Wednesday, January 21, 2009

ATAGM #1: Alien 3 is My Longest Blog

Awful Things About Great Movies has been in the stars for a while. This shall be my finest hour. No slip-ups here. This is important. This means something. For in this blog, I shall -- for all time and beyond a shadow of a doubt -- belie the myth that Alien 3 sucks. I will go further. I say that Alien 3 is a great film. The awful thing about it is that it's been forgotten and brushed aside for 16 years. Alien 3 was not a hit, and almost immediately after its release dealt with brutal, unforgiving reviews. As the web came to light and grew, online fanboys and so-called Alien devotees have not been any kinder. There are few entries into major film franchises that have endured as much ridicule, dismissal, and unsupported mockery as has this film. Even Jaws: The Revenge and Rocky V don't take as much crap. As much as I think Alien 3 holds up and needs no defense, I feel compelled to do this, once and for all. Years ago, I had a brief defense of the film posted on the long-since-defunct This one will be anything but brief. I'm suddenly inspired to get this written because next week I will see it on the big screen for the first time. So let's do this. Spoiler alert.
After the success of Alien and Aliens, expectations for the third chapter's critical and commercial success were high. 20th Century Fox, to their credit, realized that much of the first two films' awesomeness was owed to the studio's having taken chances with big budgets on relatively untested directors. At the time of Alien, commercials director Ridley Scott had made some television, some shorts, and one feature (the gorgeous and too-seldom seen The Duellists). At the time of Aliens, James Cameron had made some shorts, a craptastic feature (Piranha II: The Spawning), and one successful feature (a little indie that found studio distribution, called The Terminator). For Alien 3, Fox initially went to Renny Harlin (mercifully, that never came to fruition), then went to a Kiwi filmmaker named Vincent Ward. Now, I'm no big What Dreams May Come fan. That's the film for which Ward will best be known to Americans (it was made well after Alien 3). But at the time, he was known for several films from New Zealand, not least of which was a film called The Navigator, which -- full disclosure -- this blogger has not seen. Ward developed an Alien 3 script, but left over some creative and/or budgetary disputes with Fox. Vestiges of Ward's impressive concept -- chronicled on the DVD -- remain in the finished film, but this blog is not about Vincent Ward's Alien 3. Fox ended up going with a commercials and music video director: a one-time Lucasfilm special effects technician named David Fincher. Fox couldn't know that this man would later bring us Seven, The Game, Fight Club, and Benji Button any more than they could have predicted Scott making Blade Runner, or Cameron making The Abyss or T2 (Did Cameron make anything after that? I certainly don't remember anything.). My point: before the film was even made, Fox had struck lightning thrice in the same phallic, xenomorphic spot. It's quite the triple play of great directors with beards.
I'll spare you a blow-by-blow summary of Alien 3's plot, assuming that if you're reading, you've seen it. As a refresher, the gist is this: immediately after Aliens, an electrical fire onboard the Sulaco (caused by an alien) causes heroine Ripley, Marine Corporal Hicks, cherub Newt, and the remains of android Bishop to crash-land on Fury 161, a prison planet inhabited by a lot of Cockney double-Y chromosome inmates. Ripley is the only one who survives the crash, and she spends the film navigating the awkward and dangerous waters of an all-male population of violent criminals. In the midst of this, she can't shake the feeling that she hasn't outrun the monster. That's because there's one on the loose.

Right off the bat, Alien 3 takes an unexpected turn, and this, I believe, is how it first lost so many fans. The deaths, before the film even kicks off, of all but one of storyline's remaining characters, is a bold move for a major Hollywood franchise. By Aliens' end, James Cameron has created a surrogate nuclear family: bad-ass mama Ripley has coupled with the handsome, square-jawed Hicks (albeit without any outward romance), adopted the orphaned Newt, and made peace with the family pet, who, I guess, is the crippled Bishop. They fly off into the stars, ready "to dream" in peace. BAM! They're dead. Sure, this rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But people, please... what part of the Alien series led you to believe that this was a story meant to fill your heart with sunbeams and fairy dust? From the first masterpiece of the franchise, in which a group of laymen are deliberately sent into harm's way by a megalomanical corporate system which considers them expendable, this is a universe in which bad things happen mercilessly.
