Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Warning: spoilers.

I’ve been a fan of Alien for a long, long time. The movie came out when I was a kid, a little kid, and I recall I wasn’t able to see it in the theatres. Either I couldn’t interest my folks or else they thought it was too extreme for me. I think I was nine at the time and had only recently mustered the guts to confront my mother as to my long-held but silent doubts that Santa existed, so maybe they were on to something there. Anyway, my grandmother came to visit and I remember us going to mall in the upscale part of town, and talking her into buying me the thick, magazine-size photonovel of the movie. I traded it to a friend a few years later and to the best of my knowledge, he still has it. (Hey, Dig, do you?)

I saw Alien as intended, as a movie, a few years later on TV. It breathed life into the familiar still images. I was impressed then and I still am. To me, Alien is one of a handful of nearly flawless movies. The experience of the ship was authentic in its boredom and grottiness. The petty concerns of the crew, just a bunch of ordinary people trucking ore around, made them completely believable. The cast was small, tight, and there wasn’t a single superfluous character. I liked something about every single one of them. They were all people I wouldn’t have minded knowing, for their cleverness, wit, and even their annoying quirks. They never got obsessed with dates, the science of the picture, or the politics of the Earth... they just laid it out, take it or leave it: interstellar flight is ordinary. International crews reporting to “Antarctica Control”. Fill in the blanks yourself if you must; the film’s moving on. Trust your audience and give them some credit. Brilliant. Almost a lost art these days. When shit finally hit the fan, they didn’t have The Wall of Guns™ to turn to. They used the tools they had on hand and improvised.

The franchise went downhill from there. Aliens was nothing but Zulu set in space, or a cowboys and Indians movie from the 50s with the antagonists equally anonymous and interchangeable. I didn’t hate it, but I’d rather not associate it with Alien; that movie was a whole arc in itself. As for the ones that followed, well... the less said, the better.

Prometheus hedges its bets. Is it about Alien? Is it not? They try to have it both ways. Unfortunately for them they lean way, way too hard on the Alien horn for me to buy that. It tries hard to restart the franchise with the option of going another way, and I just think that’s cheap.

It’s a new generation of movie-goers, I guess, and for me the movie was a series of groaners. Neat idea about messages recorded in different cultures at different times was intriguing. But the nature of the message was, well, stupid. Consider this: they say it’s a constellation so far away that ancient people couldn’t have independent knowledge of it... it had to be from aliens. Fine. So these people who clearly don’t give a shit about us show up several times and invite us to, what... the Christmas party at a biological weapons lab? Secondly, stars move relative to each other, and at different speeds. No constellation is going to be recorded with its stars in the same position separated by millennia. And the combinations of six or seven stars that would look vaguely like the pattern on a cave wall, when extrapolated from the billions of stars beyond those visible to the naked eye, would easily be in the thousands, and exponentiate the further you looked. Picking “the” system out of all the possibilities is absurd. Finally, if aliens used constellations the same way we do, they’d be drawn from THEIR perspective, not ours. Do these people think the constellation Orion looks anything like it does to us to an observer around Alpha Centauri, or Tau Ceti, or Sirius? So all that was dopey to me and I would have preferred something like, say, a radio signal. It would tell you someone was there, and which way to go, without any question, even if you didn’t understand it. And it wouldn’t take the first half hour to set up and explain. Seriously, did somebody on the crew own land in Skye or something?

I’m old enough now that most space movies that tie events solidly to dates weary me. It’s 2012. Weren’t we supposed to have been orbiting Jupiter with sentient computers eleven years ago? Well, that’s what 2001 told us in 1968. So unless you’re willing to pick a date so remote that even your great-great-grandchildren won’t blush, my advice is: don’t. Alien didn’t. Prometheus did. 2089. Come on. Is there anyone out there gullible enough to expect that interstellar flight is going to be possible, much less small-time and commonplace, less than seventy years from now? It’s been forty years since the last man stepped off the moon, and we haven’t even been to Mars yet. 2389, maybe. Even then I’d call it optimistic.

The worst science boner in the movie is the suggestion humanity came as-is from “out there”. Only someone entirely and completely ignorant of even tabloid journalism biology could suspend their disbelieve and buy that premise. No one with even a junior high school education in this day and age should be capable of swallowing that without choking at least a little. It flies I the face of centuries of fossil evidence, our demonstrated biological relatedness to all other forms of life on Earth, and the lack of any life based on a wholly different paradigm, that all tie us and our origins to the Earth. And to what end? Why do “the Engineers” have to be related to us, or our progenitors? Why can’t they simply be an advanced species from another world, who don’t look human at all (much less giant albino versions of Woody Harrelson)?

Now, I’m not a woman (though I did deliver Blanche Dubois’s lines in my grade twelve English class one day when the teacher was in a jocular mood), I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never had a Caesarian section. And even with imaginary future medicine, I’m still gonna cry bullshit at the suggestion you can cut yourself open, haul a creature connected to your circulatory system out of your uterus (and lose less blood doing it than I typically do shaving in the morning), slam two dozen staples across an 18” wide, 6” deep slice across your abdomen, and be up and running down a hall 90 seconds later, and outside in a space suit hopping across chasms and dodging falling space ships within the hour. I don’t care how good the drugs are; you’d simply exsanguinate in less time than it takes to sing the national anthem if you tried that.

