Friday, April 20, 2012

From Alien to Prometheus: Visions of Time

Alien: Perfect suspense horror.

Aliens: Perfect suspense action.

Alien 3: Some big mistakes, but decent performances.  I prefer the DVD box set extended-cut to the theatrical.

Alien Resurrection: Also some big mistakes but it's solid b-movie comic book fun.  Love Sigourney... but I wish the film were smarter.

One thing that bothers me about the Alien series is all the time jumps.  I understand that Alien takes place in the year 2115.  I can buy that.  It would probably take that much time to get us into space so often that we'd have regular freight routes like the Nostromo might use.  Then Aliens jumps 57 years to 2172 and that's fine since that duration seems plausible enough for Ripley to have been floating around out there (her daughter and friends back home have passed on, she's Sleeping Beauty).  Aliens leaves her, Newt and Hicks in cryostasis again until Alien 3 picks up... when?  My research doesn't turn up a listing for the year that Alien 3 takes place in, though I feel that it's meant to take place immediately after Aliens.  So, timewise, Aliens and Alien 3 are pretty much one long movie.  And after Alien 3 comes to a close, we jump 200 years ahead to Alien Resurrection, presumably set in 2372.

And all that's changed in 250 years, from Ripley's basic Alien timeline and the Resurrection timeline is...  Cloning?  Laser-melted alcohol?  Sexier androids (Ryder)?  Galactic freighters don't seem to have changed much, nor language, recreational sports (basketball), sexual attitudes (Perlman) or wheelchairs (Pinon).  That's what always bothered me most about Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection: that there just wasn't enough imagination in them.  Scott's Nostromo is both a nightmarish hanuted house in space and a giant live-in truck, basically sent out there to gather materials and transport them home to Earth, isn't it?  In film, it's pretty much the first of it's particular kind (aside possibly from Dark Star and maybe Silent Running).  Cameron's vision of LV-246 is still unmatched to this day in it's realistic-feeling workaday portrayal of the terraforming colony and far more sprawling and even daring in its tech visions (the anime-like cargo-loaders).

Alien 3 and Resurrection feel been there done that in design and portrayal.  The "wooden planet" from Vincent Ward's take on the screenplay sounded promising, though, if only intellectually (and perhaps an early spiritual sister to Aronofsky's The Fountain).  It must be daunting from a design and storytelling sense to have to come up with a cinematic future like nobody's ever seen before.  The Fifth Element seemed a poppy, happy take on Blade Runner via The Jetsons.  The vision of Zion and the scorched surfaces of The Matrix Trilogy got deeply earthy (literally so).  Right now, the only futurist vision that comes to mind as being somewhat fresh is the one of Spielberg-and-Kubrick's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  Love it or hate it, the combination of technology and nature (oceans, fields) paints what feels to be a future within something akin to reason, whereas Spielberg's Minority Report comes fairly close except for the auto-drive freeways and cryo-prisons.

In this way, it's interesting to me that Ridley's gone back in time a bit with Prometheus.  Closer to our (the audience's) present time than any of the Alien films, his concepts of a world between the now and the far-off imagined have me wondering just what ol' Ridley's got waiting for us.  By taking the huge gap leaps through time from Alien 3 and Resurrection out of the Alien equation, he might be giving us something unexpected --  an imagined future we could possibly relate to.  This story might not deliver any forward looking predictions of still-further technical times, but then again this story seems not necessarily to need them.  We'll see our future soon enough.  In both the cinema and reality.

Read all about it:
ALIEN 3 - Vincent Ward's "Wooden Planet"
The Unrequited ALIEN 3
The ALIEN Quartet by David Thompson

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods: Going Deeper

Note to reader: There Will Be Spoilers...  
Continue only if you've seen the film already.

There are three genres of motion picture that I'm typically less than engaged by.
1. War movies.  ("Yay, let's celebrate humanity's ability to destroy itself.")
2. Weepy family drama.  (Don't we get enough of this in reality?)
3. American Horror Movies.

