Yesterday I met with my brother at Odeon Norwich to see the highly anticipated new film in the classic sci-fi series. I should note that I am not a cinema regular so when I do go I expect perfection, in addition to this I’m an avid bargain hunter and this movie only cost £4.73 each as we paired our student discounts with compare the markets 2-for-1 offer resulting in an excellent price considering my last cinema trip to see Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Dark Side of Dimensions set me back nearly £17 in Vue.
You should expect some spoilers ahead.
I will begin by giving my thoughts on how this movie has contributed to my understanding of the Alien series, then I will draw some comparisons which came to mind upon my viewing. Both my brother and I had heard mixed receptions of the movie, though I went bravely in having not read a single plot synopsis or even having watched the trailer. All I knew was that it was a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and clearly an attempt to get back to the roots of the franchise. Covenant does better than I anticipated in its melding of roles as both sequel to Prometheus and prequel to Alien. Michael Fassbender has reprieved his character of David, but he now takes centre stage throughout the film. His character is shrouded in mystery and retains his deceptive nature from Prometheus but develops well, transforming from a young and impressionable android into a scheming evil genius after years of having been isolated from mankind. On the other hand the inclusion of his experimentation scenes as he attempts to kiss a fellow android, and later a female character seem relatively pointless in the grand scheme of things and only truly serve to highlight the boundaries between emotionless machines and feeling, sentient beings which David is constantly pushing. I certainly could not have imagined the importance he would have in the development of the two movies or in the progression of the Alien species and though it is an original and creative idea, I cannot say this movie has satisfied my thirst for knowledge in regards to the origins of the Xenomorphs.
Alien: Covenant, in my opinion, raises more questions than it answers, as David (Spoiler alert) appears to genetically engineer the Alien sub-species into the perfect killing machine that we know from later movies, but there exsistance as hive minded is neglected. The queen and hive hierarchy appears to have been left out of this movie and unexplained, though eggs and face huggers remain but appear to have been created by David in his workshop without a queen. Adding to the confusion the first Aliens of the movie are born via some kind of airborne pathogen, totally obsoleting any idea of the Alien life-cycle that we have grown accustomed to over the years but explained by David’s wrathful actions on the home city of the Engineers. despite these partial explanations, I feel myself yearning for a better explanation of who the Engineers were and why they created the vases of Alien goo to dump on earth, the same questions which arose from the end of Prometheus have effectively been ignored again. Perhaps Scott is gearing up for a third movie as some articles online suggest, but I certainly feel that, given the time frame of the movie, much more could have been done and it was an extremely slow burner with very little happening in the early stages.
By far the largest issue for me, though most likely not for everyone, was its failure to recognise what we were taught in Alien vs Predator about the links between the history of mankind and the Aliens. To clarify, if what we are told in Alien vs. Predator (2004) is to be considered then the Xenomorphs, as we know them in the original movies, have existed since ancient times, yet David appears to be responsible for their creation some thousands of years later. when considering that AvP, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant all have different screenwriters and Scott has nothing to do with AvP then it is likely there is no reason for him to pay any regard to this pedantic issue which certainly does not affect the quality of the film overall.
Aesthetically the film delivers. The Xenomorphs look glorious compared to their previously stiff performances at times and in true Ridley Scott style the movie is saturated with majestic panoramic shots and special effects. The gore is much more wholesome than that of Alien or Prometheus but the most fascinating thing that struck me is the noticeable influence from Scott’s 2000 movie Gladiator when depicting the Engineers civilisation and further influence from Roman architecture and heritage sites. Their citadel features a building remarkably similar to the Pantheon, complete with oculus (which I have included pictures of for comparison) and one screen shot shows a column with a statue of an Engineer atop reminiscent to Trajans against a depressing blue sky. The final obvious allusion to Roman civilisation was the Engineers corpses which littered the streets. They hold a clear resemblance to the casts found in Pompeii’s streets of victims buried in thick, black ash.
These were my observations, ideas and opinions on the Alien movie and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it! Please feel free to comment with any further input or criticisms!
With the release of Alien: Covenant upon us it seemed like a good idea to revisit the original movies and share my views on the classic sci-fi series. This week, aside from attending my father’s wedding as best man, I have devoted my time to re-watching the Alien series, complete with Alien Vs Predator spin offs and Ridley Scott’s 2012 prologue, Prometheus. This article is a collection of my musings while watching the first two movies (please note this is not a researched piece of work but rather a stream of consciousness).
