Alien: Covenant (2017)

2017 #69
Ridley Scott | 122 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia, New Zealand & UK / English | 15 / R

Alien: Covenant

Following in the footsteps of half the other Alien movies (and “following in the footsteps” is definitely a theme when it comes to this movie), Alien: Covenant introduces us to a group of people who are the crew of a spaceship. This particular lot are on their way to establish a colony when a mid-flight disaster awakens them to deal with the damage. At the same time they detect a distress call from a nearby planet — a planet that looks even more suited to supporting human life than the one they were headed for. Changing course, they find suspiciously human vegetation growing on the planet, but are soon beset by terrible things. Well, it’s an Alien movie — I’m sure you can guess where most of this is going.

I say it’s an Alien movie, but really it’s a Prometheus movie. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler, does it? It’s no secret that Michael Fassbender is back. Sure, he starts the film playing a new robot, but did anyone really think that meant his old character wouldn’t be rocking up too? Sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone, but, c’mon. Besides, it’s clear that — despite the initial set dressing — Ridley Scott is far more interested in the concepts that launched Prometheus than he is in creating another Alien movie. The franchise-friendly stuff powers the slow-burn opening and the final act adrenaline rushes, but in between Scott reconnects to themes leftover from the apparently-aborted Prometheus trilogy.

Fit to burst

Now, I’ve already professed to be avoiding spoilers, but suffice to say that if you put Prometheus, Aliens (as opposed to Alien), Blade Runner (yep), and Frankenstein into a blender, then poured the resulting mixture into a novelty tie-in glass from the Star Wars prequels, you’d get Alien: Covenant. Weirdly, it’s the Prometheus stuff in that blend that tastes finer than the Aliens stuff. In fairness, that’s because it’s complemented by the notes of Blade Runner and Frankenstein.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. The scenes of characters chatting hold more interest than the action sequences, which feel a little perfunctory, remixing bits of previous movies with little impact, and are too dark to really appreciate (though I should withhold judgement on that last point, because they looked gloomier in the film than they did in the trailer, so perhaps it was just my cinema?) There’d be no shame in Covenant working as just an action and/or horror movie, if well made — that’s what the films that originated this franchise are, after all — but Scott is interested in exploring something more profound. The problem is that the attempted profundity comes from characters standing around and explaining the plot and/or themes to each other. It’s further undermined by slightly sloppy construction, one that places a key flashback at entirely the wrong moment (coming much earlier than it should, thereby spoiling a later reveal), and a last-minute twist that will be easily guessable to anyone who’s ever seen another movie.

In space, no one can see you look worried...

Worst of all, however, is that this film just didn’t need to be made. As with Prometheus before it, do we want to know where the eponymous beasties come from? It ruins some of their mystique, especially as the answers feel oddly mundane. This is not something further films are going to fix, either; though at this point they may as well keep going until things join up properly to the original Alien, because hey, why not?

Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus because at least the character don’t act like total imbeciles who should know better. On the other hand, it’s worse than Prometheus because it scrubs out any ambiguity that film left about the Xenomorphs’ origins. Sometimes a mystery is better than an answer.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from tomorrow.

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Prometheus 3D (2012)

Rewatchathon 2017 #10
Ridley Scott | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

Prometheus 3D

80 years in the future, a starmap found in some caveman paintings provokes a trillion-dollar mission to the other side of the universe so that the world’s stupidest scientists can (spoilers!) get themselves killed.

It is, by complete coincidence, 4½ years to the day since I first and last watched Prometheus, and this revisit has of course been inspired by its just-released follow-up, Prometheus 2: Extraterrestrial Boogaloo Alien: Covenant, which I’m seeing tomorrow. Frankly, most of my original thoughts on the film still stand. To summarise: it has some really good bits, but then it stops making sense and turns into a braindead blockbuster that doesn’t bother to properly explain its own plot, never mind the potentially-interesting sci-fi ideas it initiated early on. Apparently the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes do clarify some of the plot holes and gaps in character motivation, but other stuff is just plain stupidity on the part of the characters. Or, rather, the writers. Well, one of the writers, at least.

But despite my basic opinion not changing, I’m posting about Prometheus again because this was the first time I watched it in 3D. Hailing from those brief couple of years where the term “post-conversion” was blasphemous, Prometheus was genuinely shot in 3D — and, however good post-conversion has become since then, I think parts of this film make a case for why doing things properly is still best. But I’ll come to that.

Building busy bridges

In general, Ridley Scott’s 3D mise en scène is exemplary, almost always placing objects and characters at various distances from the camera to emphasise and clarify the sense of depth. The busy layout of the Prometheus’ bridge helps this no end, making scenes set there some of the clearest examples. Even on less populous sets, Scott finds angles and compositions that offer nice dimensionality without slipping into being a vacuous 3D showcase. He frequently uses glass to good effect, creating an obvious separation between the clear material — be it a window, a spacesuit helmet, or a sleeping pod — and what’s on the other side, almost casually adding extra layers to any shot they appear in.

