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*spoilers for Prometheus*

For a man who went unmolested by science-fiction for thirty years of lucrative and critically successful career, Ridley Scott was launched into the fold by the greats in the genre. Dan O’Bannon, Philip K. Dick — it’s writers and storytellers who facilitate the direction of great films, and without them, story seems lost on filmmakers. This wasn’t readily obvious until 2012, when the much anticipated Prometheus landed to positive reviews but bewildered fans. The writers behind the movie cannot be fully blamed, as a complex history and the tides of the industry crippled our great craft before it took off to realms unknown — albeit ones predictable and mostly disappointing.

As disjointed and odd a story as Prometheus is telling, its financial backbone and subsequent success (not quite Matrix trilogy but a lot for SF), alongside its critical evaluation, speak to a recent development in science-fiction film: people taking it as seriously as the filmmakers. If Sunshine were released today, it’d be a similar story, but it went largely ignored in 2007. I’m also 100% sure that our buddy Roger Ebert would’ve given AI: Artificial Intelligence a perfect score rather than a three our of four stars*. This is a post-Avatar world, and while these movies aren’t great sci-fi, I’m enthusiastic about seemingly new properties making money on nothing but quality, as was the case with District 9.

As we know, this wasn’t entirely the case with Prometheus, but thumbs up for not calling it Alien: Prometheus or Alien: The Beginning or at this stage, Alien. Yes, the big, slime-dripping elephant in the room is the Alien franchise, a sci-fi horror giant that languished in relative obscurity after the critical failures of everything after 1986. Somehow, the Alien cycle, even in the air around a movie, makes a big push, making me wonder about Blade Runner 2, and even something like the Arrested Development movie. Is there something to be said for audiences given time to grow while a franchise is on temporary hiatus? Was 2005 too early for Serenity? We’ll have to see, but I’m optimistic about both of those near-future projects.

Alien helped Prometheus find its space-legs but ultimately destroyed anything it may have been. There would be no latter without the former, but this is the story of how a space exploration horror tale can be beaten into ungainly shape by the hammers of reference and homage. This prequel is meant to setup a series, but is being pulled in so many directions. Not only does it attempt to be as mysterious as the original film while demystifying areas of the universe (effectively trying its hand at the delicate art of answering questions while asking them), it adheres to one man’s interpretation of a film that was expanded by numerous creators, and implies a new series of its own, leaving an open ending.

In an environment such as this, how does a story even survive? Not well, the bluntest answer I can offer given source material with Prometheus as its title. The plot, on the surface, is classic stuff — spaceship heads off “The Sentinel”-style to find the alien god, and bad things happen. The motivation for everything that happens however is nonsense, and the bad things that happen alternate being random and expected — bad in both ways.

It’s a new day, and as overviewed, Prometheus has a history. It isn’t something completely new, and therein lies the fallacy of prequels — the excuse of story. Well we don’t need to cook up something new, or perhaps we can’t, given constraints of the universe, and whatever we slap on the silver will be accepted, so long as we mention “corporate runs” or something during the crew meeting. The first act of the film, the setup and introduction to the characters and world, is further hurt by the fact that Alien’s setup is what’s consistently praised in that film, among other things. Whatever happened to novelty? Alien was the first (one of the first, I imagine) to have blue-collar spacefarers and talk of bonus situations rather than the fantasy trappings of humble beginnings and promise of a grand adventure. Arguably the greatest terror of the film comes about in a computer monitor readout, one mentioning in less than verbose terms that the crew is but a means of company advancement, and are expendable.

Prometheus does nothing new, and in fact becomes this year’s Terminator 3, eliciting the most excitement from me by reverse-engineering old designs. Speaking of which, the world of Prometheus may be beautifully rendered and designed, but artistically it’s analogous to what the movie is holistically. We have by the end a smooth, pointy-headed Xenomorph with two jaws and nothing sexually horrific about it, and a few miles away the H.R. Giger toilet-bowl ship. Under that haunting Space Jockey face, also designed by Giger, is a blank human face and body. Prometheus is a mixing bowl of the old and the new, the latter of which feels uninspired. The intrepid astronauts explore this new territory and everything that happens is par for the course if it’s old, or ridiculous it it’s new. But that’s the science-fiction fan talking. Prometheus is a popular film, so perhaps it has merits beyond the world and the Alien connection.

Unfortunately the characters are victims of predestination, in that they fill roles I didn’t even know still existed, and the plot gets jumpy after the first hour. With such a straightforward storyline, one wonders why so much is seemingly forgotten by the writers — and everyone else. Why does nobody seem to care that Shaw is covered in blood? Don’t those scientists she just beat up care? Aren’t they curious that she isn’t pregnant anymore? The Guy Pearce revelation can’t be that mind-numbing. And doesn’t Shaw want that alien to be dead? Of course not, because then it wouldn’t be Chekhov’s Facehugger.

There is no sound logic to the movie, but often times things like this can be excused if it’s a more cerebral experience or something emotionally satisfying. Prometheus attempts to poke questions on religion and evolution, as well as Arthur C. Clarke modes of thinking with the alien gods and seeding worlds, but this isn’t that type of story. In a sci-fi horror, we typically only know as much as the characters do, and they know nothing. They’re exploring. In Childhood’s End, the aliens would actually exposit, but all the aliens want to do in Prometheus is play Frankenstein’s Monster and throw a fit. Answers are ahead however, as the ending implies. So Prometheus is an incomplete story that hints at more than there was actual story.

