The Thing (2011) The Thing Anthology Part III

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We are in a constant state of ever expanding cinematic universes. Successful standalone films are few and far between these days, once something is found to be profitable, it only makes sense to milk that cash cow dry, critics and fans be hanged! If it makes money, you continue to grow the franchise, it’s the way Hollywood has been working. So, it came as no real surprise that in 2011 we were “treated” to a prequel to a very successful (and my personal favorite) sci-fi horror film from the 80’s. The Thing  replicated the same title as the 1980s iteration; an oddly appropriate move given the nature of the monster in the series. The Thing (2011) is the third installment in this quasi-franchise. It started with The Thing From Another World  in 1951, was remade in 31 years later with The Thing (1982) and a prequel to that film leaves us with what is now somewhat of a period piece of a 1980s scientific expedition gone awry. Maybe in 30 more years we’ll get a proper sequel, but I hope not.

The Thing doesn’t pluck it’s story from thin air, but actually has a very appropriate starting point. In the 1982 version, the scientists stumble upon a destroyed Norwegian camp and one huge spaceship encased in the antarctic ice. The Thing (2011) tells the story of just what happened at that Norwegian camp. While we know the events are probably very similar to the horrors that unfolded in the original film, we didn’t know the exact details until this film came out. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hired to aid the in the retrieval of an alien spaceship and life form that has been frozen for many millennia. To their horror, the life form is not only alive, but wanting to feed. In standard Thing fashion, it proceeds to eat and replicate the motley crew of scientists in the most horrific and gross ways possible. Paranoia and terror run rampant as the isolated group must attempt to sift the “thing” from the humans before it reaches the general population of the world.

While the plot is virtually indistinguishable from John Carpenter’s classic, they manage to throw in a few original ideas that work really well, and of course there are plenty of jump scenes. I especially liked the way they were able to distinguish the humans from the monster in this film. Without giving it away, it was completely different from the last film, but made complete sense in the scope of the universe. The acting was actually pretty top notch, Joel Edgerton in particular did a pretty great job as the American helicopter pilot, channeling Kurt Russell quite well while still managing to be his own character. It was spooky, it was fun but it wasn’t great. While The Thing (1982) was one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, this iteration lacked the claustrophobia and grit that it took to really leave the audience unsettled. The CGI, in particular couldn’t compare to the practical effects used in the 80s in it’s ability to make me queasy. The atmosphere managed to be more comforting as well. The original film used the environment, the dark and the cramped base to make you feel utterly unsafe the whole movie. The base in this film seemed much larger, the weather tamer and the thing itself was far more tangible than it was when it attacked the American base. Instead of revealing it’s monster form only while transforming or going in for the kill, the monster would hunt in the form of a mass of flesh and bones, crawling around on all fours while it actively searched for other people to kill. What made John Carpenter’s Thing so frightening was how it would try to get away unless it was threatened. It would do anything to get away from prying eyes and transform into human form, then try to trick the others.

This was a fun prequel that took new approaches to the similar storyline presented 30 years prior. With a fresh new cast and take on the cinematic legend, The Thing (2011) managed to give some mild scares and some genuinely suspenseful moments. Where it falls short is in it’s presentation of the monster itself. What was an intangible horror is reduced to something that looks like it hopped out of the latest Men in Black movie; also the fact that it’s atmosphere was not the proper material you need to conduct the type of horror that made The Thing as truly horrific as it was.

Part 1 Part 2

 

 

Prometheus wasn’t THAT bad.

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     Sci-fi junkies can be some of the most forgiving people when it comes to bad dialogue, corny circumstances and poorly executed character acting. However, they can also be the most cut throat and critical lot to ever screen a movie. Prometheus had high expectations, there is absolutely no denying that. Ridley Scott hadn’t given us a sci-fi flick since the 1980s, and those were legendary movies that remain icons of the genre. So, flash forward to 2012 and we’re suddenly presented with a film that, for all intents and purposes, is in the same universe as Alien. Reception for this movie was mostly positive, but there is a large group of people that were severely disappointed. It receives flak for a number of reasons, namely the, often times idiotic, actions of the characters in the film. Bare in mind, this is a movie about scientists traveling further than humanity has ever gone in an effort to find aliens that could have potentially started life on earth. That is a premise that’s perfectly accepted, but the actions of those on the team are what ruined the movie.

