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An intelligent, deliberately paced exercise in fear
Alien is a most difficult film to define. In one sense it's a sci-fi film, in another it's a Gothic horror film. Ridley Scott's vision of the future was so intriguing at the time due to its modest implications. The usual sense of humans as infinitesimal in contrast with their universe is there, as is the feeling that one could be engulfed without incident. But for all its cosmic commonalities; Alien is grounded in a sense of realism. This is indicated by the Nostromo, a space Junker operated by eight ragtag crewman, which is a remnant of heavy industry and mass production that is void of the futuristic sheen of fictionalised ships such as the Enterprise, or the Millennium Falcon. Moreover, the crew is representative of the working middle-class; a humble collection of eight crewman whose expertise lies within the most basic provisions of engineering, spare two scientists, these people are the everyday collection that make up our society. Which is why Alien is an exemplary horror film: it deals with ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances its sci-fi trappings notwithstanding.
Like John Carpenter's minimalist horror film The Thing; Alien is a subtle exercise in tension punctuated by moments of absolute horror. It deals with the venereal and psychological elements of its characters. The Alien is seldom seen, akin to the shark in Jaws, but its presence is always felt. The horror is engendered by its characters rank paranoia, which in turn instils the audience with the same kind of impending dread. The emphasis on the venereal works exceptionally well because it triggers our most basic patterns of instinct and fear. Alien has a distinctly European quality in that it unfolds through the composition of stillness and music. Dialogue is certainly present; however there is an ethereal quality to the proceedings evoking images and sounds that are both chilling and resonant. This is why Alien is such a superior genre film: it takes well established ideas and endeavours into new territory with them.
Ultimately, Alien is a "B-film" just as Jaws and the Fly are, but in compounding the formulaic elements with fresh ideas it elevates itself not from its roots, but from people's preconceived views on the genre's limitations. This is particularly apparent in subverting the male-centric heroics in favour of its female lead: Ripley played with much sincerity and poise by Sigourney Weaver. In fact Ridley Scott discards the film's potentially masculine element so curtly and with such cold precision that he can only really be praised for it. As for the creature itself, Scott was loath to consider having his monster being anything other than terrifying. In defining the aesthetics of the Alien, it is best described as an immensely intimidating figure with a phallic head coupled with a retractable secondary mouth that operates like a dagger coated in translucent goo. But what's more significant is the form it takes. The alien mutates and evolves much like a virus throughout the film and is all the more horrifying for it. Perhaps this was intentional on Scott's part to contrast the perpetually latent paranoia of the characters with the burgeoning senses of the Alien. In any event the Nostromo functions as a proxy for fear and instinct.
The greatest virtue of Alien is the sense of sheer terror it invokes, whether it is through the lens of the cosmos, or in the claustrophobic confines of a spaceship. Like all great films, Alien remains a remarkable achievement and cinematic landmark as it engages the senses and invites discussion from the casual and ardent film goer.
The Tree of Life (2011)
A film that is as ambitious and grand as it is flawed and obscure
The medium of film is a dying art form. Mainstream cinema has become so superficial and cheaply packaged it appears as if it has mere justification to exist beyond the purpose of servicing economics. I consider Apocalypse now to be the finest film ever made, not on its terms of sheer cinematic brilliance though there is much of it, but because it was the end result of an intense passion for the medium. This is not to say that contemporary cinema in its entirety as awful though there is much to account for in that department, but the fact that it has resigned to such cheap trickery and formulaic substance is downright sad. So when a film as unique and philosophically engaging as The Tree of Life comes about it piques my interest. Of all the divisive film makers that come to mind it is Terrence Malick who really fits the term. He refuses to compromise his vision and grandeur, instead devoting years; decades even, to an idea, an impression in pursuit of achieving something truly great. His films all share a common motif in that Malick has dispensed with the conventions of a story for an impression this is rarely a good thing, but it seems to work for him. Malick is primarily interested in imagery and music more so than dialogue. He is so deeply invested in the human condition and the aural surrealism that surround us that it would be discrediting to tackle such hefty material within the frame of linear story telling. Essentially, The Tree Of Life encapsulates the totality of man's existence and purpose through the dimensions of a family unit in Waco, Texas. What follows is an enlightening, beautiful and frustrating portrayal of nature and grace in direct collision with each other. Akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Tree of Life converges its characters with their universe. Unlike Kubrick's cynicism, however, Malick's philosophy of people is somewhat optimistic, whereas Kubrick's characters were usually caught in a vacuum of immorality. It may be set in the 1950's, but Malick has framed it in such a way that its characters are infinitesimal in contrast to their surroundings. There is a dialect here between the tactile and the divine and how insignificant these two forms are without each other; how in a sense they break down and produce only failure if there's disharmony to the natural balance of things.
