Tag: Kurt Russell

The Thing (1982)

The men of an Antarctic base encounter a deadly force from space in The Thing

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Kurt Russell (MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Blair), TK Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Dr. Copper), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs), Thomas Waites (Windows)

In a curious coincidence, The Thing was released on the same day as Blade Runner. Both have since gone on to become landmark science fiction films, hugely influential to future film makers. Both have scenes that linger in the memory, and have ambiguous endings fans have discussed for decades. Both were also disastrous box office bombs and with negative critical reactions.

The Thing is a creeping masterpiece of sci-fi, body horror and paranoia. On an Antarctic base, an American research team rescues a dog being pursued by two Norwegians from a base close-by (the two Norwegians are both killed, one accidentally, one shot dead after firing at the Americans). Investigating the Norwegian base to see what happened, they find it destroyed and a series of grisly corpses, including one with two faces. Soon it becomes clear the Norwegians fell victim to an alien who has the power to perfectly copy and replace living organisms. The Americans realise they are trapped on the camp, with no idea who them may now be a “Thing” rather than human.

John Carpenter’s creepy, atmospheric horror film is an endlessly gripping thriller that rewards constant rewatching. Its shot with an unnerving simplicity of movement, with the focus getting tighter and tighter. We start with an unsettling helicopter shot taking in the panorama of Antarctica but, before long, the action is confined to single rooms in the American camp, with our leads shouting suspiciously at each other. The whole film is underplayed by an eerie Ennio Morricone score that really gets under your skin with its haunting electronic strains. It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and it never, ever gets old or tired: I’ve seen it a dozen times, and each time new small moments grab me, shots enchant me – and it never fails to be tense, unnerving and scary.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding” a character states at one point. It’s pretty easy to imagine that this was the reaction of the critics at the time, at the onslaught of body horror. The Thing’s process of absorption is not only disgusting (usually involving flesh and skin peeling back to reveal all sorts of crazy shit), but its defence mechanisms involve similar depths of insane grossness. By the time our heroes are incinerating replacements with a ruthless lack of concern, we’ve already seen chests turn into massive tooth jaws, a dog Thing peel its own face off, and a head of a Thing separate itself from a burning body, grow spider legs and scuttle away. You’ve got to be fucking kidding indeed.

The Thing is pretty much a landmark in prosthetic work (you’ve never seen anything like this before). And the body horror still packs a major punch – I couldn’t eat my sticky bun while the Dog Thing ripped itself apart in the middle of a kennel early on (those poor other dogs by the way…). Some of the most effective stuff is actually the smaller scale moments – there is a great moment where a Thing grabs another character by the face and hand and face merge together. It has a truly yucky feeling to it. It’s all so carefully constructed and inventive that it haunts and fascinates. But if it was just a parade of gross images and nightmare fuel it wouldn’t have lasted. What makes it work is that it has a cracking story and a great set of characters. 

Carpenter collects a terrific group of actors, headlined by Kurt Russell. Russell’s MacReady is the perfect lead for this sort of film, a grizzled maverick slacker who reveals (when the shit hits the fan) the natural charisma of the born leader, the only man there able to make the hard calls. He even has a perfect little introduction scene, playing chess with a computer (whose voice makes it the only female character in the film incidentally). Having narrowly lost the game against a tactically more cunning opponent, he pours his drink into its workings, effectively destroying the game board. That gives you a pretty accurate idea of where the film is going. The whole film is Macready’s struggle against an opponent who is cunning, brilliant and (almost literally) faceless – is it any wonder he decides that destruction could be the only way to win? 

The rest of the cast give a lot of depth to their otherwise trope-based characters. In particular, Dysart, Brimley, David, Hallahan, Moffat and Masur stand out for creating unique feeling characters, each of them feeding into the growing paranoia that infects the camp. Because that’s what makes this film last: it’s a brilliant study of paranoia, suspicion and a group of macho men (to varying degrees) squabbling aggressively with each other in a confined space. Carpenter really captures this sense of twisted group dynamics – establishing plenty of tensions and personality flaws and clashes even before the horror begins. It feels like a real cold war movie: interlopers in our midst, but we don’t know who they are. It’s a slow burn that really pays off when the action explodes in the second half of the movie. 

And that pay-off is compelling. A particularly masterful sequence involves a series of blood tests (now a hoary old stable of these things, but at the time something really new). MacReady essentially ties up all the other remaining characters (living and dead) and sticks a scolding hot wire into a blood sample from each man. The idea being the blood of any Thing will react aggressively to the “attack”. Carpenter really lets this scene build slowly – not least because MacReady is holding all the men at dynamite and gun point. The slow build-up reveals a few innocent men, each untied to help Macready. Then just as MacReady (and the audience) begin to relax – someone fails the test and the scene jumps into body horror chaos. Completing the tests after that is a near wordless sequence of jump cuts from test to test, with the number of untied men slowly growing. It’s brilliantly done: slow – quick – slow. Perfect tension drama. It’s the centrepiece of the whole damn movie.

The other thing Carpenter really understands is that set-ups like this are perfect discussion fodder for fans. Just as we love to debate whether Deckard is a replicant or not, there are plenty of similar points in this film. Most of this revolves around Blair, the first to work out the danger the Thing will cause if it reaches civilisation: when does he become infected? How many of his actions are human, how many Thing? At one point MacReady visits him (isolated in a hut) and finds him sitting calmly asking to come back in. Creepily beside him, an unused noose hangs from the roof: it’s not commented on in the scene at all, but it speaks volumes for possible interpretations. This sort of stuff throws itself open to a debate for the ages – the film enigmatically provides enough clues without definitive answers. It does this for a number of events – deaths go unexplained, materials are destroyed and we never find out by whom. The film is full of shady events, of key moments happening off camera, of mysteries going as unanswered for the characters as they do for the audience. Ripe for you to add your own interpretation.

The final scene of the film continues this: the surviving characters sit in the burning wreckage of their base. For all they know, either or neither of them may, or may not, be Things. But it hardly matters: the cold is coming in and we (and they) know anyone left in these conditions will be frozen in a matter of hours. So you get this brilliantly low-key, weary but charged exchange:

Survivor #1: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Survivor #2: If you’re worried about me…

Survivor #1: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.

Survivor #2: Well, what do we do?

Survivor #1: Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?

So – the question stands? Who is a Thing and who isn’t? It’s a perfect, unsettling, final frame discussion point – and one that has kept feeding debate for years.

The Thing is a nasty, grimy, tense, unsettling, gruesome, gory, yucky, scary, paranoia-inducing masterpiece. It’s easily the best thing John Carpenter ever made (its failure at the box office seemed to break the director’s spirit, as nothing he did ever again reached this). As a slow-burn, cold war flavoured conspiracy and suspicion story it’s out of the top drawer – it captures perfectly the psychosis and fear that can be brought on by trapped isolation. It’s crammed with perfectly formed scenes. It has a terrific, nearly nihilistic feel to it – even the most competent of the men (MacReady) is way out of his depth here. Our alien nemesis is a master of psychology and tactics. So is the film.

Poseidon (2006)

Our characters (such as they are) struggle from cliche to cliche in Poseidon

Director: Wolfgang Peterson

Cast: Josh Lucas (Dylan Johns), Kurt Russell (Robert Ramsey), Jacinda Barrett (Maggie James), Richard Dreyfuss (Richard Nelson), Emmy Rossum (Jennifer Ramsey), Mike Vogel (Chris Saunders), Mia Maestro (Elena Morales), Kevin Dillon (Lucky Larry), Freddy Rodriguez (Marco Valentin), Andre Braugher (Captain Michael Bradford)

In the 1970s the big tent-pole movies were all disaster films. They were the superhero films of their day. They also followed a very clear formula: big stars, big man-made structures, big crashing natural forces sweeping away man’s pride. Lots of death and tear jerking, with sub-plots for each character that could have been pulled out of an episode of EastEnders.

Poseidon is a remake of sorts of The Poseidon Adventure – but with plot and characters changed (not for the better). There is a ship called the Poseidon. It’s hit by a tsunami. It gets overturned, trapping the survivors at the top (now the bottom) of the ship. While most wait to be rescued, our heroes decide to climb down (now up) the ship to the hull to escape. Of course, not all of them will make it!

You notice I didn’t mention any characters there. That’s because what this film laughably calls its characters are so crudely drawn, they barely qualify as human beings, let alone characters. They exist purely to get into trouble. We spend only the most rudimentary time getting to know them before they (and their loosely defined characteristics) start dropping like flies. This is an anti-actor film – literally anyone off the street could play these parts, so disinterested is the film in them.

So we’ve got Kurt Russell as an over-protective father and Emmy Rossum as his semi-rebellious daughter. Will they grow closer together over the film? You betcha. Will Russell learn to accept the place his daughter’s boyfriend has in her life? Of course. Will “I work better alone” professional gambler Josh Lucas learn that he needs other people? Nope. Just kidding of course he does. Will suicidal architect Richard Dreyfuss discover a new love of life? See where I’m going?

In fact it’s so completely predictable you can take a pretty good guess who will make it and who won’t based solely on the opening few minutes. Some of its decisions lack any form of sensitivity. Any character from a remotely racial minority? Let’s just say that their chances are not good (Dreyfuss needs to actually kick Rodriguez’s waiter down a shaft so he doesn’t drag the others down – I thought at first “there’ll be consequences to that” – but nope it’s never mentioned again). Anyway, all the surviving characters are loaded white guys. One of them does need to make “the ultimate sacrifice” to save the others but, again, their identity can be pretty much worked out in the opening minutes. The most unpleasant character in the film? Yup he dies.

In fact you watch the film and feel sorry for the actors. Not only are the characters wafer-thin, but they spend so much time silently underwater or getting soaked, they look like they are suffering a lot for nothing. The focus is entirely on the mechanical progression from set-piece to set-piece, all of which stink of familiarity. So we get the long swim under water (of course someone gets trapped!), the impassable ravine that needs crossing (of course someone is stuck on the other side), the claustrophobic tunnel (of course one of the characters has claustrophobia). There is even a bit where the terminally stupid fucking kid wanders off and needs to be rescued. Is there anything new in this? It’s a re-tread of every disaster film ever.

Wolfgang Peterson directs all this with a professional detachment and disinterest that makes you want to cry that he once made Das Boot. If there is one thing he knows, it’s shooting confined spaces (see not only Das Boot but also Air Force One) and he makes the onslaught of water look pretty good. But this is such a piece of hack work, you despair that he clearly needed the money. The special effects are pretty good I guess (although the CGI ship looks totally dated), but it’s a staid, dead, predictable film.

It only really works in an “it passed the time watching it in two chunks over a couple of breakfasts” way. Because there is literally nothing new, interesting, unique, intelligent, imaginative, dynamic or individual about it, it passes in front of your eyes like a bland wall-paper. Compared to the classic disaster films of the 1970s it’s not fit to lace their explosions. Totally empty, unchallenging rubbish.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Our heroes line up for action in a fun follow-up to a more fun movie

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Vin Diesel (Baby Groot), Michael Rooker (Yondo Udonta), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Kurt Russell (Ego), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Sean Gunn (Kraglin), Sylvester Stallone (Stakar Ogord)

In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was expected to be Marvel’s first flop: an odd collection of ridiculous looking characters, from a comic book few had ever heard of. Instead, its oddball charm and wit made it one of the most popular in the franchise. This is the tricky second album, which has to deliver more of the same while trying to build on the first film.

Set a few months after the first film, the Guardians are left stranded on an alien planet after a job for elitist race The Sovereign (led by a drily witty Elizabeth Debecki) goes badly wrong. They are saved by Ego (Kurt Russell) who reveals himself as Peter Quill’s long-lost father. Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) follow Ego to his homeworld, while Rocket (Bradley Cooper) stays to repair the ship with their captive Nebula (Karen Gillan). While Ego’s world hides a range of dangers, Rocket and Nebula come under attack from Peter’s former guardian Yondo (Michael Rooker), whose pirates have been hired to capture the Guardians.

First the good things: this is a very entertaining film, packed full of funny lines and entertaining moments, solidly acted (with some stand-outs) by a cast who are able to communicate their enjoyment with the audience watching. Like the best of the Marvel films, it focuses on a core cast and establishes an audience bond with their characters very swiftly, and care about their fate. The focus of the film is actually skewed in favour of character over plot and action, which makes a nice change from many of these films (the action quotient is actually fairly low for a Marvel movie, and a large chunk of the film largely involves spending time with our heroes). It’s also admirable that the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that, to varying degrees, all of our heroes are in some way anti-heroes, or perfectly willing to perform selfish, dangerous or questionable acts for their own immediate gain (even if on the bigger issues their hearts in the right place).

It’s clear what type of movie you can expect right from the opening credits, where the camera focuses on (adorable) Baby Groot dancing to music in close-up, while (out of focus) our heroes combat a space monster in the background, each of them at key moments interacting with Groot in a way that demonstrates their character. It’s a lovely, witty way of opening the movie (perfectly scored to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky) and firmly states that character and personality will be central. Baby Groot is, by the way, possibly the star of the movie, Gunn making sure the character isn’t overused or becomes wearing. The film gets the tone more or less right: it would be easy for this to feel like a private party we’ve been invited to watch, but it just about feels inclusive enough (and avoids smugness or self-satisfaction at its own wit) to remain charming and fun.

The focus is so much on jokes and fun that the actual plot of the movie is a little bit weak: a (predictable) villain reveal is made late-on, seemingly to give the film an antagonist. The actual plot content of the film is pretty lightweight. What plot there is, is nothing new (Daddy issues, spliced with Universe-in-peril) I’d also say that the films length is probably a bit too much – considering not a lot really happens, the film takes a long time to do it – it could do with a bit more discipline in the editing room, and a bit more willingness to trim out some of the material. This is, however, not a major problem –– and the film just gets away with it because it gets the character moments so right you simply enjoy spending time with this group, even if what they are getting up to is little more than a second-rate episode of Star Trek.

Where Guardians 2 falls a little bit flat is the wearily on-the-nose “emotional” sections of the script. While in the first film much of this goes unspoken, here several scenes are featured where the characters carefully spell out their feelings. The most egregious examples are an almost laughably overplayed game of catch between Peter and his Dad, and a terrible “everything spelled out” conversation between feuding sisters Gamora and Nebula. Whenever this film goes near this emotional content, its points land with heavy punches, while coating the content with sticky sentiment that gets “bad laughs” from the audience. The film has plenty of well-crafted and funny impact lines, but its script rushes through the areas where depth is needed, and doesn’t seem to trust the audience to understand the emotions that underlie the bickering between the characters, or that some of them may be tempted to do terrible things to fulfil their emotional needs. Only the final sacrifice of a character really works – and that’s because it is the only emotional connection that is quietly built in the background of the movie, rather than in the foreground.

But that’s probably a movie trying too hard for good reasons, rather than bad. There is more than enough here to recommend the film. Interestingly, Pratt’s Peter Quill is largely sidelined for chunks of the film (the fact that its nominal plot is all about Quill and he feels like a supporting role tells you how weak the plot is) so other members of the cast really stand out. Saldana has a slightly thankless role as the “Big Sister” of the group, but manages to bring a lot of unspoken depth to her role. Bautista provides excellent comic relief as Drax (though his lines are such gifts, it would be hard to screw them up), Baby Groot is very funny, Cooper’s Rocket has a juvenile, rebellious attitude that  that deserves a more interesting subplot. Surprisingly though, the film is repositioned more as a redemption journey for Michael Rooker’s space rogue Yondo, and Rooker delivers a surprisingly emotional performance as a confirmed killer and thief struggling with his conscience. Gunn allows him contemplative moments that really ring true within the chaos of most of the rest of the film, and this feels like one of the best displays of simple “acting” you’ll see in the MCU.

Guardians 2 is not a perfect film, and I suspect its weak plot, predictable and uninteresting villain, and often ham-fisted emotional moments will grate more and more once the exuberance of the ride has worn off on the second or third viewing. But it’s got a lot going for it: genuinely funny jokes, an intention to entertain which it largely succeeds in, some charming performances and enough action in it without letting that overwhelm the film. It’s a roller-coaster rather than a gift that will keep giving, and it lacks the first film’s well balanced plotting and world-building, but it’s entertaining and a great deal of fun (if 20 minutes too long) and the final reel’s sad events do carry an emotional weight (because they are based on largely unspoken feelings) that will stay with you after the film wraps. Not as fun as the first one – but still better than many others.