Alien vs Predator (2004, Paul WS Anderson)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

October 2004. A satellite detects a heat bloom coming from underneath an Antarctic island, so a team of scientists and explorers head there to investigate…

The cast: The lead character, Alexa Woods, is played by Sanaa Lathan. She’s not terrible exactly, but doesn’t have much to work with. Other members of the team vary from the adequate (Colin Salmon, Ewen Bremmer) to the downright awful (Raoul Bova). Lance Henriksen appears in his third Alien film, playing his third character. He’s now millionaire businessman Charles Bishop Weyland (the ‘pioneer of modern robotics’), which is a multi-stranded reference. His company will later form part of Weyland-Yutani, the conglomerate from the 1979-1997 Alien films, while his middle name nods to the android Bishop from Aliens. Presumably that robot was based on this guy’s likeness. (Quite who Henriksen was meant to be playing in Alien³, therefore, is another matter.) In one scene he fidgets with a knife: another echo of the android.

The best bit: All the stuff on the Antarctic surface looks great, especially the terrific set of the abandoned whaling station. The weather conditions, the dramatic lighting, the sound design – they all help tremendously.

Crossover: Of course, the whole project is a crossover based on a comic-book series that began in 1990. As an in-joke, one scene has a previous ‘franchise mash-up’ playing on a TV: 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Arnold Schwarzenegger was due to cameo as his Predator character, Dutch Schaeffer. However, the actor dropped out when he won a recall election in his bid to be Governor of California.

Alternative version: An extended version is available on the DVD. The only addition that improves the story is a short prologue set in 1904 at the Razorpoint whaling station.

Review: A horror movie lives or dies on whether we care about the characters. Think of the first Alien movie and you think of Ripley and Dallas and Kane. Think of its sequel and you think of Hicks and Hudson and Newt. Here, sadly, the people are all bland and forgettable. The opening third features several moments where a character is introduced or focused on – yet it’s all so bloody mechanical. Ewan Bremmer’s Miller has children back home; therefore, says the film, we should like him. It’s not enough. It’s just people trotting out their quirk or showing off a speciality. The writing *never* feels organic or fresh. After an opening that’s brisk so at least keeps your interest, the team find a pyramid under the ice. They explore, deducing centuries of back-story and deciphering ancient hieroglyphics with ease. (Channel 4’s Time Team could have done with these people – they took three days for each dig and sometimes found bugger all!) However, once the monsters show up, the film becomes very dull very quickly. On the upside, clearly some thought has gone into a way of bringing the two species together. The solution – that predators have visited earth before and use xenomorphs for sport – uses the rituals of hunting from Predator and the horrific life cycle from Alien. An inventive idea. The story also takes an interesting turn for the climax when Alexa forms a truce with the lead predator. And on a technical level the film is perfectly accomplished. As a throwaway B-movie, it works fine. But it’s just not in the same league as its antecedents.

Five Pepsi bottle-tops out of 10

Next time: Even more aliens versus predators!

Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)


SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

The opening sequence is excellently staged and visually stunning. A prologue set in Mexico City, it features thousands of extras in fabulous Day of the Dead costumes and beautiful make-up. The first shot lasts 234 seconds, finds James Bond in the crowd then seductively follow him into a hotel, up in a lift, into a bedroom, out onto the balcony, across rooftops and finally into his sniper position. There appear to be three ‘hidden’ edits, but the audacity of the scene – the scale, the ambition, the done-for-real image of Daniel Craig jumping from one building to the next – is sensational. The whole sequence is graceful and intriguing, and the music is terrific too. Sadly, the rest of the film just can’t live up to it. Spectre is a basic story about bad guys wanting surveillance technology – hardly cutting-edge stuff. And despite a countdown to the system coming online, no one is really under any immediate threat so there’s precious little tension. It’s A-to-B plotting with Bond stumbling from one vague clue to the next, and there’s some remarkably unpolished dialogue. The fatal phrase “As you know…” is said twice, while Moneypenny gets a clunker in a scene with Bond: “I think you’ve got a secret, and it’s something you won’t tell anyone.” Also, whereas Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall had self-confidence and took risks, this nervously plays to the crowd. For example, it keeps reminding you that you’re watching a film. For geeks, there are *numerous* nods to old Bond movies (From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die…); for Joe Public, there are cheesy gags involving sofas and Frank Sinatra songs. After the panache of the earlier Daniel Craig films, it’s disappointing to see the series run home to mummy. It’s Bond, so of course it’s watchable. But it’s also riddled with problems. Seven cuckoos out of 10.

