Friday, August 27, 2010

Alien - Science Fiction meets Horror

What is the difference between a monster film and horror film? For both, the aim is to scare the audience, and yet in different ways. I submit to you that a monster film's primary emotional tool is terror, the fear of that which you can see looming right before your eyes. Monster films are filled with young women screaming as they behold some horrifying creature, or crowds running through the streets. But a horror film's primary tool is what I will call dread, the fear of that which might happen to you. Heck, you don't even need a monster for that, just someone or something capable of hurting or killing you. That could be a robot, a serial killer, or a virus. The horrifying state of each unfortunate victim is usually displayed for the purpose of increasing your sense of dread the next time around.

There are hundreds of monster movies that try to stake a claim to the science fiction genre. Most of them don't really make it. If the only science pertains to the origin of the monster (e.g. Frankenstein (1931)), then it is just a sidebar, a necessary artifact of the situation. But there are relatively few horror films that care to cross over into science fiction.
Vampires, for instance, are good candidates for dread because they can sneak up on you, and you fear the prospect of being bitten. But the vampire's origin is squarely a supernatural one. Because of this, the few films that attempt to marry sci-fi with horror are particularly interesting, at least to me. The best early example that comes to mind is The Fly (1958), which involves a scientific experiment that goes wrong. The resulting "monster" is really just a man fighting against the effects of his own experiment. But it's only real connection to horror are the horrifying images it presents. That is far cry from the kind of suspenseful dread that is generated in most horror films. There were a few original Outer Limits episodes that you might classify as sci-fi horror, like Wolf 359 and The Zanti Misfits. And that old sci-fi classic, Quatermass and the Pit, certainly had elements of horror in it. But these are really sci-fi stories with creepy images and some peril added in. To this day, I can't think of any film that has ever come closer to melding the worlds of science fiction and horror more perfectly than Ridley Scott's Alien. It's the only film I know that has one foot planted firmly in each camp, making it impossible to peg it one way or the other. That's just one of the reasons Alien remains a classic of both genre's.

Alien came out a few weeks before my 8th grade graduation. I had always made it a point to avoid horror films because I have quite an imagination and have never liked giving it material I don't want to keep around. It wasn't very hard to avoid such films either because there was no PG-13 rating at that time, so pretty much all horror material was rated R, and I was just 13. But my best friend's family, a more liberal minded bunch, thought it was a good film and offered to take us to see it. After getting fully hooked on Star Wars a few years back, I figured I might actually like it due to its being set in space. So I apprehensively went along to my first R-rated horror film. Well, I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film and, believe it or not, actually enjoyed every minute of it. This was not your typical horror flick trash, designed merely to make you jump or gross you out. Ridley Scott turned out to be a master of suspense, while putting it into the context of a truly interesting story.

In Alien we have a monster with just as much potential for dread, and just as much class, as any vampire. It is a stalking monster that waits in the shadows and strikes when you don't expect it to. That is a tried and true horror film motif used by everything from snakes to serial killers. End of story, right? Wrong. This is also a new species, an animal worthy of scientific study.
Every aspect of it's existence, from egg to parasitic first stage, to juvenile, to adult, from it's blood chemistry to it's killing mechanisms, are all revealed slowly and purposefully like a scientific study. What is ingenious about this scientific approach to the creature is that, where normally such understanding mitigates the audience's fear of the monster, in this case it is designed to increase it. Each new revelation makes the creature more dangerous and menacing, and never once does the crew gain the upper hand from the knowledge of it. Even the architecture of the space ship the creature is found in, which was inspired by the strange artwork of H.R. Giger, was intriguing enough, being perhaps the first successful exposition of an alien technology that was organic rather than just an advanced version of our own. That served to emphasize the animal nature of the alien rather than its intelligence. Add to that the usual sci-fi peripherals like it all taking place in the future and in deep space, and you have bona-fide science fiction film as well.

Another quite ingenious director's choice was the depiction of daily life on the space ship. This was not the pristine military operation you might find on a Star Wars battle cruiser. No, this ship was just an unimportant mining frigate (or so we are made to think for at least the first half of the film). The few advanced technologies that we find in the protagonists' camp are downplayed, and the more human aspects of daily life like eating, drinking, and sweating, are displayed without apology, much like you'd see on a reality TV show. In the first scene the crew wakes up from cryogenics looking totally wasted and go grab some grub and a smoke. They are shown bickering and arguing about various issues of ship management. This has the effect of making the characters much more relatable, despite the "alien" setting, and that's exactly the type of comfort you want the audience to slip into before all hell breaks loose. My hat goes off to director Scott for this one.

I can only think of two flaws that crossed my mind even at the time. The first was how the alien could grow from the size of a cat to a huge monster in a matter of days, and that without any apparent food source. The second was the cheap shock value of making the audience believe Ripley has escaped and the film is over, only to find the alien on board again. However, I can forgive the director for that one only because he planted the alien's head in full view of the camera without me noticing it was there until it moved. It's as if he was saying - "Don't blame me, you could have seen it coming!".

The success of the film spawned (=b) a bunch of sequels, which all ranged from just ok to horribly awful. I give some credit to the immediate sequel by James Cameron, entitled simply Aliens in plural. It was made 7 years later and had more of a Starship Troopers approach, with the military coming in to blow away the colony of creatures that has wiped out the humans. It is well directed, has good continuity with the first film, a few original ideas, and sadly, a lot of ideas borrowed quite clumsily from Scott's film, including the campy "double-ending" device. Of course, Cameron tailored the ending to his liking, making it look suspiciously similar to the ending of his recent film Avatar. The type of craftsmanship introduced by his predecessor is now absent, replaced by something more akin to that which brought Cameron success in The Terminator. As for the rest of the sequels, Sigourney Weaver was a saint to have stuck around for them all.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Trek Movies - Of Gods and Whales

The fourth Star Trek film, The Voyage Home, was written as a continuation of the previous story arc in which the Enterprise crew had stolen the ship against Starfleet's orders and then sent it crashing to a fiery death. They are now on their way back to Earth in a Klingon warship to face the consequences. Lucy, you got some splainin' to do! Naturally, in order to redeem themselves, they would have to save the Earth from some horrendous disaster, and that becomes the focus of the film. The producers decided to take a more light hearted approach to the script, which was quite a departure from the more serious offerings of the previous trilogy, a daring proposal indeed.

After seeing the film, I remember feeling quite disappointed as I left the theater. It wasn't just because of the sometimes silly situational humor that pervaded the film, even at the expense of continuity. If this time around the goal was to let up on the heavy for a while, as long as it didn't become the focus it was tolerable. I could even forgive them for creating a story designed to preach a message about the need to preserve endangered species, with Humpback whales as their obvious proxy. Sure, it was kind of cheesy and not nearly as inventive as the prior scripts, but at least it was somewhat in line with what was often seen during the television series. No, what tipped me over the edge was the amount of incredulous nonsense that was presented as science fiction. Can we really imagine that the whales were visited by an ancient alien race and could intelligently communicate with them? If the probe they sent out can hear the whale song from space, as at the end of the film, then why did it need to evaporate the oceans in search of them? Let's move on from the whales and mention the highly problematic idea, actually taken from an earlier TOS episode, that you can travel back in time using some combination of warp drive and gravity. I'm sorry, but both of those phenomenon would take you into the future, not the past. Believing in the Klingon's cloaking device was tough enough in empty space, but how about it making the entire vessel invisible on the ground at close range? Absolutely no thought was given to credibility except that which was borrowed. Probably the most shameless ploy of all was the tongue-in-cheek way the script poked fun at all the cast members. That was like selling out the fan base for the sake of wider popularity. As a fan myself, I think perhaps my expectations had gotten too high to have avoided such a reaction. I was not alone. Many Star Trek fans didn't receive the film well, but it gained huge traction with general audiences, and perhaps that was the plan all along.

Leonard Nimoy was asked to direct again, but given more freedom regarding the content. I don't know if it was primarily Nimoy or Harve Bennett, but what was with all the favorite liberal references? Greenpeace style rescues of the whales from the evil whaling vessels, the liberated female who finally tells Kirk she doesn't need him around, choosing to land the ship in San Francisco, Spock's hippie outfit and reference to LSD, and even a side bar involving nuclear energy. The pattern was too obvious to ignore. Perhaps it was some sort of tribute to the fact that the original series came out in the 60's, or maybe just an attempt to showcase the writer's favorite politically correct causes. In short, the fourth film tried to make Star Trek into something other than it had been up to that point, and so it has to stand apart from the other films, despite the peripheral story line connection.

