21st 05 - 2017 | 7 comments »

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Ridley Scott’s chimera of horror and science fiction, Alien (1979) launched its director on a Hollywood career and established a franchise that has become a fixture of the modern cinema landscape. Expanded by James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Alien series, whilst declining steeply in quality as it went on and spawning an army of imitators, still managed to remain distinctive. That distinctiveness stemmed from the films’ unique blend of down-and-dirty generic imperatives, telling blood-and-thunder stories of rampaging monsters, obscene pregnancies and infestations, and raw survivalism, fused with high-class production values, conceptual intelligence, and technocratic grandeur, lending a veneer of respectability to a portrait of a future far less cheery and far more id-like than the norm for such spacefaring tales. This is a future defined by eerie fusions of biology and technology, painted in chiaroscuro contrasts of assailed light against overwhelming blackness, a place where nightmares dwell and heroes survive only by pure nerve. The series reached a nadir when the menace of the xenomorphs was pitched into combat with the hulking Predators of Twentieth Century Fox’s other beloved sci-fi action property for two readily ignored movies, but then Scott elected to return to the series that had made his name with Prometheus (2011). Suddenly the series, and its director, were exciting for many again. Prometheus proved a peculiarly indecisive concoction, however, and a divisive one.

Undoubtedly, Prometheus was an ambitious and hefty piece of work. But many, including me, were hoping that Scott would extend his work not just in theme and scope but in style. The specific aura of his original, defined by a mood of miasmic dread and mystery, and tension slowly ratcheted then exploited with relentless effect, was attuned to environment as a tool and source of drama, in the twinned environs of space’s unknowable expanse and the labyrinthine twists of the Nostromo. Such carefully worked filmmaking offered lessons too many contemporary directors forget, including, it seemed, Scott himself. Still, Scott poured a great deal of his matured technical and storytelling expertise into the film and many examples of his great eye, so that when viewed as a standalone thrill-ride, Prometheus was a fine effort, sporting one truly classic sequence depicting an excruciating surgical birth. But as a revisit to beloved universe by its progenitor, it was surely more conventional and clumsy.

The curious squeamishness Scott revealed on Prometheus about drawing too many clear lines to his original gives way with Alien: Covenant, his latest foray into this zone, to a bolder reappropriation of his stylistic cues, opening the door for an instalment that moves a long way towards closing the linkage between the two entries. The titles recreate the assembling motif of the original’s opening credits, and Jed Kurzel’s music score quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s plaintive, eerie, barely-there scoring for the original. Scott also quotes ideas from subsequent entries, like a projected image of lovely forest offered as a bogus panacea for grief and the stern rifle-wielding quoted from Aliens (1986). There’s a deftly clever reason to this sort of conscientious trope-harvesting, beyond mere homage and service to a conceptual universe, that becomes clearer as the film goes on. Prometheus dealt with an expedition financed by dying tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his efforts to track down the possible source of life on Earth, discovering facilities used for genetic engineering and the remains of a colossal alien race dubbed Engineers, who laid the seeds for the genesis of the human race but also intended its destruction and supplanting by more fearsome creations. The finale saw sole human survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) appropriating an Engineer spaceship to track down their home world in the mangled company of Weyland’s magnum opus in cybernetic engineering, David (Michael Fassbender).

Alien: Covenant opens with a sequence depicting David’s first conscious moments as a creation and tool of Weyland, back when the creator was still relatively healthy and David was immediately faced with a quandary of being the perfect and undying progeny of a very frail beast indeed. Most of Alien: Covenant however takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus. Following Prometheus’ lead, Covenant is also the name of a spaceship, a craft carrying a load of 2000 colonists in cryogenic stasis to a distant planet chosen as a new home. Their well-being is overseen by the on-board synthetic human Walter (Fassbender again), an upgraded, less independent version of David’s make. In between leaps through wormholes with a solar sail deployed to recharge the ship’s power supplies, the Covenant is struck by a surge of energy from an exploding star, frying its electrical systems and causing the ship’s core crew to wake up. The captain, Branson (James Franco), is burned to a cinder when his stasis pod catches fire, leaving his partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston) distraught and his second officer Oram (Billy Crudup) in anxious command. Whilst repairing the solar sail, another crew member, Tennessee (Danny McBride), picks up an extremely faint and mysterious broadcast from a relatively nearby planet. Watching the broadcast, the crew realise it’s a faint image of a woman singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When they look at the planet it’s sourced from, a mere seven weeks’ flight away, the crew decide it’s worth travelling there to search for the mysterious woman, because the planet appears to be a closer and superior place to set up their colony.

Arriving at the planet, the Covenant crew, who are mostly married or in relationships to better foster the colonial mission, leave a skeleton force to man the space vessel whilst most of the crew departs to the surface to investigate. Tennessee’s wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) is one joins the landing team, which also includes Oram, Daniels, and stalwart Lope (Demián Bichir, under-utilised), whilst her husband stays aboard ship with another couple, Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett). Daniels has protested vociferously to Oram about his decision to come to this planet which she describes as too good to be true, a protest Oram registers as another slight against him, feeling a victimised status he blames on his oft-proclaimed religious faith. Touching down, the landing party soon find the planet apparently free of all animal life but weirdly rich in familiar, overgrown versions of Earth vegetation. They soon find a crashed Engineer spaceship and find Shaw’s dog tags on board. Two members of the party, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) and Hallett (Nathaniel Dean) also inadvertently find something else, spore pods that release microbes that latch themselves on their bodies and soon start a gruesome and grimly familiar biological process. Both infected men soon fall ill, bleed copiously, and finally have small but deadly alien organisms erupt out of their bodies. These things grow and go on the hunt, leaving several crew dead and their shuttle craft destroyed. What’s left of the party is saved by a mysterious cloaked figure who releases a bright flare to scare the monsters off. This is soon revealed to be David himself, surviving a solitary existence on this planet with naught to do but pick up where the Engineers left off.

