1980s, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Scifi

Repo Man (1984)

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Director/Screenwriter: Alan Cox

By Roderick Heath

Writing about Repo Man might be like trying to dance a Picasso or sing about the Taj Mahal. So why am I trying, you ask? Hey, up yours, anyway.

Alex Cox could either be described as one of cinema’s true rebels, a man who determinedly forged his own, uncompromising path when he proved too much for Hollywood, or a filmmaker whose stubborn attitude prevented him from living up to his great early promise, leaving him with one certain sui generis classic and a couple of other cult objects to his name. Given his tell-it-to-me-raw punk affiliations he might well accept both descriptions in equanimity. Cheshire-born Cox, after a stint as an Oxford law student, turned to studying filmmaking. Doubting he was going to get anywhere in the ‘70s British film industry, Cox winged away for a stint at UCLA and made the short artist-versus-the-world film Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies. Cox’s first feature, Repo Man, which he originally hoped to bankroll on a tiny budget, was realized thanks largely to former Monkees member Michael Nesmith, who acted as his executive producer and talked Universal Pictures into ponying up a $1 million budget. Repo Man slowly groped its way out of initial obscurity to becoming an underground hit thanks in part to the popularity of its soundtrack album stirring up an interested audience, setting Cox up for a brief spell as a potential major filmmaker.

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Cox’s follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), gave Gary Oldman an early push to stardom and applied a potent blend of authenticity and stylization to recount the legendary tragic punk romance. His career went awry as Straight to Hell (1986) and Walker (1987) were greeted as clumsy, self-indulgent attempts to get polemical and blend familiar genre modes – spaghetti westerns and road movies in the former case, war movies and historical biopics in the latter – with jagged po-mo aesthetics and harsh, blatant political commentary on Reaganite policy in Latin America. He next made Highway Patrolman (1991) in Mexico. Those films, like Cox’s generally ultra-low-budget output since, have maintained a small but fervent cadre of proponents. From today’s perspective it feels even more unlikely that an imported anarchist spiv like Cox even managed to get Repo Man made, never mind parlay it into a brief accord with studio filmmaking. But Repo Man remains a glistening gem, cult cinema about as pure as it gets. In many ways it’s an updated spin on ‘60s free-for-all satire with spiritual and procedural links to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Lester’s early films, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1972), Christian Marquand’s Candy (1968), and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees-perverting Head (1968), which might partly explain why Nesmith was able to grasp Cox’s vision. The old lysergic template was given a punk-era makeover, and produced soothsayer art, as Repo Man anticipated the age of the internet with startling precision.

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The age of democratized information. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good information, relevant, interesting, fulfilling, just information. Repo Man, in its way, is like plugging your mind directly into the stream of internet downloads; a frightful, glorious, semi-comprehensible overload of stuff. Accumulating in the brain like pieces of animal and plant in sedimentary silt, bits of things, shards of art, memory, politics, philosophy, design. All was churned together with the full panoply of Cox’s artistic and socio-political obsessions, as well the pinpointing perspective of an acerbic outsider. Like the age it portrays and the one it anticipates, Repo Man is in search. In search of a viable code, in search of meaning, wading through that sediment of endless information half-heard and quarter-understood, trying to put the pieces together in a manner that works. It takes place in a landscape cast over with the scattered rubble of the Cold War, religion, the New Age, pop culture, post-‘50s paranoia, and sci-fi positivism, and grasps to convey a clashing, riotous mix of different social and philosophical groups; punks, hippies, suburbanites, fascists, revolutionaries, whites and Mexicans and blacks, rich and poor and in-between, all charted with the concision of a Victorian realist novel, if not the method.

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The opening credits are backgrounded by green outlines of ordnance maps spotlighting places of specific association in the legend of American nuclear imperialism, zeroing in on Yucca and Los Alamos. The opening scene purveys essentialist American iconography as an unstable and dreamlike conglomeration – a Chevy Malibu with its jaunty, crisply coloured lines bespeaking of some place that always in a blithe mid-‘60s American summer, a highway motorcycle cop clad in fascist steeliness, a trunk full of the same glowing, annihilating stuff that carved a path through the macho men in Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), scorching the hapless cop down to his briefly highlighted skeleton and his smoking boots. The Malibu is driven by J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a nuclear scientist who claims to have invented the Neutron Bomb, armed with an insane smile, one lens missing from his sunglasses, and a trunk full of alien corpses stolen from New Mexico, giving off mysterious energy sufficient to vaporise anyone opening the hatch.

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The gritty sprawl of Los Angeles’ industrial zones, much fetishized by filmmakers in search of hip climes hunting for authenticity in the ‘80s, found their rarest auteur in Cox, and their great documenter in imported cinematographer Robby Müller, cut loose in the American wilds as every indie up-and-comer’s heroic shooter of seedy, sun-kissed glamour. The boxy empty warehouses with the faintest patina of art deco style, the freeway stretches and overpasses painted strange hues by street lighting, high-rise buildings glimpsed away in the distance like a neo-Stonehenge for money worship amidst a city otherwise preoccupied with all its tribal business. Our “hero” Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is introduced as a punk archetype, a young man frustrated with shitty jobs and pointless schooling. He tosses in his job as a supermarket shelf stacker in a fit of pique after his coworker and sort-of-friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) drives him to distraction singing a 7-Up jingle and the boss Mr Humphries (Charles Hopkins) chews him out for various infractions. Seeking fellowship with his punk friends who get wasted and screw in Kevin’s parents’ house, Otto instead finds himself driven from all solace when, after briefly breaking off making out with his girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) to get beer, returns to find his pal Duke (Dick Rude) has taken his place. Otto returns home to try and extract a payment of $1,000 his father promised in a bribe him to stay in school, only to find his burnt-out, pot-addled ex-hippie parents have given it all to a television evangelist Reverend Larry (Bruce White) to send bibles to El Salvador in exchange for having their names inscribed on “The Honor Roll of the Chariots of Fire.”

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Wandering in depression and solitude, Otto encounters Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a man sitting in a car who offers him money to drive another car, which he claims to be his wife’s, out of a bad neighbourhood. Otto gets into the car and starts it up, only to be assaulted by a furious man, forcing Otto to drive away at speed. Bud works for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, a repossession service, reclaiming cars from owners who have missed their payments. When he realises what business Bud is in, Otto pours out a can of beer on Helping Hand office floor, a gesture of contempt that instead impresses Bud and others in its commitment. “I’m not gonna be no Repo Man” he says; the company’s Girl Friday secretary Marlene (Vonetta McGee), only for her to coolly inform him as she hands him a wad of cash: “Too late – you already are.” As the paradigm of aimless, disaffected youth rather than someone who is by intellectual or even natural leaning a rebel, Otto is of course totally ready to fall for the first thing to come along to satisfy his urges for sex, money, power, and belonging. Whilst his friends Debbi, Duke, and Archie (Miguel Sandoval) take off on a life of crime, Otto is schooled in the Repo Man creed, a lifestyle where the antisocial vicissitudes are as alluring as the fiscal recompense. Kevin’s efforts to act the good little employee with ambitions play out as a fragmentary subplot, as he becomes a naive pump jockey and is last glimpsed briefly dazed and battered on a hospital gurney, Cox offering his and Otto’s tales as his answer to De Sade’s Justine and Juliette.

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The essence of Cox’s sardonic mythos lies in the ambivalent attitude that is the Repo Man way, which both exemplifies an all-American sensibility whilst also charting underlying faultlines, a fantasy of an ancient way somehow persisting in the ruined modern landscape. Otto initially takes the Repo Men for sleazy representatives of narc capitalism, only to find them ruled by a uniquely clannish sensibility with a charge of unexpected cool, cavalry roaming the urban badlands out to punish the deadbeats, living by their wits and doses of greedily snorted speed. The Repo Men take themselves for contemporary versions of the Lone Ranger, risking assault and even death. They lead lives practically indistinguishable from criminals, doing drugs to stay awake, concocting intricate ruses to rip off cars, keeping a step ahead of cops and gun-wielding owners. Unsurprisingly, they idolise John Wayne, even when Miller declares “John Wayne was a fag,” and tries to inform that that he once got hired by the Duke to install two-way mirrors in his bedroom and came to the door wearing a dress, details the Repo Men dismiss: “Plenty of straight guys like to watch their buddies fuck!…I know I do.”

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Bud, a lanky, high-strung, blow-loving maverick, sees himself as the exemplary Repo Man. He anoints himself Otto’s mentor and conceives of his job in an overtly high-minded, even philosophical way, evoking everything from the Bushido to Isaac Asimov as he declares the basic credo as he conceives it: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm – it’s what I call the repo code, kid.” Such a warrior ethos is informed by necessities; keeping alive, keeping cool, doing the job well. Bud loathes any code not run to the same pragmatic standards as his own (“No commies in my car!…No Christians either!”), Hawkeye in a hot Pontiac. Venture capitalism as a sort of moral mission: if a man has to risk his body and soul in life, that risk might as well be represented by reward, and reward might as well be money. Bud pursues repo-ing not just for the pay but also because it allows him soil to nurture his need to remain removed from the mass of humanity. The job gives him satisfaction in his loathing people in debt (“If there was just some way of finding out what they owe and makin’ ‘em pay,” he muses ruefully whilst surveying slum dwellers) and, by extension, the world of credit and plastic that has replaced the world of thrift, work, and honour. He’s a hothead who hates his rivals the Rodriguez Brothers because he sees them as the degeneration of his profession. Part Repo sage, part burnt-out middle-aged bore, Bud is the best at his job but wants to get the hell out of it and be the guy with the lot instead of the guy who just brings the cars in.

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Not every Repo Man adheres to the same ethos. Lite (Sy Richardson) offers the black perspective, no-nonsense and expedient, warding off threatening debtors with blank cartridges, hotwiring vehicles, and schooling Otto in seamier tricks of the trade like tossing a dead rat into the car of female targets: unfortunately one reacts coolly to this ploy and squirts mace in his face for his pains. “Only an asshole gets killed for a car.” The Helping Hand encompasses a cross-section of types; besides Otto, Lite, and Bud, there’s sweaty, laugh-at-his-own-jokes boss Oly (Tom Finnegan); Miller (Tracey Walter), a hippie mechanic with a line in esoteric musings; Otto Plettschner (Richard Foronjy), the rent-a-cop fascist who “died in two World Wars” and whose first name suggests the sort of creature Otto might become with the right incentives; and Marlene the double-agent secretary with a line in Blaxploitation action moves. Marlene’s in with the Helping Hand’s great rivals, the Rodriguez brothers, Lagarto (Del Zamora) and Napoleon (Eddie Velez), Pancho Villa-esque alternatives to the Repo Men, complete with quasi-revolutionary outfits as they become Guevara-like urban guerrillas in the closing scenes. When the Helping Hand crew elect to settle their hash during a nocturnal encounter on the road, the Rodríguezes easily rattle them by threatening to sue for injury and damages. The apparently madcap plotlines begin to bundle together when the government agents tracking down Parnell and the Malibu post a reward of $20,000 for return of the car, a prize all the Repo Men leap at, and everyone has their moment in possession of the literally hot car.

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Cox’s use of repossession, the grimy, coercive end of the capitalist centipede, as a vehicle for exploring arch individualism is smart-assed enough in itself. Around this motif he wraps an acidic negation of consumerist values. All the food and drink products seen in the film are bluntly packaged with descriptive names rather than fancily labelled: when Bud suggests to Otto they get a drink, the next shot is of cans simply labelled Drink. Cox goes several steps further to consider an epoch where everything has to a certain extent become commercialised and alienated from its original nature. Christianity has been pulverised into self-mockery, as Otto’s cranially-nullified parents watch the phony televangelist without blinking. The Scientology-mocking ‘Dioretix’ book presents “the science of mind over matter”, adopted variously by Repo Men and FBI agents, is a pseudo-scientific religion perfect for the new-age mindset that tends naturally to believe in things unseen because why not. Science proper is busy creating neutron bombs that “destroy people.” Country, repressing the truth, monitoring your life, employing torturers, perverts, and homogenous minions. Otto wanders the streets of LA seeing men in hazmat suits retrieving corpses, the collateral damage in an ongoing apocalypse. Hippiedom, represented by Miller is beautiful but written off as a form of benign madness, a contrary blot in the corner whilst harbouring keys to the universe. The United Fruitcake Outlet, cover for an organisation for alien conspiracy nuts, waits patiently and hopefully for transcendence to come in the form of relief to come of aliens. Which, funnily enough, it does.

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Otto encounters one of the UFO faithful, Leila (Olivia Barash), as she’s dodging the government agents. Leila and others in the UFO are trying to make contact with Parnell, intending to get the aliens publicised, dreams of dissident glory written up in tabloid ink. Otto chuckles mercilessly at the whole set-up but still sees in Leila a comely lass of just about equal age and level of horniness. Otto’s come-ons lack finesse but finds Leila’s certainly up to screw in the backseat of a repo car in broad daylight out the front of the UFO headquarters. Otto has both enormous cynicism but also a youthful lightness to the way he treats life, like his fumbling attempt to get Leila to give him a blow-job when next he visits her; when she slaps him he can’t help but laugh. Otto’s values, though fractured amidst the random bizarreness of his existence, slowly gain form. He believes in fairness, which he shows by offering to not take a car he thinks belongs to a poor old black lady and then, when he finds it actually belongs to her big musician son and his band of equally big friends, tries to rip it off. Only they catch him and beat hell out of him. When he won’t say who did it to the Repo crew, they in turn beat him up to get the name because it’s their code this should never happen. So Otto gives the name of Humphries, his ex-boss at the supermarket, cueing one of the film’s most bluntly hilarious jolts of black humour as the Repo team visit Humphries’ house and clobber him with a baseball bat. Meanwhile Leila is taken prisoner by Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes), the haughty, pinstriped dominatrix of the government team trying to track down Parnell who comes across: in a nod to Dr Strangelove, she has an artificial hand to which the punks bow down like a pagan fetish.

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Meanwhile Walter’s sublimely kooky Miller, the hippie repairman and shaman for Helping Hand, performs healing rites for the battered Otto and delivers monologues composed of sci-fi accented mysticism involving flying time machines, blended with contemplations of Jungian synchronicity as an expression of the cosmic unconscious, all recounted as he burns up junk in a rail yard. He does so to Otto’s bemused and cynical interest: “Did you do much acid Miller – back in the hippie days?” Miller’s illustration of synchronicity involving “plate” or “shrimp” or “plate of shrimp” gains a throwaway refrain later as a diner window sign advertises, yes, “plate ‘o shrimp.” Such finite yet precise detailing flows all the way through Repo Man, a film which sees no essential distinction between big particulars and small in a manner that’s akin to a narrative cinematic version of certain modernist art styles, perspective removed, only the map of mysterious relations left. The wonder of it all is that for all the rambling, often scarcely connected flow of individual sequences in the film, its plot ultimately unfolds with a deft sense of mechanism, the fragmentary becoming a unique whole in much the same way that the alien power in the Malibu evolves from destructive to transcendental force. Miller’s raving about “threads of coincidence” becomes the stuff of Repo Man’s story. But what gives the most ironic and clandestine form to the story is the way Cox delivers a version of an Arthurian Grail quest, with the Repo Men as the most devolved version of the Knights of the Round Table, Otto as spaced-out Galahad to Miller’s Percival and Bud’s screwball Lancelot.

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The joke of the federal agents all having the same blonde quaff is reminiscent of the interchangeable jocks in The Graduate (1967), albeit weaponised with acid political inference. The White Superman is under assault from all directions; from youth, the Counterculture, the Underculture, all the non-Gringos, whilst the Establishment’s hordes look they’ve been constructed en masse by Mattel, is too busy trying to keep a lid on the Great Secret of alien life, far too shocking and discomforting to be broadcast on the news between the commercials. Cox sees all theoretically polarised factions as actually porous in nature, because humans are collections of impulses and divided natures, each attitude containing its antithesis. Otto the punk joins the square-dressing Repo Men. The feds mock Marlene and the Rodriguez Brother’s failure to run down Rogersz like they were Repo Men themselves. Leila the radical conspiracy theorist happily signs up with the feds’ mission and tortures Otto. All of them are ultimately driven to look for ideal missions suiting their personal wants and instincts, and what draws them to one group isn’t so far from what might draw them to any other. Leila, excited by the subversive thrill of excavating hidden evidence of alien life and all the pseudo-religious implications therein, is of course attracted to being a fascist.

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Then there’s Parnell, rescuing the alien remains for Leila, hoping to redeem himself in the act except that he’s too far gone, flesh leeched by poison, brain sliced and diced, at once high priest of the western death-dream and victim, obsessed by radiation with apocalyptic delight and fear. He’s been to the mountaintop of modernity, having endeavoured to create what he describes as something “so monstrously immoral just working on the thing can drive you insane.” Parnell’s job was to weave the spectre that seems to hang over the entire scene, as if life on Earth has a limited shelf-life, or at least men will make sure it has one. Perhaps it’s also true to the film’s punk ethos that it also mocks punk itself mercilessly. Otto himself quickly falls from the faith when the blithe, unruly punk ethic bites him on the backside. The young barbarians gather to gyrate and smash glass in post-apocalyptic locales. Otto’s friends degenerate into bandits who sound like poseurs, the poshly accented Debbi and the preppie-sounding Duke, who in a shocked moment vows a really criminal act: “Let’s go get sushi – and not pay!” Otto knows damn well that not only is modern life rubbish but as a hopeless middle-class stowaway he’s part of it too. “Society made me what I am,” Duke gasps whilst dying; “That’s bullshit,” Otto replies with realistic contempt, “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” “But it still hurts,” Archie protests in his dying gurgle, summing up the whole problem.