In terms of show-off effects, Scott never breaks the ‘window’ of the screen by having things poke out at the viewer, but there are still scenes where the extra dimension is really felt. The storm sequences are a perfect example, with bits of debris flying around all over the place. In-film computer elements like holograms or displays have their own shapely presence in front of, around, and distinct from the physical world they’re part of, making them seem all the more real. Perhaps most of all, the room-filling Engineer star chart David discovers looks great in 3D. My memory of it from the 2D version is an indecipherable array of lights filling the screen, which is probably because it was all perfectly in focus for the sake of the 3D. With that extra dimension, it looks like something worth marvelling at.

Maps to the stars

Having been shot ‘for real’, the 3D just gives everything, even dialogue scenes, a sense of space and distance. You can appreciate the gap between someone’s head and the neck-back of their spacesuit; or, in close-ups, the distinct (but not in-your-face) distance between someone’s nose and eyes and hair. Perhaps the most impressive element are textures, like the hieroglyphs David finds cut into rock, or even characters’ skin — at times you can ‘feel’ its surface, its pockmarks and pores. However good post conversions are, I’m not sure they’re ever that thorough!

Watching in 3D is never going to gloss over Prometheus’ more fundamental flaws — it’s never going to make up for issues with the screenplay or the edit (that said, I’ve heard it makes Transformers 4 considerably more entertaining, so maybe “never” is too strong a word). What you do get is a sense that effort was made to make the 3D experience worthwhile. It may be an inessential component of the movie (a virtual necessity when there will always be people watching in 2D, of course), but it’s one that nonetheless adds an appreciable extra dimension.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from Thursday.

100 Films @ 10: Most Effective Director’s Cuts

Whether they be director’s, extended, ultimate, or any number of strung-together adjectives someone in marketing thought sounded exciting, direct-to-home-media alternate cuts of movies are all the rage nowadays. They have been for quite a while, actually — thanks no doubt to the booming sales of the DVD era — so for today’s top ten I thought I’d run down some of the most effective. I don’t necessarily mean the best (these aren’t “the ten best films that happen to have extended editions”), but rather the ones that have the biggest positive impact on the end result — which is sometimes the same thing, of course.

I know the initially stated point of these top tens was to look back over the last ten years, but this time I’ve widened the remit to include all extended cuts, mainly because that only added one title. Losing out because of that is X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, which does contain significant changes, especially to the climax, but didn’t really belong because I actually think the theatrical cut is smoother.

10
Léon
Version Intégrale

To undermine my introduction right away, the extended version of Léon doesn’t actually make massive changes to the movie. Some of the additions bolster character development, but the film wasn’t shortchanged on that in the first place. It is great though, but it’s also just more greatness. Does that mean it shouldn’t be here? Well, if you’re watching the US Blu-ray, it’s the longer version that has the proper title card, which is reason enough to prefer it in itself.

9
Watchmen
Director’s Cut

There are three cuts of Watchmen, but it’s the middle one that is director Zack Snyder’s preferred version of the film (aptly, given its subtitle). I’ve still not got round to the semi-experimental Ultimate Cut so can’t truthfully comment on whether Snyder’s right, but when I reviewed the Director’s Cut I asserted that, thanks to “a little extra room to breathe and a few worthwhile extensions, and in spite of the odd tweak that doesn’t work, this is the superior cut of the film.”

8
I Am Legend
Alternate Theatrical Version

The extended cut of I Am Legend has one of the most meaningless subtitles of all — it wasn’t released theatrically, so how is it an “alternate theatrical version”? That said, “alternate” is definitely a more apt descriptor than “extended”: although this version is longer, the biggest change is a completely different ending. That makes a difference to the film’s tone, as well as paying off some subplots. But it only changes the movie so much — those misguided CGI creatures are still there, after all.

7
Salt
Director’s Cut

This middling action-thriller starring Angelina Jolie is not the first film that’s going to come to mind to most people (for any reason, ever), but it exists in three different cuts that make some striking differences. I discussed them in depth in my review, but on balance the one they labelled the Director’s Cut is best.

6
Alien³
Assembly Cut

The second Alien sequel was a fraught production for a number of reasons, which wound up in an obviously-compromised theatrical version. A little over a decade later (doesn’t sound so long with hindsight, does it?) the original “assembly cut” was released — not a director’s cut because, understandably, David Fincher wants nothing to do with the movie. The different version doesn’t save the film entirely, but it does clarify some of it, thereby improving it.

5
The Lord of the Rings
Extended Edition

From Fellowship onwards, the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic are the preferred versions, deepening characters and expanding the rich world of the story. But by the time of the third and final movie, they’re essential: in a rare misstep, Jackson chose to completely excise one of the trilogy’s primary villains, Christopher Lee’s Saruman, from the theatrical version of Return of the King, so only in the extended version is the storyline of a major character actually resolved. That film won Best Picture nonetheless, which is why these aren’t ranked higher: the extended cuts are better, yes, but the theatrical versions are an incredible cinematic achievement regardless.

4
Sucker Punch
Extended Cut

Zack Snyder again, with another director’s preferred cut only debuting on the home release. This time he had to cut the film for censorship, revising it multiple times until the MPAA gave it the necessary PG-13. In the process, he removed several lines and scenes that helped to clarify what the hell was going on, which is rather helpful in such a crazy-ass movie. I’ve never bothered with the theatrical cut, but — in its extended form if no other — I think it’s something of an underrated movie.

3
Blade Runner
The Final Cut

Arguably the daddy of all alternate cuts, Blade Runner’s so-called Director’s Cut wasn’t really anything of the sort — Ridley Scott was busy and couldn’t be properly involved, merely providing notes for a studio after a fast buck. Years later, he was able to do it properly, resulting in the aptly named Final Cut… which is kinda just a polished version of the earlier Director’s Cut, but there you go. (Incidentally, there are some people who prefer the theatrical version. I’ve still not got round to it myself, but… well, there are also some people who prefer the theatrical cuts of Lord of the Rings. What I’m saying is, there’s no accounting for taste.)

2
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ultimate Edition

Guess who’s back? Zack Snyder’s third entry on this list is his most effective revised cut he’s yet done. There are aspects of Batman v Superman that mean some people will never like it, but it’s hard to argue that the Ultimate Edition isn’t an improvement, clarifying plot details and character motivations left, right, and centre. Seriously, though, what is it with Zack Snyder and cutting scenes that explain the plot?! At least when he does a director’s cut (which is most of the time) he really makes use of it.

1
Kingdom of Heaven
Director’s Cut

Guess who’s also back? The other great proponent of the director’s cut, Ridley Scott — though he’s more prone to using and abusing the term than Mr Snyder (the director’s cut of Alien is, famously, nothing of the sort). I’ve never seen the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven so can’t actually vouch for this myself, but, by adding a massive 45 minutes of material, Scott’s lengthier cut turned a theatrical dog into a film some regard as a masterpiece. I can’t think of another director’s cut that has ever instigated such a thorough reappraisal of a film’s critical standing.

Tomorrow: ten good scenes and no bad ones.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

2016 #55
Ridley Scott | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Exodus: Gods and KingsFor his most recent historical epic, Ridley Scott tackles the story of Moses. It’s easy to nitpick, depending on your proclivities: whitewashed cast; lack of adherence to the Bible; Ridley’s typically flexible attitude to historiography; it was even banned in Egypt for the negative depiction of both rulers and slaves.

Those aside, it’s visually sumptuous and impressively mounted, with well-imagined semi-plausible versions of the tale’s fantastical elements. However, despite the epic length (and four screenwriters), it never gets inside characters’ heads — they’re just going through motions dictated centuries ago.

Primarily one for those already amenable to its genre or creators.

3 out of 5

Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Martian, premieres on Sky Cinema today. My five-star review is here.

Gladiator (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #38

The general who became a slave.
The slave who became a gladiator.
The gladiator who defied an empire.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 155 minutes | 171 minutes (extended edition)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 4th May 2000 (Australia)
US Release: 5th May 2000
UK Release: 12th May 2000
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind)
Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Her)
Connie Nielsen (The Devil’s Advocate, One Hour Photo)
Oliver Reed (Women in Love, The Three Musketeers)
Richard Harris (This Sporting Life, Unforgiven)

Director
Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings)

Screenwriters
David Franzoni (Amistad, King Arthur)
John Logan (The Aviator, Skyfall)
William Nicolson (Shadowlands, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

Story by
David Franzoni (Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Citizen Cohn)

The Story
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believes his son and heir, Commodus, is unfit to rule, so plans to appoint victorious General Maximus Decimus Meridius as regent. Before he can, Commodus murders Marcus and orders Maximus’ execution. Maximus escapes, but returns home to find Commodus has had his wife and son murdered. Captured by slavers, Maximus becomes a gladiator, and when Commodus announces gladiatorial games to commemorate his father, he spots a chance for revenge…

Our Hero
Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the old emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, becomes a gladiator, will have his vengeance against the new emperor, in this life or the next.

Our Villain
Said new emperor, Commodus. Murders his father because Marcus favours Maximus. Fancies his sister. That kinda guy.

