The Best Film of 2015: Mad Max Fury Road Part 3

Visual Design:

The term “special effects” has become an ugly one for me in modern cinema. There was a time when SFX referred to make up effects, miniatures, green screen, stop motion, traditional animation, puppetry, stunts, and CGI. Now “special effects” only seems to involve CGI. Even traditional make up effects have gone CGI. Anytime someone says a film had “great special effects” they usually mean it had “good CGI.”

Mad Max Fury Road uses CGI. It uses it the way my other modern action film favorite, Dredd, did: to enhance scenes, NOT to create them. Fury Road, like Dredd and like everything directed by my favorite currently active director, Edgar Wright, uses primarily practical effects. Every car you see racing through the dusty desert, every weird character, all their odd costumes, even the crazy life-threatening stunts, are all actually happening. There is one large CGI set-piece used for the close of Act I, the dust storm. It should be noted that the way this scene was shot it was shot as though on a real camera. The angles are believable the camera never does a Peter Jackson-style swing through the top of the clouds, down through the funnel, then out to the cars. So even though the massive storm is computer creation we believe it to be real because it is filmed as realistically as the really real material.

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CGI is again used at the end of the film to enhance one of the movie’s spectacular crashes. Pieces were nudged to make them crowd more, and the debris was enhanced to give the scene an almost wryly comical punch (immediately after one of the emotional climaxes of the film it was well-played). Here again the scene was shot realistically, but items added to enhance the scene in question.

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The Crash of the Warrig shows how CGI is used to NUDGE a sequence…not create it…

There is something about having an actual item in front of the camera. It’s why original Star Wars miniature shots and the opening to Star Trek: The Next Generation have a timeless charm, where the lifeless animated creatures from the newer Star Wars films haven’t resonated as much. It’s also why Lucas’ use of WWII fighter footage made such good dogfighting scenes in A New Hope. Everything behaved or was based on reality. Something in our brains tells us that real items don’t behave the way CGI would often have us believe. I’m not one to rail completely against CGI, but seeing what can be accomplished when computer technology is combined with classical practical effects as seen in Scott Pilgrim, Dredd, and Fury Road as opposed to the dead-eyed, green screen covered worlds often encountered in big-budget action, sci-fi, and fantasy films of the modern era.

Editing:

Editing is horribly abused in modern film. Everyone uses the same tropes (the silence then punch line, the quick shots and cuts in fights, etc) and no one really understands why these techniques are used. Looking at modern fight scenes, even in fun modern action movies like The Expendables, James Bond, or Bourne films, close shots are used with wobbly shoulder-cams and rapid cuts. It’s almost designed to make it difficult to follow. In his documentary My Stunts Jackie Chan pointed out that in old Chinese martial arts films they wanted to see the toes of each combatant. There is a benefit to this as you see the full scene and understand the narrative of the fight. Chan’s films cut much closer, but still many fight scenes occur in wider shots, only changing angles when scenery or a closer shot is needed as an insert for a stunt that couldn’t quite work. Modern editing seems to be making up for the fact that most actors in these films can’t perform the scenes and also making up for the fact that they can’t create scenes that are well choreographed. Watching Max’s fearsome brawl with Furiosa is a treat. It is shot wide enough to see the action. Everything in the story of the fight (Wrestler Brett “Hitman” Hart often discusses the importance of getting the story of a fight clear, each combat has a narrative and the combatants have to tell their part) is obvious and the fight itself is rousing. Max uses subterfuge at first. Then Furiosa uses distraction. Both attack and defend brutally, Max only holding back as he isn’t, by nature, a heartless killer of innocents. Warboy Nux and Joe’s wives, spectators to the combat begin to interfere, pulling Max and Furiosa with chains even tackling them and attempting to provide assistance to their chosen side. In the end, even though the fight is sped up slightly, put it on full fast-forward, and it still makes sense. You know the story of the combat and who has the upper hand and why.

Editing mixed with great direction is even more important. Prior to the fight mentioned above, Max asks for water. Furiosa begins to bring it to him but Max, studying her carefully, decides it’s best if the rather dangerous imperator doesn’t get too close and gestures for one of the wives to bring him water. Then gestures for another to cut the chain that’s binding him. During this sequence nearly no dialogue is spoken but the messages are clear. In a wonderful piece of combined editing and direction, Furiosa (out of focus in the background) is obscured by the wives helping Max. They shift slightly and we see her rapidly charging him, then she tackles him. It’s a brilliant piece of subtle filmmaking that you just don’t see anymore. A perfect “marriage” as it were of editing and directing.

Sound Design:

It’s been said that sound design is one of those things you never notice unless it is done badly; lo-res sounds, poorly chosen effects, a badly cast voice actor can all derail even the best-shot, well-crafted narrative. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film with better sound design. From the rusty roar of engines to the barren sound of the desert, the effects are spot on. Furthermore, the way the sound effects combine the score is even more impressive. Like the famous repeated refrain of Beethoven’s 5th there is a rhythm that appears again and again. It appears when Furiosa knocks dust from the Rig’s intake. When Nux pounds his head on the tank. A repeated “boom” followed by a series of rhythmic booms that almost serves as Fury Road’s heartbeat. Sometimes (such as while Furiosa pounds sand off the warrig’s air intakes) it starts as foley, but is joined with the rhythmic drums of the score. This combination of effects and score are almost wonderfully married in the Doof Warrior, whose guitar strains are both part of the film and part of the soundtrack. Hearing the strains of the warparties’ drummer boy ominously announcing their approach in the distance or over sweeping aerial shots is a great device, to hear it combined with the music during the action sequences suggests sound design that has reached another level. It got everything right in Fury Road and it should NOT be ignored.

Conclusion:

So where does this leave Mad Max Fury Road in terms of Academy Awards? A film wonderfully conceived, tightly written, masterfully shot, and beautifully designed? My guess? Without an Oscar. Maybe one for editing or sound design. But none of the “big” awards for which it’s nominated. Why? For one Fury Road is not an “Oscar” movie. Though the Academy has voted for some so-called revolutionary films in the past (though I’m not sure I’d call The Artist that…) it has stayed firmly grounded in typical Oscar bait. Normally traditional. Typically Drama. Portrayals broad and “against type.” It’s why the “supporting” role awards are almost always much more interesting and usually filled with the better performances. So when something entirely traditional (I’m guessing The Revenant) wins everything this Sunday keep in mind that, even though the talented staff and cast of Fury Road walked out of the Dolby Theatre onto Hollywood Boulevard without as many of the little gold statues as they deserve, they do deserve enormous recognition for what they achieved and will hopefully win the vote of public opinion as “The People’s Best Picture of 2015.”

The Best Film of 2015: Mad Max Fury Road Part 1

Oscar season is almost upon us and even though I don’t really believe the awards themselves or the furor that surrounds them are typically worth it, this year something did occur that brought some interest back into the awards for me. Normally the academy selections are the typical Citizen Kane pretentious or “Oscar-Bait” style options; dominated by dramatic roles and established directors these are the films you can tell from the trailers are aiming for Oscar. In 2015 however something strange happened. The best-reviewed film and dark horse money maker wasn’t from the big-star, known-director, Hollywood awards factories, but from a series previously known for its camp over-the-top styling. This year Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for multiple awards, including best Picture and Director.

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Ever since I saw the film I’ve been saying it is the best film I’ve seen in a decade, perhaps of the 2000s. Everything about it is marvelously subtle, layered, and complex while maintaining an overall structure that is simple. George Miller made a movie that is as shallow or deep as the audience wants it to be. For those wanting purely shallow action, Fury Road provides that from minute one and almost never lets up during its run time. For those wanting a deeper experience…there has rarely been a movie in recent memory offering such intense world-building and character development, but without cramming into the audiences face with forced scenes and exposition.

