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Riddick (2013)

RiddickReviews for this sequel have been pretty lukewarm, and while I don’t blame anyone for feeling as such, there are some high and not-so-high points.  This is not a blanket mediocre film, but the averaging out of the varied content can leave one feeling that way.  As documented recently here, I feel Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are really strong films in their respective, specific genres, with my preference being for the latter movie.  Riddick does fall between the scale and premises of those films, but doesn’t live up to either one quite as well as it could have.

Betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a desolate planet, Riddick (Vin Diesel) fights for survival against alien predators and becomes more powerful and dangerous than ever before.  Soon, bounty hunters from throughout the galaxy descend on Riddick only to find themselves pawns in his greater scheme for revenge.  With his enemies right where he wants them, Riddick unleashes a vicious attack of vengeance before returning to his home planet of Furya to save it from destruction.

There are three sections of this movie for me to critique which all have their distinct qualities.  The first act of the film feels very sparse as it is just Riddick fending for himself on this desolate planet.  There’s a few bits of narration from him and a flashback with the Necromongers that fill in some plot gaps from the aftermath of The Chronicles of Riddick.  It also contains the only and very brief appearance of Karl Urban as Vaako.  I had hoped for more from him here, but I figured it would be no more than a cameo.  Anyway, this first act didn’t do much for me.  It was kind of cool seeing Riddick wounded, vulnerable, and out in the wild getting back in touch with his animal side.  However, it is quite sparse not giving you much beyond the survival action set pieces to get involved with.  The film was starting to feel like an adventure that would play out in some prequel comic book – a very small scale transition piece story that is a stepping stone to something larger.

Thankfully, as I anticipated, once we get some bounty hunter characters injected into the mix, the film really started to entertain and engage me.  Sure, the premise is quite stripped down and basic feeling more in line with Pitch Black, but if you’ve got a couple of vibrant, enjoyable characters to fill out that premise, you’ve got enough to make it worthwhile.  It does take a few minutes to get them warmed up, but it’s the clashing dynamics between everyone that sparks it all off.  Essentially, there are two teams of bounty hunters, or mercs as they are called.  The first is lead by Santana, who is an enjoyably sleazy, down and dirty type with a very gritty, testosterone jacked team.  The other is a more clean cut operation lead by actor Matt Nable’s character who has personal ties to Riddick and the events of Pitch Black.  These two teams clash immediately causing a lot of conflict, and striking some very humorous, entertaining interactions.

Santana is portrayed very well by Jordi Mollà.  I found him the most lively and charismatic character of the film.  Mollà paints Santana as a very salacious individual with little respect for anyone else outside his team, and especially doesn’t like being ordered around by any of them when they’re forced to team up.  Santana has definite smarts, but his attitude surely digs his own grave with many characters, especially Riddick.  Also, former wrestler Dave Bautista is part of Santana’s team, and he does his part well, especially since Diaz doesn’t require much beyond being tough, formidible, and a little charismatic.

And color me majorly impressed by Katee Sackhoff.  She portrays the exceedingly tough Dahl, part of the opposing team of mercs.  She more than imposes her physicality upon Santana and others who try testing her, and has the attitude to go with that.  This isn’t some stereotypical tough chick routine.  Sackhoff kick ass as a bonafide hard edged, sharply skilled mercenary who has an extra distinctive flourish to her character.  I’m sold on the actress and the character completely.

Now, Matt Nable’s character, of Boss who does have a bit of a reveal that I’ll not spoil for you here, is fairly okay.  As I said, he adds a tether back to Pitch Black, but he’s really little more than that.  The character is confident, authoratative, and intelligent, but compared to the colorful Santana, the tough as nails Dahl, or the nicely fun muscle bound hired guns of Santana’s gang, this is a rather mild character.  He also sits on the fence never becoming an outright, reviled villain, and the ending reflects the reason why.  There’s some intended depth with this character, but because he is so much on the fence, you don’t know if you’re supposed to sympathize with him or view him as a vengeful enemy.  The film never galvanizes him into what kind of adversary he should be, and thus, comes off as quite forgettable and mild.

It is clear that Vin Diesel has a love for Riddick, and so do I.  I think he is very fascinating type of anti-hero that has so many avenues of expansion, but this film really takes no ambition with Richard B. Riddick.  The character is still written well by David Twohy, but that signature aura of mystique isn’t quite there.  That ambiguity of what kind of hero he might choose to be, or the cunning way he manipulates events and perceives deeper into others isn’t really utilized here.  Because the is a straight forward survival story with only bad guys and no potential good guys, you generally know how Riddick is going to deal with everyone.  There’s no one of morality or sympathy like Imam, Carolyn Fry, or Jack / Kyra here to sway or alter Riddick’s actions.  He’s out for himself, and will bargain however he can to escape this planet alive without being held captive.  So, there’s no place for a lot of those more complex elements of Riddick to exist in this story, and that’s unfortunate.  Diesel still does a really good job in the role, making him a fun, smart, highly capable, and entertaining protagonist.  It just doesn’t feel like we’re getting every element of the character that I love.  I kept perceiving something being missing from the performance or portrayal all throughout the movie, but couldn’t really put my finger on it.  There is more to this character that we have seen in both previous movies, but this movie is just a little too stripped down to allow him to develop or be fleshed out.  It also seemed like Vin Diesel didn’t wear contact lenses this time out, and instead, had Riddick’s “shine job” eyes digitally done.

I loved Graeme Revell’s score for both previous movies, but I wasn’t impressed with his work in this film.  The familiar main theme does make some subtle appearances, but we never get a full fledged crescendo of it.  Many of the action beats are scored appropriately well.  Yet, the rest of the score feels very different in many places from Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  There were a number of cues which just didn’t strike the right chord with me, same as some of the humorous bits of Riddick and the silly tricks with his dog-like pet.  Those were certainly there to forge an emotional bond with this animal, which seems to have a massive unexplaned growth spurt during the first act, but because it was such a poorly done CGI creation I just couldn’t care that much about it.

The digital visual effects are about on-par with those in The Chronicles of Riddick, but like with Pitch Black, it’s good that a large chunk of these effects appear during dark environments.  The creatures that strike at nightfall are considerably better rendered than Riddick’s pet, which is the only CGI that I cringed at.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do on a $38 million budget where entire landscapes are enhanced with digital effects, and thus, you’re stretching your dollars to their limit.  Thankfully, the CGI is pretty good in large part, and added to the film a whole lot more than it detracted.

