Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prometheus and Moonrise Kingdom

          “We have all been here before.”  David Crosby, 
               from the song and CSNY album of the same name, Déjà Vu, 1970 
                    Review by Ken Burke          Prometheus
Visually stunning, based on foundational cosmic questions, close yet not a direct prequel to Alien, but ultimately this film is a bit too derivative of its own hallowed sources.
                                                                     Moonrise Kingdom
Odd characters and situations in a comfortable Wes Anderson mode, set in a safe version of 1965 with winning performances from kids and adults, yet not at all schmaltzy.
            Despite my usual admiration for the visuology (I should trademark that word; OK, cinephiles, hands off!) and intriguing characters in the films of Ridley Scott (Alien, 1979; Blade Runner, 1982; Thelma and Louise, 1991; Gladiator, 2000 [5 Oscars, including Best Picture and for Scott as Best Director]; Kingdom of Heaven, 2005, among others, although some may prefer those others to the ones I’ve cited), when watching Prometheus my first thoughts were to George Lucas and Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquard, 1983), where I was simultaneously impressed with the constantly-improving special effects and father-son resolution between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker but a bit dismayed with the “reruns” of the return to Tatooine and the menace of yet another Death Star, both of which I was satisfied enough with in the original Star Wars (now extended to Episode IV—A New Hope [Lucas, 1977]) to not need to see again.  As with these earlier fantasy triumphs (for me, that’s the proper genre for the Star Wars collection, despite its non-Earthly setting, along with such local superheroes as Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, as opposed to outer-space science-fiction for Alien and Prometheus), I can appreciate how the various films’ events can reasonably be explained as necessary for their various plot arcs (in Jedi we need resolution of the conflict between Han Solo and Jabba the Hut, just as it would make sense for an empire to simply reconstruct and improve their previous ultimate weapon of mass destruction rather than attempt to create an entirely new one; similarly, if we’re eventually going to get to Alien we need to get into the proper quadrant of outer space and start filling in some unexplained gaps from the beginning of that story), but every time I was enjoying the image dynamics and compelling cast of Prometheus I found myself noting the resemblances not only to Alien but also to a host of related films, making it difficult to not chastise Scott for plagiarizing himself and others (just as I wondered if Lucas had run out of plot devices in his original trilogy) and ultimately holding me back from a slightly higher rating for Prometheus.  I really enjoyed what I was seeing, but it was just too obvious that I’d seen it (or something too much like it) all too many times before.
            Further, by the end of my viewing I couldn’t believe what I’d been hearing from Scott as cited in various interviews that this latest offering isn’t a direct prequel to Alien; there appeared to be just no way, in watching what our Earthly astronauts encounter on their voyage aboard their Prometheus spaceship to a distant moon, that their discoveries could lead to anything else:  the huge sausage-shaped vessel they find there, its inner chamber with the cannon-like protrusion and geometric floor, the huge chest-exploded skeletal “space jockey,” and—Spoiler Alert, if you still need such after reading any of my previous reviews (I did try to warn you early on with the explanation on our opening About the Blog page)the body-ripping birth at the film’s very end of a monstrous thing that clearly resembles the marauding creature we’ve come to know, not only from Scott’s original but also from Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Alien3 (David Fincher, 1992), and Alien Resurrection  (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)—not to mention the apocryphal mash-ups in Alien vs. Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Colin and Greg Strause, 2007), which would not be feasible in Scott’s universe where the earliest version of the savage Alien beast doesn’t emerge until 2093 in Prometheus, despite the war games featuring these killers in the Alien vs. Predator movies occurring on 20th century Earth (although I guess that if the Aliens we know seem to come from interactions with the human-creating species that we meet in Prometheus in the late 21st century then maybe these “engineers” somehow spawned some other beasts much earlier that the Predators have been war-gaming with, but trying to resolve all that is more trouble than it’s worth, especially with the ongoing unanswered questions presented by Scott in his current visit to a deadly future encounter where ultimately not much is revealed to the astronauts or to us).  Upon my initial viewing, I thought that if everything we experience in Prometheus isn’t a direct precursor to the events of Alien, despite all the seemingly obvious evidence to the contrary, then what else could explain most of what we see, with the only obvious disconnect being that the giant “engineer” who dies at the end when our familiar Alien monster comes bursting forth from his chest isn’t anywhere near where Ellen Ripley’s Nostromo crew finds him years later (2122 to be precise; see the Alien timeline at in the chronology presented in the original 1979 film, so what’s up with that?
            Scott doesn’t clear anything up but he does maintain in his extra-textual interviews that full-blown Alien prequel Prometheus is not (how's that for Yoda-speak?; see for Scott's testimony), then he confirms that the action in his new film takes place somewhere near that Jupiter-like planet (more distracting parallelism to other established stories: contemporary Earthlings travel to actual Jupiter in their quest for the source of human evolution in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]) that we see in both Scott films (and, speaking of 2001, we get another parallel in that the Prometheus’ master computer sounds way too much like the iconic HAL 9000; listen for yourself with one of my all-time favorite clips at, but on a moon named LV-223 rather than the LV-426 planet of Alien.

            Further, Scott reveals that it would take 2 or 3 more films to get us from Prometheus to Alien (listen to him at
news/entertainment-arts-18298709), so now we’re left with as much mystery as we started with, in not knowing how Noomi Rapace’s adventures could ultimately lead us to Sigourney Weaver’s as well as not knowing who or where the “engineers” are, why the many 35,000 year-old hieroglyphs from different Earth cultures point to the star system (just as the signal beacon in 2001 on our moon sends those astronauts off in the direction of Jupiter) where our current astronauts find the desolate military installation of the “engineers” rather than where they really come from, what other genetic experiments they’re responsible for across the universe, why they were about to return to Earth and destroy (or maybe just further evolve) us after having created us so long ago, and why the end of the current film so resembles the beginning of the older one despite the filmmaker’s assertion that there are a lot of missing pieces that this devious director refuses to share.  (At least for now; despite the speculations and counterarguments that went on for years about Deckard [Harrison Ford] being a replicant in Blade Runner [ vs.] it took Scott until 2006 to finally acknowledge the truth on that issue—he is [oops, another spoiler []—so who knows how and when we’ll get the full Alien narrative from this enigmatic storyteller?)

            Putting other narrative confusions aside (Primarily, what’s going on with Mr. Muscles at the beginning of Prometheus?; obviously he’s one of the “engineers,” but what are those little worms he consumes—and what relation might they be to the lethal snake-like biological weapons that we encounter later—what transformation does he go through and where [Earth or his home planet?], and is this an indication of an ongoing evolution among all the “engineers” [hard to tell at opening scene’s conclusion if the exoskeleton-type transformation that this Dr. Manhattan-like guy (see Watchmen [Zack Snyder, 2009]; seriously, see it because that big blue guy is yet another seeming connection to what we find in Prometheus) endures is part of a process all of the “engineers” perform on themselves, because we’re never sure if the big-boned “engineer” spaceman at the end of Prometheus is genetically that way or whether it’s just a uniform as the previously-found beaked “skull” turned out to be a helmet simply protecting a very human-like head]?; one explanation I’ve read is that this “engineer’s” opening sacrifice was to unleash the transformed genetics of his body into our water system eons ago so as to eventually stimulate our evolution.  Could be, but where are The X Files’ Mulder and Scully when we need them for such clarifications?), there were other distracting filmic “resemblances” hard to ignore as Prometheus unfolds, mainly how the current android, David (a marvelously soulless Michael Fassbender, continuing his great work from Shame [Steve McQueen, 2011]), is also a spy controlled by the higher corporate power that dismisses the worth of the rest of the crew, just like his android predecessor/”descendant” (like with any prequels it gets confusing as to whether you’re referencing narrative chronology or release date chronology; for story purposes, David is clearly a predecessor), Ash (Ian Holm), is a lethal corporate spy in Alien and both of them prove most valuable in their verbal revelations after being decapitated.  Other parallels pop up as well, but you must have gotten the picture by now, even if you don’t see this “picture” in 3-D (competently done, but not worth your extra expense).
            So, after all of that diversionary chatter about diversionary aspects of this film, is there anything left of Prometheus to discuss?  In one way, no, because while this installment in the (even larger than we’d previously imagined) Alien collection is marvelous to look at, compelling enough to watch with no lulls or wasted scenes, it just becomes an obvious run-up to the more established episodes in the canon with a high recognizability factor at every turn.  But in another way, it’s still well worth your time for the great created worlds to be found in claustrophobic space ships, a planet dark with its noxious, deadly atmosphere, and stellar acting from all of the principals including the curious, questing scientists Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), along with their constant and aloof (well, he is a robot, after all) companion, David.  However, just as Ash would later be revealed as the clandestine mole of the Weyland-Utani Corporation determined to find one of the fabled Aliens and bring it back to Earth (this could take us to King Kong allusions, but I won’t hassle Scott over that one), so is David along for the ride under false pretenses, hiding the heavily-aged Guy Pearce as corporate head Peter Weyland, traveling across the abyss of outer space to meet his distant creators (not unlike the complex, powerful V’Ger machine in Star Trek [Robert Wise, 1979]) and attempt to persuade them to prolong his life (here Scott borrows from himself again, with the Replicants in Blade Runner attempting the same thing, but, like V’Ger, coming to Earth for the close encounter rather than having to chase unknown extraterrestrials into the cosmos).  Marshall-Green, Rapace, and Fassbender all deliver riveting performances, with Rapace as the main focus, reprieving (well, "anticipating"; there’s that chronology thing again) Weaver’s role as the sole survivor in the “upcoming” Alien, in a manner very effectively done if this were a stand-along film but a bit too reminiscent of a known quantity (maybe Scott’s just watched too many post-Creedence Clearwater Revival solo shows of John Fogerty and thinks it’s expected of him to reprise his greatest hits—which is fine for stadium rock shows and stylistically-identifiable painters, but even Woody Allen has found ways to add variety to his ongoing theme of human neurosis).

            One nicely new element in Prometheus is the addition of Charlize Theron as the Weyland Corp’s all-business chief officer, Meredith Vickers, leading the voyage to see what potential value is to be had for her profit margins if these crazy scientists are on to something (which she highly doubts, but despite the manifested material success that she represents with her connected yet separate travel module and its various higher-tech-than-the-rest-of-the-ship accoutrements she’s not always in the know about what to expect—including the presence of Weyland hidden away on the larger spaceship, despite the relevant fact that he’s her father and should have handed over all control to her by now, with her—and our—understanding that he died while the ship made its 2-year crew-in-suspended-animation trip to the far reaches of the known void).  Theron is excellent in her vicious bottom-line persona, but even here—with no complaints to her or Scott—we’re having to deal again with instant recognition, this time of her equally callous role as the wicked Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders), not only playing in competition with Prometheus but being knocked out of its previous #1 box-office slot last weekend by Scott’s film at #2 (and the animated silliness of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted [Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon] at #1).  So even though Theron does a marvelous rendition of a soulless suit who’s just hoping for some unknown but gigantic payoff, it’s hard to not think of her as somewhat typecast because she’s chasing her own evil image around the Cineplex.  Fate will once again reward her scheming ways with a grim death, though, just as the one remaining “engineer” will meet his fate—after being revived but answering Weyland’s quest with quick murder of the old man—by being attacked himself by the horribly huge creature that was extracted in the film’s most gruesome scene from Elisabeth’s womb (conjuring up additional associations with Ripley’s death via Alien incubation at the termination of Alien3  but even more horrifying here because of the longer, more involved Prometheus scene). 

