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A man like Neil Marshall makes Doomsday because he thought a futuristic soldier facing down a knight would be cool. A man like Neil Marshall makes two critically acclaimed horror movies and then obliterates expectations with his third.

A man like Neil Marshall is one the last great champions of genre cinema.

Though he’s in a league with Edgar Wright and Robert Rodriguez — the modern day John Carpenters of our world — he fell down with Doomsday, such that his next film, Centurion, went seemingly unnoticed, leaving his future in uncertain terms. It’s hard to believe, really, because the philosophy behind Doomsday was so genuine, though some might say naive. He wanted to make a movie so absurd you’d be compelled to laugh, but also find yourself enjoying some of the best R-rated sci-fi action in years — nobody makes movies quite like this anymore.

Dog Soldiers

I don’t think this is technically his feature debut, but it’s a strong start for a career nonetheless. Making use of minimalist settings and a creepy atmosphere, Marshall managed to make one of the few cool werewolf movies in existence. And certainly the last, though I’m sure a few movies made in direct answer to Twilight will challenge Dog Soldiers.

As one critic put it so well, this is like Alien, Predator, and Jaws all rolled up into one — but with werewolves. It feels derivative, but in that good way. It’s familiarity done with enough style and care that it feels fresh. There’s some gore, some ooh-rah soldier stuff, way too much foreshadowing, and a lame twist at the end. A formula for success, often necessary with such formulaic subject matter.

Right, there’s a lot of dog and wolf jokes/puns at the start of the movie. It feels like a beginner’s screenplay in that regard, but it isn’t quite enough to push it over the edge, into absurdity. Leave that for the one after next…

The Descent

I don’t care for this movie. It’s drawn out and the monsters are not scary or that well-designed. Visually, that is. In other regards, there’s implied history to them, and it’s pretty creepy, but I actually prefer the nonsense lizards from The Cave, or whatever the fuck. The Descent was white-knuckling in its first half, with these women being claustrophobic in caves, and getting stuck and running high tension. I can’t imagine a better place to set a horror movie. Cave-diving is not escapism, James Cameron.

The flaws of this movie, like the aloof narrative and out-of-the-blue moments could at the time be excused, or even appreciated, as horror movie unpredictableness, but the next movie would paint them in a new light.

Doomsday

When Doomsday was announced and the trailer was released, people whined. They said, “It’s 28 Days Later meets Mad Max meets Escape from New York.” Now, I don’t know what fucking planet these people live on, because no way does the combination of Mad Max and Escape from New York equal anything but Yeah. Was it just the derivative nature of the project that got people so frazzled? Perhaps it was an insult to their intelligence, because they perceived the movie to think it was being original, on the grounds that, well, most movies tend to do that. But of course the rip-offs were so glaring that it seemed to taunt the audience.

Doomsday, rather, the reaction to Doomsday, is proof that we live in a cynical movie-watching world. As soon as one watches the film, they’ll realize that the director was not only paying homage to these earlier movies, but having a complete blast with them. It’s the same principle, but on a much different level, as what Peter Jackson did with King Kong. Marshall wanted to introduce this genre to a wider audience, though he may not realize just how inventive the film actually is.

Yes, it uses the structure of Escape from New York as a base, but that’s fine because just like how Waterworld is a perfect Mad Max 3, this is a great sequel to Escape from L.A., following in the same conventions that that film set up — that being, this premise of crazy people clustered together is going to breed some batshit insane obstacles for the hero to meet. This post-apocalypse movie isn’t just about zombies or cannibals or viruses — Rhona Mitra’s character Maj. Eden Sinclair (awesome name) is going to fight medieval knights in an arena and get into car chases with barbarians who tape their beheaded girlfriends to one piece so they can drive together.

Doomsday in this regard recalls Total Recall, another gory 80s movie that didn’t come out in the 1980s. And much like Total Recall, Doomsday in its day was not well understood. There’s a joy in novelty and invention in Doomsday, and a lot of these scenarios and things are born out of sources we’ve all enjoyed, but kicked up to a new extreme. It’s not only one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade, but one of the goriest and most fun action movies too. This rabbit will be blown up by sentry turrets for — well, for absolutely no reason.

