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Alien 3, 1992

Alien 3 is a deeply terrible movie.

I could honestly end this piece right there and move on with my life without regret, but…what the hell, it’s Halloween.

Alien was a masterpiece. Certainly one of the best horror films and one of the best science fiction films ever made. It’s somewhere on my list of all-time favorite films period, though obviously it has a lot more competition there. It was moody, atmospheric, and tense. Watching it is an experience, and one that feels important. It’s a work of art. You can see immediately how influential and significant this movie would be for years to come.

Aliens scraps the template, which is a pretty bold thing to do when the original worked so perfectly and was so well received. But the gamble paid off. James Cameron didn’t just have a different story to tell from Ridley Scott’s original; he had a different kind of story, which necessitated a different approach. It’s a step down in my opinion, as the film doesn’t feel as brainy or artful, but that’s due more to my personal preferences than it is to any serious failings in the film. Aliens did everything a great sequel should do, and did it largely very well. It also cemented the fairly daring idea that sequels in this franchise wouldn’t have to look, sound, or feel very much like any of the previous entries, and its success opened the door for experimentation to come.

Alien 3 sees Ripley crashing on some kind of prison colony, populated by comic book thugs, and also the alien is part dog now.

Alien 3, 1992

It was terrible.

I will say here that the title is usually stylized Alien3, but “Alien Cubed” is meaningless. I’m not even sure why they wanted it stylized that way. I guess mathematics are pretty important to space travel, but beyond that it doesn’t factor into the content of the film at all, unlike the graceful pluralization used for the second film.

So, yes, Alien 3. It’s awful.

The film, from what little I understand, was plagued with problems. Also, from what I understand, those problems spanned every stage of production, from finalizing the screenplay all the way through editing the thing.

I’ll admit right now that I haven’t read or seen much material describing these problems, because I simply don’t care. Alien 3 isn’t a fascinating failure; it’s just a failure. I might be more interested in knowing the specifics if Alien 3 were close to being a good film, but as it stands I just see a bad movie. And I know how those are made, because they’re made hundreds of times a year.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien 3 doesn’t stand out, I think. If it weren’t for its lineage, it would be indistinguishable from any number of ill-conceived, bungled, half-assed, forgettable quasi-action films from the 1990s, and its two predecessors are the only reasons that it’s remembered and discussed at all.

I will also say that there are a few different cuts of the film, some of which are apparently better than others. I don’t doubt this, but I also don’t hate myself enough to endure multiple versions of Alien 3. One was plenty, and if some other version is a marginal improvement to the product, then that’s great, and I wish it much luck.

When I started this particular Trilogy of Terror, I strongly considered writing about Alien: Resurrection instead of this one. Not because I’d necessarily have more to say about that film, but because I really didn’t feel like watching Alien 3 again at all. Alien: Resurrection is by no means great, but it’s much better, more interesting, and infinitely more fun. That, I think, is an example of a fascinating failure. Alien 3, by contrast, is just a disappointment.

Alien 3, 1992

You know what, though? As much of a terrible film as it is, I’ll admit that it’s a terrible film wedged between two pretty great sequences.

The best part of the movie is probably its opening. It’s certainly the bravest part.

At the end of Aliens, Ripley refuses a chance to make it off the planet before the reactor explodes, choosing instead to go after Newt. The young orphan girl disappeared during the escape attempt, and Ripley jeopardizes her own survival — along with the survival of Hicks and Bishop — by running off to get her back.

And she does get her back, after a long stretch of searching, fighting, fleeing, and playing Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with the alien queen.

In the original film, Ripley was the last survivor of the Nostromo. But in Aliens, her success was larger. She saved Newt. Hicks and Bishop — the latter a bit worse for the wear — made it out as well. And seeing them escape together felt great. It was a fantastic ending to a very good film in what was becoming a great series.

Alien 3 opens by saying that Newt, Hicks, and Bishop all died when we weren’t looking.

Alien 3, 1992

And, man. What a gut punch.

But it’s an effective one, and it’s one of the few times the film has any effect on us at all. I’m not sure if I actually like the fact that Alien 3 killed off those characters so callously, so cruelly, with such a fuck-you to the audience and to Ripley…but at the same time, I admire the audacity of that fuck-you. It’s meaningful. It robs both us and Ripley of even the ghost of the happy ending that Aliens let us believe in, and it says a lot about the universe in which these films take place. Any peace is temporary. Any success is fleeting. And you’d better rest up, because tomorrow’s another fight for your life.

I think I’d like the opening a lot more, however, if it were followed by a better film. If it were, I’d be able to believe that it’s the unflinching vision of a director with something powerful to say. As it stands, it feels like an accidental good decision at best.

The other great scene is the ending. Ripley sacrificing herself — directly, literally, deliberately — is a great cap to the three films as a whole. Granted, we could have left her drifting in hypersleep after either of the previous two films and felt perfectly fine with that, but since we bothered to revive her one more time, her slow motion fall backward into the molten lead is a much more beautiful ending than this film deserved.

Having the alien burst out of her chest on the way down, though, come on. That was awful.

Alien 3, 1992

Can’t I just enjoy my not-half-bad ending in peace?

And, well, as long as we’re on the subject of the only good things in the movie, here’s the only other good thing in the movie: the scene in which Ripley reboots a busted-up Bishop is the only other good thing in the movie.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien 3 was directed by a young man named David Fincher. It was his first film, and it sunk his career forever. Unless you count his incredible number of critical and commercial favorites to follow, including Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl.

So, yes, I know very little about the production of Alien 3, but I think it’s safe to conclude that a lack of talent behind the camera was not to blame. It fell down elsewhere. And the scene with Bishop makes two of the weakest points clear to me: the acting, and the lack of invention.

Lance Henricksen, to be frank, runs circles around any of the Alien 3-specific actors. Ripley plugs him in, we spend a much-too-brief time with him, and then he asks to be disconnected because he doesn’t want to be in this awful movie.

But in that time, coming as it does after we’ve spent enough time with the residents of the prison colony to realize they’re all interchangeable and worthless, we are reminded of how much better the characters in this series used to be.

Alien 3, 1992

Bishop was great. I have no problem with him being switched off for good, except for the fact that there’s really no replacement for him. Who was your favorite character in the prison? That one bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence? Or that other bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence? Personally, I like the bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence, and sometimes stood behind another bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence.

None of the characters here feel distinct, and certainly none of them were interesting or worth spending time with. They were also, to a man, horribly acted, as they all seemed to fall back on the same mindless snarling that you might get from prison extras in an especially poor Batman film. The difference here is that they aren’t extras; they’re main characters, and we’re spending nearly all of the film with them.

This is an important problem. In films like this and the original Alien, the characters need to be distinct and identifiable. Ideally we’d care about them, but at the very least we need to be able to identify them.

That’s because they’re going to be picked off, one after another, by some kind of powerful force, and we need to know who is down and who is still standing. We need to know who we can rely on, and who is liable to betray us. We need to know who is brave, and who is breaking under the pressure. We need to know who is worth keeping alive, and who the film can sacrifice for the sake of showing the beast’s abilities.

Alien 3, 1992

We can illustrate this easily, simply by looking back at the previous films.

In Alien, every character was distinct. It was a small crew, so Scott had the room to give everybody a personality and some unique personal characteristics as well. I can talk to you about the flustered and overwhelmed — but certainly well-meaning — Captain Dallas. I can tell you about the panicky, fragile Lambert. I can tell you about Parker, who begins the film frustrated and uncooperative but grows in dedication and focus as the danger becomes more real. I can tell you about the detached, eerily calm Ash, who seems to be the “brilliant asshole” character for a while before he reveals himself to be something else entirely. The list, of course, goes on.

Each character being distinct was less important in Aliens, because there were so many of them, and distinguishing them all would have led to a film that was far too busy. Instead we just need enough of the characters to be distinct, and the film absolutely succeeded there. Burke was a complex villain…one who at times really did seem to care about Ripley and others, but who was ultimately driven by greed to do awful things that he was able to justify in his own mind. Gorman was an unready, untested commanding officer, awarded a station beyond his level of competence, who believably failed to lead his soldiers effectively. Hicks was a soldier who received a battlefield promotion and had to either rise to the challenge or have a lot of blood on his hands for failing. Newt was a normal little girl, broken and traumatized by a life that became, in a heartbeat, one of sheer hell. Once again, the list goes on.

Then there’s Alien 3.

Alien 3, 1992

Tell me about Boggs. Tell me about Eric. Tell me about Morse, or Junior, or David.

I just watched the film, and I don’t even know who those characters are. They all bleed together into some vague idea of a character, without any of them actually being one. This is a failure of the acting, the costume design (they are all bald and dress very much alike), the casting (they look and sound very similar), and the writing (they all say “fuck you” a lot, which is about the only thing they say outside of plot exposition).

There’s also the problem of the prisoners being victims we don’t actually mind getting killed. Alien had an innocent crew fed through its grinder. Aliens had a colony of innocent families, and then a squad of ill-prepared colonial marines, eviscerated by the monsters. But Alien 3 sets the beast loose in a colony of characters we are told are murderers, rapists, and child molesters.

Alien 3, 1992

And…y’know…isn’t that okay? I’m not trying to make some statement here about capital punishment, or the wisdom of defining a man by his crimes, or anything like that. I’m just speaking as a member of the viewing audience, who knows nothing about these characters other than what we’re told.

A colony of criminals that we’re told time and again have committed heinous acts — and about whom we learn little or nothing else — is not equivalent to an innocent crew or a group of soldiers in terms of tension generated by possible loss of life. We want the crew of the Nostromo to survive. We want somebody to come out of the warzone alive. I don’t think there’s as much incentive to root for the survival and safe return of a serial rapist.

But then again, are these prisoners the hardened, irredeemable thugs the film keeps telling us they are? Sure, there’s a scene in which they grab Ripley and try to rape her, and, yes, of course, that’s terrible. But it’s also done in such a boneheaded, overwrought manner that it’s difficult to feel any menace in them.

They’re comic book henchmen, at best, and their attempted physical violation of our main character doesn’t seem to happen because that’s who they are and what they do, but because a screenwriter told them they’d need to do it.

So they glower from the shadows. They make faces somebody must have once told them look scary by B-movie standards. One of them even pauses to put his trademark goggles on, for crying out loud.

Alien 3, 1992

This isn’t a rape, it’s a scene in a movie that feels calculated and fabricated in every aspect, and it exists only so that Charles S. Dutton can smack one of them around with a pipe and prove that he’s not all bad.

Outside of that, how bad are any of them? They just sit around sneering and making angry faces. They curse at each other. They’re filthy and scarred, but they don’t do anything. And while that could be a comment on the way society has treated them — they’re not actually that bad, but are funneled here due to a flawed prison / criminal justice system — I think the idea is that they’re supposed to be to be as bad and dangerous as the film tells us, and it just does a predictably awful job of demonstrating that.

