The Thing


The Thing (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, does not waste any time inspiring viewers to ask questions: Why is a man aboard a Norwegian helicopter intent on shooting a sled dog dead? Why does it appear as though the canine understands precisely what it is that’s going on amidst the utter confusion, following prior shooter’s death, in the American research station? What happened exactly at the Norwegian research base before being burned to the ground? What is its connection to the charred remains of grotesque corpses that resemble a fusion among man, animal, and beast?

The picture works as a high-level science fiction and horror hybrid because it tickles our deepest curiosities. Questions are brought up and answers are provided—at times almost immediately. But then some answers pave the way to new questions, and some of them do not have easy answers. The men at the American research facility must face a parasitic extraterrestrial life form that infiltrates another organism, assimilates with its host’s cells, and then imitates the host’s body. There is some evidence that the so-called Thing is able to retain the host’s memories: it knows how to perform daily tasks, to converse, and to recall details of events it has no way of knowing prior to infiltration. But the screenplay by Bill Lancaster is astute enough to refrain from answering this mystery directly because it is far scarier to have an understanding or appreciation but without knowing for sure.

There is a dozen men in the facility, and each one is given a spotlight. We learn about their jobs as people of science in addition to those who support these scientists to get the job done and to keep the facilities running smoothly. Some of their personalities may clash, but there is a sense of community among them. We believe that they have known each other for months, possibly years, in the way they have learned to tolerate one another’s eccentricities. Now is the time for their bonds, as strong or as tenuous as they are, to be tested in most unimaginable ways. Can you shoot a colleague or friend in face pointblank? How about with a flamethrower? Do you have it in you to cut someone else’s guide rope and leave him out in the Antarctic snowstorm?

The helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), serves as our central protagonist not because he is smartest or strongest but because he is able to keep his cool, and therefore think clearly, during the most intense situations. Notice how the other men are written: already ill-tempered even before first alien reveal, trigger-happy, excessively nervous or anxious, overly suspicious, gutless. Their personalities and quirks are in total contrast against MacReady’s.

And on the occasional moments when MacReady does lose control out of sheer terror, his reactions are played for laughs occasionally. The decision to provide comic relief, as evanescent as they are, is correct because tension generated reaches unbearable levels at times. There is a memorable scene, for instance, when men—suspected of being infected—are tied up and right next to them is a colleague, actually infected by the Thing, undergoing horrifying convulsions, tiny tentacles protruding from his face and body. There is the confined room… and then there is being tied up in that confined room with the boogeyman.

The star of “The Thing” is Rob Bottin’s unforgettable creature and special effects. It feels like the macabre images have been ripped right out from our nightmares: giant mouths with teeth that could chomp through a grown man’s wrists with ease, spider legs coming out of a decapitated head and then crawling about, dogs’ melted faces and bodies fusing into one big, bloody lump with long tentacles coming out of it and whipping about, bodies breathing in amniotic sacs… Blood and guts are generously thrown about, but notice they come in different colors and textures, too. Transformation from man to Thing is observed unblinkingly. It is without question that the filmmakers are willing to do whatever is necessary for us not to look away, mouths agape in gleeful horror.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Even before the first bullet is shot, we are already convinced that the antagonist, a T-1000 cyborg (Robert Patrick) made out of liquid metal with the terrifying—and convenient—ability to shape-shift, is more advanced than the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent to protect future Resistance leader John Connor (Edward Furlong): it is capable of passing as human even when it speaks. Observe closely when the T-1000 questions various individuals regarding the boy’s whereabouts. Because it is sleeker, more efficient, and more versatile, tension ramps up almost immediately; we are made to understand the stakes without relying on expository dialogue—one of the qualities that made “The Terminator” a successful sci-fi action picture.

Aside from a few throwback lines, the work is uninterested in repeating itself. Notice how quickly it introduces the two cyborgs from 2029 as they are teleported to 1995. Although cheeky humor remains, the pacing is faster and less effort is put into ensuring that the viewers notice the visual effects. Assumption is made that those watching have seen the previous film and so this time around various elements are turned inside-out: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is tougher, rougher, worn-out; the Terminator is now a good guy; action sequences are bigger, longer, and choreography behind them more complex. It is clear that the work has been given more budget. It shows both in what can be seen and felt on screen.

