Friday, June 8, 2012


It's finally here. After languishing in production hell since shortly after the release of Alien: Resurrection, the long-awaited "Alien prequel" is finally in theaters. Now, Prometheus isn't a prequel to Alien technically, but it's what finally became of all the talk of another installment in the Alien franchise that 20th Century Fox began tinkering on back in 2002 - those less-than-satisfying AvP films notwithstanding. You've probably seen the trailers, the posters, or heard someone somewhere explaining how they think it is an Alien prequel for some time now - so what's the scoop?

The plot follows the usual suspects of a sci-fi thriller (scientists, engineers, geologists, etc.) to a world far beyond the reaches of our solar system. Two intrepid archaeologists (played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) discover a common pictogram amongst several ancient cultures separated by centuries. Believing the pictograms to be a representation of a pre-human race of extra-terrestrials, they set off in pursuit of the planet from which they believe the beings originated.


Prometheus is most definitely a return to form for Ridley Scott. After the pretty disastrous Robin Hood, I was glad to see him returning to familiar narrative and stylistic territory. One of the great accomplishments of the original Alien was how innovative *everything* in that film was; from the genre combinations, to the production design and the special effects. Scott made the crew of the Nostromo out to be real people who sat around a table on their spacecraft like regular people would, in an age where most sci-fi films planted characters in ridiculously unpractical costumes and set pieces for the sake of futurism. As audiences have grown more sophisticated, creating realistic and compelling science fiction has become an increasing challenge and Prometheus very wisely scores points for making the technology of the film practical and accessible. The protagonist's "street clothes" don't look terribly different from present day garb, the touch screen and graphic interfaces aboard the ship look new but realistic; a plausible extrapolation of modern-day technology 60 some-odd years from now. There were also some delightful visual nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey early on in the film.

Performances all around were pretty solid, namely from Michael Fassbender's David (the android) and Noomi Rapace as the optimistic but ultimately inaccurate archaeologist. Charlize Theron plays the icy representative of the Weyland Corp. aboard the ship. While ultimately a somewhat unnecessary character, Theron manages to keep herself at least somewhat relevant by playing the character with an unnerving gravitas. From the moment we meet her - staring up into the camera doing pushups while stringy clumps of her hair obscure her face - we know she's hiding something insidious. And again, while ultimately she doesn't play as integral a role as we're led to believe, everything about the way she's presented visually (standing somewhat in the shadows most of the time, dressed in almost classic supervillain-type clothing) communicates that something's up, and I enjoy watching a director who knows how to tell the audience something without words.

The visual effects, as you might expect, are fantastic. There's actually a pleasant amount of live puppetry for a film that could have relied solely on CGI, and the blend between the two is flawless. Also there's a tasteful amount of gore and gristle, but it's not nearly as high as any of the Alien films. Prometheus isn't strictly sci-fi horror in the way that the original Alien is, it's really more akin to a sci-fi thriller; but that's not to disparage it. There's still an appropriate amount of dread built over the course of the film's first act, and much of the film's design is still firmly in the hands of H.R. Giger and his deliciously twisted Freudian muse. There aren't facehuggers and chestbursters in this film per se, but there enough nods to those tropes - or as Scott himself put it: "strands of Alien's DNA" - to satisfy fans of the Alien franchise such as myself.


The first negative thing to be said of seeing Prometheus in 3D has nothing to do with Prometheus itself. It has to do with a completely context-less scene from an - apparently - upcoming film by Ang Lee called Life of Pi. In that clip, an Indian boy spars with a tiger on a boat in the middle of the ocean while flying fish whizz around them. It's not really a trailer per se, it plays after the actual trailers and right when the lights go down - so when you're expecting the movie itself to start. It was basically an annoying meme (in this case, Slowpoke) sprung to life in the theater barging in and shouting "Hey guys, we can make things look like they're coming out of the screen! It's called 3D!" Whatever vestigial respect I had for Ang Lee as filmmaker evaporated the moment he became the Prometheus Party Pooper; I didn't invite Ang Lee to the Prometheus Party, and if he had asked to come I would have said no. Why can't you just advertise your film like everyone else, Ang Lee? Why do you insist on acting like you're special, Ang Lee? Go away, Ang Lee.

