Ridley Scott

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

Blade Runner

blade-runner-art-roy-prisThis movie was like a big glaring gap in my film experience, which is almost embarrassing considering that I’m a huge fan of both science fiction and Ridley Scott. I watched it once almost 20 years ago, when my English was still rather shaky, so most of the dialogue and story details sailed right over my head. Though I couldn’t tell you what actually happened in the movie, it’s amazing how much of its imagery remained in my head just from that one watch: Daryl Hannah’s shock of blond hair and black spray-on paint around her eyes, Sean Young’s 40s-inspired hair, cigarette and that fabulous black power suit, and Rutger Hauer’s striking, blond, beautiful Roy Batty, whose face looks like it could have come from some epic blood-soaked Norse myth.

The story, which I had little memory of, turned out to be fairly simple: in the not-so-distant future, a former police officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with tracking down four escaped replicants – artificial humanoid beings – and “retiring” them. And no, “retirement” in this case doesn’t mean settling down in a nice corner somewhere to pursue your favourite hobbies and play with grandkids. Deckard also gets involved with Rachael, a beautiful experimental replicant who’s been planted with artificial memories and doesn’t realise that she’s not human.

Visually, the movie’s aged incredibly well, and it doesn’t hurt that the dark, noirish atmosphere of perpetual rain-soaked night does a lot to hide the dated special effects; I only really noticed that some of the flying ships didn’t look quite right. The grimy, crowded, dystopian metropolis is almost like a character of its own and the set design is exceptional throughout – a mix of shiny and futuristic on one hand and old, grubby and decaying on another. The only truly dated aspect of the film is the very 80s soundtrack, synths and all, but with the recent 80s musical revivals it doesn’t sound out of place today.

This is not a movie with the clearly defined good and bad guys that makes it easy to take sides. While Deckard is technically a protagonist, he’s a dull burned out creature who slowly rediscovers his humanity and capacity for tenderness and empathy. The replicants he hunts down have killed people in their attempt to escape, but their brief existence, programmed to last no more than four years, is so miserable and their desperate quest for longer lives is so understandable that it makes them easy to sympathise with, even when their actions are cold and violent. Their concern and care for each other is shown to be greater than that of the actual humans, who are mostly portrayed as a faceless, indifferent mass. Another thought I had while watching is that no way this movie would get made today, with its slow deliberate pace and one scene between Deckard and Rachael that would be deemed hugely problematic these days and probably cause million blogger outcries. The Director’s Cut version I re-watched lacked Deckard’s narration and the obviously happy ending I dimly remembered, which in my opinion made for a better film that doesn’t spoonfeed the audience as much. Was Deckard a replicant himself? No firm opinion on that though the clues are definitely there. It’s best taken as a great ambiguous ending on par with Inception’s spinning top.

The Martian

martianReally loved this movie. It’s a strange one coming from Ridley Scott, whose previous sci-fi films are not exactly known for their sense of optimism and belief in the best in people, yet with The Martian he strikes a perfect tone: it’s entertaining, inspiring, enormously good-natured and with a perfect mix of seriousness and silliness. It celebrates science, intelligence, perseverance, teamwork, and is full of likeable characters I wanted to give hugs to. It is also a love letter to that humble vegetable, a potato (no, seriously).

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Boil’em, mash’em, stick’em in a stew…

Like Gravity, the film wastes zero time on the setup: right off the bat, we’re on Mars, where Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew get caught in a nasty storm and are forced to leave in a hurry. But because Matt Damon has a crappy luck with missions on other planets, he gets knocked down by a piece of equipment and is left behind, presumed dead. So he finds himself stranded alone on Mars, and, with meagre supplies at his disposal, must figure out a way to survive and contact NASA back on Earth.

I haven’t read the book the movie’s based on, so I somewhat expected it to be something like Castaway on Mars, but the action is split between Mark’s adventures on Mars, the rest of his team who are heading back home, and the NASA headquarters, where a bunch of scientists work on bringing him home once they realise that he’s alive. I don’t know how much of the science in this movie is credible, but I had an absolute ball watching smart, resourceful people and their ingenuity at solving problems. The supporting cast in this movie is stellar: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean (for once playing a character who doesn’t die); their characters might be painted with broad strokes but each gets just enough detail to be memorable. It was also refreshing that the movie had no villain that everybody must struggle against, like a corrupt politician or military or whatever; Daniels’ Director of NASA might at times make decisions that sound heartless, but he’s a guy who simply has to keep an eye on the big picture so I could see where he was coming from, at least. And as Mark, Matt Damon has never been more likeable; he’s smart, funny, cocky but vulnerable. From the very start, he’s like, f**k this, I’m not going to die here, and then he just goes on about the business of surviving. Another refreshing detail was that, unlike 99% of movies with similar scenarios, there was no teary family back on Earth to pull at your heartstrings – Mark’s got the audience’s sympathy anyway so none of that sentimentality is necessary. I think he mentions his parents once, and that’s it.

Humour is another notable thing about the movie; there was a couple of moments near the end where I felt like it descended into Joss Whedon-like quipping too much, but otherwise humour arises organically from character and situation and adds a lot to the enjoyment. There was one Lord of the Rings joke which was particularly hilarious with Sean Bean in the scene (I half-expected him to say, one does not simply walk into Mars, haha). Needless to say, technically and visually the movie is amazing. I would totally visit Mars if it wasn’t for, y’know, the distance and the lack of oxygen and the limit of space travel nowadays.

If I had a semi-quibble, it’s that, because the film picks a particular tone and sticks to it, there’s not much room left for a more psychologically nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to be a sole human being stuck on a hostile, lifeless planet for months. Not that the film skips it entirely, and introspection in this situation would probably be something you’d want to avoid like plague anyway, but I would have liked to see more of the moments which show the vastness and solitude of Mars. These moments only really happen at the end, and they’re some of the most beautiful and memorable images in the movie. But then, The Martian is just a different beast with a different focus, it’s not meant to be dark or dense or meditative, and what it does it does brilliantly.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut

abf5tKq5Just like Prometheus, Kingdom of Heaven is another Ridley Scott film I really enjoy despite its many problems. This extended cut doesn’t fix the core issues I have, but it’s still a far more satisfying experience than the horribly rushed theatrical cut.

The year is 1184, and in France, a young blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) is haunted by his wife’s recent suicide, a sin which condemns her to hell in the eyes of the church. He gets a chance at a new life when a group of Crusaders come by the village, among them Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), who reveals himself to be Balian’s father and asks him to join him in the Holy Land of Jerusalem.

First, the good stuff. The world this movie creates with its sets and costumes is absolutely gorgeous and stunning to look at. In particular, the wide shots of the Christian and Muslim armies, with their horses and banners and splendid armour, are pure medieval porn. More than that, this onscreen world feels truly lived in – a quality that is hard to capture and which Ridley Scott’s films do so well even when they falter in other respects. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams, combining Arabic and medieval Christian themes, is also wonderful (the jaunty Ibelin theme is particularly lively and memorable). The final siege of Jerusalem is truly spectacular; it starts off at night with a lone rider appearing in the desert, his sword shining in the moonlight, which is then followed by the fiery shower of missiles pouring on the city, massive siege towers employed during the day, and some clever defense tactics I haven’t previously seen in movies. Of course, like so many Hollywood films this one wants to have it both ways: it revels in the spectacle of warfare, while at the same time trying to show how terrible war is for both sides. War is bad… but doesn’t it just look awesome?

The supporting cast of the movie is also fabulous. Actors like Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons (playing Tiberius, the Marshal of Jerusalem) are naturals at this kind of medieval epic; Neeson might have played the wise-older-mentor-who-dies role too many times now but he’s just so good at it and his rugged masculine presence here is very welcome.¬†Ghassan Massoud, who plays the Muslim ruler Saladin, is amazing in the role; he’s got tremendous presence and one of those faces full of character that command your attention. Eva Green is Sibylla, the sister of the King of Jerusalem and the mother of a future king, and (duh) Balian’s love interest. I’ve been a fan of hers since Casino Royale and it’s a shame she’s mostly had flops and crappy sequels like Sin City since then; she’s an exotic beauty that Hollywood has no idea what to do with (very much like Angelina Jolie earlier in her career). I remember reading that she refused to promote this movie at the time, and having seen the extended cut it’s easy to see why. Her character’s storyline was butchered horribly in the theatrical version, completely removing the agonising choice she has to make which all but kills her. Sibylla is also, refreshingly, one of the very few morally grey characters in this movie which paints its good and bad guys with a very broad brush. The movie is also full of memorable minor characters like David Thewlis’ wise and unflappable Hospitaler, Alexander Siddig as a Muslim servant Balian encounters in the desert, and oh wait is that Jamie Lannister as the village sheriff?