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Repo Man gained a lot of its immediate cred from the soundtrack, with a chugging punk surfer-noir theme by Iggy Pop added late and the spacey guitar tracks by The Plugz gifting the film some of its unique texture, at once louche and spry in propelling the movie with aspects of aural lampooning as well as mood-weaving. Repo Man came out amidst the strong moment for unusual, cultish, low-budget projects that was 1984, as the independent film movement was gathering steam. Jim Jarmusch’s breakout with Stranger Than Paradise presented kin in pokerfaced cool; John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet anatomised contemporary society with sci-fi metaphors. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas offered a simultaneous survey of the American landscape shot by Muller and featuring Stanton in all his bedraggled glory. Much as fans of all three movies might hate to admit it, Repo Man also had affinities with Ghostbusters in making sport of the post-counterculture meltdown and rise of yuppiedom amidst a tale of fantastical cosmic collisions, and with James Cameron’s The Terminator, tearing about the tech-noir LA streets dodging time travellers and metaphorical Cold War-age fallout. If science fiction’s success in the Star Wars age had come at the expense of largely losing the socially critical veneer it had wielded throughout the previous decade, Repo Man helped restore the balance, point the way forward to similar mixtures of urban gothic and satirical screed in the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1986) and John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Hell, there’s even some of The X-Files in there.

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Cox’s style, inimitable as it was, would also have definite impact on Quentin Tarantino’s early work in freely mixing deadpan realism closely attuned to LA’s street feel, genre film quotes redeployed in quotidian contexts, black humour, and surf guitar music twanging on the soundtrack. Similarly, Cox had already gotten to places where David Lynch was going in stewing together retro Americana and surrealist blindsiding, pre-empting the absurdist theatre of Mulholland Drive (2000), if with a far more playful bent, and aspects of his TV show Twin Peaks, down to the association of atom-age sin with contemporary dislocation. The formal chic of Muller’s photography with its acrylic textures undoubtedly helped imbue Repo Man with its oddball poise. Flashes of surprisingly intense and kinetic filmmaking, like a liquor store shootout and a chase in an underground carpark, are contrasted with many a shot where the camera sits removed at a cool distance from the actors and action to accentuate the absurdist flavour. One essential example arrives late in the film as the heroes flee a hospital with feds pursuing, the camera remaining rooted to the spot in filming the flurry of action, only for the Malibu, releasing bolts of blue energy that strike down the feds, cruising by as a brief and tantalising glimpse of the utterly surreal. Cox takes a squared-off perspective on roadsides and house fronts so often it becomes a system of sorts, the viewpoint of the Repo Manas cruising along the road, surveying the facades of the everyday, both compelled and repelled by the geometry of LA and its ideals of possession, eyeing the shiny objects parked without.

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The film has an inexhaustible supply of brilliant, throwaway comedy skits and vignettes laden with bemused and mysterious texture. Otto being berated for knocking over garbage bins by an old English lady (Dorothy Bartlett). An agent screaming, “Not my face!” as Marlene prepares to thump him with a chair. A scooter-riding gang trundling up a midnight street to the quoted strains of “Born to Be Wild,” and a refrain of “Ride of the Valkyries” accompanying Duke, Debbi, and Archie as they flee a drug warehouse they’ve raided, Archie pausing to shake hands with a derelict man on the way. “Born to be Wild” resurges later with cruel good humour as Otto tries to take off with the musicians’ car, only to realise the back wheels are jammed on props. Miller ministering to Otto after he’s beaten up by the musicians with mystic chants and ribbons. The Circle Jerks, of which Schloss was a member, appearing as a lounge act warbling atonal and cynical ditties in vicious mockery of the old crooner style. Duke gets gunned down when he and Debbi rob a liquor store, sparking a gunfight that also sees Bud wounded. Duke is already dead, flash-fried by the alien radiation when the crew steal the Malibu. They stole the car off the Rodríguezes, who stole it off Parnell, who then regains his ride after Archie’s death. Otto finally spots the Malibu and chases it on foot until Parnell stops and gives him a ride. The scientist him with radiation factoids and explains how he got lobotomised to slow his overheated brain down, before suddenly expiring from a haemorrhage.

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Throughout all the craziness runs the spasmodic blend of amity and frustration that defines Bud and Otto’s partnership, not quite friends, not quite surrogate father and son, more different versions of the same generational task, each as rudely unfinished and unique as the other, evoking Ethan and Martin in The Searchers (1956), a film Cox would later make a pseudo-sequel-cum-interrogation in trying to explore his fascination. Taking at first to being Otto’s mentor, Bud ends up exasperated: “I thought I could teach you something!” Bud, tired and hungry for enough money to become the boss, is scarcely a model of world-conquering success himself, a prototype already outmoded, and in the very end it proves Miller rather than Bud who takes Otto for the next, greater step in his journey. However Bud’s method of handling things proves revivifying; where Otto finds the Malibu, Bud just rips it off and waves his gun at anyone who disagrees, and when he falls with a belly full of machine gun bullets, only calmly asks for a cigarette. Otto has a young man’s quick sense of the absurd balanced by his longing for something authentic and worthy. He is as often bewildered and out of his depth as is he is knowing and cynical; indeed he’s largely a weak and silly hero (like when he explains to Duke that he never came to see him in juvie because “I was working!”) specifically because he’s also young. But he is, ultimately, a pure grail seeker, ultimately worthy to travel with Miller in the Malibu because of his willingness to keep seeking something uncompromised which overpowers all his other instincts.

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The riotous climax lays waste to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in reclaiming the transcendental encounter with alien powers for the fantastical revolution for social outcasts, whilst the representatives of state security and other institutions wither and cringe before the might of such energy as represented by day-glo paint and gaffers tossing around ice cubes. The radiation-suit-clad feds burst into flames and even the good Reverend Larry bleats “Holy sheep-shit!” as the energy fries his bible. It is ultimately Miller’s vision that wins through, his kooky reports of time machine flying saucers that proves pertinent. Where Bud makes a last stand (“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees!”) and get shot for his pains, it is Miller the cracked mystic who ultimately knows what to do with this star vessel, the man on the scene with the understanding. He invites Otto to come with him to the stars. “What about our relationship?” demands Leila. “Fuck that,” Otto replies before climbing aboard. The glitter of the LA skyline glimpsed from a flying car is wonder enough. Nothing left to do but look up and charge into the void. One of the great movie finales, and one of the great movie beginnings.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Predator (1987)

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Director: John McTiernan
Screenwriters: Jim Thomas, John Thomas

By Roderick Heath

The great days of 1980s genre filmmaking produced a clutch of classics that are today readily recalled totems of shared meaning for a couple of generations of movie fans. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s string of action flicks from the decade, kicked off by Conan the Barbarian (1982) and extended by The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985), Predator, and The Running Man (1987), retain a cherished lustre for fairly good reason. Although probably the most limited actor ever to become an A-list movie star, Schwarzenegger’s presence seemed to galvanise a film style in the way Fred Astaire signified the maturation of the musical in the 1930s or Charlton Heston embodied the epic in the 1960s. Films had action before Schwarzenegger, but they weren’t action films; that genre was born anew in the 1980s, rising like Venus from a sea of cocaine excess, Nautilus-machine-made muscle, and Hollywood’s new predilection for producing B-movie fare with blockbuster budgets. Predator upon first release scarcely earned a second glance from critics and whilst it did great box office, it was on video that it really came into its own. Like many of its beloved generational fellows, Predator was perfect product for the burgeoning age of home viewing, when movie fans could at last latch onto a movie that perfectly suited their sensibility, shove it in the VCR, and get the same high again and again.

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Those halcyon days eventually met their climax and wane, like any great imperial moment. Schwarzenegger and Predator director John McTiernan would reunite for Last Action Hero (1993), an attempt at self-reflexive satire and high-concept ingenuity that would prove a mammoth bomb, signalling the end of an era, leaving filmgoers defenceless before Michael Bay and superhero movies. Whilst Schwarzenegger eventually turned his hand to politics McTiernan, who seemed for a time like the essence of a stylish Hollywood hit maker with his chitinous visual textures and gift for propulsive pacing extended on Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990), would falter and decline before meeting legal disgrace. When he made Predator, McTiernan was just another young gun, coming off his little-seen but stylish and eerie supernatural thriller Nomads (1985). Predator’s script, written by brother screenwriters Jim and John Thomas and polished by David Peoples, conjured a classic brand of star vehicle by mashing together successful recent hits into a chimera that became in itself a new design classic to be filched, fusing together aspects of Schwarzenegger’s previous hits with a little of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) thrown in.