Watching it again for this review, the thought struck me that the setting was maybe, at some point in the creative process, intended to be a mining colony and not a penal colony. That would explain the significant amount of accessible underground areas and the molten metal systems (why would a prison need or want those, exactly?), and would also explain why the “prisoners” really just seem a bit under-educated and uncouth as opposed to psychopathic and dangerous.

Alien 3, 1992

The idea of a prison setting is a good one — it places Ripley in clear peril and does a great job of cementing her, yet again, as a disrespected outsider — but the execution just seems off, and the conflict feels artificial.

Another way in which the film falls down is the alien itself. While it looks a bit silly by today’s standards, the alien in the first film at least feels like it’s there, and a very real danger to the crew. And while I can pick apart Aliens maybe more than most people are keen to do, I absolutely cannot fault the film on its effects work, as the aliens themselves in that movie were incredibly lifelike. What’s more, the facehugger across both films was an absolute triumph of horror movie making.

But Alien 3 leans on CGI, and not very convincingly. The characters here feel like they’re being hunted by an ugly cartoon. It doesn’t feel like it’s there, because it’s not there.

It was a huge step back in a series that was actually quite effective in its creature effects up until this point, where it just looks idiotic.

Alien 3, 1992

That’s at least partially why Alien 3 isn’t scary. It wants to tap into the claustrophobic horror of Scott’s original, but it doesn’t work. The alien doesn’t feel like a threat, and the prisoners aren’t victims I especially care about. Hell, I don’t even know who they are, so why would I care if one lives and another dies? I couldn’t tell them apart to begin with.

Even Aliens, which was more of an action film than it was horror, was legitimately scary, and the scene with Ripley and Newt trapped in a room with the two facehuggers is still one of the most effectively frightening things I’ve ever seen in a movie. It was an incredible setpiece that featured excellent acting, great effects, flawless editing, and masterful tension. What’s more, it built naturally from the various relationships and situations that had been set up by the film up to that point.

Alien 3 doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of tension. The first film used a tracking device and desperate radio chatter to build a sense of encroaching terror, and when the alien appeared — especially when it got the drop on Dallas in the vents — it wasn’t a surprise so much as it was a horrific inevitability. That was scary.

Alien 3, 1992

Here, characters just turn a corner and the alien kills them. No buildup, no tension, and no reason to feel particularly invested in their deaths. They’re alive in one frame, dead in the next. A puff of red food coloring gets sprayed into frame, and we move on.

It’s tremendously disappointing, as Alien 3 wishes to return to the slasher roots of the first film but never bothered to figure out how or why it worked there to begin with.

Sigourney Weaver deserves none of the blame for whatever flaws the film may have. If she’s any less good than she was before it’s because the material fails her. And it often does, as Alien 3 requires her to shift from mourning her dead love interest and surrogate daughter to flirting and sleeping with some weird, creepy doctor she just met in what seems to be a matter of hours.

Alien 3, 1992

It’s a forced development that serves no purpose as far as I can tell, and is not easily compatible with anything I came to know about Ellen Ripley over the course of the previous two films. Two films that, it must be said, explored her actual character, rather than forced her to do things for the sake of doing them.

Here the romance rings false. So false that I can’t believe in it to any degree. It doesn’t feel like Ripley, and it doesn’t feel like a real development. It’s just there because it might as well be there, and it happens far too quickly after she’s reeling from the unexpected deaths of people who were genuinely important to her.

In fact, she doesn’t seem to care much about Newt or Hicks after their brief funeral. I know services like that are supposed to be for the comfort of the living, but, man, that’s some instant closure. Ain’t no funeral like a prison funeral, I guess.

Charles Dance as Dr. Clemens isn’t exactly bad…he just doesn’t seem to fit. He’s some kind of character from some kind of movie, but I don’t believe in him here, with these people, in this context.

He delivers his lines competently but not impressively, and just seems to exist because we needed someone Ripley might conceivably talk to. Once he’s served that purpose the alien pops his head like a pimple and neither we nor Ripley ever think about him again.

Alien 3, 1992

There’s more wrong with the film.

Much more.

There’s the confusion about where exactly the alien is in the big finale — its relation to the prisoners, the doors, the piston, and everything else we’re told is crucial to the success of this plan. There’s the half-dog half-alien thing that I guess is supposed to make up for the lack of facehuggers and alien queens and all of the other inventive, genuinely interesting creations of the previous films. There’s the uninspired, vague industrial backdrop that you saw in the finale of just about every 1990s action movie, and which, again, seems more like something you’d see in a mining facility than a prison. There’s the barely-sketched-in overtures toward some kind of vague, spiritual theme that fails to cohere.

But if I tried to talk about all that, we’d be here until next Halloween.

Alien 3, 1992

It’s enough to say that Alien 3 isn’t a good movie. The fact that it followed up a great movie and then a very good one is disappointing, and while it made its money back (a relatively modest three times its budget), it caused a lot of people to lose faith and interest in the franchise. As such, the Alien films have been in a kind of aimless creative spin ever since, with prequels and offshoots coming every so often, but no proper sequel.

Well, no proper sequel outside of Alien: Resurrection, which I still believe was a step back in the right direction, but it was also too little, too late.

It was over.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien and Aliens taught us that previous successes didn’t have to be repeated beat for beat in order to find success in the future. But Alien 3 is an unwittingly strong argument for repetition. It was an experiment without direction, without ambition, without even clear intention, and for all practical purposes it sunk the series.

It did something different, and scared us right back into believing that to be a bad thing.

One day, I promise, I’ll cover a film series in which the third entry isn’t the runaway worst.

But until then, thanks for reading, and have a great Halloween.

Aliens, 1986

Alien was an instant classic, and its clout has only grown since. Looking back on it for last week’s review, I find it hard to identify anything that it did wrong. Sure, I might disagree with the need for one narrative wrinkle or another, and certainly the alien itself looks a bit silly compared to the rest of the effects and sets, but it’s impossible to deny its masterful atmosphere, its solid performances, the deliberate, creeping terror that unfolds at an almost unbearable pace.

Audiences liked it. Critics liked it. Sigourney Weaver became a star, the design of the alien became a standard against which others would be measured, and even the film’s tagline (“In space no one can hear you scream”) took on a life of its own.

Oh, and it made something like 20 times its budget back at the box office. Presumably that was important to someone…

None of which leads me to say that a sequel was inevitable, exactly, but there were certainly plenty of parties interested in the possibility. When we did finally get one, it was with a different director and an almost entirely different cast.

James Cameron took over for Ridley Scott, and Weaver — returning as Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo — was the only returning face.

Aliens, 1986

Occam’s Law of Film Titles was undoubtedly adhered to here, as pluralizing the original really was the simplest and best idea. It also made sense in terms of the film’s content. Alien featured one alien. Aliens featured many aliens. Alien3 featured aliens made of Lego.

The title was also great because Alien 2 would have suggested little more than a sequel. And, yes, Aliens is a sequel, but it’s also an entirely separate film.

It takes place in the same universe, but it doesn’t have to. And just a little bit of rewriting would, hypothetically, allow this film to exist without the previous one having happened at all. Aliens is the rare sequel that genuinely wishes to be appraised on its own merits.

Of course, that’s no more an inherently good thing than an inherently bad thing, but it’s nice to see a sequel to a popular film that does more than repeat the original, beat for beat, to diminished returns.

Aliens in fact repeats relatively little, and the viewers that it’s bound to disappoint most are those who want more of the same.

Aliens, 1986

To some extent, I think I wanted more of the same. At the very least, I don’t like Aliens nearly as much as I like Alien.

They’re both successful in what they set out to achieve, but Alien set out to achieve many of the things that I enjoy in a film. It was contemplative, sedate, artful, intelligent. Aliens set out to achieve many of the things that I don’t like. It was flashy, loud, action-heavy, and interested in filling in gaps that Alien left deliberately open.

They’re both good at what they do, but I don’t enjoy what they do equally. There are obviously those who prefer the sequel to the original, and I’m happy for them. But I also imagine that they and I wouldn’t have much overlap in our lists of favorite films.

Aliens, 1986

Aliens picks up exactly where the previous installment left off.

…in a way.

We ended Alien with Ripley entering deep sleep, and we open Aliens with her being revived. There was a fairly long gap between films in the real world — seven years, to be exact — and Cameron expands that gap by another 50 years.

Yes, Ripley’s been asleep in that pod for 57 years. Ripley didn’t just outlive her previous crew…she outlived her own young daughter.

She returns to an Earth that isn’t exactly the same as what she left behind, without any of the social or family connections she once had. Very quickly her professional connections are severed as well, as Ripley is tried for the destruction of the Nostromo.

Aliens, 1986

The trial scene is great, not least because it’s a very natural, believable way for the last film’s tragedy to be addressed: in an overly bureaucratic concern for lost revenue.

It’s also tremendously difficult not to feel sorry for Ripley during this scene. She escaped by the skin of her teeth at the end of Alien, but that stroke of good fortune turns out to be the first shift in her next avalanche of misfortune. There’s no evidence to corroborate her story; we know she isn’t lying, because we were there, but these folks sitting around a table know nothing except that she detonated the ship and fled.

Sure, there could have been an alien, and it could have murdered the crew, but she just as easily could have gone insane and blown up the ship for no real reason.

In fact, to them, that’s actually the more likely outcome…there have been humans colonizing the very planet upon which she claims to have encountered the alien, and they never complained about any hostile organisms.

Aliens, 1986

That’s where the film gets going in earnest. Ripley warns that the ship full of alien eggs is definitely on that planet, and, of course, the company immediately sends somebody to seek it out. (In a nice bit of sad symmetry, it’s Newt’s family who does so. Ripley unknowingly robs the girl of her parents before stepping in to serve as their surrogate.)

It’s also where the film deviates entirely from the approach of the original. Yes, giving Ripley a daughter, and explicitly naming and spending time with Weyland-Yutani as opposed to casual and vague mentions of “the company,” takes the film in a unique direction, but the way in which the cast of each film confronts the alien menace is the defining difference.

In Alien, the crew had no choice. Once the alien was aboard, they were trapped. The shuttle wouldn’t fit all of them, so they had to fight…and they had to fight with what few resources were at hand. In Aliens, we send in the marines with as many resources as they like, and direct them to shoot the living shit out of whatever they encounter.

Aliens, 1986

The former approach lends itself to a concern for caution that gradually gives way to all-out desperation and panic. The latter approach lends itself to…well, an action film.

Alien had a cattle prod and a flame thrower, neither of which did anyone much good. If anything, they were symbols of protection that didn’t actually offer any; they were a small psychological concession rather than anything that actually helped. Aliens by contrast has bullets whizzing by, grenades exploding, aliens tumbling out of the ductwork, heads bursting in plumes of acid…

At times, it gets pretty mindless, as an action film does. It relies on spectacle — impressive though much of it is, visually — rather than consideration. It’s a film that contains intelligence without actually rewarding intelligent viewing. If you’re there for fire and blood you’ll be much better served than if you’re there for smart, efficient storytelling.