            Despite all of this gore at the finale, however, Prometheus is a potentially thought-provoking film which manages to challenge the certainty of both Divine creationism (our human species proves to be a mere clone of a larger, more powerful, more advanced race but they’re no more gods than the similarly-enhanced beings in the distant realms of Thor [Kenneth Branagh, 2011]) and nature-fueled evolution (so we are the product of “intelligent design,” but not from a Supreme Being) with a lot of unexplored possibilities about these “engineers,” how they’ve evolved so quickly to such a high state, and how evolutionary mutation does play a great role in their homicidal science as we see the tiny worms in their battle containers evolve into python-like attack weapons whose forced implants into a host (concepts of a “good host” in horror and sci-fi movies is a primary theme in the Bruce Kawin article noted below) results either in horrible death (for the infected Prometheus crew members); transition through humans into larger, more mobile, even more vicious cephalopods (as occurred after sex between contaminated Charlie and unknowing Elizabeth); or transition of another sort into what we have come to call the Alien race after Elizabeth’s grotesque offspring implants its own embryo into the last of the “engineers.”  This idea of instantaneous inter-species evolution and the dangers it brings with each new horrific generation is another “fertile” idea connected with the almost-all-powerful “engineers” but one that will have to wait for some other day (or film) to explore because Elizabeth, the last human on this God-forsaken hunk of rock, wisely chooses to get away from these disastrous evolvings as quickly as she can, aided by the separated head and body of David, freed from his moorings to the Weyland Corp. and doing a bit of evolving himself toward humane acts.

            As with Ripley in Alien, Elisabeth rockets away at the end (although not in the ship that we see here, but you have to grant me some artistic layout license), seeking solace (and answers in the latter’s case) somewhere else rather than being the only thing left alive on LV-223 (except for the proto-snake monsters oozing out of their containers back in the crashed “engineers” ship, along with the latest grotesque creation, the first-generation Alien that is seemingly a hybrid of the “engineer” and the octopus-like creature extracted just in time from Dr. Shaw).  As she departs, it leaves us with all of these conscious references and other recognizable aspects of Prometheus so that I just couldn’t help but feel I’d watched a marvelously well-produced highlight reel of other powerful sci-fi films (a designation I gave Alien when I first reviewed it in 1979, but one disputed by reputable scholar Bruce Kawin who offers extensive testimony that Scott’s original horror show is just that, a horror film with a menacing monster in an old dark “house”—one big enough for intra-galactic travel, admittedly; you can find his well-argued [but I still say, in the case of Alien, incorrect] article “Children of the Light” in the Barry K. Grant edited Film Genre Reader III or you can Google the article and Kawin’s name to get a link to a downloadable PDF, which unfortunately doesn’t work as a quick link here; you’ll have to go to the Google search page and click it directly there to connect with a copy of the original essay at the link), a couple of them by this very director.  Overall, I still recommend Prometheus, but to complete my opening Return of the Jedi analogy, I think that someday it may be more important as a Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999)-type link to a larger cluster of prequels leading up to the really important episode of the larger Alien series (just as Phantom ultimately gets us to A New Hope) rather than being that significant in itself.  But until then we may never know how everything evolves from LV-223 to LV-426, even if we have a Replicant Blade Runner asking the questions of our guarded Mr. Scott.

            And, given that Ridley Scott is already 74, it’s not clear if we’ll ever get those prequels anyway (although if we do, it will be interesting to see them probably come out at about the same time that the David Fincher remakes of The Girl … trilogy continue, so we can find other ways of comparing Noomi Rapace to Rooney Mara; or maybe Scott will authorize someone else to finish the job as with another android-driven sci-fi standard, A.I. Artificial Intelligence [2001, an obviously intentional year of release], bequeathed by Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg [if you think I write long reviews, you should see what happens when I unload my “insights” in an academic journal article:  case in point, a lengthy analysis of A.I. which you can find by going to, then clicking Journal Archives in the upper-left corner, then Vol. 23 (1), then my “Cinema 2001 …” as the first listing for a 30-page pdf to download]), which is an occupational hazard of artists being talented but old (I speak from experience, at least on the second aspect).

