Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: "The Air Whales of Anchar" (November 14, 1981)

Blackstar’s star-sword is damaged beyond conventional repair during an attack by vampire men.

The only thing in the universe that can fix the damaged weapon is the song of an air-whale. 

Mara and Blackstar proceed to search out the air-whales of Anchar, only to learn that a villain called Neolis has captured a calf and is enslaving it.

Blackstar boards Neolis’s airship, but is captured and forced to work in the ship’s bowels. 

If he can only convince Neolis’s daughter, Lila, to help him, he has a chance of freeing the air whale and repairing his sword...

“The Air Whales of Anchar” is an amusing Blackstar story, and one that combines a lot of intriguing elements.  

We get some information about the nature of the star-sword, for instance, and meet a Captain Ahab of the air: Neolis. He is missing one hand, instead of a leg, but the comparison to Melville's antagonist is clear.

Also, viewers meet the air whales, inoffensive creatures who apparently inhabit the skies of Sagar.

The only disappointing aspect of the episode is its reliance on the love story subplot. This story was used a lot in Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1981) as well.  Basically, a hero from another planet gains the trust of a beautiful woman, and she helps him overthrow the villain. 

Here, Lila helps Blackstar engineer a slave rebellion on the air ship, in defiance of her father. The story relies on some pretty far-fetched ideas, like a woman falling so helplessly in love with a strange man that she would choose him over her ostensibly beloved family.  It’s 1970s (or 80s…) sexist, as Joss Whedon might aptly note at this juncture.

Still, it is nice that Blackstar goes a little off-formula in this episode. For a change, Blackstar isn’t battling an evil spell from the Overlord.  Instead, the quest is to repair his damaged star-sword.  Of course, even that plot element defies logic.

If Blackstar’s star-sword explodes, he will lose it; it’s true. 

But it will also be lost to the Overlord, and thus he will have no opportunity to become the all-powerful ruler of Sagar. So, from a certain viewpoint, it would make more sense for Blackstar to allow the sword to be destroyed.  It would put an end to all he Overlord’s plans…permanently.

Next week: “The Overlord’s Big Spell.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Beware of Gifts" / "The Memory Bank of Ming" (October 30, 1982)

In “Beware of Gifts,” Ming claims to have had a change of heart. He wants peace, and to prove it, he gives Arboria a present: a huge statue of a warrior from Mongo.  

Flash and the others allow the statue within the city walls, and the “stone avenger” promptly comes to life and embarks on a campaign of destruction. 

Flash uses electron torpedoes to attempt to destroy the destructive statue, to no effect.  He realizes he must destroy the statue’s controls, located in Ming’s lab.  He uses Zarkov’s experimental cloaking device to get there undetected in his rocket.

In “The Memory Bank of Ming,” Arboria activates a revolutionary new computer or A.I. system, named “Arnold,” to control the operation of the city.  

Things go awry, however, when Gremlin accidentally slips Arnold a memory tape containing the personality of Ming the Merciless.

This week, “Beware of Gifts” is a straight-up re-telling of the Trojan Horse myth. 

One would think Flash might specifically bring up this historical/literary parallel (especially since he’s been spending time in a library, if we are to believe “The Freedom Balloon”). The story also evokes memories of “The Seed,” another second season story in which Ming hatches a plan to get a monster inside of Arboria to destroy it.

“The Memory Bank of Ming” finds every device in Arboria “totally out of control” when a friendly A.I. gets reprogrammed with Ming’s personality, thanks to Gremlin.  

Here, Dale distracts Arnold in the final act by playing tic-tac-toe with him. It’s a rather underwhelming story, but I like the depiction of Arnold as a hovering, friendly drone.

Next week we come to the end of our Flash Gordon season two retrospective with “Survival Game” and “Gremlin’s Finest Hour.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Guest Post: The Shallows (2016)

Jaws Fought the Blake and The Blake Won

By Jonas Schwartz

The Shallows may not stand up to logic or anything resembling the natural order, but if one leaves their brains checked at the door, this adventure is quite thrilling. Blake Lively, who is a polarizing actress, turns in a believable performance as a medical student combating a monstrous shark dedicated to eating her alive.

