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.

Steve’s Oscar Predictions: Part Three – Director and Picture

It’s been a good year at the movies. Although nothing really stands out as an all-time great movie, there certainly was a good variety of things to see, as represented by the Best Picture nominees. There were certainly fine movies and directors who failed to get nominated, but those that were have given us plenty to ponder. So, with no further ado, we’re on to the big two.

Best Director

Seen: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Martin Scorsese (Hugo)

Will Win: Martin Scorsese – The field is tightly packed. A strong case could be made for any of these five. Four of these films are in my top five for the year. Hugo didn’t even make my top ten, yet I think Scorsese will win this Oscar. Many critics have applauded his wonderful use of 3D, but I think it is the 3D that caused its low placement in my rankings. I do not like 3D! I’m looking forward to seeing Hugo again soon at home in 2D. I think Scorsese will win because, even though he won the Oscar for The Departed, the Academy still feels that it owes him for letting so much of his great work go unrewarded. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Hugo is a love song to movie-making. Of course, The Artist is also such a love song, but I think Hazanavicius will lose out as a both an outsider and a newcomer. Although, I wouldn’t be surprized if he does win.

Should Win: Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life was an incredible feat of movie-making. It had a grand vision. True, it is not for everyone, mostly because Malick was too caught up in his vision, but nonetheless I would like to see such a bold and personal effort be rewarded.

Best Picture

Seen: The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life

Haven’t Seen: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, War Horse

Will Win: The Artist – This movie was charming, but is that enough to win Best Picture? I think it will be. The story wasn’t particularly deep, but it was effective. Will the Academy vote for a silent film shot in black and white? Again, I think it will. In its own way, this was a bold piece of film-making so I think we will see a dog on stage Sunday evening.

Should Win: The Tree of Life – This was the best film of the year, despite its flaws. Some found parts of it to be boring (and I’ll agree that the creation scene went on a little too long), but I found parts of The Artist to be dull, too. Overall, The Tree of Life is epic work, as close to great as anything came this year. It was deep. It was profound. I can’t wait to see it again and again. I love movies because of movies like this!

Steve’s Oscar Predictions – Part One

The big night is almost here! Sure, it could be argued that the Oscars are meaningless or even worse than meaningless, but isn’t that true of most things in life? Does it really matter who wins the Super Bowl? The World Series? The World Cup? The Nobel prizes? Whether or not such things are truly important, they still are a lot of fun. Part of the fun is predicting the winners, so over the next few days I’ll take my shot at picking the winners of this Sunday’s Oscars. I’ll skip the technical categories because they are just a shot in the dark. For each category I’ll let you know which films I have actually seen, who I think will win, and who should win. With no further ado…lights, camera, action!

Best Original Screenplay

Seen: Midnight in Paris, The Artist, Bridesmaids

Haven’t Seen: A Separation, Margin Call

Will Win: Midnight in Paris – the best Woody Allen movie in years deserves to win something! The Artist will win its share (maybe more than its share) of statues on Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine a silent film winning best screenplay. That just wouldn’t seem right, but I won’t be too surprised if it happens. I’m still pulling for Woody, though.

Should Win: A Separation – I know I just said I’m pulling for Woody, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I think he should win. No, I haven’t seen A Separation yet (it takes a long time for Iranian films to make it to Montana!), but, from everything I’ve read, it sounds like it deserves this award.

Shouldn’t Even Be Nominated: Bridesmaids – I’m in danger of making enemies here, but I simply didn’t think Bridesmaids was well written. It wasn’t particularly funny or clever.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Seen: The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides of March, Moneyball

Haven’t Seen: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Will Win: The Descendants – This won at the Writer’s Guild of America awards, so I think it will follow suit here, but I’m not sure it deserves it. Some of the writing was the best of the year, but I also thought that some of the writing was near the worst of the year. O.k., that is a bit harsh. None of it was as bad as what I saw in Thor and a few other movies, but some of it simply rang so untrue that I’m not sure it merits the Oscar.

Should Win: Moneyball – this script wasn’t perfect either, but it didn’t whiff as badly as Descendants. It also managed the difficult task of taking a book about using statistics to put together a ball team and made it into a very entertaining film, so it gets my nod.

