Dunkirk

 

mv5bmzuyntq3ndg0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzcyndy4mji-_v1_sy1000_cr0013711000_al_German soldiers are conspicuously absent in Dunkirk. There’s a character in one of the three entwining, parable-like narratives who might or might not be German (playing a double-entendre with the title of the beach segments: “The Mole”), but full-uniform Nazis barely exist in physical form. Instead, Christopher Nolan treats their presence as an abstract: the roar of gunfire ripping through hulls and bodies; leaflets falling on the titular French city; the horrific, deafening whine of approaching Luftwaffe, bombing and gunning down shivering, panic-stricken Tommies. They aren’t an army, but an all-consuming specter, a chilling reminder from the past threatening to push people into the sea. Tellingly, one character intones to another, shell-shocked one, “There won’t be a home if we allow a slaughter across the channel.”

To that end, Nolan not only centers the retreating British, but hones in on their psychological state. The three stories–a private waiting rescue on the beach, a mariner who volunteers with his son and a hired hand to aid the evacuation, and one of the Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy) sent to protect the ships and soldiers–are told in concurrent non-linearity. Action is not relayed spatially or tactically, but emotionally. Montage is used often to portray characters experiencing the same traumas of war (drowning in a sunken ship is a recurring one) simultaneously at different points in time. While Nolan and editor Lee Smith treat this as an effective tension-builder, particularly when paired with the booming sound design and Hans Zimmer’s Shepard tone score, the way characters and situations align also taps into the collective mindset of people fleeing violence and nationalism in search of a home.

Baby Driver

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Edgar Wright seems to have conceived Baby Driver as an exercise in editing and choreography. The film, a musical comedy about a doughy getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) trying to get out of the game, is cut with crackerjack timing. Gunshots, car crashes, even the sound of footsteps in a chase are set to the beat of a soundtrack heavily flavored with classic rock, golden oldies, and soul. Baby himself reflects this motif: suffering from tinnitus and vaguely traumatized by memories of his dead mother, he obsessive-compulsively collects music and ipods and makes mixes based on diegetic sound. This OCD extends to his approach on the job, rewinding his playlist or even tuning the radio to get an exact needle drop before burning rubber. Smartly, Wright constructs his action around Baby. The odd establishing shot or bird’s eye cutaway aside, his actions are always shown from the passenger seat or passing by some brief, stationary point–the frenetic, Michael Bay school of editing used to make us witnesses to something bizarre and amazing.

Unfortunately, Baby is little more than a vehicle for Wright’s technical skill and fanboy expulsions. Quirk aside, his traits and motivations are straight lifted from Walter Hill and Michael Mann: a singular-minded professional committed to some personal vision of his life (including a subplot where Baby courts a sing-song-voiced waitress, which carries shades of James Caan in Thief, seeking a wife to complete his American Dream). Unlike the characters Baby emulates, however, he is passive, loaded with motivations but no motor. The kind of gritty crime films Wright is harking back to were about weird loners driven to succeed, often at great personal cost. Dragged into one last job, Baby is given ample opportunity to upstage and subvert the colorful, aggressive personalities around him (Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Sky Ferreira, and Jamie Foxx most memorably). Yet–even when flat-out presented with an option to walk away–Baby chooses to allow the plot to unfold, disappearing into so much background noise. He isn’t a character, but a prop–helpfully underlined by Elgort’s portrayal, leaning on an inconsistent Elvis drawl and inexpressive pucker-face. Action and motivation rarely align, based the need to ensure the film gets us to the next spin on another stock heist-movie situation. As loving mixtape to the kinds of films Wright loves, Baby Driver is excellent. As a film, it’s all hollow, incomplete notions from someone showing off how good they are without putting in the necessary work.

Life

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Astronauts on the ISS capture a probe returning from Mars, which contains an alien. Their delight soon turns to horror when “Calvin”–so named by adorable schoolchildren as part of a public relations stunt–reveals itself a rapidly-gestating amoeba with a slasher mentality. The resulting carnage sets off decaying systems and a frantic struggle for survival, where Life submits audiences to a procession of unsettling sights and sounds: a woman drowning in her EVA suit after a coolant tank ruptures; Jake Gyllenhaal, wide-eyed and anemic, mumbling out a suicide plan; Ryan Reynolds coughing blood in zero-g as he’s devoured from the inside out (fodder is a role especially suited to him); and, of course, the creature itself, always moving, morphing, and hungry. Its ultimate form resembles a cephalopod with a Komodo dragon snout.

