11 June 2012
It’s a Big Summer Blockbuster, people! It’s a prequel to Alien! And it asks the most fundamental philosophical questions known to man: who are we? where did we come from? why are we here?
As a result, one cannot discuss a film like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus alone — so one again I sit down with blogger extraordinaire JustMeMike of The Arts. Beginning last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger Games.
To recap the film’s plot setup: it follows archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover a series of primitive cave paintings and ancient art portraying early humans flanked by giant figures who point to a specific star configuration in the heavens. Believing this to be a star map, and believing further that those giant figures represent aliens who may be the creators of humankind, Shaw and Holloway set off with a scientific team on the starship Prometheus, funded by the Weyland Corporations, for the outer reaches of space to locate the aliens (whom they term “The Engineers”). The plan: to get those fundamental questions answered.
The ship is staffed with what, to Alien fans, will be a familiar group: the creepy robot David (Michael Fassbender); Meredith Vickers, the forbidding head of the expedition who’s got secrets (Charlize Theron); Janek, the ship’s captain qua cowboy (Idris Elba); and a ragtag/ unpredictable group of other crew and scientists whose motives remain to be uncovered. When they land and find a planet seemingly empty of creatures, they begin to explore an enormous ancient building complex … only to discover that perhaps it’s not empty after all.
In classical myth, the god Prometheus created man out of clay, and later gave him the technology of fire after stealing it from the other gods. Will the latter-day crew of the Prometheus find a similarly benevolent race of creators? Or will they meet a nightmarish fate similar to that in the Greek myth: punished by being chained to a rock, destined to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day, only to have the liver grow back overnight?
More important: if this is a prequel to Alien, how exactly will it set the stage?
Here’s my prediction: wherever Ridley Scott decides to take us, it’ll probably be interesting.
NOTE: We’ve decided to start with general conversation about the film and only about midway, when we’ll warn you when you need to stop.
JustMeMike: Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley race against time, as well as the implacable killing machine/ alien, was a searing, visceral experience. So I brought that thought with me to a packed theater and settled in to watch Prometheus. Before we break down the film, what were your thoughts as you settled into your seat?
Didion: I’ve been trying to keep myself ignorant of films before going in, so that I have fewer expectations — you know how high expectations can ruin your experience of a film. But it was hard to escape the enticing notion of an Alien prequel, not to mention that the script was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the co-creators of the TV series Lost.
So I have to say, I enjoyed this movie! On the whole I walked out thinking it was worth the $11 to see this super-duper spectacle on the big screen, especially for the creepy anticipation and the horror elements. How about you, Mike: if someone trapped you in a corner at a cocktail party and asked, “Should I see Prometheus?” what would you say?
JMM: I believe one can recommend it despite the flaws, problems, issues, errors, and vague disappointment I had AFTERWARDS. Make any sense? Like it was two films. The one that played before my eyes, and the one that played in my head ever since.
Didion: I know exactly what you mean. So maybe we can try to figure out first why it seems to work so well going down, only to settle uneasily afterward. I had the same experience as you: I was completely absorbed by the progression of the tale — and I must say, by the spectacularly audacious question of whether these humans might discover their creators. Tell me: why does this film feel so well-constructed at least as you’re experiencing it?
JMM: The Ridley Scott DNA! The man is skilled in filling a cinematic canvas — of this there’s no doubt. I mean, if he’s the “engineer” of the film — wait, that’s not correct either — he’s the pilot — then it will look, sound and feel great. But it was relatively short — just a bit over two hours — and the questions are so big that the film really needed more time and depth.
Didion: I love the characterization that Scott “knows how to fill a canvas.” The film’s whole first half, the setup, is so terrifically creepy and methodically paced, and we have no idea where it’s going … fantastic. Sci-fi is so rich as a genre because unlike so many other narratives, the theme of exploring new worlds is one that can go anywhere — and Scott’s a master of vivid visual imagery.
Let me also say that Michael Fassbender is the real star of this film, even though he’s not the hero. As David, the ramrod-straight robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, he even dyes his hair blonde to replicate O’Toole’s and recites some of the best lines from that film, as if to practice being more cocksure and independent than he was intended to be. His character evokes the creepy robot from Alien (and maybe every other creepy robot in film), ultimately bringing up the film’s essential questions: why were we made? I’d like to offer that Fassbender’s acting goes far to make this film so creepy and watchable.
JMM: Fassbender’s performance was nothing short of amazing. Clearly I agree: he’s the real star of the film. However, I’d go further and say that he’s the only star in the film. There’s a fascination with him — he runs the ship without a soul to talk to for the two or three years it takes to get there — so he’s not bothered by the isolation. But yet he seems to relish the contact with the humans. So you feel he’s creepy and watchable. Interesting. Which of those two terms is more apt?
Didion: I couldn’t choose — he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. He’s both creepy and watchable because despite being created to work for humans, and despite having no feelings, he has motives that most of the Prometheus’s crew doesn’t know about.
