Mythaxis Review: Sci-Fi And The Environment

Mythaxis Review Magazine has a feature on Stanley Chen. His new book (and forthcoming film) ‘Waste Tide’ explores the possibility of environmental disasters in the future.
Here is a link to read more.

The magazine also has a new regular feature, a News category. Here is what Daniel told me.

“I started a News category. If anyone has any publishing news, even a book release, let me know!”

Here is a contact link for that.

Just been watching…(2)

Prometheus (2012)

****This post contains plot spoilers****

It has taken me three years to get around to watching a film that it seems like everyone else has already seen. I was reluctant to go to see it at the cinema (silly me), and decided to wait until it was cheaply available on DVD. As luck would have it, it was then advertised as being shown on TV that very weekend, so I didn’t even have to buy it.

In a nutshell, this film is a prequel to the original 1979 film ‘Alien’, and is made by the same British director, Ridley Scott. As it is set so long before the first story, Sigourney Weaver is notable by her absence, as presumably Ripley had not yet been born. If you have never seen any of the ‘Alien’ series of films, you may not be reading this anyway, but my own relationship with them has been on and off over the decades. When the 1979 film was released, I thought that it was simply amazing. The idea, the cast, the sets, and the special effects, were all just wonderful. It was like some other films before, but far better than any of them. Aged 27 at the time, I thought it was one of the best things I had ever seen, and it set the benchmark for sci-fi horror from that moment.

In 1986, American director James Cameron made the sequel, ‘Aliens’. I dutifully trotted along to see it, more out of curiosity as to where they could take the story. They took it to a bigger place, with a larger cast, more aliens, more weapons, and huge explosions. And it wasn’t at all bad, as the frantic pace and suitably claustrophobic sets kept us viewers on the edge of our seats long enough to forget that it was much the same thing again. But bigger. Six years later, and the estimable David Fincher made the third film in the series, unimaginatively called ‘Alien 3’. This was a very different animal. It looked as if the budget had been pared down to a minimum. The sets appeared to come from an old episode of ‘Doctor Who’, and the cast of mainly British character actors gave it the feel of WW2 prison camp film, set in the future. (And it is set in a prison) It was hard to take seriously, and even harder to like. For me, it was redeemed by the novelty of that British cast, but I had my doubts as to whether any others should follow. It seemed that this third outing was a film too far. The studios didn’t agree though, and five years later, Jean-Pierre Jeunet brought ‘Alien Resurrection’ to the screen, again starring Weaver, and set two hundred years after the last film. To explain her longevity, Ripley is actually a clone, as is the unborn alien queen she is carrying inside her. I didn’t really get this one, and thought that they were struggling to find a good reason to cash in on the franchise, so came up with this, jotted down on a beer-mat. The script, and most of the cast, are forgettable, and it even managed to make ‘Alien 3’ look more than acceptable.

There were other attempts to milk the idea. Hitting on the success of the ‘Predator’ films, they combined the two ideas, bringing us ‘Alien vs Predator’ in 2004, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. (Why do they have to have all those extra initials?) I actually didn’t mind this film, and without Ripley, it was mostly about the monsters, which made a change at least. In 2007, they tried a sequel to this idea, with ‘Alien vs Predator:Requiem’. By now, they should have known better.

Five years later, and Ridley Scott finally gets out his long-awaited project, ‘Prometheus’. I had well had enough by then, and had no intention of rushing out to see it. Although Scott directed two of my all-time favourite films; ‘The Duellists’ (1977), and ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), I presumed that he was just ‘taking the money’ with ‘Prometheus’, and I set myself against it. My fears were confirmed when I read some surprisingly lukewarm reviews, and occasionally saw it panned by critics. But I was wrong, and so were they. We were all wrong, because it is simply a prefect prequel. In every way that you want to see the origins of a well-known series, it just works, and works exceptionally well. Even on TV it is impressive, and perfectly captures the mood and feel of the original 1979 film. My hat is off to you, Mr Scott. (If I had one on to take off) If I could have written the perfect story to explain the build-up to the events in ‘Alien’, it would be this. I was looking for flaws and inconsistencies, but could find few, and none large enough to divert my viewing pleasure. From the opening scenes of the over-sized humanoid presumably populating a planet, I was completely hooked.

