Mad Max: Fury Road

We are not things

Mad Max Fury Road - Charlize Theron As Imperator Furiosa WallpaperI am thankful that a forty year-old disabled woman can be the main character of an action movie.  I am thankful that George Miller can not only combat the macho, faux-masculine baloney that constitutes so many action movies these days, but that he can also still create superior action scenes whilst making this point.  I am thankful that a group of warrior women of all ages can make up the ragtag band of revolutionaries that sit at the core of any proper dystopia.  I am thankful that the women who play the prisoners can be three-dimensional people with dreams, personalities, badass names, and agency, not just helpless pregnant damsels.  I am thankful that more than one woman can make it out of an action film alive, and that “Vasquez” doesn’t always die.  I am thankful that a woman and a man can share top billing in a brutal, action-packed setpiece without ever once kissing each other or musing about running away as a couple.  I am thankful that the creator of one of the most lucrative and culty “man movie” franchises of all time would consult the writer of The Vagina Monologues to look over his new script.  I am thankful for that scene wherein Max (Tom Hardy) screws up two difficult shots and needs Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to snipe a difficult target.  I am thankful for the name “Max Rockatansky” and the opening credits that feature only two names.  I am thankful that Miller and Nicholas Hoult can turn a sociopathic mook into a sympathetic character in under an hour.  I am thankful that Hugh Keays-Byrne still acts, and that the same actor can play different characters in films by the same director, a la Leone’s spaghetti westerns and grindhouse fare of every stripe.  I am thankful that the MPAA no longer takes issue with the fact that a female character “fights back.”  I am thankful that a movie like this did not deafen me; in fact, I wanted to listen.

Furiosa.  Forever.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris; directed by George Miller; starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult.   

Prometheus

What are my chances?

Prometheus, previously titled Paradise, and which I’ve privately renamed Battle for the Planet of the Space Jockeys, is Ridley Scott’s reimagining of 1979’s Alien mythology.  This time, however, Scott is armed with twenty-first century movie effects and has poured copious amounts of CG into an otherwise live action film (which makes one wonder whether he would have done the same had he possessed the technology in the seventies).

The popular question concerning this film seems to be whether or not it is a direct prequel to Alien.  The short answer is no, because Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original, didn’t write Prometheus, having passed away in 2009.  Instead, we’re stuck with Damon Lindelof, whose unbridled hubris and laconic dialogue rendered the final season of Lost nearly unwatchable.  Lindelof’s writing has not improved, but having screenplay groundwork previously laid by Jon Spaihts and a plot structure defined by Alien, he manages to keep the goings-on (relatively) tight in this case.  I did occasionally feel “Island Syndrome,” however, during certain scenes in which the actors were clearly making the dialogue sound better than it actually was.

Set several decades before Alien, the film follows Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo), a religious archaeologist who discovers identical cave paintings all over the world, most recently on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  Along with her romantic partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), whose sensibilities starkly contrast her own, Shaw receives funding from the Weyland corporation (the company of devious motives for which Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo worked in Alien) to follow the coordinates suggested by the paintings, which lead to a previously-unexplored world in outer space.  The two are joined by a crew that will bring back immediate memories of the motley group of marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, in that they are unprofessional, disagreeable, and harbor an inexplicable disdain for the protagonist.  The film’s deuteragonist, though, is David (Michael Fassbender), an android in the tradition of the other films.  While David is described as having no soul, he displays limitless curiosity, seemingly genuine care, and a very real sense of vengeance.  Going against a popular sci-fi trope, David doesn’t want to be like his creators (who are, in turn, searching for their own creators in space); in fact, he’s quite relieved to be nothing like them.  Also onboard is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland executive with the compassion of a wolverine and the personality of an ice cube.  Guy Pearce makes an appearance as the elderly Peter Weyland, the megalomaniac who runs the company, and considering the tenure of his appearance in the film, I’m not sure why Scott couldn’t have cast a famous older actor instead of making Pearce go through five hours of makeup for a walk-on role.

The space expedition, as it must, quickly devolves into bad decisions, bickering, and jump-scares.  The less important/interesting members of the crew (a geologist and a biologist whom I mistook for mercenaries based upon their behavior) are the first to be picked off by the indigenous denizens of the planet, which clearly resemble the alien “facehugger” of the original film.  From here, however, the story does not fall into the slasher-movie structure of killing off each crew member one at a time as they grope around in the dark.  The discoveries and intrigue begin to pile up, including the revelation that the “space jockey,” a being discovered in passing by the crew of Alien, was a member of the species that may have spawned humanity and now wants to destroy us.