The writing is more ambitious. There is an implied sadness in the relationship between Sarah and John, how their fight against the realization of Skynet in the past has sacrificed so much of their current lives and possibly their future. For instance, when the mother sees her son for the first time in months, possibly years, her instinct is not to embrace him but to check whether he has been shot or is hurt in anyway. The screenplay by James Cameron and William Wisher, the former directing the film, does a neat trick: the more it avoids sentimentality, the more the viewers become desperate for that teary mother-son moment. And I’m not sure we are ever provided that moment. Maybe the Connors isn’t that type of family.

Another interesting relationship is between John and the T-800. It begins as a boy-and-his-dog story as John teaches the cyborg catchphrases, silly banters, and how to give a high five—for the boy’s own amusement as well as for the T-800 to be able to blend in a bit a more. But toward the end of the picture, it explores a sort of father-son dynamic. Most interesting, however, is it does not go all the way; it teases the audience and then leaves us wanting more. These calculated decisions in the screenplay exhibit intelligence, a freshness, and a willingness to take risks. It is not the kind of sequel that is low energy, redundant, simply cashing in on what came before. It is willing to explore new territories and ideas.

Like “The Terminator,” action scenes—as wonderful and eye-popping as they are—do not come into my mind first when considering “T2” as a whole. Every single one stands out, from an early chase between an 18-wheeler and a motorcycle on a spillway to the final jaw-dropping showdown at a steel plant. They are memorable because each encounter is different. The environment almost always impact how the characters must fight and attempt to outsmart the enemy.

It is without question that director James Cameron put a lot of thought in this next chapter. His love for his story, the characters, and creating explosive special and visual effects can be felt in every frame of this movie. Criticisms regarding the bloated middle portion are justified. But the film is so entertaining when firing on all cylinders, the slower sections actually give the viewers a chance to breathe and prepare for the next exhilarating showdown.

The Terminator


The Terminator (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Cameron’s “The Terminator” is known for its muscular action sequences and the pitch-perfect casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent from post-apocalyptic 2029 to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), mother of John Connor, the man who will lead the resistance against the machines, but let us not overlook that the screenplay is so precise and efficient, it makes modern sci-fi action pictures look saggy, lackadaisical, weak. Here is a movie that offers an experience: it can be entertaining, funny, pulse-pounding, and horrifying at a drop of a hat. It is miraculous that despite the disparate elements that must be juggled, the story’s forward momentum continues to build until the climax. It works from top to bottom.

Right from the opening minutes it is without question that plenty of thought is put into the images on screen. The arrival of two figures from the future—a machine and a human—run in parallel. The former is sinewy, tall, without an identifying emotion his face. The latter, on the other hand, is built but scrawny by comparison, his face plagued by confusion, uncertainty, agitation, perhaps even fear. Similarity lies in their nakedness. But a difference: the machine must blend into its new environment while the man, too, must do the same… on top of avoiding shame for having to go on without them. Another similarity: their mission is find Sarah Connor. The difference: the machine is programmed to kill her, but the man feels the need to protect her. There is minimal dialogue, but our eyes are transfixed on the screen.

The lack of words or critical dialogue goes on for minutes as the director racks up the tension. Even when we meet Sarah, as words are exchanged among colleagues and friends, there is nothing important to be said or expressed. These are played for chuckles or laughs. Instead, we pay attention to what is being reported on television. Because the work shows that the background elements can be important in this story, we are trained to pay attention to every small detail. In other words, the work tasks us to participate. And because we are engaged, it must be established early on that the heroine be intelligent. It is a mistake for this character to be dumb when we meet her only to get smarter later on. Screenwriters James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd anticipate this pitfall and so they find ways to be two steps ahead of expectations.

There is excellence in easily overlooked moments. For instance, when our protagonist gets on her bike and looks both ways before driving off, there is great tension to be felt. The funny thing is that she is not aware she is being hunted… yet. But we already have this knowledge. To Sarah, to look both ways is the sensible, ordinary thing to do. But to us, it is a life or death situation: a figure approaching from a distance in either direction could mean that the cyborg programmed to kill has found her and she could be dead in seconds. These moments of pause, of inhalation, elevate the action film toward a more visceral territory. It cannot be denied there are horror elements in the work outside of the relentless, highly physical, seemingly unstoppable villain.

