One of the first films that James Cameron turned his attention to after Avatar (2009), was the Aussie genre film Sanctum (2011) which Cameron produced. That fact, as well as the fact it was (I believe) the first Australian film to utilise 3D, got the film a relatively large amount of hype, at least here.
Whilst the film was relatively panned by critics and did not go so well at the box office, I think it deserves a bit of a reappraisal. Definitely imperfect, Sanctum is an atmospheric and refreshingly dark thriller. You know what is good for creating atmosphere? Frickin caves. You know what the only thing scarier than caves is? Frickin cave diving. Sanctum makes the best of these indisputable facts as it traps an eclectic bunch of divers deep within a cave system in Papua New Guinea. With their path to the surface blocked, their only option is to journey through the previously unexplored cave system to find the ocean. The film is beautifully shot. Some of the establishing shots of the PNG countryside are jaw-dropping and the budget clearly extended to some really excellent aerial photography. Without overdoing things, the photography also ramps up the suffocating claustrophobia that cave diving brings. The kind of claustrophobia that can, and does, seriously affect one’s mental state. The narrative is a little silly. It reminded me of that terrible film Vertical Limit (2000) where a whole bunch of people die in a mountain rescue, but you still feel happy because the right one lives. But as an exercise in tension, it works pretty well, managing to overcome dafter moments such as a base jump into the cave. This was my second viewing of the film and I did notice this time that it is quite a difficult watch. There is a brutal edge to many of the proceedings and it is rather harrowing to sit through things right til the end. Sitting through it will reward though, because there is heaps to like about the film.
The performances in Sanctum are a bit of a mixed bag. Richard Roxburgh is the most effective as the grizzled veteran diver Frank McGuire who has never been able to build much of a relationship with his son, preferring instead to focus on his career as a cave diver. As his son Josh, Rhys Wakefield is serviceable and makes you believe in the angsty relationship that he shares with his old man. I thought Ioan Gruffudd was a better actor than this though. He is utterly abysmal in this film. Much of this is due to the accent he attempts to put on. I think it is meant to be American, but it is truly hideous and really distracting. It definitely takes a certain breed of person to invest your life in caving and especially cave diving. Not exactly my cup of tea. But the film brings to life this misfit gang and taps into some of the psychology behind why they choose to spend their time deep underground in scuba gear, living on the precipice of death. You can definitely get a sense of the attraction of being able to see something that no human being has ever been privileged enough to see before.
Sanctum looks incredible – both above and below ground this is a really well shot film. As a coherent well-acted narrative the returns are a little variable, but as far as tense, claustrophobic thrillers go, you can do a whole lot worse.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
Prometheus (2012) has exploded across cinema screens all over the world over the last couple of weeks, signalling Ridley Scott’s return to the sci-fi genre, and the franchise that made him famous. If you have been to the cinema over the past few months, you have no doubt seen a preview or two, but if not, this is what it is all about:
Scott seems to be in a nostalgic mood given the news that he is also hard at work on a new Blade Runner (1982) sequel/prequel/reboot or whatever it is going to be. Having seen the marketing and read a fair bit about the new entry, I thought I needed to get some homework done before catching Scott’s new film. And what better way to do so than checking out the first two films in the franchise, which are on the 1001. One more digression first though, speaking of the marketing for the film, the powers that be behind the film have tapped into the TED talk zeitgeist and produced this:
Alien (1979) is, up until this point in time, the only film in the series directed by Scott himself. Despite its iconic status, before watching it I knew very little about the plot or direction the film would take, which is a great place to be starting from. I did know (from the horribly spoiler-ridden DVD case) that only one character survived the events of the film, and I had seen a still of the infamous ‘chest burster’ scene, but as to how we would get to those points I was clueless.
One thing that Alien is, is wholly atmospheric. Right from the opening credits sequence with a great song in the background and very slow reveal of the word Alien which sets the tone for the entire film. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire production is the set design, and this is another element of the film which really helps to build the atmosphere. The interior of the ship looks amazingly realistic, like a spaceship should or could actually look. There is no glossy, Star Wars sheen here. For the first 5 minutes of the film, the audience does not see anything or anyone. The ship looks empty, abandoned and shut down, and this tension is heightened by the soundtrack, which intrudes itself in on these proceedings, almost like an extra character.
