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[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]

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By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies has unexpectedly become one of the best sci-fi TV shows in years – a dark, gritty and emotional look at an American society struggling to survive after an apocalyptic alien invasion.

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The show’s third season debuts on TNT this Sunday, June 9th on Father’s Day, which is appropriate, given the show’s focus on fathers and their responsibility toward their children. The series has already been a ratings bonanza for TNT – Falling Skies was last summer’s top-rated drama on basic cable – and having seen the first five episodes of the upcoming season, we can tell you that Season 3 looks to be an even bigger hit.

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So why would the success of Falling Skies be unexpected, especially given the involvement of executive producer Steven Spielberg and series creator Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan)? Possibly because when the show first debuted in the summer of 2011 – the long, hot sci-fi summer that gave us Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens – the idea of another movie or TV show about alien invasion seemed redundant.

And after getting their tails (or robot parts) kicked on-screen in recent years by Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and the U.S. military, you’d think aliens would know better than to invade by now, anyway.

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A story of a father and his sons.

Starring Noah Wyle and Moon Bloodgood, Falling Skies (Season 2 of which arrived this week on Blu-ray) has carved out its own niche, however, largely by doing basic things well – telling a classic American story of the fight for freedom, and of families struggling to stay together in wartime. And with its populist vibe and focus on civic duty, Falling Skies is also the sci-fi show for audiences who don’t usually watch sci-fi. Indeed, the series often feels inspired as much by American Westerns as by science fiction.

And, of course, there’s always the magic touch of Steven Spielberg.

“Steven Spielberg is the master of science fiction, and of drama,” Noah Wyle told us recently at Zoic Studios in Culver City, where Falling Skies‘ visual effects were being completed. Series showrunner and writer Remi Aubuchon agreed: “Steven actually is very involved in our show … he certainly reads all the scripts and watches all the dailies, and he’s intricately involved in the design of the creatures and the cool things.”

Season 3 of Falling Skies picks up where the previous two seasons left off, with former history professor Tom Mason (Wyle) and his extended family trying to pick up the pieces of civil society in the wake of a devastating alien attack. Like some grizzled, bearded patriarch out of the old West – and now serving as the acting President of the United States – Mason tries to hold it all together, as his provisional government in South Carolina forges a dubious alliance with a new alien species encountered at the end of last season.

On the home front, Mason also welcomes an unusual new daughter into the world, born to Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), his longtime lover and the show’s emotional center. Meanwhile, Mason’s son Hal (Drew Roy) struggles to keep himself from being used by enemy aliens as a spy, all while juggling the two edgy blondes in his life (Sarah Sanguin Carter and Jessy Schram) – one of whom just happens to be the enemy aliens’ new commander.

Such is family life in Falling Skies. Continue reading »

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From the downtown LA battle of "Transformers" (2007).

[Editor's Note: The post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone.]

By Jason Apuzzo. Celebrities will invade Los Angeles this weekend for the 84th Academy Awards ceremony. Searchlights will blaze and flashbulbs will pop as Hollywood stars will descend from the heavens — or maybe just the Malibu hills — to touch the ground that regular Angelenos walk on each day.

They’ll smile and snarl our traffic. They’ll toss their hair and forget to thank their husbands. They’ll praise each other for their bravery, while collecting $75,000 gift bags.

L.A. is accustomed to such strange invasions, of course. If you’re a movie fan, you already know that L.A. has been invaded over the years by everything from giant atomic ants (Them), to buff cyborgs (The Terminator), to rampaging 3D zombies (Resident Evil: Afterlife). So Angelenos take invasions from movie stars in stride.

But this weekend marks an anniversary of an invasion you might not know about: L.A.’s first alien invasion.

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A surviving image from The Battle of Los Angeles.

This February 24th-25th is the 70th anniversary of The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid, one of the most mysterious incidents of World War II — and also one of the key, oddball events in U.F.O. lore that’s still inspiring movies and TV shows to this day.

Between the late evening of February 24th, 1942 and the early morning hours of February 25th, the City of Angels flew into a panic as what were initially believed to be Japanese enemy aircraft were spotted over the city. This suspected Japanese raid — coming soon after the Pearl Harbor bombing, and just one day after a confirmed Japanese submarine attack off the Santa Barbara coast — touched off a massive barrage of anti-aircraft fire, with some 1400 shells shot into the skies over Los Angeles during the frantic evening.

