FRIGHTENING FLIX : The Innocents (2018)

 

Poor Start hurts the Intriguing The Innocents

by Kristin Battestella

 

The 2018 Netflix international production The Innocents opens the eight-episode science fiction drama with perilous chases, cliff side pleas, and doppelgangers in “The Start of Us.” Interrogations and so-called Sanctum Norway communes for women in need of a special treatment invoke fear. Positive therapies go awry thanks to nightmares, tests, and sedatives. Roadside suspense, scary strangers, injections, and would-be abductions lead to surprises in “Keep Calm, Come to No Harm.” Frantic body swaps and unknown medical conditions are no match for the titular mantras amid school troubles, police inquiries, and escalating experiments. The ladies must remember who they are to come back from each transformation as they wonder why they have pain.  In the first three episodes of The Innocents, the suspicious Norway science takes a backseat to teen lipstick, love letters, and runaway dreams. Voiceovers lay on the lovey-dovey amid intercut scenes jumping from story to story and emotions change without explanation. Adults are treated as foolish while neon lights, body glitter, and backroom whips are downright ridiculous. It’s terribly frustrating to see more intriguing characters held back so the less interesting youths can bungle into the conclusions viewers already know.

Thankfully, the fourth episode “Deborah” finally gets to the sci-fi backstory with patients afraid of touching deemed paranoid schizophrenics. The shape-shifting trauma can be controlled, but morphs into a pregnant nurse are disturbing. The performances and confrontations show what The Innocents can do when focused on the meatiest material, and one might even skip the first three episodes and begin here. Love can keep you calm or memories of losing it can be your trigger in “Passionate Amateur.”  Mixings of memories and mental questions about the shifting make for provocative complications, as “Not the Only Freak in Town” offers abuse and couples divided as three special women wax on who they loved and never told and the men they were supposed to love and didn’t. “Will You Take Me Too?” details the physiological reaction to emotional pressure and evolving shift experiences, but foolish arguments lead to water perils and boat mishaps. How do you save someone from drowning when you can’t touch them? Switches among too many people leave some comatose. Because you can get the answers you want doesn’t mean you should as players say one thing and do another for “Everything. Anything.” This therapy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, and those who object are unwelcome amid gunshots and excellent intensity as previous commune residents return. The Innocents is superb when it sticks with this not-so-perfect hamlet and its fantastical women. Conflicts between strong women’s bonds and rival leeching men escalate toward excellent confrontations, extreme treatments, sacrifices, and betrayals.

Sorcha Groundsell’s sixteen-year-old June McDaniel takes too long to deduce what’s happening. Selfishness makes her unlikeable; she ignores the commune’s delicate balance and puts her mother at risk. Easily manipulated, bending to her environs without the shifting – going round and round on the sex and drug shifting metaphors with increasingly bad experiences. Percelle Ascott as Harry Polk gives up everything because he’s in love with June, sticking with her even if he objects to her excitement at swapping lives. We’re glad when he tells her to stop being a poser, think for herself, and decide what she wants. Nonetheless, one warning phone call about Sanctum and he’s in pursuit at the expense of himself. Doctor Guy Pearce says he’s with a patient at every step, but Ben Halvorson has a checklist and won’t let anything jeopardize his work. He kicks other men out of Sanctum when not repeatedly selling his motivational , what we do here is good speeches. The Innocents should have delved into his duplicity more. Ingunn Beate Oyen’s  Runa loves Ben and their work and encourages the other women. But her own early dementia and drinking is getting worse. Runa’s proof the re-centering program works, but she’s totally dependent on Ben and the illness puts her shifting at risk. The best scenes in The Innocents are between Pearce and Oyen, and the entire adult ensemble deserved the show’s focus.

Fortunately, great scenery sets The Innocents apart.  Mirrors, double glass overlays, and reverse camera angles while talking to one’s reflection creates visual duplicity while ironic classical music sets off the cruel experimentation. The Innocents starts slow yet busy with uneven storytelling. More interesting adult plots take a backseat to typical teen angst. Thankfully, the second half moves much faster, and the series is best when it drops the dippy teen experience for the suspicious science fiction afoot. The Innocents should have been four episodes or a taut movie. Provocative ideas about women’s roles and identities are trapped in an eye rolling juvenile structure that’s so damn easy to quit on at the forefront.

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: A Christmas Carol (2019)

Thought Provoking and Mature A Christmas Carol (2019)

by Kristin Battestella

To allow himself rest in the afterlife, the deceased Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham) aides The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis), Present (Charlotte Reily), and Future (Jason Flemyng) in orchestrated a change for good in his soulless, corrupt business partner Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce). Scrooge’s bitter ways effect the health, happiness, and welfare of his clerk Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn) and his wife Mary (Vinette Robinson), but confronting Scrooge’s horrible life may not be enough to redeem the miser…

The 2019 BBC miniseries A Christmas Carol produced by Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and Tom Hardy (Venom) is a darker imagining of the perennial Charles Dickens tale with episodic chapters originally called “The Human Beast,” “The Human Heart,” and “A Bag of Gravel” airing stateside on FX as one three hour event. Director Nick Murphy (The Last Kingdom) and writer Stephen Knight (Peaky Blinders) obviously have more time to fill than the more traditional, idyllic, paired-down tellings. Rather than the same old saccharin “God bless us, everyone!” these days viewers expect television to bring on the relatable Victorian bitterness. We often glorify the past, but this A Christmas Carol doesn’t underestimate an audience intimately familiar with weighing every action by gain mentalities and who you know and how much money you have getting you anywhere in life uphill struggles, abuses, and humiliation. Urination, grave desecration, bastards, and F-bombs immediately set this adult tone before ominous winds, crows, eerie graveyards, and a frosty ethereal London 1843. Church bells, purgatory supernatural, and almost Shakespearean asides accent the six feet under coins on the eyes, and no rest in peace as hellish forges, chains, and swinging coffins invoke a much more grim penance. Phantom sleighs dragging the chained behind lead to echoes between the counting-house and the spirit realm. Rattling in the fireplace and cutaways to the point of view from an empty chair realistically lay the forthcoming between worlds – embracing the Victorian off-kilter faerie parallel rather than just a sudden, mere holiday intervention as is often portrayed. Time is taken in A Christmas Carol with handwashing a la Lady Macbeth and ghostly versus guilt-ticking clocks. Hypocritical analysis digs deeper than humbug archetypes, and great horror imagery sets off the familiar but transposed text delivered deftly and naturally without any try-hard ye oldeth. Villainous silhouettes grow darker when we get the famous workhouses, prisons, and let them die disturbing. Shadows and black horses take the place of the locomotive on the stairs as other animal kindnesses born out of cruelty and hopeful lantern flashes contrast the creaking gate and ghostly door knocker. While most adaptations have a quick start or only run eighty minutes themselves, here it takes an hour before we even get to the Scrooge and Marley encounter. This A Christmas Carol simmers and broods, for these apparitions have been a long time coming with thumps in the night, groaning houses, clicking locks, and guilty consequences. Chilling reasons for that scarf usually around Marley’s jaw become macabre shocks as A Christmas Carol takes the hallmarks of a story that’s tough to do wrong and runs with the one-on-one encounters, twofer deliveries, and fiery flashbacks. Faulty subcontracts and bribing officials led to bloody workhouse disasters, gas explosions, and coal mine collapses while Scrooge passed the blame and forged those symbolic chains.