Best Animated Feature

Seen: Rango

Haven’t Seen: A Cat in Paris, Chico & Rita, Puss in Boots, Kung Fu Panda 2

Will Win: Rango – Am I even qualified to make a prediction having seen only one nominee? Well, few people have seen A Cat in Paris or Chico & Rita, so I’m not alone there. Even though I haven’t seen either Puss or Panda, I certainly feel confident in predicting that Rango will win.

Should Win: Rango – Here I suppose I am even less qualified to offer an opinion, but Rango was one of my favorite movies of the year (it should be up for Best Picture!), so I stand by my uninformed, but wildly enthusiastic, opinion that it should win!

Best Original Score

Seen: The Artist, Hugo

Haven’t Seen: The Adventures of Tintin, Warhorse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Will Win: The Artist – Alright, alright, I’ve only seen two of these, but I’ll be surprised if The Artist doesn’t win. For starters, it is a “silent film” so the score is vitally important and overall it works well, although I thought it could have been a bit more subtle in a couple of scenes. I also think the split votes for John Williams (Tintin and Warhorse) will help The Artist. Hugo could be the dark horse in this race.

Should Win: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes, I know it’s not even nominated, but I think that is one of the biggest snubs of the year. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music was incredible! I didn’t see another movie this year where the music so powerfully became a part of the storytelling. Reznor and Ross are outsiders, so after their surprising win last year for The Social Network, I think the Academy made sure that wouldn’t happen again by seeing to it that they weren’t nominated this time.

Coming Attractions: Check back soon for my predictions on the acting categories and then director and best picture.

Steve’s Initial Reactions to the Oscar Nominations

Today’s a big day for us movie fanatics. The Oscar nominations have been announced. We rejoice when the movies and performances that touched us in a special way this past year are recognized with a nomination. We lament when they are snubbed. We scratch our heads and wonder how that received a nomination. Should we  even care what the Academy says? Should there even be awards for movies? Is art meant to be a competition? Woody Allen doesn’t think so, but I bet he’s at least a little bit pleased that Midnight in Paris was nominated for best picture and that he was nominated for best director. I know they made me happy. Here are few other random reactions.

Best Picture

I’ve seen 5 of the 9 nominated films. Of those, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and Midnight in Paris hold the top three spots in my rankings for the year, so I’m obviously glad to see them here. I’m especially pleased that The Tree of Life was nominated. Yes, it’s self-indulgent at times and the creation stuff should have been much shorter, but it is a deep and rich film that demands multiple viewings. I enjoyed it much more the second time and will definitely watch it over and over through the years. I thought that Hugo was quite good, but not great. Maybe it was that despicable 3D that ruined it for me. The Help is way overrated, but it’s no surprise it was nominated. The Descendants comes to Bozeman on Friday, so I’ll be seeing that soon. I hope The Artist makes it here before the Oscars, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m skeptical about that one. It seems a bit slight, but I’ll withhold judgement until I see it. At least it looks worthy of seeing in a theatre. On the other hand, War Horse came to town, but I didn’t bother going to see it. I’ll wait for it on DVD. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close? Really? A 46 at Metacritic? I have a feeling it was nominated for the wrong reasons. I’m so, so, so glad that Bridesmaids wasn’t nominated!

Acting Categories

I’m simply delighted that Rooney Mara was nominated for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have some issues with the film overall, but I thought she was fabulous! Glad to see Brad Pitt nominated for Moneyball, he was great in it, but he was even better in Tree of Life. I think the aforementioned self-indulgence by director Terrance Malik cost Pitt here. Get the DVD and just watch Pitt’s scenes. You’ll see the best acting performance of the year! I’m definitely not a Jonah Hill fan, but I thought he was also brilliant in Moneyball, so glad to see him nominated. Haven’t yet seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but I was pleased to see Gary Oldman get a nom. I’ve been a fan of his since Sid and Nancy. Jessica Chastain had such an incredible year that she had to be nominated for something! Her performance was one of the things I liked about The Help, but, like Pitt, she should have been nominated for Tree of Life. (Haven’t seen Taking Shelter yet). There was much that I loathed about Bridesmaids but I did like Melissa McCarthy. I haven’t seen Drive yet (next week on Netflix), but I’m intrigued by the many comments about it being snubbed, especially Albert Brooks for supporting actor. I would have loved to have seen Elle Fanning nominated for supporting actress in Super 8. That movie failed in many ways, but she was fabulous! Take a look at the scene where her character is giving her first try at acting in the zombie movie the boys are filming. Fabulous! Fabulous! Fabulous!

Animated

Rango is not just my favorite animated movie of the year, it’s one of my favorites over all, so I was pissed when The Adventures of Tin Tin stole the Golden Globe! It won’t steal the Oscar. It wasn’t even nominated!! A shout out to my co-blogger Bill who just posted a reflection wondering whether it even made sense to do Tin Tin as an animated film. Was he anticipating the Oscar snub?

Biggest Disappointment

Speaking of snubs, I can’t believe that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross weren’t nominated for Original Score for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m a big Nine Inch Nails fan, but beyond that I thought their music was perfect. I can think of few movies where the music so powerfully enhanced the action on the screen. Their music made you feel the tension. Shame on you, Academy! This was your biggest mistake of the year. I have a feeling they see Reznor and Ross as outsiders and didn’t want to give them the chance of winning an Oscar two years in a row.

That’s it for now. Check back for more Oscar musings (and predictions) as  I see more of the films and as the day draws closer. Until then, happy viewing!

The Tree of Life: Steve Recommends a Near Masterpiece

In The Tree of Life director Terrence Malick strives to create a masterpiece. He nearly succeeds. This is a strange and fascinating film. It is also one of the most deeply spiritual films of this, or any, year. A good portion of the dialog is not between the characters themselves, but between various characters and God. In other words, it is prayer. These prayers serve as narration throughout the movie. Most of the prayers are variations on the question, “Where are you, God?” The opening words of the movie come from God, or at least from God’s response to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job demanded that God give him some explanation for his suffering, especially in light of his innocence. I’ve never been quite satisfied with God’s response to Job. God essentially says, “I’m God and you’re not, so deal with it!” Job accepts God’s answer, but I’m not sure that I do. If God is the great creator, doesn’t he have something to answer for given the magnitude of suffering in the world, especially the suffering of the innocent. Pondering that question is one of the major themes of the movie. Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to accept God’s answer to Job. In various ways, the movie indicates that all things come from God, both good and bad, and that bad things will indeed happen to good people. We need to simply accept that. It is possible that the movie also wants to claim that there is a plan behind all that happens, but that is never stated explicitly. In fact, few things in this movie are stated explicitly! This is a movie for pondering big questions, not necessarily giving any answers. I’m not comfortable with some of the answers that are hinted at, but I salute Malick for making a movie that dares to go places few other movies do.

There is no doubt Malick and his film will be saluted time and again during the award season. It will be interesting to see if that leads to an Oscar or two. Generally the critics love this movie, but there is also a vocal contingent among critics and general viewers who loathe this movie. Maybe that is true if all great art, you either love it or hate it, it doesn’t allow you to remain neutral. I’ve read many comments about how boring some folks find this movie to be. I can understand that reaction. In a sense, not much happens in terms of plot. Most of the movie focuses on the day to day life of a family in Waco, Texas in the ’50’s. But then again, you get the creation of the earth, complete with dinosaurs and a view of the afterlife (or at least, it seems to be the afterlife). That’s pretty big stuff! Of course, it does take some work to sort through the connections between the big stuff and the particularities of this family’s life. I urge you to see the movie, but do so knowing that it is a movie about images, rather than about narrative and plot. While watching the movie, my 14 year old son remarked, “This doesn’t make sense.” I responded, “Don’t worry about that. Just let the images work on you.” I think that is the right approach to watching this movie. And some of those images are incredible! I am tempted to continue on with what I feel that those images convey, but I think I’ll leave that for a later reflection piece. Instead, I’ll close this recommendation with a brief explanation why I refer to this as a “near” masterpiece and why I rank it at number 2 for the year (so far). As grand as the movie-making is here, the movie never truly drew me in. I was delighted by portions of it (especially the scenes dealing with the births and early years of the boys), but I was not moved by it. I shed nary a tear. For me, that is important. Strangely enough, in a movie that ponders grace, I did not feel grace. But, I’ll certainly be giving The Tree of Life another shot. There is so much to see here. Flawed though it may be, don’t miss it!

Steve’s 2011 Rankings: A New Number Two

I’ve added The Tree of Life and Terri to my rankings. Take a look!