Malick is more concerned with the uniformity and concord of his characters and resorts to the inquiry of the meaning of life, people's reason for existence and morality. There is a collective philosophy throughout that represents several ideologies beyond the mere Evolution vs. Creationist approach. Each character in the family unit apparently comprises a cosmic view. The father (Brad Pitt) represents nature, whereas the mother (Jessica Chastain) represents grace, but expanding upon that view even further the father represents the physical world and all that has sensory value and the mother represents the divinity and wonders of the metaphysical. Consequently, their tormented son (Sean Penn) is two parts his father and one part his mother, thus he is unable to establish a connection to neither nature, nor grace. Moreover, there seems little justification for Sean Penn being in this film as he serves little in the way of exposition and importance to the narrative, but it's only a minor quibble. The Tree of Life is an ethereal, bizarre and emotional film helmed by a man who clearly has nothing but the utmost love for his craft. With this being said, though, it is not a film for everybody as it can often be long winded and downright pretentious, but it just so happens that it registered with me, but I wholeheartedly understand the criticism it has received as well. However, I strongly recommend it to anyone willing to invest their time and patience into something different.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Greatest Film Ever Made. Period.
"Apocalypse Now" is the end result of literary genius in direct collision with human madness. A film that took more than two years to make that crippled Coppola's confidence as a film maker and rendered many of its stars ill health -- Martin Sheen suffered a near fatal heart attack and Brando was border line mad -- would have to be meritorious to justify its arduous developments. It was. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now is the story of a spiritually listless Captain Ben Willard (in a brilliantly understated performance by Martin Sheen) who is delegated with the task of executing the rogue colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has defected from the American establishment as the condition of a spiritual and psychological awakening. There have been numerous, and better, studies on the themes and popular significance of Apocalypse Now, so trying to encapsulate the essence of the film in a simple review would be discrediting it to say the least.
Its parallels to Homer's Odyssey are obvious, however while Odysseus' journey was fraught with danger it ultimately concluded on a note of harmony and enlightenment. Apocalypse Now, on the other hand, is a hell without purpose in which there is no coherent notion given to reason and logic. It is one of those incredibly rare films that transcends conventional genre and narrative and becomes an alien like experience that delves as deeply into its geographical heart as it does into the human spirit. The film is essentially composed of three acts: Willard's departure; the trip up river, and the destination. Along the way the viewer witnesses the en masse assault on villagers from a barrage of helicopters to the Wagnerian splendour of Ride of the Valkyries, GI's surf during a hectic conflict, and all of this surreal violence is to contrast the moral absurdity of Willard's mission, which by definition sounds straightforward, however as the film unfolds the mission becomes as questionable as the war itself. There's a double-emphasis with the narration, and it is used as a device to simultaneously guide the audience down the river and illustrate Willard's descent into moral chaos. In the first two acts the narration provides an insight into the mission and his mind, however in the third it becomes disturbed and suddenly Willard ceases to exist as a man and becomes a mere physical extension of the task he was relegated to a "Hollow Man". The irony of this is punctuated between the existential dialogues Willard shares with Kurtz in that there is certain reasoning in the ravings of Kurtz which prompted the Army to surreptitiously assassinate him in the first place. So, Kurtz and Willard are the end result of their superiors. They are two men diametrically opposed, but their fates are cosmically intertwined. Kurtz is the existential Demigod that only could have resulted through war he is the anti-thesis to the conformist American with conservative values, in fact he is so far removed from the ideal Western citizen that he can only be described as a crude prophet. Indeed his philosophical espousals become truths as he dissects everything from free will to humanitarianism to barbarism. And it is in these dialogues that the film transcends warfare, but aims for the human condition man's war that is entirely spiritual and deeply personal. Neither man, nor nature, can endure such madness and perhaps it was Coppola's intention to comment on the banality of evil of the Vietnam War by compacting all of its toxic elements within one man's spirit. Apocalypse Now was one of the last of the "great" Hollywood productions in which its grandeur was the end result of a film maker's undying love for the medium. Fundamentally on absolutely every conceivable technical and artistic level, Apocalypse Now endures as a timeless masterpiece that reminds viewers that films can be an art form.