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.

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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.

Persona 5

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The PS2 cycle of Persona games, for all their angst and psychosexuality, tend to have a clear-cut morality to them. The authorities in those tales (schools, the police, adults in general) could be clueless, inept, even staffed with the odd turncoat, but the values they espoused still had legitimacy. Good was good, bad was bad, and the teen heroes had to defeat the bad as it intruded upon society. Persona 5, however, presents the world itself as having gone insane: administrators overlook student-diddling psychopaths to maintain prestige and the cops and prosecutors exist to shield elitist cabals jockeying for power. The ordinary people these arcane conspiracies gobble up don’t even merit a first thought. Apathy is the order of the day, served up by a media keen to avoid any uncomfortable questions. Dropped into the center of this madness is another quiet misfit, saddled with a juvie record for pissing off the wrong plutocrat. Despised and labelled a crook by the Tokyo prep school he’s shipped to, there’s a sense at the beginning his prospects are zero. Naturally, when he and some other teen outcasts gain the series-standard Persona abilities and access to human desires made manifest, they jump at the chance to lash out as self-styled “Phantom Thieves.”

This twist on formula pervades everything. Dungeons are constructed around infiltration, maneuvering around obstacles, and lying in wait to ambush a patrolling Shadow. Persona are no longer the friendly spoils of war, but the (willing?) subjects of your enemies. You have to batter and coerce them into seeing the error of their ways. Train up enough, and you get the option to talk them down with a silver tongue or fire a warning shot near their heads. The relationship sim aspect of the game remains primarily shonen-flavored visual novel, but spikier personalities have found room among the dorky children, troubled teachers and quirky enthusiasts. Wrack up good enough stats, and you’ll find yourself befriending an ex-yakuza who needs you to get around the cops. Interact often with the bullied dork running your fan page, and you get an alarming window into how the slightest (imaginary) amount of power can warp someone towards spite and cruelty. There’s a real sense you’re fighting, impossibly, from the brink.

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.

Get Out

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Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out stresses an all-consuming danger. Its lead, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), has a knowing wariness of every interaction around him. A black man driven up to visit his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family, he doesn’t get into conversations so much as get subjected to them. He’s questioned, touched, studied, physically challenged, at times even mentally subjugated (through hypnosis), yet reassured by his hosts that, yes, they would all have voted Obama a third time if they could. They apologize for “how it looks” that they have black servants. Chris isn’t allowed a space to just be, he is constantly reminded of his outsider status. At best–as when Bradley Whitford’s neurosurgeon patriarch Dean shows a picture of Jesse Owens, before gushing about the athlete’s historic Olympic win–they offer a lurid idealization of the black man’s body. While there are signifiers of plantation lifestyle (even an auction block, with Chris’ photo on display), there’s an altogether different form of capitalizing human beings at play.

While this subtext is driven by a series of script flips (particularly about the suburbs being dangerous, a jokey inversion of a common horror trope), Peele is far more interested in the difference between genuine and rehearsed behavior. Even before overt malevolence sets in, the Armitages are stagey with their behavior: Dean’s drawling “thang” and repetition of “my man”; the way Rose dismisses Chris’ discomfort (and, later, suspicions about the cagey hired help) with a wink; the apologism. It’s all routine to them, an attempt to approximate well-meaning liberalism. Chris finds this off-putting. All he wants is a nice weekend with the parents. Unfortunately, he’s only welcomed so long as his hosts can benefit from him.

A Cure for Wellness

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For a movie about a Wall Street parasite trapped in a spa from hell, there is little (if any) bite to A Cure for Wellness. Tension is oddly kept slack, with Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) able to navigate the Gothic castle/sanitarium/wellness center-hybrid facility with relative ease, and every opportunity to wring genuine discomfort from its premise is dashed with a quick cut to the next scene. Lockhart–a sickly-looking shit-stain whose most human quality is wanting to put his mother in a home by the beach–travels to the Swiss Alps, under blackmail for his financial indiscretions, to whisk his boss back to New York to authorize a merger. Once at the retreat, he gets runaround from the staff and clue-piecing chatter from some elderly patients. A car accident gets him admitted (or, rather, imprisoned), and Lockhart becomes haunted by visions of his dead father as he gulps down the water and chases leads stringing together mad science, deranged barons, eels and incest.