Bond: We see his London flat, which is sparsely furnished. (“Have you just moved in?” asks Moneypenny.) For the first time in the film series there’s significant discussion of what happened to 007’s parents (they were killed in a climbing accident). We also get a look at a psychological-assessment form Bond’s filled in: he’s answered ‘Do you feel scared?’ and ‘Are you regretful?’ with two out of 10; but ‘General temper/mood’ gets six. In this film, 007 never seems to be hurt physically – even when repeatedly battered by a sumo-sized henchman or, you know, *actually tortured*. It’s a shame after the work the other Daniel Craig films did in making Bond less of a cartoon superhero. Given the chance to kill the main baddie at the end, Bond pretends he’s out of bullets, walks away and resigns from MI6. He then drives off into the sunset, perhaps marking the end of Craig’s tenure…

Villains: Assassin Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) features in the pre-titles and is killed by Bond. Andrew Scott plays Max Denbigh, the smarmy head of the Joint-Intelligence Service, an organisation made up of the merged MI5 and MI6. His official code name is C, which is used by the heads of the real-life MI6. Right from the word go it’s clear he’s bad news – and not just because they’ve cast Moriarty from Sherlock. In Rome, Bond spies on a gathering of criminal cartel Spectre. There we meet Franz Oberhauser (a fruity Christoph Waltz), who was Bond’s foster brother during childhood. We’re also introduced to Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista), a mostly mute man-mountain of a henchman. Thanks to something he overhears at the meeting Bond then tracks down Mr White (Jesper Christensen), the shadowy bad guy who worked for Quantum in Daniel Craig’s first two movies. There’s an attempt here to retcon the previous three films and turn the whole post-reboot era of Bond into one grand, unified story arc. It’s not convincing, especially when it comes to the events of Skyfall, while the unpopular Quantum of Solace is notably referred to less often than the others. When Oberhauser re-enters the story at the 97-minute mark (yes, 97 minutes – of 142), it’s at his desert retreat. The fact the base is hidden inside a crater should tip you off what’s going to happen next: he reveals that he’s rechristened himself Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He has a white cat and everything, and plans to control the global flow of surveillance information (yawn). After being caught in an explosion, he ends up with a distinctive scar on his face. The fact that Oberhausen is actually Blofeld was the worst-kept secret in geekdom, but it’s a strange thing to hold back. The reveal has no power in the story. (Man we’ve never heard of now uses different name! Film at 11!)

Girls: In the Mexico City scene, Bond is with a beautiful woman (played by Stephanie Sigman) but we never learn anything about her. His investigation then leads him to Sciarra’s widow, Lucia. Monica Bellucci is appropriately sexy in the role, but it’s a nothing character. In the film for just seven minutes, she sleeps with Bond and helpfully gives him his next clue. After an hour, Bond meets Dr Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), who’s Mr White’s daughter and a psychologist working at an institute in the Alps. She has a few nice moments but – despite all the usual PR guff about her being different from all the previous Bond girls – is a very passive character. She’s a damsel who needs saving/protecting; stands around while men discuss the plot; then wanders off simply so she can get captured. Looks great in an evening gown, mind. There are also a few mentions of the much better Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale – not a helpful comparison.

Regulars: The MI6 team established in Skyfall is back. M (Ralph Fiennes) is again tremendous and soulful. Q (Ben Whishaw) is again classy and funny. Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) is again difficult to like – it’s an example of a film thinking a strong female character has to be cocky and cold. Also returning is Rory Kinnear for his third appearance as MI6 chief of staff Bill Tanner. No disrespect to Kinnear, an actor I like very much, but why go to the bother of reintroducing Moneypenny and then keep Tanner? Having both is redundant. She has nothing to do after the 45-minute mark and it’s embarrassing how she’s reduced to holding folders and sitting in cars. Early on, an uncredited Judi Dench cameos in a video the previous M recorded before her death. She sets the plot rolling without actually giving Bond the key information he needs. Felix Leiter gets a mention. As well as Blofeld in his first Bond movie for over 30 years, his cat also returns.

Action: The pre-titles sequence has a big explosion, a collapsing building and a punch-up in a helicopter. A car chase is Rome is skillfully combined with a conversation about the plot (love the shots of Moneypenny on the other end of the phone, looking in her fridge as she chats to Bond). However, the action takes place in bizarrely empty streets. Rome, one of the world’s busiest cities, is *deserted*. The same problem exists elsewhere too – Bond’s bruising brawl on a train with Mr Hinx doesn’t attract a single other passenger or conductor, while the film’s final act must be the quietest that central London has ever been. In Austria, Bond (in a plane) chases Mr Hinx (in a car). The destruction of Blofeld’s Moroccan base features the biggest explosion ever carried out for a movie – it used 8,140 litres of kerosene and 24 charges, each with a kilogram of high explosives. The film’s final half-hour includes a car crash, lots of running around the old MI6 building in Vauxhall, and a helicopter smashing into Westminster Bridge. Nothing in the film matches, say, the flamboyance of Casino Royale’s foot-chase or the grandeur of Skyfall’s climax.