Nancy (Lively) travels to a remote beach in Mexico where her late mother surfed 27 years earlier while pregnant with Nancy. Nancy has quit medical school and has lost her way after seeing her mother fight a losing battle to cancer.  She waxes her board and paddles out to the waves to cleanse her soul, but a shark that would make Bruce the Shark from Jaws feel incidental, attacks her with ferocity and won't let her go, even though he's been well fed and she has less meat on her than a squab. Bleeding from bitten limbs, Nancy isolates herself on a tiny rock and uses her medical skills to survive two days of trial by water.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the creepy Orphan and the Liam Neeson chase films Unknown and Non-Stop, is adept at turning a wide open space into a claustrophobic nightmare. The majority of the film takes place in bright daylight, but as Nancy's safe zone becomes smaller and more precarious, the camera and editing makes the audience feel like she's in a dark coffin.  Collet-Serra continuously reminds the audience of the time and how that time of day will affect the tides and visibility, which tightens the tension for Nancy's survival.

The film's star player is cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano. The underwater sequences are awe-striking. Every bubble, electric jellyfish and stinging coral is vividly portrayed on the screen. The overhead shots of the ocean reveal mystery just below the surface. The surf scenes, with its crashing waves and surfboard maneuvers, are as tantalizing as those in Bruce Brown seminal surf documentary, Endless Summer.

The shark effects are realistic enough to suspend disbelief and the attack scenes are both shocking and gory to please horror fans while still not crossing beyond the PG-13 territory.

The script by Anthony Jaswinski is serviceable. It was admirable when he revealed Nancy's motivations clearly through visuals, but then undersold that by reinforcing it with clunky exposition.  The plot points steal from Jaws, 127 Hours and even Cast Away with a seagull substituting for Wilson the Volleyball.

Never treating Nancy like a victim or a ditz puts the audience in her corner. She treats this surf mission as a zen reckoning, not just as a way to blow off the day with some waves. Her medical training comes in handy when she must use jewelry to protect her damaged body. Finally, nobody saves Nancy but Nancy. She always has control over her situation and knows she can only count on herself.

Lively lives up to her name with an unmannered performance. The whole film rests on her shoulders and requires the audience to care about her well-being. It's a testament to her that for 90 minutes, they do.  Her calm resolve when sewing up her leg, speaking to herself as if she were a patient in an ER, her devastated reaction when others are harmed, as well as her kindness to other characters, builds a protagonist for whom audiences can root.

Intense and visually striking, The Shallows is the perfect summer popcorn fare, fast and furious with a protagonist determined to survive at any cost.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: The Shallows (2016)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Films of 1986: SpaceCamp

If ever a movie was the victim of unfortunate timing, it was SpaceCamp (1986), a summer genre film released thirty years ago this June. 

Specifically, the Harry Winer film premiered just five short months after the space shuttle Challenger disaster occurred.

As you may recall, Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986 because of a problem with a solid rocket booster. All seven of the crew members died, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Since SpaceCamp involves another space shuttle mission, and another accident at NASA to boot (also featuring a booster, strangely enough…), the movie highlighted unintended and unfortunate connections to the national tragedy.

Many film critics, including Roger Ebert, reviewed the film on the basis of the Challenger trauma.  In his review, Ebert wrote: The great looming presence all through this movie is the memory of the Challenger destroying itself in a clear, blue sky.”

The association with real-life horror pretty-much killed SpaceCamp in the crib.

It was intended as a light, bubbly, uplifting film of no more seriousness or gravitas than any other disposable, would-be summer blockbuster. And suddenly, it was saddled with comparisons to one of the worst days of the decade, and in space program history.

In concept and casting, SpaceCamp was a “teenager” movie in the age of such teenage science fiction films as Back to the Future (1985), My Science Project (1985), Explorers (1985) and Weird Science (1985). This was an era when Hollywood films were capitalizing on the youth market, and its interest in the genre.

But SpaceCamp wasn’t just a love letter to American youth, but to the space program itself, and even -- somewhat awkwardly -- Star Wars (1977).

