TBT – Prometheus (2012)

alien, fucking beautiful, fucking creepy, fucking scary, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbender, prequel, Ridley Scott, sci-fi, TBT

I’m going to be honest, as much as I’ve defended Prometheus to people it’s a film that I had, until very recently, only watched once and that was just after it was released on DVD. Yes, I didn’t even watch it in the cinema. That, obviously, hasn’t stopped me feeling qualified to defend it and, if there’s one thing you can be absolutely sure of about me by now, I won’t back down in an argument regardless of how much I know/remember about a topic. Especially if I think I’m morally superior. And, when it comes to Prometheus, I am definitely on the moral high ground. A lot of people I know have unduly criticised this film because it wasn’t what they were expecting. It’s a similar situation to the time I nearly ruined an old friendship because of the film Hugo: they hated it because they thought it was going to be a kid’s adventure instead of a love-story to cinema. People were so desperate for another Alien that anything else was bound to be torn apart. It’s nonsense. Ridley Scott always made his intentions for the film super clear and warned audiences not to go in with any stupid expectations. Is it the film’s fault if they didn’t listen and just wanted another Sigourney Weaver type killed massive black alien creatures? No. Look, I’m not a stubborn monster who isn’t willing to listen to people’s reasoned arguments about why it’s a terrible film. I myself think it has a few major issues. However, if you’re only going to negatively compare it to one of the best films of all time… well, let’s just say, in my head nobody can hear you moan.

Prometheus had a lot to live up to when it was first released. It was Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise and it was our chance to finally understand more about the history of the alien corpse that the crew of the Nostromo discovered in the first film. It promised to set us on a path that would answer a lot of questions that have been raised over the years. Strictly speaking, it isn’t a prequel but a film that is related to the later films whilst being a story in its own right. It exists in the same universe but don’t expect too many moments of face-hugging or chest-bursting. Especially after Damon Lindelof got his hands on the first draft and erased as many Alien-isms as possible. Prometheus, as the name would suggests, deals with humanity’s relationship with their creators. Prometheus was the Titan who went against the wishes of the Gods and gave mankind fire. For that act of treason, he was banished and punished by the Gods. He gave humanity fire and was then forced to have birds eat his liver every day for eternity. So, if there’s one thing that the crew of the Prometheus ship should know, you don’t fuck with your God/Gods.
Regardless, the crew set out on a journey to discover where they came from. After discovering various cave paintings depicting mankind worshipping God-like figures and a mysterious star chart. They decide to follow the map and track the beings, who they dub The Engineers, to the distant moon LV-223. After receiving funding from the Weyland Corporation, Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) lead the mission to try and find the creatures they believe created mankind. They are, naturally, joined by a whole host of staple sci-fi supporting characters. The gruff and distant Commander (Charlize Theron), the laid back but dependable Captain (Idris Elba) and the naive biologist and clearly destined to be the first to die (Rafe Spall).
Most importantly, in terms of both plot and scene stealing, is the mega creepy android, David (Michael Fassbender). He was created to be as human-like as possible and is more than capable of feeling those pesky emotions that most robotic creatures tend to avoid. It clearly spells trouble and, despite everyone else being unable to see it, David obviously has his own secret agenda. Fassbender is the breakout star of the show and brings a new level of fucking creepy to androids. Everything about the performance works to make David seem more inhuman and uncanny. It’s amazing. 
Less outstanding are the rest of the performances. I’m afraid, no matter how much I love her, I never really got behind Noomi Rapace in this role. She never quite sells the character or her relationship with fellow scientist Dr Holloway. I realise that we’re trying to avoid comparing this with its predecessors but, when you’re part of the franchise that invented badass, sci-fi women, Prometheus needed Dr Shaw to really pack a punch. She doesn’t. Equally, Charlize Theron is kind of thrust into a underwhelming role where she has little to do other than (SPOILER) die in the most unnecessary way possible, What is it with people not being able to run away from something properly? She and Rickon need to start a club. 
Anyway, that’s not to say that Prometheus doesn’t have some good moments. It’s not that the characters are completely underwhelming, it’s just that they don’t feel as developed as they need to be. And that’s not to say that we needed hours of background and context for them. We know basically fuck all about the crew of the Nostromo in Alien but they felt more like cohesive characters than a lot of these ones. The only one who comes close to Fassbender is Idris Elba’s captain but even he can only do so much with so little. Prometheus falls down under the weight of it’s own expectations. It wanted to do so much that the important details suffered. It was great that Ridley Scott wanted to explore the background of this universe and go a little existential. However, it was huge task. Somewhere along the way it became too much. 
The narrative shows promise but has so many twists, turns and unanswered questions that it feels a little shoddy. Now, I did like the open ending and the secrets that were left unrevealed but it still felt like it wasn’t enough. There is too much predictability at play here and a lot of the dialogue is just awful. There’s so much going on and it never feels like it all forms one major plot. It’s too fragmented and separate. There needed to be more clarity. The big action and horror set-pieces are great but, even with these bursts of excitement, there is no real momentum to this film. It doesn’t feel like it’s moving anywhere and it’s easy to get distracted along the way. It wastes more time on myths and legends that don’t matter than in answering the questions we wanted answers to. It’s still watchable, though. Of course, that is mostly down the fantastic design and Fassbender’s haunting performance. Ridley Scott can still pull some great sci-fi moments out of his hat but this film needed a much stronger script. I commend the idea of what this film should have been but Prometheus could never have achieved everything it set out to be… so it didn’t.

