Back in 1979, audiences were wowed by an unlikely little "sci-fi-horror", Alien. The film took the classic haunted house premise and set it in deepest space; dark and foreboding space in which no-one could hear you scream. Thanks to confident direction from Ridley Scott, shockingly effective editing, and masterful design work from artists Ron Cobb, and (most importantly) HR Giger, what could so easily have been a forgettable B-movie would become one of the most respected films of its genre, and a major franchise was born.
The series would spawn three (increasingly weaker) direct sequels, and two abominable spin-offs. After the unsurprisingly negative reaction to 2007's Aliens vs Predator: Requiem it seemed that the Alien series has finally run aground as a viable enterprise. Face-huggers, chest-bursters and fully-grown Xenomorphs had been done to death, and their on-screen future seemed bleak. Then, whispers travelled down the grapevine that not only was an Alien prequel in the pipeline, but that it would be helmed by Ridley Scott himself, in his first foray into science fiction since 1982's Blade Runner. The response was understandably electric.
The development of this project, which was eventually titled Prometheus, was highly secretive (at least initially). The word got out that this was not be a prequel after all, but had evolved into an original story. Later it emerged that it was indeed to be set in the same universe as Alien after all, but that it would not directly lead in to the earlier film. The signals were decidedly mixed, and right up until its release, fans were unsure just how much Prometheus would tie-in with the rest of the franchise.
As it happens, Prometheus clearly inhabits the same world as the '79 film, and while it features many of the same (or rather, similar) elements and locations, it is not an "Alien" flick. There is no suggestion of a young Ripley about to enter the frame, for example. No not expect the usual face-hugger business. That said, the film does serve as a back-story for a creature from that classic film. Not the Xenomorph however, but instead the other, less-remembered alien species the crew of the Nostromo encounter; the enigmatic "Space Jockey".
For years audiences have wondered about the nature of this strange creature. What was the "Jockey" really called? Where did he come from? Where was he going? What was his relationship with the titular aliens? While Alien comic books may have provided an origin story (now non-canonical) for this being, the species was never examined in any of the subsequent films, and for most people the questions remained. It was an interesting move for Scott to use this mystery as a plot point for his quasi-prequel. It was however, a foolish move to hire Damon Lindelof (the co-writer of Prometheus, along with Jon Spaihts) to answer the mystery.
If you are not familiar with Lindelof's name, you are almost certainly familiar with his work. He was the co-creator and one of the main writers of Lost, a show with more than its fair share of mystery and intrigue. During the early years of the show, the creators insisted that they knew what they were doing, and that all the questions could and would be answered in due course. As time passed and the show approached its conclusion, it became clear that the writers had been making it up as they went along, and would ultimately not be able to resolve all the riddles. This indeed proved to be the case, and the finale was poorly received by many people for failing to adequately explain the myriad enigmas that had gripped them for the previous six years. Lindelof was also one of the writers of Cowboys and Aliens, a muddled and unimpressive film which received little enthusiasm from audiences of critics. Based on his track record, he appears to be a very unsuited candidate to help tackle this project. If he could not adequately answer the questions raised in the course of his own television show, how could anyone trust him to answer the questions raised in a film made when he was only a child? I place a lot (but not all) of the blame for the failure of Prometheus (and it is sadly a failure) at his feet.
The premise of the film is promising; archaeologists Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) discover ancient human artefacts from across the world, all of which depict the same extra terrestrial visitors from the same remote start system. The starship Prometheus is sent to investigate the system, carrying Shaw, Holloway, and a crew including geologists, biologists, icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (the effective Charlize Theron) and android David (the pitch-perfect Michael Fassbender). In a recording presented to the crew from beyond the grave, the powerful and extremely wealthy technology magnate Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, wearing absolutely terrible old-man makeup) believes the mission may lead us to our alien creators; essentially "gods". The crew arrive on a planet not a million light years from that of Alien, and encounter a structure strongly reminiscent of the "Space Jockey" derelict. To say any more would be to risk spoiling the film more than the multiple trailers already have, but suffice to say all does not go according to plan.
The idea that human evolution may have been engineered by beings from space (a sort of real-world intelligent design) is a well-worn one; most famously explored in the seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. The idea of a space crew venturing to a remote corner of the galaxy to meet our makers was infamously explored in the not-so-seminal Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. While Prometheus starts off with the promise of the former film (intelligent, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, beautiful), it ends up more like the latter (a confused, disappointing mess).
While the cast (with the exception of Kate Dickie's minor supporting role) cannot be faulted, nor can the cinematography or technological design, and the direction is generally strong, the film cannot escape the major problems endemic to the screenplay. For a start, most of the characters have no depth whatsoever; and we barely get to know them. Shaw, as the central role, at least has some character moments revolving around her conflict of faith, but they are fleeting and never fully explored. Almost everyone else ends the film exactly as they began; there is no development. While this is excusable in the case of David (perhaps the films strongest performance), the same cannot be said of the human characters. When crew members meet their various sticky ends, it is hard to remember which particular character they are, and even harder to care when they are picked off. In Alien you can remember every single character, and every single death leaves an impact; an impact which is sorely missing here.
Another problem is the dialogue, which, at times, is ham-fisted at a Dan Brown level. For example, at one point the expedition encounters a decapitated head, clear for all to see. One character exclaims "It's a head", to which another replies "It's been decapitated". This audience-insulting exchange is is far from isolated and plagues the script. It represents a tin ear for real human dialogue that is par for the course for Lindelof's output.
Of course it would be foolish to blame poor Damon for everything. What about Scott himself? Surely he is equally responsible for the failings of the film. By and large, he directs well (but not without fault). Early scenes of David tending the ship while the rest of the crew are in hyper-sleep are particularly effective, featuring little dialogue and allowing the performance room to breathe. Naturally, the film for the most part looks very impressive; both the spaceship interior and the alien landscape are eye-catching. There are however some design serious shortcomings when it comes to the biological elements, namely Weyland's amazingly unconvincing age prosthetics, and some very uninspired alien creature design (no, not those aliens). The difference Giger's disturbing designs made to Alien cannot be overstated, and although his distinctive hallmarks are visible in Prometheus (a few set pieces), he did not have a hand in creating the new ... beings.
It is Scott's eternal mistake that he did not secure Giger's full participation in all the creature design for this film, instead entrusting this vital task to Neville Page, the man responsible for the bland and forgettable monsters in both Cloverfield and Super 8, as well as the frankly silly-looking Na'vi from Avatar.
Scott's main mistakes in this film do not lie in his directing or casting abilities, but rather his poor decisions about the people he has brought onto the project as vital members of the crew. I believe it is this poor judgement which caused the failure of what was such a propitious film. They have contributed to the disappointment of the year; a solid premise with a top cast, squandered through bad writing, and some lame design work.
Dir: Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Guy Pearce
Running time: 124 minutes.
Resurrecting a contrived TV premise from the 80s in the style of a modern comedy (and casting Channing Tatum) may sound like a terrible idea, but 21 Jump Street is surprisingly fresh and funny; avoiding the pitfalls that have plagued many recent youth-related comedies. Jonah Hill fits the role like a glove, the supporting cast are good and even Tatum proves himself with previously unknown comedic chops.
It's daft as all hell, and John Cusack's performance probably doesn't resemble the real Edgar Allan Poe in the slightest, but for me The Raven was undeniably enjoyable. It's a rip-roaring yarn that doesn't take itself seriously, with thrills and spills aplenty. Silly, but great fun.
Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849, under mysterious circumstances. Speculation as to the cause of death have included suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza, brain tumor, diabetes, enzyme deficiency, apoplexy, delirium tremens, epilepsy and meningeal inflammation, amongst others. The true cause may never be known. The makers of The Raven have taken this real life mystery, and cleverly worked a fictional narrative around it, as a sort of "hidden history".