The early scenes of Alien: Covenant confirm Scott’s intention to reverse-engineer the series back to original specs, whilst also quietly stretching out sinew in readiness for hard exertions when they come, as he makes a film where its very status as a variation on a theme is an explicit part of the show. The workaday tedium that afflicted the denizens of the Nostromo is not quite rhymed with the more upbeat and expectant Covenant crew here, whose outlook is fixed on new horizons rather than hacky bonus cheques. This positive aspect to the crew makes them more harmonious and likeable for the most part, but also means most lack the hardened edge of survival instinct that finally sustained Ripley through to safe harbour. The crew’s increasingly panicky, frail responses to hard-charging survival situations comes both in response to sudden swerves of fate but also repeatedly create them. Daniels’ tragic loss of her partner which is also the loss of the expedition leader and pillar of stability has immediately punched a deep and ever-widening hole in the integrity of this unit. Oram cringes and privately fumes at presumed dissension to his authority, especially when the other members of the crew take pause during their repairs to give Branson a funeral. Tennessee becomes increasingly stressed and places the Covenant in danger from the violent storms that sweep over the planet’s upper atmosphere as he becomes increasingly worried about his wife. The way stressful and lethally intense situations sort out personalities, a minor but consequential theme of the original, is here revisited and becomes an overriding part of how Alien: Covenant investigates humanity and alienness as conditions.

This aspect is illustrated with particularly ruthless zeal when the long, investigative first act gives way to rapidly spiralling crises and hysterical goads to action. The creature in Ledward rips its way out of his back whilst he and Oram’s botanist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) are in the shuttle craft’s med bay. Faris locks Karine in with the monster and makes a frenetic but ineffectual attempt to get a weapon and kill the creature. Although new-born the creature still gnaws Karine to death and tracks Faris through the ship, finally driving her to accidentally blow up the craft with her wild gunshots. Scott repeats this process several times, as situations fall suddenly and ruthlessly on his characters, a callous quality given fresh bite by the fact most of these characters are in relationships, their functions as team members cut across by personal loyalties and instincts driving them in contradictory directions. Daniels’ enveloping grief is employed both as a personal trait and an aesthetic keynote in a mad dream where everything spirals in towards to twinned moments of birth and death. Her hopes for building a log cabin on an alien shore with her husband are recited as pathetic confession, and she shares an embrace with Tennessee when they’ve both lost loved-ones. Scott contrasts the increasingly frenzied, messy, and desperate actions of the humans against the ever-poised David, who, in spite of his solitary Ben Gunn-like existence on the planet and long, ragged castaway’s hair, has kept his composure and found peculiar purpose. He takes the survivors in hand and leads them to a deserted city where the petrified remains of the Engineer race still lie scattered across agora cobbles, like some grotesquely apocalyptic, genocidal edition of Pompeii’s dead. David explains to the survivors that the Engineer ship he and Elizabeth brought to the planet accidentally released a sample of the Engineers’ own biological agents, killing them and all other animal life, whilst Elizabeth was mortally injured when the ship crashed.

Although it has undoubtedly been composed of uneven individual works and has received little recognition, Scott’s late career has been rapidly taking shape as one of the most vital and interesting runs in recent cinema from a major filmmaker. This is apparent on both on the level of sheer cinematic swagger, replete with genre-swapping skin-changes worthy of his xenomorphs, but also in the way the key fascinations of his films have become increasingly compulsive. This phase began after the flop of Body of Lies (2008), probably Scott’s weakest film, and kicked off with Robin Hood (2010), both an attempt to recapture and to farewell a phase in his career defined by the success of Gladiator (2000), the movie which restored his standing as a major hit-maker but also reduced him to a spinner of simplistic fairy-tales for grownups. Robin Hood, although violently uneven and poorly focused, was nonetheless a complex conjuration, meshing closely observed historical context with mythology in a manner that highlighted several of Scott’s career-long concerns, particularly class conflict and the fate of the out-of-place individual, and the question as to how our contemporary humanity has evolved, in terms of one of Britain’s most famous folkloric figurations. The films Scott has made since then – Prometheus, The Counselor (2013), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), The Martian (2015), and this one – have all agitatedly sorted and re-sorted an essential catalogue of ideas and images, taking on parables in various settings and each with a different tone for framework. The Old Testament punishments for hubris in Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus saw moral dramas played out in landscapes of jagged stone and bleak portent, whilst the communal efforts to achieve sanctuary in Exodus and The Martian evinced a positive but exacting sense of vulnerability in the face of eternal powers. Like Luis Bunuel, a very different filmmaker in obvious ways, Scott has explored his own contradictory nature as a person without overt religion but easily fired up by a religious sensibility, urgently examining the forces that make and break us, trying to live up to a humane creed but constantly offering sly sympathy to his Satanic figures.

Alien: Covenant certainly extends this last aspect through the figure of David, who has slipped his bonds and become determined not merely to be excellent product but a most excellent and laborious producer. He’s that figure Scott admires most and has most qualms about, the exceptional being straining against a world of lessers, an antihero driven to be rebel archangel in his outrage at the way things are. Oram is a man of religious faith but little faith in himself and, more importantly, little gift for leadership, and he falls prey to David’s designs with tragicomic ease. The deliberate echoes and suggestions of direct connection provided here with Blade Runner (1981) flesh out something long implicit in the diptych offered by Scott’s most evergreen films, as David here marches on fearlessly into zones of self-definition Roy Batty could not quite bear to contemplate: he still wanted his father to tell him things would be all right. One forceful idea of Prometheus was the notion that discovering God might be a colossally disappointing act, underlined here with the revelation David casually exterminated the Engineers with their own works. One mask of creation simply gives way to another, leaving more mystery and more frustration. This becomes a spur ironically not to despair but to further, ever-more restless engagement with the act of creation itself. But the creation is only ever a mirror to the faults and strengths of what produces it, and David’s root programming error is suggested with a daisy chain of literary references that connects Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and the latter’s wife Mary, as the Frankensteinian progeny plans an elaborate and cosmically terrifying revenge on having been made so well and yet so impotent. His recitation of Percy’s epistle to the titanic urge, “Ozymandias,” reveals his own trunkless legs by misattributing it to Byron – a mistake Walter, seemingly David’s perfect replica, but carefully castrated by a more cautious and circumspect society, notices, the one clue that this would-be god is cracked.