The plot is simple enough. An elderly and sick billionaire (played by an almost unrecognisable Guy Pearce) wants to fund an expedition to a far-off planet. Some anthropologists have found cave paintings in Scotland that suggest a divine being creating mankind, and there is even a star map to show the way to his planet.(These possibly omnipotent beings are referred to throughout as the ‘Engineers’.) The billionaire gets them together with a mixed bag of technicians and spaceship crew, all headed up by the dominatrix-like figure of Vickers, played by a very lean Charlize Theron.

There are no great surprises. Michael Fassbender makes a very good, slightly detached android. As in the other films, he is shown to have a hidden agenda. In this case, impregnating the lead anthropologist (Logan Marshall-Green. I know, who?) with some kind of alien seed/dna. I liked Fassbender in this, as he studiously avoided any attempt at ‘humanising’ his android character. There is a good crop of British actors too. The talented, and much under-used Benedict Wong has a role as a co-pilot, and Sean Harris, the current go-to man for maniacs and psychos in British drama, plays a suspicious crew member, who is horribly invaded by the original aliens. Idris Elba, marvellous as ‘Luther’ in the UK TV series, coasts a little as the laconic ship’s captain, prepared to sacrifice himself to stop the ‘Engineers’ getting to Earth.

The big reveals are few, and not too dramatic. Pearce’s billionaire character has actually been along for the ride the whole time, and wants the secret of eternal life from the Engineers. Oh, and Vickers (Theron) is his daughter. That’s a ‘why?’ moment. The female lead, and main anthropologist, is played by Noomi Rapace. It could have been anyone really, so she is as good as any. Her character is religious, presumably significant. She is also impregnated by her boyfriend, after he is infected with alien dna by the android. This is harping back to Ripley in the earlier films, so to be expected. Once they meet the potentially benign Engineer, it doesn’t go so well. He kills the billionaire, and others, and becomes a real problem for the survivors. Alongside him is Rapace’s alien child, born prematurely as she tries to terminate it. This is soon reminiscent of a huge octopus, and rampaging on the spaceship’s rescue pod. It is all going wrong, and the crew are falling like flies, either to the alien, the Engineer, or each other, as the infected members try to get back on board.

The big discovery is that the aliens we know so well from the original, are little more than a ‘biological weapon’, developed by the Engineers, to get rid of any of the created races they are unhappy with. And planet Earth could be next. The only solution to stop the huge humanoid leaving on his mission to destroy Earth, is for Idris Elba and his sidekick to crash Prometheus into the alien craft, which he does without a second thought. Rapace’s character is eventually left to fight the humanoid, which she does by using her alien spawn to kill him. The android, head ripped from his body but still able to function (sound familiar?) persuades Rapace to take him along. Using a second alien ship, they head off in search of their creators. Everyone else is dead, including the humanoid, who ‘gives birth’ to the alien we know and love from the original film. The circle is complete, and we are set for 1979.

Despite my tongue-in-cheek appraisal, it is all rather very good. The sets are familiar, the alien is familiar, and it is really apparent just how we arrived at the first film. The perfect prequel, without doubt. Here is the short official trailer. And be advised, Prometheus 2 and Alien 5 are both on the way!

Just been watching…

Given my recent lack of enthusiasm for blogging, I thought that I would turn to my love of films and TV drama for inspiration. These will be occasional posts about things I have just watched. They may or may not constitute a proper review, depending on your opinion.

Under The Skin

-Includes possible spoilers-

This 2013 film from Jonathan Glazer starring Scarlett Johansson, received a great deal of critical acclaim on release. It was compared by some to ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and by others to the work of David Lynch, and even Orson Welles. With all that praise, and the presence of Ms Johansson, I just had to get the DVD. But I waited until it was cheap, so I have only just watched it.

Despite the presence of the Hollywood star, it is very much a British film. Special effects are few, and are suitably believable. The locations in and around Glasgow and the Scottish countryside are wet, gloomy, and bleak. In fact, so much of the film is shot in such dim lighting, there were times that it was hard to make out what was happening, at least on a flat-screen TV. Scarlett is wearing her hair short and jet black this time, and it suits her. But then what doesn’t suit this incredibly attractive young woman? The whole film hinges on her unnamed character, and the rest of the cast are complete unknowns, enjoying brief appearances on screen.

