I interviewed director Walter Hill during the release of his less applauded effort, the 1988 action-comedy Red Heat. That profitable movie paired Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a Soviet investigator, with Jim Belushi, as a Chicago cop. (Ladies and gentlemen: the 1980s.) Before I sat down with Hill for lunch at a downtown Seattle hotel, the publicist warned me that he would be wearing sunglasses, as he had delicate eyesight. And indeed, Hill spent the entire interview with his shades on; I never did figure out whether he really had light sensitivity or simply preferred staying concealed. Maybe he just liked looking cool.
A keenly developed sense of cool was a hallmark of Hill’s early work, in which he proved himself a genuine stylist with an old-school attitude.
Paranormal investigators Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) spend their time finding the fraudulent in every outbreak of the weird and inexplicable. “We look for red lights,” Weaver’s perpetually pinch-faced prof lectures her class. “Discordant notes … things that shouldn’t be there.” And there you have it, the spot-on definition of Red Lights, a discordant thing that shouldn’t be there, or here, or anywhere.
Stultifying from start to finish, this mess of a movie is supremely incoherent—plot-, dialogue- and character-wise. Not one moment is visually arresting or suspenseful or even connected to the one that follows. All the players are dour, affectless, implausible. Even the climactic twist fails to shake you out of your stupor; so confused and clumsy is its presentation that one of the characters has to keep explaining … and explaining … what just happened.
Keep in mind, for future reference, that Rodrigo Cortés—writer, director and editor—is entirely responsible for spawning this misshapen thing. Let out to play from the single-location constraints of Buried, Cortés tries for what he must imagine are stylistic pyrotechnics. His camera circles and careens and jump-cuts, not because there are valid reasons for seeing any part of this particular movie world that way, but because that’s what arty filmmakers do, isn’t it?
[originally published in Film Comment, July-Aug 1992]
A Greimasian semantic rectangle will foreground the structural importance of the cat in the complex of signifiers generated from the notion “human”:
[see diagram at right]
The founding term in the film is human (S), represented by the image of Ripley as the strong woman. The antihuman (-S) is, of course, the alien, and the not-human (S) is Ash, the robot. The cat, then, functions in the slot of the not-antihuman (-S), an indispensable role in this drama.
—James H. Kavanaugh, “Feminism, Humanism and Science in Alien”
Assaulted by such academically approved gobbledygook, one of the most provocative and principled of my grad school mentors—an Irish scholar dead this last April—was wont to curl back his lips and snarl, “Now that you know that, what do you know?” This brand of self-evident, infantile pushing-about of alphabet blocks doubtlessly advances today’s hapless young faculty on their tenure tracks. But its dominance, along with related forms of theory that can be expressed only in obscenely inorganic, anti- and inhuman language, ensures that the world of books and movies, images/ideas, is drained of color, wit, idiosyncratic heat, joy, and sensuality, for starters. What horrors these mechanics must perpetrate in the classroom! What kind of sad new species must be matriculating in the humanities these days, armed for life with “scientific” diagrams, arid, angry definitions of art’s myriad social and political sins, and dead silence where sustaining speech—by critics and artists—used to sing.
The rich and diverse fabric of language fleshes our humanity, keeps us alive. In the Alien trilogy, what’s always in harm’s way is humanity signified in the flesh, the spirit named in physiognomy, skin, blood, and even fur. What means to invade and abrogate the aesthetics of flesh and blood is nada, the airless, featureless dark of space itself; the corrosive climates of the dead or dying worlds where each of these sci-fi sagas plays out; the “crew is expendable” Company, whose critical inquisitiveness/acquisitiveness is aroused by a perfect imago of antilife; and most viciously, the undifferentiated, ebon exoskeleton, fanged, hooded, dragon-tailed, fueled by acid in its veins, shapeshifting at will from phallus dentatus to vagina dentata. It’s entirely possible that the babyfaced, white-blooded Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), android Judas in Ridley Scott’s Alien, might derive useful data by reducing to a Greimasian diagram the potentially Miltonic grandeur of a new Christ harrowing Hells that house “that old worm, the Devil.” But Ash and his ilk always make me turn in memory to that professor who taught me Yeats a quarter-century ago: those who belong to his passionate tribe can never sit still for bloodless smalltalk. Like him, they “beat upon the wall / Till Truth obeys [their] call.” Read More “The Last Temptation of Sigourney Weaver: ‘Alien’ X 3”
In Scream 2, the question of whether a sequel can be better than the original film becomes a running gag, with participants intermittently suggesting examples. For Wes Craven, it’s just another of the many self-referential gestures in his Scream films and elsewhere. But for film lovers, it’s a game worth playing. Enthusiasts differ on whether The Empire Strikes Back really is better than Star Wars (now A New Hope), or should be disqualified as the middle part of a trilogy; and whether Superman II outshines Superman: The Movie. Probably the one sequel that no one denies is superior to its original is The Road Warrior. But in the Summer of ’86, James Cameron’s Aliens outdid Ridley Scott’s Alien in every way imaginable.
A sequel has to be both the same film and different, and this is a challenge for anyone undertaking to direct a follow-up. How to make the film your own, turn it into something that stands up in its own right, while still repeating enough of the successes of the original to justify its coattail riding at the box office? Cameron had announced himself with The Terminator a couple of years earlier, and now faced the challenge of reinventing one of the most popular and successful fantasy-genre films of all time. The 1979 film had married science fiction with horror in a way unseen since the ’50s, reviving the monster genre, which had, for the most part, died out in the wake of Psycho‘s ushering in of an era of more personal, intimate, human horror.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
As a horror movie, Alienis appropriately concerned with collective nightmares (being chased and caught; the monster is below us, now above us; someone we know is, in fact, not human), and lustfully derivative of the genre’s white-middle-class fears that give rise to the nightmares (loss of order, familiarity, and domination; community goes to hell). But the film has something more, at least in the first half: a developing narrative with an exclusive, integral logic of its own, built on ostensible collisions in logical flow. In other words, in its auspicious beginnings, Alienreminds one of more expressly surreal films. The difference is that Alienhas an intentionally simple storyline derived from consistency in character types and motivations, including all nonhumans, machines, distant organizations, and the dead.