The relationship between David and Walter is one of Alien: Covenant’s most sublime ideas, giving Fassbender a chance to give two supremely confident, carefully varied performances, and the ultimate actor’s challenge and fantasy, to enact both seducing himself and killing himself. David introduces Walter to the pleasures of personal artistic creation when he teaches him to play a flute, the perfect Narcissus eventually even kissing his double in his effort to find a worthy companion in his solitude, and what could be more worthy than himself. But Walter resists and eventually becomes the only real force standing between David and victory over the pathetic flesh-bags. David has become as central and eclipsing to Scott’s re-conception of this franchise as Peter Cushing’s similarly cool, incisive, utterly unrelenting Frankenstein was to Hammer’s series about the character, towering far over the monstrous by-products of his tinkering. The eventual battle between the two synthetics is the ultimate and perfect version of the essentialist struggle that Scott has meditated upon as far back as the inevitably titled The Duellists – at last the mirrored antagonists are actually, truly identical, distinguished only by the mysterious code called personality. Alien: Covenant eventually unveils another inspired notion as it reveals that the missing link between the Engineers’ parasitic monstrosities and the familiar xenomorphs of the series is David himself, toying with these in his attempts to build a species perfectly adapted not just to survival but to actively exploiting and destroying humans.

This provides an impishly clever explanation for why the xenomorphs seems at once so strange and so familiar, compositing animal types found on Earth and giving the Engineers’ brilliant but mutable creations a new spin. At one point David acidly refers to one of his human male victims as the intended mother of one of his children. David has become in word and deeds his own god, a version of god blazing hatefully out of gnostic texts and bitter agnostic fantasy, a mad designer perched over neo-medieval texts splicing together misbegotten demons. The film’s blackest joke involves two renditions of a passage of Wagner’s Das Rheingold depicting gods entering Valhalla, and is also a cunning call-back to a motif again mooted in the original, where Ash celebrated the purity of the alien beast with ardent fascist admiration. The Hitlerian dream is unbound and now written into the music of the spheres. Appropriately, Alien: Covenant is a mad scientist’s concoction itself, all mediated by Scott’s utilisation of David’s urge to creativity as a metaphor for his own, speeding through drafts, each one tossed off with ever-more feverish drive than the last no matter how good or how lousy the results; only the urge to keep moving counts. Thus Alien: Covenant is a highly perverse hymn to creativity as a natural law and urge, manifesting in whatever form it will. Scott’s professional drive to keep working, so often the source of critical suspicion of his output, is constituted by him as the essence of his being.

Scott does more than make a horror film here; he makes a film about the horror genre, its history, its place in the psyche, analysing the way the death-dream constantly underlies all fantasies of ego and eros. Scott reaches out for a hundred and one reference points, some of the already plain in the Alien series lexicon. The deserted Engineer city recalls the Cyclopean confines of the lost cities in Lovecraft tales like At the Mountains of Madness, the Elder Gods all left gorgonized by David’s perfidy. At one point Scott recreates Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Isle of the Dead,” an image that obsessed H. R. Giger, the crucial designer behind so much of the Alien mythos, as much as it did Val Lewton, whose cavernously eerie psychological parables redefined horror cinema in the 1940s; Scott no doubt has both in mind. David’s “love” for Elizabeth, which has taken the form of relentlessly exploiting her body to lend genetic material to his creations, is both reminiscent of a particularly tactile serial killer worthy of Thomas Harris and of the obsessive, invasive eroticisation of the loved one’s cadaver found in Poe, whilst the whole meditates as intensely and morbidly on its landscape of Poe’s poetry. The design of the failed prototype xenomorphs and David’s rooms hung with sketches reminiscent of medieval alchemic ephemera both pay tribute to Guillermo Del Toro’s films and also poke Del Toro’s oeuvre back for its own debt to Scott and Giger. A head floating in water comes out of Neil Jordan’s self-conscious unpacking of fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984). The touch of Captain Branson’s death struck me as a possible tip of the hat to Dark Star (1974), in which the captain had died in similar circumstances, and which was of course made by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Late in the film Scott stages a shower sequence that sees Upworth and Ricks having a hot and steamy moment under the spigot only to be surprised by a xenomorph. At first glance this sequence revels in a trashier brand of horror associated with 1970s and ‘80s slasher films, but Scott also adds self-reference – the xenomorph’s tail curling in demonic-penile fashion around their legs calls back to the similarly queasy shot in Alien when Lambert was attacked by the monster, whilst also nodding back to Hitchcock and Psycho (1960). It’s staged meanwhile with all the pointillist precision of Scott’s most fetishistic visual rhapsodies – spraying water like diamonds playing over soft flesh, fogged glass, grey knobbly alien skin, and the inevitable rupture of red, red blood.

Which points to another quality of Alien: Covenant – its deeply nasty, enthusiastic commitment to being a horror film, an anarchic theatre of cruelty and bloodlust barely evinced in any other film of such a large budget, especially in this age of gelded adolescent fantasies. If it’s still not the deep, dank leap into a barely liminal space like the original, it is perfectly confident in itself and bleakly poetic in unexpected ways. I don’t know if a film has ever been so casually beautiful even when deploying visions of hellishness, apparent in moments like the shower attack. Or in the following scene when a blown-out airlock results in air turning to million-fold vapour pellets and then ice, exploding in dazzling shards. Or in the surveys of the desolate sculpture garden that is the Engineer city. Daniels’ resemblance to Ripley, in her short dark hair and singlets and pluck in the face of monstrous adversity is both another purposeful echo and a miscue, a by-product of Alien: Covenant’s status as a logarithmic variant. Her embrace with Tennessee is one of the most unaffectedly humane moments in Scott’s oeuvre, and a summation of the film’s repeated statement that to be alive is to need others. Only that’s a rule that cuts both ways in a predatory competition for lebensraum, and leads to such fragments of ecstatic insight as David’s distraught look when one of his children fails.