The refreshing script simplifies the Dickensian wordiness yet we do get some of the sardonic undigested beef quips amid self-aware glances at the camera and eternity spent in a forest of abandoned Christmas trees and forgotten childhood memories. An act of kindness said to be given to someone in pain is rejected as the abused perpetuate abuse, dealing in greed and people as commodities. Those scarred mentally and physically by the cruel, cost-cutting overseers rightfully call upon revenge like a reverse It’s A Wonderful Life orchestrating this spiritual comeuppance. Snowfall and ash in the air mix as other realms and childhood fears merge with violent canes, creepy singsongs, and pets caught in the chilling crossfire in a house that can’t afford another mouth to feed. Hiding behind the bed curtains is used to frightful effect as A Christmas Carol shows what the book implies yet leaves nasty suggestions to the shadows. Hope, however, can be found small as a mouse, big as a camel, or even in fanciful book illustrations come to life to save a boy’s mind from his torturous reality. Unfortunately, people are only worried about themselves. Gifts are just unwritten debts and unprofitable affections. These spirits force us to relive the darkest moments of the picture we paint so we may unlearn the ills that have shaped who we are. Here A Christmas Carol feels timely and modern, layering the past with disturbing familiar faces and real-world terrors that harden a boy’s heart and break our Christmas spirit. Magical deflections, pleas to go home, and facing the horrors combine for superb duality and visualizations as children may or may not see spirits and two of the same character appear in the same place at once. Loom factories become massive calculators in an industrial fantasy hitting home the cold hard numbers. Tragedy for many is opportunity for the few, and that’s just good business to see pounds instead of people and exploit their weaknesses accordingly. Shameful humiliations done on Christmas Day are born not out of desire, but agonizing experiments testing the solemn limits of what good people will do for money. Viewers contemplate how far A Christmas Carol will go in examining the the value of human virtue, and Merry Christmas greetings are said for all the wrong reasons – justifying the prayers, warnings, and curses that one day the truth will look us in the mirror. Mining survivors unite in memorial choirs, and the poor make up the difference with happiness and love instead of itemizing priceless intangibles. Halos at the altar suggest salvation, but admitting regret or that love came too late to stop hatred isn’t enough against chilling figures in the dark, haunting drownings, cracking ice, and death shrouds. Tolling bells and heartbeats announce the fatal consequences as we accept our deserved fate. For all the spirited meddling, it is up to us to change and act for the benefit of others without expectation of reward as A Christmas Carol concludes in full Dickensian compassion.

The First Chapter of A Christmas Carol is excellent as is the second. However, when expanding such a short novella, the balance is bound to be uneven. Here Christmas Past is featured for almost an hour and a half – leaving twenty minutes for The Ghost of Christmas Present and only ten minutes for The Future. After such depth with The Past, viewers wonder why Andy Serkis just didn’t play one composite spirit? Upon moving on from him with only forty-five minutes left, suddenly this A Christmas Carol is rushed, running out of time, and on the same pace as any other adaptation. Onscreen Christmas Eve 1843 openings don’t match Marley’s 1842 grave marker and the supposed seven years since his passing, but nor do the 1851 death dates. The melancholy focus will tiresome audiences, yet the quick finale feels like this should have been longer – a four-hour, two-night event. All that Past just opened Scrooge up so The Present can show warmth by making him wear a scarf and tinge his heart in a third of the time? The often excised Ali Babi brings a dash of childhood wonder into such grim, but making The Ghost of Christmas Present a woman to soften up Scrooge negates the progressive gender change and defeats the purpose of ditching young Scrooge’s for love or money choice. While losing the seemingly essential festive Fezziwig works wonders, the exclusion of eavesdropping on Nephew Fred’s is a missed opportunity when you’ve made his mother The Ghost of Christmas Present. The Past repeatedly tells Scrooge this is not a game – long after Scrooge stops making passive-aggressive asides – but Fred’s mocking his uncle and Scrooge’s family resentment would have fit in well with this bitter A Christmas Carol. Viewers begin to notice famous wording and elements missing. Did we skip an episode? Did the editor lose a reel? My favorite moment with Ignorance and Want is also excised when the decrepit child motifs would have fit these acerbic themes, and the casting lots on the bedclothes bargaining is another profiting on death horror that is surprisingly absent as if the writers simply didn’t finish adapting the fourth stave of the book or the production plum ran out of time and money. At times A Christmas Carol doesn’t seem to trust what it has in these exceptional performances and the timeless source material, adding in extra dialogue when looking at the camera directly implies the fourth wall is already broken and the spiritual work is coming for us next. Some truly good or innocent and in tune characters are said to see the usually invisible Scrooge and company – a haunting provocation wonderfully bringing this seeming radical A Christmas Carol right back to Dickens, for “I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”

Occasionally Guy Pearce (Brimstone) looks top hat debonair as Ebenezer Scrooge, but the greased hair, liver spots, curled lip, and scratchy voice are looking foul decrepit to match the black ink said to run through his veins. According to Scrooge, gifts are falsely sought and dressed in ribbons to create artificial happiness and fake grins. No one really means their tidings of joy, and the December 25 dates, wise men, and snow in Palestine “facts” are just more perpetuated lies revealing who we presume to be and who we really are on Christmas or any other day. If such yule transformations were true, then why aren’t we such lambs every day with one day of misery to say what we really mean? Scrooge remains isolated in his office, looking out his window on the noisy world as time is taken for his extrapolated soliloquies on pretense and humbug. However, even the camera pulls back when he approaches, recoiling at his despicable holiday honesty. Scrooge is obsessed with counting, an OCD itemizing when he’s frustrated by poor fools and pesky specters. After talking to himself and almost missing Marley, Scrooge is angry at the deceased’s appearance, defiant, and regrets nothing. Although put in his place early with scary past confrontations, he uses his history to justify why he is this way but not that he needs to change. Shrewd Scrooge buys liquidating businesses under price before selling them at true value and smiles at the wheeling and dealing done in his prime. He even tells The Ghost of Christmas Past to write off a new coat as a business expense if subjects keep clawing and crying on his robe. Repeatedly rationalizing every profit over human cost and exploiting all opportunities despite any anguish, Scrooge revels in dangling the keys to his safe before the desperate. Once defensive and refusing to look, he grows ashamed of his actively cruel behavior in an excellent dual performance contrasting past and presents Scrooge side by side. Scrooge practices positive greetings in the mirror but looks more creepy doing so. He doesn’t know how to change even if he admits he may do things differently if given the chance, for it was his own innocence sold that spurred this solidarity with money. Scrooge regrets and apologizes, trying to break the spirit rules and interfere yet he refuses redemption. He accepts he was wrong and deserves to not be forgiven as softer hair and nicer skin suggest his revitalization. Scrooge runs through the street like George Bailey, closing his business and giving away money. Payoffs won’t make everything right but he has to start being a better person somewhere. Don’t we all? Although I wish we heard some of the traditional wording from him – and I want to make his long dress coat – once again I ask where the awards are for Guy Pearce. Sometimes, he also looks like Sean Bean here. I hadn’t noticed this before and now I demand they play brothers in future yearly gothic holiday adaptations. Van Helsing, Jekyll and Hyde, yes please. Please please please please!

Instead of just saying he sat beside Scrooge and tried to reach him, Stephen Graham’s (This is England) restless Jacob Marley has much more to do. Marley anchors the transitions between counting-house and underworld as the realms bleed through like a double negative. He wants his own absolution and needs Scrooge to get him such Clarence-esque wings, deepening the potential penance via his own encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Anguished Marley thinks he’ll be stuck in purgatory forever if his redemption hinges on Scrooge. He believes their reality was a choice, also appearing after the spirits to admit how wrong they were in life, and it’s fascinating to see his realization as the culmination rather than the impetus of A Christmas Carol. Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) looks like an undead, ancient Santa as the Ghost of Christmas Past – a cranky minder of souls perpetually burning forgotten holiday hopes. The character also appears as the evil Scrooge Senior in pure horror torment as well as the literary friend Ali Baba in bittersweet moments. His eerie hood is not the sentimental sprite we expect, and the dried wreath on his head carries a crown of thorns, Christ-like innocence lost. Instead of the distinguishing cap, a zoetrope hat casts past shadows on the wall in an excellent visualization of the then-new to see the old. Weary over Scrooge’s excuses, The Past sends progressive Ghost of Christmas Present Charlotte Riley (The Take) in the guise of sister Lottie Scrooge in a lovely change again deserving of much more than repetitive family exposition and narrating already seen actions from characters that could have said everything themselves. Logical Lottie understands Scrooge’s past pain, combining the scientific and sensitive to confront Scrooge before the mouth sewn shut, grave digger-esque Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class) as The Ghost of Christmas Future enters tolling a broken bell. He’s said to be the most terrifying of the spirits and the one who ultimately decides Scrooge’s fate, but unfortunately, he doesn’t really appear to do anything but provide the disturbing Tiny Tim fate. The Past had equally frightening moments, and The Future merely disappears as Scrooge ultimately amends on his own.