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But Predator also had deeper roots. The storyline’s basic motif inverting the role of hunter and prey stands as a sci-fi take on Richard Connell’s legendary short story The Most Dangerous Game, first filmed in 1932 as a precursor to King Kong (1933) by producing team Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper and directed by Irving Pichel. The narrative form however more clearly recalls John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934), an essential work of early sound-era adventure filmmaking that, whilst set in the desert and depicting a French Foreign Legion squad’s slow decimation by Berber assassins, similarly turned the shadowy threat into a virtually existential enemy and left a solitary, stalwart hero to outwit his foes. The opening shots, featuring swaggering military hardware and bulbous ultra-masculine bodies filmed against blazing sunsets, push the idealising high-style tendency of recent movies like Top Gun or To Live and Die in LA (both 1986) to a comical extreme, and for a purpose. McTiernan lumps the official paraphernalia of the evolving ‘80s aesthetic into one place and then sets about demolishing it. To watch Predator these days is to be struck by all the over-achievers in the cast: two future state governors and two notable directors emerged from the carnage.

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Schwarzenegger plays Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, head of a Special Forces unit who specialise in rescue missions, also including Blain Cooper (Jesse Ventura), Mac Eliot (Bill Duke), Jorge ‘Poncho’ Ramírez (Richard Chaves), Billy Sole (Sonny Landham), and Rick Hawkins (Shane Black). One of Dutch’s former comrades in arms, George Dillon (Carl Weathers), now works for the CIA, and he and Maj-Gen. Phillips (R. G. Armstrong) want Dutch to take his men into the jungle, crossing the border of an unnamed country, to extract a cabinet member whose helicopter crashed there and now might be threatened by contras. Dillon joins the team, who are flown into the rough vicinity of their target, but find the lost chopper wrecked and empty. Pushing on into the jungle, they soon come across an incredibly strange and appalling find: three skinned and eviscerated bodies hanging from a tree. Dutch finds dog tags and realises that one of them was a soldier he knew named Hopper, but Dillon denies any knowledge of this unit’s deployment. When the unit comes across a contra base, they attack and wipe out the enemy soldiers, taking only one captive, a female, Anna Gonsalves (Elpidia Carrillo). Dutch realises Dillon used him to wipe out the command of an intended invasion of a neighbouring country with a ruse. Dutch is furious, but the unit resolves to get the hell out of dodge before any reckonings. They soon realise something far stranger and more terrifying than any guerrilla fighter is tracking them, and it begins killing them one by one.

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McTiernan had some claim to being, amongst the relatively small gallery of notable Hollywood directors to debut in the 1980s, the filmmaker best equipped to carry the mantle of rigorous, muscular shot-for-shot style inherited from the likes of Ford, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and all their breed. Indeed, his career’s decline can be tethered to his increasing fondness for a more gimmicky, less visually fluid photography and editing style evinced in the likes of Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and The 13th Warrior (1999), as his action became maddeningly hard to track, presaging the cubist aesthetics of Bay and his ilk. McTiernan made initially striking use of zoom lenses to create shots with perspective collapsed to increasingly disorientating degrees, rendering his films flat and pictorial in a glassy and glistening fashion. Predator went one up on The Terminator where the hulking enemy’s viewpoint was a red-drenched field: here the mysterious enemy’s peering vantage comes in fluorescent shades via an infrared camera. Both films owed a little something in this interest in an alien visual syntax to Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), a movie which has never quite gotten its due for deploying many aspects of pop movies future, also including the unstoppable and remorseless killer and deadly cyborg disseminated through the horror and sci-fi films of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

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Predator might be regarded as the squarer companion piece to Paul Verhoeven’s more overtly satirical RoboCop of the same year, with its excoriating portrait of corporatism and urgent theme of loss of identity demanding self-reclamation from social brainwashing. By comparison Predator ultimately might seem to affirm a chauvinist creed after testing and teasing it, and its political sideswipes reflect a confusion of impulses. Initial visions of sleazy Latino cadres beating and shooting prisoners fit perfectly into a Reaganite vision of what political and military conflict in South America looked like, ready to be cleaned up by this idealised set of emissaries for America, fuck yeah. Yet this is accompanied by a condemnation of covert operative skulduggery reflecting the last, lingering hangover of ‘70s cynicism, a mood that also affirms the conviction the little guy will always get screwed by the Man even as he tries to clean up his messes. Stephen Hopkins’ hilariously hyperbolic sequel, Predator 2 (1990), would greatly inflate the satirical aspect in a manner closer to RoboCop, encompassing a vision of a near-future America cast entirely in the mould of an ‘80s thriller and dominated by trash-TV aesthetics.

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And yet Predator essentially pulls off the same joke of self-deconstruction as Last Action Hero would make a big show of doing, but in a far better-contoured and more efficient vein. The first act sets up the essentials of a classic war-adventure movie and a James Bond-influenced brand of action filmmaking, one in which the omnicompetent heroes are in such control of their derring-do they can toss smart-assed quips at their enemies in the midst of combat, taking the sting out of the post-Peckinpah realism in the violence as squibs erupt on the bodies of the decimated soldiers. Thus the first third of Predator is a wry parade of knowingly bombastic moments from its cast full of brawny protagonists, particularly Ventura, with his immortal announcement that “I ain’t got time to bleed.” The early scenes set up the dynamic as one of macho contest: Schaffer and Dillon meet an immediately engage in an arm-wrestling bout, biceps bulging under a patina of perspiration, cocaine buzz lighting up the stars’ eyes. The celebration of inflated masculine bodies kicked off by Sylvester Stallone, Schwarzenegger’s rival and Weathers’ costar in the Rocky films, had become essential to the action movie. Here the biggest source of cruel mirth is the sight of all these variously pumped bods displayed and fetishized only to then be outdone by a bigger, badder bod, who then sets about slicing these human fleshbags into constituent parts. Superman (1978), one of the progenitors of the ‘80s action movie style, had come at a point when the superhero’s body was pointedly resistant to all the forces of slaughter and decay celebrated in the grittier climes of ‘70s thrillers and horror movies. Predator found a more immediate way than the Alien films to infiltrate and subvert the action movie in this manner.

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Predator also shows off its generic roots with pleasure, the core unit a set of types who’d be at home in a World War II movie – a survey of ethnic exemplars and styles of swagger. They run the gamut from classic he-man redneck Blain with his love of chewing tobacco (“This’ll make you a goddamn sexual tyrannosaur, just like me!”) to nerdy Hawkins, who digs comic books and keeps bombing with his pussy-related humour, and Billy, whose native American canniness makes him specially aware of the lurking danger hovering in the trees. The tensions noted between the members are purely supernal, fading away entirely in combat, and the men of different races and creeds and humour styles all function perfectly when faced with a proper enemy: Blain and Mac, who would be instinctive enemies on a normal cultural level, are instead fused at the hip as warriors. Of course, Hawkins is the first member of the team to get iced, a blurry figure lunging out of the bush as he tries to catch an escaping Anna, leaving her sprayed with Hawkins’ blood. McTiernan casually pulls off virtuosic feats of camerawork, like an endless-feeling crane shot rising up through the jungle canopy as the team tramp on, to eventually locate Hawkins’ naked and bloodied corpse dangling from high branches.

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The fraternity of soldiers is of course stressed throughout Predator. The nobility of these dedicated warriors, this thin camouflaged line of defence, who, tellingly, only perform missions of swashbuckling mercy now, is never questioned. Only Dillon has fallen from the true faith because of his choice to move on to a more political vantage. It’s an elaborate version of the belief amongst many that Vietnam was lost because of excessive obedience of political niceties. Mac and Blain have both been fighting together since ‘Nam and their camaraderie is so traumatically broken when Blain is killed that Mac flips out, muttering monologues at the moon and planning bloody vengeance upon their mysterious assassin. Anna warns them of the folklore of the local villages, speaking of the “demon who makes trophies of men” that visits in particularly hot years. What exactly is that demon? McTiernan’s already given the game away in that regard in a pre-credits vignette strongly reminiscent of that in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), depicting a spaceship flashing out of the void and passing by Earth, one small craft peeling away from it and heading down to the ball of blue. The Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) is glimpsed in tantalising snatches – a pair of glowing eyes in the midst of a green jungle setting, the sight of reptilian hands operating sophisticated medical equipment, the speeding blue flashes of its energy weapon and phosphorescent glow of its blood, all evoking the presence of something alien, ferocious, extremely intelligent, and worst of all, as indifferent to other life forms as humans themselves.

