ALIENS: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

By Marc S. Sanders

James Cameron’s Aliens is deliberately morose in its storytelling and cinematic look.  It’s ugly and nightmarish.  It’s nerve-wracking at times.  It’s dark and somber too.  It’s also one of the best action films ever made.  For me, this is Cameron’s best film and it’s not only because I’m a sci-fi blockbuster nerd of sorts. 

Serving as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s monster movie, Alien from 1979, Aliens works on its own independence while still adhering to the storyline qualities of the original.  Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley.  The story begins 57 years later where Ripley’s lifeboat ship from the end of the first film is found in deep space.  She reports back to the conglomerate company of the terrifying happenings she experienced with her crew mates who didn’t survive when an unrecognizable creature terrorized them aboard their vessel.  The company is less than apt to believe her account though. 

One of the company men, Burke (Paul Reiser), requests that Ripley accompany him and a squad of tough Marines on a mission to the planet, LV-426, where her crew discovered an immense crop of eggs and took back an alien aboard their ship.  In Ripley’s absence, a colony of over a hundred families was set up on the planet to establish habitable real estate.  However, the colony has lost contact, and the company is sending in the military to assess the situation to see what’s going on. Ripley is supposed to only serve as an advisor.

James Cameron’s script and direction takes its time to build up suspense and explore what’s unknown to these soldiers.  Upon arrival on the planet, much of what they find is left in wreckage and no one is to be found anywhere.  At best, Ripley can only see what was likely the remains of alien attacks with acid burns within the steel structures.  Yet to Ripley and viewers familiar with the first film, it is still a mystery as to what truly occurred.  Naturally, more will eventually be uncovered and then this arriving crew will have their hands full.

James Cameron has an imagination that bursts with colorful and amazing ideas.  The Terminator films were astonishing in its own apocalyptic future that haunts a present time period.  Titanic was a film mired in much expense and technical setbacks. Though, no one ever expected just how accomplished the award-winning blockbuster turned out to be.  Avatar is wonderous on a planetary level.  However, James Cameron is not necessarily a celebrated script writer.  Often his dialogue is very cheesy and unnatural.  Aliens is the exception though.

The script acknowledges that these gung-ho marines are “grunts.”  Thankfully, they talk like grunts.  I know that many fans adore Bill Paxton as the cut-up member of the troupe known as Hudson, who has brilliant one liners.  It’s actually a well fleshed out character.  Before Hudson knows what he’s up against, this new mission is just a lame “bug hunt” and he happily screams out as their spacecraft makes the quick drop into the planet’s atmosphere.  When he eventually comes to face to face with the monsters, terrifying, cry baby like fear overtakes him.  He’s giving his one liners like “Game over, Man,” and “We’re  fucked!”  Yet, the dread and anxiety are completely relatable.  There’s something out there waiting to tear me apart and eat me, and there’s hardly anyone left to help and rescue me.  I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Cameron wrote a good under the radar kind of character, and we feel for this guy’s dilemma as if it’s our own.  Paxton’s performance made it better and awarded it with adrenalized highs…and these aliens, with teeth and tails and acid for blood, are most definitely scary as hell.

I no longer watch the original theatrical cut of Aliens.  I turn to the Director’s Cut that Cameron always envisioned.  Particularly, it triumphs because the Ripley character is much more fleshed out with necessary dimension for the film.  Early on, a cut scene, now restored, tells us that Ripley’s daughter died from cancer while she was lost in deep space.  The daughter lived to the age of 66, even though Ripley didn’t age a bit.  Awakening from her cryo sleep, only introduces heartache for Ripley.  What I like about this information is that it serves a relationship later found in Aliens.  A little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) is found by the marines and appears to be the sole survivor of the alien attacks.  Ripley steps in as a surrogate mother towards Newt as all of the characters work tirelessly to survive and somehow get off the planet.  The Director’s Cut gives some value to Ripley and purpose beyond just violently slaughtering aliens as a means of revenge or fulfillment.  It allows Aliens to work on an effective emotional level and Sigourney Weaver earned her Oscar nomination because of it.

Cameron introduces traitors as well into the story, which are likely not so surprising but make the film all the more challenging for the heroes of the picture.  Michael Biehn is the sex symbol, a cool and quiet tough guy.  Jenette Goldstein is a Hispanic marine who gives off good imagery as one of the few female squad members who enters the areas first with the largest gun in the troupe.  Lance Henrikson is memorable as an android that Ripley is apprehensive to trust – perhaps he’s the “Mr. Spock” of this sci-fi entry.

Technically speaking, Aliens is so unbelievably atmospheric in its bleak, futuristic setting.  Barring a few moments where the spaceships clearly look like miniatures, the interiors look organically formed.  I can’t compliment the set pieces enough in that respect.  When the Marines enter a large cavern, it is enormously shell like that it looks like an animal’s nest.  Cameron hides his various monsters perfectly.  So that when they slowly unravel their tales and skeletal forms, it looks as if the darkness within the frames begin to move.  The stillness of what surrounds our main characters awaken with life that maybe we don’t want to see. 

Aliens works independent of Ridley Scott’s prior picture because it’s a war movie; one that is set on an outer space planet.  We witness how the surviving squad troops strategize with what little they have left.  Thereafter, we see how they face enemies who may have the upper hand in battles to come.  I love how Cameron builds suspense with a sensor device the troops use.  It begins to ring as a life form closes in on their proximity.  The monitor fills with glowing blurs as more life forms nearby build up.  A nervous and great moment occurs when they can not understand how the aliens could be so close and yet none of them can see what is so nearby.  The surprise is unexpected and worthy of a scream. 

