Day 96, No. 96. The Engineers

PrometheusHAIRCUT 100: Day 96, No. 96. Sticking with the Alien franchise – and why not? – The Engineers (AKA Pilots, Ossians, Mala’kak and ‘Space Jockeys’); in the Prometheus universe: God. It took a couple of watches, but I’ve got to admit I liked this movie, although the pacing was off: too much build-up followed by a hasty and inconclusive climax. That said, the cast is wonderful. Michael Fassbender as the Peter O’Toole obsessed android David owns this movie, while Idris Elba effortlessly steals every scene that he’s in and Noomi Rapace is far from terrible as the ‘Ripley’ figure. The story itself is a nice development of the so called ‘Ancient Astronaut’ hypothesis that became very popular cultural currency in the 1970s in the wake of the writings of Erich von Däniken, beginning with Chariots of the Gods in 1968, who famously argued that many archaic civilisations were visited and influenced by advanced alien cultures. Other examples of this thesis are Zecharia Sitchin’s Earth Chronicles series (1976 – 2007), which introduced the ‘Nibiru’ myth in which the ‘Anunnaki’ wipe out the Neanderthals, and The Sirius Mystery (1976) by Robert Temple, who claimed that the Dogon people of Mali in Western Africa preserve a tradition of contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial beings. These are all pseudo-scientific investigations of myths involving the so called ‘First Ones.’ These ideas had already been enthusiastically explored in the pulp magazines, most notably in H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulu Mythos,’ and in stories like Robert Arthur’s ‘Evolution’s End’ (1941), Eric Frank Russell’s Dreadful Sanctuary (1948), and ‘The Writing of the Rat’ by James Blish (1956). You can also see the influence in the work of Arthur C. Clarke (particularly Rendezvous with Rama and 2001), and L. Ron Hubbard, notably his ‘Galactic Confederacy’ myths.

In Ridley Scott’s epic Prometheus (2012), late-21st century archaeologists discover a star map in Scotland that matches others from several unconnected ancient cultures. They interpret this as an invitation from humanity’s forerunners, who they call the ‘Engineers,’ and follow it in search of the origins of the human race. Meeting God is a Miltonic device used in the original Frankenstein, and one apparently close to Scott’s heart, also forming the foundation of Bladerunner, in which the Replicants confront their creator, Tyrell.

The Engineers are an ancient and highly advanced extra-terrestrial species, with the technology to seed life and terraform planets. They first appear in the derelict spacecraft in Alien, the implication being that they fell victim to the ‘Xenomorph’ threat, as will the crew of the Nostromo. In the preface to the Prometheus story arc, a lone Engineer is shown drinking a chemical compound that dissolves him, his remains merging with a large body of water. Presumably, as human and Engineer DNA is later shown to be almost identical, we can read this as the creation of life on earth at the single-cellular level. As the film’s title suggests, this was not sanctioned by his people, and the ‘aliens’ are looking more and more like a biological weapon intended to cleanse planets of unwanted lifeforms. Seemingly the Engineers lost control of their fatal cargo somewhere along the way…

Physically, the Engineers are, like the Alien, Gigeresque, with design echoes from the Swiss surrealist’s Necronomicon series of paintings. They are pale, hairless and humanoid giants, with shark-like eyes and sexy biomechanical pressure suits. Whether they are gods or monsters or both remains to be seen, but it should be fun finding out. Alien: Covenant (provisionally entitled Alien: Paradise Lost) is scheduled for release next August, assuming we’re all still here.

Holloway: ‘What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.’

David: ‘Why do you think your people made me?’

Holloway: ‘We made you because we could.’

David: ‘Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?’

Holloway: ‘I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.’

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Day 95, No. 95. Ripley

RipleyHAIRCUT 100: Day 95, No. 95. Ripley in ALIEN3 (1992), as played by the beautiful Sigourney Weaver. Did you really think I’d forgotten her? For shame. Granted, I’m betraying my age and inclinations here, but I did warn you a pattern might emerge, in my case cult movies from the eighties and nineties. What can I say? That’s the wind beneath my wings. Make your own damn list! Anyway, in a dark and radical change of direction following the exuberance of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), bleak stylist David Fincher totally pressed the reset button on this one. Critical opinion remains divided – and Fincher himself can’t stand the film, citing constant producer-interference – but if ALIEN3 is a franchise misfire then it’s a fascinating one, and an obvious preface to the gothic claustrophobia of the debut director’s subsequent nineties masterpieces Seven and Fight Club. In negating the upbeat resolution of Cameron’s previous instalment, Fincher makes the right move by shocking his audience from the outset and isolating his protagonist. With the other survivors still in play, it would have been difficult to avoid just remaking Aliens, although that’s no doubt what the studio wanted.

