Searching The Stars For Answers

In space, axes will have inexplicable curves in them.

As director Ridley Scott’s first science fiction film in almost 30 years, it’s hard not to have expectations and compare Prometheus with his first effort Alien, but though both films contain foreboding atmosphere and slithery troglodytes who have a habit of reproducing with people in a rather uncomfortable manner, Prometheus is ultimately more about the questions that Alien never had time to worry about since it was too busy bursting out of your chest and menacing Ellen Ripley in a cramped escape pod. Beyond the horror that Alien instilled in us was a question that the film asks from the get go; where does life come from, and what would we do if we came face-to-face with our makers?

It’s these ideas that drive Prometheus’ story, and though its characters may occasionally un-subtlely state them, it also preserves a genuine sense of awe and purpose to the questions that linger in the back of our minds. Our characters reflect this, Noomi Rapace, esteemed for playing un-readableness and intensity as Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo fame, here plays Ellie Shaw, an archeologist who believes she has found a map left behind by beings that were responsible for the creation of men. Ellie is motivated by her faith in the search for answers, while her boyfriend Charlie (Logan-Marshal Green) is just as motivated, but his curiosity is of the more scientific kind. Financing the mission to the planet of their suspected creators is the Weyland corp (Of which Alien fans will no doubt recognize) represented by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theoron) who maintains an almost unnatural poise of calm and professionalism, and acts as the most practical and skeptical of the crew.

There is also David, given eerie grace and tactile emotion by Michael Fassbender, an android whose creation and search for answers echoes the journey of the crew to find theirs as well. Fassbender is fantastic in his role, bringing curiosity and concern to the character, while still maintaining his air of artificiality that robots cannot escape. He adds upon his personality by incorporating human actions (He watches Lawrence of Arabia and styles his hair after a young Peter O’Toole, who he could almost be a double for) as well as making some sly jabs at the rest of the crew.

The film has a great sense of scope to it, from the opening shots of Iceland displaying the ridges of pristine valleys and lakes that take on an almost primordial quality, to a towering dust storm flows over the surface of the planet like the wrath of God seeking to punish those dare to search for our origin. When the film narrows it’s focus it loses a small part of itself due to many of the crew members besides the captain, Janek (Idris Elba of The Wire) making little impression beyond their job, which is really nothing new (Despite what film critics will claim) when compared to the crew of the Nostromo in Alien.

Though the nature of what the would-be pilgrims discover in a monolithic temple full of strange, cylinder shaped vessels should be seen without spoilers, a number of scenes stand out as particularly provocative. David’s discovery of a navigation room within the engineers building” communicates all we need to know about the their technology and their reach throughout the Universe, all through the use of images and gestures. Ridley even manages to exceed, or at least level with, the horror of the alien’s birth of previous films with a harrowing sequence depicting a hasty caesarian section that is just as gruesome and disturbing as the bloody body-horror of the first film.

The films narrative is slightly skewed in a way that means a lot of characters seem to be encountering separate dangers when it feels like the whole crew should be altered to them. Each of these comes back to the themes of meeting one’s creator, and discovering that they are not what you expected to find, as well as the importance of belief and not stopping with the answers we discover. It’s just a shame that they seem to happen in a random order and some of the crew seem entirely oblivious to them, as they wouldn’t be if there were a hostile Xenomorph on the loose.

In many ways, the movies’ “show, don’t tell” approach is the both its strongest element and the one most likely to frustrate audiences. Since the whole journey (and ostensibly the movie itself) has been about the search for answers, some might find it’s refusal to answer these disingenuous, due to many aspects of the engineers and their planet remaining in the dark. In this way, Prometheus is the opposite of Alien, which gave distinct rules to the creatures and anchored them in the realm of the physical, while Prometheus allows the observant viewer to pick up clues and draw their own conclusions.

Ultimately Prometheus doesn’t offer clear-cut answers because its questions are not ones that can be answered by simple explanations; rather they are the things that one must uncover in the course of one’s life. A lesser movie might have tried to explain everything  by having another character figure it out, but Prometheus admits that no journey, even one to meet our creators, could possibly satisfy us, only lead to more questions. Because of it’s refusal to give us easy answers, we, like Ellie Shaw, are made aware of the importance of continuing the search for these, and thus the search for our physical origin becomes a spiritual journey to understand our place in the vast, unknown universe that is the human soul.

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A stitch in time fails to save a once promising franchise.