The main reason I have such a disconnect with the horror genre is simple.  For me: it's not very interesting.  Much can be said about the psychological nature of people, the necessity to spin a frightening story and the cathartic need to both feel that fearful excitement and then purge it.  A horror film isn't like reading a scary novel or those moments you might have known as a kid among other kids sitting around a campfire telling stories about the Hook Handed Man or some such creepy crawly oogy-boogy.  To me, those scenarios, when everything is in the imagination, are far more satisfying.  A scary movie seems like a stranger thing, as what scares one person doesn't necessarily scare another, and what scares someone one day won't necessarily scare them the next.  When I was a child I was full of fear, scared of barking dogs and thunderstorms... but not anymore.  Ghosts and monsters and Jasons and Freddies, they never really got to me.  Also, I've never been a big fan of gore, which was a huge horror movie trope of your 70's/80's horror movies and seemed to come back in a big way with the recent crop of bleached-out, grimed-up, slice-you-up-for-no-particular-reason "torture porn" films of the last ten years that just drove the genre down even deeper, as far as I'm concerned.

That said, there are plenty of exceptions of horror cinema that I really do love.  Mostly, it's monsterless regular person-on-person horror (or "psychological thrillers" as the marketing people call them now).  Classic Hitchcock, The Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear (both versions), The ShiningAudition, The Hitcher (original). What sets those movies apart is the intellectual intent and/or artistry of the storytellers.  There are a few monster offerings that work for me: mostly Japanese offerings like the Ring and Grudge films and the works of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, classic John Carpenter, Alien, the first few episodes of The Walking Dead. And then there's horror-comedy, a tough genre to pull off but beautiful when it works. Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, ScreamAn American Werewolf in London, even Ghostbusters if you like...  It's just that for everything that comes out of nowhere and revitalizes the genre like Frank Darabont's The Mist, we're asked to sit through a dozen or more weak sauce offerings like the Saw and Hostel movies.

Which is why something like CABIN IN THE WOODS makes me so happy.  It's a great combo of all of the above.  Part psychological thriller (in that the evil humankind can do is a potent tale), part monster movie (love that anarchistic third act) and all comedy, all told with both intellectual intent and high artistry.  It's an all-too-rare thing: a movie that deconstructs genre and takes the piss from the silliest of the horror herd, all while making you laugh and maybe squirm just a little bit.  The tone of the film's poster just above pretty much says it all.

The following are a few things I've been thinking about regarding Cabin in the Woods.  Not so much a review as a laundry list of what the film does right... and other forms of imagination food and unanswered questions that the film opens doors to but never quite explains.

1. Character identification.  For a change, Cabin isn't so much a film in which we as an audience identifies with the teen/twenties victims. (Not for the most part, anyway.)  This time, the characters that are the most identifiable are the tormenters; those in the Bunker.  These guys are the ones who react the way we would - and do - as an audience as they put the kids through the paces.  The already-infamous "Fuck you" moment; the "Take off your top and show us the goods" lines...   These Puppetmasters are the ones sitting in their chairs with their food and drinks, watching things unfold as they in fact create the scenarios. They are the audience and the filmmakers and we can identify with them as both viewers and behind the scenes storytellers.  They have all the answers, and they have all the best lines.  Cabin is the only horror film I can think of right now where we're actually as engaged by those dishing out the horror, as people, as much as those receiving it. If these people weren't heading up the Sacrifice Department of Endtimes Incorporated, one gets the feeling they'd be fun to hang around with. ("You are not your job." -- Tyler Durden)

2. Image narrative. Cabin is one of those movies in which there are a great many narrative references (and so many great referential visuals) that can reward the viewer during his/her multiple viewings. The ability to slow down and go frame-by-frame via blu-ray or DVD will reveal more jokes and details than the naked eye can take in upon a single theatrical screening. Often, a movie can make a lot more money in its home-viewing run than in theaters and the visually joke-packed imagery of Cabin will keep some people entertained, re-watching and studying details of scenes and frames at home, for years (Example: That one shot with all the monsters in their cubes. I look forward to studying that one.) I like to think I'm a fairly together viewer, and I know there are probably dozens of inside jokes that I missed. Gotta love visual-narrative depth.