Aliens, 1986

I mentioned last week that Alien predated the home-video renaissance. Aliens, by contrast, landed just about at the very beginning, and I think that this shaped the film’s approach. After all, seeing a film in theaters was no longer the end of its profitability. Now a theatrical release could double as a commercial for its purchase on home video. Don’t show somebody a movie they enjoy; show them a movie that thrills them. Show them something they’ll want to own.

So Aliens screams. It bellows. It hollers. It commands and demands attention. It’s vast, long, and sensational. It shook theater seats. It got audiences excited.

Long, silent pans down the deserted corridors of the Nostromo? Who’s going to buy that? Give us gunfire and waves of alien guts!

Aliens, 1986

It’s a bit of a cynical way to look at what is, strictly speaking, a pretty solid action film. But as a sequel to Alien, and as a deliberate evolution of the series, it’s instructive.

Bombast sells. Videos, action figures, video games… Introspection doesn’t shift units.

Cameron, to his credit, doesn’t let spectacle run away with the film. At least, not overall. And it’s worth taking a moment to spotlight a few of the things that his sequel did exactly right.

For starters, it’s good in itself that it was so different. This meant that no matter how the film was received, it would leave the reputation of the original untarnished. Maybe you’d love Aliens and maybe you wouldn’t, but no matter how you felt it wasn’t likely to change your opinion of the first film.

Sequels to other franchises often hew so closely to the original formula that it retroactively makes you feel tired of the film you once enjoyed. (See: Austin Powers.) But when the sequel is so different, so unique, so independent of the original experience…well, it allows both films to just exist, without any necessary comparison between the two.

This is a uniformly positive thing.

Aliens, 1986

Cameron also iterates impressively upon a few of the breadcrumbs sprinkled by Scott’s film.

Most notable, of course, is “the company” becoming Weyland-Yutani, with a slogan, a series of commercials, and a disregard for employee welfare that would make Donald Trump blush. While we saw the company treat one single, presumably small crew as expendable, here we see them treat an entire colony — consisting not only of employees but of those employees’ families — as expendable.

Greed knows no boundary…something made clear enough by the first film, but illustrated with horrifying clarity in this one.

Aliens, 1986

Weyland-Yutani is personified here by Burke, played by Paul Reiser, in a role that miraculously holds up.

One would be forgiven for assuming that his years of starring in punchlines like My Two Dads and Mad About You would render any menace here inert, but he does a genuinely great job with his material. He seems every bit the dedicated, somewhat dim company man — and ally — he pretends to be to Ripley, but once he makes his turn he’s no less believable.

We never have to see Burke as a criminal mastermind…just somebody who would willfully sacrifice others for the sake of padding his wallet. He’s not evil because he doesn’t believe he’s evil. He thinks he’s smart, and knows that you don’t win a game of chess without sacrificing a few pieces. Reiser does excellent work here, blending both halves of Burke so seamlessly that neither feels more real than the other.

Then there’s the other major seed planted by Scott: Ripley’s distrust of androids.

Aliens, 1986

Aboard the Nostromo she had to contend with Ash, the science officer, who was secretly an artificial person. The revelation came as an unpleasant surprise for the crew, as they realized that he endangered them for the sake of a company that programmed him to do so.

Ripley is already en route to deal with the aliens before she realizes that Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen, is also an android. It’s too late to turn back, and Bishop swears that he would never do anything to jeopardize a human life, but she doesn’t accept that. She tells him to stay away from her, smacks the tray of food out of his hands, and makes it clear that she will not trust him.

Cameron could have gone either way with this. The way he did choose to go — Bishop was genuinely well-intentioned, and willing to sacrifice himself to protect her — was probably for the best, but either could have worked.

After all, Ripley was already going back to face the aliens against her better judgment; serving with an android that ultimately betrayed her for a second time would just be salt in the wound.

Aliens, 1986

Instead, Bishop’s a good guy. Far from inviting the tragedy to them as Ash did, Bishop is the only reason, several times over, that anybody is able to escape this one.

This means that for most of the film, Ripley is the antagonist, at least from Bishop’s point of view. And that’s a pretty impressive flourish, I have to admit. Her mistrust is understandable at the same time that it’s out of line. Her experience being pushed around on the Nostromo prepared her to push back against the one character who truly wants to help.

It’s also impressive that Cameron doesn’t feel beholden to the themes Scott established and explored in his previous film.

Here, we chart new territory. Most significant are the meditations on motherhood, but he also has a lot to say about the United States’ militaristic mindset, and colonialism in general. We’ll come back to each of those, but they’re worth bringing up here, briefly, as evidence that Cameron had something to say with this film, even if he didn’t say any of it as gracefully as Scott did in the last.

Aliens, 1986

There’s also a nice way of retaining Ripley’s outcast status, even while her knowledge of and experience with the alien are invaluable: she’s not a soldier.

The company, and the military in general, may respect her experience and understand how much they need her, but the soldiers themselves are grunts. (No offense.) They don’t respect her, they don’t care about her, and they’re much more interested in themselves than they are in anything she has to say. This keeps Ripley on the strategic sidelines once again, which is important, because if she had it her way they’d have nuked the planet from orbit to begin with, and, in the words of Kermit the Frog, that’d be a real short movie.

Those are the good things. The bad things, however, are not in short supply.

Most urgently, I think, is the quality of the acting, which simply was not on par with the tight performances of the first film.

Aliens, 1986

Sigourney Weaver, unquestionably, is great. There’s no scene or moment that is not elevated by her presence. Aliens calls for a broader range of emotions than Alien did, and Weaver hits them all perfectly.

She’s great, and the film’s clear MVP. Paul Reiser turns in a surprisingly good performance. Lance Henriksen makes a great android. And…that’s about it.

Somewhere in the middle we have Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks, who would probably be a lot better if he had more to do, and Carrie Henn as Newt, who would probably be a lot better if she had less to do.

Aliens, 1986

The marines on the whole, though, come off like caricatures. They don’t feel real…they feel overacted. The kind of thing somebody might picture after reading a lot about the Marine Corps. but without ever actually meeting someone who served.

The marine scenes seem amateur and unnatural, and like the work of a director who…well, to be honest, I’m not sure what any director would be going for with these performances. They’re broad. Forced. Too-obvious relics of fiction in a film that feels otherwise grounded.

The marines operate on a very different tonal plane from the rest of the film, and, frankly, I don’t believe in them. It’s like they’re trying too hard to be one thing in a film that needs another.

My position is one that’s admittedly easier to take when you’re not watching the film, and nearly falls apart when you are: Cameron is trying to embed an anti-war satire in the middle of a film that’s otherwise not satirical.

This explains the performances, and even allows for them. It explains why we’re suddenly in the company of a squad of cartoon characters instead of nuanced individuals. It explains their purpose.

Aliens, 1986

But watching the film, they don’t actually feel satirical so much as they feel misjudged.

I think there are important things to be said about the way the U.S. is so quick to resort to mindless firepower, to dismiss or disregard intelligence, to believe in an inherent and sustained rightness that had everything to do with our egos and nothing to do with what’s actually happening in reality.

But I don’t think that Aliens comments on those things adequately, or at least not adequately enough to justify the inconsistent performances. It really should be impossible to look at Bill Paxton’s performance and Sigourney Weaver’s, and believe that they both originated in the same film.

And yet, here we are.

Aliens, 1986

Newt as a character serves a purpose, both structurally and thematically, but, again, I’m not sure that she was handled entirely the way she needed to be.

Henn does well enough for a child actor, but she’s still a child actor. She screams a lot, because she’s told to scream a lot. She stumbles over lines, because she’s a little kid being asked to tackle a difficult role, and to pretend she’s in the throes of a trauma she can’t actually imagine.

But she looks the part, and when she’s not talking, she’s actually pretty great. She has expressive eyes. She trembles believably. When she’s at her most frightened and vulnerable, I believe in Newt, and I want Ripley to protect her. When she has to say anything, or do something other than scurry away, though, it’s easy to be swept out of the moment.

Aliens, 1986

What I do like about her is that she seems almost like a comment on the first film. Whereas in Alien it might have seemed pretty careless for Ripley to go back for the god-damned cat, it’s much more believable that she’d go back for Newt.

She needs to save Newt. She’s already lost one daughter and countless associates; saving Newt makes a kind of narrative sense that saving the cat, to me, never did.

Newt also reinforces the theme of motherhood, which is strongly at play in Aliens and is a valid filter through which to view the entire film.

The “I” on the title screen actually spreads itself open as though giving birth. We learn that Ripley is a mother…or was. She has alien-specific nightmares about being impregnated…a term that’s used with notable caution in the film.

Aliens, 1986

Newt is newly motherless, and is also seemingly the only survivor of the entire colony, scarred and horrified though she is. Ripley and Hicks fall into a kind of parental relationship with the girl, and into (at the very least) a mutual respect for each other. (It’s also pretty great that Ripley befriends Hicks by respecting him when he becomes the de facto first in command; something her crewmates on the Nostromo did not do for her. Kindred spirits.)

And, of course, there’s the alien queen. A mother herself. And their big showdown toward the end of the film sees each of them fighting to protect their children.

On one level, it’s a big action sequence. But keep in the mind the theme of motherhood, and it becomes much more layered, more complex, and more nuanced.

Aliens, 1986

The ending, though, it needs to be said, goes on far too long. I like all of it, to some extent, but it’s in serious need of editing. At the very least I don’t think they need to lose Newt just to find her again just to lose her again just to find her again, and the very fact that she slips down that laundry chute — or whatever it was — feels like padding.

Moments like that can create tension, but use them too frequently, or too clumsily, and they only engender frustration.

We should absolutely keep the part where Ripley beats the shit out of the alien queen in her powerloader and says GET AWAY FROM HER YOU BITCH though because that’s incredible.

Aliens, 1986

Ultimately, though, the film’s biggest crime was redefining Ripley as an action hero. As we discussed last week, she didn’t survive the Nostromo because she was brilliant, or powerful, or anything else, really. We were just grading on a curve, because the alien grabbed the slowest animal in the pack each time.

Ripley survived because she was the fittest of that sample. She kept a relatively clear head, was relatively competent, and was relatively calm.

Everything was relative.

Here, she legitimately kicks ass.

Over, and over, and over again.

Aliens, 1986

She’s an action hero, and while it’s admittedly nice to see a female busting heads now and again in the interests of equality, it makes her a lot less interesting as a human being. Action heroes are less interesting as human beings, because they all tend to speak the same language: that of violence and triumph.

Ellen Ripley attempted violence in Alien, but quick thinking and a bit of luck is what actually saved her. And she triumphed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, with every other member of the crew wiped out, the ship destroyed, and her life and career ruined upon her return.