Best Supporting Character
Even if his performance is partially computer generated (more on that later), Oliver Reed still stands out as Proximo, the slave owner who buys Maximus and turns him into a gladiator. For a fella who does that kind of thing, he turns out to be very honourable.

Memorable Quote
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” — Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius; father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife.

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?” — Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the— yeah, you know the rest.

Memorable Scene
After Maximus secures a surprise victory in the Colosseum, Commodus enters the arena to congratulate the victor. Maximus reveals himself (cue famous speech), but holds back on his plan to murder the Emperor. As the Praetorian Guard prepare to execute Maximus, the crowd chant: “live!” Not prepared to risk unpopularity, Commodus spares him… for now.

Truly Special Effect
Oliver Reed died halfway through filming, with his key supporting role only partially complete. Famously, his performance was completed with computers, one of the first times such a thing had been done. Effects company The Mill created the additional footage by filming a body double and then mapping on a computer-generated mask of Reed’s face. The work totalled two minutes of screentime, at an estimated cost of $3.2 million.

Making of
When the HBO/BBC TV series Rome started, I read an interview with the programme’s historical advisor, who’d performed the same role for Gladiator. Asked to compare the experience of working on a major Hollywood movie versus a BBC-produced TV series, she cited the way the makers asked for information about something they wanted to include: on TV they’d ask, “did this exist?”; on Gladiator they’d say, “find us proof this existed.”

Next time…
A prequel or sequel was discussed ever since the film was a hit. The best/worst idea came from a re-write by Nick Cave (yes, that one) in which Maximus was “reincarnated by the Roman gods and returned to Rome to defend Christians against persecution; then transported to other important periods in history, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and finally being a general in the modern-day Pentagon.” As awesome as that sounds, it was rejected for “being too far-fetched, and not in keeping with the spirit and theme of the original”. Spoilsports.

Awards
5 Oscars (Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
7 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Audience Award)
10 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Russell Crowe), Supporting Actor (both Joaquin Phoenix and Oliver Reed), Director, Original Screenplay, Music, Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
2 World Stunt Awards (Best Fight, Best Work with an Animal)
1 MTV Movie Award (Best Movie)
5 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Line from a Movie for “It vexes me, I am terribly vexed!”)

What the Critics Said
“There isn’t much difference between the crowds cheering Maximus and fans of modern mayhem entertainment. Money is the root of all violent exploitation then and now. One of Maximus’ endearing qualities is the way he resents the attention. It’s insane to view these fights as fun. We like him enough to agree, then realize we’re gawkers, too. Scott plays cagey with this paradox, as if to say: If you want to be a ghoul, do it right. Mano a mano, with much more than profit in the balance. Viewers shouldn’t feel guilty watching Gladiator, but its impatience with trash-sports showmanship is unmistakable.” — Steve Persall, St. Petersburg Times

Score: 76%

What the Public Say
“As far as elements of technical filmmaking go, Gladiator is nothing short of a marvel. Production design team does a magnificent job in putting up set pieces that are grand, imposing & meticulously refined with the real standout being the Colosseum itself which is undeniably a sight to behold. The culture, politics & life within the Roman Empire is illustrated in splendid detail. Costumes, artefacts & other props are in sync with the timeline its story is set in but it also incorporates a slightly urban touch to it that brings a flavour of its own into the picture and enhances the look & feel of the whole imagery.” — CinemaClown @ Letterboxd

Verdict

Gladiator’s influence is plain to see: it was hailed at the time for reviving the classic swords-and-sandals epic — and indeed it did, because in its wake we’ve had so many that my original plan to list them here became untenable. The ‘original’ is still the best, though, thanks to director Ridley Scott’s feel for the epic, Russell Crowe’s strong hero, Joaquin Phoenix’s slimily unstable villain, and a mix of a straight revenge tale with familial/political plotting and the importance of public relations, thumping action sequences, and groundbreaking special effects.

#39 will make you… an offer you can’t refuse.

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1982/1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #13

The original cut of the futuristic adventure.


For clarification: as I didn’t see The Final Cut until after 100 Films started, and I’ve still not seen the theatrical cut, it’s only the 1992 Director’s Cut that is eligible for this list.

Country: USA, UK & Hong Kong
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 25th June 1982 (USA)
UK Release: 9th September 1982
Director’s Cut Release: 11th September 1992 (USA) | 27th November 1992 (UK)
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Rutger Hauer (Soldier of Orange, The Hitcher)
Sean Young (No Way Out, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde)
Edward James Olmos (Wolfen, Battlestar Galactica)
Daryl Hannah (Splash, Kill Bill)

Director
Ridley Scott (Alien, The Martian)

Screenwriters
Hampton Fancher (The Mighty Quinn, The Minus Man)
David Peoples (Unforgiven, Twelve Monkeys)

Based on
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel by Philip K. Dick.