3. Reverse humor. The first act is nothing less than brilliant, in that all the jokes and lines that are the funniest are actually being told backwards. We're getting the punchlines before the set-ups. We can relate to and understand the humor in a line like "maintenance screws up a lot" from daily experience without being told what business we're in and who any of these characters are. But these lines still work, because they're idnetifiable in a real-life context. And the more info we're given as the film goes on rounds out that world further and helps make these moments and dialogue lines make more and more sense. To tell a joke backwards and a few moments later have it become even funnier than it would be if we knew all the facts beforehand is an unusual style of humor and more challenging and even rewarding. I applaud Cabin in the Woods for that sort of puzzle styled narrative construction.

Odds and ends: The chamber at the end. The one with the blood-filled wall etchings. It's like a missile silo, a long vertical tube at the bottom of which The Ancients seem to be hanging out. Is that platform "The Director" and our Last Two Heroes are talking and fighting on there for a reason? At first I thought "Well, maybe it's acting as a cork to keep the Ancients down there." But it seemed that the Ancients could break through anytime they wanted if they so chose to violate the Pact. Do the bloody wall etchings have a caretaker? Someone to make sure the Ancients know things are going as planned? Sounds like an intern's job to me...

If the Jock thought he had a cousin who bought the cabin but didn't really have a cousin, how did the Company make him think he had a cousin? A hired impersonator or actor like the Harbinger? A gas that makes you imagine family members? Just how long have these kids been on the Company's radar, anyway?

The Company Men (Jenkins and Whitmore) make a lot of references to "Guys Downstairs." (The Ancients) But when the Red Danger Phone rings, I remember someone saying "It's the guys Upstairs." Did I hear this wrong, maybe? And if I didn't hear it wrong, who are the "Guys Upstairs?"

I wonder who originated The Pact with the Ancients and how the monsters are decided upon and conjured/created. And what could the Ancients gain from making a Pact with humankind anyway? The blood in the wall etchings? Respect from or fear from what little of Humankind actually knows that the Ancients exist? If they just took over, they'd get all the blood/respect/fear they want. Until they killed everybody, I guess? Maybe that's why there's a Pact. To ensure future blood/respect/fear for the Ancients. I never understood this about sacrifices made to appease the gods. Sorry for my lack of knowledge regarding ritual.

And lastly, Ancients making pacts with humans... Isn't that a little like people making a pact with ants? Has there been a film or novel in which a world is entirely populated by gods like the Ancients with no humans?

Maybe some of this was all fully explained and I just missed it while having so much fun watching the film. I've always been a fan of the nuts and bolts of world-building in narrative. At least Cabin in the Woods has a depth of mythology to be considered and explored in a fun way. A lot of movies seem unfinished due to the laziness or the lack of care of the writers. Cabin has the extra-added-bonus of giving us gaps that feel as if they've been left for us to fill in the blanks ourselves, challenging us to be creative in our own right, rewarding us by jump starting our own imaginations.

You know... Just like kids sitting around a campfire telling stories. :)

An Evening with Don Hertzfeldt ****
The Cabin in the Woods ***1/2
The Raid: Redemption ***

DVD/Home Video
Running Scared (1986) ****
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) ***1/2
Futurama: Volume 5 ***1/2
Future Cops (Hong Kong, 1993) ***
Raising Cain (1992) ***
52 Pick-Up (1986) ***
Love at Large (1990) **1/2
Rumble Fish (1983) **1/2
RocknRolla (2008) **1/2
The Dukes (2007) **1/2
Ricochet (1991) **1/2
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) **
Enemy Territory (1987) **
Nothing (2005) *1/2

Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger's Irish Mob (Kevin Weeks) ***
Frank Miller's Holy Terror **1/2

Music/Spoken Word
The Best of Bill Hicks ****
Rollins' Choice (Henry Rollins, Blue Note) ****
John Carter (original score by Michael Giacchino) ***1/2
Laserhawk: The Vistors ***
Charlatan: Equinox **1/2