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

CGI, family, James Franco, meh, prequel, review, Sam Raimi, Wizard of Oz

There have been a great number of attempts to make money from L. Frank Baum’s series of novels set in the magical world of Oz. Dating back to well before the insanely popular 1939 film starring Judy Garland. Although none of the films released before or after Victor Fleming’s family favourite have ever captured our imagination in quite the same way. The Wizard of Oz is one of those sacred classic films that has a firm place in many people’s hearts and the idea of trying to top it would bring fear into the heart of most filmmakers. If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s fuck about with MGM’s Oz spectacular. Although, in more recent years audiences have been embracing Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and its subsequent hit Broadway musical. With narratives looking back at the land of Oz before it was discovered by Dorothy and her little dog too, they gave Disney more than enough excuse to delve into the untold history of another key figure. So it is that we find ourselves here in 2013 pulling back the curtain a little further and shedding more life onto the mysterious wizard himself.

Sam Raimi’s new film introduces us to the pitiful carnival conjurer Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs who is reduced to entertaining country bumpkins throughout Kansas despite dreaming of the level of fame achieved by true magic men Harry Houdini and Thomas Eddison. This young Oz is a lothario who cons his way into women’s beds and creates cheap tricks to keep the masses amused. However, he fails to live up to the greatness of his heroes. His downtrodden assistant (Zach Braff) is the closest thing he has to a friend but must put up with Diggs’ egotistical taunts. Then we have the heartbreaking but key moment when a young disabled girl (Joey King) begs the Wiz for help and all he can do is run off stage with his tail between his legs. The Oz we see here is a pitiful and pathetic shell of a man who you have no doubt will go on a Disney-styled journey to find his true ‘greatness’.

James Franco plays the title role and, as the entire film falls under the shadow of its predecessor, the actor finds himself having to compete with the original choice for the great pretender. Robert Downey Jr. would have been such a fantastic choice for the charismatic Diggs that the actor who finally took the role on was always going to feel like a bit of a rubbish back-up choice. Franco does an OK job but he never seems to connect with his role. The narrative only works if the audience accept that Diggs is more than just a womanising scoundrel looking for easy ways to make a quick buck. Franco doesn’t bring much humanity to the role as he mostly seems a little bewildered by his digital surroundings. He is an actor who has proved himself many times before but here he just seems out of his depth.

