Day 97, No. 97. Riddick

Vin DieselHAIRCUT 100: Day 97, No. 97. Vin Diesel, actor, producer, director and screenwriter. To petrolheads everywhere, he is closely identified with the role of Dominic Toretto, engineer, ex-con and street racer in The Fast and the Furious series, which he absolutely owns, but here we celebrate him principally as Richard B. Riddick: Furyan warrior, mercenary, fugitive, ‘shiner,’ and one-time Grand Marshal of the Necromongers, because he’s just so fucking cool. Riddick exploded onto the screen in the relatively low-budget cult sleeper Pitch Black in 2000, a sci-fi/horror movie co-written and directed by David Twohy. Riddick is introduced as the highly dangerous captive of a drug-addled bounty hunter, en route to prison on an unremarkable transport ship. His eyes have been ‘shined,’ surgically altered so he can see in the dark, resulting in a sensitivity to daylight that requires him to wear welding googles, creating his signature steampunk look. In a fantastic exercise in character development, the enigmatic Riddick moves from villain to hero after the ship crash lands on a desert planet populated by vicious, raptor-like creatures that emerge during an eclipse.

This was followed by the more ambitious The Chroniclers of Riddick in 2004, and epic hero’s journey in which a personal quest for vengeance leads Riddick to overthrow the brutal religious crusade of the Necromongers, becoming the Order’s Grand Marshal. In Riddick (2013), the character is once more stripped down to his essence, fighting for survival on a desert planet against vicious alien creatures and two rival groups of mercenary bounty hunters. (There’s also an animated movie – Dark Fury – and a couple of video games.) In the original draft of the Pitch Black script by Jim and Ken Wheat, the character was a woman called Taras Krieg.

The distinctively-voiced Diesel is a fascinating actor, with much more to him than your average mainstream action hero. He has described himself as ‘of ambiguous ethnicity.’ His step-father was an acting instructor and theatre manager, and Diesel (born Mark Sinclair) started his stage career aged seven. After an uncredited part in Penny Marshall’s Awakenings (1990), Diesel made the short film Multi-Facial in 1995. The film is a semi-autobiographical exploration of Diesel’s frustration at the difficulties faced by mixed-race actors seeking parts in Hollywood. He was inspired by the book Feature Films at Used Car Prices by Rick Schmidt, and wrote, directed, starred in and scored the movie on a budget of $3000. On the strength of a positive showing at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan, the film was accepted for the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. Diesel went on to make the feature-length Strays in 1997, again writing, producing, directing and taking the leading role, as a small-time New York hustler searching for meaning in his life. On seeing Strays, Steven Spielberg, who had already been impressed by Multi-Facial, wrote the part of Private Adrian Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan specifically for Diesel, providing the actor with a powerful, break-out role.

Diesel has three kids, but prefers to keep his family out of the public eye stating that ‘I’m not gonna put it out there on a magazine cover like some other actors. I come from the Harrison Ford, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino code of silence.’ Class. And as for Riddick, well he’s still doing his thing. In an alternative ending to Riddick, the character is shown on the ‘threshold to the Underverse,’ intermating that he’s going in, while Diesel confirmed earlier this year that he and David Twohy were developing a fourth movie entitled The Chronicles of Riddick: Furia. ‘You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?’

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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 74, No. 74. The Amazing Colossal Man

The Amazing Colossal Man posterHAIRCUT 100: Day 74, No. 74. Sticking with middle aged naked bald guys, Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (played by Glenn Langan) in The Amazing Colossal Man. This 1957 movie directed by Bert I. Gordon and distributed by American International is an uncredited adaptation of The Nth Man (1928) by Eon Flint, a novella about a ten-mile-tall man. It was intended to capitalise on the success of The Incredible Shrinking Man, released six months earlier, although the climax feels more like King Kong. Korean War vet Manning is caught in the blast during an atomic test in Nevada while trying to rescue the pilot of a crashed aircraft, receiving terrible burns and losing his hair. Mysterious cellular regrowth follows, leading him to not only recover but grow eight feet in height a day, also acquiring a rather dark sense of humour. Increasingly depressed by his condition, Manning eventually loses it. He escapes his military doctors, picking up his fiancée, Carol, during a long chase in which he trashes the Las Vegas strip, moving into classic monster movie territory by demolishing famous cultural landmarks, in this case the Riviera Hotel, the Royal Nevada, the Silver Slipper, the Sands Hotel, and the Tropicana. (Vegas weddings, ‘eh?) He is eventually stopped at the Boulder Dam, taken out by a giant syringe full of ‘anti-growth serum’ and police and army gunfire, apparently falling to his death in the Colorado River.

Actor Thomas Glenn Langan – who did have hair – was a bit of a heart-throb in the forties, probably best known for his performance as the French professor in Margie, the privateer captain in Forever Amber, and as the young doctor protecting Gene Tierney from Vincent Price in Dragonwyck; he was also one of Olivia de Havilland psychiatrists in the The Snake Pit. By the fifties he had disappeared into what Bruce Campbell has described as ‘Blue collar Hollywood,’ with mostly one-off appearances in television shows, until achieving a certain amount of cult status through The Amazing Colossal Man. He later got into real estate. Box Office returns were good enough for Allied Artists to knock the movie off the following year with the seminal Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman starring Alison Hayes and directed by Nathan H. Juran. ‘I just don’t want to grow anymore!’ Well, maybe some hair…

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