Thursday, 14 January 2010

'They Did it Wrong' (a Film Review in Disguise)

Last autumn I took part in Freedom Studios' Street Voices 2 programme. The aim of which was to develop a 20-minute play to be shown in a rehearsed reading in front of industry professionals. Comments would be taken and ratings given, with the most promising work from Street Voices 2 and Street Voices 3 being given a £6,000 commission to finish a 70-minute play and take it on tour round the country.

I remember our tutor, writer Madani Younis, telling us about the number one excuse bad writers have of their work when produced. This excuse runs thus:

'It wasn't my fault. They didn't read the lines right. They cast it wrong. They acted it wrong. They didn't do it the way I wanted it to be done.'

He would then explain why this was the fault of the writer. The script, he said, should make it clear how a line is meant to be read. The script should make explicit how a character appears, and how they should be acted. A good scriptwriter can convey these ideas succinctly and therefore his opus will be done 'right'. After all, there have been a million versions of Othello, with a million Iago's, but Iago is always Iago. You can add nuance, if you so choose, but you'll discover there's already a great deal of nuance there. There are subtle indicators all the way through that characterise him, so it's difficult to play him wrong. Shakespeare wrote good scripts.

Someone whose film script was blasted once said:

'It wasn't a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines...mostly...but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There's actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script...but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.'

It was, of course, Joss Whedon on the often underappreciated Alien Resurrection. Whedon's script was riddled with holes, and it was those holes Whedon saw when the script was held up to the light. If not for the acting talents of Sigourney Weaver and the lavish cinematography of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, this would have been a far uglier, far shoddier film. As it is, it becomes a grotesque circus of flesh, spiced up with deadpan dark humour and Gothic, vampiric sexuality. All the nuance is Weaver and Jeunet's; their gloss smooths over and covers most of Whedon's holes.

I also think it's worth noting that A. C. Crispin's novelisation of the film presents a vision of how the script should have been written. Nagging questions like 'Why did they clone Ripley when all they really needed was to clone the alien?' were answered (the alien's DNA had invaded Ripley's own and altered it to adapt the host to the alien's birth; separating the two DNA strands had been difficult and an imperfect process, hence why it was necessary to clone both and why it had gone wrong so many times before).

The whole was also much stronger and more alien. Ripley sees flashes of memory (both her own and the aliens'), and is intimately connected to the creatures. She is both vampire and Frankenstein's monster; Messiah and Devil; virgin and whore; princess and dragon. There is also an undeniable interest in the limits, promises and gifts of the flesh, as well as the legacy and treachery of the blood, through which both blessings and curses can be inherited. The alien returns because it is her legacy, her family. But it is also the alien that makes her unique, that makes her stronger. That's why the alien was cloned with her: she and it have the same blood; they are the same.

This creates a much more sensual, organic storyline, and a more disturbing one, which grants Ripley a more defined growth from beginning to end. In terms of ideology, it's this growth that intrigues me (and most critical theorists) most: that Ripley, symbolically the alien in Alien 3 as she is the outsider and the woman, is now literally the alien, and yet also ostensibly human. Her transcendence comes not from rising again from the dead, or from overcoming the alien, but for overcoming the human.

Humans in the series are the flawed parties: they sacrifice each other for personal gain, and for the pursuit of more perfect weapons with which to do the sacrificing. The alien, the 'perfect organism', is cooperative, social, and still highly individualistic. More importantly, it always survives, through sequels, extinction and bad screenplays. Ripley transcends the limits of being human by accepting that the alien is a part of her (she too is the only other being to survive throughout the series) and that the murderous alien is no worse than the murderous humans. It is merely more resilient.

In order to overcome the alien within her, or rather to strip it of its power to harm her, she simply has to accept it is an inevitable part of herself. Maybe Alien Resurrection should have been called I'm an Alien and That's Okay


  1. Well, damn, now I might have to read the novelisation. The film sucked--though not as hard as #3--perhaps the book will disguise the taste.

  2. You see, I liked Alien 3 too. I thought the script was pretty butchered, but Sigourney Weaver and David Fincher did a good job with what they had. The Assembly Cut makes far more sense too.