Two more movies would later be produced following the launch of The Next Generation. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, proved to be even worse than the fourth. This time, it was William Shatner that was given the role of director and was able to influence the script as well. The jokes are corny and bad, the script is filled with silly psychoanalysis, and the entire premise of the story is more theological than science fiction, in a way that satisfies neither. On the whole, it is, in my opinion, an embarrassment to the franchise.
I almost want to believe that Nick Meyer, who directed Khan and helped salvage the script of The Voyage Home, went on to direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as a means of redemption. The sixth film was more like a traditional action sci-fi story and although not anywhere near the caliber of the earlier films, at least held up to the original series. The only thing that made me cringe was the stupid Shakespearean quotations uttered at inopportune times by the Klingon commander. Hey, that worked with Khan because he really believed what he was quoting, and he was a fellow human as well. The sixth film was also designed to fill in some history created by TNG, which is that Starfleet eventually makes peace with the Klingons. This film did a decent job of recording that part of the new lore and explaining how the new Enterprise could have a Klingon head of security (Wharf). It was at least a nice way of handing the baton from the old series to the new one, better than the few attempts at doing this in the subsequent Star Trek TNG films.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Trek Movies - Spock Returns

From a writer's perspective, the third Star Trek film, The Search for Spock, really only had one objective - to bring Leonard Nimoy back into the franchise. For the backstory, they chose to go with the same formula as for Khan - a fight over obtaining the Genesis device, but this time between Kirk and a Klingon captain. You would think from that description that the film was destined to be a dud, but several factors saved it and allowed it to hold up as a worthy sequel almost as good as its predecessor. First, there was continuity. The script flowed naturally from the prior film, with a returning cast save for Lt. Saavik, now played by  Robin Curtis. At first that was disappointing because Kirsty Alley played such a great Saavik in Khan, but I soon realized that Curtis did a better job of portraying her as an emotionless Vulcan as would be expected. And James Horner also returned to do the score.

            Lieutenant Saavik

Secondly, Christopher Lloyd did a superb job as the villain Klingon Kruge. This was quite shocking to me. I've always loved Lloyd for his awesome comedic talent. I would not have expected him to do so well in such a completely different type of role, but he took it completely seriously. I did not even know it was him until the end credits. Finally, there were some big events that occurred to lend dramatic effect, like the crew turning against Starfleet, the death of Kirk's son, and the destruction of the Enterprise!

A character as central to Star Trek as Nimoy's could not be killed off easily. Likewise, it would not have worked to simply bring him back with the wave of some conjured up sci-fi excuse. Thanks to some foreknowledge, a few key scenes were added to Khan to allow a narrative to be built up for Spock's return that had some credibility (if not scientifically, at least within the arc of the story line). I think it was wise to bring him back slowly, with the culmination at the end of the film back on Spock's home world (it also probably helped to have Nimoy off screen for most of the film since he was directing). The final scene where Spock recognizes Kirk and begins to remember is especially heartwarming. They speak all the great lines that they did during the dramatic death scene, but in reverse order, and you realize that Kirk is taking him back from the edge of death to his old self again (see bottom). Also, the humor provided by McCoy having to deal with his annoying friend inside his own head is just classic. It was a good script, on par with the previous one.

I actually saw this film in a special screening in one of my college lecture halls at UCI. I remember as the credits rolled up and I sat pondering and listening, I realized how great the score was that I was hearing. The next morning I went over to the student book store and bought it. To this day, James Horner's score for The Search for Spock is probably my all time favorite classical soundtrack. Because he had more time (the Khan score had been written in 4 weeks), and he was basically embellishing upon music he had already written, he created an absolutely beautiful soundtrack. Just sit back and listen to the main title track.

I leave you with the transcript of Spock's death in Khan followed by the the end of Search. Remember that most of the quotes were set up earlier in the second Trek film and therefore are much more powerful when heard in context...

End of ST II:
Spock: Ship out of danger? Do not grieve, Admiral - it is logical: the needs of the many outweigh [Kirk: the needs of the few]....or the one. I never took the Kobayashi Maru test - until now. What do you think of my solution? I have been, and always will be, your friend. Live long, and propser.

End of ST III:
Spock: My father says you have been my friend. You came back for me. Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one... outweigh the needs of the many.
Spock: (as if remembering) I have been... and ever shall be... your friend.
Kirk: Yes.... Yes Spock...
Spock: The ship...  Out of danger?
Kirk: You saved the ship Spock! You saved us all. Don't you remember?!

That last word - "remember" - was the word that Spock used to transfer his Katra to Bones and started the whole episode, and it provides the perfect end to the exchange.

Trek Movies - The Wrath of Khan

The second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, like the first, was based on one of the original episodes (Space Seed), but instead of being a re-write, this was an actual sequel to the show about Khan's mad quest to take revenge on Kirk for stranding him and his followers on Ceti Alpha V. This provided a sense of continuity to the story right from the start, and Ricardo Montalban himself returned to play the lead villain. In short, the film was brilliant. I was completely drawn into the story both mentally and emotionally. First, Montalban's performance as Khan was wonderfully executed and was a perfect match against Shatner's character.
Secondly, you had an extremely well written script. This time they decided to notch up the adrenaline and make it into a Western style shoot out in space. There was a recurring theme involving a test called the Kobiyashi Maru, providing a literary device that carried real meaning both in the story and later in Trek lore. Kirk discovers he has a son who is now a young man, and whose mother invented a terraforming device that is now at risk of becoming a doomsday device. All these elements are woven skillfully into the main conflict between Kirk and Khan without distracting from it. Thirdly, the special effects had improved enough so that more detail of the space battles could be shown than ever before. It's with good reason that Wrath of Khan is often listed as one of the best science fiction films by fans, or at least the best of the Trek film series.

==================== Spoiler =========================
======== (for that Siberian tribe that doesn't know yet) ==========

Finally, I had heard going in that Leonard Nimoy wanted to leave the Star Trek franchise and would be killed off in this film. I had not yet heard that the studio had woo'ed him back by offering him the director's chair on the next film in the series. I watched Spock die with tears in my eyes. Not only did they give him one of the most heroic and touching death scenes anyone could have asked for, but believing Nimoy was leaving the franchise provided double the poignancy. The movie would have stood on its own without Spock having to die, but I think that was one of the factors that helped raise the film to classic status. Well, as soon as I left the theater, I somehow found out that same day that Spock was coming back in the next film. It couldn't have been more perfect timing - my grief only lasted just long enough to enhance the film experience. It never saw the light of day. That's just one of those crazy things someone like me would remember.

      1967 to 1982

Once again, I fell in love with the soundtrack, this time written by James Horner. I've just learned that at 28 years of age, it was his first major film score. It's one of my favorite classical soundtracks, and ever since then, when I'm in the theater, I can often recognize Horner's style before I see the ending credits. The style is more subtle than the sweeping melodies of John Williams, and lends a more serious tone to the subject matter. He would come back to incorporate the same themes into the third film.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Star Trek Movies

Yes, there was a time, a very long time between 1966 and 1987, when Star Trek was synonymous with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty. That time span overlapped my entire childhood up to and beyond high school graduation. Although I really liked watching The Original Series with my Dad, there was no such thing as a Star Trek movie until 1979 with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This came a few years after the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters, which managed to convince Hollywood that science fiction films could actually sell (again). At the time, it was a big deal, because after 10 years of silence, all the original cast members were going to reappear on the big screen, and Gene Roddenberry was coming with them! This state of affairs would continue for at least 4 feature films until Gene passed away, and then the cast would continue on for two more. The original series had established a working formula of characters and their relationships on a backdrop of great script material. Now with a larger budget, better direction, a more mature cast, and more time on screen to add depth to the script, those characters were brought to life in a way that could be more readily believed and accepted by audiences. This period of the Star Trek movie releases, particularly the first three (and partially the fourth), remains in my opinion the glory days of the franchise. What follows in the next several posts is my own impressions and experience of that period.