    First of all, lets talk about the crew that’s been recruited for this mission. Astronauts they are not. The majority of the personnel aboard are experts in very specific scientific fields, few, if any of them had careers in terraforming and/or space exploration. It’s frustrating how stupid some of their actions come across, but guess what? humans aren’t nearly as bright as we’d like to let on. Sure these are educated individuals, but they’re fresh out of their cryo-tanks and rip roaring and ready to get exploring! A mixture of excitement and wonder is more than enough to convince me that their mistakes, as dire as they were, could happen within the scope of the movie. By the reading on all their fancy instruments, everything was A-ok, and remember, they’re scientists, they live by their instruments. People found themselves frustrated with David, the human like robot that attempted to blend in perfectly with the rest of the crew. Gripes are often made about him doing things that didn’t make logical sense. I chalk this up to his AI being set to camouflage itself with the rest of the crew. He can only do what he’s programmed to do.

    Another problem was with the alien race itself. Apparently a large portion of the moviegoing audience found the aliens that created humanity to be pretty dumb. It baffles me that this is even a problem, not because I agree that the aliens are dumb, but the fact that they are an entirely different race of beings that operate on a vastly different plane of cultural and physical existence. I could understand if we were dealing with another culture of humanity, but to gripe about the fact that the actions of an alien race doesn’t make sense to you to the extent that it “ruins the movie” is a bit far fetched. Not enough exposition is in the film for the audience to fully grasp that reasoning behind the aliens actions, nor is there enough for us to know why they reacted the way they did. Honestly, I’m glad for the lack of information, it would have been a much longer movie if they had attempted to explain the fine details of alien reasoning and technology. Some things are best taken at face value, this certainly was one of them.

    While Prometheus isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, no movie is. The biggest complaint on my end is why two character attempt to run from a rolling disk-shaped crashed spacecraft by running directly away from it when a few steps to the left or right would have done the trick. While the problems are there, they aren’t glaring. Prometheus more than delivers on the visuals. We’re talking one of the most breathtaking films to look at in recent memory, building worlds that are equally frightening and beautiful. Perhaps those that were disappointed were so because of a standard they expected to be met. While Alien and Blade Runner had decades to soak into the public consciousness, the expectations for this film was for it to do the same. This was a poor use of expectations when going into a movie, one that more often than not sets you up for disappointment.

Tim Burton’s Biography of the Worst Director of all Time: Ed Wood

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It is, unsurprisingly, very easy to be bad at something. Really, anyone can be bad at anything, if they put their mind to it; however it’s something else entirely to be the worst. To be universally recognized as the worst of anything takes something truly special. In Ed Wood Johnny Depp portrays the titular director/writer/actor and his unique experience in dealing with Hollywood and all it’s various forms of monsters. Wood’s cinematic atrocities stemmed from a passion for the craft that he strives to be recognized in. And recognized he certainly was, only it was in ways that he never intended.

 

Ed Wood chronicles the career of Edward D Wood Jr. His meager beginnings as a stage director morphs into a screen debut when he befriends aging horror actor Bela Lugosi and they begin to make pictures together. With a smidgen of star power on his side, Wood continues to take his motley crew through a series of backyard special effects fueled adventures as he discovers and refines his all engrossing passion. The lengths and determination behind Wood are incredible. Single takes, no filming permits and replacing deceased actors mid feature are just a few of the faux pas that he commits. All Edward Wood wanted to do was to make movies, and make them he did, his rapid fire pace when shooting scenes jumps to the screen through Johnny Depp’s charisma. Wood’s motley crew of Hollywood misfits and has-beens become increasingly entertaining through the duration of the film. Cardboard effects bizarre story lines and angora sweaters power the madness of Ed Wood.

