Big Questions: Steve’s Reflection on Prometheus

Don’t you want to know? That is a recurring question in Prometheus, a movie filled with big questions. If you had the opportunity to talk to your creator, wouldn’t you want to participate in that conversation? Don’t you want to know who created us? Don’t you want to know why we were created? My favorite movie in 2011, The Tree of Life, asked big questions about the meaning of life, and since Prometheus promised to do the same, I listed it as my most anticipated movie in 2012. As it turns out, it won’t be my number 1 movie for the year, it had too many weaknesses to achieve that lofty position, but it was nonetheless lots of fun to watch and its big questions do provide plenty of food for thought.

Whereas The Tree of Life presented its questions in the context of family drama, Prometheus does so as a sci-fi/thriller/horror film hybrid. It certainly makes for an interesting experience to be pondering big questions while waiting for monsters to fill the screen with their gory exploits. Since this movie is a prequel to Alien (whether director Ridley Scott cares to call it that or not), the gore is expected, but the violent destructiveness of the aliens is not there simply for its shock value. It provides an important subtext to the questions that are being asked. What role does evil play, not only in the destruction of that which is created, but in creation itself. To put it in Biblical terms, where did that snake in the Garden of Eden come from anyway? Or, as David, the android played so well by Michael Fassbender, says, “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” This may sound counter to the Christian understanding of God as Creator, but it made me think of the story of the flood, and verses such as Isaiah 45:7 (I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.) and Ezekiel 17:24 (All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.).

If God is potentially destructive, why do we trust God to care for us? We trust that God is a loving God because that is what we choose to believe. The notion of choosing to believe is a recurring theme of the movie. This is especially true of the character Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace. Shaw chooses to believe that the alien beings that left evidence of their time on earth through cave drawings and other artifacts had something to do with our creation, thus giving them the name Engineers. This seems like quite a jump to make given the lack of evidence, but that is part of the big question about faith and why we believe what we believe. Faith does indeed seem to involve a leap. Shaw also chooses to believe that these beings have not simply left a map of their place in the universe, but that this map is more importantly an invitation. When Shaw (and the others) discover that these beings are not what they were expecting, she must face the challenge of altering her beliefs to fit the facts at hand. There is much to ponder here: why do you believe what you believe?; how have the facts of life altered your beliefs?

I appreciated the fact that the movie did not pit science against religion. Yes, there was one scientist who claimed to have no belief in a divine being because of the evidence of Darwinian evolution, but Shaw was both a scientist and a Christian believer, showing that these two things can go hand in hand. I would argue that they must go hand in hand. Religion that disregards science quickly becomes idolatry and science without faith will never be able to enter into the mystery of the big questions. That truth is handled wonderfully in the movie when David asks Shaw if finding out that the Engineers actually did create the human race would end her faith in God. She responds that the question of who created them would still remain.

Another Biblical allusion that caught my attention was a scene in which David has a drop of liquid which presumably has the alien DNA in it on the tip of his finger. He says something along the lines of “big things have small beginnings.” Having preached on the parable of the mustard seed that very morning, this line jumped out at me. As my co-blogger, Bill, has pointed out in a number of his posts, the theme of self-sacrifice is important throughout the Biblical narrative, including, of course, Christ himself, and that theme appears in a couple of interesting ways in Prometheus. I don’t want to include any huge spoilers here, so I won’t mention the sacrifice that comes late in the film, but I think its safe to point out the one that comes at the very beginning. The opening scene shows an Engineer who drinks a black liquid that seems to break down his body so that his DNA can mix with Earth’s water. It this where human life began? The movie doesn’t say so for sure, but it does seem that the Engineer is sacrificing his life in order to create life. What do you think?