Cameron’s script doesn’t give his heroes a break.  Aliens thrives on the characters simply playing keep away, while one member of the party is working against what little they have left.  I like that.  While Aliens may be intentionally dreary the fact that there’s no easy out for these folks is what keeps the pulse of the film racing with nonstop suspense and action.

Aliens is an absolutely solid picture promising a future for this franchise. Sadly, it really never excelled above what was accomplished in these first two films from Ridley Scott, and now James Cameron.  Years later, Scott returned to the franchise with some interesting prequel films that colored in some of the elements that were only talked about before, like the company that puts all these people within the peril of the aliens.  Yet to date, that all still remains unfinished.  James Cameron just set the bar so high with his movie that the few that followed never amounted to what he created.

You may not feel all warm and fuzzy after watching Aliens, but at least you’ll feel incredibly excited with its construction from a director in the early years of his profession.  James Cameron brought about a solid script and unbelievable effects that say so much on a visual level.  If Aliens makes you nervous, fearful and especially terrified, then James Cameron has done his job.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Byron Haskin
Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 89%
Everybody’s a Critic Assignment: Watch a Movie “Classic”

PLOT: A small town in California is attacked by Martians, touching off a worldwide invasion.


I admire the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds most when I try to imagine myself back in that era as someone seeing it for the very first time.  For me, 69 years is still an almost unimaginable gulf of time.  In 1953, TVs were not quite a luxury item anymore, but a color TV definitely was.  Little kids still wore coonskin caps and watched The Howdy Doody Show for fun.  The very concept of UFOs was only six years old.  And the Cold War was a direct threat to our national security and our general peace of mind.

Into this culture came a film that, while thoroughly cheesy by today’s standards, nevertheless captured the paranoia of a nation.  Unstoppable creatures from another planet!  Wreaking havoc wherever they go!  Not even the mighty A-bomb can defeat them!  And who could resist those terrifying movie posters?  “A mighty panorama of earth-shaking fury!”  I would have been BEGGING my parents to give me ticket money.

Is a plot summary even necessary for this classic story?  A fiery meteor plunges to Earth near a small California town, but instead of making a crater, it carves a gully as it slides to a stop.  A scientist hypothesizes it might be hollow inside.  Presently, an alien spacecraft emerges from the meteor, bearing a fearsome weapon that looks like a cobra’s head and rains destruction and death on anything in range.  Forsaking Wells’ original vision of Martian tripods, this version presents sleek, manta-ray-shaped spacecraft supported by nearly-invisible electromagnetic currents.  Or something like that. Reports start coming from around the globe of other meteors and other spacecraft, and it quickly becomes apparent they’re not interested in friendly negotiations.  To paraphrase the stentorian commentary that bridges some scenes, this is the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

The heroes of this film are Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson).  To put it kindly, their acting skills are…adequate.  To be fair, they weren’t working with a stellar screenplay, but the filmmakers wisely decided the real star of the movie should be the Martians and the Oscar-winning special effects.  As a result, Clayton is reduced to either giving scientific explanations of the Martians, while Sylvia’s main purpose is to look scared, scream loudly, and fry some eggs for Clayton in the middle of a war zone.  (I’m not making that last part up.  It’s not exactly Aliens.)

Regarding those special effects, sure they’re dated, but consider that, at the time, Hollywood studios regarded effects-heavy films as financial losers.  At least, that’s what they thought before The War of the Worlds.  It did so well that one of the head honchos at Paramount – one Cecil B. DeMille – presented the extraordinarily effects-heavy The Ten Commandments (1956) just three years later…and it broke box-office records.  The current trend is to blame Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) for singlehandedly creating our insatiable appetite for special-effects extravaganzas, but look back far enough and there’s plenty of blame to go around, in my opinion.

Full disclosure: I still prefer Spielberg’s whiz-bang 2005 remake of War of the Worlds with its actual tripods and its CGI explosions and its callbacks to the 1953 original, including a cameo by Barry and Robinson, to satisfy cinephiles.  But this version, while dated, still has enough charm to remain effective.  Mostly.  (My favorite part is when the “hatch” on the meteor starts unscrewing; right about then is when I would’ve bought a ticket to Australia.)


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

  1. Best line or memorable quote?
    When Dr. Forrester speculates how the Martians’ death ray works: “It neutralizes meson somehow. They’re the atomic glue holding matter together. Cut across their lines of magnetic force and any object will simply cease to exist! Take my word for it, General, this type of defense is useless against that kind of power! You’d better let Washington know, fast!”  It’s formulaic nonsense that’s only once or twice removed from calling an alien mineral “unobtainium”, but it’s delivered with the kind of conviction that only exists in the movies.
  2. What elements of this film do you feel have helped it become a movie classic?
    On a surface level, I’d say the quaintness of its visual effects.  Comparing them to the films of today is like comparing a paper airplane to the space shuttle.  But its also how the film captures the pop culture of the day.  The War of the Worlds fed on the fears and paranoia of a nation and stuck in the minds of millions of moviegoers and continues to do so today.  The 1953 film was influenced by the Cold War.  Spielberg’s remake was at least partially fueled by a nation’s fear of global terrorism.  Perhaps in another 20 or 30 years, some other enterprising filmmaker will once again send Martians to Earth to lay waste to its cities as a commentary on some future phobia or event.  …perhaps a global pandemic…?  Nah, too on the nose…

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

By Marc S. Sanders

On my 4th viewing of this film, I second guessed myself over and over. I know I’m a Star Wars junkie, but can I truly give an objective opinion about Rogue One? I think I can.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is of one of the best films of the last ten years. Now there are conditions that accompany that observation. It’s difficult to follow its trajectory if you haven’t seen A New Hope (the intended follow up story; the original Star Wars film). Frankly, reader if you are watching this film without ever watching A New Hope, I’d imagine you’ve been on a deserted island with a volleyball for a friend, unaware of this pop culture geek-oriented phenomenon from a galaxy far, far away, and upon your return to civilization you were just randomly flipping the channels. So, let’s just go ahead and dismiss that parameter right now.

