It’s a Classic: ‘The Terminator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Come with me if you want to live!”

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Arnold Schwarzenegger is the iconic killer cyborg in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Year:  1984

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henrikson, Earl Boen

Director:  James Cameron / written by:  James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd

What’s it about?

An unstoppable cyborg is sent back through time from the year 2029 to murder Sarah Connor, a waitress who will be mother to the leader of the human resistance waging a future war against the machines…

In review: why it’s a classic

Prior to 1984 it would be hard to believe that James Cameron would become one of modern cinema’s greatest auteurs.  Having previously worked as an art director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (and later increase his profile by co-writing the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II with Sylvester Stallone), Cameron had made his directorial debut with the dreadful horror sequel Piranha II: The Spawning.  Yet his fever-induced vision of a robot killing machine would spawn not only a successful filmmaking career but also a pop culture phenomenon.

Setting out to create the definitive technological science fiction terror tale, Cameron would drive The Terminator above its perceived B-movie trappings and create an all-time classic.  Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role, The Terminator sees a formidable and seemingly unstoppable cyborg sent back in time to the then present day of 1984 from the year 2029, where mankind faces extinction in a war against Skynet – an advanced form of A.I. – and its army of war machines, to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the human resistance’s leader, John Connor, before he is born and can lead the human race to victory.  There’s hope for Sarah in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn – later to star in Cameron’s Aliens), a resistance soldier also sent back to 1984 with a mission to find and protect her from Skynet’s ‘Terminator’ at all cost.

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Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting abilities, but his balance of subtlety and intensity created a truly terrifying adversary, a shark-like robotic predator driven relentlessly to fulfil its programming in a career-defining role that would propel him to superstardom and a performance that is a crucial component in the success of The Terminator.  The film is a tense, exciting and often terrifying sci-fi action chase-thriller that posits a frightening scenario in which the advancement of technology and humanity’s hubris results in its obliteration.  Its dystopic elements are levied by the romance that builds between Sarah and Reese and together with the hope of humanity’s survival, creates a sense of hope amidst the bleakness.  Michael Biehn is great as Kyle Reese in a performance that conveys more depth than the average action hero.  Biehn is certainly adept at handling all of the required physicality but there’s a vulnerable quality to Reese that brings a lot of humanity to the character and a believability to a man out of time who has only ever known a life of hardship and struggle.  Linda Hamilton is perfectly cast as Sarah Connor with a fine portrayal of the everyday girl-next-door who has the fate of humankind literally placed in her hands.  Despite the fantastical aspects of the story, Sarah’s arc and her growth unfold naturally as she begins to unlock her inner strength and ultimately accept her destiny.  She is the heart of The Terminator and Linda Hamilton helps to create one of the most iconic screen heroines, inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

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No escape? The Terminator continues its relentless pursuit (image credit: MGM).

The film’s special effects have aged extremely well and bely the $6 million production budget.  Younger viewers may scoff at the more practical nature of The Terminator but the ambitious blend of miniatures, puppetry, stop-motion animation and rear screen projection are a testament to Cameron as a pioneer in filmmaking.  Of course not all of the credit should go to Cameron, sure, through his tenacity the film’s grand vision was realised but it mustn’t be forgotten that the film’s groundbreaking effects and design would never have been achieved without the works of effects company Fantasy II and Hollywood legend Stan Winston (who would collaborate with Cameron again on Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as well as creating the deadly alien hunter in Predator).  The Terminator is the successful sum of numerous parts and would not have been complete without Brad Fiedel’s score, undoubtedly one of the greatest revelations in motion picture music.  As strong as the film’s concepts and visuals, the metallic clunks and thrumming beats infused within Fiedel’s electronic score bring the killer cyborg and ravaged future Los Angeles to life.

Whilst the franchise may have faltered in recent years, James Cameron’s The Terminator remains forever a classic piece of science fiction cinema and with its laudable technical achievements, thrilling action and a captivating story it’s a film that will continue to endure.

Standout moment

Homing in on its target, the Terminator tracks Sarah Connor to the Tech Noir nightclub – making its way through the crowds on the dancefloor, drawing a handgun as it approaches Sarah and prepares to make the kill.  But Kyle Reese is already there, waiting to spring into action…

Geek fact!

Initially under consideration for the role of the Terminator were Lance Henrikson (who would go on to appear as LAPD cop Vukovich, alongside Paul Winfield’s Lt. Traxler) and O.J. Simpson.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was also originally put forward by his agent for the part of Kyle Reese.

If you like this then check out:

RoboCop (1987): the ‘other’ iconic 80s techno sci-fi action classic, director Paul Verhoeven executes a violent and satirical film with a superb central performance from Peter Weller as the titular part-man, part-machine future cop.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Have You Seen… ‘Escape From New York’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

– 

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Kurt Russell as “Snake” Plissken, the iconic anti-hero of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York’ (image credit: Studiocanal).

Year: 1981

Starring:  Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau

Directed by:  John Carpenter / written by:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

What’s it about?