When the Sulaco escape pod crash lands, Ripley finds herself stranded on a dead planet housing a penal colony. Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161 is populated by a religious cult of former murderers and rapists and their guards, all living in a largely decommissioned ore refinery where women are not allowed. (Mise-en-scènically, this decaying industrial setting recalls Peter Hyam’s stark reimagining of High Noon in space, Outland, and the TV show Red Dwarf). The inmates live an essentially monastic existence, led by the charismatic and evangelical Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), their heads shaved because of lice rather than piety (so the entire cast of this movie is bald). In an oddly sensual scene, the disgraced alcoholic base medic, Clemens (Charles Dance), shaves Ripley’s head before dying horribly at the hands of the latest alien, a dog hybrid. The alien spares Ripley, and with a growing sense of horror, she begins to suspect she may be carrying one… The climax of the movie is a ‘bait-and-chase’ plan by which the prisoners lure the dog-alien to the foundry’s molding press through a series of tight and gloomy corridors with the hope of drowning it in molten lead. The extended chase scene is often likened to a demented episode of Scooby-Doo Where Are You? but is nonetheless tense and effective on its own terms, while the denouement leaves us with more bodies than Hamlet and a lingering sense of the darkness of the void and the futility of existence, which sets us up nicely for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection.

Weaver’s interpretation of the role was, as ever, impeccable, surprising us again, developing the character and retaining her essence. Everything about Ripley challenges gender stereotyping, especially in genre film. As critic John Scalzi wrote: ‘Ripley isn’t a fantasy version of a woman. Science fiction film is filled with hot kickass women doing impossible things with guns and melee weapons while they spin about like a gymnast in a dryer. As fun as that is to watch, at the end of the day it’s still giving women short shrift, since what they are then are idealized killer fembots rather than actual human beings. Ripley, on the other hand, is pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, not wearing makeup, tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself.’ Ripley is probably one of the most significant female protagonists in cinema. When I’m teaching this stuff, and we get around to discussing powerful and authentic women in film, I can guarantee she’ll be the first name fielded by seminar students, and quite rightly so. ‘You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.’

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Day 94, No. 94. Robocop

Peter WellerHAIRCUT 100: Day 94, No. 94. Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, Robocop: part man, part machine, all cop. In a dystopian near-future that looks more like reality every day, a corporate oligarchy in which multinationals seek profit in de-unionised public services and effectively control local government, a cheap solution that will restore public confidence in inner-city policing is required. Omni Consumer Products, whose motto is that ‘Good business is where you find it,’ have brought a controlling interest in the newly privatised Detroit Police Force from a city on the brink of financial ruin, as part of a corporate vision that sees citizens of the future ‘Delta City’ buying shares rather than casting votes. Unfortunately, their latest product, the ED-209 Enforcement Droid, doesn’t actually work, paving the way for an ambitious young executive to fast track the back-up ‘Robocop’ programme, which is based on cybernetics rather than robotics. Likely candidates for conversion in the force are selected and put in harm’s way until the inevitable happens and an unwitting donor, Officer Alex Murphy, is killed and resurrected as the prototype Robocop. Programmed to ‘Serve the public trust,’ ‘Protect the innocent,’ and ‘Uphold the law,’ Murphy’s human personality gradually begins to reassert itself, according to the classic ‘Tin Man’ archetype in science fiction, which explores the concepts of Identity and Self, and what it actually means to be ‘human.’

Like The Terminator, Robocop is a landmark in industrial, cyberpunk cinema, from the era of the original Ghost in the Shell and video games like Syndicate Wars. It’s a bloody, kinetic revenge tragedy skillfully directed by Paul Verhoeven, who went on to make Total Recall and Starship Troopers, and is a lot more like 2000AD’s Judge Dredd than Stallone’s movie ever was. Back then, it was pure science fiction. Now, well… ‘Your move, creep.’