Since seeing the movie a couple of days ago, I find myself thinking about the implications of many of the scenes. So much so, that I look forward to seeing it again to see how things strike me the second time around. As I said earlier, I don’t believe that this will be my top ranked movie for the year. At the moment, I rank it just a bit below The Hunger Games, another movie that gives us questions to ponder and one that I found to be more purely entertaining than Prometheus. Prometheus is well worth seeing, but it does contain those horror elements, so be prepared for that. Although, I actually didn’t find it to be all that scary or suspenseful. I didn’t find anything that happened to be all that surprising, which is part of what works against the movie’s impact. There has been much discussion about the weak writing of the movie and I would agree, but only in a certain sense. I’m not concerned that the movie left so many things unanswered. The movie was clearly designed with a sequel in mind, so the fact that the big questions are left hanging is not a big surprise. My chief concern was that too much of the dialogue was dumbed down. It was as if the screenwriters weren’t content with merely obvious, but had to push things to the point of being painfully obvious. I found myself snickering too many times at lines that weren’t meant to be funny. I also felt that the actions of the characters were too often ridiculous. Much of the crew was composed of scientists, but one wonders how these scientists made it onto the crew of this trillion-dollar endeavor. They paid so little regard to proper scientific methods. Now I know that in horror thrillers folks have to do foolish things in order to set up the consequences that follow, and that certainly happens here, but beyond that too many of the actions of the characters seemed simply ludicrous. Despite that, though, I enjoyed most of the characters and thought the acting was mostly quite strong, especially Fassbender. I wasn’t sure about Rapace early on, but her performance as Shaw grew on me. Charlize Theron’s performance as Vickers and Idris Elba as the ship’s captain, Janek, should also be mentioned. Not surprisingly, Scott has given the film a marvelous look and feel, which makes it a worthwhile place to spend a couple of hours pondering those big questions.

Attack the Block: an Enthusiastic Recommendation from Steve

I love this movie! Should you see it? Do you love all things British, including strong British accents? Do you love alien/monster/sci fi movies, especially those that make you jump out of your socks once in a while? Did you like Shaun of the Dead? How about District 9? Are you o.k. with a bit of gore, not bucket-loads, but a few quick, bloody scenes? Are you o.k. with “drug content and pervasive language”? Do you like movies that give you an opportunity to experience life in a place you have never been? Finally, are you willing to give characters who at first seem appalling a chance to develop? If you answered yes to those questions, then this movie is for you. If not, then maybe you better stick with this year’s other alien invasion movies, Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens. But, you’ll be losing out, because this movie is so much better than those.

Since Attack the Block was produced by the creators of Shaun of the Dead, that is a good place to start for comparison purposes. Block isn’t as funny as Shaun, but it was more fun. In part, it is a comedy, but it is so much more. I laughed louder to parts of this than I have to anything else this year. I thought the writing was brilliant, but you will have to listen closely. I’ve read complaints that the accents are so strong that the movie should have subtitles. The accents are strong and they are not simply British. They are black/Jamaican/gang British. I missed a few lines, but I found the language a delight to listen to. That use of language is part of what transports you to another place/culture, in this case the Block, a housing project in South London. The movie begins with a young white women getting mugged by a street gang. The rest of the movie follows this gang as they defend the Block from an alien invasion. Some people complain that they couldn’t get past the fact that these boys were muggers, even going so far as to say that they hoped all the gang members would be killed by the aliens. However, the movie does not glorify the actions of the gang. In fact, one of the key points of the movie is taking responsibility for one’s actions. It is no surprise that the gang and their victim cross paths again. Following a cliche in this genre, they not only cross paths, but must join forces to survive. The brilliance of the writing here is seen in the way this alliance is presented. It is not easy. They don’t want to be together, but they learn about life from each other. I appreciated how the lives of these characters were opened up for us, helping us to understand at least a little bit why they were like they were, but again not in order to justify their actions. There is a wonderful scene where Moses, the leader of the gang, tells Sam, their victim, that they wouldn’t have mugged her if they had known she was from the Block. She doesn’t let him off the hook, pointing out that his apology indicates that he still thinks it would be alright to mug someone who wasn’t from the Block. Scenes like that make this so much more than a simple comedy or parody of the alien/sci fi genre. I actually thought the social commentary here was stronger than in The Help.

