Prometheus review

On Tuesday, 12 June 2012, I met fellow role-player Josh C. for dinner at Bombay Mahal on Moody Street in Waltham, Massachusetts. We then joined Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema for Prometheus. We enjoyed Ridley Scott’s prequel to the Alien franchise, despite the movie’s flaws.

The Prometheus
The Prometheus

Like its predecessors, Prometheus follows a ragtag group of humans on an interstellar vessel as they encounter murderous, parasitic aliens, or xenomorphs. (That’s shouldn’t come as a “spoiler” to anyone after 1979.) This time, Scott adds ruminations on the origins of humanity, religion, and more explicit parental conflict.

Prometheus is one of the most polished science fiction movies of the past few years, with believable late-21st century hardware and vehicles, majestic landscapes, and aliens and environments still inspired by H.R. Giger’s designs. Matte paintings, computer-generated images, practical props and miniatures, and costumes flowed (or, in some cases, oozed or slithered) seamlessly.

The casting and acting of Prometheus is also up to the standard set by the early entries in this series. Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw, who follows ancient images to a distant and dangerous world. Bloodied and running around in her underwear in some scenes, she’s idealistic and tough much like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.

Idris Elba (The Wire, Thor) is Janek, the no-nonsense captain of the Prometheus, and Charlize Theron (Aeon Flux, Snow White and the Huntsman) is the icy Meredith Vickers, leader of the ill-fated Weyland prospecting expedition.

Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) gets many good scenes as ambiguous android David, following in the steps of Ian Holm and Lance Henrickson. Guy Pierce (The Time Machine) is nearly unrecognizable as Peter Weyland, aged co-founder of the Weyland megacorporation. None of the characters is as charismatic or sympathetic as Ripley.

Ridley Scott’s direction and the scale harken back to stately space opera epics like Dune, with a slow start and a symphonic soundtrack. The latter half of the movie is more of an action/horror flick, with some predictably stupid moves by members of Prometheus‘ crew, such as removing helmets before fully testing for toxins and biohazards.

Other than the aforementioned parental issues involving Shaw, David, and Vickers, the script and plot for Prometheus are serviceable but a bit predictable. The trailers for the movie gave away the result of some of the film’s battles. In the original Alien, a new type of body horror overwhelmed any need for suspension of disbelief, and in James Cameron’s Aliens, the Marines’ (futile) flight for survival kept viewers’ pulses racing. The second movie is my favorite.

The draw of later Alien movies, including crossovers with Predator, was to see which characters would die first and how. Prometheus only flirts with this schadenfreude, trying to juggle the big ideas of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the action/horror DNA of its predecessors, and post-Avatar expectations for “eye candy.” Its ending (avoiding “spoilers“) is more a pyrrhic victory than a triumph of human/android will or just another massacre of/by xenomorphs.

I’d give Prometheus, which is rated R for violence and language, 7 out of 10, a solid B, or three stars out of five. Prometheus is more mature speculative fiction than the underrated John Carter, but I’m not sure if it was more entertaining or if I’d care to see it again. Fans of the Alien franchise will want to see Prometheus on the big screen, even if lowbrow CGI comedy Madagascar beat it at the box office.

R.I.P., Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, has died. Along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein, he enlightened and entertained me in my youth.

SF author Ray Bradbury
Late author Ray Bradbury

More poetic than many of his Golden Age peers, Bradbury‘s many stories featured a mix of speculation, wonder, and hope for humanity. Here are some of my favorites of Bradbury‘s tales:

The Illustrated Man is an intoxicating collection of surreal tales, both clever and introspective. I Sing the Body Electric (and I now have the Rush song in my head) is a robot story the equal of most of Asimov’s.

Bradbury‘s Something Wicked This Way Comes was the first time I became aware of the potential for horror in Americana, with its sinister carnival. Even memories of the Disney adaptation, starring Jonathan Pryce, send shivers up my spine. Stephen King and HBO’s Carnivale would later develop that theme.

In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury depicts a planet that’s not as exotic as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom or as desolate as the world we know today. Instead, it’s a dusty frontier, with whispered memories of its original inhabitants and lonely explorers and homesteaders.

Fahrenheit 451 is a political “What if?” on par with 1984 or Brave New World as a cautionary tale and source of controversy. In the “real world,” paper books are threatened by electronic media, which are just as prone, of not more so, to censorship and invasions of privacy. Bradbury will be missed, but his works live on.

John Carter review — I want to go to Mars!

Unfairly maligned sword-and-planet flick
John Carter's a fun sword-and-planet flick

I recently screened Disney’s John Carter with Josh C. & Sara F. I saw the sword-and-planet movie again later with Janice, who was at a technical writing conference in Memphis this past week. She has also been busy with extra shifts as a volunteer at the Dedham animal shelter. All of us enjoyed the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” stories.