Here we are at the end of the review and I have not even detailed the high caliber action scenes. And I don’t feel the need to because they must be experienced to be appreciated fully. But notice the sound design: immediate, forceful, sharp; they tend to jolt the viewers into paying attention that much more. Yet at times the approach is minimalistic: the pulsating score is enough to hasten our heartbeats.

There is certainly a few dated special and visual effects (the CGI cyborg in its rawest, metallic form running from the background toward the foreground quickly comes to mind) and obvious cosmetics (Schwarzenegger donning a most unconvincing, chuckle-worthy mask since technology that allowed seamless blending of two faces—man and machine—was not yet available). But I consider these to be negligible technical shortcomings because the rest of the work functions on a high level. There are two or three lines of mawkish dialogue, but this is overcome by daring to turn the story’s core into a love story.

Rattlesnake


Rattlesnake (2019)
★ / ★★★★

With a premise that brings Stephen King stories to mind, it is a disappointment that “Rattlesnake,” written and directed by Zak Hilditch, fails to take off after the first act. Instead, we are subjected to repetitive sequences of a character running about all over a Texan town with one goal in mind but few inspired ideas on how to reach it. Because we find ourselves smarter than the protagonist, following her is a chore and a bore. The picture might have benefited from a major rewrite—not of its premise but of the details that make up the story.

A flat tire on a desert highway forces Katrina (Carmen Ejogo) to pull over and deal with the matter. Her daughter, Clara (Apollonia Pratt), explores from a few feet away but eventually finds herself bitten by a rattlesnake. Panic-stricken and desperate to save her daughter’s life, Katrina spots a nearby trailer, sprints toward it with Clara in tow, and enters. A woman (Debrianna Mansini)—preternaturally calm—agrees to help. She claims that payment for her service will be discussed at a later time, but for now Katrina must fix the flat tire so when her daughter regains consciousness, she could be taken immediately to the nearest hospital.

While at the hospital, the girl in recovery, the mother gets a visitor. The man in the suit (Bruce Davis) claims that for the soul that was saved, Katrina must offer the same in return: She must murder another person. She has seven hours—until sunset—to pay the debt in full. Should she fail, Clara’s soul would be reclaimed.

The first twenty minutes command a high level of urgency. It buries the audience neck-deep with all sorts of information, questions, and assumptions. Most interesting is the magical element in the picture; it is unsettling that the faces we come to meet—those who are aware of what Katrina must do—are those who have passed on. We see their faces on missing persons ads and on online articles citing violent deaths. On the surface, Ejogo looks convincing as a desperate mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter. It is in her eyes.

Less impressive, however, is how the character is written. Ejogo could deliver the most layered acting, but if the screenplay remains flat, the performer’s effort would amount to nothing. In the attempt to show Katrina as a good person, there are far too many moments that depict her hesitancy and guilt. They drag on and on—to the point by which the momentum of the movie is significantly impaired. In the middle of it, I wondered why the writer-director is so desperate for viewers to like the character, to see her as good. It isn’t necessary. What matters is that we understand the plight of the character, what she must do to save her daughter. I would rather have an interesting protagonist who is willing to partake in questionable things than a likable, boring one. Katrina is example of the latter and there is no excuse for it.

For a race against time story, there is an astonishing lack of urgency. Notice instances of Katrina measuring up her potential victims. She considers older folks, children, women who come across physically weak by comparison to her. This comes across rather… amusing instead of chilling. The reason is because, at this point, we do not know how she thinks. Because she is written to be so safe and so nice, it is difficult to imagine the extent of her dark thoughts—or if she is even capable of having such ideations. And so what we see during these moments is simply behavior. There is no tension, no believability to the whole charade.

“Rattlesnake” bites but it lacks potent venom. Not enough is done with the black magic angle of the story whether it be a constant, forceful, mysterious element never to be explained nor as a possible facet of the plot that must be explored thoroughly. Instead, it is used merely as a tool to propel the plot forward and brought up whenever convenient. I was annoyed by the screenplay’s fondness for easy solutions and so the work is never fascinating, just barely good enough to pass the time. I hold a higher standard than that.

The Lighthouse


The Lighthouse (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Psychological horror picture “The Lighthouse” is a step back for director Robert Eggers. In “The Witch,” he is able to take a period story, set in 1630s New England, and construct a deeply unsettling tale around that time and place. It peers unblinkingly into a dark folklore and we buy every second of it. It is told with clarity, relentless energy, and with a period dialogue so uncompromising at times that it risks frustrating most viewers. In his follow-up, however, co-writing with Max Eggers, although the story takes place on an island in 1890s New England, photography in black-and-white, it feels just like any other modern twisty tale of a man’s madness unspooling in an isolated, lonely location. I received little enjoyment from it.

It cannot be denied that Willem Dafoe’s performance is entertaining. As Wake, the ill-tempered supervisor of Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is prone to believing superstitions of the sea, he is extremely watchable when the camera places him front and center, recalling experiences he claims to have had and how he manages to tie them—no matter how tenuous—to the current predicaments that he and Winslow find themselves in. Although Pattinson attempts to match the veteran’s effortless magnetism—and there are a few moments when Pattinson is effective—he pales by comparison.

Histrionics, particularly toward the end when secrets have been spilled and blood has been spattered, are unconvincing and forced; I felt awkward during instances when the performer would go off-script because he is so into the moment. Particularly challenging when it comes to period films is that every second must feel and sound believable. I felt certain reactions to dire situations needed to be edited, cut short, or reshot altogether. Modern acting in period movies, unless this concept is meant to be the point, is most distracting. When it comes to Pattinson, who has been terrific in risk-taking roles prior to this (“The Rover,” “Good Time,” “High Life”), I felt I was watching an actor acting rather than being.

The relationship between the two men of vastly different ages and even bigger differences when it comes to how to approach the job they are tasked is meant to be rocky, a constant source of conflict. There are a handful of amusing moments when Wake would unfairly remind Winslow of his lower rank just because the old man can, but especially when Winslow broaches the subject of never getting to see the lamp of the lighthouse. Wake appears to be obsessed of being alone with that lamp. Why? Dafoe’s wicked performance suggests there might be a sexual component to it. One night, due to nagging curiosity, Winslow walks to the top of the lighthouse and sees his partner, lying naked, in the same room as giant, octopus-like tentacles. The movie gets more bizarre from there.

One of the Wake’s odd superstitions is it is bad luck to kill a seagull since each bird contains a soul of a sailor who had died. This idea ties nicely to the final shot of the film, but it commands little power or irony because the storytelling, for the most part, is muddled, composed solely of one peculiar happening after another: a mermaid encounter by the rocks, getting dead drunk and experiencing nightmares, hallucinations born out of guilt, and the like. The formula gets repetitive and exhausting after a while.

Although some thought is put behind these images, I was reminded too often of other generic psychological horror pictures in which an untrustworthy protagonist grows even more unhinged as the story moves forward. Remove the black-and-white photography in addition to the silent film aspect ratio of 1.9 to 1 and there is nothing special about “The Lighthouse.” Not once did I feel scared, or surprised, or thrilled by any of the plot developments. I found shots of ocean water crashing against the rocks during a storm to be far more hypnotic than the wild goings-on.

Missing Link


Missing Link (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Laika’s latest outing “Missing Link” has nearly all the elements to make a wonderful adventure film for the whole family. Technically, it is a marvel. As a whole, however, the picture is a disappointment because it fails to grab the viewers on an emotional, gut level. It is strange because the story’s theme is belongingness. We follow two outcasts—an explorer and a mythical beast who are strangers initially—who travel across the globe with the goal of finding a place or group of likeminded individuals who will accept them for who they are. The story’s trajectory is familiar and so the details that compose of that path must be special in order for the work to stand out from its contemporaries—animated film or otherwise.