1997: New York is now a maximum-security prison and when the President of the United States is taken hostage after terrorists seize Air Force One, the authorities enlist the help of “Snake” Plissken – a convicted criminal and ex-Special Forces solider…

In review: why you should see it

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York may not be as widely known to contemporary viewers as the director’s more iconic mainstream hits – Halloween and The Thing – but it’s a science fiction action cult classic and comfortably one of Carpenter’s best films.  Taking place in the dystopic then-future of 1997, the U.S. crime rate has risen to uncontrollable levels leading to the conversion of Manhattan Island into a maximum-security prison, the city of New York being walled-off and mined in order to contain the most dangerous of criminals.  When the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) – on his way to a critical peacekeeping summit – is taken hostage after fleeing a terrorist-seized Air Force One, the U.S. Police Force enlists the help of “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell – who would subsequently star in The Thing) a former Special Forces operative incarcerated after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve.  Offered a full pardon if he can rescue the President and get him out of New York alive within 24 hours, Snake is unwittingly given an extra incentive:  explosive charges injected into his arteries that will only be neutralised if he succeeds and returns in time.  Free to roam the decaying New York landscape and live as they please, with no hope of ever leaving, the prisoners within bow to the rule of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) – the city’s overall crime boss – and Snake, with his life already on the line, must fight his way through the deranged and deadly gangs of a place that once stood for peace and liberty before it’s too late.

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Oscar-winning music legend Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (image credit: Studiocanal).

As the gruff, eye-patch wearing and no-nonsense Snake, the excellent Kurt Russell, with some Clint Eastwood-esque delivery (and accompanying attitude), creates an iconic action anti-hero (who would be the basis for the “Snake” character of the popular video game series Metal Gear Solid) – a disillusioned man, jaded and apathetic to the Stars and Stripes, whose only real interest here is his own survival.  It’s a central character we’re not initially supposed to like but quickly find ourselves rooting for.  Co-starring with Russell is Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as the equally no-nonsense police chief, Bob Hauk, whose grudging dislike for Snake begins to soften as he monitors the mission’s progress from the Liberty Island control centre.  Also appearing is Alien’s Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain” a genius engineer serving as an advisor to the Duke, Adrienne Barbeau (wife of Carpenter and star of one of his previous films – The Fog) as Brain’s tough-as-nails girlfriend, Maggie and Airwolf’s Ernest Borgnine as “Cabby”, the New York cabdriver who helps Snake get about in his armoured taxi.  Donald Pleasence, best remembered as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the classic James Bond film You Only Live Twice, provides a wonderful performance as the slightly buffoonish U.S. President and music legend Isaac Hayes (later the voice of Chef in South Park) makes for an appropriately menacing villain as the proclaimed Duke of New York and is aided by Frank Doubleday (previously from Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) as the oddball and eccentric Romero – named after George Romero, director of legendary zombie-horror classic Night of the Living Dead.

Considering its modest $6 million budget and the technical limitations of the time, the production of Escape From New York remains impressive.  Without the by now all too easy reliance on computer generated wizardry, John Carpenter and his team employ incredible ingenuity to combine miniatures, physical sets and matte-painted backgrounds (all helping to effectively create Snake’s stealthy insertion into New York by glider plane) with the St. Louis locations, practical effects and stunts that blend to create a suitably declining and rotten New York (that feels as indelibly dangerous as it looks, even more so given much of the film takes place at night – kudos to Director of Photography Dean Cundey) complemented by the expertly staged action sequences – whether it be gun battles or fist fights…even the arena match Snake is forced to submit to.  It’s been said before but despite the great wonders that can be achieved with CGI, its now predominant usage has diminished the true art and craft of filmmaking.

Escape From New York oozes atmosphere and is populated with colourful characters backed up by a great script.  Writing with Nick Castle, Carpenter produces a pleasingly lean and uncomplicated action-narrative laced with political subtext, social commentary (the real-world escalating New York crime rate feeding the core concept) and flourishes of black humour.  The film’s memorable synthesized music score is also composed by Carpenter (with Alan Howarth) and like much of his directorial output is an important component, elevating all the tension and excitement as the stakes begin to stack up.

Escape From New York would prove another success for John Carpenter and after teaming up for The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell would later reunite for a disappointingly poor sequel – 1996’s Escape From L.A. – but that doesn’t erase the appeal and the pure entertainment value of Escape From New York.

Geek fact!

Working with Carpenter on Escape From New York is future director James Cameron (credited as “Jim” Cameron) as part of the visual effects team and a matte artist, just a few years away from his breakout success with The Terminator.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Flashback: ‘Predator 2’

The ultimate hunter returned to cinema screens in 1990’s first ‘Predator’ sequel…

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On the hunt: a new Predator stalks L.A. in ‘Predator 2’ (credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  1990

Starring:  Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton

Directed by:  Stephen Hopkins / written by:  Jim Thomas & John Thomas

What’s it about?

As gang warfare rages in the heat-soaked city of Los Angeles, LAPD cop Mike Hannigan, investigating a series of bizarre murders, discovers a new threat in the form of a lethal alien, hunting humans for sport…

Retrospective/review

With the popularity of John McTiernan’s Predator it was only a matter of time before a sequel would surface, and so it did, in 1990 with Predator 2 – directed by Stephen Hopkins.  An enjoyable, albeit inferior, follow-up to Predator, Hopkins and returning writers Jim & John Thomas help to deliver an entertaining science fiction action blockbuster.

Moving the action from the isolated jungles of Central America to the chaotic urban jungle of Los Angeles in the, then, not too distant future of 1997, Predator 2 creates the perfect environment for the creature to hunt, where the L.A. police are locked in an unrelenting conflict as they engage in street wars with Colombian gangs and Jamaican crime lords during an oppressive heatwave that not only adds to tensions but further drives the Predator’s thirst for the hunt.  It’s a decent idea that works rather well, altering the setting to keep things interesting yet retaining those key atmospheric elements at the core of Predator, the sense of comforting familiarity enhanced by the return of Alan Silvestri as composer of the film’s music score.