For the next three weeks I’ll be looking at why Fury Road became the most unique film of 2015, why it was so highly reviewed, and why I believe it deserves to win (though it almost certainly and sadly won’t) every award for which it’s nominated. Starting with the basics: The Characters.

Creating Story Through People – The Characters of Mad Max: I’ve heard complaints that the plot to Fury Road is paper thin. Anyone who believes this apparently only saw the surface and somehow missed the dozens of plots upon plots built into the incredible world Miller created for the movie.  Most of these center not around the main story idea but the individual stories each of the main characters tells as the narrative progresses. It’s the kind of character development and storytelling other writers, even ones I respect, only wish they could accomplish. Here Miller does so with remarkable clarity and subtlety; again allowing the audience to get as little or as much as they want from them.

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Max Rockatansky: This was the role that made Mel Gibson but it has found new life in Tom Hardy. Those familiar with Mad Max’s story (like me those of us who grew up with the films) will be interested to see how the character has both changed and remained the same. Everything we need to know about Max’s history is given in a brief opening narration and during guilt-ridden hallucinations he experiences during the film. The opening narration is the only directly spoken exposition in the movie (exposition not masterfully woven into the dialogue or actions) and it is told so artfully it doesn’t feel like exposition. Max has been reduced to a man of solitude and instinct. He wants only to survive at this point. He’s helped people in the past and either paid for it with his own pain and torment or failed and watched them suffer. Now he exists on his own, wanting nothing to do with the awful world around him or its people. It’s interesting to see how his back story has changed from the original films. In the first Mad Max he is still a road cop in a post-apocalyptic world. His wife and infant are killed by a motorcycle gang, causing him to go on his revenge spree. Here we see an older daughter run down by massive vehicles mixed in with other characters who torment Max for not saving them. Veteran Max fans will wonder if Miller has altered Max’s back story or, given the method and appearance of these flashbacks, if Max has simply twisted his own history over the years of isolation. Max’s plot is one interwoven throughout the rest of the story. He experiences it, he doesn’t drive it. I’ve asked in previous posts, who are we in this film? In Fury Road we are Max. Miller constructed him to be our nameless, silent protagonist. The one through whom we act while surrounded by dozens of other more unusual and animated characters.   Max is the perfect protagonist. He isn’t “born special,” he’s not a chosen one, he doesn’t gain any super powers. He’s not the best at everything and more than once meets his match. Max just has an overwhelming will to survive, and that carries him through and makes him a hero. During the story Max finds his voice and even his ability to trust again and, maybe even achieves a little…redemption. Despite what some audiences claim he IS the main character. He has simply been moderated to be less extreme, and therefore more relatable than anyone else in the movie.

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Furiosa: Even before I saw the film I heard nonsense controversy of how the movie was pandering to feminists because of Max’s perceived reduced role and new character Furiosa’s expanded role. This isn’t the case (and even if it was George Miller can tell any story he wants…to those who say Mad Max has always been a “guy film” whatever that actually means, I’m forced to quote Jim Sterling, “I think they forgot who run Bartertown…) but Furiosa, played wonderfully by Charlize Theron, is definitely the most compelling new character I’ve seen on film in ages. She is a female Max, but Max prior to his self-imposed isolation. She still wants to help others, and if it hurts an awful warlord in the process even better. Furiosa is loaded with character. She’s a one-armed trusted lieutenant, or “imperator” of the main villain, The Immortan Joe. She steals his precious wives from him in an effort to take them to safety and at the same time severely cripple him and his evil empire. Her actual motivations are left mysterious beyond the obvious “rescue the wives” surface story, however you can tell there is more to her and her story with Joe. She, like Max, is tough, resourceful, thoughtful, and wily. Furiosa isn’t “treated” like actions films treat women. She isn’t a victim, nor is she the cliched tough girl.  In a terrific piece of equalizing gender roles, her sex is completely ignored. She’s not a woman, just Imperator Furiosa, respected and feared by her crew and Immortan Joe’s Warboys. Her fight scene with Max is one of the best I’ve seen in ages, it’s fast, vicious, and again removes all gender roles. Furiosa is brutal and heartless during the scene, and tries her hardest to kill Max, only being prevented by bad luck and Max’s deception. Max, for his part brutally fights back, with only the last vestiges of his “good guy” mentality preventing him from killing her when he has the chance. Furiosa’s back story is told in vague comments, but you can tell it’s there, written behind the scenes, and portrayed with pain and smoldering anger by Theron. Audiences showed up for the Mad Max name…but left marveling at Furiosa.

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The Immortan Joe: Joe is possibly one of the most intimidating villains of the millennium (I’ll have to update my post on the subject…) Portrayed by Hugh Keays-Byrne (who incidentally also portrayed “Toecutter” the main antagonist of the original Mad Max) Joe is both mysterious and over-the-top. His motivations are clearer than anyone’s, he wants his wives back because, like all kings he wants a healthy male heir, but his back story is very much left to visual cues and inference. He’s aging, but has various life-support systems and armor mimicking strength, so he is both weakening but powerful. He is adorned with medals and carries scepters of office, insinuating military background. Joe runs the Citadel, how he came to power is a mystery during the film (expanded in the comic series, however) and why he holds so much sway over the population and even the other warlords is clear, literally: Joe controls the water and like his escaped wife Toast the Knowing states, “Because of that he controls all of us.” Joe’s role is interesting because as he leads his war party in the chase to retrieve his wives, he clearly wants to be as merciless as possible…but can’t simply blow away Furiosa and her war rig because he doesn’t want to kill his most precious resource, his brides and their potential healthy sons. He’s odious in his mentality and appearance, making him one of the most effective villains in recent memory and his relentless at-all-costs pursuit of Furiosa and Max quite literally drives the movie. He will never stop hunting them, so our need to escape with the protagonists is both dire and seemingly hopeless. A terrific narrative needs a terrific villain and The Immortan Joe more than fits the bill.

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Nux: Perhaps the most interesting of all is the warboy Nux portrayed by Nicholas Hoult. Nux starts as a dying “half-life warboy,” one of Joe’s countless soldiers. It’s because of Nux and his desire to die gloriously that Max gets involved in the first place, hooked to Nux’s pursuit vehicle as a mobile IV. Nux’s arc, however, transcends even Max’s or Furiosa’s. He begins as a single-minded fanatic of Joe’s invented cult, spouting the scriptures and fervent in his belief (more about the cult next week…) but through just one action, when Joe’s escaped wife Capable shows him kindness, perhaps for the first time in his life, he sees a whole new world. In many ways Nux is the manic side of the audience’s experience of this world as Max is their film’s relatable surrogate. Nux represents the typical resident of a dusty, desolate world, where anything different or remarkable, even if brutal or horrifying, is considered wonderful. During the story we see him go from fanatic warboy, to obsessed soldier, to hopeless outcast, to sympathetic ally. His story is in many ways the most compelling and has the most stark and interesting path. If you aren’t a fan of Nux by the climax of the film you weren’t paying attention at all…

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The Five Wives: Miller designed them to essentially be one unit of five each with distinct personalities and roles. The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington Whiteley) is their very-pregnant leader, Capable (Riley Keough) the second in command and most diplomatic of them, Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) tough, resourceful, and unyielding in her desire for freedom, The Dag (Abbey Lee Kershaw) mysterious but perceptive and sardonic, and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eston) the youngest and most easily led but who finds her independence on the journey. These characters could have easily just been a mere McGuffin for the plot, instead Miller created distinct roles and even arcs for each. The sacrifices and small stories of each, as they either give everything during the journey, learn about the world or themselves, and/or find a place they never knew they could have tells a story even beyond one of escape. Their story is perhaps the most hopeful and they make the most profound statements of the film and give important messages to modern society: “You Cannot Own a Human Being” and “Who Killed the World?”

Miller characters go far beyond what is typical for modern action film. They are complex without endless, needless, artificial dialogue-based exposition and they all have their own stories tightly interwoven with the main story. Next week will be a look at the main plot and the incredible depth with which the world was created.

Creative Christmas: Beetlejuice

After the Halloween artwork I did I was itching to do some other dark, horror-related art as an X-Mas present to my RevPub Partner since the previous one turned out so well.  I originally thought Ghostbusters but after some thinking I decided to do a piece of Beetlejuice and Lydia.

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I was still starting with pencil but I was encouraged by the basic premise.

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After some thinking I decided I wanted to show his icky teeth so I gave him an open mouth smile.

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This was the first time I added real color to the image.  I liked how it turned out and this was a great first color project as if it looked a bit ragged it was ok on the Ghost with the most.20151113_164031

I was really happy with the finished product.  Now I had to figure out what I was going to do with the other pic I decided to do to match it, Lydia!

The Jem Movie: Universal Got What They Deserved

Jem and the Holograms 2015 had the third-worst opening in box-office history. That’s a pretty hefty price tag and epic fail for Universal, and my response is: They deserved it.

As a woman in my 30s, I was delighted to hear they were going to make a movie of my beloved childhood idol. You see, I was obsessed with Jem and the Holograms when I was a girl. I had the dolls, car, outfits, cassette tapes and books. My mom and I dressed up as them for Halloween.
As an adult, I have even watched a few episodes online. They are not as appealing now, but my taste in music has improved and I expect more. However, I still enjoy them.

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That is why I refused to see this movie after the trailer was released. Jem’s story was not a heart-felt, coming-of-digital-age story. The original Jem series was about glam, fashion, music, and relationships. There was drama, adult themes, mild cartoon violence, and flawed heroes. It was an 80s cartoon! These cartoons brought real-world issues to kids in a fun way. They were not politically correct. They did not try to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Many 80s cartoons simply taught kids how to deal with conflict.

Instead of rebooting the cartoon into an animated feature or sticking to some of the original story, Universal decided to modernize – aka bastardize – it. I will never see the movie, so I’m going to have to bash the trailers. Here are my biggest problems with the movie and why it failed:

  • A YouTube star. Because the world needed or wanted that? No.
  • It was a teen story. Jem and the Holograms and The Misfits were not teens. They were adults. They partied, had adult relations, and experienced adult conflicts. The cartoon showed kids how to deal with mature problems and relationships.
  • Universal chose the wrong audience. Who was the audience for this movie? It was women between the ages of 30-40 and possibly their moms. This age group is nichey, but there are roughly 157 million women born between 1980 and 1990 (US Census Bureau). That was the audience. As someone in that audience, I can say that a movie made about Hole vs. Babes in Toyland would have been more accurate to Jem and catered to the audience.
  • The music was awful. Again, audience. My generation still listens to Joan Jett and Guns N Roses. We still love hairbands and bad-A chicks. Not pop stars.
  • Identity crisis. Jem did not have an identity problem. She knew who she was. She was a rockstar superhero with a secret identity. She was not a troubled teen trying to find herself or hide and from the world. You would think with the superhero trend right now, Universal would have been smart enough to make that angle work. Here’s an idea: A female Scott Pilgrim-type movie. That would have been gold.
  • The costumes. If you’re going to “modernize” an 80s cartoon/movie, how does it make sense to have them play a keytar? The makeup and costumes looked like a Hunger Games rip off. In fact, I get a very Capitol feel from Juliette Lewis’ character and Hollywood from the trailer.
  • Synergy was Eve from Walle. And a projector that played home movies at that. The original Synergy was an 80s supercomputer built to alternate reality. She created holograms – hence the name – and could change their appearance. Synergy transformed reality, allowing them to have a different identity.