I do like that David Twohy put forth the effort to build in connections to both of the previous movies.  Again, you’ve got some flashbacks with the Necromongers showing what happened after Riddick killed the Lord Marshal, and how it led to him being left for dead on this nearly barren planet.  Yet, I know this was not the film Twohy nor Diesel intended to make when they laid out their plans for The Chronicles of Riddick, and so, this is a smaller scale story intended to be a springboard towards a larger scale adventure.  As much as I absolutely want to see this franchise take off and allow these fimmakers to tell the Riddick stories that they want, I’m not sure this is the movie to get them there.  Like I said, this story is probably stripped down too much in terms of character and conceptual development, and focuses more on the entertainment value of action sequences.  While all of the action is very well executed making for a bloody, violent, and fairly exciting movie, it has one more major failing.

As I said, there are three sections of this film to critique, and the last one, clearly, is the ending.  Riddick is an action / horror survival story putting this character into increasingly treacherous and deadly scenarios where he must fend for himself.  People are going to betray him and attempt to kill him, possibly even stranding him on this planet to ensure their own survival.  I won’t detail the ending of this movie, but frankly, it is a terribly weak ending that is a copout to the entire premise.  There’s no dramatic punch to this ending, no rationale for the actions of the other characters involved with it, and leaves you hanging with an empty feeling.  The film builds to a tense, riveting crescendo, and then, fizzles out.  This film absoultely should have ended with a strong, impactful, emphatic statement for the character and franchise.  I even sat there through the end credits hoping for an extra scene to appear, but once those credits roll, that’s all there is.  Up until this point, I was enjoying myself, and was engaged in the excitement of the action.  I was interested to see how the machinations of these deceitful characters would manipulate the fate of Riddick.  It was a fun adventure with plenty of graphic violence pulling no punches, and just having a good, gritty time with itself.  It’s just those last few minutes of the movie where you just don’t know how Riddick is going to get out of this at all, and the entire movie cheats you out of even a decent pay-off.  I just felt letdown, and it’s worse yet because I know David Twohy can write something better than this.  He wrote Warlock, co-wrote The Fugitive, and co-wrote both previous Riddick movies.  It’s a whimper of a conclusion when it should have been amazingly awesome to re-energize audiences about the character of Riddick, and leave them wanting to see more bad assery from him.

I had been waiting for this movie for a long time, and I really wanted this franchise to be very successful.  So, it really, honestly pains me to give any amount of negativity to jeopardize that success, but this really feels more like a movie many would rent instead of rushing out to the theatre to see.  Even removing the ending from the equation, it is a fairly average sci-fi / action movie without the same stylized visuals or scope of Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  However, it has some extra punch in the graphic violence and some pleasing female nudity, and has some entertaining and well portrayed characters to liven up the uninspired story.  You can potentially have a good time with this movie, but I don’t feel it’s a strong enough outing to give Riddick the new injection of box office life that he needs for David Twohy and Vin Diesel to do what they desire with him, unfortunately.

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Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch BlackDavid Twohy is one of those talents who deserves better success than what he has achieved.  He’s done some stellar screenwriting work with hits like The Fugitive and G.I. Jane, and many of his directorial efforts have received critical praise from genre fans.  With Pitch Black, he struck a cult following chord that still, hopefully, resonates to this day.  I’ve heard many say that Pitch Black is essentially a reworking of David Twohy’s rejected script for Alien 3, but my research does not confirm any correlation between the two projects especially since he co-wrote Pitch Black with two other writers in Jim & Ken Wheat.  However, it is very easy to see how this could have been part of that franchise, but thankfully, this was its own thing that launched its own franchise that I am glad to say that I am a fan of.  And yes, the director’s cut is the way to go for me.

When their ship crash-lands on a remote planet, the marooned passengers soon learn that escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) isn’t the only thing they have to fear.  Deadly creatures lurk in the shadows, waiting to attack in the dark, and the planet is rapidly plunging into the utter blackness of a total eclipse.  With the body count rising, the doomed survivors are forced to turn to Riddick with his eerie eyes to guide them through the darkness to safety.  With time running out there is only one rule: Stay in the light.

It’s interesting the structure that David Twohy goes for here.  Once the crash occurs, most films would take on a gradual pace to establish many of these characters, and walk through the process of a slow burn build up to the lurking threats waiting for everyone.  Instead, Twohy does a lot to jump forward beyond those gradual beats and goes for the tight, faster rhythm.  He knows that the necessary focus is on Riddick, Fry, and Johns, primarily, and there are points that need to be hit with them before jumping headlong into the meat of the plot.  We then learn more about these individuals as the conflicts and tensions escalate, which really works.  Twohy keeps the pace very well balanced because of this approach.  It starts out exciting, and continues to hold to that rhythm throughout.  Danger is encroaching upon these characters, and that faster tempo is very essential to the effectiveness of the scenario.

The film has some very well crafted sequences that surely deliver on the suspense using silence, subtlety, and the darkness in very effective ways.  While it doesn’t send chills up my spine to tingle me with terror, it is thrilling nonetheless.  For me, I would veer this more towards an action vibe.  The intention is survival horror, but there is enough intense action here to cater to anyone who isn’t so easily scared.  Several characters are put into peril early on, some die, and that serves the tension later on knowing that anyone is expendable in this story.  Anyone can fall prey to these quickly striking nocturnal creatures, and when they are charging through hordes of them with only minimal light to clear their way, it puts an audience on edge.  Yet, little of this would mean anything if there weren’t well portrayed and written characters to involve yourself with.

I really like everything that David Twohy and Radha Mitchell do with Carolyn Fry, the now defacto commanding officer after the captain died during a hull breech.  We know throughout the movie that she is not an altruistic hero as she tries to jettison the passengers to save her own life during the impending crash landing.  So, there’s that condemnable quality that she works to redeem herself for through the film.  She struggles to lead these people to safety as she constantly pushes that responsibility away, but she has to ultimately accept that leadership role in order to survive.  Mitchell really stands strong in this role delivering a dimensional character that an audience can latch onto, emotionally, and invest themselves in as she grows and solidifies through this terrifying ordeal.  Fry is vulnerable, but shows her strength by the end.

