Alien: In Space No One Can Hear You Scream 40 Years Later

This month marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most influential sci-fi/horror films, Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon from a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the film shocked and thrilled unsuspecting audiences in theaters and continues to scare us to this day.

Alien is still regarded as a landmark film that successfully merged two of the best genres in cinema, science fiction and horror. Its success is evident in the way that it showcases a universe that seems real and almost used up in a way and draws us in with its terrifying premise. The movie starts with a crew of interesting characters that are in basically an outer space version of a tug ship called the Nostromo carrying ore back to Earth. Their journey is interrupted by a signal from a planet along their path that gets them to stop at a desolate world that houses what turns out to be a parasitic alien life form that impregnates one of their crew and then kills him as it bursts out of his chest in one of the most iconic and horrifying scenes in movie history.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship gives off the vibe of a haunted house in outer space that builds tension as the crew is killed off one by one until only Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is left to fend off the creature. The death of Captain Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) earlier in the film was shocking and let audiences know that no one was safe and ratcheted up the tension even more.

The setting of the movie is also interesting from a sci-fi standpoint. It is very different from previous films that came before it such as 2001, which had a very clean, almost sterile look to it. Alien basically features a group of truckers in space flying what looks like an oil rig, trying to make a living hauling fuel for a faceless corporation that ultimately sees them as expendable.

Alien is set in the near future (early 22nd century), but still has a somewhat familiar feel with the bridge and living quarters having a lived-in look. The tension and mistrust between the crew members, caused by things like pay disputes and later on the threat of the alien, is also realistic and puts the characters in a relatable light. This universe would be expanded in subsequent sequels, some more successful than others, that further explored this unique take on our future that featured colonial marines and prison planets that always had humans facing off against the insidious aliens trying to wipe them out.

Another landmark of Alien is the design of the creature itself. Designed by H.R. Giger, it is both hideous and beautiful at the same time as well as incredibly original. Its dual mouth and razor sharp teeth and skeletal appearance is the stuff of nightmares and stands with any other horror icon.

The slow but methodical way in which the alien kills off the crew of the Nostromo builds the suspense of the film until the very end. The design of the crab-like creature that plants the alien xenomorph in unfortunate crew member Kane is also something that is instinctively unnerving to the audience, as well its brutal way of giving birth to its offspring. Later movies would add some wrinkles to the xenomorph design but the basic look of the creature is still based on Giger’s incredibly unique design.

All of these unique qualities resulted in a new genre of film, sci-fi/horror, which led to such films like Event Horizon, and Life and even influenced other mediums like video games such as popular fare like Doom and Dead Space that also feature humans in space facing off against similar alien threats. Alien’s success also inevitable led to a veritable industry of cheaper knockoffs that has the same basic plot of space crew finding an alien that wipes them out. Obviously none of them could match the seemingly perfect combination of chills, mystery and monsters in space that makes the original Alien still a classic film four decades after its release.

Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley is iconic as well and served as the blueprint for subsequent strong female leads in movies such as Linda Hamilton’s role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, Katniss Everdeen, Kira Nerys, Furiosa, and most recently the film version of Alita.

Needless to say, Ripley is one of the many influential aspects of Alien and among the greatest on-screen heroines that re-shaped the role of the female protagonist in cinema.

The franchise spawned by this movie is still ongoing as well, all these years later. The first sequel Aliens is a classic sci-fi action movie. Subsequent entries and spinoffs such as Alien 3, Alien: Covenant, Prometheus, and Alien vs. Predator were not as well received, but I have enjoyed all of them and look forward to more movies that take us back to this rich universe populated by arguably the scariest creatures in space ever imagined.

C.S. Link

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The Matrix: Still Around Us 20 Years Later

matrix poster

Twenty years ago, when I worked at Starlog, I was invited to a screening for a film few people had heard of, myself included. There was very little known about The Matrix prior to its release, just that it starred Keanu Reeves. The only clue I had was that early in 1999 I picked up a mini-mouse pad at a horror convention in New York. Its image was of Reeves’ Neo emerging from his Matrix chamber. To me it looked like some kind of horror movie that was possibly about cloning.

When I went to the screening, the producers and possibly the Warchowskis (I cannot remember anymore) were there and introduced us to The Matrix. The film was 99% complete with a couple of F/X shots missing. One of the producers set up the film and said it was their way of doing superhero films in a more plausible way and they hoped The Matrix would do well so they could do more films later. With that, the lights dimmed, and the film began.

Midway through the film, most of us attending instantly knew we were seeing something unique and groundbreaking when we saw The Matrix. Stating that the cyberpunk actioner was truly a revolutionary sci-fi masterpiece is not an understatement. About six weeks or so later, on March 31, the rest of the world beheld this revolutionary masterpiece.

