Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Man from Earth - Review

Were you a fan of the old Twilight Zone and original Star Trek series of the 1960's? If so, then you may have been a fan of writer Jerome Bixby.

Who, you ask? A TV and movie writer whose name is probably known only to true die-hard sci fi fans, Jerome Bixby wrote the 1950's B-movie "It! The Terror from Beyond Space," about an alien creature that stalks the crew of a spaceship. Sound familiar? It was the inspiration for a later film, called Alien written by Dan O'Bannon and directed by Ridley Scott whose new film Prometheus has just scored big at movie theaters around the world.

In Prometheus we are learning about the backstory of Alien, including that the fearsome xenomorph was the result of genetic engineering by an unknown race of beings on a faraway planet. These so-called Engineers, it turns out, also had a hand in our own creation. While we don't yet know all of the story that Ridley Scott and his co-writers have in mind, we are learning that the Engineers not only create life, they also destroy it.

What are their motivations, you may ask? In an interview, Scott revealed that it has something to do with Jesus himself. Here is an excerpt:

"... if you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, “Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it. Guess what? They crucified him."

So here we have a very interesting thing. A meeting between SciFi and Religion. Not the first time that has happened. In fact, there is a long and hallowed tradition of such meet-ups going way back through Ray Bradbury, to Arthur C. Clarke, to Isaac Asimov and even H.G. Wells. Look at such great sci fi films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original, not the remake), 2001, and Contact.

For science fiction writers and their audiences, sci fi is a great mental playground, a way to explore the meaning of life. To ask "What if" questions and let the imagination go. To take a mystery ride and see where you end up. Even in topic areas that one might call sacrosanct...such as religion.

This is what Jerome Bixby did in the story that became the independent scifi film The Man from Earth (2007) directed by Richard Schenkman, starring a terrific ensemble cast featuring Tony Todd, William Katt, Richard Riehle, John Billingsly, David Lee Smith, and Annika Peterson.

At the risk of spoiling a really good story, Prof. John Oldman reveals an incredible secret to some of his dearest friends and colleagues from the college where he teaches. He tells them that he is over 14,000 years old and has never aged past the age of 35. He has had many identities, learned many languages, and had many lifetimes worth of experiences, including one that changed the course of history. This one identity, approximately 2000 years ago, shatters the group's fragile grasp of faith in Oldman...and in much of what they had been taught to believe in by standard understandings of history and religion.

This small and mostly unknown movie is a gem worth seeking out, especially if you like the Twilight Zone/Star Trek kinds of stories that ask some deep "What if...?" questions, yet do not give you any easy answers.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus - Review

Before I forget my initial reactions to the visually splendid new sci fi film Prometheus, here they are. In a nutshell, I almost loved it but not quite.

30 some years after directing the space horror movie Alien, director Ridley Scott brings us back to the creepy-crawly universe that scared the bejeezus* out of us. (*The term "bejeezus" is used deliberately. See spoiler note below.) His starting point, he has said in interviews, is the so-called Space Jockey from Alien. Who was he? Where did he come from? What killed him?

In this outing, Scott takes us to a time prior to the adventures of Ellen Ripley, the hero played by Sigourney Weaver in the original. In Prometheus, he gives us a whole new cast of characters, including the ship's captain (played by Idris Elba), an icy executive (played by Charlize Theron), a hologram billionaire named Weyland (played under pounds of makeup by Guy Pearce) whose company finances the trip into space, and a Blade Runner-ish synthetic character called "David" (played by Michael Fassbender), the android with a secret purpose. Plus we meet the "Engineers." The less said about who they are, the better. (For those intrigued, here is a fascinating deconstruction:

The nominal star is Noomi Rapace (of the original Girl With Dragon Tattoo films) as a visionary and faith-filled scientist named Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. She and her scientist boyfriend are searching for the origins of life on Earth by following an ancient star map to a distant planet. Rapace carries the film well though script issues undermine her efforts.

At the risk of going into spoilery territory, let me offer a brief analysis. First, think back to Scott's original Alien. When the suspense and terror of that movie grabbed ahold of you, it did not let go until Ripley blasted the monster out of the door into space. (The non-Scott follow-up Aliens also had a very well-structured throughline to an equally satisfying climactic battle.) In Prometheus, there is a bit too much going on, some of which frankly seemed out of sequence. One scene in particular (hint: this film's answer to the chest bursting scene in Alien) occurs way before it should have for maximum impact. And two crucial characters (hint: they have a father-daughter type relationship) are dispatched in pointless ways when they could have had a much more glorious demise if the script writers had used a wee bit more imagination.

The end result is the last half of the film goes clunkety clunk when it should have gone voom.

Still I give it a thumbs up for its eye-filling visuals and recommend that anyone who likes sci fi should go see it.

Spoiler Note: While his original film Alien does a very good job of scaring audiences out of their wits, in Prometheus (and the intended sequel) Scott is trying to do what William Friedkin did in The Exorcist: combine gooey horror scares with a deep sense of awe and mystery about the religious beliefs (including Christianity) we have inherited from the past. Prometheus comes close but misses by just a smidgen and ends up a muddle.

Addendum: I have just read an interview with Ridley Scott where he is envisioning a sequel that follows the further exploits of Dr. Shaw and David the robot as they go in search of the mystery behind the Engineers. I am looking forward to it.