As much as I was excited to see this new Alien movie, as I sat in the theatre waiting for the lights to go down, I found myself wondering what exactly I actually wanted from an Alien movie in 2017. Would I prefer it to just be essentially another of the numerous Alien clones that have continued to appear in the decades since its inception, but with a proper Xenomorph? Or do I want someone to try and tell a completely new story in within the Alien universe? While my instinct goes straight for the latter option, the last few times that was attempted the results were, at best, highly divisive. Continue reading
Ridley Scott’s been especially prolific over the last few years, with his newest film The Martian opening less than a year after Exodus: Gods and Kings, and these are large-scale movies we’re talking about. However his recent output has been inconsistent at best, tending to vary between dull epics (Robin Hood, Exodus) and highly divisive movies (The Counselor, Prometheus). The Martian fits neither category, a true return to form, it’s easily his most crowd-pleasing movie since Gladiator, and arguably even his best since Blade Runner.
One film I think I should really try and get round to seeing at some point is Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut of his 2005 historical epic Kingdom of Heaven. From all reports I’ve seen it’s a considerable improvement on the passable theatrical version. Scott is no stranger to Director’s Cuts, with a number of his film’s being later released in alternate versions, most famously transforming Blade Runner from a cult oddity into an accepted sci-fi masterpiece. I mention this now as one of the main impressions I got from Scott’s latest epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings is that the film feels somehow, incomplete.
Prior to its U.S. release a few weeks ago, nobody really seemed to be talking about The Counselor (or Counsellor if you’re in the UK). This was rather odd in itself as, just look at the people behind this film; Ridley Scott directing with many of his usual off-screen collaborators, an all-star cast, and a screenplay by highly acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy. On paper, it looked like a sure-fire awards contender, but there was not a mention of it along with all the 12 Years a Slave and Gravity buzz building up. When it was released, the reviews came in, a lot were very negative, and the box office returns minimal. It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster though; it’s had several prominent, staunch defenders. It seemed The Counselor was going to be a highly divisive film, with more viewers coming down on the negative side. So now I have to be one of those annoying people and say that I neither loved nor hated the film.
The Counselor has some problems to be sure, it begins with a rather cringe-worthy love scene, between the unnamed counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend (Penelope Cruz) that’s both quite graphic yet also filmed in a way as to be devoid of any nudity or detail. The film is very wordy throughout, as the counsellor gets talked into involvement with a drug deal by Reiner (Javier Bardem, rocking yet another ridiculous hairdo).
The film also brings in characters abruptly without any kind of introduction, (usually played by recognizable actors such as John Leguizamo and Bruno Ganz) and often they appear and disappear quickly without having made much of an impression. The film also unwisely has Dean Norris appear in one such role dealing with drug smugglers, inviting Breaking Bad comparisons.
Now there is the case of one particular, already notorious scene; I’ll call it ‘automobile erotica’. It’s a moment that’s impossible to take seriously. Though it’s rendered mildly less outrageous by being presented as an anecdotal flashback with commentary, it’s still likely to live on in the annals of film infamy.
The film is not an easy one to follow, it often appears to jump forward in time with no indication that this has happened, or how much time has passed, in one instance two characters apparently find time to get married off-screen. While it might have little interest in assisting it audience to follow the plot, it is less so with some themes are symbolism. The film is clearly trying to deal with some big themes, a lot of which are quite obvious (not necessarily a flaw), and the outlook looks bleak for all who decide to get involved with the dangerous world of Mexican drug cartels.
Yet, what can I say? I was not for one moment even remotely bored during The Counselor. The film was at times, fascinating and gripping and I was with it all the way. Scott brings his expected visual excellence, crafting lots of striking Tex-Mex border imagery. For all its problematic character work, the film gives us some intriguing insights into cartel workings (these may all be fictional, but still). Some of these involve the film’s best set pieces, two tense scenes that lead to a couple of the most memorable screen deaths of the year.
Fassbender is dependable in the lead, though we know so little of his character I wonder what he had to work with, and his role is somewhat akin to Neo in The Matrix, being drawn into this world he knows little about, and having to look confused and surprised a lot. Brad Pitt (re-teaming with Scott for the first time since Thelma & Louise) and Bardem are also fine but the women fare less well. Penelope Cruz gets very little to do and Cameron Diaz, as Bardem’s girlfriend, plays a character that’s very hard to define. Diaz doesn’t sell the danger of her and her background is left feeling most confusing (where is she even supposed to be from?).