Comedy: The first laugh comes when Bond slides off a building and lands on a battered old sofa. (When I saw this film at the cinema, a guy behind me laughed so hard I assume he’d just discovered how a joke works.) When Bond visits Q’s lab, Q prepares an injection. “Now, you may feel a little–” he says. Bond yelps in pain as the needle hits. “–prick,” finishes Q. A moment later, Bond is shown a flashy Aston Martin DB10 but then told it’s for 009; instead Q just gives him a watch. “Does it do anything?!” deadpans an angry 007. In a scene where she finds a present from Bond on her desk, Moneypenny is asked by M if it’s her birthday. “No, sir,” she replies, then adds to herself: “That was last week.” During the Rome car chase, Bond tries activating one of his Aston Martin’s gizmos – but accidentally switches on some camp music. In a hotel room with Madeline, James playfully aims his gun at a mouse (“Who sent you?” he says). If you’re a Bond nerd like me, a safe house called Hildebrand will make you chuckle. Near the end, M gets the best line in the film. Denbigh (aka C) has been revealed to be a traitor and pulls a gun on M. He suggests that M stands for moron, but then discovers his gun isn’t loaded. M smiles: “And now we know what C stands for…”

Music: A second James Bond score from Thomas Newman. It’s really good – especially during the action climax when it’s relentless and a bit Dark Knight-ish. The theme song, Writing’s On The Wall by Sam Smith, is amongst the most boring pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

Personal connection: I first saw this film at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road with my pal Fraser Dickson on Thursday 29 October 2015.

Alien: Resurrection (1997, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Scientists on a space station create a clone of the long-dead Ellen Ripley, complete with an alien growing inside her…

The cast: Sigourney Weaver plays the scientists’ eighth attempt to clone the original Ripley. (She also climbs into a grotesque fake body for one scene as an earlier version.) The character has quite a journey, beginning as a Bambi-like simpleton and ending up as an action-movie cliché who makes postmodern quips. Weaver’s great, of course, but the film doesn’t justify the progression. Elsewhere, the cast is a mixed bag. The gang of space pirates from a ship called the Betty are writer Joss Whedon’s dry run for his later TV show Firefly. But whereas those characters were well written, brilliantly cast and endlessly enjoyable, here we get a rubbish Michael Wincott as captain Frank Elgyn and a bland Winona Ryder as Annalee Call, who’s later revealed to be an android. The other members of the crew are played by Kim Flowers (boring), Gary Dourdan (boring), Ron Perlman (fun and the only one to make much of an impression) and Dominique Pinon (terrible). The head of the space station, General Perez, is played by Dan Hedaya. Brad Dourif gives the Brad Dourif performance as one of the scientists. Leland Orser plays a man sold to the scientists so they can experiment on him and does the same kind of permanently scared stuff he did in Seven. Raymond Cruz’s character, a soldier called Distephano, is bizarrely not introduced properly and just kinda joins in the action. He’s only there for exposition, which makes you wonder why the more interesting Perez wasn’t used instead.

The best bit: An underwater sequence features our heroes being chased by swimming aliens. It’s really well staged action with an ace music cue. The tension is eked out by the very length of the scene (the characters are holding their breath for over three minutes), then we see that their escape route is actually leading them closer to alien pods…

Alternative version: A 2003 director’s cut made some minor changes. Most notably there’s a new title sequence – a long zoom out from the teeth of an insect to a huge space ship – and an extra scene at the end with Ripley and Call on earth. It seems there’s been a big war while they’ve been away.

Review: “They said the lines… mostly,” claimed Joss Whedon years after this film came out. “But they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do.” Watch the movie in this context and it suddenly makes more sense. Alien: Resurrection is like that scene in Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta is practising a speech – it’s written with some wit, but a steamroller delivery just flattens everything out. Whedon’s script has some funny lines, a bit of crafted banter and Western-style cadences (“She is severely fuckable, ain’t she?”). But the cast and director just aren’t able to give it life. Speaking of which, Jean-Pierre Jeunet was a really strange choice to direct a big-budget action movie. He’d just made a stylish but boring fantasy movie called The City of Lost Children, and his next film was the whimsical Amélie. He doesn’t seem a good fit for this kind of material. (Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer were all sounded out before Jeunet got the gig.) To give him his due, the action stuff in the second half is quite enjoyable and reasonably tense. But just think how much better it’d be if we cared about the characters. Alien: Resurrection’s miscast mercenaries are a poor version of the marines in Aliens. Those earlier characters didn’t ask us to like them, so therefore we did. Here, the crew of the Betty each get a moment in the spotlight yet fail to impress. As I said above, Perlman’s Johner is the best of the bunch, thanks to a performance with some attitude behind it. He also gets a good gag when he’s spooked by a tiny spider’s web. But another big problem is the aliens themselves. Ignoring the less-is-more rule, the film gives us long, lingering looks at them. Suddenly they’re robbed of their power and are just men in rubber suits. And that’s representative of the whole film. There’s no wow factor. Still more enjoyable than Alien³, though.

Six Terran growth conglomerates out of 10


Alien3 (1992, David Fincher)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ellen Ripley wakes up on a prison planet – her spaceship has crashed, her companions have been killed, and it soon becomes clean that an alien has got loose…

