pearce’s grounded strength keeps it from being anything obsessive or off-kilter.  When he enters the story, he gives it an injection of weight and dread as his agenda motives everything forward from then on.

Again, later in the film, I really came to enjoy and connect with Idris Elba’s Captain Janek.  The actor himself described the characters as, “a longshoreman and a sailor, with a military background,” and that sums it up nicely.  He has that laid back style of confidence while also only minding the business of the ship and its crew, but clearly has the experience to make decisions like a military man.  As he forms a friendship with Dr. Shaw, you get to see some of his heart and soul, and that’s what clicked for me with him.

Noomi Rapace is the lead of the film as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.  I don’t want to say she’s a Ripley allegory.  She’s definitely her own character with her own strengths and vulnerabilities, but I’m sure there will be those that try to make that comparison.  Again, it would have drawn me into the character earlier on if I had gained an understanding of her scientific beliefs, and why she is so committed to this expedition.  Just get more into her heart and mind a little.  However, when things start to become unhinged and chaotic, that is when Shaw becomes truly sympathetic and a powerful standout.  She comes to understand the truth of what they have discovered, but few others care about that except Janek.  She’s put through some hell when she has to cut an alien organism out of her own body in an intensely frightening and unsettling scene.  I love what that organism evolves into later on, and you certainly cannot put the pieces together until that later point.  Rapace brings a very compassionate, likeable quality to Elizabeth Shaw.  She’s fascinated by this discovery, at first, and continues to show enthusiasm and curiosity until things go awry.  Rapace is solid in this role showing heartfelt moments with Charlie, and carrying the more intense sections of the film with great skill and composure.  She fights through the maddening fear and physical strain, not giving up at any point.  She’s going to see everything through to the end, and that is the real gravitas Rapace brings to the film.  A very solid lead that does take a while to move into the forefront of the film, but when she does, she easily becomes someone to invest yourself into.

What didn’t grip me much was Logan Marshall-Green’s Dr. Charlie Holloway.  He seems either a little one dimensional or too concerned with himself to allow an audience to get into his character.  It’s partly how the character is written, but still, the actor doesn’t do much to show a real dimensional performance that could make him accessible.  We never come to know much about him, and all we know is what he hopes to find, not why he’s fascinated or compelled by the prospect of it.  We get the evidence that sparks the intrigue, but not why it means so much to him personally.  There’s no context given to Dr. Holloway to make him anything to think much of, and that’s definitely a big negative considering all that happens to him later on in the movie and how it affects Elizabeth.  Much of the supporting cast is the same.  Maybe a little quirk added to them here or there, but ultimately, they are nothing more than what the script needs them to be for the benefit of the story.  Again, there are so many characters in the first half of the film that it would be impossible to dig deeply into all of them, but sometimes, it doesn’t take too much.  Just the right hint of an endearing character trait, and the right actor to convey those elements of humanity.  However, I’m not going to mark this as a negative critical element.  Just a thought that could be used to enhance them further, but considering this is a horror film where much of the supporting cast is going to not survive, anyway, I can give it that concession.

Moving on, the production design maintains aesthetic touchstones with the Alien films, but upgrades them.  Considering we’ve never truly seen a state of the art vessel meant for scientific exploration, this makes sense.  The Nostromo was a freighter, requiring nothing more than the bare minimum technology to do its job.  The Sulaco was a military transport ship which didn’t need anything special to complete its missions.  However, the Prometheus is a science vessel needing the most sophisticated technology available to thoroughly accomplish its mission.  That is a welcomed way for the filmmakers to take advantage of modern day technological advances, and apply them to what a vessel of this sort would be like in eighty years without betraying what was established in the other films (which chronologically take place after this film).  The ship’s interiors as very reminiscent of the Nostromo, but with a little better living conditions and a generally more inviting appearance.  All of the alien technology and architecture is definitely in line with the franchise as H.R. Giger was brought back to expand upon some of his ideas and world.  That absolutely helped to create a wider and richer culture for this species, and yes, the Space Jockeys are extremely integral and vital to the story here.  That had always been one of the big things Ridley Scott had wanted to explore about this mythos, and I’m glad that is the major focus of Prometheus.