She was a human being. In Aliens, though she has some very human moments, she’s not.

She becomes a powerful force in her own right, which can be fun, but can’t as easily be cared about.

Aliens, 1986

I do care about Ripley. I’m glad that she forged a bond with Hicks. I’m glad that she rescued Newt. I’m glad that she had a nice moment with Bishop before he was ripped in half. And I’m glad she survived another film. But whereas that survival was a genuine surprise in the first movie, it was a foregone conclusion in this one. Of course she survived.

She’s an action hero, and Alien is now a franchise.

Then again, in a sense, maybe it’s not Ripley we should worry about. Aliens potentially gives us a new victim: the aliens themselves.

After all, aren’t we impeding on their turf? Aren’t they just trying to survive the way their natures require them to survive? They didn’t come to us…in each film, we went to them. The fact that they didn’t play ball, did not submit to us, did not go gentle into that good night…well, is that really their fault?

Sure, they’re violent and deadly, but that’s also their nature. And at the end of the film, that’s a human being roasting alien eggs with a flame thrower while the queen shrieks with helpless horror, is it not?

We side with the humans because we are human, but that’s just self-interest.

Aliens, 1986

On the alien homeworld they made the same movie, and it wasn’t an action film. It was a profoundly distressing tragedy.

But, hey, at least those brave alien soldiers fought to the very end, against invaders they never provoked in the first place.

Join us next week, when any discussion of intelligence, artistry, or competence will have no place whatsoever.

Alien, 1979

Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really.

Last year we had some fun with the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. This year we’re much closer to true horror, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be hopping genres.

Alien is an interesting franchise, with each of the main films having a different director, creative vision, and set of themes that it wishes to explore. This has the unfortunate side effect of making the series feel a bit unfocused. In fact, I don’t think it’s easy for somebody to claim to be a fan of the series as a whole.

Alien, 1979

While I’ve heard people say they like the Back to the Future movies, or the Harry Potter movies, there tends to be more selectiveness when it comes to the Alien films. Many people only like the first two. Many only like the first, or only the second. Somebody, somewhere, must only like the third. (I’m kidding, of course.)

In short, I don’t think there are many fans of the series so much as each individual film has its following. The films may link together to create a longer story, or a vaster understanding of the universe in which they take place, but viewers are welcome to cherrypick. In fact, they’re almost encouraged to do so by the fact that each film is so different from the others.

You may love Alien, and hate Aliens. I think that they’re both good films, but it’s also clear that they take vastly different approaches to the material, and have unique ideas about how their stories should be told. The experience of watching one is entirely different from watching the other.

Whatever you liked or disliked about one Alien film — the atmosphere, the action, the cast — may never come into play again, and each one, I’d argue, exists in its own creative bubble.

Alien, 1979

As such, the Alien series is more like an anthology of related short fiction than it is an ongoing narrative. This is especially apparent when you factor in the prequel movie(s), and the side series in which Alien and Predator stand around slapping each other.

That all comes later, though. Neither Alien — as the first entry in the series — nor its audience could have possibly been interested in “what came before.” As such, the film establishes everything that it chooses to establish, glosses over what it chooses not to, and weaves its own complete narrative, uncompromised by audience expectation.

It’s also one of the best horror films ever made.

Alien, 1979

Is it horror, though? Or is it sci-fi?

Well, it’s both, obviously. And not always at the same time. It’s sometimes horror, sometimes sci-fi, and sometimes sci-fi horror. It’s a slasher movie set in space, which allows director Ridley Scott to focus alternately on the slasher and the space as he sees fit.

The rest of the movies would follow a similar template, swapping out “slasher” for another genre. Aliens is a war movie set in space. Alien 3 is a prison movie set in space. Alien: Resurrection is a not-very-good movie set in space.

It’s actually during the long (brilliantly long) stretches of sci-fi that I think Alien is at its best. It’s impressive how well-built Scott’s world is here, when all he strictly needs to do is set up some toys for the alien to eventually kick over.

We get a lot of great, very well-handled moments and fragments of dialogue that open brief windows into the larger universe, and spend very little time explaining them overtly.

Alien, 1979

What we learn about the ship, the crew members, the company for which they work, even the alien itself, comes incidentally.

It’s second-hand. It’s what the film lets slip between “important” moments, and that’s what makes Alien so effective, so intelligent, so great. It gives the audience credit at every step, not flooding viewers with detail and backstory, but providing it for those who choose to pay attention.

Remember here, too, that Alien was released before the home video renaissance; if you were rewarding those who would watch your movie several times, it was under the assumption that they’d pay to see it several times in theaters. Scott banked on a repeat audience that would have the patience for a layered narrative, and, somewhat shockingly, he succeeded.

Alien, 1979

The film opens with the crew of the Nostromo being revived from deep sleep. They’re on their way back to Earth — from parts and activities unknown — but that’s not why the ship’s computer wakes them up; it’s picked up what seems to be a distress beacon.

The first stretch of the movie is masterfully sedate. One by one the characters rise from their sleep pods…yawn…get slowly about the day-to-day. They make breakfast. They perform basic readings to figure out where they are. They complain about their pay.

We learn everything we need to know about how the team members interact — and either work together or fail to work together — here, while nothing is happening, while things are quiet. The movie wakes up along with them, just as slowly. It’s not in any more of a rush than the characters are.

Alien, 1979

We learn, of course, a few things more clearly than we learn others. Mainly we learn that there’s some friction between the engineering team and the main crew. The former is comprised of two people, Parker and Brett, and at some point before they entered deep sleep, they voiced their misgivings about the pay structure. The discussion was obviously tabled — or at least not resolved to their satisfaction — and it comes up again now. Parker pushes the issue, Brett quietly lets the discussion unfold around him.

Their relationship, and their relationship as a pair to the rest of the crew, comes through clearly. Whatever they do or don’t actually deserve, it’s clear what they’re getting, and that’s that. We have a career’s worth of frustration raised and dismissed in just a minute of screentime…which is certainly why there is so much frustration.

We also get a good sense of how distant Ash, the science officer, is from the rest of the crew. It’s easy (by design) to read this as a kind of emotional detachment, or intellectual aloofness.

He doesn’t joke around. He isn’t playful. He doesn’t even seem to be especially interested in anything his crewmates care about. These are qualities that could well make him a great science officer — one who adheres to logic and reason over worries and gut feelings — but we learn later that he only recently joined the crew. Ash’s detachment is felt here, and explained more and more deeply as the film unfolds, but the mere fact that he’s the new guy means that he won’t fit as well, and the crew may be as detached from him as he is from them.

Alien, 1979

We’re also introduced to Ellen Ripley, of course, played incredibly by Sigourney Weaver. And it’s here that the length of the franchise robs us of a great surprise. By now, whether you’ve seen any of the films or not, you know that Weaver is a constant. She’s the main recurring character, outside of the general “alien” itself. We’ve seen her in trailers, on movie posters, on DVD boxes for years. So watching the original Alien as a newcomer, it’s impossible not to know that she’s the protagonist.

This is all understandable, but disappointing, as Alien takes great pains not to single Weaver out from the start.

It’s an ensemble cast. No one character is present for all of the important conversations, no one character makes the decisions that save or damn them, and no one character really calls the shots. Audiences experiencing Alien for the first time in 1979 may well have been under the impression that Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) was the main character. After all, he’s handsome. He’s rugged. He holds the highest rank.

He’s…y’know. Male.

Alien, 1979

Alien gradually, artfully narrows its perspective until it belongs to Ripley. I’m speaking literally here, too, as she narrates the dénouement in the first person. Which is a telling change from the soundless establishing text that opens the film. Alien isn’t Ripley’s story; it becomes Ripley’s story.

In doing so, it also reveals itself as a woman’s story. It may or may not serve as a deliberate comment on passive sexism in real, actual workplaces, but it certainly comments on it within the universe of the film.

Throughout Alien, Ripley is interrupted. Spoken over. Ignored. Contradicted. Even when she’s left officially in charge of the Nostromo, her authority is overridden.

She’s questioned more sharply and more frequently than the other characters are. She’s discouraged from speaking up at all. When she asks questions she has to do so several times, and her male crewmates respond through gritted teeth or with rolling eyes.

Alien, 1979

Why? Because Ripley isn’t playing by their rules.

The safety of the crew is important to her. She respects protocol. She understands enough of what’s happening to find holes in the official explanation…or at least to smell bullshit. But she’s a woman, and she’s not behaving the way a woman should, so they need to put her in her place.

Okay, yes, she’s acting in the best interest of the crew and voicing valid concerns that would prevent the entire situation from spiraling out of control the way it ultimately does, but, man, she sure needs to learn to speak when spoken to.

The crew’s treatment of Ripley is further emphasized by the much more positive way they treat the other female aboard: Lambert.

Alien, 1979

Lambert is a more traditional woman. She doesn’t push. She doesn’t fight. She might mutter under her breath now and again, but she knows better than to talk back.

In one very telling scene she tries to relay what she thinks is critical information to Dallas…and he interrupts her, telling her to give him the short version.

And you know what? She does.

Lambert does as she’s told.

Would Ripley have responded the same way? Of course not. Because Ripley, foolish girl, would have actually thought that what she had to say was important.

Alien, 1979

So Lambert gets the better treatment. She plays the game. When Dallas assigns squads to comb the ship for the alien stowaway, she gets to be on the A-team. Ripley, in an unspoken but clear fuck-you, gets saddled with the two disgruntled maintenance guys.

Of course, we all know how the film ends by now. Ultimately Ripley’s concern — along with her pragmatism, her understanding, her willingness to lose a lot in order to save a little — is vindicated. She goes from being dismissed and talked over and contradicted to quite literally having the last word. The woman gets to talk…after absolutely everybody else is silenced forever.

You know, watching Alien during this particular election cycle sure brings a lot of things into sharp focus…

Alien, 1979

Oh, but, wait, okay, so, you may not believe me here, but: there’s an alien in this movie! Sorry. Sorta just skipped right past all that.

Yes, the beacon leads the crew of the Nostromo to another ship, marooned on a hostile planet. It’s devoid of life…at least as far as they can tell initially. Further investigation leads them to a misty area below-deck, full of eggs. One of the crewmen gets a bit too curious, and ends up with a strange creature attached to his face.

And this is where the film veers directly into horror, but, unfortunately, it’s also the most effective horror in the film. In terms of scares, Alien peaks a bit early, with the facehugger being a genuinely frightening — and horrifically believable — movie monster.

It’s also something that every one of this film’s sequels has failed to top.

Alien, 1979

The facehugger is scary. So much so that I’ve actually had nightmares about it, and that usually won’t happen for some imaginary beastie I’ve seen in a film.

This thing, though?

Holy hell this thing.

On the whole, the alien itself — the final, physical presence — is the area in which the film has noticeably aged. The film’s overall visuals and effects have held up brilliantly, but the ultimate alien is a bit too obviously a guy in a rubber suit. Terrifying for 1979, probably pretty scary through the 80s, and now…bordering on silly.