Oddly, however, the anti-aircraft shells hit nothing. Despite the intense barrage, no aircraft wreckage was ever recovered.

Indeed, once the smoke had cleared and Angelenos calmed down (the public hysteria over the raid was mercilessly satirized by Steven Spielberg in 1941), no one really knew what had been seen in the sky or on radar. Were they weather balloons? German Zeppelins? Trick kites designed by Orson Welles?

Many people believed the aircraft they’d seen were extraterrestrial – one eyewitness even described an object he’d seen as looking like an enormous flying ‘lozenge’ – and some accused the government of a cover-up. Conflicting accounts of the incident from the Navy and War Departments didn’t help clarify matters.

As if to confirm public fears of extraterrestrial attack, one famous photograph emerged (see above) from the incident showing an ominous, saucer-like object hovering over the city. This much-debated photograph, which even appeared in some trailers for Battle: Los Angeles last year, inspired America’s first major U.F.O. controversy — a full five years before Roswell.

To this day, no one knows for sure what flew over Los Angeles that night and evaded the city’s air defenses. (The raid itself is recreated each year at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.) But since it’s more fun to assume that it was aliens than weather balloons, we’ve decided to honor The Battle of Los Angeles by ranking the Top 10 movies in which aliens attack L.A. (See below.)

To make this list, a film must feature aliens on the warpath — no cuddly E.T.’s here — and their attacks must take place in L.A. proper, rather than out in the suburbs or desert (eliminating films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

As the list demonstrates, no city — other than perhaps Tokyo — has suffered more on-screen calamity at the hands of extraterrestrials than Los Angeles. At the same time, there’s no apparently no other city that’s easier for aliens to hide in.

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From George Pal's "War of the Worlds."

1) The War of the Worlds (1953)

Producer George Pal’s adaptation of the H.G. Wells’ novel is the granddaddy of ‘em all, and still the best L.A.-based film about alien attack. Gene Barry plays Dr. Clayton Forrester, a natty scientist at ‘Pacific Tech,’ who along with his girlfriend Sylvia van Buren (a perky USC coed, played by Ann Robinson) struggles to prevent Martian invaders from destroying human civilization. Highlights of the film include a boffo attack on downtown L.A. (which Pal initially wanted to film in 3D) by the graceful, swan-like Martian ships, and an Air Force flying wing dropping a nuclear bomb on the Martians. Filmed in vivid Technicolor, The War of the Worlds was a huge hit, broke new ground in visual effects technology, and helped kick off the 1950s sci-fi craze.

Best exchange of the film: “What do we say to them [the aliens]?” “Welcome to California.”

2) Independence Day (1996)

Director Roland Emmerich’s funny, exhilarating and patriotic summer hit from 1996 borrows key elements from The War of the Worlds, but adds a few of its own: 15-mile-wide flying saucers, a president who flies fighter jets … and Will Smith. In the role that made him a megastar, Smith plays a trash-talking Marine fighter pilot paired with an MIT-trained computer wiz (played by Jeff Goldblum, channeling Gene Barry) who fights an alien saucer armada out to demolish humanity. ID4 is easily the best of Emmerich’s apocalyptic films, largely due to its tongue-in-cheek humor. Watch as ditzy Angelenos atop the Library Tower cheerfully greet an alien saucer, only to be zapped into oblivion a moment later. Only in L.A.

Best line of the film: “Welcome to Earth.”

3) Transformers (2007)

There’s mayhem, and then there’s Bayhem. Michael Bay’s Transformers redefined sci-fi action cinema in 2007, featuring a spectacular climax in downtown Los Angeles — a riot of colossal urban warfare and aerial strikes as the U.S. military and Autobot robots unite to fight Decepticon robots out to enslave Earth. A key sequence showcased Autobots and Decepticons ‘transforming’ at 80 mph on a busy L.A. freeway, swatting aside cars and buses while fighting each other — living out the fantasy of every aggressive L.A. driver. Unlike the stately saucers of ID4, or the graceful war machines of War of the Worlds, Bay’s Decepticon robots are fast-moving, anthropomorphic and nasty. Like certain Hollywood celebrities, they trash talk, strut and propagandize as they smash through buildings and otherwise inflict as much collateral damage as possible. The film that made stars out of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, Transformers delivers heaping doses of humor, curvy women and robot carnage; it’s Bayhem at its best.