Alien, a product of the post-Vietnam era (but maybe I'm over-reaching here), paints a very grim picture of a universe in which the innocent will suffer at the hands of a monster, let loose by an even greater, faceless evil. No amount of ingenuity or decency can save Dallas (the prototypical, heroic good guy) or his crew from certain death. Only one, Ripley, survives. But by the second film, Ripley is too psychologically damaged by the experience to be a functioning member of society. Not only that, she's also decried as a Cassandra by those responsible for her experience, stripped of her flight license (and hence, her career), and -- as we learn in the far-superior and widely available Aliens Director's Cut -- she has lost her daughter due to an abnormally long hypersleep in space. When given the opportunity to reface the demon that destroyed her life, Ripley seizes it. She goes so that she can sleep at night, and she goes because this time she's supposed to be protected by a squad of Marines. Of course, almost everyone dies, unprepared for the enemy, and undone by more corruption and treachery on the part of their human superiors. Those who survive do so because they are spurred on by Ripley's strength.
So, by the time of Alien 3, the series is about many things, but it's not about happy endings. It's about paranoia, claustrophobia, weakness versus strength, force, reason, science, trust, greed, pure evil, and primal horror. Swiss artist H.R. Giger's iconic and utterly sexual alien anatomy and physiology designs led to some serious Freudian analysis of science fiction. And, of course, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley ushered in a renaissance for feminist Hollywood (a slimy sci-fi action flick received a best actress Oscar nomination in 1986, lest we forget). So yes, for her suffering, Ripley gets her "family" together. But I submit that it would be a betrayal of the series' tone and purpose to continue without snatching back Ripley's fleeting happiness. The superfluously thorough 9-DVD Alien Quadrilogy box set is, much to my chagrin, chock-full of interviews with Alien 3 apologists (some of them cast and crew from the series itself), all of whom bemoan the film's opening twists. It's been a while since I watched the interviews, but I remember Cameron saying something like, "I wanted to see that family go off and continue to fight the alien together." Yeah Jim, I bet you did. Wouldn't that be lovely? Newt could just strangle facehuggers while Mama Rip would melt warriors and Papa Hicks would blow up the queen. Yeah, I'd buy that movie.

Bull. I get that a lot of people wanted to see such a movie. I know that people were swept away by how ass-kicking Aliens is. I agree. But James Cameron's Alien 3 would have been too much of one good thing. Perhaps the most astounding thing about this series is its ability to reinvent and not to repeat itself. Who knew there were so many ways to present the same slimy phallus-beast? Alien is a straight-up, balls-out horror film -- it's about what's lurking in the dark, and even through its ending it maintains a pretty cynical, pessimistic tone about our inability to fight such horror. Aliens, while still scary, is more of a combat film. It's about overcoming the horror and terror with teamwork and courage (kind of a Howard Hawksian approach to story: "people getting s#!% done"). Sure, people die along the way, but this time, it's sacrifice in the name of defeating an enemy, whereas, in Alien, it's just tragic, "expendable" loss. Had the saga continued on that "kick ass and take names" note, it would have become just another redundant sequel. Fun, perhaps, and maybe even a good movie, but a waste of an opportunity for a climactic third act.