Alien, the first of the series, was directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979 joining many of the early science fiction hall of fame classics with Star Wars: A New Hope preceding it just two years earlier, serving as a huge inspiration to Scott. The plot of the movie is very simple, the sleeping crew of a mining spacecraft are awoken from their cryogenically frozen state in order to explore an uninhabited planet, but unfortunately an Alien manages to get on board the ship and so the fight for survival begins. This fight soon ends as all the crew are massacred by the lone creature. The movie appears to borrow hugely from Kubrick’s genre defining 2001: a Space Odyssey in both its mise-en-scene and themes relating to artificial intelligence. The character of Ash in Alien is an android which goes rogue, sacrificing the lives of the crew in order to preserve the xenomorph on behalf of the greedy, merciless capitalist organisation known only as the “company” and later Weyland-Yutani. In Stanley Kubrick’s movie Ash’s closest parallel is HAL the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer and though not identical there are clear reflections and this concept has continually been regurgitated in modern sci-fi horrors like Resident Evil (2002) or I Robot (2004).
While Alien helped to define the survival horror genre and is generally considered the best of the series, the sequels differ tremendously in their style and it is hard to pin the franchise to a single genre, probably due to every movie possessing a different director. Though Aliens Is still, at its core, a survival horror it shows off the Xenomorph’s supremacy by pitting them against a heavily equipped, futuristic military platoon as opposed to several unarmed space miners, (the movie’s tag line becoming “This time it’s war” as opposed to “In space no one can hear you scream”). The setting has also changed dramatically, transferring from deep space to the surface of the original planet from the original movie, specifically in a colony located near the ship’s wreckage that triggered events in Alien. The movie sacrifices its psychological factor which its predecessor utilised to perfection in favour of more special effects action and fantastic explosions, typical of James Cameron’s grand style. It seems clear to me that this movie has defined its own genre separate from the first as it has helped to inspire further movies like John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars which also features a group of soldiers sent to investigate a colony with which contact has been lost, or Starship Troopers and video games like Earth Defence Force which revolve around futuristic marines vs giant ravenous bugs. licenced video games like Aliens: Colonial Marines and Alien Vs Predator (which featured a marine campaign heavily influenced by the 1986 movie) have also enjoyed huge popularity in recent years. Similarly, the atmosphere created by the first instalment has been preserved by the release of Alien: Isolation for the next gen consoles, a game where there is only one Alien which you have to avoid and no way to kill it, a clear salute to the original movie and survival horror genre with which it helped define.
The following essay was written by myself (James Wear) for my undergraduate Classical civilisation degree module “Classics and Cinema” and submitted to the university of Roehampton on the 10th of March 2017. I’m very proud of this essay, the mark it received and how far my writing abilities have come since beginning my course. This essay and its content serves as a starting point for the kind of blog posts I am hoping to write in the future and I hope you all enjoy it and read future articles of mine.
In this essay I am going to analyse the portrayal of Romans in the 2015 movie Dragon Blade and consider the extent to which the Roman figures have been adapted from Hollywood traditions to meet the cinematic requirements of the Wuxia genre. To begin, it is necessary to discuss the history and context of Wuxia and what defines it, while applying these traits to Dragon Blade in an effort to understand the film and genre further. This investigation will rely heavily on Stephen Teo’s 2016 book Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Secondly there will be a discussion of the traditional portrayal of Romans in Hollywood cinema, researching the ideals and characterisation of Roman figures, all the while paying attention to the cinematic techniques used. This section will use the film Gladiator (2000) as its primary source, reinforced by Theodorakopoulos’ 2010 book, Ancient Rome at the Cinema, Story and Spectacle in Hollywood and Rome. Following on from this there will be an in depth analysis of Dragon Blade with emphasis on the characterisation, ideals and cinematic techniques in order to show the extent to which Hollywood traditions have been adapted to fit Wuxia. The evidence for this will be drawn from the overviews of the two cinematic styles, with particular emphasis on comparisons to Gladiator. Finally, attention will be paid to the cultural differences of the two forms and how they clash in Dragon Blade. Thought will be given to any nationalistic or political messages conveyed in the two films and what these mean to different audiences viewing them. By the conclusion of this essay I hope to have successfully displayed how closely linked Hollywood and Asian cinema are in Dragon Blade and show the inspirations from both traditions and how they combine to influence the portrayal of Romans in Dragon Blade.