Disney is the only studio with enough resources and scrutiny to ensure a good product is developed in the franchise. Rogue One proves that theory. From the Rebel uniforms to the Stormtroopers, to the Yavin 4 set recreation, and even a harkening back to Darth Vader’s original 1977 appearance (red eyes in the helmet), director Gareth Edwards, Lucasfilm and Disney ensure consistency in its side chapter apart from the 9-part saga. You relish the familiarity of it all, and what’s new you welcome with appreciated enthusiasm. It all works within the long-established universe.

The cast is superb with major highlights from Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso (great name) as a brash no nonsense rogue in and of herself. Jones comes off with tough bravado reminiscent of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, as well as Jodie Foster. Nothing will intimidate her, though she will show her heart and soul for her father, the reluctant architect of the Empire’s Death Star played by Mads Mikkelson, an important character to the story but not much material for him to capitalize on.

Alan Tudyk is a marvelous voice actor here as the tall droid K2SO, with a personality combination of Chewbacca & C3PO. He’s honest, maybe a little to honest, but he’s also physically strong and a smart aleck. His tone is Anthony Daniels, but his delivery is snide and arrogant. He’s just so entertaining.

Ben Mendohlson plays Imperial Director Krennic as a frightening antagonist who embraces the terror of this super weapon he oversees. “Oh it’s beautiful,” he sighs and really believes he sees beauty as a planet gradually combusts under the laser blast emanating from the Death Star. He expects greatness from his accomplishments and Mendohlson is also good at surrendering to what he’s not permitted to celebrate thanks to a strong Darth Vader and welcome return of Grand Moff Tarkin, a beautifully recreated CGI of deceased actor Peter Cushing. Tarkin is important to the Krennic storyline and his insertion in the film is flawless.

The cast also boasts Donnie Yen. He’s a real crowd pleasing blind martial artist. Not a Jedi, yet arguably even more fun.

The planets are crowded and different. Scarif where the final battle takes place is draped in palm trees and ocean blue. Great because it’s daylight setting allows all the action to be seen. Nothing is blurred.

The story structure is phenomenal as it centers on a race to make contact with an Imperial pilot who has just defected and then on to Jyn’s father in order to prevent this new Death Star from going into operation. I especially salute its honest, uncompromising, but still necessary ending. You’ll get a lump in your throat, followed by an adrenaline shot of excitement in the last five minutes. The end is pure genius. One of the great cinematic endings. Absolutely absorbing.

I really appreciate the various demographics in the film as well. For a story about an unending and lived in galaxy everyone should look and sound different. So, we are treated to Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and English, and then you have the droids and fictional alien species.

If anything is shortchanged, it might stem from some of the actors’ dialects. Forrest Whitaker, Diego Luna and Riz Amed play primarily roles that at times are hard to comprehend, even in a fourth viewing. This is forgivable though. The story lends value to all of the players on screen.

So yes. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is sensational; the best of the 4 Disney produced films thus far. There’s weight to its story, and its characters on both sides. It moves at a fast pace of action, dialogue and runaway suspense. It will go down as one of the best installments in the vast franchise that’s thrived for over 40 years so far.

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

By Marc S. Sanders

To those who naysayed this standalone installment in the galaxy far, far away, all I say is you are trying too hard to be pleased.  Shut up and have some fun, will ya?

Solo: A Star Wars Story presents a film that stands on its own, relying on mysterious legendary side stories only talked briefly about for the last fortysomething years like the Kessel Run, Sabaac card games, dice and the origin of how Chewbacca met everyone’s favorite space smuggler, Han Solo, plus the Millennium Falcon and the scoundrel Lando Calrissian.  

My brother and even a few friends of mine (Joe Pauly) grew up loving John Wayne’s films. No one else epitomized a Hollywood western better than The Duke.  He was their childhood hero.  For me, it is the generation after that which introduced the space cowboy Han Solo played by Harrison Ford.  He is not anywhere near a multi-dimensional character; pretty one note if you ask me (which ironically is opposite of what I demand in any kind of storytelling these days).  

Captain Solo was the guy who would make it up as he goes; never planning ahead or considering others beyond his trusted furry partner and his beloved spaceship.  He’d poorly talk his way out of trapped situations and when that didn’t work, he was a fast draw with his blaster.  

The screenwriters for Solo, legendary Lawrence Kasdan with his son Jonathan, were all aware of Han’s placement in this space opera, while constructing this film.  Only this time they intended on showing how that devil may care came about. It reminded me of a similar approach writer Paul Haggis took with the reinvention of James Bond in Casino Royale.    A lone hero trusts very little beyond his own arrogance and self-assurance.  The Kasdsans used that technique as the spine for this story and it works.

Director Ron Howard is the right guy to fill in following a notorious director incident beforehand.  Howard keeps the film moving fast with casualties you might not expect to perish, revealing masks (an under looked theme of the original films), traitors, fast ships, fast cars, and their pursuits and chases.  A favorite scene, saluting the Western, is a thrilling train robbery across a snowy mountain that seamlessly changes its angle and vector at times.  It’s as awesome a scene as it promised in the trailers.  

Howard is best at keeping the film grounded in actors rather than tired CGI cartoons.  He definitely makes Han, Lando and the rest look convincing trying to steer a ship or carry a blaster and play cards.