Best line: “You didn’t think that the United States military might need to know that you’re keeping a hostile alien robot frozen in the basement?!”

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From the NBC miniseries "V" (1983).

4) V (1983)

These alien ‘Visitors’ look just like us, and they come in peace … except that underneath their false skins they’re actually lizards and want to eat us. That’s the premise of Kenneth Johnson’s apocalyptic NBC miniseries from 1983, a show that leans heavily on references to Nazism, communism and other pernicious forms of group-behavior. V is also the show that first gave us gigantic motherships hovering over major cities, years before ID4. The best part of V, however, is the scene-chewing performance by Jane Badler as the alien leader Diana; somebody should put that woman in charge of GM. Otherwise, in V the human resistance movement against the aliens centers around Los Angeles — possibly because it’s hard to cop a tan while saucers are blocking the sun.

Best line [about the alien leader Diana]: “That damn dragon lady can bend people’s minds around. What the hell does she need a blowtorch for?!” Continue reading »

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead lights it up in "The Thing."

By Jason Apuzzo. THE PITCH: Universal and director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. bring The Thing back to life as a direct prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 cult favorite about a shape-shifting alien discovered by a research team in the Antarctic – both films being based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s classic 1938 sci-fi short story, “Who Goes There?”

THE SKINNY: While the 2011 version of The Thing will not likely be remembered as fondly as Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic, this new adaptation serves as a crisp, gripping prelude to Carpenter’s film, driven by a stand-out performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and suspenseful direction from Matthijs van Heijningen.

WHAT WORKS: • Mary Elizabeth Winstead radiates warmth and intelligence as American paleonthologist Dr. Kate Lloyd, in the same kind of role that once made Sigourney Weaver a star (playing Ripley in Alien). A conventional scream queen in her earlier roles, Winstead graduates here to depicting a resourceful, sympathetic female scientist who keeps her wits about her while the rest of her colleagues fall to pieces – both literally and figuratively.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje & Joel Edgerton as American helicopter pilots.

• Matthijs van Heijningen’s understated direction brings out the natural suspense of the story, allowing the isolated setting, mutual suspicions of the characters and the intrinsically frightening situation to do the heavy dramatic lifting.

• The cast feels credible as a hardy professional research crew, much more so actually than the (otherwise superb) cast in Carpenter’s film – and this has the effect of enhancing the suspense and paranoid vibe of the film. Indeed, Winstead’s heroism in the film consists precisely in her taking a more professional-scientific attitude toward the alien threat than that of her compatriots. (And on this point, the new version of The Thing is rarely played for laughs in the way that the Carpenter version sometimes seems to be.)

• One thing this 2011 Thing has over previous versions is that it exploits the alien’s saucer more than before, eventually even taking us inside it at the film’s climax to nice effect.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: • This new version of The Thing is burdened by the need to present the same grotesque, Hieronymus Bosch-show of creature-transformations as were depicted in the Carpenter version of the film. With that said, the transformations in this new film are slightly less disgusting, and often take place in shadow.

• Both the 1951 and 1982 versions of The Thing have iconic musical scores, from Dimitri Tiomkin (with his groundbreaking use of the theramin) and Ennio Morricone/John Carpenter, respectively. Composer Marco Beltrami’s score here is too conventional; he should’ve tried something more unusual or distinctive for this new film to keep the tradition of musical innovation going.

• As I mentioned last week with respect to the film’s screenplay, this new version of The Thing lacks humor – a major component of both the 1951 and 1982 films. Also: the new film drops one of the great gags of Carpenter’s film, which is depicting several of the researchers as having such bizarre personalities (particularly Richard Masur as Clark) as to seem alien even before the creature shows up.

Opening Pandora's box.

• There’s room to ask here whether it was a good idea to bring back this story in the form of a prequel to Carpenter’s film. There is, ultimately, very little about this version that qualifies as being ‘original’ or imaginative, even if its execution is solid. The Hawks version is tighter, more sophisticated and features larger Cold War connotations; the Carpenter version has more colorful characters and satiric flourishes. Possibly what was needed here was a totally different interpretation in order to take the film to the next level.