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Danny Glover as Lt. Mike Hannigan (credit: 20th Century Fox).

Leading the cast is Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover in an enjoyably energetic performance as no-nonsense police lieutenant Mike Hannigan who, whilst not as muscular as Arnold Schwarzenegger (looming production on Terminator 2 preventing the Austrian Oak’s participation) certainly holds his own in the action scenes of Predator 2.  Supporting Glover is Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso (The Running Man) and a wonderfully enthusiastic Bill Paxton (Aliens’ Private Hudson) as fellow L.A. cops Archuleta, Cantrell and Lambert, respectively as well as Kent McCord as their captain.  Gary Busey brings antagonism into the fray as the shady Peter Keyes, as Hannigan learns that the true perpetrator of a wave of gang murders is not from this world.

Although it doesn’t feel as new and exciting as Predator and is in some ways less suspenseful with its slightly less mysterious and faster paced approach (and the portrayal of the Jamaican criminals at times a little silly), there’s still a lot to enjoy about Predator 2, not in the least in its action – including a deadly subway train encounter with the Predator, the inventive slaughterhouse battle with the creature as Keys and his team attempt to capture it and the apartment building/rooftop chase which leads to a climactic finale aboard the Predator’s ship.  It’s all staged capably by director Hopkins who keeps things intense and engaging.

With some tweaks and refinements to the creature’s appearance, this Predator (once again played by Kevin Peter Hall) is subtly unique from the previous one and its expanded array of gear, including a staff and spinning disc make it more even more formidable.  Predator 2 also contains a neat little Easter egg for fans of both of 20th Century Fox’s SF creature franchises with the skull of a xenomorph displayed amongst the Predator’s trophies – leading to numerous Alien vs Predator comic books, novels, video games and a pair of not-so-great films.  Although it may not be as worthy a successor as Aliens was to Alien, Predator 2 does enough creatively to set it apart from the original film and with some solid and well-executed action sequences it provides a good measure of entertainment.

Geek fact!  Gary Busey’s son, Jake, known mainly for his role in Starship Troopers, appears in 2018 sequel The Predator as the son of Busey’s character in Predator 2.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Predator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“If it bleeds, we can kill it”

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A deadly foe – the technologically advanced and lethal hunter of ‘Predator’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  1987 

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, R.G. Armstrong, Shane Black, Kevin Peter Hall

Directed by:  John McTiernan / written by:  Jim Thomas & John Thomas

What’s it about?

An elite special forces unit find themselves being hunted by a deadly creature in the jungles of Central America…

In review:  why it’s a classic

An adrenaline induced and suspenseful science fiction actioner, Predator is the first – and indisputably best – entry in what would become 20th Century Fox’s other iconic SF creature franchise.  With a cast lead by action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John McTiernan (who would helm another classic the following year – Die Hard), Predator is highly entertaining.

The set-up is simple: a crack military team are sent into the guerrilla-infested jungles of Central America on a mission to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter.  Discovering the skinned bodies of their comrades, the team soon find themselves in a fight for survival as an alien creature, which collects the skulls of its victims as trophies, begins hunting them down.  The execution is superb, writers Jim & John Thomas, together with the cast, provide a troupe of tough but likeable characters:  team leader ‘Dutch’ is played assuredly by Schwarzenegger (quickly reaching the height of his superstardom at this point), ably supported by Carl Weathers as Dillon, a former colleague turned-CIA man with the roster filled out by Bill Duke as ‘Mac’, Jesse Ventura as Blaine, the late Sonny Landham as Billy, Richard Chaves as Poncho and Shane Black – future writer and director of 2018’s The Predator (and who also provided uncredited contributions to the script for Predator) stars as Hawkins.  Caught up in the terror is Elpidia Carrillo as Anna, a captured guerrilla who joins Dutch and his unit as they attempt to reach extraction.

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Action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger leads the cast of ‘Predator’ as ‘Dutch’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

John McTiernan directs with confidence and skill, delivering scintillating and satisfying action.  Yet it’s the slowly unwinding element of suspense that makes Predator so engrossing, like Ridley Scott’s Alien, time is taken for events to unfold creating an increasing sense of unease.  The unrelenting heat of the jungle coupled with the conflict fermented by the interference of Weathers’ Dillon adds further to the tension.

Of course, Predator is nothing without its central threat and the Predator itself – created by the legendary Stan Winston and his studio (saving the production after a failed, laughably bad and unconvincing prototype was abandoned) – is as unique and memorable as the Xenomorphs of Alien and Aliens, remaining incredibly formidable and one of the greatest and most iconic creature designs in the history of film.  Just as Predator unfolds at a steady pace, the appearance of the lethal 7 foot-plus and muscular extra-terrestrial (played by Kevin Peter Hall), masked and equipped with an invisibility cloak, shoulder laser, razor sharp gauntlet blades and heat vision sensor is slowly revealed – the final unmasking saved until its climactic one on one showdown with Dutch in an exciting and rewarding finale.

Alan Silvestri’s thrumming, atmospheric and intense music score proves the perfect accompaniment to a true genre classic that would spawn numerous sequels, comic books, novels, video games and slews of merchandise that add up to a pop culture phenomenon.