The movie is framed with scenes of a young Burroughs, played by Spy Kids‘ Daryl Sabara, being summoned to the estate of his late uncle, a world traveler and former Confederate cavalryman. Taylor Kitsch, from Friday Night Lights and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is the eponymous Capt. Carter, who finds himself mysteriously transported from late 1860s Arizona to an inhabited Mars.

On the desert world, Carter encounters tribes of Tharks, four-armed green men, led by the honorable Tars Tharkas (voice and motion capture of Willem Defoe). Despite his initial reluctance to become involved in another civil war, Carter is soon entangled in the conflict between the city-states of Zodanga and Helium, both of which are populated by humanlike “red” Martians.

After meeting the beautiful scientist and princess Deja Thoris (played by X-Men Origins‘ Lynn Collins), Carter decides to fight Sab Than (Dominic West), the Jeddak (chieftan) of Zodanga, and Thern mystic Matai Shang (Mark Strong). He’s aided by Sola (Samantha Morton), the compassionate daughter of Tars Tharkas, and doglike calot Woola.

If this plot seems familiar, it’s because Burroughs created the template for the “planetary romance,” which led to a century of space operas from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Superman to Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars to Stargate, Farscape, and Avatar. The lost but brave Earth man, the spunky princess and sidekicks, the honorable alien warriors, and the mystic duels have become clich├ęs, but John Carter shows us the vitality of their source.

The actors seem to be enjoying themselves with the interplanetary swashbuckling. The script by Michael Chabon takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, with humor similar to that found in the original Star Wars or another pulp revival, The Mummy. I’m currently reading Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for former co-worker Ken G.‘s “Escapists” book club.

Even in this age of computer-enhanced visuals, the Tharks’ facial expressions, the fleet-footed Woola and fierce white apes, the crawling city of Zodanga, and the steampunk airships were all impressively designed and rendered. The aliens interacted smoothly with the human actors. Despite the daunting amount of exposition required for such a movie, I thought that director Andrew Stanton, who also directed Pixar’s Wall-E, did a decent job of pacing.

The grand vistas include the rough-and-tumble frontier of the American west, the windswept deserts of Mars, the rain-soaked streets of New York, and soaring structures and ancient ruins of Barsoom. The soundtrack also evokes a lost age of adventure, although it’s not as memorable as the works of John Williams.

I’d give John Carter, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. Many critics have gleefully pointed out that Disney’s adaptation is somehow subject to the “curse of the Mars movies” and gotten less-than-stellar box office. However, I and other fans feel that many of their criticisms are unfair and typical of mainstream prejudice against genre entertainment.

By contrast, I’ve found video game flick Prince of Persia nearly unwatchable, and a preview image for the upcoming Lone Ranger also stirs doubts about its quality aside from easy parody. I’d love to role-play in a Barsoom game run by Tim M.B., Jason E.R., Brian W., or other scholars of early science fiction, perhaps using GURPS Mars, Savage Worlds, or FATE 3e Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures. I recommend John Carter to anyone who appreciates old-fashioned sword-and-planet fun.

Swashbuckling cinema

The late Bob Anderson
Sword master Bob Anderson

Over the holidays, I caught up a bit on movies on DVD, in theaters, and on cable television. While spending Christmas with my in-laws, I saw the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel and 2011’s Cars 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean [4]: On Stranger Tides.

I’ve seen other adaptations of the Orczy stories, but the black-and-white Scarlet Pimpernel is noteworthy because of its reflection of Anglo-American concerns about dictatorship and war in Europe and as a forerunner to characters such as Zorro and Batman. Speaking of swashbuckling, fellow fans of everything from Errol Flynn’s films to Star Wars, Highlander, The Princess Bride, and The Lord of the Rings should note the passing of sword master Bob Anderson.

Cars 2 was reasonably entertaining, with nicely rendered international backgrounds (not unlike Kung-Fu Panda 2) and an espionage-flavored plot. The character development and pathos weren’t at Pixar’s usual level, but I’d still give the computer-animated flick a B+, three stars, or a 7.5 out of 10. My favorite animated movies of the past year or so include The Illusionist, Rango, and Winnie the Pooh, and I look forward to The Secret World of Arrietty, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Pixar’s next, Brave, in 2012.

Pirates 4 was better than its muddled predecessor At World’s End, with a more linear plot involving the Fountain of Youth, less pointless backstabbing and visual effects, and somewhat less mugging by star Johnny Depp. The romantic subplots were still extraneous but less annoying, and Penelope Cruz as pirate Angelica and Ian McShane as the notorious Blackbeard were worthy foils to Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s Capt. Barbossa. Not surprisingly, Disney’s On Stranger Tides leaves the door open for yet more sequels. I’d give it a B, 7 out of 10, or three stars.

I have yet to watch other recent swashbucklers, including Sinbad: the Fifth Voyage, the reboot of Conan the Barbarian, and the latest Three Musketeers. On TV, I enjoyed the latest Star Wars marathon and rewatching David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune for the umpteenth time. As David I.S. and I have noted, it’s OK for fans to turn to the visual equivalent of “comfort food” from time to time.