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It’s odd to think now that Predator was made a mere 13 years after the end of the Vietnam War, less time than the War on Terror has been unfolding. Today, concerns of the post 9/11 age echo through a vast swathe of popular entertainments, but for a long time, understandably, Hollywood was more set on re-fighting Vietnam. It’s there in embryonic form in the despair of Jaws (1975) in the incapacity of technology to defeat primal fear and an enemy in its home turf, and in the scrappy outsiders versus the great technological empire of Star Wars (1977). But it bloomed properly with Aliens and Predator, tales of hapless warriors confronting their own impotence before an enemy that understands environment better and obeys a simpler impulse driving their defence of it. Predator outdoes Cameron’s film at least on the level of transmuting the imprint of that conflict on the modern American military mindset into a rough-hewn but entirely coherent little myth and then pointing the way forward to a new attitude.

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The popular perception of the war is played out: firepower-packing Yanks arrive, clean up the regular fighters easily, but find themselves up against a foe that can hide and plays a game they’re crucially ill-equipped to deal with psychologically as well as in method.
Blain carries a version of the Gatling gun, a weapon that carries historical associations dating back to the Civil War, and also connects again to ‘Nam where was mounted on a plane dubbed Puff the Magic Dragon, used to devastating effect. And yet, like Hopper’s crew before them, who stand in for the lost patrols of ‘Nam, Dutch’s team finish wasting vast amounts of ammunition and muzzle velocity firing blind into the trees, hoping to hit something, fighting their own magic dragon. The team make an increasingly desperate trek to try and reach safe ground where Phillips’ helicopters can extract them, an extraction that has to wait because of the potential political furore that would explode if any US choppers were downed on the wrong side of the border. Hawkins’ death is followed quickly by Blain’s, felled by even bigger firepower, sparking the maddened wastage of ammo from his fellows. Trying to secure a position for the night, the team set traps that are deliberately triggered by the Predator with the ruse of driving a colossal wild pig through them, a beast Mac slays in the dark believing it’s his mortal foe, whilst the alien snatches away Blain’s body to use in its trophy-making habits.

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Part of Predator’s punch lies in its indifference to the pretences of its heroes, who mostly die in various postures of surprise. Mac’s purpose of revenge, which might in another narrative have posited him as the natural hero, sees him merely and casually killed whilst making an attempt to sneak up on his opponent. Dillon dies more spectacularly, going out on his feet with such a display of manly fortitude as he tries to gun down his opponent with one severed arm that he redeems himself, but really gives his opponent barely more trouble. Billy’s decision to strip off his fatigues and weaponry and meet the monster with machete in hand points in the right direction, but his choice of stand-up courage is just as quickly fatal. The film even subverts the basic appeal of Schwarzenegger as a movie star, to a great extent: his evocation of the human body at its strongest and most perfect – not for nothing had he made his film debut playing Hercules – is still dwarfed and outmatched on a sheer pound-for-pound level. The team slowly glean the nature of their enemy and start to adopt the right tactics, but one effort to entrap the alien only gets Poncho badly injured, and he’s later killed by a bolt from the Predator’s weapon as Dutch and Anna try to carry him out. Dutch sends Anna on to meet the rendezvous (okay, here we go…three…two…one…“Get to da choppa!”) whilst distracting the Predator. Dutch only escapes the fiend’s clutches because he falls over a waterfall and then propitiously discovers the chief weakness in his opponent: mud clinging to his body retards the Predator’s heat-sensitive vision, a discovery that allows Dutch to invert the terms of the struggle. The Predator’s strengths, its capacity to detect the abnormal, its feel for a natural landscape, are finally turned against it.

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The Predator’s alienness is conceived and mediated in terms of devices of technological augmentation. His lysergic-hued point-of-view was achieved by radically employed new filmmaking tech whilst his habits of recording and looping back fragments of the human conversations he hears, render him an insidiously witty alien mixmaster. He is, at first, a stand-in for the audience as a fetishist enjoying the sounds and textures of the humans in all their homosocial habits as well as fascinated by their strange physiognomy, a strangeness conveyed to the audience through the transforming prism of his infrared sight. He also stands in for the filmmakers, trying to understand individuals as collectives of information, little catchphrases and earworms, accents and modes of expression, the things that make them distinctive but also knit them into a unit, a species. By the end the Predator has learnt enough human expressivity to laugh with mocking pleasure at the expectation even in death he can defeat his enemy. The Predator itself was subject to changes in look and concept during the shooting, shifting from a faintly biomechanical creation emphasising agility over bulk (played initially by Jean-Claude Van Damme), but soon revised into a hulking humanoid with crocodilian skin, spiky tendrils on its head that resemble a Rastafarian hairdo, and a crablike face sporting mandibles. McTiernan could get away with this shift because of his smart appropriation of Jaws’ policy of slowly revealing the monster, which depends on its sophisticated camouflaging, its ability to see prey who cannot see it in turn.

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Dutch’s disarming of the Predator in this regard stirs the Predator’s own pride, inspiring it to strip off its weaponry and armour and meet Dutch on exactly the same level of pure physical force and guile. McTiernan’s immediate follow-ups, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, would both revolve around conflicts defined by arts of eluding and utilising landscape, but which eventually devolve eventually into traditional tests of strength between personally offended and challenged antagonists. The latter film would prove Hollywood’s half-accidental farewell to the Cold War with its eventual détente of technological advancement: when everyone can hide, no-one can, something Dutch and the Predator have already discovered. Dutch’s adoption of bushcraft offers an answer to the Vietnam problem, as Schaffer strips off all technological pretence and remakes himself as a guerrilla warrior, armed with tool gleaned from the environment he must disappear into. But the greatness of Predator is that it finally goes much deeper than such recent psychic horizons. By the time Schaffer announces his resurgence to his foe in a rite of fire and a howl of prehistoric violence, we’re back in the dimmest recesses of the human imagination, struggling for survival in some post-Ice Age landscape against the deadliest beast in the forest.

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The first two-thirds of Predator are in this regard mere curtain-raiser, a programmatic disposal of various trappings to get at this basic fantastical perfection, a situation of which Jung could only approve and stuff his face with popcorn. Predator wouldn’t be the movie it is without two invaluable behind-the-camera contributions, from DP Don McAlpine, whose crystal-clear images render all these absurd events hyper-real, and composer Alan Silvestri’s career-best work. The film’s high-point where McTiernan, McAlpine, and Silvestri’s work comes together in perfect unison isn’t the climactic fight between man and monster, but the montage sequence of Dutch preparing for that battle, a succession of shots that depict the ritualised stripping away of modernity, even identity, as Dutch remakes himself as primal warrior, with weapons and disguises won out of the jungle, the only way to take on his sophisticated enemy, representing the species. Predator is one of those movies which remains palpable as a pillar of today’s blockbuster ideal, and yet this sequence, the essence of the movie’s awesomeness, is also the sort of moment that’s all too often missing from its progeny, present only to beef up the film’s rhythmic intensity, to create a mood of epic largesse and titanic events looming.

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The finale sees hero and dragon pound on each-other, Schwarzenegger’s ponderous bulk reduced to an impressionistic blur in the Predator’s vision spitting out blood under the blows of his fists, the alien’s blood providing a tell-tale trail: ways of seeing are ways of battle. Dutch’s final outwitting of the Predator comes after underestimating his enemy’s cunning but improvising enough to still win in dropping the counterweight for a trap on its head. The mutual incomprehension and awe of the two species – “What the hell are you?” – is not the gateway for understanding but instead a cue to take things to a higher, nihilistic level of gratification. The Predator enacts a hawkish nightmare of taking the nuclear option to avenge itself, a dishonourable yet cruelly apt reductio ad absurdum of the duel. This feels like a variation on the climactic joke of one of the most cunning yet innocent-looking satires on Cold War exigencies, Chuck Jones’ Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1952): this planet ain’t big enough for the both of us, buster. Dutch however manages to run far and fast enough to escape, and looms out of the smoke to be picked up by Phillips and Anna, enshrined as the iconic survivor, the man who emerges from the wastes. The last shot revises the concluding image of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) from a hymn of haunted failure to one of boding triumph. It’s very easy to see the pieces that make up the film in this way. But the final beauty of Predator is one it shares with any accomplished work of fantasy: much as its title monster discovers in dissecting its human prey, the essence of it remains impossible to reduce.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Ridley Scott’s chimera of horror and science fiction, Alien (1979) launched its director on a Hollywood career and established a franchise that has become a fixture of the modern cinema landscape. Expanded by James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Alien series, whilst declining steeply in quality as it went on and spawning an army of imitators, still managed to remain distinctive. That distinctiveness stemmed from the films’ unique blend of down-and-dirty generic imperatives, telling blood-and-thunder stories of rampaging monsters, obscene pregnancies and infestations, and raw survivalism, fused with high-class production values, conceptual intelligence, and technocratic grandeur, lending a veneer of respectability to a portrait of a future far less cheery and far more id-like than the norm for such spacefaring tales. This is a future defined by eerie fusions of biology and technology, painted in chiaroscuro contrasts of assailed light against overwhelming blackness, a place where nightmares dwell and heroes survive only by pure nerve. The series reached a nadir when the menace of the xenomorphs was pitched into combat with the hulking Predators of Twentieth Century Fox’s other beloved sci-fi action property for two readily ignored movies, but then Scott elected to return to the series that had made his name with Prometheus (2011). Suddenly the series, and its director, were exciting for many again. Prometheus proved a peculiarly indecisive concoction, however, and a divisive one.

