Rating: The Ugly – 65.1 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 109 mins Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman
200 years after she threw herself and the alien growing within her into a molten pit, military scientists genetically re-engineer Ripley and her parasite back to life in order to harvest the alien embryo. Fortunately for the surviving crew of the inevitably doomed ship, the mingling of the two species’ DNA left her with a few special abilities. First things first. Alien: Resurrection backtracks on the finality of Alien 3. It introduces an overtly comic-bookish plot and a host of caricatured personalities into a series of movies that were always defined by tight plots and layered characters. The genre defining set-pieces of Alien and Aliens and the admirable attempts of Alien 3 are replaced by contrived, blockbuster, slow-motion explodathons. The most interesting aspect to the story, writer Joss Whedon’s notion of Ripley’s ‘rebirth’, is completely misinterpreted by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The incisive dialogue of the first three instalments replete with its organic wit and charm is replaced by a one-liner infested script which plays to the sound bite. The lavish production design jars completely with the more elegantly simple aesthetic of the first three. Similarly, the sleek and dark naturalism of H.R. Giger’s creature design is ultimately replaced with a quasi-surrealist Cronenberg-esque body horror. And lastly, and perhaps most unforgivably, the steely fear and breathless tension that so defined Scott’s, Cameron’s, and Fincher’s movies is relinquished in favour of gore, gore, and more gore resulting in yet more outlandish events that feel so ‘alien’ to the series.
With all this in mind, if one is going to enjoy Alien: Resurrection, one must take it entirely on its own merits and treat it as a standalone feature. For those who can do that, there’s a fairly enjoyable action/sci-fi/horror romp lurking beneath the ashes of the great series. Sigourney Weaver is back in her darkest Ripley incarnation and she eats up the opportunity to play with the well worn role. The movie comes alive when she’s on the screen and she is the most important factor in its partial redemption. There are also a host of fantastic character actors (e.g., Brad Dourif, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman) playing the various secondary roles and caricatured as they are, the quality of the actors inhabiting them makes them fun to watch. The creatures look better than that which most sci-fi horror movies offer up and can even be enjoyed from the perspective of the franchise. As mentioned above, inappropriate as it may be to the Alien series, the production design and creature effects are still first rate and when combined with the motley gang of badasses led by the gnarly Ripley, the whole thing becomes quite entertaining.
Rating: The Good – 67.4 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 132 mins Director: Guillermo del Toro Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi
Guillermo del Toro’s big budget adaptation of the successful comic book series essentially tells the story of giant man made robots defending the earth against giant inter-dimensional monsters. Picking up seven years into the war and then quickly jumping another five years, much of the backstory is narrated or told in flashback or glimpses of news footage. This would make sense if the writers had one hell of a plot in mind for the climax of this war but alas, they really hadn’t. Charlie Hunnam stars as a hot shot pilot who is brought out of ignoble retirement to help former commanding officer Idris Elba destroy the inter dimensional tunnel and end the increasingly savage “Kaiju” attacks once and for all.
As you’d expect from the man and team behind the stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim looks incredible and while its monsters don’t reach the imaginative heights of the aforementioned classic, its robots or “Jaegers” are an example of what the Transformer movies should’ve offered. Most importantly, they look man made and not computer generated. The action set pieces are impressive in energy and scope and often breathless producing some of the most cracking monster battles we’ve seen on screen. On top of that, the futuristic production design that brings Hong Kong to bustling life is spectacular and with strong influences from the likes of Blade Runner, it’s among the best the genre has offered up in some time.
So far, so good but amid these bonanza set pieces and visuals lies a problem. Like the action, the story seems to progress at lightning speed as characters are whisked in and out of frame rattling out techno centric dialogue that we can barely keep up with as they go. With so much frenzied action you can’t afford a manic collision of plot and subplot but that’s exactly what you get here. There’s a burning originality to the whole thing but not enough focus and control. Yes, there’s an anarchic comedy to the strand involving the two mad scientists and Ron Pearlman’s typically colourful black-marketeer that almost excuses it as a zany action comedy but the overall level of earnestness to the story precludes that. The direction remains slick and composed during these dramatic interludes but del Toro definitely needed to hit the brakes every now and then so that we could savour the action scenes when they come along. Instead, they’re on top of us before we know it and there’s nowhere we can catch a breath.
Within this whirlwind of action, the cast have little to do but Elba is at least watchable while Hunnam is fine. It’s not the most intellectually stimulating of del Toro’s films but Pacific Rim serves up a stomping feast of action for fans of the genre and anyone who’s in the mood for two hours of non-stop monster carnage.
Rating: The Good – 72.4 Genre: Crime Duration: 100mins Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
An ice-cool getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) living the life of a loner strikes up a relationship with his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her son but when they fall foul of some violent gangsters, his savage attempts to protect her threaten that very relationship while also escalating his problems with the worst of those gangsters (Al Brooks).The first thing that needs to be said about this film is that the premise was completely lifted from Walter Hill’s 1978 unsung classic The Driver (this has been shamefully under-acknowledged by the director who claims to have not even seen Hill’s film prior to making Drive – the opening sequences are identical). As that film was, Drive is also about a supreme getaway driver for hire who shows up on the night of the job to ferry his criminal clients through LA by avoiding the cops, getting them to safety, and then disappearing never to be seen again. In both films, the main protagonist is referred to only as “The Driver” (played in that film by Ryan O’Neill) and in both films, he is defined by an austere personality (though in the 1978 film, this is explained through an implied intolerance the driver bears for the fools he has to work with). Although Drive’s premise is identical to the earlier film, the story differs substantially as it substitutes the fascinating game of cat and mouse between O’Neill’s Driver and an obsessed cop for a plodding romance/revenge drama between Gosling’s and Mulligan’s characters.