There are so many, too many to list, reasons why this sci-fi film changed the cinematic landscape, but let’s try.

The Core of the Matrix

How about starting with the fact that this was the first cyberpunk film to strike a resonant chord with the general public. Yes, there were earlier cyberpunk films before The Matrix with similar themes, but this film was the one that hit the public zeitgeist. Every similar film that was released afterwards was inevitably compared to The Matrix, even its sequels.

The next and most obvious reason could be seen with its visual effects. CG had become a standard by 1999 but The Matrix used it in distinct ways to subvert the reality of its world. People defied the laws of gravity and physics, which was most famously witnessed in the iconic moment when the main character Neo (Keanu Reeves, who took the role after Will Smith turned it down) dodges bullet fire in sequenced dubbed bullet time. We witnessed his POV where time slowed down, but the cameras didn’t and we could see the trajectory of the bullets, which left vortexes. This pulse-pounding moment during the climatic third act was built up from the opening moments of The Matrix when we first see Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) jump up and hang suspended in the air (a moment that was copied and parodied many times since), then run on the walls with ease like she was Spider-Woman.

The Matrix also boasts some of the most exciting fight scenes ever seen on film. In many of them, fighters spar by defying gravity, moving at superhuman speed and precision. The fight choreography was nearly flawless and framed expertly. The filmmakers were inspired by Asian martial arts films and the technique of Wire Fu, where performers carried out impossible physical feats thanks to wires.  It goes without saying that some fights are still considered the best ever shot on film. The standout has to be the climactic battle between Neo and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) as they fight throughout the city and subway. On a side note, Weaving should be lauded for his intimidating presence in the film as Smith, who was methodical, precise and ruthless. We could feel his disdain for humanity and growing frustration when dealing with Neo and his colleagues.

However, these dazzling effects and action set pieces wouldn’t mean anything without the story, subtexts and themes that formed the core of The Matrix. The film is stuffed with references and allegories to various religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, philosophical thought such as nihilism and existentialism, and finally literary works like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It explored the concept of reality and how we perceive it, as well as the concept of free will vs fate. Tied to the last theme is Neo himself, as he struggles with the notion that he is the actualization of a prophesy that he will free humanity.

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Look! Up In The Sky! Superman: The Movie Turns 40!

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first big budget superhero movie of cinema, Superman: The Movie. It truly is one of the most influential films of all time and is still considered one of the best superhero films ever made. That is no small feat considering all the high-quality superhero films that have taken over Hollywood. But it was not always like this. Back in the day, superheroes were something to be mocked and considered strictly for children. So, superhero films were a rarity. That all changed in December 1978 when Warner Bros. released the large-scale, live-action adaptation of DC Comics’ Superman.

Sky High Expectation – Delivered!

When released in theaters in 1978- a year after Star Wars, Superman was a commercial and critical success. There are several reasons for this achievement, so, let’s go over them. Start with the perfect casting of Christopher Reeve, who many still regard as the perfect Superman. For audiences leaving the theaters back then, and rewatching at home decades later- we hear from so many of them who declare that Christopher Reeve IS Superman. No other actor at the time could have successfully portrayed the greatest superhero of all time.

When it comes to the big-budge superhero film, Reeve was the first one to be perfectly cast. These days, there are so many spot-on castings in superhero films, but he was the first. As a respected Julliard graduate, Reeve’s dual role of the nerdy Clark Kent and the heroic Superman was like opposite ends of the spectrum. It was and still is amazing to watch. As Clark, his intention was to be seen as a shy, bumbling pushover, always tipping his oversized glasses to the top of his nose. Certainly not the center of attention, he purposely puts himself into Lois Lane’s “friend” zone, an unwanted role for any guy (it’s worse than being banished to the Phantom Zone!). But Reeve’s Superman secretly enjoys teasing Lois to make her have to be close to the bumbling Clark. Reeve’s look were perfect for the superhero. When he took the role, Reeve underwent an intense bodybuilding regimen and it showed! Not only that, he had the face of Superman as seen in the comic: square jaw, leading man looks and a robust mane of hair fashioned with the distinct “S” curl. Even in today’s comics, most artists draw Superman with this curl. For fans, this completes the look.

The film boasted a star-studded cast whose talents complimented Christopher Reeve; notably Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder. Each actor set the template for how their alter egos were in live-action that in many cases have not been topped.

Then, there was the perfect directing by Richard Donner, who demonstrated a true understanding of the heroic, epic and sincere tone  for the film. Unlike many potential directors considered for the job, Donner respected the character and it showed on screen. He helped present a Superman that was true to his comic book image and made him someone anyone could look up to.

