This Week at the Movies
The Aisle Seat, by Andy Dursin
*ANOTHER WEEKEND DISASTER
And you thought this SUMMER was bad? The Thanksgiving ’97 crop of Hollywood releases has seen just as many turkeys appearing in multiplexes as there were on dinner tables across America last Thursday–highlighted by a pair of the season’s biggest duds.
First off, I didn’t see FLUBBER with Robin WIlliams, but after reading the slew of one-star reviews it received, not to mention Williams’s past two disasters (the awful JACK and FATHER’S DAY), you’d have to lock me up and drag me to the theater to sit through this needless remake. What a surprise, too–Williams has been choosing truly bad projects of late, and has given less-than-exemplary performances in all of them. Here, consensus has it that Williams is thoroughly obnoxious as he attempts to downplay a role that Fred MacMurray played with genuine heart the first time around. With special FX substituting for real charm, FLUBBER seems to be a major flub indeed. (MEMO TO JOHN HUGHES: you once made heartwarming teen and adult comedies with real screenplays brimming with clever dialogue and insightful dramatic situations. Remember those? PRETTY IN PINK, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, PLANES TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES, CHRISTMAS VACATION, etc. etc. I know you have been raking in the cash with movies like this, 101 DALMATIONS, and the HOME ALONE sequels, but do us all–and yourself–a favor and go back to making material that you actually are interested in, OK?).
But, alas, that was not the only big-studio flop around this holiday, as another highly-anticipated project went the way of THE JACKAL…
ALIEN RESURRECTION (*1/2): One of the cardinal sins in producing any film–not just the fourth installment in a popular sci-fi series–is having unsympathetic, under-developed characters starring in your movie. The reason is simple–if you ask the audience to follow them around in life-or-death circumstances (and give a damn about what happens to them), you’d best provide them with protagonists worth caring about.
Alas, writer Joss Whedon violated that old stand-by with his script for this, a haphazard and genuinely disappointing sequel mismash that, under the direction of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (CITY OF LOST CHILDREN), often comes across as a tiresome carnival freakshow starring mutant Aliens and Sigourney Weaver.
You’ve probably read the summary by now: the military wants to use the aliens for medicinal/military purposes (or so we assume, since it’s never really made clear), so they clone the species the only way they know how–by using Ripley’s DNA, which also brings Ellen Ripley back to life….sort of…along with another Alien Queen (this doesn’t make any sense, since the Alien Queen was out of Ripley’s body by the time she hit the boiling pit at the end of the preceding film, but hey, who nobody will ever notice, right?). This version of Ripley features few of her heroic traits, and instead spends most of the time vamping around with bad nail polish and a “don’t screw with me” attitude that must have lit Sigourney’s dramatic fire, but doesn’t work at all for us viewers. A group of smugglers board the military ship, where the aliens escape and start a rampage to get to Earth….and, oh heck, what’s the use?
I’ve thought a lot about this movie since having seen it on opening day, and it strikes me that–although the characters aren’t sympathetic at all–this is a case of a below-par script having been badly directed. Jeunet obviously hasn’t a clue how to stage an action sequence, as evidenced by the poorly choreographed climactic “chase” or even the supposedly horrifying underwater battle, which is somewhat effective but really should have been a far more elaborate set-piece along the lines of Cameron’s ALIENS action sequences. More disturbingly, Jeunet stresses, time after time, the truly repellent elements in Whedon’s script–the Ripley “clones” and the laughable “Newborn” at the finale, which feels like a bad idea right from the get-go. He wallows in the goo and gore like nobody else has in this series, and successfully sustains a completely unpleasant tone from beginning to end. It’s like watching ALIEN 3 again, just with more disgusting images (and lots of saliva). While the ALIENS series shouldn’t be sunny and bright, parts one and two were captivating on a fun, amusement park ride level–they were scary and filled with shocks, but never dwelled in excess gross-outs. Here, Jeunet has made an ALIEN movie that’s right in tune with the distorted, nightmarish world of THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, and, at least for most viewers, that isn’t going to be a good thing. It’s more of a twisted nightmare with bad make-up than a dramatically sound or truly riveting scarefest. Subsequently, it follows that it’s a tough movie to endure, despite being the shortest entry in the series.
Whedon shouldn’t totally be left off the hook, however. For the second straight time, the screenwriter has made the key mistake of killing off the primary secondary characters of any possible interest (Charles Dance in ALIEN 3, and Michael Wincott and Dan Hedaya here), and filled the screen with bubble-headed thugs whose personalities are undernurished in the script. Sigourney is OK, I guess, but this film really reeks of having been developed with the allmighty dollar in mind; how else to explain Winona Ryder appearing in this movie, in a totally uninteresting character and, subsequently, completely uninteresting performance. I doubt the public will be going along with their little scheme, however, since the movie offers few shocks, very little surprises, and poor make-up effects (by the same guys who did ALIEN 3). And as for John Frizzell’s lame, monotonous, flavorless music, it underlines, and undermines, the action in nearly every scene.