A box office bomb in its day, SpaceCamp is remembered, if not wholly beloved, by a generation of fans who discovered it on VHS and found it, at least, inoffensive. There, on the secondary market, the film cemented a reputation as a cult film, if not, necessarily, a cult classic.

Today, SpaceCamp seems somewhat hokey and far-fetched. The constant references to Star Wars grow irritating quickly, and don’t naturally fit with the space program setting.

Actually, Star Trek jokes would have worked better. Star Trek is about building a better tomorrow, the study of science, and the conquest of space. Star Wars is more of a fairy tale (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The teen drama in SpaceCamp also seems forced at times, and even the technology seems unreal, since the film posits space stations and smart robots operating under NASA auspices in the mid-1980s.

In short, SpaceCamp shouldn’t shoulder the blame because real-life tragedy pre-empted it.

But outside its unfortunate context, the film still isn’t particularly well-made, or even all that memorable.

“With space, anything is possible.”

A group of teens at NASA’s space camp in Huntsville train for three weeks to become astronauts, under the tutelage of astronaut Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw) and ground control operator Zach Bergstrom (Tom Skerritt).

One student, Kathryn (Lea Thompson) dreams of being a shuttle commander, but is made the shuttle pilot instead, while the happy-go-lucky Kevin (Tate Donovan) takes the command post. 

Other students on the team include Tish (Kelly Preston), Rudy (Larry B. Scott), and Max (Joaquin Phoenix). Max befriends a robot named Jinx.

Jinx is responsible for the unusual set of circumstances which sees the teenagers, aboard the shuttle Atlantis, launched into space without preparation…or enough air.

Now the teens must work together to get home, and Andie must coordinate and aid their efforts, making her first voyage into space to do so.

“You’re all dead because you didn’t work together as a team.”

I’ve been to the location of Space Camp -- the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama -- on two unforgettable occasions.

I went as a twelve year-old in 1982, and I took my six year old son there for a return journey in 2012.
It’s a great place, and a destination I was so glad I shared with Joel. I hope I have opportunity to return with my granddaughter or grandson, many years from now.

The movie version of Space Camp is not such a wholly delightful experience. Variety’s reviewer opined that the movie never successfully integrates summer camp hijinks with outer space idealism to come up with a dramatically compelling story.”

I don’t know that I feel that way, exactly. Certainly, the story of argumentative teens launched into space and having to take part in their own survival can be described as compelling. 

My issue with the film is slightly different.

SpaceCamp takes too many liberties with the real life space program to really fulfill its premise that contemporary (and dedicated) 1980s teens could pilot a space shuttle, and get home safely.

In other words, the film suffers from a different form of schizophrenia than the one tagged by Variety

SpaceCamp aims to be contemporary and real, but then, willy-nilly, throws in technology and details that are, simply, pure fantasy.

To wit, the teens rendezvous with a space station under construction that, conveniently, already has the extra oxygen supplies Atlantis requires. 

Here the space station is called Daedalus, but no such space station existed in the mid-1980s. A much more primitive station, Skylab had re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in 1979.  And the ISS (International Space Station) was still more than a decade off.  In fact, the only space station in Earth orbit in 1986 was the Russian Mir.

And secondly, and perhaps much more to its detriment, SpaceCamp gives us the comic-relief robot Jinx.

Simply put, there was no robot capable of such complex thought-processes, speech-patterns, and emotional reactions (“Friends Forever!”) in 1986. 

And if there were, its presence at Space Camp would have been a gross misuse of such advanced technology.   

I know that Jinx is cute, and I have nothing at all against cute robots in SF films.  He just seems oddly out-of-place in a film that is supposed to be about a real, not futuristic NASA.

Also, I’ll admit that I dislike then near-constant Star Wars references in SpaceCamp.What are you an Imperial Guard?” asks one camper. “I’m not Han Solo…there’s no Force…there’s no dark side,” Kevin notes at another point.  “I’ll arm the laser guns. May the Force be with You!" .

On and on it goes, but Star Wars isn’t really the right production to name-check in this particular context. All the talk of the George Lucas movie feels a little off.  Why? Well, Star Wars isn’t really about training to be an astronaut, or learning to drive a spaceship. It isn’t, even, really, about a team of diverse people learning to work together.