Drive is a terribly frustrating film. From a technical point of view, it is a cool and interesting film going experience. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s vision is as audacious as it is slick. The nighttime cityscapes accompanied by Cliff Martinez’ serene score and the complementary retro soundtrack are sumptuously shot while Matthew Newman’s editing particularly in the driving scenes is flawless. Refn was clearly inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral in his depiction of LA but it’s from Mann’s earlier 1980’s films, namely Manhunter and in particular Thief, Drive takes its lead (in fact, while it takes its premise from The Driver, it takes its story from Thief). The action is quite restrained in that crafty driving is favoured over brute force and daring and although we would like to give credit to the director for seeing the strength in that decision, he has claimed it was simply because they didn’t have enough money to shoot any large scale car chases. Regardless of the reason, however, it does indeed heighten the power of the action sequences as well as giving them an original feel. In front of the camera, Gosling does the best he can with a limited script as he succeeds in breathing life into his character in a manner of subtle ways. His walk, his stare, his smile, even the methodical way he puts on his gloves all combine to give this man with no name a fascinating yet serious disposition. The supporting cast are also very good if a bit underused. Mulligan plays a decent emotional counter-point to Gosling but as with Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman, we did not really see enough of her to warrant further comment.
There’s no doubt that these strengths add up to an interesting and unique film which the audience becomes desperate to like. However, there is equally no denying that Drive is marred by hamfisted villainy and a central love story which is painfully flat and insubstantial. As the gangsters, Ron Perlman and Al Brook’s dialogue is just plain laughable at times as are the inconsistencies in their characters’ actions. Perlman is a walking cliche and his motivations for getting involved in the central heist are manically conceived and revealed in a ridiculously trite moment of exposition. On Drive’s release, it became quite fashionable to point out how good Brooks was and while he is enjoyable in the role, his character is a mess (this is elaborated on below). But all this is nothing compared to the central dynamic between Gosling and Mulligan. The dialogue here is nearly non-existent and the chemistry is, not surprisingly, awkward and clumsy. When Mulligan’s character asks Gosling’s Driver a question, he stares at her vacantly, and after a long pause mumbles an answer. This may tie into one interpretation of his character (see below) but it makes for excruciating cinema.
Another major weakness pertains to a continued lack of discipline and maturity in the career of Winding Refn’s. Refn has been accused of being gratuitous in his use of violence in previous films and this criticism can be fairly levelled at him again in both his depiction of the Driver’s actions and those of Brooks’ character. Though Brooks is charismatic in his playing of the Jewish gangster, there are a few obvious moments towards the end where his more violent actions feel forced and extremely artificial. The question is, would those scenes have worked without the violence? In the case of at least two of them, the answer is not only “yes” (because Brooks’ delivery of his lines is more menacing than any action could ever be) but they might have actually worked better as the depth of Brooks’ mean streak would have been unseen and thus, in the imagination of the audience, it would have been potentially limitless. Unfortunately, Refn showed no such understanding and so these scenes ultimately come off looking ridiculous.
However, the most frustrating aspect to Drive is that there is the glimpse of a fascinating notion underlying the Driver’s motivations courtesy of what Gosling brought to the role (the scorpion jacket and featureless stunt mask were his ideas) and what writers Hossein Amini (screenplay) and James Sallis (book) intended. However, the director seems completely oblivious to it and constantly pulls the film in contradictory directions. In interviews and Q & A’s, Refn states that he sees the Driver as the modern day hero and so his ridiculously violent behaviour have no bearing on his mental stability as far as the director is concerned. Not only is his obtuse notion of heroism nonsensical but in his rambling explanations as to how he chose “A Real Hero” for the soundtrack (because he thought it sounded “cool” only to later realised it might explain his protagonist’s behaviour), one gets the distinct impression he had no idea what this film was about, made it up as he went along, and rationalised everything around the simplest explanation. However when we look at Gosling’s contribution to the film, such as the jacket with the scorpion on the back (and, by implication, on The Driver’s back) and the featureless stunt mask he wears during the movie’s most potent scene, we realise that he may in fact have an entirely different interpretation in mind. Gosling’s notion of the Driver seems more akin to Travis Bickle than Refn’s childish and even confused notion of a modern day John McClane. A man struggling to live a normal life but hampered by an emotional coldness which peaks in moments of savage brutality. In other words, a sociopath. (And for those who balk at such a suggestion, ask yourselves, does any other explanation account for the elevator sequence?). It’s a brave idea and it worked well in Taxi Driver but it seems it was too deep for Refn to appreciate.
Which interpretation which we decide is correct is crucial because Refn’s interpretation is not only nonsensical but it means the Driver’s lack of dialogue, long mono-expressional staring, and extreme levels of violence are only explainable as indulgent, pretentious gratuitousness with no bearing on the story. On the other hand, Gosling’s (and we must assume the writers’) interpretation gives Drive a profound subtlety. Unfortunately, because the principals are pulling in opposite directions, the latter isn’t allowed to flourish in the way we assume Gosling had in mind and we are left filling in many of the blanks which Refn’s confused direction leaves in its wake. That said, if one chooses Gosling over Refn, the story can still be enjoyed on that level.