When I first heard about Attack the Block, a quirky British alien invasion/Our Gang mash-up, the word was mighty positive, indeed.
Our Gang eventually inspired The Goonies, which this film is probably a bit closer in theme to Attack the Block than the far more innocent Our Gang shorts of the early 20th Century.
As mentioned, early word was very positive about this film, and it was on that basis alone that I became curious to see it. I think the film is indeed a good one, but it has some issues, particularly in the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, that almost made me want to eject it from my DVD player before going much further.
The problem -at least for me- is that when our “heroes” are first introduced, they’re engaging in something that borders on Clockwork Orange territory (without the sexual assault). I suppose its a bold move to present troubled youth in such an unflinching way early on in the film, but given I’m not sure if giving the audience such a negative first impression was a wise move.
What follows, the meat of the story, is what I mentioned before: An alien invasion. This invasion, too, is presented in a mostly unflinching way. There is blood shed and lives are lost. The alien invaders, while not quite on the scary level of the Alien or Predator creatures, are nonetheless a force not to be trifled with, and the eventual resolution of the storyline is quite clever.
Which is a long way toward saying I recommend this film but urge viewers to stick through the opening act which may make you think you’re about to see a very different film from what follows. Once Attack the Block gets rolling (roughly at the point where our protagonist is arrested), things move briskly, leading to a good wrap up.
There was no intention on my part to watch both Alien (1979) and Outland (1981) one after the other. That is, however, what happened. I like both films, and as I mentioned in my blog entry noting the then upcoming release of Outland on Blu Ray (you can read about that here) I always felt that that film was heavily inspired, at least from a visual standpoint, by Alien as much as its plot was inspired by the famous western High Noon.
Starting a couple of nights ago I sat down and watched Alien from start to end. The next day, I did the same for Outland. While I’ve seen bits and pieces of both films over the years, I don’t think its much of an exaggeration to say I haven’t seen either film, from beginning to end, in perhaps two or possibly more decades.
Revisiting films is an interesting experience. Sometimes, a movie that blew you away in your younger years simply doesn’t do much for you years later. There are myriad reasons this might happen. If you like action films, you have to realize that movies have become “quicker”, and their thrills have become bigger and bigger spectacles.
In the case of Alien, when I originally saw that film back in 1979 (or maybe 1980), it quite frankly scared the shit out of me. The film was incredibly beautiful to look at, but its heart was as dark as could be. I loved several things about it: The dread of finding that lost alien ship and its deadly cargo. The chest bursting scene (who didn’t?!), the revelation of what Ash was, and, of course, the surprise “hero” of the piece.
It’s hard today to point out how daring and fascinating a film Alien was. Indeed, while many justifiably focused on the frights, there was a cleverness to the script and story that should not be overlooked. Tom Skerritt’s Dallas, for example, was presented to audiences as the “hero” of the piece. He was the captain of the ship, after all, and the commanding officer. Despite his outward scruffiness, he looked and talked the part of the hero. Yet in a very clever bit of screenwriting, it was his actions that may well have resulted in the tragedy that followed. He was the one, after all, who ignored sterilization protocol and insisted the “infected” Kane be brought back into the ship.
The character of Ash was also a very clever piece of writing. The big reveal of who he was, in my opinion, was every bit as memorable as the chest bursting sequence. What an interesting, unique, and ultimately horrifying way to show a robot!
However, like comedy, the genre of horror often relies on “surprising” the viewers. With the passage of time and the cribbing of ideas, often this element of surprise simply loses that uniqueness with the arrival of sequels and other movies in that vein.
In the case of re-watching Alien, I realized just how much damage that film’s sequel, Aliens did to the original work. In Alien, you have the single creature mercilessly, stealthily, wiping out one cast member after the other. In Aliens, we have the protagonists face an army of such creatures. Suddenly, what was a stealthy being, a creature that hid incredibly well in the shadows and picked off its victims one after the other…a creature that showed evil malice and almost supernatural “hunting” skills, was reduced to the equivalent of an angry wasp. The alien creatures buzzed around, getting swatted here and there, drawing fear from their numbers rather than evil intent.
Mind you, I’m not knocking Aliens as a movie. I think it remains a terrific thrill ride. However, while watching Alien for the first time in so many years it was difficult to get myself in that same frame of mind I had when I first saw it and the alien creature was such a unique and terrifying movie villain. To put it bluntly, it was hard to once again feel terrified of a single creature attacking while, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but recall the army of such creatures faced -and defeated- in Aliens.
I still love Alien. I still think it remains one of the greatest horror/sci-fi hybrids ever created. However, I would be lying if I said that subsequent works haven’t somewhat diminished the shocks one originally felt while watching this film.
So, the next night I watched Outland. Clearly, the impact of Alien, released only a couple of years before, was on the mind of the movie’s makers. The visuals, indeed the film itself, could fit comfortably within the Alien universe, though it does not feature any alien creatures at all.
Sean Connery is Marshall O’Niel, a somewhat washed up man sent to the mining colony on Io (a moon of Jupiter) where he comes upon a mystery involving the apparent suicides of various miners. As mentioned before, Outland’s story becomes a rather large “homage” (or, if you’re less forgiving, “rip off”) of High Noon, especially in the film’s last acts. While the film was successful, I suspect the knowledge that it so blatantly used High Noon’s story framework made many dismiss it. Today, the film isn’t nearly as well known as Alien, and it was only last week that the Blu Ray edition was finally released. For those interested, the Blu Ray presents a beautiful picture and sound. It is, however, a fairly “bare bones” release. The only extras present are a theatrical trailer and director comments. The director comments are worth checking out. The previous bare bones DVD edition was apparently of very, very poor quality, so this is pretty much the first time modern audiences get to see this film in such nice shape.