 

Joe Alwyn (also in Mary Queen of Scots with Pearce) doesn’t really stand out for me among the numerous lookalike blonde boy band-type actors abound these days. His Bob Cratchit seems somewhat young, weak, and ineffectual, but that is fitting for an overworked father trying to keep his meager family together. Scrooge thinks four lumps of coal is more than reasonable despite his clerk’s frozen ink and continues to rag on him for a word misspelled once five years ago. Exasperated Bob insists he doesn’t get angry and does his work perfectly to spite Scrooge. He doesn’t hate his employer and remains kinds to Scrooge, asking if he is himself when they have such surprisingly frank conversations on this peculiar Christmas Eve. Bob has to toe the line between passive-aggressive asides and really talking back or standing up to his boss. He tells Scrooge he knows indeed how precarious his situation is, making us wonder why “situation” as synonymous with “job” fell out of terminology when the family to feed or ill health reasons that one toils should be paramount. Vinette Robinson’s (Sherlock) Mary Cratchit is frazzled and snippy, making excuses to her husband and sketching stories for Tiny Tim because they have no money for books. Only having two little Cratchits and a relative aptly named Martha tightens the familial focus, and Mary resorts to terrible secrets and forgoes her pride in a desperate need to save her son. She prays to be forgiven for what she has to do and asks Jesus to turn his head over such blackmail and lies. The holiday means Mary has to revisit one terrible Christmas every year, repeatedly going outdoors rather than face the congested weight and manifested guilt as the spiritual influences come full circle. Rather than the usual poor but happy brevity, A Christmas Carol develops The Cratchits as conflicted people, embodying how the one who has to power to alleviate their suffering can cause more oppression without having to lay a creepy hand on anyone.

The titular icicle script ekes out the ghostly etching with a cold nib to match the frosted windows and meager candle flame frigid. Snow abounds alongside carriages, street lamps, sleighs, ice skating, and crowded streets. However, there are precious little signs of Christmas in A Christmas Carol. No holly, few wreaths or plain garlands, no old fashioned merry, and the only jolly comes in brief carol notes and fiddle melodies cut short. While the night time blue tint is easier to see, the over-saturation may be intentionally noticeable and otherworldly. There are also some unnecessary swooping pans over the cobblestone streets but fortunately, these are only used early on to set the Londontown bustle versus the paranormal underbelly. Stage-like blocking, lighting schemes, and careful attention to detail visualize characterizations with gleams of light shining through the windows as natural, hopeful rays or framing dark silhouettes as needed. The counting-house office is divided between a brighter front and a darker back office with a wall of ledgers between rooms that the clerk must repeatedly go around to talk to Scrooge. Intercut foreshadowing between worlds leaves onscreen space for characters on another plane, subtly establishing Scrooge and Marley’s partnership even if the men are technically not together in the same scene. Echoing footsteps, bells, chimes, and creaking invoke period as well as horror amid hellish red fireplaces and disturbing imagery. Pox marks and sullen pallors match the tattered gloves and shabby bonnets on the poor while slightly more refined styles set the wealthy apart with top hats, ascots, waistcoats, pocket watches, and frock coats. A Christmas Carol looks at the early Victorian part without relying on the expected women’s silhouette thanks to fantastical cloaks, steampunk touches, and choose special effects. Dark upon dark schemes set off the horror visuals and cave-ins as the fog and frigid grow inside as well as out in the largely empty interiors. Groaning walls and a growing bed are ominous without being overbearing. The optical tricks are simple with slow zooms or camera cuts to where a spirit might be, leaving the chill up the spine carried by one’s looking over his shoulder and frightful reaction shots – as the scares should be.

Certainly, there are more genteel family-friendly adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and this decidedly darker spin won’t be for those seeking any lighthearted Dickensian comforts. It also takes planning to settle in for the whole three-hour block stateside. Although the chapter title cards are retained and once we’re on this retrospective journey it’s tough to stop, having had the original UK episodic format would solve the dreary, dragging complaints. I watched this multiple times to pause and take notes, and there are more insights the more you watch. Despite an uneven weakness rushed in the latter half, the redemption arc fits this darker tone. Here there’s no overnight exuberance, and it makes the viewer consider how fast and superficial other interpretations now seem when the longer television format allows for such grim, thought-provoking extrapolation. It leaves one wanting more of this A Christmas Carol, and its unabashed look in the mirror is watchable beyond the holiday season – paralleling the words herein to be the best person we can be daily rather than just faking it at Christmas.

Read on for more Holiday Horror:

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Bell Book and Candle

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: The Seventh Day

The Seventh Day is an Exercise in What Not to Do.

Young priest Daniel Garcia (Vadhir Derbez) is recruited by the Archbishop (Stephen Lang) to join unconventional Father Peter Costello (Guy Pearce) in exorcising a possessed boy in the 2021 Training Day meets The Exorcist horror tale The Seventh Day. Father Peter has his own rocky past learning the ropes from Father Louis (Keith David), but writer and director Justin P. Lange’s (The Dark) film doesn’t take its own advice – suffering from thin storytelling and not so shocking giveaways.

1995 prayers, recitations, and Pope John Paul II footage open The Seventh Day as the crucifix is ineffective against rattling beds, child possessions, evil temptations, and terrible consequences. Though off to a disturbing start, wise horror viewers know where we’re going from here. Demonic possession reports are on the rise across the country, and while the Vatican is generally against controversial exorcisms, a few dedicated rogue priests have vanquished in private. The Seventh Day does a lot of telling rather than showing – treating this intriguing history as throwaway exposition for our rookie’s one-day exorcism test. Evil is said to be clever, unpredictable, hiding in unexpected places, and ready to multiply, but the begrudging teamwork, contrived field exercises, and devilish ruses lead to ridiculously easy encounters. Characters don’t mention a critical plot element about a boy murdering his family until they drive up to the crime scene, waxing instead on who’s up to the task or cowering like a regular Sunday sermon priest. Our young Father can see flashbacks inside the killer house, but are these taunting visions, a conveniently intuitive recruit, ghosts, or just movie-making magic? Though admittedly freaky, the apparitions noticing the priest watching them cut off their clues, delaying what viewers can already deduce. They need proof of possession in this murder case for an official exorcism blessing, but the Archbishop already said this is unofficial and a little boy pinning down our young priest and talking creepy while our scared recruit shouts for help isn’t that much evidence anyway. We know the movie-making rites of exorcism and this is supposed to be Be Gone Training 101, however, the rules herein aren’t clear – demon names are given freely, supernatural doorways open or close, and a Ouija board comes in handy. Although filming scenes out of order is expected, many sequences play as if they have no idea what was said in the scenes prior thanks to contradicting plot progressions, repeated character flip-flopping, and everything thrown at the screen in world logic be damned. The Seventh Day detours with typical dark haunted house explorations, flashlights, and boo shocks under the bed. Flickering lights, spooky reflections, loud music, and killer montage visuals are for the viewer, not the character’s experience, and weak, fiery flashes poorly frame the child trauma, eerie tapping, and possessed levitation. Priests inexplicably intrude on the police interrogations and psychological evaluations as gun-toting cops are sent to handle the evil – because that’s going to turn out so well! Buzzing alarms, growling effects, zombie police, and strobe corridors problematic for sensitive viewers add to the supernatural extraneous as The Seventh Day finally dons the sacraments only to drop the actual exorcism for whooshing across the floor, jump scares, and bathtub ghosts. Yet more cinematic contrivances in the last twenty minutes hand the characters the hello Agatha the audience has known from the beginning, and there’s no devil lying to divide and conquer reverse twist on the twist or any deeper complex catharsis.

