volterator: (Terminal)
Ridley Scott's return to science fiction has been awaited since the early reappraisal of Blade Runner as a classic, and after thirty years the wait is over. Much is made of this being a prequel to Alien, but for me I can see a lot of Blade Runner in its preoccupation with the origins of life and the idea of the soul. Compared to those two SF films he's made in the past and the films he's made since first giving up that genre Prometheus has to offer quite a lot in order to not disappoint. Fortunately Prometheus is the best film Ridley Scott has made in thirty years. Unfortunately that's not saying much. Obvious stuff out of the way first: The plot is an absolute shambles and the ideas well worn and boring, if not repellent. It's a shambles because the logic isn't logical - it compares very poorly to Alien from the perspective of writing craft, and this has none of the great lines of Alien or especially Blade Runner. It also doesn't matter that the script is rubbish and I'll explain why as best I can.

The plot: 80 years from now we have manned interstellar spaceflight. Human archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw and her boyfriend Charlie-something find ancient art depicting a star-map and giant figures and take this as an invitation to follow it. They get funding from a corporate sponsor and fly off. When they get there two years later they find a terrestrial planet and on it a dome structure full of tunnels. In there they witness a projected recording of a fleeing giant alien which leads them to a chamber in which things start to go a bit wrong for them. Surreality and horror ensues, which is a huge relief after such a boring concept as ancient astronauts with a space opera chaser.

The film works because Scott has a skill with tone and imagery that transcends narrative. Admittedly he hasn't always needed to rely on it quite so much. On Alien the script he was working from was particularly crafted and coherent with big simple ideas, on Blade Runner it was suggestive and spare. Here he's working against a sometimes quite poor script to put incredible and resonant moments on screen. The plot is offensively bad when you work it out, and exhibits an appalling disregard for scientific fact, but it dodges that at first because it's not an expository film. It's surrealist spectacle. Whenever it concerns the aliens it becomes purely about tone and image. Take the first scene. We fly over an impressive, treeless and glacier sculpted landscape. An oval shadow, massive, rolls over the grasslands. A river rushes and moils as we glide over it to a waterfall. Enormous and panoramic, water crashing in the pool far below. A robed figure walks along the bank to the precipice, lowers his hood to reveal a hairless, marble-white head, his brow heavy and chiselled. Drops the robe away from sculpted muscles. Raises a jar and opens it and we see the writhing and twining things within, thick with tarry slime. He looks up at the solid, black oval disc parting the clouds and obscuring half the sky, and then back down at the jar, which he lifts and drinks. He gasps and then roars. His pristine skin is shot with black, branching and spreading. The camera zooms alarmingly in, through his skin and into his body. We see black, twisting clouds in the spaces in his tissue; we're at the microscopic scale. Strands of his DNA helices fur with black, snap like stressed chains.

Outside, we see his body, burnt and desiccated, pitch and fall into the exploding waterfall down the churning torrent into the pool below. His body drifts by on the pool bed, meat crumbling off his bones.

An alien commits suicide by ingesting something which destroy him, systemically, at the level of his DNA. All of which is really quite cool. Problem is, the suicide itself has no obvious significance to the plot and is both unmotivated when we see it and completely unexplained. We either learn what kills him later or why, or maybe both? It's a plot tangle, rather than hole, but it's the first indication that these aliens are going to be inscrutable and violent and that something black and horrible waits. It alludes that he's performing an experiment on himself while the floating ship watches, but that's an extreme way to conduct scientific inquiry, so these guys are an odd bunch. Ultimately the white aliens relationship to the plot is deeply stupid, and so is this scene. The white aliens are brilliant though (as an aside it makes me wonder if Scott has read The Book of the New Sun. He probably has). It's that oddness in the aliens that reflects on all the other characters too.

The characters are all a bit weird, but wonderfully portrayed. The stand-out performance is another non-human character, Michael Fassbender's android, David. We learn from the film that he has modelled his appearance and manner on Peter O'Toole's T. E. Lawrence, which he watches along with the crewmembers' dreams, during the two years they're in stasis and he's left awake. He's creepy and malevolent and sort of charming and clearly one of Scott's replicants and I'm very glad to see him on screen. An immaculate screen psychopath actually, but I can't go too much into that because of spoilers. I can say that the reasons for many of the bad things he does make little naturalistic sense unless you accept that his motivations and those of who he works for are implied and psychologically weird. I like it, but it's uncertain and elliptical.

Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw is the human heart of the film, and the themes of pregnancy and infection that have always been there in Alien are played out around her. She is the most naturalistic figure in the film, the sympathetic lead, and her faith in god aside, the least interesting to discuss. Her boyfriend, Charlie Holloway, the leader of the scientific team of the expedition is such an odd character. Overconfident, condescending and insensitive, he goads David and mocks him because he was created by humans, and later seems to say that creating new life is a trivial part of being human beings, because of our futuristic biotech. It's a great scene because he blunders over the subtext of what he's saying and manages to really upset his girlfriend, so I'm convinced he's a terrible boyfriend, and that's actually pretty good writing. I really like that the heroine is in a relationship with this character, who isn't sympathetic, because it further humanises her that she's put so much of herself into a relationship with a man who represents himself so badly. I'd say he's one minor villain in a film full of villains, who she has to overcome at great, counterintuitive pain to herself. I don't think she ever realises or comes to terms with that, but the film does. He's given the most telling line "Doesn't every child want to kill their parents?" It's a big theme - a Buddhist theme: Kill your parents, kill god, kill your teacher, and if the film has any depth, that's it.

The apparent main villain, corporate proxy Meredith Vickers, played by Charlize Theron is an interesting piece of writing too. I heard that Scott wanted her to be in the background of a lot of scenes without much to do to establish the presence of Weyland Corporation. It's a ballsy move and speaks well of Theron that she didn't try and get it beefed up into a full scenery chewing villain role (Anyway, if you want that Snow White and the Huntsman is out this weekend too, so massive kudos to Theron and her ego). She does come to the fore later in the film as the voice of steely authority, and with brutal decisiveness, so it pays off anyway. There's a conversation between Idris Elba's blue collar space captain Janek and Vickers later that's brilliantly knowing. I wanted to argue that the performances are all non-naturalistic at first, but they're not, they're just underdeveloped. Elba gets some of the worst of this as the working class hero. He's good though, and Steve likes his moustache.



Special mention must be made of Guy Pearce's heavily made up performance as Weyland, the ancient corporate moneyman behind the trip in search of the aliens, as his character is brilliant. He's Tyrell from Blade Runner, inverted, and it's sort of genius. Also, and I suspect this is Ridley's Geordieness coming out, he has a hussy Border Terrier as a pet, and I do love a hussy Border Terrier.



The film has a great way with exposition, largely avoiding over-explanation when the characters are not talking drivel and it's lovely to only have my intelligence insulted by just a load of plot holes rather than by heavy handed explanation of every beat, or both. Visually it's very well told. There are a lot of things in the script which are surprisingly good, but the plot isn't any of them.



There are a million more things I can say about the setting and the filmmaking. There's a scene in which Shaw wakes up in a hospital bed with David acting as her nurse which is brilliantly disorienting and is consummate horror filmmaking, but it's too spoilery to discuss. I want to suggest that there's another old Greek name that should be brought up here: Proteus, but I'll leave it at that. I want to talk about the way the white aliens are portrayed, their silence and surreality. There's a dreamlike illogic to all the scenes among the ghosts of the white aliens which I've alluded to earlier that I could talk about, certainly these are the parts of the plot which are least convincing while also being some of the scenes which are the most effective and affecting, but I'll save it for a more spoilery write up some other time. The less said about the black aliens the better, right?

It's a load of old bollocks in many ways but fortunately it's also pretty brilliant.
volterator: (Default)
So Mass Effect was consistently brilliant old school populist space opera like the new BSG. The new BSG had one of the worst closing mythologies and endings the material could possibly have generated. Mass Effect not only has the worst closing mythology and ending since then, it has essentially the same one. It started out as Captain Kirk and the Colonial Marines versus the Lovecraftian robots and ended with the "Paul Atreides can make it rain" ending from David Lynch's Dune. Bravo guys. 120 hours of emotional investment and enjoyable carnage and you flip off the lights when I'm done.

It does make me pose a question - Mass Effect was a human story, it was about choices, alliances, friendships and relationships. Political, practical, personal, romantic - it was a story about people. My question is for the writers and is this, "is it SF that's the problem?" while you clearly know how to tell human stories about characters while working in a medium, computer games, where well drawn characters could not be more exciting and gratifying, and which hasn't traditionally done much with characterisation, did you second guess all that work you've done making them live because you were working in SF? Did you feel you had to conform to its conventions? Did you, moreover, misunderstand them? Rather than making an ending that turns on everything I'd chose and everyone I'd won over or loved and everyone I'd had to fight or just not liked, which is what the story you'd written was building towards, did you feel the need to make it about Big Universal Questions? SF might be a fiction of ideas, but it's still a fiction of human relationships. As Steve rightly pointed out we got the Maud'dib's magic rain ending, but what we needed was the "guys dancing at a barbecue with furry midgets" ending from Return of the Jedi. That's the sort of story you'd been writing. The story you were writing was one of unity born of co-operation and shared use of technology - the technology of government, law, codes of behaviour, not just space ships and superweapons. You introduced one deus ex machina to stopper an entire arsenal of Chekhov's, and you completely ruined it. Damp squibbed it. Whatever.
volterator: (Terminal)
The story begins with a wheelchair bound Svengali figure named Caulder discussing his plan to reform the defunct Doom Patrol. We learn the the former members are currently in various wards for both mental and physical ailments. We're introduced to Cliff Steele, Robotman, who's a human brain in an entirely robot body who is yearning for his lost humanity. In his first scene he loses his temper with a psychiatric nurse and we see him alone in his room at the intstitution, lost in despair. Caulder sends Cliff Magnus, the scientist who made Cliff's body to try and talk him round, and Magnus finds he can reconnect Cliff with his fellow man by introducing him to Kay Challis, a fellow patient who was abused by her father as a child and developed sixty-four multiple personalities. In this world a catastrophe has occurred that gave some people superpowers and she was affected, leaving her with 64 distinct sets of superpowers that manifest with the different personalities. Rounding out the team is Larry Trainor, who is hospitalised for some unspecified reason, who we see flirting with his doctor, Eleanor Poole. Trainor is visited in his hospital bed by a mysterious spectral figure who is something to do with his powers and which begins speaking to him, which it has never done before. It tells Larry that it needs the doctor and uses its powers to bind to her in the same way as it has to Larry. The issue ends with a high speed car crash on the city streets from which a burning body walks, warning of the coming of the 'scissormen'.

A reboot of a squicky and offbeat 60s comic, Grant Morrison's 80s take gets off to a fascinating start. I found the writing economical and effective, and really enjoyed the pathos of Robotman, who wakes screaming from a nightmare of dying in a racing car crash and having his brain scooped up a burning lunatic. I really enjoyed when he talks about the inadequacy of his robot senses and his unreliable memory of what it was like to experience life as a real human, summing up his predicament as like phantom limb syndrome for this entire body, lamenting that he still has bodily urges that he can't satisfy. He describes how he wants to crap sometimes and his sexual frustration. He rejects Magnus's help, who angrily tells him that he won't let him go under, won't lose even one good person, and that there are people with worse problems than his. "Show me one." Cliff demands, and is introduced to the haunted, lost Kay Challis - Crazy Jane, who is in the grounds painting in the rain. The personality she shows tells them they're 'talking to the hangman's beautiful daughter.' As Cliff looks on the painting seems to reach out to him, and Magnus tells how she's psychically active. Tears joining the rain she asks 'what do normal people have in their lives?' Cliff turns to her and is reached by her 'what happens when you just can't be strong any more? What happens if you're weak?' She stands limp in the rain. They stand silent together and Cliff invites her to come in out of the rain. The opening issue establishes promising relationships that I'm very interested in seeing develop. The friendship between the isolated mechanical man and maelstrom of powers and personalities of a broken woman, and the strange entity and the sparky Larry and his doctor and how they're forced together and their sexual tension. Plot questions arise: what is Caulder's aim for the new Doom Patrol? Who are the two mysterious self described Men in Black who take the policeman's statement at the scene of the crash, and what is the significance of the black book the burning man was carrying, and why was he so desperate to keep it away from whoever he was fleeing? Who are the scissormen? I have a theory about that last one, based on the cover of part 2. I think they're going to be some fourth-wall breaking device that cuts people right out of the very pages! It's the sort of thing that Morrison is known to do, certainly 20 years ago. It sounds quite silly, but it has a decent humanity to it, and there's something to be said for treating these things with a degree of seriousness but not losing the absurdity that will work for you on a comics page.

I'm glad I picked it up. I think it might be a fun read. As a totally awesome aside Cliff Steele was played by Henry Rollins in the Batman Brave and Bold cartoon.

Events

Oct. 15th, 2011 11:38 am
volterator: (Default)
So that was a week that passed very fast for me. Zoomed by in a subjective blink of an eye. i had some training from a company which provides sound masking for office environments and became quietly fascinated with what they do, and intrigued that I've been employing certain of their tactics to alter my own acoustic environment anyway. I wasn't entirely ignorant of the things they do and neither should you be if you've ever been to a cinema. They put those fabric covered boards on the walls for a reason after all. I even have a company in mind whose account I look after who are receiving a lot of complaints about excessive background noise on their outgoing who I can pitch it to. I like tinkering with sound and I like making money off it even more, so that's going to be alright.

One of my co-workers spent three days chasing hotel rooms for the Christmas party, and I think has succeeded, so there's a meal and boozing in Manchester on December 3rd. She said, despairing of the booked up hotels and constant disappointments, that it was doing her head in and how was she going to arrange her wedding if she couldn't even organise a Christmas do. This received a chorus of histrionic, frazzled women impressions back from the staff. Honestly if I worked for a big company or in a real country they'd all be in court.

I've automated comics now - I get a steady stream of them in the post throughout the month, which means I don't have to put up with 60 minute commutes and inevitable disappointment when searching for them. I need to broaden out and search for some credible ones so that I can continue pretending that the medium is actually employed by anyone who writes decent fiction at the moment.

New Discworld book, Snuff , only 70 pages in - the prose is different now that they're dictated. I've found his last four novels to be sometimes ruder, angrier and funnier than most, but also longer. For example I feel that I Shall Wear Midnight is uncontroversially excellent, and is shot through with fury and injustice and relates the cruelty of the countryside and discovery of adult responsibility very well. As much as Pratchett makes a living off stock characters and parody, and to some extent writes the same tough, capable woman over and over, I believe in their strength and the accuracy of the observations they come out of. He has been a skilled popular writer, and on occasion better than that. I don't believe he's finished yet.

Cults

Sep. 20th, 2011 08:07 pm
volterator: (Elephant)
I'm reminded by a chance encounter that I actually really liked this record. So I'm totally going to buy it. It's a perfect melding of 60s pop sound and art pop sensibility (best I can do, not sure what I'm explaining). The shy darkness that inflects it has, I imagine, had much made of it. After all the first voice on the big single, Go Outside, is Jim Jones's voice. Which isn't this track.



The sound quality on this video is dire though.
volterator: (Default)
I just had the immense misfortune of seeing the first few scenes of (500) Days of Summer, and am glad that I did. I was originally going to write that I wished I hadn't but that would be willingly bypassing the pleasure of knowing that there are still films which can provoke in me deep and deepening reactions. It's the most tonally loathsome, hateful, dippy Indie claptrap I've ever seen, and one film which, had it suddenly become Michael Haneke's Funny Games I'd have been cheered to watch the torturers go about their work. The problem is everything. It's the plonky pianos and shrill Indie siren soundtrack, the arch Author's note "this film is a work of fiction" etc, no resemblance intended especially to ex-girlfriend and so on, which ends with the word "bitch." Slimy fucking ... I can't go on writing this because I keep dissolving in shouts of "fucking arseholes!"

dyooor

Sep. 11th, 2011 11:02 pm
volterator: (Default)
"[I]f done properly film criticism should maintain a safe distance from film-making because, just as good taste is the enemy of art, so intimacy and cosiness are the enemies of honest criticism. In an ideal world, film critics would have no friends amongst the film-making fraternity. In fact they would probably have no friends, full stop. Nor would they nurture any ambition to become film-makers themselves.

Nope, a good film critic should, by their very nature, be ... an unwanted outsider to whom nothing is owed and from whom nothing is expected by the people who actually make movies. So, when Z-list British 'actor' and 'personality' recently became the latest in a long line of affronted luvvies to threaten to beat me up for mocking his rotten films, I felt a sense of pride that I was still able to provoke such a violent reaction. This is just part of the job: if you're honest about the parlous state of some movies, then you have to be ready for the people who make those movies to start bleating about how they're going to kick your head in for being mean and disrespectful about their craft. In this particular case, said affrontee actually devoted three pages in his newly published autobiography to repeating his widely viewed YouTube promise to 'put something right across [my] faakin canister' for laughing at his risible Dick Van Dire cockney-geezer shtick. It's a threat he continues to repeat ad nauseam; even as I write, I see Dick has once again told the press that he will headbutt me and break my 'faakin nose' because I 'don't take [him] seriously as an actor'.

Luvvies are like this, even the mockney ones. To be fair, this particular drug-snorting Groucho-club habitué was probably upset at having recently torched his career by publicly advising a fan to cut his ex-girlfriend's face (a joke, apparently...) thereby becoming the only person ever to get fired from Zoo magazine for being too sexist."

-- Mark Kermode
volterator: (Default)
Dear Mr Anderson,

I am writing with regards to your work as a writer and director of Hollywood feature films, executed between 1995 and the present. It has been your practice as a filmmaker to adapt famous video game properties into high-budget, high-concept features, starting with 1995's Mortal Kombat. You went on to write several films based on the Resident Evil survival horror series and direct one, 2002's Resident Evil, and write and direct 2004's Alien vs Predator, a concept which was already familiar to many through the series of video games and comics of the same name.

The opening shot of Alien vs Predator is beautifully conceived and executed: the jagged and amenone-like armature of backlit spikes suspended in a black background is striking and unsettling - it uses the audience's presumed awareness of the alien design to create a sort of dissonant recognition (I would venture that the attempt was to evoke the alien queen). As the shot widens out and the light is cast more evenly on the form we learn that we are looking at a satellite in Earth's orbit which then photographs the antarctic and initiates the movement of the film's plot. It is an excellent first scene and sets an electric tone, which is instantly broken as the the shot changes to terrestrial monitor screens and big red warnings of UNKNOWN HEAT SIGNATURE DETECTED with accompanying klaxons. From the sublime to the ridiculously bad in one cut. It is galling therefore that you make no attempt at damage control, continuing the scene with two anonymous nerds spouting creaking expository dialogue.

Your complete inability to write naturalism or motivate it in the performances of your actors actually amazes. Your consummate skill in taking a popular concept with a ready made fanbase and turning the resultant film, though it is a film which is almost infuriating poor, into a financial success deserves tribute. With Alien vs Predator you have managed to sythesise three iconic franchises, the Alien vs Predator brand and the Alien and Predator movie series into a cohesive whole, you have taken concepts from Theosophical thought and the eldritch horror of H.P. Lovecraft and woven them together, and in doing so have robbed all of them of their individual brilliance. The effect of your work is to aggregate tarnish on everything you touch; the rare ability to rub the sheen off of gold. Indeed, it is a tribute to your ability to sell snake oil to studio bosses and to the lack of discrimination on the part of audiences that you have achieved such notable success. Shysterism of your magnitude speaks of genius - the genius of parlaying minimal talent into a stable and sustained career. You have managed to feed an appetite for more-of-the-same with material of the most undistinguished quality - no-one is satisfied, but they keep coming back.

Regarding the several Resident Evil films you have written it is important to point out that you demonstrate a facility with SF mise-en-scene and horror formalism which can be described as disgustingly inept. Even if your dialogue was not of the most stilted kind, your plotting is derivative and your shocks anything but shocking, your directorial ability would take a heavy toll. Resident Evil, which you directed in 2002, is actually boring. In one scene you conspicuously dolly in on a body suspended in a tank of fluid for perhaps as long as two seconds with nothing else in the frame and then expect, judging by Marilyn Manson's music sting, the audience to exhibit shock when she opens her eyes. It makes me question whether you are able to reconcile the most basic filmmaking principle that states that camera movements should always be motivated, with the project of a horror movie, which is to surprise the viewer and unsettle them. Your use of a genre cliché and the explictness with which you build up to it is almost camp. I wonder what your intention was. Whilst it cannot be denied that your ongoing project of providing a vehicle for your fiancée, actress Milla Jovovich, is a expedient one, it is my feeling that it would be have been more beneficial to her career and your reputations to have made these films anything other than universally awful; which they are. Congratulations on the recent birth of your daughter, and I hope that your non-professional relationship is a long and successful one.

On a final note concerning Alien versus Predator: what was the alien-head sword and shield in aid of? That scene couldn't have been worse if she'd been on rollerskates.

I've heard you say in your defence that whenever a director tackles a popular franchise with a hardcore fanbase he can be expected to disappoint some, and that it is not within a director's job or powers to anticipate and defer the objections of hardcore fans. Whilst this is indeed true I think it is a statement on your part which is both evasive and disingenuous. I put it to you that you are both aware of the inadequacy of your final product and willfully unapologetic for it. As for the belief you claim to hold that it is only hardcore fans which take issue with your movies I must protest. I personally scarcely care about the franchises you have worked on and don't care about Resident Evil in the least. What I do care about is that the mainstream genre movie should be as good as possible. It is my firm belief that the horror, action and science-fiction genres demonstrate the core values of Hollywood displayed at their most glorious extremes: the values of entertainment through spectacle, and I believe that they should be treated seriously. These movies matter. I am far from an obsessive fan but I took the time to write you this letter, but you must understand: people care that you are this bad. You simply must change the trajectory of your career and stop appropriating genre properties and funds that could be put to better use by someone else. Perhaps anyone else.

The honourable thing to do would be to go into episodic television as a lens for hire. That way your livelihood would be assured, your talents put to use, and the damage you could do minimised.

Yours sincerely,

Michael J Williams,

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