It’s a lot like the video-game Gears of War 2, whose story was so laughable it’s good fortune the gameplay elevates it to triple A status. The creators got all sequel crazy as Scott and co. did, seeking to answer questions with questions. The effect that has on the story is that Delta squad is going from place to place for next to no reason. What are we doing here? Well we’re trying to answer questions with questions, so we can’t really say. Prometheus isn’t just a sequel, it’s a super awkward piece in an entertainment franchise — a quasi-prequel to one movie that spawned a series that became the identity of the franchise, which comes fifteen years after the last official release. I rewatched Strange Days recently, and I feel like Angela Basset grabbing a now Ralph Fiennes-shaped Prometheus and shouting that this is real time, Prometheus. Memories are meant to fade. That doesn’t mean Prometheus needed to replace Alien, but it didn’t need to be so submissive to it, as if whenever Ridley Scott attempted to lift the 1979 classic off this new one the tail tightened around the throat, and don’t dare cut the leg…

As bad as Prometheus is, I still enjoyed the movie, though not nearly as much as if it were merely average. I enjoy the trappings, the visuals that feel like home in this fantasy-strangled film climate, and the ideas. I don’t like it when those ideas are tainted by brainless philosophy (so this is what people see when they watch the Matrix sequels…) and reached by insultingly flat characters. There’s a moment in the movie that in any other would have me smiling from ear to ear — the supporting cast (one group of many), the pilots and Captain Janek, sacrifice themselves by flying the eponymous ship into the Giger craft, and while Janek imparts some final charisma (I liked his character), the other two crewmembers have a third act payoff in joky dialogue which is now somber in this context. A good idea, but hindered by the fact that these characters weren’t really in the movie, outside of setting up this payoff. It’s so unnatural and difficult to excuse, but it was the best moment aside from “DIE!” which was also stupid in retrospect.

*I make this crack only because the man seems to give everything four stars these days. But then you look back and you’re like — 3/4 for The Matrix? On what grounds?! Granted, Strange Days and Dark City and other important films of the time were given good grades — all the more important because nobody has ever seen those very mainstream, very American movies


Like Prometheus, I guess I never really truly imagined the day would come. Prometheus doesn’t even feel real to me — the Alien cycle is the closest thing to Star Wars I have in terms of movie fandom, and not even those damn dirty execs want to touch that franchise after two clunky AVP flicks. Prometheus won’t have the iconic Xenomorph, but it’s got Stringer Bell, so the excitement factor is through the roof. 2012 is officially the next 2009 — John Carter, Prometheus, Total Recall, Cosmopolis, even The Avengers (which was good!), and I suppose The Dark Knight Rises (don’t care!) — and now I’m hearing news that a real live, actual factual Blade Runner sequel is on the books, but for truth? It’s a good time to be a scifi fan, at least on the big screen. On TV… I don’t know. People seem to like that AMC zombie show.

On June 1st, Prometheus lands (using Halo marketing-speak), and it’s success will not only signal the future of this series within a series, but how Blade Runner 2 might shake out. In my opinion, Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good movie since Gladiator — but has he had to? Most filmmakers can’t lay a claim to three of the greatest movies ever: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, in this case, but Ridley Scott can. But now he’s doing something very, very important to the landscape of science-fiction — coming back to it.

Sure, we may tire of retreads and sequels, but the universe of Blade Runner at least, is rich (Alien is often said to be better unexplored, I agree) and inhabiting a subgenre screaming out to be revisited — hasn’t been done proper since ’03, though we’ve been getting recent respites in other fronts like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a Ghost in the Shell… Lucas Special Edition every so often. All of these things have been hugely influenced by the 1982 greatest-SF-movie-of-all-time, and have roots in cyberpunk’s 90s glory days. I’d love to return, and maybe this new Blade Runner will usher in a new generation of creators tuned into artificial intelligence and cyborg proxy soldiers, to whom the name “Tetsuo” means spinning dick-drills and giant nuclear babies that explode and destroy Tokyo.

I wonder if this new Blade Runner will be influenced at all by the over-the-top Japanese sensibilities that were themselves influenced by the original tech-noir, and the debut novel of the godfather of cyberpunk. That would be a strange and rare cycle between east and west that I’ve only so far seen in westerns. There’s a back and forth in the lineage of chambara (that the right term?) samurai and westerns, which are linked thematically; each generation become spritual successors of each other — between Ford, Kurosawa, Leone, and now Miike. It’s interesting, and if it happened to cyberpunk I feel like it’d be as natural.

Although thematically all cyberpunk is pretty much the same — what is human? What… do robots do? How fun would VR really be? — and not as poetic in this regard with the gunslinger/samurai, ritualistic violence and honor parallel, Blade Runner might use a touch of exploration, though being novel certainly didn’t help it commercially the first time around. I just think that by 2016, maybe 2017 when considering a two-three year turnaround time for Scott (after a movie set in the Middle East following Prometheus), we’ve seen it all. Cyberpunk was considered dead — for Christ’s sake there’s a subgenre called postcyberpunk — Blade Runner’s had its day in the sun.

Look Familiar?

But there is something interesting, something I like to stress as often as its relevant (not often) is women in science-fiction. Two of the most inexpilcably successful SF franchises of the day — Resident Evil, going five strong and soon to be six, and Underworld, on its fourth — feature female protagonists. So we’re getting there, but how about good characters, and good movies? Alien was both, and we’ll get that again with Noomi Rapace in Prometheus — and then with Blade Runner 2, believe it or not.

Some of the earliest news on this recent development is that Scott and co. (Hampton, but so far no Peoples, I gather) are pursuing a strong female lead, and this is very exciting.

So what’s to concern over?

Well, I suppose that this is just another in the line of redos and continuations of old properties, but hey — Blade Runner is Blade Runner. I love The Thing ’82, so I was super-excited when the new one was coming out, but Blade Runner is like… personal top five, and without a doubt the greatest science-fiction movie of all time. More of the same would be a hell of a thing.

For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory

Official trailer for Prometheus dropped yesterday. I’ve been plenty aware of Prometheus for a while now, being pretty enamored of The Sci-Fi Movie Page because I think that guy does pretty well with the news for movies of years down the line, but I guess it never occurred to me that Ridley Scott’s scifi would actually come out. To me it was similar to Metropolis, the Blade Runner sequel, or James Cameron’s Battle Angel. Too good to be true. But no, it’s actually done and here’s a trailer. I just about peed in my pants when I saw that post on The Movie Blog, and the trailer did not disappoint.

How could a trailer possibly be disappointing? Well, I don’t remember what I said about the first Avatar trailer either recently or in 2009, but that first trailer was pretty underwhelming. It was the art design that didn’t jibe, but because HR Giger’s on board for Prometheus — and it shows — Prometheus was immediately stunning. The cast is also amazing. I had known ahead of time, but Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce and Charlize Theron are in this; that’s great, and really speaks to not only Ridley Scott, but where we are right now in terms of science-fiction film.

These are all incredibly talented actors, and they take this space romp totally seriously. I think that’s one of the good things that Avatar did for our perceptions of the genre in film. I remember seeing one picture from Avatar of Col. Quarritch holding a futuristic looking gun and thinking, man — that could be from anything. That could be a still from Saturn 3… or Virus (note that there was only sky for background). How far we’ve come, that movies like Avatar share the lifeblood of its shameful forerunners, and garner mainstream and critical attention.

2012 is shaping up to be a good year for scifi movies. You got this, you got John Carter, there’s Total Recall… well not much else after that but hey even one is good. Just like this year, and better than last year. But. Prometheus worries me for several reasons. Even though the trailer is undoubtedly Alien-tastic (it’s now very easy to decipher all that marketing speak about having “Alien DNA”) and super wow, this has Avatar written all over it. There’s a reason why I brought that partic title up twice before — not just because it festers in my mind minute-to-minute — this is the return of a great director to a genre he started in.

When Avatar was coming out late 2009, it was James Cameron’s first scifi movie since his best, Terminator 2. It had been over sixteen years, and I know because I was born shortly after T2. That’s a long freaking time, man, but Ridley’s been out of the game for exactly thirty, by the time Prometheus will be released, unless you count that classic Superbowl ad. True, he never took any extended breaks from making feature films, but I have yet to see a movie of his after Gladiator that approached passable. I hated Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, and Body of Lies — they were just mystifying to me. It got to the point where my roommate and I were literally contemplating who was the better director, him or Tony Scott?*

We went with Ridley, because even though Tony’s got… Domino, Ridley does have a holy three that are some of my all time favorites. But it’s been so long. Scott followed Alien, one of the most important movies in science-fiction, and the powder-keg that led to everything from The Thing and Aliens to Event Horizon and Dead Space, with Blade Runner, which is the most important movie in science-fiction, and the powder-keg to everything. Blade Runner is so goddamn good it’s hideous. It did have a source material though, and I wonder now if that’ll help Prometheus

From where I’m standing Prometheus will be a prequel, but in a weird way. It’ll be like the Alien movies are spin-offs of a much larger property that just so happened to come out ten years later. This is fine, but the Alien movies were very quiet in terms of their mythology. You know, like why robots? What’s Weyland-Yutani all about? And of course that immortal question that inspired this movie — what the hell is that dude in the Alien ship? There’s something poetic going on here, and I like that every filmmaker involved in the Alien series proper handled the world-building the same way, which isn’t to say they didn’t. The universe is in the details, and nobody’s going around talking about FTL and Xenomorph morphology.