THE BOTTOM LINE: What makes this new version of The Thing work – which it does, in my opinion – is that it has the basic sense to tell what is already a great story straight, without the embellishments that contemporary filmmakers sometimes add when they don’t trust their material. Director Matthijs van Heijningen and screenwriters Eric Heisserer and Ronald Moore obviously believed in Campbell’s/Carpenter’s basic story material here, and therefore didn’t clutter the film up with obnoxious revisionisms or distractions like the political propaganda found in the Day the Earth Stood Still remake from 2008, or the bizarre plot involutions of 2007’s The Invasion (a flaccid remake of Invasion of The Body Snatchers). This by-the-book approach doesn’t necessarily make this new version of The Thing a classic, but it does make it effective and streamlined as an exercise in sci-fi horror.

Certainly the easiest thing in the world to say about this new version of The Thing is that it doesn’t rise to the level of Howard Hawks’ 1951 version, nor of John Carpenter’s 1982 film. I’m not sure how much that says, however; Hawks’ film is easily one of the greatest sci-fi films ever, and Carpenter is one of the greatest sci-fi/horror directors of all time. Judged against such standards, a lot of contemporary films and filmmakers would pale in comparison.

A better point of comparison for this new version of The Thing might be the recent wave of alien invasion thrillers from this past year – and here I think The Thing stands out as a solid, suspenseful film that is better than a whole variety of over-hyped/under-performing competitors from 2011, including: Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens, and an entire season’s worth of Falling Skies. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer my aliens to be really terrifying, and of all the aliens I’ve seen from this past year – and I’ve seen a lot of them, with a few more still to come – the one I would least want to be caught in a room with (outside of Transformers’ Shockwave, who wouldn’t fit into a room to begin with) would be the omnivorous, protean, infinitely imitative and malevolent creature from The Thing. The creature in this new film still packs an unnerving, visceral punch, in much the same way that Carpenter’s did – even if the previous film’s spectacle of gore is slightly toned down here.

My advice if you are a fan of Carpenter’s film? Give this new one a shot, preferably late at night.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead projects authority and professionalism as Dr. Kate Lloyd.

One final point: films are star-driven, and there’s a special pleasure associated with watching a new star emerge in a film. I went into this film looking forward to seeing Joel Edgerton, whom I already knew to be a good young actor (and he’s good here, playing a rough-and-tumble American helicopter pilot), but the real discovery in this film was Mary Elizabeth Winstead. This is clearly going to be a break-out role for her, largely because of her ability to project intelligence and authority. And although she doesn’t yet have the screen presence that the young Sigourney Weaver showed back in the 1980s (she isn’t as lanky, sexy or vaguely odd as Sigourney), Winstead brings a conviction to this type of role that I haven’t seen since the Sigourney-heyday of the 1980s. And what’s nice here is that she doesn’t have to become a Kate Beckinsale-type action hero to do it; instead, like a classic female scientist from 50s sci-fi (think Faith Domergue from It Came from Beneath the Sea or This Island Earth) she uses her wits and innate professionalism to get herself out of jams – along with, of course, a handy flamethrower.

After all, no one ever said sci-fi women can’t heat things up.

Posted on October 14th, 2011 at 11:13pm.

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By Jason Apuzzo. I had the chance recently to read the screenplay for The Thing, which opens next Friday, Oct. 14th. To sum up my reaction in a nutshell: I liked it, given that the film’s basic requirement is to serve as a direct prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 thriller. I frankly would’ve preferred a totally new interpretation of the original story, instead of a prequelized version of Carpenter’s; be that as it may, my sense is that if you’re planning on seeing the film next Friday, and aren’t otherwise bothered by the new film’s lack of star-power – or the kind of intense, sci-fi gore associated with Carpenter’s original film – you’re likely to have a good time.

This new version of The Thing, which is set back in 1982, sweeps you into the story quickly and efficiently, introducing a variety of new, relatively low-key characters – including, most importantly, young paleonthologist Dr. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and helicopter pilot Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton) – who along with several others travel to the Norwegian ‘Thule’ research station in Antarctica, where a mysterious saucer … and an even more mysterious occupant of the saucer, frozen in ice … have been discovered by the Norwegian research team. If you’re familiar with the original Carpenter film, you already know what ends up happening to the Thule station, discovered by Kurt Russell in the original. If you don’t already know, I won’t spoil it for you – but suffice it to say that ‘things’ go badly, as it were.