Now, I'm not sure why Ridley Scott had Idris Elba (who played the ship's pilot) speak with an American 'redneck' accent. The rest of the crew largely sported accents from the UK, and Elba is an English actor. At one point two character jokingly flip each other off with two fingers, UK-style. So it would have made perfect sense to just let him speak the way he already does, because his "Southern" accent didn't really work.

There are one or two plot holes left unaddressed. They're not integral the heart of the story, but leaving the theater I found myself wondering "Wait...why did such-n-such happen?" But again they're not really important enough to derail the whole operation - and I suspect a BluRay release with deleted scenes or an extended cut will clear it right up anyway. So it wasn't too big of a distraction for me.


I really enjoyed Prometheus. I've been looking forward to it for a while and I was glad to see it meet my expectations, and in a few places even exceed them. Scott manages to strike the perfect balance between the existing Alien material and a completely new mythos set in the same universe. There are very discernible "strands of Alien's DNA" here, but all of them serve to aid the story rather than simply keep winking back at the audience. More importantly, Prometheus is a completely self-possessed piece that doesn't bind itself with genre labels. There are a few scares, but the film doesn't seek to just be another entry in the "sci-fi horror" genre.

The film definitely asks more questions than it answers, which I found a bit disappointing, because it asked some fascinating questions. During a previous interview, Scott and his collaborators said they wanted to make a film that could easily lead to a sequel but could stand on its own if a sequel never got greenlit. That can be an incredibly tall order to fill; wrapping up in a satisfactory fashion while still leaving enough loose ends to tie-in to another film. I won't say Prometheus totally failed in this endeavor, but I think focusing on the film as a stand-alone exercise with no sequel potential would have been a wiser approach. The ending isn't totally unsatifactory (and admittedly the last shot had me tingling with fanboy excitement), but Prometheus stops shy of truly profound in favor of sequel-savvy.

Having said that, though, I really just enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Where it was good it was expertly crafted and where it was weak it wasn't distractingly weak. Here's hoping Ridley lives long enough to make a Prometheus sequel that really does answer all its own questions! But for now, I'm glad to add another to my list of "Worth The Waits."

Monday, June 4, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Hollywood has a hankering for reboots these days. It seems that every day a new adaptation of a classic legend or fairy tale is being announced or released, and Snow White is the flavor of the week. Mirror, Mirror - profoundly visual director Tarsem Singh's adaptation of the classic story - saw release little more than two months ago. And now, after much trailer-hype, Snow White and the Huntsman is in theaters.

The pre-release buzz around this film centered largely on two things: 1) how friggin' cool the trailer made it look and 2) snarky jokes about Kristen Stewart. I had pretty high hopes for this piece going in, though my optimism was still largely cautious: I've been burned by bad trailers before. But fortunately the film met almost every expectation I had and managed to overcome some pretty glaring flaws by its conclusion.


First off, even if you haven't seen this movie yet, you probably know more about it than you might think. Snow White and the Huntsman is a perfect example of the perfect ad campaign. The trailers give you a glimpse of exactly what the film is like. Many of the iconic and stunning imagery in the film already appears in the trailer, but it's none the worse for wear. I can think of plenty of movies that have had trailers that made them look terrible, only to find the opposite is true and vice versa. Or in the case of Watchmen, the trailers and tv spots didn't really clue you in to what the story was like or anything about the film other than the production design. Snow White and the Huntsman, however, is truthfully and beautifully represented by its ad campaign thus far.