Standout moment

After storming the guerrilla camp, Dutch and his team prepare to depart and head for extraction.  As Hawkins shares a joke with Billy, unbeknown to them someone, or something is observing…

Geek fact!

Martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally brought in to play the Predator and participated in test-shoots before the initial creature design was abandoned.

If you like this then check out…

Alien : 20th Century Fox’s original lethal extra-terrestrial makes its debut in Ridley Scott’s equally suspenseful masterpiece.

The Terminator : Arnold Schwarzenegger plays another kind of hunter as the deadly time travelling cyborg in James Cameron’s landmark science fiction thriller.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Alien’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Ash, can you see this?”

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The central terror of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’.

Year:  1979

Starring:  Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / written by:  Dan O’Bannon (story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

What’s it about?

Investigating the source of a mysterious transmission, the crew of a commercial starship discover a derelict alien craft which houses a deadly cargo…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Carrying the ominous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” and celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror, Alien remains one of the all-time greats of cinema.  Growing from an idea by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (originally titled “Star Beast”), Alien sees the crew of the deep space commercial towing vehicle Nostromo awakened from hibernation when the ship’s computer intercepts a transmission of unknown origin.  Tracing the signal to a nearby planetoid, the crew touch down and discover a gigantic vessel where an encounter with a parasitic organism leads to unforeseen horrors and a fight for survival against a relentlessly lethal alien life form.

Alien is a benchmark in both science fiction and horror, but whilst there are otherworldly elements and futuristic (but credible) technology, much like Star Wars before it, there is a worn, lived-in quality to the production in respect of the Nostromo and its equipment.  This sense of believability extends to the memorable characters of Alien – essentially wary space truckers bickering about bonuses and regulations, sharply written and wonderfully acted by the cast – comprising Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Lt. Ellen Ripley (in turn creating one of the most iconic screen heroines), Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, John Hurt as Kane, Ian Holm as science officer Ash, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert and Harry Dean Stanton and the excellent Yaphet Kotto as engineers Brett and Parker, respectively.

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Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley.

Another standout aspect of Alien is undoubtedly the incredible ‘bio-mechanical’ designs of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, startling and unsettling gothic creations used to bring the Alien and its world – principally the mysterious derelict ‘bone’ ship found by Dallas and co – nightmarishly to life.  The central creature itself (which would become known as a ‘xenomorph’ in James Cameron’s outstanding 1986 sequel, Aliens) is a thing of horrific beauty, intricately detailed and all the more terrifying thanks to Carlo Rambaldi’s Alien head effects and Bolaji Badejo’s simple but effective performance, making it something more than just the staple ‘man inside a rubber suit’ of old SF and horror ‘B’ pictures.  With Giger’s work and Michael Seymour’s production design there’s a lot of fine craftmanship on display and coupled with the meticulous model and miniature effects (the team including Brian Johnson, who had previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and on Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 television series) that provide a tangible sense of reality in a way that CGI just cannot replicate.

Scott’s direction is flawless, gently leading the viewer through darkness and shadow then catching them off guard with several shocks and scares.  That approach, with the serious attention to detail and ambition for the project, coupled with Giger’s designs lifts Alien above the more primitive and potentially schlocky imaginings of Dan O’Bannon’s initial concept.  Music is of equal importance and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, tense and atmospheric score is the perfect complement to the visuals, accentuating all the terror, unease and chills of Scott’s unforgettable haunted house in space.

Standout moment

Exploring the cavernous belly of the derelict alien ship, Kane stumbles across a cargo of egg-like objects.  Taking a closer look at one of the eggs, Kane sees signs of movement from within…

Geek fact!

H.R. Giger would later contribute designs of the xenomorph in director David Fincher’s second sequel, Alien 3.

If you like this then check out…

Aliens : James Cameron’s sequel pays reverence to Scott’s film without repeating it as Lt. Ripley returns to the planet where her nightmare began with a unit of marines.

Predator : a spiritual sibling to Alien, John McTiernan’s science fiction action classic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crack military team being hunted by a deadly extra-terrestrial.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘The Predator’

Shane Black takes the reigns for the newest addition to the ‘Predator’ franchise…

 

The Predator

One of cinema’s most lethal creations returns in ‘The Predator’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane

Directed by:  Shane Black / written by:  Shane Black & Fred Dekker/ 107 minutes

What’s it about?

The crash-landing of an alien spacecraft leads to a fight for survival as a rag-tag group of ex-military personnel find themselves being hunted by a dangerous and lethal extra-terrestrial…

In review

Along with the Alien and Terminator series, Predator is another franchise that refuses to die despite diminishing returns.  Having said that, Predator 2 and Predators are actually pretty good so far as sequels go but a pair of underwhelming Alien vs Predator films sullies the overall quality.

Enlisting Iron Man Three director Shane Black to helm a new Predator instalment would surely give it instant potential, then?  Sadly, The Predator proves more of a low point for the franchise than a triumphant return, a promising set-up and an interesting creative approach let down by a weak script and messy final act.