The visual effects are truly awe-inspiring.  Nothing low grade here.  They can be very enveloping, and key sequences are likely stunning in a 3D presentation.  As usual, I stick with the standard 2D theatrical experience.  Ridley Scott really allowed the visual effects to live up to his more than three decade long standards.  The more intense effects are immensely effective.  The various life forms they encounter are startling, frightening, and impressive.  They share some design elements with the franchise’s facehuggers and Xenomorphs themselves, but they keep it subtle.  This is clearly a different ship with a different engineering of these creatures.  So, that gave the filmmakers freedom to do more with their ideas, and present something more varied, yet still related to what is familiar.  The more environmental effects of space and the planet LV-223 greatly add to the film’s atmosphere setting the tone for the entire film.  Ridley’s not afraid to make the visuals dark and very shadowy lighted really only with flashlights, and that only enhances the creepy, unsettling nature of the alien structure’s interior.

The cinematography of Dariusz Wolski is very much in line with Ridley Scott’s visual sensibilities.  It’s even more surprising since he’s never worked with Ridley before, but has done some notable work.  He was cinematographer on The Crow, Dark City, Crimson Tide, and all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The lighting and camera is very solid, atmospheric, and effective.  Light and shadow mixed with some of Ridley’s signature smoky environments make for an incredible visual tone.  They create the sense of danger and mystery that these characters are engulfed, but it doesn’t stop with just the visual aspects.

The musical score by Marc Streitenfeld was amazing and enveloping, much like some of the visual effects.  The theme he composed for Prometheus is heard quite often, and it is haunting, enchanting, mysterious, and wondrous.  It sets a perfect tone for the film, and the remainder of the score is equally as rich and effective.  I would highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack which contains nearly an hour of the film’s amazing music.  This really feels like a musical masterpiece as it complements the complex tone of the film so well.

Now, the big question is if this really is a good prequel to Alien.  I believe it is an excellent pseudo-prequel, and I use that terminology because Prometheus is so much more than just a prequel to Alien.  As you’ve probably figured out by now, Prometheus does have more than its fair share of graphic horror and scares.  While Ridley Scott has made a film that has a far larger scope than Alien, he entirely keeps it within the same tone as that film while adding to and expanding upon it.  It’s even more frightening of a film at times because it’s not just alien organisms using human bodies for gestation, we’re dealing with genetic engineering.  Things that can infect your body and transform you into something inhuman.  The film does explore the origins of humanity as a species created by a far more advanced race of beings, and the desire for answers as to why.  This opens the film up to some philosophical discussions amongst its characters that are decently explored, but don’t weigh down the film.  Prometheus is a film that can stand on its own aside from the franchise.  It has its own strength, its own direction, and its own motivations to follow through on that are bigger than the franchise has ever explored.  This could easily branch out into a whole other franchise leaving the facehuggers, chestbursters, aliens, and so forth to their own machinations.

The other question is, well, does this answer the questions one would have walking into this film knowing it is an Alien prequel.  Partially.  It answers a few questions, but leaves many hanging in suspense, capturing, at least, my compelling interest.  Let it be known that this film does not have a definitive ending.  It is truly setup for another dangerous and fascinating adventure with the surviving characters which is far more likely to explore the ideas and questions raised in this film, and hopefully, bring us many of those answers.  I knew this walking in, and that took the edge off an ending which could’ve been a little sour and cheated in my mind.  It’s not an abrupt end as it does segue way nicely into a conclusion, but getting there does feel a little rushed.  In a film that took a gradual pace with establishing everything, the setup for the sequel segue ending is run through with a much faster pace than expected.  It works well mixed in with some frightening action, and maintains character motivation and determination.  The pace was just a little throwing.  This might’ve been because I kept expecting a hanging conclusion to the film, and feared for an abrupt cutaway to credits every so often.  Thankfully, that did not happen.  The ending does have me enraptured to know where this storyline can go, and how a further fleshed out exploration of these ideas and characters can be enhanced through another film.  I surely think a second viewing, more evenly positioned in the theatre, will feel smoother for me.  I have no doubt that a sequel would answer these questions, and not leave the Alien prequel connection unsatisfied.

The only truly spoiler section of this review will be this paragraph, and so, skip over it if you wish to remain free of them.  The film reveals that the human race was created and descended from the Space Jockeys, who have a very pale and human appearance beneath the “exoskeleton” style space suits we saw in Alien.  It is eventually learned that they decided to eradicate humanity with ships full of organisms designed for that very purpose.  It is not answered why they decided on this course of action, which was halted two millennia ago when these organisms broke loose and killed the crew.  However, the thought that ran through my head was echoing Ash’s statement in Scott’s original film – “perfect organism.”  Perhaps, the Space Jockeys finally achieved perfection in genetic engineering, and decided that all inferior life forms they engineered should be wiped out to make way for their ultimate creation.  Still, there does seem to be more rage, more visceral determination with this motive from just how the one still living Jockey acts.  He’s violent, murderous at the sight of human beings, and immediately begins to kill them all.  He appears dead-set determined to complete this mission at all costs, and leave no human living anywhere.  So, while my speculation might have some validity, there certainly appears to be a more personal, primal motivation to their agenda.  And while we don’t get to see the classic title character of the Alien franchise, the Space Jockey does give birth to a similar being.  I would likely call it a prototype Alien.  There are similarities in the design, but it’s much less developed and more angular.  This is the image that closes out the movie, and gives a little fan service that is nicely placed.  Like much of the film, it leaves you hungering for more.  It would have been amazing to see the original creature appear on screen, but if Ridley Scott wants to save that for a sequel to give that film the big pay-off, I can subscribe to that idea.

I think the best compliment I can give Prometheus is that, even sixteen hours after seeing it, my mind is still alive thinking about it.  Synapses are still sparking, and I think I need to see this again.  There is so much to absorb and process that additional viewings are certainly needed to let it all settle into my mind.  Even as long as this review is, I don’t think it thoroughly covers every thought I should have about it.  However, for allowing a reader to determine whether it’s worth their while, I’m sure I’ve said plenty.  While there are aspects that could have been done better in terms of making the characters stand out more and allow the audience to get to know them better sooner, overall, I think this is an exceptionally successful film.  It is a very intelligent work of science fiction and horror that screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof and producer / director Ridley Scott should be commended for.  It’s been too long since we’ve gotten a science fiction film of this caliber with some sophistication, artistry, imagination, and intellect.  I’m sure there will be many mixed reactions out there, and again, I’m still uncertain of my final perception on it, but I am definitely hooked into what Prometheus has to offer.  It’s only unfortunate that it appears to be only one half of a whole, and with Ridley Scott already having two other film productions upcoming, including the sequel to Blade Runner,  it’s going to be a good couple of years before we get a continuation for Prometheus.  Thankfully, Ridley seems to churn out films pretty quickly.  There’s rarely more than a two year gap between his films, sometimes all of a single year, but by no means, do I desire for him to rush anything along.  Prometheus was a film a long time coming, and I think it was a generally worthwhile wait.  We’ll just have to see if that second half of the whole makes good on the potential shown here.


Outlander (2008)

Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you just have to take a chance with it.  Make a real commitment to what you perceive as an awesome piece of cinematic work, and sometimes, it truly pays off beyond your expectations.  Of course, my luck being what it is, it was not easy tracking down a DVD of this movie in-store.  I ultimately found it in a re-sale store about twenty miles away.  Yes, I could have done an iTunes rental, but I felt so strong about how great this film would be that I felt a purchase was inevitable.  Beyond just the trailer, I have enjoyed some strong works from Jim Caviezel dating back to The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency to the current hit CBS crime thriller television series Person of Interest.  Caviezel always brings a rich depth to his roles that is highly investing and entertaining.  So, that further fueled my interest as well as the fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements.

709AD, a space craft streaks across the night’s sky and crash lands in Norway with the only survivors being the warrior Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a deadly alien stowaway.  Before he can track down this enemy, Kainan is captured by viking warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston), and held prisoner in the local village led by King Hrothgar (John Hurt).  He is questioned about his presence, and says he was hunting dragons, but in truth, it is a fiery bio-luminescent beast called a Moorwen from a planet his people attempted to wipe out and colonize.  Grudgingly accepted into the clan after saving the King’s life, Kainan confides in Hrothgar’s fiercely beautiful daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), about his past.  As the Moorwen wreaks terror and destruction on neighboring villages, the threat of conflict between the clans escalates and Kainan is called upon to kill the creature.  They forge a strategy and weapons to defeat it, but victory will come at a cost and Kainan will find a new future for himself.

