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Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes BackIt was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie.  To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels.  What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius.  Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy.  Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface.  Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth.  There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah.  When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss.  Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field.  Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda.  However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force.  What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.

I really like the reversal of structure on this film.  It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire.  Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions.  It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline.  Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys.  Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.

The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol.  It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film.  This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s.  Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do.  Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight.  It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do.  It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars.  Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie.  Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant.   Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures.  The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions.  Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger.  He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions.  It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind.  He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.

The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars.  We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base.  It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before.  This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic.  They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film.  They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here.  The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible.  The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here.  The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history.  It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.  They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery.  And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.

The Empire is presented perfectly here.  The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence.  To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film.  We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes.  Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film.  He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor.  He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants.  There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success.  Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat.  This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise.  The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might.  Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film.  It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other.  Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.

I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments.  We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes.  Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend.  It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film.  It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.

Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement.  I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like.  However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life.  Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it.  There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of.  This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force.  Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga.  We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination.  He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke.  Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi.  Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant.  That is the magic of cinema.

The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency.  The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much.  There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence.  This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch.  He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out.  And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work.  Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes.  Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely.  George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own.  So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.

This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights.  Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys.  Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core.  I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons.  Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.

Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache.  Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start.  They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection.  This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words.  It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action.  Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship.  It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface.  It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.

The returning cast shows a lot of growth.  Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker.  He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears.  You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader.  He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand.  Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience.  Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully.  The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.

We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well.  He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude.  The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO.  However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness.  Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando.  It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.

I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian.  Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler.  He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking.  With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make.  Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse.  He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate.  Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation.  He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully.  Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.

And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett.  The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character.  A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight.  Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say.  That creates intrigue.  It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence.  Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude.  A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work.  Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.”  That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene.  Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence.  He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself.  Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster.  He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count.  It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor.  It makes you wonder more about who he is.

I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga.  With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score.  The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film.  Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score.  “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites.  However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings.  I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.

The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design.  It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles.  The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic.  However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin.  Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow.  This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment.  This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage.  Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment.  Never does it feel like a fabricated set.  That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.

Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment.  I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it.  The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale.  It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980.  It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit.  However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively.  I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings.  It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.

While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination.  I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire.  John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it.  What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness.  It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.

The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through.  Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon.  However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film.  The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.”  That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel.  While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it.  That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader.  For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is.  He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side.  However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord.  Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training.  Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off.  The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief.  Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect.  It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe.  It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.

The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion.  I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period.  The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich.  All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy.  That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully.  The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats.  The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses.  As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story.  Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.


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.


Alien: Resurrection (1997)

With Alien: Resurrection, it became painfully obvious that Twentieth Century Fox was now less interested in making credible sequels and more so in just bleeding this franchise dry.  Let’s try to put this into perspective.  Joss Whedon, as many know, is the creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, & Firefly.  He’s a proven great screenwriter and director.  He is the screenwriter for this film as well, but by his own admission, the filmmakers executed every aspect of his script wrong.  Everything imaginable was done wrong from Joss’ written vision.  Various other aspects were introduced by the film’s shitty French director Jean-Pierre Juenet.  This, mainly, includes all the bad, stupid humor.  The worst part of it is the fact that he’s very proud of all the stupid comedic bits, thinking it makes the film more entertaining and fantastic.  This is the sort of thing that flushes the film down the toilet.  Watching the DVD Special Edition cut, other things become obvious.  His originally intended main title sequence is stupid, irrelevant, and directly setups a terrible tone for the film.  It comes off as total, stupid B-movie cheese, and the cheap CGI effects drag it down to even lower levels.  The theatrical cut sets a much better tone, but it hardly sets you up for how abhorrent this film really is.  So, by that train of thought, the Special Edition introduction fits the quality of this motion picture much better.

After killing herself to prevent the government from taking the monstrous Alien to Earth, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens 200 years later to find she has been cloned in order for scientists to withdraw the Alien DNA living inside her.  As the world around her begins to fall apart and the terror begins again, Ripley realises that the scientists who cloned her may not have fully removed the Alien from her, at the same time that she is, once again, perhaps the only one who can stop the horrific infestation from reaching Earth.

Alien had Ridley Scott, Aliens had James Cameron, and Alien 3 had David Fincher – filmmakers who have all gone onto very high profile, blockbuster, and critically acclaimed careers.  Jean-Pierre Juenet is about third class next to them.  Where the previous three films gave the franchise a real weight and emotional depth, this film becomes a badly done and clichéd comic book adventure.  It shows nothing of subtlety or intelligent originality.  It’s all BIG camera moves, BIG action, BIG (yet shallow) characters.  It also features over-the-top and cheesy performances by all but two cast members.

Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott are exceptional actors who are always reliable for bringing the goods.  Wincott tends to bring a mysterious and engaging quality to his performances.  Top Dollar in The Crow is probably his most high profile role.  Here, it’s more low key, but that just makes him more intriguing.  I think he could shine well in a classic film noir feature.  Unfortunately, he has very few scenes, and gets killed relatively early.  Ron is a bad ass, plain and simple.  There’s a definite reason why he got such a role in Blade II, and more importantly, as Hellboy.  He’s good at ass-kicking, gung-ho roles.  This outing is no exception.  Although, most casting choices are uninspired.  One might be used to Dan Hedaya in more comedic roles, but he has fit into a dramatic feature well, such as The Usual Suspects.  Here, you might think that his character would be made to hold more dramatic weight, but it’s 99% bad humor.  General Perez does not come off, remotely, as a serious military officer.  He comes off as a mentally stunted fool.  Compared with Apone or Hicks from Aliens, he’s a buffoon.  I’d sooner be led by Bill Paxton’s Hudson.  If Perez is representative of humanity’s military, then it’s a sad state of affairs for the human race.  Winona Ryder is no Carrie Henn, in terms of a vulnerable female role, and is no Lance Henriksen or Ian Holm, in terms of a peculiar android (or ‘artificial person’).  Simply said, she fails to provide Annalee Call with any true depth or fascinating quality.  There’s no reason for her to be here, let alone anything for her to do in this role.  Brad Dourif provides nothing but over-the-top goofiness.  You can’t take him seriously for a second.  Good over-the-top Dourif is The Exorcist III, this is Dourif on the opposite end of the quality spectrum.  Doing it with all the weight of a feather, and being god awful in a role you want to forget in short order.  So many of these roles are cliché, paper thin characters meant to fit a cardboard cutout archetype to service the poor plot.  You need the evil military guys, the mad scientists, the gruff mercenaries – all check.  So, there is a need to scrutinize Joss Whedon’s script.  I know he’s capable of far more diverse, complex, and interesting characters than this.  I just don’t understand how he was responsible for such a lightweight, flat, and uninspired script.  I can understand the filmmakers botching up the execution of the script, but I can’t believe they drained depth and character from it to where Joss would still accept a screen credit.  Much of it would have to be Mr. Whedon’s fault, unfortunately.

Now, you have to ask where does Sigourney Weaver fit into all of this?  She’s not playing Ellen Ripley.  Not the Ripley we came to know and evolve with through the first three films.  This is a hollow shell of a character with the memories of Ripley, and slight emotional traces thereof.  But she’s not the weary, battle hardened, desperate character that Alien 3 left her as.  Nor is she the strong, assertive, and haunted woman of Jim Cameron’s film.  Sigourney does give us a rather creepy character, but it’s nothing recognizable to the franchise’s fans.  Her character is truly alien.  The emotional state of this Ripley Clone is sporadic and erratic.  It’s all over the map, not allowing an audience to connect with the franchise’s heart and soul.  It also plants Weaver, firmly, in the mud.  She has no place to expand or grow with this dead role.  Ellen Ripley’s character arc concluded with Alien 3.  Closure was had, even if it was bleak.  She went through all kinds of hell, saw so many die, and the pain and loss was absorbed into every fiber of her being.  She was as human as any character you will find, and her end came with pathos and poetry.  You might not have liked it, but within the context of that story, her death was appropriate and purposeful.  It should not have ended any other way.  Then, they go ahead and piss all over that with this cold, hollow “resurrection.”  It is D.O.A.  Sigourney Weaver’s role is one you cannot emotionally invest yourself in because she has very little emotion to offer.  It’s about the stark opposite of the real Ellen Ripley we saw in the first three films.  Suffice it to say, this film easily could’ve been scripted and shot without Sigourney Weaver or anything including Ripley since this really isn’t Ripley, not in spirit.  She’s a stranger amongst strangers, and a stranger to her fans.

Moving on, and as I said, the film is filled with BIG everything.  Every shot in the film is something complex and highly involved.  There’s always movement, and extremely little, if any, subtlety in its cinematography.  This forces the film to be less grounded and more overly dramatic.  Dutched angles are seen throughout.  Some scenes have one after another after another after another, for no effective reason.  Juenet and cinematographer Darius Khondji were painting with broad strokes to show off their budget and gimmickry.  Just them trying to make the film look artistic and interesting while achieving neither.  Furthermore, every action sequence is over shot.  Push-ins, sweeping crane shots, steadicam madness, low angles, high angles, dolly tracks.  Khondji just throws all the tricks into every sequence, turning them into a massively over worked mish-mash, and not trying to differentiate one from another.  Once the action begins, it’s shifted into hyperactive mode.  It’s like Michael Bay on steroids – everything done to maximum capacity and minimum reality.  At least with Michael Bay, he does it to give his films an epic feeling, this all falls flat for me.  Also, the film is saturated with this sickly green tinge that is simply too much, and makes the film exceptionally unattractive to watch.  When it’s not green, it’s this deep brown which is equally unattractive.  Just adds to the excessively stylized comic book visuals that only further flushes the film down the crapper.  There’s no beauty or inspired photography in the look of this film, ever.

Like I stated before, there are stupid concepts in this film, some minor, some major.  A minor one also shows the lack of thought put into the futuristic setting.  In several hundred years, why would we still be using paper currency?  Even today, in the early 21st century, we’re mostly relying on debit and credit cards.  Most people don’t handle tangible currency, it’s mostly computer based funds.  Bills are paid online, plastic cards are swiped to make purchases.  Three or four hundred years from now, paper currency will be an ancient concept.  Also, a pinhole crack in a space ship’s hull (or window) would not cause the effect seen in the film’s climax.  It is simply against the laws of physics and intelligence.  But it fits in with the complete stupidity of the film.

Far larger dumbass ideas culminate in the abomination called ‘The Newborn.’  I won’t even bother commenting on its design as I think ‘abomination’ says enough.  It’s just pathetic that one of the most merciless, relentless, and fearsome creatures in the history  of science fiction cinema is dwindled down to this lame ass, mutated, embarrassing mess.  Twisting the knife further, it actually says, “Mommy.”  A further slap in the face is how helpless the Alien Queen is depicted as, and the fact that this regurgitated beast bitch slaps her to death.  James Cameron and Stan Winston have been insulted.  As bad as all that is, the French hack makes it even worse – Ripley makes love to the damn Alien!  You may vomit now.  It’s nothing graphic in detail, but the implication alone is enough to make you sick.  And the complete hack director of Catwoman, Pitof, is the film’s special effects supervisor.  Seems French hack director socialize with other French hack directors, both destined for bankrupt American filmmaking careers.

The film’s effects are a divided issue.  The CGI is obvious and substandard.  I keep wondering how, in 1993, at the dawn of digital filmmaking, we got realistic, flawless, seamless computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but over fifteen years later, we continue to get cheap, crappy CGI effects in countless films (even for high profile, big budget films).  This film was all of five years later, and the computer generated Aliens and effects are hardly seamless.  There is no effort involved in picking them out from their live action surroundings.  The physical effects, on the other hand, are definitely up to standards.  This is due to Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated – mainly Allec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.  They worked with Stan Winston on Aliens, and took over with their own company, ADI, on Alien 3.  I’m not keen on the brown, veiny Aliens, but the quality of the physical and practical effects, across the board, are of a high standard.

You can talk about the film’s score, but it’s nothing exceptional.  Standard fare, forgettable horror-action cues.  Which rather sums up the film.  The entire problem with this film is that it takes a fairly serious franchise constructed by three serious filmmakers who injected it with strong layers of suspense, terror, and character depth, and then, deteriorates it into one-dimensional, one note characters and over worked action sequences.  Suspense and terror barely fit into the mix.  It’s all replaced by poorly conceived ideas, and a badly interpreted and executed script.  It is one bad turn after another that beats the credibility of a once great franchise further into the dirt until it’s six feet under, and then, spits on the grave for good measure.  If this was some terribly troubled production with all kinds of creative differences (i.e. Alien 3), some of this might be forgivable, or at least, understandable.  But it absolutely was not.  Director Jean-Pierre Juenet loves this film with all his heart, and thinks everything he did was wonderful and fantastic.  Perhaps, even brilliant.  The reality is that he made an abomination of a film that drove the final, hot, sharp nails into the coffin of the franchise.  It could’ve ended with Alien 3 without much argument, at least, in light of Alien: Resurrection, but alas, the Hollywood money machine kept on milking it.  Paul W.S. Anderson went on to beat the dead horse further with AVP, and unfortunately, put a bullet through the heart of the Predator franchise as well (which hardly had been run into the ground).  AVP-R, in my opinion, helped to turn the tide a bit, but it all remains to be seen.

This film, on its own, is pathetic and badly done.  When compared to its predecessors, it’s a terrible piece of cinema that never should’ve been.  A fourth Alien film, if it needed to be done (which it didn’t), could’ve been put into the hands of any number of far more credible, talented, and higher quality filmmakers.  How it landed in the hands of a Frenchman who had never made an American film before, let alone anything in the realm of straight horror, is beyond me.  It failed on every level.  There are very brief bits of goodness here, but they are crumbs that will not satisfy your hunger for another well-made Alien film.  This is a straight shoot ’em up splatter fest devoid of the suspense and character depth each previous entry had instilled in the franchise.  Nothing is improved upon in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Special Edition cut.  It just prolongs the agony, and there’s not enough of a distinct difference to offer a separate review of it.  This one review covers enough, and you can feel free to send it down the refuse, again.  This could rival Highlander II, Freddy’s Dead, & Jason X as the worst genre sequel of all-time.  It really was and is a letdown in light of where the film series began and evolved to.  This sequel is a poor afterthought for a franchise that still had a decent measure of credibility remaining.  Thankfully, you can still watch the first three films as a complete trilogy, and easily ignore Alien: Resurrection in its entirety.