Here’s a problem I’m having: even just in our brief conversation so far, I can’t help but think about all the ways this film seems to be an apotheosis of Ridley Scott. David the robot reminds us of the robot in Alien, but it also reminds us of the ones in Blade Runner. Did I enjoy this film partly because I kept seeing mystic chords of connection to those earlier films? Did you think about this?
JMM: Actually, I kept thinking about Alien and not Blade Runner — maybe because Blade Runner was set on earth. But when I made comparisons with Alien they were negative or less enjoyable — because I invariably thought Alien was better.
Didion: Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen Alien that I compared the two films less — and maybe as a result I found the parallels to be evocative rather than disappointing. Maybe it’s also because the questions he uses to frame the film are so large, so audacious. It felt like a film made by an old genius who can’t stop returning to the same themes.
I’ll confess my biggest disappointment: Noomi Rapace is fine, but not enough so. She actually received top billing for this role — a stunning achievement considering her relatively thin English-language career — but in the end she doesn’t have the charisma to take the bare bones of this character and flesh it out to take charge of this film as its protagonist.
JMM: Wow! You just dropped a couple of bombs on me. So here goes: I think this shouldn’t be thought of as Scott’s career capper. I think a sequel is in the future. A sequel to the prequel. I think that I do like the the concept of the old man returning to his favorite themes. I’ll hold off on Noomi for a moment. Let’s talk about the themes. Have you considered whether Christianity is a large theme in this film? First we have the opening (a form of sacrifice) then we have Shaw wanting to know of David where her cross is …. Am I looking for something that’s not there, or do you see something similar?
Didion: To be precise: the opening shot in the film shows a strange, human-like, highly muscled figure (an Engineer) drinking a mysterious black liquid, which destroys his body — and as he collapses into a massive waterfall, his body seems to seed the earth with DNA as a massive star ship leaves him behind. It’s a fascinating scene because we have no idea why it’s taking place. Meanwhile, several dozen millennia later, Elizabeth Shaw finds no conflict between her Christianity and her scientific pursuits. Even if she manages to prove that the Engineers created mankind, she points out that we will still not know who engineered them.
I think Scott inserted these themes to ask whether that initial sacrifice by the Engineer was a noble one or motivated by other darker reasons — and I didn’t find the quasi-Christian themes terribly overt. Maybe the most fundamentalist will complain about the film’s setup, but overall the film’s basic themes are more general than religious.
JMM: It could be a sacrifice or it could be something else. It could be the Prometheus of Greek mythology: cast out and punished. The figure seemed to be alone, left behind … why does he drink the fluid? These questions aren’t answered.
Then there’s Shaw’s attachment to the cross.
Didion: It felt to me as if Scott felt he could not avoid questions of God and/or the ultimate creator if he were going to make a film that asked questions about where we come from. Yet despite touching on those themes, and turning Elizabeth Shaw into a believer (a fact the robot David finds odd and fascinating, to the point of wanting to toy with it), the film seems primarily concerned with humans’ relationship to their more immediate creators, the Engineers. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of Shaw’s faith — her attachment to the cross is as much evidence of her love for her father as for her religion, right? The cross becomes an almost superstitious symbol rather than what most Christians would believe: that the material symbol itself is less important than the faith behind it.
JMM: Yes, we can’t really make too much of the cross. It could be as easy as a family heirloom, or it could be more.
Back to Noomi as Shaw — you mentioned that she was fine, and she received top billing despite being less well-known for English-language viewers, but that she didn’t do more with the role. On this I disagree. I think she did as much as she could — meaning the problem wasn’t her performance but lack of character development. She starts as a scientist and ends up taking on a heroic role more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, yet we aren’t given enough information about her to care more the way we care about Weaver.
Did you notice in the opening on the ship, when the crew is gathered for Shaw and Charlie to explain the mission: Shaw describes finding the star constellations on early cave paintings, and a crew member asks, “Like a map?” and Shaw looks at Charlie first, then says, “No, more like an invitation.” I wondered why she looked at Charlie first. That’s what I meant that character wasn’t developed — seems like she could have answered directly. This was just the first flaw in the character rather than the actress.
Didion: You’ve put your finger on it: she’s portrayed relationally. For the first part of the film she’s quite oriented to her partner/ love interest, Charlie; we also learn how attached she was to her beloved father when she was a child, only to lose him to disease. We learn that she can’t bear children, and that this is a source of pain to her. She looks to Charlie during that scene because we need to see her as a character who is, perhaps, very smart but not possessed of the inner strength to face what’s coming.
Maybe my problem was that between the director’s and editor’s choices about later scenes, I never quite cathected to Shaw the way I did to all of Ridley Scott’s prior heroes, especially Ripley. Now, that’s a tall order, I realize — but despite watching Noomi undergo some spectacular feats later in the film, I just … well, didn’t care so much about her, as if she were always one of the secondary characters. A more masterful actor would have taken the reins and given the audience someone to cheer for.
Talk me down from the ledge, JMM! Am I being too harsh?