Despite its subject matter and R-rating, Gore Verbinski’s film seems intended for PG-13 (as with his last attempt at Gothic horror, The Ring). DeHaan himself, with his soft features and Damien Thorn haircut, portrays Lockhart as an even more youthful version of Robert Pattinson’s Cosmopolis yuppie (the opening stretch even involves him talking finances in the back seat of a car). He becomes infatuated with Hannah (Mia Goth), a girl whose dress and demeanor suggests preadolescence. Their relationship is kept at a distance, however, with the shots getting wider and further back the closer they are in proximity. Sexuality crops up, but noncommittally: Lockhart leers at a nurse once, and there’s an incongruous scene of an orderly masturbating to the sight of a topless nurse; even a bit of senior citizen nudity. Yet, the audience is always locked away from these moments, chaste.

Verbinski and his DP, Bojan Bazelli (who worked with the director on The Ring and The Lone Ranger), are far more interested in thresholds. Every twist or development, every clue is preceded by Lockhart (or, in one instance, Hannah) passing through some opening or barrier which signals further danger–a doorway or gate, usually, but a tunnel or even a pool on occasion. The pair take great joy in these moments, building mood with swooping cameras and conspiring with sound design to create some odd rhythms (i.e. the straining creak of Lockhart’s crutches, combined with the tile floor in a sauna). This chilly remoteness typifies the film, suggesting a clinical approach in keeping with its setting. There’s a brief insinuation we’re watching the unraveling mind of Lockhart, but this, too, is filed away and discarded (which also creates a gaping plot hole). What we’re watching is less a horror film and more a rambling series of anecdotes and tangents about dark whimsy.

Biohazard 7

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Capcom’s third wind for Resident Evil amounts to a reset, going back to a familiar premise with new tech and ideas cribbed from rivals. Effectively jettisoning the reams of lore the series has built up–along with the over-the-shoulder gunplay which became a staple from Resident Evil 4 onward–Resident Evil 7: Biohazard drops us in a Southern Gothic mansion populated with creaky doors, themed keys, puzzle traps (occasionally lethal), and skulking, hard-to-kill monstrosities. There are few weapons, and even fewer clues for survival.

As a setup, it’s basically identical to Shinji Mikami’s original, genre-defining installment. Time and tech advances have allowed for a far greater degree of formal playfulness, which Capcom’s team uses it to its advantage. Besides the switch from fixed Dutch angles to the ever-present POV shot giving a more visceral thrill to every creeping encounter, there’s also the way Resident Evil 7 presents challenges which only appear to conform to gamer expectations. Interactive video tapes of previous victims appear to offer solutions for future puzzles (and also questions about how the camera is being held in the found footage), but have steps that could very well cause death. Apparent boss fight scenarios which require players to opt instead to run over their immortal enemy with a car, or avoid the fight entirely. Whether less complicated or more, answers are counter-intuitive to how decades of genre-building have conditioned its audience.

This lines up nicely with the fringe nature of its storyline. Ethan Winters (a stock name for a stock protagonist) is searching for his missing wife in the Bayou when he runs afoul the Baker family. Trapped and forced to use his wits, players must wind Ethan through the cannibal rednecks’ labyrinthine estate, fighting/running from them and their brood of mutant horrors while piecing together clues about the latest bioweapon.

Delightfully, Resident Evil 7‘s aesthetic is built around oily corruption. Human(oids) come with a constant sweaty sheen. The grounds are overgrown with weeds and the swamp encroaches, as if nature is reclaiming this place. Early on, Ethan is tied at a dinner table where oozing, rotten innards are served on a platter like fried chicken. Where Resident Evil‘s more stately mansion had a cleanliness bordering on preserved sterility, every surface in Resident Evil 7 breathes and breeds. This isn’t a viral outbreak in a lab, or even a zombie siege, this is an epidemic hiding away in a remote corner of rural America. Appropriately, the monsters–bloated, distended beings with engorged mouths, protruding teeth, and blackened skin–seem to birth from bulbous sacs which line the walls of the Baker house’s bowels. The casual revelation they are missing people, having been abducted, experimented on, and “turned” subservient to a hierarchy of masters, almost qualifies as a political statement. It evokes the kind of revulsion you feel when recognizing an ugliness that’s always been in front of you.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

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For Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Paul W.S. Anderson runs audiences through a gauntlet of successive phases rather than a three-act narrative, pushed on by a ticking clock. Given 48 hours to save humanity from annihilation, Alice (Milla Jovovich) must fight her way back to Umbrella’s Hive facility–where the series and its myriad zombies, mutants, clones, deathtraps, and global corporate conspiracies began–for an airborne cure. The opening stretch is a sprint straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, Alice contending with Umbrella security and a newly-revived Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who’s fashioned himself a fundamentalist Christian prophet, riding in a moving fortress leading thousands of zombies on a genocide march. The film slows down a tad in Raccoon City, where Alice meets with a group of survivors, led once again by Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), in time for a siege. Then, there’s a mad, final dash through the Hive’s winding corridors of doom for requisite plot twists and mind-screwing, with Isaacs and Wesker (Shawn Roberts) waiting in the wings. As always, the only constant is Jovovich, determining her way through annihilation.

