Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Alien Quadrilogy - A few thoughts

On Good Friday I went along to the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square to watch the Alien "Quadrilogy" (a word forever underlined in red when typed because it simply does not exist.) It was a gruelling but ultimately hugely rewarding experience that began at 18.20 and ended at some time close to 04.00. 

Upon exiting the cinema I was thrust into a world of drunken shrieking clubbers and vomiting teenagers. I felt a wide array of emotions. Mostly I was nostalgic for 18.20 - that time, long ago when I had sat down to watch one of the greatest films ever made. How twisted and strange 'Alien' seems when viewed through the kaleidoscope of nonsense that is 'Alien Resurrection.'

Suffice to say I was incapable of thinking clearly about any of the films at that point. They were heaped on top of each other. A huge mess of facehuggers, xenomorphs, marines and androids. It took me the remainder of the Easter weekend to formulate any kind of coherent response to what I had seen. And; however redundant it is in 2012, I am going to share it with you.

The first prequel to 'Alien Versus Predator - Requiem' appeared in 1979, just two years after Star Wars, and it revolutionized science fiction cinema - again. What it lacked in originality in terms of plot (see The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing From Outerspace) it made up for in tone and atmosphere. Ridley Scott had a background in advertising; he knew that atmospherics were important, and he knew that they needed to be instantly apparent. In Alien, these ideologies are perfectly realised in the very opening frames.

Space - vast, dark and covered in an eerie orange hue. The appearance of that iconic lettering is slow and methodical, just as the film will be in building to its infamous midpoint payoff.

Scott nailed the film in the first ten minutes. Forget the exploding chests and the chamber full of eggs, what I enjoy about Alien is the terrific sense of isolation he constructs at the films beginning. Those shots of empty corridors, sleep pods and computers kicking to life in the darkness are just as memorable to me as John Hurt violently giving birth to the Alien intruder.

The Prince Charles showed Alien in 35mm, and it had never looked better. The shadowy corners that Scott would eventually ad to the DVD release were gone at this screening. The film was offered as it was originally intended, and it was a refreshing experience. The lighter format of 35mm left me with the simple ability to see more. Not of the Alien of course - that Xenomorph will always remain largely hidden - but of the crew and the vessel. The silent cushion lined corridors of the Nostromo had never looked more ominous. And that is an observation that translates well to the film in general. Unlike the other offerings during this mammoth evening, Alien commanded total silence. Never mind screaming, in space I couldn't even hear the audience breathe.

Q: How do you cash in on the success of a cult hit?
A: You add stuff. You add lots of stuff.
Didn't like Gremlins? Well maybe we should add NEW YORK. Not sure about BTTF? Hey, what if they went to THE FUTURE? And Terminator? Bah, how about two Terminators? In TRUCKS!

Before all of this though, James Cameron had already set a precedent by creating the 1986 Terror/Action Adventure ‘Aliens.’

‘Aliens’ is Alien+.

Namely it is ‘Alien’ + guns, marines, an obscene amount of testosterone, tanks, more aliens and some of the most truly inspired one-liners of all time. There is only one way I can accurately describe the experience of watching ‘Aliens’ in a cinema full of ‘Aliens’ fans, and that is...interactive. Many cinema goers shouted every line whilst drunkenly cheering on the hopelessly ill prepared marines and feasting xenomorphs alike.

Aliens is the ultimate sequel, and whilst I will always prefer it's predecessor you cannot fault the originality Cameron brought to the project. So many tropes that we will later associate with the director began here, but in 1986 these ‘Cameronisms’ were witty and refreshing. He tells a distressing story here but manages to weave humour and sleek action throughout in a way that doesn't feel contrived like his later efforts.

If I have a gripe with 'Aliens' it is that we have subsequently been spoiled by the directors cut. That cut offers such a definitive experience that the theatrical version feels butchered in comparison. We can all surely agree that ‘Aliens’ simply isn't ‘Aliens’ without an appearance from Red Dwarf's Captain Hollister? Can't we?