JMM: Sorry you’re out on that ledge — but there you will stay. At least about Rapace. I still contend that she was limited by the script. As you put it — she’s a secondary character. Also slotted into secondary roles are Janek and Vickers — the ship’s Captain, and the Weyland Corporation’s watchdog Vickers (Charlize Theron) — now there’s a one-note character we grow to hate quickly.
So in the end re: Noomi’s performance, I’ll leave you in your position, and I take the contra — I wasn’t disappointed.
*** Spoilers to follow! ***
*** The following is best for those who’ve already seen the film! ***
Didion: So, JMM, is it time to enter into the spoilers section of our conversation? Is it time to address some of those WTF? issues the film raises?
JMM: Thought you’d never ask!
I found myself disappointed by the fact that the film started with great questions but then degenerated into an action movie. So they land on that planet and head for that huge structure. Right away we begin to feel a sense of dread. I don’t think that this feeling was unexpected — in fact we were eager for it. Am I right? Did you grip your arm rests a little tighter as they headed out and we and the characters were facing the unknown?
Didion: Those scenes of exploring the planet’s mysterious structure — with its weird holographic ghosts and strange locked rooms that David seems to know how to open — it was all great, at least at first.
But then as the mysteries keep snowballing, they become convoluted. You’ve already put your finger on three of the film’s most serious limitations:
- The film is too short to do justice to the plot
- The film becomes an action film too abruptly
- The film ultimately becomes simply a placeholder for the sequel, which means that a lot of its mysteries get postponed till the next film
I hate to sound as if I’m jerking our readers around on my attitude toward the film, but this is the truth: I both enjoyed the whole thing, and walked out saying, “Wait a second, WTF?” about all those weird incomplete plot points. I want a film that can just stand alone! I don’t like seeing films that spend the whole last reel setting up a franchise!
JMM: Bingo! You’ve got that right. Amen.
We have a plethora of inexplicable items that we could toss out there. I’ll start with one of minor importance yet which made no sense at all. Why did they mislead us about Weyland? We meet him early on via a holograph — and he says something like “As you watch this I’m long since dead” — only then he turns out to be alive — but only for a short period! That’s a real WTF for me.
Didion: Okay, I’m going to beg that you indulge me for a moment in waxing on a theme. Because this is the part of the film I found absolutely crazy:
This film isn’t just about the question of who made us, or why we are here. It ultimately seems to say that our creators had ambivalent or even hostile motives in creating us, and that they are working against us. And that means that the relationship between those “parents” and “children” becomes hostile, and they try to kill one another.
I’ve never seen so much patricide/ infanticide in a film. It’s crazy!
Which brings me back to your Weyland question: Weyland is the exemplar of the ambivalent creator. He’s David’s creator — and thus when he suddenly appears halfway through, it might help to explain some of the robot’s motives (is David messing around with all those mystery fluids in order to find an elixir of life for Weyland?). But he is also Meredith Vickers’ father — a fact that makes neither of them very happy and explains her icy coldness and antipathy for the whole venture. “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she tells her father, with iciness in her eyes.
Okay, Mike, you’ve indulged me in my thematic wandering — are you willing to go there with me, or am I being a classic academic over-reader?
JMM: No, I’m not going there, and no, you’re not being a classic over-reader. Yes the killing of parents is a theme, and yes the killing of the children is also a theme.
These could be outshoots from Scott’s personal life. A falling out with his children or earlier with his own parents. Or it could be stuff tossed in without rhyme or reason. What does it amount to? So Weyland is Vickers’ father. So what? I thought it was totally unnecessary, and didn’t shock. I think that was the intent to shock, but it failed.
Second, David and the elixirs. If David wanted to extend Weyland’s life, why does he discuss (abstractly) the killing of parents? And on another level, why do the Engineers want to create a map/ invitation leading humans to their location? To come and be destroyed? Or to bring back to earth the very items that would lead to the destruction of humanity?
Maybe there are good Engineers and bad Engineers. The one living (in stasis) Engineer that they find, and resuscitate — what does he do after the brief conversation with David? rips off David’s head, then kills old man Weyland. At this point I was completely puzzled. These events came out of nowhere — and make little or no sense.
Yet the theme of patricide/ infanticide is so prevalent — between David and Weyland, Weyland and Vickers, Shaw and her long-dead mother, Shaw and her evil monster spawn baby. When was the last time an abortion — a self-administered abortion! — became so prominent a plot point in a summer blockbuster? Damn! It’s crazily fascinating, though … especially if part of your appreciation for the film comes from its subtheme of Ridley Scott as a creator. This film evokes at least subtly so many of Scott’s other films that it seems to position him in one of those father roles — and yet with this manic plot it’s as if he’s creating the conditions for his own doom.
Let me ask about something far more specific: we find early on in the exploration of the planet’s big structure a whole lot of dead bodies of Engineers — bodies decapitated, as if undergoing a battle with other forces. Immediately nearby are the tanks full of an eery, oozing substance, as if that substance is itself an unbeatable foe for the Engineers. Yet it later turns out the Engineers were planning to take armories full of that ooze to Earth to kill off the very humans they created all those eons ago. Please explain.