I won’t describe the aliens for you. You can discover that for yourself. But I will say that they are not intelligent beings. They are nasty, vicious critters. Although the reason for their arrival on earth remains a mystery (which leads to a funny scene as the characters wonder why aliens would decide to attack a housing project in South London), the movie does a great job of explaining just enough. One of the keys for sci fi and other movies where strange things happen is for the movie to follow its own internal logic. This movie succeeds in that. A tip of the hat to Joe Cornish who wrote and directed this wonderful film. Quite an effort for a first time director! The cast is also quite strong. The only one you might recognize is Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Paul, Hot Fuzz, Pirate Radio) as a drug dealer, but this movie belongs to the young actors who do a marvelous job of bringing their characters to life. I certainly didn’t expect it, but there is better character development in this movie than in most that I have seen this year. This low budget project shows that you don’t get a great movie just by throwing money around. It takes a clever script, creative directing, heartfelt acting, suspense, and a good sense of humor. Attack the Block has all of that and more. Can you tell that I loved it? Believe!

Steve’s Summer Movie Wrap-up

Summer is over, at least unofficially, and so ends a rather uninspiring season at the theater. Earlier in the summer, my blog partner, Bill, wrote a column called “Bill’s Summer Movies…So far…” I was tempted to entitle this column “Summer Movies…So What!” There are a couple of keepers in the bunch, but overall I was unimpressed, which, explains at least in part why I’m just now getting around to writing about them. I’ll cover them in the order that they landed on my rankings, which I posted earlier. I’m including a couple of Spring releases that I haven’t blogged on yet, one that I saw then and one that I didn’t see until it was released on DVD.

Here we go…

Super 8 – I am not a huge Spielberg fan, but this Spielberg-produced movie, which is in so many ways an homage to his work, caught my fancy, so much so that it currently stands at No. 3 in my 2011 rankings. In addition to being an homage to Spielberg, this film is also an homage to childhood, the ’70’s, monster/sci-fi movies, and film-making itself. It is said that J.J. Abrams fell in love with movies at an early age and borrowed his father’s Super 8 camera to make his own movies. For the most part he does a good job here capturing the delight of kids stretching their artistic wings. Without a doubt, the movie is at its best when it focuses on the kids. While the acting of the adults in the film often seemed clichéd and perfunctory, I was impressed by the youthful actors, especially Elle Fanning. It is worth seeing the film just for her performance. The guys convince her character, Alice, to join them in making a zombie move. Alice is nervous because she’s never done any acting. This sets up a scene that Elle totally nails. Alice and one of the boys rehearse some dialogue and Alice’s performance is so powerful that the guys’ jaws drop, as did mine. She then follows that up with a self-effacing, “Was that o.k.?” Elle pulls off the difficult trick of seeming quite natural in her role as Alice, while at the same time kicking it up a notch when Alice is “acting” in the boys’ film. One of the boys (I forget which one) pulls off the opposite feat, seeming natural in his role, but then being quite wooden when his character is “acting.” Not as impressive as Elle, but quite good nonetheless. As good as the kids were, this movie falls far short of classic status. As already mentioned, the adults don’t come across well. The more the plot involves them, the sillier it becomes. The revelation that the military mistreated the alien is a bit obvious in its stab at our societies difficulty with outsiders (for more on that issue, see The X-Men). Which brings us to the problem of the alien itself. After all the alien movies these past few years, it is hard to present an alien that is very shocking (see Cowboys & Aliens). In this case, I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to feel about the interplanetary visitor. Were we to have empathy because he was abused? Did that really excuse the fact that he was quite nasty? And why was he capturing people, to eat them? Much of the plot dealing with the alien didn’t make much sense. I think they shouldn’t have even shown the alien, just left it a mystery, and kept more of the focus on the kids. Be that as it may, this was still the best movie that I had the opportunity to see this summer.