The cast is great.  Alden Ehrenreich is fine in the role; young, cocky, brash, handsome.  I wasn’t looking for him to do a Harrison Ford impersonation.  That would only look like a 12:45 am Saturday Night Live skit. The guy had to do his own thing, not someone else’s much like the Batman and Bond films have done before.  Donald Glover is perfect as Lando, even adopting Billy Dee Williams own way of pronunciation (“Han” vs Ha-an”).  Still, he makes the part his own.  He’s fun to watch.  Beyond some mild makeup scarring, Paul Bettany makes for a really uncomfortable crime lord, like a suave Miami Vice drug kingpin, and Woody Harrelson is just right in the inspirational pirate role; gruff and tough and educating.  Emilia Clarke is finally directed properly in a film.  (I still haven’t forgotten her awful Terminator: Genisys Sarah Conner portrayal.). She is dangerously sexy, but smarmy and cocky like Carrie Fisher was.  She’s a great femme fatale of the 1940s beautifully incorporated into some very thick sci fi.  

This was such a fun time at the movies.  Go ahead.  Accuse me of my bias, but as well shouldn’t I be expected to be a tough demanding critic of all new Star Wars material?  I’d probably be wanting it to match the magic of the original trilogy.  Well no.  I don’t want it that way.  I want new and fresh ideas, while still recognizing George Lucas’ used universe settings.  Disney and Lucasfilm continue to move along, stretching their imagination in monies well spent while also following the rules of smart aleck characters, film western motifs, Eastern cultures and death-defying cliffhangers.  Had the Star Wars franchise remained with Fox, audiences would not be getting the treats we’ve been blessed with for these last 10 years.

Solo really only has two minor misfires.  The droid L3, Lando’s Co-pilot, does not live up to Anthony Daniels nor Alan Tudyk and their high brow robot attitudes.  Why? Because it’s hard to understand what L3 is truly saying.  The lines are garbled at times; drowned out by the robot dialect I guess, and maybe also by a mostly origninal score.

As well, there is one ending moment that’s eye opening, but puzzling with little demand for it.  It was one surprise that did not seem to be well thought out and considering this is a stand alone film, it left me unsure of what Lucasfilm hoped to gain from it.  The moment was too distracting for me.  Yet it’s in there and it’s not the worst offense.  Just very very unnecessary and perplexing.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is none other than great fun with something to think about.   I was laughing out loud.  The audience we were with was clapping and cheering.  That’s why Star Wars films continue to thrive.  Their audiences get caught up in the ride, especially when the films are relatable while not taking themselves too seriously.

TRON

By Marc S. Sanders

I was not raised on video games.  My father refused to allow us to have them in the house. While I was envious of every kid that owned an Atari 2600, dad didn’t want us to get addicted to them.  I wouldn’t know until later on how thankful I was for that rule he stood by.  I like arcade games for a once and a while escape, but once I reach the banana board (which isn’t often) on Ms. Pac Man, I’ve had my fill.

I recall seeing at least a few scenes of Walt Disney Studios’ Tron back when it was released on VHS.  Way back then, just like now, I just was never so impressed by it.  I can forgive the thin characterizations of really the only 5-7 actors with speaking roles.  Yet, the visuals and sound really do nothing for me.  What am I looking at?  Grids!  Just grids or endless squares.  A blank chess board looks more exciting to me.  The players in the film are dressed in what are presumed to be digitized armor that have carved out glowing blue and red lights.  Their human faces are grainy grays.  It all seems so flat to me, like that awful Pac Man adaptation Atari developed for their game consoles. 

Jeff Bridges plays Flynn, a game software developer done dirty by a corporate conglomerate led by a man named Dillinger (David Warner, the bad guy with the British accent).  Dillinger, along with a super computer intelligence known as the Master Control Program, have stolen Flynn’s intellectual property for dynamic new video games.  Since that time, Flynn has been making efforts to hack into the computer system and steal back what was originally his to begin with.  Master Control Program always fends him off, though.

A side story involves Bruce Boxleitner as Flynn’s colleague, Alan, working for the corporation. Alan has just developed a new security system known as TRON.  Dillinger puts a stop on the TRON program however.  Flynn, Alan and a third colleague named Lora (Cindy Morgan) break into the corporate computer lab one night, and before you know it, while attempting to hack in, Flynn is zapped right into the computer system, where he finds himself ensconced in a series of gladiator like games that were part of his original program write ups.

Master Control Program has the capability to erase Flynn from existence but insists on having him compete in the games that involve frisbees that deflect lasers and drive colorful racing cycles.  All of these games occur on this boring grid.

The actors mentioned above are utilized in the film much like The Wizard Of Oz.  They are introduced in the real world for the brief exposition portion of the film, and then later used to represent the TRON program (Boxleitner), as well as other elements that serve or perform under the eye of Master Control Program in the digital computer world.  The only real entity is known as a “user,” and that is Flynn.

I got sleepy watching Tron.  I think it is because like many video games it does not challenge me to figure things out or solve the dilemma. How can I envision Flynn escaping this world before he’s zapped out of existence?  I have no idea, because I’ve not been shown anything that demonstrates how this computer world functions.  Basic video games, at least from the early 1980s, were primarily about timing your button pushes and jerking the joystick accurately and timely.  Like the film Tron, they were never about application of the mind. 

No.  Movies are not meant for me to solve their riddles all the time.  Often, if I’m not trying to figure out how to resolve a story’s conflict, then I’m at least absorbed in the writing and performances of the cast.  The music might heighten the adventure or suspense.  The set designs will dazzle me.  Don’t get me wrong.  This Star Wars fanatic loves visual effects, but without any kind of story or suspense for the players and their outcome, what’s left to watch?  Tron is as dimensional as a blank index card for me. All these grids and lines are no more exciting than office stationery.

