There was no stopping Titanic in 1997, iceberg be damned. James Cameron’s epic disaster movie had all the momentum of the times, and yet it’s a smaller movie that captured more of the critics and was far more deserving of the ultimate Oscar prizes that year. L.A. Confidential was based upon a James Ellroy novel that many argued was unfilmable. Enter journeyman director Curtis Hanson and novice screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and the pair stripped the book down from eight main characters to three, kept the spirit and essence of the book alive while rearranging the storylines for large-scale popcorn thrills. It’s been nearly twenty years since L.A. Confidential first seduced big screen audiences and its powers are still as alluring to this day. It’s a neo noir masterpiece.
In 1950s Los Angeles, not all is what it seems. The captain of the police, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is looking to keep the peace in the City of Angels as outside criminal elements are looking to fill the void from Mickey Cohen going to prison. Three police officers of very different stripes find themselves on the edges of a complicated murder case stemming from a massacre at the Nite Owl cafe. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a famous police captain and wants to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. He’s a political animal and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bruiser of a man who enforces his own level of justice when it comes to men who beat or harass women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a happily shady officer who serves as a consultant for a hit TV police procedural. The Night Owl case takes them into many sordid corridors of sex, money, and power, including Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), part of Pierce Pratchett’s (David Strathairn) stable of prostitutes meant to look like movie stars, the mysterious self-serving sources to tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and good cops and bad cops on the controversial L.A. police force.
This movie is a master class in plotting and structure, enough that it should be taught in film schools. By nature noir plots are meant to be busy and mysterious, and a guarantee for mystery is a Byzantine plot full of plenty of suspects, dispirit elements, and strange coincidences that eventually coalesce into a larger picture. The beauty of what Hanson and Helgeland have done is that they have made the script complex yet accessible, able to lose one’s self in the tangled web of intrigue but still able to see how all the myriad pieces fit perfectly together by the conclusion. There is an efficiency to the screenwriting that is mesmerizing. It all seems so effortless when you’re with storytellers this gifted or who have a divine connection to the source material. Forgoing the customary slow builds of recent film noir like the oft-cited Chinatown, L.A. Confidential just moves from the opening narration. Within the first 25 minutes, the movie has expertly set up all three of its main characters, what defines them, their separate goals, the obstacles in place, and previews how they will intersect into one another’s orbit, and then the Nite Owl case explodes. Every scene drives this narrative forward. Every scene reveals a little more depth to our characters or fleshes out a superb supporting cast. Every scene cements that contradictory theme of the glitzy allure and unseemly darkness of the post-war City of Angels. My only quibble is that before the truncated third act the movie resorts to a few easy shortcuts but by that point Hanson and Helgeland had more than earned their paces. This is one of the greatest modern screenplays, period (WGA listed it as #60 all-time).
There are so many remarkably assured sequences but I want to emphasize one in particular – Exley’s interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects. “Oh I’ll break him,” Exley promises his superior before entering into the first interrogation room. At first you’re with the other officers and morbidly curious with his arrogance. By the end, your jaw hangs in amazement at the intuitive pressure this man is expertly applying. It’s a terrific moment that allows Exley to masterfully manipulate three different men, taking pieces and running toward accurate insinuations, building momentum and clarity. Each man is different and each man offers a new piece of the overall puzzle. A slight reference by one unlocks another’s confession. An overheard sound byte pushes another into self-defense. I’m convinced it was this scene that ensured robust and thorough interrogation was a crucial element of the gameplay for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, a noble misfire that definitely looked to replicate Hanson’s film as a user experience.
Noir is one film genre with a visual code that can get the best of directors, but Hanson played this to his advantage. Classic noir is filled with criminal activity and the allure of sex and violence, typified perhaps best in the position of the untrustworthy but oh-so-sexy femme fatale. Yet the majority of film noir was produced in an era of censorship thanks to the implementation of the notorious Hayes Code, making sure that audiences didn’t enjoy the sordid elements too far. Free of these restrictions, some modern filmmakers take the opportunity to revisit the noir landscape and fill in the blanks of old, furnishing an outpouring of unrestrained exploitation elements. Brian DePalma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia (also based on an Ellroy novel) gets drunk on this mission, though “restrained” has never been a word I would associate with DePalma’s filmmaking anyway. My point, dear reader, is that it’s easy to get lost in the superficial trappings of the genre: sexy dames, corrupt lawmen, temptation, shootouts, schemes, and chiaroscuro lighting. It’s easy to dabble in these elements because they’re so nostalgic and celebrated.