As previously mentioned, Janice and I also screened The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn at the Showcase Cinemas de Lux at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, and we met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Beruk A. for The Artist at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

I’m somewhat familiar with the young hero of Belgian artist Herge’s comic books, and Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s adaptation is fairly faithful. I liked Tintin‘s globe-trotting, 1930s adventures (similar to those of Indiana Jones), and the “uncanny valley” of realistically animated humans didn’t bother me as it does with Zemeckis’ works, partly because they were slightly caricaturized. I’d give Secret of the Unicorn a solid B, three stars, or 7.5 out of 10.

The apparent theme of many of the movies I’ve mentioned here is that retro films, especially swashbucklers, never truly go out of style. The Artist is no exception, both following and paying homage to the tropes of the silent era. The French film is set in Hollywood of the late 1920s and early 1930s and follows the charismatic George Valentin (Jean Dujardin as an analogue for Rudoph Valentino) and young actress Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo) as their industry deals with changing technology and audience tastes. Valentin’s dog steals the show. I definitely recommend The Artist, which I’d give an A-, or four out of five stars, or 8.5 out of 10.

What were your favorite movies of the past year? I didn’t get to theaters quite as often as in previous years. In addition to those mentioned above, I liked The Mighty Thor, Captain America: the First Avenger, The Muppets, and Sherlock Holmes [2]: A Game of Shadows. In the next few months, I hope to catch Hugo (another retro film that Janice saw), the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the actioner Haywire.

Looking further ahead, there’s planetary romance John Carter, superheroes Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, dueling fairy tales Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, James Bond in Skyfall, and of course, The Hobbit [1]: An Unexpected Journey!

Death and humanism, Part 1: Star Trek

Cast of "The Undiscovered Country"
Star Trek original crew

I’m a member of the older half of “Generation X” — born 1965 to 1985 — so I’m a product of 1970s and 1980s popular culture. Trek Nation and The Muppets reminded me fondly of my childhood and demonstrated why the humanism of Gene Roddenberry and Jim Henson are much missed today.

The Science Channel has been showing documentaries including Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction and Trek Nation (shades of the SciFi Channel’s Sciography) The former examines the lives and influence of various creators, while the latter is a more personal account of Rod Roddenberry’s attempts to learn more about his late father. Both show the great ideas and character flaws of their subjects.

Like Rod Roddenberry, I was only vaguely aware of the original Star Trek television series until I caught reruns in college. While I would have liked to have seen more discussion of Gene Roddenberry’s impact on space opera and genre entertainment in general, I understand his son’s desire to know his father better, despite their personality differences.

Gene Roddenberry had been a pilot in World War II and for Pan Am before becoming a police officer and eventually a TV writer and producer. His idealism helped propel Star Trek to cult popularity and inspired several real-world astronauts, despite network confusion and early cancellation. However, Roddenberry was also an emotionally absent father and a philanderer, and there was much of his swashbuckling attitude in Capt. James T. Kirk.

I knew much about the elder Roddenberry’s life and works, but Trek Nation provides interesting glimpses behind the scenes and beyond the usual interviews with actors and fans. For example, I didn’t know that acclaimed writer D.C. Fontana and Roddenberry parted on less-than-friendly terms. I still admire Gene Roddenberry’s desire to show a multiethnic future relatively free of strife and to provide parables about the Vietnam War, even if his personal life was far from a model one.

Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Ron Moore were understandably impatient with Gene Roddenberry’s relentless optimism, since good drama does require interpersonal conflict. However, I think that they and others took the franchise in a different and ultimately less successful direction. Most of the Star Trek movies have focused on villains rather than exploration or diplomacy, and the TV spin-offs after The Next Generation — Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise — increasingly watered down Roddenberry’s vision.

As space operas, Star Trek (and Star Wars, whose creator George Lucas gamely gives an interview to Rod Roddenberry in Trek Nation) juggle the desire for mythic archetypes with a rational, scientific universe as well as galaxy-scale, militaristic action with the power of close friendships. Author David Brin and other fans have taken sides, preferring one over the other, but I’ve enjoyed installments of both Star Trek and Star Wars for many years.

Interestingly, J.J. Abrams — whose recent cinematic reboot created an alternate continuity around the original 1960s characters with new actors — seems to understand the core of Trek better than many others at Paramount. I may not have liked Abrams’ overreliance on lens flares or his setting aside of the Next Generation‘s timeline, but he tells Rod Roddenberry in Trek Nation that even as a non-Trekkie, he understands why Kirk, Spock, McCoy and crew should reflect the aspirations of the audience and the hope for progress in uncertain times. Live long and prosper!

I definitely recommend Trek Nation to any Trekker or Trekkie, as well as to fans of speculative fiction and genre TV in general. Next up, I’ll look at the latest effort to restore another beloved franchise to the public consciousness — the Muppets!