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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.
I recently posed about Rush, which has a director I like and a genre I don’t, which was a delight, and Prisoners, which belongs to a genre I like, has a director I’d never heard of, and was disappointing. In the case of Captain Phillips, I love the genre as, like Prisoners, it is a thriller, and Paul Greengrass is one of my top ten directors. Captain Phillips exceeded my expectations and is one of my top films of 2013, as it is an incredibly gripping, highly intelligent, well balanced and merciless thriller.
Captain Phillips works because all its components support each other perfectly. Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain and Barkhad Abdi as his antagonist Abduwali Muse, leader of the Somali hijackers of the Maersk Alabama, deliver powerhouse performances that I hope will be remembered come awards season. Billy Ray’s script combines compelling personal drama with wider themes of globalisation and the poverty gap, while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is tight and intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Greengrass orchestrates these myriad elements into a visceral and enthralling experience, drawing the viewer into the action and allowing us to feel the resolve and hunger of the pirates as well as the desperate fear of the Alabama crew. My hands gripped the arms of my seats all the way through and, while I did not feel queasy, I can understand that some might as the sense of being aboard ship was palatable. One critic said that after seeing the film he wanted a stiff drink – I wanted to lie down.
Strong reactions to films are something I like very much, especially uncomfortable reactions. A major reason we go to the cinema is to have safe thrills – while the sense of danger and exhilaration can be created by the right cinematic experience, we are very seldom in actual danger (accounts of heart attacks and vomiting at The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien notwithstanding). The main reason Prisoners disappointed me was that it did not leave me devastated, while Rush was thoroughly exhilarating. Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity are two films that have left me shaken and stirred this year, and Captain Phillips did the same. But what made Captain Phillips unique, not just for this year but in my entire cinema-going experience (which is extensive), is that I cried. No film had ever before prompted me to shed tears, and this got me thinking about what gets our tear ducts working.
Lists of tear-jerkers tend to include Casablanca, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller and It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic did bring me very close to tears when I finally saw it (at Christmas, obviously), and there are others that cause me to well up such as The Lion King, Twelve Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and, despite repeat viewings, Titanic (mock me all you want, I don’t care). All of these made me well up, so I could feel the tears in my eyes, but they would not flow, would not burst out of my eyes and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. In fairness, I hardly ever cry anyway, not because I’m a super tough macho man (though I am, please don’t hurt me!), but for some unknown reason, tears very rarely flow from me. I often wish they would, but when I feel tears in my eyes, I start willing them to flow, which takes me out of the tear-inducing situation and the damn things dry up.
The way my reaction works highlights the mechanics of tear-jerking cinema. Most reactions to cinema are a result of manipulation, because that is what film does. Anyone who does not like to be manipulated should avoid film, because film manipulates all the time, sometimes in such a way as to make you cry – recently I saw tears at Saving Mr Banks. Steven Spielberg’s films are frequent tear-jerkers, including E.T., Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg has openly admitted that his films are manipulative. Schindler’s List, War Horse and, perhaps less obviously, Munich all caused me to well up, because they poured on the agony. Watching a man break under the emotion of what he has failed to do, a horse lie down and die, or a man who has committed terrible acts listen to the innocence embodied in his baby – these are scenes that Spielberg, with help from John Williams, draws out to inflict maximum anguish on the viewer. But once I feel effect of the manipulation, I try to encourage it, which takes me out of the moment and I don’t cry.
This was not the case with Captain Phillips, crucially because the tears I shed were not solely out of anguish, as most weepy scenes are, but also sheer exhaustion. From the point where the hijackers take over the Alabama, there is no let up as they scour the ship, the crew fight back, Phillips is taken hostage, the US navy enters negotiations and eventually stages a rescue. Prior to the rescue, Phillips is brought to the limits of human endurance as the hijackers tie him up and blindfold him, all the while yelling at him and each other. The cacophony, the intensity and the empathy I felt for Phillips were what caused the tears to flow, and they continued in the aftermath when Phillips was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge and treated for shock – I cried out of relief and exhaustion as much as anything else. I have often considered Tom Hanks a rather bland actor, but no longer, as the anguish, rage, frustration, fear and desperation that he displayed in the film’s final act took me into Phillips’ dire position. When he was being treated for shock after being rescued, repeatedly thanking the naval officers, the sense of relief was palatable and deeply moving. I’m not always one to engage with characters, but on this occasion I felt very engaged indeed, possibly needed treatment for shock myself. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity, Captain Phillips left me shaken and stirred, and also moved. I would not have expected a Paul Greengrass film to make me cry, so it was a very rewarding cinema experience. I tend to credit directors for making a film work, and Greengrass is great for delivering visceral, intense work, but hats off to all involved, especially Hanks for performing the most heartbreaking anguish I have seen in a long time.