Daniel Espinosa’s film might charitably be considered paying homage to Alien (and borrows music cues from Prometheus), but its flourishes are less gothic than they are sadistic. For all the grace in Calvin’s forms, the emphasis isn’t on this inhuman entity, but the damage it can inflict, particularly to the flesh. There’s even a poor mouse, strapped in like a submissive in the same lab housing Calvin, its purpose seemingly a light snack when the creature inevitably busts loose. If anything, Life has more commonality with the kind of video nasties which lined the shelves back when Blockbuster was ubiquitous. Immediately springing to mind are titles like Xtro or Charles Band’s Parasite–which Espinosa lifts a shot from, when the crew discover something writhing within the pant leg of one of their own. Films which appropriated Alien‘s visual ideas about penetration and birth for the singular purpose of pushing the boundaries of makeup effects and good taste.

Here, that sort of nihilism gets a Hollywood sheen, complete with some accomplished effects work. Actors appear, effortlessly, to float through the confines of the set, while the creature is oily and tactile. Espinosa also hones in on the theme of containment. Key moments are framed from the viewpoint of characters watching from behind a pane of glass, a sleep pod’s door, or a hatch’s porthole. Calvin is locked inside a glass box within a sealed room for observation. Every action the crew takes, often at the recommendation of a CDC officer (Rebecca Ferguson, who starts as another Ellen Ripley, only to be reduced to a shrieking nonentity) is to ensure this wall of separation remains as the creature attempts to break free. When those walls go down is precisely when the tension ramps up, as the humans attempt to kill or outmaneuver the seemingly unstoppable Calvin. Over and over, Life arrives at chaos and death, presenting situations where our attempts at control invariably fail. While its beats are overly familiar and telegraphed (Gyllenhaal practically spells out the film’s twist ending), there’s something refreshing to a film this committed to human folly.

Transformers: The Last Knight

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The Last Knight, Michael Bay’s fifth installment in the Transformers movies, represents a baffling step backward. Age of Extinction was an exhausting, punishing affair, but was grounded in a single group of people thrust into insane circumstances. The Spielbergian conceit punched up by Bay’s vulgar expulsions, humanity represented through the lens of possessive father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), drafted into a conflict between the Autobots and (primarily) an unholy alliance between corporate America, CIA assassins, and a cosmic bounty hunter. The Transformers themselves were no longer background fixtures but active participants: psychotically broken zealots in an eternal war, defending and/or being disgusted by the sweaty, seething meat vessels that populate the front line. Bay communicated a fundamentally nihilistic world, where Yeager’s family and Optimus Prime’s Autobots were, at least, able to find a sense of belonging with one another. It, along with Pain & Gain, formed a diptych which could be considered the closest Bay has gotten to self-reflection in his films.

For the follow-up, Bay and his writers concoct a scenario where Prime confronts/communes/gets corrupt by his creator, an alien robot broadly resembling a gorgon crossed with Maleficent. Prime is redirected towards destroying the Earth he had fought for so hard, so long. The idea’s a good one. As Chris Ready pointed out in his Age of Extinction review, Prime is confronted with the military-industrial complex and plutocrats (literally) profiting off the bodies of his comrades. His disgust palpable, he vowed to kill the humans responsible. Here, his swayed allegiance is a visual representation of those feelings taking hold, casting off any held ideals.

 

Unfortunately, The Last Knight shreds any sense of perspective, roping in bit players from the previous trilogy, while piling on more new ones than audiences can keep track of, let alone care about. Mostly, the film seems to operate as a vehicle for Michael Bay to have Anthony Hopkins deliver grandiose exposition and spit venom at anyone who mildly annoys him (the scenes between Hopkins and a self-described “sociopath” robot butler, including a car chase where the pair deliberately endanger human lives to escape pursuit, are among the film’s best). Prime’s heel turn–which ate up a significant chunk of the marketing–is given only a setup, which isn’t discovered until moments before its resolution: the middle is papered over by another global chase for another calamitous MacGuffin between warring groups of dysfunctional oddballs.

In some ways, the gaping lack of Optimus is intended to be the point. Their leader having blasted off into space on a suicide mission, the Autobots are stuck being bored in a Montana junkyard between scavenging excursions. They pass time bickering and smashing cars, menacing the humans who have taken them in. Yeager is able to keep them from going too far, but without Optimus there isn’t any discipline. This excessive nastiness can be (and is, mostly) fun, yet the lack of confrontation can’t help but underwhelm. The similarly-themed Fate of the Furious was able to mine a similar ‘franchise patriarch vs. extended family’ premise for the kind of delirious pileups one typically associates with Bay (i.e. hacked cars self-driving themselves off a rooftop). Given his own opportunity, it’s odd the director passed up the opportunity to stage his own version.