Though it mines plot details from all its predecessors, The Final Chapter most closely hews to series high-point Extinction. It’s not just the white line nightmares and rusted DIY contraptions, but an overriding sense of futility. We’re introduced to the aftermath of Retribution‘s teased final stand, utterly devastated, with Alice stumbling through the ruins looking for water. Presumably, all the survivors of that film have been snuffed, Alien 3-style. A faint glimmer of salvation, offered by previously homicidal A.I. the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), is met with skepticism and hostility. Even the film’s biggest stake, the fate of humanity’s remaining settlement, is left off-screen, a question mark hanging over its very existence. Five movies’ worth of fakeouts and impenetrable machinations haven’t inspired confidence; Alice and gang only go along because their only other choice is waiting around to die. Even a sub-thread which returns us to the question of Alice’s origins is summed in a single line from Jovovich: “Sometimes I feel I spent my whole life running, killing.”

Anderson never hangs on this misery, palpable as it is. It lurks around the edges of The Final Chapter, grist for Alice to pulverize enemies in jittery fight sequences–overloaded with cuts, thanks to to Neveldine-Taylor editor Doobie White. The longest we’re ever held on to a moment is an agonizing wind tunnel setpiece, Alice straining to hold onto a comrade she rescued moments ago (from the same spinning blade trap). The music swells. Jovovich grits her teeth and tightens her grip. There’s a slip. Just a little longer. Her charge loses hold, is sucked in and diced. The power dies, the fans stop too late. Alice screams, continued frustration boiling over at last. Another life she couldn’t save.

In a movie series built out of trap-laden corridors, platformer-logic architecture, and recycled candy-colored carnage, guilt is a curious recurring device. Alice in Resident Evil attempted to hold a group together through sheer force of will, and failed. It set the tone for the sequels’ war of attrition, some losses stinging more than others. It’s an obvious fascination for Anderson and Jovovich, often paired with themes of exploitation and abuse of power crushing individuals (it’s revealed Umbrella deliberately started the zombie outbreak to save the world for the rich and powerful, an endgame built around “reboot[ing] it in our image”–an unsubtle nod to the movies’ fates). Their creation, Alice, relives torment over and over as she fends off cannibals both undead and executive. She fights and endures to keep in the same place. Like all the previous entries, The Final Chapter wants us hurrying along to the next trap, the next monster fight, the next labyrinthine plot twist rather than wrestling with anything like subtext. It’s only in the volume of them do the Resident Evils approach anything resembling a thesis, which is its own kind of brilliance.

Starship Troopers

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Almost 20 years later, Starship Troopers has only gotten more incisive. Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier (co-writer of Verhoeven’s Robocop) construct an elaborate pisstake around Robert Heinlein’s militarist sci-fi novel, framing an otherwise standard issue war narrative about humanity against a varied collective of giant space bugs with the most fascistic embellishments. Kangaroo courts leading to televised executions; screeching, chickenhawk talking heads quick to shoot down anything resembling reason; teachers openly promoting genocide as legitimate solutions; news reports shot like Riefenstahl propaganda flicks; eugenics hints in dialogue; Doogie Howser as a scientist in an SS coat, no opportunity is wasted to twist the source material in the most mean-spirited fashion possible, director and writer laying bare their contempt of a society which valorizes killing for God and country above all else.

Perhaps the most sly touch of all is how little humanity Verhoeven allows these people to show. Chiselled and predominantly Aryan, despite a first act which takes place in Argentina, the cast–led by wooden Casper van Dien–have motivations ruled by pettiness and vapidity, rising through the ranks as much by a combination of nepotism and slaughtered predecessors as it is by any skills they possess. The only time they’re alive is when they’re killing or eyeing one another for a lay. This actually puts them a step down from the bugs: with their varied castes and a mindset ruled by collective well-being of the hive, they embody a form of self-sacrifice the faux-individualism the humans only pay lip service to. Their swarming isn’t out of malice, but an attempt to grind to a halt a force hellbent on extermination.

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