A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “The Terminator” (1984) 5.3.15

This film officially wrapped up the end of the series of films at one of my local area theaters who showed several Science Fiction classics throughout the month of April. All of which (with the exception of “Blade Runner” (1982) which I chose the original “Alien” (1979) over as the two were playing on the same night) that I got to see on the big screen. Which has become a new passion of mine in revisiting some of the older classics for the first time in the theater. I’ve added several Sci Fi classics to my “bucket list” and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. In this past month plus some I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), as mentioned above, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), James Cameron’s (x2) “Aliens” (1986), and the recently released “Ex Machina” (2015). Alex Garland’s cerebral head trip which wound up being the best Sci Fi film I’ve seen since Duncan Jones’ groundbreaking “Moon” (2009).

I have to admit the “Terminator” franchise is one of my least favorite Science Fiction ones as I remember watching them as a kid, and while I admired the second one, I really never could find myself getting into any of the subsequent sequels. Similar to how I felt and still feel about the “Alien” franchise after its second installment. That and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even really remember seeing the first “Terminator” except for maybe bits and pieces when I was a just a young lad. And in thinking back my reason for not doing so probably had a lot to do with the fact that I saw the films out-of-order, with the second one first, then the third, and fourth. Since I didn’t much care for parts 3 or 4 seeking out the first one wasn’t necessarily high on my list. At least in my more formative years. Though since then, in becoming a student of film, I’ve come to learn that the original is highly regarded in many film circles to be one of the all time classic entries into the Sci Fi genre. So I thought to myself I should make it a point to check it out, now that I look at films analytically, to see if it earns the moniker of being up there with the all time greats like some of the ones mentioned above.

James Cameron’s debut film is a dark, dirty, post-apocalyptic vision of the future that seems very much influenced by the many films of the genre that came before it. Films like John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) both seem like direct influences on it in terms of look and style. Except where those films were much brainier, Cameron seems to change the playing field a bit here. Not really caring much for character or plot, he appears to be much more interested in style and sheer entertainment value. As there’s not really much on display here in terms of any kind of narrative. What’s different, and done quite I should add, is his ability to bring an almost new kind of kinetic energy to the genre. His ability to engage the audience while keeping the cat and mouse plot moving along from scene to scene is really the film’s greatest strength. In relation to some of the other big-budget pics of the genre, this film in especially feels more sadistic, but with a certain playfulness about it with its splatter-violence and singular vision that I call “cyber punk”. In terms this vision I speak of it breaks new ground in the genre with its seeming admiration for over the top violence and energy. Something I hadn’t been privy to of some of the more contemporary films of the genre up to that point in film history. It’s maybe the most visceral and action packed genre picture for its time.

There’s also the flat-out bad acting but which actually suits itself well to a story that doesn’t seem one bit concerned with how the actors come across but based much more around visual style and hyper violence. Arnold (Ahnuld) Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton read their lines like they’re reading off of a teleprompter (though to his credit Schwarzenegger has maybe only a dozen or so lines in the entire film). The best thing about it acting-wise was the other cyborg sent from the future played by Michael Biehn, who gives some life into what is otherwise a pretty laughable script. Though at times I felt like it reveled in the irony of its poorly acted script. The Schwarz seems perfectly cast as his bland facial expressions, thick accent, and Frankenstein body language suits itself rather well to the role of a menacing cyborg. Hamilton on the other hand is more of a feast for the eyes, as she clearly seemed to be cast more for her gorgeous looks (lucky you Cameron) than for her acting chops.

What I will conclude by saying, is that while “The Terminator” is considered to be a master work and essentially the platform for starting James Cameron’s career. It also marks the turn of big budget Sci Fi going for a more action packed, style over substance, entertainment thrill ride approach. Which for the most part it succeeds in doing. Its influence is embedded in several Sci Fi films that proceeded it. As did its kitschy one-liners (“I’ll be back”). But for all of its nicely looking visual splendor and style it feels devoid of the brainer elements that I’ve learned to love from the genre. So for that mostly personal reason, it wound up being fun to watch and critique. But in terms of its place as being considered one of the “the greatest” Sci Fi films to me it barely makes the cut. That aside, I could still sit back and both admire and understand why its considered such an important work for its time.

[strong B]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Alien” (1979)

It is very difficult to talk “fact” when it comes to film. However when it comes to Science Fiction, one could say the closest thing to being fact is that Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), and Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) are the three most influential films to have come out of the genre of all time. And I would argue that all three of them are also the best. But when it comes to using the term best in relation to film, well, that’s a matter of opinion of course. What I will say is this – the fact that I got to see James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986) and its predecessor within the same month, on the big screen no less, is maybe by a mere act of god. But even more importantly, that I came to the realization after seeing both screenings, of how incredibly influential both films are. Not just in terms of their importance in film history, but in how much of an impact the “Alien” franchise has had on our culture and society as a whole. When I saw “Aliens” (1986) a little under a month ago now, I was awestruck by the vast number of people who came out to see a movie that was made almost 30 years ago now. I remember casually getting to the 750-person capacity theater 45 minutes early thinking that I would be one of the first in line. It turned out there were probably 100+ people in front of me. The movie eventually sold out, mind you again this is for a theater that seats 750 for a film that was made almost 30 years ago. It was an experience that’s difficult for me to put into words. It all felt so all inclusive. Like I was an integral part of something special. Which is truly one of the main reasons why I enjoy going to the movies so much, to be a part of that kind of experience.