Despite a fast-tracked academy record hailing him as their finest, Vadhir Derbez (How to Be a Latin Lover) as Father Daniel Garcia is admittedly anxious about his new position and immediately admonished by Father Peter. If he can’t handle a day in the field seeking evil, how does Daniel expect to fight demons? Daniel can’t answer why he wants to be an exorcist, yet he contests every exercise rather than being open to any tips and experience possible just because the plot says our priests must be opposites. Wouldn’t you want to be on the same page against evil? Daniel can’t spot the devils in disguise, worries about trespassing at a crime scene, and can’t talk casually to people like even a regular priest should. He continually fails to see the bigger picture but changes his tune as The Seventh Day says, ready to do whatever Peter wants after a few scary words from a possessed child. Maybe viewers are meant to feel the disjointed jumping around as an in over his head whirlwind, but it’s terribly frustrating when we pick up critical things Daniel does not. Rather than any kind of self-awareness, his sullen approach and repeated mistakes become inadvertently humorous. There’s no character growth, realizations, or recognition because Daniel doesn’t suspect anything until the plot says he should. He falls for evil tricks and has the big twist pointed out to him in a montage, reciting helpful platitudes instead of the prayers and exorcism rites he’s supposed to know so well. When faced directly with demons and a house of horrors, the audience finds it tough to believe Daniel can handle any attack, much less knows what to do with evil once it’s released. The Seventh Day’s focus on his rookie point of view is quite simply the wrong one, and the finale setting up some kind of sequel for him as a badass hunter-killer priest out to save the possessed is unfortunately laughable.

Unorthodox Father Peter Costello is dismissive of these wet behind the ears priests and sends Daniel to get him coffee. He sings to the car radio, smokes, curses, and wears a funky patterned jacket rather than a clerical collar. Guy Pearce has a lot of exorcism exposition and Peter’s edgy fast talking accent doesn’t really give us much besides making him more harsh versus Daniel’s timid. However, he’s upfront about his past exorcism failures and grizzled attitude. For Peter, it’s about settling the score not the greater good, and he flings the possessed around – a commanding exorcist getting serious with the rites. Audiences know not to underestimate Guy Pearce’s kick-ass and The Seventh Day lacks whenever he’s off-screen. Unfortunately, Peter’s teaching methods are also total crap. He drives them all around town but sends Daniel in to chat with a demon alone while he reads a comic book in the waiting room. If this is such a serious case with a child at risk, why is Peter letting Daniel willy nilly learn on the fly? Such contrived actions break the viewer immersion, for it’s easy to tune out when we know there is a built-in answer in the script. Peter’s training exercises are easy and random. Audiences wonder why he isn’t just doing the dang exorcism. We have every reason to suspect why while the film ignores the inevitable, yet somehow Pearce almost makes The Seventh Day bemusing. He remains chill in the face of the preposterous, leaving sardonic clues even as Peter’s pushing Daniel so hard one moment only to act concerned for him in the next scene. Although Pearce has had a string of missteps in our rueful 2020s, coughDisturbingThePeacecough, I don’t mind his recent streak of making genre schlock. Guy Pearce has turned in enough excellent performances in quintessential, groundbreaking films, and I’m still going to watch everything he does, obvious cloak and disappointing dagger or not. Fortunately, there’s still a certain deliciousness when as always, Guy Pearce gives us what we want – if all too briefly when The Seventh Day should have been about Peter’s self-reflection and the burdens he carries. I’d eat that shit up if this had been a weekly silver fox, Father Peter, battling demons I can’t lie.

Poor Archbishop Stephen Lang (Avatar) doesn’t even get a name, and although he says the decisions aren’t up to him…he’s the one making the decisions? He also says he has hope in these desperate times but wonders if their new recruits can handle the increasing possessions before chastising Peter and Daniel for putting themselves in danger – when the Archbishop knows of Peter’s risky methods. Such precious few contradictory scenes give no indication on whether he knows what’s really afoot, and Keith David’s (Gamer) Father Louis is also unfortunately brief despite his great delivery and presence. In fact, the Archbishop spends more time telling us what a faithful and courageous man Father Louis was, and if both were going to be so underutilized, they could have been combined into one character. Even after the 1995 opening, The Seventh Day still feels older thanks to boob tube televisions and big old cars. Smog, dirty concrete, retro jailhouses, dark roller rinks, and empty corridors make for a downtrodden, anonymous cityscape, however, once we have a few opening aerial shots, we don’t need padding overhead views for every scene transition. Voiceover wisdoms on the evil preparations acting like this is some kind of demon heist get old fast when we could have seen characters speaking. However it is amusing to hear not so angelic kids with F-bombs and foul mouths to match the distorted smiles, demonic voices, creepy tongues, eating glass, and dislocating jaws. Ominous echoes and rotten fruits accent burning flesh, cemeteries, and haunted houses, but the out-of-place vignettes try to up the scary ante with unnecessary, typical horror shocks. The Seventh Day’s style is very generic with little pizzazz and arms-length shooting more interested in moving on to the next scene – via an overhead shot of driving across a bridge – rather than focusing on the characters at hand. One might think names like Daniel i.e. the lion’s den and Peter like the apostle cum first pope crucified upside down mean something, but The Seventh Day is surprisingly lacking in its ecclesiastics with no Legion Mark Chapter Five reference amid the demon army talk nor even a swine joke.

IMDb says The Seventh Day was written in ten days, and it shows. Rather than focusing on the scars of its elder priests, The Seventh Day deflates itself with a weak rookie element. Viewers are supposed to ignore any unreliable ambiguity until the film tells us we’re supposed to be shocked, but long time horror audiences won’t be surprised. While the premise is intriguing on paper, billing oneself as Training Day meets The Exorcist makes for a thin elevator pitch, and it’s easy to suspect the twist in The Seventh Day when the trailers all but confirm it. Oops.

 

Read more Frightening Flix Religious and Creepy Kid Horrors:

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is a Confusing Disappointment by Kristin Battestella

Alien: Covenant – the latest film in the Alien franchise and the 2017 sequel to Prometheus – struggles with its franchise identity crisis, leaving the potentially interesting science fiction parables and body horror monsters wanting in the confusion.

