Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Snowbound Day of Science Fiction



With winds blowing, drifting two-foot mounds of snow outside our house, we thought it more prudent to remain inside on Monday rather than brave the Montana highways. In doing so, we decided to revisit three sci-fi movies that showed tremendous promise, but ultimately disappointed for one reason or another in initial viewing. Spoilers abound, so though these are all at least a few years old, be sure before you read these that you’ve really seen them.

Prometheus

As a lifelong lover of the Alien franchise – yes even the two lower-regarded ones – I welcomed the news of director Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise. Even more so, to see Lost creator Damon Lindelof attached as a writer heightened my anticipation. And on a first viewing, there was only one thing clear about Prometheus: there is way more to this film than what you are seeing on screen.

Is Prometheus too ambitious? As a stand-alone film, perhaps. But it was known at the time of filming, and disclosed later, that Scott’s return was predicated on having the ability to create a new franchise in the Alien universe. He had big ideas, and one movie was not going to contain them all. He gives us a lot to digest, and rather than give my own take, I’ll refer you to this very well-written blog on the topic. While the author has some good ideas, and clearly knows his shit, there is one key item I feel he hasn’t fully addressed.

I squish your head!
When David wakes the Engineer, in the most compelling choice of the film, what he says to him is not subtitled. We have already received the impression that the Engineers were intent on wiping out humanity, and when this one awakens, before anyone even speaks to him, he sees the humans already at each other’s throats once again. It is tempting to suggest that David says something treasonous to him which incites his wrath, and that was my original thought. What the deleted scenes show is that David says exactly what he was expected to, and the Engineer realizes that humans haven’t gotten any better in the two millennia in which he has been asleep. Thus his attempt to purge LV-223 of their presence and complete his intended mission of enabling their extinction.

Overall, this isn’t just a movie to scare us on the screen, it is meant to philosophically strike fear into us: we’re so far gone, our makers would rather exterminate us than be our salvation. And ultimately, that doesn’t quite make for a satisfying film-going experience when left unresolved at this film’s end. And the labored attempt in a final sequence to tie in to the Alien films for which this is a prequel seems like a bit too much to swallow. To ask whether one likes Prometheus, that is the wrong question. I can appreciate the intent and effort and look forward to the next chapter in this story.

Contact

Of the three films we viewed, this is the one of which I had the lowest opinion  going in. Frankly, I wouldn’t have even purchased it had it not been part of a three-disc set that featured two other serviceable sci-fi flicks. And though I found some redeeming qualities, my unenthusiastic memories of the film were not disputed by this re-watching: too-long by at least half an hour, and too pretentious by half, Contact is the work of director Robert Zemeckis who, coming off an Oscar win for the cloying and saccharine Forrest Gump, was given free rein. The opening sequence, which takes us through trillions of light years of star fields, sets the stage for a film that is too often weighed down by its own self-importance.

Jodie Foster gives and impassioned performance, if sometimes a bit much so, and anchors what is otherwise a film bogged down in stereotypical characters who feel as if their sole purpose in existing is for her to respond to them. There are also too many ridiculous missteps in plotting, namely around the destruction of the first machine and existence of a duplicate, to allow one to take this film too seriously. But I found myself a bit more forgiving as I realized the movie was not so much about the ‘is there anyone else out there?’ idea and more about, ‘why are we even looking?’

The film suggests that it shouldn’t matter whether it is for reasons of religion or for reasons of science that we seek and an answer to whether we are alone in the universe, but simply that we do so under the auspices of faith, and not self-aggrandizement. Matthew McConaughey’s Palmer Joss character gets to make a few heartfelt speeches to this effect, but it is ultimately Foster’s Ellie who gets the big moment in front of a skeptical Congressional panel to cement the theme. But again the movie seriously missteps, allowing us to side with Ellie by having more knowledge than the film affords her, and Zemeckis refuses to trust the audience to get there on their own.

Oblivion

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, there was no question that this would be an opening-night viewing for me. The visuals, even in the short span of a preview, are simply breathtaking. Director Joseph Kosinski was given a second chance after he almost single-handedly torpedoed the re-birth of the Tron franchise with a loud, garish and emotionally bereft misfire. And while the visuals of his sophomore effort didn’t disappoint on the Cinerama screen a few years back, the story felt a bit weak and predictable upon first viewing.

With the benefit of knowing the outcome a second go ‘round, I can say that let me sit back and just absorb the film as an experience. And as eye candy alone, Oblivion succeeds one hundred percent. This film has the best sci-fi set design in at least two decades, and foregoes the washed out bluish tinges and dark edginess of recent Spielberg entries and pretenders to the throne. None of it feels like obvious green screening (and I learn that the entire tower set was surrounded by live monitors depicting the scenery), because Tom Cruise has absolutely nailed how to deliver these incredulous scenes and put his audience there with him. It shows us a Manhattan buried in several hundred feet of exploded earth, and watched over by a few remaining humans whose purpose and presence raises questions even amongst themselves.

Sitting down with Oblivion again, I found that there was more resonance to the eventual outcome. Machines that thought they understood humanity and could just wipe our memories failed to understand the power of love and the impenetrable spirit of the human soul. The lead performances are key to delivering on this, and Cruise and Andrea Riseborough succeed, both revealing the buried emotions that should in theory have been long-dead in convincing fashion.

The blatant parallels to 2001: A Space Odyssey suggest that this may have been Kosinski’s idea of a sequel… HAL’s Revenge perhaps? And while the cataclysmic ending is probably a bit much (right down to the “fuck you” final one-liner), I felt rejuvenated in revisiting this one and whole-heartedly recommend it.

I find it easier to come back to science fiction films than most other genres because there is typically more layering and intent than is discernible on first viewing. What are some of your favorites to come back to?


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