Hanson did something different with his 1997 masterpiece. He builds upon the audience expectations with noir but he doesn’t let his complex story and characters come second to the visual spectacle of the famous genre. L.A. Confidential is in many ways a movie that straddles lines; old and new, indie and Hollywood classicism, and film noir and drama. It’s an adult film that doesn’t downplay its darkness, brutality, and moral ambiguity, yet when it comes to those exploitation elements, especially sex, it’s almost chaste. The relationship between Lynn and Bud seems refreshingly square, like it was pulled from Old Hollywood. The entire movie feels that way, an artifact that could exist any decade.
Hanson was something of a journeyman for most of his career, directing competent thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. As Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his eulogy for Hanson (he died in September 2016, a fact I shamefully didn’t know until writing this review), after 25 years in the industry the man became an earth-rattling auteur after the age of 50. That is a rarity. Who knew the guy had something this singularly brilliant within his grasp his entire career? The care he puts into the screen is evident from the opening montage onward. There’s an elusive magic to the filmmaking on display, a bracingly divine sense of how to move the camera for best effect, how to escalate and deescalate audience nerves. He knows his story structure and characters inside and out, but he also knows how to play an audience. His time making serviceable studio thrillers certainly helps him during the film’s climax, a bloody shootout that’s also a mini-siege thriller.
Hanson also assembled an incredible crew to enable his vision. The technical elements recreate the early 1950s L.A. time period with beguiling immediacy; the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat) gives a sense of the darker elements just under the surface without having to overly rely upon the film language of staid noir visuals. Peter Honess’ sharp editing provides a downright Thelma Schoonmaker-esque musical orchestration to the proceedings, especially as the multiple storylines and developments spill onto one another. Speaking of music, the score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) is thick with the jazzy overtones of the genre. It’s a score that simmers with sexual tension and malevolence. The casting director deserves a lifetime free pass. There are a whopping 80 speaking parts in the movie, and each person is a great hire that builds a richer film.
While the plot of L.A. Confidential sucks you in right away, its characters take hold the strongest. Film noir is one genre that has a codified cheat sheet of character archetypes, and this movie fulfills and subverts them, finding surprising and gratifying ways to further round out these figures into complex and nuanced human beings. The three main characters all provide a different approach to law enforcement and when we see them start to work together it’s a wholly wonderful turn of events. Bud is the muscle, Exley is the brain, and Vincennes is the charm, and each one attacks the Nite Owl case and its subsequent leads from different angles that best apply to their set of skills. Each of the three characters discovers new pieces of evidence, new contacts and suspects, and when they start to work together it not only provides a payoff with the combined evidence but with the satisfying nature of their teamwork. That’s because they become better people when they work together and each moves closer to some moral redemption.
Bud is the loyal cop with a hair trigger and a penchant for being a white knight to abused women. His personal history of abuse makes him seek justice, often by his own fists. He has a rigid moral code of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to cross lines to achieve it. He’s also tired of being a bully and wants to be more than just the muscle. Exley is a straight arrow with a strong sense of moral righteousness and a mind for politics. He knows how to play sides for his own gain. He’s not afraid of making enemies within the department, and his opportunistic choices create many. He’s trying to forge his own path outside the shadow of his father, a famous lawman who was gunned down by a random purse-snatcher (“Rollo Tamassi”). He has to learn that he can’t do everything on his own. Finally, Vincennes is in many ways the face of the department as an ambassador to the world of TV and film. He’s succumbed fully to the glamour of Hollywood but he’s also full of profound self-loathing, trying to count how many compromises he’s made in life and where it’s gotten him. The appeal of the old life is crumbling and his detective instincts are reawakened, spurring Vincennes into the fray and surprising even himself. It’s extremely rare for any movie to successfully develop more than one protagonist, let alone three, and yet L.A. Confidential achieves this milestone so that when we alternate perspectives there isn’t a drop in viewer interest. Each man brings something different and interesting, each man reveals new hidden depths, and each character is fascinating to watch in this setting.