Cole Hauser makes the bounty hunter Johns a very good, subtly unstable foil here.  He’s supposed to be a good guy considering he caught Riddick, but he’s a tough mercenary challenging everyone’s authority while feeding his drug habit.  He’s a hostile wild card that could motivate people to safety, or more likely, jeopardize lives, including his own.  He and Riddick are definitely set at odds, but the scenes between them are very interesting in the psychological aspect.  Riddick is a guy who likes to play on peoples’ perceptions of him, and give them a certain amount of unpredictability to what he’ll do next.  Johns knows plenty of Riddick’s tricks, and it’s interesting to see them subtly square off psychologically and physically.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Vin Diesel.  The character of Richard B. Riddick is very much an anti-hero.  He’s a convicted criminal who makes no excuses for himself, but knows how to use everyone’s fears and perceptions about him to his benefit.  Diesel is very subtle in these moments speaking softly with a smirk showing that Riddick has people wrapped around his finger.  Riddick knows just how far to push, and when to twist things back around.  First and foremost, he is a survivor, and he knows that you can’t always do it alone.  Vin Diesel injects confidence, intelligence, and cunning into the character, but also a very compelling mystique.  Just like a Snake Plissken type, the less he says, the more interesting he becomes.  His actions make him intriguing while what words he does speak weave a complex tapestry that simply sucks you in.  You can gradually see this character becoming an iconic role as the film progresses, and even his opening narration sets the focus intriguingly upon Riddick right from the start.

There are a couple of notable supporting roles here including Keith David as the Muslim passenger Imam.  He offers up a very solid character with strong beliefs and morality that add to the diverse personalities and attitudes of these characters.  David is always a charismatic actor who can do tough everyman like in They Live or The Thing, but turn around and give you a substantive, cultured character such as Imam.  Add to that is Jack, portrayed by Rhianna Griffith who comes to idolize Riddick, and forms some kind of attachment to him.  There’s an odd twist to the character that seems fairly unnecessary, but it’s another trait to make Jack a slight bit more memorable.  These are both well established, well portrayed characters which aid the film in very grounded, human ways.

Now, Pitch Black has a certain stylized look at times that never entirely sat right with me.  I do like some of the over exposed daylight shots driving home the triple sun environment, but the rather monochromatic color washes don’t quite appeal to me.  I just feel there must have been a better, more subtle way to color time these scenes to allow a slightly more varied color palette to shine through.  Also, the inverted colors used in one false scare moment and a few cinematography and editing choices feel more akin to a flashy, stylized music video.  These artistic choices just seemed more akin to stuff I had seen in the direct-to-video market than a theatrically released motion picture.  That is sad for me to admit because beyond these off-beat moments, there is a lot of excellent cinematography to be had here.  There’s a definite effort put towards production value with the cinematic camera moves and angles chosen.  When the film gets into the darker and darker environments, it really takes on a very moody, atmospheric, and dangerous visual intensity.  The whole planet eventually feels like a black, empty void perfectly reflecting the tense situation at hand.  I also like that, in contrast to the overly exposed daytime scenes, the full-on night time scenes seem straining a little for exposure.  You feel how dim the light is that these people have to work with and ward off these creatures, and that extra grain on the film stock just adds more gritty edge to the movie.  Those issues I had are present only in the early part of the film.  The remainder of it is shot, edited, and executed especially well.

Considering this was made on a $23 million budget in the early 2000s, I will say that the visual effects are fairly good based on those factors.  In the grand scheme of CGI, Pitch Black has a LOT of room for improvement.  These filmmakers were very ambitious with what they wanted to achieve on such a limited budget, and I can’t fault them for that.  There are some better looking moments than others, and it is likely best, by design, that so many of these effects are played out in dark environments.  In a brightly lit one, these creatures and digital effects would look really bad.  While Riddick’s “shine job” vision allowing him to see in the dark is pretty damn cool, the creature vision is quite primitive like some cheap Photoshop radial blur effect.  I hate to talk poorly about all of this because I see the ambition and visionary talent at work, but the budget could only be stretched so far to accommodate that, which is very unfortunate.  If you doubled this film’s budget, the visual effects would be approaching excellent, I’m sure.  As it is, if the characters and scenario pull you in, I think any shortcomings in the CGI will be forgivable in an audience’s eyes.

Another really exceptional quality here is Graeme Revell’s rich score.  The main theme is excellent, thrilling, and rather triumphant.  In an age of films that rarely attempt to forge a recognizable main theme of any kind, it’s refreshing to see especially a genre film crafting one that strikes a strong chord.  Even though it had been several, several years since I had seen either this or The Chronicles of Riddick, I still recalled the theme fondly.  Revell has done some stunning work when he really applies himself, such as on The Crow, Strange Days, and The Craft, and his effort really shows through here.

Surely, the basic concept of Pitch Black is not very original as I’m sure you can draw comparisons to the Alien franchise and various other science fiction / horror classics.  However, like I said, even if this film does tingle you with terror, it has action and excitement to engage you.  I definitely like the Riddick character.  He’s very intriguing, and a solid anti-hero in cinema is always a fun concept.  Vin Diesel was the right man for this role, and I love that he has had such a devotion to it alongside David Twohy.  Pitch Black is definitely a cult classic which has plenty of merit and entertainment value.  It’s a straight up type of film with certain plot conveniences to allow for this story to happen, but if it hooks you and you have fun watching it, none of it is gonna matter.


Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the SkyIt’s unusual to review a movie of this sort.  Fire in the Sky is based on a true story of alien abduction.  I know there are skeptics out there about this sort of thing, understandably so, and my stance is that I’m willing to believe, same as with the paranormal.  I can’t apply the same approach to a film of this sort, talking about characters like they’re fictional creations, or how clever the story is conceived and executed.  This is about how well the reality of these peoples’ lives are conveyed on screen, and the quality in which these events are portrayed.  What we have here is a great, solid movie that I really should have watched a lot more over the years.  I first saw it as a VHS rental back in the late 1990s.  I owned the DVDs for probably five or six years before I actually watched it.  So, I can accurately say that for this review, I watched Fire in the Sky for the third time, ever.

Six men saw it.  One man became a prisoner inside it.  But who would believe them?  In 1975, logger Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) and his co-workers discovered a hovering UFO.  Walton’s pals fled, but Walton was not so fortunate.  Whisked aboard the strange craft, he was subjected to a painful, unearthly medical study.  This is the amazing tale of that ordeal, and of the contempt and ridicule endured by his co-workers as they try to explain Walton’s mysterious disappearance.  Skilled investigator Frank Watters (James Garner) suspects their story may be a murder cover-up, but these men, led by Travis’ best friend Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), stand by the extraordinary events they recount.  When Walton is returned in a severe traumatic state, questions become even more fantastical with the answers being more disturbing than they could imagine.

This film is smartly structured starting out with the aftermath of the abduction, and then, having Rogers and the other loggers fill in the story with their own words.  Everything that is shown about Travis pre-abduction is done in lengthy flashback, and I feel that was the perfect way to start out the movie and present Travis – show him through the eyes of his best friend.  This also presents the idea of witness accounts showing us the story from a subjective point of view, and sets up the real life oppositions these men had to face from their fellow townsfolk.  Next to no one would believe such a wildly fantastical story, and the police would surely look for criminal motives for Travis’ disappearance.  They have to fight for every ounce of credibility they can get, and the film takes us on that journey while focusing very deeply on their emotional turmoil.

D.B. Sweeney does a wonderful job in these flashback scenes showcasing a very lively, fun, and enthusiastic young man full of aspirations.  He’s clearly the brightest personality amongst these men with the biggest heart.  Showing the audience these substantive glimpses into Travis makes the impact of his traumatic abduction all the more terrifying and disturbing.  The abduction scene itself is frightening, and still gave me choked up chills.  This is a credit to the realistic, grounded, and textured nature of the film.  Director Robert Lieberman makes the danger feel paralyzingly real, and gives the film honest, emotional weight.

The last time I watched Fire in the Sky I made a note reminding me of just how great of an actor Robert Patrick is.  He really is the lead for most of the movie holding the weight of emotion on his shoulders, and doing so in masterful fashion.  The absolute depth of pain and fear is soaked into every fiber of his performance with his eyes selling so much.  Patrick is both very sympathetic as well as full of conviction and fire.  As Mike Rogers, he is both a confident, passionate leader and a man dealing with his own internal fears and grief.  There is so much humanity and strength in what he does here that this should stand as one of Patrick’s best performances.  He genuinely made me feel every emotion that he poured out of his soul, and it was a very wide and complex range of humanity offered by him.  It is only a shame that the only accolades he was offered for this film was a Saturn Award nomination.  He clearly deserves a lot more notoriety for having this level of talent.

This film is also packed with a strong supporting cast.  James Garner puts in a very solid performance as the consummate investigator Frank Watters.  You can sense the fair and just manner of Watters from everything Garner does on-screen.  He never jumps to conclusions or to condemn these men.  Even at the end, he’s not convinced of what they all say is the truth as the evidence is simply not there for him to make a conclusion.  He’s simply willing to wait and see.  Peter Berg and Henry Thomas greatly portray two of Travis’ friends, David Whitlock and Greg Hayes, both with their shaken qualities.  Yet, both actors showcase strength where needed to show that these men were standing by their statements.  Craig Sheffer has a surprisingly excellent turn as Allan Dallis, one of the loggers who has a bad attitude and doesn’t get along with anyone.  I’ve only seen Sheffer in some really poor Dimension Films direct-to-video sequels, and has never impressed me before now.  I think he did a very solid job making Dallis a very strong element in this story as a sort of wild card in the mix.  Dallis almost went out of his way to make it known he didn’t like Travis, and Sheffer’s performance really brings that friction and tension to the forefront.  Lastly, Noble Willingham fits very comfortably into the role of the local Sheriff Blake Davis bringing a trusted, honest, firm quality.  Overall, every performance feels very authentic with both obvious and subtle depth throughout.

In the latter third of the film, when Travis Walton does return, he’s in a terribly traumatized state with Sweeney putting in a great performance.  The lively young man that he once was has been entirely eviscerated leaving only a shell of a man behind.  This abduction experience forges a hard, deep wedge between Travis and Mike.  Travis is so traumatized that he resents Mike for running away from the scene of the abduction instead of helping him when he had the chance.  Unfortunately, this aspect is not given much screentime as the film shifts its focus deeply towards Travis’ struggles.  I certainly would’ve liked to have seen that strained friendship drama play out more to see how hard it truly hit Mike, and the process of how it damaged his life.  Fortunately, the film doesn’t forget about this as it is given its proper due by the end remembering that it is the people and their lives that mean the most here.

When we are finally shown what Travis Walton experienced during those five days, it is the most visceral and terrifying alien abduction sequence ever committed to film.  The production design is stunning like something out of your most dreadful nightmare with its surreal qualities and purely absorbing, grim reality.  It is something that would leave you scared out of your mind, and leave you never being the same person you once were, if you experienced it in reality.  This is a very elaborate and long sequence that will freak you out down to your very core.  This is possibly the most paralyzing sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.  Even after it ended, it took me a minute or so to ease myself out of it.  To even consider that this might have actually happened to another human being is unfathomable.  Industrial Light & Magic did an unspeakably remarkable job on this entire sequence.  The aliens themselves are so finely detailed and textured that you’d swear they were real, and this adds further to how visceral this all is on film.  It is stunning work down to the smallest nuanc.  So much so that this deserved special awards recognition at the time as well, but sadly, received none.  Of course, it’s very little in terms of visual effects as it is an overall collective work of production design, cinematography, physical effects, animatronics, sound design, and music that made this sequence so chillingly effective.

And of course, the cinematography is damn good all the way through.  Bill Pope and director Robert Lieberman clearly worked very hard to create a look for Fire in the Sky that was firmly grounded in reality.  There is such texture and weight to every shot to maintain that solid grip on the fact that this is based on a true story, and directly avoid injecting even the smallest sense of fantasy into this.  I know that sounds a little peculiar due to the alien abduction nature of the story, but even that feels shockingly real down to the grittiest of details.  This film is shot exceptionally well with wonderful angles and compositions which complement the dramatic scope of the story, both internal and external.  In all technical qualities, this is a superbly executed film made by a very solid crew of creative forces.

Now, the thing that tends to make films based off of true events different than fictional films is that there’s rarely a traditional conclusion to them.  The lives of these people continue on, and not everyone gains closure from what is documented in the movie.  So, there’s only so much of a complete story the film can offer.  Thus, Fire in the Sky is more focused on the people involved instead of a traditional three-act structured plot.  I’m sure there were a few tweaks to reality, such as the filmmakers reducing the number of loggers from seven to six for ease of storytelling, but I’m sure the human emotion of what happened remained very much intact and accurate.  Also, unlike many true stories, this one still requires the audience to believe in something they may not be inclined to believe in terms of extraterrestrial life.  However, even if you are not a believer, there is still a very strong, human story to experience in Fire in the Sky.

This is an amazingly effective and masterfully executed movie that brings more impactful reality to an alien abduction story than I’ve ever witnessed on film.  A viewing is highly worth it for two things  – Robert Patrick’s deeply emotional performance and the entire terrifying sequence aboard the alien spacecraft.  Even the film’s trailer is scary featuring only brief glimpses of that sequence along with a very foreboding voice over.  Ultimately, this is a hell of a great movie that is definitely worth your time, if this genre is your thing.  Again, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Mike Rogers in the aftermath of Travis’ traumatic return to give their reconciliation more pay-off, and to follow through on how this entire experience affected Mike, in detail.  Still, what we are given is solid, fascinating, and disturbing.  Fire in the Sky is a unique film that surely deserves more credit than time has seen fit to grant it, and I hope my words of praise here will help a little in that regard.