Alien: Covenant

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Alien 6 is a film stuck between Ridley Scott’s fascinations and a flabby, puzzle-box script which doesn’t know what to do with them. Covenant‘s most inspired moments are built around a pioneering crew of space colonists being prepared for every eventuality, but ironically having no expectation of ever encountering them because of this. The titular ship is hit by a neutrino burst early on, a random disaster which incinerates the captain in his sleep. The second in command overcompensates at the panic of suddenly being in charge, badgering his subordinates into compliance while reciting clearly rehearsed pitch-speak. Naturally, they resent him. Later, after one of the group is infected by sentient spores (which operate like the airborne xenomorph strain from William Gibson’s unused Alien 3 draft), another member panics, quarantining a distressed medic in an operating room as her patient convulses and vomits blood. One tries to remain calm, as another group attempts to return, while the other wants to bicker and scream her way out. Then, something begins bursting open the sick man’s spinal column, and the pair go silent. For a few, blissfully horrific minutes, we are treated to snapping, clawing beasts as a catch-all for the chaos which meets the hubris of settling unknown lands.

Problem is, Covenant never allows this uncertainty to overtake the film. Its other big idea, concerning Prometheus‘ David (Michael Fassbender), is the clear drive here. Here, we see the seeds of his duplicity in a prologue where he realizes the paradox in being made both “perfect” and intended to serve weaker, inferior humans. His intersection with the Covenant settlers is disconcerting: seemingly rescuing them, David takes the devastated survivors back to a citadel in the midst of Engineer corpses frozen in place like Mt. Vesuvius victims. The years between films have seen him obsess with the same kind of creation that drove mankind’s creators, resulting in a tiny, candlelit laboratory where the android practices vivisection and sketches out the results. He admits a certain disdain for his own creators in the presence of Walter–a replica model, deliberately subverted to be less than those he serves. For David, as with his quasi-ancestors, humans are nothing but resources to recycle and produce (Fassbender emphasizes “meat” when describing how the black goo infects and changes lifeforms). The result of this tinkering positions David as somewhere between Christopher Lee’s Dracula and Dr. Morbius from Forbidden Planet; a craven fiend who uses flesh to power offspring that act as his id. He is, further, intent on seizing a destiny among the stars from the squabbling, feeble flesh sacs that spawned him.

Intriguing as the idea is, harking back to Ash’s obsession with the alien‘s perfection, its introduction destroys the film. Scott, and writers John Logan and Dante Harper, burn screentime with David explaining his motivations and desires to characters who gawp and listen (despite all the clear warning he means them harm), waiting until the next alien kill gets checkmarked. Scott’s usual visual depth and elaborate set design cast off for franchise-minded exposition. If the goal here is to make David some kind of Satanic figure (there are allusions to Paradise Lost in both the film and its marketing), why make him a tour guide? Why not a background figure, allowing his victims to explore his workshop, stumbling upon traps designed to breed more horror? This approach would have at least connected the Gothic horror premise more tightly to the struggles of explorers facing the unknown, while treating the alien as a centerpiece (rather than an obligation) and maintaining tension. Instead, Covenant devolves into a stock dynastic struggle with a Giger fetish.

Prometheus

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Ridley Scott’s return to Alien obsesses over dichotomies. Creation and destruction. The divine and the profane. Fascination and revulsion, especially. Prometheus offers a scenario where a bunch of scientists are bankrolled by a wizened, terminally-ill billionaire to blast off into the stars for answers to humanity’s most existential questions, only to find a tomb of horrors. The Engineers–the eight foot tall, paste-white men sought out by the explorers–are found to be endless, tinkering monsters; their entire culture built out of mechanizing and weaponizing organic matter. Their crowning achievement: a black goo which breaks down and reconstructs tissue for maximum predation. A grand, temple-like room with a sculpted head (presumably, their leader) is devoted to housing the stuff. The human children who have come seeking them, however, are superfluous, placeholders for raw genetic material to be harvested and disposed.

Though the script stubbornly insists on Noomi Rapace’s Shaw as the lead, she is stock and uninteresting compared to duplicitous robotic servant David (Michael Fassbender). Shaw never rises above assigned traits: her Christianity, rather than complementing the quest, exists only in her cross necklace and the throwaway line “It’s what I choose to believe” (referencing the Engineers); a revelation about her infertility is handled with clumsy melodrama. At least the latter pays off in a sequence where Shaw discovers she was impregnated with an alien squid and has to abort the fetus, but it’s a moment squeezed between a separate mutant attack and a nonsensical plot twist.

