Friday, March 27, 2015

My take on "The Thing" (1982) directed by John Carpenter

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

A parasitic extraterrestrial lifeform that assimilates other organisms and in turn imitates them. The Thing infiltrates an Antarctic research station, taking the appearance of the researchers that it absorbs, and paranoia develops within the group.” –from Wikipedia
Strength of Character: C+

R.J. MacReady is our hard-ass pilot protagonist as portrayed by Kurt Russel. He doesn’t have any backstory to speak of, none of the characters do. They just are who they are. It works for the most part, but at times I wanted a little more emotional attachment to the people being killed, and the best way to achieve that would be through more attention to character development. It would’ve made for a more devastating film.

Nice hat, MacReady. You're a real trendsetter.
The more you think of the characters in this movie the more frustrated you become. They are at some U.S. outpost in Antarctica, we gather, but for what purpose? Are they soldiers? Because they don’t act like soldiers with their complete lack of discipline and command structure. They certainly are armed like soldiers, with a whole cache of weapons and explosives including two flame throwers.

There are two doctors, doctor Copper and doctor Blair, but their purpose at the facility is never really explored. And why do they have some computer that can play a version of asteroid and somehow determine the threat posed by these alien cells?

But most of these questions didn’t occur to me with my first viewing. These came up recently as I was hyper-aware and critical of the characters. Ultimately this movie isn’t about its characters, it’s about The Thing. We only care about the characters enough to remember who’s who during the epic wire-in-the-blood scene.

Genre Strength: A

Speaking of the wire-in-the-blood scene, the plotline of the infiltrator is as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  It added a psychological element to the film, a thought-experiment on trust and distrust.

This movie, much like “Alien,” uses isolation as a vehicle to horror. The characters are as stranded and alone as possible, far from help, far from civilization. That sense of isolation sets the audience on edge well before The Thing starts to have its way.

The Thing itself is a macabre masterpiece. There’s a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics that called the “Uncanny Valley.” Described on Wikipedia as “When features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers.” I think you can see this at play with the design of the puppets in this movie. They are just recognizable enough to send a chill down your spine.
And those autopsy scenes were delightfully disgusting. They did a great job with the prop work.

Thematic Poignancy: C+

Who can you trust if someone amongst you is a doppelganger? More of a thought-experiment than a theme, perhaps, but it is a chilling reminder of just how hard it is to know what people are hiding.

Could you sacrifice yourself for the greater good? The survivors at the end choose to do it, but the decision comes a little too easily. I would’ve liked to see some more teeth gnashing, or for one of them to be far less on board with the plan.

Overall this wasn’t a film with a deep well of poignant themes, but that’s ok. It didn’t really need them.

Entertainment Value: B-

The movie is an undeniable horror classic, but it is also imperfect. There’s some cheesy lines delivered by Kurt Russel like the cartoony: “Because it’s different than us, see?” and the line delivered while holding a stick of dynamite that’s about to explode in his hand, “Yeah, fuck you too!” The 80s were more forgiving of this sort of thing, I know, but it only earned an eye roll from me. Did I mention he’s holding lit dynamite that is about to explode at any moment?
But to focus too much on the negatives is to ignore the positives, and there were many. The grotesque props and puppets are the literal stuff of nightmares. The eponymous Thing is consistently equal parts frightening, gruesome, uncanny, and depraved. John Carpenter hit it out of the park with this one.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B

*Windows wipes a scalpel on his pants to sanitize it during the wire in the blood scene. If that’s the sterilization procedure anyone who goes after the infected guy is actually The Thing via that dirty scalpel.
*You would think they’d all stick together once they know they’re all human. As soon as someone is alone all bets are off.
*It was nice way to play with the emotions of the audience at the beginning when we see the helicopter shooting at that dog. I wanted to hate those guys and love the poor dog, we all did, I think.

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Take on "Alien" directed by Ridley Scott

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

“Alien (1979):
A highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature that stalks and kills the crew of a spaceship.” –Wikipedia
Strength of Character: A+

How can I give this film less than an exceptional rating? This is the introduction of Ellen Ripley, one of the best characters in modern science fiction. She is smart, courageous, empathetic, and above all, oozing with agency. Agency is a word us writers like to throw around about a character’s ability to drive the plot through action, as opposed to bouncing along in the wake of the SS Plotship.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that she was a female protagonist at a time where that was extremely rare for science fiction. I don’t mention this last because I find it less important. Socially, I believe it represents a milestone. This character blazed a trail through acid-bleeding xenomorphs and sexist thoughts alike (are they so different?). But don’t I don’t want to lose perspective here, Ripley works as a character first, and even in a perfect world where sexism no longer exists, this character would still be every bit as memorable.

The crew of the Nostromo is lively and intriguing as well. They are real people (well, except for the android), and represent normalcy and familiarity amidst a setting that is so, well, alien. They want to go home, hate the bureaucracy of “the Company” and gripe about pay. We all can identify.
Oh, you poor souls.

Genre Strength: A+

This movie was a trend-setter for both science fiction and horror. Watching it now, from the perspective of a desensitized 2015 horror movie fan, much of the elements in Alien seem predictable. The false ending is a prime example. Today’s viewer sees it coming because it has been done to death so much it should wrapped in white linen and jettisoned into space. But “Alien” is itself one of the prime reasons this type of ending is so popular. I refuse to look at this film through the lens of all the imitators and see it as somehow derivative.

The film’s pacing is superb, using atmosphere and subtlety to intrigue the audience. The open, cold vastness of space is a cosmic horror in its own right. Silence is the soundtrack for much of the film, letting our own fears echo in our ears instead of a score. “Alien” piques our curiosity. Then curiosity eats the cat with that mini extendo-mouth.

This movie is more Horror than sci-fi, and although the sequels lean further away from the original's horror, the franchise still represents a link between the two genres that is indelible. It essentially created an entire sub-genre of film and video games.

Thematic Poignancy: A+

So much has already been written about this film’s themes I won’t even pretend to give an exhaustive analysis of them here. But upon watching this movie for approximately the 82nd time this was what I picked up on:

The artwork that started everything.
There is the obvious parasitism. The male-rape was genius at the time, a way to take the horror conventions that had been victimizing women for so long and turning the tables on the male viewers in an unexpected way. Fear of pregnancy for both sexes, especially rape-induced, furthers takes that horror to another level. Thrown in for good measure, we get the soullessness emotionlessness of machines, the fear of artificial intelligence, and the destructive boot heel of bureaucratic greed.

The art design of H.R. Giger uses the set and creature designs to visually reinforce the themes and motifs.

Entertainment Value: A-

This movie was a low budget borderline B-movie at the time it was made. This forced direction Ridley Scott into using scale models, practical effects, and physical sets. The result helps make this movie relatively timeless. We are seeing a return to this sort of production today as filmmakers begin to realize that an over-reliance on graphics actually dates a move in a way that a practical, physical effect never will. This works well for the most part, but the low budget could not be completely disguised in a few scenes. The unconvincing android head of the science officer is chief among them.

“Alien” is a hugely entertaining and memorable film. Voted onto many “Top Movie” lists. What else is there to say?

Random Notes and Final Grade: A+

*The alien does look pretty fat and slow moving in light of the later movies, but I can’t fault this film for it. This is the origin.

*This anecdote is one of my absolute favorites about this film: “For the filming of the chestburster scene the cast members knew that the creature would be bursting out of Hurt, and had seen the chestburster puppet, but they had not been told that fake blood would also be bursting out in every direction from high-pressure pumps and squibs. The scene was shot in one take using an artificial torso filled with blood and viscera, with Hurt's head and arms coming up from underneath the table. The chestburster was shoved up through the torso by a puppeteer who held it on a stick. When the creature burst through the chest a stream of blood shot directly at Veronica Cartwright, shocking her enough that she fell over and went into hysterics. According to Tom Skerritt: "What you saw on camera was the real response. She had no idea what the hell happened. All of a sudden this thing just came up.” –Wikipedia

* Crew expendable.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

My take on "World War Z" by Max Brooks

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS** 

“(World War Z) is a collection of individual accounts narrated by an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission, following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. Other passages record a decade-long desperate struggle, as experienced by people of various nationalities. The personal accounts also describe the resulting social, political, religious, and environmental changes.” –Wikipedia
Strength of Character: B-

This was a very tricky novel for me to rate for character. The book has a global scale and scope that take center stage away from the individual, although many of the sections do delve into more personal struggles.

The story of World War Z does not closely follow any central characters in anything resembling the usual three act story structure. Nor does it do more than hint at character arcs and change, and character arcs it does address, like Todd Wainio’s, occur mostly off-the-page. We are presented with a man who was changed by his experiences, but we don’t walk in-step with him along the path to those changes.

The characters do, however, provide the vehicle for the story, and it is through their myriad voices that we hear the tale of World War Z.  

Genre Strength: A-

Although some understandable zombie-fatigue may be going around out there, I found Max Brooks’ oral history style to be a refreshing twist. It is difficult to find zombies particularly frightening these days, but what is genuinely horrifying are the ways that humans react. People turn on one another, governments fail their citizens, betray them, even sacrifice them, panic creates disasters that could’ve otherwise been avoided, cowardice and greed run rampant. These events feel so real in World War Z that you could’ve sworn you saw them on the news last night. That is a great storytelling, and it adds up to an engaging horror novel.

Thematic Poignancy: A

This was a book brimming with powerful themes. It begins with the frailty of man, the stubbornness, the greed, the cowardice. We see glimmers of courage, but in the face of hopeless odds the sense of helplessness dominates. What can be done to fight despair? To persist in a world gone to hell?

Max Brooks asks those questions, and then slowly answers them. We see the world come back from the brink. Hope returns, however fleeting, and humanity adapts. In the end, there was a tone of quiet, bittersweet triumph.

Entertainment Value: B+

All that stuff that you keep wondering about on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” like what the hell is happening everywhere else? Are there zombies in the ocean? In the snow? What about in the desert? China? If you can’t stand not knowing potential answers to these types of questions, I highly recommend this book. The only caveat I make is that Max Brook’s outlook on humanity starts of as bleak as any, but by the end, is a relative success story. The world of The Walking Dead has never felt that way to me.

Overall, after I got over some initial misgivings about the lack of a central character, I found this novel extremely entertaining. I am a sucker for great character arcs, though, and at times the novel wanted for them.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B+

*For my money, this novel far outshines the 2013 Film it inspired. Don’t think you know the story of “World War Z” just because you saw the movie. The book is nearly unrecognizable in relation, other than by the existence of zombies and one or two scenes that bear a slight resemblance.
*Military bravado turned into outright disaster. Troops under supplied, and an enemy underestimated. The Yonkers section was a delight to read, and may be the one section that stays with me the longest.

*The “Redeker plan” for leaving behind large sections of the populace as bait for the zombies is the sort of cold, horrific thinking that I find so damn compelling in the zombie apocalypse. His plan isn’t just unethical, that’s way too mild a term. It is horrific. Yet it saves lives. Millions. The cherry on top of this zombie-brain pie is of course the shattered psyche of the man who invented it, now unable to reconcile his reality with his guilt.

*The inclusion of, and attention to, ocean-walking zombies was something I had never seen done. It was a nice surprise that paid dividends throughout the book in some of my favorite sections, from the disaster at the beach, to the Chinese submarine, and even to the zombie-killing deep sea divers.