That, to me, is exactly what the original Alien Trilogy is: a perfect three-act space opera. It is the story of Lt. Ellen Ripley, an intelligent, virtuous woman who is thrust into the most sinister and extreme of scenarios. She survives the horrific first act, battered and weaker. She emerges from the test of the second act stronger and none the worse for wear. The third act, then, must throw new challenges at her, lest the narrative become stagnant. So at the top of Alien 3, Ripley loses everything she holds dear. It's pretty classic dramaturgy: Act I, establish a problem; Act II, begin to combat that problem; Act III, make problem seem insurmountable, leading to dramatic climax and resolution. That's what we get here. Ripley's recent victory evaporates, and so, too, must her gung-ho attitude as she prepares for the greatest test of all.
The opening of Alien 3 is, for a die-hard fan, emotionally devastating, as it is for our heroine. I remember well the "holy crap" sinking I felt in my stomach, the first time I watched the film. Incidentally, the first time I saw both Aliens and Alien 3, as a wee fanboy, I watched them back-to-back. As such, I was riding high from my virgin viewing of Aliens. "Yeah! She got sweet revenge on the alien," I thought. Then, suddenly, "No! How could they kill everyone?" But that sentiment is misplaced when it is held against the film itself, or against the filmmakers. While watching It's a Wonderful Life, when Mr. Potter shows himself to be a dishonest crook who won't give George Bailey the money that's rightfully his, do you think, "Potter, you villain! I hate you," or do you think, "Damn you Frank Capra! I hate this movie!?" Too many Alien 3 haters displace their emotional involvement in Ripley's fiction, converting it into real-world hate of the fiction writers. There is another person who once reacted thus, and her name is Annie Wilkes. In Stephen King's Misery, Annie, devastated by the death of her favorite character in her favorite fiction series, holds hostage the series' author, torturing and mutilating him until he agrees to change the fiction, after which she will kill him so that the fiction ends as she wishes. But Annie Wilkes is a solipsistic, psychotic murderess, as may be -- for all I know -- these Alien 3 haters who disregard the film merely because it doesn't unfold as happily as they'd like.

If you hate Alien 3 because you don't like how it opens, I have little patience for your crtiticism. You have decided to be an Annie Wilkes before the film has even begun. If you are an Annie Wilkes as concerns the film's ending, then we have more to talk about, but I will still disagree with you. Here come the biggest spoiler alerts of the blog. By film's end, we learn that Ripley is "impregnated" with an alien queen. Distracted by the paranoia she felt regarding Newt's death, and by the danger of a new breed of alien warrior running around the prison, Ripley can not have known that she herself holds the potential key to limitless death and alien terror. She knows that the omnipresent Company wants the specimen which is inside her, and she knows that human life is meaningless to such a supreme evil. She can not trust human-Bishop's promise to save her life by removing the parasite. Of course, the only alternative to giving that trust is to accept death. By the time Ripley is cornered in the final climax, the choice is clear: suicide is the only way to protect humanity from the monster, and to dash the sinister machinations of the Company. This death offers a moral victory and martyrdom -- the symbolism of which can hardly be denied.
Ripley's death is clearly the moral high ground in that fork in the road. But some still reject the fork itself. Why put Ripley in that situation to begin with? Why kill off the heroine? Why destroy the only constant, enduring force for good in this world? I say because this is Act III, gang. This is the story that needs to be told. Ripley has played the damsel in the slasher flick-cum-sci-fi thriller. She has opened up the can of whoop-ass in the action movie. Now it is time for her to face something from which she can not run and which she can not stop with force. That is the essence of Alien 3, and that may be alienating (forgive me) for many. The film doesn't have as many scares as Alien or as many thrills as Aliens, but rather dwells on very grim corners of the human psyche. Ripley is surrounded not by colleagues or by soldiers, but by the worst misfits of society: rapists and murderers, all supposedly reformed by religion but clearly dangerous. She is with the dregs of humanity, stranded "at the ass-end of space," with few options and fewer allies. And, despite the relative quiet of her surroundings (after the war zone of Aliens), the problem she now faces seems more insurmountable than anything she's faced before. Even on the Nostromo in the first film, she had weapons and a crew of allies who were just as afraid as she. Here, she has trouble convincing anyone of the looming danger, and once she does, she has to compete with the absence of any weapons more formidable than a fire axe. Eschewing the conventional Hollywood wisdom that "more is more," Alien 3 does not pile on the spectacle, gadgetry, and "strength in numbers" philosophy of a typical sequel. Aliens took that approach, and did it very well, but this is something different. Alien 3 gets back to basics, and rather deftly handles the subtle notion that the greatest adversary is within, not swarming about in the form of a slimy horde with teeth. I celebrate the film's twist of putting Ripley in this situation and then killing her off. It is gutsy, unconventional, and makes for an utterly unique film.