David, meanwhile, exhibits the polarizing duality Prometheus aims for. His attempts to be more like (and closer to, as shown in his obsession with Shaw) his human creators are countered with the passive-aggressive contempt he displays for how they belittle him (most pointedly when Shaw’s husband Holloway says he’s “not a real boy”). These fixations drive David and, in turn, the plot while the humans dither: the robot introduces the black goo into the crew and, later, seeks out a lifeform reading everyone else casually dismisses. There, he finds a massive navigation room, activating a holographic star map in a sequence as big and bold as anything in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scott seems to cherish these little asides, hinting at a generational conflict having exploded into cosmic scale. The overall shape of the film crumbles, moving too fast with too many moving parts, but there’s an admirable earnestness in trying to drag audiences back to the moment in Alien when the camera zoomed on the fossilized skull of a long-dead alien giant.

Alien: Resurrection

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The 200 year jump in the Alien timeline is, unfortunately, the only promising thing in Alien: Resurrection. And half-hearted, at that. Ridley Scott’s classic brought us a corporate nightmare brutalized by a venereal apex predator. James Cameron’s sequel introduced military fetishism which was met by an overwhelming hive-mind, and the massive Queen at the center of it. David Fincher and some labyrinthine studio notes gave us prisoner monks forgotten on the edge of space, caught up in a battle between an unwavering warrior mother and a murderous demon. Despite some decent effects and set work by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s team, Resurrection is very by the numbers–blandly uniformed military goons and scientists in polyester hazmat/rave-wear outfits walking through lightly industrial-looking environments, all cribbed from the million Alien knockoffs which have sprung up since the xenomorph’s first appearance. The only tech advances made in this far-flung future appear to be plot-device cloning and a (rather useless) security system operated via breathalyzer. The aliens fare slightly better, now appearing to sweat KY Jelly as well as drool it; while a (further) hybridized xenomorph/human Newborn saunters around the third act like a Ray Harryhausen cast-off. The creature has a near-constant frown and whines like a puppy, pitiable if not for its slasher mentality and a quasi-Oedipal complex.

In case that last sentence piqued your interest even slightly, don’t worry: the script is all setup and no follow-through. Ideas are dangled and forgotten instantly. Bringing back Ripley as a hybrid clone, for instance, offers philosophical issues regarding the self (Sigourney Weaver is game, dialing up the glibness to psychotic levels of indifference), but Joss Whedon fails to muster up a story worthy of his star. Ripley-8 acts in fits and starts: she’s first teased as our point of view into this new future, only to be shoved to the background once Winona Ryder’s robot radical and the jokey, proto-Firefly mercenaries/ciphers she joins up with enter the picture. When the aliens break out and force them to work with Ripley, there’s lip service paid to the idea this clone’s alien side will win out, but nothing comes of it. Even a big, revelatory moment involving prior attempts at reviving Ripley/the aliens is dropped in with no buildup or real development; its purpose merely to set up a punchline about women being too emotional.

Alien 3

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A flurry of images greet us as Alien3 opens, telling a story. The Sulaco traveling through space, an open xenomorph egg, Ripley in her cryo-tube, a facehugger extending its fingers, acid and fire, computers flashing warning signs. Finally, the cryo-tubes are ejected, crash-landing on Fury 161 like brimstone. The planet’s residents, prisoners who have converted to a form of fundamentalist Christianity, discover Ripley, slick with grime and sweat as if she crawled from a pit. Her arrival, and the horror she inadvertently brings, coincides with a sunset that seemingly lasts to the film’s closing moments. While far from the Earth-bound showdown 20th Century Fox promised in the earliest teasers, David Fincher’s installment in the Alien saga is easily the most apocalyptic.

Fittingly, the new xenomorph–a hyper-aggressive queen guard occasionally referred to as a “dragon”–takes on a more satanic role. It stalks in the tetanus-infested holes and the hellish-orange tunnels beneath the prison facility, eager to shred and mangle. Rather than the swarming insects of Aliens, it is a figure of death, implacable. Ripley, then, is the flip side of the coin: life, struggling in the face of annihilation. Her fellow survivors Newt, Hicks, and Bishop are dispatched in the opening credits, leaving her to grieve and carry the weight of the alien’s existence. Their fates are intertwined. The inmate-monks who have taken Ripley in become equally fascinated and terrified, blaming her presence for both the alien and their own rapist impulses stirring again. Their leader, Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), is at best tepid towards her, more concerned with his shrinking flock.