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Undoubtedly, Prometheus was an ambitious and hefty piece of work. But many, including me, were hoping that Scott would extend his work not just in theme and scope but in style. The specific aura of his original, defined by a mood of miasmic dread and mystery, and tension slowly ratcheted then exploited with relentless effect, was attuned to environment as a tool and source of drama, in the twinned environs of space’s unknowable expanse and the labyrinthine twists of the Nostromo. Such carefully worked filmmaking offered lessons too many contemporary directors forget, including, it seemed, Scott himself. Still, Scott poured a great deal of his matured technical and storytelling expertise into the film and many examples of his great eye, so that when viewed as a standalone thrill-ride, Prometheus was a fine effort, sporting one truly classic sequence depicting an excruciating surgical birth. But as a revisit to beloved universe by its progenitor, it was surely more conventional and clumsy.

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The curious squeamishness Scott revealed on Prometheus about drawing too many clear lines to his original gives way with Alien: Covenant, his latest foray into this zone, to a bolder reappropriation of his stylistic cues, opening the door for an instalment that moves a long way towards closing the linkage between the two entries. The titles recreate the assembling motif of the original’s opening credits, and Jed Kurzel’s music score quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s plaintive, eerie, barely-there scoring for the original. Scott also quotes ideas from subsequent entries, like a projected image of lovely forest offered as a bogus panacea for grief and the stern rifle-wielding quoted from Aliens (1986). There’s a deftly clever reason to this sort of conscientious trope-harvesting, beyond mere homage and service to a conceptual universe, that becomes clearer as the film goes on. Prometheus dealt with an expedition financed by dying tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his efforts to track down the possible source of life on Earth, discovering facilities used for genetic engineering and the remains of a colossal alien race dubbed Engineers, who laid the seeds for the genesis of the human race but also intended its destruction and supplanting by more fearsome creations. The finale saw sole human survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) appropriating an Engineer spaceship to track down their home world in the mangled company of Weyland’s magnum opus in cybernetic engineering, David (Michael Fassbender).

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Alien: Covenant opens with a sequence depicting David’s first conscious moments as a creation and tool of Weyland, back when the creator was still relatively healthy and David was immediately faced with a quandary of being the perfect and undying progeny of a very frail beast indeed. Most of Alien: Covenant however takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus. Following Prometheus’ lead, Covenant is also the name of a spaceship, a craft carrying a load of 2000 colonists in cryogenic stasis to a distant planet chosen as a new home. Their well-being is overseen by the on-board synthetic human Walter (Fassbender again), an upgraded, less independent version of David’s make. In between leaps through wormholes with a solar sail deployed to recharge the ship’s power supplies, the Covenant is struck by a surge of energy from an exploding star, frying its electrical systems and causing the ship’s core crew to wake up. The captain, Branson (James Franco), is burned to a cinder when his stasis pod catches fire, leaving his partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston) distraught and his second officer Oram (Billy Crudup) in anxious command. Whilst repairing the solar sail, another crew member, Tennessee (Danny McBride), picks up an extremely faint and mysterious broadcast from a relatively nearby planet. Watching the broadcast, the crew realise it’s a faint image of a woman singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When they look at the planet it’s sourced from, a mere seven weeks’ flight away, the crew decide it’s worth travelling there to search for the mysterious woman, because the planet appears to be a closer and superior place to set up their colony.

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Arriving at the planet, the Covenant crew, who are mostly married or in relationships to better foster the colonial mission, leave a skeleton force to man the space vessel whilst most of the crew departs to the surface to investigate. Tennessee’s wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) is one joins the landing team, which also includes Oram, Daniels, and stalwart Lope (Demián Bichir, under-utilised), whilst her husband stays aboard ship with another couple, Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett). Daniels has protested vociferously to Oram about his decision to come to this planet which she describes as too good to be true, a protest Oram registers as another slight against him, feeling a victimised status he blames on his oft-proclaimed religious faith. Touching down, the landing party soon find the planet apparently free of all animal life but weirdly rich in familiar, overgrown versions of Earth vegetation. They soon find a crashed Engineer spaceship and find Shaw’s dog tags on board. Two members of the party, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) and Hallett (Nathaniel Dean) also inadvertently find something else, spore pods that release microbes that latch themselves on their bodies and soon start a gruesome and grimly familiar biological process. Both infected men soon fall ill, bleed copiously, and finally have small but deadly alien organisms erupt out of their bodies. These things grow and go on the hunt, leaving several crew dead and their shuttle craft destroyed. What’s left of the party is saved by a mysterious cloaked figure who releases a bright flare to scare the monsters off. This is soon revealed to be David himself, surviving a solitary existence on this planet with naught to do but pick up where the Engineers left off.

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The early scenes of Alien: Covenant confirm Scott’s intention to reverse-engineer the series back to original specs, whilst also quietly stretching out sinew in readiness for hard exertions when they come, as he makes a film where its very status as a variation on a theme is an explicit part of the show. The workaday tedium that afflicted the denizens of the Nostromo is not quite rhymed with the more upbeat and expectant Covenant crew here, whose outlook is fixed on new horizons rather than hacky bonus cheques. This positive aspect to the crew makes them more harmonious and likeable for the most part, but also means most lack the hardened edge of survival instinct that finally sustained Ripley through to safe harbour. The crew’s increasingly panicky, frail responses to hard-charging survival situations comes both in response to sudden swerves of fate but also repeatedly create them. Daniels’ tragic loss of her partner which is also the loss of the expedition leader and pillar of stability has immediately punched a deep and ever-widening hole in the integrity of this unit. Oram cringes and privately fumes at presumed dissension to his authority, especially when the other members of the crew take pause during their repairs to give Branson a funeral. Tennessee becomes increasingly stressed and places the Covenant in danger from the violent storms that sweep over the planet’s upper atmosphere as he becomes increasingly worried about his wife.

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The way stressful and lethally intense situations sort out personalities, a minor but consequential theme of the original, is here revisited and becomes an overriding part of how Alien: Covenant investigates humanity and alienness as conditions. This aspect is illustrated with particularly ruthless zeal when the long, investigative first act gives way to rapidly spiralling crises and hysterical goads to action. The creature in Ledward rips its way out of his back whilst he and Oram’s botanist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) are in the shuttle craft’s med bay. Faris locks Karine in with the monster and makes a frenetic but ineffectual attempt to get a weapon and kill the creature. Although new-born the creature still gnaws Karine to death and tracks Faris through the ship, finally driving her to accidentally blow up the craft with her wild gunshots. Scott repeats this process several times, as situations fall suddenly and ruthlessly on his characters, a callous quality given fresh bite by the fact most of these characters are in relationships, their functions as team members cut across by personal loyalties and instincts driving them in contradictory directions.

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Daniels’ enveloping grief is employed both as a personal trait and an aesthetic keynote in a mad dream where everything spirals in towards to twinned moments of birth and death. Her hopes for building a log cabin on an alien shore with her husband are recited as pathetic confession, and she shares an embrace with Tennessee when they’ve both lost loved-ones. Scott contrasts the increasingly frenzied, messy, and desperate actions of the humans against the ever-poised David, who, in spite of his solitary Ben Gunn-like existence on the planet and long, ragged castaway’s hair, has kept his composure and found peculiar purpose. He takes the survivors in hand and leads them to a deserted city where the petrified remains of the Engineer race still lie scattered across agora cobbles, like some grotesquely apocalyptic, genocidal edition of Pompeii’s dead. David explains to the survivors that the Engineer ship he and Elizabeth brought to the planet accidentally released a sample of the Engineers’ own biological agents, killing them and all other animal life, whilst Elizabeth was mortally injured when the ship crashed.

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Although it has undoubtedly been composed of uneven individual works and has received little recognition, Scott’s late career has been rapidly taking shape as one of the most vital and interesting runs in recent cinema from a major filmmaker. This is apparent on both on the level of sheer cinematic swagger, replete with genre-swapping skin-changes worthy of his xenomorphs, but also in the way the key fascinations of his films have become increasingly compulsive. This phase began after the flop of Body of Lies (2008), probably Scott’s weakest film, and kicked off with Robin Hood (2010), both an attempt to recapture and to farewell a phase in his career defined by the success of Gladiator (2000), the movie which restored his standing as a major hit-maker but also reduced him to a spinner of simplistic fairy-tales for grownups. Robin Hood, although violently uneven and poorly focused, was nonetheless a complex conjuration, meshing closely observed historical context with mythology in a manner that highlighted several of Scott’s career-long concerns, particularly class conflict and the fate of the out-of-place individual, and the question as to how our contemporary humanity has evolved, in terms of one of Britain’s most famous folkloric figurations.

