(On Cable TV, March 2018) The Alien series has now managed the difficult feat of not making me care about any new film in the series. To be fair, it’s been trending in that direction since Alien3 ignored Aliens and set out to humanize the Alien. But the series usually remained interesting even in ludicrousness: even Alien: Resurrection was too weird not to like a little. No, it took Ridley Scott and a whole lot of unconvincing “actually it’s not really part of the Alien series” nonsense in Prometheus to truly stimulate exasperation in the series. With Covenant, he seems determined to repeat all of the past mistakes of the series, from jettisoning main characters in-between instalments to mortally dumb characters to explaining how it’s the humans, you see, that have created these monsters, and all sorts of other dumb plotting moves. Plus a pitch-dark ending that leaves little hope. The impact is not one of wonder, or satisfaction, or even entertainment: It’s one of caring less and less about a franchise that is being treated incoherently. If they’ll make it up as they go along, then why should we care? As a result, I would rather not see any further instalment of the series and let it die unceremoniously than have another follow up that will make me care less and less. All the mystery of the original Alien has been replaced by pretentious musings on the nature of whatever the screenwriter was smoking at the time, and the schematic approach to the series is now so familiar that there’s little here to be interesting. To be fair, Covenant is almost tolerable in small five-minute segments. Some of the action beats are well done, some of the images are interesting, and Katherine Waterston gradually grew on me throughout the film as her character followed the series’ usual zero-to-hero dramatic arc. Still, people who nitpicked Prometheus’s dumber-than-dirt characters won’t have anything better to say here about the various decisions taken by the characters and the Benny-Hill-like catastrophe of consequences that ensues. Let them all die, if they’re going to be so incredibly stupid. (Not that the stupidity is confined to the character—it often spreads to the screenwriters, as an entirely unmotivated late-movie twist suggests.) Covenant barely has that visual grandeur of Prometheus—at this point, why even bother seeing the film at all? But that’s movie-watching in the early twenty-first century, with franchises being beaten into the ground until no one is interested—then artificially revived as reboots that usually don’t have anything to say beyond imitating the original. The surest way to ensure that we’ll get better movies is simply not to care about the bad ones. And this review is already long enough to suggest that I haven’t done a very good job of not caring.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2016) I have watched Blade Runner at least once before, but it was a long time ago and I can’t guarantee that it was in one single sitting. It was probably in the mid-nineties, at a time when I was diving deep into nerd culture and the film was de rigueur viewing—the only accepted conclusion to watching the film was to brand it an undeniable classic. Actually sitting down to watch its Final Cut in one gulp twenty years later, however, I find myself somewhat more reserved. Oh, it’s still a good film, especially when measured against the Science Fiction movies of that time: It’s considerably more mature, refined and ambiguous. From today’s perspective, however, it’s not quite as fresh. There are (especially on Blu Ray) annoying differences between the image quality of the shots, sometimes grainy, sometimes blurred. The special effects are limited and used sparingly (even often literally repeated), the themes have been reused almost endlessly since then, and the pacing is notably slack—by the time the classic ending came by, I was surprised at how little had happened. This isn’t to take away from its achievement, but to put it in context as a tremendously influential film. While the vision of a multicultural rain-soaked neon-lit Los Angeles was, at the time, unlike anything else, it crossed over to cliché roughly twenty-five years ago. It’s a testimony to director Ridley Scott, as well as to actors Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer that the film still holds up today even after inspiring so many other works. In a way, the fact that we can’t watch Blade Runner in the same way today than in 1982 proves how much of a classic it is. But as a film, it’s not perfect—so mark me down as nominally interested in the idea of next year’s sequel.
(On DVD, October 2016) Hollywood has a tradition of progressive message movies, but few of them have been as muscular as G.I. Jane. Nominally about the integration of women in US combat forces, this Ridley Scott action thriller quickly goes for a harrowing portrait of the SEAL training process, violent harassment of its heroine and a quick action mission to top it all off. Wrap everything in the American flag, well-shot military images, pulse-pounding music and it ends up being a recruitment video that incidentally has a female protagonist. Demi Moore was at the height of her fame in 1997, and part of the film’s power is seeing one of the lead female actresses of that time adopt the gruff aggressive mannerisms of the men she’s asked to surpass, shaving her head and proving her resilience by making a crude request to suck on an appendage she only metaphorically possesses. Against some expectations, it actually works. The military sequences are handled competently, and there’s just enough story wrapped around them to make it interesting. Moore is impressive (far more so than in the thematically linked A Few Good Men) and Scott is able to transform what could have been a preachy script into an effective propaganda piece for both feminists and militarists. It has aged surprisingly well.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Thelma & Louise twenty-five years after its release, I expected the experience to be less … upsetting than it was. After all; Thelma & Louise is recognized as a feminist classic, I’m pro-feminism; it’s a quarter-century later, social attitudes have changed … why should this be anything but a safe period piece? But it’s not. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis star as two women out for a weekend away from their spouses, but find themselves driven to a crime spree through a set of circumstances—and despicable men. Thelma & Louise remains an infuriating film even today largely due to the realization that it’s still an exceptional film. Films with two strong female leads are still rare, and film to be written from such an explicitly female perspective are even rarer—especially in Hollywood. Ridley Scott may have directed the film with his typical visual flair, but most of its impact squarely depends on a script written by Callie Khouri, channelling female frustrations and anxieties in reluctant wish fulfillment. Pretty much all the male characters are out to do harm to our leads: It’s not just Christopher McDonald’s unrepentant abusive husband or Brad Pitt’s captivating first turn as an opportunistic thief: It’s also Harvey Keitel as an investigator, sympathetic to our protagonist but tasked to enforce the dominant male narrative that has designated the protagonists as dangerous criminals. Thelma & Louise still pushes buttons a quarter-century later, and forces audiences to realize how little progress has been made along the way. Perhaps worse is the realization that the kind of film that is Thelma & Louise, muscular mid-budget standalone thrillers with some social relevance, have been almost evacuated from the Hollywood scene, replaced by fantasy narratives designed to sell latter instalments. I’m upset all right, and I can’t think of higher praise for the film.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) It’s a good time to be a hard-Science Fiction fan. After decades of repeating that there were no hard-SF movies (save for maybe parts of 2001 and Contact), here are Gravity, Interstellar and now The Martian in successive years to prove us wrong. The Martian has the added benefit of being perhaps the warmest and the purest hard-SF of the three, blending a likable character with reams of effortless exposition about the technical details of being stuck alone on Mars, years away from any potential rescue. Much of the story plays like an endless series of problem-solving mini-dramas, which is closely aligned with the basic ethos of hard-SF. Matt Damon is very, very good in the title role, alone on-screen for a chunk of the story, separated from the rest of the cast. But director Ridley Scott is the one who excels here, delivering his most purely enjoyable film in a long while, making the most out of a terrific script by Drew Goddard that faithfully adapts Andy Weir’s page-turning novel. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Manuel Pena make great impressions in smaller roles, while the special effects work is dazzling. A note should be made of the film’s use of pop music, from cheap shots at disco (leading to an apt spot for “Staying Alive” during the end credits), to a spellbinding montage set to David Bowie’s Starman. Such touches help humanize a script that easily could have been far too dry (in the manner of so many hard-SF novels written by scientists) to attract popular acclaim. Fortunately, The Martian seems to have hit the right chords: It was a massive commercial and critical success, paving the way for similar movies. The drought of hard-SF on-screen may have lasted decades, but chances are that it’s down for good.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Counter-intuitively enough, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings chooses to downplay its biblical material in favor of plausible political intrigues and natural phenomenon. So the Ten Plagues of Egypt become an overlapping set of environmental disasters, retreating waters from a tsunami makes the Red Sea disappear, and Moses is stuck in an impossible political situations following power-plays by other powerful characters. It’s an interesting choice (especially when compared against Noah, which seems to maximize the fantasy aspect of its own old-testament inspiration) that tells us much about the way religious subjects can be handled when they’re the focus of a multi-million-dollars effort involving hundreds of people. Does it work, though? At times, it certainly does: Scott’s success in period or future pieces has always been in creating a convincing atmosphere, and Exodus certainly has a few wondrous moments during which we entirely believe this recreation of historical Egypt, with its shiny pyramids and sprawling cities. It’s also hard to go wrong with the intensity of Christian Bale (as Moses) and Joel Edgerton (as Rameses II), alongside such notables as Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Still, that’s not a whole lot to satisfy, especially given the subject matter. While the Ten Plagues sequence is a highlight, the Red Sea sequence seems a bit lacking as a spectacle, and the choppy narrative strives for complexity while producing either confusion or boredom. For Scott, it does feel like Kingdom of Heaven all over again, with a lengthy running time hinting at missed opportunities, either at a shorter or longer duration. A lot of efforts and energies were spent making this film, and it seems like such a shame that it doesn’t rise much above the level of a mildly interesting one.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) I can see why The Counselor got such terrible reviews. It’s utterly nihilistic, written with self-conscious lack of Hollywood polish, inconsistently paced and stylised to a degree that can be uncomfortable. The violence isn’t glamorous, the good guys are victims and there’s no escape from the consequences of bad decisions. On the other hand, I’m finding it hard to dismiss it out of hand as a complete failure: novelist Cormac McCarthy can be out of his depth as a screenwriter and Ridley Scott can have one of his off days, but the result of their collaboration has individual moments of off-beat brilliance. Michael Fassbender is compelling as a good man who decides to tempt fate with a few illegal decisions – The Counselor is about what happens when he runs afoul of some people without restraints to their wrath, and the ultimate price he pays for transgressing order. An interesting number of actors surround him, from an amused Brad Pitt to an often-hilarious Javier Bardem who gets some of the most darkly comic lines of the film. Penelope Cruze and Cameron Diaz get opposite roles as the good and the bad girl, with starkly different fates. There is, to be clear, no flow to the movie as it hops from one monologue to the other, from one oblique scene to the next and from one seemingly disconnected set piece to another. The film is at times suspenseful, disgusting, enigmatic, hilarious, horrifying and tragic. It’s all shot impeccably (it’s a Ridley Scott film, after all) but it struggles to amount to much more than a series of showcase sequences. There’s little suspense –almost by design, since this is a film describing an irreversible downfall but there is a sense of clumsiness to the result, as if no one could be bothered to smooth out the edges in-between the smaller pieces. That doesn’t make The Counselor an overlooked classic, but it makes it a hard sell for anyone who’d prefer a more consistent experience.
(In theaters, June 2012) It’s almost too bad that I didn’t write this review right after stepping out of the movie theatre, because once you let its beautiful visuals fade away, Prometheus gets worse the longer you think about it. Let’s get a few things out of the way: Yes, Prometheus is a Ridley Scott SF movie set in the universe of Scott’s 1979 Alien, but no, it’s not a coherent addition to the mythology: Thematically, the film is very different from the Alien series, but it’s really the muddled script that doesn’t really care about making all the parts fit together. It’s still a monster movie in the most classical sense (explorer discover a terrible threat, almost everyone is killed, etc.) but as far as monster movie go, few have the amount of visual polish and technical expertise than Prometheus enjoys. Visually, the film is stunning, with complex special effects well-used to create a state-of-the-art vision of the future on an alien planet. You can revel in the ways the film has advanced far beyond the now-primitive effects in Alien, or reflect at how thirty years have changed our expectations of what the future will look like. Scott is a gifted filmmaker, and Prometheus’ high notes come when he’s able to use all the tools at his disposal to explore fear, wonder or awe. There is a terrific medical-intervention sequence at the three-quarter-mark that is as good as any of the thrills delivered by the Alien series, and a lesser director could have blown it by lack of expertise. Scott’s moviemaking skill makes it easy to watch the film and let it wow you… unfortunately, the effect wears off as soon as you start asking questions. In terms of SF ideas and concepts, there’s little in Prometheus that hasn’t been picked clean in written SF by the 1970s, and few writers have ever felt the need to revisit those issues in the same pretentious ham-fisted ways than Scott does here. Basic fact-based objections to the panspermia theory are, in the movie, swept away with a simple declaration of faith, and it’s not the rumors about a more theologically-charged director’s cut of the film that will save Prometheus from charges of muddled thinking. But never mind thematic issues when it’s the plotting nuts-and-bolts of the film that don’t make sense. Characters are moved around like puppets, making the same dumb decisions as their counterparts in B-grade schlock monster-movies and dying in various ways that seem inconsistent with how smart they’re supposed to be. All the good actors in the film (Michael Fassbender is particularly effective as the de-rigueur android) can’t compensate from an undercooked script that doesn’t seem to care that we’ve seen that monster-movie stuff play out dozens of time since 1979. It makes for a curious viewing experience: Impeccably executed, but from a weak script that blends pseudo-profoundness with idiot plotting. It’s still well worth a look for the visuals and the atmosphere, but even measured against its own intentions, Prometheus is ultimately a disappointing mess.
(In theatres, May 2010) The chequered development process that led from a script called Nottingham to this stone-faced “historical” take on Robin Hood may explain a lot about the deadened result, but as viewers we can only see what’s on-screen and wonder what went wrong. The first bad idea is the pretence of a “historical” look at a legend: It didn’t work in the dour and grimy King Arthur, and it’s not any more pleasant here. (To compare and contrast, the similarly-themed The Last Legion wasn’t very good either, but it had the good idea of being a lot more fun). This isn’t director Ridley Scott’s first foray in pseudo-realistic historical action, and Robin Hood is just as dirt-dominated as similar sequences in Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven: you can practically feel the plague coming just by watching the film. But the realism is just surface deep: By the end of the story, in which Robin Hood saves Maid Marian from unexplainable danger during a D-day like French invasion off the cliffs of Dover and then practically writes the Magna Carta from notes left by his lost-lost father, well, we’ve left realism buried somewhere in the copious dirt. (It won’t take a military strategist to find something suspiciously wrong about an invasion force picking a narrow stretch of beach right in front of impassable cliffs as a landing area.) While Russell Crowe is fine as Robin Hood and Cate Blanchett can do no wrong as Maid Marian, the film too often feels like a school assignment sucking all the fun out of reasonably entertaining source material. After watching this joyless take on Robin Hood, I felt a sudden need to go and re-watch Costner’s now-old-enough-to-be-classic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves all over again.
(In theaters, September 2003) Yet another con man film at a time where we’ve seen a number of them in recent months. But even though, yes, there is a con both on the characters and on the audience, the heart of the film is more of a character study, starring Nicolas Cage in another deeply neurotic performance. Matchstick Men is a story of how conning is affecting the protagonist, and how he’s able to come to a point where he’s able to kick the habit (sort of) and become a better person. Director Ridley Scott once again throws just about everything he’s got on the screen in the hope that some of it will stick and the result, as may be expected, is very uneven. Some of Cage’s antics are annoying, but as usual he’s never as good as when he’s foaming with rage. (Just wait until late in the film). It’s not a particularly deep film, but there’s a twist, a few good scenes, and high-grade production values that are seldom uninteresting. It’s not flashy, but it does the job. Some will have a problem with the happy ending (which reportedly wasn’t to be found in Eric Garcia’s original novel), but it fits with the overall thrust of the movie, which is the story of a man who happens to be a criminal and not the story of a criminal per se.