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Not even Bowie could love this alien
on 16 June 2015
oo boy. To understand my response to this film, you have to go back, way back, to my earliest experiences of horror, my earliest experiences of cinema in general. The likes of Alien and its sequel were as much a part of my childhood as the Transformers or Ducktales or any cartoon; horror has always been available, and never restricted. As such, I have a sentimental attachment to that material, but also a renewed respect from revisiting it in adulthood and finding it to be sublime on a number of levels (the original Alien still stands in terms of direction, story and design as one of the finest examples of science fiction horror in existence).
You can therefore understand my anticipation when it was announced that Ridley Scott would be returning to the franchise (albeit tangentially); that it might potentially be revitalized by the man who originally coined it. For me, the excitement at least equaled that which many experienced in anticipation of The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. This film was the event of the season; the cinematic high point of the year. Not only potentially a resurrection of one of my favourite franchises, but possibly also that film which could revitalise mainstream horror in general; make it fresh and inventive and intelligent again.
I recall clearly stepping out of the cinema, heading home in a kind of daze, confused as to my own response, until it finally began to crystallise:
I hated this film. Not just finding it disappointing or lack lustre, but hateful. It's rare indeed that any media can arouse something so strong in me, positive or negative, but this film managed it, and not in some fan-boy “betrayal of the franchise!!” way; this was always going to be a very different film from what came before; I anticipated that, and was prepared for it.
What I did not anticipate was a rambling, contradictory and often brainless to the point of B-movie script, entire plot and characters arcs that went nowhere, an entire gaggle of characters that can be ripped out of the film with no ill effect (Charlize Theron. Love her work, generally, but what is her character doing here?; Next time you watch the movie, mute or fast forward all of the segments in which she occurs. You'll miss nothing. Nothing.), pretentious, pseudo-philosophical babble that so wants you to take it seriously but doesn't want to do any of the leg work to make itself profound or engaging (merely referencing ideas or schools of thought is not profundity; you need to provide analysis and potential interpretations for that), and a story that only exists because the characters involved, despite being described as “scientists” in various fields, are the stupidest on or off Earth.
This film...this travesty of a film; it's the equivalent of someone who has pretensions of particular lifestyles or identities, but isn't interested in doing any of the work or activity required to fulfil them; it is that person who prominently displays philosophy and lifestyle books around their home, but never actually reads them, and would never understand them if they did. It so wants you to think that it's clever and profound and is saying something of moment, when, in point of fact, it is utterly, utterly brainless; a swollen, conflated, nonsensical B-movie with a budget. The original Alien contains more profundity in a single scene than this entire movie and communicates it more subtly; via its design, its symbolism and the natural situations that the story requires. All of the wonderful uterine and sexual imagery; the male rape and giving birth etc etc; all communicated without burden, without self interest or ego; allowing the viewer to engage and interpret as they see fit.
Here, the characters can't resist sitting around talking about how apparently profound everything is, despite practically line that comes out of their mouths being awkward, unnatural exposition or the kind of rank pseudo-philosophy one would be kicked out of a high school debate team for. And that's the rub; the film is almost aggressive in its desire for you to find it weighty and clever and profound, but it isn't; it doesn't even try. It broaches potentially profound subjects and dichotomies, then quickly shies away from them in favour of (albeit well framed and directed) action set pieces, as though terribly afraid that it might alienate (a ha ha) its audience whom, it clearly feels, have the intelligence and attention spans of mosquitoes.
As for the subjects in question, the central dichotomy is one of scepticism versus faith, of established ideas being broken down by sudden revelations. Not a bad subject for science fiction to tackle at all, and certainly not in this universe, but the film does not even come close to exploring those issues outside of the most throw away, superficial commentary. Characters that describe themselves as “of faith” in particular areas emerge from experiences and situations that should see that faith shattered and dissolved to nothing still intact, their convictions unshaken, their characters unchanged. They are effectively static, making the story and their inclusion in it impotent. The fact that they described as scientists makes it all the more galling, as they are nothing of the sort, save in terms of what the script proclaims of them. It's infuriating, it's condescending and it's impotent on a narrative level; despite revelations that turn notions of humanity upside down and inside out (potentially), the characters learn nothing at all (those that survive). There's also a potentially brilliant tension involving the relationship between creators and their creations; the discovery that human beings and, indeed, much of what is deemed life on Earth, might have been cultivated (either by accident or design) by an alien species, that said alien species might not be pleased or satisfied with how humanity has turned out; may in fact despise our existence, is an interesting one, echoed reasonably well in the relationship between David, the ship's android (and, incidentally, the only interesting or sympathetic character out of the entire bunch, despite being essentially an antagonist) and his human compatriots/creators, who treat him with a degree of indifference verging on contempt.
But it doesn't go anywhere. It isn't explored in any great depth; only touched upon in one or two fleeting and expository conversations, then abandoned. This is how the film works throughout; concepts are broached, paddled in just enough to arouse audience interest, then wrenched away, the film taking no time to appreciate one shiny thing before being distracted by another. The result is confusion; a hotch-potch of half ideas and barely realised notions that feel flimsy and ragged; barely knitted together by a semi-coherent narrative driven, it seems, by the stupidity of the characters (“...don't be a skeptic.”).