The Story
L.A., 2019: cop Rick Deckard is dragged out of retirement to hunt and ‘retire’ a gang of Replicants — genetically-engineered androids, almost indistinguishable from humans, used for menial work off-world — who have come to Earth to extend their lives. As Deckard investigates, he comes to question what it means to be human…

Our Hero
Rick Deckard, former blade runner — which means nothing but does sound fairly cool. May or may not be a Replicant. (“He is!” “He isn’t!” “He is!” “He isn’t!”)

Our Villain
Roy Batty, definitely a Replicant. Committed the crime of wanting to live.

Best Supporting Character
Rachael — secretary, love interest, Replicant but believes herself to be human. Do we see a theme developing here?

Memorable Quote
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” — Roy Batty

Memorable Scene
At the imposing headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, blade runner Holden sits employee Leon in front of a strange machine. He begins to administer a Voight-Kampff test, a series of questions designed to provoke a response that the machine analyses. “You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down…” “What one?” “What?” “What desert?” Leon’s test isn’t going to go according to plan…

Memorable Music
The synthesised score by Vangelis should by all rights sound terribly dated and oh-so-’80s by now, yet it’s somehow timelessly futuristic.

Technical Wizardry
Visually, Blade Runner is a non-stop marvel: the noir cinematography, the vehicle and set design, the lived-in world, the believable effects… The entire thing is imaginatively conceived and magnificently realised with unwavering plausibility.

Truly Special Effect
The realisation of future-L.A. airspace — packed with giant skyscrapers, videoscreen adverts, flying cars, at night and in the rain — is literally faultless, and only gains impact for being achieved for real with models.

Making of
The Director’s Cut came about after a 70mm print was discovered in storage and an LA cinema got permission to screen it at a film festival in 1990. Only then did anyone realise the print was the workprint version of the film. Warner Bros organised more screenings, advertising them as a “Director’s Cut”. Ridley Scott wasn’t best pleased, which led to some screenings being cancelled. The rest sold out, however, and so Warner decided to create a genuine Director’s Cut. With Scott busy on other projects, film preservationist and restorer Michael Arick was put in charge, using notes and suggestion from Scott to do the best he could. Although Scott considered it better than the theatrical cut, he was never wholly happy with the ’92 version, which ultimately led to the creation of The Final Cut another 15 years later.

Next time…
Between 1995 and 2000, Philip K. Dick’s friend K.W. Jeter continued Deckard’s story in three novels, which apparently attempt to resolve the differences between Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In 1997, Westwood Studios and Virgin Interactive released a “sidequel” point-and-click adventure game, where you play as another blade runner in a storyline that takes place alongside the movie (it’s excellent, by the way, though I imagine you’d have a nightmare making it run today due to its age, which is a shame). Finally, a long-mooted sequel is in development for a January 2018 release.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects)
3 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design)
5 BAFTA nominations (Editing, Make Up Artist, Score, Sound, Visual Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Rutger Hauer), Director, Special Effects)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“This is, [Scott] says, the version he would have released in 1982 if he could have. The Ford narration was added because the studio feared audiences would not understand his story of a futuristic Los Angeles. The new ending, which is ironic and inconclusive and gives Ford an existentialist exit line, was of course dropped by studio executives for a more standard violent outcome. I watched the original Blade Runner on video a few years ago, and now, watching the director’s cut, I am left with the same over-all opinion of the movie: It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 89%

What the Public Say
“Its such a dark movie, but such a sad movie too. The sadness threatens to overpower everything. A character has her whole life undermined when she learns she isn’t real, not even her memories or experiences. It’s all a lie, a fabrication, as she is herself. Rick Deckard may not even be real. He might be just the same as Rachael. It’s not an idea I subscribe to, but it’s there, a possibility hanging over everything, underlined by the origami unicorn that he finds at the close of the film.” — ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed The Final Cut in 2009, noting that it was “undeniably one of the most significant films of the last quarter-century thanks to its enduring influence. […] its dystopian future — all constant night-and-rain, busy streets, neon advertising, canyon-like decrepit skyscrapers towering over dirty streets, high technology rubbing with the everyday detritus of humanity — has been copied everywhere. Without this there’d probably be no Ghost in the Shell, no Dark City, no Matrix, no re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, no thousand other things that have nothing close to the brains but do have the look, the style, the feel.”

Verdict

Blade Runner remains something of a divisive film: its thoughtful pace is not to everyone’s taste, especially if they’re expecting a sci-fi action-thriller starring Future Indiana Jones. Instead, it’s a philosophical sci-fi noir, as concerned with issues of what it means to be human as with chases or punch-ups. Remixing sci-fi and film noir influences in a fresh style, realised with some of the greatest design, set-building, and special effects of all time, it’s been inestimably influential on swathes of sci-fi that followed in its wake — and yet, almost 35 years on, it still looks futuristic and feels unique.