So let's assume that you're with me so far. What else is there to hate? You don't like the strange cast of mostly British inmates? You miss the smack-talking Marines? Deal with it. The Marines had their day, and got beat. Ripley is a stranger in a strange land here. The ensemble of enigmatic inmates only bolsters that notion. And this is a most excellent cast, full of faces you've seen, even if you don't know their names: Charles Dance, Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, and Pete Postlewaite are awesome. And who can forget Charles S. Dutton as Dillon, the gang's spiritual leader, who found God and can only see the alien as a sign? His con-turned-amateur preacher is a most unusual presence for a mainstream sci-fi film, but Dutton makes him believable; Dillon is right at home, exactly where he should be, bringing a little faith and discipline to a rag-tag clan of miscreants on a small, forgotten outpost in the furthest reaches of space. I love this gaggle of characters.
What else do you dislike? You miss the queen and the hive of aliens? One rogue monster not enough for you? Come on, did you see the first film? There's no law that says you can't cut back. This is all part of Alien 3's "less is more" surprise. And it does offer something new: incubated in a quadraped rather than in a human, this beast is faster and more agile than anything Ripley has encountered. Fincher called it a "cross between a freight train and a jaguar." Oh, what... you think that motion-capture digital puppet looks fake? Come on. It's actually a pretty advanced effect for the time, and a well shot, dramatically motivated effect is always more important than a seamless technique. Have you ever seen the Wizard of Oz? Or a Ray Harryhausen movie? Or King Kong? Dated FX need not diminish a film's greatness. This is a fantastic movie monster, logically consistent with its predecessors, yet memorable in new ways. The face-to-face scene with Ripley is, to me, as scary and iconic as Alien's chestburster, or Aliens' majestic queen.
I simply have yet to hear a criticism of Alien 3 that holds any water. This is a rich, frightening, and surprisingly complex film. Remnants of Vincent Ward's original story -- in which the prisoners are actually monks on a man-made, wooden monastery planetoid -- can be seen. The film is steeped in religious imagery and metaphor. The notion of cleansing and rebirth, so inherent in the alien's lifecycle, is finally given some poetic treatment by the series. Resurrection and virginal birth find literal, gruesome context in the xenomorph's gestation process. Ripley, so abused and tested beyond reasonable limits, now facing internal demons (literally), has something new questioned: not her strength or her stamina, but her faith. Dillion asks, "Do you have any faith, sister?" Ripley's answer is "Not much," but by film's end she has shown what the courage and selflessness of one can do for the good of many.
In terms of technique, the film is a near masterpiece -- a triumph for a first-time feature director. Alex Thomson's lush, shadowy cinematography gives this film perhaps the most singular look of the series. I once read that Blade Runner's Jordan Cronenweth even shot some scenes. Norman Reynolds' production design is likewise impressive. Fury 161 looks like a castle keep or a cathedral as much as it does a futuristic prison complex. The sets are majestic, yet decayed and grim. The place looks lived in, utterly plausible, and thoroughly intimidating. Terry Rawlings, who edited the first film, returns to give this film a frighteningly taut rhythm. Elliot Goldenthal's score is one of the great overlooked masterpieces of 90's film music. He melds choral requiem with electronic ambience and full, booming horror orchestra. It's a gorgeous score, full of grandiose melancholy, but appropriately without iconic theme music. The series has done well to avoid a catch tune. It's hard to imagine the series with a Jaws-like "duh-dum." Ripley is not John Wayne. She iconoclastically avoids a theme song.
