Seven Problems with Prometheus

I’m a huge fan, so I’ve been waiting impatiently for Prometheus ever since I heard it was in the works. At last Ridley Scott, a guy who knows how to give us an original vision of the frightful future (Alien, Blade Runner, A Good Year), was going to sweep away the pretenders, the imitators, the arrivistes.

Didn’t happen.

Sorry, but Prometheus arrives on screens this week with a squishy and derivative thud.

I mean, I felt as though I were watching a mash-up of Alien and 2001. Yes there are stunning alien vistas and the requisite heavy-duty hardware of space travel and the predictably surly bunch of crew members and of course the alien, or at least a variation of same.

But so much has gone wrong here. In particular, seven things:

1.  First we’re told there are seventeen crew members, so we settle in to see them knocked off à la And Then There Were None. But it’s hard to care when only four or five of them have any real dialogue. The others are just faces that pop up every once in a while to make us wonder who they are.

2.  Then there’s the theme. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that it’s better suited to a Theology 101 essay.

3.  Then there’s our old friend the exposition mule. Why do our intrepid space-hoppers conclude that, because they find human DNA on a distant planet, it means that the creatures found there must be our creators? Where’s the logic in that? And later the ship’s captain explains who the aliens are and what they’re doing—based on what? Nothing, that’s what. Just the screenwriters’ need to inject information. The movie’s long on mood, thin on plot.

4.  I like all the actors. I just don’t think they’ve been given enough to do. And whose idea was it to give the excellent Idris Elba a southern drawl that makes him sound like the long lost cousin of Slim Pickens? Noomi Rapace, who was excellent in the original Girl movies (. . . with the Dragon Tattoo, . . . Who Played with Fire, . . . Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) plays frightened-woman-running, the role she played in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. She and Jennifer Lawrence are quickly earning the distinction for most-underutilized actor. It’s  a shame. If any actor has the intensity to be a match for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, it’s Rapace, but when all she’s given to do is run away, it’s hard to think of her as heroic. Michael Fassbender is excellent as the robot, a character more nuanced than the any of the others, but too similar (even in his fate) to the character played so well by Ian Holm in the original. Charlize Theron seems to be recycling leftover meanness from Snow White and the Huntsmen. Her performance is all in her menacing glare, which would be fine if she had more to do with driving the story, like the Paul Reiser character in Aliens.

5. The movie’s too long. As writer Wallace Stegner used to say about some stories in fiction workshops, “This story’s got a lonnnggg front porch!” Cutting fifteen or twenty minutes from the first half might have done wonders for the movie. The Sleeper dropped off in the first half, and I gazed on her with envy.

6.  The 3-D is pointless. One of the things—the only thing—that made Avatar interesting is Cameron’s ability to create the illusion of space, especially in the lab scenes. You feel as if you can step into the room and walk to the other end. In Prometheus the characters and objects seem to be layered on different spatial planes, but after your first moment of realization, you kind of take it for granted. Shouldn’t a movie based so heavily on spectacle provide us with, well, you know—spectacle? And has anyone else noticed that the layering of images in 3-D movies actually makes the individual objects and characters on each layer seem more two-dimensional? Yes there’s more depth to the overall image, but the object or character on an individual plane seems about as three-dimensional as a sheet of Mylar.

7.  The movie’s derivative. Everything you see in the movie was done—and done better—in Alien. We’ve been there, done that. Yes, Prometheus has more visual polish, but that isn’t enough to make a movie compelling. Character and story matter more than spectacle. Alien changed the starscape for science-fiction movies forever. Since then, every other moviemaker in the genre has been playing catch-up. And now, instead of breaking new ground, Sir Ridley seems to be playing catch-up with himself.

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Haywire Goes Haywire

With Haywire comes a brand new species of thriller. You’ve heard of the “taut thriller.” Haywire is the “low affect thriller.” At what point does a foot chase turn from suspenseful to tedious? Haywire is a good laboratory for testing that moment.

I’m sorry. I know Stephen Soderbergh is one of our most respected directors, but this movie just feels phoned in. For one thing, the pacing is lugubrious. Maybe we’re supposed to appreciate the mundanity of violence, the everyday monotony of a spy’s life (something we see powerfully rendered in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Or maybe Soderbergh was intent on avoiding the tendency toward melodrama in such genre movies. But the movie plays like the depressed cousin of Oceans 11. Steven, word of advice: if you’re going to make a genre movie, make a genre movie.