This new, prequelized version of The Thing feels like it has a lot in common with Ridley Scott’s original Alien, in the sense that the story is built around a thoughtful young woman who keeps her wits about her while the rest of her team descends into hysteria, paranoia or is otherwise carved into pieces like so much whale blubber as the alien ‘thing’ slowly wreaks its havoc in the isolated station. Much as with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, Kate Lloyd here doesn’t really do very much or assert herself prominently until about halfway through the story – she simply keeps her eyes open, while others pursue their various agendas, largely blind to the danger in their midst. It should be a good role for Mary Elizabeth Winstead; I hope she makes the most of it. (Winstead talks about the parallels between her role and Weaver’s Alien role here.)

Truth be told, I’ve only recently become a fan of John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, which I went back and re-watched a short while back. Although the film is moody and atmospheric, with some nice performances from Kurt Russell and the supporting cast, I still strongly prefer Howard Hawks’ original – although it’s basically true that Carpenter’s film is more ‘faithful’ to the original conception of the morphing, imitative creature in John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story, “Who Goes There?” For my taste, Carpenter’s film gets a little lost in its gore and disgusting excess – losing its suspense every time we’re forced to watch the creature transform into some repulsive new hybrid of man and beast. Alas, expect more of this sort of thing in the new film – no doubt amped-up by digital technology.

What Carpenter’s film has going for it, however, is a genuine sense of terror and dread that has been lacking from a lot of sci-fi alien invasion films of late. So many of the current alien invasion projects (Battle: Los Angeles, the Transformers movies, Skyline, Falling Skies, Battleship, etc.) are basically sublimated war films of one kind or another. John W. Campbell’s original story, along with Carpenter’s telling of it, introduce the much more terrifying notion that an alien might be right beside you – a shape-shifter, ready to destroy and/or assimilate you on a moment’s notice. This new version of The Thing re-awakens the primal fear associated with not trusting someone, that creeping sense that the person next to you might not even be fully human - an eerie, paranoid notion that is actually what much of 1930s and 1950s sci-fi was based on.

Can she deliver? Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "The Thing."

So what should you expect, in terms of what will be different about this film in comparison to the original? Truth be told, relatively little – with just a few exceptions, as the new film’s screenplay really does fit Carpenter’s film like a glove. (Incidentally, it’s cool to read a screenplay that says: “Cue Morricone’s score.”) On the positive side, and without spoiling too much, something’s that’s been unexploited by the two previous versions of The Thing (1951 and 1982, respectively) has been the saucer by which the creature arrives. Expect to spend more time around and also inside the saucer in this new version; what happens there is intriguing and suspenseful. On the neutral side, the ‘test’ for determining whether someone is really human or not is clever – but doesn’t necessarily provide as suspenseful a moment as there was in the Carpenter version. On the negative side, I thought that this new Thing screenplay really lacked something that both the Carpenter and (superior) Howard Hawks versions had: crackling humor. This new Thing is a very sober, straight-forward, dour-‘Norwegian’ telling of the story – a telling that really needed the kind of humor you get from having a group of wise-cracking American characters around. Humor is a great way to relieve fear and tension, and I’m concerned that this new film will be lacking it.

We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, there are some new clips out (see herehere and here) from the film, a red band trailer and new TV spot, Joel Edgerton talked about the film recently (noting the parallels between Cold War fears of communism and terrorist fears today), the film’s Russian poster looks pretty cool, and a new comic book series supporting the film’s launch is being released. And speaking of comic books and alien threats in the Antarctic, Lorenzo di Bonaventura – who seems to own the rights to every alien invasion property in existence – just picked up the rights to the Area 52 comic book from back in 2001.

Ridley Scott directing the original "Alien."

• Speaking of Alien and alien-related prequels, there’s been a lot of chatter recently about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, although none of it as exciting as the leaking in August of images from the film’s Comic-Con showreel. I’ve seen those images, by the way, and would love to post them here – but I’m not eager to be contacted by Twentieth Century Fox lawyers about it, so you’ll just have to go someplace like here to see at least a few of them. In any case, what these images reveal are two things: 1) the film already is looking extraordinary in terms of its dark, retro-design, really pulling you back into the murky, claustrophobic world of the original film; 2) Prometheus is quite obviously an Alien-prequel, Sir Ridley’s coy assertions aside. This is really looking like a film not to miss next summer.

