Friday, August 14, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 5: Death By American Flag

A while back when I took a look at the Alien series I accidentally left out the fourth film. I feel like it was accidental, that so many years without having seen it just forced it from my mind as I was so caught up in the original three and their merits. Maybe it was because I was kind of embarrassed to look at the black mark on the franchise and on the career of its director and stars. It proves an age old truth that an independent with vision plus studio money, science fiction and a deadline equals the worst work of their career but that's no consolation for just how bad this movie is. Filled with uncharacteristic set-pieces that die-hards consider sacrilegious and more comic misfires than you can shake a stick at, the only thing I can say in this film's defense is that its director made sure that the film was interesting to look at more often than not. Not even a cast of hardened character actors could save this dreck. But it put me in mind of the other times that a French director was put in charge of a big deal American movie with actors who don't share a first language. The result are always kind of the same: some miscalculations that make it difficult, but not impossible, to enjoy.

Alien: Resurrection
by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Just when you thought it was over, some scientists have cloned Ellen Ripley, hero of the last three Alien films in the hopes of extracting that queen she had in her stomach when she leapt to her death at the end of Alien³. I know, I know, that queen came from a planet somewhere, why not just find that planet? Cause if Sigourney Weaver wasn't in this movie absolutely no one would have seen it and 20th Century Fox sure as shit wouldn't have paid for it. So they've brought her back and started breeding aliens and then...they keep her around for some reason. Then some people show up at the big ship where they're cloning people because it's also a military ship on top of a science that doesn't make any sense....if this is still the company...then wouldn't it just be private security contractors not the military...and whose military? Earth? Space? So then a salvage crew that are actually smugglers land because their lead guy, Elgyn, wants to steal from them (not that it matters). Then predictably the aliens break loose and Ripley and the remaining salvage crew, an evil scientist, a soldier, and a guy with an embryo in his chest all have to get to the crew's ship and leave. Then some other stuff happens that really doesn't matter in the slightest and the most likable people get killed and then they get to earth and it's over. Oh and then there's that alien that's supposed to be part human that actually just looks like a ghost as drawn by Todd McFarlane.

What a fucking mess. I blame that fucking Joss Whedon. He's the guy who created both the terrible Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie and the terrible television series based on his stupid movie. Then in his downtime he wrote Titan A.E. (which was stupid) and Firefly/Serenity. Alien: Resurrection was a run-through for Firefly and Serenity as its template is identical: a motley crew of space traveling gunslingers with secrets. I hate this movie almost as much as I hate all the other stuff he does. To think that this movie, the fourth in a series that I love, is a dress rehearsal for his stupid ass pet project is really kind of insulting. His writing is always the same, we follow a bunch of people who are either high schoolers who talk like thirty year olds or thirty year olds who talk like high schoolers and the result is always the same: I don't like or care about any of them because they're types not people. Who cares what happens to character types? I don't. Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn't quite know enough about that kind of writing to make it self-referential or post-modern. This was his first film without Marc Caro, so he had to do everything himself. The dialogue is played mostly straight, which is at odds with Whedon's writing. Jeunet was too concerned with the colour scheme and the production design to try and read into a very juvenile American style of writing. He didn't even think to make the most of the character actors he'd been given. Ron Perlman and Dan Hedaya can be good and Dominique Pinon is almost always good (this is his only english role that I know of). In fact, everybody can be good, but they're not here. Leland Orser, Raymond Cruz, Michael Wincott and Brad Dourif are all competent, but Jeunet didn't know how to direct them. Winona Ryder is at her very worst and everything that made Ellen Ripley a likable character before is missing. In short this was a fusion of styles that didn't work and the performances are one of the many casualties that resulted.

Alien: Resurrection was also one of those unfortunate films that tried to make use of CG before they had mastered that so while the aliens look better than they did in the Alien³, they don't look much better. In fact in close-up they're the worst yet. Jeunet gave them personal touches that just made them look kinda lizardy and goofy. He also added a lot of yellowish gore and slimy blood effects so when the movie isn't compositionally repulsive, it's also physically repulsive. All I can say is that it's an action film and as a 12 year old boy I enjoyed the action sequences...that's about it. It's anti-charismatic and uncomfortable and just kind of sad that they let Joss Whedon turn such an amazing series into a faux-hard-boiled gooey abortion. Sometimes better gore effects can be applied to an old formula and a decent time can be had. Case in point:

The Hills Have Eyes
by Alexandre Aja

Granted a remake and a sequel are two different ballgames but I think that Aja spoke the language of horror movies and so was able to make a better film than Jeunet could in similar circumstances. Also, the difference between Aja's Haute Tension and Aja's The Hill Have Eyes is the difference between pie and cobbler, one's just a little messier. Ok, so, the story is basically the same as Wes Craven's excellent original except the politics come out guns blazing because Aja and subtlety don't get along. The Carter family pulls in at a rest stop on their way to their vacation spot and meet a shifty old guy who'd seconds earlier finished screaming at a young girl called Ruby. Big Bob, the head of the family, is played by Ted Levine so he's an imposing ex-cop jagoff; his wife Ethel is the sort of religious mother that no one pays attention to anymore. Bobby and Brenda are the youngest kids so they bicker a lot. Their older sister Lynn and her husband Doug Bukowski (you gotta be fucking kidding me? That's the name of your left leaning 20 something?) have a daughter, Catherine, and they don't exactly gel with the rest of the family. The Carters leave with some supplies and raised eyebrows at the old man's behavior. All in all, everyone's a little miserable and they get much more miserable when someone pulls up a home made spike strip and strands them in the middle of the desert with no spare tire. Bob and Doug go looking for help in different directions; Doug comes back empty handed a little while later and Bob heads to the service station. He shows up in time to findthe old man trying to kill himself. Before he can get a straight answer someone shows up, kills him properly, brains Big Bob and drags him into a mineshaft.

The Carters get their asses beat when the as-yet-unseen villains distract everyone by tying Bob to a cactus and lighting him on fire. While the men investigate, a bunch of mutants board their RV and rape and kill the women. Only Brenda, Doug, Bobby and one of their german shepherds are left to exact their revenge, which is part Rube Goldberg, part Rambo and a lot of gore and get back baby Catherine from the mutant's clutches. People get axed and shot and ripped to pieces and punched in the face and attacked by dogs and whipped with spike strips and thrown off rocks and stabbed with Americans flags (again with the subtlety). This movie is super intense once it gets going, but as the story was already intense before Aja got ahold of it, all he's really responsible for is the color scheme and the degree to which we're subject to splattering heads and particularly awful stabbings. The acting is adequate (I like Aaron Stanford the best, but he's really no better or worse than anyone else, he just gets the most dirty and I like my action heroes covered in grime; plus, he saves a baby) and the cinematography is David Finchery. The mutants look like real mutants instead of the low budget Dennis Hopper types we got in the original but with a bigger budget comes little charm. The original was like the low budget desert horror film and its charm came from its subverting the need for a budget by showing how evil people can get without effects or really even much make-up. This one's more about how gross people can look before they get bludgeoned to death because that's what Alexandre Aja does well. That and pointing fingers at American imperialism, but not quite correctly. Aja makes Big Bob's politics seem outdated and silly and so Doug Kerouac-Sartre is the hero and his murdering a mutant with an American flag is supposed to be symbolic of America. The only problem with that is that there wouldn't be mutants in the first place if the US government hadn't used the south west as target practice in the 40s and 50s for big cancer-giving missiles. So....America's guilty, I get that, and I'm not saying I disagree, but what part of American culture are you trying to critique because the villains are only villains because they got bombed....doesn't that kind of make them like the vietcong? Maybe I'm reading too much into this....
I don't know, this wasn't a huge disappointment or anything and as remakes go I had fun, but I knew the story already so the only thing they could have done differently was the gore, really, because that's how Hollywood operates. If like most productions of Shakespeare they'd totally revamped it and set in the early 19th century or something, that would have been cool, but it is what it is. So what I've learned from these two films is that when you put a French director in charge of an American franchise you get a moody, icky film that is riveting but disingenuously American. They don't get American acting or politics so they fake it - if they didn't, their films would be a little easier to sit through. Or if they'd simply stuck with making films in France, which Jeunet blessedly has. Of course if all the new European directors had just kept making films in thier home language and mother tongue, we wouldn't have half the American horror films we have today; how's that for a Catch-22?

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