The term Wuxia is used to describe a genre of film that has dominated Hong Kong and Chinese cinema in recent years. It is derived from two Chinese words, Wu, which has militaristic connotations and Xia which is associated with acts of chivalry and nobility (Teo,2016:2). Unfortunately, the term does not translate simply into English, though the generally accepted interpretation is “the swordplay film”, yet it is also commonly referred to as martial arts or Kung Fu (Teo,2016:2). However, Wuxia is not restricted to swords and often features use of other weapons like spears and cudgels, and though Martial arts are apparent in Wuxia it would be wrong to define movies such as Dragon Blade as “Kung Fu”. Kung Fu is considered to focus around real fist fighting on the ground, whereas Wuxia distinguishes itself by allowing more phantasmagorical actions, like the ability of flight as used famously in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (Chang, 2007:96). Another crucial element to the Wuxia style is history, a convention carried over from Chinese literature as almost all traditional Chinese novels and Wuxia films have an overwhelming reliance on history, historiography and historicism, which may link to its connotations as a parochial, old country and China-centric genre (Teo,2016:6). Wuxia has also been amalgamated with other genres such as horror and comedy in the past, one example being Ding Sheng’s Little Big Soldier (2010), which is a comedy set in China’s warring states period and starring Jackie Chan as he plays a soldier adept at avoiding participation in battle, yet the core features of historical setting, swordplay and heroic values are still apparent throughout the film as Chan’s character becomes a brave, skilled and patriotic warrior. It is clear that Chan has brought his comedic experience to Dragon Blade and it is not a 100% serious film. The cinematic appeal of Wuxia is its fantasy, but also its realism and the appeal of the choreography, training and expertise, the martial arts can be treated as a dance form, often accompanied by oriental flute and Haitian drum (Teo,2016:11). When applying all these traits to the movie in question, it is clear that Dragon Blade is of the Wuxia type, though not as serious in tone as movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Flying is absent but this is typical of Chan’s style and there is still a strong presence of the fantastic, especially in some of the combat portrayed. One example would be when Chan’s character, Huo An, attaches an elasticated clip to his sword essentially allowing him to throw it like a yo-yo. The use of such an attachment fits Wuxia’s realistic-fantasy and the movie still keeps its historical setting, martial arts/dance displays and core concepts of chivalry, heroism and nobility.
In order to fully understand the adaptations made to Romans to fit Wuxia tradition, we must first understand Romans in Hollywood. In the early 1950’s and 60’s historical epics depicting Romans were more extravagant spectacles than anything. Often using new technologies such as Cinemascope and Technicolour along with big stars and impressive sets and costuming. The selling point of the historical epic was as a recreation of the grandeur of the Ancient world, all in a struggle to win over television audiences (Theodorakopoulos,2010:1). However, modern historical epics of Hollywood are sometimes criticized for sacrificing storytelling for the domination of visual effects, which almost always teeter on the edge of excess and can overwhelm the audience (Theodorakopoulos, 2010:4). This has turned out to be true for historical movies like Pompeii (2014) in particular which boasted a CGI recreation of the city using state of the art LIDAR and characters based on the famous casts found at the site (Rojas, 2014), yet it is generally derided by critics for its poor storytelling and reliance on special effects. Dragon Blade is similar in that the story is weak, loosely based on the myth of a group of Roman soldiers going missing on the Silk Road yet the special effects and glorious panoramics are plentiful at times. Gladiator , on the other hand manages to keep balance of its special effects spectacle and storytelling and one way it does this is through the fast cutting and close up camera as opposed to wide screen. Theodorakopoulos concludes that these modern techniques are used as a move away from historicity, which Wuxia and traditional Hollywood relied on heavily, in favour of humanity as they focus intently on one individual making it more relatable for the audience, while at the same time removing the appearance of a staged historical epic and creating a modern action adventure which she believes is hugely responsible for the success of Gladiator (Theodorakopoulos,2010:96).