JMM: Good Engineers and bad Engineers. That’s my guess. An internecine battle or disagreement amongst the Engineers themselves. I’ve no basis for that other than the bodies being piled up. Beyond that — who might the opponent be?
Backing up for a moment — you mentioned the self-administered abortion. Of course it was an abortion, yet when Shaw entered the facility, she asked for a Caesarean. That’s peculiar. Also peculiar was Shaw’s recovery from surgery — but we’ll leave that on the side for the moment.
Wasn’t Scott going around in circles in one sense — from the birth of humankind to the birth of the Alien at the end — and from who or what did that birth come from — was that the result of the snake like monster killing the Engineer — or was that a rape? The snake tentacle goes into the mouth of the Engineer which takes all the fight out of him. Does the Alien birth stem from that?
Didion: Exactly! if we think of Prometheus as an origins tale, it is the nastiest, meanest, most morally ambivalent tale of origins ever!
The genealogy for the alien at the end was half ooze, half Charlie — impregnated into Shaw. Then Shaw’s aborted evil monster spawn baby mates with one of the Engineers, resulting in: Alien! Remember that creepy egg on the original poster for Alien? No eggs at all along the line here.
I’m convinced you’re right: perhaps a intra-Engineer war that took place many centuries earlier. But I’ve got one more WTF question: aren’t we supposed to think that the planet was left in the condition it was in order that humans — the Engineers’ “children” — ultimately return and set off that chain of dominoes that would lead to the destruction of humanity? Otherwise why the trail of clues — the cave paintings, the mysteriously locked rooms, the sole body trapped in stasis the same way Weyland’s body (and the rest of the crew) had been preserved for the long interstellar voyage?
This is why I find the open-endedness of the film’s conclusion so aggravating — I don’t want to have to wait another year or more to have the film’s most basic questions answered!
JMM: I’m betting that the sequel won’t answer the questions — there are too many of them. Think about the the timelines of the film: when Earth was just a planet without humans, the Engineers cast off one of their own to seed the planet. His DNA in the ocean would have evolved into humans over millennia. Then eons and eons later, when we humans were still in our caveman era, the Engineers came back (?) to visit the earliest human collectives in various places on Earth to issue the invitations.
Then millennia later humans attain the power to understand the invitations and reach the Engineers — how come there were no intervening visits? If the engineers on the planet were killed by aliens how come we didn’t meet any? The engineers have to have been killed by other engineers. Have to be.
But you are right that the open-endedness is frustrating and aggravating. I think also sloppy filmmaking — unless as you said — the purpose it to hype the sequel.
Didion: Argh! exactly. That whole two-visit question bothered me for hours afterward. (And by the way, JMM, you’ve now helped to raise my hackles all over again: if you’re right and the sequel has no answers, I’ll be furious! On the other hand, if it’s nothing but explanations I’ll also be annoyed, because I love the opaque themes and crazy action of a Ridley Scott film!)
I mentioned before it seems strange that the film’s kooky/ nonsensical plotting and ugly, patricidal origins story didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it as I watched — it only started to bug me as we walked out (and later, obviously). And I think it’s because the film’s CGI is so good. Know what I liked the best? David’s little computerized airborne probes that create a 3D architectural plan of the structure remotely. I just geeked out during those scenes.
JMM: The technical aspects of the film were superb. That’s why we liked the film as we watched — the visuals precluded thinking about its problems — or postponed them. But even those probes were just Scott’s homage to The Matrix, just as he paid tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In The Matrix, there were the probes — but they were mechanical. In 2001 we had the transition — the ape throws the bone in the air, and it becomes a space ship. Here we had the Engineers’ DNA launched into the ocean which leads us to Shaw in the caves. Even the old man Weyland connoted the aged Keir Dullea character from 2001. Paying homage to excellent films of the past just added to the allure of this film. Speaking of exceptional — what else did you like?
Didion: This film brought together two of my favorite things to watch in film: the “don’t go into the haunted house!” kind of storyline, as they enter the structure and encounter the ghostlike apparitions of the now-dead Engineers; and the “last man standing” theme that was so obvious in Alien but also in various westerns and other sci-fi movies. Those earliest scenes of exploring the labyrinthian structure are so vivid and wonderful. And from the very beginning you meet the ship’s crew and start to wonder in what order will they fall — will the characters engage in battle against one another? which ones will turn out to be cowards? LOVE the creepy anticipation of those dual themes.
How about you, JMM? What else worked for you — or, conversely, didn’t work?
JMM: I loved the heroic captain who knew what he had to do. Janek was at once stereotypical and yet he wasn’t just another good guy who gave up his life to save the world. I liked Charlize Theron’s work in the film but detested the character.
But you know what? I wanted to be terrified way more than we actually were. Alien was unsurpassed in terms of terror when it was released, and still is. Prometheus isn’t terrifying at all. We get a sense of dread and we know that bad stuff will happen. But it really isn’t that scary is it? Wriggling worms on the floor of the rooms with the storage containers. Sticky substances? Even at the end, the birth of the xenomorph which was the beginning of the Alien monster we saw thirty three years ago for the first time seemed not as terrifying as we knew what it would become.
But here is the one thing that was truly terrifying. We knew David would poison Charlie. And we had to watch it happen without knowing why, since David’s motives were still somewhat unknown at the time — this was very scary. With that move he became a character to fear, but we didn’t know the reason? What is your take on that?
Didion: You’re probably right that in terms of terror, we got more mileage out of anticipation than we did in scary battle scenes. The film had more gross-out horror than thrills — I mean, that abortion scene! Which is entirely appropriate given what we know about these monsters and their eagerness to kill humans in order to implant their creepy monster babies.
That’s perhaps why David becomes such a pivotal character in the film. Why does he do it? It’s an impossible question to answer if we can believe him that he feels no human emotions. I read it as an issue of his being loyal to his creator, Weyland: David needs someone to experiment on as he searches for a means of keeping Weyland alive, and Charlie is convenient (and also not crucial to the crew of the ship). David’s utter moral ambivalence is riveting.
I love it that you brought up Janek, played nicely by the charismatic British actor Idris Elba. At some point early on I paused in watching the film and thought, every single one of these major actors is affecting a false accent!
Charlize Theron (South African) affects American accent
Noomi Rapace (Swedish) affects British accent
Michael Fassbender (Irish) affects very clipped British accent
Idris Elba (British) affects Southern US accent
Guy Pearce (Australian) affects American accent
Which, to be honest, gives the whole thing a very ersatz vibe!
But now that I’m making comments like this, I’m wondering whether it’s time to wrap up. JMM, do you have any final thoughts, quips, nifty conclusions? You’re clearly better-versed in the Ridley Scott/ sci-fi genre than I am!
JMM: Gee thanks. Now I have to be nifty? You do a great job of discussing the impact of the characters, and you’ve covered a lot of territory in examining the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
Okay back to nifty — hmm — I think I’ll reference my early remark about Ridley Scott being an artiste in the sense of filling up a cinematic canvas. However the downside of this is the craziness of the story. It takes me back to something I mentioned earlier — that this felt like two films in one, the one that unfolded as we watched, and the one we thought about afterward. I believe we could spend hours more picking the film apart, and I also believe that we could spend hours more discussing the things we liked in the film.
But we won’t. I’m ending my part of this talk by thanking you, and by thanking AMC for letting me see the film for six bucks on Friday morning. My final thought is that the film disappointed me as well as gave me two hours of fun.
Didion: I agree! many thanks, JMM. This chat reminds me that Ridley Scott’s biggest questions — which I can sum up glibly as, who’s your daddy? and why are we here? — may not be answered by Prometheus, but they’re always going to be interesting. And no one is left chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle — so hey, why not spend two hours enjoying the thrill ride?
While the actual location of the meeting shall remain a closely held secret, what was said will have no such protections. Without further preamble, I’ll ask our friend Didion to introduce herself and tell us a bit about Miral’s director Julian Schnabel.
Didion: I’m a college professor and film fan, and on my blog I usually discuss issues related to feminism, cinema, and pop culture — so Miral seemed a perfect film for conversation, for it tells the tale that focuses on three generations of Palestinian women.
Putting women at the center of a film is a shift for Schnabel, whose (brilliant) earlier films drew on artistic men’s biographies and autobiographies to create extraordinary films: Basquiat (the story of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat), Before Night Falls (the autobiography of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (based on the memoir of fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, written during the time he suffered from locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke).
An initial response: I admit, I’d read just enough of a couple of mixed reviews about Miral to go in with low expectations (there was a grand total of 5 people in the theater). Sometimes that stance can allow me to appreciate a film all the more because I don’t expect it to be a masterpiece. But I walked out of this one annoyed. Its politics were naive, the story was split awkwardly between four different women’s lives and political inclinations, and I never felt for any of them the way I did with Schnabel’s previous protagoinists. Was it just me, or was Miral a bit of a dog’s breakfast, as the English say?
JustMeMike: Wow, I’d not heard that one before — a dog’s breakfast — nor have I consumed a dog’s breakfast. I’m a transplanted New Yorker living near the golden shores of the Gulf of Mexico. My blog (The Arts) discusses film, art, travel, and I even dabble in foreign television.
My experiences with Schnabel, prior to Miral, consist of knowing that he was director of Basquiat, an artist whose name was often overheard in bars and restaurants on West Broadway in lower Manhattan years back. But I never saw the film, so Schnabel was an unknown for me.
I too had low expectations for Miral from reading a few reviews. I knew of Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire, and I knew of Alexander Siddig from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the TV series, who portrayed Miral’s father in this film. As I exited the theater with the sole other person who caught the matinee, she asked me if I liked it. I answered that yes, I did like it, but that it disappointed me, and that it was flawed. My first disappointment came from the fact that Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe, were each named on the film’s poster, but combined for no more than five minutes or so in the film. Do you think that was a bit of gimmick to create interest for American viewers?
Didion: That’s a great point: as much as I love to look at Vanessa Redgrave, she was a distraction for me here — as was the weird appearance of Dafoe as a sort of love interest who was never developed. Surely Schnabel can’t believe that the kinds of viewers who want to see a film about the Palestinian struggle don’t require Dafoe and Redgrave as catnip to show up? It would have been nice, instead, to have more than two actual Palestinian actors in prominent roles in the film (Yasmine Al Massri, who plays the troubled Nadia, is Palestinian-French; the wonderful Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass plays Hind Husseini). All the other leads are not Palestinian.
But my larger problem was with the way the film ricocheted between four women’s different relationships to political activism in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the course of nearly 50 years. At times I thought it simply wanted to show how that conflict affected different women — which would’ve been a strikingly agnostic way of looking at the conflict. At other times, especially toward the end, the film seemed to grasp for simplistic solutions, à la “let’s hope for peace.” We didn’t even get to Miral (Pinto) until the last 45 minutes or so of the film, and she seems to be so easily influenced by the people around her (father, boyfriend, teacher, cousin’s girlfriend) that she has no clear identity or agency of her own.
JustMeMike: Of course your view concerning the structure of the film is correct. He, or rather she, the novel and screenplay were written by Rula Jebreal, who is Schabel’s significant other, probably wrote the story of Hind Husseini, the founder of the school in the novel. But likely there wasn’t enough color in that story alone. So Nadia is introduced. Once Nadia is incarcerated she meets Fatima in the jail and we then learn of her story. Then little Miral appears. Certainly it is difficult to build a generational story spanning 50 years, and then compress it in to two hours. I wouldn’t say the story ricocheted, which implies a lack of control. I thought it was more linear than that. But the result is the same. None of the four females’ stories seemed to have any depth, which makes them unsatisfying.I’d like to add that the marketing of the film led me to have a different expectation. Especially from the trailer. I went in expecting Miral to become a terrorist. Was that what you expected?
Didion: Absolutely re: the trailer. In fact, it was the contrast of Pinto’s beautiful face and abject posture (sitting glumly on a bench in her school uniform, as if in a police station) that intrigued me so much initially. After all, one of the questions that has dominated in the media has been, why do women make up such a striking percentage of Middle Eastern activists and Islamic terrorists? It seems to fly in the face of gender stereotypes about women being “naturally” pacifistic or unaggressive (does anyone really believe this stuff about “natural” gender differences, or does it just make for simplistic reportage?). Even if we throw those stereotypes out the window, it remains interesting to think about why women in a place like Palestine make such a wide range of different political choices. But by dividing its narrative into four different women, the film doesn’t sufficiently explain the motives and ideals of any of them; if anything, Abbass’s politically neutral schoolteacher is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all the characters. JustMeMike: Ah … at least in the film, Nadia, who is the second woman of import whom we meet, is at least attractive. Her life is hard, if we take what happened to her in her home which forced her to flee, and led her to become a dancer, her choice are more clear-cut than not. Fatima, on the other hand is a nurse who spent her time in an ill-equipped clinic caring for the wounded without sufficient equipment or medicine. Her anger is there for us to see, even if it is not quite fully realized. Schnabel and Rula Jebreal are asking s to make that leap along with Fatima.
Schnabel went clearly for controversy because he, a Jewish man himself, made a film that isn’t quite pro-Palestinian, and not quite anti-Israeli, but the film does lean or tilt in both of those directions. Then he ups the ante by having the trailer make us think that the film will take Miral to the dark side — terrorism. Plus we aren’t getting any deep motivational signals from Miral. As you said early, she goes in the direction of whoever she is closest too. Which leaves us with Schnabel not really taking sides which leaves the film awash and floating from one side to the other.
I’m wondering if you agree with my thought of his intent to be controversial but in a soft way?
Didion: Many American Jews feel conflicted about Israel, especially with regard to the Palestinian question, but it does remain pretty controversial; I can see that he would have wanted to tread softly on a subject that could earn him the charge of being antisemitic. But if it’s true he was trying to thread the needle between controversy and making a political statement, I still believe he’s mainly achieved a muddle.
But rather than be an unmitigated hater, I’ve got to mention how much I loved a few of those vintage Schnabel moments: the beautiful, dreamlike shots of Nadia belly dancing in a bar; the way the camera captured her drunkenness by blurring out the edges of the screen as she stumbled home at the end of the night; the scene on the bus when a man hits on her and his wife/girlfriend calls her a whore. These are purely experiential moments that reminded me of some of the best footage from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an amazing film.
JustMeMike: Well, since I have not seen either of those films just mentioned, I’ll have to pass on agreeing about what you’ve remembered. But I’ll tell you what I thought of some of the images and content in Miral. First off, his camera was way too jittery in the first 8th of the film. It just wasn’t needed. Then during Nadia’s rape — before we knew what we were looking at, Schnabel decided to focus up close on one of the posts in the bed’s headboard which was vibrating to such a degree that you couldn’t tell what it was. I thought that was also unnecessary.
But I loved when Miral and Lisa were driving back to Jerusalem and they got stopped at the check point. First of all, it was scary even though Lisa was an Israeli and Jewish, while Miral was also an Israeli but Palestinian. Schnabel had by then instilled some fear in me for the characters. So that was well done. In the same setting, you noticed that barrenness of the area – stony hillsides, almost devoid of trees. It was but a brief moment, but it struck me with its starkness. I also liked the street and walls of the Old Jerusalem. It was marvelous to see thousands of years of life in the form of narrow streets and stone walls staring at us.
But I also felt that there were too many strokes to the beating in jail. It was agonizing to watch especially after they had pointedly shown no more than a brief flash of it in the trailer. So I was kind of shocked. And then further shocked when the Judge freed Miral, even though we had been carefully prepped that without evidence, the cops had no case against Miral.
What else did you find interesting or attractive?
Didion: You’re so right about the shaky camera; in fact, the image pixillated when it panned too rapidly around a scene. Was he trying to convey disorientation?
On the scene of Nadia’s rape, with the sound blurred out and the strange view of the slats in the headboard: I actually found that a nice solution to depicting more graphically the pain and humiliation. NOT that I ever want to see rape depicted onscreen, a topic I’ve ranted about in the past.
Now that you bring up those scenes, I want to turn the topic to the subject of women a bit more. The film seems to me to be preoccupied with different forms of female suffering — whether it’s Nadia’s rape, her harrassment in the bus, her propensity for drunkenness, Miral’s beating in jail, the aging Hind sitting in her room coming face to face with the implications of her apolitical stance. Am I exaggerating, or does this film tread so softly onto potentially controversial subjects in part by watching women suffer?
JustMeMike: Sorry — I don’t think that you can play that card and be correct about it. If you applaud because the four central characters are female, and the film is set in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the film is written as a drama, then suffering is not unexpected. Yes, the degree of suffering could be called unbalanced and even unfair to a degree, but who in the film was happy?
Certainly not the heroic Hind, played marvelously by Abbass; she died alone in her dorm room. She was likely satisfied with her life as a humanitarian and a teacher, but that is not the same as personal happiness. Miral was happy as a child but definitely not as a 17 year old. Nadia and Fatima? Okay, Nadia’s life was overboard in terms of what she went through — but this could have been to get her into jail in order to introduce Fatima, who was given a harsh sentence, which was used to establish a bias against the courts and laws.
As for the men: Hani, the Palestinian lover of Miral was killed. I did like the way that scene was done because of how we were distanced from it. Jamal, Miral’s father, at least in the sense that he raised her, but he handed her off to Hind — for a better chance at a future — but this must have been a difficult decision for him. Then he was abused by Miral herself when she said that Jamal had spent his whole life hiding in the mosque. It wasn’t a true statement of course, as he had done his share by bringing other children to Hind’s school, but it must have hurt him deeply. I don’t think his character spoke any other lines after that scene.
So yes, I think you are exaggerating.
Didion: That’s not quite what I meant. To clarify, I’m not sure I’m applauding this film at all, despite the fact that it has women characters at its center; there are plenty of films with female protagonists that disappoint on many levels.
My question is, what does electing to have four female protagonists allow Schnabel to do? And I think the answer is that he ultimately upholds a fairly conventional notion about female agency: the Jewish-Palestinian conflict in total hurts Palestinian women — it makes them choose between political activism/guerrilla fighting and being politically impotent, puts them in the way of being raped by men and/or beaten by the police, and throws them into prison for the slightest of offenses. Schnabel wants his viewers to pour forth emotion on behalf of these suffering women — and this is a level of emotion they might not express for male protagonists because we’re not used to sympathizing with Middle Eastern men. I think the film creates melodrama because we’re used to seeing women as victims, that’s a shame. The most activist of the women, Fatima, is given very short shrift by the film. Most of the women get batted around by fate or the men in their lives, or ultimately regret their attenuated relationship to political activism.
It’s true that we sympathize with Jamal (and the Sudanese-English Alexander Siddig is excellent, as he was in Syriana and Cairo Time), but we also view him as a man made impotent by his wife’s infidelity, his failure to engage in political efforts, his feminizing kindness to his daughter.
JustMeMike: Thanks for the clarification. I was not hearing (understanding) you accurately and I believe that at times we are discussing the film on separate levels — which means that Schnabel has indeed created a controversial film. There’s the perspective of a film fan, the perspective of international political pundits and authorities and regular folks watching from the sidelines while tuned into CNN and reading their newspapers, and there’s the perspective of those who spend time considering the social and humanistic aspects of their own lives, the films they see, and whichever parts of the world they are in contact with.
Fatima is indeed given short shrift by Schnabel and Jebreal, and I believe that is because the film must be fit into a finite amount of time, and because she is the least sympathetic character. This in itself is not a flaw. Hind Husseini who popped into the film every 10 years or so, was basically relegated to the sidelines and her perspective was as you have already said to keep her school safe and secure and separate from the politics. I agree with you that we should have seen more of her. Nadia was the every-woman character who represented the terrible lot in life of Palestinian women which may have nothing at all to do with what Schnabel and Jebreal want us to think or may have everything to do with what the filmmakers intended for us.
Miral represents the future yet to be determined. She is avid but at the same time not a deep thinker. I thought that Pinto was able to convey her territorial prerogatives as a young Palestinian woman but I wonder if she was hired for her looks and to help sell tickets. If that is so, then the film’s principals were looking at the business side of things. Which is another reason to be angry. Sorry for coming to that so late — but you already touched on it when you mentioned the shortage of Palestinian actresses in speaking roles.
Didion: I want to say one more thing about the film’s politics: I felt that Schnabel was surprisingly vague about solutions. He advocates peace at the end of the film, but offers no particular means of doing so beyond asking the Israelis to honor the Oslo Accords of 1993 (signed to conclude the Intifada of 1987-93) — which were pretty damn controversial amongst Palestinians. Now, I don’t really have a dog in that fight (although in full disclosure I will admit to having more sympathy for the underdog Palestinians) but no one can be so naive as to believe that Declaration of Principles would resolve all the problems. I’m not sure whether to go so far as to accuse Schnabel of copping out or to believe that he needs stronger, clearer material to work with before he enters into it fully (he handled Cuban and AIDS politics nicely in Before Night Falls, perhaps with the aid of Arenas’ terrific autobiography).
JustMeMike: I’m going to mostly pass on your last comment, neither agreeing or disagreeing, because mainly I don’t know the history beyond the surface. But I will say that the Oslo Accords of 1993 and Hind Husseini’s death in 1994 are all historical facts. As is the fact the Rula Jebreal herself was a student at Husseini’s Dar El-Tifel school starting at the age of 6 and for the next 13 years. So she was protected as a student from much of the Palestinian hardship outside the walls of the school. She was also inside the story. On the other hand, Schnabel wasn’t anywhere near the story. He comes to the story years later with the built in advantage, or maybe it is a disadvantage, of historical hindsight. As do we.
Maybe it is fair to say he did a cop out, and maybe it isn’t fair to take that position. Just as it isn’t all the fault of the material either. The story told in the film ends nearly 16 years ago. So we have stronger and clearer facts to work with which aren’t part of the story. But having said that, I still believe, like you, that the story told in the film was indeed trying to be somewhat persuasive but did not succeed in that regard.
Didion: I’m hardly an expert, either, but even the film shows that Miral’s boyfriend Hani is killed by other Palestinians when he supports the Oslo Accords. With a conflict this old and complex, there are no easy solutions.
So I’m wondering, JMM, as you look back: what works in this film, and what doesn’t? Beyond the question of whether you’d recommend it to your friends (and readers), what do you think matters about this film?
I’m thinking that my answer might be that it brings attention to the Palestinians’ experience of this long conflict, and this is enhanced by Schnabel’s decision to have such an interesting range of women at the center. So even though I’m skeptical of its treatment of women and its simplistic plea for peace, and doubtful about the film’s ultimate coherence, I hope very much it brings attention to the complexity of the situation and the serious imbalance of power between the two groups.
And one more exasperated note: the more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed that the film tries to construct a stalled mini-romance between Hind Husseini and Willem Dafoe’s Eddie!
JustMeMike: No easy solutions for peace — absolutely. What works? The plight of children in a conflict is a story as old as conflict itself. But instead of focusing throughout the film on the newly orphaned, the school is pushed off to the side, and this was a good choice. Yes, I am in agreement with you that this story told, from the perspective of the Palestinians, does bring a fresh look at this long conflict, and does humanize the Palestinians. This too is a good thing.
What doesn’t work? As you have already stated — Schnabel/Jebreal have not given the female leads in the film a more rounded or fuller personas. It is as if they’ve each been shoehorned in to a narrow arc. Hind is the heroine and Mother figure — but we don’t learn much about her other than her fierceness in protecting and caring for the children. Miral is at the center but we don’t get to see her mind at work. Fatima is the terrorist, and Nadia is the victim.
I thought the film was rich visually as well. As for the stalled mini romance — agreed it wasn’t necessary — but it might have been far worse had they chosen to expand the romance and give it some legs.
Didion: You’re so right. But it’s so depressing when a critic is reduced to saying, “It could have been worse.”
In the end, I think this film is disappointing — beautiful and even eloquent at time, but ultimately I come back to my initial claim: it’s a dog’s breakfast. As much as I’m sorry to say it (I’m a big fan of Schnabel), it won’t keep me from seeing his films in the future.
JMM, this has been a pleasure! I’m looking forward to our next virtual barroom conversation. Let’s hope next time we find a film that we can be ecstatic about. (She raises her pint for a toast.)
JustMeMike: There you go. Disappointing is the mutually agreed on single word description. You mentioned Cairo Time in your comments. Timing is everything as that film arrives today from Netflix. So I am going from one Middle East hot spot to another, cinematically, of course.
Sure, we can do this again. It was fun, and I agree that we need a film that we can gush about, in fact I’ll drink to that. (He simultaneously clinks glasses, sweeps the accumulated peanut shells off the table and then signals the waitress for another round.)