The first Star Trek film was a bit of a think piece. It was in fact inspired by one of the earlier episodes called The Changeling, about a robot probe named Nomad originally programmed for a science mission to investigate new life forms. It was abandoned to drift through space and got mixed up with another alien probe designed to sterilize soil samples on other planets. The more advanced probe beefed up the other's capabilities and the two missions melded. Nomad now thinks its purpose is to sterilize planets of imperfect life forms, including humans. Many elements, such as Spock's mind meld with the probe and Kirk's logical argumentation with it are included in the film, although now integrated into a much deeper and more complex story. It was definitely my kind of film, but not as easily consumed by general audiences.

I remember first seeing it with a good friend of mine named George Dimen who is a bit of an amateur philosopher and still my friend to this day. He loved it too and we spent a good deal of time discussing the philosophical implications that it raised. I think I remember us identifying about four different layers of meaning, each at a different level of abstraction, written into various lines that were spoken in the movie. Today I think we might have been reading more into it than was there. Somehow I managed to see the film four times (this was before VHS tapes), not because of any loyalty to Star Trek, but to go back and try to capture all those layers we had talked about.

I also bought the soundtrack and found that I really liked some of the pieces, which were written by Jerry Goldsmith, who also did Logan's Run and Alien. He chose to leave behind the famous opening from the TV series and write his own new theme piece, which later became the theme for the new series, The Next Generation, and is now what most people associate it with. One of my favorite pieces was the second track which accompanied the Klingon attack at the beginning of the movie. At the time I was experimenting with piano so I learned to play a simple rendition of it (amazing how much time you have when you're a teenager). I used to listen to it and imagine watching the entire attack sequence in full detail. It's such a good piece I once heard it playing on a classical radio station. This Youtube link has the complete orchestration from the soundtrack, and below is the movie clip including the opening titles - although the dialog track is missing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Defying Gravity

Traditional rocket enthusiasts can tell you what everyone already knows, which is that overcoming gravity requires a propulsive force in the opposite direction of the gravity field you wish to overcome. Hovering in mid air for an extended period of time can be accomplished by either 1) blasting matter in the downward direction or, 2) pushing against the air as with wings or helicopter like blades. If there happens to be a vertical electro-magnetic field available, there are ways to push against it as well. However, science fiction is filled with spacecraft that seem to hover without using any of these methods. The most ubiquitous examples are the flying saucers that appear in so many of the older and sometimes lesser quality sci-fi films. But it appears just as frequently in more recent films, like the huge mother ship hovering over South Africa in District 9, or the land speeders in Star Wars. In Close Encounters, we see a ship behind Roy Neary's truck hover and then move slowly overhead, and a huge alien mother ship hovering over Devil's Tower. No explanations are given as to how these feats are being accomplished. It's not just ships either, for we often see entire cities suspended in mid air like Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, or the city in the the Star Trek episode entitled The Cloud Minders. It often makes me cringe when these things first appear on screen.

Now, I know that when it comes to the future or even alien worlds, writers have some freedom to present some pretty wild technological breakthroughs. But no one in this universe, whether from the future or some alien planet, can escape the laws of Physics, and gravity is one of the most foundational of them all. If you thought simulating gravity was tough, defying it turns out to be an even greater challenge. This entry is dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of anti-gravity devices.

The fact of the matter is simple, gravity cannot be turned off, shielded, or otherwise directly counteracted. For any physics buffs out there, Einstein did describe a theoretical anti-gravity device consisting of a ring of neutrons traveling close to the speed of light. The frame-dragging effect would render the center of the ring gravity-less. Of course, it would be impossible to build and would not even be self-levitating, so it's just a detail. By contrast, electro-magnetic fields can be generated, turned on and off, and shielded with various materials. I think it is the analogy to EM fields that cause many people to accept the possibility of finding ways to do these things to gravity fields, but it just ain't so.

The recent film Avatar featured a range of spectacular floating mountains, claiming that this was possible due to the planet's unusual magnetic field. Well, planetary magnetic fields fan outward at the poles. Any balancing act between gravity and magnetism would be highly unstable, especially while still in the planet's atmosphere. And since the field must weaken as you move farther from the planet, those huge rocks would be lined up in order of size, biggest on the bottom to the smallest up high. So much for the floating stairways. Hey, at least it looked real pretty!