Let’s not forget the timeless score by John Williams. His soundtrack was so stirring and epic. It captured the essence of Superman to the point that 40 years later it is still considered the character’s theme. Hum a few bars of the theme and anyone can tell it’s the Superman theme. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.

Another person who helped elevate Superman: The Movie was costume designer Yvonne Blake, who made Superman’s costume look like it leapt straight out of the comics. Richard Donner asked Blake to make Superman’s costume true to the comics. She referenced the Bronze Age Superman from DC artists Curt Swan, Neal Adams and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. The costume was so accurate, it was impressive! The way the cape stemmed from an open collar in pleated folds; the oval yellow belt buckle, the “M” shaped top of the boots; the yellow S in the back of the cape, and the colors were just perfect. The other costumes were also cool to see- the white, glowing Kryptonian outfits, each with their own family crest symbol on the chests and the three Kryptonian villains dressed ominously in jet black.

When Superman: The Movie premiered a key concern among fans was over the special effects. It was vital that the film, as its tagline promised, made us “believe a man can fly”.  Superman’s flying effects had to deliver, and they did. Christopher Reeve’s aerial acrobatics were so fluid and natural that even though the effects are dated now, back then they sold the tagline. The Oscar-winning special effects utilized analog optical effects, and many techniques were invented for the movie itself and used in other productions thereafter.

The set designs by John Barry were just jaw dropping, including the otherworldly crystalline planet Krypton, a starship literally designed to look like a Art Deco depiction of a star and its rays; and the imposing and majestic Fortress of Solitude.

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Battlestar Galactica: The TV Space Saga Turns 40

BSG poster

“There are those who believe that life here began out there. Far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans, that they may have been the architects of the Great Pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria, or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive…somewhere beyond the heavens.Opening narration of Battlestar Galactica

Nowadays, it is easy to find original sci-fi shows on TV or streaming and it is hard for younger fans to imagine a TV landscape where sci-fi was virtually non-existent. So, when a sci-fi show like Battlestar Galactica premiered back in the 1970s to big fanfare, it truly was a big deal for fans back then.

When Battlestar Galactica debuted forty years ago in Sept. 1978, it generated tremendous buzz for many reasons. The most important being its cost (about $1 million per episode) and for its superficial similarity to Star Wars. In fact, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios (the studio behind the show) for plagiarism, though that case was dismissed. We have to remember that when a movie is a huge hit it is never long before TV shows with similar premises popped up. It’s just the way the things go. This does not mean that Battlestar Galactica was a rip-off of Star Wars. Of course, both properties featured expensive space battles, rich, bombastic scores, and took place far from Earth, but it ends there. Battlestar Galactica was a space saga about the remnants of an advanced human civilization trying to find a safe haven from their robotic enemies, the Cylons, in a convoy of spaceships led by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) from his flagship the Galactica. The twist was that the humans sought safety in a long-lost colony world called Earth.

This was a clever twist, which spun around the sci-fi concept of survivors fleeing a doomed Earth. Actually, according to series creator, Glen A. Larson, the original concept for the show used the premise of humanity fleeing Earth in a quest to find a new world. It was called Adam’s Ark and like the show it morphed into, incorporated many aspects of Mormon theology. It is important to remember that Larson conceived of Adam’s Ark back in 1968, nearly a decade before Star Wars came along.

Battlestar Galactica captured the imaginations of many sci-fi fans who were hungering for something similar to Star Wars to at least tie them over until the inevitable Star Wars sequel came out. Others, however, were more critical over the show’s scientific inaccuracies, limited production values and scripts. Keep in mind, that though the show was expensive, it was easy to see that it tried to keep its budget in line. Hence, the overuse of stock footage, especially when it came to space battles. These same critics also decried its so-called juvenile nature and lack of vision.

BSG cast

These critics could not have been more wrong. Of course, Battlestar Galactica had its faults, but given its limitation, it was unusually imaginative and did a credible amount of world building. Most episodes added interesting lore and mystery to the world of Battlestar Galactica. This was best seen in its mid-season episodes, “War of the Gods” where the Galactica crew encountered an enigmatic being called Count Iblis (Patrick Macnee) who promises salvation. The episodes explored concepts of good vs. evil, faith, and temptation. What helped was that by this time, we had grown to care for the show’s leads. Although Adama was the leader, the show focused on his son, the heroic fighter pilot, Apollo (Richard Hatch) and his best friend, the roguish fighter pilot Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), along with many supporting characters.

Sadly, as things goes, Battlestar Galactica was canceled after one season. It garnered moderate ratings, but not enough to justify its hefty price tag. What made things worse was that the show was terminated before it could resolve its central storyline. The Galactica and its convoy never found Earth, though they had clues. A mixed blessing came about a year later when a sequel show was commissioned. In the show, Adama and the Galactica convoy finally found Earth, but Galactica 1980 was truly juvenile and lacked any of the charm of the original.