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.


Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)

By no means am I here to say this film is not worth the scorn it has received from day one.  Highlander II: The Quickening absolutely conceptually butchered most everything that made the original fantasy adventure film so amazing.  However, there are certain elements that people don’t give this film credit for in spite of its storyline and screenplay failings.  Of course, it’s one of the worst sequels ever made, and it has more wrong with it than any one reviewer should torture him or herself to detail.  So, I am exercising restraint to not scrutinize everything that is wrong with it.  While I will blatantly point out why this film was a failure, I do want to give credit to what I feel are highly admirable qualities for the film.  However, the bad outweighs any good you can find in this film, and while so many have covered why, it’s time to offer my perspective and insight into this notorious motion picture.

By the end of the 20th century, the Ozone layer has been damaged severely, and Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is the one who brings all the great minds together to create a protective energy shield around the Earth.  However, a quarter century later, humanity lives in a perpetual nighttime world as the sun’s rejuvenating, life-giving rays do not penetrate the shield, and the world is in a state of depression.  They’ve lost hope in this dreary world.  Because of this, Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) and her anti-shield team break into one of the Shield Corporation’s stations, and discover that the radiation above the shield is normal.  This means the Ozone layer has healed itself, and the shield is no longer needed.  Of course, it is a corporation, and they are just interested in capitalistic greed.  Louise is the only one of her team to escape alive.  Connor is now an old man, having become mortal after defeating the Kurgan to win ‘The Prize.’  While enjoying a night at the opera, he has flashbacks (similar to those during the wrestling match in the first film), but instead of the Scottish Highlands, he remembers his life as a rebel on the planet Ziest (or from a distant past on Earth, depending on which version you watch).  Here is where he met Ramirez (Sean Connery), and battled the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside).  For their rebellious acts, they are exiled to different points in time on the planet Earth where they will be immortal, and have to battle other immortals until only one remains.  The winner will have the choice to return home to live out the rest of their lives.  Despite the fact that MacLeod has been mortal for nearly forty years, and is a matter of months away from inevitable death by natural causes, Katana is not willing to wait any longer to see his enemy die.  He sends two comical spiky haired warriors to assassinate Connor, but it backfires making MacLeod immortal again, taking into two Quickenings.  One restores his youth, and the other allows him to resurrect Ramirez back in Scotland.  By this time, Louise has found Connor in an effort to use his influence to get the shield shut down.  Now, with his youth restored, they become sexually involved, and he becomes invested in her mission against the corporation.  Meanwhile, Katana decides to dispatch his enemies first hand.  He forges an alliance with the major tool that is Shield Corporation CEO David Blake (John C. McGinley) to combat MacLeod, Ramirez, & Louise.  With two over the top villains, one more ridiculous than the other, our heroes don’t exactly have their work cutout for them, but that’s the least of this film’s problems.

Okay, this is actually not the worst Highlander film ever made.  That dishonor belongs to Highlander: The Source.  If you’ve seen it, and I surely hope you have not, I don’t see how you could disagree with that assessment.  You thought it was impossible to sink below Highlander II, but you were proven wrong.  Regardless of that, here’s why this film is so reviled.  At its most basic, this first sequel takes what was pure wondrous fantasy, and turns it into cheap science fiction.  There was a simplicity to the mystery behind immortals in what screenwriter Gregory Widen created with Highlander.  “It’s a kind of magic,” offered up a sense of charm and wide eyed wonder to the idea.  For me, the origin of immortals is unimportant.  Through all the other films and the television series, where they came from was never as important as their journey to wherever they were going.  The story of Highlander is one of adventure, love, legend, pain, heart, wisdom, and magic on an epic scale that spans countless centuries.  Watching how our Clan MacLeod heroes battle through it all, and how it molds them into more seasoned, weathered, and wiser people is what it has all been about.  It was never about aliens from another planet, time travel, shield generators replacing the Ozone, or weirdo assassins flying through the air cackling like hyenas.  The premise of this sequel was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and no matter which version you watch, it’s still a failure in that department.

The only thing Highlander II has going for it in its defense is that the production was full of problems, conflicts, money issues, and creative differences.  That can explain the clusterfuck of bad execution, but still, people signed on board due to the screenplay and premise that this film was built upon.  They have no defense for that.  Christopher Lambert supposedly would only do the film if they brought back Sean Connery, and that resulted in a very peculiar resurrection.  While Lambert and Connery have fine chemistry which provides the film with a good deal of fun, I have to admit that Ramirez was rather shoehorned into this.  The entire film would likely flow along far better without him at all, and make room for more relevant elements to be fleshed out.  Ramirez has some decent wisdom to impart that works itself into the story by the end, but it would be easy to write around, if needed.  Still, it is good entertainment seeing MacLeod & Ramirez interact on more of an equal footing like friends or brothers instead of the student-teacher relationship they had before.  Of course, I could’ve done without the out-of-place excessive humor resulting from Ramirez’s inclusion.

Now, Michael Ironside is indeed a fine actor that is able to stretch out into a wider range than he is typically typecast into.  The failing of many Highlander feature film villains is that the screenwriters try to make them carbon copies of the Kurgan.  They are given similar crazy scenes, over the top characterizations, and even all their names start with a ‘K’ – Katana, Kane, Kell.  The television series ultimately became the real treasure trove of fascinating and original villains including my favorite in Xavier St. Cloud.  Here, Katana is hard to take seriously most times.  He is over the top, almost badly comical in certain scenes, and all for the wrong reasons.  The original film handled its characters with weight and respect.  It made them dimensional, textured people, or at least with the Kurgan, formidable and frightening.  Katana constantly comes off as the bad guy whose already lost, and is just lashing out because of a bruised ego due to that loss.  He seems desperate, and incapable of truly being a singular threat.  He’s certainly not intelligent, as the film eventually and blatantly reveals, which I will get back to.  He doesn’t have the bravado to truly become the adversary he needs to be to confront and take down MacLeod.  I do not lay too much fault on Ironside.  This is what the screenwriters and filmmakers gave him, and he did what was demanded of him.  Still, I know he’s such a better actor, and definitely capable of being a better villain than this film allows him to be.  John C. McGinley is the same way.  I have seen him put in so many performances over the last twenty or so years that I know he can do better than this.  He has even regretted how he portrayed this role.  I am always glad when an actor can look back on their work, and make an objective assessment of what they did wrong.

Lambert is his usual charming self, but I feel all the world weariness and haunting sense of Connor MacLeod was lost.  On one hand, I can see him becoming a lighter weight character due to having slain the Kurgan, and come to peace with much of what he’s lost.  Still, we see that even more heartache has befallen him since then, and while he demonstrates mourning for it, it doesn’t carry with him throughout the film.  Even the accent Christopher used in the first film is abandoned, and frankly, would never reappear with Connor ever again.  Still, Connor MacLeod remains a character to invest yourself in.  He’s still handled in a decently well rounded fashion.  It’s the just the horrible “origin of immortals” scenes that really damage it all.  It sort of makes all we knew of who Connor was in the first film nearly inconsequential, not to mention, wholly confusing to a mind boggling degree.  That plot point alone creates more contradictions and catastrophic problems with the entire established mythos to the point of wondering, “Why the hell did they go forward with it at all?”  And again, why they went back to an “origin of immortals” story with Highlander: The Source when it failed so miserably the first time?  Of course, there are no good answers to those questions.

Anyway, Virginia Madsen is probably the only genuine, grounded talent in the whole film.  She always turns in a solid, pitch perfect performance, and she does so here.  She’s a fine love interest with a dash of action ability.  She and Lambert work well together, but not amazingly so.  It’s well handled and well played, but there is a missing romantic aspect that I think every Highlander love should have.  The entire base concept of Highlander has a very romanticized nature to it.  There is a sexual encounter here, but there’s not much intimacy between the characters to really forge a deep emotional connection.  There’s just too much plot getting in the way for that, and of course, they needed to shove Sean Connery into the mix to detract from that relationship.  You see, for every potentially good idea, there’s something else thrown into the film to detract from it.  The potential of the elements that could be used to improve the film are limited to make room for something that brings down the film.

For instance, Russell Mulcahy, in these earlier years, always made gorgeous films with such enveloping cinematography.  However, where the first film was able to mostly thrive in practical locations and expansive sets, in this film, the first major action sequence that is supposed to be a large area of the city is confined to a soundstage, and it looks like a soundstage.  The scope and scale of it is so small, you can’t help but see the limitations of the production, and it detracts from the visual aspect of the feature.  Sequences may be shot with great angles, unique lenses, and inspired camera moves, but you can almost always tell when they shot it on a cramped back lot or soundstage.  A real city street has depth and scope with block after block of buildings, skyscrapers, and movement crisscrossing in the distance.  It has character from its history and people over the decades and centuries.  None of that can be seen here, and it only begins to sell how inferior this sequel is to its predecessor.  And even for all the improved practical effects, and more visually impressive Quickenings, the bulk of the visual effects (pre-Special Edition) are not up to standards for a film that came out the same year as Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Regardless, when you get outside of that, and onto the truly beautiful and well designed interior scene sets, the production design and cinematography SHINES.  Mulcahy’s music video-born artistry finally comes to glorious life, and you see that classic grand Highlander style manifest itself.  The lighting is very theatrical, moody, and atmospheric at times.  However, it seems a little heavy on the Blade Runner influence in both lighting and production design.  Still, big dolly and crane shots really bring forth that epic, large scale cinematic feel which is why I am attracted to Mulcahy’s 1980s & early 1990s films on through to The Shadow.

The score by Stewart Copeland does have a lot of depth and richness.  It is highly orchestral bringing a unique identity to this film as it is quite different from Michael Kamen’s score for the original Highlander.  Like with Connor’s character, gone are the haunting or mysterious qualities in the music.  And while there is essentially no Queen in the soundtrack, we do get a fine closing credits song from Lou Gramm of Foreigner titled “One Dream.”  Gramm formed a band called Shadow King at this time, but it was very short lived.  The song is hard to find commercially as no soundtrack was released in the US, but I have come to enjoy “One Dream” as much as any other Highlander musical staple.  Now, I’ve always been put off that the final battle between MacLeod & Katana has next to no music behind it at all.  Not to mention, it’s a rather brief duel.  Anti-climactic indeed.  It’s almost as if it’s there because it needs to be, and they just want to wrap up the film as quickly as possible.  There’s no epic quality to it, no passionate intensity.  It’s a bunch of dull clanging back and forth for a few moments.  Still, the score has gained some good respect from the franchise’s fans, and Stewart Copeland is an exceptionally talented and diverse musician from his work as the drummer for The Police on through to many other film and television scores.  He surely gave this feature a wide, full sound that may have been more than it deserved.  It’s not always entirely to my liking, but I can respect the musical quality and artistry of it.

What I can’t respect is the creative process behind the idea of this movie.  Okay.  They wanted to do a sequel.  That’s understandable, but that’s also the problem.  The first film ends definitively.  Connor wins ‘The Prize,’ and thus, there are no more immortals left in the world.  There’s really no credible way around that ending, and making a prequel about Connor is foolish because there’s no mystery of who would survive.  Gregory Widen wrote a fantastic, self-contained screenplay with no allusions for a sequel.  Even still, how these filmmakers conjure up the idea of all immortals being aliens from another planet shatters all logic because everything they develop in the sequel contradicts everything from the original film.  In later revised cuts of Highlander II, the immortals are changed to being from Earth’s distant, forgotten past.  So, now they are time travelers which makes even less sense, but as I concluded sometime ago, there is absolutely no way you can re-cut this film to have either premise make any real sense.  Every fiber of this plot is fundamentally flawed from every angle.  The plot holes are atrocious, and are blatantly stated by the characters in the movie itself!  How do you write a screenplay with such plot holes, do nothing to mend them, but have enough awareness about them to have the characters spell them out in detailed discussion?  It sounds like a screenwriting paradox that could unravel the very fabric of the universe, or drive one totally insane trying to make sense of it.  MacLeod states to Katana that he was ready to settle down and die peacefully, but then, Katana sends his cackling henchmen to change all that.  Now, he’s immortal again, just where he didn’t want to be.  Katana would’ve had his victory of MacLeod dying if he just sat on his ass and did nothing!  Even his idiot henchman caught onto this, and Katana just slaps him in the face for having a rational thought.

The theatrical cut even made Russell Mulcahy walk out of the cinema within fifteen minutes.  The editing in it was an abomination of continuity.  They tried splicing together two different duels for one massive end battle, but it features Connor using two different swords in two different outfits.  Subsequent re-edits such as the Renegade Version or Special Edition had more linear coherence, but hardly resolve any of the base issues with the movie.  Frankly, as I said, that is impossible.

Flushing away the adventurous fantasy for idiotically conceived science fiction explanations leaves a horrible, bitter taste in any fan’s mouth.  Beyond just the irresolvable continuity contradictions, this is a contradiction of all that Highlander was based upon, and later re-established itself as through the television series.  Highlander II: The Quickening became so reviled that it was disassociated from all continuity.  That’s not a regular occurrence for a franchise when millions of dollars are poured into a feature film, but it seems like it was an experience many would have rather forgotten in part, if not in whole.

While there are admirable technical qualities in the film, there is surely nothing within it that can hope to redeem this epic failure.  It’s become legendary and notorious to the point where it’s awfulness has transcended through pop culture as a benchmark for a bad film.  Christopher Lambert remains a solid lead for the franchise with an enjoyable performance, but as with so many aspects of the movie, it’s more indulgent in itself than really bringing something memorable to the table.  Connery’s presence alone is self-indulgent, and Katana is a generally weak, one-dimensional villain played up more for laughs than as a cunning, intimidating adversary.  The producers can continue to update the visual effects and refine the editing, but it’s only making a pile of garbage easier to look at.  This is not a film where I say watch it for yourself to make your own determination apart from its reputation.  Even on its own merits, it’s not a good movie.  In itself, it has unforgivable failings, obvious limitations, and baffling errors in logic, to say the extreme least.  It certainly wasn’t the only controversial misstep in Highlander, but it was the first.  And for that, it will remain a stigma on the franchise for all time.


Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien vs. Predator was a disastrous, pathetic, and lame piece of garbage.  I won’t even get into it, but after seeing it at the theatre, midnight showing no less, I wanted my money back.  Unfortunately, I got into the showing via a free movie pass from purchasing the Predator Special Edition DVD.  So, I couldn’t even get that satisfaction.  I don’t think I’ve ever held a film in such disdain as to have the desire to demand my money back.  Instead, I wish I had those two hours of my life returned to me.  When things were developing for AVP2, obviously there was a lot of speculation and negative light upon it.  Though, with Anderson nixed, the film seemed to have some hope.  I was very interested in seeing the film theatrically, but then, I heard scores of negative reviews.  It really made me back away from it.  I see now that was a mistake.

This film picks up directly after the conclusion of the previous AVP film.  A Predator-Alien hybrid is born, and begins to wreak havoc on board the Predator space craft.  It soon crash lands in a small Colorado town.  All Predators on board are killed, and the Xenomorphs are set loose on the population.  The crash landing is monitored from the Predator home world (seen for the first time ever on film), and a veteran warrior departs to clean up the mess.  Face huggers attack many of the townspeople, giving rise to further Aliens to ravage the town.  The lone Predator attempts to hunt and eliminate every trace of the Xenomorphs’ presence.  The residents do all they can to defend themselves, but it’s a Catch-22.  Anyone with a gun is immediately a target of the Predator, but without firearms, you stand zero chance against the Aliens.  Eventually, humans, Aliens, and the Predator collide after dark, and all hell breaks loose.  Even help from the National Guard is short-lived, and ultimately, more extreme measures are necessary to eliminate this escalating threat.

Yes, I enjoyed this film (the unrated cut), and kept waiting for something totally bullshit to happen to justify all the god-awful reviews.  It never really came.  There are definite problems with it, but it’s not deserving of being saddled with the statement that “this isn’t even as good as the first Alien vs. Predator.”  I could provide a very long list of how AVP-R is superior to its predecessor, but that’s not the point here.  Though, brief comparisons will be made.  I am not at all saying AVP-R is of the same caliber as Alien or Predator, but at its lowest, it’s no worse than Predator 2.  I’d probably put it a notch higher than Alien 3 (either the theatrical or special edition cut).  But let me get into the meat of things.

My first impression of the film was how excellent the cinematography and lighting was from Director of Photography Daniel Pearl (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974 & 2003).  There’s a definite cinematic feel to this film with good use of angles, cranes, and camera moves.  The film really pushes to give itself a grander scale and impact with its visuals.  The few shots on the Predator home world are marvelous.  Somewhat reminds me of the scenes on Vulcan in Robert Wise’s ‘Director’s Edition’ of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  The lighting itself can be intriguing and amazing, at times.  Thin layers of fog and smoke add atmosphere in select scenes.  The best looking visuals are mainly the scenes inside the space crafts, and the daytime sequences.  Problems arise during the far darker scenes in the subterranean tunnels and the rain.  At times, the lighting is so minimal and the framing so tight, it is difficult to follow the action.  As the film goes on, the framing gets better as the creatures are better revealed, but never in full light.  They essentially remain as silhouettes throughout the movie.  This is much more akin to the original Alien – only showing glimpses of the monster.  Still, the majority of the film is very dark, and whenever frenetic action begins, it can be a chore to keep track of it all.  Maybe, a high-def presentation might lessen this problem marginally, but standard-def is my current situation.

One thing that I’m sure would be truly enhanced by a high-definition viewing is the excessive, yet welcomed gore levels.  This absolutely goes back to John McTiernan’s 1987 film that introduced the merciless Predator.  Bloodshed is everywhere, and people are killed indiscriminately.  Only one person survives who you’d swear should be dead, but other than that, people are slain left and right.  The film is very satisfying in that aspect because the filmmakers, aside from the just mentioned situation, don’t go out of their way to keep people alive in the face of certain death.  If it looks like they’re gonna die, they die.  No dodging hits at the last second or anything of the sort.  Children die, pregnant mothers die, old guys get their arms acid burned off.  There’s really no holding back, which can’t be said of its PG-13 predecessor.  The makeup and visual effects are simply astounding.  Some of the gore and creature moments are even down right grotesque and sick.  The opening shot of Earth from space with the sun glaring in the background seems to have such an old school quality to it.  It doesn’t appear to be so much of a digital composition.  It really looks more like similar shots from Predator, Aliens, or even John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s just such depth of detail to the shot, and impressive sense of scale that you rarely see nowadays.  I was captivated by this shot.  Subsequent CGI shots are also presented with such a standard.  Nothing ever felt like a digital effects shot.  It all blended smoothly and seamlessly with the live action.  The movement of the Predator or Aliens never seems goofy, awkward, or over the top.  It’s very much in line with the characters’ presentation from the seminal films of each, separate franchise.  CGI versions of them are only used when it is necessary.  Everything else is practical, physical effects.

Speaking of such things, AVP-R presents both alien races with a great deal of respect.  The Predator, this time, is a definite seasoned warrior.  He knows how the hunt is played, and takes on a good dozen Aliens on his own.  The only one that really kicks his ass is the PredAlien.  He’s not some punk rookie Predator in some training ground.  It’s a real situation with him taking it upon himself to clean up this mess, and proves to be exceptionally capable.  Though, this doesn’t mean the Aliens get busted up like a bunch of bitches.  They hold their own, stalking and attacking with intelligence and ferocity.  This is much like James Cameron’s Aliens.  They work as both a cohesive whole and lethal individuals.  They are indeed an infestation that continues to grow out of control, and is never made easy for the Predator.  I really feel the filmmakers treated both sides with great respect.  I love how we see the Predator work, even before he even begins the hunt.  How he gathers his gear, and investigates the crash site.  The film treats him like a proper character with a keen mind and cleverness, not a one-dimensional ugly beast rampaging through scenes.  Just the level of intelligence both alien races are given says so much.  Just as the Aliens set traps for others, the Predator shows he’s able to do the same.  It’s a very pleasant surprise.

Now, I found the music to be appropriate to the film.  I wouldn’t say it is exceptionally memorable, but it served the purposes of the movie.  It is jarring, tense, and explosive.  Thought did go into it, and you’ll notice the end credits theme is a mixture of the original Alan Silvestri Predator theme and the James Horner Aliens theme.  It is titled ‘Requiem.’  I felt there was a good level of suspense in the film.  Not a great deal, but in certain scenes, there is build up and tension towards a pay-off.  I think the subterranean sequence is probably the best and most cleverly crafted one in the whole film.  The fight choreography is inventive and imaginative.  The staging of the cat-and-mouse hunting / stalking scenes are continually creative.  It’s far more of what I would’ve wanted from the first film, and it is as an Aliens vs. Predator film should be.  It’s quite fascinating as they are both the hunter and the hunted at the same time.  Kill or be killed, it seems.

The acting certainly comes up as a negative on the reviews I’ve scanned over.  Not every film can have the caliber of acting of a Scorcese or Coppola film.  Like Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula, sometimes you get Gary Oldman, and sometimes you get Keanu Reeves.  The acting here falls within that deep gap.  Essentially, it is solid enough to serve the purposes of the film, and I never felt that it turned ridiculous or annoying.  You, honestly, don’t need Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando quality acting in an Aliens vs. Predator film.  That’s not me discounting the wonderful performances we’ve had in the Alien & Predator films, but what are you really expecting from this film?  The content and context of the film do not call for such glorious depth of acting ability.  This is not to say that the acting here is crap.  This is far above standards of something like Jason X or Freddy’s Dead.  Those films feature a cringable lack of acting talent.  What you get here is good, and allows you to enjoy the meat of the film.  I didn’t feel like the film was dragged down by any of these characters, or their own, individual stories before the action begins.  It helps the pace of the film to build up slowly as all elements begin to converge.  I know Steven Pasquale from the cable television series Rescue Me, and John Ortiz I’m familiar with from the 2006 Miami Vice feature film.  Both present characters with identifiable, relatable, and likable traits.  They certainly show range to me, knowing those other roles they inhabited, and I found them to be worthwhile characters to spend my time with.  These characters are quite human, but have a good deal more depth than your standard slasher film fodder.  The filmmakers and screenwriters seemed to treat these new characters with respect.  They easily could’ve gone with the fodder that Anderson’s AVP film offered, but chose to spend some decent time to develop their personalities on-screen.

The film’s ending needs to be addressed, and is certainly a borderline turn.  It could either keep you hooked or lose you completely.  The filmmakers could’ve really botched it up if they had everyone taken out, but there are survivors.  So, that eases the tension.  Still, there are elements that could be called cheesy or stupid.  I, personally, don’t agree with that.  You have to remember that while these are sequels to the Predator films, they are prequels to the Alien films.  Events need to fall in line with that continuity to preserve certain knowledge of the Xenomorphs amongst humanity.  Government cover-ups are necessary to serve that purpose, and the extra tag at the end was nice, if not somewhat predictable.  Where in AVP, you met Weyland, this time, you meet Yutani – whose two corporations eventually form the infamous ‘Company’ from the Alien franchise.  As I said, things of this nature could potentially lose an audience who perceive it as fanboy bullshit.  They need to realize that this film was made because of fanboys (as much as I hate the term).  Without them, these films would’ve died out a very long time ago.  The ending might not be the most universally satisfying, but it is a logical and appropriate one.  I could go further into depth about it, but suffice it to say, it helps to avoid continuity conflicts with the Alien films.

Colin & Greg Strause made a conscious effort to stay true to both franchises, and make this a real tribute to the fans.  I think they succeed, to a point.  It is a gorgeous film at times, and also a very grotesque feature, as well.  It’s simply more technical elements of lighting, composition, and editing in certain scenes that lessen the effectiveness of those scenes.  The film is terribly dark, visually, and the addition of a rain storm can complicate matters.  It would’ve helped to cast some extra light on the battling alien beings to better distinguish them from each other.  Still, at the most pivotal and impactful moments, the filmmakers allow for the shots to play out more dramatically.  They hold on the shots longer, and the action therein is better defined.  Beyond those shaky aspects, I feel this is a far superior film to 2004’s AVP.  Everything is handled with a great deal more respect and weight.  No ‘buddy cop’ Predator sidekick moments, no rookie Predators getting their butts kicked, and no skimping on the gore.  While this doesn’t equal the caliber of Alien or Predator, it doesn’t fall very far below those standards.  A classic this won’t be, but I feel it’s a worthy addition to your DVD or Blu Ray library.


Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time.  It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it.  It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man).  The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value.  However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.

In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm.  After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano).  Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal.  Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold.  However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts.  The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing.  The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky.  This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones.  Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving.  They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.

The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig.  He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene.  Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him.  Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion.  Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in.  Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher.  The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion.  Things such as you have to earn God’s presence.  You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune.  Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.

Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts.  Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive.  Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited.  To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel.  In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him.  That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth.  He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character.  He just exists in the film.  Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.

Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her.  It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be.  However, it’s not bad.  Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great.  Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum.  Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters.  His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him.  The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal.  However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.

The supporting cast is a little mixed.  Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves.  Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde.  He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly.  However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly.  It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto.  He seems like a plain supporting cast member.  Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything.  Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way.  He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome.  To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute.  So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot.  It’s terribly by the numbers.

As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens.  I just felt like everything was held back.  That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens.  While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before.  The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting.  It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies.  Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all.  It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them.  It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species.  They just want it because it has monetary value.  That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further.  The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people.  Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around.  Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something.  Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through.  Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them.  Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.

I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept.  Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality.  That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it.  CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this.  One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity.  They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.

The visual effects are about mid-grade.  They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards.  They service the story, and that’s about it.  They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all.  They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.

Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals.  The sound design and score are really solid.  I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes.  However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got.  Those such scenes are handled excellently.  They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them.  Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them.  It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones.  The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film.  It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie.  It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways.  Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.

Favreau does handle the action scenes very well.  They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement.  The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone.  Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension.  Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens.  I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.

Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles.  Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad.  It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors.  What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point.  Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters.  It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.