One point ought to be made about this series before, and if, any further installments are made–it seems that Fox, and Weaver, have attempted to make more out of this series than it really is. After all, what ALIEN is all about is an insect-like creature that breeds in a disgusting way, goes through puberty rapidly, and wipes people out. It doesn’t “talk,” doesn’t possess any other functions, just chases its intended victims around until the humans find enough resources to destroy it. The original ALIEN was a well-written film with thoroughly developed characters, yet it had a plot right out of any ’50s sci-fi matinee feature–nevertheless, it became a classic because of Ridley Scott’s direction, H.R. Giger’s creature design, strong performances, and the eerie interplanatary setting. James Cameron’s ALIENS upped the ante by having a group of Marines combat not just one creature but an entire horde of them; its action sequences and relentless tone produced an incredible rollercoaster ride of thrills and chills. We saw what one creature did in the original (and ALIEN manipulated the audience in its elimination of the characters one-by-one as much as it could have), and ALIENS did all it could in seeing how terrifying an entire swarm of the xenomorphs really are.
By the time we get to ALIEN 3 and this film, it’s obvious that Fox has totally misunderstood where the heart of this franchise actually lies–promoting it (as they have with this film) by touting its “cutting edge” appeal through the use of directors with an artistic agenda who don’t know how to make an effective genre film, and by concentrating on the Ripley character instead of more challenging settings where the Aliens could become a viable menace. David Fincher’s ALIEN-cubed was often pretentious in depicting Ripley’s “Joan of Arc” heroics, while it completely neglected to illicit any chills from viewers–it was about as scary as THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, since we saw the alien creeping up on its victims in virtually every scene! ALIEN RESURRECTION doesn’t work either, since it never gives us any “hide your eyes” scares, just a lot of gore and pathetic plot developments that once again attempt to put a “new wave” spin on a series whose title creature is actually closer at heart to IT! THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND SPACE than any of Jean-Pierre Jenuet’s previous films.
By the time you get to this picture’s excruitating ending–complete with Ripley looking at the opening sequence from HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN (you’ll know it when you see
it)–you may well agree that this is a case where Sigourney, and the series, were better off dead. (108 mins., R)
*SOUNDTRACK QUICK TAKES
TOMORROW NEVER DIES (****): Dare I call it an instant classic? After hearing Eric Serra thoroughly botch all that is musically 007 in GOLDENEYE, David Arnold has done what few composers in the history of this series have ever accomplished–namely, write a completely successful Bond score that’s mock-John Barry one moment and filled with driving action the next. All you have to do is listen to the album’s opening score track, “White Knight,” to know soundtrack fans are in for a treat–the judicious use of the 007 theme (in a “classic” Bond style) are complimented by an effective use of the opening brass motif from Barry’s FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE main title!
The remainder of the score works extremely well, with frenetic action a la Arnold’s earlier works (though dialed down several notches from the over-the-top bombast of INDEPENDENCE DAY) and blaring brass making you think Barry was once again behind the podium. When the score tries to “modernize” like Serra did, at least it mixes a driving synth bass and percussion with Arnold’s orchestra (the pulsating “Backseat Driver,” one of the best pure “action” cues in several years), deftly incorporating both the Bond theme and Arnold’s own, superb original material that can also be prominently heard on K.D. Lang’s dynamite ballad “Surrender,” complete with Don Black lyrics! This tune is more than worthy of comparisons with Barry in its infectious melody and blaring horn arrangement, and since Lang belts it out like Shirley Bassey, you’re sure to get several genuine “retro” jolts from it, the kind we haven’t felt out of a Bond score since maestro Barry departed the series in 1987 (and indeed, this score is more interesting than THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, and the song itself superior to many of the average Barry tunes from the post-1970 era).
Alas, the weakest link–the ONLY shortcoming with the music–is Sheryl Crow’s distressingly unmemorable “Tomorrow Never Dies” title song. Not only is it stylistically at odds with the rest of the music (with a bass and piano backing, it comes across more like a Ô50s jukebox oldie than a Bond theme), but there’s not a captivating melodic hook anywhere to be found (and good luck attempting to comprehend Crow’s lyrics!). Otherwise, this is great stuff–Arnold shows a thorough understanding of the “Bond sound” and pays proper respect and tribute to his predecessors all the way through, while still adding enough of his own voice. It’s the most satisfying non-Barry Bond score yet composed, more musically stimulating than LICENCE TO KILL and won’t become as dated in the same manner that THE SPY WHO LOVED ME or LIVE & LET DIE have. Needless to say, it’s also one of the year’s few “must-have” soundtracks, recommended for Bond fans of all ages. (A&M, 15 tracks, 53:59)