Indeed, one great thing about Star Wars was it took all those concepts for granted, and went off, lasers blazing, to tell a story in a “lived in” universe. That story had mythic underpinnings, and fairy tale qualities. It was a space fantasy, where there was no talk of how the hyper-drive, tractor beams or light sabers actually worked. 

SpaceCamp seems to owe much more to the concept of Star Trek; to the idea of becoming the best that you can be so you can conquer space; to the idea that by working side-by-side with someone of different qualities, you can grow to become more than the sum of your parts.

But, belying the film’s superficial writing, SpaceCamp loads up on the Star Wars call-outs, and they never quite feel right.

I know a lot of people boast nostalgia for SpaceCamp, and I understand and respect that. I remember watching the film on VHS in the mid-1980s, and being absolutely in love with Lea Thompson, and enjoying the (then) state-of-the-art special effects in the movie.

I am also in love with any movie that involves the space shuttle. I love that ship, and I love the films -- like Moonraker (1979), Hangar 18 (1980), and Lifeforce (1985) -- that feature it prominently.

On a re-watch, I found SpaceCamp occasionally diverting, but pretty inconsequential.  At one point, Kevin notes, cynically, that astronaut training isn’t valuable because “we’re all going to get nuked anyway.” 

SpaceCamp might have felt more real, and more uplifting, actually, if it had made a bigger deal of such Cold War frissons, and the way that the conquest of space can bring all the people of Earth together as one.

Movie Trailer: SpaceCamp (1986)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Films of 1997: Alien Resurrection


It’s intriguing to consider how all the Alien films differ in tone, approach and theme or message. 

The 1979 film from Ridley Scott is all about feelings of isolation and terror in the loneliest, darkest corner of deep space. Underlying the film is a comparison between three distinctive beings that qualify as survivors: the alien, Jones the cat, and, of course, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

Each one survives or endures a harrowing crisis based on its biological or “natural” make-up (instincts) and individual intelligence.

By contrast, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is a gut-crunching, nail-biting war film that forges a space age comparison to the Vietnam conflict. The Colonial Marines go into a combat situation with the best technology, the best training and the finest experience in order to battle an enemy considered “primitive,” but which nonetheless challenges their assumptions of dominance.

The film also sets up a dynamic battle between maternal figures: Ripley and the Alien Queen.

David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) categorically eschews thrills and action in favor of a dark, intimate story about Ripley’s soul.

Is it worth it to survive if the entire human race is jeopardized by pursuit of that end? In this case, Ripley confronts her own strength -- her innate ability to survive and adapt to difficult scenarios -- and judges that there is a higher human value than continued existence. The film serves as a space-age Christ parable and an exploration of spirituality, and sacrifice.

And Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997)?

I must confess my own bias here, before I continue with another word of this analysis. I have always found this 1997 sequel to be the least successful and least worthwhile of the Alien films. I awarded it just two stars (out of four) in Horror Films of the 1990s (2011), for example. My review was pretty harsh, and I wrote that the film began the “stupid-ification” of the beloved franchise.

But on a new screening of the film this week – probably may seventh or eighth viewing over the decades -- I began to detect that there are indeed virtues embedded in Alien Resurrection.  However, they are -- in some ways -- very difficult to highlight or enumerate.  Why?

Primarily because of tone.

Unlike all the others, this Alien film is a dark comedy.

Yes, you read that right. Alien Resurrection is a grim comedy about, among other things, human folly.  The film’s main character, a clone of Ripley, stands outside humanity and quips about the circumstances and nature of the failings she sees.

It’s all very….French.

Alien Resurrections acts, overall, as a cynical observation not about the qualities that separate humans from the xenomorphs, but rather those that connect us or tie us to them.

In Aliens, Ripley tells Burke that she isn’t certain which species is worse. At least you don’t see the xenomorphs trying to fuck each other over for “a goddamned percentage.”

That statement or observation seems to be the guiding principle, the overarching leitmotif of Alien Resurrection. The film goes to some length to eliminate the distance, essentially, between aliens and humans, and asks us to put aside moral absolutes or precepts about good and evil, and consider them in more relativistic terms. 