J and K are in the past, but not much of a blast

It seems as though it’s a rule that every time travel movie must include a sequence where someone dies/is killed, only for them to rewind their fate and change it thanks to their foreknowledge. Galaxy Quest did it, rather effectively I might add, and Source Code was basically putting this trope on overdrive, despite it fitting more into the alternate universe theory of things. It’s essentially a way of building drama instead of placing the characters in situations where the audience feels confident they will escapes since there are still 15 minutes left of the movie to go. The best advice I can give for this development is to make it a significant part of the story, and not just a convenient drama rouser like it is in Men In Black 3.

There are a lot of time travel hijinks going on in MIB3, which delves into the past our favorite stony-browed, deadpan senior Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) after a past foe, Boris the Animal (No, not the spider), breaks out of his maximum security cell and comes gunning for him by assassinating him in the past, much to the dismay of his partner, he of the snappy comebacks and penchant for getting covered in alien slime, Agent J (Will Smith). In order to save his partner and also stop an alien invasion of the planet (Is there ever any other mission the MIB have?) J must travel back to 1969 and save K’s past self (Here played by Josh Brolin doing a dead-on impression of Jones’ trademark no-nonsense stare)

Given that the last movie of the franchise came out ten years ago, one would expect that this one would take some time to re-introduce it’s characters and allow them to ease us back into their winning banter they have perfected. Strangely enough though, MIB3 is surprisingly anxious to return to it’s form of alien-hunting, and creepy creature effects, so much so that it’s a little hard at first to keep up with everything. It assumes that the viewers are rather up to date when it comes to how the leads interact with each other, and spends most of it’s time building on K’s past history and how he got to be so emotionally detached.

This does contrast well with K when we meet him in 1969, who is still stern and deadpan, but does crack a smile at a joke and adds a warmth that was only hinted at during previous films. After putting aside his doubts once J has arrived into the past (In a sequence that is not only a fairly clever depiction of time travel, but some of the only good uses of 3D I have seen to date) K and J play off each other nicely, though slightly awkwardly given their circumstances.

One of the problems with the movie’s narrative is how often it  underutilizes the details of it’s setting for it’s jokes. Apart from a couple bits early on which rather bluntly establish how people in that time viewed J’s ethnic group, the only real good influence comes from Bill Hader as Andy Warhol, who gets some great yuks in as he lambasts the surrealist movement and points them in the direction of a timid 5th dimensional being (Michael Stuhlberg, evoking both wonder and innocence with his Fremen-like eyes) who carries the traditional mcguffin that will save the Earth. Underused is also Emma Thompson as a fellow Agent from K’s past who acts as both a love interest and red herring for him.

During all of this, J does the fish-out-of-his-own-time thing rather blandly, perhaps because he’s on a rescue mission and doesn’t have time to stop and sightsee. Culture clashes mainly come in the form of the outdated and primitive devices the 1969 MIB carry (K’s neurolyzer has to be hooked up to a grounder that makes that ancient dial-up sound) When it comes time for the final set piece, the film descends into the rote defeat the bad guy before the time runs out plot, which finishes soundly but rather dully given the finale’s of the past. A kind of descending action afterward seems to tie things together, but the elements of it appear almost out of nowhere, and make it feel tacked on and superfluous.

Boris receives a sweet surprise. And a cake too.

Special consideration though should be given to the villain of the film, Boris, who is appropriately creepy enough (His entrance is probably his best moment) and menacing enough to threaten, (He talks with a dignified accent, Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords giving him an air of a cultured psychopath, but his design seems to limit the physicality the actor can give to the villain and make him truly memorable) but really doesn’t get to have the same fun scenes as Laura Flynn Boyle or Edward the Bug did in previous films. He does look hilariously at home among the flower children of the 1960s  where he sports a ZZ top beard and bandana.

The whole movie is sort of like the decade it’s trying to ape, confused and at war with itself. MIB always been best when it’s placing both of it’s stars in ridiculous and hilarious out of this world danger, while finding time to slip as many jokes about aliens living on Earth as possible. That New York is not so subtly home to extraterrestrials disguised as Chinese waiters or underwear models (And, I might add, there are no “tabloids as truth” references this time around) has been one of the elements that have given the series such value as a franchise, but they fail to achieve the same result when it shifts to the past, and herein lies the weak link. Rather than being a compelling new chapter in the trilogy, it’s more likely to make you want to go back and revisit the first two, whose originality and humor remain timeless, rather than stuck in time.