When the colonization vessel Covenant is damaged by passing neutrino blasts, the android Walter (Michael Fassbender) must wake terraforming chief Daniels (Katherine Waterson) and the rest of the crew. After receiving a nearby signal from a mysterious, too good to be true planet much closer than their original vetted destination, leader Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate. Unfortunately, inhaled alien toxins on the surface birth beastly parasites, and David (also Fassbender) – the android survivor of the lost research vessel Prometheus – has been living alone on the planet for the past ten years, studying the remaining Engineer evolution techniques and perfecting their monstrous designs with terrifying results…

Whether it’s Prometheus 2 or Alien 5, Alien: Covenant is immediately frustrating. If this is really an Alien movie, then Prometheus never should have held anything back in hopes of a sequel and just told its tale in one movie. However, returning director Ridley Scott and screenplay writer John Logan (Penny Dreadful) play it both ways as Alien: Covenant opens with android quizzes on The Statue of David, Wagner gems, and Valhalla. Such meaning of meaninglessness threads from Prometheus will confuse viewers who didn’t see it, and Alien: Covenant restarts with the titular colony vessel and its android custodian, Mother computer, and crew in stasis almost as if it’s trying to reboot said predecessor. Fortunately, pod fatalities, charred bodies, memento mori, and offline systems build suspense while radio chatter, spacesuits, and rogue transmissions create a science fiction atmosphere. Eerie forest destruction, Pompeii-like remains and crashed ships add mood but drop ships and lost contact are similar to Aliens while inconveniently convenient planetary storms mirror Prometheus. An entire team trots off for an expedition – leaving only one person behind to make lander repairs – before separating further so a careless guy taking a leak can get infected by some spooky alien particles. Educated people ask obvious questions to which they should already know the answers, adding stilted dialogue on top of back and forth scenes deflating the body horror when not acting stupid for the plot to proceed by willfully scratching and sniffing mystery polyps and not reporting when they feel sick. Friends insist on taking the infected back to the ship, but there’s no procedure amid the hectic radio calls and blood splatter. Women are on the mission just to whine – one tries to lock in another when both are equally contaminated and the visual hysterics don’t let the viewer actually see the out of control. Cutting to what’s happening elsewhere is a mistake when it leaves the bloody reveal a blink and you miss it special effect. It’s scarier when people are trapped with a fast growing monster building claustrophobic fear toward fatal ship explosions. However, the paired off crew members react so over emotionally to death yet barely at all to the creature shocks, necropolis infrastructure, and the suspicious survivor found there. Flashbacks and exposition detailing the pathogens, crashes, and destruction post-Prometheus ten years prior is really where Alien: Covenant should have begun, but we’re watching a woman strip down to wash her open wound in what hopefully isn’t contaminated water instead. After objecting to flying the colony ship down to the planet, minutes later the crew changes their minds once the route is more dangerous while fast action scenes, convoluted lingering, and rushed quality scenes contribute to the unevenness, hampering creepy encounters with new aliens, familiar eggs, and delicious face-hugger revelations. From the prologue to the ship and the planet to the necropolis, rival androids, and onboard terrors; Alien: Covenant is an overlong and confusing two hours with cargo bay trucks, out the airlock solutions, and unnecessary sexy showers littering a nonsensical Aliens copycat finale. What should be wonderfully chilling – gagging up mini alien eggs for the incubator to the Ride of the Valkyries – treads tires because between all the Prometheus rewrites, the four credited writers here, and who knows what more behind the scenes meddling, nobody mapped out where this disappointing prequel plot goes.

There was a time when I was excited for whatever film Michael Fassbender did next. Unfortunately, somewhere around Macbeth or Steve Jobs, Fassbender sold out with all these non-starters and uninteresting flops. Despite this superb dual performance as the poetic, T.E. Lawrence obsessed android David and the clueless but loyal and supposedly inferior model Walter, it’s difficult to look back at Hunger and believe this is the same actor who once so bled for his craft. It’s totally obvious what David is going to do, and the entire homoerotic flute fingering sequence is the invisible car of Die Another Day franchise rock bottom. Surely, there was a better way to show Walter as a stunted childlike machine designed as lacking creativity expressly because David was so disturbingly human in his desires. It might even have been more interesting to not reveal Walter as an android until the xenomorph acid destroys his hand when he protects Daniels. Walter naively thinks he can gain the details from David regarding their creator Weyland and how the Prometheus survivor came to be on this planet. However, David waxes on Lord Byron and thinks himself Crusoe, admonishing Walter for serving the unworthy, dying humans. He preys on Walter’s potential, saying it is love, not duty he feels for Daniels, revealing himself as an abuser who already destroyed the life on this planet. David wants to communicate with the neomorphs and earn their respect while he experiments with the hybrids. Walter knows this is wrong, but David is pleased with himself for creating the perfect organism – and he’s very disappointed in Walter for standing in his way. David has at last procreated, and it’s chilling to see his views realized in several wild births, radical experiments, and violent assaults. Sadly, Alien: Covenant’s clunky exposition and trite script ruin the intriguing android developments with ridiculous encounters and not-so-secret switcharoos leaving no resolution for Walter when both characters deserved more. Alien: Covenant may awe over David’s ambition and chew on the possibilities, but there’s so much happening the audience doesn’t have any time to revoltingly enjoy the villainy.

Although Sam’s daughter Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) is supposed to be the lead, Danny doesn’t do a lot beyond wearing her deceased husband’s iron nail around her neck in a messianic loose thread similar to Shaw’s cross in Prometheus. She’s made less pretty than the other women, and when she officially protests stopping at this perfect planet, she’s presented as a moody bitch only sharing her emo grief misgivings because there’s no point in a home now without her man. Naturally, all the men are allowed reckless manpain over their ladies while Danny easily discovers what David has done when the script bothers to have her look. By the final act she conveniently wants a 2,000 strong colony ship to rescue her just because the plot says it’s time to let the xenomorph onboard and make her a kick-ass action hero. Billy Crudup’s (Inventing the Abbotts) reluctantly in charge supposed man of faith Oram only decides on this planet to prove he’s up to snuff and doesn’t realize he messed up until it personally affects him. Tennessee cool pilot Danny McBride (Your Highness) recognizes John Denver music in the alien signal amid all his sexist jokes before risking the entire mission for his woman – whom viewers already know to be dead. Of course, shortly thereafter, he’s laying the groundwork for his next hook-up. A brief prologue appearance from Guy Pearce (Brimstone) returning as Peter Weyland should have come at the end of Alien: Covenant to fully accent David’s twisted achievements, and Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is unceremoniously written off post-Prometheus with only a few effigies. We’re told she put David back together, he loved her for her kindness, and that’s that. The movie should have started with the Prometheus characters on this unknown planet and then met the colony ship only upon their arrival. Alien: Covenant is from the wrong perspective and overcrowded with far too many unnecessary characters – mostly screwing up husbands or similar looking wives raising the body count. Anonymous people being in relationships may make excuses for their behavior but it isn’t character development and doesn’t give viewers a reason to care. Showing two guys with matching wedding bands as an attempt at gay inclusion is also embarrassingly homophobic when their only scene is one dying after ejaculating a neomorph from his mouth. Sneaky James Franco (Tristan & Isolde) moments are silly as well because… it’s just James Franco in a promotional campaign for Alien: Covenant.

Thankfully, Covenant is a cool looking spaceship with solar sails, blue hues, green lighting, touch screens, and interface graphics along with red alarms, spooky chains, dangerous ladders, and perilous equipment. Unfortunately, fiery damage leads to CGI spacewalks and noticeable animation intruding upon the interstellar fantastic. Crowded submarine style rooms and music motifs from Aliens are also apparent amid waterfalls and mountain vistas borrowed from Prometheus. It’s also flat-out dumb to waste time on a cool drop ship water landing when there is terra firma everywhere, and what’s with all the dang hoodies? Blood, gore, and creative reverse alien births are appropriately disturbing, however, the surrounding CGI is again weak. Dark scenes and hectic firefights also make it difficult to see all those potentially intriguing hybrid creatures, twisted deliveries, and scary designs. The contrasting advanced ship technology and stranded apothecary research are likewise nice touches that deserved more time – embryos and stasis versus dissections and bestiary drawings. Facehugger scares, acid effects and freaky attacks are always fun to see, yet more than anything, these Alien homages cum knockoffs make one miss the originality and practical design advancements from Aliens. The spaceship action is very messy in Alien: Covenant with pointless, drawn-out action sequences littering the narrative, and it’s not surprising to read interviews with the film’s editor recounting the post-production struggle to balance these multiple storylines each playing at their own pace. Alien: Covenant needs to be re-watched for all its Alien movies pieces trying to bring together the creation theories from Prometheus via confusing Engineer goo, deacons, or xenomorphs yet this entire piece is also in dire need of a re-cut.