Marshall also introduces two things here that carry over into his next picture: a strong female character, and an impressive ability to have the audience invest in characters they know nothing about. For the latter, we have these two soldiers who survive by Sinclair’s side longer than they have any right to. I assumed they’d die at every encounter, because truly this is her show, and these guys have no characterization. What they do have, and this was seen in Dog Soldiers, is solid chemistry. Despite the carnage and the macabre setting, these two have a laugh as they take out cannibals with axes, and by goofing around — and even just surviving up to a late point — I didn’t want to see them die. For an action movie, this is a preferable, on-the-fly alternative to actual characterization. Good on you, Neil.

Then of course we have the tough girl, played by the woman who looks like a tough girl despite the beauty — Rhona Mitra. While she may not be as compelling to watch as the next female character to be discussed, Maj. Eden Sinclair is one cool chick, with a fake eye and a knack for killing gladiators. She’s a badass, but she’s a believable badass. Not only does Rhona Mitra look like an athletically capable woman (rather than Milly from Hard Revenge Milly, to use a recent example, who looks like a pretty normal person you’d see walking around), she isn’t the action hero god that trounces everyone. She gets beat up and tossed around, and this puts her on an equal playing field with the villains.

Last post I lamented the fact that Milly wasn’t the action hero god. That’s because I want a movie like hers to be a slasher flick, but with Doomsday, it’s more appropriate that Sinclair is a realistic badass. It heightens her moments of victory, and adds tension to hand-to-hand fight scenes with spears in swords… in the future.

Doomsday will keep you guessing, and Neil Marshall leaves you in good hands with Eden Sinclair, who’s got the tacit nature of her most obvious inspiration — Snake Plissken — with an all-soldier, no fucking around attitude that’s pretty rare, even for dude action heroes. It’s confidence without the one-liners, and the badassery to back it up.

Neil Marshall is also ballsy enough to take an unbelievably beautiful South African stunt woman and paint her face beyond recognition, and then behead her… and then reattach the head in vain. I am so ashamed that I skipped this movie when it came out in theatres. It’s right up there with Slither and so many others…

Centurion

Doomsday was a sci-fi movie that wanted to be a sword-and-sandals movie, so let’s just make a sword-and-sandals movie. While this one lacks the wacky nature and imagination of its predecessor, it has the same level of bloodshed and action. If you’re in town for a straightforward, bruising actioner, Marshall is your man. Centurion stars Michael Fassbender and Jimmy McNulty himself as soldiers of the Ninth Legion, which went missing during the expansion into Pict territory. This is that story, though historical accuracy is not something we come to a movie like this for.

We come because we know it’s going to be a ride, one with plenty of blood and running around in beautiful Scotland scenery. There’s also a lovely Olga Kurylenko all done up to look like a barbarian, whose Etain is savage as hell but still manages to look sexy. Indeed she is the greatest draw, and plays a great part in the film. Centurion, despite the violence and overall intensity (“I AM A SOLDIER OF ROME! I WILL NOT YAAYLD!”), borders on generic, and requires that iconic image of deadly Etain with her facepaint to stand out.

There was a moment in Centurion where I felt the story could’ve capitalized on the L.L. Cool J mentality from Deep Blue Sea, that of having two stories interwoven, where one is basically irrelevant and all the better for it, but the two soldier who get separated don’t have much screentime as such, and leads to an anti-climax within the narrative. I really thought that dude was gonna kill those wolves and make it back, which would’ve made no sense and been more Marshallian.

There’s kid killing and CG blood explosions — that which we adore from Doomsday, but none of the same elements that make you say ‘wow’ and sit up, save for a particularly nasty eye-trauma. Good, but not great. Memorable certainly for Etain, a performance that’s subtely animal, though we get the feeling that a great deal is blasting through that bloodthirsty brain of hers, maybe even some humanity.