Source Code – I somehow missed this when it was in the theaters, but I saw it this summer on DVD. This is quite the concoction: a sci-fi/mystery/action/thriller/love story. As rare as that complicated combination of elements may seem at first glance, this movie actually finds itself in company with this year’s Adjustment Bureau and last year’s Inception. Of those, I like Adjustment Bureau the most. While Inception is a dazzling achievement, I think that Source Code is a whole lot more fun and, as such, provides a better viewing experience. Yes, the premise is a bit ridiculous, the ability to send someone into the last eight minutes of another person’s memories to try to solve a crime and prevent another terrorist attack. The movie struggles to maintain its own twisted logic, but that really doesn’t matter. Despite all the other adjectives, at heart this is a love story (as were Bureau and Inception) and in its own strange way it worked for me. This has been called a sci-fi Groundhog Day and that comparison is certainly appropriate. While this film lacks the whimsy of Groundhog Day, it does find some clever ways to work with the tricky scenario of repeating the same eight minutes over and over again. Though he is no Bill Murray, I was surprised by the effectiveness of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance here. While hardly Oscar-worthy, he does a nice job of moving from confused to reckless to in control of the situation. Most importantly, since this is a love story, he presents his character in such a way that you can feel him falling in love and understand why Michelle Monaghan’s character would fall for him. There were huge holes in the plot, but I really enjoyed watching this and isn’t that really the bottom line when it comes to movies.

Cowboys & Aliens – Yep, this movie was a mess. I had high hopes for it, which certainly were not met, but I still enjoyed this more than most people seemed to. As with Super 8, one of the big problems was the aliens. When they appeared, it felt too much like been there, seen that. The one big change was that the aliens’ chests opened to reveal a set of arms. Really? And the aliens were here to look for gold. Really? Well, I guess everyone was searching for gold in the Old West! And the aliens captured people to study our weaknesses. Really? Shoot us and we die. How much studying does that require? To transition to the Cowboys in the title, there was also a problem with how the humans reacted to the aliens. Sure, they saw them as a dangerous foe, but they still seemed to take the appearance of the aliens too much in stride. These were aliens, in spaceships shooting laser beams, in 1873! Despite all those shortcomings, the human side of the story still drew me in. Sure it was filled with clichés, but I thought they were kind of fun in this context. Harrison Ford has indicated that he simply mailed his performance in, but I liked him as the grumpy cattle baron. Paul Dano was a hoot as his son. He sure knows how to play an obnoxious jerk. Unfortunately, after the aliens nabbed him, we didn’t see much more of him. It was Daniel Craig, though, who saved the movie for me. I loved his stoic looks as he tried to figure out who the heck he was and why he had this metal thing on his arm. Because I so enjoyed him here, I finally got around to watching Casino Royale last night. I now look forward to seeing more of his work. There is definitely something about those eyes! Finally, this movie had some of the clearest spiritual themes of the big summer movies. The name of the town was Absolution! Maybe some of it was a bit over the top, but the idea that God is not concerned with what we did, but with what we do, is an interesting notion to ponder.