Ripley is, by this chapter, a hero of nearly mythic status -- at least to the audience. Fincher's camera rightfully idolizes her (low angle shots abound). He knows that this opera is not about space monsters or evil interplanetary corporations. This is the story of one woman. But she, humbly, doesn't think of herself heroically. That would be too Cameronesque. She might have had a chip on her shoulder had things worked out differently, but life (the alien, the Company) keeps smacking her down. And yet she fights on. We must marvel at this, because we have been pummeled with her. The Alien Trilogy is a draining set of films. They are depressing, harrowing, and violent cinematic experiences. Those of us who don't misplace our anger at the death of Newt and Hicks may then feel Ripley's loss with her. We endure and suffer with her, rather than act as casual observers to the horror. That voyeuristic relationship between audience and killing, exemplified in Psycho, finds home in many a slasher film, but that usually means that the killer, not the hero, is the more charismatic or memorable character (Norman Bates, Jason, Leatherface, etc.). People may come to Alien films for the monsters, but their constant anchor in the drama is Ripley. Without her, an Alien film is just a smorgasbord of gooey death with no gravitas (more on this later).

But Alien 3 has plenty of gravitas -- more, it seems, than a lot of "fans" cared for. My theory is that there are a lot of fans of the second film, Aliens, who mistake their enthusiasm for love of the Alien series as a whole. They say, "I'm an Aliens fan," when they mean, "I'm an Aliens fan." I know why Aliens has fans. It's a butt-kicking movie. It's a sci-fi nerd's heaven, full of geek tech and nifty monsters. It's an action buff's wet dream, full of big, noisy guns and badass Marines. It's well paced, well written, well acted, and a great piece of film craft in general -- Cameron at his best. I love the film. You don't need to convince me. But to consider the film the pinnacle of the series, rather than the middle third of one bigger movie is, in my opinion, narrow-minded. After Alien became Aliens, these people wanted to see "Alienses," but got Alien 3 instead. Most of these fans espouse some version of the same line: "The first one is the scariest, but the second one is totally the best. The third one blows." Unfortunately, these are often people who enjoyed the fourth entry, Alien: Resurrection.
That leads me to the elephant in the room. Why have I only spoken of the films as a trilogy, when it's actually a quartet plus two later prequels (Alien Versus Predator and Alien Versus Predator: Requiem)? I admit my bias: I dismiss Resurrection with about as much zeal as do many haters diss Alien 3. I will save a detailed tearing-down of the fourth film for another blog (don't get me started), but surely, by its own title, the film admits to being an afterthought. Ripley died, and is literally brought back through the most contrived and nonsensical of means. The three-act opera was finished, so in a sense, this is the first sequel to the perfect, previous, 1-2-3 punch of the trilogy. The two AVP flicks are spin-offs, existing outside the Ripley narrative, but cleverly placed in the Company's universe, albeit hundreds of years earlier. As mediocre as I find these two films, they actually have some of the most graphic, disgusting moments of the series to recommend them (but not much else). But for the purposes of defending Alien 3, I really don't need to discuss Alien 4, or AVP's 1 and 2. I merely mention them as evidence of what I think is questionable taste on the part of "fans."
The first film is my favorite, but I've made no secret of the fact that I think Alien 3 is superior even to Aliens. There, I said it, and here's where I lose many of you, I know. Of course, I doubt if anyone has made it this far into the blog anyway. I have seen both films many times, and I find that Aliens wears all its tricks on its sleeve. I love Aliens, as I've said, but Alien 3 gets richer and more impressive with each viewing. Aliens pretty much stays the same every time. There's nothing wrong with that. But this is not a blog about about pitting the films against each other. This is about Alien 3, and I'm telling you, if you only watched it that one time years ago and haven't since, go back to it.

When you do, get a hold of the Special Edition cut. It's nearly 30 minutes longer than the theatrical cut and is even better. A lengthy subplot is restored which greatly enhances the character of Golic and creates a more frightening "alien as God/Devil" layer to the film. By most accounts, this "assembly cut" was Fincher's original submitted version of the film, but lengthy, ugly fights with the studio resulted in the much abridged -- and slightly less elegant -- theatrical cut. Sadly, this longer version of the film can not be considered a "director's cut." Fincher famously divorced himself from anything having to do with Fox and the film after the fact. He is conspicuously absent from the special edition DVD features. After Alien 3, he was known to say that he'd had enough of Hollywood and would direct no more features. Thank heaven he changed his mind. So, perhaps the the real awful thing about this great film is the hell it created for its creator.
For her own part, it's hard to get a sense of where Ripley herself stands on the film. Weaver is gracious as hell, but who knows what she might be hiding. And remember, I may love this character, and adore her real-world persona, but this is the woman who starred in Alien: Resurrection. But I don't want to speak ill of old Sig.' She supposedly agreed to do Aliens 3 and 4 on the conditions that she would get to a) sleep with the alien and b) die. Understandably adverse to option a, Fox skipped ahead to killing her off in 3. But when money was to be made on a fourth installment, they found a way to have her "sleep with" the alien, to lure her back. Again, don't get me started.
Alien/Ripley love scenes aside, Weaver seems to have known what was good for the series, at least as concerns the third installment. She knew it had to end. Endings are bittersweet for fans sometimes, so I understand why Alien 3 is a hard pill to swallow, but it's worth taking. The amount of hatred and chiding aimed at the film online and off is perplexing and enraging to a fan such as myself. I remember well when, while coveting the big DVD box set before its release date, I found an advance review online. The reviewer made repeated references to Alien 3's "betrayal" of his love for the series. I'm sorry, Jason Bovberg, but I want to smack you in the mouth. You guessed it: he's a guy who "can enjoy" Resurrection. He'd be content to watch Ripley fly from planet to planet, vanquishing horde after horde of alien fiends with an assortment of cleverly nicknamed space Marines and an implausibly resilient blonde-haired cherub at her side. That would be a kick-ass triumph for Ripley, I'm sure he thinks. Alien 3 won't satisfy that bloodlust, but it is completely satisfying in its own right. Ripley does vanquish evil. But her triumph is more impressive, and more gut-wrenching, than the atomic explosion at the end of Aliens. Ripley's victory -- and, by extension, Alien 3's -- comes against the darkest and most dismal of odds. Act I: Fear. Act II: Revenge. Act III: Redemption. It may not be a happy ending, but it is the correct ending. Alien 3 haters... I say your opinion is incorrect. Those of you who made it this far... go outside and play right now.

A friend of mine just posted a link to a "Trilogy Meter" on Facebook. In the bottom corner, one finds this snippet. Dan Meth, I've never met you, but suck it. You lost me at column 2 being higher than 1. We've gotta fight this epidemic, people. Go rent the Special Edition cut. Spread the love.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hello, Tony!

I am only moderately embarrassed to admit that I really like a commercial. My dayjob sees me watching a lot of CNBC, which plays the same ten ads every half hour, and the Powershares "this is your mind" ad is perhaps the only one I can stomach. FX by Peter Jackson's Weta Digital help. But at the center is the charming little professor above, who, I swear, is Aubrey Morris. You know him better as Mr. Deltoid in A Clockwork Orange and the creepy gardener in the original The Wicker Man ("It's the wee lassie's navel string!").
I've scoured the web, but can find no evidence to support my theory. But I know it's he. And he's adorable. Watch the ad, below, and you'll be greeting all your friends with a rousing "hello, Tony!" before you know it. And here's a page with some nice info on the spot.