He has cast Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts champion, as his central character, rogue agent Mallory Kane. How is this different from the low-rent action movies in the 80’s that cast actual kung fu and karate champions in lead roles, reaching their apotheosis with Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude  Van Damme, and Steven Segal?

I have to admit, though, that the scenes of close-quarter combat bring something new to the genre. No flying cart-wheel or triple salchow kicks here, only in-fighting in its purest form—short jabs, all fists, elbows, and locked forearms. The kind of thing done so well in the fight scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain and even in that galley fight scene in Under Siege. Most movie fights smell of choreography. These look like the actors just got fed up and flat threw down on each other.

The best scene in Haywire is the first. Mallory and a fellow agent meet in a diner. We’re not sure what they’re talking about, but we know something must have gone terribly wrong in Barcelona and Dublin. He’s to bring her in, but is he still a friend or does he have some other motive or directive? The tension and ambiguity in the scene play out exactly the way they’re supposed to in such movies. This is real tension, real suspense.

But the rest of the movie is so by-the-numbers that it’s hard to get worked up—much stalking, copious running across of rooftops, mounds of peering around corners. Ho-hum. Makes me want to dust off my DVD of Marathon Man.

And what about the sloppy storytelling? At one point, our hero borrows a bystander’s car to make her getaway, insisting that he join her. Why? Because he has information she needs? Nope. Because she needs to borrow his gas card? Nope. Because he’s the exposition mule. Bingo! Having him in the car allows her to explain to the audience exactly what happened before the story began. She even makes him memorize the names of the principal characters. To what end? Does she want him to report to the police? No. In fact, his work done, he disappears from the movie fairly quickly.

Maybe I’m the wrong audience for this movie. But if that’s true, so was everyone else in the theater the day I saw it. My test for whether a movie fully engages an audience is how much feet scuffling, leg bouncing, and butt shifting take place. If you’re totally absorbed in the movie, you’re not aware of how uncomfortable the seat is, etc. For Haywire, I’m afraid, the fidget factor was fairly high.

Haywire is one of those movies where the audience always knows more than the characters know. A little dramatic irony can enhance our investment in the story. More than a little, my friend, is deadly. When our hero learns how the bad guys always seem to know where she is, she’s utterly gobsmacked. Hey, weren’t you paying attention in Tradecraft 101? And oh my, could it be true that the higher-ups in the agency are even more corrupt than the bad guys?  Hello? The 70’s are calling. They want their plot point back!

X-Men: First Class: Rejecting Professor Hex’s Rejection

X-Men First Class Onesheet  Dear Professor Hex:

I am in receipt of your letter rejecting me for admission to the Xavier Institute (AKA Hex’s Home for Unwed Superfreaks), and I write to inform you that I reject your rejection, sir. I mean, who are you to judge me? Just what exactly are you a professor of, anyway? And what institution of higher learning would give you tenure? Or are you a “professor” in the same way that Octopus was a “Doctor”?

I found your letter to be insulting and appalling. It revealed just how empty that big brain of yours is. You and your costumed clown-children are no match for a true superhero such as myself. Can they spin a web any size? Catch thieves just like flies? Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man! Or not, if you have your way, because I guess, according to you, I’m an “anti-social” “accident-prone” “functional neurotic” with Oedipal issues. You’re telling me I’m too crazy to join your pack of psychotics? I’ve got news for you, friendo. I was in high school for longer than your talentless clods have been alive! Combined! That would make anyone neurotic, etc.

You’re missing out big-time, baldy. Think about it. You’ve got problems with Magneto? I’ve got a web just his size! Got a problem with the Cuban Missile Crisis? There’s a web for that! But no, you stick with that sycophantic freak show, which spends all its time showing off and preening in front of mirrors instead of busting crime. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need spider-sense to know that your Famous Freak School adds up to a  big zero.

No? Won’t change your mind? OK. No biggie. Hmmm, what’s this? A letter from Sebastian Shaw. Wonder if he has a school with the good sense to admit me???

Telepath this, you mutant mother@!?#+%$!~

Sincerely Yours,

P. Parker

P.S. Show a brother a little love and text me Mystique’s digits, why don’t you?