The gifted actors take the already excellent written material and elevate it even further, turning an already sterling movie into one of the all-time greats. Almost twenty years later, it’s fun to see these famous actors when they were young and, arguably, in their prime. Spacey (House of Cards) was on a tear at this point in his career, between his two well-deserved Oscar wins, and having the time of his life in every role. His character seemingly has the least complexity, a man who knows he’s sold out but believes himself to be enjoying the ride, but Spacey offers poignant glimpses of the man behind all that oily charm and sly glances. There’s a scene where he stumbles across a mistake of his making and the subtle, haunted expression playing across his face is amazing. The man was capable of expressing so much, and still is. Crowe was still a couple years from his big breakout in 2000’s Gladiator but he put himself on the Hollywood map as Bud White. He’s a coil of anger and pain looking for an outlet, and Crowe is magnetic as hell. His glowers could burn right through you. Pearce (Memento) was another knockout that solidified leading man status thanks to his performance as the rigidly self-righteous Exley. He’s a character that thinks he’s above moral reproach, and his humbling is a necessary part of solving the case. Exley is constantly surprising his peers and it feels like Pearce does the same, showing exciting new capabilities from scene to scene, from his stirring hire-wire act with the interrogation scene to his understated glimmer of fear through a poker face. These three performances are golden.
Nobody better represents sleaze than Danny DeVito’s character and the man brings a merry lechery to his tabloid journalist/exposition device. His unquenchable thirst for the worst in humanity to sell more papers feels even more sadly relevant given the media climate that contributed to the recent presidential election. Kim Basinger (Batman) won an Oscar for her somber performance, which reinvigorated her career. She’s good but I can’t help but feel that she won the Oscar in a weak field (my choice would be Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights). David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is enjoyably nonplussed as a man who specializes in delivering vice. James Cromwell used every bit of audience warmth associated as the loveable farmer from Babe and used that to his advantage. His pragmatic police captain is a father figure for Exley and the audience and perfectly sets up a turn that leaves the audience spinning even twenty years later.
There are little details the could go unnoticed but confirm for me just how much thought was put into L.A. Confidential. Exley is chided by his superiors for wearing glasses as they think it makes him look weak. As the film develops and he gets more immersed in the Nite Owl case, his compulsions against violence and rash judgment start to waver about the same time he stops wearing his glasses, a subtle symbol of his difficulty to see things for what they truly are. I enjoyed that our introduction to Lynn is in a liquor store and she’s wearing a winter cloak that strongly resembles a nun’s habit. It’s a memorable costuming choice and also suggest Lynn’s penchant for straddling the line of devotion. The Patchett “whatever your heart desires” line of high-class prostitutes has allusions to our current media culture of celebrity worship and personalized sexual fantasies. It naturally ties into the exploitation of the dream factory of Hollywood that takes young ingénues with dreams in their head and squashes them pitilessly. It’s not the first film to explore the darker side of the film industry but that doesn’t make its themes lesser.
L.A. Confidential feels like the noir thrillers of old but stripped down to its essentials and given a new engine. It’s something that celebrates noir thrillers of old and Old Hollywood but it isn’t so lavish to either the genre or older time period that it loses sight of its own storytelling goals. The elaborate plot is complex and intensely engaging while still being accessible, populated with memorable and incredibly well developed characters, each given their own purpose and own insights that contribute to the larger whole. Hanson’s lasting accomplishment is a near-perfect masterpiece to the power of story structure and characterization. The three lead detectives are compelling on their own terms and the movie keeps them separate long enough that when they do come together it feels like a payoff all its own. Hanson recreates the world of classic film noir and makes it his own, using new Hollywood to lovingly recreate Old Hollywood. It’s the kind of movie I can watch again and again and discover new depths. It gave way to a wave of success for its participants. Hanson never quite delivered another movie on the level of L.A. Confidential, though I’ll posit that In Her Shoes is an underrated character piece. Helgeland has become a go-to screenwriter for many projects low (The Postman) and high (Mystic River) and became a director for A Knight’s Tale and 42. It’s a movie that plays just as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago, and that’s the mesmerizing power of great storytelling and acting. L.A. Confidential is a lasting achievement that proves once more the power of our darker impulses. It’s stylish, seductive, smart, subversive, and everything you could ask for in a movie.