My absolute favourite performance though belongs to Edward Norton as the leper king Baldwin IV. Hidden behind his eerie mask, he can only convey his character through the body language, voice and eyes, and while his overall screen time probably amounts to less than 10 minutes, he manages to create one of the most regal, haunting and memorable film characters I’ve ever seen. Though of course costume designers deserve credit too: the king’s metal mask is a far-fetched choice to wear in the heat of the desert, but I can forgive the contrivance because it’s such a striking visual. I looked up the real historical Baldwin IV by the way, and while he wasn’t anywhere near as saintly as the movie paints him, his is surely one of the greatest examples of guts and backbone in history.

The not so good stuff? Poor Orlando Bloom copped a lot of criticism for his performance, and yes it’s fair to say that he’s been terribly miscast here. He tries hard but he’s just not a leading man material, certainly not in an epic. He does have a rather soulful quality about him which is appealing, but no real grit or substance; his attempts at intensity come down to staring really hard into nothing and pursing his lips. It becomes glaringly obvious near the end of the movie, when most of the seasoned supporting cast either die or leave, and it falls to Bloom alone to carry the movie on his inadequate shoulders and give all sorts of heroic speeches that are meant to inspire but instead make me feel embarrassed on his behalf. He probably would have worked better if the movie showed him deliberately playing against the type, but it clearly means Balian to be a hero in the mold of Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

To be fair to Bloom though, the character of Balian as he’s written is problematic at the core and I don’t know if anyone else would have fared that much better. The character is just all over the place; he is supposedly a troubled man who comes to the Holy Land in search of redemption for himself and his wife (who by the way he seems to promptly forget as soon as he gets to Jerusalem), but then he’s also a Mr Perfect Badass who will beat any man in a fight, calm down any spooked horse, figure out how to procure water for his land because apparently the people who’ve only been living there for generations are too dumb to figure it out, is a genius tactician and defender, and is so perfectly noble he will do no wrong even if it means that countless lives will be lost because of his decision. When he arrives to Jerusalem, everyone there thinks he’s awesome right from the get go, because his father was awesome. When he does blatantly commit wrongdoings, the film brushes them away. He commits a violent murder in a fit of rage? No big deal. He sleeps around with a married woman? It’s ok, because her husband is a bad guy. Balian is just a humourless, hypocritical bore.

Then there’s the ultra simplistic way the film handles politics and religion of the period. I guess the film should be commended for not making out either Christian or Muslim side wholly bad or good, but what it does instead is simply split most of the characters on both sides into black-and-white good and bad guys. On the Christian side, we have not one but two corrupt boo-hiss priest characters, a moustache-twirling Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas in a hilariously overwrought performance) and those bad, bad Templar knights led by the bloodthirsty Reynald de Chatillion (Brendan Gleeson in a hilariously overwrought performance that’s actually very enjoyable – Reynald knows he’s a monster and by god he revels in it). On the Muslim side, the movie is at pains to portray Saladin as being pushed into the conflict by his own mullah and the actions of the Christians. In Steven Runciman’s crusade books, Saladin does come off as one of the most likeable figures of the time, but make no mistake, he was totally onboard with the jihad thing and his peace with Baldwin IV was strictly temporary. It’s also pretty obvious that all the positive characters on the Christian side, even the ones that actually belong to a religious order, take a position that’s more about personal conscience than religion, which leads them to spout speeches that I might personally agree with but which are also much too 21st-century to be believable.

Overall though, while far from perfect I still think Kingdom of Heaven is one of the better historical epics of the last 10 years, and its good qualities outweigh the bad ones, for me.