Tagged Isolation

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Gorgeously Horrific Isolation

Alien. 1979. Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo, & Helen Horton. Brandywine Productions/Twentieth Century-Fox Productions.
Rated R. 117 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★★
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I’m not even a huge science fiction fan. Of course I love any good movie, no matter the genre. But even as a nerd, someone who grew up loving Star Trek: The Next Generation and plenty of other science fiction, it isn’t my first choice. Yet you can’t keep a great film down. No matter if it’s your preferred genre or not. Now, when you start to mix genres together, that’s my favourite. So at a crossroads between horror and sci-fi, Ridley Scott’s Alien converges on my tastes to make for an altogether frightening experience. The undeniable legacy of the film is plastered over many genre films that have come out since. Likely that’ll be the case for a long, long time. Scott’s genius as a director is matched in the writing of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, collaborating here on the story with Ronald Shusett. Working on the isolation of space, in ’79 still a relatively new frontier with untold terrors lurking in its dark and uncharted territories, Alien coils you into madness through its horrifying scenario playing out on a previously quiet ship called the Nostromo amongst a bunch of shipmates trying to get home to Earth.
The atmosphere here is tantamount to actually being out there in the depths of outer space, stuck on a ship somewhere where nobody can hear you scream. Scott makes you feel the despair, the fear, the isolation and its effects. Each set piece is better than the last, every corner and hallway exudes the sense of a real environment. The writing of O’Bannon is one thing. The imagination of Scott is entirely another beast, one that isn’t finished working as of this writing. But the clever effectiveness of one of his most satisfying works never fails to hook me. Watching it right now, nearly 3 AM here in Newfoundland, I’m watching Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett walk through the corridors alone, calling out for Jones the cat. And when he finds that facehugger skin, the chills still run up my spine.
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First and foremost, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is obviously the star of the show. What I dig, though, is how O’Bannon sets the entire crew up as characters. Once we get to the excitement and all the wonderful thrills(/chills), Ripley is our woman. She carries us through the action, the horror, as our tour guide almost. Regardless of her status as protagonist, O’Bannon gives us the time to get to know the others around her, so as not to stick us totally in one perspective. It’s a testament to good writing when a screenplay is able to setup a cast of characters behind the one real main character, to make them interesting, to have us spend time with them and let each one build instead of ending up as simply expendable victims for the alien to kill. Mostly, O’Bannon writes the characters so that they’re natural. In any genre, any writer will have a better chance at making their script more powerful if the characters feel like they’re organic. With a crew like those on the Nostromo, the chemistry has to be tight, like the sort of chat and relationships you’d generally see from any group that spend so much time together. Add to that a bunch of good actors who give it their all and you’ve got one enjoyable feast of emotions that run the gamut from strength to paranoia to bald fear and everything in between.
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That first reveal of the Xenomorph is forever etched in my mind. Having the cat there makes it unique. Those shots of Jones hissing, then the eyes watching poor Brett get nibbled up, they’re really something spectacular. Not sure why it’s so interesting. Perhaps to see a cat, a fine predator in its own right, witness such an apex predator at work is the reason this scene works to such a degree. Either way, when the Xenomorph, so quiet, drops down behind Brett, there’s a HOLY SHIT moment, and you immediately understand how threatening this creature is truly. Forget the size, the look, the nasty jaws and acid blood, just the sheer physical prowess of the Xenomorph to curl down from above, slow, silent: that is horrifying. Later, the scene with Dallas (Skerritt) and the Xenomorph is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Then things only get more frightening, the tension mounts until you feel your spine sucking up against the inside of your stomach. There’s a lot of downright exciting moments, too, but it’s the frights that keep me enthralled with Scott’s work in this movie every damn time.
My favourite sequence? When Ash (Holm) goes haywire. The first time I’d seen the film I never once expected it to happen. Now, I’m still impressed. The eerie way Holm plays the scene, the unsettling close-ups shot tight on Ash’s face as he starts leaking a bit of liquid, starting to go crazy. Then when Parker (Kotto) discovers the secret Ash is hiding, the nastiness of the simple effects make it all the more wild.
The sets are elaborate and Scott is able to take us away to another place. You become completely absorbed in the future world. Right down to how they’re shot and the way we initially follow a tracking shot through portions of the Nostromo before coming upon the crew in their stasis. A fine opener to the film, but a visual aesthetic Scott keeps up throughout the film’s entirety. The coldness of the camera, the silence, I find it works well with the advanced looking technology of the ship itself. At certain times you’re sure to be reminded of Stanley Kubrick. Others, you’re most definitely in a Scott landscape. What I like most are the exteriors, as opposed to the clean looking interiors. Outside we get this idea that yet it’s the future, but it is a dirty, rough and tumble one.
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There’s no denying Alien is a whopping 5 stars. A fantastic ride into the heart of science fiction-horror. Scott blew everybody away, and still does with this piece of work. When people try to tell you horror or sci-fi can’t be art, you show them this film. Tell them they’re wrong. The imaginative direction on Scott’s part, the writing of O’Bannon. The strong central performance of Sigourney Weaver as the beloved Ripley, the beyond excellent support of a cast with the likes of John Hurt and Ian Holm. There is much to love. I can never get enough. I personally love the first three films of the series, and Prometheus.
But this one started it all. The dangerous aliens of the outer reaches have never been so vicious, so adverse to humanity as they are in this Scott masterpiece. Feast on it. Learn from it. This film won’t ever get old, except in the way that it gets better with age in all its horrific, science fiction goodness.

