Saturday, March 10, 2012

Life On Other Planets

Of course, a film class designed around science fiction is going to have to deal with the idea of life on other planets.  Up until this week, we had only flirted with it - in Forbidden Planet, we're off Earth, but the alien race is long gone (although their advanced technology has been left behind) and in Invasion the aliens come to us, but we only see their "pods."  That changed with this week's assignment.

This week, the class explored Ridley Scott's game-changer Alien and this next week the class sees the sequel Aliens (done by James Cameron).  What comparisons I'm looking forward to reading!  The two movies have sparked any number of film geek debates regarding which is "better" and the answer changes depending on how you set up your parameters for "better."

It's undeniable that Scott changed the landscape with Alien.  You've got a crew of money-grubbing roughnecks who are working on a ship named after a Joseph Conrad novel when things go to hell without a handbasket.  In 1979, Ellen Ripely was something that just hadn't been seen - a woman who was perfectly at home making command decisions even when that involved shooting things.  The best part of this was that Ripley's gender wasn't seen an an issue - she was capable at doing her job and she stayed cool under pressure.  The fact that she was female wasn't part of the equation.  (Even now, we could do with a few more Ripleys and a few less damsels in distress, but that's my opinion.)  Gender is a big deal in both films - it's not coincidence that the computer system in Alien is called "Mother."

But in Aliens, Cameron goes from a horror/science fiction hybrid to an action/science fiction hybrid and Ripley isn't the Lone Survivor (a staple of horror films).  Instead, she becomes Action Mama Bear.  The stakes are higher, the crew are now trained soldiers (a group which includes some tougher-than-nails women), the monsters are ickier, and the Company cares not a bit.  So. Much. To. Discuss!  I can't wait to see what the class does with the two films - both are strong, strong movies on their own, but comparing them takes both films to a different level.  Plus, it's the only time we see both the starting point and a sequel, so there's that element to discuss.

NOTE:  The franchise is still going strong, with Scott taking up the reins again for Prometheus, which has a June 2012 release date.  The film is said to "share DNA strands with Alien.  Different reports call it a "prequel" or a "reboot" of the franchise.  The trailer certainly harkens back to Alien.  See what you think.

Alien Trailer (1979)

Prometheus Trailer (2012)

Meanwhile, I also checked out John Carter, which is based on the first of a series of novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame.   The film has an amazing cast, by the way - seems that quite a few folks wanted to get on board with this one.  I enjoyed the movie as what it is - a Disneyfied romance of Brave Earther and Valiant Princess.  Really, John Carter is a nice, goofy, predictable popcorn movie, and I don't mean that as a slam. The problem is this - so many people have ripped off Burroughs in the century since he wrote the Barsoom novels that it's hard to watch this and remember that he mined the vein first.  Instead, the elements come across as "hey, I've seen that somewhere before."  You have - Burroughs got there first on the page, but others beat him to the screen, so this film seems like a re-hash.

Servings from the cliche buffet include:  Carter is an ex-Confederate.  Trying to forge a life beyond the war which took his wife and innocent child, he has run off to the Wild West to seek his fortune.  The Apaches and the colonel of the local fort ("Fort Grant," by the way) have other ideas.  In addition to the Civil War and Wild West bits, there are some steampunk elements (especially in the design of the flying ships of Mars). On Mars, there are plenty of people who look mostly like us (just some exotic tattooing).  And there are four-armed, really alien-looking folks, too.  Language barriers  are taken care of with a sip from the Well of Plot Convenience.  There's an adorable and faithful "space dog" that will save Carter's bacon a time or two.  The flawlessly beautiful Princess of Mars (from a city named - I kid you not - Helium) is portrayed as smart and capable (good), but she must be rescued THREE SEPARATE TIMES from falling to her Certain Doom by Carter literally swooping in to save her.  There's a fight to the death in a space arena with Vicious Space Critters and the bringing together of traditional enemies by Carter's force of personality to defeat the great evil so the world can live in harmony.

Ellen Ripley would have handled things differently, I feel sure, but the movie is a cotton-candy-light romp.  Go enjoy.


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