RĂ©sistance: an allegory of rebellion against a police state regime

Alex Chauvet, Anna Le Danois, Quentin Foulon, Fabien Glasse, Juliette Jean, Julie Narat, “RĂ©sistance” (2016)

Made by student animators, this short video plays like a parable of the French Resistance against Nazi German occupation of France during the 1940s. Three giant cockroaches swagger into a restaurant, expecting to be waited upon by the staff there. The bugs drink up all the hooch and get rip-roaring drunk. One of the bugs is seduced by a young woman in red; she takes him into the theatre next to the restaurant where he is mugged. The bug eventually meets his maker in a most horrifying and graphic way. His companions also get their comeuppance from the restaurant staff.

The animation is completely silent save for the grunts and twitterings of the cockroaches themselves so the plot is entirely driven by the actions of the restaurant staff and the woman. The humans maintain remarkably straight faces, betraying very little emotion, yet their actions betray previous planning and murderous intent towards their oppressors. The underlying theme of rebellion, with the humans overthrowing the giant cockroaches (in a reversal of what we know will come in reality: due to their small size and scurrying behaviour, cockroaches will inherit the earth after humans send themselves into extinction) through careful and subtle planning, is powerful enough that it overcomes any disgust and horror viewers might feel at seeing a bug being killed in an oven and then made to disappear through dismemberment.

Visually the film is quite a treat: the cockroaches are portrayed in all their disgusting and alien detail that hints at the monstrous and corrupt behaviour of the Nazis they represent while the humans are drawn fairly simply and directly. The restaurant and theatre settings are done very well with enough detail to help drive the plot, without competing with the plot itself or the characters.

El Camino: a film of sci-fi / horror alienation and existentialism

Fernando Campos and Jaime Jasso, “El Camino” (2020)

A well made and visually gorgeous film, “El Camino” happens to be the culmination of five years of work. In its characters and plot, the film is inspired and influenced by Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, the film that started an entire franchise of sci-fi horror movies and defined Sigourney Weaver’s entire film-acting career. Weary cargo spaceship pilot Rojo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), beset by problems unknown (though audiences can guess: owing a debt to a criminal space gang perhaps, needing money) and on the way home from previous arduous missions, is offered one more dodgy deal that will clear some of his obligations and allow him to go home with his daughter Robin (Yam Acevedo). He accepts the job and collects a mysterious cargo which is guarded by an armed robot. During the trip Rojo feels unwell and the ship lurches suddenly. Robin guesses that the strange cargo may be affecting Dad’s health in some way and goes down to the hold where the cargo is located to investigate …

The work put into the film’s set designs, the backgrounds and the various special effects is stunning. The vast expanses of space are emphasised, and with them the isolation, loneliness and exhaustion of space cargo operators as they deliver shipments of sometimes dangerous cargoes throughout the length and breadth of the cosmos. One can imagine that pilots compete for shipment contracts that pay peanuts yet demand a great deal physically and psychologically from pilots. No wonder Rojo looks so drained and seems so unwell!

The acting is minimal almost to the point of it being underwhelming but Rojo’s distress and horror when he discovers something dreadful in the cargo hold becomes all the more poignant. He faces losing the one thing he has sacrificed so much for, the daughter who is his one reason for living. He faces having to go home alone with all the pain of being alone and cut off totally from other human beings.

While the plot and the characters seem small compared to the film’s visual design – the characters are a bit one-dimensional without much backstory that would explain why they do the things they do; and viewers can predict that once Rojo accepts the cargo and tells his daughter not to go near it, she will disobey him and suffer the consequences – they do illustrate the film’s themes of the possible hazards of space travel and how their intersection with the demands of an industry (and the ideological paradigms that have shaped that industry and the corporations in it) impact on humans and their families and communities. One has a sense of Rojo and his daughter Robin being pawns of powerful unseen corporate and individual players in the interstellar shipment industry.

The film plays like a pitch to a possible feature film in which further consequences of Rojo’s decision to accept one last job play out on innocent others in Earth’s space colonies.