Just like Seven featured a serial killer who was inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins, The Raven features a killer who is inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Set in Baltimore in the mid-19th century, bodies start turning up; each death resembling a scene from Poe's macabre back catalogue. The police seek out Poe himself, a conceited yet tortured genius, to help solve the crime. After all, who better to get inside the mind of the killer than the man who invented the crimes in the first place? What follow is a fairly typical murder mystery, but one which is elevated by the stylish setting, and the curious blend of history and fantasy.
When I first heard that Hollywood was making a film featuring Poe, I wondered who they would chose to play such a distinct role. Poe was a quite odd looking fellow, his asymmetrical features giving him a haunted, otherworldly look. He was a man whose face perfectly suited the tone of his stories. When they announced that John Cusack had taken the role, I was unsurprised; real-life characters are always better looking in the movies.
Critics have been sticking the boot in about Cusack's performance, with many decrying that he has been miscast. Watching Cusack in this film, I never for a second thought it was Poe brought back to life, instead it was John Cusack with a beard and a pallor. But you know what? I'm fine with that. I'm sure he bears no resemblance how Poe actually behaved, but it's a very enjoyable turn. Cusack plays the man as a kind of shambling genius, not a million miles away from Robert Downey Jr's interpretation of Tony Stark.
Mention must also be given to Luke Evan, who impressed me as Inspector Fields, the man leading the investigation. He kept a straight face throughout proceedings, and acquitted himself very well (He also reminded me a little of Michael Shannon, and that's always a good thing).
The Raven may not add up to much, but it provides solid entertainment, with a watchable cast, some visual flair, and a fun premise. It's certainly the least annoying James McTeigue film to date.
Dir: James McTeigue
Starring: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson
Running time: 111 mins.
Wanderlust is the latest outing from David Wain, director of (the forgettable) Role Models. While some scenes fall flat, there are enough good laughs on show to make up for it. The combined chemistry of the lead stars, and the overall charm of the project means the film, while shaky, just about gets away with it. I left the cinema smiling, and that's always a good review.
Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston (both former Friends stars) play George and Linda, a pair of borderline yuppies living in a tiny "micro-loft" in New York. Linda, an aspiring filmmaker, pitches a depressing and nihilistic penguin documentary to HBO, but the project is rejected (It's more Werner Herzog than March of the Penguins). To make matters worse, the company for which George works goes under, leaving him out of a job. Newly-unemployed and unable to support themselves, they decide to stay with George's boorish, but more successful brother.
En route, they book into a quirky bohemian-styled guesthouse, and - low and behold - it turns out to be a hippie commune. Cue all manner of zany hijinks involving free love, wacky baccy, and placenta-related ickiness. Will there be a culture clash between the hippies and the yuppies? Will George and Linda leave the rat-race and embrace the chilled-out ethos? Can they save the commune from evil casino developers? None of the answers are surprising, but it's a pleasant journey nonetheless.
The cast make the most of it; the hippies on the commune are rag-bag bunch of colourful weirdos, and are played accordingly. Rudd and Aniston make a convincing couple; never falling into the old "he's a lazy slob/she's a nagging bitch" template like so many rom-coms. Instead of being an insensitive couch potato, George seems a fairly capable and supporting husband by the standards of the genre (although he's not above temptation). Linda, far from being the uptight, career-obsessed bossy-boots that is usually required in this sort of film, is actually unsure what she wants to do for a living, flitting between "callings". I found this dynamic to be a welcome break from some of the cookie-cutter screen couples of late.
Ultimately, it's a flawed but frequently amusing film with a few good chuckles on offer, some nice performances, and a generally warm and sweet atmosphere. It's no masterpiece, but I can excuse the occasional missteps. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. It's a fun piece of fluff.
Dir: David Wain
Starring: Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Alan Alda
Running time: 98 mins.