Instead of running with what was good from Prometheus, Alien: Covenant plays with its Prometheus connection the way Prometheus played with its Alien connection. Unfortunately, such inconsistent and contradictory carrots string along loyal franchise fans and won’t gain viewers who haven’t seen Alien. As with Prometheus and Alien 3 before, Alien: Covenant can’t serve both its masters and ultimately provides little repeat value, which ironically can be said for Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. Once again, we have no connection to LV-426 when all people ever wanted to know was how the Space Jockey got there in the first place. Frustration on such could haves or should haves being saved for yet more sequels compromises Alien: Covenant’s potentially entertaining science fiction, religious warnings, and monstrous possibilities with ennui.

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Brimstone

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: Brimstone

 

Brimstone a Disturbing yet Must See Parable

by Kristin Battestella

 

I want to write an entire opus on the 2017 European co-production Brimstone, starring Guy Pearce as a hellbent minister and Dakota Fanning as Liz, the mute midwife afraid of him. The layered statements from writer and director Martin Koolhoven (Schnitzel Paradise) are heavy handed and uncomfortable – many may find Brimstone at best over long at two and a half hours plus and at worst, the picture will be trigger inducing to sensitive audiences. However, with those caveats said, I don’t really want to summarize much else nor especially spoil this western thriller, as it is best to go into this must see genre bending parable cold.

The bleak narration and biblically steeped onscreen chapter titles hit home the seasoned frontier, rough childbirth, and rustic farms. The white church and cross atop the steeple stand out as a sense of order amid the natural wilds, and sermons warn of false prophets, wolves among the sheep, and hellish retributions worse than one can imagine for those who stray into lawlessness. Breach births mean choosing between the mother or the child, creating an ostracizing, easy to manipulate divide. Is such a delivery up to God or the midwife’s fault? Whispers of evil doing can quickly sway a community to fear and violence. Fiery calls for retribution and paying for one’s sins add to the fear and grief of an unbaptized stillborn not finding salvation. Reverse persecution is disguised as divine, and the wolf in sheep’s clothing is almost the devil himself indeed. Why be afraid of a reverend and not welcome him into your home? The foul afoot need not be said, and Brimstone doesn’t underestimate the audience, letting the drama play out with gruesome animal paybacks, abductions, and torturous injuries. The simmering suspiciousness allows the audience a sense of stillness, time to focus on the characters while the iconography builds suspense. The man in black before the burning building or dragging a girl in white through the mud and calling her unclean are allowed to speak for themselves. Brimstone uses a western setting of creepy brothels, servitude, and no justice for working women to tell a medieval morality play – an already damned purgatory epic a la Justine’s virtues made vice with shootouts, dead horses, and all the abuses we can infer. Brimstone’s pursuits may be taking place in an abstract limbo, beyond time and space with different girls who are one and the same, perpetually chased by the same terror with precious few other devil or angel on the shoulder characters. The out of order segments change the settings as they advance the tale, behaving more like acts themselves where the audience is at first unsure if this is what happened before or what comes next. Brimstone keeps viewers interested enough to see how the vignettes tie together; we trust the unique constructs are part of the juxtaposition highlighting how the code of the brothel and the rules of the fanatical minister aren’t very different and both inescapable can even be one and the same. Obey the nastiness of the patriarchal for body and soul or you are guilty and will be punished. Whatever the origin of her sinful behavior, a girl should be ashamed – it’s her fault that menstruation makes her Little Red Riding Hood fair game. Once there is blood there is no innocence, and the vicious cycle continues with twisted irony, fateful orchestrations, and sins that cannot be out run. We’d like to think this was just how it was ye olde back then, but not much has changed has it?

Many actors today simply would not take such a role, but Guy Pearce puts on an incredible presentation in Brimstone as this extremely unlikable manipulator. Our foreboding minister justifies his grooming righteousness with warped scripture, remaining nameless beyond his title or fatherly names – respected monikers advantageously misused along with creepy chapter and verse and touchy feely, uncomfortable familiarity. He knows when Liz is hiding near him and taunts her on how she as such a terrible murderess can sleep at night. This minister has come to punish her and will use her husband and daughter to do it. He immediately expresses a shuddering attachment to her little girl, and after initially claiming his actions are of God, this minister festers into an unstoppable, almost immortal embodiment of the sins made flesh carrying him. Hellbent and beyond salvation, this Big Bad Wolf howls and embraces his brutal scourge. I’m not often disappointed in Pearce’s work despite learning early on thanks to superior quality like The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, L.A. Confidential, and Memento (For shame on those who discovered Memento and Christopher Nolan so late, and why is Snowy River: The McGregor Saga still not properly available in the U.S.?) However, this may be his darkest, finest performance, and it’s surprising no awards followed. Likewise, Dakota Fanning (The Secret Life of Bees) looks the pioneer part. She’s kind in an unforgiving landscape, mute and disliking guns, but strong and we immediately root for her survival at every struggle, be it a neighbor’s cold shoulder or a freezing last stand. There’s never a doubt that she’s in the right, doing what she has to do – her lack of a heard voice lets her actions speak louder than words. Emilia Jones (Utopia) as the younger Joanna is also a spirited girl who learns of her own strengths the hard way. Despite all the abuse and persecution in Brimstone, these ladies are not victims. The Minister believes a woman can’t out run what a man has in mind for her and she will pay the price for her resistance, but Joanna flees to the frontier for her freedom. She continues to outrun evil in all its disguises whether it is a losing battle or not, and Liz repeatedly take matters into her own hands, refusing to surrender regardless of all that’s taken from her.

The ensemble behind the leads in Brimstone really is a supporting cast helping or hindering, well-intentioned or misused, stepping stones and catalysts. Carice van Houten’s sorrowful mother and helpless wife Anna is completely relatable. The audience wants to protect her from her husband or see her stand up and do something for Joanna, but her weakling mother who can’t do anything contrasts the strong woman alone daughter we see later. This minister’s wife won’t do her wifely duty, thus she needs to be gagged in an iron mask for not holding her tongue and whipped until she can gain the Lord’s favor. Hers is a pathetic existence, and this bittersweet role is the complete opposite of Van Houten’s Game of Thrones ruthless. Fellow Thrones star Kit Harrington is also featured in Brimstone for Chapter Three – perhaps mostly for the financing incentives and audience appeal after several casting changes – for his accent is terrible and he looks a little too pretty boy modern rather than a gritty cowboy. Although we don’t doubt his anti-hero outlaw’s earnest or sincerity toward Joanna, his masculine intrusion is the first of many would be hopeful sparks used against her. Fortunately, Carla Juri (Wetlands, but more importantly, the gal plays ice hockey!) is a fun and feisty prostitute when it comes to the disagreeable male clientele. She’s tender with Joanna, and they plan to leave together as mail order brides after one too many pimp abuses. Viewers hope for their escape from the cathouse – even if we know better. The leaning toward lez be friends because of male hatred innuendo and sacrificial BFF turns may be slightly cliché, but the ladies are likable and charming with turn about twists right up to the end.

 

Brimstone is visually aware of its bleak tale, contrasting the gunfire, outhouses, hangings, and blood on snow with birds chirping, hymns, and the sunshine. Fine cinematography accents the international locations with overhead angles and camera work that knows when to move but also how to be still and let the action happen. The sign language, costuming, horses, and wagons add authenticity, and the color schemes don’t feel digital or over saturated. The natural outdoor palette and interior patinas reflect the chapters being told – a rustic harvest autumn, the hot summer and barren saloons, the budding fertile spring of a New World congregation, and a frigid, snowy twilight with cleansing water bookends. Ironically, Brimstone was shot in relatively chronological order with Three first, then Two, and later chapters One and Four, and the impressive looking blu-ray release includes lengthy behind the scenes interviews and detailed sit downs with numerous cast and crew members. Brimstone is recognizable as a western yet when and where it takes place isn’t definitive. There are no cowboys in white hats or other familiar archetypes, only a desolate mood and lawless atmosphere that doesn’t shy away from the period brutality. While not horror per se, Brimstone has many horrific scenes to match its warped attitudes, telling its difficult to watch tale in its own time with no genre limit to stop it from going too far – a refreshing lack of cinema restraint which again, for many audiences, will cross the line. Brimstone is difficult to watch, yet there’s little vulgarity, no unnecessary visuals, and no major nudity. Corsets and pantaloons invoke enough saucy, leaving the story and characters to tell the numbing brutality instead of today’s desensitizing flash in the pan in your face style. However, I must say I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of… um… creative… use of intestines in a movie, ever.