Conclusion

Neil Marshall is a complicated thing. We’re not used to filmmakers who make movies because that’s their interest, and they want to make movies. Odd as it is to say. He’s not interested in the business or in making money, but having fun, which produces some of the most unpredictable and lively entertainment in movies today. Whatever his next movie will be, I can’t guess at subject matter, certainly, I can only hope that it arrives soon.

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Total Recall is among many of the short story adaptations of the author’s work, something that makes sense from a screenwriters’ standpoint, and hopefully from the producers’, because as Cronenberg has said of adaptations, they’re less translations than they are transformations. A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner are polar opposites when it comes to the method of their respective adaptations, and they serve as telling analogies to the difficulties of not only adapting novels, but adapting Dick. To the screenwriter, novels have structures that can be broken down into three acts, which based on the novel, may be true, but isn’t always, and thus these movies aren’t always successful. Look at Dune – well, don’t. I’m sure there were other problems with that one. *blek*

With a short story, the screenwriter sees story elements, and these can be transcribed onto film. And Philip K. Dick shorts usually have strong, high concept premises, so that’s what you’ll see in Minority Report and Total Recall and others – the premise, and story elements. Unlike Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau and Paycheck and the other PG-13 Dick flicks, Total Recall is lousy with MPAA-here’s-the-middle-finger-you-assholes moments. Bullets don’t rip people to shreds like this in movies, not even in John Woo. This must be the work… of Paul Verhoeven.

Before Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven was a force to be reckoned with as a champion of science-fiction film. He did a lot to sell the genre as an effective medium of satire, with each of his entries in an unofficial scifi trilogy – Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers – becoming increasingly bolder in their sociopolitical statements. They also share something even more important: they’re all great, fun movies. Big and full of explosions and car crashes and guns, guns, guns.

 

Total Recall, based on “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” by Philip K. Dick, is not quite as successful in its introspections Robocop, but at least as successful as Troopers, and this is just fine. At the end of the day, Total Recall is an Arnold movie, meaning it’s an iconic action movie with a lot of macho. Arnold is a presence, he’s the face of American action cinema, spanning just as many subgenres as Sly Stallone but with more success (in that, for example, The 6th Day was technically better than Judge Dredd), and he makes any movie he’s in an Arnold movie. Just think – Aliens almost had Arnold playing Hicks; it was very close to being an Arnold movie.

This particular Arnold volume has an interesting twist – it offers a few phildickian questions into the “What is real?” half of the author’s preoccupations, going so far as to create one scenario about mid-way through that’s reminiscent of Ubik. Sharon Stone and some fellow ‘working for’ Rekal approach Quaid and try to explain this scifi adventure away as a fantasy, that they’re simply avatars trying to reach Quaid from the other side. For a moment the audience is confused. Perhaps this isn’t real?

Then Arnold shoots the guy and there’s an action scene, which is great, though it washes away all that ambiguity in favor of what Total Recall prioritizes: action with a capital a. To be fair, there is enough narrative evidence to throw out the question, for example this has the John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness issue of insanity, where the audience can’t really be convinced of one character’s mental hiccups when the movie isn’t told exclusively from his viewpoint. Not every scene has Quaid in it, just like not every scene in Carpenter’s flick has Sam Neil. Yes, it would be interesting to have that question, and it is a good idea, but the scifi action movie is a popular medium, an audience’s medium. The Philip k. Dick novel is not, certainly not in the year 1990, at least, or whenever this film was first brought to the studios – a guaranteed long time before release.

For all its charm, Total Recall was a troubled development. Of all people, David Cronenberg was attached to it, which to me is just wild. To think that Total Recall could’ve been more Naked Lunch than Commando is an intriguing thought, but if Cronenberg was to adapt any Dick I’ve read so far I hope it’d be Ubik: there’s plenty of body horror in that one, with all the people dissolving and the android bomb and the guy who eats people whole. I could see it. Unfortunately Cronenberg’s sort of gone in a different direction, but A Dangerous Method still looks amazing.