Boyd Holbrook (Logan) and Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) are capable leads, the former as sniper Quinn McKenna – bringing the requisite dose of gruff alpha male – and the latter, convincingly, as biologist Dr. Casey Brackett.  Joining them is a group of kooky military misfits, amongst them Thomas Jane’s Tourette’s-inflicted Baxley, the endlessly profane Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) and the surprisingly stable ‘Nebraska’ Williams (Trevante Rhodes).  Adding a touch of villainy is Black Panther’s Sterling K. Brown as Traeger, an oddly comical government agent with special interest in the mysterious Predators.

By giving us a set of oddball characters, The Predator seeks to draw the audience in and have viewers become emotionally invested and to a degree it works, proving most effective with an endearing performance by Jacob Tremblay as McKenna’s autistic son, Rory, who may hold the key to defeating their enemy.

There’s some misjudged (though perhaps necessary at this point) attempts to broaden the mythology of the Predators themselves which some may be receptive to and others may not as it removes some of the mystique surrounding the iconic alien hunters.  Disappointingly, the ‘Super’ Predator seen in the pre-release trailers is nothing more than an oversized version of the original creature, although it does raise the stakes as the film progresses toward its denouement.

Making full use of its ‘R’ rating (certified ’15’ in the U.K.), The Predator is fairly bloody at times and its language littered with profanity which fans of the franchise would rightly expect.  The film’s action is satisfying in places but, bar one or two moments, there’s a lack of tension – especially during the rushed finale that feels generic, choppy and uninventive.

It all feels like a bit of a missed opportunity and a genuine shame given Black’s history with the franchise, having played the part of Hawkins in the classic 1987 original as well as providing uncredited contributions to the script.  The screenplay for The Predator, co-written by Black with Fred Dekker (RoboCop 3) is a little clichéd, with some embarrassing and dumb dialogue and an overreliance on humour – some of which provide genuine laughs but too much of which feels stilted.

The direction is fairly competent and it’s commendable that a slightly different approach for The Predator was sought, but ultimately the fusion of action, horror and humour doesn’t quite gel as successfully as it could have with stronger writing and better editing.  As a result, The Predator is best watched more as a straight forward, slightly cheap action horror flick than a notable and essential continuation of the franchise.

The bottom line:  A flawed sequel to a beloved classic, there’s some fun to be had with The Predator but its creative potential is squandered by some weak execution.

The Predator is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Alien: Covenant’

In space no-one can hear you philosophise…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper (story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Diverting to investigate the origins of a mysterious signal, the crew of the colony ship Covenant are soon fighting for their lives against horrific and unstoppable creatures…

In review

In 2012, director Ridley Scott reawakened the dormant (some would even say stagnant) Alien franchise with Prometheus, a sort of quasi-prequel to the original 1979 classic that took place within that universe whilst charting its own course by exploring deep existential and philosophical themes concerning the origins of life and the horrific consequences of playing God.  Although divisive amongst fans of the iconic science fiction/horror series, the questions posited by Prometheus and a desire to correct some of its perceived shortcomings have lead to this latest instalment, Alien: Covenant, with mixed results acheived.

Picking up ten years after the close of Prometheus, we are introduced to the colony ship ‘Covenant’, whose core crewmembers are awakened prematurely in critical circumstances by on board synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender).  As vital repairs to the ship are attended to, the interception of a mysterious signal leads to the discovery of a nearby Earth-like planet that the crew believes may be a more idyllic site for colonisation than their original destination and an investigative course deviation warranted.  It’s needless to say from there that ‘paradise’ is ultimately not what it seems and harbours dark secrets that will turn the colonist’s hopes for a prosperous new life into a fight for survival.

Whilst Prometheus took strides to set itself apart from being a traditional Alien film (more an extension of the universe rather than a completely devoted tie-in or continuation of it), Covenant is unmistakably that, returning the series to its harder horror roots, with some twists on familiar elements as it works to further develop the Alien prequel story and continue discussions of life and creation.

For its first half, Covenant takes a slow, measured approach, allowing a steady build-up of intrigue and an ominous sense of foreboding before unleashing monstrosities – both new and old – upon the unsuspecting human players.  It’s as grisly and bloody an affair as director Scott has been teasing, the terror aided by a mix of classic Giger designs with the new ‘neomorph’ creature – a suitable evolution from the creations we saw in Prometheus.  It’s in the film’s second half where things start to derail and go awry as the script, despite lofty ambitions as it references Byron and Mary Shelley, falls victim to cliché and predictability as it begins to check off a grocery list of scenarios similar to what we’ve already seen before and not necessarily helped by lashings of fan service.  It culminates in some exciting but perhaps slightly misguided blockbuster CGI spectacle that attempts to meld Prometheus with Alien and Aliens, leading to a derivative finale that feels rushed and lacking in suspense.  There are also some questionable narrative choices along the way, particularly those concerning the origins of the alien ‘xenomorphs’ that may irk long term fans of the franchise especially considering that (much like Prometheus) it further demystifies Alien.

In terms of the cast, Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts) does a decent job of portraying Daniels, another strong female character type who is actually something a little more than the mere Ripley-clone the marketing suggests.  Watchmen’s Billy Crudup is also great in a believable turn as Oram, the Covenant’s captain and man of faith, whose spirituality permits further exploration of the existential ponderings posed by Prometheus.  It’s also worth mentioning Danny McBride who proves to be another notable member of the cast – and certainly not comic relief – as the ship’s pilot, Tennessee.  However, Alien: Covenant really belongs to the excellent Michael Fassbender who excels in the dual role of android ‘synthetics’ Walter and David.  With a captivatingly subtle and nuanced performance (and an effortless switch between accents) he is arguably the film’s strongest draw.