Alien3 becomes as much Dillon’s (and his followers’) film as it does Ripley’s. Shaven-headed, largely British and indistinguishable, their brotherhood is uneasy, bound in their shared isolation and distrust of outsiders. They’re prone to violent fits and regression. After thwarting a gang-rape, Dillon talks of “re-educat[ing] the brothers” with a pipe. By contrast to this shaky order, Fincher and Sigourney Weaver portray Ripley as mythic, a destroyer of monsters looking for an end to her seemingly eternal struggle. Even when she discovers a Queen gestating inside her, she never wavers, never chooses to save her own skin. Her values are etched in stone. It’s on Fury 161’s populace to grow, casting off isolationism and throwing down their lives to stop the demon coming for them.

Aliens

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While switching from horror to a more sci-fi/action tenor is the most obvious change, the biggest divergence in James Cameron’s Alien sequel is the nature of the threat. Alien posited a universe where the exploitation of corporate serfdom collided with a prowling, eldritch beast that killed via copulation. The Weyland-Yutani company existed through its artificial proxies, deliberately removed from humanity. Ripley may have been able to deduce their motivations, but much about them remained as unknowable as anything related to the xenomorph. Aliens wastes no time, however, putting a face to this entity: rescued after 57 years in cryo-sleep, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is then forced to rehash the details of her ordeal to a room full of frumpy, dimwitted accountants. Their concern about the Nostromo’s dollar value is callous, but entirely mundane. Likewise, yuppie opportunist Burke (Paul Reiser) elicits disgust when he tries to profit off the alien’s existence, but he’s a pale substitute for cum-blooded alien-fanbot Ash and his oral fixation.

The change to less unknowable horror does allow Cameron and Weaver opportunity to better explore Ripley. While a fierce pragmatist and capable of taking charge the first time around, the film’s ensemble nature meant she wasn’t the focus. Aliens sets the franchise squarely on her shoulders. The film charts her growth from traumatized victim–clutching her chest every moment she’s triggered–to returning to the source of that trauma, overcoming it. To that end, Cameron surrounds her with a child to care for (Carrie Henn’s Newt) and a squad of Marines, trigger-happy and cocksure but also largely supportive and utilitarian.

The nature of these relationships change subtly, depending on whether you’re watching the theatrical cut or the much-celebrated special edition. The latter introduces deleted scenes where Ripley remembers a daughter who died while she was asleep, positioning Newt explicitly as a surrogate daughter. That theme is subtext in the theatrical: Ripley is still tender and steadfast, giving Newt reassuring touches (prominently when she reaches for the child’s hands through a floor grate during a rescue attempt), but their bond is more specifically over the horrors inflicted upon them. They give knowing glances and have muttered asides about the aliens, precisely because no one else has gone through what they have. In many ways, Newt personifies Ripley’s own damaged psyche. Their relationship, and the stability they provide one another, gives them a space to grow from.

Alien

 

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The most alarming thing for most of Alien‘s runtime is its stillness. Whether in the claustrophobic, geometrically-shaped industrial corridors of the supermassive space trawler Nostromo, or the fossilized, vaginal caverns of the derelict, Ridley Scott opts for glacial tracks and pans. He wants you to pay attention to every detail, every line in the intricately constructed sets. The environments–the two gargantuan vessels, the planetoid, space itself–aren’t dressing, they loom over everything. Even when events spiral into a delirious mad dash to escape, bathed in primary color lights and steam, Scott keeps us steadily gazing. These are inherently frightening places, unfit for human beings. The crew, particularly Sigourney Weaver’s no-nonsense survivor Ripley, gradually come to understand this. Not only is one of their crew infected, birthing a monster that stalks them, but they’ve been railroaded into their predicament by duplicitous A.I. and a robotic snitch, acting at the behest of amorphous corporate masters.

In that regard, the alien is the perfect metaphor for the exploitation at play here: a drooling, insectoid rapist with a metallic body, perfectly camouflaged to the mechanized hellhole its prey is trapped in. It’s also patient, observing the panicked humans before striking from the darkness to either brutalize, violate, and/or abscond with them. The way the Nostromo becomes slick with humidity, and the crew in a near-constant state of perspiration–harking back to the moment John Hurt’s ill-fated Kane comments on the derelict being tropical–there’s also an implication (outside of the famously deleted “cocoon” scene) the creature is fashioning a new home for itself. Like the company, it views the humans already occupying these spaces as property to lay claim to. Grist for its own expansion, or brood mothers fit only to birth future offspring. The methodology might be uncanny and gruesome, but the more we gaze, the more eerily familiar the alien’s behavior becomes.