Getting right to the point, what satisfied me the most about this movie is how perfect the storytelling and character arcs are.  Every story or character element is introduced, evolved, and paid off with great emotional weight and impact.  As the bond between Kainan and the Vikings strengthens and expands, I felt the need for where this story should end, hoping for the characters to take the paths I anticipated for them.  Nothing is ever lightly given in this movie, nor is any plot development handled weakly.  Every emotion and character evolution is earned by the dedication of the actors and the filmmakers’ to this powerful adventure.

The visual effects are surprisingly awesome and consistent.  There were only two extremely quick moments where the CGI looked a little undercooked, but they are “blink and you’ll miss them” moments.  Every other instance is exceptionally good, and listening to the audio commentary you’ll learn how extensive and seamless these digital effects are.  The Moorwen is wonderfully realized with a brilliant bio-luminescent design making it appear as if it’s made of fire.  It burns throught the darkness of night attracting the attention of its prey. so that it can attack swiftly.  It comes off almost like a creature of legend, like a dragon, but it does have a little more science fiction edge to it.  In its few revealing moments, personality and intelligence come through in its face and actions as well as a fearsome demeanor.  This is a welcome choice as I wholly support the idea of the creature having personality like the Predator or Alien.  It makes them more memorable and effective.  The scenes on the alien planet are especially well done with a striking sense of scope and interesting, unique design.  Lots of creative thought was put into it to give it its own identity to offer up an epic sensibility for the film.  The amber color scheme of the planet is a nice contrast to the greenish-blue daytime scenes on Earth.

Cinematography is gorgeous.  A great deal of care and integrity were put into the photography of this picture giving it scope and weight.  Apparently, production was originally intended to take place in New Zealand with WETA Workshop doing effects on a larger budget, but to my eyes, I see no budget starved areas.  Ultimately being shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, the landscape is beautifully captured with some excellent aerial photography, and various shots which show the breadth and depth of the land which all sell a certain majesty of the film’s setting.  Gorgeous really does encompass it all.  The soft, warm lighting in the Viking Hall is like a master artist’s brushstrokes come to life.  The shadowy and fiery moments at night hunting the Moorwen establish a tense, fearful atmosphere that drives the emotional intensity of the story.  There’s plenty of subtle atmosphere to give the land life.  Outlander was shot with exceptional skill and scope by Pierre Gill, and I applaud his marvelous work here.

Jim Caviezel is an amazingly effective and powerful actor who brings a lot of relatable aspects to Kainan.  First off, there’s the courageous warrior who embodies a great hero’s journey.  He feels a need for redemption for what his people did to the Moorwens, and gradually, he seems to find that salvation with these people.  They come to trust in him and accept him as one of their own through a series of trials, both friendly and dangerous.  Caviezel offers up a growing humanity, an opening of Kainan’s emotions that allow an audience and the other characters to strongly connect with him.  Jim Caviezel also has a natural ethereal, soulful aura around him that serves the otherworldly aspect of the character well.  The strength of Kainan is constantly balanced with his own internal pain and doubts through the competence and thorough devotion of Caviezel to the role.  I simply love how much he digs into the character to bring out elements evocative of the heroes of Highlander and Predator.  Characters with a strong sense of honor, courage, and heart that come off as legendary heroes.  I would certainly say that Outlander could be categorized as a meshing of those sorts of films.  Caviezel himself said the film was “a light mix of Braveheart and Highlander.”  Many have mentioned comparisons to Beowulf.  By the film’s end, I viewed Kainan as a warrior of legend full of depth that was greatly worth investing myself in for 115 minutes.