So many Hollywood movies go through the motions, and Brimstone’s negative stateside reviews may be because American audiences aren’t accustomed to this kind of hardcore storytelling. Period piece horror dramas transcending genre like Brimstone such as Bone Tomahawk and The Witch are being made, however, their statement-making frights inexplicably remain elusive festival finds outside mainstream release. Spoilers aside, I didn’t cover all the details here simply because I didn’t take many review notes. I was too busy paying attention to the not for the faint of heart as Brimstone strips the viewer mentally and emotionally with its offensive no holds barred. Maybe rather than shying away from the viewing conversation, we should be embracing a quality motion picture that wouldn’t be any good if it didn’t push us to our limits as Brimstone does.

 

Kbatz: Prometheus

Frightening Flix

 

Despite Its Flaws, Prometheus is Entertaining 

By Kristin Battestella

 

I feel like there’s a chest burster inside me.”

That’s what I said in the ER this past July when they asked me to answer their polite 1 to 10 point-at-the-smiley-frown pain scale. I didn’t know what was causing the increasingly horrible and unbearable pain beneath my right ribs. I could barely move, breath, or speak. I flailed my arms in pain and accidentally hit the nurse when she tried inserting my IV. Of course, this reminded me of one early hospital scene in Aliens, and later, after I clawed my husband’s hand and drew his blood, I said, “I guess this is what I get for going to see Prometheus!”

Doctors Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall Greene) petition the Weyland Company to support their archaeological discovery: ancient civilizations each repeated the same astronomical pictograph and alien “Engineers.”  Shaw sees the pattern as an invitation to the stars and the origins of humanity, and the state of the art Prometheus disembarks to the distant LV-223. Only the android David (Michael Fassbender) is awake for the journey while the rest of the crew- including the doctors, Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and Company representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) remain in hyper sleep. Once they reach the moon, the human crew rises to search an ancient monument full of dead Engineer bodies, mysterious urns, and surprising familiar iconography.  As storms fronts approach on the surface and the crew separates, one by one their fates and faiths are tested, for these Engineers and their perilous DNA projects aren’t as dormant as they seem….

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Plotting A Prequel Conundrum

Whew! It turns out it was just my gall bladder going, but director Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction with this pseudo Alien prequel was certainly on my mind most of the summer. I’d been waiting over a year for the release – even remaining spoiler free into its approach. The possibility of Alien’s back-story feels like its been in my subconscious for decades. I used to drive my father batty with speculation about how the crash on LV-426 happened, to where – or whom – that homing beacon was transmitting, and how the evil android Ash and the then unnamed but obviously money loving and corrupt Company were involved. Yes, most of these questions from Alien are not answered in Prometheus and that is this film’s blessing and curse. Some may rightfully dismiss Prometheus simply because it answers nothing beyond itself. After all, what’s the point if technically nothing gets us any closer to Alien’s mysteries? The connections and feelings are there, but it seems like Prometheus’ key elements are being spread out for its inevitable sequel or a completely new trilogy. It becomes both rushed in its foreboding yet too disjointed as the plots diverge and reveal. This almost feels like Alien 3, strangely, where one film had to suffice both its brooding horror and action SF predecessors. The internal pace is fine to start, with good cringe inducing moments and a horror styled pattern of storms and entrapped personnel. Though the deleted scenes were apparently cut for length and action pace, it feels as if Prometheus should have continued in this speculative science fiction or horror vein, with complete character intelligence and a scary food for thought.

There is room to speculate on the alien dangers and high concept religion and faith debates. However, writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) also left serious plot holes, unexplained developments, and changed script scenarios in rewriting newcomer John Spaihts’ original treatment. Nothing short of having all the action taking place on LV-426 as originally envisioned would have appeased die-hard fans. Whether Prometheus was going to be a direct sequel or not, whatever storyline you finally intended to go with – all those decisions should have been settled upon rather than be left hanging in the film. Frankly, nothing – no creature connections, planetary aspirations, or character motivations – should have been held back in the hopes for a sequel. In the theater, I was screaming to myself that this film better dang be successful enough to earn a sequel, otherwise, this will really not just disappoint, but anger the audience. If you open Pandora’s Box, do so all the way.  Innumerable plot holes and character head scratchers and inconsistencies linger in Prometheus. Some of that is answered in the viral and behind the scenes material, but you can’t hinge the full vision of your film on the extras or sequels. Not only are the big spiritual topics not as deep as could be, but the intentional ambiguity is far too on the nose. I thought I was alone in wishing for more from Lindelof’s weak touch, but Prometheus takes the easy way out by dropping its high concepts for a typical big action ending. The first half of the film is brimming with foreboding and body horrors just like Alien, but unexplained secrets become plot contrivances and what should be hidden personal or family connections are too obvious. Perhaps a truly sophisticated slow science fiction morality tale can’t achieve success today, but it feels like Lindelof didn’t even give Prometheus a chance to try.  In the behind the scenes materials, he admits he found Alien boring, and no studio today will accept boring! If one can let go of Alien and accept that Prometheus is not a direct prequel and will not answer your long held questions, then it can be enjoyed thanks to great sets, thoughts, and performances. Can a hardcore SF viewer accept the plot holes and screenplay mistakes? We don’t really have much of a choice until the supposedly in the works follow up is on the big screen.

 

 

Powerful Performances

Well, well, Michael Fassbender does it again! Perhaps his ambiguous android David wasn’t meant to steal the show, but his artificial intrigue and robot speculations are the best part of Prometheus. Though his questionable actions initially support the faith versus science explorations and romance between Shaw and Holloway, David’s seamless orchestration of the crew and events around him subtly exceeds his programming. Fassbender’s (X-Men: First Class, Shame) uniquely devoid wizard behind the curtain pushes and pulls in true Vader fashion, and this malevolent Data is almost like a synthetic child on the verge of sociopathy. David is hyperactive, told not to go somewhere or touch anything, but he continually disobeys any instruction – maybe it’s for his own purpose, maybe not. He’s androgynous and prepubescent, almost not physically developed or impotent and thus uses his superior intellect and the low opinions of others to gain control. Despite his not having emotions, Shaw becomes the twisted object of David’s affection, and he scientifically violates her in a slick and premeditated plot. It’s not desire as we would think, but rather experimental curiosity. It’s third party rape because he can, and thus in David’s mind, he should.  Thanks to Fassbender’s well-played deceptions here and in Prometheus’ viral campaign, there are times where the viewer might swear David damn well does have emotions, and this Pandora of possibilities is a tad frightening.  An android who wants to be like Lawrence of Arabia? There are no Laws of Robotics here, and it’s creepy to see David’s graduation from playing with alien bugs to using human fodder go unchecked – particularly when it is such a cold and logical step to him.  Without internal censors to curb David’s motivations and ambitions, his last shall be first realization that people are inferior is allowed to run amok and create Prometheus’ finest moments.