Scott stages another brilliantly executed, madcap suspense sequence as Daniels and Tennessee attempt to flee the planet surface with a xenomorph scuttling around the hull of their craft, Daniels trying to blast the beast on a wildly pitching deck as the monster tries to head-butt its way through Perspex to get at Tennessee. There’s a skittish, occasionally madcap quality to Pietro Scalia’s editing throughout the film that communicates the off-kilter will at the heart of this project. Only in its very last act does some of Alien: Covenant’s assurance slip, as Scott doesn’t quite match the patience with which he deployed his sneak-attack coda in the original. But there’s still a final twist in store, at once galling and perfectly apt, deployed with obviousness but sustained in ambiguity with such malign showmanship that it becomes increasingly vexing and entirely riveting, before the axe finally falls. Scott builds with cold mirth to a punch-line for the tale that both echoes one he initially mooted for Alien, and which also recalls the sting in the tail of one of the signal influences on that film, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1966). Scott exploits his own well-worn material here to push right to the brink of the abyss in a way reminiscent to what he did before in The Counselor, complete with a note of predetermined evil fate, only in a context where he can bait people to swallow it. But he also leaves a tantalising question open that might still be answered in creative and thrilling ways. This is the worthy achievement of this entry – it rejuvenates a well-worn property and restores all its dark and unexpected power. But more than that, it’s a testament of pure delight in his medium from a filmmaker who really has nothing left to prove, but likes to prove it anyway.


11th 11 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Europa Report (2013)

Director: Sebastián Cordero

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Even as the big-money people in the United States are freaking out about how our children are lagging behind those in other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and pouring tons of their ill-gotten booty into STEM education, Hollywood and indie films alike continue to push fear and superstition as the major consequences of exploring nature and the universe. From the horrors of cloning (Moon [2009], Primer [2004]) and dangers of space exploration (Apollo 13 [1995], Red Planet [2000]) to the wrong-headedness of atheism (Contact [1997], Gravity [2013]) and threat of aliens (all the Alien movies), our movies are telling us to remain god-fearing people who will only be safe and happy in our own backyard.

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Certainly there are dangers involved in exploration, and have been since the first human beings migrated from humanity’s place of origin millennia ago. But even as Dorothy Gale told herself over and over that there’s no place like home, she enthused to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry that most of Oz was absolutely beautiful, a place of color that contrasted the black-and-white bleakness of Kansas, and a place where she made lasting friendships. I have been hoping that one day we’d emerge from our self-imposed prison of fear and start declaring and acting on, as Frank Zappa said, how “fucking great [it is] to be alive.” While Gravity chose to dazzle and frighten us and take us back to safety, an indie film that has garnered more buzz than box office, Europa Report, offers us a dangerous journey of discovery that sends back to us a message of hope and wonder untainted by superstition and narrow-focused fear, a feeling the world as a whole has not experienced since the first person walked on the moon in 1969.

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Reflecting the reality that governments are no longer willing to support space exploration, a private company is behind the mission to send a six-person, international team of scientists and engineers to Europa, a moon of Jupiter. The expedition’s mission is to see if there may be life on Europa, following a real-life theory that massive oceans may be flowing beneath the moon’s ice sheet. The film toggles between a talking-heads-style documentary of the company’s executive team, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), Dr. Sokolov (Dan Folger), and Dr. Pamuk (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.), who describe what happened when ground control lost communication with the spacecraft, and the details of the mission.

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Before communication with Earth is interrupted, we get the kind of footage most of us are used to seeing of life on a spacecraft—messages to loved ones, a communal meal, demonstrations of weightlessness and how the crew works out to keep their muscles from shriveling. The actual loss of communication is very realistic, as the picture being transmitted breaks up, freezes, and finally dies. Thereafter, all the footage we see is from the on-board video recorders and the video feeds in the crew’s spacesuits during out-of-craft missions. The ever-present logo in the lower right corner of the screen, as well as the identifying stamps of the mission cameras, seem to disappear as we become enveloped in the crew’s drama of discovery, but they also provide a subtle link to the documentary-like footage of the company executives that puts the entire film into perspective.

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Like real-life space travel, the Europa mission is a hazardous one, and crew members do die along the way. One of the crew is shut out of the craft when his suit becomes contaminated with a highly toxic substance during a repair job that could kill them all. He doesn’t want to die—and we don’t want him to die after seeing his obvious love for the family he left behind—but he takes his fate philosophically. The crew member who was with him, also in danger from a puncture to his space suit, is only dissuaded from helping his crew mate because he passes out from lack of oxygen. When he revives in the airlock of the ship, his cry of anguish is wrenching and real.

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The landing on Europa doesn’t go exactly as planned, as the crew misses the target landing space by 100 meters because of an unexpected heat vent that blows the landing craft off course. This is a lovely touch, showing that the precise planning of the mission is always subject to change due to unknown natural conditions the crew may encounter. So many fact-based science fiction films make everything seem to run like clockwork, with the only snafus coming from human error or equipment mishaps. They forget what we have sought in space—the unknown wonders of the universe.

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What else is extraordinarily refreshing, something that harkens back to the fictions produced during the early days of space exploration, is a sense of excitement and awe the crew displays. We only see what the crew sees—some narrowly delineated looks at the surface of Europa, for example, though director Cordero ensures that we see an entrancing image of Jupiter on the horizon. The crew drills a large hole through the ice sheet, and a camera records a first look at the predicted, and now confirmed, ocean below. When marine biologist Katya (Karolina Wydra) goes out to collect samples after the remote collection equipment fails, we see her unscrewing and resealing jars, and then move toward some lights in the distance. Her enthusiasm and curiosity sweep us along with her.

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The film’s budget seems relatively modest, with the personnel and the spacecraft (green screens were employed for the out-of-craft shots) the major expenditures in what is essentially a one-set film. Despite the craft looking like an exploded hardware store later in the film, Europa Report creates an impressive, largely believable world of its own. Crew actions make sense, except perhaps for Katya’s refusal to return to the landing craft after being ordered to twice.