X-Men: First Class – This movie was most definitely not on my must-see list for the summer. As I mentioned in my review of Thor, I’ve grown a bit tired of superhero movies. Also, as superhero movies go, I could hardly be called a big fan of the X-Men series. I’m pretty sure I saw the first one on tv at some point, but that’s about it. Even though this one had received fairly good reviews, I was quite satisfied to let it leave town without seeing it, just like Pirates 4 before it. But my son convinced me to go to this and I’m glad he did. This movie restored my faith in superhero movies, at least for the time being. I found the story and characters to be more engaging than in most superhero movies. The notion of human mutation makes enough sense, but my one complaint in regard to the X-Men is that the particular mutations that they present strike me as ludicrous. That being said, and whereas all superheros are misfits in their own way, the X-Men series seems to tackle the issue of prejudice against outsiders in a deeper way. There certainly seem to be undertones of the gay/lesbian experience here. For instance, when the Beast reveals something about himself the others didn’t know, someone says, “You never told us.” The Beast responds, “You never asked.” Hmm, don’t ask, don’t tell? Overall, the performances were solid. Jennifer Lawrence, who was so spectacular in Winter’s Bone, could have been put to better use here, but that’s the problem with large ensemble casts. (I don’t know how they are going to give everyone enough screen time in The Avengers!) My only real complaint was Kevin Bacon. I usually like him, and I thought he was good here in his opening scene, but after that his performance reminded me too much of his role as Chip Diller in Animal House!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – I’ve mentioned plot holes and ridiculous notions in many of these reviews, but in this movie stupidity rose to its highest level for the summer. I thought the script was atrocious. Of course, James Franco did warn us. He said the intelligent stuff was cut to focus more on the apes. Given his acting here, that was an intelligent move. He was definitely out-acted by a bunch of CGI simians! (Overall, the CGI stuff was pretty impressive.) Seeing Franco in this reaffirmed for me how great a director Danny Boyle is. How did he coax such a fine performance out of Franco in 127 Hours? But, again, when all is said and done, this movie, despite being incredibly stupid, was actually quite fun to watch. So what if I laughed for all the wrong reasons, at least I laughed (which is more than I can say for the next movie in this list).

Harry Potter 7.2 – Let me start by clearly stating that I am not a big fan of the Harry Potter movies. If I’m going to watch a movie featuring a Potter, I’ll take It’s a Wonderful Life any day. I would probably say that this was the best of the eight films, but that is faint praise. At least I stayed awake through all of this one. I can’t quite put my finger on why this series never cast a spell on me. It seems like something I should really like. Part of the problem stems from the early films where it felt like no one was quite concerned enough about Valdemort. Here was this great force of evil and everyone seemed to go on with life as if nothing was particularly wrong. Finally, in these last two installments they seemed to take the threat seriously, but by then they had already lost me. Whatever.

Captain America – Along with Thor, Captain America was my favorite superhero in my younger years. Now, in the same year they both make their way to the big screen and, unfortunately, I found both movies to be deeply disappointing. Roger Ebert gave Captain America fairly high marks because he thought it had a better story than most superhero movies. I disagree. I give best superhero screenplay of the summer to X-Men without a question. I thought the story here was hackneyed. Weakling becomes hero…whoop-di-do. Guy and gal fight at first, then fall in love. Sure didn’t see that coming. Frankly, I was bored. This movie added to its sins by wasting the talents of Hugo Weaving. Then there was the look of the film, which I really didn’t like. I assume they chose the muted colors to give it a retro feel since it was set in the 1940s. At times it looked almost black and white, a problem that was exacerbated by those darn 3D glasses which make everything appear darker. Dull story, dull colors, nuff said.

The Music Never Stopped – I actually saw this one in an art house theater when I was in St. Louis in April. I should have gone to Win Win  or Certified Copy. I wanted to love this movie. I didn’t. I should have cried a bucket of tears. I didn’t even weep. Although this had received mixed reviews, I thought it would be perfect for me. A movie about a father/son relationship and the power of music to connect us to our memories and bring healing, starring J.K. Simmons, how could it miss? It did. Lou Taylor Pucci, as the son, was bland. I didn’t like Simmons as the rock and roll hating father early in the film. I guess you weren’t supposed to like him. But then, his shift to caring, compassionate father was too quick, too easy. There were a few good scenes, especially the one where Gabriel, the son, first hears the Beatles and shows a spark of recognition and life, but they were few and far between. Most of it felt forced and phoney, including the climatic trip to the Grateful Dead concert. If you love music or the Grateful Dead in particular, you should still probably see this. Or maybe you shouldn’t.