 

Tim Burton directed this film, and while his signature visual style is ever present, it doesn’t make it any less attractive to look at. Few people choose to film entirely in black and white, but it was a decision that certainly worked in favor of the film as a whole. Burton, like wood, sees his movie as a big picture, he maintains complete control of the feature and all it’s overarching components. Unlike wood, he is careful to pay attention to the small details as well. Choosing the perfect cast, he matches them with great costumes and set designs that are just as terrible as an Ed Wood biographical film should be. Martin Landau plays Bela Lugosi, he matches the facial expressions and dialogue of the legendary actor excellently, while at the same time delivering a performance that is entirely his own.

 

This is the “follow your heart” message that Disney has been pumping out for years, however where Disney assures you you’ll be good at whatever you aspire to, Ed Wood lets you know that you may just be terrible at it. Burton seems to use this not as a discouraging tactic, but rather as a way to speak the message of the film, which is to do what makes you happy, and pursue it with all you’ve got. Whether that’s a message you can get behind or not, it doesn’t detract from the entertainment or visual value of the film. Burton presents us with a movie that is far different from the majority of his filmography, it is far slower, taking it’s time to allow the themes, characters and emotions to stew and sink in. This is an oft overlooked piece that deserves far more recognition than most of Burton’s recent works. However, his demographic tends to be teens with a slightly darker side, and this may not appeal to them. Burton chose to make a film he wanted to make, and thanks to that we have Ed Wood.

Monsters

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Few are given the opportunity to view their comfortable lifestyle from the jaded lens of someone far less fortunate. However, if  given that chance, it can be one of the most eye opening experiences an individual can experience. By living in one environment or “bubble” it becomes incredibly easy to forget about other cultures and people groups and their particular struggles; what is important or a necessity for one people group could very easily be an extravagant luxury to another. This becomes a major theme running through the heart of Monsters a 2010 British alien movie that follows two people as they attempt to cross the “Infected Zone” located in Mexico in order to head back to the United States. The movie struggles in certain areas, however it presents a common movie trope with both familiar sci-fi elements as well as a unique slice-of-life type of story for how people cope and co-exist with aliens (Similar in that regards to District 9)

six years prior to the start of the film, we are informed that a probe sent out by NASA returned with alien life clinging to it. The probe crashed over south America. In Monsters, Andrew is a photographer. He’s in Mexico attempting to capture photos of the alien “Monsters” that have made half of the country their home. He finds out that his boss’s daughter, Sam,  is in the same vicinity as him, and he is then told to get her safely back to the states. That, however, is easier said than done. After losing Sam’s Passport, Andrew decides to personally accompany her via the land route to the states, which leads them directly through the infected zone. As they find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations they’re forced to deal with various emotions, none of which the audience is clued in on entirely. We are observing broken and scared people whose lives we know very little about. That is not a bad thing; we don’t need to know everything about Andrew and Sam to relate with them. We become content to sit back and watch two people with familiar problems face extraordinary obstacles.

The biggest complaint against this movie is the pacing. Those that hated it hated it because “nothing happens”, which is entirely unfair. It’s certainly no Independence Day, but it doesn’t intend to be. While most audiences expect a good fight when dealing with alien lifeforms on film, this is quite simply two people trying to get through a dangerous zone without seeing the monsters, if possible. All the guides that are hired to lead them are apprehensive about the trip due to the time of season. It becomes apparent that these giant, squid like aliens are as intelligent as any other animal on earth. They worry about migrations and attacks just as a camper would be worried about bears. It’s fascinating seeing a world adjusting to a new set of life forms (far larger and more dangerous than any other) that are as predictable as any other animal. What we’re treated to, instead of an action film, is a short look into what types of struggles would be prevalent in a world thrust unexpectedly into this situation.

While it certainly isn’t the most action packed film, it truly is incredible for how little was spent making it. With an $800,000 budget, the minds behind Monsters (Primarily Writer/Director Gareth Edwards) used easily accessible cameras and editing equipment to weave together a beautiful piece of cinema. It becomes a little heavy handed in it’s message about seeing the world through other eyes at points, but it’s nothing to dismiss the whole film over. Monsters shows that with determination and drive, true talent can be put to great use. The overly simplistic plot works well with the type of story it tells. In the film, the monsters are hundreds of feet tall, organic squid-like towers of bio-luminescence. But it begs the question; what are the real monsters in our time and culture?

 

District 9

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What entered the public spectrum under the guise of a generic Science-Fiction action movie in 2009, quickly became one of my favorite films of all time. District 9 is a little South African picture that caused big waves by taking an, all too often, formulaic genre flick and changed the rules of the game. Good fantasy often has roots grounded in reality, morals and social themes. District 9 certainly doesn’t shy away from that model, however the way it shows us those truths and ideas (from the standpoint of most of the North American audience) is entirely unfamiliar. This is Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut is certainly a powerful one. He manages to work the modern politics and travesties taking place in his home country and show them to the world disguised as an alien flick.

District 9 focuses on a group of alien life forms that have crash landed and sought refuge on earth; specifically Johannesburg, South Africa. The prawn like creatures are corralled into a refugee camp with awful living conditions. Instead of the alien invasion being a threat to humanity, they are left to our mercy. The question is, how is humanity handling their presence? Wikus Van De Merwe is tasked by a, government hired, private organization to inform the residents of the slum known as District 9 that they are being evicted. Wikus is our focal point. We follow him and see the events of the film from his point of view. Considering that he is incredibly unlikeable at the start of the film, this is a bold move. It is, however, a bold move that allows us to experience an incredibly potent character arch.

Wikus is a man that could be representative of anyone. He is a weak man, a bigoted worker who thinks highly of himself and very little for the aliens he is tasked with protecting. The majority of the population really could care less about the rights of the interstellar refugees. The “real world application” is glaringly obvious, they represent real world counterparts seeking asylum, not from other planets, but other countries. In the director’s commentary we learn that the aliens are symbolic for the Nigerian refugees in South Africa. Through the eyes of Wikus we see the sickening consequences of intolerance. When a hatred becomes common place in society it becomes horrifyingly easy to cross moral lines that would otherwise be considered unforgivable. Through the course of the film Wikus is forced to see through the eyes of those he has dedicated his life to persecute (all under the mask of protecting them, of course). Paul Boyne and I discuss this movie far more in depth on our joint endeavor of a blog; Gaffer Macguffin’s Movie House.

The movie offers plenty of weighty material for discussion, but it is also an extremely exciting Sci-Fi. Wikus joins forces with Christopher Johnson, one of the aliens who is attempting to fix a ship to get back home. During their stint together we’re given unique action sequences with cool alien technology. The us of special effects to show the alien technology and fighting tactics is just as dirty and realistic as the humans forces, allowing us to see just how messy a slum war can be. District 9 is, by all means, a slum; it is a near concentration camp environment where gangs rule and the aliens are third class citizens.

The horrors contained in this movie are fantastical in their depiction against extra terrestrial life forms, however replace the aliens with humans and we see something far too familiar in human history. Blomkamp mixes awesome Sci-Fi storytelling with creative and exiting action sequences matched with relevant moral applications. It’s much more than “this is right and that’s wrong” rather it shows a reality with uncomfortable truths hidden behind CGI.

Attack The Block

Writer/director Joe Cornish tries his hand at an alien invasion flick in 2011’s Attack the Block. We’re shown an invasion unfold before a teenaged gang in south London who quickly decide to defend their “block” a large apartment building in which they all reside. Instead of dealing with aliens with full scale warfare or secret services dealing with them, we’re given something different in that this movie is basically one big turf war between wolf-like extraterrestrials and a group of thugs. It’s quickly realized that the norm of this alien sub-genre is quickly traded for something unfamiliar, which is what makes Attack the Block as fun as it is.
I should note that I had a hard time sympathizing with the main characters of the film. Within the first scene the group of unruly teenagers mugs a woman in the street at knife point. She is unharmed and, as the movie progresses, becomes their ally. A clear point is made that these kids are not good kids, but their “true selves” as the movie would have us believe will shine through when it comes to protecting their own and defending their block. Even as the movie progressed and the characters became more and more sympathetic, it was hard to completely side with them. This didn’t mean that the movie wasn’t fun, on the contrary, it was a blast! Seeing a group of teenagers defend themselves against a highly aggressive, yet unintelligent race of aliens in a suburban setting is something that you don’t see every day, and Cornish certainly gives us amped up entertainment with plenty of action, violence and character.
The characters, though unlikable at times (read: often) are engaging and interesting. The fighting tactics of both sides is crude, with the aliens clearly being more agile and strong than the humans. The advantage that the gang has, however is that they all grew up on the block, they know it like the back of your hand. The movie plays out in the same manner that you may have imagined your friends defending your neighborhood from aliens growing up. Bikes, baseball bats and squirt guns filled with lighter fluid. The director certainly knows his way around the action/comedy genre and he gives the audience plenty to look at and get excited about.
This isn’t the most thought provoking Sci-Fi to come out this decade, nor is it one of the best, but what it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in pure entertainment value. While not the deepest Sci-Fi to come along, Attack the Block shows real production value in the hands of a film maker who clearly knows what he wanted to portray and how to portray it.