The plot concerns the small crew of the Conradian named space tug ship Nostromo, and their interactions with the titular beast that starts knocking them off one by one. They are in some sort of hibernation on the long trip back to Earth when the ship automatically wakes them up to investigate an unknown transmission. They find themselves landing on an unknown planet with winds whipping around them at great speed adding an extra dimension to their apprehension. Once they are inside the huge structure they find on this planet, the set design again comes to the fore, with towering structures and huge eggs. When the creatures eventually turn up on the scene, they too are designed with believable care. It is at this point that horror elements begin to be mixed into the sci-fi ones seen up until this point. A strange, slimy something explodes out of an egg and attaches itself to John Hurt’s face. The entire thing is a classic set-up. The ship is marooned in an unknown planet and bad shit starts to happen. Could just as easily be a haunted house or a rocky outcrop in the ocean. And you know that shit is getting real once the alien gets into the air vents.
At the height of the horror sequences, the film creeped me out as much as not more than anything I else I have seen. Like many of the best aspects of the film, the success of these owes to the incredible design, in this case the incredibly crafted creature design. And no discussion of the film would be complete without mention of the iconic ‘chest burster’ scene. I won’t go into too much spoiler laden detailing (although referring to it as the ‘chest burster’ scene is a bit of a hint). However what I will say is that John Hurt delivers a wonderful performance through this kinetic, gory interlude. Unfortunately the effects of the creature that does the bursting, have aged quite badly. The larger alien is also a little tame and dated, and the next couple of kills are also a little underwhelming. This is an issue because the film does essentially become a wander from kill to kill as the crew members are picked off… until one remains. As the iconic, remaining heroine Ridley, Sigourney Weaver gives an assured, really enjoyable turn.
This is the best looking sci-fi film I have ever come across, and is quite possible the most atmospheric as well. This is not an absolute favourite of mine, some of the iconic hype is lost on me, but it is really good. But you can see why it has that status, the design and originality leap off at you.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
The second film in the franchise saw directing duties handed from Scott, to the rather assured hands of James Cameron. The result was Aliens (1986), a sequel many hold up as a beacon of the possibility of sequels outstripping the original. For me, it is a very close run thing. I think Aliens succeeds best as a space-set action film, rather than the melding of horror and sci-fi genres delivered by the first film.
The film essentially occurs directly after the events of Alien. By directly, I mean once Ripley awakens from 57 years of hypersleep, at which point no one believes her story of what took place. Immediately Ripley is a much more fully formed character, the trauma evident in her from both her ordeal, and reception from those who she tells her story to. However, despite the prevailing scepticisms, before too long Ripley is back in action as contact is lost with the settlers on the original Alien planet. It was here that things for me took a bit of a turn for the annoying. The start is very slow for one thing. More than that though is the crew of blokes that Ripley is sent back with. They are a squadron of marines, trading in the typical, horrific masculine bullshit culture of the military. Perhaps this is too well conveyed, because I found all these characters frustrating, aggro and unpleasant to watch led by Bill Paxton in one of the more annoying performances ever.
For me, basically the whole first half of the film is a bit of a write off. The first film’s incredible design is there, the ship and its surrounds wonderfully realised. Everything is bigger too, in typical sequel fashion. The crew is much larger, and as you can guess from the plural title, there are rather more aliens for Ripley and co to combat. This last fact actually works against the film. Because more are killed throughout the film, they do not seem that big a threat, whereas one seemingly un-killable alien loomed large over the first film. I just could not get over the real focus on militarism, which I did not think added anything to the film, and detracted plenty. Although perhaps to dismiss the whole first half is exaggerating a little. The initial drop into the planet aboard the spaceship is a really good moment, built up expertly well and leaving the viewer unsure of what they will find when they finally reach the surface. Unfortunately once there, the marines are greeted with empty rooms. Empty room after empty room in a really drawn out, unnecessarily long sequence.
However, the second half of Aliens really shifts into gear, providing the best moments of these two films in a fantastic action focused romp. The creature design is again brilliant, with a few rather gross lashings this time around. The film is in such a rush of bombardment and action, that it is easy to not mind too much the inclusion of that most twee of touches in these kind of films, the young child castaway. Even the burgeoning romance between Ripley and one of the marines is not as horrible as it sounds. Again in this latter part of the film, the depth of Ripley’s character is a big bonus as the more fully formed lead rages against wrongs and eventually turns into a gun-toting badarse. Thematically as well things are more fully formed here I think, with some rocking Asimov robotics concerns.
This is a relatively different film to the first, which is always a nice place to find yourself in with a sequel. I think this is on par with the first, so not an out and out classic in my mind, but still very good. And the last half hour is really excellent and a hell of a ride.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs