Review: Prometheus

Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba
Runtime: 124 min.
MPAA: R

There exists a perception that religion and science are in a perpetual state of war. One cannot maintain faith in the scriptures of their respective dogma while acknowledging the strengths found in the Big Bang theory … at least, insofar as those that seek some sort of ubiquitous truth are concerned. To those that seek the answers to those questions that have been pondered for as long as history itself – where did we come from? why are we here? – it is essentially inconceivable (if not offensive) that there may not be a single truth, or that the truth may be in stark contrast to the beliefs that one holds dear. Questions, to some, are not meant to be open-ended. To others, considering such issues is a paramount aspect of life, as a mind is a precious thing to waste.

The ability to appeal to the viewer’s philosophical foundations, in the most intrinsically beautiful sense of the bounds of the human mind, and subsequently challenge them is the defining characteristic of Prometheus.

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Shorts Program: Ridley Scott Edition

As we mentioned in our Ridley Scott Retrospective earlier this week, Scott started out as a designer and producer/director of commercials before entering the world of cinema with 1977’s The Duellists and cementing his place as a feature film director with 1979’s Alien. And he didn’t stop after he became a big-time film director, but continued making commercials sporadically throughout the 1980s, including one of the most iconic ad spots ever created. So we’ll look at a few of those commercials after the jump.

But before that, he also did one short film while studying at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s, nearly fifteen years before he made his first feature.

Boy and Bicycle – 27 min. – 1965

Scott shot this film in the early 1960s, then completed it in 1965 thanks to a grant from BFI’s Experimental Film Fund. It follows a teenage boy (played by his younger brother Tony Scott, a very familiar name to film fans as well) as he wakes up, unwanting to face another same-old day of getting up, going to school and all the rest. So he decides to play truant instead and spends the day cycling around the industrial landscape of Northern England (this industrial feel would feature heavily in many of Scott’s later films), all the while narrating in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of James Joyce. The jaunty music theme is by John Barry, already an established composer at the time – Barry liked Scott’s work on the film so much that he agreed to re-record the theme especially for his film. It’s an arty film, clearly made by someone familiar with the tropes and settings of both the French and British New Waves, which would both have been in full swing when he was filming this.

Check under the seats to see some of Scott’s commercial work, including the famous “1984” Macintosh ad.

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Countdown to Prometheus: The Legacy of Alien

The Alien franchise is unusual for several reasons. It started with a highly successful, even visionary, film from an almost unknown director (Ridley Scott’s The Duellists had been a modest success in England, but it was Alien that boosted him to international fame). Seven years later came a sequel from a different director, set in the same universe but with a decidedly different tone and approach. Both Alien and Aliens are excellent films in their own right, and James Cameron (in only his third feature film) managed to build his own unique niche which expanded the original mythology, rather than simply trying to clone the first film.

It would be six more years before the third film in the series followed, and Alien3 was again the work of a newcomer director. David Fincher had only directed music videos up to the time he was hired to carry on the Alien franchise, and thanks to script issues and studio interference, it was not a great experience. Thankfully, Fincher has gone on to ever-greater things, but as you’ll see in our write-up, perhaps the third entry is undeservedly maligned. Still, despite lukewarm reception from fans and critics, Alien3 was successful enough for a fourth film to be made five years later, the also-coolly-received Alien: Resurrection, helmed by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in his only American film to date. Four films, made over a span of almost twenty years, all directed by different people, each of whom happened to be relative newcomers to Hollywood. We repeat: this franchise is unusual.

Despite the popular lack of enthusiasm for the last two films in the franchise (and we’re not even getting into the crossover Alien vs. Predator films), Alien has left its mark on the cinematic landscape for all time, combining a fantastically original visual design with a genre-mashing sci-fi/horror (and in Aliens, sci-fi/horror/action) story that set a lasting tone for science fiction which has persisted to the present day. In visual terms, the pristine and sterile spaceships of 2001: A Space Odyssey are gone. In their place is a rough-and-tumble spacecraft and a species of sentient (?) aliens bent on destruction and their own procreation, dripping with sexualized imagery. The themes in Alien run deep, hitting us with our most primal fears. And it’s not unremarkable that the hero of all this is a woman – the quintessential Final Girl who didn’t ask to be brought into all this, but has the smarts, the willpower, and (eventually) the skills to withstand all that gets thrown at her – not just by the aliens, but by the patriarchal society that continually tries to refuse her voice. Ellen Ripley remains an iconic figure, but an icon who is deeply and viscerally human, one of the greatest gifts that the many legacies of Alien have left us.

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Now Playing at the Row Three Rep: What is Human?

[Row Three programming if we owned a Rep Cinema]

Blurring the Line Between Android and Human

Metropolis – 5:00pm
Blade Runner – 8:00pm
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – 10:00pm
bonus: Battlestar Galactica – all night and the next week :)

With the concept of mankind creating sentient robots and androids inevitably follows the question of how we are to treat them – since we made them, can we do with them what we want, treating them as disposable slaves? Or by creating something that can think like us, and eventually react and feel like us, are we bound to treat them the same as we would (or should) treat other human beings? And faced with such a potential reality, what does it really mean to be human? These are the kind of questions that cerebral sci-fi has always asked, with robots and now clones being among the most appropriate catalysts to spark such explorations of ethics, morality, and ontology itself. There are many films (and TV series) I could’ve chosen for such a triple feature; I chose these partially to tie in with our ongoing Ridley Scott marathon, and also because these films also specifically feature androids, that is, robots that appear to be human, who fool humans into thinking they are human, and who may not even themselves be aware that they are androids. Of course, all of these works use androids to explore the issue of “otherness,” or what happens when a dominant group comes into contact with a group they deem “different.”

Note: Scott’s Alien also features a human-fooling android, but questions of human-android ethics are not really explored in that film.

Taken on the surface, there’s not a whole lot of inquiry into the robot-human question in Metropolis; the human Maria is unequivocally good, almost angelic, while the robot Maria is evil and destructive. But I wanted to include it because it is really the first iconic cinematic depiction of a robot, and it’s telling that the first use of a robot in cinematic science fiction is to mislead and misdirect a humanity that believes the robot to be human – and not only to be human, but to be somebody they know and trust. It would be many years before sci-fi would have good human-mimicking robots – even the robots in Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still are distinctly non-human in appearance. In Metropolis, that question of whether robots should be treated as humans is superficially irrelevant, because the only robot we see is given the role of enacting the worst that humanity has to offer. On the other hand, the Complete cut of Metropolis fleshes out (so to speak) the back story surrounding the creation of the robot, which inventor Rotwang created as a substitute for Hel, the woman he loved and Joh Frederson took from him. So before the robot was commandeered by Frederson as a means to put down the undercity rebellion, Rotwang already intended it to be a human stand-in. Deeper questions are begged – would Rotwang have found comfort in this shadow of Hel? Would the robot have been an adequate substitute? Are robot-Maria’s evil excesses solely due to Frederson’s mission for her, or is a mechanical creation of man inevitably going to disappoint and betray, and if it does, is that because if its mechanical nature or the humans who built it? Would (should) Rotwang have treated robot-Hel as human, or would he simply have enslaved her, a helpless puppet to his desires? It’s unclear from the film whether robot-Maria had full sentience or autonomy, so the questions may be moot. But they’re there, nascent even from the very first cinematic depiction of a human-mimicking android.

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Finite Focus: Monsters vs. ALIENS

[Prometheus is coming. And to celebrate the Alien universe and all its permutations, I'm pulling this 2009 Finite Focus entry from the archives, which looks at one of the quieter moments in Jim Cameron's entry into the series]

aliens_onesheetWhen one thinks of James Cameron‘s re-invention of the premise from 1979’s Alien, it generally is the macho bravado of the space marines that get the lion-share of quotable dialogue, and have been copied in other films to this day, ad nauseum. Yet the movie (most especially the lengthened directors cut of the film) slips in a strong maternal theme amongst the testosterone. While the film finally does turn Ellen Ripley into a ‘mech suited warrior’ (via the most well realized body-fork-lifter ever committed to celluloid), that comes later.

One of the strongest scenes in the film, perhaps showcasing some of Sigourney Weaver‘s best acting (Oscar nominated for this role, dontcha know!) this side of Death and The Maiden and Galaxy Quest is a tender moment spent with the frightened little girl. Being the only survivor of the fledgling colony of a planet infested with monsters, Rebecca, or Newt, likely witnessed on some level, many of the horrors when her parents bring home an embryo implanted in her father. Hardly a girl that needs to be lied to for protection, yet she is surely confused by the pretense of adults. Newt’s line of questions on ‘monsters’ and a tacit acceptance that they do indeed exist, ending with the connection to pregnancy is worthy of a Grimm fairy tale. Despite being a hearty mainstream blockbuster with crowd appeal, this moment stands out as one of (if not the) best moments in the film, worthy of Jan Svankmajer‘s Alice, a surreal take on Lewis Carroll that would come along two years later from eastern Europe, and feature a child actress bearing more than a little similarity to Newt’s Carrie Henn. Henn quit while she was ahead, not appearing in another film after this one.