Anywho, Total Recall eventually (or perhaps always was, I don’t rekal) got the treatment of Dan O’Bannon, another cult favorite, also responsible for genre favorites like Return of the Living Dead and (funnily enough) Screamers. I don’t know who did this, but somebody along the way did something really cool to the short story, which for quick recap, is much simpler, and quite the good laugh, though a different brand of humor than “Consider that a divorce.” There is dedicated imagination in Total Recall; it’s filled with a great many ‘things.’ The number of inventive gadgets and SF elements is staggering, each unique and often offering a set piece or clever moment (bursting through X-Ray wall, for example) as cinematic application.

In addition, there’s an element of metanarrative here that I’ve always found interesting, and this seems to be a common theme in Arnold movies, from Commando to Last Action Hero, and even Terminator 3. At some point filmmakers realize that the Arnold movie can be a delicate art – one that’s self-aware. This isn’t quite like that, but references to a secret agent hero defeating the badguy and getting the girl in the end are made by Rekal yuppies, and there’s no better quintessential secret agent hero than the Arnold. Layers of unreality, I suppose – stories within stories.

Total Recall is bursting at the seams with stuff. One-liners and gratuitous violence galore, it’s a perfectly, characteristically paced Verhoeven action picture. We never move from scene to scene without a big set piece, without Michael Ironside or Dick Jones running and gunning through a rich world. The production design in Total Recall is pure joy. The interiors kind of remind me of the Citadel and other planets from Mass Effect, where alien landscapes are in plain view right out the windows. The mutant effects, from the vagina-face dude to Benny’s arm, are all charmingly practical makeup effects. The big vehicles and the weapons are cool, so it goes. Check this one – it’s a classic.

See you at the party, Richter.

There was a moment in The Thing when I did lose focus and begin to drift, started thinking that I couldn’t wait to get home and watch some more Party Down. Indeed after the opening moments where we see that this movie isn’t characterizing its scientists nearly as carefully as they did in ’82, it slows down to something of an odd pace. The alien is loose and running around, and so are the characters. Scenes from the first movie (of this ilk) are recycled; we get a sense of where they’re going with all this, but it’s not engaging. This continues for only about a half hour/forty-five into the movie. After that, the gloves come off, and I saw exactly what I wanted to see – and more.

In the original The Thing, there are three major Thing set pieces that always stand out in my mind: the dog, the spider-head, and the blood test scene. They’re all self-contained pieces of fantastic horror, and they do exactly what most horror films skip over. In the new one, there is exactly one scene like this – and it’s a pretty good one. Keeping spoilers to a minimum (ironically enough), it’s the origin of the two-faced thing that gets examined in the original movie. The rec room scene, I suppose I’ll call it, has got a great transformation sequence, a lot of Thing-related fatalities, and above all – and this is what the original did that few other horrors do – it was really intense.

Watch the movie for this scene, because this is when it’s most like the Carpenter version. That movie alternated between dedicated suspense and high-intensity terror. That formula didn’t translate wholly to the new movie, which tries its hand at the suspense part far more often, and doesn’t excel. The rec room scene is key though; writhing body parts split off and start skittering away as the face moans its alien moan, flamethrowers aren’t working, tables are being flipped, people are screaming in horror – it’s an expertly done scene, and it gives us a really cool Thing monster, something that I’ll touch on later, because presently it reminds me of what this scene, and the movie, is very reminscent of.

That’s The Mist, the wonderful Frank Darabont adaptation of God-knows-who, which had, like this movie, somewhat CG-obvious creatures, fire-axes being used to kill said creatures, paranoia, and a nostalgic monster movie sensibility. I believe that when Darabont set about making The Mist, he probably wanted to do what Kubrick did for science-fiction with 2001 – make the ‘proverbial good monster movie.’ That’s why there’s a black-and-white version on the DVD.

