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What do you need to pluck yourself out of a funk when your entire life has collapsed? If you’re disgraced reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), you need an extra-terrestrial symbiotic life form with super strength, near-invulnerability and a snarky sense of humour. After the (unfairly) maligned Spider-Man 3, hopes were high that a film focused on Venom would deliver on the character’s potential. Those hopes are summarily dashed with Ruben Fleischer’s chaotic take on the tentacular anti-hero. Eddie Brock is a journalist devoted to the truth, to the exclusion of his employer’s wishes and his partner’s needs. The David and Goliath set up of Eddie VS tech giant Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is cliched and escalates too fast, as Eddie’s life is destroyed when he gets on the wrong side of Drake. Abandoned by his employers as well as fiancée Anne Weying (a criminally underused Michelle Williams), Eddie’s chance for redemption comes in the form of Venom, an organism that bonds with a human host and imbues that host with great power, with which comes great, stop me if you’ve heard this one. Venom follows the typical beats of the superhero genre, offering little we haven’t seen before. Interchanges between Eddie and Venom are sporadically funny but the same device was used in Avengers: Infinity War; the tentacular abilities of the squidgy aliens quickly become overused; Ant-Man and the Wasp made better use of San Francisco as a site for demolition derby. Overall, despite the impressive chompers on our titular anti-hero, Venom’s incoherence means that it lacks bite. But the mid-credits sequence suggests potential for a sequel, so I’ll probably be back for further poisoning.
In 1979, cinema audiences were informed in no uncertain terms that ‘In space no one can hear you scream‘. For nearly forty years we have been reminded of this universally acknowledged truth, with varying degrees of success. In the case of Alien: Covenant, it seems everyone needs to hear you PANIC! because the film is so overloaded with PANIC! that I wondered if the various gruesome deaths were redundant in the face of surely inevitable heart attacks. From an opening space accident that introduces the viewer to far too many indistinguishable characters to set pieces in a medical bay and a field of tall grass to a climax followed by a climax followed by a climax, Alien: Covenant delivers far too many reasons to think ‘Don’t go off alone’, ‘Don’t look at that’, ‘Exercise more caution’, ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Slow down, Ridley!’ I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott and think Prometheus is pretty good, but it is telling that Covenant‘s best scene is a quiet moment of two characters playing a flute, captured in a long take of beautifully chilling serenity, helped by the wonderful Michael Fassbender who is easily the best thing(s) in the film. A crucial element of the original Alien is its slow pace, the longueurs of drip feed menace steadily creating an atmosphere of dread. Here, we charge headlong into danger because that way we can get to the PANIC! all the sooner, or perhaps this reckless charge is an attempt to disguise the general lack of narrative or thematic coherence. The conclusion of the film points to a further instalment, so it seems we’ll be reminded once again that in space, no one can hear you scream ‘Enough!’
Life is an original film that lacks original ideas. While it is not based on any previously published material, its narrative and themes are familiar to any fan of science fiction or horror. Obvious references are Alien and Gravity: the initial shots of space and the slow appearance of the International Space Station seem to deliberately echo the credits of Ridley Scott’s classic, while the opening action set piece is conducted in a single shot, reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s award magnet. Xenomorph references continue as the appropriately diverse crew members of ISS have a close encounter of the dangerous kind with a single-celled organism brought back from Mars. Nicknamed ‘Calvin’, experiments with this globular entity quickly turn grisly and gruesome. But Life‘s lack of originality does not stop it being an entertaining ninety minutes, as director Daniel Espinosa delivers a gripping romp, making smart use of the zero-gravity environment and the classic dangers of space. Depleted oxygen, dropping temperatures and loss of communication with Mission Control are all handled with aplomb, with the added tensions of medical drama, as Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) reminds us of the various safeguards to prevent alien contamination of Earth. Calvin itself is commendably intriguing and revolting in equal measure and the different responses of Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) provide an effective progression through the drama. There are plenty of jumps and a good dose of tension, and part of the fun is predicting who will die, when and how. However familiar it may be, Life ticks all the boxes for an enjoyable orbital journey.
The appearance of Under The Skin in several best films of the year lists compelled me to check it out on Blu Ray. It is one of those rare occasions where a film lives up to the hype, as Jonathan Glazer’s lo-fi adaptation of Michel Faber’s science fiction novel is a haunting and mesmerising portrayal of Otherness. The Glasgow locations, anonymous characters and subdued performances provide a (literally) down-to-Earth naturalism, but the objective camera and eerie score create an atmosphere of strangeness. The human body is presented as an object of curiosity, while the central character’s (Scarlett Johansson) interest in her body also serves to de-naturalise basic human features. Human interactions and activities are similarly presented as strange through sound and production design – simple undertakings such as kissing, eating, walking and resting become journeys of discovery. The film takes the viewer on such a journey, making the everyday unfamiliar and casting the familiar as alien.
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
My countdown for my top five transportative sci-fi films continues with Ridley Scott’s haunted castle-in space movie, and a reference to an Alien wannabe. The tagline for Event Horizon is “Infinite Space. Infinite Terror”, but unfortunately that film is not very scary. However, apply that tagline to Alien and you have an accurate description. Alien transports the viewer to strange and threatening environments, never letting up the sense of dread and impending danger even when nothing explicitly threatening takes place. Space itself looms throughout, from the slow crawl of the opening credits to Ripley’s final message, the blank, empty void providing a palpable sense of indifference to fear, suffering and life itself. The planet (subsequently named LV-426) where the crew of the Nostromo encounter the alien spacecraft is hostile and threatening, while the craft itself provides an eerie tomb for the fossilised space jockey. The sequence’s magnificent production design, engulfing cinematography and ominous score create a ghostly atmosphere for a menacing environment. Most terrifying of all is the Nostromo itself, an industrial castle filled with dark spaces both cavernous and claustrophobic and occupied by monsters both humanoid and extra-terrestrial, as well as an unsympathetic governing presence in the form of MUTHR, that represents the malevolent absent landlord, the Weyland-Yutani Company. While these tropes may owe more to horror than sci-fi, Alien’s use of space (pun intended) transports the viewer into a realm of fear and wonder, where you can scream all you want, but… You know the rest.