Surprisingly, many of these Hollywood techniques which are not usually prevalent in Wuxia are used heavily in Dragon Blade, most likely as an attempt to match the spectacle of traditional historical epics. There are many wide angle and panoramic shots showing off the desert scenery and CGI is used, though it is in no way state of the art (Clarke, 2016:74). It is clear that the audience are supposed to be impressed by the scale of the movie and this idea of Hollywood spectacle is reflected in the casting of American stars, like Adrian Brody and John Cusack, alongside Jackie Chan, as use of Hollywood actors has never been done in Chinese cinema. While old epics were spectacles of recreation of the past, Dragon Blade is a spectacle looking to answer the question, who would win in a fight, the ancient Romans or the Chinese? The movies slogan is “when the Eagle meets the Dragon” which shows its intent as nothing more than an exploration of West meets East. However, the most damning argument for this movie being more spectacle than story, is the lack of a story, Clarke describes it as “a clunky film that does not know where its heart lies” and condemns the script as “terrible, full of caricatures and cod philosophy” as he feels Lee has taken too much from the popular series Game of Thrones (Clarke, 2016:74). Essentially, the movie has failed to find the balance between its native Wuxia and the imported Hollywood techniques, and this comes across in its depiction of Romans. One moment they are participating in a martial arts display and one on one duels, which are typical of Wuxia, however this attempt to emphasise the differences between the Roman and the Chinese cultures becomes a laughable spectacle, more reminiscent of morris dancing than a display of martial prowess. The fluctuation in tone does not stop there, when the film is not following the realistic-fantasy of Wuxia, it is trying too hard to be serious like Gladiator. For example Adrian Brody’s character, Tiberius, is the stereotype maniacal emperor and similar to Commodus except without the air of teenage rebellion about him. He is bent on world domination and works through the film by torturing man and child alike, before eventually succumbing to Huo An in a duel virtually identical to the Gladiator finale, down to the brotherly embrace of the dying fighters. The costumes are also worth noting as the Romans echo Gladiator further in the choice of colour scheme. Commodus and Tiberius wear blue and are symbols of Roman decadence in expensive furs (Theodorokopoulos, 2010:97), as opposed to Lucius’ metallic, military armor with simple geometric patterns. The emperors surround themselves with their elite guards also donned in blue, while the good characters are shown wearing red, and often not even full armour, possibly insinuating that they are of lower rank compared to the members of the establishment praetorian guard, therefore making them more relateable for the audience. To summarise, it is clear that Dragon Blade takes huge inspiration from Gladiator and Hollywood epics of the 50’s and 60’s as it incorporates many of the key features, but in its attempt to stay true to its native Wuxia traditions, while seeking approval from Western audiences, it has become farcical as viewers would have expected a serious story like Gladiator and generally responded poorly to the film and its fluctuating attitudes, though in its native China the movie has grossed over eighty million dollars (Coonan, 2015) which implies that it has been well received by Chinese audiences as a homemade Wuxia movie with spectacular foreign influences.
Finally, It is important to analyse the political undertones of the movie and investigate how these have affected the Romans’ portrayal. Both Dragon Blade and Gladiator contain reflections of their indigenous culture and nationalistic identity. The Wuxia genre was banned in China until recently for some 50 years due to purveying superstition and feudal thinking (Teo, 2016:176) and recent movies are considered to be foreshadowing of the emergence of China as a major power on the world stage, often with nationalistic messages promoting unity, while older films show the need for internal reformation of a China in crisis (Teo, 2016:186). One example of the recent movies would be Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero, which the main assassin climactically does not kill the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang-Di, in the hope that he can bring about a utopian state, which historically Qin does and gives the state his name, China. This film received a government funded premier effectively giving the genre the stamp of approval after the original ban (Teo, 2016:180). Though later, Dragon Blade is brimming with encouraging messages of teamwork between East and West, but it is not without its nationalist agenda. Clarke picks out the dialogue as particularly engendered towards pleasing the Chinese government as Huo An makes seemingly innocent remarks to Lucius like “You’re trained to kill, we’re trained to keep peace”, which Clarke considers to be a typically Chinese position, a staunch belief in the Chinese peoples own good heartedness (Clarke,2016:74). It is clear that the movie is sympathetic towards China, as during the scene of the Romans first arrival Huo An desperately tries to avoid a fight, though Lucius is unwilling to listen and resorts to violence instantaneously, showing the clear image of the foreigners or Romans as agressors towards Jackie Chan who acts as a personification of China. Even with a varied cast, the Wuxia theme of national unity is still at the forefront of Dragon Blade as the multi-ethnic community of the city quickly welcomes the Romans to avoid both factions deaths in a sandstorm. From there they work together throughout the film looking to achieve a utopian dream of a city that welcomes all, slightly different from the unified city state of traditional Wuxia, but the same premise.
Another technique prevalent in American cinema founded on political ideology is the theme of the isolated hero against the establishment (Theodorokopoulos, 2010:19). In Gladiator the hero is Maximus, a Roman general who longs for nothing but his home, his wife and his son, yet it is taken away from him by the corrupt elite. In Dragon Blade multiple characters share this theme of having been betrayed by the immoral government. Lucius is the most prominent as he, along with the young heir to the throne and soldiers are fleeing the usurper Tiberius, who represents the corrupt establishment. Though the isolated hero theme is also present with Chinese characters as Huo An and his Silk Road Protection Squad are betrayed and exiled to the far reaches of the Chinese border. Huo An specifically appeals to the viewer as he is portrayed as a family man, who, like Maximus, loses his wife. Unfortunately however, the individual against the establishment is probably better set in Hollywood as it is clear that Dragon Blade wrestles between its imported Hollywood social liberalism and Chinese nationalist hard power (Clarke, 2016:74), failing to successfully fuse the traditional Wuxia techniques with Hollywood’s, resulting in a movie that cannot commit to one genre and loses its credibiliity.
To conclude, it is clear that Dragon Blade is definitely a Wuxia movie but one which takes huge inspiration from old and new Hollywood historical epics in an attempt to appeal to a wider western audience, yet its native Chinese viewers at the same time. However, this seems an impossible task given the extreme differences in culture and politics and the movie fails to combine the two. Instead the tone is ever changing between fantastic Wuxia and serious Hollywood, losing its storytelling ability along the way. Because of this, the extent to which the Romans have been adapted is huge, they enter the film as Hollywood Romans who have wandered into an eastern setting as if they had just left the set of Gladiator, but after a short while they are transformed into Wuxia Romans, leaving the reality and politics of Hollywood behind and engaging in the fantasy and ideals of Wuxia. When considering all this, alongside its political messages, it makes sense that a movie created in China for a primarily eastern audience would feature westerners conforming to their ways. Ultimately this film is no more than a big, jocular answer to the question of “What would happen if Anient Romans went to China and had a fight?” with some singing and dancing thrown in.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000, China/Taiwan/Hong Kong/ USA, Dir. Ang Lee, Scr. Wang Hui Ling & James Schamus & Tsai Kuo Jung
Dragon Blade, 2015, China/Hong Kong, Dir & Wri. Daniel Lee
Gladiator, 2000, USA/UK, Dir. Ridley Scott, Wri: David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson
Hero, 2002, China, Dir. Zhang Yimou, Wri. Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou.
Pompeii,2014, Canada, Germany, USA. Dir. Paul S.W. Anderson, Wri. Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson
Triumph of the will, 1935,Germany, Dir. Leni Reifenstahl. Wri. Leni Reifenstahl and Walter Ruttman and Eberhard Taubert
Chang, Hsiao-Hung. 2007. The unbearable lightness of globalisation, in Darrel William Davis and Ru-Shou Robert Chen, Cinema Taiwan: Politics, Popularity and State of the Arts, pp95-107, Routledge, New York
Clarke, Roger. 2016. Dragon Blade. Review in Sight & Sound pp 74, available at http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=77792ec5-bc35-4910-8873-d0f642f062a5%40sessionmgr120. Accessed 03/03/2017
Coonan, Clifford. 2015. Jackie Chan touts success of ‘Dragon Blade,’ declares his patriotism, The Hollywood Reporter, available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jackie-chan-dragon-blade-patriotism-778236 (accessed 04/03/2017)
Teo, Stephen. 2016. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition, second edition. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh
Theodorakopoulos, Elena. 2010. Ancient Rome at the Cinema, Story and Spectacle in Hollywood and Rome. Bristol Pheonix Press, Exeter
Rojas, Alejandro. 2014. “Interview With Paul W. S. Anderson, Pompeii Director, on the Film’s Scientific and Historical Accuracy” Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alejandro-rojas/paul-w-s-anderson-pompeii-scientific-historical-accuracy_b_4827109.html (accessed 02/03/2017)
This is the first of, what will hopefully be, many posts to my new blog. I intend to publish essays, reviews or articles I write that I am particularly proud of and these will usually be around the topics of movies, video games, sports and/or music. I understand that everything I write may not be to everybody’s taste and I welcome any sort of criticism or interaction.