Naturally then, when Holloway belittles David, it is not only his own undoing, but it sets all of Prometheus’ events in motion. Rather than being the hero, Logan Marshall Green’s (Dark Blue) scientist comes off as big jerk thanks to script and character issues. He drinks because he is unhappy that he has discovered the existence of human progenitors on another planet. Huh? This writing faux pas ironically works in Fassbender’s favor. One might actually be sympathetic to David instead thanks to the way he is insulted or dismissed. The android is kind to Shaw, but her trust is betrayed and it makes for some fine work by Rapace. Noomi (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is up to snuff as our Ripley successor, oh yes.  Though younger than her co-stars, she may seem a bit too mature against Logan Marshall Green or too upscale European for American audiences. However, this edge is perfect for the deep, heavy, and spiritual Shaw. These beliefs drive her pursuit of science, but they should conflict – and her newfound alien discoveries spearhead Shaw’s reexamination of herself. It all seems kind of lofty or too high brow, but Rapace keeps Shaw likeable and believably kick ass. Yes, there are convoluted script moments and unrealistic post-injury scenes that do take the audience away from the character. She can run around alien planets and climb all over the place after that?! The lack of believability in the plot also takes a bit away from the awesomeness of her alien encounter, but no faults come from Rapace, and I look forward to more of her. 

I do, however, wish more religious connections were made out right between this trio. After all, we have a worshiped alien being birthed by a woman named Elizabeth after an impregnation orchestrated by a surrogate father. In keeping with the ABC android names of the previous films in the franchise, we have a D for David. But why the name David instead of any other D name? Was there meant to be some sort of Root of Jesse lineage and messianic message? It is Christmas aboard the ship after all, and the Shaw praying scene in the trailer was cut from the final film. One of the new creatures in Prometheus is also called a “deacon.” What exactly is all this religious iconography supposed to mean? Humanity is seeking out their alien creators and thus outgrowing their divine masters, and in some ways, David is doing the same thing to his human inventors. This ideological succession, oedipal shadings, and patricide hopes are touched upon in the script and chewed on nicely by the players when its given to them. The triumvirate keeps the entertainment and intelligence afloat for the audience, but unfortunately, the shaky foundations in the writing don’t answer these lofty questions. Had the cast been given complete character motivations and plot aspirations, nothing could have stopped Prometheus.

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Poorly Handled Ensemble

Oscar winner Charlize Theron (Monster) is ice queen good fun as Prometheus’ resident secret wielding company representative, but there could have been a lot more to her character than what we receive.  If you think about Vickers’ background and motivation too much, too many nonsensical red herrings emerge. Her big secret is quite obvious, but whether she is a human or robot isn’t hardly addressed, nor is her alternating bitchy, sympathy, intelligence and stupidity. As with David, serious Scott fans could have had their hearts set a flutter by Vickers and possible Blade Runner connections. Unfortunately, as is, the character ends up meh despite Theron’s best attempts to counter the iffy scripting. Likewise, it is always a delight to see Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) and that therein is another big hole in what could have been Prometheus glory. I’m going to be nice and say the aging make up isn’t that bad – we just know it is Guy Pearce and would rather see him be the power hungry and creator- complexed young Weyland as seen in the Ted Talks viral video. Why couldn’t he have a pre-mission briefing instead of that weird hologram recording? That right there would have gone a long way in explaining all the characters and their reasons for signing on to such a space flight! The waste of creative character developments and potential is actually almost as in your face as Weyland’s actual not so surprise twist!

Although the supporting cast is most definitely talented enough, they aren’t given much to do beyond making mistakes or being barely there. Idris Elba (Luther) certainly has the presence to be the rogue captain of this wonderful ensemble, but his heroics and humor are so broadly written all over the board in crayon that we can’t fully care about Janek despite Elba’s charisma.  He’s devil may care but spiritually sensitive and cares about his crew and ultimately, humanity. However, Janek doesn’t give two shits about crewmen in jeopardy and doesn’t bother to ask what the mission entails. This isn’t multi-dimensional character development; it’s more like the captain is just a script placeholder to use whenever something is needed. It’s a sacrilegious waste of Elba, and Rafe Spall (Anonymous), Sean Harris (Outlaw), and Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones, Red Road – Did no one in this production see Red Road?!) become plot points for alien high jinks instead of being truly developed characters. 

Similarly, we never really get to meet the potentially charming Emun Elliott (Black Death) and Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things), and there are even more unnamed disappearing and reappearing soldiers aboard the titular vessel. If we’re not going to spend some time with these crewmembers in order to know their fears or faults intimately in a slow build of apprehension and peril, how can the viewer appreciate them? Deleted scenes and alternate takes improve the troop slightly, but the audience never gets the feeling this crew is in it together, as in Alien or Aliens. Sure, we need a conspirator or two, but these folks are so divided, it seems like they each had different versions of the script from which to work. If you’re not fans of the players, it is tempting to fast forward thru their stupidity and squandered opportunities. As Prometheus is, this talent becomes padding for the body count in the final act. 

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Positive Bells and Whistles

Fortunately, whatever you may think of Prometheus, it looks damn great, simply smashing. Instead of a dark and congested submarine – perhaps expected by our recent trends toward brooding, bleak, apocalyptic futures – the palette here is bright SF, with sweet looking, large-scale special effects and an imaginative ship design. It all looks sweeping, epic, and state of the art but somehow still natural and practical – a realistic progression and scientific advancement on our current technologies. There are some Alien allusions in the designs as well, and Prometheus does meld soundly as the mechanical precursor but 21st century offshoot to the franchise. Fortunately, the action scenes aren’t brimmed with unnecessary cool gadgetry for the sake of instant technological flash. The detailed and well-thought production here will outlast the in the moment product placements so often found in today’s films – remember all that MSN crap in The Island? Prometheus is not ‘sponsored by Sony’ in your face, and unlike the eighties 3D hurrah, there are no ridiculous foreground objects and actions thrusting at the screen desperation.  I dislike 3D and chose not to see Prometheus as such, however, you can still tell which swooping CGI effects shots are meant to be in the multidimensional glory. Thankfully, the exceptional Icelandic waterfalls and galactic scenery aren’t overruled or at worst ruined by the 3D as so many films are. 

Ironically, while writing this review, I received the Prometheus 4 Disc Collector’s Edition as a gift from my husband.  Of course, I’m not as interested in the 3D blu-ray disc as I am all the other critical bells, whistles, and special features.  I haven’t even gotten thru all the exhaustive behind the scenes interviews, production galleries, screen tests, commentaries, and more. Like the immensely detailed Prometheus: The Art of the Film companion book, alternate concepts, deleted scenes, storyboard ideas that didn’t make it into the film, and even those screen tests and viral videos all help to piece together a lot of the head scratching and character flaws in Prometheus.  The aforementioned video and several other blu ray and DVD editions are now available of course, each with varying degrees of special features. However, I thought it might still be amusing to share some of the quick notes from my original Prometheus Monday afternoon summer theater experience, for these trailer observations seem particularly prophetic now: “Frankenweenie looks dumb. Savages is too Oliver Stone generic, The Watch the usual comedy. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter looks too action badass can’t see the forest for the CGI, and Rock of Ages has great music but what a crappy ass cast! I would see none in the theater and would not be surprised if some or all do poorly.”   Hehe.

There is most certainly an audience for Prometheus, and viewers should see it at least twice for complete entertainment value – even more for finite assessment. Love it or hate it, general science fiction fans looking for a return to mature, sophisticated tales can find something here, and Alien fans tired of the Predator crossovers should definitely have a look. Granted, the separation from total Alien connections and the “is it or isn’t it” on the nose marketing approach was a deception to audiences expecting complete franchise resolutions. That audience burn alone is enough to not see Prometheus. Again, those expectations both helped put people in the seats to pad Prometheus’ box office and hurt its reputation by disappointing longtime fans.  Because of these botched Alien connections and the fly by night scripting, a necessary sequel is indeed forthcoming, although I wish the powers that be hadn’t mashed up Prometheus in anticipation of a follow up film or two and box office splendor. Behind the scenes flaws and Alien relations aside, Prometheus is nonetheless entertaining for fans of the cast and science fiction lovers.