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The overall feeling of the film is one of camaraderie, dedication, and self-sacrifice. William Xu (Daniel Wu) is a believable mission leader who is both decisive and willing to sacrifice life and limb for his crew. Russian crew members Andrei (Michael Nyqvist) and Katya huddle from time to time to check on each other’s state of mind, a concern for their mutual welfare part and parcel of the mission. Andrei’s and crew member Rosa’s (Anamaria Marinca) dedication to Katya, in fact, ensures that her discoveries on Europa will be communicated back to Earth. The final takeaway of this film is that some causes are worth any sacrifice, including one’s life and peace of mind. We live in unusually selfish times, so this message delivered by an international cast and crew in a thoughtfully rendered, exciting, and entertaining film is timely and welcome.


25th 07 - 2009 | 7 comments »

Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009)

Creator/Writer: Russell T. Davies

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

For anyone who has been wondering where I’ve been all week, the explanation is that the hubby and I have all but eschewed movies in favor of a nightly rendezvous with BBC America to watch a five-part miniseries of one of our favorite TV series: Torchwood. Two years ago, the series disappeared. How could the BBC cancel such a winning show? We despaired of it ever returning. Thankfully, creator Russell Davies and the remaining regular cast members, John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Gareth David-Lloyd, and Kai Owen, were given a chance to come back and end the series properly (despite hints that it could return, I don’t expect it to this time).

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Torchwood is a spin-off from Doctor Who, television’s longest-running science fiction series. The Doctor, played by various actors since the series premiered in 1963, is a time lord who recognizes the central character in Torchwood, Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowman), as something that shouldn’t exist—a fixed point in time and space. Harkness started life in the 51th century, but because he is a constant, he cannot die. The Doctor has facilitated his travels through time. A couple of centuries before the present, Harkness became involved with Torchwood, a secret branch of the British government based in Cardiff, Wales, where a rift in space/time allows aliens from other times and worlds to enter Earth’s space. Harkness now leads the Torchwood team. In the second season, two series regulars, physician Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) and math genius Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), were killed. Children of Earth finds the remaining Torchwood team of Harkness, former cop Gwen Cooper (Myles), and Ianto Jones (David-Lloyd), grieving their loss and continuing the business of capturing straying aliens and returning them to wherever they rightfully belong.

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The series starts benignly enough, with Ianto and Jack pretending to be neighbors of a recently deceased man without family. A sympathetic doctor at the hospital, Rupesh Patanjali (Rik Makarem), allows them to spend a few moments alone with the body, whereupon they make a laser incision in the body and extract an alien symbiote with some forceps. Patanjali walks in on them as they scurry away. He knows they’re Torchwood, an open secret in Cardiff, and alerts them to some strange goings-on in the hospital. Soon, he is contacted by Gwen as a possible recruit to replace Owen.

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At about this time, all of the children on Earth stop dead in their tracks, frozen in position. Then they start on again as though nothing has happened. Later, they all speak in unison, in English, repeating the phrase, “We are coming,” then resume life again. There’s no doubt to viewers of the show and the Torchwood team that aliens are using the children to communicate. A very select group of people in the British government know exactly who these aliens are because in 1965, 12 children were turned over to them in exchange for a life-saving antidote to a virus that would have killed perhaps 30 million people worldwide. Prime Minister Brian Green (Nicholas Farrell) decides that Britain’s previous dealings with the aliens, called the 456 for the wavelength on which they communicated, be covered up. He orders lowly bureaucrat John Frobisher (Peter Capaldi) to see to the elimination of anyone with knowledge of the 456—including Jack Harkness—and construct a device the 456 will occupy when they return to Earth.

To say much more about the plot would ruin the suspense the miniseries builds with admirable dexterity. The series breaks no ground in suggesting that the 456 are a nasty piece of work, characterizing them as arachnoid giants who breathe toxic air, explode suddenly with fountains of acidic sputum, and think nothing of turning the world’s children into temporary zombie-puppets for their own purposes. They are also politically shrewd, accepting private terms put forward from the PM by Frobisher to keep the 1965 visit secret from the world that will be party to this new negotiation. Their mission to Earth, moreover, is shown to be absolutely craven, having nothing to do with the usual scifi staples of preserving their dying species or colonizing Earth because their planet is dying. They are very forthcoming about their frivilous purpose, and that only fills us with more disgust.

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What matters in Torchwood is not the monster of the day, but the very human relationships that the cast bring to life in minute and touching detail. Gwen and trucker Rhys (Owen) are married; Rhys is kept in the dark about what Gwen does until she can no longer take the secrecy Jack demands of her. Rhys becomes an unofficial member of Torchwood, helping out when needed, keeping Gwen grounded in the real world, adding both comic and romantically touching moments throughout the series, and running afoul of harm more than once. In Children of Earth, Gwen learns she’s pregnant, with Jack and Ianto learning about it before Rhys. Jack predicts, correctly, that Rhys will hit the ceiling when he finds out he’s third in line of discovery. Yet, the moment Gwen tells him is classic Torchwood—hiding in the back of a truck hauling potatoes, she talks ruefully about rehearsing moments for big announcements long before they happen, and how the best laid plans go awry. One look at her broadening, impish smile tells Rhys all he needs to know. Owen and Myles are terrifically likeable actors, and their chemistry makes the relationship the diamond at the core of the Torchwood story.

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Ianto and Jack are lovers. Jack, who has lived for centuries, doesn’t think twice about behaving as part of a gay couple, but Ianto, who never had a male lover before Jack, is still feeling around the edges of their love. When he reveals all to his sister Rhiannon (Katy Wix), she squeals incredulously, a loving and teasing sibling wondering how she could have missed that her brother was gay. Ianto says he wasn’t interested in other men, “Just him.”

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A trio of tragic figures emerges: Clem McDonald (Paul Copely), the only child from 1965 to have escaped abduction; Frobisher, a dedicated civil servant being set up to take the fall because he’s entirely expendable; and Jack himself. Clem, a scruffy, pathetic man confined to an insane asylum for years, is still linked to the 456. His instinct for survival is as keen as it was in 1965, as he senses the aliens’ approach all along the way and runs from them. Kind-hearted Gwen takes him in and tries to comfort him that he is safe with Torchwood, a claim she forces herself to believe after the Cardiff headquarters have been blown to bits by a bomb planted inside Jack. Copely infuses this potentially annoying character with a pathos and native intelligence that make us feel the deep tragedy of this boy who never really grew up because he was made a pawn in a devil’s bargain.