But the rub here is that the filmmakers undertake this task in Joss Whedon’s trademark glib fashion, often through quips, jokes, and moments that puncture the “seriousness” of the enterprise.  The humor in the film is not straight-up funny, but rather cold, caustic…even bitter. It arises at a considerable distance from humanity itself. 

It’s as if the Ripley clone -- no longer entirely human – wrote the film herself. 

Alien Resurrection finds a lot of things about the human race funny, but understands, simultaneously -- as Ripley explicitly observes in the movie -- that they aren’t really funny at all.

No, those things are actually really sad. 

The things that Ripley sees and comes to understand speak poorly of us as a species.  The only way to treat these problems involving human nature, therefore, is through absurdist humor.  Otherwise, the mode of expression will be…tears.

The problem, I believe, with Alien Resurrection is that some touches of humor are downright dreadful, and thereby corrupt the sense of “reality” we have come to expect in the Alien films.  Yet by the same token, “the dark comedy” approach accomplishes two things. 

Firstly, it reflects a cynical, caustic view of mankind. The film notes that man is, finally, no better than acid-bleeding, chest-bursting aliens. The gap between species has been bridged.

Secondly, the attempt to take on an Alien movie with a different, fresh tone (the dark comedy), honors the lineage and tradition of these films.  No two films in the series are the same; no two films cover the same territory. 

If I can honestly commend Alien3 for the same virtue (originality), I must assess Alien Resurrection in the same light.  I can maintain (and I do maintain) that Alien3 is more coherent and more cohesive than Alien Resurrection, but I can’t fault the latter for attempting something new. 

In the past, I viewed the movie as a retreat to Aliens territory: big muscles, big guns, lots of fighting. Now, I see that there are virtues beneath those surface values.

In fact, one illuminating way to view Alien Resurrection is as the first movement of a (not realized) second trilogy.  The separate setting (200 years in the future), the new heroine (not Ripley, but a hybrid clone), and even the enemy (not the Company, but the military), all encourage this reading.  If you look at the film as laying down future markers for the series, exploring the interaction of aliens and humans in a much closer, much more intertwined fashion, Alien Resurrection seems to open up in a more gratifying or satisfactory fashion.

I still like Alien Resurrection the least of the four original films, because of the wobbly tonal changes, but I can also see that the film boasts some intriguing ideas, and at the very least, attempts to take the series into new territory.

“I’m the Monster’s Mother.” How Alien Resurrection Succeeds

Alien Resurrection goes a long way towards making the point that “true” evil may not come down to the physical properties that divide species. Rather, the film suggests, an organism who attempts to co-opt the life another organism for its own agenda is the true face of evil. 

The aliens, of course, utilize human beings as breeding material for their life-cycle. They do this, however, by instinct, not out of malice. It’s “what” they are.”

But the humans of Alien Resurrection absolutely use other human beings to make money, to make weapons, or otherwise further selfish needs and agendas.  They put these needs, these desires, ahead of humanity, ahead, in fact, of human life. Their decision to co-opt other organisms is conscious, determined.  It’s “who” they are.

This idea is played out in regards to Ripley -- now a clone -- and the fact that seven previous versions of her were produced and discarded without thought, as merely a means to an end.  The clones are just “meat,” with no thought given to what they feel or require to survive. Quality of life isn’t even a consideration.  The Ripley clone is permitted to live only because the scientists on the Auriga possess a certain level of curiosity about her.  Importantly, that’s a reason that involves them and their needs, not Ripley or hers.

Dr. Gediman (Brad Dourif) and Dr. Wren (J.E. Freeman) treat the aliens in much the same way as they treat Ripley: as meat. They clone the alien queen, induce her life-cycle (egg-laying) and then attempt to control (using a steam button in the laboratory for punishment)), the behavior of her progeny. The mission of the scientists is to make a new weapon for General Perez (Dan Hedaya), and to control that new weapon with force. No thought is given to these creatures as living organisms. They are bio-weapons, that’s it.

Even the apparent “protagonists” of Alien Resurrection -- the crew of the Betty -- undertake action for an evil agenda. They steal a traveling spaceship crew in hyper-sleep and sell them for cash so they can get rich.  Like the scientists or the general, the crew people have decided that their selfish needs are more important than self-determination or quality of life.  Johner, in particular, derives pleasure from hurting people. He drops knives into Vriesse’s paralyzed leg.