Screenwriter Damon Lindelof revealed a few details recently about Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron’s characters … SPOILER ALERT … Fassbender will be playing an android, no doubt of the intense/brooding variety, while Charlize will be playing a corporate suit (surprise, surprise!) … END OF SPOILERS … also: the film has a new ‘official’ synopsis, and Guy Pierce and new cast member Patrick Wilson are out talking about the film.

• In semi-related news, Ridley Scott announced recently that he will be directing the next Blade Runner film – in whatever form that will take – although Harrison Ford will not be involved.

• Entertainment Tonight recently did a cheerful little behind-the-scenes feature on Battleship, which you should make sure to see. Much as with the Hasbro-Michael Bay Transformers, it looks like director Peter Berg received a lot of assistance from the military on this film, and Berg otherwise talks about working on the film here. We also now have the first official photo of Rihanna appearing in the film, cast members Alexander Skarsgard and Hamish Linklater are out talking about Battleship … and, of course, most importantly, we finally have the first official photo of Brooklyn Decker in the film (see below). She’s looking a little frosty.

Brooklyn Decker glares at her fiancé in "Battleship."

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By Jason Apuzzo. THE PITCH: Timur Bekmambetov produces a $5 million found-footage sci-fi thriller about an ‘officially’ scrubbed Apollo 18 mission that we learn was secretly launched by the Defense Department in December 1974 in search of … a mysterious presence on the Moon.

THE SKINNY: The Weinstein-distributed Apollo 18 wastes a great premise and an effective re-creation of America’s pioneering Moon landings on a listless storyline, thin characters, lame thrills, and a gratuitous cheap shot at the U.S. military that confounds the film’s own plot. NASA was wise to steer clear of this film, and so should you.

WHAT WORKS: • If you ever wanted to experience what a Moon landing might feel like from the first-person perspective of the astronauts, Apollo 18 captures that in 1970s period detail – although the film spends too much time in the claustrophobic confines of the lunar lander, and never fully stretches its legs on the Moon.

• The found-footage motif is worked nicely into the storyline, introducing (courtesy of Apple’s Final Cut Pro) a mixture of handheld Super-8mm footage and distressed analog video that gives the film visual interest and an authentic, period feel.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: • Actors Lloyd Owen and Warren Christie aren’t able to capture the stoic, tight-lipped heroism of actual astronauts. Their acting performances here are much too histrionic to be believable given the circumstances of the mission and the time period.

• ***SPOILER ALERT*** The plot hinges on the idea that the Defense Department would send U.S. astronauts to the Moon without briefing them on the basic nature of their mission, and would even leave them to die – even when rescue is possible. The film’s cynicism is ugly, and undermines the storyline’s basic believability. ***END OF SPOILERS***

• The film’s amateur attempt at ‘suspense,’ such as it is, never really achieves much of a payoff. The ‘threat’ the astronauts eventually uncover on the Moon would barely pass muster in a Roger Corman movie.

• The film lacks humor or laughs, giving it no place to go once the shock-moments wear off. As a result the movie is dull – like listening to Muzak for 90 minutes inside a 1970s photo booth.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Trying to quickly cash-in on the alien invasion and found-footage genres, Apollo 18 has the extreme misfortune of being out at the same time that a newly remastered, 3D IMAX version of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon just arrived in theaters this past week. Since Apollo 18 is so utterly forgettable, and even contemptible in its cynicism toward the American military, my strong advice is to spend your money this weekend watching the first 10 minutes of Dark of the Moon, instead. Even if you only stay for those first few minutes, you’ll enjoy a much better experience than Apollo 18 can muster.

Misfire: from "Apollo 18."

If you haven’t seen it yet this summer, Dark of the Moon (see my review here) opens with a heroic sequence that re-creates the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing, as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto the surface of the Moon and – unbeknownst to the world – secretly explore a gigantic, mysterious (and seemingly moribund) alien spacecraft. This breathtaking opening flourish, presented in 3D IMAX, is truly one of the inspired moments in the entire Transformers trilogy, and at its conclusion when I saw the film again earlier this week actually touched off a round of applause in the audience – and I will confess to having had some watery eyes, myself.