Worthy of mention too is that the scene starts out cold, metallic and sterile (like most of Aliens) and ends on a warm orange light haloing both actresses in intimate close-up. This is one of the last breathing moments before a 45 minute long perfectly sustained action sequence. A sequence where much is on the line because of the tenderness of that moment.

Play

Music in Film: Legend (1985)

Artist/Composer: Tangerine Dream
Produced and Arranged by: Brandon K. Verrett
Duration: 73 min
Label: BuySoundtrax

This review is actually a case of good timing for our Ridley Scott extravaganza rather than a carefully planned post. I’ve been in touch with a specialist promotions firm I’m going to start working with to review soundtracks on my blog and one of the first albums that came up was a new reworking of the soundtrack to Scott’s 1985 fantasy curio Legend.

The score for Legend, like the film, has a complicated history. With Ridley Scott’s film getting manhandled by the studios, the film ended up having a different version in Europe as it did in the US. Due to this the film also ended up having to have two scores produced. The original score was actually by the great Jerry Goldsmith and was used in the European release as well as in a later released directors cut. The original US theatrical and home video releases however had a score composed by German electro/prog-rock legends Tangerine Dream who were brought in late on in post-production to replace Goldsmith’s score. The version I am reviewing is a new re-interpretation of this soundtrack by composer Brandon Verrett.

After being approached to arrange the “Unicorn Theme” from the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for a digital single, Verrett was pleased with the result and had the idea of recreating the entire album. As he puts it, “our original intent was to take the conception of the original Tangerine Dream tracks and arrange them in such a way that they feel organic, earthy, and more contemporary while still capturing the essence of the originals.” The original soundtrack also contained two songs featured in the movie: “Loved by the Sun,” sung by Yes singer Jon Anderson (a lyricized version of “Unicorn Theme”), and “Is Your Love Strong Enough”, performed by Bryan Ferry and heard over the end credits. On this recording, singer Katie Campbell interprets these songs in her own fashion.

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Countdown to Prometheus: A Ridley Scott Retrospective

With this week’s release of Prometheus, Ridley Scott returns to his roots, revisiting the world of his second feature film for the first time in over thirty years. It seemed like a good time for us in the third row to look back over Sir Ridley’s career as a whole; with brief essays about selected films from throughout his filmography as well as a week-long tribute to Scott’s films and the Alien universe.

Scott’s background is in art and design, having studied at the West Hartlepool College of Art and London’s Royal College of Art in the 1960s. He directed one short film during his time at the RCA in 1965, but wouldn’t direct another film until 1977’s The Duellists. In between, he worked as a designer for the BBC and formed a company with his brother Tony to produce commercials. It’s unsurprising that with this background, his films are well-known for their visual style, with Alien and Blade Runner especially outstanding in the field of visual design (thanks not only to Scott but to concept artists like H.R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Syd Mead) and becoming extremely influential in the look and feel of later sci-fi films.

Later Scott films have not necessarily captured the long-term imagination of moviegoers to quite the same extent as those two, but his sense of visual style and narrative storytelling has never faltered, even when the stories he’s telling don’t quite live up to the flair with which he tells them. After trying on a number of different genres (romance, fantasy, crime drama, etc.), he settled into a string of highly acclaimed war films, from the pageantry of Ancient Rome in Gladiator to the modern grit of Black Hawk Down and the medieval scope of Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood. Yet the anticipation of Scott’s return to the world of Alien shows perhaps just how much his early work continues to enrapture viewers.

If there are two legacies that stand out in Scott’s career besides his fantastic visual sense, the first is likely his recurring strong female characters, most notably Ripley from the Alien series (who is among the first modern female action stars in cinema, and has become a cultural icon even apart from her role in the film), and the dual heroines in Thelma & Louise, who have become feminist cinema icons of the highest order. And Scott’s other legacy is his pioneering use of the Director’s Cut, which he has employed on most of his major releases, whether it was his idea to release a secondary version or the studio’s. Scott has declared himself happy with the original release of Alien, with the Director’s Cut being merely an alternate version. Blade Runner, on the other hand, marks one of the most significant Director’s Cuts in the history of cinema, and helped develop the film’s rabid fan-base after its initially poor response upon theatrical release in 1982. The Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven represents a return to Scott’s original vision after the theatrical release was overly influenced by preview screening reactions. Whatever the reason, Scott and his studios have seen fit to revisit these films and others, some more than once, but notably without ever destroying the theatrical cut in the process (yes, we’re looking at you, George Lucas).

Without further ado, let’s look at some selections from Scott’s filmography in greater detail.

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