SPOILERS BELOW, if you haven’t seen the Alien films and being surprised is important to you don’t read.
Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.
The premise is an intriguing one: Paul Giamatti playing an actor named Paul Giamatti, is having trouble tackling his role in an upcoming production of Uncle Vanya. His agent informs him of a new soul extraction service and hints that this might help him overcome his difficulties. Giamatti hems and haws over it and finally agrees and finds he’s lost his ability to act completely. Sounds like it could be good, right? Sadly, the film fails to explore its concepts fully and provides a picture that is moderately engaging.
Giamatti’s story is paralleled by that of Nina, a Russian woman who traffics souls back and forth to be used on the black market. Because the only safe way to transport a soul is to have a person carry it inside them. A side effect is that fragments of carried souls accumulate in a person and they begin to lose touch with the world. This story takes up more of the narrative and is eventually tied into Giamatti’s plot strand. It feels that the cleverness and originality of the plot concepts it lost on director Barthes.
The film owes a lot to the work of Charlie Kaufman, most notably Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unlike those movies, there is an undeveloped nature to this script. The Giamatti angle doesn’t feel fully explored the true plot is Nina’s. In addition, Barthes creates a much darker landscape than Kaufman has ever attempted. His world’s lean more to the fanciful, while Cold Souls has merely dipped its toes. There seems to be a lot of influence from Russian literature and absurd and satiric theater, specifically that of Eugeneg Ionesco. There is not much humor in this picture, and for myself that is where I felt myself distancing from it.
I truly wanted to love this movie after seeing the trailer and seeing the interesting angle Giamatti was going to take. However, I finished it with a sense of dissatisfaction, wishing I could have seen the movie I had prepared myself for in my head. I wouldn’t encourage someone to not see this film, because there are some wonderful concepts and ideas, I just wouldn’t be able to recommend it enthusiastically.
The Box (2009, dir. Richard Kelly)
Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
It was October 2001 and had become intrigued with a film trailer I came across online. The film was Donnie Darko and the picture looked to have a quirky, creepy vibe that brought up memories of David Lynch for me. The film opened at the Belcourt, I convinced some friends to go to the opening night showing and was duly impressed. I saw it a few more times in the theater and bought it on DVD and listened through the director’s commentary multiple times. It was a film that was enigmatic but seemed to have an answer to its own puzzle if you paid close enough attention. This was the first and last time Richard Kelly would impress me.
The Box is based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button”, which was adapted for the various incarnations of The Twilight Zone and has one of those plots that seems very archetypal. It’s 1976 and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and Mardsen, respectively) live in Richmond, Virgina. Norma works as an English teacher for a private school and Arthur as an engineer for NASA. Their lives change one day when a mysterious box ends up on their doorstep. The box contains a large red button set in a finished wood casing and covered with a locked glass dome. Inside the box also contains a note letting them know a gentlemen will be by to explain that evening. Cue Mr. Arlington Steward (Langella). Steward explains that if the couple presses the button they will receive a million dollars and someone in the world, whom they don’t know will die. Steward gives them a day to decide.
You don’t have to have read the short story to know where this is going and it wouldn’t make for an interesting film if our characters chose honorably. And it is at this point that the movie goes completely off the tracks, but damn its beautiful as it does! Kelly is no slouch when it comes to cinematography, he knows exactly how to frame a shot and give us gorgeous images. With this feature, he’s evoking lots of classic Kubrickian techniques (i.e. tightly framed shot with action coming in and out of them, cold imagery). There’s the Twilight Zone vibe, that’s to be expected and interesting nod to Hitchcock, particularly in the musical score.
Kelly’s weakness lies in his inability to shape a tightly written, comprehensible plot. With Darko, he could cheat a bit and the film still stands as a nice piece of cinema. He displayed a considerable lack of restraint with his follow up, Southland Tales, a film I am fairly certain even the actors couldn’t have understood. Part of me admires Kelly for attempting such large, cosmic and transcendental themes in his work, yet I can’t give him a standing ovation till he shows he has the ability to pull it off semi-successfully. The Box ends up getting bogged down in, what are becoming, Kelly’s signatures (water imagery, portals, scenes intentionally left out). From an atmospheric point of view Kelly is a genius, but as an overall film this fails from a mixture of way too out there and a sort of adolescent allegory that clunks you on the head in the finale. A wonderful experiment, but a disaster in the end.
When you drop the term “science fiction” to a non-initiated non-geek there are a lot of cliched, stereotypical things that come to their mind. They think of the behemoth Star Wars franchise, the obsession of the Star Trek fan, and a myriad of other negatives things that in actuality not truly representative of sci-fi. So you want to bait your non-sci-fi friend into warming up to the genre? Here is a hypothetical film festival meant to show some of the breadth of what science fiction can be.
1) Tremors (1990, dir. Ron Underwood)
Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Reba McEntire, Michael Gross
An excellent starter film. If you haven’t seen Tremors (and why haven’t you?!) it is an incredibly irreverent, farcical pic in the vein of Roger Corman’s B-monster movies. The plot concerns two handymen (Bacon and Ward) in a rundown former mining town that is on life support. A series of mysterious deaths occur at the same time a young student seismologist discovers a serious of strange quakes happening in the region. The handymen discover that a brood of prehistoric gigantic worms are burrowing their way under the town and popping up to swallow the citizenry. What follows is a mix of slapstick comedy and bizarre sci-fi tropes that make for a fun, light flick. Beware of the follow up films in this series though. They lack the humor and budget of this film.
2) A Scanner Darkly (2006, dir. Richard Linklater)
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson
Philip K. Dick is considered to be a master of re-defining the science fiction literary genre and creating his own branch of more philosophical literature that incorporated science fiction elements into the story structure. Sadly, the majority of attempts to adapt his stories and novels to the screen have failed to live up to their source material (Total Recall, Minority Report) or good films but definitely not what Dick intended (Blade Runner). A Scanner Darkly, an animated film, has been the first adaptation that seems to understand the intent of Dick’s work. The plot concerns Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police agent in the near future who has been assigned to track down the production of the dangerously addictive drug, Substance D. He ends up posing as a dealer and shacking up with two brain fried addicts (Downey Jr and Harrelson) and dating fellow dealer (Ryder). The catch is that Arctor’s identity must be kept secret to everyone up to his superiors by wearing a scramble suit (a suit that obscures a person’s face and body by shifting through a mosaic of indexed images of people). Arctor’s suffers a crisis of identity as a result and the film focuses a lot of its time on his meditation on figuring out who he really is. Director Linklater is sure to keep this feeling like a not-to distant future by playing the tech side very low. A very nice transition into a branch of sci-fi Hollywood seems to ignore.
3) Happy Accidents (2001, dir. Brad Anderson)
Starring Marisa Tomei, Vincent D’Onofrio
While director Brad Anderson has become known more for his horror film work (Session 9, The Machinist), he made his start with relationship focused films. Happy Accidents works as a perfect date movie but also presents a contemporary science fiction plot that is inventive and clever and has no need for big budgets special effects. Ruby (Tomei) has had horrendous luck with men and had all but given up till she meets Sam Deed (D’Onofrio). Sam is a charismatic, quirky Midwesterner who charms Ruby right away and things move much faster than she planned. Then, Sam reveals something about himself that sends Ruby running; he claims to be from the year 2470. What follows is a clever play on the typical romantic comedy that will keep you guessing whether Sam is yet another nut-job or the real deal. A perfect example of what science fiction can be but is usually presented as.
4) Delicatessen (1991, dir. Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus
The minds behind Amelie and The City of Lost Children present this surreal slapstick post-apocalyptic flick. At an undisclosed time in the future, the world is in ashes and one apartment building in the ruins is attempting to keep life going on as usual. A new maintenance man has shown up (Pinon), who tries to figure out how the original maintenance man vanished. This leads him to discover that the landlord (Dreyfus) is butchering passersby and selling the meat to his voracious tenants. Add in a literal underground rebellion of sewer men and you have a very strange, very funny black comedy. A movie that proves even the end of the world can be hilarious.
5) Fantastic Planet (1973, dir. Rene Laloux)
This amazing French/Czech animated film exemplifies what pre-Star Wars science fiction was about: huge, transcendental ideas and the exploration of surreal worlds. On the title planet, the gigantic blue-skinned Draag employs minute, humanoid Oms as household slaves and pets. A small clan of Om have broken away and formed a civilization in the wilderness with plans to overthrow the Draag. This film contains some amazing psychedelic imagery and is a great science fiction picture for people who are more in the Philip K. Dick vein of the genre.