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Isolated Paranoia: John Carpenter’s The Thing


John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and Donald Moffat. Universal Pictures/Turman-Foster Company. Rated R. 109 minutes.
Horror/Science Fiction

★★★★★
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One such filmmaker is John Carpenter.
Not only does Carpenter direct, he is a master of his craft. Something I’ve always admired about his style is that he likes to do his own scores, which is a big part of his overall aesthetic (funny enough – this movie isn’t scored by him: it’s the prolific Ennio Morricone, so fucking awesome regardless!). He pretty much has what I’d call an auteur style. Nobody does horror-thriller as good as him.
The Thing brings all of the best aspects of Carpenter together, alongside the solid performances of the likes of Kurt Russell and Keith David, as well as Morricone’s wonderfully suspenseful and effective score. This is not just one of the best horror movies from the 1980s, it’s one of the best horror movies. Ever. What starts out like a tense thriller evolves into a horrifically existential science fiction film, all based on John W. Campbell Jr’s short story “Who Goes There?” (also the basis of this 1951 film). I can never get enough of the dreadful, isolated horror Carpenter brings out in this movie. There’s a reason people always talk about this one. And a damn good reason Carpenter is a master of horror.
the-thing-ufoAt an American base in the Antarctic, a chopper chases a dog across the snowy mountains equipped with a man holding a high-powered rifle. When the American crew – including R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David) +more – come out they discover two crazed Norwegians. One tries to throw a grenade but blows up their chopper. The other, aiming for the dog, shoots George Bennings (Peter Maloney), so one of the crew shoot him dead.
At first it seems as if the men simply went insane up in the wilderness. However, after the dog transforms into a hideously deformed creature, MacReady and the crew start to deal with a situation beyond their control. Some sort of virus seems to be spreading, but no one is able to tell who it’s infecting – moving from person to person, The Thing inhabits anyone’s skin it wishes.
Will any of them survive? And if they do, is it really them?
the-thing-1982-1080p-mkv_snapshot_00-33-19_2011-06-10_20-29-06Carpenter really sets up his atmosphere well, in every film. Almost none better than The Thing, as he starts out first with a long cinematic stare into space. From there we move to the Antarctic wilderness, vast landscapes of nearly nothing except for the white snow stretching on for miles and miles. It’s an appropriate way to give us that immediate sense of isolation. Once the exterior isolation is setup, Carpenter moves inside to where all the human elements of the story come into play. Then, furthermore, we start to get their sense of isolation – from the moment you see Mac drinking, playing around on the computer and then dumping a couple shots of J.B. into it, there’s an obvious idea of how sick this guy is with his lodgings up north. It only gets better from there, but I’ve always thought the film’s opening sequence really made the isolation sink it quickly, yet easily.
Not only the isolated feeling, either. With the Norwegians chasing the dog, the chopper exploding after a fumbled grenade toss, adrenaline is flowing hard. The tension is instantaneous and you’re already champing at the bit for what’s coming next. The music, the cinematography, the actors – all pistons are pumping. Carpenter is good for this usually. Again, though, I’m inclined to say one of his best instances is here in The Thing. Carpenter’s sense of atmosphere and tone is so important to what makes him great, as well as unique in the horror genre.