Books, comics, fan fics, etc. followed, which helped keep interest alive in the show. It never reached the heights of popularity like Star Trek or Star Wars, but the devotion was solid. There have been many attempts to bring the original show to a proper conclusion, including some by Bryan Singer and Richard Hatch. Of course, we all know of the popular reboot that came out in 2003, which is considered to be one of the finest sci-fi shows ever made. While the reboot has its justified accolades it is important to remember the original TV show that spawned it and to imagine that there is much more to that space saga that is yet untold, even now, forty years later.

“Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last battlestar, Galactica, leads a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest: a shining planet known as Earth.”Commander Adama, closing narration of Battlestar Galactica

José Soto

The Dark Knight: Setting The Standard For Superhero Films

The-Dark-Knight-Standing-Before-a-Burning-Gotham
This year will mark the 10th anniversary of The Dark Knight hitting theaters and setting a new standard. It became the highest grossing superhero movie of all time and while this record has since been surpassed, the film is still widely regarded as arguably the best comic book film ever made. The Dark Knight was highly anticipated before it came out, as director Christopher Nolan’s well received Batman Begins showed a new interpretation of Batman on the big screen. It was an origin film that had a Batman universe in a very realistic setting as if taking place in the real world. This first movie ended with a tantalizing hint of the Caped Crusader’s arch nemesis the Joker. Seeing the clown prince of crime in this realistic setting was something fans were very eager to see. When actor Heath Ledger was cast in the role, there was some blowback, but stories of his intense preparation for the role, and his unfortunate death before the premiere of the film changed this perception and led many fans to look forward to what his take on the character would be like. The results of his performance and of the film itself blew audiences away.
The movie portrays a tense showdown between Batman and the Joker, who sets in motion a plan to take over Gotham City by uniting all of the criminal gangs in Gotham under his leadership. Heath Ledger’s Joker was both psychotic and brilliant, with a scarred smile carved into his face and war paint-like makeup that gave him a nightmarish look. How he manipulates both the Gotham City public, police and criminals while setting up the downfall of Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne was something to behold. Christian Bale played both Batman and Wayne very well and showed true conflict while he attempted to protect the love of his life Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and try to take down the crazed anarchist who seemingly wants to destroy everything he holds dear. This conflict included supporting a potential rival for Rachel’s affections, in Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent played by Aaron Eckhart. Dent’s crusade against crime was something Batman supported but this also put the DA in the crosshairs of the Joker, who is eventually able to push Dent over the edge and force him to become his evil and twisted alter ego Two-Face.
Nolan’s ability to balance out the idea of a comic book hero like Batman with a gritty crime drama is something that makes The Dark Knight a great experience. The movie begins with an intense and foreboding atmosphere as a bank is robbed by a gang of crooks and one of them ruthlessly guns down his compatriots. It is revealed to be the Joker, and this intensity stays with you for the rest of the film as the Joker starts his rampage against the underworld and broadcasts executions on TV and has judges blown up in their own cars. Batman comes to see what he is dealing with and realizes he will have to go to great lengths to stop this madness. This would come to include having to spy on all of Gotham and violating everyone’s privacy; losing Rachel in tragic circumstances due to a fiendish bait and switch by the Joker; and eventually taking the fall for the death of Harvey Dent and going on the run as a hunted fugitive.
batman and joker the dark knight
Even a decade later, The Dark Knight is seen as the standard by which superhero films are held to. Whenever there is a great genre film, it is said to be the “Dark knight” of its kind. While the follow-up film The Dark Knight Rises didn’t quite live up to its predecessor, the trilogy as a whole is still seen as one of the best to have come out in recent times. The film increased Batman’s already very high popularity and reestablished the character in cinematic terms after the less-than-enthusiastic reception to Batman & Robin from 1997. It took eight years for DC and Warner Bros. to bring Batman back to the big screen with Batman Begins in 2005, and the huge success of The Dark Knight put Batman back on top and brought success unseen since the first Batman film in 1989 that was also a huge hit for its time.
the dark knight classic
It seems very appropriate that Batman would work well in this realistic setting since his character is somewhat more grounded than other superheroes. He has no super powers and neither do most of his villains. His main concern is stopping violence in Gotham City and bringing down crime bosses. This fits in well with a less fantastical type of superhero film. That’s not to say that other kinds of comic book films with Batman don’t work, since there have been other movies with him that are more like traditional superhero movies and are really good. It’s just that The Dark knight is an excellent blend of both worlds. Because of this, the film will be remembered well beyond these first ten years.
C.S. Link