The cast: Sigourney Weaver’s back, playing Ripley for a third and final time. (Spoiler: she dies at the end.) Due to the prison’s lice problem she has to shave her head. Also returning is Lance Henriksen, this time in two roles. He has one scene voicing the android Bishop (the damaged body is an animatronic puppet), then shows up at the end as the human designer of the Bishop model. Not back, however, are the other survivors from Aliens. Hicks and Newt are killed off in the opening credit sequence, leaving Ripley alone and isolated. (During research I discovered that some literal-minded prat has edited Alien³’s Wikipedia page to specify that it’s not Hicks’s body in the escape pod. It seems that in Aliens: Colonial Marines – a 2013 videogame that takes place between the two movies – he was replaced by a guy called Turk. Give me strength.) Charles Dance is quiet, melancholic and likeable as prison doctor Jonathan Clemens. Brian Glover is good fun as warden Harold Andrews. Ralph Brown plays Andrews’s assistant, Aaron, who’s been nicknamed ‘85’ because of his low IQ. Paul McGann is billed fourth in the opening credits, even though mentally unstable prisoner Golic is quite a minor role. (Brown and McGann had both been in 1986’s Withnail & I, of course, and their Withnail co-star Richard E Grant was actually offered the role of Clemens.) Various other inmates are played by a panoply of British character actors: Danny Webb, Pete Postlethwaite, Peter Guinness, Phil Davis, Clive Mantle… As with Ripley, they all have buzz-cut heads. One of the few non-Brits in the film is Charles S Dutton, who’s very good as Dillon, the prison’s top dog who’s found Jesus.

The best bit: There are some great shots used for the alien’s point of view, which are filmed with a steadicam using a wide-angle lens. The cameraman twists and turns as he moves forward, making it seem like the creature is running along the walls and ceilings. Incidentally, the cinematographer was originally Jordan Cronenweth, who’d shot Blade Runner. But he dropped out after two weeks because of Parkinson’s disease, so these POVs were the work of Alex Thomson.

Alternative version: Director David Fincher more or less disowned this film after its release because he’d been so upset by interference from studio executives. Huge portions of the script were rewritten during the shoot, so many scenes had to be dropped and entire subplots were changed. In 2003, without Fincher’s involvement, an ‘Assembly Cut’ was compiled for a DVD release – this version went back to the original script and used a lot of footage that had been dropped in 1992. The changes in the 37 minutes of new stuff include:
* Ripley’s escape pod now crashes near a coastline. Clemens finds her and carries her into the prison.
* There are a few extra moments that beef up the inmates’ religious zeal.
* The alien now impregnates an ox rather than a dog. After the ox dies there’s a scene of two prisoners taking it to an abattoir. One of the guys then finds a dead facehugger but doesn’t know what it is.
* Golic’s role is more substantial. He’s disliked by other inmates because he’s so crazy. The prisoners’ attempt to capture the alien is successful – but then Golic, who’s fascinated by the creature, lets it go.
* When Ripley throws herself off the gantry into the furnace, the alien inside her no longer bursts free.

Review: We’re back to the horror vibe of film one. In the first few minutes of this remorselessly dark film, there’s a very creepy shot of a facehugger lurking in the escape pod – and there always seems to be something scary hiding in every corner of the frame. Also, the society in this left-to-its-own-devices prison is an interesting world for an action-horror story. There’s an unsettling feeling of decay to everything – both physically and psychologically. At one point Aaron tells Ripley they have torches but no batteries. It’s a metaphor for the men: they have the equipment but no energy. However, there are big problems… The story’s pace is monotonous and there are few surprises. The whole film’s all on one level, basically: it’s a song with no choruses. It’s also *unremittingly* grim. The other Alien films mixed in flashes of humour or moments of humanity, whereas this gives us dour characters, a post-mortem on a child, an attempted gang rape and a sickly brown colour palette. The film has nowhere to go tonally. And the camerawork is often quite irritating. There are lots of low angles for not very clear reasons, and it often looks like a macabre music video. Watching this movie is a real jolt after the tight, experience-based direction of the first two films. Ridley Scott and James Cameron dropped the viewer into their stories; Alien³ watches events from afar.

Five double-Y chromosomes out of 10

Next time: Joss Whedon writes an Alien film? What could go wrong?

Aliens: Special Edition (1991, James Cameron)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Director James Cameron revised Aliens in 1991 and the resulting ‘Special Edition’ was released on Laserdisc. It came out on VHS the following year, which I when I first saw it – thanks to my mate Dom Wint lending me his copy. An extra 16 minutes of footage has been surgically added to the 1986 film, which does make it a very different watch. I’ve already reviewed the original, so here’s a list of the changes I spotted and think are interesting…