It is established very quickly that her character is not of this world. Seen naked in silhouette, a male ‘accomplice’ delivers the body of a young woman to her. She strips the girl, and puts on her clothes. The man then gives her a van, possibly the only long-wheelbase transit in Scotland with an automatic gearbox. She drives to a local shopping centre, where she watches people buying clothes, and trying on make-up, before buying a new outfit, and some cosmetics. This is just one of a series of scenes and devices establishing her strange other-worldly persona to the viewer. Why didn’t the man just bring her some clothes? She is never seen with a handbag or money, yet she has make-up to hand, and doesn’t appear to steal from the shops. We never see her eat, (save for an attempt at a slice of cake) drink, sleep, or use a toilet. So we can conclude that her appearance might be human, but she has none of our needs for survival. We never see her wash, and she doesn’t change her clothes for the duration of the film. She is also unaffected by cold and wet weather, at least most of the time.

The soundtrack adds to the reveal. She hears things at different volumes, picks up conversational snippets, sometimes unintelligible. For the viewer this is as frustrating as it is interesting, with the volume changing from shouts to whispers at will. She drives through crowds of football supporters, stares at old people waiting at bus stops, gazes at passing traffic. She is detached from all around her, an outsider, looking in. OK, I get it. I expected her to suddenly put on a T-shirt bearing the logo ‘I am an alien’, and I began to get a little miffed at the extent of the plot signalling too. But I didn’t turn the film off, take it out of the player, and fling it out of the window in Beetley, and for one very good reason. Johannson is captivating to look at. Even when she is sitting motionless behind the wheel of a van, I could watch her all day. She doesn’t have much to say, but when she speaks, it is in a surprisingly good, well-spoken English accent. This jars against the harsh language of the Scottish characters, once again setting her apart. (OK, I get it!) She does ‘vacant’ extremely well, and the emotionless nature of her character suits her perfectly.

The main action of the bulk of the film centres around her driving aimlessly, in search of young men. She chats to them on the pretext of asking directions, establishing whether or not they live alone, or if someone will miss them if they decide to accept a lift with her. Who wouldn’t get into a van with Scarlett Johansson with the implication of sex in the very near future? I know I would be in that seat like a shot. Once back at her house, they might change their minds when they see the boarded-up slum that she invites them into. But one look at her again, and in they go. Inside the house, reality is distorted, as the size inside bears no relation to the external appearance. Mesmerised by her seductive striptease, the men take off their clothes, following her into what seems to be an oily lake. She walks on the surface, they sink slowly to their demise. After we see this happen a few times, we are later shown what goes on beneath the surface, as everything seems to be sucked out of the hapless men, leaving only their complete skins floating in the mire. Everything seems to be harvested through some kind of illuminated portal, going who knows where.

As if to really hammer home the point of her complete lack of emotion, there is a scene at a stormy beach. She approaches a potential victim, and as she chats to him, a young child gets into difficulties in the sea. The father dives in to save her, and her young prey goes to help. The child drowns, and the father, at first rescued, goes back in and also drowns. She becomes tired of watching this scene, so just hits the younger man with a rock, and drags him off to her van. A second child, only a baby, is left screaming on the beach. For the umpteenth time, we are shown how cold this character is.

After a mishap with a badly-deformed man, (she didn’t see the deformity- OK I get it) she heads off alone into the countryside. The film gets much better after this. The bleak scenery is incredibly photogenic. So much so, that I could almost forgive her sudden appearance in a hotel, and her attempt to eat the gateau, all presumably whilst having no money. She is taken in by a kindly local and given shelter. She eventually decides to make love to him, presumably curious as to how this body she inhabits actually functions. It doesn’t go well though, and she runs off into the woods, wearing a coat taken from the house, as she now seems to feel the cold, and to be bothered by the rain. The last fifteen minutes of the film will have to be left up to you. All I will say it that they are a very good fifteen minutes. The ‘accomplices’ are searching for her on their motorcycles, and she meets a forestry worker in the conifers. Then it all gets very good indeed.

Can a film this long be ‘saved’ by the last section? I have to say it can. And it was.

This is an official trailer.