Although, he has no problem in winning over the ladies and it is one of his past conquests that causes him to embark on his life changing journey. The irate husband of his one-time lover, also the circus’ strong-man, is out for revenge meaning Oscar is forced to leave his true love (Michelle Williams) and escape in a handily placed balloon. After being caught up in a terrifying tornado he is transported into an exciting new world where he meets young Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). She mistakenly believes Diggs is the great saviour of her people and sets about dreaming of their future as King and Queen of Oz. Kunis does a pretty good job with the young witch in these scenes and plays her as a teenager caught up in the early stages of lust. She is emotional, melodramatic and has a bit of a temper. However, she quickly descends into a one dimensional scorned woman when she discovers that Oscar has pulled the wool over her eyes. It seemed lazy to just explain the witch’s actions because of her jealousy and broken heart. There was a great deal of potential lost to another movie cliche.

Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is less impressed with the supposed chosen one and demands he proves himself by saving her people and destroying the Wicked Witch. Weisz is by far the best performer of the lot here but that really isn’t a compliment. She is an amazingly talented actress (seriously, watching her in Deep Blue Sea changed my life a little bit. Phenomenal.) but she is given so little to work with. It’s all about the window dressing with the witches. Dress them up in the finery but give them no real depth. For her part, Weisz lets go and has fun with it but it is really on towards the end of the film that there is anything for her to do.

Although, she has a great deal more to do than Michelle Williams in her second role of the film. In keeping with original film, several of the actors have roles in both the real world and Oz. We see Braff returning as Oz’s winged monkey butler and King returning as a China girl who is discovered shattered after an evil minion attack. Williams is back as the third witch Glinda. As Glinda the Good, Williams has little else to do than sweep through her scenes surrounded by a heavenly light and smiling at all the little people under her protection. She is a reminder of the old school Disney princess who had the tricky task of being beautiful but pretty useless in real life situations. After she has used her bubble and mist power for all she can she has very little left. Whatever you think about Raimi revisiting the land that spoke to so many people’s childhood imaginations, you have to criticise him for his criminal waste of good talent. These three women are some of the biggest names in Hollywood right now and they are used a little more than real life mannequins for the impressive costumes. Yes the characters don’t have any depth to them but at least they look pretty.

Raimi is known for bringing an occasionally over-the-top enthusiasm to his films and his Oz prequel is essentially an in-your-face tribute to Fleming’s own adaptation. The narrative is littered with little in-jokes and references to the books and the 1939 film. We have lions, scarecrows, the China village, flying monkeys and singing Munchkins. On top of this, Raimi has gone to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of the classic with the help of several computer wizards (or at least as far as he can go without being on shaky legal ground). In keeping with tradition the film begins in black and white in 4.3 aspect ratio before bursting into a shiny and colourful computerised landscape. I can’t deny that it is an effort that has paid off. The land of Oz is detailed and exciting. Visually speaking there is a lot to keep the audience happy and, despite not seeing it in 3D, I can imagine it works fairly well (not that I’ll ever be a fan of it in general). It is a real spectacle that, unfortunately, does not hide the fact that there is very little else going on.

Oz the Great and Powerful, much like the wizard himself, is all style and no real substance. The CGI backdrop is pretty impressive and recreates the world Fleming first created in 1939 but with a bit more of a Disney theme park attraction feel to it. There isn’t really anything else there to keep you engrossed in the massively cliched moral message. We all know that Oscar will eventually find redemption and win the girl of his dreams so the whole charade of a con-man only interested in gold and fame feels as false as the facade he puts on when he arrives in Oz. We find a cast of talented actors and actresses floundering against their invisible background and doing the best they can with a plot that cared more about the references to its predecessor than it did with creating a decent story.

Had he not existed in the fictional Kansas of the early 20th century, Oscar Diggs would have fit in extremely well with modern day Hollywood. Oz the Great and Powerful would be Diggs’ finest illusion: throw tons of money and technology at an energetic director to create a big, brash prequel to one of the world’s most loved children’s film and wait for the money to come flooding in. As for the story? Who cares about that when you’ve got some of the most recognisable and talented performers onboard to convince people this is a film with some substance.