* An entire subplot has been restored. Turns out, Ripley had a young daughter who was left behind on Earth before the events of the original movie. We learn about Amanda in an early scene of Ripley sitting on a bench. At first we think she’s in a park, but as the camera dollies round we realise the background is actually an image on a huge screen. Burke tries to brief her about the inquest she’s about to face, but she just wants to know about her daughter. Burke reports that Amanda Ripley-McLaren died, aged 66, just two years ago – ie, while Ripley was in her 57-year hypersleep. Ripley is given a photograph of Amanda and clutches it as she cries. Sigourney Weaver was reportedly furious that this strand was cut out in 1986 and it’s easy to see why. In a stroke it adds emotional weight to Ripley’s maternal bond with Newt.
* After the inquest scene – which has been slightly extended – there’s a whole new sequence on LV-426. In the original cut, we didn’t see the planet until Ripley and the others arrive. Now we meet the colonists of Hadleys Hope before they were wiped out. First off there are some splendidly atmospheric model shots of vehicles and buildings during a storm. Then we cut inside the main control room. It’s a thriving, busy place with a lot of workers and families. Mac McDonald from Red Dwarf plays the colony’s administrator and gets some exposition as he tells his second-in-command (William Armstrong) that a nearby area is being surveyed by some prospectors. As this is the characters’ only scene, McDonald and Armstrong had been cut out of the 1986 version completely.
* The action then cuts to another scene on LV-426. The prospectors turn out to be a married couple played by Jay Benedict and Holly De Jong. They have their two kids with them – one of whom is Newt, the only member of the family who’s in the original cut. The family are in a futuristic truck, which is battling its way across jagged terrain. They find a derelict space ship – recognisable to us as the craft from the first Alien film. The adults go inside it to investigate, but soon return in a panic. The dad has a facehugger attached to his head. It’s lovely to actually *see* what happened to Newt’s parents (and by extension all of the colonists), rather than just be told about it. It also works well because (on a first viewing) the film tricks us into assuming Newt dies along with everyone else. Oh, *and* the whole sequence looks and sounds sensational.
* The scene between Ripley, Burke and Gorman in Ripley’s cramped quarters has had a few lines added in. The best comes when Burke cites his company’s catchphrase – “Building better worlds” – and Ripley deadpans, “Yeah, I’ve seen the commercials.”
* There are some new shots of the empty space ship before the marines wake up. Very reminiscent of the equivalent scene in Alien, actually.
* A nice moment between Hicks and Ripley: just before she enters the colony for the first time, she pauses and he asks if she’s okay.
* Another entire subplot has been added: we see the marines set up a number of automated sentry guns to cover the approaches to their hiding place. We later see the guns in operation as the aliens attack. They fire and fire, but the creatures keep coming. The characters know the ammo won’t last forever. It’s tense stuff. But just as the last gun nears its end, the aliens stop attacking – Ripley suggests the plan to scare them off has worked. This is a substantial amount of action, which is neatly threaded through pre-existing material.
* Newt asks Ripley if she has any children. Ripley tells her she had a daughter who died.
* Near the end, as Ripley is about to head off to rescue Newt, she and Hicks tell each other their first names. Even the admission that Hicks is called Dwayne can’t spoil the nice character moment.

Review: James Cameron has a mixed record when it comes to these after-the-fact re-edits. Three times now he’s gone back to a successful film and rejigged things. The Abyss (1989) was a good enough sci-fi movie to begin with, but the extra 15 minutes added in a 1993 special edition lift the whole thing to a new level. Conversely, Terminator 2 (1991) was pretty much perfect on release. So the longer home-video version has many superfluous scenes and the pace of the middle third sags. With Aliens, the changes are a total triumph. The rhythm of the story is not damaged at all, we learn more about Ripley, and her connection to Newt has extra meaning. This is James Cameron’s preferred version of the film – and mine.

Ten wildcatters out in the middle of nowhere out of 10

Next time: An Alien movie directed by David Fincher? What could go wrong?

Predator 2 (1990, Stephen Hopkins)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Los Angeles, 1997. A predator is loose in the city and is picking off rival gang leaders…

The cast: The lead is Danny Glover, who’d recently played another cop in two Lethal Weapon films. In fact, Lieutenant Mike Harrigan is basically Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Murtaugh combined into one person. It’s an unconvincing performance. Kevin Peter Hall climbs into the predator suit again, though this is a different individual from the 1987 film. Gary Busey is another Lethal Weapon alumnus, here miscast as a shifty agent called Peter Keyes. Maria Conchita Alonso is Harrigan’s spunky sidekick, Detective Leona Cantrell, and is just as rubbish as she had been in The Running Man. Bill Paxton adds a bit of fun as light-hearted detective Jerry Lambert. Robert Davi (Die Hard, Licence to Kill) has a tiny role as the police chief. Adam Baldwin (later a regular in Firefly) is Keyes’s second-in-command. During an info-dump about the events of Predator, we see a character from that film on a monitor: presumably because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s image rights were too expensive, it’s Anna Gonsalves rather than Dutch Schaefer.

The best bit: The predator attacks a subway train. A great set, which convincingly shuffles from side to side, and epileptic lighting. Scary stuff.

Crossover: The creatures from the Alien and Predator films first appeared together in February 1990 in a comic book called Dark Horse Presents #36. As a nod to the comic, the Predator 2 design team placed a xenomorph skull in amongst the predator’s trophies of its kills. Additionally, this film features a casting crossover with the Alien series. For a giggle, let’s assume that Bill Paxton’s Detective Lambert is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Private Hudson from Aliens.