The design of the creature is without question fantastic, but the actual execution feels at times like the crew is playing an especially tense game of hide and seek with a guy in a very expensive Halloween costume.

Alien, 1979

Not so with the facehugger. That thing looks — to this day — like an actual, living monster.

It’s terrifying. I get chills just hearing Ash refer to its “knuckle.” Its design — and execution — is amazing, and feels horribly timeless, as though this pale, fleshy succubus will be causing feelings of unease in audiences long after you and I are dead and gone.

It looks real. It breathes, for Christ’s sake. And while I know — of course — that the thing exists only within the confines of the film’s reality, I’m unable to see it as “just” a plastic prop.

It feels alive, and watching it tighten its tail around Kane’s neck when they first attempt to remove it is just…scary.

Alien, 1979

The facehugger benefits from the same vagueness of detail as the rest of the film. We hear a bit about it, courtesy of Ash’s findings, but are left to imagine the most horrible parts. The tube forced down a human neck to feed it oxygen. The eggs laid in the chest. The disorientation involved that leaves the victim to remember nothing more than awful dreams of suffocation…

We see the facehugger do enough. But we hear about more, and that’s what keeps it scary. It’s still mysterious, no matter how clearly we see it on the screen. Often in horror films (this one included) the best course of action is to show the monster as fleetingly and infrequently as possible. This allows the viewer’s imagination to take over, as what they will see with their mind’s eye will likely be much scarier than anything you can achieve with makeup and prosthetics.

But the facehugger isn’t fleeting.

It’s there.

It’s…doing whatever it’s doing.

It’s in plain sight. The crew members stare at it. They try to remove it. They analyze it. They eventually find its corpse and prod at it.

Alien, 1979

And it never — ever — gets any less scary for it, because no matter how much time we spend with it, our imaginations still have a lot to work with. We’re still inventing our own horrors. And the more realistic that little prop looks — whether it’s the pulsing silhouette in the egg or the slimy innards its death allows us to probe — the more we are able to believe in the horrors we don’t see.

The film letting us spend so much time with the facehugger is a mark of bravery, and confidence. “Go ahead,” it says. “Look. You still won’t see the scariest part.”

And of course it all leads to one of the most famous scenes in science-fiction history. By now so many other productions have borrowed it and homaged it and parodied it that it’s been robbed of its necessary surprise, and it’s one of those film moments I really wish I could travel back in time to witness firsthand, with an audience that had no idea what was coming, and couldn’t possibly have known how to react.

Alien, 1979

Once the chestburster is — ahem — out of the film’s system, we’re squarely in slasher territory. The characters are stuck, they’re up against a killer with inhuman strength, and at least a few of them are going to have to die before they figure out how to defeat it. And, spoiler: damn…there really is no defeating it.

One of Alien‘s great narrative flourishes is the way it doesn’t allow the crew to kill it. While trying to cut the facehugger off of Kane, they discover that the alien has acid for blood. And a tiny little squirt — about the same that you’d get from nicking your finger in the kitchen — burns through several levels of the ship.

It’s a detail that makes the alien scarier — and, er…alien — and it also solves the basic logistical question of why they don’t just fight like hell against it: even if they did manage to kill it, its blood would eat through the hull and take them all with it.

It’s a deeply efficient detail that answers a lot of questions and does an impressive amount of storytelling all on its own.

Alien, 1979

The tragedy of the Nostromo unfolds as it must. After all, once you let a ruthless killer on board and establish that you can’t shoot it, stab it, or blow it up, there’s really no chance of a happy ending.

Prior to that, of course, there were several chances of a happy ending.

Respecting quarantine procedure, for instance.

Or deciphering the beacon before sending out the search party.

Or…y’know what? Let’s just say “letting Ripley finish her sentences” and be done with it.

Alien, 1979

Ripley is — and I genuinely can’t fathom anybody disagreeing with this — the film’s crowning achievement. With no biographical details to speak of (outside of approximate age and the fact that she’s a pet owner), she feels fully drawn. She feels real. Too real, so that the crew’s steadfast refusal to take her seriously registers as its own kind of horror…the horror of a life sidelined in favor of somebody else’s interests.

Ripley’s experience is relateable. It’s understandable. It’s frustrating. And it makes her eventual survival that much more satisfying. Not because she was strong enough to overpower the alien; she wasn’t. She was just the most level-headed of her crew, was able to think more clearly, and was able to change her plans and then change them again as various solutions to the problem closed themselves off.

She wasn’t a singular, blessed bad-ass. She was just the most competent person on the ship. That’s all. She was an everywoman. Not transformed by a threat into an ass-kicking hero, but emboldened by danger to take her own ideas more seriously. And as the objections — and those making the objections — fell away one by one, she became more empowered to place them into action.

Alien, 1979

This is something that the sequels, I feel, really missed. Ellen Ripley becomes a sort of Chosen One, at the ultimate expense of her humanity. She becomes almost hyper-competent, whereas her role in the first film is defined by relative competence.

Ripley shouldn’t survive because she’s an invincible, fearless powerhouse; she should survive because the others don’t. It’s difficult to identify with an adept alien whisperer, but pretty easy to identify with somebody just resourceful enough to make it out alive.

Alien is a nearly perfect movie. In fact, the only thing I keep going back and forth on is the reveal that Ash is an android, sent by the company to ensure that the crew does its bidding. Granted, both aspects of this (the company’s intentions and Ripley’s rightful distrust of androids) are elaborated upon to great effect in the sequel, but for now it just feels a little muddy.

I don’t dislike it, exactly, but I’m not sure that the film needs another active villain on the ship. There’s already a murderer, and I think that I’d slightly prefer the crew to unknowingly endanger each other through poor judgment and thickheadedness than to have one member of the crew programmed to endanger them.

Alien, 1979

It also provides Ash with another specific reason to dismiss Ripley’s concerns, which I don’t think he needs.

The others dismiss her, and they’re not androids. They do it because they’re people. Tired people who don’t want to be bothered. People with egos they don’t like to see pierced. People in a panic making decisions they can never take back.

“I’m a robot so, yeah…” is a much less compelling explanation than the one that arises from basic human behavior and gender conflict, and I definitely don’t think we need a sci-fi explanation for someone being a dick.

I’m not saying it was a bad creative decision, necessarily, but it’s the one I do second guess from time to time.

Alien, 1979

But it’s Alien, and if its biggest misstep is something I can still enjoy, understand, and appreciate, then I’m really not surprised at all that it quickly became — and remains — such an important film. A film that instantly cemented its place in horror history, sci-fi history, and film history, and continues to shape our expectations of similar films today.

It’s a truly great movie, front to back. One that has absolutely earned its reputation. One you feel familiar with even if you haven’t seen it. And when you do finally sit down to watch it, you’ll likely see that it’s still better than anyone led you to believe. It’s one of my favorites, and, in my opinion, one of the best.

Alien, 1979

The tragedy of the Nostromo is one we already know. Corporate indifference, class conflict, inequality. Rules for the sake of rules. Safety compromised by shortcuts. Bad decisions made in heat. People who don’t necessarily get along having to work together, because a job’s a job. Being damned in an instant by the interests of another.

Sure, the alien didn’t make things better.

But was life all that great to begin with?

Tune in next week, when we’ll discuss Aliens.

The World's End, 2013

While waiting for The World’s End, I watched Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz over and over and over again. They were great films, and they rewarded repeat viewings. I noticed something new or appreciated something more each time. They each retained, on the whole, their ability to surprise. They were — and are — finely crafted little puzzleboxes that allow you to respect the craftsmanship even after you think you’ve learned its secrets.

Then The World’s End arrived. I saw it as early as I could, and never wanted to see it again.

In fact, until this month I didn’t revisit and reassess it at all. Shaun and Hot Fuzz stayed in rotation, but I never felt compelled at all to attempt The Golden Mile again with the court of Gary King. There were a few reasons for that, and only some of them were were conscious. I understand my feelings a little better now, and having seen it a few more times I can say that I enjoy it more than I originally did, but The World’s End is, without question, the weakest of The Blood and Ice Cream trilogy.

Whereas the previous two films were tight, complex constructions of both writing and directing, impressive little gifts that seem to contain more every time you open them, The World’s End is all exposed plumbing.

It’s a mess that begins to unravel partway through the film and never quite stops. Its tonal shifts are abrupt and inelegant. Its echoes are (often) forced and without meaning. And the final half hour(!) is given over to a long-winded explanation of what we’ve just seen, heaping upon us a great deal of new information but failing completely to surprise.

It’s bloated, aimless, and can’t seem to figure out what its own message is.

But you know what?

The World's End, 2013

It’s still better than I gave it credit for being.

And while there’s a lot of fat just begging to be trimmed, there are also some truly great moments that more or less justify the missteps.

The central conceit this time around is that Pegg’s character, Gary King, rounds up four of his childhood friends for one more crack at The Golden Mile; a 12-pub crawl that they failed to complete back in June of 1990. This necessitates a trip back to Newton Haven, a town each of them was all too happy to escape.

While they’re there some bodysnatcher stuff happens or whatever. I’d explain it here but the voice of Bill Nighy spends 30 minutes doing exactly that and I wouldn’t want to steal his thunder.

The most basic disappointment for me is that The World’s End doesn’t quite manage to mesh its universes. The zombies in Shaun and the slashers of Hot Fuzz felt important to those films, but the bodysnatcher aspect of this film never quite gels with the pub crawl.

In fact, they actively work against each other at several points, and for the first time in the trilogy I started to wish Wright and Pegg just told a straightforward human story without any of that blended-genre silliness.

The World's End, 2013

That, of course, would go entirely against the ethos of the trilogy, but I still feel it would have given us a better film.

The best stuff comes at the beginning of The World’s End, which is incredibly strong. Gary narrates an extended flashback of the fateful night he and his pals attempted The Golden Mile, and a perfect bittersweet note is struck…the nostalgia one eventually feels for times that weren’t that great to begin with.

It’s a great little sequence that strikes an impressive chord. It understands exactly how we reflect on the past and cringe at who we were, wonder how we’re still alive, and yet…still miss it.

The sequence is set to “Summer’s Magic,” a dance track released in 1990 which is both the perfect soundtrack choice and a song whose title and release date are quite meaningful to the film. In fact, the soundtrack overall is something I take no issue with, with most of the songs being period-appropriate, many of them being quite good, and all of them commenting in some interesting way on the action.

Then the flashback ends and we get a legitimately painful contextual surprise: it turns out Gary was narrating his story not to us, but to a support group.

The World's End, 2013

It’s a truly dark twist that in a flash recontextualizes everything we’ve just seen, and, unfortunately, it sets the bar too high for The World’s End to really live up to. Nothing else in the film is anywhere near as clever — or affecting — as that reveal, and that’s a big part of the problem. The support group fakeout hurts. It takes the cheery narration and wistful footage and jaunty soundtrack and slaps it away with a brutal dose of reality.