Tron from 1982 may seem very outdated, forty years later, but as a ten-year-old, I recall not being impressed either.  The sound design is annoying as when the digital players walk with clunk, clunk footsteps.  The objects on film are just sketched out, geometric glowing, colored lines on a black background. There is no depth, at all, to Flynn, Lora, Alan, Dillinger, or their computer counterparts.  In 1982, this might have been groundbreaking. For the Atari lovers this may have been the answer to many of their prayers.  I dunno.  Maybe I couldn’t relate or understand back then because my tyrant for a father denied me of an Atari game console.  I certainly don’t understand the fascination now. 

I have a 100-sheet pad of graph paper, here in my desk.  I’ll stand my Darth Vader action figure on a page and just stare at it for five minutes.  There!  Now, I can say I’ve watched Tron for a third time.

WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s a harsh reality to science fiction in the 21st century.  When the aliens arrive on Earth, a little girl will ask her dad “What is it?  Is it terrorists?”  Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds covered that territory when it was released four brisk years after 9/11.  All these years later and there’s still some legitimacy to that sadly reasonable question.  I find it interesting that one of the most pioneering novels in sci fi was published just ahead of the twentieth century paving the way for endless approaches to alien arrivals and attacks on Earth.  When Spielberg approaches it on his third try, the trope may have been done to death, but now the reality of the response is updated and all too real, and brutally disturbing.

Tom Cruise is the lead in this adaptation, and he is arguably in the most vulnerable role of his career.  He plays a storage bin dock loader, only regarded as a half caring deadbeat and divorced dad to his teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning). After his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) drops the kids off for the weekend, there’s an uncomfortable game of catch in the backyard followed by the beginning of the mayhem.  What appears like a lightning storm evolves into dead batteries and no electricity along with odd wind currents and hammering echoes.  When the people all around the main characters in their New York neighborhood get vaporized, then naturally their first instinct is to think it’s terrorists.  In today’s science fiction, terrorists are real and aliens are not.

Later, once the extra terrestrials (not the friendly kind who consume Reece’s pieces) have viciously introduced themselves, Spielberg’s film resorts to demonstrating mass exodus of the people of Earth.  Military units advise folks to “keep movin’.”  When the attacks happen, people scatter in different directions.  When a ferry is leaving the mainland, helpless folks rush for the dock, desperately climbing over the gates and leaving loved ones behind.  Spielberg hasn’t forgotten about the unlawful occupations from world history.  He simply applies it to a Tom Cruise action piece.

Tim Robbins shows up as a crazed man hiding in a farmhouse basement with a shotgun ready to begin a one-man revolution.  Cruise tries to contain the hysteria.  A scene like this could have had Nazis or aliens circumventing on the floor above, as the central characters remain as quiet as the Jews used to do in the basement below.  The parallels are eerily the same. 

Still, I respect the reality of the piece.  For one thing, much of the film, scripted by Josh Friedman and David Koepp is pulled right from H.G. Wells’ pages, including the nice and tidy ending that eventually arrives.  Don’t knock it.  That’ how Wells wrote the story to begin with.  Spielberg and crew don’t invent their own new image of the invaders.  They are still the tall three-legged tripods towering over the people of Earth and blasting them with their “heat rays.”  My favorite touch of this film is using Morgan Freeman’s vocals as the bookended narrator reciting Wells’ novel text, nearly word for word.  It’s a welcome salute to the memorable radio show that Orson Welles lent to the story decades before. 

I consider this adaptation of War Of The Worlds to be an observational picture or a reactionary film.  Cruise is not super skilled with fighting techniques and weapons handling.  All he can do is watch and react.  He’s an everyman here, which is actually quite unusual for him when you gloss over his resume.  This is not Maverick or Ethan Hunt: Superspy.  His purpose is to watch and return his kids to their mother in Boston, assuming she is still alive.  The success of the mission here only depends on getting the kids back to mom. 

Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin go against the grain of so many other Spielberg kid characters.  They are not intuitive or inventive.  Especially for Fanning’s character, she is just a scared little girl.  Not a Goonie and not like Gertie, who is scared for the sake of humor with precocious one liners.  If aliens were attacking the Earth, this is how my kid would react. 

Once it is established that this movie is a Spielberg running man film, then you may be grateful for the realistic mentality of the story’s community.  You’ll also appreciate the amazing set pieces accompanied by John Williams’ original score that plays like a drive-in monster movie or a Twilight Zone episode.  The aftermath of a plane crash on a Jersey suburban neighborhood is very convincing.  A runaway train set ablaze intrudes upon the cast with great surprise.  A cracked piece of concrete that gets swallowed up below only to immediately vomit a tripod in the air for instant attack is eye popping. 

War Of The Worlds is a well-crafted film, and the thought was definitely invested in its approach ahead of making it.  Yet, I won’t say it’s fun escapism.  It’s a reminder of the unrelenting realities we live in now.  Sadly, it’s not reaching to say that maybe we live in a time where it is in fact every person for themselves.  Even Cruise’s son insists on going off on his own, abandoning both him and his sister with nary a care at all.  Unlike Close Encounters or E.T., there’s not much to laugh or grin at in this Spielberg alien film.

The 2005 adaptation of War Of The Worlds is certainly loyal to H.G. Wells.  It may be realistic in the human nature of its science fiction, but in the end, it is also a very bleak film.  There’s much to marvel at, but once the movie is over, as my colleague Miguel and I often recommend to one another, it’ll likely be best that you get outside and bathe in the warm sun under a blue sky, roll around in the grass with your dog, and taste an apple for the first time all over again.  It’s about all we have left to embrace what little is left of our sanity.

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Tommy Chong
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A secluded farm is struck by a strange meteorite which has apocalyptic consequences for the family living there and possibly the world.


Some backstory…

Once upon a time, there was a film director named Richard Stanley.  He made a few unremarkable films in the early 1990s, toiling in relative obscurity, until he hit the big time in 1996 when he got the opportunity to direct his dream project: a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring none other than Marlon Brando.  The story of that film’s troubled production inspired a documentary all by itself (Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau [2014]).  Stanley himself was fired after only four days of shooting and replaced by John Frankenheimer.  Rumor has it that Stanley secretly convinced the makeup crew to turn him into one of the background mutants so he could keep tabs on his dream project.  After Moreau bombed, Stanley’s career imploded, and he never directed another feature film.

…until over twenty years later when an enterprising film production company expressed interest in allowing him to direct another dream project: an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story from 1927 called The Colour Out of Space.  To say that Stanley redeemed himself with this film would be an understatement.  This is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.  It was supposed to be the first part of a Lovecraftian trilogy, but alas, Stanley was accused of domestic abuse in March of 2021 and the trilogy was scrapped.  One hopes that someone like Guillermo del Toro or Jordan Peele might pick up the promising threads here.  [insert good mojo dance here]

Anyway, the movie.

Color Out of Space is, at first glance, an amalgam of previous horror films.  One can easily spot elements of The Thing (1982), Annihilation (2018), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986).  But when you consider the screenplay has been adapted from a 95-year-old short story, the movie takes on a prescient nature.  Here are all the elements of a solid contemporary horror film, in a story that was published the same year sound was introduced to motion pictures for the first time.  Remarkable.

The Gardner family lives on a secluded farm in the forests of New England, where the nearest township, Arkham, is an hour’s drive away.  (No, Arkham isn’t a Batman reference, it’s Lovecraftian…which might explain why the very name “Arkham Asylum” has always felt a little creepy all by itself.)  One night, a meteorite lands with a crash in their front yard.  This is no ordinary meteorite.  It glows with an unearthly magenta light, and by the following morning it has disappeared.  Shortly thereafter, the youngest son, Jack, starts hearing strange noises outside.  Mrs. Gardner (Joely Richardson), who is recuperating from cancer surgery, keeps getting disconnected from her business calls.  Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) takes a shower one day and discovers what looks like a cake of soap covering the shower drain.  He picks it up…and experiences something NO ONE wants to experience after picking up a cake of soap.

Things get stranger.  A local hydrologist takes some water samples and urges the Gardner family and their squatter, Ezra (Tommy Chong), who lives in a shack on the Gardner’s vast property, not to drink the water until he gets some test results.  Meanwhile, Jack, the youngest son, takes a peek down their well and watches as an alien-looking egg hatches and releases a magenta-colored praying mantis.  Mrs. Gardner gets distracted by…something…and has a kitchen accident with a knife.  Their daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), who dabbles in Wiccan rituals, hears a noise that makes her sick to her stomach.  Time passes in fits and starts.

And the whole time, new vegetation has sprouted up around the well.  All the same magenta color…

Experienced moviegoers might be able to plot the film’s course from A to B to the climax, and they might be right on.  But Color Out of Space has one or two surprises up its sleeve that elevates it into the same level as other modern horror classics like Hereditary (2018) or The Babadook (2014).

There are scenes involving a small herd of alpacas – oh yeah, they raise alpacas – that are as unsettling as anything from John Carpenter.  At one point, mother and son are caught in the “grip” of the alien color/light.  What happens to them sets up one of the biggest jump scares I’ve ever had in my life.  I yelled so loud and long that my girlfriend ran to the back of the house wondering what was happening.

Color Out of Space is one of the most effective horror movies I’ve seen in a long time.  Naysayers may refuse to watch it because of Nicolas Cage’s presence, but I can assure you, his “hammy” talents are put to good use and are always in service of the story.  It’s not for everyone.  It’s not for the squeamish.  But for those who dare…Color Out of Space is a horror-film lover’s dream.

LIGHTYEAR

By Marc S. Sanders

It’s kind of neat to see the evolution of a classic film character when you are a fully aware adult.  In 1995, I had no idea what the term Pixar meant, or knew the impact it would have with the Disney brand as a whole or on the cinematic landscape.  Pixar is now as pioneering as Skywalker Sound or Industrial Light and Magic.  There’s Pixar, and then there’s everything else.  Back in ’95, I was age 23, and my intuition never perked up that I was watching a touchstone character like Buzz Lightyear who would become as grand today as Batman and Elvis turned out to be in an ever-changing pop culture lexicon. Buzz Lightyear is by far one of the company’s most inventive creations.

Jump to nearly thirty years later, with four Toy Story adventures, and endless amounts of merchandising the Space Ranger has been primed for a more personal adventure beyond the imagination of a young child possessing an action figure in his playroom.  Lightyear tells of the adventure that leant to merchandising of the toy depicted in the Toy Story fictional world.  (Try not to think too hardly on that description.)

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is the eminent Space Ranger of Star Command, out to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and– STOP! That’s another franchise.  When Captain Lightyear comes upon an unchartered planet, complications in unexpected science fiction adventure ensue.  Buzz and the small colony living on his global spaceship are marooned on this planet with no immediate solution for getting off and returning to Earth, 4.2 billion light years away.  Buzz makes it his mission to uncover a new kind of resource fuel that will eventually help the colony make its eventual return home.  Yet, with each experimental try, the minutes he spends in his super speed orbits around the planet equate to years for the colony who have set up habitation below.  His comrades on the ground below continue to age while Buzz does not.