            The glorious opposite of that can be youth, if in that long-horizon stage of life we can also find our talents or at least our desired individuality, despite the restrictions that life and our close relations or acquaintances would like to impose on us; thus our common growth experience just on this puny planet provides another place that many of us have “all been here before” and the slim justification of linking Wes Anderson’s clever Moonrise Kingdom to the previous comments on Prometheus in this craftily-constructed review.  Another linkage is talent and vision on the part of these two directors who have each given us a significant body of work, although Anderson’s is certainly more idiosyncratic than Scott’s and may require some acquired taste to be fully appreciated (Rushmore,1998; The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001; The Darjeeling Limited, 2007; Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009 are my preferred choices but there are other contenders).  In Anderson’s latest, we’re not in the world of science-fiction or fantasy but we certainly are dropped into a fanciful story of young love in 1965 where 12 year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) is not appreciated by his foster family nor his Khaki Scouts of North America troop so he plots to sneak away to the wilds of New England’s New Penzance Island (fictional, but there are interesting aspects of England’s original Penzance to be found at with his new love, Suzy (Kara Hayward), who’s just as much of a self-chosen outcast as Sam.  Essentially, that’s the whole story of this modest but fulfilling film, about how these oddball, self-satisfied kids leave convention and authority behind, seeking some solace in a world of their own (unlike the further but yet unpresented chronicles of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw), only to be thwarted by protective adults, cultural expectations, and some really horrible weather at the end of the tale.  I’d like to think that all of us “have been here before” in this condition of real or impending outcastness, given how difficult it is for even the trend-setter kids to be comfortable within their social stations when fads and hormones make it difficult for anyone to stay on top of the popularity pyramid for very long.

            Sam and Suzy live more in their dream worlds than in the mundane reality that surrounds them, but even that reality has clear aspects of fantasy such as how they are able to hide as long as they do on what appears to be a relatively small island, very reminiscent of the tiny landscape seen from the air of Neverland in the Disney version of Peter Pan (Clyde Gernonimi, Wilfred Jackson, 1953), yet there’s enough space in the woods and in their special “Moonrise Kingdom” cove to allow them a fair amount of escape time before their inevitable capture.  Anderson maintains that disconnected-from-reality fantasy feeling very effectively throughout this delightful excursion into emerging selfhood, as these two kids gain a sense of destiny and intrapersonal acceptance that so often eludes us as adults and results in the kind of journeys of intense discovery that drive the voyagers in Prometheus for their varied scientific, religious, medical, and mercantile reasons.  Suzy and Sam don’t need such higher callings because they’re content enough with maps, camping accessories, young adult novels, and portable record players, without too much worry about how many tomorrows it will take to exhaust their slim food supply or what they would do with the rest of the summer (let alone the rest of their lives) if they could continue on in their undiscovered country, away from the imposed obligations from parents, annoying siblings, and the community responsibilities that they are being forced into far too soon.

            You have to wonder, though, how responsible the adults themselves are in this quirky film, with Suzy’s lawyer parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand) not tuned in very well to the personality or needs of their eldest child, Sam’s Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) not being respected much by his own rigid Khaki hierarchy, local cop Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) as an uncertain figure of authority who sets a poor moral example for us by carrying on an illicit affair with Laura, and others such as the authoritarian Social Services worker (Tilda Swinton) who wants to rush Sam off to more stern surroundings (maybe even a lobotomy to tame his constant defiance of rules), and finally Sam’s current foster folks who literally abandon him to the woods when he goes AWOL because they just don’t want to deal with his independence any more.  All of this gets further complicated by the arrival of fierce Hurricane Maybelline (with all of the fury of Chuck Berry’s hit song of the same name from back in roughly those days), which does great damage to the community, gives a sense of reality to the church play about Noah’s flood, but also provides an opportunity for Sam and Suzy to demonstrate how determined they are to be together no matter what—even as the church steeple that they’ve taken refuge on is knocked down by the storm—and for Captain Sharp to up his level of community service by taking on Sam as his foster child.  It may seem to be a simple case of all’s well that ends well (after a tempest, to hone my Shakespeare puns), but reviewer words are poor substitutes for Anderson’s very original dialogue, character traits, camerawork (with a lot of oddly-centered compositions such as the ones shown in the accompanying photos above), and sympathies of varying degrees for his creations.  Even the soundtrack is eclectic, with a wonderful blend of Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams.