The rest of the film, however, lacks that kind of twist. It presents itself…and that’s all it does. The masterful undercutting on display in that opening moment is absent for just about everything that follows. The World’s End is a disarmingly superficial film in that sense, made all the more frustrating because it started as a film that was anything but.

There’s no second layer to anything we’re watching.

Granted, Gary King views himself a dashing, irresistible figure…while his friends find him a bothersome nuisance. At no point do we suspect otherwise, though, and at many points the characters outline this precise dichotomy for us. There’s no twist to it and no surprise. Gary sees himself one way, the rest of the world sees him another, and that doesn’t really change. There’s no twist, and no surprise.

Similarly, for much of the film there’s an unspoken trauma in the group’s collective memory, and that seems as though it will pay off in some kind of interesting way, but it never does. I’m referring to the “accident” that caused Gary and Andy Knightley (Nick Frost) to part ways.

The World's End, 2013

We hear only passing references to this event, and it’s indeed an intriguing question. What happened? Gary might miss all of his friends, but it was Andy to whom he was clearly closest. It’s Andy that he misses most.

What exactly came between them? We know it was an accident, but that’s all we know. We want to find out more.

…and so we find out more. And we realize we knew enough already.

It’s revealed that Andy wrecked a vehicle — and was nearly killed — while driving an OD-ing Gary King to the hospital. After the crash Gary scampered away to leave Andy to deal with the fallout. Which, indeed, is pretty shitty, and exactly the sort of thing that would break up a friendship for good.

But does any of that change what we already knew? Do we reconsider anything? Does it change or enrich our understanding of the situation at all?

We know the details now, but there was enough context already (Gary’s hard-partying lifestyle, the fact that there was an accident, Andy’s disinterest in seeing Gary again, Andy’s tee-totaling) that we pretty much had the idea. It’s enough to know that Gary did a shitty thing to Andy; finding out what that shitty thing was fails to register, because it’s completely in keeping with what we’ve already assumed.

Additionally, late in the film, as Andy and Gary are brawling in The World’s End, Andy sees that Gary is wearing a hospital bracelet. (Reading — with a note of masterfully cruel irony — KING GARY.)

But, again, this is something we already knew. It lends a nice bit of retroactive weight to Gary refusing to show his arm in the smokehouse, but it’s something we already knew. We learn everything we need to know about Gary King in the introduction — and everything we need to know about his friends in their introductions — which leaves the film with such little room to surprise.

The World's End, 2013

Having said all of that, the scenes of the group reconnecting are pretty great. The first couple of pubs see the men catching up, realizing how much they’ve changed, and, slowly, slipping back into old jokes and dynamics. Their laughter feels warm and genuine, and they really do come across as people who became adults individually but remember what it was like to be kids together. It’s very well done, and unquestionably well acted.

The feeling of returning to one’s home town is also handled very well. I didn’t grow up in a town like Newton Haven, but the feeling I get from watching the gang revisit it is on par with the feeling I got when I returned home after nearly a decade away.

There’s some melancholy distance that Wright conveys so well I can’t even explain how he does it, the feeling that this was once part of you…and isn’t anymore. The feeling that you couldn’t wait to leave, but now it’s kind of nice to be back…even if you still can’t wait to leave.

The most affecting example of this is when, early in the film, a man who used to bully Peter in school borrows a chair from the gang’s table, and Peter immediately shifts back into feeling like a helpless child. Brilliantly observed is the fact that the most painful thing about his memories is that he’s the only one who has them. His tormentor doesn’t even remember him. All of it — every unforgettable nightmare he endured and the scars he still carries — stayed only with him. To this day, he remains the only one to suffer.

It’s a very realistic scene, and one of the few times in this film that we turn a human lens on someone who isn’t Gary or Andy.

The World's End, 2013

But the reconnecting goes only so far, because there’s another kind of story the film wishes to tell: one about bodysnatching. Unfortunately, it’s one that Wright and Pegg never figured out how to integrate naturally.

Instead of feeling like an organic part of The World’s End, the bodysnatcher plot robs the film of what should have been its most affecting moments, beginning with the scene in which that concept is introduced. Gary failing to impress a younger boy with his hard-drinking plans for the night — something that should register as a sad, aging man unable to cling to a popularity he never had — is rendered meaningless upon the reveal that the boy is an automaton.

It’s even less interesting when compared to a similar scene in Spaced, in which an almost identical exchange happens — right down to it taking place in a restroom — and which manages to feel both more affecting and more menacing. It’s a lesser shade of something we’ve already seen, and it’s lesser because it’s less natural.

And that ends up being the problem all around. Gary is frequently (and temporarily) deflated by the fact that so few people in Newton Haven remember him and his antics, but that means a lot less when it’s revealed that they’re all robotic replacements for the people he did know. So far from having to face the fact that he’s not the living legend he believes himself to be — which would have given his character some sorely needed growth — he gets to assign his lack of notoriety to the fact that these are all robots, and not the people who would remember him.

Part of what makes the film’s introduction work so well is that it spotlights, indirectly, how big the small things can feel to us. How massively important they are to us, while they mean nothing to anybody else.

The events of that night in 1990 meant — and continue to mean — the world to Gary King, but to anyone working at those pubs, drinking alongside the boys, or otherwise going about their business, it was just a night. The kids were just customers.

That’s the awakening Gary King should have…not the assurance that they would remember him if only they hadn’t been replaced by machines.

The World's End, 2013

Then again, the robots (or Blanks) are shown to retain the memories of the people they replace, so I’m not sure where the film wants us to land on that. It’s our explanation for why nobody in Newton Haven remembers them (which seems to be reinforced by the fact that those who haven’t been replaced, such as Mad Basil and The Reverend Green, do remember them), but the twins recognize Sam, and Mr. Shepherd remembers them even though he has been replaced, so I’m not sure there is a definite answer in there.

Even odder is the fact that the Blanks have such radically different responses to the boys. In the first pub, the barman doesn’t recognize any of them and is not interested in engaging with them. In a later pub, much of the dialogue from the first pub is revisited, with the barman (Spaced alum Mark Heap) making a big, friendly show out of recognizing and engaging with them. That’s odd because Heap’s barman is meant to clue you in to the fact that he’s a Blank, as that plot point was recently revealed to the characters. But the first barman was also a Blank; we just didn’t know it yet. So does a Blank want to wall Gary and company off from their pasts, or fool them into thinking they’ve found it again? If they’re meant to represent a unified “Starbucking” (as we’re overtly told they are), then why are their behaviors and intentions at odds?

Maybe it’s a plot inconsistency, or maybe I’m just missing something. Either way, it’s nit-picking I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t have a larger issue with the bodysnatchers.

So here’s my larger issue with the bodysnatchers: nobody flees.

The film does its best to give us a reason for that.

In fact, it gives us a bunch of reasons because it’s desperate to have us believe that these idiots will still try to finish the pub crawl: the buses have stopped running, there’s nobody sober enough to drive, they don’t have a car, nobody has a better plan, and so on.

All of which is fine. None of which convinces me that they wouldn’t make a break for it anyway.

Running might be a doomed idea, but aside from Gary I see no reason the others wouldn’t at least try…especially considering the fact that they weren’t having all that great of a time to begin with. They were already talking about ditching The Golden Mile and going home back when it was just a dumb social event.

Once the realize their lives are in danger, they for some reason feel less inclined to give it up.

The World's End, 2013

It’s a cheat. A necessary one to keep the film moving, but it’s only necessary because Wright and Pegg came up with lots of reasons the guys would stick together, and none of them are the right one. Gary King, I believe, would march stupidly into danger for the sake of finally completing The Golden Mile. I don’t believe that any of the others would push through as stupidly.

The danger simply isn’t handled believably to me here.

In Shaun of the Dead, Ed and Shaun fled the danger because it wasn’t safe to stay where they were…and they picked up the others because it wasn’t likely to remain safe where they were, either. Right or wrong, the impulse to find a safe place to hole up made sense.

In Hot Fuzz, Angel’s response was the opposite: he tackled the danger head-on, even when he knew he was doomed (see him attempt to place the entire NWA under arrest, alone), but that, too, made sense because of his unwavering commitment to justice. When the police joined him in his crusade, that also had a built-in explanation: they were the police.

In The World’s End, though, the characters’ response to the danger feels forced and manufactured, a product of the fact that the movie needs them to behave that way, and not because that’s who they are.

The bodysnatcher stuff does give the film some great moments, I admit. The scene in which the gang drunkenly tries to figure out what to call them is brilliant, and Gary’s “to err is human…” speech toward the end of the film is one of the best things in the entire trilogy. Ditto Nick Frost’s incredibly cathartic performance when he rips his shirt open and shouts, “I fucking hate this town!”

The World's End, 2013

But overall it just leads to some toothless commentary about Starbucking, and dull (and often humorless) fight scenes.

Shaun of the Dead had the good sense to keep its action either brief or funny. Hot Fuzz leaned on it a bit too hard, but still made Angel’s creative non-lethal takedowns interesting. (And, it must be said, still pretty funny.)

But in The World’s End they just feel tedious. Maybe it’s the silliness of the blue ink or the way limbs pop off and reattach like action figures, but something here just lacks weight, and I lose track of why I’m watching.

The first fight scene in the restroom uses one seemingly unbroken take (I don’t know for sure if it’s genuine or editing-room trickery), which may be technically impressive, but I don’t find it particularly engaging. It seems like something done for the sake of doing it, and not something done because that was the best way to shoot the scene. Compare it to Rope or the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas and you’ll get a sense of how hollow the gesture feels here.

A later brawl sees Gary’s drinking continually interrupted, and that’s decently funny, but otherwise it’s just the characters hitting people and getting hit in return. It gets old quickly and never complicates itself. The fight with the twins comes across as too Looney Tunes to even feel like it’s part of the same film.

In fact, nearly all of the bodysnatcher stuff feels like filler, and that might be because — unlike zombie films and cop movies — bodysnatcher films don’t have an established set of tropes from which to draw.

Both of the preceding installments in the trilogy hinged upon us knowing (at least in passing) the rules of the genres that they straddled. “Bodysnatcher” isn’t really a genre. Sci-Fi sure is, but it’s also much too broad. As a result, we’re left with a movie that doesn’t get to coast on an assumed level of familiarity as the last two did. It needs to introduce — continually — every one of its rules.

And, as a result, it feels like it’s putting forth a great deal of effort just to approach what the other two films achieved so naturally.

The World's End, 2013

But, mainly, there’s the fact that Gary King doesn’t change.

Nobody really changes. There’s an odd, unnatural stasis at the center of The World’s End, and I honestly don’t know how much of it is intentional, or what’s meant by it. It becomes particularly problematic at the end of the film, when Gary’s behavior and attitude (and reluctance to change or grow) results in global apocalypse and countless deaths. (Including his friends and loved ones, his own mother among them.)