the-thing-1982-screenshot-5While most Carpenter movies have stellar effects, The Thing boasts such an innovative and terrifying creature. It’s truly epic (a word that is overused improperly; I used it in seriousness). Honestly, after the dog becomes that hulking, massive monster, the first time I witnessed it I was awestruck for a minute or two. I still am, really. Such good effects, plus it’s unexpected. Even as I watch it again now, for the who-knows-how-many-times, there is an aspect to that scene I always find reels me in. Plus, afterwards there’s the scene with Dr. Blair (Brimley) dissecting The Thing; even the look on Brimley’s face, his disgust, it makes you almost smell the nasty reek of this alien creature’s insides. Downright incredible, these special effects. From start to finish this movie has such carefully crafted practical effects, you can’t help but admire the work put in.
The entire film isn’t built on effects, nor is it solely leaning on horrific elements to make its mark. Only other stuff Bill Lancaster wrote was Bad News Bears-related. With The Thing, adapted from Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” (great read by the way – check it out), Lancaster did some solid work. The screenplay is tight, it’s mysterious and has a ton of suspense, which the master Carpenter draws out perfectly with his style. There are genuinely creepy aspects I find unsettling. Such as when the crew starts watching the grainy videos, then they make their way out to the crater where the ship is sunk down, I find that entire portion so impressive! Morricone’s score is beyond perfectly fitting, it has that classic horror movie feel to it and at the same time there’s stuff you could call very archetypal Morricone (a.k.a dig it). So I’m actually amazed Lancaster did so well with this script, considering he’s never done anything else science fiction or horror. Hats off. Put into the hands of Carpenter this story soars to a new level of terror.
the-thing-original-1There a few performances in The Thing which help it greatly. Kurt Russell, obviously, is one of the reasons this movie kicks ass. They could’ve put a lot of actors in this role and it would’ve been all right. But with Russell there’s that little extra charisma, he’s tough and yet there isn’t some kind of superhero-ness about him. He gets afraid like anyone else in the same situation. Russell and Carpenter work well together, this may be the pinnacle; I dig Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but there’s something so perfect about this movie I can’t help single it out as their best collaboration. Then on top of Russell’s skill, Keith David does a nice job – he also did They Live 6 years later with Carpenter, wish he’d been in more of his films. And as much as Brimley gets shit for the “diabeetus” kick, he is spot on here; that scene when he flips and everyone tries to bear down on him, I always thought it was a great moment and shows how well Brimley can play a good character when he wants. Plus his fit lends to some more of the isolated, desolate feeling happening from there on in. All around excellent cast.
Vlcsnap-2011-12-30-07h42m32s88The Thing is a 5 star film. Without any shadow of a doubt. There’s so much happening. Above anything else, there’s a supremely existential terror flowing throughout almost every scene. Once The Thing takes hold, nobody knows who is who, who to trust, and it moves from one person to the next, some times even to animals. So there’s this incredibly dreadful horror at play. Then you throw in John Carpenter’s tense style, Ennio Morricone and his suspense-filled score, a well written screenplay with good actors to play it all out. What a mix!
If you’ve never seen this, my god, get out and watch it soon. Not only that, read the original short story by Campbell, as well as see the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World, which was a huge influence on Carpenter overall but especially for this film (obviously). I can never forget this movie, and it’s one I’ll put in any time I need a real creep.