Like other such moments in Michael Bay’s films – particularly Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – the sequence summons elegiac emotions of pride in America’s bold, pioneering spirit, our legacy of achievement in pushing the boundaries of outer space, of opening new horizons through courage and innovation. That’s what America’s efforts in outer space mean, not the junk the Weinsteins are currently peddling with Apollo 18, a film destined for the bargain bin at your local gas station – tucked somewhere between other Weinstein classics like Mimic 3 and Children of the Corn 5.

If we ever get back to the Moon, or push ahead further to Mars, it certainly won’t be because films like this are inspiring us with a sense of wonder about getting there.

Posted on September 2nd, 2011 at 6:11pm.

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By Jason Apuzzo. Cowboys & Aliens is one of those movies that probably looked great on paper – like a development executive’s dream. Take a popular graphic novel that combines two of America’s most durable genres (the Western and sci-fi), cast Indiana Jones and the current James Bond, add the Iron Man director and current It-girl from Tron, plus Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard as producers – and you’ve got a sure-fire hit, right?

Right?

Alas, we all know that movies don’t work exactly that way. There’s actually something rather mysterious about what makes one film work – and a different film made by the same people, even on the same subject, fall flat. It’s a matter of what we usually call ‘chemistry’ or ‘inspiration.’

Cowboys & Aliens is not a bad film. It’s entertaining at times and works reasonably well as light summer entertainment – but it’s the cinematic equivalent of the ’superteam’ Miami Heat, or the Lakers back when they had a roster that included Kobe, Shaq, Karl Malone and Gary Payton … and lost the title. It’s a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be, so it ends up being almost nothing. Unsatisfying as a Western, and clichéd as sci-fi – insufficient as a star vehicle, and thin as an action film – Cowboys & Aliens is a genre mash-up that never really settles on being any one thing, and left me bored and disinterested as a result.

Reluctant allies, covered in dust.

Although Cowboys boasts two big leads, it’s mostly carried by Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan – a man who, as the film opens, awakens in the desert in Jason Bourne-like fashion, having lost his memory but not his ability to kick peoples’ teeth in. Although he fights like a UFC mixed martial artist and shoots like Wyatt Earp, Jake can’t remember who he is, or why he has a strangely cauterized wound on his side, or why a bizarre slab of metal is wrapped around his wrist – like some sort of Stone Age Casio watch.

This is where the film makes its first mistake, in the casting of Daniel Craig. It’s time we acknowledge what has become obvious: which is that Craig, for what limited ability he’s shown in playing James Bond – limited, that is, to fight scenes – has neither the charisma, nor the warmth, nor the subtlety of person to really make a compelling, big-time movie star. It’s simply not there. Daniel Craig looks and acts like a rugby player, or maybe a bouncer – the sort of person who isn’t called upon on a regular basis to show vulnerability, or a sense of humor. (Qualities, incidentally, that his co-star Harrison Ford has specialized in over the past 35 years.) Think back to what Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson were like in their prime  - and you’ll realize how dull Craig’s performances are these days. He’s Cowboys’ first and biggest problem.

Eventually Craig heads into the town of ‘Absolution’ (which is probably the sister city of ‘Obvious Metaphor’), one of those typical Western-movie towns in which everyone speaks in parables, and nobody seems to have bathed during the past year. (Was the West really like that? I doubt it.) After a series of brief fistfights and shoot-outs, none of which are especially electrifying, we learn that the town is basically run by cattle baron and former Confederate Army Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (get it? he sells cattle!), played by Harrison Ford at his most grizzled. Ford seems to be channelling John Wayne’s character Thom Dunson from Red River here, as in vengeful fits he rides roughshod over the local sheriff, his men, and most particularly his worthless son. And of everyone involved in this film – and that includes the director, and the film’s eight writers – Ford is the only one who seems at home in this material, like he’s been itching to cut loose in a Western for decades. He’s ornery and authoritative, but always with a cracked smile and a twinkle in his eye. He’s trail boss, father figure and old coot all in one – and he’s good. You’ll be wishing this wasn’t his first Western since the bizarre The Frisco Kid (with Gene Wilder?!) back in 1979. Continue reading »

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