Which brings me right to the next point: the production design. The costumes, the sets, the visual effects in this film; they're just magnificent. I've always been a big fan of fantasy and sword-n-sorcery type films, so this movie was right up my alley from the get-go. But rather than just rehashing tried and true formulas, there's a respect here for innovative design that belongs uniquely to this film. The world of Sanctuary (the part of the forest that the faeries rule over) was lush and beautiful; filled with one-eyed mushrooms and turtles covered in moss and other colorful plant life. It was a world full of vibrance and fervor and the camera delicately captured the glint of sunlight angling down through the tortuous branches above. Conversely the Dark Forest is grey and ashen; branches blackened and twisted in threatening positions. The castle from which the evil queen reigns is imposing and grand, but hints of its former glory shine through even the darkest of lighting techniques.

Another element of the film that I thought was delightfully crafted was where the film crossed over the existing Snow White legend, and more importantly the original Disney version. For example, remember the diaper-soiling terror of the Dark Forest in Disney's animated classic? Snow White crashes through branch and bush desperately trying to escape the Hellmouth that's opened just before her, as demons pour out shrieking obscenities and cursing the world above...maybe I'm remembering that wrong. Either way, it was a pretty freaky sequence for a kids movie, no? Snow White and the Huntsman takes another spin on that sequence, implying that the Dark Forest is filled with mushrooms that emit a hallucinogenic powder, thus inducing the nightmarish imagery we associate with the Dark Forest. And who knows, maybe Walt's team was on shrooms when they made that sequence anyway. But it was nice to see the film acknowledging its roots in fun and innovative ways.

Finally, the film hinges well on Kristen Stewart's performance. She gets a lot of crap for being a wooden actress, and I'm not going to claim she's lively and colorful. But one of her worst performances happens to be the biggest credit in her filmography, so her real skill as an actress is overshadowed by Twilight. Feel free to message me for the full rant on why Kristen Stewart is amazing, but the short of it is that the version of herself that she plays in Snow White and the Huntsman is perfect for this adaptation. She evinces sorrow and world-weariness with the subtlest of facial expressions, while behind her eyes seems a well of wisdom and grace. AND, she nails her accent beautifully.


The script itself leaves a good deal to be desired. It's adequate, but hardly admirable. A handful of lines feel forced, and the actors try their best to imbue them with as much sincerity as they can muster. But more than once I felt the audience stifle a snicker as a line that's clearly meant to be serious or profound just fell a bit flat.

Now I love Chris Hemsworth, the guy's a beast and a fine actor in his own right. But his Scottish accent left a bit to be desired. Maybe he should have just stuck with the Thor-voice. He tries, and he comes admirably close; but almost every line has a word or two that don't sound quite right and I found that distracting. Moreover at one point he starts a sentence with "Hey" and concludes it with "...ok?" which felt completely out of place amidst the rest of the film's "medieval" dialogue.


I can see why Snow White and the Huntsman is currently languishing in the mid-40s on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don't even disagree with the general consensus. But personally I found the movie's shortcomings were greatly outweighed by its strengths. Much like Tron: Legacy, the film is inherently flawed in a number of ways but manages to make up for said flaws with a solid dose of impressive and innovative visual effects. If you're among the throngs hellbent on poking fun at K-Stew's lack of acting prowess, you may find further challenge to your claims in this film.

This movie isn't likely to win any major awards or go down in history as a milestone of cultural achievement, but it's a well-crafted fantasy film with some spectacular mise en scene. It's a standalone film of course, but I found myself wanting to see more of the world of the film; almost itching for a sequel. I wanted to explore the history of these characters here and those symbols in that shot. It's a visually rich experience without being obsessive and the film is all the stronger for it. Moreover the film as a whole has a strong grasp of subtlety. The "love triangle" that sort of blossoms amongst Snow White, the Huntsman, and the Prince is tastefully understated; it was only after the credits rolled that it occurred to me that K-Stew was, yet again, caught in between two suitors. But without spoiling anything, I was very impressed with how delicately the entire situation was handled, and fortunately without the overuse of cliche.

I whole-heartedly recommend this movie if you're looking for a fun fantasy film with a little darkness to it. For an adaptation of existing works, it's strikingly original and just a lot of fun to look at as a cinematic spectacle.