Review: The first image of the film is terrific. A helicopter shot swoops over thick woodland, making us think we’re back in the world of the first movie – but when it breaks the treeline we see Los Angeles in the distance. The urban jungle of LA is, for some reason, set a few years into the future. So it’s therefore grimy, rundown, trashy, and there’s a war going on between ethnic-minority gangs over money, cocaine and power. Right from the first scene this is over-the-top, schlocky stuff that’s difficult to take seriously. The script is clichéd and crass, while the cast is largely terrible. Yet everything has an undoubted vibrancy about it. The substance might be nonsense but the cinematic style – brisk editing, good camera movement, a solid Alan Silvestri score – pulls you through. For instance, there are a number of well-constructed shots. The first scene in the police station features a 64-second long take. The camera passes the busy front desk, the detectives’ bullpen and every 1980s-Hollywood-cop-shop stereotype going (yes, there are prostitutes!) before finding Harrigan, who we then follow into his boss’s office. It’s just one of a few instances where a camera move is artful and revealing. They deserve better material. The first half of the movie also really pushes a film-noir feeling – most evident in a penthouse crime scene and Harrigan’s office with light coming in through blinds – and there are flashes of Robocop-style satire when we see clips from a lurid TV news show. However, halfway in, once the plotting stops and the film becomes an extended chase scene, it gets really boring. It doesn’t help that Glover has to keep talking to himself because the sidekicks have all been dispatched. That device worked in Die Hard, but Harrigan is no John McClane. There’s only one reason why it’s worth watching until the end. The predator’s spaceship, where the climax takes place, is *great*. Vaguely Mayan or Aztec-looking, it’s both beautiful and strange at the same time. (By the way, the production designer was Lawrence G Paull, whose work keeps getting praised on this blog. He was also responsible for the physical style of Back to the Future and Blade Runner. In short, he’s a genius.) Predator 2 ain’t subtle, but it is quite fun. A guilty pleasure.

Seven ugly motherfuckers out of 10

Next time: Even more Aliens…

Young Dracula: series two (2007/2008)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Same as series one. Episode nine is largely set at the local town museum and is filmed at the Temple of Peace and Heath, a distinctive Cardiff building used numerous times in recent Doctor Who.

Faithful to the novel? This 13-episode run begins the day after series one ended. Due to the gap in filming, though, lead character Vlad Dracula (Gerran Howell) is visibly older, a bit thinner and has a deeper voice. The family’s vampire secret was outed last time, so Eric Van Helsing (Terence Maynard) is now even more committed in his quest.

Best performance: Clare Thomas is good fun as Ingrid, especially as the character becomes more evil.

Best episode: Baby Dracula, episode six, sees Vlad and Ingrid’s mum, Magda, return. She’s pregnant with the Count’s son.

Review: Episode one is a decent scene-setter, combining plot, character, action and comedy. The rest of the series rarely lives up to its promise, sadly. A number of mini-arcs get trotted out – the Draculas’ American relatives show up for three episodes, Mina Van Helsing (Jo-Anne Knowles) joins the show in episode seven, Ingrid gets a boyfriend in episode eight, while the season climaxes with a story about the Grand Vampire and the introduction of a new slayer – but it’s all a bit tired.

Six chosen ones out of 10

Predator (1987, John McTiernan)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A crack team of commandos are sent into the jungle to rescue a captured diplomat. But they encounter a ruthless alien, who starts to pick them off for sport…

The cast: As a film-obsessed child I had an enormous man-crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger; or rather the films he made. Here he plays Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, the cigar-chomping leader of the special-forces team. Because it’s an 80s Arnie flick Dutch has a couple of James Bond-style puns, but they don’t fit the film’s tone at all. It’s not one of Arnie’s best performances. Much better is former Rocky star Carl Weathers as George Dillon: the only character with any kind of complexity, he lies to the others then realises he’s fucked up. The rest of the team are played by Bill Duke (decent), Jesse Ventura (barely an actor), Sonny Landham (who was such a fruit-loop the producers insisted on a minder to keep him in check), Richard Chaves and Shane Black. Black is an interesting piece of casting. He’s a really good screenwriter (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, Iron Man 3 and others) and was given the minor role of Hawkins so he could be on set to do any last-minute rewrites. Given that he’s not an actor, he’s actually okay. Hawkins’s character trait is that he tells bad jokes. Incidentally, two of the cast feature in other 1980s Schwarzenegger films: Duke had been in 1985’s Commando; Ventura was in 1987’s The Running Man. Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the predator, but looked weedy next to Schwarzenegger, Weathers and the others so was replaced by seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall. Elpidia Carrillo plays Anna Gonsalves, an underwritten woman the team rescue from the bad guys. At the end of the film there’s a credits sequence where the actors smile at camera in time with their names appearing. I’m going to assume that the idea was stolen from Hi-De-Hi.

The best bit: The most successful aspects of the film are the visual effects used for the predator’s POV shots and for when it’s ‘cloaked’. The former is a thermal-vision image where heat shows up against the blurry background, while the latter has the creature only visible as a see-through shimmer.

Crossover: Watching the Predator and Alien movies at the same time is an idea based on the later films featuring both monsters. However, the two series share a connection at this point too. Unhappy with the original creature design, McTiernan hired visual-effects guru Stan Winston to come up with a new predator. Winston doodled his initial ideas while on a flight with his friend James Cameron, who’d just directed Aliens. Glancing at the drawing, Cameron suggested that Winston add mandibles – hence the predator’s distinctive multi-jaw face, which in no way reminds me of a vagina.