I needed help with this picture.  My wife had to explain the staple lesson that usually comes with each Pixar film that I just didn’t catch while watching Lightyear.  I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but the film reminds us to accept the hand dealt to us and appreciate what has come even if we never expected or planned on the circumstances in the first place.  It’s a good lesson.  I guess I just wish Lightyear made it a little clearer.  There’s a lot of mud on the windshield that I needed to wipe away before I realized what the message was about.

Maybe I was not fair with this film.  Tim Allen was not invited back to lend his recognizable voiceover to the character.  I guess Pixar is insistent that he’s reserved only for the toy version of the character.  Chris Evans is fine, mind you, and he doesn’t overdo it.  Yet, I could not help but think Tim Allen would have been just as capable and even more entitled to voice the role yet again.

Perhaps I was thinking that if Pixar wanted to go in another animated direction with the character, it just seemed completely fruitless.  How different could Lightyear be from the Toy Story films if the animated design is pretty similar in every frame?  Honestly, it doesn’t look like a new kind of device.  So that was a problem for me, as well.  It wasn’t inventive enough.  Maybe it’s time for a live action version of the space traveler.  Imagine Chris Evans wearing a live action and tactile version of the famous astronaut costume with the colorful buttons.  I still say that could work, and it’s what Disney/Pixar should have considered.

Maybe I’m getting bored with the time travel motif.  Isn’t everyone doing that these days?  Doesn’t it also seem like all our heroes are meeting their future selves and struggling to understand their current predicament?  Lightyear hinges on these story developments, and when the moments arrive my eyes rolled in the back of my head.  Time travel stories are very tricky for me to appreciate.  Often, the narrative paints itself into a corner, unable to explain itself back correctly.  Only two films that come to mind have worked their way out of it almost seamlessly – Back To The Future and 12 Monkeys.

So, while I love the lesson that Lightyear offers, the standard carbon copy plot outline left me unfocused at times.

The voiceover cast is well done with Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and James Brolin.  The animation is gorgeous, most especially when Buzz is piloting his super jet around the planet’s sun. The atmosphere of the planet is fun when it becomes a nuisance with giant flying insects and vines that come alive to entangle the characters at any given moment.

Science Fiction can go to infinity and beyond with the directions it can take.  There is absolutely no limit.  With today’s technology in filmmaking and the endless resources that Disney provides, why didn’t the filmmakers try a little harder with Lightyear? Again, a live action interpretation would have allowed it to stand apart from the character’s prior Toy adventures, and some different avenues in space exploration would have opened a leaner and more entertaining story.  If Star Trek can do it, Lightyear can do it too.

I think Pixar tried to go the route of Christopher Nolan, by way of Interstellar.  However, Lightyear is designed for people of all ages where the brain of the show is in reminding us how to carry ourselves through life, and not to uncover the twists that a brilliant filmmaker like Nolan has become recognized for.  I didn’t want to resolve a puzzle in fictional science.  Lightyear is trying too hard to be to be brainy and thus we get distracted from its “The More You Know” lesson in self-effacement.

ALIEN

By Marc S. Sanders

To be lost and alone is my absolute greatest fear.  I don’t know what to do when I find myself in situations like that.  I feel palpitations and terrible anxiety.  The only argument my wife and I had on our honeymoon was when we got lost in the Louvre in Paris.  She was relaxed.  I definitely was not.  I didn’t know in which direction to walk through the massive museum, located in a country that I’m not at all familiar with, inhabited by a majority of people who speak a language that I’m terribly limited at using for conversation.

When a person is completely, physically isolated, the only thing to depend on is his/her own wits and sensibilities.  That’s step one in constructing a scene of terror.  Step two is to lock that person away with an entity that is unpredictable, unrecognizable, smart and grotesquely frightening.  In a film, each time that entity comes into the play, the scene should not look like the last time the protagonist or the audience encountered this creature.  Whatever I learned a few minutes ago is not going to offer much help the next time around. 

I’ve just described the spine of the story that makes a horror film like Ridley Scott’s Alien so successful.

Science Fiction always works best when it can be convincing enough to lend authenticity to the fiction of its, well, science.  With Alien, a variation of biology and evolution lends to the terror of the picture and you don’t even realize it until the movie is half over. The title character is introduced in different characterizations with every scene it is called for.  First, it’s an egg, then a tentacled creature wrapped around the face of an unfortunate victim.  Later, at dinner time, it reveals itself in an unforgiving and memorable scene as a phallic shaped organism with a snake like tail and steel teeth.  Lastly, you just can’t even describe what it is except to say it is huge and its even worse than the monsters you imagined as a kid hiding in your closet or under your bed.  Credit has to go to the creature designs from H.R. Giger.  Every limb or shape of the monster seems to serve a purpose.  If that’s not enough, the animal bleeds acid that’ll burn through the hull of an enormous spaceship.  The alien in this 1979 film, later deemed a “xenomorph,” is one of the scariest and most unforgettable monsters in movie history.

A crew of seven are piloting a large ship back to the planet Earth.  Their cargo is carrying mineral ore (whatever that is).  This crew is not military of any kind.  There’s a science officer, but by and large, I’d characterize these people as truckers in outer space working on behalf of a company, by hauling a load across the galaxy.  During the long journey, they rest in a cryo-like sleep.  As the film opens, they are awakened by their transmission computer, known as “Mother,” to respond to a distress call.  Their ship has been diverted from Earth to investigate an unexplored planet.  As the piece continues, the crew brings back a plus one. They have no idea what to expect or how to handle its presence, and then they are hunted across the maze of the large ship, dispatched one by one.

The byline for Alien is marketing brilliance.  In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.  It only scratches the surface of the terror you encounter when watching this terrifying film.  Ridley Scott uses art direction set up with long, dark hallways and warehouse size rooms that make the cast appear infantile.  His labyrinth of a spaceship offers up practically any place for a killer creature to hide and strike at an opportune time. 

It’s important to point out that Alien lends to the argument for the value of 4K resolution.  This latest print to honor the film’s 40th anniversary offers much clarity within the dark settings of the picture.  Having seen Alien countless times, I still examine each frame carefully because Giger’s designs allow the monster to blend in properly with engineering architecture of long and large pipes and cables, and immense darkness.  Chains hang from the ceilings and water drips down for no reason to be explained.  It’s just how the spaceship lives, apparently.  The atmosphere rattles you, however, when you realize there’s a dangerous bug crawling around somewhere.  Did I just catch a glimpse of the alien’s head there????  Was that his tail????  Is that a limb, like an arm or a hand????  I know all of the highlights of the picture by now, but to this day I still look for when and where the silent terror is looming, thinking I missed it from the last time I watched.  Would you believe on this last viewing, I found a caption of the alien I don’t recall ever seeing before?

Once the monster is established and we see our heroes within inescapable danger, then paranoia and mistrust can lend to their erratic nature.  The screenplay from Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon establishes how the “grunts” of the seven (Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton) debate what is and isn’t their responsibility and what monies they truly are entitled to on this mission.  Early on, before the threat is even considered, a divide exists within the band.  They are not always going to get along.  Later, the debate on whether to quarantine the crew members who investigated the distress signal on the strange, unknown planet comes into play.  It would be easy to simply make Alien all about blood, guts and sci fi laser pistols in a post Star Wars/Star Trek era, but it is even more effective to create disagreements and seeds of unreliability among the group.  One or two of them could end up operating in a different and unexpected direction that won’t help their cause.  Maybe it’s not just the alien we should be afraid of.

The seven members (5 men, 2 women) all have different personalities.  They like one another well enough, but they all have uncommon values and motives.  Sigourney Weaver portrays Ripley, the third in command, behind two men.  However, in outer space, does it really matter where she falls in the line?  The science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), seems to drift into his own way of thinking, separate from the rest.  Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) moves along the straight and narrow, only doing what’s assigned simply to move on and get things over with.  The other woman Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) does not have much dialogue to work with, but her expressions seem to be questioning why she even took this job.  Was this woman desperate for work and this is the best she could find?  She’s definitely the most unrelaxed and fearful of the crew.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Alien does not operate on the movie monster alone.  There are other factors at play.  A popular Hollywood story is that Spielberg didn’t show the shark for a long period of time simply because the thing would not work, mechanically speaking.  Ridley Scott, however, demonstrates that he can present the animal one way and then show it in a completely different form later.  When it has reached what we can only believe is full evolution, we still don’t get a clear physical picture of the creature’s design from head to toe.  Scott will show us teeth, or maybe a shoulder blade or a tail that whips or moves at a slow and cautious pace.  The alien functions with a combination of real-life predators’ behaviors.  It hatches.  It sheds its skin.  It bites.  It runs.  It hunts a prey.  It grows and evolves…and seemingly very quickly.

Alien has been duplicated many times following its release, including a few shameless sequels.  Mind you, some of the franchise follow ups remain exceptional in their own right.  What misgivings Ridley Scott’s movie have later inspired cannot be helped.  Mr. Scott should consider it an honor, at best, that various craftspeople have attempted to top what he accomplished, I guess.  Those copycats don’t follow the recipe of Alien though.  There’s either too much of an ingredient included like blood and guts or there’s a lacking in its script, such as the eerie haunts of a dangerous setting or the overeager intelligence of its characters.  Whatever the case may be, the achievements in horror work so well in Alien, because it moves with dread, uncertainty, helplessness, a lack of knowledge, and then with only a few touches of gore and violence that are mostly left to our worst imaginations. 

Alien is not only one of the best science fiction films ever made.  It is also one of the best horror films ever made.

SCANNERS

By Marc S. Sanders

David Cronenberg’s Scanners, from 1981, is part of the Criterion DVD collection. So is Michael Bay’s Armageddon from 1998. Why? Beats the hell outta me, but what does that truly say about Criterion?

Scanners tells the story of people who are capable of mind controlling others. Some use this ability so powerfully that they can actually make a person’s head explode into what looks like what can happen when you leave a hot dog in the microwave too long. It’s likely how they achieved this visual effect, actually.

Well known cinematic henchman (with the cool voice) Michael Ironside plays a nasty scanner named Revok. In 1981, the best and most cheap way to display “scanning” was for Ironside to distort his face, roll his tongue back as well as his eyes and shake like he’s having a seizure or contending with intolerable constipation. Maybe in 1981, this would amaze and terrify me. In 2020, I wanna say “Michael, knock it off. Pick your toys up off the floor, and brush your teeth.”

There’s also Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a good guy scanner. He does the same kind of weird contortions though not as spastic as Revok. He’s been hired by some soft spoken scientist, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) – no, not THAT Dr. Ruth – to stop Revok from, I think, taking over the world. McGoohan, plays the role of mentor like he’s failing miserably at his audition for Obi Wan Kenobi.

A scan causes faces to convulse and squirt out blood that looks like Kool Aid. Maybe even your hands would catch fire. That’s about all Cronenberg offers here. Just a lot of schlocky, hamburger meat gore centered around Vale catching up to Revok. Eventually, we learn how a scanner became a scanner. It’s not very eye opening. The final frame does offer a twist but the credits roll too quickly thereafter to really relish that moment.

I can only envision that Scanners was one of those cheapie, mindless, B movie horror flicks on USA Up All Night with Rhonda Shear, during the late ‘80s & ‘90s.

Certainly mindless at least, and that’s the irony. A film about performing mind control and yet it doesn’t have a brain cell in its mix.