Although the script for Covenant may be problematic, there’s no faulting Ridley Scott’s direction as he once again demonstrates his talent for world-building and the ability to present a visually astounding film by marrying beautiful and striking photography from its New Zealand locations with brilliant production design that’s only let down by a reduced emphasis on practical effects in the creature action.

Despite its flaws, Covenant is still an enjoyable enough addition to the Alien franchise.  It’s by no means its greatest instalment but there’s no doubt that Ridley Scott’s film is superior to Alien: Resurrection and Alien vs Predator albeit far from being on the same level as Alien and Aliens and is quite likely to prove as divisive as Prometheus.

The bottom line:  Hindered by predictability and a rushed finale, as well as controversial story choices, Alien: Covenant is carried by its arresting visuals and the performance of lead actor Michael Fassbender.

Alien: Covenant is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in the US and worldwide from 19th May.

alien covenant

It’s back: the iconic xenomorph returns to reign terror in ‘Alien: Covenant’.

TV Review: ‘Doctor Who’ 2014 Christmas Special “Last Christmas”

Has the Doctor been a good boy?

This review contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, Nick Frost as Santa

Written by:  Steven Moffat / Episode directed by:   Paul Wilmshurst / aired in the UK and U.S. :  25/12/2014

What’s this episode about?

It’s Christmas and Clara and the Doctor enlist the help of Santa Claus himself to thwart a deadly alien threat…

Episode review

Ah…Christmas, a time to eat, drink, be Merry and sit down to watch the BBC’s Doctor Who Christmas Special which over the last decade (yes, it really has been that long) has firmly entrenched itself in the festive traditions.

The 2014 special, “Last Christmas” is the tenth Who Christmas episode and although not quite as fun as 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion” (which saw the debut of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor) or as epic as Matt Smith’s departure in last year’s “The Time of the Doctor” it is non-the-less another entertaining festive treat that contains equal measures of atmospheric shocks and sugar-coated delights.

As we’ve come to expect over the course of Peter Capaldi’s first season as master of the TARDIS, “Last Christmas” has a dark streak with a number of ‘behind the sofa’ scares (all the more daring given the 6:15pm timeslot) presented by the malevolent alien creatures that threaten to destroy Christmas.

Largely taking place at an isolated North Pole research station, the premise of “Last Christmas” harkens back to the iconic ‘base under siege’ template of classic Who adventures and owes much to the likes of Alien and The Thing From Another World, both of which are rightfully acknowledged by writer Steven Moffat.  It infuses the otherwise festive proceedings with a tense and unsettling atmosphere as the Doctor uncovers the truth behind the appearance of Santa and the plight of the crew of that afore-mentioned research station (one of whom is played by Michael Troughton, son of the late Patrick Troughton who portrayed the Doctor’s second incarnation from 1966 to 1969).

It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are plenty of heartfelt moments between the Doctor and Clara and levity facilitated via jovial guest star Nick Frost (complete with Elf sidekicks).  The highlight of the piece however is the Doctor’s piloting of Santa’s sled, a fantastically magical sequence where Christmas truly takes over and sure to kindle the yuletide spirit in even the most cynical of the viewership.

The biggest surprise of course is the fate of Clara, just as we suspect the Doctor’s encounter with an elderly version of his beloved companion is leading toward Jenna Coleman’s rumoured exit, a twist in the mind-bending Inception-esque concept provides us with (at least partially) an answer as Clara decides to accept the Doctor’s invitation to return to the TARDIS.

“Last Christmas” sees Peter Capaldi provide another assured turn as the now not-so-new Doctor and hopefully Coleman will stick around for a while longer, with the highs and lows of their comradery being one of the main draws of this last season.  It will be exciting to see where the TARDIS lands next…

The bottom line:  The Doctor saves Christmas once again as the BBC delivers another quality festive edition of Doctor Who that’s scary, tense and magical in a way that only this iconic series could achieve.

“Last Christmas” is released on Blu-ray and DVD by 2entertain on 26th January.  Doctor Who season 9 will air in 2015.

What did you think of Peter Capaldi’s first Christmas as the Doctor?  Share your thoughts below!

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) enlist the help of Santa (Nick Frost) in another magical festive edition of the BBC's 'Doctor Who'.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) enlist the help of Santa (Nick Frost) in another magical festive edition of the BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’.

Film Review: ‘Interstellar’ (spoiler-free)

Far beyond the stars…

Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Cain

Directed by:  Christopher Nolan / Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan / 169 minutes

What’s it about?

As humanity faces extinction on an Earth ravaged by environmental catastrophe, former NASA pilot Cooper’s discovery of a scientific anomaly leads him on a journey that will take him to the stars…

In review

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick (with Arthur C. Clarke) took audiences on “The Ultimate Trip” with 2001: A Space Odyssey – a cinematic experience widely considered as the apex of cerebral and imaginative science fiction.  It proved triumphantly that science fiction cinema could be realised in a serious, thought provoking and technically proficient manner – a world away from the plethora of cheap (though in many cases, still enjoyable) ‘popcorn’ B-movies of the 1950s.  With Christopher Nolan at the helm, Interstellar follows Kubrick’s lead and melds the expansive imaginings of 2001 with human drama and exploration of modern scientific theory.

