Ex-soldier returns for a secret mission with a small group of new teammates who get picked off one-by-one… sounds like the usual, but it’s got some neat twists that make it play more like a prequel to Under the Skin. Natalie Portman is a scientist (unsubtly reading the Henrietta Lacks book in flashback) who volunteers to go into the “shimmer,” an alien-comet-infected zone of lifeform transformation and combination, searching for whatever has freaked-out and half-killed her soldier husband Oscar Isaac.

“Very few of us commit suicide, but we all self-destruct” – musings on life and death and states in between, as they pass beautifully mutated flora and flee from horrific bear-creatures that imitate human screams. The second half of the film has the trailer music, themes played on a sampling keyboard programmed with the Inception Sound, but the first half is surprisingly full of acoustic guitar, as the team struggles to make a plan when some want to turn back and their sense of time and direction is disoriented. The white girl with the weakest distinguishing characteristics (Tuva Novotny) dies first, fortunately. Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) gets paranoid and ties up the others before her face is ripped off by a screaming bear. A very young-looking Tessa Thompson gives herself up to the transformative space and becomes a tree. Team leader Jennifer Jason Leigh and Portman carry on, and Portman discovers a shimmery humanoid that learns how to imitate her before the real Portman dies from a fire grenade, same as her late husband, and the Alien Portman joins the Alien Husband outside the zone.

Veronica is injured in her sexual encounter with the tentacle beast, visits the hospital, where medic Fabian wants to help find the “dog” that bit her. The medic’s sister is Ale, whose shitty husband Angel has bad sex with her, and later, more aggressive sex with her brother. So far every other scene is a sex scene, and we’ve just decided to ignore that the movie opened with a tentacle beast…

“It’s going to like you.” The older couple who house the tentacle beast suggest Veronica take a break, so she brings the medic, who is later found beaten almost to death in a field. Evidence of Angel’s affair and his homophobic rage are found on his phone, and he’s off to jail. To console her for her losses, Ale is introduced to the tentacle beast. “What’s there in the cabin is our primitive side in its most basic and purest state – materialized.”

Angel’s out on bail or something, I forget, decides to pack a gun and visit his wife, where he attacks her then clumsily shoots himself in the leg. She loads him into the truck and takes him to visit the tentacle beast, and the next we see, his and Veronica’s bodies are being dumped in a ditch. Obviously we’ve got some major Possession influence, but there’s a bit of Under the Skin weirdness, Staying Vertical omnisexual frankness, and I thought I felt some Cosmos in there somewhere. Escalante’s fourth feature (I also heard good things about Heli) – he tied with Konchalovskiy for best director in Venice.

Of our original trio, Han Solo has died in part 7, Leia now leads the resistance with second-in-command Laura Dern and Han-like hotshot flyboy Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Luke is secluded on an island refusing to help would-be protege Rey (Daisy Ridley) because he lost control of his last protege Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). John Boyega (Attack the Block) apparently had a larger role jumpstarting the narrative in part 7 – here he’s paired with engineer/love interest Rose (Kelly Tran) trying to help the rickety remains of the resistance escape from Kylo and howling ham sandwich Domhnall Gleeson in their attack fleet. Benicio Del Toro is a smooth traitor to both sides, there are computer-animated characters who don’t quite work, appearances by Yoda, Chewbacca and the robots. I appreciated Rian Johnson’s commitment to filming it all in well-designed visual frames, and this would probably rival the Guardians of the Galaxy movies in rewatchability, but that doesn’t make me happy that Rian is committed to a decade of Star Wars instead of original stories.

Finally, Live-action Teen Cartoon Miike gets mixed-up with Bloody Horror Miike. Starts off in a Battle Royale classroom, a fake-looking CG toy playing a game of freeze-or-die with the terrified suit-wearing students, until sole survivor Shun (Sôta Fukushi of Blade of the Immortal) pushes the button on its back. He meets up with the survivors from other classes for the next challenge, basketball vs. a giant cat in the gym, where we meet ruthless brown-haired Amaya (The Great Yokai War star Ryûnosuke Kamiki), then Shun is paired with his ex Takase for a round-robin guessing game, then she’s killed in the next round, in which a truth-obsessed polar bear gets them to turn on each other. Finally a rooftop-sunset game of kick-the-can pits Shun against the transparently evil Amaya. All this is taking place inside a giant alien cube hovering over major cities, which has kidnapped and murdered all the country’s children in order to teach a valuable lesson spoken by a wise old dude at the very end, which I spaced out and didn’t pay attention to.

In memory of two recently-departed horror directors, who made some of the best horror films in history, I caught up with two of their worst pictures…

To begin with, a bullshit voiceover lets us know that this spaceship, created with colored lights and 1980’s computer graphics, has some inexplicable gravity technology – just trust us, we’re on a spaceship but there’s gravity. I don’t recall Star Trek worrying themselves with explaining the ship’s artificial gravity, except when it broke in the sixth movie.