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Frobisher, likewise, is tasked with negotiating with the 456 and meeting their demands after a show of force convinces the various governments of the world that they are no match for the aliens. In another black bargain, the men in charge pussyfoot around making decisions. Three women close to the hub of power—cabinet minister Alice Carter (Lucy Cohu), assistant to Frobisher Bridget Spears (Susan Brown), and brand-new office hire Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo)—make the difficult choices, show courage and loyalty, and dare to challenge the status quo. Indeed, in Torchwood, a perhaps idealized view of the superiority of women’s judgment is at the forefront. Men can be brave, loyal, and true, but they are frequently shown to be foolish, narrow-focused, naive, and cynical.

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The most morally ambiguous character, and the most classically tragic character of the lot, is Jack. What hasn’t a man who will never die seen? What bargains hasn’t he made that he has learned to regret—or regretted the moment he made them? What must it be like for a man to see those he loves grow old and die—or die in the prime of life? Torchwood is certainly well named for the bright lights that blaze and burn out young. Only Jack has nothing to fear mortally, but his conscience in some sense may be seen as the conscience of the divine: seeing the world and despairing at creation and the misery that has attended it. Gwen herself voices this moral dilemma, wondering why The Doctor shows up sometimes to save the day and is absent at other times. “The Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.” Gwen stands for facing each day, no matter what; Jack has learned that running away is not only acceptable, but also the only choice in some circumstances. Bravery means nothing to him; learning to live with what he’s seen and knows is his life’s great task.

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Torchwood: Children of Earth deals dramatically with how those in power exempt themselves from sacrifice, force sacrifice on those they consider expendable, and dissemble even to their allies. It takes up the question of bargaining with terrorists, and whether such bargains can ever be trusted to hold. It looks at the appetites we all have—for pleasure, power, security—and places them against the cost to others. It shows what is best and worst in humanity, and how people choose their loyalties. In Torchwood, loyalty to the personal almost always outweighs loyalty to country, even though Torchwood exists to serve the British state.

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The script for this miniseries takes in these big questions almost effortlessly, and the cast infuse their parts with nuance and charisma. There are a few “conveniences,” particularly in wrapping the story up. For example, how does Lois go from her first day of work to sitting in on the negotiations with the 456? In reality, it wouldn’t happen, but given the crisis that has thrown apart normal operations, we can see how someone no one knows could slip into high-level meetings as almost a piece of furniture. We accept certain plot devices, because like all good scifi, the series largely maintains its own internal logic. And when we’ve spent five or so hours gripped in a ripping yarn that engages our minds, we can only wish that it would go on forever.

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30th 04 - 2009 | 5 comments »

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Director: Scott Derrickson

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By Roderick Heath

This retooling of Robert Wise’s venerable 1951 model starts well, but quickly proves a wretched embarrassment. Wise’s film isn’t quite the cute and cuddly model of the nice alien school of scifi story it might seem. There’s a latent fascism in the conclusion that scifi writer and scholar David Wingrove once called the “cooperate or else” stream of genre morality in which someone of greater intelligence is always stepping in and laying down the law to us foolish humans. Yet there’s a reason Wise’s film is still considered one of the most adult of science fiction films: it engages with its core concepts with a far greater rigor and openness of mind and spirit than this overpriced piece of claptrap.

The general plot is still in play: Klaatu, an alien ambassador, arrives on Planet Earth to deliver a greeting and a warning. He’s shot on arrival, taken in hand by government spooks, escapes, and strikes up a friendship with a single mother and her son, who help him understand the species much better. In this remake, however, the mother, Helena Benson (Jennifer Connelly), is a biology professor (my homework was never quite like this, whoa whoa!), and her son is a step-child. Black, too—see, we’re touching all the PC bases here, noone can accuse us of being behind the times, nosireebob. One wonders why screenwriter David Scarpa neglected to make Helena an Islamic lesbian, too. Helena’s charge, Jacob (Jaden Smith), has issues because his daddy died in war (which one is skipped around, lest anyone think we’re being controversial here). He maintains the same frosty cynicism towards his stepmother that Dakota Fanning exhibited towards papa Tom Cruise in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and makes equally as a good case for a return of spanking.

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Michael Rennie’s Klaatu was agreeable—avuncular even—intelligent, and communicative, yet quietly superior and alien in a subtle fashion, like a tourist interacting with an environment he’d read a lot about but still found surprising. The new, unimproved Klaatu, embodied by Keanu Reeves with a “Look Ma, I’m acting!” crease in his glacial forehead, is a pushy jerk with the message of Al Gore (but less charisma, if that’s possible) and the methods of Adolf Hitler. For some reason, he’s set up a bunch of arks to save specimens of earth species so that he can sterilize the earth of its human infestation; the concept of a genome-specific disease that could kill off humans without affecting the rest of the planet is apparently beyond the grasp of these genius aliens. This poorly thought-through adaptation of a would-be timely thesis is foolish in several respects, most of all, in strict narrative terms, as the film illogically presents its aliens as having interacted with human society for decades and yet learnt nothing about their basic character, so that Klaatu’s genocidal plan can be interrupted by reconciliation between a mother and son that’s so ludicrously inept in scripting and acting it’s a wonder Klaatu doesn’t speed the apocalypse up.

The idea of rendering Klaatu as a more fundamentally alien being was a fair one, but it spends a great deal of time cribbing as many ideas from Starman as Wise’s film, and then rushes through the next two-thirds of the film as gaping holes in sense appear. It’s strange how the extraterrestrials go to so much effort to tailor their ambassador as a human for a visit of no greater length and meaning than a pest control visit, have him land out in the open, but don’t seem to have planned how to present a case or understand the beings he’s been sent to interact with, whereas that was specifically what Rennie’s Klaatu was all about. He was a creature who wanted to understand the world. Derrickson’s film reflects how much more of a cold, paranoid, self-loathing world we are today; this is partly critique, but also a very large part unconscious, because so much of the story’s worth has been sacrificed to swift efficiency of plot and sound-bite dialogue.

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Of some initial interest is the translation of ’50s political paranoia into a peculiarly ’00s variety, with the government goons portrayed as a bunch of glowering, harrying thugs working with all the graceless, bullying style all these movie cops and soldiers have that’s supposed to be the mark of impressive efficiency, but only comes across as dispiriting. The situation is under the control of a Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates, collecting her paycheck with all the aplomb of an ice cream stand attendant impatient for a cigarette break) who does and says so many stupid things she exemplifies the definitive case for mankind’s obliteratation. Also of interest is an element of something close to a pantheistic ideal, as Klaatu expostulates a lifecycle view of life that entails nothing ever actually dying, only altering. But ideas have gone out the window by the time of a would-be suspense sequence in which army helicopters chase Klaatu, Helena, and Jacob, and Helena is snatched up by a guy on a bungee cord in a moment of laugh-out-loud silliness.

Most offensive and corrosive to the material is the way the original’s humanistic detail has been shorn away. In fact, humanistic detail seems to be more downright alien to the contemporary blockbuster and the people who make them than any number of spaceships. In Wise’s film, Helena and Jacob lived in a Washington boarding house that allowed for a droll stock-taking of human types living an everyday life (“People my foot, they’re Democrats!” Ah, Everett Sloan, where art thou?). Helena was romanced by an entirely normal, unsatisfying type of guy, an insurance salesman played by Hugh Marlowe. Here she has a platonic-or-something interaction with another scientist (John Hamm) that ends when he gets killed; nobody gives a damn by that point. In Wise’s film, the impact of Klaatu upon everyday life and the impact of everyday life on him was registered. No time for that here: the film apes those classic moments in old scifi films where we glimpse unrest and panic around the world on the TV, but there’s no engagement with the world outside the immediate narrative.

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The original’s iconic encounter was between Klaatu and Einstein stand-in Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who is rumbled by Klaatu’s superior gifts, is recreated pretty precisely, with Barnhardt now played by John Cleese. Not surprisingly, it’s the remake’s best moment. But the meaning of the encounter is spurned immediately. The original established mathematics as a universal language, an idea Spielberg took a step further in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where music, being both a mathematical form and a language form, bridged the gap and laid the groundwork for an ideal of intellectual and philosophical, as opposed to mercenarily political, leadership. Here, Klaatu listens briefly to some Bach and drones, “It’s beautiful,” whilst looking vaguely constipated. You get the feeling that he, and the filmmakers, would rather be listening to Van Halen. Cleese’s Barnhardt, after mumbling a few pieties about change, tells Helena that she can alter Klaatu’s mission only with “herself.” The exact meaning of this is initially unclear—does he want her to go down on him (now there’s some human experience for you)—but what it really entails is that familiar New Age gasbaggery of letting your heart show the way, etc.

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Derrickson’s scene construction, that basic A-B-C grammar of movies of which Hollywood is supposedly the starchy bastion, is woeful. One sequence, in which some drone aircraft are guided over New York to attack Gort with missiles, is utterly insensible at first, the loudest example of a basic carelessness in giving out information. Scenes come and go with no form of internal rhythm. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Gort, which is fair enough because the film only occasionally remembers to cut back to what’s going on with him. It’s not Lock Martin in foam rubber anymore, it’s a big clunky CGI version, and waiting for him to cut loose is the movie’s only hope. But he’s actually a huge collective of nanobots that disperse when apocalypse time comes, so rather than giant-robot-on-puny-human action, we get these swirly, windy effects, as a conveniently empty New York gets eaten up.

The film’s only signs of intelligent life come from Cleese, and a neat (if utterly senseless, in terms of writing and ethics) cameo from James Hong as another alien who reports that the human race is inflexible and must be destroyed, and yet also wants to die with it. Connelly remains a fair example of a competent, utterly unexciting talent elevated by her model looks to leading roles, essaying in Helena one of these drearily professional, cute-but-sexless drones that seems to be the only kind of mature, independent woman Hollywood keeps stock of. Reeves is an actor I’ve remained neutral on for a long time, out of respect for the real movies he once appeared in (River’s Edge, My Own Private Idaho), but now I’ll come off the fence: he’s a fucking bore. All the deft, calm, elevated intelligence that Rennie possessed is lost in space and with it, the dramatic and moral heart of the film. Rather than fill me with hope, this remake makes me ashamed of my species. l

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8th 02 - 2008 | 12 comments »

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

2001: A Space Odyssey is a true landmark in the history of filmmaking. Eschewing conventional storytelling techniques and showcasing the most technically accurate environment ever committed to film to that point (including defying the movie convention that there is sound in space, which, of course, there is not), all without the use of computer animation or manipulation, Stanley Kubrick’s monumental achievement still has not been bettered in its genre. It looks better, probes deeper, and unsettles more effectively than any scifi film—or many other types of movies, for that matter—I can think of.

Yet, I have read more times than I ever expected to how boring 2001 is, how pretentious, how unengaging. It blows my mind that I even feel the need to defend this masterpiece, but perhaps that’s exactly what makes it a masterpiece—even now, audiences have not caught up with it. Like every great work of art, it continues to challenge, confound, and inspire. So, I’m here to try to show you what I see in this work and try to convince naysayers to give it another go.

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The story can be summed up fairly easily. Starting in prehistory with the emergence of proto-humans, we see apelike men and women in a pack feed at a water hole somewhere in Africa and squabble with other family groups. One day, a piercing vibration attracts one pack. A mysterious black monolith has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Fearing it at first, then fascinated, the members of the pack end up stroking and hugging the object. Shortly thereafter, they learn to use tools. They learn to kill their rivals with these tools.

In the longest flash-forward in movie history, we find ourselves on a space shuttle, empty except for one sleeping passenger and the shuttle’s crew. The passenger, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), is on his way to the moon to investigate a strange phenomenon—a monolith like the one we saw in prehistoric Africa has been dug up. It, too, emits a powerful electromagnetic burst that the men on the moon find piercing.

Eighteen months later, we are on a spaceship headed for Jupiter, where the burst from the moon’s monolith was aimed. Two astronauts, Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), are active on board, while three of their colleagues are in hibernation to conserve energy and food. The HAL 9000 computer watches over the entire ship, its flawless brain, calm voice (supplied by Douglas Rain), and vacant pinpoint of a red eye making it the sixth member of the crew. One day, HAL seems to go a little wacko with power and decides the human component of the mission is flawed and needs to be jettisoned. HAL kills everyone but Dave. Dave then “kills” HAL. The mission to Jupiter continues, where Dave finds the monolith that received the transmission from the moon monolith. What happens to Dave may signal a change in the course of human evolution.

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What I love about Stanley Kubrick is his macrocosmic engagement with humanity, not just its situation comedies and dramas. Even when his films zero in on specific characters (e.g., Barry Lyndon [1975] and Eyes Wide Shut [1999]) he successfully links their actions into the larger scheme of things. 2001 is the apex of his engagement with human existence, spanning as it does the first appearance of human beings to what appears to be a rebirth as another, more evolved form. Not only does 2001 examine the ultimate challenge of the human project—understanding the nature of life in the universe—but it also creates ultimate images of enormous beauty and power that seem prescient when compared with photos taken by the Hubble telescope at the outer reaches of the solar system, for example, the so-called stargate of speeding and swirling colors. He also seems able to mine innerspace, creating an environment for Dave that is both alien and familiar to reflect the singular experience the astronaut is going through.

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Kubrick was known for his incredible skills with a camera, starting his working life as a photographer and managing, from his very first directorial effort, every aspect of the images in and about his films—from camera movement and framing to movie posters and marketing literature. He uses his circular setting and sweeping camera work—for example, following Frank as he jogs and shadow boxes on the ship’s circular deck—to create a sense of disorientation, even alienation, in the audience.

He was a true visual artist with a strong appreciation for fine art. Art shows up in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, which features Kubrick’s wife’s paintings adorning the walls of the Harfords’ Manhattan apartment, and in 2001, in which Dave’s drawings of the ship and his hibernating colleagues are critiqued by HAL as showing improvement. In fact, they are very good, and in this, one of many small details, Kubrick signals a major theme in 2001: the hubris that comes from assumed superiority.

This exchange between a television interviewer talking with the crew and HAL sums up the philosophical issue Kubrick is exploring:

Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You’re the brain and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?

HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

The television interviewer comments that he detects a certain pride HAL has in his abilities and asks Dave and Frank whether HAL has real feelings. Dave answers that HAL is programmed to behave in a humanlike way to make the mission easier to manage for its human crew, but whether HAL actually has feelings is anyone’s guess.

2001%20EYE.jpgThe way Kubrick directs this film clearly shows that he believes HAL has feelings, maybe more than his human protagonists do. I can feel a presence, an intelligence beyond programming, in the red aperture HAL uses to keep watch on everything. Unbelievably, HAL does seemingly make a mistake when a part the computer predicted would fail proves to be in full working order. Dave and Frank, fearing for HAL’s competence, make the hard choice to disconnect his higher functions and proceed on their own. Like any sentient being, HAL fights for his life when he kills Frank and the hibernating crew members, and attempts to lock Dave out of the ship.

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HAL’s pride is severely damaged by his mistake and Dave and Frank’s loss of confidence in him. In addition, HAL is the only crew member who knows the true purpose of the mission to Jupiter—to contact what scientists believe is an extraterrestrial life form. HAL may even feel threatened by aliens that might be more intelligent than he is; after all, he was programmed by human beings who didn’t send monoliths all over the solar system. HAL’s hubris, then, is his tragic downfall, leading to the most poignantly disturbing scene in the film. When Dave enters the giant computer to disconnect HAL’s higher functions, HAL tries to reason with Dave, reassure him. Then realizing that the end is near, he pleads, “I’m afraid” and repeats over and over that he can feel his mind beginning to go: “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

Where HAL takes his mission very personally, the humans seem relatively unconcerned. For example, Frank half-listens to a transmission from his parents wishing him a happy birthday and politely acknowledges HAL’s birthday greeting. Dr. Floyd is the essence of chilly politeness as he deflects questions about his mission from several Russians he meets on the space station that is the waypoint between Earth and the moon. The entire scene is deeply superficial, projecting a jaundiced view of humanity that began when the first proto-human clubbed another back in the African prologue.

Kubrick saves his awe for the things we can’t know. Does HAL have feelings? Is there other life in the universe? Are we being watched? He is, so far, the only filmmaker who has captured the awesome nature of space. With so many stunning images, I went nuts trying to choose the photos for this article.

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The Space Baby—an obviously conscious, aware being waiting to be born—has to be one of the most primal and effective images in film history, perhaps even human history. It has invaded my dreams more times than I can remember, particularly at times when I was going through a sea change in my life. It is an archetype of enormous power. The alignment of heavenly bodies illuminated by a dawning sun is inspired and breathtaking. The monoliths themselves, those mysterious, black, featureless slabs, tap into the unconscious, both fascinating and frightening. The image of Frank in his orange space suit and blue shoes, struggling with his severed air hose and then spinning lifelessly in the vastness of space, is a nightmare made real.

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Kubrick’s musical choices tell his story with the utmost beauty and economy. The optimistic view of humanity’s progress in space just after the prologue is accompanied by the buoyant sounds of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” waltz. The intrusion of the alien presence is scored by the hair-raising atonalities of Romanian composer György Ligeti. Richard Strauss’ heroic rendering of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of the superman and will to power, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” perfectly conveys the hubristic dimensions of the narrative.

There isn’t a detail in this film that’s extraneous. Therefore, while dialogue is spare, a wealth of information is being imparted to us visually, aurally, and through the emotions of the unconscious. The everyday world discourages a deep connection to any of these senses, preferring that we put them in service of everyday tasks that ultimately have little meaning. Through 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick has given us both the time and the space to reconnect with our grandest aspirations.


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