And you know what? It actually holds up after all these years.
Mind you, I was one of “those people” back then irritated by the High Noon parallels. Upon re-watching the film, I was far more forgiving and just went with it. What I found was a pretty exciting piece of action cinema, with Sean Connery delivering a damn good multi-faceted performance. In fact, this could well be one of his more complete acting jobs, as he’s called upon to be alternately tough, vulnerable, desperate, sarcastic, and, yes, even on rare occasions quite humorous. Frances Sternhagen goes toe-to-delightful-toe with Mr. Connery as Dr. Lazarus (I’ve got to groan at that waaaay too symbolic name!), his only real ally in the space mining outfit. The movie builds its plot nicely, and the only bit of silliness the audience has to accept (and I’ve mentioned it in my previous entry) is that given the sensitive nature of this station, the idea that there could be any gun play at all is pretty damn ridiculous.
However, again, I could go with the flow and accept it.
As far as the visuals and effects, considering we are dealing with a thirty plus year old film, they remain quite good. Yes, there are some effects that look a little creaky here and there but, frankly, there was very little to complain about.
In the end, watching Alien and Outland back to back proved an interesting experience and a definite blast from the past. While one can’t entirely forget what came afterwards, it was interesting to revisit these two films which presented a decidedly darker view of science fictional worlds.
Perhaps the one that intrigues me the most of those mentioned in this article is Matthew Broderick, Mr. Ferris Beuller himself, was originally considered for the title role that went to Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad. But, thinking about it a little…I can kinda see where the producers of the show were going. After all, the character of Walter White, as originally presented in the show, was originally presented as a meek, innocent man who decided to take a very dark path. I suppose Mr. Broderick could have pulled that off, but what a different show it probably would have been!
By the way, a couple of my favorite movie role “what ifs”:
Clint Eastwood’s iconic turn as Dirty Harry was originally targeted for…Frank Sinatra?!
Harrison Ford’s iconic turn as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark was originally meant for…Tom Selleck!? In fact, the only reason that Mr. Selleck wound up not getting the role was because the producers of Magnum P.I., the TV show he was doing at the time, wouldn’t allow him the time off to make the Steven Spielberg film!
Of course, sometimes an actor takes on a role for tragic reasons. I’ve always wondered, for instance, what type of career Paul Newman would have had if James Dean hadn’t died back in 1955. The next two movies Mr. Dean was supposed to act in before his untimely death were Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left Handed Gun. Both movies were made, with Mr. Newman in the title role. In the case of Somebody Up There Likes Me more than The Left Handed Gun, that role proved a great success for Mr. Newman, and may well have given his then very early career a much needed boost. Mr. Newman’s only previous feature film, indeed, his film debut, was 1954’s The Silver Chalice. This film was a huge flop, and when the film was aired years later on TV an embarrassed Paul Newman famously paid for and published a full page apology and request for people not to see the film in a trade magazine!
Not to sound too terribly geeky, but much of the material presented was familiar -the one big exception being all those numerical items. I may be a fan of the character, but to have all that data at my fingertips would have been…scary.
Of all the items presented, this is the one I found the most surprising and had never heard of before:
Fifteen years (after the 1949 Batman series) came Batman Dracula, a little-seen avant-garde oddity written and directed (without the approval of the comic publisher) by a rising young artist named Andy Warhol.
As it turns out, some of that (very bizarre) material can be found on YouTube:
Released a mere two years after Alien, it was pretty clear that the 1981 Peter Hyams directed and Sean Connery starring movie Outland took as much from that film’s sci-fi visuals as it did, story-wise, from the classic 1952 western High Noon.
Like Alien, the look of the Jupiter mining station is generally grim and gritty, with dark, well worn equipment and characters who look like they belong in a mining town (as opposed to Alien, where the characters appeared for all intents and purposes like interstellar truckers). The plot of the film is essentially identical to High Noon: Sheriff of the town/colony takes a stand, killers come in on the next shuttle/train, which is due at a very specific hour. During the wait, the Sheriff tries to enlist the aid of others in fighting the killers, is rebuffed.
The clock ticks down, slowly, surely…
Yes, Outland is High Noon in space, and given my tolerance for “homages”, you would think that would instantly turn me off from this film. There is also the secondary issue of logic, which the film sometimes lacks, particularly regarding the whole idea of gun play. As the movie is set in an environmentally sealed outer space colony, you would figure guns would be, if not banned outright, kept under very, very tight control. After all, one stray bullet could prove catastrophic to everyone should it rupture a wall or damage some sensitive equipment. Yet the guns are fairly plentiful, and the shootouts are on the level of a western.
Now that I’ve described the bad, let me state the good: Outland is a solid piece of entertainment. Sean Connery is good in the heroic role, the story moves well, and the bad guys are fearsome.
However, this is one of those films that seemingly is forgotten today. The DVD was released some time ago and the reviews of it were quite brutal (I believe I have it somewhere in my collection but never watched it).
The reason I mention the film at all is because, lo and behold, it is about to be released on Blu Ray this coming Tuesday and I found this review that was quite positive regarding the overall transfer: