Saturday, 16 June 2012


Prometheus, Ridley Scott's much-hyped prequel to Alien, is cinematic marmite. 

One quick peek at your Facebook news feed will confirm this. Cinema-goers are split into two camps: the hardcore cinephiles screaming their disappointment and everyone else who thought it was a perfectly harmless way to spend two hours. But whether you are Pro-metheus or Anti-metheus is irrelevant. The simple fact that there is any debate at all is proof that Ridley Scott has seriously dropped the ball.

Ridley Scott has a lot to answer for. 

The once-visionary director has lost his mojo in recent years so it is not surprising to find him revisiting his 1979 masterpiece for inspiration. But an Alien prequel was hardly in demand. Instead, the whole project stinks of franchise-milking. It also shows Scott's desperation to boost his popularity in a blockbuster market dominated by young contenders: Christopher Nolan, Matthew Vaughn, JJ Abrams and the rest. And so Scott has abandoned all integrity by skulking back to his former glories. Alas, Scott's next film is a sequel to Blade Runner. What next? A Thelma and Louise reboot? It is shameful.

That said, none of the above would have mattered if Prometheus was a first-class film. All would have been forgiven if we were rewarded with a kindred spirit to the original Alien, a revival of the claustrophobic space thriller and a reminder of how directors did things thirty years ago. But Prometheus is none of those things.

Arguably, it is unfair to compare Prometheus to Alien. Maybe it should be reviewed as a standalone film. But Scott is more than happy to use the Alien brand (and his own name as returning director) to sell tickets so he has invited the comparisons himself. 

So, what was so good about Alien? Why was the mere mention of a prequel enough to cause us to pre-book those IMAX tickets? As stated, Alien is a masterpiece: a genuinely terrifying sci-fi horror set aboard an isolated and run-down spaceship, where a crew of seven unarmed characters are hunted down by the titular predatory Alien. It boasts stunning design work by H R Giger, superbly-atmospheric direction from Scott and a convincing cast of well-utilised actors (with a career-defining performance from Sigourney Weaver). Quite simply, it is one of the greatest films of all time. 

Prometheus could not be more different. By contrast, Scott's prequel is a CGI-polluted, action-heavy sprint, both riddled with plot-holes and overpopulated with forgettable two-dimensional characters.

Where to start?

Scott uses far too much CGI. Not something we would expect from an Alien spin-off. Creating universes is an understandable use of CGI but do we really need a CGI close-up of evolving DNA? Do we need CGI holograms and CGI worm creatures and the rest? And do the CGI worm creatures really need to shove themselves into the characters mouths in a comical fellatio imitation? Naturally, this is all in 3-D. It is distracting and detracts from the tension and the characters. Then again, maybe that is not such a bad thing...

The characters are weak. The ship has a crew of seventeen (ten more than in Alien) and writer Damon Lindelof struggles to develop any of them. Leading the cast is Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw, a pale imitation of Weaver's Ripley and painfully boring. Shaw is given two sub-plots in an attempt to make her interesting - wavering faith and fertility problems - both of which fail to inspire. In an attempt to establish back story, Lindelof wedges in a childhood flashback scene about five minutes into the film, which is too early and too bizarre (the android can watch dreams like YouTube videos!) to be taken seriously.

The other characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs, most given one line of dialogue and a silly haircut to affirm their roles. There is the Silly One and the Grumpy One and the Scottish One, not to mention the Cool Pilot, the Gung-Ho Hero, the Hard-Nosed Bitch and the Entrepreneurial Billionaire (note to Hollywood: why do you insist on casting young actors to play old characters? The prosthetic skin looks awful. Are there no OAPs in the Screen Actor's Guild?)We also get two Loyal Co-Pilots whose entire character arc consists of them bantering with each other over a bet. There is a particularly corny exchange about this bet shortly before they kamikaze their ship, which is laugh-out-loud cheese. And naturally, there is an entire stock of nameless, voiceless shipmates who might as well be wearing red-shirts because they only exist so they can be killed off in some of the forced action scenes.

The story is as paper-thin as the characters. Jettisoning off into space to meet our makers sounds like an intriguing concept for a film but, as Star Trek V discovered to its dismay, it has to be handled with sophistication or it comes across as ridiculous. Prometheus begins by asking all of the big questions: why are we here? Who created us? Where are our creators now? But it only makes half-assed attempts to answer any of them. Whenever Lindelof is faced with an opportunity in the script to answer one of these questions, he shirks the responsibility and writes in a derailing action scene instead. For instance, they finally wake up one of the buff Engineers who supposedly created the human race... and it goes on a killing spree like a scene from The Thing. No answers for the characters. No answers for us.

The plot-holes abound and the inconsistencies in logic are baffling, as you might expect from the co-creator of Lost. The encounters with alien lifeforms all have completely different repercussions: one bloke is killed, another is turned into a homicidal maniac, another has a tentacle briefly grow out of his eye and then impregnates Noomi Rapace's Shaw with an alien life-form. Yes, this is science-fiction but that isn't a blank cheque to do whatever you like and introduce cool or exciting things for the sake of it. And motivation is an equally questionable area. Why would anyone bend down to pet an alien worm creature? Why is Sean Harris' geologist such a douche? Would a woman desperate to have children really administer her own abortion just because her fetus is alien (where was the internal debate that Ripley faced when encountering her own alien-human offspring in Alien Resurrection)? And what exactly is the ulterior motive of Michael Fassbender's admittedly film-saving android David? 

Despite this hodge-podge of flaws there are two reasons that audiences will stay seated throughout Prometheus' 124 minutes. Firstly, we are waiting for a twist ending, a hallmark of science-fiction. Sadly, this never arrives. Anyone waiting for a big revelation about Charlize Theron's Vickers secretly being an android or Michael Fassbender's David secretly being a human (he wears a spacesuit after all) will be disappointed. Secondly, audiences are waiting for a glimpse of the iconic alien. This is an Alien prequel after all. On this score, our wish is granted but not fulfilled. We get ten seconds of the alien tacked onto the end of the film which is too little, too late. It doesn't play a role in the story, it doesn't even meet any of the characters, it just pops up and hisses in a cameo appearance shortly before the credits role. This may have been Scott and Lindelof's attempt to leave the audience on a crowd-pleasing note but instead it makes us nostalgic for the original Alien film and serves as a reminder that this is a pale imitation of the franchise it hopes to revive.

Ultimately, Prometheus feels like Scott's answer to James Cameron's Avatar. Maybe Scott is still bitter that Cameron stole his thunder by directing Aliens, often-cited as a superior sequel to Alien. As such, this could be Scott's attempt at overshadowing Avatar: another world, lots of action, plenty of CGI and cutting-edge 3D. If that was Scott's motive, then he has failed. You cannot force a classic space thriller into the Hollywood blockbuster mould without losing a lot of fans and credibility.

Scott and Lindelof promised audiences that Prometheus would tackle the big theological question: why are we here? Unfortunately, by the end of the film, you will be left wondering the same thing.

Note to reader: for a comprehensive list of Prometheus' plot-holes, you can turn to page 114 of the August issue of Empire magazine. A great read.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The Raid

The Raid is the martial arts film of 2012 and Indonesia's answer to Die Hard.

Or should that be Die Hardcore? Because this is on another level. The Raid provides 90-minutes of brutal, up-close-and-personal, lightning-fast, ass-kickery. Expect an abundance of machete-wielding henchman, relentless fisticuffs, a SWAT team massacre and even an exploding refrigerator.

Director Gareth Evans (a Welsh guy directing an Indonesian cast, go figure) keeps the action old-school. No bullet-time, no wires, no revolving corridors and absolutely no CGI. Just a bunch of highly-trained stuntmen beating the living hell out of each other, documented by some nifty camera work courtesy of Evans. And pay attention Michael Bay because nothing is lost through haphazard editing or an over-reliance on shaky-cam. Instead, Evans captures every single punch on film. His style provides an incredibly immersive experience and, as an audience member, you will feel like you are taking a beating yourself.

Evans makes great use of his Iko Uwais, leading man, choreographer and all-round secret weapon. Evans discovered Uwais whilst making a documentary about the Indonesian martial art, Pencak Silat, and knew he had found an action superstar in the making. In many ways, The Raid (and their 2009 collaboration Merantau) is just an excuse to showcase Uwais' mastery of Pencak Silat. Martial arts buffs will be reminded of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee's earlier star vehicles where a paper-thin plot is thrown-together to allow the hero endless hordes of henchman to dispatch in a cool, crowd-pleasing way. And Evans achieves this goal because Uwais will be a big name after this.

At this point, it is important to slow down and take stock because it would be easy to give The Raid five-stars on impulse. But whilst there hasn't been a martial arts film this raw and hard-hitting for a long time, this is not the essential piece of film-making that some magazines will lead you to believe.

As stated, very little effort has gone into story, script or characterisation. The Raid has the plot of video game: advance through the levels, encountering more difficult bosses as you go until you reach the end (the same plot as Bruce Lee's The Game of Death). There are a few welcome twists but even they fall a little flat because we have no attachment to the characters. Most are there to be cannon-fodder, whilst the supporting players are types: the good cop, the corrupt cop, the villain, the henchman. Even Uwais' heroic rookie is a little vanilla when he isn't kicking ass (he has a pregnant wife at home!) although at least there is some intrigue surrounding his motives once inside the apartment block.

And another huge problem is the absence of humour. Die Hard has achieved immortality because of the sardonic smirks and one-liners of Bruce Willis. But Uwais and the cast play this completely straight. Admittedly, that might jar with the gritty, R-rated tone of the film. But to have no comic relief? It makes the 90 minutes seem a bit of a drag at times, especially after sitting through another five-minute brawl.

But it's early days for Evans and Uwais. Future collaborations are very likely. Evans has been smart enough to leave enough characters alive at the end (on both sides of the law) to allow for a sequel. Maybe they could invert the plot and have the bad guys storm a cop building? 

Then again, it is not the plot that will cause the audiences to return. Evans and Uwais are the draw here. With one behind the camera and the other in front of it, audiences will be rewarded with a kick-ass combination.