Thirty Thousand Streets

Thursday, July 03, 2008

When franchises outstay their welcome

A couple of months ago now, I was in my local. The footy was on the big screen and an ad came on for Sky Sports, featuring The Alien from the eponymously titled franchise, and the crab headed Predator – playing penalty shootouts (I think the Alien was in goal).

I think – I think I nearly wept... but wasn't utterly surprised.

I bring this up because the other night me and a friend had a drunken conversation about movie franchises, with particular reference to the Alien Versus Predator films, which are both utter drivel (though I'll concede, I haven't seen the second of the two, I just know it's bad).

I hate it when these tedious money-spinners emerge, intermittently as they do, to tarnish the legacy of what was a great film, and though I wouldn't count myself as a 'fan of the Alien' par se, they are disrespectful to people who care about the films memory.

Mainly though, they're just lazy. Lame and lazy, and represent a complete paucity of ambition or ideas. It's also a bit stupid, as if the suits behind these crappy sequels continue to plunder old themes like this, rather than investing in new, fresh ideas, they won't have any old horses to whip up to the glue factory in ten years time (and please note here that AVP is also an anagram of PVA).

And the original film did have ideas by the score. True, it was a fertile meeting of minds between some creative movers and shakers (Ridley Scott, HR Giger, Dan O'Bannon, Moebius etc. etc.) that doesn't happen everyday, but that doesn't preclude similar projects happening again.

What I think is particularly brilliant about Alien is its sense of style; its look and texture – right down to the Moebius designed ships uniforms, and Giger's trademark biomechanics. Indeed at a lecture at university one of my tutors cited the Alien itself as an important (and tres postmodern) example of a visual cue from that has gone on to influence industrial product design.

And beyond that, there is the point at which its visual atmospherics mesh with its 'world-building': the story is compelling, the characters believable, and more than that entities whose fates we might care about. And in spite of its big ideas, big concepts, and ability to shock, it retains pace and an important lightness of touch. I've heard it argued by no less than Sigourney Weaver herself that Alien is essentially a ghost story in space – or at least more a slasher flick –than the out and out fire-fight that the later episodes degenerated into. Scott's direction reveals the lurking monster in a sort of slow delicious strip, realising as he must have done, that as with anything frightening, the human mind's capacity for imagination is a far more potent tool than any amount of special effects.

If then, the ghost story that Alien comprises a certain sinister eroticism, mixed in with its queasy tropes regarding the reproductive cycle and sexual symbolism, the subsequent potboilers descend into a detached, disinterested, mechanical pornography of screeching beasties and exploding chests.

Granted, while the decaying orbit of the story's arc is at least gently parabolic (the sequel is good, both three and four feel like merely frustratingly squandered opportunities) the final two are just utterly moronic, and represent nemesis to the franchise.

Indeed these latter two were, I believe, ultimately instigated by the scene in the trophy room at the end of Predator 2, where the camera briefly lingers on an Alien Skull, which was a little post modern bit of fun, and that is where it should have started and finished, as just a little tantalising footnote, for stoned nerds to chuckle over.

Instead we get to be bored to death by the science fiction equivalent of a WWF (that's World Wrestling btw) showdown. Intertextuality sounds cute enough, but more often than not, occurs with a watering down of the original spirit.

The only direction that the films now seem to have to go in is whipping out new things for the Alien to impregnate – in a kind of 'pimp my Alien', which while a novel conceit, is no longer 'the big idea' when re-fed through the mangle like this. In fact, I don't know why they don't have and be done with it, and play the ultimate recursive trump card by having an Alien impregnate another Alien! how cool would that be!

What really bugs me though is this: If, as I have said, allusion and hinting at the overall form is infinitely more sexy than spelling things out in mile high neon letters, why do people insist on explicating things in wearying detail?

The best example of this I can think of would be the gag-reflex-invitingly-bad Star Wars prequels of recent years. Apart from the fact that they were dull, and completely lacked any sense of gravitas or kinesis (due in part to the 'look at me wanking' CGI showboating of Industrial Light and Magic), what also got on my tits was the fact that they portray, clumsily, events that were obscurely (and deliciously) referenced in the original films. Who THE FUCK wanted to know what The Force was for example? Why do these loose ends need tying up? can't you just let them dangle?

Not that I'm that bothered anyway (blinks back tear) I'm over it.

I suppose, at least with the AVP films, that what you're getting, is ironically (given the reproductive themes of Alien) a sort of genetic hybrid – the bastard child of two different films.

But confronted with this progeny, I respond as Arnie himself did in Predator, when confronted with his titular foe:

"You are one ugly motherfucker"


Zeno Cosini said...

Alien is a beautiful film. I went to see the director's cut at the Odeon in Leicester Square when it was rereleased 4 years ago. There was this sort of exhilarated hush amongst the audience coming out afterwards, even though you can bet 99% of them knew the original version of the film off by heart. What was really surprising was how frightening it still is. The alien spacecraft sets look absolutely amazing on the big screen - I'm sure it'll happen one day, but so far no CGI has ever come up with an answer to that scene. And I'd forgotten how terrifying the "flamer" sequence in the ventillation shaft is - the stroke of genius is to show Lambert's terror rather than Dallas's, and everyone in the cinema gasped at the final shot, even though we must have all known what was coming. The only moment which felt a bit dated was the actual chest-burster sequence itself, because it's become so iconic, I guess. Everything else still felt totally fresh. I love the fact that Scott's cut is actually slightly shorter than the original - there are a couple of brilliant extra scenes, and just a general tightening up of the rest of the film.

The Eyechild said...

Yeah it is amazing... I actually seem to recall my dad saying he glimpsed the planet film set whilst wandering round Pinewood on some 'advertising bizniss'.

I don't think I've seen that version, though I've heard accounts of different scenes that didn't make the original 'final' cut.

I did watch the most recent release of Aliens at Ade's (which is a pretty worthy successor) one time, which had loads of extra scenes which weren't in the original. Some, such as the bit with the Autocannons in the corridor weren't bad, but there were others (scenes from the colony) where you can understand why they hit the cutting room floor in the first place. As is so often the case, it's what you leave out that counts.

Zeno Cosini said...

SPOILERS - there are two new scenes, one in which Lambert freaks out shortly after Kane is brought back to the ship and slaps Ripley around the face, and the famous sequence late in the movie where Ripley discovers the Alien nest / larder, where the bodies of some of her shipmates are partly-cocooned.

I know what you mean about leaving stuff out. For instance, "Apocalypse Now Redux" is of interest only because it demonstrates how close a great film came to being an absolute mess - the extra scenes are truly awful.

ade said...

The Alien and Predator playing penalty shoot-outs? That's depressing. You would have been forgiven for weeping.

Yeah, if I were marking the films at school, Alien would get a distinction, Aliens would get 'good', and pretty much all of the others 'fail'.

In fact, to be honest I've never watched either of the third or fourth Alien films all the way through. One of them was on TV the other night. I turned it off after about 20 minutes because it looked and felt like an extended cut-scene from a nerdy computer game.

And are the AVP films even supposed to be in the same series? The first one was 'entertaining' though I was more laughing at it than with it.

The Eyechild said...

@ Ade

"are the AVP films even supposed to be in the same series?"

I guess so... they try to establish continuity by having the guy who plays the android in Aliens turn up as Charles Bishop Weyland – the head of the nascent Weyland/Yutani corporation.

I could perhaps forgive it more if it was completely stand-alone.