One of the few moments in Alien where my eyebrows knit is where Ripley says that the computer, Mother, has determined that the signal is “a warning”. How would a human-made computer discern that? I’m dubious, but it’s innocuous enough that I’m willing to give it a pass. But that’s how subtle Alien was. Compare that to Prometheus. Our heroes are inside the alien ship, and all of a sudden the electronic ghosts show up and start rehearsing their deaths like Lady Macbeth washing her hands. WHY WOULD THIS HAPPEN? What mechanism got triggered, and why would there even be such a mechanism? All it shows is Keystone Kops in pressure suits running around, falling down, and being decapitated. No doubt the height of comedy if  you’re a Roman sitting in the Coliseum, but what the hell would it tell anyone else? The guy’s lying dead in the doorway with his head cut off. Odds are he didn’t just pick a bad place for a nap. That people run around in a disaster is pretty much de rigeur, so why record it and play it back? And why for a bunch of tiny people who don’t even have the keys to the kingdom? Even an airliner's black box recorder doesn’t come with a PLAY button and a knob that goes to 11 for the convenience of any metalhead who happens by. The only reason they showed all that stuff is because A) they could these days (thank you, CGI, for being ubiquitous and unrelenting), and B) because they know there’s no other way human beings could conveniently figure out how to fly an alien ship in 20 minutes otherwise (so maybe that shouldn’t have been possible, like in reality???).

Another thing. Why did the infection David introduced into Holloway’s drink make him ill and effectively kill him, but not Shaw? They had sex. Aside from an organ transplant, it’s hard to be more biologically intimate with another human being than that. The notion that something would kill him but leave her pregnant with an alien being makes about as much sense as screwing someone with Ebola and instead of dying, giving birth to a wombat.

Why did Fifield turn into a zombie instead of Purina Alien Chow? That was entirely, entirely stupid. It did nothing to advance the plot, and was simply an way to grease the red shirts who were in the movie for no other reason to eventually be greased by Fifield. If you can remove a scene from a movie and it doesn’t change the plot and arc in any important respect, IT SHOULDN’T BE IN THE MOVIE. It was insulting to anyone who sees cinema as anything more than just a video game on autopilot.

And then there’s the ending. Picture the scene. You’re the sole survivor of a train that’s just delivered victims to Buchenwald. You escape with the severed head of Amelia Earhart who can help you fly the abandoned Me 109 you’ve found. And what do you do? Fly away to London so you can bring evidence and warn the world? No! Of course not! You fly straight to the Reich Chancellery in the hopes of a sit-down with Hitler so you can ask, “Nu, Adolf, vot gives? Why make with the holocausting? Me, I’m vundering...” Ridiculous? Yeah, you don’t say. But if you’ve watched Prometheus, that’s just what you saw.

There were some things I liked about the movie. I thought the character of David was interesting and really well-played. There was a faint superiority and belligerence towards humans about him that didn’t exist in either Ash or Bishop, the franchise’s previous androids, who were either just dispassionately doing their jobs or humbly knuckling under, respectively. I also liked how the crew stoically used the ship and sacrificed themselves to save the world... I’d like to think I could be that brave if faced with no other choice. It was meaningful and genuinely ennobling, like the end of Deep Impact.

And I guess that was about it. It was a lot of macaroni and a lot of glue but the collage didn’t amount to much. I’ve seen worse movies; this one has its moments; but all in all I’d say rent it some rainy Saturday afternoon when you’re slightly drunk and you’ve got nothing better to do.

P.S. Oh, yeah, I forgot... why were the aliens just assholes? If I were woken up from a 2000-year nap  by a bunch of tiny people, I think I'd be a little grateful to them, and immensely curious about them. I don't think I'd be inclined to just grab the first one I could and rip his head off. Maybe later, if I found out they were monsters themselves or something, but not before I've even had my wake-up cup o' Joe, for crissakes. Honestly, how could any species that bloodthirsty have held together long enough to have created an integrated society capable of spaceflight?


jim said...

Spot on about using dates in sf movies, and props on working "exsanguinate" into a blog post.

Roger Ebert loved this flick. He appears to be in a tiny minority.

Rudy Limeback said...

your lengthy review was a joy to read -- well done

i've been a science fiction fan since the late 1950s and i share your disdain for stupidity in sf films

"silent running" is one of my favourites, but i haven't seen it in decades and maybe it is as flawed as other hollywood efforts

the last sf film i really liked was "the fifth element" but this was despite its flaws, which were many... it was just too much fun not to enjoy

"prometheus" sounds like it would be painful to watch

Dreck said...

I sat in my chair in the cinema dying quietly on the inside as this abomination of a movie shat on my eyes for two hours.
I had waited in intense anticipation for over a year as the director of two of my favourite films (Alien and Bladerunner) developed a movie that returned to his incredibly and beautifully realised universe and revealed some of it's backstory.
I just don't understand how Ridley Scott could unleash a stinker such as Prometheus upon his own creation.
This film made me realise that Scott hasn't made a particularly good film in over thirty years.

Dreck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.