What’s more, Gary causes this to happen.

In Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the danger springs up with no help from our protagonists. Shaun tries to beat it back; Angel successfully puts a stop to it.

Gary King, by contrast, triggers the apocalypse single-handedly.

And yet, nobody in the film seems to bat an eye. They just adjust to the fact that the planet is a desolate wasteland, and Gary leads younger, robotic versions of his friends from pub to pub.

That would be fine if there were a larger statement being made, but if there is I’d have trouble identifying it. I don’t even know what Gary’s ostensible purpose is, let alone the film’s larger, thematic one.

It’s not to get drunk with his young friends — he orders waters for all of them — and he knows he and his gang aren’t welcome, so I guess it’s just to start fights and be a dick?

It’s an oddly vague conclusion for a film that just spent half an hour trying to rigorously explain to us what we were watching.

The World's End, 2013

You know what, though?

There’s a lot that The World’s End gets exactly right.

As down as I am on it, and as much as I can pick it apart, there is a lot that I enjoy.

There’s the intro sequence, obviously. There’s the series of short scenes of Gary rounding up his old friends, in which Simon Pegg seems to channel a somehow-more-delusional David Brent. But the biggest achievement comes, again, from Nick Frost. He plays Gary’s most pained and hurt companion beautifully.

Andy, if anything, is too real.

His standoffish nature and refusal to engage is just…it’s brutal. It hurts to watch. And it’s not because he turns away from his friends, but because it’s so clearly a symptom of how much he aches on the inside.

He has his life together, but he’s unhappy. And when we learn later that his wife and kids have left him, it lands. It makes sense.

This is a guy who played second banana to someone who literally left him to die…and he scraped his life together as best he could only to have that fall apart as well.

It’s affecting, and it feels real in a way that Gary’s struggle — however we may wish to define that — does not.

The World's End, 2013

Andy has been beaten by life. His inner conflict doesn’t feel manufactured; it feels honest and sad. And when he punches his wedding ring out of a robot’s tummy, we get one of the few times in this film that the bodysnatcher aspect has legitimate resonance.

Ditto his fight with Gary toward the end, when he takes his frustrations out on his traitorous, selfish friend physically. There’s something deeply affecting about that. It’s inner torment made manifest. It’s two men who love each other trying to hurt each other, because that’s what they feel like they should do.

The conflict, sadly, doesn’t last. The floor of The World’s End descends and there’s no resolution to the confrontation between Andy and Gary. We’ve left the film about people, and shifted irreversibly into the film about alien bodysnatcher robot things.

The World’s End doesn’t know how to resolve the fistfight that the entire film has been building toward, so it — quite literally — just drops it.

That’s hugely disappointing, but I was talking about the things I liked, so let me shift tracks and say that I also love Paddy Considine’s turn as Steven Prince.

Steven is Gary’s put-upon and downplayed third banana, and he reconnects with his childhood crush Sam. Together they kindle a gentle romance as civilization comes crashing down, and while the romantic element if the film is far from one of its most important, it’s handled very well. Considine does fantastic work here, and I’m glad we got to see more of him after his great — but too-brief — turn as one of Sandford’s detectives in Hot Fuzz.

In fact, the casting is great all around, and the effects work is good as well…even if I do wish the film leaned on it a bit less.

But rewatching it (a few times) prior to writing this, I realized why I didn’t want to rewatch it at all.

At first, I just thought I didn’t like it as much. It wasn’t as funny. That kind of thing.

Instead, I think it’s just a little too hard to face.

The World's End, 2013

Gary King’s arrested adolescence is too well drawn. It’s too potent a reminder of…well, of all the stupid things I’ve done. All the crap I’ve put people through. All the times I hurt someone close to me, and never took the time to apologize or make amends.

I don’t look at The World’s End and see myself. But I do look at it and find unpleasant emotions triggered. See reflections of things I’d prefer not to remember. Realize that even now I’m not the person I probably should be.

That’s not the film’s fault. In fact, I admire how successfully it conjures those emotions.

It’s just frustrating that it doesn’t then know what to do with them.

The World’s End, through my personal filter, starts to look to me less like a bodysnatcher film and becomes more of a psychological horror.

The idea that someone like Gary King could exist…could continue to exist, as he is…could round up his old friends and interfere with their lives all over again…could end the film just as he always was, without the help he needs…could be left bounding unchecked through the world with no incentive to reconsider his place in it…

That’s terrifying to me.

If monster movies have you checking under the bed, this film makes me dread looking in the mirror, lest I see any part of Gary King staring back at me.

The World's End, 2013

It paints a man like Gary very well, and then doesn’t know what to do with him. The character — and the audience — are underserved.

If anything, the film’s biggest problem is how accurately and honestly it paints Gary. Because he’s not a caricature, and is instead a deeply hurting and dangerous man, he’s beyond the scope of the film. He’s too much for it to tame. He, by his own existence, raises questions and triggers concerns that the film isn’t capable of addressing.

But because it paints him so effectively, it can’t be a bad film. It’s disappointing, especially in light of the two that preceded it, but The World’s End hits some great notes along the way. It has interesting things to say about growing up, even if it can’t quite complete the thought.

And again, at its core, it’s the story of Pegg’s and Frost’s characters. This time around, though, it’s not about why they need each other. In fact, they don’t need each other at all, and they separate at some point before the end of the film to do…whatever it is they each do.

The emptiness of the ending comes from the confused story the film is trying to tell. Perhaps it was too ambitious for its own good. Or perhaps Wright and Pegg just got complacent. I certainly don’t know, and I can’t pretend to.

But I know that it’s worth watching, even a few times, because the lousy stuff makes you appreciate the previous films a bit more, and the good stuff is really good stuff.

It’s just that, for the first time, the balance seemed to really falter.

The World's End, 2013

That’s at least in keeping with the film, though.

You can get the old crew back together, but you’ll never manage precisely the same magic.

All you can ask is that you get some enjoyment out of it, before it’s all over.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Thanks for reading.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Like its predecessor Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is a buddy comedy masquerading as a genre pastiche. But unlike Shaun of the Dead, it’s at times difficult to distinguish from the films that inspired it.

Whereas that earlier film built an entirely independent narrative about its characters that just happened to unfold alongside a zombie apocalypse — and whereas The World’s End built an entirely independent narrative about its characters that just happened to unfold alongside a body-snatcher invasion — Hot Fuzz is actually what it seems to be. Overall, it’s not a pastiche; it’s a film that has jokes in it, but otherwise fits snugly into one well-defined genre.

Which makes it feel like an outlier in the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. It’s not a cop film that keeps encroaching on a smaller, more personal film; it’s a cop film. In fact, it’s a cop film that keeps getting encroached upon by a slasher film, a whodunit, and a film about a murderous cult.

Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End are both small, quiet films about characters coming to painful terms with who they are, told through the lenses of bombastic, apocalyptic tales that import familiar tropes and set pieces for our characters to trip over and butt up against.

But Hot Fuzz is a cop movie, through and through, and our characters don’t so much trip over and butt up against imported tropes so much as they incorporate them into their understanding of what’s going on. (They’re cops, after all. It’s what they do.)

All of which probably sounds like I’m coming down hard on Hot Fuzz, but I’m not. I’m a big fan of the trilogy, and, for my money, Hot Fuzz is the best of the batch.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Not my favorite, mind you. I won’t beat around the bush; that honor belongs to Shaun of the Dead, which I just find to be funnier and more charming overall. Hot Fuzz is the more accomplished work, and it hangs together more naturally than Shaun did, but I think those things come at the (relative) expense of the things I enjoyed most about Shaun.

With Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright made a great cop film. That’s an accomplishment, but with Shaun of the Dead he made a great film called Shaun of the Dead.

In that case, it was a movie in a league of its own, standing as a monument to its own accomplishments. In this case, Wright proved he could do what others have already done, and do it just as well.

Impressive, but that holds the film back from hitting the way that Shaun did. Its sights are set necessarily lower.

The World’s End, as long as we’re ranking, is easily my least favorite, so tune in for what’s sure to be a fair and balanced review next week.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

So, there, we’ve definitively and without room for argument ranked the films. Now we can actually start talking about this one.

Hot Fuzz again sees Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the lead roles, and — wisely — they both play very different kinds of characters than they played in Shaun of the Dead. This allows the film to feel less like a follow-up and more like something that should be judged on its own merits (for better or for worse). That’s as it should be, because wherever you’d personally rank it in the trilogy, it’s an exceptional and rewarding film in itself.

Pegg is again our protagonist. Here he plays Nicholas Angel, a restlessly devoted police officer whose adherence to the letter of the law costs him his relationships, his friendships, and — as the film begins — his job in London.

The London scenes are the most outright parodic, which definitely gets the audience laughing and receptive, but there’s still some nice world building that occurs here, particularly as Angel’s superiors (played in succession by Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy) are called in and dance around the issue a little less each time, resulting in Nighy coming right out and saying that Angel’s being transferred because he makes the rest of them look bad.

His new post is Sandford, Gloucestershire, a small village whose humble police force — to put it politely — Angel makes look even worse. Here he’s partnered with Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), a simple oaf who takes a fast shine to Angel’s professionalism and experience, and who becomes very quickly the only one Angel can rely on.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s a great setup, and Pegg and Frost inhabit their characters thoroughly. In spite of our memories of shlubby old Shaun, who needs the literal collapse of society to shock him out of his malaise, Pegg is completely believable as supercop Angel.

His youthful appearance might seem a bit out of place on box art and in stills, but in the film it serves only to heighten his talent and devotion to the job. He’s not a man who’s spent a full career becoming a great police officer; he was a born police officer, as we learn when he tells Danny about his police pedal car. This is his calling.

Which is also Angel’s problem.

In addition to the interference it causes with his personal life, Angel isn’t happy. He knows nothing of the world outside of policework, and can’t even say goodbye to his ex-girlfriend without slipping into investigation mode. (To be fair, they were at a crime scene at the time.) His life becomes painfully lonesome and empty the moment his shift ends, and when he’s on duty his talents go unappreciated, resulting in London shipping him off and Sandford tormenting and bullying him.

There’s only one thing he’s good at, and it’s something everybody resents him for.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Well, everybody apart from Danny, whose relationship with Angel isn’t just the centerpiece of the film, but its sincere, impressive emotional core. As great as Pegg is — and he is great — in this movie, it’s Frost’s Danny Butterman that stands out as the most impressive creation.

Shaun had more than a passing similarity with Pegg’s role in Spaced. They were both aimless slackers who had more ambition than they had motivation, and they were content, ultimately, to get older without necessarily growing up. Angel, obviously, is the exact opposite; he was born a grizzled professional, and couldn’t begin to imagine idle time. (Prior to meeting Danny, he ain’t even seen Bad Boys II!)