The Thing From Another World (The Thing Anthology part1)

The Thing From Another World is generally considered one thing in pop culture today: The original movie that inspired John Carpenter’s 1982 remake The Thing.While this is true, it is many other things, including one of the most renowned pieces of Science Fiction film from the 50s. I wish that I could give an account of how this movie stands up to it’s source material, the short story Who Goes There, but I am unable to do so at this point, having never read it. What I can attest to is the fact that this is the origins for one of cinemas most frightening creatures “The Thing” an alien being that means to destroy humanity and claim the earth for himself.
The story follows a group of military men, scientists and a news reporter as they respond to a strange sighting in the Arctic. The men discover a massive space craft in the ice. They liberate the alien pilot (liberate to an extent, the creature is trapped in a block of ice) and bring him back to their base. Once the inevitable escape happens they are faced with the how to act against the monster. The scientists are adamant about not harming the creature, wanting to communicate and learn from it. However, after the creature kills two men, the military personnel at the base turn only to thoughts of destroying it before anyone else dies, or worse, before the thing gets to civilization.
There are two types of characters that are very common in sci-fi. The first is the survivors, those characters that will do whatever it takes to preserve their own life. Then there are the inquisitive types, those that long to learn the answers to questions that humanity could never answer them. Both forces are present, keeping the conflict in the secluded Arctic base interesting. The dynamics between the human forces are familiar, because we know them to be human nature. Having watched both this film and Ridley Scott’s Prometheusin the same weekend, it was fascinating to see how many qualities the characters shared with those in The Thing From Another World. This is not due to an overused cliché, but rather a fundamental truth amongst humans that has been reaised namely though this genre. The drama, the emotion and the sentiment shown by the characters rings true, even today.
The film has some genuinely creepy moments, however the value of it comes not from it’s scares, which generated by dated means of special effects and older styles of film making, rather it comes from it’s use of a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere, a plot that builds on that atmosphere and fills it with characters that are well rounded and generate plenty of drama. Considered one of the best flying saucer movies of the 1950s, the film paved the way for hundreds of other science fiction thrillers. The film is considered one of the best sci-fi films of all time (Time Magazine selected it as the best sci-fi of the 1950s). In 2001 it was deemed “culturally significant” and was preserved in the National Film Registry.
As I have stated before this movie dates itself quite a bit, namely in bits and pieces of it’s story telling. The romance aspect of the film, for example. Though there is a horrible monster bent on destroying the world, there is still time for a warm, playful romance between two characters. This along with the tones of lighthearted joking and incessant whining about careers in the midst of a murderous alien on the loose tend to water down some of the tension. Horror films today have a tendency, to a fault, to be unrelenting in their suspense, so much so that it loses some of it’s impact. On the opposite end of the spectrum, this film throws quite a lot of warm banter and innocent romance at you, to the point where it seems like we’re being told “don’t worry, it’s going to be ok”.
The movie is good, it’s tense at moments and honestly has a great story. However I believe it’s purpose wasn’t served (a purpose not meant by anyone really, especially not the filmmakers) until 1982. This movie was the seed for what is, in my opinion, one of the best films in either the horror or the science fiction genre. Arguably there are far too many remakes in Hollywood, but the remake of The Thing From Another World came 30 years later and did something that the original was incapable of doing. Great art is often times inspiration for other great art, and this film is the shining example. When the craft of narrative film making was still fairly young, the audience was given a glimpse of the horror that was to come.