Nolan’s first post-Batman work is more Inception than The Dark Knight Rises, offering more of the reality altering and mind-bending imagery achieved in the former than the intense comic book action of the latter – though that’s not to say that Interstellar doesn’t include a fair share of edge-of-the-seat moments, it simply balances them against its other diverse elements.

Interstellar introduces an Earth that has been environmentally decimated, with humanity having turned its back on technological and other pioneering pursuits in favour of sustaining a desperate existence.  McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed father of two and a former NASA pilot who once pondered about humanity’s place in the universe and forced to give up his dreams to take up a life as a humble farmer – dreams that have sparked the imagination of his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).  Unexplained events lead Cooper and Murph to a chance meeting with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and the hard, but necessary decision Cooper decides to take by leaving his family to join an interstellar mission through a recently discovered wormhole to find humanity a new home – before it’s too late.

Whilst Interstellar generally takes the ‘hard SF’ route of 2001, there’s actually a surprising amount of emotional depth to proceedings played primarily via Cooper’s relationship with his daughter and her despair at her father’s decision to leave her (and her bother) behind to embark on a journey from which he may never return.  At turns heart-wrenching and heart-warming it provides the story with a resonance and a humanity that sets Nolan’s film apart from 2001 and ventures closer to the likes of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Naturally, Interstellar presents us with Nolan’s customary ‘heightened reality’ and the hard SF route is taken via the scientific theories of wormhole and space-time postulated by physicist Kip Thorne and as a result there is some heavy exposition that may leave traditional blockbuster audiences jaded and perhaps threatens to distract the more learned viewer, therefore it is the afore-mentioned emotional core that Nolan employs deftly to seek a balance between the intellectual moments and the human drama.

Nolan has once again assembled a fine cast of actors who successfully infuse their roles with the awe and wonder that the journey of Interstellar demands of them, juxtaposed against that human drama and presenting high stakes and challenges for their characters to dare to overcome.  McConaughey continues his resurgence of recent years, bringing a likeable and relatable quality to Cooper who is both a striving pioneer straight out of The Right Stuff and loving father struggling to reconcile with the anguish of leaving his family behind for the ‘greater good’.  Similarly, Hathaway puts in another strong performance as scientist Amelia Brand, who also has her own personal grief to bear.  Among other casting highlights are the ever reliable (and Nolan regular) Michael Caine who makes good use of his relatively small screen time as Amelia’s father, Professor Brand, some well-placed levity from droid ‘crewmember’ TARS, voiced by comedian Bill Irwin and a surprise cameo from…a well-known actor.

2001 aside, Nolan has cited a variety of influences that are present throughout Interstellar – from the world-building of Star Wars to the worn ‘lived-in’ aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Alien, enriched by a commitment to practical elements of set design and location shooting (boasting some striking photography by Hoyte Van Hoytema which demands the extra cost of an IMAX ticket).  It’s an ode to the genre and the overall possibilities of good, practical, film making in the digital age.

Hans Zimmer complements the visual and emotional elements with another wonderful, wondrous, score (can he do any wrong after his incredible compositions for Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and the Nolan-produced Man of Steel?), although there are moments where the sound mix seems to be out of balance as Zimmer’s music threatens to muffle some of the dialog – hopefully this will be rectified for the home video release.

Despite grand intellectual themes and incredible imagery, Interstellar provides a decent measure of excitement with a number of set-pieces to rival Inception, with the colossal tidal wives and ice clouds of the worlds the film’s characters voyage to and a particularly tense, edge-of-the-seat orbital docking sequence among the highlights.  True, some may find the near three hour running time challenging (and at times it does verge on that feeling) and those not familiar with Nolan’s previous works or appreciative of the cerebral SF of 2001 might be baffled by the mind-bending final act but for fans of such things, Interstellar is bound to delight and inspire.

The bottom line:  As strong as any of his previous works, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is visually arresting, imaginatively expansive and emotionally resonant.  Prepare for a thrilling journey that Messrs. Kubrick and Clarke would envy…

Interstellar is in cinemas now.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar'.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’.

What did you think of Interstellar?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!

Five worthy ‘threequels’

The third entry in any film series is by large considered a disappointment and whilst in some cases this is certainly true (“hello” to Superman III and Jurassic Park III), there are some ‘threequels’ that threaten to stand toe to toe with numbers one and two.

With the recent Blu-ray release of Iron Man Three, I thought I’d look at a selection of five other noteworthy threequels that are far from disappointing…

ONE:  ALIEN 3 (1991)

Follows:  Aliens (1986)

Lt. Ellen Ripley crash lands on the Weyland Yutani prison colony “Fury” 161.  Although her companions are killed in the crash, Ripley is not the only survivor…

Aliens would always have been a tough act to follow but Alien 3 was definitely a step in the right direction, not bigger in an attempt to outdo James Cameron’s blockbuster, but much smaller and more claustrophobic and visceral in the same vein as the franchise’s 1979 progenitor (Ridley Scott’s Alien of course).  Directed with a smattering of art house flair by the then 20-something David Fincher, the Alien 3 that audiences eventually saw had risen from the ashes of a troubled production but stands as an underrated piece of cinematic SF horror that’s oozing with atmospheric chills and should really have been a conclusion to the Alien film series.

Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon aside, Sigourney Weaver is supported by a wealth of British acting talent – Brian Glover, Charles Dance, Ralph Brown, Danny Webb and Paul McGann.  Coupled with Fincher’s youthfully artistic direction Alien 3 has its own distinct flavour.