The supporting cast really begins with Jack Huston.  He’s a great actor here that Caviezel works off of very well.  As Wulfric, Huston brings a youthful brashness to the story.  He’s a warrior with much ambition as the heir to his father’s throne, but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be ready to accept that role.  However, his impulsiveness and character is gradually tempered through this adventure.  Kainan and Wulfric learn much from one another, and they prove to be far better off for it.  They forge a kinship that fuels them into battle and further strengthens the foundation of the story.  Huston is charismatic and finely enjoyable.

I found Sophia Myles pleasantly surprising and powerful.  I really only know her from her role of the self-serving vampire Erika in Underworld.  Here, I absolutely love her!  Her introduction as Freya is strong and aggressive.  She handles the physical demands of Freya in stride in various fight scenes wielding a sword with expert competence.  She’s a woman who can defend herself and her people, if need be, and while she does have a softer, more heartfelt side, that is not how she wishes to be defined.  Sophia is a beautiful woman, especially with that red hair, who brings so much dimension to Freya.  She adds a fine texture and weight to this role which does have its tender areas of compassion and love opposite the pride and strength.  There is warmth and passion in her eyes, selling so much of how she relates and bonds with the male characters around her.  She holds her ground firmly with impressive depth and confidence while forging an amazing emotional core.

King Hrothgar is excellently portrayed by the engaging and insightful John Hurt.  Wisdom and honor mixed with conviction and compassion are what define his performance.  Ron Perlman has a smaller role as Hrothgar’s rival Gunnar which he infuses with gruff brutality and heartbreaking ire.  In general, the whole supporting cast maintains the depth and dimension that the leads established creating a very full and diverse world that feels realistic.

The production design has great detail and vibrancy applied to it.  Everything of the Vikings has a texture that speak of a culture with realistic history.  From the costumes to the sets to their props, they are all cohesive.  They create a complete world for these characters to inhabit.  Again, nothing feels budget starved.  There are large sets built to give scenes visual depth and wonderful lighting setups that bring it all to life.  The advanced technology of Kainan’s world is very well designed with a very consistent aesthetic.  For some viewers, it might take a little getting used to switching between the Viking world and the science fiction tech, but ultimately, everything meshes as well as anyone could expect.

The story here is amazingly well written and interwoven around its amazing characters.  Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman put together an inspired screenplay that turned into a fantastic, thoroughly pleasing feature film for me.  It is great that Kainan enters into a world of characters who have an established history, who have stories already in motion for themselves.  They are already on a certain path, and the arrival of Kainan and the Moorwen merely jump start those stories forward.  All of the character threads tie into each other and the main plot to create great arcs that culminate in something that legends are made of.

Director / co-writer Howard McCain crafted a film full of adventure, action, tension, suspense, excitement, drama, and character depth that thrives on the screen.  Outlander has beautiful and brilliant visual flare that give the film so much vibrant life.  There are so many deeply talented people involved in this film that make it so amazing.  The score by Geoff Zanelli supports the epic scale of this adventure, and enhances the emotion throughout.  This was a movie that easily fell below the radar due to a limited theatrical release by the Weinstein Company.  That is why I am writing this review so that it can gain some more exposure.  I could reiterate many points I made here to push this further upon you, but the best way to promote this is to say I loved it.  This is a thrilling action adventure with plenty of character drama to satisfy a wide spread audience.  The science fiction and Nordic elements come together through the emotional elements which bond the characters together tightly.  This is one film you surely need to personally experience to fully understand its strength, but in more simple terms, Outlander entirely kicks ass!


Aliens (1986)

It was an ambitious prospect to develop a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien.  However, Twentieth Century Fox was highly pleased with what burgeoning filmmaker James Cameron was putting to paper that they waited until he finished production on The Terminator to have him complete that script.  It became a huge blockbuster hit in the summer of 1986, and earned several nominations and awards.  Unfortunately, for me, there has always been something about this film I never quite liked, something that made it nowhere near as great as people made it out to be.  Add to that the disdain I’ve developed in recent years for James Cameron.  I don’t think he makes films as good as he thinks he does, he has a huge unwarranted ego, and his pioneering of 3D digital technology really burns me.  I hate the trend, and I hate Cameron for igniting it.  I will truly brush these feelings aside, and critique this film as it is to pinpoint my issues with it.  There’s plenty for me to deconstruct here.

Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the alien attack on the mining ship Nostromo, is awakened by a salvage ship after drifting through space in cryo-sleep for fifty-seven years in her escape pod.  After her rescue, officials at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (regularly referred to as “The Company”) give her a cold reception by revoking her flight license.  Much to her horror, they reveal that planet LV-426, where her crew discovered the alien, has since been colonized without incident.  However, when communication with the colony is lost, Ripley initially refuses to help, but her recurring nightmares and coxing by a representative of the Company, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), convince her to accompany a group of Colonial Marines to investigate the situation.  What awaits them all is a swarm of Xenomorphs that have infested the colony, the likes of which these marines are not prepared for, but Ripley will ultimately not be deterred from confronting and destroying the horror that haunts her.

I hate to start off on a bad note because there are highly admirable qualities to credit in this film, but this is an exploration of me understanding what I haven’t like about this film for so long.  Only now, by way of actually analyzing the film, can I pinpoint those reasons.  However, that doesn’t mean I have all bad things to say of it, but let me get the nagging issues out of the way first.

I feel Aliens is downgraded by its aesthetics.  Part of that problem was the choice of film stock used in the Kodak Eastman type that was only in use for a very brief period of time.  The reasons for that begin with excessive grain and ends with a difficulty in processing blue screen effects.  Aliens is a very grainy film, and in addition to that, has very bleached out colors.  The color palette is very flat.  Blacks aren’t black, and with a film of this sort, creating light and shadow contrast is very important.  This creates a rather visually bland presentation that fails to match the highly atmospheric quality of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original.  I believe that some of these problems have been rectified on the Blu Ray release which Cameron himself supervised.  I wish I could view that version so that, maybe, some of my gripes with the film would evaporate.  However, that’s not all, but I will cover those later when I address the visual effects.

I have to take issue with some of the characterizations in this film.  Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, & Michael Biehn are all excellent, and inhabit their roles well.  Their roles are also well written and well conceived.  Them, I have no issues with.  It’s the arrogant, chest pounding, and sometime weak-willed Colonial Marines.  Yes, they are big, colorful characters that are memorable and quotable.  That doesn’t mean they’re well conceived characters.  For example, let’s compare these marines to the elite team from Predator.  A group that is memorable, quotable, full of personality, but also, not a bunch of guys you’d ever want to cross.  They are not arrogant, just confident, but know how to respect a dangerous situation when they enter it.  They operate like a cohesive unit, follow orders, have great respect for one another, and keep their mission objective clearly in view.  They get the job done, and never flex any ego.  The marines from Aliens do nothing but talk tough and act as if they’re invincible bad asses.  I understand the intent of showing them as if they believe themselves to be so great that nothing can best them, and then, get dropped into a situation of a cold, hard reality check.  The same thing happens in Predator, and I think it’s done better in that film because you see how realistically capable these soldiers are.  They’re the real deal, and when you see that these seriously experienced, professional soldiers are afraid of what’s out there, it sells the situation even more.  As for that reality check shocking the marines down to size?  You still have Bill Paxton’s Hudson acting like a buffoon all the way through the film.  Someone of this weak will and lack of backbone would never make it into any military organization today, and Hudson does more to sell the incompetence of this team than anything else.  These marines also don’t follow orders when they’re given, and instead, subscribe to foolish, egotistical behavior to satisfy their own ignorant bravado.  It’s the character I have issue with, not Paxton.  I believe Bill Paxton to be a very good actor that eventually was given to chance to break out of this buffoonish stereotype, and that was a very thankful turns of events.

What really downgrade the quality of this film, for me, are the visual effects.  Keep in mind that James Cameron comes from a visual effects background as I point out these issues.  Firstly, and briefly, the use of rear screen projection backgrounds come off as low grade.  Even George Lucas tried using this in Star Wars, but when he saw how bad it looked, he swore it off never to be attempted again.  Cameron uses it here instead of blue screen effects, likely, because of the aforementioned crappy film stock he chose to use.  Again, this is from a filmmaker who started in visual effects.  Next up, the miniature vehicle photography is not convincing.  Miniatures are small and lightweight, but the photography of them is meant to fool you into perceiving them as full-sized versions that weigh, sometimes, thousands of pounds.  Filmmakers tend to shoot them at a higher frame rate that when transferred to 24 frames per second, create a slower moving object with a lot of mass to it to sell their realism.  Here, all the vehicles and ships move about with no realistic weight.  They fly around or drive across the planet’s surface with no gravity or mass about them.  The drop ship banks, lands, and takes off like a radio controlled toy.  The armored personnel carrier throttles around and bangs into corridors like a go-cart.  Something with a lot of mass, like these vehicles should have, would maneuver slower with bigger, wider movements.  More mass means more power is needed to propel them.  Think of how an eighteen wheeler, a humvee, or a helicopter move.  They maneuver slower than lighter weight vehicles, but that is not translated into this film.  I also have had this exact same problem with the future war sequences in Cameron’s Terminator films.  SkyNet’s huge Hunter-Killer gun ships flying through the air and making hair-point turns always looked incredibly awkward and unrealistic to me.

An extension of all this is the lack of visual atmosphere used to hide the limitations of sets, miniatures, and visual effects. Ridley Scott and his team achieved this visual disguise greatly with Alien using light, shadow, and smoke to disguise any budgetary limitations, or to blend miniatures, live action, and visual effects into a seamless whole. Clearly, something Scott continued on with in Blade Runner. The bonus of this in Alien is that it created a rock solid mysterious horror atmosphere that intensifies the overall unsettling nature of the movie.  Here, you can see the lack of depth and scope in the shot where you know it’s a soundstage set when it’s supposed to be a convincing alien planet landscape.  I’d expect that from an old episode of Star Trek that didn’t have the budget or technical knowledge to disguise these production shortcomings.  I would not expect that from a film that had an even BIGGER budget than Ridley Scott’s film which achieved better results on a smaller budget.  Again, James Cameron comes from a background of visual effects where he should know how to blur those lines, but what is displayed here would not at all reflect that experience.

James Horner’s score is somewhat mixed for me.  The cues he uses for the marines early on are very thin and weak.  His snare drum track sounds like a demo recording done in someone’s garage.  Again, I have to refer to Predator as Alan Silvestri really brought a powerful, meaty militaristic theme to that film.  Since Aliens really is more of a science fiction action picture than a horror genre creation, I can’t critique a lack of suspenseful cues, but it could’ve helped.  The score services the big action moments well, but despite what praise it has been given in decades past, I never found it all that compelling or exceptional.

Sigourney Weaver surely earned the respect and praise she received from her performance in this film.  The evolution of Ellen Ripley here is entirely on the mark.  Being the sole survivor of such a horrific experience, she would be a haunted woman waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, and be determined to see this species wiped out of existence.  She’s traumatized, but is able to battle through that.  She takes her fear, and uses it to focus her eventual leadership skills.  You constantly see her battle against her intense fear in order to see her real world nightmare end.  Weaver also projects a warm, motherly sensibility while caring for the equally traumatized Newt.  The makeshift family they create with Hicks is rather brilliant.

Speaking of which, Michael Biehn brings his great, natural humanity to Corporal Hicks.  He shows the character to be a natural leader with confidence, decisiveness, and intelligence.  Hicks is definitely the guy that will have your back all the way.  Just as he was in The Terminator, Biehn shines through as a wonderfully dynamic and emotionally powerful actor.  His warmth and chemistry with Sigourney strikes the right, soft chord.  They work extremely well together with a mutual respect that penetrates through the screen.  I’m not sure that the original casting choice of James Remar would’ve embodied those qualities so strongly or naturally.  Michael Biehn was an amazing, fortunate happenstance in this instance.

Paul Reiser had some nice breakout roles in the 1980s including his appearances in the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies.  Here, I love his performance!  Burke is the textbook company man working his public relations angle with a compassionate façade while hiding a smarmy corporate mentality.  Reiser plays both ends of that spectrum well, and he allows them to mesh into a cowardly weasel who always seems a slight bit suspicious.  At first, he comes off as a genuinely decent fellow, but as the story unfolds, Reiser gradually peels that back as Burke gets closer to his goal.  It’s a nicely subtle piece of acting that rides a fine line,, but it surely is effective.

At this point in time, Lance Henriksen was making an impact with some unique, standout performances.  Bishop is a career highlight, indeed.  “Artificial person” so fits the description of him.  He has human qualities, but they are slightly off.  Again, subtlety enters the approach with an air of eerie creepiness to the droid Bishop.  Not in a malevolent way like Ian Holm’s Ash from the previous film, but as something just uneasy, unsettling about him.  At first, he doesn’t appear to be anything but human.  However, the more time an audience spends with him, the more these peculiar aspects nag your attention.  Because of Ripley’s own unease around a droid, an audience can also gain an uncertainty about him, but it’s great how the relationship between Ellen and Bishop builds towards a place of trust.

Now, James Cameron bringing in Stan Winston and his team was a brilliant, logic move.  You would need someone of Winston’s caliber to put together something impressive like the Alien Queen.  The improved designs of the egg, facehugger, and chesterburster are excellent bringing more articulation and realism to them all.  Now, I don’t have a preference between the original “smooth head” Alien from Ridley Scott’s film or the more “ridged head” Aliens featured here.  I think they both work fantastically, and surely suit the demands and lighting aesthetics for their respective films well.  Here, the more detailed and ridged craniums give the drones more character with a few little highlights here and there to make them standout more against the darker environments.   Stan Winston was a legend in this field, and his contributions made the industry what it is today.  He will be missed beyond words due to his passion, personality, skill, and artistry.  He left behind a legacy of respect and admiration.

I have zero problems with the story in Aliens.  It is a great progression and a smart direction for a sequel.  Following Ripley through this journey from a troubled woman trying to avoid her trauma to one who confronts it head on to defeat it with intense courage is a powerful story.  She finds her strength through the new emotional bonds she forges with Newt and Hicks.  The more action oriented approach is something I don’t have much of an issue with, but a little more suspense and terror could’ve gone a long way here.  There are those moments, but they’re more “jump out and scare you” bits instead of finely crafted suspense.  Aliens has some exciting sequences that are well conceived.  The climax has become a cinematic classic with Ripley squaring off with the Alien Queen in the powerloader.  It was a very original, massive crowd pleaser that put Ripley into a great, forceful position.

I’ve only ever watched the Special Edition of Aliens as it is James Cameron’s preferred version of the movie, and while it has all the substantive character depth and proper storytelling elements, it does feel too long at just over two and a half hours.  Cameron seems intent on making overly long films that lack the rhythm and pacing he so excellently captured in The Terminator.  Once he got a big budget, he started over-bloating his scripts and cutting down on storytelling innovations.  Sometimes, the restrictions of a smaller budget and limited resources force a filmmaker into creating a better, tighter product than when they are given access to all the tools with free rein to use them how they wish.  I feel that is the case with Jim Cameron.  As time went on, he seemed less interested in making compelling stories and more interested in flexing his budgetary ego.  I respect the innovations he has motivated in the realm of digital visual effects, but great special effects alone do not make for a great film.  However, all he seems interested in is pushing technology forward at the expense of quality storytelling.

All of this began here with Aliens.  He still was creating a quality story backed by a few strong, solid actors, but he surely could’ve tightened it up in areas during scripting.  Still, what irritates me when watching this film are many of the technical issues with visual effects, rear screen projection, the photography of the miniatures, and the poor choice of film stock.  Furthermore, the poorly conceived Colonial Marines, aside from Hicks, are cartoonish buffoons that like to stroke their own egos instead of getting serious in a serious situation.  These are all elements that make a substantial negative impact upon the film for me.  It has plenty of good qualities to it from the strong lead performances and practical creature effects, but with a film so long, the negatives inevitably linger to repeatedly damage my enjoyment of the movie.  Maybe, one day, I will watch the theatrical version and feel differently about that shorter cut, but if I was to judge this the way I intended, it had to be the director’s preferred version.  This is an off occasion where I didn’t review the film for the sake of opening people’s eyes or rousing anyone’s interest.  It really was just so I could deconstruct what always bothered me about this movie, and see the shortcomings that have prevented my full fledged enjoyment of it.  I’m sure many would not perceive these same issues, but if everyone had the same point of view on everything, it would be a very uninteresting world.