Sadly, Ridley Scott has never been as good with characters as his brother Tony (who along with Quentin Tarantino crafted True Romance, pound for pound one of my favorite films).  The former has always focused on set pieces before the people and stories inhabiting them, and therefore the character deepening (which should not be confused with character development) does not get off the ground until well into the adventure.  After Holloway, unbeknownst to Shaw (“but knownst to us” – Mel Brooks) has been intentionally infected with an alien agent by David, we get a tender scene in which Shaw reveals her sterility and her desire to “create life,” a possible motive for her obsessive quest for knowledge concerning the Engineers.  This is, for the most part, all we get.  The film relies on its action to familiarize us with the characters from there on out, and conversations between them serve to reinforce their respective dominant traits: Shaw is quixotic, Vickers is ostentatious, Holloway is a skeptic, Janek (Idris Elba) is a stoic, Fifield (Sean Harris) is a bit of an asshole, and so on.  Attempts to deepen them beyond these traits are glossed over.  David is the one who remains a mystery.  He gets his own scenes before anyone else does, puttering around on the ship for two years while the human crew members sleep through the countless light years it takes to reach the Engineer planet, and even though we get to spend this time with him, we’re never quite sure what he wants.  He’s always following orders, sure, but Fassbender often lets slip (in both his expressions and clever dialogue) that something more is going on in that milk-and-pasta-filled head of his.

Vickers is another anomaly.  While the rest of the crew, despite being esteemed scientists, continually fall into the Principle of the Inept Adventurer (moving toward scary places, thrusting their hands toward the maws of alien beasts, and taking their helmets off on an uncharted planet, which not even Buzz Lightyear was dumb enough to do), Vickers is always pragmatic.  She stays indoors when she knows something dangerous is outside.  She demands that everyone do their jobs and follow protocol.  When Holloway is infected, she will not let him back on the ship, and a scene reminiscent of one from Alien in which Ripley refuses to allow the infected Kane back onboard, yields ghastly results.  The issue is that the screenplay sets her up as an antagonist, then hints that she will eventually let her hair down (which she should, since the antagonistic forces in the film severely outnumber the good guys by the third act).  After the standoff scene, Shaw and Vickers are well-established as the yin and yang of the ship, two strong women made enemies by Vickers’ rash actions, but they barely, if ever, have another interaction before the story’s climax, and Vickers’ part in the film ends with an “isn’t that cool?” moment meant to inspire applause, but which rang hollow for me.

Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is the film’s character centerpiece and performance gem.  Once the cast is inevitably shaved, she is forced to carry on plenty of scenes by herself, and these contain the most revealing bits of her character’s steadfast nature.  The film’s most frightening scene comes when Shaw is implanted with an alien embryo (retaining the original film’s theme of unwanted pregnancy) and must perform a Caesarean section on herself in order to remove it.  Suddenly, the horror is real.  The tears are genuine.  The sci-fi landscape crumbles away for a few minutes and we are left in a whitewashed room with only our heroine and an impossible decision.  In this scene and forward, Shaw begins to mirror Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the unwavering protagonist of the original film series: fixations on motherhood (Shaw is sterile and later must remove an alien fetus from her own body, Ripley’s daughter died and she must later care for an orphan), relentless pursuit of their respective alien Others (Shaw must gain knowledge, Ripley must destroy them), and a sort of quiet sympathy that radiates from both, despite their apparent two-hundred year gap (though their real-life timestamps are all too evident from their hairstyles).

Finally, H.R. Giger’s art style is well-preserved (the space jockey, the interior of the spaceship and pilot’s seat, the phallic-headed alien).  His name appears in the credits, but I do wonder if he was on set painting everything himself like he was decades ago.  Regardless, the use of his unique style (considered in the seventies to be too horrifying for audiences) is the linchpin for any argument in favor of this film being a true prequel (besides all the chestbursting, of course).

“Prequel” is a term I dislike for reasons created by George Lucas at the turn of the century.  Consider Prometheus, then, part of a grand mythology, one defined mostly in the imagination since it only spans three 120-minute films (I do not acknowledge Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, nor the Alien vs. Predator series), and a look at the other side of the mirror concerning powerful female figures through the sci-fi/horror ages – a rarity for genre fiction.

The Alien DNA is all there, but I promise, connecting stories with your imagination will work and satisfy much better than comparing graphics and storyboards.  It always has.

Prometheus (2012); written by Damon Lindelof; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron.

Snow White and the Huntsman

My kingdom for a pair of flaming slippers

Yes, I saw The Avengers.  No, I did not find it worth writing about.

My favorite part of the hype and media jabber for Snow White and the Huntsman is that the most common piece of feedback I’ve seen, particularly in positive reviews, is that this is a “darker/gritter take on a classic fairy tale.”  This is problematic to me.  Do these paid movie critics believe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first created by Walt Disney and later adapted by the Brothers Grimm?  Or perhaps that the Grimms’ version in the original German featured dwarfs whistlin’ while they work and a nice cozy ending?  Sorry to break this to you, but fairy tales (especially the bizarre Brothers Grimm versions) were the nastiest, grossest, crudest (“darkest” if you must) stories of their time, and most of them end with death, body part removal, or inexplicable acts of violence.  There’s a reason the Addams Family were big fans of the Grimms, you know.