The Gate: elegant and polished sci-fi body horror critical of politics and neoliberal capitalism

Matt Westrup, “The Gate” (2011)

Deriving its title from a couple of lines in the seventh chapter in the Book of Matthew in the Bible (“… for the gate that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear and many choose to travel it…”), in the context of a warning of Hell and damnation for those who prefer an easy path to comfort and salvation, this short sci-fi horror film is an elegant and polished lesson in understatement and visual narration. A series of mystery deaths in London attracts the attention of politicians and bureaucrats who convene a parliamentary select committee to determine what action to take. In a meeting, Dr Ackerson (John Mawson) describes the cases – and as he does so, the film re-enacts them, the second and third cases in considerable detail – and tells Under Secretary Johnson (Robert Rowe) what the most likely causes of the physical transformations leading to the deaths of the unfortunate victims, based on autopsies performed on them and the details noted by the attending doctors, are. Dr Ackerson states that the victims had in their possession at the time of their deaths pharmaceutical products obtained from an unregulated online seller that contained a synthetic hormone chemically similar to one involved in DNA construction and repair, and that it was the uncontrolled use of such products with such a potent hormone that led to the victims blowing up as they did into mutant monstrosities.

The meeting comes to an end with Johnson offering bland assurances that those involved in selling the products to the victims will be found and dealt with accordingly. Dr Ackerson expresses misgivings that other unlicensed and unregulated pharmaceutical retailers will offer the same or similar products to unsuspecting online buyers – but the response he gets from Johnson is curt and patronising. As always, the authorities will take Ackerson’s warning “into consideration”.

The re-enactment of one victim’s transformation and death is a wonder to behold: the camera’s placing in front of a barricade of police cars and an ambulance, so that audiences get only glimpses of the horror stalking about on the other side of the barricade, is ingenious. While the victim’s transformation is taking place, the film jumps to shots of a helicopter landing and police in full body armour taking up their positions stealthily, ready to fire on the monster. That a scene of horror is playing out in a setting familiar to most people – the city streets of London, with police cars and an ambulance vehicle, and police officers in almost full gladiatorial combat mode – may be the most terrifying aspect of this sub-plot in the film.

The body horror theme is expressed in a narrative at once familiar and yet new and horrifying: Western medical technology has now developed drugs that can reactivate dormant so-called “junk” DNA, the functions of which remain poorly understood. With this narrative comes another one suggesting, intentionally or unintentionally, that a capitalist system allowing both individual freedom of choice and an unregulated market of gene therapies could very well lead to disaster. The insinuation is that government regulation of new pharmaceutical products involving gene therapies is required; but when the government in question is one of incompetent and easily corrupted politicians and bureaucrats preferring to look the other way and brush complex matters aside, the most likely outcome will be more suffering and more victims treated as statistics and monsters, not as real people deserving of sympathy and care. The gate leading to damnation remains open and wide for corporations obsessed with profit and rising share price to run through, dragging with them countless numbers of victims seduced by their promises and advertising, and politicians relying on their money for election campaign funds.

The film serves as a pitch for a longer feature film which partly explains the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending and the tedious sequence of title cards which unnecessarily narrows the film’s potential subject matter and themes to one of an unregulated global pharmaceutical industry preying on people’s insecurities and anxieties in a global capitalist system that demands more and more from them.

Alien Infinity: futuristic SF noir meets monsters

Darkus Marque, “Alien Infinity” (2015)

Made during his spare time between January and August 2015, “Alien Infinity” from graphic designer (and aspiring film-maker at the time) Darkus Marque is a work of much love and labour. For a film made completely on computer by one person, “Alien Infinity” features stunning visual detail in its backgrounds and in the look of the technology that might be possible in the future society depicted. The characters featured do not get much individual time so they appear either flat or stereotypical but from what we do see of them, Marque has tried to give each of them as much individuality as possible in the short time they have in this film.

The work appears more as an introduction to a much longer film than as a complete film in its own right. A small group of marines is sent out to investigate after the capital of the colony Beta Terran, established on a far distant planet, suddenly loses communications contact with Earth. While travelling out to Beta Terran, the marines joke among themselves and generally take the piss out of one another. Landing in the capital, they see it is strangely quiet. They are then taking an elevator ride down into the city’s underground layers when the lights cut out … and fifteen minutes later, we discover they are all running for their lives, all of them cut off from one another, from the menace lurking below the planet’s surface.

The editing can be jumpy and sometimes viewers can have difficulty working out which marine is being chased in what part of the underground city by what and how many Xenomorphs. We do not know what happens in the fifteen minutes when All Hell Breaks Loose and all the marines are separated. I should think in dangerous missions the marines would have tried to stay in groups (they would have trained and been drilled on staying together) rather than end up on their own and become easy pickings for the Xenomorphs. The monsters themselves are portrayed well: lurking in the shadows, the fact that few of them are shown in all their sinister entirety makes them more terrifying than they otherwise would be. The marines discover what it is like to be the prey rather than the predator though the fate for some of them can be predicted well in advance by fans of the ALIEN franchise. Some of the marines’ voices are either too quiet or don’t appear to suit the character, and Marque would be well advised to try to find the best voice actors he can afford who can identify with the characters they are assigned to.

The film has a very gritty, noirish look that fits the city in which it is set. The marines appear totally lost in this labyrinthine place and are at a disadvantage compared to the Xenomorphs who know every cranny in this city where they dominate. At the end of the film a couple of marines – one of them appears to be an android androgyne with a very droll sense of humour – enter a control room and discover that experiments had been carried out on Xenomorphs at various stages of their development.

I’d have liked the film to have had a clearer, rather less open-ended conclusion, and to be able to stand on its own two legs within the trilogy it starts. As it is, viewers need to wait for or look for the second film “Alien Continuum” to find out what else happens with the marines, and how many of them survive.

Darkus Marque clearly has a strong visual concept and a talent for making visually stunning films in the science fiction genre. His shortcomings can be overcome with more experience in making short SF films and with help and advice from scriptwriters.

Alien Supremacy: a brutally minimalist film with a shock surprise

Felix M Aller, “Alien Supremacy” (April 2017)

One of many numerous fan-fiction films based on the original Alien quadrilogy begun by Ridley Scott and continued by James Cameron and David Fincher, this short piece is a brutally minimalist work in which the last survivors of a colony in Hadley Hope Valley on planet LV-426 desperately fight and try to obliterate those tiresomely deadly Xenomorphs. With dialogue cut down to its most essential, and most of the conversation being carried out by the Xenomorphs themselves, the focus is on Juan Jose Fernandez’s facial expressions (flitting between fear and determination) and actions as he takes down as many monsters as he can, knowing that eventually his ammunition will run out and the Xenomorphs will win by sheer force of numbers. He gets some help from co-star Angel Carlos Perez whose character unfortunately doesn’t last long.

The film is fast-paced with quick and sharp editing that helps to ratchet up the tension. We all know how it ends up for Fernandez’s character, the hope is that his suffering is quick and the Xenomorphs don’t leave too much mess behind. The surprise though is that the character’s death leads to a chain reaction resulting in an Almighty explosion that just about wipes out everybody and everything in the colony save for one unexpected survivor awaiting the arrival of Ellen Ripley and the marines in James Cameron’s “Aliens”.

The film is well made with steady though fast camera work for the live action scenes. The animated scenes featuring the Xenomorphs are quite good though not well integrated with the live action series – the film was made on a tight budget after all. The plot is simple though it does pack in a final surprise that will leave viewers feeling satisfied that Fernandez’s character does not die in vain.

Dealing with plot inconsistencies as well as pests in “Alien: Night Shift”

Aidan Michael Brezonick, “Alien: Night Shift” (2019; extended version 2020)

Not one of the better films out of the batch of six made in 2019 to herald the 40th anniversary of the Alien film series, this short flick does have its moody and atmospheric moments. At least the idea of setting it in a colony store where a new employee learns she has to deal with more than just rats and cockroaches as pests is a good one. Sometimes big problems that can threaten an entire colony’s operation can start in places that everyone from the most senior leaders down ignores because the people employed in those places are at the bottom of the social and political hierarchy.