Not only would they logically just not be thinking about those things or even know them, the film is a medium quite unlike the novel. In a scifi novel, world-building is key, and sometimes king. Movies only have 90 minutes, not hours of your time. The vaginal and phallic designs on the walls and in the creatures — that’s the world-building. In time, we may have explanations to everything, and it isn’t so much I don’t want to know these things, but the impact this movie will have on the Alien series is yet to be known. Those four movies are very important to me, so c’mon Ridley. Don’t fuck up. Don’t make me wait for the action sequel, Prometheuses

I’m just kidding. Prometheus looks great, I heart hard for it. And the last time I concerned over a movie, it was The Thing ’11, and that one turned out excellent. Of course, there were low expectations going in…

*I actually do like some of his stuff

We’re familiar with the old filmmaking trick of revealing the monster slowly, hiding it in the shadows as Ridley Scott did so famously in his 1979 sci-fi horror classic. I suppose that principle is what holds Event Horizon back so frustratingly, even though there is no ‘monster’–there isn’t much of anything. The problem with Paul WS Anderson’s horror outing pre-Resident Evil days is not within its premise necessarily, but the filmmakers’ treatment of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the ‘hide the monster’ principle, as it worked so well in Alien, but the principle becomes an applicable principle to me when it descends into an irreversible part of film history, and filmmakers continue to carry on the tradition forever, so what we get is no monster at all until the third act. Ridley Scott would inadvertently spawn a legion of SciFi Channel Original Movies, which waste so much time with characters and plot and brief monster attacks scattered now and again, all leading up to a CG monster-filled third act, which to me says: this movie is an unforgivable but entertaining thirty minute film, stretched out into a 90 minute eye-gouge fest. Speaking of eye gouging…

It’s filmmakers who believe they understand how to work a proven formula, but are lost at the first sign of inadvertent complication, as in the case of Event Horizon, where they scramble with ideas and never really reach the sanctity of cohesion. The premise is summed up in three market buzz words: haunted house spaceship. Gothic horror in space, and remember folks, in space–no one can hear you scream (nudge nudge). From where I’m standing, which is typically outside the horror genre, haunted house movies should be about weird things going on, and the characters never really figuring out what’s happening, because it’s paranormal. Like in Paranormal Activity. It’s the classic case of characters not understanding the enemy threat, because they wouldn’t, and that makes it scary.

Unfortunately this movie exists in the hard realm of science-fiction. Trust me, this isn’t an endorsement of the stickler mindset of hard sci-fi, but for all SF stories, there is a requisite element of science. For those who don’t often traverse the speculative fiction genres, it might come as a surprise to find that science-fiction and fantasy actually mix very poorly. Star Wars is an anomaly. That’s what paranormal activity is, it operates on the principles of fantasy, and those simply don’t gel in a scifi setting, which implies more than ‘spaceship.’ Characters in this film, these scientists, can’t comprehend the hellish ongoings of the titular spaceship, the Event Horizon, so an explanation, except for a really shitty one at the end, is never given.

Though they try, and that’s the bulk of the movie’s action. Characters speculate and argue while being picked off one by one in different, usually pretty dumb, ways. What we have here is frustration born out of so obviously missed opportunities. The movie seems to struggle to figure itself out as the characters do, and we want it to get there, otherwise we’ve been investing somewhat in a pretty neat story idea for nothing. To have “Spaceship that’s gone to the end of the universe and back, who knows what it’s picked up” as a setup and reach no conclusion–or worse, the conclusion is somewhere between “this spaceship is actually a portal to hell,” and “this spaceship is alive, and hell,”–is incredibly jarring. You get to a point in watching the movie where you realize that the story’s actually done unfolding, and you’re disoriented, confused as to where you are.

What’s going on? You really missed it guys; the horror only comes out of guessing and imagining the setup’s payoff for so long; eventually the payoff has to come, and further horror exists in the payoff’s implications, or for its creation of further setups to Ten Little Indians death scenes. Because honestly, that’s what we came to see–an Alien ripoff. We have a crew in space, and they’re on a creepy spaceship. Instead of aliens, or demons, or biological military test experiments, we get something very intangible, something very close to ‘nothing.’ And Ichi the Killer, although Jason Isaacs hanging from hooks was actually kind a of neat effect.

Remember the good old days, buddy

So Event Horizon is broken as a horror movie, and long gone as a scifi movie. Does it entertain? Somewhat, but for incongruous reasons that aren’t even just ‘so bad it’s good.’ It’s another eclectic mix, which is a common thread I’ve found in the Paul WS canon. Take Resident Evil for example. Compared to its sequel, and I’d assume the rest of the sequel thrillogy, it’s practically the greatest movie ever made. But restrain yourself–it’s not. It’s a solid zombie movie with a few horror elements outside the shambling horde, like laser hallways and dogs, and one Licker, a mutant frog, if I remember correctly and icon of the games. It’s a pretty entertaining movie, but it’s not really a great film. I find that I enjoy it because of the laser hallway, the Licker, and Colin Salmon, but know that the story and art direction and everything is derivative, but not quite as slick as Doom. Good parts and bad parts, like a comedy movie that you laugh with and at, like 17 Again, if you’ve ever seen it. One or two surprisingly good jokes, but the rest is, you know, fucked.

Event Horizon has a great cast–Sam Neil, in one of his few roles, Laurence Fishburne right before The Matrix, Sean Pertwee from Dog Soldiers, and Jason Isaacs, from just about everything. There’s also the absurd stereotype black guy, who establishes himself very early on as the absurd stereotype, and never lets up–“I’m comin’ back, motherfuckers!” as the immortal line goes. Interestingly, this guy was played by Richard T. Jones, who you might remember as James Ellison, the best part of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In this movie, he plays a much less serious, much higher-pitched voice character, who must have decided that Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element was, I don’t know, a good idea.

Thing is, I kind of liked Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element, and I kind of liked this guy, because Event Horizon is a big dumb movie, and he fits right in. In a perfect world he would not, and Event Horizon would be an effective sci-fi horror, of which there are so few, although kudos Hollywood for Pandorum just a few years ago, which bettered this film, in my opinion, and for Sunshine, which wasn’t a slasher movie, but had that kind of spirit.

Event Horizon is compromised, but it’s a hard one to write off as a complete failure because the art direction is great, and it is generally pretty creepy. The jump-scares are lame, but otherwise I don’t know why more movies don’t go with the whole ‘people with no eyes,’ thing, because it’s totally scary. In fact, I knew there were eye-related things in this movie, which is why for the longest time I never watched it. Unfortunately I was much more frightened by the idea of Event Horizon than the actual movie. I’d rather just play Dead Space, and honestly… game wasn’t that fun.

If you’ve seen The Thing from Another World, the classic Howard Hawks film from 1951, you remember the vegetable Frankenstein monster, the snowy setting, the 50’s charm, and the iconic line, “Always, watch the skies.” It’s a movie about the clash of ideals, here between military and science, about alien invasion and heroism. It may not be as intellectual as The Day the Earth Stood Still or as recognizable as Forbidden Planet (to use its contemporaries), but its an entertaining ride with a few great moments and wonderful characters.

It is, though, very light. The characters never seem to take the issue too seriously, and this reasonably reflects on the situation. There’s really nothing all that scary about Frankenstein’s monster in the year 1951 when one has access to rifles and electric floors. Never once did I feel like this creature would be victorious, or even half of the crew would be injured. This is where I come in and say that John Carpenter’s The Thing is so much different – and it is – but comparing these two seems almost wrong. Yes, they are two very different movies on a tonal and visceral level, but more than that, neither of these movies should have to live in each others’ shadow.

They’re both major entries in the canon of science-fiction film, but it seems that rarely do sci-fi fans appreciate both equally. I don’t. With the coming of a third Who Goes There? movie, I begin to wonder just what people will make of this unofficial trilogy sixty years in the making.

But that’s not important now. Merely musing…

We’re here to talk about The Thing, because this is not only one of John Carpenter’s best, but one of the very best science-fiction films. Certainly one of the best horror movies, though many would consider it second as horror/sci-fi to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Just like how Robocop owes its production to The Terminator from three years earlier, Scott’s sophomore picture is the reason why The Thing exists as it does. It showed a world hung up on Star Wars that space wasn’t such a nice place, and that science-fiction was more than a pretty face. It was an acne-scarred, sniveling one.

After the dreary sixties, and I suppose the dreary seventies, Star Wars reinvented pulp science-fiction, the romantic heroes who got the badguys and heroines who got kidnapped. I wouldn’t say that Alien is necessarily counterculture; it was born of a rather brilliant idea of O’Bannon and Shusett’s for a horror movie – what’s the scariest thing you can think of (the answer of course being rape by alien) – but possibly The Thing is. It’s aggressive, paranoid, violent, raw.

And yet, it’s a callback to the original short story by John W. Campbell. Carpenter wanted to do what Christopher Nyby and Howard Hawks didn’t: talk about what people do when thrown in an isolated space with the most frightening thing imaginable. This creature takes the identities of others, as well as their places, and this begs the question “who among us are human?” Since you can only be sure of yourself, this question offers Reason 1 why The Thing works.

The other is something of a controversial thing, the effects. Nobody can watch the The Thing and scoff at Bottin’s makeup and animatronic monsters. They’re a highlight in eighties visuals for sci-fi film, an absolute horror and joy to watch. Not only do they look freaky, they move around in ways you don’t want them to and do things to really mess people up. But some people are so understandably taken by these effects that they’re distracted, or come to think that they’re the reason for the movie. While the effects amount to Reason 2, they also did a lot to hurt the movie’s critical reception.

This is certainly an odd analogy but take for example Higher Learning, a film by John Singleton. Critics liked it, but didn’t think it had a strong enough romantic appeal (strong character relationships) and believed the characters were stereotypes. Essentially they wanted the movie to be more conventional drama. Having character drama about romance isn’t the movie’s point, that would definitely draw away from its message, which is all about how radical thinking is proliferated through generations, masquerading as education. Why is it that film is a medium that must conform to certain conventions and standards? Why must we always be entertained by these things?

The Thing‘s effects shouldn’t be tuned down. Perhaps that thinking stems from our appreciation of The Thing from Another World, which creates suspense with no gore. What works about the effects in The Thing is their service to atmosphere. There’s nothing more scary than Antarctica. Oh wait there’s nothing more scary than a creature that can take our identities. Now there’s nothing more scary than a stomach that eats your arms. We’re touring through a nightmare reality, a terrifying hallucination that is testing these men, seeing how long they’ll dangle over the abyss before falling off – snapping and turning on each other.

It’s a Twilight Zone-esque character study with a budget. We have characters thrust into a situation that keeps getting worse, where even survival seems pointless. In The Twilight Zone, the cheesy effects actually serve a purpose (whether intentionally or not), they create a layer for us to pierce through and see what’s just below the surface – they force us to investigate, and be rewarded, more often than not (some of those episodes are pretty aimless). The Thing does have the effects. No big-headed aliens, no Sasquatch thingy on the wing. We have an effective glimpse at not an alien creature, but at an alien world, and it’s scary as hell. I suppose it is forgivable for people to be distracted, but it’s the two elements that are absolutely crucial.

That of course is neglectful of the characters themselves, the script, the direction, the acting, and the music (though Morricone himself earned the film a Razzie, forever sealing that organization’s fate for me as “jokards”), all of which are astounding, especially for science-fiction film. Only rarely do we see attention to detail on all fronts in a movie with aliens.

Will we see it again tonight with The Thing (2011)? I know we’ll at least see the effects. They’re in the trailers, and they look great, if a bit Dead Space-ish (ain’t nut wrong with that). I assume that lip-service will be paid to the who goes there aspect of the story, but that’s just fine. As long as a body is on a laboratory floor morphing in the most horrifying ways only to be blasted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flamethrower – that’s all I need.

Spoilers for District 9

I think that the first time I saw the movie, sitting in the theatre in August 2009, I was kind of down on the very end, where Wikus doesn’t transform back into a human. Of course, I didn’t fully fathom what the transformation meant. I knew there was allegory, that District 9 was thick was metaphor, and some of it was pretty blatant. But the transformation was a visual metapor, and this was something that didn’t quite connect at the time. The movie ends with Wikus’ wife talking about the alienized hero, and we see him making a flower out of garbage – both are notes of hope, and even though the ending isn’t necessarily ideal for our fast-talking protagonist, we know that the future is bright because one person was able to sympathize with the Prawns.

So what’s more important than the bright future, or even the denoument preceding it, is the ending fight scene. Often laughed off as a cheap action movie third act, giving me flashbacks to the dreary criticisms of Sunshine and its infamous third act, so much happens in the final action sequence, a culmination that explodes with an energy typically lost on modern day SF movies (I’m looking at you, every superhero movie ever made with the exception of Punisher War Zone). This is the quintessential sequence to showcase the expert craftmanship employed by Neil Blomkamp, as it combines all the great editing and camerawork we’ve now gotten used to as established eary on – but there’s a difference, a sense of gravity and weight to everything that is going on.

Van Wikus dons a mech suit and gets Christopher Johnson to safety, and then murders as many hostile PMCs as possible in appropriately angry and gory ways. It’s surprisingly visceral. We feel everything that Wikus does, as he goes on cursing everyone out and firing off lasers and rockets. He’s finally embodied the true essence of empathy and cross cultural understanding: he had long ago crossed the bridge between the worlds of humans and Prawns, but now he is finally able to do something about it – and he’s pissed. That’s what District 9 is all about. It’s a more-than-clever movie that combines sociopolitical philosophy with hard-hitting, unexpected, jaw-dropping entertainment, and does it in such a way where the former is an extension of the other. It works out so well because this movie was a very personal work from director Blomkamp.

It’s not a Ghost in the Shell scenario where action and philosophy sequences are often segregated (often, not always – recall if you will the museum sequence filled to the brim with tiny little metaphors), the ideas are embedded in the actions and events, and these actions and events just so happen to have the polish of top-tier science-fiction action harkening back to 1991. That the culmination of ideas could happen in this moment of rage and chaos and violence and works so beautifully speaks to the general consensus of the movie – nobody saw it coming. The trailers made it look good, but I don’t think that anybody could have guessed just how great it would actually end up.

In fact, let’s for a moment examine the other major science-fiction movie of 2009, something that certainly won’t appear under the “An Appreciation” moniker – Avatar. It was on television today and I was watching the ending war scene like ‘yeah, yeah, this is pretty cool stuff. I love space marines…’ but as it went on I just kept shaking my head and checking my watch (even though I was watching TV). There was something just so idiotic about the whole thing, and I really need to revisit that complicated film. But anyways I realized why I didn’t like the Na’vi, and along with I just like space military better on principle – characterization goes a long way, and it was largely absent here. Such is not the case with District 9. There are no cheap archetypes here, no wise mentors or heroic sacrifices from secondary characters. It’s a film that feels and looks genuine, not overdone and underprepared (somehow).

With Elysium still in development, or late development, we still can only hope that the infamous ‘sophomore slump’ that has claimed so many filmmakers does not extend to Neil Blomkamp, because his debut is in the same league as John Singleton’s and Tarantino’s. It’s not only set a precedent for his career, but for the science-fiction genre, and nearly two years later it has yet to be matched.

Not only has the original movie’s tagline become quite the cliche, such that it’s near impossible to riff on it because all the variants have been said, nearly everything else about it has been equally recycled into other, later pieces of popular media. Even to the day we see the influence of Alien and Aliens, in video-games from DOOM (originally supposed to be an Aliens game) to Dead Space (2008), and in movies like Sunshine and Pandorum and countless others. It’s a historical milestone in the genre of science-fiction, single-handedly lifting sci-fi/horror from dreck fiction to a level not seen since the classic Frankenstein films. Alien is a classic, Aliens is a classic. Alien 3 is one of the most underrated science-fiction films, or possibly films, of all time. Alien Resurrection is a story that can’t be approximated briefly in a cute sentence here.