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Day 93. No. 93. Woody

Micky KnoxHAIRCUT 100: Day 93. No. 93. To mark the sad and beautiful passing of Leonard Cohen last night, I’m thinking: Woody Harrelson as Micky Knox in Oliver Stone’s self-consciously postmodern take on murder porn, celebrity culture and mass media, Natural Born Killers (1994). This remarkable movie, from an original story by Quentin Tarantino, also boasted a memorable soundtrack arranged by Trent Reznor that included three songs from Cohen’s ninth studio album, The Future (1992), the haunting ‘Waiting for the Miracle,’ ‘Anthem,’ and the apocalyptic title track.

Natural Born Killers is a darkly satiric road movie that savagely deconstructs the American Dream and which must now be viewed as deeply prophetic. The story is loosely inspired by the two-month killing spree of Charles Starkweather and his teenaged girlfriend Caril Anne Fugate across Nebraska and Wyoming in the winter of 1957/8, a crime that has inspired several films in addition to Stone’s, for example The Sadist (1963), Badlands (1973), Kalifornia (1993), and The Frighteners (1996). The film centres on the weird, psycho-sexual and oddly spiritual journey of the fatal lovers Micky and Mallory across the south-western United States, pursued by a corrupt and narcissistic cop and an equally self-obsessed tabloid journalist who turns the couple into a media sensation. The film is as cool as it is bleak, featuring a stylized portrayal of violence, rock video graphics and an anarchic subtext not a million miles from God Bless America. It is also, perversely, a love story, with a sense of humour and an oddly upbeat and surprising ending; Stone himself has described the film as ‘optimistic.’ Micky Knox remains a stand-out performance by the ever-versatile Harrelson, actor and activist, beautifully balanced by Juliette Lewis as Mallory. ‘I guess, you gotta hold that ol’ shotgun in your hand and it becomes clear, like it did for me the first time. That’s when I realized my one true calling in life. Shit, man, I’m a natural born killer.’

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Day 92, No. 92. Phil Silvers

Ernie BilkoHAIRCUT 100: Day 92, No. 92. Phil Silvers (1911-1985), comic genius, ‘The King of Chutzpah,’ and Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko, US Army. Silvers was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the eighth and youngest child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He started performing aged eleven, singing in movie theatres when the projector packed-up in return for free tickets. By thirteen, he was working in vaudeville as a burlesque comic. He started acting in short films for Vitaphone in the 1930s, landing his first Broadway role at the end of the decade. His feature film début was Hit Parade of 1941, and he went on to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox, appearing in All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart in 1942.

But it was as Sergeant Bilko that Silvers became a household name. Conceived and written by Nat Hiken, a chain-smoking workaholic perfectionist who later developed Car 54, Where Are You?, The Phil Silvers Show (originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich), ran on CBS from 1955 to 1959, picking up three consecutive Emmys. The sitcom was based around the sleepy military base of Fort Baxter, Kansas, and the motor pool platoon run by Sergeant Ernie Bilko. The fast-talking, fast-thinking but fundamentally indolent Ernie spends most of his time playing cards, delegating and generally swinging the lead, while grifting his way through get-rich-quick schemes that never seem to quite pay off and stalling his fiancé, Sergeant Joan Hogan, who is waiting for a proposal. The show boasted an impeccable supporting cast, and much of it was filmed live in front of a studio audience, leading to the odd fluffed line and some truly wonderful improvisations. Although the show has been broadcast in repeats all over the world ever since, Silvers was paid a fixed rate for each episode and never saw a dime in residuals. My late-father loved Sgt. Bilko (as it was known in the UK), and could quote entire scenes verbatim. I have a lot of fond memories of watching it with him as a kid.

Like his alter-ego, Silvers was a compulsive gambler. He was also a depressive, suffering a nervous breakdown in 1962, and his memoirs are sardonically entitled The Laugh Is On Me. After The Phil Silvers Show was cancelled, he continued to act on stage and screen, although a stroke in 1972 effected his speech. Notable performances include a lead in Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which he played on Broadway and in the subsequent movie), Carry On! Follow That Camel, and the memorable Nightstalker story ‘Horror in the Heights’ in which a retirement community is menaced by a shapeshifting demon. His final appearance was in an episode of CHiPs in 1983. He died in his sleep two years later and is interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles. In 1996, TV Guide listed Silvers as one of the ‘50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.’ ‘I like a sporting event in which I know the outcome ahead of time. It’s more organized.’

Please click here for Day 93