Review: There’s a scene about halfway through where the characters know the predator is nearby so all fire their guns into the jungle. Despite a deafening hail of bullets, they hit nothing but foliage. Director John McTiernan has said that this was a joke on his part. A satire of brainless, gung-ho action films. The characters have all this hardware, he chuckles on the DVD commentary, yet are ultimately impotent. Well, he’s being extremely disingenuous. Earlier in the film, an attack on a terrorist compound is staged and shot like a music video. There’s a pornographic excitement about guns, bullets, deaths, muscle-bound men and explosions. The notion that any irony is on show is funny in itself. (Admittedly, the film does have some spoofy moments: surely it’s a joke when Dillon’s arm is ripped off but keeps firing the gun it’s holding.) The bad guys in that compound, by the way, are from some unspecified Central American country and are barely seen let alone fleshed out. They’re just A-Team villains, there to be killed by the untouchable heroes in slow motion. God, I sound like an old fart moaning about violence. I actually love action films and have no problem with violent stories. But there has to be more class to them than this. This movie doesn’t seem too concerned with plot or characterisation. The only woman in the story, for example, is an embarrassment. Anna Gonsalves has no dialogue in English until nearly an hour in, does nothing but provide exposition, then is absent from the climax. In its favour, the film can be seen as some kind of Apocalypse Now in reverse. The characters’ journey ‘upriver’ only takes up the first half-hour of the story – it’s then about them trying to escape. On that level, the story works well and is tense and exciting. It takes the predator a while to show up, but it’s clear he’s not just a mindless killer. For him, this is a game. The film then becomes obsessed with the rituals of hunting. The predator refuses to attack the unarmed Anna; Bill Duke’s Eliot superstitiously scrapes his bald head with a razor; Dutch has slashes of camouflage make-up that make him look like some kind of New Romantic tribal leader, then in the final act he improvises a series of traps. Not as smart as it thinks it is, but still enjoyable enough hokum.

Seven pussies out of 10

Next time: The predator takes LA…

Aliens (1986, James Cameron)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Fifty-seven years after escaping the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley is found in cryogenic sleep. She tries to rebuild a normal life on earth, but soon has to return to LV-426, the planet from the first film…

The cast: Sigourney Weaver is the only actor from film one. Of the team of soldiers, Bill Paxton as the sarcastic Private Hudson and Michael Biehn as the laconic Corporal Hicks stand out – but each one is memorable and distinctive, which really helps. They have in-jokes and crude banter, but aren’t mindless drones. They get scared and feel like real people. Paul Reiser (one of the dads from My Two Dads) plays company man Burke. It’s an apt-sounding name for the character if you know your Cockney rhyming slang. Resier plays both sides of the man – a seemingly likeable buffoon and a ruthless corporate twat – really well. When Ripley and the military guys head for LV-426, we meet Bishop, an android played by Lance Henriksen. He’s a wonderful creation: just off-kilter enough to be robotic, but still likeable and interesting. (He also does a trick with a knife that surely a lot of kids cut themselves while copying.) Meanwhile, Carrie Henn – a nine-year-old girl who had no acting experience and therefore no Disney-like conditioning – plays Newt and is tremendous. The first line of dialogue in the film is said by future Jonathan Creek star Stuart Milligan (playing the man who finds Ripley’s spacepod floating in space). Paxton, Biehn and Henriksen had all been in The Terminator, director James Cameron’s previous film.

The best scene: There are dozens of potentials for this category: enormous action scenes, telling character moments, chilling scares, great sci-fi ideas… Let’s pick one of the most understated. Near the climax, the group has been whittled down to just a handful and they’re being chasing by aliens. Two of the secondary characters – jobsworth Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) and takes-no-shit Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) – get cornered and know they’re about to die. They’ve not been best buddies or anything, but as the end approaches there’s a tender moment of understanding. “You always were an asshole, Gorman,” Vasquez says, not unkindly. He then takes out and activates a grenade. The pair both hold onto it, knowing they’ll take some aliens with them… On a side note, the music in this scene is terrific, as it is throughout the film. James Horner’s score includes some action cues that have been reused on trailers galore and copied again and again in other films.

Alternative version: James Cameron later revised the film for home video. Aliens: Special Edition was released on Laserdisc in 1991 and VHS the following year. At 16 minutes longer, it’s a *significantly* different movie so I’ll review it separately at a later date.

Review: A Vietnam-war movie set in space, this is bigger, more complex, more political and more adrenalin-packed than the Ridley Scott original. You were scared shitless by one alien? Well, here’s fucking hundreds of them! It’s not about it being better or worse; it’s *different*, often the most pleasing way for a sequel to go. It was written and directed by James Cameron, hot from The Terminator, and is a full-on, edge-of-your-seat action movie. In fact, I can think of only Die Hard and Cameron’s Terminator 2 as its equals in that category. Aliens is muscular and intense, especially during the action-heavy second half. Vitally, though, the action is always about the characters’ situations – not the explosions or guns. And there’s an amazing sheen to the whole thing, with production design, cinematography and editing on point at all times. There are also a lot of old-school production techniques on show – miniatures, rear-projection screens – which make you ache for films to made like this again. No lightweight CGI nonsense here: this world feels solid and real. James Cameron knows that watching a movie should be a ‘transportative’ experience (well, before he made Avatar anyway). You want to get lost in the world and the story and the characters. Aliens *absolutely* achieves that, no matter how often you see it. As it begins, the opening few scenes recap the story so far in a really neat way. In fact, I actually saw Aliens first and, while I was aware it was a sequel, I just accepted the talk of Kane and the M-class star-frieghter as backstory. It soon becomes apparent that the film is overtly more feminist than Alien was. Ellen Ripley was a decent character in 1979: strong, resourceful and calm under pressure. But it’s here that Ripley the icon is formed. As the story progresses, she becomes more and more active. It’s *her* story and she is astonishing. No wonder Sigourney Weaver was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. (She lost out to Marlee Matlin.) A third of the way in, Ripley meets Newt, a young girl who’s been stranded alone on the planet, and forms a touching and underplayed mother-daughter bond. This kind of emotional subtext was absent from Alien, and is one of the reasons why this sequel is – by a facehugger’s arm’s width – the better film.

