Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Film Reviews: Prometheus and Cross of Iron


While I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the Alien franchise, I was still thoroughly intrigued by Ridely Scott’s return. The first movie, the original Alien, is a little too high on the old Spook-o-meter for me, but I still liked it and respect what Scott did in the film. The second, James Cameron’s Aliens, is much more to my taste, and I mostly really enjoy it. Mostly. I haven’t seen movies three or four, and don’t plan to, but the first two contain plenty of good material worth revisiting*. So how does Scott do in his long-awaited return to sci-fi?

*However, I actually have seen the Aliens vs. Predators movie (the first one, anyway), which no one seems to dispute is essentially a big-budget fan fiction.

A prequel in the way that X-Men: First Class is a prequel, Prometheus tells the story of two scientists, Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who are able to demonstrate a recurring star pattern among ancient cave paintings that are otherwise unconnected. Funded by the gigantic Weyland Corporation, the two proceed to a star system that matches the pattern on the titular starship, looking for an alien civilization that may have influenced the creation (or at least development) of mankind. Also on the ship are a frosty Weyland representative named Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the amusingly laconic captain (Idris Elba), and an android named David (Michael Fassbender), whose motives remain murky. The ship finds the target planet without incident, but (unsurprisingly) things start to go awry once they disembark and find a large facility of some sort, stocked with containers of a mysterious black ooze.

It becomes obvious from the introductory prologue that this is an ambitious movie. Scott is trying to raise some pretty fundamental questions here, addressing the origin and purpose of humanity. As a result, Prometheus strikes a much more contemplative note than the first two Alien movies. There is action, though not nearly as much as Aliens, and there is horror, but not nearly as much as in Alien—the movie stayed within comfortable Spook-o-meter bounds. Thankfully, even what horror there is falls much more within the bounds of “body horror” than the tension and jump-scares frequent in the first movie*. Indeed, much of Prometheus felt much more akin to something like Cronenberg’s The Fly than either of its two antecedents.

* Not that the first two Alien movies lacked body horror—the facehugger/chestburster lifecycle of the xenomorphs, with its blatant rape imagery and connotations, is one of the more famous cinematic examples of this sort of filmmaking.

I really appreciated the philosophical approach that Scott takes here, but unfortunately the set up is a hell of a lot better than the payoff. The first half of Prometheus is great, intriguing and atmospheric and gorgeous to look at—as is customary in Ridley Scott movies, the production values are top-notch (with the exception of Peter Weyland’s old age makeup—why they cast Guy Pearce in the role instead of an actor who was actually old is beyond me). While the impressive production persists throughout*, once things really get rolling on the planet the movie gets in over its head. Ultimately little of consequence is answered and many more questions are raised—and that’s not to mention the litany of plot holes, none of which are movie-destroying but they do add up**. In terms of narrative the ending is a little abrupt but not done poorly, but thematically the lack of resolution is annoying, made even worse by the suggestion that the big questions will be answered in a sequel. Which kind of sucks.

*And not just the visuals—Ridley Scott movies are typically just, well, competent. The sound design, editing, lighting, all of it is really well-done. It’s just a well-made movie, technically.

**This video sums up many (but not all) of the problems the movie has. Spoilers, obviously.

Scott also probably would have been better served if he had just made the movie as an original story, rather than connecting it to Alien. Other than a brief scene at the very end of the movie, the xenomorphs are absent, and the attempts made to tie the movie into the rest of the Alien mythos aren’t entirely successful—too many things don’t really add up to what we learn in the first two movies. While I understand from a commercial standpoint why this was made as a prequel—Scott would have had a much more difficult time securing such a huge budget for an original idea—creatively unchaining Prometheus from Alien probably would have been a good move.

This isn’t an actor’s movie, but the cast is still good. Special mention to Michael Fassbender, whose deep performance makes fascinating a character whose ambiguous motivations might have been annoying had David been played by a lesser actor. Rapace is also good as the lead, a character that goes through an ordeal at least as harrowing as anything Ripley faces. As is sometimes the case with her, Theron is distractingly pretty and her role is a little underwritten, but she’s good enough.