#14 will be… Troubled.

The Martian (2015)

2016 #25
Ridley Scott | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
7 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.



Ridley Scott’s latest arrives on Blu-ray in the UK today, with a disappointing dearth of special features (disliked Exodus gets a 2½-hour making-of, four hours of additional features, plus a commentary; award-winning The Martian gets 24 minutes plus a few in-universe documentaries — what?!) Never mind that, though: how good is the film deemed the best comedy or musical of 2015? (If you somehow missed that news, you’ll appreciate the addition of a “seriously” here.)

In the relatively near future, mankind is on its third manned mission to Mars. When a colossal storm rolls in, the decision to made to evacuate the Mars base. During the escape, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and apparently killed, and his crew mates are forced to leave him for dead. He isn’t dead, though, but he is injured and alone on a planet 140 million miles from home, with no way to communicate with Earth, and not enough energy, oxygen, or food to see him through the four years until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. Refusing to give in to inevitable death, Watney only has one choice: science the shit out of this.

That sounds like a laugh-a-minute premise, right? And there’s a major subplot about disco music, so it’s practically a musical too!

No, the HFPA are just idiots — The Martian is neither a comedy nor a musical. It is the latest in a growing subgenre of serious-minded near-future sci-fi adventures, though, following in the footsteps of 2013 Oscar winner Gravity and 2014 Oscar washout Interstellar. Where The Martian differs is in the element that tricked Golden Globes voters into thinking they could get away with giving it a comedy nomination (and win): rather than being stuffed to bursting with po-faced peril, it has a lightness of touch and regular doses of humour, making it probably the most feel-good serious sci-fi movie since ever.

Whether that’s appropriate or not is another matter. A well-argued review by the ghost of 82 assesses that the film has none of the darkness or loneliness you should expect of a man stranded alone on an alien world with a slim chance of survival or rescue. I don’t disagree that the film doesn’t contain much of that feeling, nor would I argue that such a tone isn’t a viable way to frame this narrative, but I don’t think that’s what Scott was aiming to convey. This telling of the story (I haven’t read the original novel, so can’t say how it compares tonally) is an adventure; a feel-good tale of hope and survival against the odds. The film doesn’t offer us despair because Watney doesn’t despair — he just gets on with trying to fix it. On the couple of occasions when his fixes go wrong, his chirpiness breaks down, his frustration comes out, and in some respects it’s all the more effective for being limited to those handful of occasions — we’re suddenly reminded that, in spite of his optimism and his success and all the fun we’re having watching it, he’s stranded 140 million miles away and even the slightest mistake can spell total disaster.

Matt Damon is a talented enough actor to lead us through all of this. Best remembered in recent years for serious fare like the Bourne films (“serious” in the sense of “not comedic” as opposed to “realistic”), Damon has done his fair share of comedies before now, and skits for TV shows and the like too. This is perhaps his first film to bring those two sides together as equally necessary parts of the whole — serious when he’s struggling with science problems or facing the reality of his situation, funny when he’s taking it all as light-heartedly as he can. Sometimes, such as in emotional conversations with friends or colleagues stuck millions of miles away, he even has to do both at once.

While Damon is stuck on Mars by himself, a starry supporting cast actually get to interact with each other. This is a quality ensemble and, short of writing an epic essay of a review where I just praise them all one by one, there’s little to do but list their names. That said, Jessica Chastain gets the most brazenly emotional beats as the commander who chose to leave Watney behind and has to face the consequences of her decision; Jeff Daniels treads a line between being an evil bureaucrat and just a regular bureaucrat (apparently consideration was given to turning him into a full-blown villain; thank goodness they swerved that bullet); Chiwetel Ejiofor brings easy gravitas to NASA’s director of Mars missions; Michael Peña provides some additional comic relief, if not as strikingly as he did in Ant-Man then at least as effectively; and Sean Bean doesn’t die. No offence to Sean Bean, but let’s be honest, at this point in his career that is the most notable facet of his appearance here. That and the Lord of the Rings reference.

It would be too damning to describe Ridley Scott’s direction as unremarkable, but at the same time it feels lacking in distinctiveness. Apparently there was some interview where he commented on how easy he found directing The Martian, I think with intended reference to the use of digital photography, but I think you get a sense of that from the film as a whole. That stops it from being over-directed, at least, and it’s certainly not poorly made, but if you didn’t know then you wouldn’t be nodding along going, “oh yes, this is definitely a Ridley Scott movie.” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Considering his fiddling is what scuppered the promising screenplays that initiated both Robin Hood and Prometheus, and his other works this decade (The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings) haven’t exactly met with great acclaim, maybe his dropping in almost as a director-for-hire (screenwriter Drew Goddard was attached to direct, but got sidetracked into the now-cancelled Sinister Six Amazing Spider-Man spin-off), and helming the film in a kind of directorial autopilot, is part of what saved it from a similar fate.

I’ve read at least one review that described The Martian as “an instant sci-fi classic”, and at least one other that described it as “no sci-fi classic”. I’m going to sit on the fence of that debate for the time being. What I will say is that it is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of entertainment. For a film that primarily concerns itself with a man applying scientific principles to tasks like “growing potatoes”, that’s surely some kind of achievement. In our current climate (both in society in general and in the “more explosions less talking, please” state of blockbuster cinema), to make space travel — and science in general — seem fun and appealing to the masses is no bad thing whatsoever.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, The Martian is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Alien (1979)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #2

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes | 116 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: X (1979) | 18 (1987) | 15 (director’s cut, 2003)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 25th May 1979 (USA)
UK Release: September 1979
First Seen: TV, c.2002

Stars
Tom Skerritt (Top Gun, Poison Ivy)
Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest)
John Hurt (The Elephant Man, Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Ian Holm (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

Director
Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Prometheus)

Screenwriter
Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Total Recall)

Story by
Dan O’Bannon (see above)
Ronald Shusett (King Kong Lives, Total Recall)

The Story
The crew of the deep-space towing vessel Nostromo receive a distress call from an unexplored planet. Contractually obliged to respond, they find a derelict alien spaceship and a field of strange eggs. With one of the crew taken ill they return to their ship, but it soon becomes apparent something else has come with them…

Our Hero
Sigourney Weaver is second-billed as second-in-command Ellen Ripley, but it’s she who’s the voice of reason and, when ignored, the most capable to stand up to the alien threat.

Our Villain
The Alien, aka the Xenomorph, an ugly, dripping, phallic nightmare, that lurks in the shadows, strikes without warning, has the perfect defence system, and is nigh-on unbeatable.

Best Supporting Character
Ian Holm’s Ash is not all he appears to be… Holm made sacrifices for his art: he hates milk, but had to sit dribbling it from his mouth for take after take.

Memorable Quote
“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” — Ash

Memorable Scene
Dinner table. John Hurt not feeling well. You know the rest. And if you don’t, you don’t want me spoiling it for you.

Technical Wizardry
The Nostromo’s industrial-style production design is a world away from the slick, shiny spaceships of contemporary sci-fi like Star Trek. A lived-in sci-fi world wasn’t something new (Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon were two years earlier, for instance), but the notion of a spaceship that looks like a factory or an oil-rig or somesuch, and that is populated by the kind of people who would work in such an environment, continues to influence the genre today.

Truly Special Effect
The Alien, designed by H.R. Giger, built by Giger and Carlo Rambaldi, performed by Bolaji Badejo, is one of the most genuinely alien creatures the movies have ever generated. It’s terrifying, too, even after the initial disgust has been neutered by decades of over-exposure in increasingly-poor sequels and tie-ins.

Making of
The name of Weyland-Yutani, “the company” the crew work for, is actually “Weylan-Yutani”, as seen on monitors and Dallas’ beer can. It was changed to “Weyland-Yutani” for Aliens (and all subsequent films and media) because James Cameron thought it looked better with the D. It’s the little things, eh.

Next time…
Three direct sequels, two “vs Predator” spin-offs, a prequel (and a prequel-sequel), and a massive array of novels, comics, video games, and the rest. A new sequel is also in development.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
1 Oscar nomination (Art Direction-Set Decoration)
2 BAFTAs (Production Design, Sound Track)
5 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Film Music, Costume Design, Editing, Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Sigourney Weaver))
3 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director, Supporting Actress (Veronica Cartwright))
4 Saturn nominations (Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Writing, Make-Up, Special Effects)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“It’s tempting to describe the brilliantly staged scenes of horror and surprise but it would be a shame not to allow the film to reveal its own secrets. Enough to say that the tension is savage and you are held in suspense right up to the end frames.” — Ted Whitehead, The Spectator

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
“in some ways it doesn’t betray its age, and it does indeed largely still hold up, but in other ways its utterly unlike contemporary films. Its middle-aged cast, its slow, deliberate pace, the ‘real’ sets grounded in reality, how it leaves so many things unexplained — in these respects it’s obviously an older movie, and better for it.” — the ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Ridley Scott’s 2003 Director’s Cut back in 2009, summarising that “to fans intimately familiar with the film, the number of trims (there are rather a lot apparently) and new scenes (just four) make a huge difference, but for a more casual viewer they don’t significantly change how it feels. That said… I’d call the original as the superior cut.”