The four Alien movies make up what is undoubtedly the greatest sci-fi movie series, and it’s about what scares us the most.

That was the origin in fact, that very question; Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett got together and asked. They came up with one word, an r-word that you’ll probably guess at with ease. What if that happened to you? What if the thing on the other end was a goddamn alien creature with a big old alien penis? What if you were in space, and no one could hear you scream? What if you discovered that there was in the end, no hope, but in your own will to survive?

Thus Alien was born, but first, perhaps we should take a moment to recall Alien 0.5 – John Carpenter’s very first film, Dark Star. This movie starred Dan O’Bannon as a hippie astronaut among hippie astronaut, and his assignment was to chase an alien through the various corridors of the ship. That sounds familiar, only the alien in question is a beachball with rubber monster feet attached to it. I don’t think HR Giger had his hands on that one.

What’s interesting about Dark Star is not necessarily that it’s a great movie, but that it silently impacted science-fiction and nobody but nerds knows about it. Nerds and Danny Boyle I guess, who paid homage to the 70’s flick by naming one of his astronauts in Sunshine after a character in Dark Star, Pinbacker.

O’Bannon’s next project would be a bit more popular; Alien went on to be quite the commercial success, which really set Ridley Scott up for a sophomore slump in Blade Runner. It’s a shame that the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? adaptation grossed so little, because it put the director off of science-fiction for thirty years. Blade Runner and Alien truly stand out in Scott’s filmography because of it, and because so much attention and craftsmanship was put into the film’s look. Matchstick Men looks nice, but it doesn’t have the classic lighting composition and atmosphere that heighten the tension or create a sense of apocalyptic decay.

The production design in Alien indeed is legendary, as you’ll see it repeated several times over in sequels and in pieces of media that bear a resemblance. The movie, intitially entitled Star Beast, was just as cool to rip off as Star Wars and the later Blade Runner – it was fashionable. All of a sudden science-fiction had a sense of range to it, and this is all thanks to the visuals. Star Trek and Star Wars told us that we could see the great heighs of man as imagined by creative masters like Roddenbery and Lucas, while Alien and Blade Runner told us we could shove all of that. The two movies have the classic ‘used future,’ look, and it makes sense in either context.

Alien finds its seven crewmembers on the Nostromo, a Conrad reference that seems fitting after The Duelists, which was Scott’s debut. As we discover from an initial conversation over grubby food, they are blue-collar workers. They aren’t talking about saving the world from space vampires – they’re talking about shares and getting paid. These are the characters who are established at the front of the film, and we get to know them by the time they reach LV-426, which I don’t think is named in the first movie, but will be revisited later.

The movie moves incredibly slowly, but it has to. There is narrative progression, and this happens on many levels. Because it’s a movie about what scares us the most, it’s also a movie about reaching out and touching that fear, as one would expect on the frontier of space. Thus we see our heroes experimenting with the alien facehugger, noting that it has acid blood and tightens around Kane’s neck when threatened, and then rallying together to try to find a cat-sized alien which is now loose in the ship after the film’s most iconic scene – the chestburster.

We assume that it’s cat-sized because that’s how it left Kane’s dead body, skittering off the table and into the depths of the Nostromo. When we find that it’s not, that it’s a rather large creature, we can’t be sure of anything. And that’s when the movie begins to really take off.

First, we’re frightened of the creature. It becomes a ubiquitous threat, always hiding somewhere on the ship, ready to pounce with its terrible tongue-jaws-dick. Then, we’re frightened of the Company. We discover that they’re so goddamn cold they consider the crew to be expendable, something that would repeat in every other movie about aliens, from Predator to Alien Lockdown. Then we’re afraid of each other – Ash turns out to be a robot, which is very phildickian. This provides for one of the most intense scenes in the movie, as Ash is bleeding and vomiting this horrible white ‘blood.’

Finally, we become frightened of the ship itself, our surroundings. It’s always been creepy, as the description of Alien as a haunted house movie in space is fair, but towards the end of the movie, it becomes hostile. Fog is blowing everywhere, emergency lights are flashing, alarms are ringing and Mother, the ship’s computer, is counting down until an explosion. Caught in the middle is Ripley, who’s had to experience the fears of all of the above, and is now struggling against the last.

We can only overcome these fears by being reborn, which is why the ship is the final thing to be feared, other than the fact that it makes for some great hallway-running sequences, which is also iconic. Ripley is reborn when she takes the shuttle out from the Nostromo, essentially breaking away from Mother. That’s not the end of the movie however, although we do get a sequence akin to Metroid‘s perfect clear ending.

If that was the end of the movie, the victory over her many fears would not have a measure, and the movie would be about nothing. The alien returns, and Ripley is able to defeat it by being calm and a badass. She harpoons it and sends it flying out the airlock, and she’s the only survivor, save one lucky cat. She is able to have this victory because of her will to survive, which is the only thing that can save you from your worst fears.

This is the point of the movie because we have to explore our worst fears to get to that point. That’s how we have one of the most excellent horror films ever crafted, filled with glorious set pieces and surprisingly intense moments that hold up thirty years later.