And there you have it. I accepted a live-action movie, and for a moment, was excited to see what Hollywood could do with my childhood idol. When I realized I could not relate to the story and characters, and they butchered it, I vowed to never see it. I would not watch this movie if it was my only form of entertainment. I will never support it. And Universal should pay close attention because 157 million women apparently felt the same way.

Alien Resurrection (1997): Put it Out of its Misery…

I saw this film when it first came out in theaters in 1997 and my love for the franchise, begun by my adoration of Aliens and fostered by various issues of the Dark Horse comic series and their novelizations, swayed my opinion of it at the time. I remember thinking, “well that was weird…” but not hating it.

I’ve seen it for the first time since 1997 and I can now unequivocally say: I hate this movie. I never thought I’d hate a film in this franchise but here we are. Alien: Resurrection.

With the events of Alien 3 killing Ripley as a character we were all surprised to see Sigourney Weaver back as the film’s star. Set 300 years after the events of its predecessor, Resurrection involves cloning Ripley. In the process they made a lot of errors, and in the latest version she has been mis-cloned and accidentally included some xenomorph material. It’s not a bad idea, but how these kinds of organisms can be cross-cloned is beyond me, and why it gives Ripley some weird alien attributes is even stranger. It’s the kind of idea that sounds good until you actually sit down to think about it.

Alien/Ripley Cross Clones. The only interesting part of the movie really…

The plot actually follows a very rogue-trader-esque (yeah I have to throw in a 40k reference in this series) crew who has been tasked with delivering some cargo to the military base where the Ripley cloning has occurred. Their cargo turns out to be some people in stasis who are to be used to hatch aliens.

I’ll pause here to mention this script was written by Joss Whedon who has since said it was the “execution” of the script that made the film so poor. I love Buffy and Avengers I liked Firefly even though I don’t share the internet’s obsession with it. I have to disagree with Joss. The whole concept is a mess from the ground up. Why advance centuries into the future again? Why make a Ripley clone that is part alien? Why include space pirates, though I think the reason for them is because Joss likes space pirates…which is fine and all but it doesn’t make them work in the movie. The tone, characters, and plot are so far removed from Alien, Aliens, and hell even Alien 3 it doesn’t even feel like the same series. To me it just shows even a great sci-fi writer like Joss doesn’t always come up with gold…

The space pirate characters are all relatively inconsequential. There’s commander Elgyn, his pilot girlfriend Hillard, their mechanic in a “wheelchair” Vriess, and the cool guy with dreads and two pistols, Christie. They also include Ron Perlman as Johner and Wynona Ryder as Call and it was during this movie that I realized that Wynona Ryder is actually really good in almost everything she’s in and she’s pretty underrated. That’s the only praise I can provide this film.

The other pirates exist essentially as bodies to be eaten up and provide some 6th grade “whoa that’s cool” action sequences where people pull guns out of their coats and shoot the place up in comic book poses.

Here are some fundamental issues I had with this:

  • Aliens get loose: Ok so a scientist studying aliens with acid blood doesn’t make sure they can’t acid blood their way out of their cages? There’s “nature finding a way” chaos theory, and then there’s absolute shocking stupidity…
  • Space Pirates: Seriously these characters serve no purpose…  I remember a quote from Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, “Is this the most important event to happen to the characters, if not why aren’t we seeing that?” Take that a step further, “If these characters aren’t performing a specific plot purpose, why do they need to be in the story?” This movie could have started with a Weyland-Yutani shipment of bodies to the facility and been just as effective.
  • El-lien Ripley: Why did they even bother with this alien/Ripley hybrid? It basically removed Ripley’s humanity from her character and made her a less-interesting version of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner from Terminator 2. Now she’s flat and dull. Ripley…dull. Never thought I’d see the day…
  • SPOILER ALERT for Unnecessary Plot Twist: Call’s an android. An android made by other androids that rebelled and didn’t want to do menial work. There is actually no purpose for her to be an android. And the story of the android rebellion sounds far more interesting than the story they show here…wait that’s kind of like the plot to AI…..never mind that’s not a better story.
  • Alien/Human Hybrids: Ok so we see a Ripley mixed with Aliens (and in one of the only interesting scenes in the movie, all the failed incarnations that preceded her) but we also see an Alien mixed with humans, which is birthed out of an alien queen. Now take the coolest of alien designs, the queen, and give it bulbous plastic bag belly, that’s what this pregnancy looked like. Then make the absolute worst looking alien/human hybrid imaginable. It looks like a shaved bigfoot with a Halloween Shao Khan mask on. With a face powered by some kind of primitive muppet technology. I actively hate “Newborn” the so called Alien Sapien. The fact that this albino gorilla with alopecia kills the alien queen makes me ill.   And why in the name of f**k does it think Ripley is its mother? Cloning, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. It still makes no logical sense.
The face of the ultimate alien creature…evidently…

At its core the biggest flaw with this film is that it has elevated Ripley into a legend and plot fulcrum. “Fated” characters in media have become popular, but this ignores what makes the source characters relatable. Ripley in Alien AND Aliens was relatable because she was just a person…out of her league, doing her best, and succeeding through guile and determination. Since the end of Alien 3 she’s become the prophetess of the xenomorph galaxy, hunted by Weyland corp and is the center of the alien/human interaction in the universe. Let’s face it all she did was survive the first encounter… Taking her here from there loses touch with Ripley entirely. It’s a version of the problem I mentioned in my original Conan reviews and my Judge Dredd comparison. By making the story or the character’s place in it so world-endingly big it severely drops in relevance and reality and rather than dramatic takes the audience out of the reality. It ultimately just becomes forgettable or even worse a plot that “feels” like a movie.

Alien: Resurrection is the first of these movies I can’t recommend even a little.   It’s unpleasant to look at, full of characters you hate, and with a story that makes you wish it could be erased from the canon.

I give it half a muppet Humano-alien face out of five… science-fiction, alien

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Alien 3 (1992): The Adequate Organism

How do you follow up one of the greatest sequels in film history? One that advanced the story and added marvelous new lore to a franchise? Expand it further? Add more new, exciting elements? Or…just remake the first movie again with less interesting supporting characters? It seems, after a long pre-development and various incarnations (some of which sound much better than the end result) the final producers of Alien 3 chose the latter.

David Fincher’s Alien 3 once again picks up where the previous film left off. Last time Ripley was found after slipping through a number of safety sweeps by a chance salvage crew. This time the Sulaco, the ship in which they escaped at the end of the prior installment, crash lands on a prison refinery, and Ripley is the only survivor… Ok, it may not be fair to compare Alien 3 to Aliens but it must be done so I’ll get it out of the way. Aliens spent a lot of time effortlessly making you absolutely love each character. Their deaths, even those of minor characters, are felt as the audience is included like a member of the team. The characters who survivd are a perfect mix. Those we care about saving the most and those we are the most invested in. So naturally in Alien 3 they kill everyone off camera with no narrative or adequate reason. Hicks, who so masterfully took control of the marines after the initial disastrous engagement and supported Ripley: dead. Newt, who we were completely devoted to saving and loved for her ability to survive on her own: dead. Bishop, who allowed us to trust a different kind of being and helped save the day at least twice: dead. Why? So they could hit a massive Deus Ex Machina reset button on the franchise and get Ripley helpless in a lonely environment against a single alien again.

We also see, in the opening sequence, there are alien eggs on board the craft that infect some of the stasis crew with alien eggs. Ok… Now barring any nonsense excuses…how did the eggs get on the Sulaco? Since the ship had never been on LV426, the landing craft only touched down long enough to get everyone on board, and since the xenomorphs don’t have tyranid-style harpies to send to the vessel, where did the eggs come from? Certainly not from the alien queen who was briefly on the Sulaco, but Aliens makes a point of showing her detach from her egg sac in order to chase Ripley. One explanation is that Bishop put them there. Which not only goes against his characterization but adds the further question…where did he get them? During one of his off-screen lurks around the queen’s egg chamber in Aliens that didn’t get him ripped to pieces and no one knew about, showed, or ever mentioned? So the Deus Ex Machina pulled two eggs from the asshole dimension in order to get aliens on board the ship. Even though it’s a plot hole big enough to fly the Nostromo through we’ll just have to accept it as read to continue the review.

Clearly Alien 3 has derailed the terrific ride left by its predecessor. For the sake of fairness and sanity I’ll stop direct mentions of the previous sequel and judge the film on its own merits.

So Ripley is alone in her knowledge of the alien again, this time in a monastic prison environment for double-Y chromosome ultra-aggressive violent criminals. It’s not a bad set up and in a way puts her in a similar situation as the first film, except all of the other characters are threatening and dangerous not just passive aggressive or broken robots.

Naturally an alien gets loose on the ship and, in one of two decent expansions of lore; the facehugger infects a dog, resulting in a slightly different kind of alien. One that moves differently from the ones we’ve seen from humans. AND we see alien POV which gives a fisheye camera angle as the alien skitters around through tubes and on the walls and ceilings.

The so-called “dog alien”

We also discover Ripley has an alien inside her, as she was…somehow…infected while in stasis (I guess the facehugger had a cat burglar glass cutter and crept inside her pod for a snuggle at some point) with an alien queen no less. Seeing that alien queens can be gestated just like standard aliens was an interesting piece of info we’d never before seen.

Being a prison monastery there are of course no weapons, so the prisoners and Ripley choose to fight the alien via craftiness. By luring it through a dedicated path and trapping it inside a mold, which can be filled with molten metal. The idea is great for suspense as we POV the alien chasing scared prisoners and show the panicked prisoners fleeing from locked door to locked door, channeling the alien the desired direction. It doesn’t quite pass the logic test as it’d be like a crippled cockroach trying to corral a bitey mouse through a massive wheel of cheese. Not only that but how, even with a serious head start, this plan would last beyond the first prisoner is a major flaw, since aliens move like giant pissed tiger beetles and can leap from wall to wall like Jackie Chan on speed. But it still creates a taught and exciting sequence.

Sigourney Weaver is also still excellent as Ripley, even though some of her character growth we experienced through the first and second installments is a little muted. Charles S Dutton is great as Dillon, the tough but devout prisoner who we trust the most but we can feel his roiling rage underneath. The rest of the prisoners, even Clemens (Charles Dance) who Ripley connects with and the warden Harold Andrews played by Grian Glover are good characters but we never feel a part of their world or really invested in their stories. Still, they do help create a nice, dark atmosphere with a constant threat of violence from both the alien and Ripley’s supposed allies.

The last element is the introduction of Weyland-Yutani Corporate soldiers (boy will we be tired of them by the end of this review series…) as Ripley sacrifices herself to prevent the queen alien from hatching and creating a new brood. A satisfying ending for this movie, even if it isn’t the narrative many of us wanted to follow after the fantastic environment setup in Alien and the masterful execution of Aliens. It felt as though this installment was intended to be the end of Ripley’s story. And it does at least succeed in finishing her story in a satisfying enough way for the narrative they crafted for Alien 3. Though many fans may have liked to see the series spin off to focus on other characters, Hicks, or even Newt as a new showrunner, if we had to stay with Ripley, we did let her go out with honor and with her final revenge on the company that used her and the aliens that tormented her.

But as we’ll see in the next review…some franchises can’t leave well enough alone…

For Alien 3 though, the film is decent enough on its own and is an entertaining if flawed piece of sci-fi horror, which had the grave misfortune of being the first step on the road to disappointment for the series. Still a good watch and can provide some thrills in the dark helplessness of the situation and our investment in the aliens story. Not amazing but it earns an adequate and allegorical 2.5 busted Bishops out of 5.

Bishop