As was the case with tonight’s screening of “Alien” (1979). Granted I showed up late (if you want to call a half an hour “late”) and was more shocked this time than I was the previous time to see the sheer amount of people in line to see it. This time being at a much larger venue, at Portland’s Empirical Theater which is within our city’s science museum, and seats about a 1,000. Well even arriving a half an hour early I was a few hundred people back. The scene there looked like something more akin to a big rock concert than it did to see a film that was made 36 years ago now. But what struck me even more about it was the age range by the looks of the people waiting in line. Everyone from teenagers to people my age to older adults stood in line at their chance to catch this film live on the big screen. Many of whom like me, were experiencing it for the first time. What’s so significant about this and why I feel the need to point it out is that movies really are timeless, and to see such a film with such a large audience that has made such a lasting imprint on our culture was nothing short of amazing. It finally came time to pile in when the usher announced by megaphone (there really were that many people in line) it was time to be let in. People scrambled in like cattle and to be honest, I just felt lucky enough to have gotten a seat. I buckled myself in as the house lights went down, which conjured up a sense of excitement that only a film of this caliber could possibly summon.

“Alien” is such a landmark achievement in terms of its impact on the film (as previously mentioned in my “Aliens” review – the original “Alien” is both my favorite Sci Fi and Horror film of all time). And to sum up why I love this film so much in a single paragraph is almost next to impossible. What I will say is that Ridley Scott’s film revolutionized the Science Fiction format. A genre which, up to that point, was mostly reserved for cheesy B movies and disaster flicks that came out of the 1950’s and 60’s. What Scott was able to do was resurrect a genre by first adding a high production value, which allowed for big-budget visuals, a breathtaking set design, and one of the most realistic creatures that still to this day, ranks up their with the best (and certainly one of the scariest). The first entry is essentially a meta exercise, perfectly blending and executing both equal parts horror and Sci Fi. The way in which Scott establishes tone and setting is simply a marvel of a feat. He creates a sense of isolation (hence the film’s tagline – “in space no one will hear you scream”) and a foreboding sense of dread and nerve-wracking suspense as the space crew Nostromo encounters some sort of unfamiliar space craft and its subsequent scenes, are all nail-bitingly tense in their execution. Scott rather deftly tracks the camera through every inch of the space craft’s corridor which feels like that of a stretching rubber band. The crew then explores the suspicious space craft. Which is where it really grabs a hold of you about a third of the way in and never lets up. It all starts with John Hurt’s character falling into what appears to be a womb of some sort, filled with egg-like pods. A face-hugging parasite latches on to his helmet, which at that point you get the sense that something is seriously about to go wrong. And it does. Much to the chagrin of Lt. Ripley (played by the first real female action hero in cinema – Sigourney Weaver) Ian Holm’s character forgoes protocol to quarantine the victim and lets him back on board. The scenes following, or shall I say “the scene”, is just as incredibly terrifying, if not more, every single time I see it. You could literally hear the audience gasp as many people like myself, seemed to know and prepared themselves for what was to come…

It’s at this pivotal moment and iconic scene that virtually the rest of the film takes off. Scott produces genuine thrills and scares as the film essentially becomes a game of cat and mouse, with the alien preying on the rest of the crew. And each time we see the beast’s double set of extending jaws, the movie becomes more and more terrifying as each unfortunate victim befalls resulting in one of the more fulfilling climaxes in cinema history.

The film’s true greatness lies within its ability to be both undeniably scary, nerve-wracking, but even more importantly, as a piece of thought-provoking art. The Oscar nominated visual effects by the late H.R. Giger are both highly original and unique. That and unlike its sequel, we hardly ever get to see the actual alien, except only for a few brief moments at a time, and it’s both terrible and beautiful when we finally get to see it in its full form. Another key important thing to note is that is was solely responsible for launching its then unknown actress Sigourney Weaver into an overnight star and film icon. I could go on and on and on about the many things I love about this film, but I don’t think I could possibly do it justice. What I will say is with each viewing, especially this one, given that it was on the big screen with a house full of “Alien” fans like myself, it acted as a reminder of why I hold this film in such a high regard. But even more so, it’s a glimpse into the past at one of the most seminal and important works that would go on to influence generations to come.

[A+]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]