Ten clouds of vapour the size of Nebraska out of 10

Next time: “Get to da choppa!”

Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Nostromo is a spaceship heading back to earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore on board. However, the crewmembers are woken from their cryogenic sleep when the ship detects a strange signal…

The cast: There are only seven speaking parts in the whole film. An early ensemble scene sets up the class struggles within the team as mechanics Parker (Yaphet Kotto, a former Bond villain) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton, who mostly just says, “Right!”) argue with the officers over money. The vibe is truckers in space who live a functional, mundane, earthy life. This isn’t a Flash Gordon space opera; it feels real. The underplayed group dynamic helps hide the fact that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, fantastic) will be the one character left standing. Early on, she’s just part of the team. Due to a miscommunication, Veronica Cartwright thought she was playing Ripley until she turned up in London for filming; she then reluctantly moved to the role of Lambert, who does a lot of crying. Tom Skerritt has a quiet authority as Dallas, while John Hurt was a late replacement for the role of Kane (John Finch began filming but was then taken ill, so Hurt was cast overnight). The best of the cast by a smidgen might be Ian Holm as Ash. Watching the film knowing that he’s actually an android with a secret mission is a joy because the clues are there in the performance. The subplot ups the ante for Ripley at the worst possible time, and also has a perverse psychosexual twist when a deranged Ash rolls up a porn magazine and attempts to thrust it down her throat.

The best scene: Well, it’s the obvious one. This film was released in the year of my birth; I didn’t see it until about 1990 when it was already a ‘classic’. How wonderful must it have been to see Alien and *not know* what happens to Kane? He’s been attacked by a ‘facehugger’ – a small alien that clasps itself around your head – and fallen into a coma. After the creature detaches itself, Kane eventually comes round. He seems fatigued but otherwise okay, so joins his crewmates for a meal. He then starts to convulse violently. His pals hold him down, but his chest explodes. Blood goes everywhere, and an alien creatures climbs out of his corpse and scuttles off. The shocked looks on the actors’ faces are partly genuine: they didn’t know exactly how the effect would be achieved. In some ways it’s a shame that the moment has become such a cliché (even being spoofed in Spaceballs), but that’s only happened because it’s so good in the first place.

Alternative version: Ridley Scott oversaw a new edit of the movie in 2003. He actually trimmed out a few shots but also added some new footage. It’s not a hugely different experience from watching the original. The most significant change is the addition of a scene near the end where Ripley discovers Dallas cocooned in alien goo. He’s still alive but in terrible pain and begging to be killed.

Review: Ridley Scott has said he was only fifth choice to direct this film. Can you imagine? It’s a world-beating performance, talking a simplistic B-movie script with a couple of decent ideas and turning it into something extraordinary. On the surface, Alien is just a haunted-house horror set in space. If made today it would no doubt have romantic subplots and hackneyed back-stories for all the characters. Not here, because Scott knew you don’t need them. The film begins deliberately slowly, with elegant titles, superb music and some brilliant model shots. When we go inside the Nostromo, the camera slowly creeps around empty sets. The ship interiors are lived-in, distressed, believable. And there’s some lovely attention to detail – a gust of wind accompanies an airlock opening, for example. Even as the crew awake and investigate a strange planet, nothing much happens in the first third. But it’s gripping stuff because of the strong cast and the textured world they inhabit. The slasher-movie format then kicks in – Scott was aware of comparisons with And Then There Were None – while the final 20 minutes feature just Ripley with virtually no dialogue. As usual with Ridley Scott, the unobtrusive camera feels like a character in its own right. It’s often our POV, moving gracefully and slowly when the scene is cautious; going handheld when it’s manic and panicked. A scene of Ripley, Dallas and Ash searching the medical room is played in a static, low camera angle, as if from the monster’s point of view, and it’s almost unbearably tense. Meanwhile, the design work of the sets and props is astonishing – again, a Ridley Scott trademark. You want to freeze-frame the movie just to check out the typography on wall panels. (The only flaw might be the Flash Gordon computer room, which feels too sci-fi for the industrial mood of the ship.) We famously never get much of a look at the fully grown alien, but the ideas behind its life cycle are horrific. This is all-out body horror where the victim is raped and forced to go through a violent labour. Terrifying.

Ten clinking chains out of 10

Next time: Ripley returns to the planet of the aliens…