Frost’s character here, however, hearkens back to his character in Spaced: Mike Watt.

Both Mike and Danny are in some “lower” branch of service to their country (Mike in the Territorial Army, and Danny in a rural police district), but long to join the ranks of the big leagues (the real Army for Mike — who can’t enlist due to an injury — and the “proper action and shit” of big city police work for Danny).

And in each case, they’re disarmingly fragile, desperate for acceptance and respect.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Danny is far more than a re-painted Mike Watt, though, especially since Mike had friends. He’d still fall apart, but he had a group that needed him. He had a place. Danny does not. At least, not at first. And his growth over the course of the film — from ambling boob to hero who is willing to sacrifice himself — is easily the most significant growth experienced by any character in the trilogy. Danny’s arc is human, painful, hilarious, and adorable.

Danny growing from comic-relief-fat-guy to effective law officer would be enough, but what really gives it heft is the fact that it also tests his loyalty. He is, after all, the son of department head Frank Butterman…who clashes politely with Angel over his interpretation of a recent spate of deaths.

Angel feels they’re related homicides, but Frank reminds him that Sandford is a quiet town. Accidents happen. There’s no reason to jump to conclusions.

The rest of Sandford’s finest agree with Frank; they’ve worked here far longer than Angel, and haven’t seen any evidence that this is something to get worked up over.

Danny, however, listens to Angel. He helps him identify collections. He even spends his birthday combing through evidence with him (a more significant suggestion of Danny’s growth than it probably seems). And, ultimately, he sides with Angel over his father, culminating in what’s sure to be the most affecting homage to Point Break in film history.

Frank, it turns out, is the murderer. Kind of.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

The film takes its time getting around to the deaths, which works to its great favor. The overt parody of the early scenes give way to a fish-out-of-water (or big-cop-in-a-small-town) film in which Nicholas Angel must re-learn his role as a police officer in a context that doesn’t need — and is not receptive to — his heavy hand.

It leads to some great comedy, as you might imagine. His first night in Sandford sees him clearing a local pub of its underage patrons, leaving the owners to seethe at him while he enjoys a cranberry juice in their now empty establishment. It’s both funny and important to the way the plot develops.

While Angel adheres to the letter of the law, the pub owners appeal to the spirit. They argue that it’s better to have the kids in there, where they can be supervised, than out drinking on their own somewhere, causing trouble or getting hurt. In other words, they’re breaking the law, yes, but they’re doing it for the greater good. (The Greater Good.)

This is the conflict the film sets up; Angel’s unwavering respect for the law as written, and Sandford’s understanding of the law as a roadmap to a more pleasant society. Structurally speaking, Angel should end the film by learning to loosen up, and respecting the human element above legal mandates.

Instead, we learn that it’s not Angel who needs to loosen up at all; it’s the villagers, who dispose of or murder unsavory characters in order to preserve the respectable image of Sandford. The letter of the law is set up, initially, as the too-harsh avenue of interpretation, but the film shows us that it’s actually the other way around; respecting only the spirit of the law is what leads to atrocity.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s an exaggerated outcome, to be sure, but the fact that Hot Fuzz is a comedy means there’s no need to dismiss it as slippery-slope panicky nonsense, even if it does feature a bloodthirsty cadre that kills people for having annoying laughs or for thinking about moving away. Whatever larger points it’s making about the letter/spirit debate apply only to its own universe.

The killers in question are the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, operating under Frank Butterman. That’s the kind of reveal that requires a lot of misdirection, which Hot Fuzz manages to be both really good at, and frustratingly sloppy about.

I can sum up where it works in two words: Timothy Dalton. Admittedly there’s a lot of misdirection that the film handles well, but Dalton’s character is misdirection on legs, and he’s absolutely perfect at it.

He plays Simon Skinner, the owner of the local supermarket, and he introduces himself to Angel by saying he’s a slasher…of prices! From Angel’s very first day on duty, Skinner knowingly toys with him. He delights in it. He knows full well the oily, sneaky bastard that he is, and it’s an awareness that fills him with pride.

He loves being a shit.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

At first he’s likely just attempting to assert himself. He’s an important figure in the town, and he wants people to be so strongly aware of that that they cower from him.

In fact, we see that he has this exact effect on other characters in the film, in particular George Merchant and Tim Messenger, two of the NWA’s later victims. (The latter immediately deflates when Skinner enters the scene, and it’s such a perfect moment of acting for Adam Buxton, shifting from mindless, sunny reporter to beaten little brother in the blink of an eye.)

Skinner drives smugly by crime scenes, making sure Angel hears that he’s listening to music related to the crime. He drops knowledge he shouldn’t have. He winks and leaves Angel behind, knowing that he’s both piqued the young cop’s suspicions and also left him nothing to work with.

He plays a game during this section of the film — which drifts smoothly into legitimate slasher territory — and it’s a game he relishes.

Why? Because he knows he can’t lose.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Skinner sets himself up as the prime suspect, establishing himself in that role well before there’s even a death to investigate. And he does this for the purposes of misdirection. As long as Angel suspects him — and Skinner ensures that he does — the rest of the NWA is safe to carry out their business. And should Angel ever feel that he’s pulled enough evidence together to take Skinner in, as he does at one brilliantly handled point in the film, Skinner has his supermarket surveillance tapes to clear him of any wrongdoing.

He’s a decoy, and an incredible one. He’s involved with the killings, and indeed sets himself up to seem like the killer himself, which is ultimately what keeps him and the rest of the cult safe. The more he frustrates Angel, the less Angel has an idea of what’s really happening.

This misdirection comes to a head in the aforementioned arrest scene, which sees Angel laying out all of the evidence and connections he’s found, working carefully and deliberately through a complicated theory that positions Skinner as the one link between all of the victims, the single person who would benefit from their deaths, the only one in the entire village with the means, the motive, and the madness to pull it off.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

…only he didn’t do it.

Angel’s defeat is one felt by the audience, which makes it easy to miss the fact that Wright (and co-writer Pegg) spun not one but two satisfying mysteries out of the same set of clues and plot points.

The first is the false one that Angel outlines here. Every detail fits, and a shorter film could have ended with Skinner’s arrest without it seeming cheap. (That movie probably wouldn’t be as funny, though.) The only reason it doesn’t work is that the filmmakers say it doesn’t; information that is yet to be revealed will throw light from another angle over what we already know, and cause it to cast a very different shadow: Frank Butterman and the NWA are working together as a murderous team.

That’s impressive writing. Even the best mystery writers have difficulty making their own pieces fit together. Raymond Chandler was famously asked by the filmmakers adapting The Big Sleep who killed one of the novel’s characters. Chandler replied that he didn’t know.

So for Wright and Pegg to spin a mystery that doesn’t just add up but that adds up in two different ways…that’s a hell of an achievement.

But that’s also why Hot Fuzz is maddening. Two solutions requires two climaxes. Hot Fuzz has what feels like around 30.

It’s the kind of movie that ends again and again, but then keeps going. And while the first 2/3 of so of the film is tightly and intricately constructed, the final stretch feels loose and in need of editing.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It feels like Wright and Pegg wanted many things to happen in Hot Fuzz, and so spend their time building toward those things. That’s not a problem; in fact it’s impressive that — if this is true — the buildup was so masterful, and all the time spent sewing seeds was actually riveting and fun. But it does mean that their big set pieces toward the end don’t seem to have had as much thought put into them. Wright and Pegg worked hard to get us where we needed to go, but once we get there, there’s not much to see.

Of course, that’s an odd thing to say about a climactic shootout that spans the entire village and ends with Timothy Dalton piercing his jaw on a spike, but the problem is that there’s little else at play. It’s a shootout…and that’s almost all it is.

There are small touches (the villagers standing where Angel met them on his first morning; the fact that Angel uses creative non-lethal takedowns in every case), but we’re still just watching a shootout.

In Shaun of the Dead, we were never just watching a zombie movie, but Hot Fuzz definitely becomes an action film for a too-long stretch. And that’s disappointing, because this is a creative team that is fully capable of working on several levels at once. The slasher movie also being a cop movie is an example of how well they can handle tonal discrepancy, but here we slide right into action gear and…just kind of stay there.

It also doesn’t help that the film comes to a dead stop multiple times, with one character or another insisting that the action halt so they can deliver some kind of speech…only for the action to swell up again. In fact, three times Frank is the character who does this.

Hot Fuzz should be savvy enough to realize that this either needs to be undercut in some way, or rewritten entirely. Instead, it just lets it happen. Over, and over, and over again. An inventively shot and written film by an incredible team of talent suddenly, and disappointingly, decides that good enough is good enough.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

As a result, Hot Fuzz feels overlong, and it makes me pick at things I wouldn’t otherwise be very concerned with (such as the strangeness of the sea mine blowing up the entire precinct without hurting anyone inside). It also makes Danny’s sacrifice — taking a literal bullet for Angel — feel less potent than it should. As a mark of his growth, it’s great. As a potential tragic end to the film it’s quite moving. But as it stands it’s several endings too late and the audience is already restless. It still works, but it loses a good deal of its power.

Needless to say, Hot Fuzz isn’t much poorer for dragging its feet toward the end, and I admit that a sloppy landing does nothing to work against the mastery demonstrated by the rest of the film. It’s a great watch with a stellar soundtrack and an incredible cast, and, like Shaun of the Dead, it’s full of internal echo that you may not notice without multiple viewings.

It’s also got the strongest central relationship in the trilogy: that between Angel and Danny.

Evidently an earlier draft of the script had Angel falling in love with a woman in Sandford; when she was written out, many of her lines were given — unchanged — to Danny. This is likely why the scene of the two of them in Danny’s house seems to be building toward a kiss, but it’s also what gives their interactions such affecting power.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Had Angel been saying these things and opening up this way to a woman, it would have been just another movie relationship. But as it’s Danny, the only human being who treats Angel like a friend, it’s sad, and pretty touching.

These are two people who have each built lives for themselves, but who desperately want to connect. And when they do, it’s something a lot like love.

You know what? To hell with that. It is love. Not sexual or romantic love, but it’s love all the same.

Hot Fuzz is a love story about two men who each find what they’re looking for in each other. The fact that the film at no point plays this for overt laughs is an achievement of restraint, and one I think we could all learn from.

It’s a joyfully gory mystery wrapped in a buddy cop film, with funny things to say about the genre’s conventions and impressive insight into how even a lifelong putz like Danny Butterman can find a place for himself in the world.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s not as tightly constructed or surprising as Shaun of the Dead, but it’s impossible to overlook the many, many things that it does exactly right.

I can’t imagine many Shaun fans were disappointed by this one. If they were, I wonder what it was that they saw in Shaun.

It would be a long six years before we got our conclusion to the trilogy with The World’s End…an understandably divisive film that I look forward to discussing next week.

Well, I say I look forward to it. Let’s see how I actually feel when I write the damned thing.

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