This is something that sets both The Thing 2011 and The Mist apart from modern horror movies. Attached to the new Thing was a trailer for Paranormal Activity 3, which shambles into theatres this month. That’s the type of horror movie the demographic (teenagers) wants to see. They’ve never been into creatures and monsters – it’s all about just people, just dying (the Human Centipede definitively does not count as a monster). That’s why Final Destination does so well, and Saw, and all those slasher movies that find creative ways to kill people. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but hey – I love a good monster every once in awhile.

I know what you’re thinking – The Thing wasn’t really about monsters, because the thing never got five feet without being fried. The horror came from the transformation sequences, and all the grisly, disgusting inventions it cooks up to escape the flame. This new movie decided, thank God, to take things a step further, and this is the real reason to see this movie before it closes shop without making its budget back. The Thing doesn’t mess around. He wants two things – to survive, and to kill. Due to the limitations of the animatronics back in the day a decade before Jurassic Park, the alien wasn’t limber, wasn’t mobile. It wasn’t much of a hunter.

People are often face to face with a dribbling, fangy alien with tentacle face, or hiding from it without nothing but an ineffectual knife – these moments were a pure joy and certainly worthy of comparison to the 1982 flick. It’s simple really: the design is cool. Though I’ve played the games, the aliens look a lot like, or take the principle of, the monsters from the Silent Hill series. You take a human body and twist it into a four legged tentacle monster. It’s really the most unnatural, unnerving thing you could ever imagine being in the same room with.

Luckily our intrepid heroine is able to take action, and she proves quite capable in this movie. Picking up on the creature’s game pretty quickly (she probably got a few pointers from Kurt on the sets of Sky High and Death Proof), she leads the charge as Norweigans are being picked off all around her. I never really got to know any of these people. I know none of their names, save Sanders and Peder, though I don’t know who Peder is, just that his name came up in subtitles a lot. These guys, heroine Kate Lloyd included, aren’t nearly as memorable as MacReady, Childs, Norris, Palmer, Fuchs, Windows and the gang. When they died I was really more interested in their transformation, and what mutants their bodies would provide. I wasn’t really upset or anything, except maybe for the younger looking guy and the dude who gets killed by the facehugger arm – everybody was just standing around watching as he died a slow, horrible death. Pobre bastardo.

There is an ending in this movie that will undoubtedly piss off the purists. It’s a sure case of ‘we never needed to know that,’ but it’s like Gears of War 2, for those who played it – they show you questions, meaning they do things that are cryptic and try to maintain that less-is-more legacy that’s served the genre so well. In Gears 2, that was plainly amatuerish storytelling. Here, very little is gained, as mystery is uncovered only to give way for mystery, but it all seems useless, because the first mystery was so good.

The Thing was the Avatar and the Machete of 2011 for me. While I wasn’t as excited to see this as those two, this one is so, so much better. Would buy again, and indeed sometime in the future I’ll revisit this one to talk about the ending, and some other things that require spoiling for elaboration on. So for now I’ll leave you with one final recommending comment: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a total badass.

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.

And how could you not? As much as I know I’ll enjoy the film when it hits theatres in October, I know it won’t last long or be well-recieved or good. It’s just not a movie that needed to be made, but I look forward to it anyway as a fan of the John Carpenter original, a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and a guy who saw and enjoyed somwhat the Howard Hawks original original. The Who Goes There? story template is great, and even without that key casting I’d still look forward to it, even if it is seemingly just another in the line of horror remakes following the Wes Craven reboots of recent times and Friday the 13th and all that.

Horror is such a shitty genre nowadays that remakes don’t faze me. If original material turns out to be garbage like The Strangers, then I welcome familiar faces and ideas. I’ve come to peace with the fact that The Mist is the product of a brilliant filmmaker who probably won’t continue to dabble in horror (unless it’s Stephen King), and that M. Night Shyamalan is making some terrible, terrible choices years after his incredible Signs. Maybe it’s just fine by me because horror isn’t one of the genres I look for. I like horror/comedy, but I haven’t seen too many of those I’ve disliked. From Return of the Living Dead to Slither, the horror/comedy has been good throughout the ages, but I didn’t even like a horror classic like The Exorcist so how am I supposed to like its inevitable remake?