I enjoyed the film for its seemingly insignificant details. Notice when a character is recalling either a painful or cherished memory, the listener, human or non-human, reacts—a small smile, for instance, that forms suddenly from a neutral expression or how one’s head tilts at a precise moment of surprise or concern which confirms that he or she is indeed interested in what is being shared. These animated figures are made to embody the body language of actual people and so it does not at all require effort to relate to the characters’ personalities, motivations, purpose, or hopes for the future.

More generic animated movies are more concerned about delivering kaleidoscopic colors and busy action. While the film, written and directed by Chris Butler, delivers on those fronts—perhaps most impressive a scene where our protagonists are being hunted by a bounty hunter aboard a ship that undergoes various acrobatics due to a storm—colors and action almost always have clear context behind them. Sure, there are silly pun-filled jokes, but remove such one-liners altogether and meat remains on screen. In other words, the filmmakers are not simply interested in providing sensory, shallow entertainment. It enjoys getting us to think or consider once a while and that is invaluable.

The voice work by Hugh Jackman, as the British explorer Sir Lionel Frost who specializes in providing proof of mythical creatures’ existence, and Zach Galifianakis, as a Sasquatch capable of speaking English despite living in isolation out in the wilderness, is top-notch. In the middle of the movie, I became convinced that the two must have provided their lines in the same room, facing each other. Emotions behind the words command force, jokes land more often than not—which requires precise delivery especially when the point is to underline culture clash, and a convincing sense of camaraderie gets stronger as the work moves forward. If the voice actors actually recorded at different times, I would be even more impressed.

But the work did not move me emotionally—at least not on the level the screenwriter intended to move the viewer. I think it is due to a character I found to be completely unnecessary. Ms. Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Sir Frost’s romantic interest, appears to be around only to deliver sassy comments and explain or highlight the life lessons that Sir Frost and Mr. Link (the Sasquatch) are supposed to be learning about themselves. By vocalizing the insights that should naturally come about throughout the duo’s journey, it cheapens the material. On this level, it assumes that viewers—especially children—are lacking self-awareness, a critical miscalculation that leaves a sour lasting impression.

The Unknown Girl


The Unknown Girl (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne craft yet another beautiful portrait of ordinary people who just happen to find themselves in a moral quandary and then must deal with the aftermath of their action or inaction. A deeply humanistic picture that does not ask for anyone’s judgment or sympathy, “The Unknown Girl” urges attentive and intelligent viewers to question what we would have or might have done had we been thrusted in a similar situation. It only asks that we be honest with ourselves. Therein lies its quiet power.

This time around, the focus is on a young physician (Adèle Haenel) who chooses not to answer the door because she and her intern (Olivier Bonnaud) have been in the clinic an hour past closing time. The next day brings tragic news of a dead girl whose body is found at a construction site right across the street. The clinic’s video recording reveals that the doorbell was actually a cry for a help. Clearly distraught and desperate, it appears the girl without a name was being chased.

The material is interested in exploring who Jenny is as a doctor, on and off the clock. It is interesting that Haenel plays the character with a rather stolid surface most of the time, even telling her trainee that in order for him to become a good physician he must always keep his emotions in check. But behavior says paragraphs about a person and the Dardenne brothers observe without appraisal, not even a hint of a score or soundtrack. We hear every footstep, each uncomfortable shuffling, the deafening silence in a room when a person struggles to keep a secret.

Notice the way Jenny looks at her patients, how she injects needles into her patients’ skins, how she touches and moves their limbs as she attempts to examine what might be going wrong in their bodies. Then notice how her patients regard her when they are being cared for, as Jenny supports them up and down the stairs after a consultation, how they say goodbye to one another at the entrance. Unemotional on the surface, observant viewers will detect that Jenny is a physician who cares deeply for the lives around her. Calls from patients are always urgent. Laboratory results are relayed right away.

A movie like this will hardly appeal to the masses, especially those hoping to be entertained by stunning visual effects and loud, busy action. However, works like “La fille inconnue” have a better chance of standing the test of time because just as choices and emotions are raw, repercussions are dire and unflinching. Great dramas build suspense out of reality and we watch spellbound as the protagonist interacts with people who may know a lot more than they let on initially. The material is unafraid to show complex people just as they are, how ugly and beautiful we can be to one another; it allows us to consider being more aware, more present, of our surroundings and how we interact with it.