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Excessive Force (1993)

Excessive ForceIn the 1990’s, there were a lot of action movie stars popping up, but most didn’t have what it took to break out of the direct-to-video market.  However, I think Thomas Ian Griffith really had the talents to make it, but never really did.  This might be a simple fact of not having a breakout film or role like Steven Seagal or Van Damme had early on.  Regardless, Griffith had two vital qualities of a successful action hero in the 90’s.  First off, he was trained in Kenpo Karate and Tae Kwon Do, so, he could do far more than just shoot things up.  Secondly, he had charisma to spare making for some fun, lively performances.  All of this could be seen as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part III, of which he was the best thing about that movie.  So, I want to explore some of Griffith’s action films and find out exactly what he had to offer.  With Excessive Force, Griffith is supported by such solid actors as Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Tony Todd, and Burt Young for something that looks very solid, but let’s see if it really holds up to that appearance.

When $3 million disappears during a drug bust, undercover Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) is pitted against Sal DiMarco (Burt Young), a sadistic mob boss who will do anything to get his money back, and a conspiracy of corruption from within the police department.  After McCain’s partner is brutally murdered and his ex-wife is threatened, he strikes back the only way he knows how – with force!  Framed for a murder he didn’t commit and hunted by his own friends on the force, McCain finds refuge with his old pal Jake (James Earl Jones) and his ex-wife Anna (Charlotte Lewis) as he’s lead into a desperate showdown with dangerous forces.

This movie has a fairly straight forward plot with only a few clever turns, but it’s not intended to be a wickedly twisting and turning crime thriller.  It starts out as a revenge movie, but then, shifts into a web of deceit as McCain goes on the run once people start gunning for him.  The script by Thomas Ian Griffith really makes good use of Chicago to this effect.  He really incorporates the crooked politics and mobbed up history of it in a couple of smart ways.  There are corrupt cops and deceptive allegiances at play in this story, and it really feels like authentic Chicago organized crime.  The story twists around enough to where Terry doesn’t know who he can trust, and thus, he feels betrayed by every friend he has left living.  It’s never a very taut sort of plot thread that forces McCain into heavy paranoia, but its place in the story is dealt with quite well and where it’s most effective.  It also has some good pay-off and turnarounds at the end.

Thomas Ian Griffith leads this film very solidly.  Having wrote the script himself, the more personal depth of his performance is apparent.  Early on, we see the driven, charismatic, and lively cop who can kick ass with the best of them.  He sets the energy for the film from the start, and continues to keep it exciting and interesting.  As events progress, we see the drama and emotion sink into Terry McCain with plenty of weight that propels him forward through the film.  Griffith has great chemistry with everyone especially Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd as a fellow cop Frankie Hawkins, and Lance Henriksen as the soon-to-be Police Chief Devlin.  Terry and Anna gradually reconnect and spark off some steam later on, but it’s very brief.  Surely, a hot, erotic sex scene would be gratuitous, but I would not have complained if they injected some of that.

And of course, Griffith delivers on the action.  I was really impressed with the martial arts moves he employed, mainly the number of high and roundhouse kicks he dished out.  He really kicks some guys silly, and bashes up a lot of heads on a regular basis.  While its not as intense as what Seagal was doing at the time, Griffith has his moments of bone breaking bad assery.  If there’s any one shortcoming is that there’s no adversary that’s a real physical challenge for him, and so, there’s not a great single fight that stands out.  Regardless, the action scenes are all very competently shot, choreographed, edited, and solidly executed overall.

Burt Young is pretty impressive as a ruthless Mafioso.  He’s bluntly violent killing someone with a pencil through the ear, and having peoples’ legs bashed in with a baseball bat.  He’s quite convincing with the balancing of the supposed sophisticated businessman and the merciless big crime boss.  However, his screentime is shorter than you’d expect, but it leads to more interesting plotlines.

Also, the role of the police commander can often fall into clichéd territory, but thankfully, Lance Henriksen does a very subtle, understated job with Devlin.  While he and McCain aren’t the best of friends, they can have respect despite their friction, and it’s really that relationship which gives Henriksen something fresh to work with.  I also especially like the turn he has about halfway through as he becomes a bit more sleazy and brazen.  As he gets deeper into this character, Henriksen gets more and more awesome.

I dearly love Tony Todd.  Many know him as the horror icon Candyman, but he has such a wide range of talent that he also excellently displays here.  He has one great scene in this film of emotional depth and strain which really sets him apart as a special, standout actor.  A lot of other actors wouldn’t have put as much real heart and passions into such a small supporting role, but Todd does nothing less than superb work in everything he does.

These characters are interwoven into this decently forged conspiracy effectively.  There’s a surprise or two to be had, and the characters themselves are fleshed out by the performances even if the dimension isn’t written on the page.  A really good actor can always add and enhance what’s written in the script into something special or at least entertaining.  I’ve seen enough standard fare action movies where lackluster performances make the film nothing but mediocre.  Yet, vibrant and solid ones can make all the difference, and that’s certainly the case here.  Like I said, when I saw the cast list I was impressed and intrigued if that acting quality would show through, and I think it really, really did.

The score of this movie was surprisingly done by Charles Bernstein, who I’ve only known from A Nightmare On Elm Street.  His work here is distinctly early 90’s action, but he mixes in enough dramatic cues and moments of tension in certain scenes to give it some personality.  James Earl Jones’ character of Jake runs a jazz club, and so, we get some smooth, lively sounds out of that early on.  Bernstein’s score surely isn’t going to stun and amaze you, but it does its job very, very well.  I would suppose that’s a good summation of the whole movie.

Excessive Force is not a great action movie, but it’s a really good effort that I did like.  The script is well written, and very well directed by Jon Hess, but it’s really the exceptional acting talents of its admirable cast that allows this movie to be as good as it is.  If filled with lesser grade talents, this would really falter, but putting guys like Griffith, Henriksen, Todd, Jones, and more into it gives it some extra substance.  Each of them really put a real dedicated effort into their roles, and it made the film enjoyable outside of the nicely put together action scenes, of which Excessive Force does have a nice even helping of.  Something exciting does happen about every ten to fifteen minutes, but the pace overall is quite consistent and well balanced to make it feel natural.  There’s never action just for the sake of action.  It all flows from the slightly twisting story, and Griffith’s athletic talents really make it all work.  He certainly shows a lot of potential here in all aspects, and he’s a really fun, exciting lead.  While Excessive Force doesn’t have the makings of a blockbuster success, I think it deserved better than grossing less than half its $3 million budget at the box office.  It’s not a big explosive thrill ride, but it’s quite an enjoyable piece of low budget action fare.


The Terminator (1984)

The TerminatorI have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time.  I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise.  These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking.  Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film.  You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman.  That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel.  The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology.  Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.

In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating.  In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope.  In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah.  But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?

Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said.  Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general.  James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film.  The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this.  Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made.  The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit.  It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker.  It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity.  As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques.  He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.

What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot.  The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase.  The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war.  In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective.  Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence.  From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention.  If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax.  Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film.  Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.

This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action.  The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture.  It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology.  Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around.  All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability.  Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways.  It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture.  Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film.  The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation.  The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen.  There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie.  Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story.  Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence.   The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited.  It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was.  Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations.  It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another.  It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.

Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese.  What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance.  Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it.  Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah.  There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers.  It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity.  The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance.  This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long.  Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture.  It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films.  He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate.  Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me.  It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles.  While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom.  What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue.  The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence.  I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special.  It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene.  You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark.  There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton.  While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him.  He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion.  There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator.  Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.

This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident.  While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity.  Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through.  When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays.  Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism.  The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members.  That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before.  It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself.  At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.

And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield.  Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable.  We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character.  Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer.  He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop.  Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.

While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie.  The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace.  Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs.  Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise.  The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job.  Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination.  The brief future war sequences are stellar.  The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens.  It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites.  Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.

The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator.  The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic.  The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears.  So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action.  Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah.  The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times.  However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene.  Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous.  While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.

The Terminator is really amazingly well written.  As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters.  They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping.  The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect.  It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great.  It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one.  That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.

James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film.  While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional.  He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways.  Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts.  The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years.  However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology.  I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.

This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made.  This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted.  While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie.  It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences.  No part of the film ever drags on.  Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness.  I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me.  It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator.  Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres.  Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen.  It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others.  This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list.  And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.


Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

At one time, this was to be the apparent final installment in the original Hellraiser film continuity, and there was a very real reason for that.  Since the Weinstein’s have been unable to get their remake off the ground, they slap dashed another sequel together after this one which I will never see.  Hellraiser: Hellworld is like The Matrix meets New Nightmare crossed with the worse entries in this franchise.  Don’t be fooled by the presence of Lance Henriksen – he’s made plenty of bad movies.  While it is nice to see Lance and Pinhead share a scene, it’s brief and doesn’t save the film one bit.  In fact, it confuses the issue even further – what reality is this set in?

A young man named Adam (Stelian Urian) commits suicide after forging a deep obsession with the Hellraiser mythos and an internet game called Hellworld.  His friends fail to act when Adam was spiraling out of control, aside from Jake (Christopher Jacot), who ultimately blames them for everything.  This is all, supposedly, a reality where the films are real and everything else is fiction, but that’s not for certain.  Adam’s friends grieve his death, and two years later, are invited to a mansion-filled Hellworld party by The Host (Lance Henriksen).  They are greeted by the mysterious, cryptic gentleman, and are shown into his private, macabre collection to explore freely.  Though, what they see and experience soon horrifies them.  Somehow, they have entered into a manufactured hell, designed to take their sanity and their lives, but what is the true reality here?

What honestly drags the value of this film down into the dumps really is the story.  Setting it in a world such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare where Hellraiser is an actual film series and internet presence, and making it that the Cenobites, supposedly, are not real, they are just a device for which Henriksen’s character seeks revenge, sets itself up for failure.  While New Nightmare was a very intelligent and effective film with a cleverly crafted premise, Hellworld just doesn’t have that ambition or creativity to coherently make the concept work.  The story really has nothing to do with the mythology of the series, or anything of a personal hell.  If this was produced as a film with no connection of any kind to Hellraiser, as it originally was written as, it might have been pretty decent, but you cannot follow this film’s logic.  You cannot setup a world where the Cenobites, Leviathan, the Lament Configuration, and so forth are merely fictional creations, but then, turn around at the very end to show that they are completely real.  New Nightmare handled it differently, and had actual explanations for how it was possible for Freddy, or a demon in the guise thereof, was able to transcend the realities.  Hellworld’s ending has some satisfaction, but as I said, it’s too short-lived to make a real impact on the quality of the film.

Regardless of the plot or script, the film is as generally well-acted as any of the last few sequels – nothing spectacular, but just good enough.  Henriksen, obviously, presents a strong performance that helps to gravitate the film’s events and characters.  It’s pretty much what you’d expect from him in a villainous role.  It is sad that Henriksen is such a damn good and very dedicated actor, but he continually stars in such poor quality films.  I really think he should seek out new representation, and get himself back into better roles in better movies.  Moving on, we still get faithful Doug Bradley in his usual role.  Not much to say about it.  Same old, reliable thing, as expected.  Personally, I would have liked to see Doug Bradley have more to work with in this series, such as in the third film when the filmmakers were exploring Elliot Spenser.  Give him somewhere new to go with the character and his acting talents.  By this point, it felt like he was just playing it by-the-numbers, but at least he had enough sense to back out of Hellraiser: Revelations.  The supporting cast of Hellworld is your usual horror film youngsters all looking pretty, and ready to get ripped to shreds.  No one exceptional stands out, but they all hold their own well enough.  I don’t mean to be cavalier about it, but it’s mostly your standard horror movie performances.  There’s not a great deal of room for the actors to stretch their abilities, but it is comfortably above the cheap talent we’ve all occasionally endured in other horror films.

The effects here are about standard for the direct-to-video end of the series.  There’s very little that will jump out and amaze you at its awesomeness.  After watching all of these lower budgeted sequels, it’s difficult to conjure up anything substantive to say about the practical or visual effects.  At times with Hellworld, there is fast cutting, trying to give the film a more disorienting experience, but I can’t say it’s all that favorable.  It works as good as it can.  Unfortunately, it does little but to confuse an audience.  Computer generated imagery is, inevitably, made use of in this film.  You can’t escape it, especially on the lower budgets of these direct-to-video films.  It simply allows the filmmakers to do more while spending less, in comparison to practical, physical effects.

Now, despite the whole mixed bag of crap we have here, I do have to say that the cinematography and general look of the film is very good.  It is probably one of the better entries to establish a visual self-identity.  The use of dark and light along with a select color palette truly allow the imagery to pop out and be eye-catching.  Granted, we’re not talking Blade Runner here, but it certainly lends itself towards a workable and generally effective atmosphere.  While the production values are still rather sleek, the lighting helps to shadow almost anything that may, potentially, appear to be too cheap or fabricated.  That’s something to credit director Rick Bota for since he has a solid career as a cinematographer, but the film’s actual director of photograph, Gabriel Kosuth, deserves the credit for realizing this style.

While I have left two prior sequels un-reviewed at this time, I might get around to them eventually for compeltist’s sake.  In short, Inferno is one I’ve never liked at all, not one bit.  It turns Pinhead into a figure of moral persecution in the extremely little screentime he has, and gives us a fully morally corrupt and unsympathetic character as a lead.  I do own Hellraiser: Deader, but it’s been a long time since I’ve watched it.  I do recall it being very surreal, but it manages to tie itself back into the mythology with connections back to Bloodline.  I recall liking it enough to warrant a purchase when it was released, which was around the same time as Hellworld.  The summation of this franchise seems to be that it started out with brilliance and progressively got diluted into a mess of inconsistency and frequent incoherence.  It’s a very hit or miss franchise following Hellbound, but each entry, more or less, seems to have its fans.  Perhaps, some sequels would have been better films apart from the Hellraiser name, or simply judged in a vacuum.  However, it’s difficult to watch a lesser grade sequel knowing just how amazing and awe-inspiring its early predecessors were.

Taking all things into account with this sequel, there’s really too much going against it to make a recommendation for it.  The franchise just fizzled out completely with Hellworld.  Granted, there’s plenty of ways to rebound, but Dimension Films still seems like the wholly wrong studio to be controlling this franchise.  They don’t seem to care about making the best movie they possibly can.  They just want the most commercialized, wide appealing pile of incoherence they can put together.  In any case, there are worthwhile qualities within this film, but the negatives bog it down far too much.


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.