Rupert Sanders’ action-adventure adaptation of the tale is not so much an adaptation as a reimagining, but it retains enough of the fairy tale’s spirit that it skirts a line somewhere between the two.  One of the film’s most true-to-tale scenes (albeit a scene invented for the film) is one in which Snow White (Kristen Stewart) wanders into a mostly computer-animated meadow and encounters dozens of peculiar creatures, including a tortoise with moss on its back, mushrooms with eyes, and an enormous stag, which seems to somehow represent the heart of the forest, and which Snow White lovingly caresses in a surprisingly touching (and beautifully wordless) minute or so of reel.  The film keeps the Grimms’ “three drops of blood” motif as well.  At other times, the films borrows from The Lord of the Rings, most notably in a scene in which the seven dwarfs (played by a group of famous actors including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Ray Winstone) sing a harrowing lament for their fallen eighth.  I’d hoped the film might retain Snow White’s manner of coming back to life after being killed by the poisoned apple – that is, the Prince’s servants trip on a shrub and drop the coffin, dislodging the piece of apple caught in her throat – but alas, we are left with opportunistic kisses.

By the same token, there can be little to no nuance in a film that wishes to stay true to a folk tale.  Snow White must be absolutely good, and the Queen (renamed Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron) must be absolutely evil.  As such, Ravenna is often seen eating the hearts of cute animals and sucking youth from the mouths of young girls (whereas in the original, she wants to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver), as well as pandering evilly to her magic mirror (an object/character that seems thrown in for familiarity and doesn’t serve the one function it serves in the Grimm tale: informing the Queen that Snow White is alive after the Queen believes her dead).  Snow White, in this version, is someone we enjoy spending time with and want to know more about, but if you begin to develop a character, you have to go all the way, and Sander’s princess is somewhere between a good character and a Boring Hero.  The manner in which Ravenna overtakes the kingdom of Snow White’s father is ingenious, however, and when she explains why she mercilessly disposes of male monarchs and usurps their thrones, we, as an audience, are pretty much with her.

The film uses its supporting cast well, mainly the seven dwarfs, which could have been confusing to keep track of, but somehow manage not to exhaust us nor to fall into comic relief (though they do provide the film’s one or two laughs).  Chris Hemsworth appears as the titular Huntsman, pretty much doing the same thing he does in Thor, but the filmmakers wisely do not allow him to upstage the heroine.  Sam Spruell plays Finn, the obligatory secondary bad guy in a film with two leads, but even he has his place and never wears out his welcome (which is more than I can say for his hairdo).  There’s even a surprise appearance by Lily Cole (of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Rage) as Greta, one of the Queen’s prisoners.  The only character who seems out of place is William (Sam Claflin), Snow White’s childhood friend, who is never quite sure what part he wants to play in this story – love interest?  Loyal soldier?  Enforcer on Finn’s brute squad?  The film occasionally plays at a romance between William and Snow White, but the main action is resolved before either acts upon impulse (when both are conscious, leastways) and we are left wondering whether William has been permanently friend-zoned.

I don’t know what to call this film.  I adore the classic folk tales and fairy tales (in spite of their quirks), but this film doesn’t attempt to copy them, nor does it seek to become the new standard for future generations to use as a frame of reference (as the Disney version sadly has, at least as far as modern film critics).  Where the animated feature has glitz and color and resolution, this movie has sensibilities.  I am tempted to refer to it as a feminist war movie.  Sure, the Huntsman helps Snow White here and there, but she alone inspires the (all male) Duke’s Army to fight in her name, all for the sake of personal revenge against Ravenna, since the latter doesn’t pose a threat to the duchy.  There’s also some business with hearts and messages about beauty and its inevitable fading.  If we’re looking at it from the media standpoint, it’s a fantasy film with big battles (and one too many ambushes), but the main conflict is between two women and they’re not fighting over a man.  Whether or not fantasy is your dish, that fact alone is worth ten-fifty.

Lastly, let me say that Kristen Stewart is a fine actress.  The unfortunate stigma is that so many viewers know her only from the Twilight films and not from her great roles as Joan Jett in The Runaways and Lucy Hardwicke in In the Land of Women.  Regrettably, she doesn’t have as much to say in this film as I would have liked, and for all of the Queen’s malicious taunting, Snow White could have had a few more pearls of wisdom for us.  I’m not saying I needed her to take up the voice of the Brothers Grimm and tell me the moral of the story; no, I needed her to take up her own voice, just a little bit more, because I was (and still am) ready to listen.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012); written by Hossein Amini (based upon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Brothers Grimm); directed by Rupert Sanders; starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth.