Widening the thematic scope without sacrificing too much of the claustrophobia that made the original 1979 Alien universally spooky Prometheus takes the trophy for this summer's most adult-oriented blockbuster entertainment. The movie will leave your mouth agape for its entire runtime first with its majestic exploration of an alien planet and conjectures on the origins of the human race second with its gross-out body horror that leaves no spilled gut to the imagination. Thin characters feel more like pawns in Scott's sci-fi prequel but stunning visuals shocking turns and grand questions more than make up for the shallow ensemble. "Epic" comes in many forms. Prometheus sports all of them.
Based on their discovery of a series of cave drawings all sharing a similar painted design Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are recruited by Weyland to head a mission to another planet one they believe holds the answers to the creation of life on Earth. Along for the journey are Vickers (Charlize Theron) the ruthless Weyland proxy Janek (Idris Elba) a blue collar captain a slew of faceless scientists and David (Michael Fassbender) HAL 9000-esque resident android who awakens the crew of spaceship Prometheus when they arrive to their destination. Immediately upon descent there's a discovery: a giant mound that's anything but natural. The crew immediately prepares to scope out the scene zipping up high-tech spacesuits jumping in futuristic humvees and heading out to the site. What they discover are the awe-inspiring creations of another race. What they bring back to the ship is what they realize may kill their own.
The first half of Prometheus could be easily mistaken for Steven Spielberg's Alien a sense of wonder glowing from every frame not too unlike Close Encounters. Scott takes full advantage of his fictional settings and imbues them with a reality that makes them even more tantalizing. He shoots the vistas of space and the alien planet like National Geographic porn and savors the interior moments on board the Prometheus full of hologram maps sleeping pods and do-it-yourself surgery modules with the same attention. Prometheus is beautiful shot in immersive 3D that never dampers Dariusz Wolski's sharp photography. Scott's direction seems less interested in the run-or-die scenario set up in the latter half of the film but the film maintains tension and mood from beginning to end. It all just gets a bit…bloodier.
Jon Spaihts' and Damon Lindelof's script doesn't do the performers any favors shuffling them to and fro between the ship and the alien construction without much room for development. Reveals are shoehorned in without much setup (one involving Theron's Vickers that's shockingly mishandled) but for the most part the ensemble is ready to chomp into the script's bigger picture conceits. Rapace is a physical performer capable of pulling off a grisly scene involving an alien some sharp objects and a painful procedure (sure to be the scene of the blockbuster season. Among the rest of the crew Fassbender's David stands out as the film's revelatory performance delivering a digestible ambiguity to his mechanical man that playfully toys with expectations from his first entrance. The creature effects in Prometheus will wow you but even Fassbender's smallest gesture can send the mind spinning. The power of his smile packs more of a punch than any facehugger.
Much like Lindelof's Lost Prometheus aims to explore the idea of asking questions and seeking answers and on Scott's scale it's a tremendous unexpected ride. A few ideas introduced to spur action fall to the way side in the logic department but with a clear mission and end point Prometheus works as a sweeping sci-fi that doesn't require choppy editing or endless explosions to keep us on the edge of our seats. Prometheus isn't too far off from the Alien xenomorphs: born from existing DNA of another creature the movie breaks out as its own beast. And it's wilder than ever.
Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
I expected Your Highness David Gordon Green's R-rated sword-and-sorcery farce to be a medieval stoner comedy something in the vein of Monty Python-meets-Cheech and Chong. This was not an unreasonable assumption given a) the film’s clearly suggestive title and b) the fact that its stars (Danny McBride and James Franco) and director previously collaborated on the THC-laced epic Pineapple Express. But I was waaaaaay off. Sure drug references abound in Your Highness but they are relatively benign in comparison to the film’s exhausting barrage of adolescent sexual humor and often shockingly crude language. Less bongs more schlongs is Your Highness' overriding ethos.
Taking care not to stray too far from the winning comic persona established in Eastbound & Down and The Foot Fist Way McBride plays Prince Thadeous a royal ne’er-do-well who lives in the shadow of his handsome older brother Prince Fabious (Franco) gallant knight and heir apparent to the throne of the kingdom of Mourne. While Fabious is out defending his father’s realm against various supernatural threats and earning acclaim for his illustrious deeds cowardly and entitled Thadeous parties with loose maidens and smokes hallucinogenic herbs with his twink-ish toadie Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker). But he finds he can no longer shirk his heroic duties when an evil sorcerer named Leezar (Justin Theroux) crashes Fabious’ wedding and absconds with the crown prince’s fiancée Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). Urged to aid in his brother’s quest to rescue her Thadeous resists — that is until his father threatens to cut him off from the royal teat.
Very soon into his journey we discover why Thadeous was heretofore so reluctant to join in his brother’s adventures: Quests in the Your Highness universe entail an awful lot of encounters with homoeroticism – both latent and blatant. Knights dress in tights and codpieces and seem unusually affectionate toward one another. The price for advice from the Great Wize Wizard a bedridden seal-like creature wearing what looks to be a jellyfish as a skullcap is an open-mouthed kiss and a handjob. A sassy manservant is stripped of his clothing and revealed to be a eunuch. A tribe of feral women is ruled by a half-naked highly effete cherub-like figure named Marteetee. And so on.
Your Highness reaches its homoerotic apex during a pivotal scene in which Thadeous in his first real act of bravery intervenes to prevent Courtney from being raped by a minotaur which minotaur happens to be sporting a massive erection. Wanting a trophy to commemorate the deed he severs the slain beast’s still-engorged member and hangs it around his neck giving us for the remainder of the film a vivid monument to the filmmakers' most reliable comic device. (It’s an impressive sight – I fully expect “hung like a minotaur” to gain much greater prevalence in the lexicon should Your Highness be a hit.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And Your Highness does throw in a few hetero bits to help balance the sexual ledger especially when the cast is joined by Natalie Portman playing a feisty fellow-quester and McBride’s unlikely romantic foil. Portman should at the very least be commended for being able to utter lines about a "burning in her beaver" with unvarnished sincerity.
Your Highness is often wickedly funny – a filthy spot-on send-up of The Beastmaster Krull and other campy '80s fantasy flicks. But there’s precious little beyond the filth and eventually the bawdy language and infantile shenanigans grow repetitive especially when the plot starts to meander in the second act. Green's primary comic instinct is to aim for shock value — as in Pineapple Express the action in Your Highness is punctuated by cartoonish violence — which grows tedious toward the end credits. His efforts would have been better devoted to expanding Theroux's and Deschanel's roles — they are woefully underutilized — or giving McBride something funnier to say than "motherf*cker."