Darkness. Unending darkness.

Dear James Cameron,
How DARE you end an Alien film with the slightest glimmer of hope that more than one character may actually survive.
Well, fuck you.
David Fincher

Yes, Fincher kills everyone bar Ripley before the film has started and he retains that sense of abject depression throughout the whole picture. A bald and bereaved Ripley is almost raped whilst a group of extremely dangerous convicts sit about rotting in their cells at the edge of the universe and a doctor recounts a story of multiple deaths by his own hand. Wow – ‘Alien3’ is really a barrel of laughs. Even our trusty friend the Alien falls on hard times here, having to take up residence inside a dog and subsequently becoming rendered in CGI.

Alien3 had a lot of trouble coming to life and subsequently it was unfair of me to blame Fincher for any of these despite what I have said above. At various times throughout its stilted production ‘Alien3’ had about thirty writers. Anybody who was anybody in the world of sci-fi was on board at some point. The lead role was handed to and then snatched away from the excellent Michael Biehn. Weaver wanted out, then in, then out again. Ridley Scott was tied in to direct, but couldn't. And then it was re-written again once before and again after Fincher was tied in to direct. Even once production began rolling, the film was plagued with issues. Fincher has publicly announced that he felt suffocated by the studio, who he considers did not trust him with the picture to the point that after he had finished filming they snatched the film away and reworked it extensively before release. All of this manifests itself in a film that just doesn’t make much sense.

‘Alien3’ feels odd, especially when viewed back to back with the first two. It opened in 1992 to mixed reviews and questionable success, and this was reiterated at the Prince Charles. After ‘Aliens’ was over, many of the audience just left, perfectly content to pay the full ticket price for just the first two offerings.

I'm not a huge fan of Alien3 but it does do one thing very, very well. It does something so well that nobody could ever conceive of breaking the rules it sets. What it does is provide an ending to the Alien saga, and whilst it isn’t perfect, it is definitive. In a hugely symbolic yet perfectly accessible finale 20th Century Fox said goodbye to Ripley and the Xenomorph forever. Oh – wait…..

Alien Resurrection
Here are three of the taglines found on IMDB for ‘Alien Resurrection.’
Pray you die first.
It's already too late.
Beyond salvation.

Yes, yes and yes. Whoever put those together was, if nothing else, insightful. I did want to die. It was far too late (half one-ish) and this film is without a doubt beyond salvation. I am not going to write a review of Alien Resurrection and if that sounds like a cop-out that's fine. 

It is.

The cinema was about a third full at this point; the man to my left that quoted every Bill Paxton line from the second film had long since abandoned ship. My friends and I felt alone, very alone and an inexplicably pissed off Ron Pearlman was all we had for company. During the course of the fourth film I fell asleep and dreamed of a time I went to the cinema to see ‘Alien’ - it was a great dream. Upon waking (just twenty minutes in – sigh) I rolled a cigarette and counted the hairs on a man’s head.

‘Alien Resurrection’ does a lot wrong but perhaps its biggest sin is distancing the audience from their heroine. The three films that preceded it had taken audiences to very different places but we always had a constant. Sometimes bald, sometimes wearing nothing but pants, but always resilient to the Alien menace is Lieutenant Ripley aka ‘The Weaver.’ But in Resurrection Ripley is no longer really Ripley. She is a part human, part Alien clone that it is impossible to engage with. Instead we get Winona Ryder. But wait, she is impossible to engage with as well. Oh, and she isn't human. All is lost.

I hate this film, and I'm sure you can tell. I can't even begin to list the gigantic plot holes or the inexplicably bad decisions made by the characters. I won't even mention the bizarre looking chocolate monster that becomes the films major antagonist in the final reel. I won't mention these things because I was too busy counting the hairs on the back of a man’s head and thinking of a simpler time.

But hey - it's not all bad. Ridley Scott is coming back and the true Alien resurrection can begin. All aboard the ‘Prometheus.’

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