There is however one point of contention I have. It has to do with Ripley, who is played by Sigourney Weaver, the one recurring character (well, besides the titular alien) across all four movies. Considering that Ripley has at this point become at archetype, such that even to the day she has characters modelled after her – Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing prequel is taking on that role, which I look forward to – as she is the most famous heroine in science-fiction film, it’s disappointing to realize that her origin in Alien is born out of horror than feminism.

Indeed she is the Final Girl, and this is because she is a female, and because we assumed Tom Skerrit, who gets top billing, was going to be the last one out to shut Nostromo‘s lights. Once he dies, we can’t be sure who it’s going to be, thus creating more horror for the viewer because the Alien could jump out and kill anyone. She is the hero to take away audience comfort, not because ‘wouldn’t it be cool if it was a girl kicking ass?’ I’m sure there was some of that, but it’s certainly expanded upon more in the James Cameron (naturally) sequel, Aliens from seven years later.

For a more in depth look at Alien and the Alien series, be sure to check out Roz Kaveney’s From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science-fiction Film

Before we get into the pieces of Blade Runner I’ve found myself interested in, let’s go over the two men at the heart and soul of the film, Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick. Consider this, in addition, a prelude to another Dreck Fiction series, which I may or may not simply call: DICK.

Ridley Scott

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been a fan of Ridley Scott. Body of Lies, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down – these movies range from mediocre to terrible, and I haven’t seen a movie of his after Gladiator that I’ve liked. At the same time, he’s got this holy trinity of films that I absolutely love: Alien, Gladiator, and of course, Blade Runner. He struck gold with these, and each of them are deep in visual, literary, and filmic ways.


Ridley Scott’s tale of Rome and its power players is both an epic and a personal story; it’s very much about one man set against a massive backdrop, and the scale of the film is handled well within the narrative’s solid structure, which effects quick pacing and consistent storytelling. It’s classic revenge saga, and it’s very old fashioned. There is positively no gray in this movie – Maximus is the flawless hero, and Commodus is the gross villain. We want to see one kill the other really badly.

The character’s journey is incredible, and Maximus’ reveal to the Emperor is one of the great cinematic moments in history. The movie isn’t even entirely stupid, which one might gather as it’s called Gladiator, and seemingly is all about gladiators fighting. It’s a movie about politics and society and power, but through it all it’s about heroism and fighting for what’s right. It’s a movie that gets you amped up, and if I had only one complaint, it’s one that developed over the years – it’s not nearly as violent as I remembered. I guess I’ve come to be a gorehound, unfortunately.


The most famous science-fiction horror film of all time, Alien leads the charge with The Fly, The Thing, and The Mist in that very, very small genre. I enjoyed Alien when I saw it many years ago, but oddly enough, I’ve only ever seen it that once. It’s bizarre to me because it’s place in science-fiction canon is known to all in the Kingdom of Nerds, but I always opt to rewatch Aliens.

Much has been said of the set pieces – the facehugger attack, the spacejockey, the chestburster, the final showdown – these are all memorable, and I saw them a dozen times before and a dozen times after viewing the movie in full. There’s not much I can add. I can say that I’m entirely too thankful for the story brought about by O’Bannon and Hill, which was a universe big enough to carry on in three more great movies, and small enough to stay mysterious, scary, and compelling.

Philip K. Dick

My exploration into the world of Philip K. Dick has been greatly augmented by Internet research: online various essays and speeches of his can be found, and very cheaply his titles can be purchased through Amazon. In addition to that is commentary spanning all mediums, including The Greatest Movie Ever Podcast, which occasionally touches upon the many film adaptations of Dick’s novels and short stories, all of which released after his death in 1982.

Philip K. Dick is one of the most interesting characters in science-fiction, as his writing is thoughtful and profound, dark and hilarious. Moments in A Scanner Darkly made me laugh out loud, and they were paired with moments that made me extremely bummed out – in a good way. I have so much to experience that’s written by Dick, I’m sure my realtive virgin status is envied by many of his fans. He definitely strikes me as one of those authors whose books necessitate multiple readthroughs, but the first will always be the most powerful journey.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When I think cyberpunk, a few key titles come to my mind: Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. These titles established their own worlds, populated these worlds with characters, and explored ideas characteristic of cyberpunk. I see metal men, man/machine interfaces, AI, detectives, assholes, femme fatales, metropolises, future weapons, hackers – it’s all good stuff.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? stands out for me because it’s such a depressed novel. It builds a haze of depression that translates well into the smog that’s killed all the animals and is seen in Blade Runner. Cyberpunk works since have all had sad worlds, but there’s something about this particular world that really works on a deeper literary level. It is out to get the main character Deckard, and it’s always there to bring up questions of morality, humanity, and of course, reality.

Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick. One of them I’m very interested in. I can’t quite call myself a Dickhead in reference to reading his body of work, but I’m certainly intrigued and would like to know more. I think now I finally have the time to get some serious science-fiction reading in. Ridley Scott on the other hand is a director who hits and misses, but when he hits goddamn is it spot on.

Put these two together and you’ve got the start of Blade Runner. Of course, you can’t not mention Hampton Fancher and David Peoples and Douglas Trumbull… But I guess “Ridley and the Dick” sounded funniest to me.

For more on Blade Runner, check out The Blade Runner Directory


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