It’s a difficult genre, and I guess that’s why these filmmakers do it. Nothing is sacred, as people are bound to say, but I really don’t care about that. They’re not actively working to ‘ruin’ the original film, and the constant theory against the naysayers is that maybe attention will be brought to the old one with the release of the new one. Who knows? And that’s right – on some level John Carpenter’s The Thing was a remake, and it’s a classic, as is The Fly remake. Who’s to say that this new one won’t be? Aside from history and the formula it seems to be following…

In fact there are other things that concern me about this new movie. A long time ago I got into some farcical argument with a ’30 year old woman’ on YouTube.com, and it was on the video for The Thing 1982 trailer. Maybe you can still find it, I don’t know – I’m HeroOfCanton99, like Jayne and 1999 combined, the year I wanted people to think I was born in. Basically this lady’s stance was that she was uncomfortable with a girl being cast in the movie, because some seriously horrific things tend to happen to people in The Thing. I said “Damn it, I’m agreeing with you, you freaking moron,” but she didn’t really realize and continued to argue out loud to herself. It was surreal. Wonder what’ll happen when she finds out about the women in Gears of War “Curb Stomp Downed Enemies” 3?

I don’t feel entirely comfortable with it because I’m aware of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s history – three horror flicks, one where she gets killed, probably gruesomely. She’s assumedly not afraid of it, but I am. I don’t want to see that. I wouldn’t want to see it if it was anybody else, not just Mary Elizabeth Winstead, though that certainly doesn’t help. In The Thing, it’s not the character deaths that are actually gruesome: people die when they burn by flamethrowers. The terror comes out of the creature’s mutations, where faces split open and heads tear off slowly and painstakingly while tongues lash around and it’s the most horrible thing you’ve ever seen done to a human body. So awesome. God just typing that makes me want to watch the movie again. Really ingenious horror, and really cool sci-fi – the perfect blend captured here in this totally underrated flick.

If Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s head falls off and turns into a spider I might just vomit, but I’ve made a speculation as to what happens in this new movie:

The Swedish guy at the beginning of The Thing was a guy, not a girl. That means that she either dies in the helicopter explosion, dies earlier, or escapes to the mainland. I think that she’ll escape and leave the male hero to chase the dog and magically become non-foreign. Maybe that’ll pave the way for sequels… which is an odd thought. Hm, if they made a Thing remake trilogy, that would mark one of the strangest movie series ever.

That’s only a guess. Chances are she gets killed by a massive Thing monster, because I hear that we’ll see different forms of the creature, which is a good change of pace. Maybe one form will be Frankenstein’s monster, like the 1951 movie. HRRRNGGG

Another issue I have is an idea resulting from a filmmaker’s passion for the original movie. When McG, a big fan of the Terminator movies, made a Terminator movie, he had a lot of visual call-outs to the earlier films, particularly the first. I didn’t mind; I thought it was cool because I share his sentiment that those two movies are totally sweet. But if the director of The Thing (I’m not going to try to spell his name) also does this visual homage deal and has similar things happen, for some reason I don’t see it as working, perhaps because of the proximity to this story to the 1982 one.

In other words, won’t it be silly if the crew of the 2011 had a blood test scene if only days later a different crew did? Eh it’s a nerdy complaint, but that’s why it’s an issue and not a problem, I guess. Also, will this movie take place in 1982? Or will it be like Casino Royale (2006) and take place in the future of the 60’s Bond films, despite its chronology as first in the series?

So that’s it. If Avatar and Machete were the most anticipated movies of years previous, well, that’s not a good track record, so The Thing better work out because I definitely look forward to it more than… Captain America? If they do things similar to the 1982 movie I don’t see much margin for error, but that’s probably what was said about The Phantom Menace. Well, that’s definitely what was said.

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

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