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The films Scott has made since then – Prometheus, The Counselor (2013), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), The Martian (2015), and this one – have all agitatedly sorted and re-sorted an essential catalogue of ideas and images, taking on parables in various settings and each with a different tone for framework. The Old Testament punishments for hubris in Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus saw moral dramas played out in landscapes of jagged stone and bleak portent, whilst the communal efforts to achieve sanctuary in Exodus and The Martian evinced a positive but exacting sense of vulnerability in the face of eternal powers. Like Luis Bunuel, a very different filmmaker in obvious ways, Scott has explored his own contradictory nature as a person without overt religion but easily fired up by a religious sensibility, urgently examining the forces that make and break us, trying to live up to a humane creed but constantly offering sly sympathy to his Satanic figures.

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Alien: Covenant certainly extends this last aspect through the figure of David, who has slipped his bonds and become determined not merely to be excellent product but a most excellent and laborious producer. He’s that figure Scott admires most and has most qualms about, the exceptional being straining against a world of lessers, an antihero driven to be rebel archangel in his outrage at the way things are. Oram is a man of religious faith but little faith in himself and, more importantly, little gift for leadership, and he falls prey to David’s designs with tragicomic ease. The deliberate echoes and suggestions of direct connection provided here with Blade Runner (1981) flesh out something long implicit in the diptych offered by Scott’s most evergreen films, as David here marches on fearlessly into zones of self-definition Roy Batty could not quite bear to contemplate: he still wanted his father to tell him things would be all right. One forceful idea of Prometheus was the notion that discovering God might be a colossally disappointing act, underlined here with the revelation David casually exterminated the Engineers with their own works. One mask of creation simply gives way to another, leaving more mystery and more frustration. This becomes a spur ironically not to despair but to further, ever-more restless engagement with the act of creation itself. But the creation is only ever a mirror to the faults and strengths of what produces it, and David’s root programming error is suggested with a daisy chain of literary references that connects Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and the latter’s wife Mary, as the Frankensteinian progeny plans an elaborate and cosmically terrifying revenge on having been made so well and yet so impotent. His recitation of Percy’s epistle to the titanic urge, “Ozymandias,” reveals his own trunkless legs by misattributing it to Byron – a mistake Walter, seemingly David’s perfect replica, but carefully castrated by a more cautious and circumspect society, notices, the one clue that this would-be god is cracked.

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The relationship between David and Walter is one of Alien: Covenant’s most sublime ideas, giving Fassbender a chance to give two supremely confident, carefully varied performances, and the ultimate actor’s challenge and fantasy, to enact both seducing himself and killing himself. David introduces Walter to the pleasures of personal artistic creation when he teaches him to play a flute, the perfect Narcissus eventually even kissing his double in his effort to find a worthy companion in his solitude, and what could be more worthy than himself. But Walter resists and eventually becomes the only real force standing between David and victory over the pathetic flesh-bags. David has become as central and eclipsing to Scott’s re-conception of this franchise as Peter Cushing’s similarly cool, incisive, utterly unrelenting Frankenstein was to Hammer’s series about the character, towering far over the monstrous by-products of his tinkering. The eventual battle between the two synthetics is the ultimate and perfect version of the essentialist struggle that Scott has meditated upon as far back as the inevitably titled The Duellists – at last the mirrored antagonists are actually, truly identical, distinguished only by the mysterious code called personality. Alien: Covenant eventually unveils another inspired notion as it reveals that the missing link between the Engineers’ parasitic monstrosities and the familiar xenomorphs of the series is David himself, toying with these in his attempts to build a species perfectly adapted not just to survival but to actively exploiting and destroying humans.

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This provides an impishly clever explanation for why the xenomorphs seems at once so strange and so familiar, compositing animal types found on Earth and giving the Engineers’ brilliant but mutable creations a new spin. At one point David acidly refers to one of his human male victims as the intended mother of one of his children. David has become in word and deeds his own god, a version of god blazing hatefully out of gnostic texts and bitter agnostic fantasy, a mad designer perched over neo-medieval texts splicing together misbegotten demons. The film’s blackest joke involves two renditions of a passage of Wagner’s Das Rheingold depicting gods entering Valhalla, and is also a cunning call-back to a motif again mooted in the original, where Ash celebrated the purity of the alien beast with ardent fascist admiration. The Hitlerian dream is unbound and now written into the music of the spheres. Appropriately, Alien: Covenant is a mad scientist’s concoction itself, all mediated by Scott’s utilisation of David’s urge to creativity as a metaphor for his own, speeding through drafts, each one tossed off with ever-more feverish drive than the last no matter how good or how lousy the results; only the urge to keep moving counts. Thus Alien: Covenant is a highly perverse hymn to creativity as a natural law and urge, manifesting in whatever form it will. Scott’s professional drive to keep working, so often the source of critical suspicion of his output, is constituted by him as the essence of his being.

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Scott does more than make a horror film here; he makes a film about the horror genre, its history, its place in the psyche, analysing the way the death-dream constantly underlies all fantasies of ego and eros. Scott reaches out for a hundred and one reference points, some of the already plain in the Alien series lexicon. The deserted Engineer city recalls the Cyclopean confines of the lost cities in Lovecraft tales like At the Mountains of Madness, the Elder Gods all left gorgonized by David’s perfidy. At one point Scott recreates Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Isle of the Dead,” an image that obsessed H. R. Giger, the crucial designer behind so much of the Alien mythos, as much as it did Val Lewton, whose cavernously eerie psychological parables redefined horror cinema in the 1940s; Scott no doubt has both in mind. David’s “love” for Elizabeth, which has taken the form of relentlessly exploiting her body to lend genetic material to his creations, is both reminiscent of a particularly tactile serial killer worthy of Thomas Harris and of the obsessive, invasive eroticisation of the loved one’s cadaver found in Poe, whilst the whole meditates as intensely and morbidly on its landscape of Poe’s poetry.

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The design of the failed prototype xenomorphs and David’s rooms hung with sketches reminiscent of medieval alchemic ephemera both pay tribute to Guillermo Del Toro’s films and also poke Del Toro’s oeuvre back for its own debt to Scott and Giger. A head floating in water comes out of Neil Jordan’s self-conscious unpacking of fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984). The touch of Captain Branson’s death struck me as a possible tip of the hat to Dark Star (1974), in which the captain had died in similar circumstances, and which was of course made by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Late in the film Scott stages a shower sequence that sees Upworth and Ricks having a hot and steamy moment under the spigot only to be surprised by a xenomorph. At first glance this sequence revels in a trashier brand of horror associated with 1970s and ‘80s slasher films, but Scott also adds self-reference – the xenomorph’s tail curling in demonic-penile fashion around their legs calls back to the similarly queasy shot in Alien when Lambert was attacked by the monster, whilst also nodding back to Hitchcock and Psycho (1960). It’s staged meanwhile with all the pointillist precision of Scott’s most fetishistic visual rhapsodies – spraying water like diamonds playing over soft flesh, fogged glass, grey knobbly alien skin, and the inevitable rupture of red, red blood.

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Which points to another quality of Alien: Covenant – its deeply nasty, enthusiastic commitment to being a horror film, an anarchic theatre of cruelty and bloodlust barely evinced in any other film of such a large budget, especially in this age of gelded adolescent fantasies. If it’s still not the deep, dank leap into a barely liminal space like the original, it is perfectly confident in itself and bleakly poetic in unexpected ways. I don’t know if a film has ever been so casually beautiful even when deploying visions of hellishness, apparent in moments like the shower attack. Or in the following scene when a blown-out airlock results in air turning to million-fold vapour pellets and then ice, exploding in dazzling shards. Or in the surveys of the desolate sculpture garden that is the Engineer city. Daniels’ resemblance to Ripley, in her short dark hair and singlets and pluck in the face of monstrous adversity is both another purposeful echo and a miscue, a by-product of Alien: Covenant’s status as a logarithmic variant. Her embrace with Tennessee is one of the most unaffectedly humane moments in Scott’s oeuvre, and a summation of the film’s repeated statement that to be alive is to need others. Only that’s a rule that cuts both ways in a predatory competition for lebensraum, and leads to such fragments of ecstatic insight as David’s distraught look when one of his children fails.

