If Vincent Ward had been allowed to make his version of Alien 3, that film might have been thought of in a positive manner, as opposed to just, “the first of many forgettable follow-ups to Alien and Aliens.” Ward’s conception* was that there was a monastery where all the monks acted as though they were living in the middle ages. The planet they lived on was wooden, and above the clouds, and when the Alien arrives, courtesy of Sigourney Weaver’s womb (instead of her mouth), the monks all think that the Alien is an incarnation of Satan brought to punish them.
Imagining this wooden planet vs. the gooey reality of the Alien (who impregnated Sigourney Weaver with an alien-human hybrid) clearly would have been better than the fractured mess that David Fincher and the producers (mostly the producers) came up with. The monks were changed to prisoners and while the primitive way of living was retained, the most intriguing part, the wooden planet, was entirely dropped.
Ward got the Alien 3 gig on the strength of his film The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, which like his first film, Vigil, might as well have all taken place on that wooden planet. In a Ward film (such as What Dreams May Come), isolation is the cause of misery, confusion, and recklessness, and when you combine that isolation with nature, you’re in trouble. Vigil, which takes place on a farm in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, feels so in touch with the elements, the impending rain is everywhere, that you wouldn’t be out of line to check your socks for puddles of water, even if you’re not actually wearing socks.
Nature is attacking man in Vigil; the farm where Elizabeth Peers, her father Birdie, and her daughter Lisa (nicknamed Toss) live is literally caving in on them, and it’s never going to get better as long as they hold on to the old ways, and move on to industrialization. The only time we see anything that mechanically functions is near the end, when a car drives away from the property. Birdie, along with the new caretaker of the land, Ethan, are constantly working on antiquated wooden machinery that are only moments away from completely falling apart.
But like any protagonist in a Ward film, and in this case both Lisa and Birdie, they are stubborn, and they can’t see the big picture. Their focus is so concentrated that Lisa spends an entire scene staring at the creepy Ethan through the sight on a rifle, even removing it from the gun itself, following him around like a killer from a slasher movie, until he finally takes it away from her. Ethan is both literally and figuratively trying to get the family to move on after a tragedy, and this is all on the verge of what causes Lisa’s growth into a woman. Her awakening occurs watching Ethan slit the throat of a sheep she was just cradling, the blood spraying all over her face (a very similar image appears in many an Alien film).
That moment of discovery is what begins Lisa’s descent into a form of madness, and indeed the second half of Vigil is almost entirely made up of her delusions and fantasies about her surroundings and how real life is about to begin. Alun Bollinger’s absolutely stunning photography brings all this grimness to life in a unique way; never before have I been so aware of the effectiveness of a 16mm blow-up to 35mm. The earthiness of the grain is so essential to what works in Vigil, to the point where the movie starts to look like individual photographs taped together with aged scotch tape. [At times, Vigil bears an uncanny resemblance to still shots taken from the set of Robert Altman’s “realistic western,” McCabe and Mrs. Miller.]
So in tune with how a viewer reacts to nature, that it doesn’t end up bothersome how much doom and gloom symbolism dominates Vigil. When Ward made What Dreams May Come he shot the film on a stock that is rarely used for features, and mostly for still photography of nature, and Vigil might as well have used that stock as well. Normal events take on the surreal, so when you hear dialogue like, “Grab the parrot beaks behind the chimney,” and you’re aware of the context where that statement makes sense, you still can’t get your head around how alien it all feels. Or how Alien 3 it all feels.
* I linked to Vincent Ward’s screenplay for Alien 3 several times throughout this review, but to really get a sense of how visually astounding his version movie would have been, I’ve put together a collage of shots from some of his storyboards. Collage #1 is here. Collage #2 is here. Collage #3 is here. Click on the magnifying glass icon to zoom in.
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