The Counselor is an intentionally grim film, curbed by a screenplay that’s apparently more interested in having characters discuss its ideas at length than present a coherent story, but it’s also as audacious and unorthodox a film as we’re likely to see A-list Hollywood talent put out this year, and that’s something that shouldn’t be dismissed.
Now here’s a funny thing. In a world where major movies are so desperate for any kind of name recognition they’ll share titles with theme park rides, toy lines and board games, we have a film that is actively trying to not be associated with the franchise that spawned it. Despite only producing a handful of movies in over three decades of existence, the ‘Alien’ series has sadly fallen a long way since its two outstanding first instalments, the creatures’ last screen appearance being ‘Alien vs. Predator: Requiem’. This is not reason enough to disassociate oneself though, particularly as original director Ridley Scott is returning to the series for the first time.
The mooted fifth instalment was actually discussed prior to the unnecessary ‘Alien vs. Predator’ films’ appearance, with Ridley Scott and James Cameron apparently teaming up to revisit the iconic franchise, what a film that could have been.
What we have now, is ‘Prometheus’, a science fiction film set in the same universe as the ‘Alien’ films, and that apparently shares ‘strands of ‘Alien’s DNA’, but is not a direct prequel, or a reboot, or a spin-off, or whatever you want to call it. It wants to be judged purely on its own merits. While that’s an admirable desire for a filmmaker, it’s also something that’s just impossible to do when viewing ‘Prometheus’ (unless you’re someone who for some reason had managed to live their life thus far without any knowledge of the existing franchise). Expectations are extremely high, and comparisons will inevitably be made.
After a mysterious opening sequence, a pair of archaeologists discover what they believe to be a star map shared among art work from various different ancient cultures on earth. They think this may answer the question of humanity’s origins and are funded by Peter Weyland (recognise the name?) to embark on an expedition to follow it, in the ship ‘Prometheus’. Upon their arrival at the distant moon LV-223 they are awakened from hypersleep to explore, and you know it’s not going to be a walk in the park. This all takes place a number of years before the events of the first ‘Alien’.
Already one can see that ‘Prometheus’s ambitions are considerably greater than that of ‘Alien’s in terms of the questions and mythology it wishes to explore.
(You see I can’t help it, I’ve already referenced ‘Alien’ numerous times)
Something one has to just accept going into ‘Prometheus’ is that the famed ‘Alien’ creature, or ‘Xenomorph’ as its come to be referred to, is not waiting to make an appearance. What we may see more of though is the fabled ‘Space Jockey’.
Unsurprisingly, the film is visually outstanding, both in the digital effects and the practical sets. It offers a thrilling journey into an unknown world, with a number of very tense sequences, and never resorts to cheap jump scares. One scene in particular is extremely uncomfortable to watch and really lingers in the memory afterwards.
It has a solid cast behind it too, though Guy Pearce is somewhat underused. While few actresses seem more suitable for a role that Sigourney Weaver would have played many years ago than Noomi Rapace (original ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’), the acting honours really go to Michael Fassbender who, playing an earlier model of the synthetics seen in previous instalments, raises the bar for android acting.
If there is a big issue with the film it’s with the script. Some air of mystery is commendable but raising numerous tantalising questions that are left unanswered by the end is frustrating, and I struggle to be convinced by the argument that this is a case of sequel baiting. Simply having not yet thought of satisfactory explanations seems much more likely, especially considering that this is scripted by one of the creators of ‘Lost’.
At some point in the months prior to its release, expectations for ‘Prometheus’ reached stratospheric levels, leaving the resulting film with no chance of ever meeting them. In turn this has resulted in many reactions being undeservedly negative. What ‘Prometheus’ is, is a thrilling, ambitious, big budget sci-fi horror adventure from a great filmmaker. Not a third sci-fi masterpiece from him but a worthy effort nonetheless, that will likely be revisited in future years.
Finally, if I were to compare it with all the other ‘Alien’ films, it would rank third.