Discovering nude-vampire crystals inside the space anus:

Fallada, looking like an apocalyptic preacher:

“I almost have the feeling I’ve been here before” as they fly into a giant vaginal-looking tunnel. Astronauts discover nude, crystal-encased space vampires and bring them home via a badly failed first mission plus a second rescue mission. The sole survivor of the first mission is Steve Railsback (later of Scissors and Alligator II: The Mutation), who couldn’t help but sexually harass the female alien (Mathilda May, later of some Chabrol and Demy films) and becomes psychically connected to her. Railsback works with Peter Firth (Tess, Equus) and alien-invaded doctor Patrick Stewart to track down the vampire girl, while dapper white-haired Professor Fallada (Frank Finlay, one of Richard Lester’s Musketeers) and barely-competent Dr. Bukovsky (Michael Gothard, Oliver Reed’s executor in The Devils) try to contain the evil – and fail utterly, as most of London falls to the vampire-zombie plague.

Patrick Stewart Replica:

Return of the Living Dead Zombie Phantom Alien Vampires:

More perverted and apocalyptic than most 1980’s horror movies, at least. The movie’s pretty okay, but the concept is cool as hell, so it’s got my respect. Tobe’s follow-up to Poltergeist, produced by Cannon Films, cowritten by Dan O’Bannon, who made Return of the Living Dead the same year, which ties into our next filmmaker

A John Carter-like attempt to film an influential comic which many sci-fi movies (including Besson’s own Fifth Element) have been ripping off for decades. I’ll bet this was better in 3D. The movie seems to want to be in VR, having Valerian put on special glasses when he wants to see into other dimensions (recalling Freddy’s Dead).

The Pearls, a peaceful race of white Na’vi, live on Shell Beach with their pets who can shit dark matter, until their planet is destroyed as collateral damage in a space war led by Commander Clive Owen. Survivors have invaded the International Space Station (now a massive free-floating city of a thousand alien races) and learned all the alien techs to built themselves a supership Shell Beach simulator. Commander Clive sees all this as a threat, and sends soldiers to stop them, or something.

But first, Major Tom Valerian (Dane DeHaan: Lawless, A Cure for Wellness) is sexually harassing his coworker Laureline (Cara Delevingne: London Fields, Paper Towns). According to my Alamo Drafthouse waiter, their relationship made some kind of sense in the original comics, but human behavior isn’t Besson’s strong suit, so he’s botched it. These two are sent to interrupt a trade between Pearls and a Hutt unmistakably voiced by John Goodman, and during their escape a bulletproof rhinobeast wipes out their team.

Valerian’s boss, the General, looks like a Weasley but is actually Sam Spruell of Snow White and the Huntsman… then there are a series of higher-ups played by Rutger Hauer and Herbie Hancock who we barely see. Our team is eventually separated, and Laureline goes underwater with a beardy submariner named Bob (Alain Chabat of The Science of Sleep) while Valerian gets help from a shapeshifting Rihanna (after murdering her pimp Ethan Hawke), who does a dance which will be my most-watched scene on netflix once it comes out.

Some effects shots are very cartoony, not fooling anyone, and the action choreography is quite bad when viewed the day after Atomic Blonde. The very long info-dump ending is bad, the plot is mostly bad, the teaching Valerian about the meaning of love is bad, so I spaced out in the last half hour and tried to figure who Dane DeHaan reminds me of – is it Nicolas Cage? He’s fine, don’t get me wrong – all the acting and filmmaking is generally spot-on, just in service of a poor script. There is one great bit in the ending: Laureline is left alone with Commander Clive and just keeps punching him.

I was so disappointed… instead of the tough, capable Weaver or Rapace, we get a bunch of panicky crew members who make very bad decisions, leading to all of their deaths and leaving evil android David in charge of thousands of frozen would-be colonists. These people have no capacity for fighting, thinking clearly in an emergency situation, or prioritizing… and for some reason everyone in the crew is a married couple, so when their partner dies they become useless. More importantly, it’s no fun watching them walk into traps that we Alien-movie vets easily see coming and just die unceremoniously. Each movie brought something new to the table until this one, which only rehashes things we’ve seen before.

But then I was pondering on the way home – maybe this bunch of useless, easily dispatched characters was assembled on purpose. David says something about humans being a failed species on the evidence that they need a space colonization program in the first place, that it’s worth letting them die, and he’s going to make sure it happens. Maybe this is the opinion of Ridley and the umpteen writers, and they prove their point by having humanity’s most vital mission entrusted to these bozos. The Alien series stories always featured individuals fiercely triumphing over adversity, over external forces and internal human greed, and now Ridley has given his corporate lords another space-massacre movie to sell, but he no longer sees a society worth saving.

Captain Billy Crudup is a Christian, which is mentioned every time he’s on screen to diminished effect from the Prometheus origin-story wonderings. He lasts a good while, is finally replaced by the Carey Mulligan-looking Katherine Waterston (Queen of Earth, Inherent Vice) down on the planet and Cowboy Danny McBride (of mostly James Franco movies) in the ship. The star, of course, is Michael Fassbender as both drama queen David and buttoned-up Walter. They are identical-ish, and in the finale they switch places and you totally can’t tell except that you’ve been expecting it the entire movie, then you know they’ve switched places and you’re waiting for the rest of the characters to discover it and it’s exasperating, then finally it’s too late and you think “good, to hell with humanity.”

Ehrlich called it “majestically shot” and Matt Lynch said “gorgeous,” hmmm, maybe I was sitting too close? Also, come to think of it, David also genocides an entire planet of those bald guys from Prometheus, so maybe it’s less anti-humanity than anti-life.

Saw this right after rewatching Kubo and the Two Strings over Thanksgiving, noticed how they both refer to a person’s life “story,” then realized this was based on a book called Story of Your Life. So the two movies go together nicely is what I’m saying.

Amy Adams is a linguist and Jeremy Renner a physicist who are recruited by Forest Whitaker to communicate with the aliens whose giant ships have appeared across the planet. We see Adams do lots of linguistics but don’t see Renner doing any physics, and I think Adams’ final language-comprehension-enabled time-reading abilities break some movie paradox laws (she can learn from her future self), but the whole thing is so beautifully done I could care less. Also interesting that the emotional resonance of world peace is much less than the story of Adams’ own doomed marriage and child.

D. Cairns:

Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur.

Damn this movie being great, because now I have to care about Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel. An Advanced Movie, it relies on our knowledge of flashback rules in order to trick us by breaking them. Waited in my seat until the music credit came up. I liked the Jóhann Jóhannsson score but I guess I really noticed the bookending Max Richter piece. This was the academy’s exact justification for excluding Jóhannsson from award consideration, somewhat unfairly.

Wasn’t planning it this way, but I guess my viewing of Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers, and last year’s SHOCKtober screening of the 1956 original (and I suppose The Invasion) were all prelude to this wonderful Alamo screening of the best Body Snatchers movie. It loses the 1950’s prudishness, ramps up the energy and paranoia (and humor, when Jeff Goldblum is onscreen) and lands on an even bleaker ending than the original tried to imply. It could almost be a sequel instead of a remake – the 1956 ends (not counting the dumb framing story) with Kevin McCarthy screaming on the highway, unheeded, and early in this version McCarthy appears on a city street yelling “We’re in danger – you’re next!” just before getting killed.

“A disquieting paranoid thriller informed by the conspiracy theories of the period and the jaded cynicism that followed the death of the counterculture movement,” per Adam Cook.

Donald Sutherland is our new McCarthy, a San Francisco health department investigator and the boss of Elizabeth (Brooke Adams: The Dead Zone, Shock Waves). Donald likes Liz but she’s married to Art Hindle (lead dude in The Brood), who is the first to be invaded – not counting their psychiatrist guru friend Leonard Nimoy, who was probably a pod from the start. While uncovering the plot and figuring out what to do about it, they huddle with friends Goldblum and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright, in The Birds as a teen, later Alien and Witches of Eastwick).

The Shaun of the Dead trick of pretending to be a zombie and walking among the others seems to work, until Donald and Liz get shocked by something and scream. Donald spotted a pod next to a homeless dude (and his dog) and kicked it – a few scenes later the dog is walking around with the dude’s face. As in the original, Liz is only left alone for a few minutes when she falls asleep and gets replaced, melting in Donald’s hands as her pod version rises up, telling him to join them.

Screenplay by W.D. Richter, later director of Buckaroo Banzai with Goldblum. Fun angles and shadowplay, and perfectly balanced tone of terror and action – no wonder a couple movies later Kaufman’s The Right Stuff got eight oscar nominations. Sutherland was later in the quite bad Puppet Masters, in which Earth is invaded by mind-controlling alien parasites, and McCarthy would reprise his role yet again in Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

Film Quarterly:

Visually, the movies couldn’t differ more. Siegel’s unadorned black-and-white has yielded to Kaufman’s lyrical color, tilts, handheld shots, and high key lighting. Michael Chapman’s photography is both lustrous and penumbral, with deep shadows and crowded, mobile frames. Annexing the genre’s salient mood of engulfing dread, he has made the new Body Snatchers a film noir in color.