What came next:  Alien Resurrection (1997) – a sequel too far?  Whilst Alien 3 was ‘arty’ in the best possible sense, Resurrection overstepped the mark and resulted in a poorly conceived and over ambitious mess that lead to the guilty pleasures of two Alien vs. Predator films.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare - again - in 'Alien 3', directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare – again – in ‘Alien 3’, directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

TWO:  STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)

Follows:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The crew of the Enterprise are mourning the loss of their shipmate, Captain Spock but when Doctor McCoy begins exhibiting strange behaviour, Admiral Kirk is compelled to defy orders and return to the Genesis Planet…

As established Star Trek fans will know, the most recent J.J. Abrams film is not the first time the franchise ventured “into darkness”.  Both Star Trek II and Star Trek III dealt with some dark yet mature themes including regret and loss, whilst still retaining the core ideals of hope and humanity that Gene Rodenberry had envisioned.  It made sense that the franchise grew with its audience and had relevance in the often dark 1980s.  The Search for Spock – despite relatively little screen-time for Leonard Nimoy’s Spock (he was busy behind the camera this time out) – showed us that Star Trek had matured without forgetting those afore-mentioned ideals that made it so appealing.  A large part of what makes it work so well is that you cared about those original characters and rooted for them as they banded together at the risk of losing everything for the sake of their friend and comrade.

The Search for Spock also features a (just) pre-Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd as the enjoyably maniacal Klingon Commander, Kruge.

What came next:  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – “the one with the whales” ranks as one of the most commercially and critically successful of all the Star Trek feature films (and the second to be directed by Leonard Nimoy), it brought levity in spades and upheld the key elements of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst paving the way for the franchise’s return to the small screen with the immensely successful Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one...

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one…

THREE:  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Follows:  The Dark Knight (2008)

Bruce Wayne must once again don the cape and cowl to prevent the terrorist Bane from fulfilling the League of Shadow’s plan to destroy Gotham City…

Whilst many will argue that The Dark Knight is the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises was the perfect conclusion and brought the focus back to Bruce Wayne’s story (despite less actual screen time for the Batman himself), bringing everything neatly full circle.

The film features arguably the strongest cast performances of the trilogy and a villain that literally stood toe to toe with Gotham’s Dark Knight and high stakes throughout to the spectacular and gripping finale.

For more on the Dark Knight Rises, check out the GBUK retrospective here.

What came next:  Man of Steel (2013) – although Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga concluded with The Dark Knight Rises his creative presence is felt in the recent Superman reboot, having served as producer and sharing a ‘story by’ credit with screenwriter David S. Goyer.

Another superbly cast ensemble  for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's well crafted Batman film trilogy.

Another superbly cast ensemble for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s well crafted Batman film trilogy.

FOUR:  GOLDFINGER (1964)

Follows:  From Russia With Love (1963)

007 must foil gold magnate Auric Goldfinger’s plot to irradiate Fort Knox’s gold reserve…

Goldfinger is generally regarded as the finest of all Bond films (for me it’s in contention with From Russia With Love) and identified as the point where Bond-mania truly exploded.  It established the template from which (for better or worse) all future Bond films would follow:  the pre-credits mission, a grand and operatic theme song, the gadgets, a compelling villain and an action packed climax as 007 leads a final assault to thwart the plans of said villain.

Gert Frobe (despite being dubbed due to his lack of coherent English) brought true presence and gravitas to the role of Goldfinger, a master villain able to match Bond whit for whit.  Sean Connery excels as the iconic super spy, his performance confidently infused with charm and vigour – leaving you in no doubt that (as good as Daniel Craig is) he was and likely always will be the best screen 007.

And of course who can forget that legendary Austin Martin…ejector seat and all.

What came next:  Thunderball (1965) – considered by some to be the downward turn in Sean Connery’s tenure it’s still a top spy adventure bolstered by Academy Award winning effects, another magnificent score from John Barry and yet another sexy Bond girl – this time Claudine Auger’s ‘Domino’.

Expected to die...James Bond (Sean Connery) faces the challenge of one of his greatest foes - Aric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

Expected to die…James Bond (Sean Connery) is challenged by one of his greatest foes – Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

FIVE:  ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

Follows:  Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a surprising entry in the original Planet of the Apes film series not only in that it’s superior to first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes but also for the fact that it’s a film of two very different halves.  The first ‘half’ is fairly light (even frivolous) as the evolved apes Cornelius (Roddie McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) are welcomed with open arms by the media and general public, being treated like celebrities before the sinister workings behind the scenes of the U.S. government lead to a much darker second half as Cornelius and Zira (the latter having just given birth) must run for their lives as they are hunted down.  At this point it’s a film that can be taken much more seriously and throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the uglier, inhumane aspects of human nature.

What came next:  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – arguably the best of the Apes sequels it continues the darker tone of the latter parts of Escape as humanity’s subjugation and mistreatment of apes (a comment on slavery, a subject directly referenced in dialogue by one of the film’s African American characters) leads to a violent revolt by Caesar (another wonderful simian performance from McDowall), the son of Cornelius and Zira.

'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it's tense and shocking climax...

‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it’s tense and shocking climax…

Do you have a favourite threequel?  Share your thoughts below!

Also on Geek Blogger UK:

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

GBUK film classics: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

GBUK film classics: ‘From Russia With Love’