The only person for whom this observation of avarice, greed and desire is not true is the Ripley clone.

She is a creature of two worlds, of two separate physiologies and she doesn’t attempt to “use” others for her own purposes. In fact, her mission is often the opposite of that behavior.  For example, Ripley elects to burn the surviving clones, 1-7, because one of them begs for death; for peace.  Ripley obliges because the creature is doomed not just to pain, but to slavery at the hands of those who would use it.  Ripley assesses that such slavery is no way to live, and it is right (and noble) to obey the clone’s wishes and terminate her.

At the same time that Ripley can see the humanity of the clones, she can recognize the innocence of the Newborn -- another alien/human fusion -- and regret its death. For the first time in the series, Ripley is in the position, then, of weighing or mediating the two sides of this conflict. In the past, she has always tried to destroy the aliens at all costs, as a danger to mankind and the universe. In Alien Resurrection, the plot develops in such a way that it is, finally, crystal clear, that humans are no better than the aliens; that both species are dangerous to the safety of the universe.  Consider again, there are no really “good humans” in the film.  Call is the most humane character, but she’s an android.  Vriess and Christie are okay, but they still go along with the mission to hijack the cryo-tubes, don’t they?

Consisting of human and alien nature for the first time, Ripley now understands both species, and develops a gallows sense of humor or irony about them. She finds death funny.  Not because suffering is funny. But because the behavior of the two species surrounding her have made death inevitable, a predictable punch line to a very bad joke

Essentially, Alien Resurrection re-positions Ripley. In the first movement of an apparent new trilogy, she is not the savior of mankind as she was in the first three films, but instead the arbiter or decider of values, weighing one side against the other; keeping in check the worst proclivities of each. 

And her ultimate determination of evil comes down to a simple choice of control. Evil attempts to control the life of others without any regard for its feelings, suffering, or emotional needs and desires.  The Newborn, finally, must die, because it kills without reason.  The clones must die, because they have been created not to live, but to serve an end that makes them suffer interminable pain.

When Alien Resurrection works its cold, bitter best, it is as an examination not of a good species and a bad species, but two species that hurt people. Ripley -- the only one who can empathize with both viewpoints -- becomes the one to weigh the scales.  

This idea could have really developed in future films, and it would have been interesting to see where the idea went had a second full trilogy developed.  Imagine two films in which the alien and human worlds grow closer and closer, more alike than unlike, and you start to get a notion of where the material could go.

How are such ideas expressed in the film?  Well, Ripley’s biology is an indicator of her new position. She bleeds red acid, which signifies her mixed heritage. Similarly, the cartoony, two-dimensional nature of the scientists in the film -- one mad (Gediman), one evil (Wrenn) -- makes us understand that humanity’s villainy has risen to the same extreme level as that of the aliens…or become even worse.  Ripley, “the fast learner” sees the humans for what they are pretenders to power, and is, overall, disconnected from human concerns.

There really is no human character in the film to like, and that makes the movie’s point, but in some way, it also distances the viewer from the players.

Ripley’s inappropriate sense of humor -- “who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?” -- is similarly a signifier that she no longer is exclusively on our side. She finds things funny, but knows they aren’t. They are funny to her because her new genetic make-up has changed her very nature.  She is now the child (and mother, simultaneously) of the aliens, as well as, physiologically-speaking, mostly human.

The Southland Times called Alien Resurrectiongrotesque and captivating” and the “best” of the Alien series (January 9, 1998, page 12).  I agree with the first observation, if not the second. The film is unbelievably grotesque, perhaps the most so of the series.  And it is captivating in the sense that we must ask ourselves, for the first time, about Ripley’s loyalties and motivations. 

As the center of the film, she stands as an ambiguous figure, one who could side with either species.  Alien Resurrection succeeds to the level it does, perhaps, because it is the first film that suggests a balance between human and alien perspectives, and posits a force – the Ripley clone – who can navigate such a balance.