Verdict

Ridley Scott’s “haunted house movie in space” is one of those works that an awful lot of what follows in the genre owes a debt to, from the production design to one of cinema’s most iconic heroines. “Iconic” is a good word for the film as a whole, be it the realisation of the creature or scenes like the chestburster. Quite beyond that, however, it’s a terrifying horror movie in its own right, where slowly-built tension gives way to proper scares. Being a great of one genre is an achievement, but to be great in two at the same time (horror and sci-fi, of course) is something else.

#3 is not about Vietnam… it is Vietnam.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

2015 #9
Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

4 out of 5

A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…


* For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^

Matchstick Men (2003)

2010 #84
Ridley Scott | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Matchstick Men ends with a twist. One of those great big changes-everything-you’ve-just-seen numbers that have a habit of making a film notorious. Yet I’m almost loath to mention it, because I’ve never read a review, preview, summary or what-have-you of the film that mentions there’s a twist. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong pieces; maybe no one cares; maybe they’re all just playing along trying to keep it secret. But not me, because I bloody hated it.

The twist, that is. The rest of the film is pretty good, but the twist undermines it — and not just because I knew it was coming. I don’t wish to sound boastful, but I knew it was coming before I even started watching, guessed from the little I did know about the film from one or two reviews and (sort-of-spoiler warning!) that they’d cast a 24-year-old as a 14-year-old. I spent the whole film hoping that my predicted twist wouldn’t come to pass, but, with crushing inevitability, it did. I didn’t guess every element of it before I began, though I picked up most as the film went along, and those that I didn’t get weren’t surprising either.

Is it easily guessable? I don’t know. It was to me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many heist-type movies or TV shows (watching several seasons of Hustle covers that one easily), or perhaps just too many films with twists, or perhaps it’s just my writer’s brain at work — the latter does have a tendency to make many films guessable. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because a guessable twist can still work. This one doesn’t.

Twists are fine. Twists can be great. As I said, you can guess a twist is coming and it can still work. A really good twist works even when you know for certain it’s coming; its existence raises what you’ve seen, makes it all work even on repeated viewings when the element of surprise is obviously gone. Matchstick Men doesn’t have that kind of twist. It has the kind of twist that undermines everything you’ve just seen. Not because it’s illogical — it isn’t in the slightest — but because it tramples over the film’s emotional resonance, in my opinion.

I don’t want to give away the twist here because, even if it’s a rubbish one, that’s a bit unfair on the film. I’d encourage you to watch it anyway and see what you think. And there are reasons to watch it anyway, even if some of the best ones are at least partially tossed away at the end.

Good things, then. The performances. Nic Cage can be awfully mannered and OTT quite often, but here it works. His character is inherently implausible — an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe who’s also a con artist — but he plays it well, replete with tics and habits. It could easily be a caricature or spoof of the afflictions, and at times it threatens to tip the balance — when we see him obsessively cleaning to a jaunty “isn’t this funny” score, for instance — but the line is successfully trod most of the time.

Alison Lohman is also exceptionally good as a 14-year-old girl. It took a scene or two to convince me, but after that I was plenty on board with it. It occasionally takes some effort to remind yourself she was 24. As the third lead, Sam Rockwell plays a typical Sam Rockwell part. He does it very well, naturally, and there’s nothing to fault him on, but he’s been better elsewhere. The rest of the cast are absolutely fine but not exactly called on much — this is Cage’s film, and to a lesser extent Lohman’s. They have the emotional journey, the film’s heart-and-soul around its long(-ish) con ‘plot’ (which could just be lifted from any episode of Hustle… except it’s not even that complex).

It’s also, as you may have noticed, A Ridley Scott Film. It doesn’t feel like one. It has a ’00s-US-indie aesthetic in every regard and consequently feels like the work of a first-or-second-time young-ish director. Perhaps this is to Scott’s credit, but on the downside it lacks any distinctive qualities. I suppose it’s not fully at odds with the rest of his career — even when you try to pick a genre Scott’s known for, you often find only two or three examples of it in his CV; and there are several genres you can do it with — but if you hadn’t told me it was a Ridley Scott film I’d never have guessed, and I’d wager no one else would either.

Matchstick Men was a lot better than I’d expected, because most of the coverage I remember shoved it aside as a middle-of-the-road side project for Scott. It’s definitely better than that, if still not the “sweep the Oscars” success Ebert seems to think. But I wish they’d stuck with the decision to cut out the twist, not because I object to how it leaves our hero (which was the reasoning, apparently), but because it undercuts an awful lot of what’s good in the film and consequently left a bad taste in my mouth, all for the sake of some aren’t-we-clever-ness.

Stop the film about when Roy wakes up in a hospital bed. Imagine they got away with it and he went to live happily with his daughter. It’s not just a nicer ending, it’s a more whole one too. And then imagine that film on my end-of-year Top 10, because this one won’t be.

4 out of 5