The Search for Our Beginning Could Lead to a Nap
Apparently, I need to be more specific when asking things of the movie gods. In reviewing a number of films from The Asylum lately, I've spent way more words than are necessary begging the studio to stop making quality features.* At a glance, Paranormal Entity may look like a crappy clone of Paranormal Activity, but it's actually a well-done, satisfying thriller--at least, comparatively. The same goes, more or less, for A Haunting in Salem. This studio built its name on hilarious, no-budget cheese-fests like Titanic 2 and the Transmorphers movies. Its attempts to go legit are interesting, but not nearly as fun to watch.
Three seconds after reading that The Asylum had put their own spin on Prometheus, I was looking up its availability at my nearest Redbox location. The DVD cover shows what looks to be Castle Grayskull hovering over Camp Crystal Lake, and features the tag line, "The footage is real. The proof is irrefutable."
Count me in.
Here's the problem: while Alien Origin is a return to form in the sense that it's a truly terrible movie, writer/director/editor/cameraman Mark Atkins has delivered an endurance test disguised as a film. Seriously, I feel medal-worthy for having resisted the urge to fast-forward through long stretches of this thing. I'll cop to shrinking the window on my monitor and checking e-mail for about five minutes, but only because it's worth noting that I didn't need to rewind after doing so.
This may, in fact, be the most boring and frustrating movie I've ever had to sit through.** But before we dive into the malaise, let's take a quick look at its strengths:
Set in the jungles of Belize, the movie follows a journalist (Chelsea Vincent) and her film crew on their quest to document the military's efforts to quash criminals and rebels--or something. While trudging through the greenery, they receive orders to find a pair of missing archaeologists. On locating the scientists' camp, our heroes discover video footage of the expedition, which shows people discovering alien skulls and lots of terrifying, flashing lights that indicate some kind of a battle.
Yes, Alien Origin is a found-footage remake of Predator--minus the clearly defined threat, likable cast, and competent pacing (the Prometheus angle is evident in the film's release schedule and tacked on ending; more on that in a minute). If you were turned off by The Blair Witch Project's dizzying camerawork, annoying characters, and lack of forward momentum, this movie may compel you to kill yourself. After more than an hour of shaky-cam leaf footage narrated by an indistinguishable roster of broken-English speakers, wannabe-tough-guy-Brits, and a female lead who's more Old Navy Spokeswoman than hard-hitting reporter, I tap-danced on that precipice, too.
Seriously, this is the the first anti-drinking-game Asylum movie: if you were to take a shot every time something exciting happens (hell, settle for "interesting"), your liquor would still be sealed at the end credits. Atkins litters his "script" with potential, but squanders every idea in a giant bird-flip to the audience. In the last half hour, characters engage the aliens in harrowing gun fights, barely able to outrun the creatures' advanced laser weaponry. At least, I think that's what happens. Whenever the soldiers run into danger, the camera whips around in the opposite direction and/or suffers from some kind of image-scrambling interference.
Sure, this adds to the realism of being stuck in a jungle with the world's lousiest film crew. But as an entertainment experience, it reeks of burying a low budget with cheap story tricks and a slew of unfulfilled promises.
In fact, all we see of the aliens is a glimpse of a tentacle, a blurry death's-head-mask-thingy, and a brief tour of one of their spacecraft. Well, it might have been a spacecraft; based on the frantic camera movements, pervasive black nothingness in the frame, and bizarre overhead lighting that resembles Guitar Hero on a dying PSP, it might've also been a hallway leading to the toilets of some dingy New York club. But if you're hoping for a cool creature reveal, or even a point to all the running, screaming, and digitally enhanced gunfire, I hate to say that Alien Origin is an even bigger ball of silly, unanswered questions than Prometheus. Call it Fauxmetheus.
Speaking of which, let me get to the epilogue before purging this turd from my mental latrine. We know from the opening of the film--which is, oddly enough, a trailer for the movie we're about to watch--that everyone in the movie winds up dead or missing. I have two theories about the rushed, pasted-on bit of exposition that closes out the picture:
1. Having looked at the finished film, Atkins and his Asylum overlords realized that they'd made an empty jungle slasher with too much jungle and not enough slashing. They figured a minute-long chat between Female Scientist and Skinny Brit Soldier about the aliens' sharing an identical DNA match with human beings would at least give some kind of meaning to the chaos.*** It doesn't. Nor does it explain the creatures' animosity towards us.
2. This idea is at once the most far-fetched and, based on the evidence, the most likely: Alien Origin was released on Tuesday, June 12th--four days after Prometheus hit theatres, domestically. Internationally, it'd already been out for a week. Is it possible that Atkins--or an Asylum intern--saw Ridley Scott's movie and threw together the epilogue in a marathon of coke and desperation? The "alien DNA matching our own" nonsense has nothing to do with the rest of the story and smacks of someone not keeping an eye on their own paper.
I know nothing of distribution schedules and shipping logistics, so Theory Number Two probably makes zero sense. But I defy you to watch both movies and come up with a better answer.
While I appreciate Mark Atkins taking up the Asylum's auteur mantle, his work has none of the goofy passion of Shane Van Dyke. I've written extensively about Van Dyke's disturbing turn towards mature filmmaking, but no one could touch him in his schlock prime. Audiences could expect unintentional laughs, special effects that, I'm sure, led to the phrase "Sci-Fi Channel bad", and a vision that far exceeded his budget. He was, and forever will be, a Digital Age Ed Wood.
By contrast, Atkins comes off as a work-for-hire cameraman who put up an "Actors Wanted" poster outside a Central American Walgreens. In the strictest sense, he made an ancient-aliens-attack-the-military movie. But it's a complete swindle. The audience gets everything they need out of the opening thirty-second montage and appended minute-long conclusion. Each second in between is a cruel dare to keep one's fingers off the "Fast Forward" button (or the "Eject" button).
Alien Origin isn't fun. It's not even watchable. The seven or eight trailers that precede it on the DVD offer more amusement and hope than the eighty-plus minutes that follow (how have I missed 2-Headed Shark Attack and Nazis at the Center of the Earth?). That's a huge problem that I hope to remedy with several hours of deep, reflective--and very carefully worded--prayer.
Please, movie gods, put Shane Van Dyke back on the righteous path!
*"Quality" is a relative term here, since the studio prides itself on churning out cheap knock-offs of mainstream blockbusters and ZZZ-grade horror movies.
**Tree of Life, you are free to go.
***This isn't just snarky conjecture on my part. I actually have something resembling proof: The conversation looks like it could have been part of the "lost" footage, but the dialogue echoes conspicuously, as if it were recorded in a bathroom stall (or, I suppose, an alien spaceship).