            Moonrise Kingdom may be a bit too odd for a broad audience, but if you’re in the mood for something marvelously inventive, sweet, and life-affirming I don’t think you could find many better options.  Maybe not enough of those who will see it have actually been to the mindspace where this film transports, but I think you’ll find situations here that are heart-warmingly familiar, if only through desire if not direct experience.  Ultimately, I think you’ll feel right at home, even if the surroundings may seem distant, in an era increasingly removed from our own.  This isn’t the 1960s of TV’s Mad Men where competition and infidelity are assumed to be required attributes, at least for the men on the fast track and the few women who break into their vicious world as semi-equals rather than mere accompanists.  Rather, this is the 1960s of Normal Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers and embraceable values, yet presented in an off-kilter manner that makes you want to experience this liberating version of childhood rather than the forgotten, isolated world of Don Draper’s kids who simply disappear when they “go play” because they’re a nuisance to their troubled, preoccupied parents.

            Even mentioning Norman Rockwell may imply a sense of saccharine nostalgia, but that’s not what Moonrise Kingdom conveys nor is it the dismissive reference that I would have used several decades ago.  As a child of the ‘50s and teen of the ‘60s (as well as an aspiring painter) I was enamored of Rockwell’s vision of America until my art-major college years where I came to dismiss his illustrations as idealistic and removed from the social realities of a culture in crisis.  In my more mature (OK, just older) years I see his imagery as more insightful and inclusive than I once did (don’t worry; this isn’t leading to a Reagan “Morning in America” revelation, just delayed respect for what I once thought I was too “hip” to acknowledge—as Dylan sang in those days, “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”), with an embrace of a set of shared values laying under the chaotic surface of 1960s society that Moonrise Kingdom taps into very persuasively.  I may not have lived the determined fantasies that Sam and Suzy make real (and I wish that as a kid I had been as adventurous as they are), but I was there in spirit with them in wanting to be that focused, that resolved in my own identity.  Maybe I’m being too optimistic as I now approach retirement years, but I’d like to at least believe that “We have all been here [in some version of Sam and Suzy’s defiance] before,” either in action or in spirit, living through all the exuberance and hesitation that accompanies the long journey from childhood into adolescence, then further down the road to adulthood.  Wes Anderson helps you find that place of comfort again, without it seeming cloying or annoying (specifically in the case of Captain Sharp, who seems at the end of the film to be enabling Sam to sneak into Suzy's house every day despite her parents' desire for her to never see him again, so we definitely have a case of "like father, like son" where the Bishop ladies are concerned); further, Anderson conjures up the stylistic eccentricities that characterize his work without having to pillage specifics of his previous catalogue (except for many of his “usual suspects” actors, but they’re always a pleasure to see), which I can’t say is fully the case with Prometheus, much as I do admire a lot about the deep space journey orchestrated by Ridley Scott.  If travelling to LV-223 may be a bit too far and repetitious in an attempt to find some deeper sense of human purpose, you might prefer Anderson’s New Penzance Island as a more accessible, rewarding trip anyway.  It will also seem like familiar territory but with payoffs that don’t require difficult transport to any distantly charming or harsh form of Neverland in order to leave you satisfied with where you finally arrive.

            If you’d like to know more about Prometheus here are some suggested links: (long trailer, nice film summary) (Emory University science Professor David Lynn discusses the scientific possibilities behind the mythology of Prometheus)

            If you’d like to know more about Moonrise Kingdom here are some suggested links: (Bill Murray talks about the film, shows some of the sets)

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