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Scott stages another brilliantly executed, madcap suspense sequence as Daniels and Tennessee attempt to flee the planet surface with a xenomorph scuttling around the hull of their craft, Daniels trying to blast the beast on a wildly pitching deck as the monster tries to head-butt its way through Perspex to get at Tennessee. There’s a skittish quality to Pietro Scalia’s editing throughout the film that communicates the off-kilter will at the heart of this project. Only in its very last act does some of Alien: Covenant’s assurance slip, as Scott doesn’t quite match the patience with which he deployed his sneak-attack coda in the original. But there’s still a final twist in store, at once galling and perfectly apt, deployed with obviousness but sustained in ambiguity with such malign showmanship that it becomes increasingly vexing and entirely riveting, before the axe finally falls.

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Scott builds with cold mirth to a punch-line for the tale that both echoes one he initially mooted for Alien, and which also recalls the sting in the tail of one of the signal influences on that film, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1966). Scott exploits his own well-worn material here to push right to the brink of the abyss in a way reminiscent to what he did before in The Counselor, complete with a note of predetermined evil fate, only in a context where he can bait people to swallow it. But he also leaves a tantalising question open that might still be answered in creative and thrilling ways. This is the worthy achievement of this entry – it rejuvenates a well-worn property and restores all its dark and unexpected power. But more than that, it’s a testament of pure delight in his medium from a filmmaker who really has nothing left to prove, but likes to prove it anyway.

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2000s, Scifi

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

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Director: Scott Derrickson

By Roderick Heath

This retooling of Robert Wise’s venerable 1951 model starts well, but quickly proves a wretched embarrassment. Wise’s film isn’t quite the cute and cuddly model of the nice alien school of scifi story it might seem. There’s a latent fascism in the conclusion that scifi writer and scholar David Wingrove once called the “cooperate or else” stream of genre morality in which someone of greater intelligence is always stepping in and laying down the law to us foolish humans. Yet there’s a reason Wise’s film is still considered one of the most adult of science fiction films: it engages with its core concepts with a far greater rigor and openness of mind and spirit than this overpriced piece of claptrap.

The general plot is still in play: Klaatu, an alien ambassador, arrives on Planet Earth to deliver a greeting and a warning. He’s shot on arrival, taken in hand by government spooks, escapes, and strikes up a friendship with a single mother and her son, who help him understand the species much better. In this remake, however, the mother, Helena Benson (Jennifer Connelly), is a biology professor (my homework was never quite like this, whoa whoa!), and her son is a step-child. Black, too—see, we’re touching all the PC bases here, noone can accuse us of being behind the times, nosireebob. One wonders why screenwriter David Scarpa neglected to make Helena an Islamic lesbian, too. Helena’s charge, Jacob (Jaden Smith), has issues because his daddy died in war (which one is skipped around, lest anyone think we’re being controversial here). He maintains the same frosty cynicism towards his stepmother that Dakota Fanning exhibited towards papa Tom Cruise in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and makes equally as a good case for a return of spanking.

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Michael Rennie’s Klaatu was agreeable—avuncular even—intelligent, and communicative, yet quietly superior and alien in a subtle fashion, like a tourist interacting with an environment he’d read a lot about but still found surprising. The new, unimproved Klaatu, embodied by Keanu Reeves with a “Look Ma, I’m acting!” crease in his glacial forehead, is a pushy jerk with the message of Al Gore (but less charisma, if that’s possible) and the methods of Adolf Hitler. For some reason, he’s set up a bunch of arks to save specimens of earth species so that he can sterilize the earth of its human infestation; the concept of a genome-specific disease that could kill off humans without affecting the rest of the planet is apparently beyond the grasp of these genius aliens. This poorly thought-through adaptation of a would-be timely thesis is foolish in several respects, most of all, in strict narrative terms, as the film illogically presents its aliens as having interacted with human society for decades and yet learnt nothing about their basic character, so that Klaatu’s genocidal plan can be interrupted by reconciliation between a mother and son that’s so ludicrously inept in scripting and acting it’s a wonder Klaatu doesn’t speed the apocalypse up.

The idea of rendering Klaatu as a more fundamentally alien being was a fair one, but it spends a great deal of time cribbing as many ideas from Starman as Wise’s film, and then rushes through the next two-thirds of the film as gaping holes in sense appear. It’s strange how the extraterrestrials go to so much effort to tailor their ambassador as a human for a visit of no greater length and meaning than a pest control visit, have him land out in the open, but don’t seem to have planned how to present a case or understand the beings he’s been sent to interact with, whereas that was specifically what Rennie’s Klaatu was all about. He was a creature who wanted to understand the world. Derrickson’s film reflects how much more of a cold, paranoid, self-loathing world we are today; this is partly critique, but also a very large part unconscious, because so much of the story’s worth has been sacrificed to swift efficiency of plot and sound-bite dialogue.

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Of some initial interest is the translation of ’50s political paranoia into a peculiarly ’00s variety, with the government goons portrayed as a bunch of glowering, harrying thugs working with all the graceless, bullying style all these movie cops and soldiers have that’s supposed to be the mark of impressive efficiency, but only comes across as dispiriting. The situation is under the control of a Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates, collecting her paycheck with all the aplomb of an ice cream stand attendant impatient for a cigarette break) who does and says so many stupid things she exemplifies the definitive case for mankind’s obliteratation. Also of interest is an element of something close to a pantheistic ideal, as Klaatu expostulates a lifecycle view of life that entails nothing ever actually dying, only altering. But ideas have gone out the window by the time of a would-be suspense sequence in which army helicopters chase Klaatu, Helena, and Jacob, and Helena is snatched up by a guy on a bungee cord in a moment of laugh-out-loud silliness.

Most offensive and corrosive to the material is the way the original’s humanistic detail has been shorn away. In fact, humanistic detail seems to be more downright alien to the contemporary blockbuster and the people who make them than any number of spaceships. In Wise’s film, Helena and Jacob lived in a Washington boarding house that allowed for a droll stock-taking of human types living an everyday life (“People my foot, they’re Democrats!” Ah, Everett Sloan, where art thou?). Helena was romanced by an entirely normal, unsatisfying type of guy, an insurance salesman played by Hugh Marlowe. Here she has a platonic-or-something interaction with another scientist (John Hamm) that ends when he gets killed; nobody gives a damn by that point. In Wise’s film, the impact of Klaatu upon everyday life and the impact of everyday life on him was registered. No time for that here: the film apes those classic moments in old scifi films where we glimpse unrest and panic around the world on the TV, but there’s no engagement with the world outside the immediate narrative.

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The original’s iconic encounter was between Klaatu and Einstein stand-in Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who is rumbled by Klaatu’s superior gifts, is recreated pretty precisely, with Barnhardt now played by John Cleese. Not surprisingly, it’s the remake’s best moment. But the meaning of the encounter is spurned immediately. The original established mathematics as a universal language, an idea Spielberg took a step further in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where music, being both a mathematical form and a language form, bridged the gap and laid the groundwork for an ideal of intellectual and philosophical, as opposed to mercenarily political, leadership. Here, Klaatu listens briefly to some Bach and drones, “It’s beautiful,” whilst looking vaguely constipated. You get the feeling that he, and the filmmakers, would rather be listening to Van Halen. Cleese’s Barnhardt, after mumbling a few pieties about change, tells Helena that she can alter Klaatu’s mission only with “herself.” The exact meaning of this is initially unclear—does he want her to go down on him (now there’s some human experience for you)—but what it really entails is that familiar New Age gasbaggery of letting your heart show the way, etc.

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Derrickson’s scene construction, that basic A-B-C grammar of movies of which Hollywood is supposedly the starchy bastion, is woeful. One sequence, in which some drone aircraft are guided over New York to attack Gort with missiles, is utterly insensible at first, the loudest example of a basic carelessness in giving out information. Scenes come and go with no form of internal rhythm. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Gort, which is fair enough because the film only occasionally remembers to cut back to what’s going on with him. It’s not Lock Martin in foam rubber anymore, it’s a big clunky CGI version, and waiting for him to cut loose is the movie’s only hope. But he’s actually a huge collective of nanobots that disperse when apocalypse time comes, so rather than giant-robot-on-puny-human action, we get these swirly, windy effects, as a conveniently empty New York gets eaten up.

The film’s only signs of intelligent life come from Cleese, and a neat (if utterly senseless, in terms of writing and ethics) cameo from James Hong as another alien who reports that the human race is inflexible and must be destroyed, and yet also wants to die with it. Connelly remains a fair example of a competent, utterly unexciting talent elevated by her model looks to leading roles, essaying in Helena one of these drearily professional, cute-but-sexless drones that seems to be the only kind of mature, independent woman Hollywood keeps stock of. Reeves is an actor I’ve remained neutral on for a long time, out of respect for the real movies he once appeared in (River’s Edge, My Own Private Idaho), but now I’ll come off the fence: he’s a fucking bore. All the deft, calm, elevated intelligence that Rennie possessed is lost in space and with it, the dramatic and moral heart of the film. Rather than fill me with hope, this remake makes me ashamed of my species.

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