Sticking with the characters, for the moment, beyond David the android (beautifully played by Michael Fassbender), not a one of them is even remotely identifiable. I'm not the kind of viewer who needs characters to be likeable or sympathetic, but I do need to believe that they are acting as they do because that is how they would naturally act. That isn't the case here; most of the characters are utterly superfluous to the story, those that are not entirely slaves to it; more thematic vessels than characters in and of themselves, not to mention telegraphed in terms of their ultimate fates from the first instant they open their mouths (if you can't tell which characters are going to survive and which aren't by the end of the fun time from their earliest scenes, I despair). Many are briefly introduced and disappear for great reams of the running time, turning up again later when it is convenient for them to do so, which leaves the audience scratching their heads and asking: “Who is that and why should I care?” They also act and speak contrary to their advertised natures, contrary to their professions; even the experiences they have on screen. Bear in mind, that these people have been chosen for this illustrious mission (the possibility of first contact with extra terrestrials and, potentially, the creators of humanity) because they are supposed to be the finest in their fields (ranging from biology to geology).
They are idiots; the stupidest, most ill considered, impetuous, Darwin-award potentials you will likely find in cinema, and the plot is driven by that fact; everything that occurs only does so because the characters engage in utterly baffling idiocy from the moment they set down on the alien world's surface.
A particular example hits even before they leave Earth, with a line which was the first of many which made me groan out loud: briefing this collection of malcontents, our protagonist, Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace, is asked the only intelligent question any of them will ever ask in the entire run time: does she have any evidence whatsoever to support the hypothesis on which this entire, multi-trillion dollar mission, hinges?
Her answer: “No, but it's what I choose to believe.”
Staggering. Let's unpack that, shall we? This woman is marketed as a scientist; a considered, analytical entity. Scientists do not speak this way, scientists do not reason (if you can call it that) like this. Most barely people don't reason like this. It is certainly no basis whatsoever for a mission that is likely the most ambitious, expensive and potentially the most epoch making in all of humanity's history. It is ridiculous, and self contradictory: people generally don't “choose” to believe anything; belief is a complex matter, involving perception, individual interpretation, bias, desire, but also a significant amount of visceral, gut reaction. This makes it sound as though belief is a super market, in which you saunter along reading the packets of various positions and ideologies to see which flavour you like. It is absurd, and demonstrative of the kind of pseudo-profundity that infests this entire God damn film.
This only gets worse as the film progresses, another example occurring with a couple of characters whose names I'm not sure we even learn, but are basically dead men walking from the first instant they occur (one of them is the heretic who dares question Shaw's chosen beliefs, resulting in a great, big target being tattooed across his face from that moment onwards). Ignoring for the moment that these characters get lost in an alien super structure (despite the aforementioned stoner-geologist guy having a holographic map built into his wrist), ignoring for the moment that, having come across a pile of dead aliens, they react with terror and disgust, ignoring that they left the main crew to return to the ship yet get lost while the rest make it back without too much trouble, they find themselves in a room containing seeping, sweating cannisters of alien goo; some sort of bio-chemical material whose properties are questionable at best (why they choose to set up camp there is another one of the more baffling mysteries of the plot). Having seen a particularly Giger-esque entity rise out of said goo, the first reaction of the ZOOLOGIST is to approach that entity, extending his hand toward it, even when it flares out wide and hisses at him. Alien or no, flaring out wide and hissing is a universal sign of threat even amongst animals here on Earth (cobras being the most overt example). Nevertheless, the ZOOLOGIST doesn't seem to take that under consideration; not until the thing is clamped on his wrist and burrowing inside his suit. It's a classic B-movie set up; overly curious idiot ignores the sounds in the dark, ignores the warnings of those around him, gets his comeuppance. And in a classic B-movie, it would be fine. In a movie with this specimen's budget and pedigree? I think not.
Earlier, we witness Shaw's husband removing his helmet inside the alien ship, after the most cursory assessment of the air inside the vessel; an act for which the rest of the crew (rightly) condemn him. Even though the computer reads that the air is breathable, this is an alien ship on an alien world. Who knows what contaminants, what diseases, what fungal spores and micro-organisms he might be inhaling? It is one of the moments of sublime, suicidal stupidity that makes these characters not only unsympathetic, but baffling. When said character eventually (and inevitably) starts to demonstrate symptoms that might be described as disease-like in nature, it is no surprise but it also lacks any relevance; we don't care because no reasonable person would have acted the way he did; no real, non-written person, would have acted the way he did in the circumstances in which he found himself, and therein lies the rub: the film lacks any weight or engagement beyond the most superficial because you can feel the writing, the appalling script, in every scene, every word, every situation. The contrivance, the forced nature of the responses; everything, conspires to rip the audience out of the fiction, resulting in something that is confused, flaccid and profoundly frustrating; not just a disappointing instalment to a franchise that now consists of more disappointments than hits, but a terrible piece of work; shoddiness the like of which you'd expect from a first year film student who's been forced to take a few psychology modules to fill out their timetable.
Positives?; The film is beautiful. Aesthetically, staggering. Almost as much as the script and content are idiotic, but not quite. Visually speaking, it is easily one of the most well designed, the most brilliantly framed and shot pieces of work in the genre; stylish, atmospheric, disturbingly alluring. Taken in that context; merely as a superficial work, I can well understand people taking some enjoyment from this. But if you want even an ounce of something more, forget it; you're going to go away confused, baffled and, potentially, quite angry at its conflated sense of itself, at its condescension and its awe inspiring stupidity.