Ultimately, Prometheus is not a completely successful movie. Too many things don’t make sense, and the resolution is frustrating. Still, I give it a lot of credit for ambition—when it fails, it fails because it’s actually trying to do something interesting and new. Besides, much of the movie succeeds quite well, and even at its worst is still well-made and entertaining. I’m glad I saw it.

6.5 B-

Cross of Iron

In Hollywood, any theater of World War II that had any American participation has been done to death. There are great movies (and miniseries like Band of Brothers) covering D-Day, the Western Front, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Midway, North Africa, Guadalcanal, and dozens of other Pacific Islands. Off the top of my head, the only major American theater for which I can’t immediately think of a fairly definitive cinematic treatment is the Italian Theater, and I’m sure that there’s something out there. The same cannot be said of the Eastern Front, however—while there have been a few recent Hollywood attempts at showing the battles that really defeated the Nazis (I happen to quite like parts of Enemy at the Gates, for example), as a whole it remains largely untouched in the West*. One of the few exceptions is the well-regarded Peckinpah film Cross of Iron.

*I’m aware of a few German and Russian films that address the Eastern Front, but films from these nations rarely have the kind of budgets you need to stage a modern, immersive war movie. Still, a few are supposed to be quite good—I’ve been meaning to check out 1993’s Stalingrad for a while now.

One of the better known Hollywood treatment’s of the Eastern Front, Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 Cross of Iron, which tells the story of Rolf Steiner (James Coburn), a well-respected and honorable German Sergeant serving in the Black Sea region towards the tail end of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The Nazis are beginning to contemplate retreat as the Red Army begins to bear down on them, but this does not sit well with the aristocratic Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell—and actual German actor!), who has transferred from the still-peaceful France in order to obtain the coveted military honor of the Iron Cross (which both his father and grandfather won in previous wars). Steiner and Stransky immediately begin butting heads, and when the inevitable Russian attack forces the Nazis to begin their retreat, Stransky’s machinations leave Steiner and a group of his men deep behind enemy lines.

As a war film, Cross of Iron owes more than a little to Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory. Both movies have similar themes, detailing how good, low-ranking soldiers are screwed by the vanity and stupidity of aristocratic officers. Steiner and Colonel Dax would get along well. However, while Cross of Iron certainly outdoes the earlier film in terms of spectacle—it’s a great-looking film, and the use of authentic period equipment (notably tanks) is appreciated—it loses some of the thematic focus that makes Kubrick’s vision so special.

Peckinpah desperately wants to craft an epic out of material that perhaps does not lend itself to such a broad approach. Cross of Iron could have used a harsher editor; there are a few scenes and subplots that could have been shortened or eliminated altogether, and Peckinpah gets a little carried away during the action scenes. Clearly endowed with a significant budget, Peckinpah seems loathe to waste any dollar that could potentially be spent on a tank explosion. The action is exciting*, but more than one scene runs on long enough that the exact point starts to get a little confused.

*Although it should be noted that, like many older war movies, Cross of Iron would have looked a lot better in the pre-Saving Private Ryan era. Spielberg revolutionized how war movies are shot, and Peckinpah’s work does indisputably suffer some in comparison. Also, this is supposed to be quite a violent film, but by modern war movie standards looks rather tame.

However, other than Peckinpah’s intermittent loss of control over the film, there is little to dislike about Cross of Iron. As mentioned before, it looks great, probably because it was filmed on location in Yugoslavia. The acting is consistently good, particularly by the reliable Maximilian Schell. For whatever reason, war movies tend to have endings that work for me (Patton has probably my favorite final two minutes ever), and Cross of Iron has a great one.

Overall Cross of Iron is a reasonably compelling and inarguably well-made movie, and anyone with any fondness for war movies is going to enjoy it, and its setting on the Eastern Front ensures it remains fairly different from other World War II movies. Still, there’s nothing that it does exceptionally well—thematically it resembles the better Paths of Glory, and the overused action and battle scenes (while certainly not bad) have become antiquated.

7 B

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