Nate’s Grade: A
Third movies in superhero franchises always seem to be a precarious proposition; X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Superman 3, all graveyards of rushed productions, artistic compromises, and general complacency. Usually the third movie is when the hero has what he or she (but mostly he) has built up stripped down. It’s the same case with Iron Man 3, which short of a noisy finale has a surprisingly small amount of actual Iron Man, much like the scant amount of Batman in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises. That’s fine with me because the appeal of this franchise has been Tony Stark the character, not the mechanical heroics. Iron Man 3 is co-written and directed by super Hollywood scribe Shane Black, the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the 2005 gem that resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was this fact alone, especially after how disappointing Iron Man 2 was, that got me jazzed about a third outing. Black’s characteristic sense of humor, genre blending, and mass appeal thrills helps to make Iron Man 3 an enjoyable if flawed movie-going experience and a suitable kickoff to the summer movie season.
Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is having trouble sleeping, haunted by the near world-ending events in New York City from his time with the Avengers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), head of Stark Industries and Tony’s main squeeze, wants her man to take a mental health break. He’s spending as much time as possible in his lab, concocting a whole army of different Iron Man suits. His latest invention allows him to control a suit prototype with his body, compelling pieces of his amour to his person with a wave of his arms. He’ll need the help because the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearful terrorist leader, is staging a series of bombings around the United States, leaving behind videos taunting his foes. After an attack that hits close to home, Stark challenges the Mandarin and the bad guy brings the fight to the man of iron, decimating his home and forcing Stark to flee. In Tennessee, Stark unravels the mystery behind the Mandarin, which involves a brilliant scientist (Rebecca Hall), a nefarious biotechnology businessman (Guy Pearce), and even the president of the United States himself.
The best part of the first film was watching a brilliant guy become Iron Man; sure the superhero stuff was fun but it wasn’t what made the movie special. Downey Jr. as a charismatic, egotistical, self-involved but ultimately redeemable middle-aged playboy is what made the movie special. With Iron Man 3, he has to rely on his wits for large portions, which are still considerable. It’s a clever way to make a billionaire playboy with out-of-this-world technology empathetic. He’s never going to be an everyman but that doesn’t mean we can’t empathize. With that said, I still find his whole PTSD ordeal after events from The Avengers to be shaky. He’s already had near death experiences before so unless we get a bigger explanation (proof of alien existence and superiority? Knowing a return is inevitable?) I find it hard to fathom that a guy as outwardly unflappable as Tony Stark would be hobbled by his super team-up activities. Also, now that we exist in a post-Avengers universe, wouldn’t the ongoing attacks by the Mandarin warrant some sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. response or monitoring?
Likewise, I really appreciated how Black developed his action sequences, routinely giving Stark limitations. The concept of a suit that can assemble by itself and fly hundreds of miles is silly, sure, but it also opens up fun possibilities and questions of identity. At one point, Stark has one arm and one leg of his suit, allowing him to fight back but having to get creative with his moves. A fight while he’s handcuffed also provides enjoyable thrills. During the home attack, Stark’s suit is a prototype and will not allow him to fly, so he has to get inventive, literally shooting a grand piano at a helicopter. The best action scene is when Iron Man has to save a dozen people from plummeting to their deaths after being sucked out of Air Force One in midair. I wish the solution hadn’t been so quick but it’s a thrilling sequence with terrific aerial photography.
Until the finale, which is all-robot action, you could accuse the film of being too shrift in its action sequences, rarely lasting longer than a few brief minutes. They’re still quite entertaining, and well directed, with Black nicely drawing out organic complications and making good use of geography. We know that Black can write a glorious action sequence, but unless you were one of the lucky souls who saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a surprise that the man can direct one so well. There’s a nice sense of style on display but it never becomes overpowering, and thankfully it’s presented in a manner that you can, shocker, tell what is happening onscreen. Black definitely has a good eye for visuals and scene compositions but he also knows how to deliver great crowd-pleasing moments that we want in our summer movies. The climax is pretty busy with lots of keen Iron Man suits that you just know are there to be purchasable toys first and foremost. The sustained action is pretty involving, and Black is an expert at establishing mini-goals and developing naturally. Even as it starts to devolve into a hectic video game-like frenzy, there are enough changing goals and reversals to keep you satisfied for the long haul.
The movie’s villains are somewhat nebulous and employ an Evil Plot that is too convoluted by half. The Mandarin is an intriguing figure but undergoes some changes that will surely leave fans of the comic steaming mad. I accept that movies are an adaptation from the source material, and have no real personal affinity for Iron Man or his rogues’ gallery, so I wasn’t bothered by the notable change. It fits the tone of the movie as well as becomes another plot point in a convoluted Evil Plot. I will agree with detractors on this point: after the invasion in The Avengers, alien technology, the source of the Mandarin’s powers in the comic, is credible. I don’t really understand the political commentary at play with the Mandarin either. More so, and I’m trying to be delicate with spoilers, Iron Man 3 is really a movie about Tony Stark versus… lava people. Sure they have superhuman brains that provide regeneration and superior human ability. It just seems that all these super humans decide to do is… heat things up. They glow red, melt through walls, and are essentially lava creatures. Apparently Tony Stark needs to take some cues from that old U.S. Marines ad where the guy fights a giant lava monster (“Have you been attacked by a lava monster recently? No? You’re welcome – signed, the Marines”). The villains, while weak, are still probably the best in the series. It’s been a fairly weak franchise for antagonists.
Coming from Black, you’d expect an increase in the implementation of comedy, though Iron Man 3 probably walks just up to the line. It almost gets too jokey but pulls back enough. Adam Pally’s (TV’s criminally underseen Happy Endings) small bit as an obsessed fan of Stark is probably the testing point. Tony Stark has issues sure, especially if Disney will ever let the movies explore his history with alcoholism, but the man is never going to challenge Bruce Wayne for the brooding loner throne. Stark is a quipper, a loudmouth who uses humor as a weapon and a shield, and brought to vivid life by Downey Jr., the man will always be a comedian. That’s not to say that the drama lacks proper seriousness. However, Black pushes a lot more comedy into the film than we’ve seen in the earlier installments. Most of it is welcome and even when the movie goes into mass appeal mode, especially in Act Two when a plucky kid aids Stark, Black covers the familiar without losing his edge. You’ll likely recognize the buddy cop patter from Black’s other movies but it still works. There are several setups that look like we’re getting Big Hero Moments, and then Black decides to undercut them for a good laugh. Iron Man 3’s consistent sense of humor makes the movie feel even faster paced.
Downey Jr. (The Avengers) is still the MVP of the modern Marvel-verse in my eyes, and even two years removed from 50, he’s still got enough energy to power a small army. He’s still pulling the same schtick so to speak, which may wear thin for others after four starring appearances as Tony Stark, but I still find him naturally appealing. Paltrow (Contagion) gets a chance to do more than the standard damsel in distress that the women function in these movies. I regret that after being given a tantalizing new direction the movie reverts her back to standard damsel sidekick so speedily. Ho hum. Kingsley (Hugo) just seemed wrong for the part from the start, never mind the nebulous ethnicity issues. His vocal fluctuations and strange emphasis proved too distracting for me. However, he proves to be a better match after the Mandarin’s twist. Pearce (Lawless) is a pretty solid, smarmy bad guy and man has he got an impressive physique going on. It’s just nice to see great character actors from Hall (The Town) to Miguel Ferrer (Traffic) to Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) in a high-profile mega blockbuster. Even little Ty Simpkins (Insidious) is pretty good as the kid who helps out Stark. My tolerance for child acting has gone downhill as I have gotten older, but the kid is genuinely good without falling into the common trappings of being cloying or overly precocious.
Iron Man 3 is a definite improvement over the overstuffed, undernourished 2010 sequel. It ends on a moment that feels like something close to closure, but you know, as the credits helpfully indicate, that Tony Stark will appear again, at least in 2015’s Avengers 2. The bigger question is can this franchise exist without the participation of Downey Jr.? I’m sure we’ll all find out eventually considering the character is too profitable to simply retire once Downey Jr. decides he’s had enough. We’ve had five Batmans after all, not counting Adam West. However, never has a character seemed so intrinsically linked with an actor before. Downey Jr. just is Tony Stark, and while some capable young male lead out there in Hollywood will put up a valiant effort, it will never be the same. Iron Man 3 is further proof that the appeal of the franchise is not the explosions and action set pieces, which it does a fine job with; it’s the man inside the suit and the formidable actor that gives this franchise its juice. Spending more time with Stark is a bonus, and Black’s zippy sense of comedy and acute knowledge of the architecture of popcorn thrills allows the movie to fly by with ease. While the first film reigns supreme, Iron Man 3 is a fitting and pleasurable enough blockbuster that reminds you why we still love this guy.
Nate’s Grade: B
The bootlegging drama Lawless certainly has all the right elements to be an enjoyable movie. It’s by the men who gave us the great noir-Western The Proposition (director John Hillcoat, writer Nick Cave), it’s got a star-studded cast, plenty of bloody action, and a handsomely recreated production of the Prohibition era. But as I watched the Bondurant boys struggle against those who would like to put them in jail and/or murder them, I kept noticing something odd. I wasn’t that engaged. There was plenty of life-and-death drama, but why wasn’t I involved in the story more? Lawless feels like a series of scenes rather than a movie. Even when the plot changes it doesn’t feel like the movie is advancing. Even when things are more desperate it doesn’t feel like the momentum is building. The characters are somewhat sluggish as well, Shia LaBeouf as the scared youngest brother, Tom Hardy as the grumbly big brother who talks like his mouth is full of molasses. Jessica Chastain as the abused Good Woman who opens herself up to our Strong Hurting Man. Then you got a plot with a mobster (Gary Oldman) that weirdly climaxes with an hour left in the movie. He’s ignored for the remainder. Then there’s Guy Pearce as a colorfully fiendish and foppish special deputy that terrorizes the town. I am a Pearce fan but this guy is acting like he’s in his own weirder personal movie; it’s the kind of stuff Marlon Brando did. I appreciated that Lawless kept things gritty and bloody for realism, but I kept finding moments that ripped me out, namely the indestructible nature of Tom Hardy. Seriously, this guy has to be the Terminator. When he miraculously survives yet another seemingly fatal injury, all you can do is laugh. Lawless is passable entertainment but with its pedigree this should have been better.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ridley Scott has always wanted to go back to the Alien franchise that began with his 1979 sci-fi staple. There have been a lot of coy discussions over whether his big-budget sci-fi spectacle Prometheus is indeed an Alien prequel or not. Scott keeps hinting it has the DNA of the franchise but exists on its own. This movie has some Big Questions on its mind, like where did we come from, but the biggest question out there is whether it really is an Alien prequel or not. Well rest assured, that question will be sufficiently answered. Now if you have more than that, you will be left empty-handed with this gorgeous but ultimately confounding sci-fi thriller.
In 2089, a team of archeologists, lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), discover an ancient star map from 30,000 years in mankind’s past. This is not the only ancient illustration displaying the same constellation. Sure enough, in every ancient civilization across the globe, the same star pattern. Shaw believes it is an invitation and th key to finding the “engineers” who may be responsible for life on Earth. Four years later, the wealthy Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) has funded a trip to that exact point in space, which harbors a moon that seems extraordinarily like Earth and capable of sustaining life. The ship is run by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). who keeps asserting her company’s authority on this mission. Along for the ride is a cocksure pilot (Idris Elba), an android named David (Michael Fassbender), and Shaw’s own lover, a scientist in his own right, Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green). When the gang gets to that moon, they uncover large buried structure with some nasty surprises inside. Suffice to say, they should have stayed home.
You can always count on Scott to deliver a visually extravagant picture, and Prometheus is packed with stunning, arresting visuals that fill up the big screen with lovely detail. The scale of some of these sets is massive, and your eyes just want to soak up every detail. The alien world is vast and eerie and you just want the characters to spend the rest of their lives exploring it (Scott shot in Iceland but it looks remarkably like a whole different world). The interior sets on the space ship are also sleek and cool. There’s a terrific sense of immersion in the movie. Scott has always done a great job at building worlds that feel completely lived-in, and Prometheus is another example of his talents. The special effects are astonishing but best when not dealing with the biological life forms. The giant spaceship is incredible; its inhabitants? Not so much. Apparently our DNA grandfathers looked like giant Michelin men (thankfully we take more after our mother’s side). Prometheus demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Prometheus harkens back to the original Alien in its suspenseful “haunted house in space” setup. The movie has some terrifically taut moments and a great overwhelming sense of dread. The scientists let curiosity get the better of them, so they poke their heads in dark corners, touch unknown alien material, and get up close and personal with things better left unmolested. If slasher movies elicit a “Don’t go in there” audience response, then Prometheus certainly elicits a “Why are you touching that?” reaction. And yet, deep down, we want them to keep pushing further because like the best suspense films, we can’t stand the tension but we really want it to keep going. Probably the most memorable scene of them all involves Shaw performing her own hurried abdominal surgery to remove an alien from inside her. It’s creepy and caused me to wince repeatedly, but man is it fun and gruesome and a nice payoff to an earlier setup. The rest of the movie is pretty standard with its thrills, including the canon fodder supporting characters getting picked off unceremoniously, and the large-scale devastation climax. The movie delivers the goods when it comes to entertainment and suspense, though mostly in the first half. It’s almost like the movie is awed by the visuals as well, and then halfway in remembers, “Oh yeah, we got to do more than just poke at things,” and then it’s a rush to the end with a cascade of conflicts that don’t seem properly developed.
The film lays out a very essential question about the origins of mankind and plays around with theological concepts but it only plays in the shallow end of the philosophical pool. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of TV’s Lost) deals with the conflicting origin stories via religion and observable science but never goes into specifics. “Religion” is always symbolized as a cross necklace that Shaw wears and her falling back point upon what she “chooses to believe.” The discovery that our alien forefathers have a similar appearance would be a huge revelation, except the movie spoils it with a clumsy prologue that shows us right off the bat what the “engineers” look like. Prometheus actually posits an Intelligent Design argument for human existence, albeit one the Raelians have been promoting for years, the idea that intelligent life outside our galaxy seeded Earth. Yet the one scientists on the crew, the one who objects to 300 years of evolutionary evidence, remains mum on the matter. I suppose the filmmakers didn’t want their monsters-in-space movie to be bogged down with that much pithy philosophy, but I would have appreciated some meatier conversations other than, “Should we touch this?” It’s not nearly as thought provoking or as compelling as it thinks it is.
As I sit here and I write this, the plot becomes a wispy memory of strong set pieces and eerie mood, but I cannot connect the story. It makes little sense and by the end of its 124 minutes we’re left with hardly any more answers than we started with (some spoilers to follow). Our genetic “engineers,” as they call them, remain pretty nebulous. I suppose one could argue that it would be impossible to fully understand an alien race’s habits and purposes without resorting to pandering, but that strikes me as a cop out (I’m reminded of Spielberg’s similar approach in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the characters that wanted to know were punished for their intellectual curiosity by alien forces). Why did these super aliens create life on Earth and leave maps to a planet that was little more than a weapons depot? Why would these superior beings create life hundreds of thousands of years ago and then leave clues 35,000 years ago that would lead to the destruction of their little experiment? The motivation seems rather hazy. It’s not like the aliens created life on all these planets and waited to be contacted so that they knew their little biological Easy Bake oven was done and then they could reclaim a new planet. It’s not some imperialist empire or colonization scheme; it appears to just be wanton destruction. That seems like a waste of effort. Did these aliens keep checking back, see our ancestors hunting and gathering and go, “Oh my Space Deity, I can’t believe we created life on this planet? We were so wasted. Well, just wait until they conquer space travel and then we’ll kill them with a weird biological weapon.” If your desire is to destroy life, why even have a waiting period? If these “engineers” wanted to destroy Earth why not do it when there was far less clean up? Is there some kind of parent-child relationship I’m just not getting here?
Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) makes the biggest impression as the fastidious android, David. He’s by far the most interesting character and he’s not even human. It doesn’t take long to figure out that David has his own agenda, and Fassbender plays the character with this eerie passive-aggressive arrogance. You get the sensation that he looks down on his human clientele, but you don’t know what lengths he will go. “How far will you go to get your answers?” he asks before doing something very not nice. He makes statements like, “Who doesn’t want to kill their parents?” and there’s an icy placidity to him; he’s just off enough to be menacing and unsettling without going overboard. Fassbender is excellent.
The rest of the cast cannot be at fault for failing to measure up to Fassbender (is that a Shame joke I stumbled upon?). Rapace (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is given top billing and does an admirable job of being a kickass heroine, which we already knew she was fully capable of in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. She even has a Ripley-esque haircut, which I doubt is a coincidence. Theron (Snow White & the Huntsman) gets to once again practice her ice queen routine, but I wish she had more to do than occasionally glower and bark orders. Her character’s secret background should be obvious to anyone well versed in the film economy of characters. Elba (TV’s superior Luther) tries to stick it out with some twangy Texas accent but can’t make his way through. His natural British accent pokes through routinely. Then there’s Guy Pearce (Lockout) as the wealthy benefactor who bankrolled the whole project. Apparently he was hired to film viral videos as himself, because in the movie he’s like a 100-year-old man in some pretty poor makeup (he resembles old Biff in Back to the Future: Part 2). Why hire an actor of Pearce’s caliber if you’re just going to hide him under a veil of old-age makeup? The actors do what they can but the film doesn’t give them much to work with. They’re stock roles and absent development. You don’t notice for a long while because you’re so caught up in the exploration and the gorgeous visuals, but when the end comes you realize that you hardly knew these people.
After all the pre-release coyness about whether this belonged in the Alien universe, Prometheus seems to be a victim of its own sky-high hype. The movie is moody and dark and intriguing and visually magnificent, but the plot does not hang together at all. The central mystery of the origins of mankind is given a face to start with, but that’s about it. The confusing story tries to mask its plot holes but eventually they just overtake the movie. It’s an entertaining movie in the moment but Prometheus pretty much evaporates as soon as you leave the theater and start thinking, “Hey wait a minute, that didn’t make any sense.” Why are mankind’s “engineers” a regretful bunch of jerks? Scott’s visuals are impressive, the film has a killer mood that’s hard to shake, but the plot is pretty shaky and reliant on supposedly smart people making pretty dumb decisions (why yes, I’ll try and touch the alien snake monster thing). That’s fine for basic thrills but it doesn’t elevate the movie into something headier, meatier, and more satisfying, like the original Alien. Prometheus was never going to meet the unattainably high expectations of fans stoked by tremendous trailers and the promise of Scott’s triumphant return to sci-fi, but much like the characters in the film, I was glad to go on this journey but wished I had more to take home with me.
Nate’s Grade: B
Rather derivative and not very clever, the sci-fi prison break movie Lockout is surprisingly enjoyable, in a brain-dead sort of way, mostly thanks to a few lean suspense sequences and the deadpan glory of star, Guy Pearce. The man plays a reluctant hero sent to a space prison to rescue the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) hiding amidst the dangerous inmates. It’s like every action, sci-fi cliché rolled into one, and yet the movie is consistently entertaining. Pearce carries the same deadpan gumption throughout; it doesn’t matter what’s happening, it will not faze him and he has a quip for everything. When the first daughter asks him if her dad had any words to pass along, he quips, “Yeah, you’re adopted.” The roguish charm of Pearce keeps the movie grounded even when it goes a little nutty with conspiracies, obstacles, and a mad rush of a climax. The movie is set only 40 years or so in the future, and as such it feels too weirdly futuristic for the minimal time jump. Would we really have an orbiting space prison and put prisoners in hyper sleep? Anyway, the movie is a lot more fun and tolerable than I would have expected, and Columbus, Ohio’s own Grace (Taken) actually gives the most mature performance of her still young career, for what that’s worth. It’s not great, but thanks to Pearce, it’s pretty passable entertainment, especially for generous genre fans.
Nate’s Grade: B-