On a routine supply operation to a mining colony on exomoon LV-422 (presumably a sister moon to LV-426), supply-ship crew member Welles (T K Richardson) finds his colleague Harper (Tanner Rittenhouse) who has been missing for the past 24 hours and is looking drunk and dishevelled. Welles brings him into the colony store where senior store employee Springer (Christopher Murray) and new recruit Rolly (Amber Gaston) are working the night shift. Harper’s condition worsens rapidly, he starts vomiting and convulsing, and before you know it … well, this is an Alien film short so you know what happens next. Except that your mind has to fill in most of the details because the film quickly focuses on Welles shooting wildly at close range, fatally wounding Springer and managing to smash all the lights so the entire store is plunged into near-darkness.

Rolly tries to help Springer while Welles quickly scoots out of the colony store. With Springer gone, Rolly hunts down the Alien hiding in amongst the supplies. She finds it and disposes of it – but any feeling of triumph she might have is short-lived as she hears the sounds of panic, shouting and deathly chittering noises from outside the store.

The film is no great advance on the themes and motifs of “Alien” and might actually fill in as a sub-plot for James Cameron’s “Aliens” though the action takes place in a different colony. The acting is not exceptional and the characters are no more than stereotypes. The plot has some inconsistencies that render the film weak: for one thing, if Welles is aiming his gun at the Alien, why does he hit everything else including Springer but the Alien?

In a new extended version, the incident in the colony store is recast in the framework of an interview by investigators hired by mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani interrogating Welles as to what happened. Welles is clearly conflicted and ashamed over his actions, especially in leaving Rolly to cope with the Alien on her own. While they link the incident to the strange mystery of the spaceship Nostromo, in which an entire crew (save one) perished, the investigators appear either clueless or limited by the scope of their duties and training to recognise the seriousness of the LV-422 incident and the threat it poses to all of Weyland-Yutani’s mining colonies on the exomoon. Fans of the original Alien film series will not find much in this extended film that is new as it mainly serves to confirm that Weyland-Yutani is a typically bureaucratic organisation where people work to rule and are not motivated to help their fellow human beings or do more than their job descriptions require them to do.

As a group the six Alien shorts are faithful to most aspects of the original Ridley Scott film – all films feature working class characters in gritty industrial-type settings – but only a few of them transcend the original film in their themes or genre type.

A good setting and cast but weak growth in “Alien: Harvest”

Benjamin Howdeshell, “Alien: Harvest” (2019)

It had stunning CGI visuals, a scary setting in a failing spaceship, a willing cast and a lot of tension … so what went wrong in “Alien: Harvest”? Of the six short films made in 2019 in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the cinema release of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, “… Harvest” has the least original plot and adds nothing new or refreshing to the mystique and mythology surrounding the Alien film franchise. On a damaged space harvester ship far out in the cosmos, four survivors of a disaster try to find their way to an escape pod using a motion sensor while being pursued by a giant Xenomorph. Too late three of them discover that their guide Mari (Agnes Albright) doesn’t necessarily have their best interests at heart.

The flashing lights, the claustrophobic network of corridors and the industrial look of the harvester’s interiors are faithful to “Alien” and replicate that film’s paranoia, tension and rising horror as the monster cuts down any and all humans who stray into its path. Even androids get short shrift from the monster. At the very end, the very pregnant Hannah starts having labour pains. Not to worry, the Alien has the problem of caring for Hannah’s baby all sorted out already!

The conclusion really doesn’t make sense … the symbolism behind it is unnecessary, even sadistic. How on earth the Alien and its kind can presume to know more about human physiology perhaps more than their own might have most of us scratching our heads. Apart from this, the characters are little more than stereotypes that viewers of the Alien full-length films are familiar with.

Of the six films made, “… Harvest” is the weakest of the lot: it relies too much on viewers being familiar with the original Ridley Scott film and does not create its own viable branch that could grow into a feature-length movie tree.