“Father’s Dead, asshole:” How Alien Resurrection Fails

A bitter, caustic film that acknowledges man’s fatal flaws, Alien Resurrection’s ideas are often superior to the execution of the material. 

 It’s one thing to add a certain level of detached glibness to Ripley’s mode of expression. It’s quite another to go for dumb physical comedy in the body of the film itself. In its ambitious attempt to be a dark, observational comedy about human foibles and transport the series in a new direction, Alien Resurrection sometimes makes the characters and world of Ripley and the aliens a live-action cartoon. 

Specifically, the frightful strength and power of the aliens has been made a laughing-stock, particularly during the horrendous sequence in which the monster’s signature inner jaw pulps the head of General Perez (a grievously miscast Dan Hedaya). 

Perez stands there, not even unbalanced by the impact, and picks out the back of his skull and brain…presumably while the alien stands there waiting for him to make his next move.

The scene is so poorly acted, so poorly presented that you can’t tell if it’s supposed to be funny or horrific.

Instead, it’s just a mess. It is a reality-breaking moment that takes you out of the film.

Also, the film -- forged in the unfortunate and unsubtle era of Face-Off (1997) and Con-Air (1997) -- is mired in stupid, macho BMF-ism.

That’s Bad Motherfucker-ism, in case you weren’t sure.

Johner is a bad MF.

Christie is a bad MF.

Vriess – a fellow in a wheelchair – is also a bad MF. 

Of course, Ripley is a bad MF too. 

Instead of genuine characterization, we’re asked again and again to like these characters because they’re too cool for school.  Ooh, look at those big guns.  Look at how Christie can shoot ricochet shots!

There’s not a single supporting character in the film who deserves to eat at the same lunch table where Parker, Brett, Hudson, Hicks, Bishop, 85 or Clements do.  They are all walking/talking clichés with only the most basic of “qualities.” 

And, incidentally, they are also pretty clearly the early versions of Serenity’s crew. 

Johner is the same dumb soldier guy/comic relief as Firefly’s Jayne. And the Captain, Elgyn, navigates with the same sort of amoral, do-whatever-it-takes-to-survive moral compass as Mal Reynolds does.  The Betty’s mechanic is the much-lusted after but diminutive Call, a good stand-in for Kaylee, except she’s an android.  Even the cockpit of the Betty resembles -- at least a little -- Serenity’s command deck. Whedon demonstrated how, in a continuing series, he could take characters of such broad strokes and transform them into beloved, nuanced individuals.  The crew of the Betty doesn’t quite get there.

Instead, the macho approach of rampant BMF-ism reaches the height of idiocy when Larry Purvis (Leland Orser) -- a man carrying a chest-buster inside of him -- also ascends to that territory. During his last moments of life, he assaults an evil scientist, Dr. Wrenn and manages to position his opponent at just the right place, in just the right moment, so that the emerging ches-tbuster breaks not just through his own ruptured chest, but -- conveniently -- through Wrenn’s skull too.  It’s a ludicrous, over-the-top moment meant to be intense and manic but in concept and execution, like the Hedaya scenes, proves stupid beyond measure.

It’s difficult to like the film, and its “dark comedy” approach when so many moments pander to dumb action convention.

Also, some of the verbal humor in Alien Resurrection doesn’t work in either concept or delivery.  “Who were you expecting, Santa Claus?” asks Vriess at a crucial juncture, and the moment flat-lines. The humor in the film is so hit-or-miss that Alien Resurrection veers between groans and giggles throughout most of its run.

Whedon once noted that it wasn’t that his script was altered that made Alien Resurrection so poor, it was everything that came in the production after the script: the casting, the costumes, even the creature design.  You can see his point.  Winona Ryder is underwhelming as Call, and Hedaya never manages to be convincing as a military general.  He could get the job, but he couldn’t do the job.

In terms of costumes, Alien Resurrection dresses all of its evil scientist in -- wait for it -- futuristic white coats, just so the audience understands that, you know, they are scientists. The cartoony aspects of this once realistic universe have been ramped up to a ludicrous degree.

Similarly, the film lacks any driving sense of momentum. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is one obvious template for the story: survivors of a disaster must make their way through a wrecked ship. 

But there’s no sense of how close or how far the survivors are at any given moment from their destination. There’s no sense that they are making progress. There’s a stop at the clone lab, a stop at the face-hugger lab, an underwater swim, a stop at a chapel, and then a dash for the dock.  The incidents feel episodic and don’t build towards anything significant or meaningful.  Similarly, this is the first Alien film in which the alien doesn’t cast a shadow over the movie even when it is not on-screen.  The aliens are missing in action for long spells in Alien Resurrection, and you just don’t feel the danger of their (hidden) presence. There’s no belief that they could be hiding around any corner.

Oppositely, Alien Resurrection’s big set piece is visually arresting indeed. It involves the survivors aboard the Auriga swimming through a flooded compartment of the ship in hopes of reaching safety.  It’s a long swim too, and the scene culminates with swimming aliens in pursuit. The scene is tense and well-shot, as characters struggle to hold their breaths and swim for their lives as the aliens, the equivalent of great white sharks, circle in for the kill. And even better, it’s all a trap, set to make the oxygen-starved swimmers open up wide…in a room of eggs and face-huggers.  This sequence possesses a lot of energy, and gives the movie a real kick.  If the rest of the movie had lived up to this set-piece, Alien Resurrection might be remembered differently.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of Alien Resurrection is that it attempts something different, and now that thing is behind us. The dark comedy angle -- the exaggerated colors and characters -- has been done, and now the series can move on and attempt another, hopefully more fruitful approach. So I champion Alien Resurrection for its decision to, in honor of the series, try something new.  But I assess, finally, that “dark comedy” is not the most successful approach for the franchise.

Even acknowledging that judgment, I can’t help but wonder what might have been: what a second trilogy -- with Resurrection as the start point, not a dead end -- might have looked like.  There are moments and images of greatness in Alien Resurrection, but overall, the film doesn’t capitalize well on them.

Pop Art: Alien Resurrection Comic Books (Dark Horse Edition)

Alien Action Figures of the Week: Alien Resurrection Movie Edition Action Figures (Kenner; 1997)

No bones about it, Alien Resurrection is my least favorite "pure" Alien movie.  There's something vaguely cartoonish and campy about the affair that I find troublesome and irksome, though I readily admit there are moments and scenes I cherish.

But none of those moments feature Dan Hedaya, I assure you.

At the very least, the crew of the Betty gave us an early glimpse of Joss Whedon's Firefly concept. and as usual, Sigourney Weaver was terrific as Ripley.

Anyway, in the year of Alien Resurrection's release (also the year of Starship Troopers), Kenner -- a company that had already released some terrific Alien and Predator-styled toys in the early 1990s -- released a "movie edition" set of six action figures from the fourth Alien movie.  These were relatively large figures compared to the earlier editions, about six-inches in height.

The toy box described the film's milieu in rather verbose terms:

"The Future.  An old enemy.  The perfect predator.  A zealous assembly of scientists and officials conducting the experimental wedding of human and alien genes...A band of renegade space smugglers and the mysterious appearance of a woman linked to an alien species dangerous beyond calculation!  The result is a peril reborn and more shockingly monstrous than ever before!"

Kenner produced two protagonists for this variation on their Aliens line, the aforementioned Ripley, described as "warrant officer" and "alien behavioral expert," and Winona Ryder's android, Call, described plainly as the "mechanic of the Betty Ship."

The alien side was represented by the warrior ("drone to the Alien queen,") the battle-scarred alien ("combat ravaged warrior drone"), the Aqua Alien ("genetically enhanced aquatic alien") and finally, the Newborn ("genetic human/alien hybrid").

The likenesses on the human(oid) characters are pretty good, and alien drone, Newborn and battle scarred aliens all look pretty awesome, as you can hopefully see.

The aquatic alien was not featured in the film, though there was an underwater scene in the film designed and executed as an homage to The Poseidon Adventure.  I understand that the Newborn alien is pretty unpopular with Alien fans because, heck, why mess with perfection when it comes to these xenomorphs, but it's certainly a ghoulish-looking thing.

Another nice touch: many of the figures come complete with awesome miniature toys, including facehuggers, a small alien queen, and...a blood-spattered chestburster.