Haunted (green) house horror plot with a twist in “Alien: Specimen”

Kelsey Taylor, “Alien: Specimen” (2019)

A suspenseful little short, more haunted-house horror than sci-fi, “… Specimen” gets points from me for using its setting, cinematography and especially the use of lighting, darkness, shadows and their contrasts in creating tension and drama, and extracting the plot’s full potential for terror. The action takes place in a space colony’s greenhouse where botanist Julie (Jolene Anderson) is working the night shift with guard dog Maggie (Goose) for company. Inevitably something goes bump, Maggie starts barking furiously and the greenhouse suddenly closes all egress and shuts down the power, effectively locking Julie and Maggie in with … whatever the strange chittering thing is that escaped cargo storage. While Julie manages to get some of the lights back on with a generator, Maggie races off ahead to find the intruder. Julie soon follows in pursuit, armed with whatever gardening tools she has at hand.

Anderson plays her part well as the no-nonsense botanist who (wisely) hits out and bashes something, and then might decide to ask questions later. Goose does well too, to the extent that a few viewers might find themselves shedding a tear or two when Maggie meets a dreadful fate. There is a twist at the end of the story which deflates the entire plot and leaves Anderson’s character Julie appearing unconvincing if not even a little cold-blooded herself.

The main problem with the film is that it’s perhaps a bit too long and needs to come to the point more quickly. Shots of Julie running around in the dark with her torch, finding strange messes and items knocked over, while automated watering systems periodically send out plumes of spray become a bit tedious. Yes, we understand Julie is working in an area resembling a huge dark labyrinth full of secret hideouts where an Alien might lurk.

The CGI design of the Alien is very disappointing with the thing resembling a schnitzel even before it meets the sharp end of a shovel. Curiously the shovel doesn’t disintegrate into sizzling molten metal. When Julie uses the shovel for something equally disturbing again, I start to wonder who or what is the real Alien … at least the Alien acts according to its nature.

Too many Alien references contained in “Alien: Containment”

Chris Reading, “Alien: Containment” (2019)

For me, this nine-minute work was a rushed piece that crammed perhaps too many references to Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” and ended up suffering for it. Four survivors of a terrible catastrophe onboard a space station race away in their escape pod while the station itself disintegrates. The four try to piece together exactly what the contagion was on the space station that spread faster than you can say “plague” and which left a bloody swathe that has traumatised three of the four survivors, the fourth being in a coma. The three start to doubt one another and each suspects one of his or her fellows to be carrying the contagion. The comatose man is scanned with an instrument and found to be uninfected. While pilot Ward (Gaia Weiss) and scientist Albrecht (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) are confused, the third conscious passenger Nass (Theo Barklem-Biggs), on the verge of hysteria, throws accusations, makes threats, attacks Ward and nearly stabs her… and then sickens rapidly. He hits the floor, coughs up blood, convulses and … well, you know the rest.

From here on the film repeats much of “Alien” in miniature as the newborn Xenomorph scuttles around the escape pod, Ward tries desperately to help Nass and then defend herself, and Albrecht does a treacherous turn in locking Ward in the control room with the Xenomorph and trying to save herself. At the same time the escape pod is picked up by a larger spaceship and Ward faces the problem of trying to alert the crew on that ship that they must not open the escape pod lest they allow the Xenomorph to run amok in the spaceship and repeat the catastrophe from the space station.

While the three actors do their best with what they’re given – Barklem-Biggs overacts his hysterical role, Ward plays a flat second-rate version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley without the heroism or compassion, and Duncan-Brewster gets little to do other than echo Ian Holm’s Ash (with viewers not know if she’s human or android) – they are unable in the time available to them to flesh out their characters as more than cardboard cut-out stereotypes. The plot is too rushed and everything happens too quickly. Viewers might well end up just as traumatised by the speed at coincidences occur: just as Nass goes fully rogue, the Alien within him decides it wants shot of his madness – and then the escape pod makes contact with a spaceship at last!

The sets where all the action whooshes by as fast as the Alien itself are well made and the early animation showing the space station, in black silhouette against the background of a giant planet, breaking up while the escape pod flees is incredible to watch with all its minimal starkness and beauty. If director Chris Reading had been given a bigger budget to make a longer film tribute, the plot could have been stretched out to allow for character development and depth, and details about characters and the events that happened on the space station could have been introduced to make the plot and its conclusion more realistic. Ward’s self-sacrifice would have been more tragic and heart-breaking.

A darkly comic and tender story of love and companionship in “Alien: Alone”

Noah Miller, “Alien: Alone” (2019)

After seeing all six short films made in 2019 to mark the 40th anniversary of the cinematic release of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, I must admit they’re not all good and most of them don’t stray very far from the original slasher flick / sci-fi horror genre narrative. Miller’s contribution, the last of the six, comes as a breath of fresh air: taking as its inspiration the original film’s android science officer Ash and that android’s fascination with the Alien to the exclusion of all else, including the safety of the humans on board the Nostromo, “Alien: Alone” dives into a darkly twisted tale of two lost and abandoned beings who find in each other companionship and care. With both facing certain death, one of them determines to save the other and prolong its life – and in so doing, leave a legacy with the other. It so happens that these beings who find friendship and comfort are an android and an Alien.

Hope (Taylor Lyons) is the remaining crew member on board the commercial transport vessel the Otranto. The Otranto is slowly breaking down and Hope spends her dreary days repairing various parts of the vessel and hoping beyond hope that (as her Captain had tolder her) she would be rescued by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. We figure out very early that Hope is an android when she informs us (in voiceover) that she has counted every rivet in the ship and arrived at a figure of over 28,000. After a fire emergency on the ship reduces the power available so that a section of the ship that hitherto banned access to Hope is now open, Hope walks in and is informed by the ship’s information systems that a life-form in cryogenic deep freeze is ready for resuscitation. Hope revives the life-form which turns out to be the face-hugger form of the Alien. As you’d expect the face-hugger attacks Hope but finds no purchase on the android. At first the two have something of a stand-off but eventually they warm to each other and enjoy each other’s company. Gradually though the face-hugger begins to starve to death and Hope herself realises her own body is breaking down and dying. She decides then and there to save the face-hugger and enable it to complete its life-cycle by powering up the Otranto and taking it somewhere in the vast universe where it is likely to come in contact with a ship of unsuspecting life-forms.

At least until this point, the short film is actually a very touching treatment of loneliness and isolation, and perhaps of the madness that can afflict even androids as a result of extreme isolation. The distress that Hope experiences once she realises she is dying and her companion is dying as well is very palpable, and viewers can feel pity for them both. Lyons does good work as Hope, at once a sensitive being for whom viewers can feel some sympathy … and a ruthless android determined to find a host for her pet. Close-ups of Lyons’ face along with a voiceover from Martha Vincent enable this connection between the character and audiences. Viewers might do well to consider though that as an android, Hope may not be able to override her programming and the objective laid down in her brain circuits: that she exists solely to help bring back Alien specimens to Earth or wherever for Weyland-Yutani Corporation to study and use for its own purposes. Had Miller considered this aspect of Hope, he might have (within the limits of his budget) pursued and expanded on it further in the plot, with the result that perhaps Hope becomes a more complicated character wrestling with her programming and trying to overcome it.

After Hope makes her decision, the tone of the film changes quickly: it becomes a more conventional sci-fi horror flick as the Otranto makes contact with another ship and that ship’s human pilot (played by James Paxton, son of Bill Paxton who played US Colonial Marine Hudson in James Cameron’s “Aliens”) stumbles across Hope and her pet. In the film’s final scene, which is open-ended, Hope and her pet regard each other with new eyes, as it were, and just at the very point when the film cuts out and the final credits start rolling, viewers realise anything and everything could happen. Does Hope die or is somehow able to survive? Does the Alien remember what Hope has done for it? Is the Alien even capable of experiencing a state akin to human emotions and feelings such as pity and gratitude?

While the film’s denouement and conclusion may be disappointing after its build-up, and the sets used in the film are cheap-looking – 20th Century Fox did allocate a small production budget for it – its premise and ideas, all inspired by the original “Alien” film, constitute an original and intriguing development that raises questions about love and companionship, and how a love bond can be so strong that it threatens the lives of others. It calls into question also the nature of androids vis-a-vis humans and whether androids might be worthy of being considered human if they can experience emotion and feeling.

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