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?
17 September 2011
Didion: Hollywood has some oddities, and the biopic/advocacy picture is one of them: those films based on true-life accounts of ordinary individuals who encounter, and decide to address, some kind of horror. Think of Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), in which the titular character comes to realize that a Pacific Gas & Electric station had knowingly poisoned the water near one of its stations in a lonely community out in the southeast California desert. Or Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), in which a generally nonpolitical hotelier seeks to save his fellow citizens from the exploding Hutu/Tutsi civil war, a genocide ignored by most of the world.
The biopic/advocacy picture is often the kind of film that doesn’t forge a lot of new ground cinematically or narratively, yet still seems nicely positioned for awards and prizes because of its role in educating the public about serious matters and offering us a real-life hero.
Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (2010) faces these same challenges and opportunities. Set in the aftermath of the mid-90s Bosnian War, where the American ex-police Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) has gone to work temporarily with the UN peacekeeping mission, the film traces her gradual transformation from a contract employee to a serious adversary on the subject of violence against women and sex trafficking. Like so many heroes of biopic/advocacy films, Bolkovac is no freedom fighter — she’s taken the (highly lucrative) job because it allows her to earn the money that will allow her to move to Texas, where her ex-husband has moved with their daughter. Yet when she comes across a savagely beaten wife being dismissed by a group of Serbian police working alongside the UN peacekeepers, she becomes infuriated and fights to get the husband convicted. Even still, she sees this as simple good police work, not a crusading mission…until she begins to realize the extent of rampant sex trafficking and sex slavery in the region, likewise being ignored by local authorities, the UN, and a Halliburton-like company (called Democra in the film). Warning: Spoilers ahoy in this conversation!
First-time director Kondracki has written, “When you put together the words Bosnia, peacekeepers and sex-trafficking, people assume it’s going to be either ‘educational’ or ‘important’, in other words: medicinal.” Has she succeeded in moving beyond a “medicinal” film?
I don’t know about you, JMM, but talking about this film requires something more substantial than a beer. I’m drinking my new favorite, a Sidecar (cognac, triple sec, lemon juice), reportedly the only Prohibition-era cocktail that’s still drinkable. And it has the added benefit of the lemon juice, which both evokes summertime and helps me avoid scurvy.
JustMeMike: Can you buy the Sidecar drink pre-mixed, you know, like in the supermarket for a stay-at-home treat? Anyway after seeing the matinee today, I feel like I need to drink a Boxcar — that’s a four pack of Sidecars. The Burns Court Cinema had what could be called a sparse crowd today for their opening screening of this film which was at 2:15 PM — maybe a dozen and half people. When the film ended, the “crowd”, that’s stretching the truth, was silent as we filed out. It felt like we had all been beaten up. I know what I was thinking — am I a member of the same gender as those sex traffickers? So I am setting the table to say that the film was a lot to take in, and it made me angry.
Didion: Yeah, the only downside of the Sidecar is that the lemon juice thins out the alcohol required to recover from the unmitigated horrors of sexual violence depicted here.
I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, I think it’s good that people might leave the theater angry about what they’ve seen. It’s particularly frustrating here, as the UN and the Halliburton-like Democra seem jointly concerned that the scandal not affect their reputations. On the other hand, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with that anger. Does the movie tell us?
JustMeMike: Well my anger actually bounces back and forth from grand to a much a smaller scale. So I’ll table your comment about the private contractors for the moment. I’m upset that Kondracki has painted such a bleak picture about the sex-trafficking and then hasn’t built a very good film around it. Seems to me that Bolkovac should have been in greater danger as a direct threat to the status quo. But a few muttered threats on the phone aren’t exactly scary. That was all we got. I never felt that Bolkovac was in peril. The direct result of that is that our anxiety for her is lowered.
Didion: So long as we’re staying on the big-picture level, I’ll confess that there were elements I just didn’t believe — which is too bad given that Kondracki has spoken about the extensive research she did on the subject and Bolkovac’s tale in particular. Here’s what I had trouble with: I totally believed that sex trafficking might be so pervasive, and I believed it might be rife with violence toward women. But I had a harder time believing that once Bolkovac started to uncover the complicity of UN officials and Democra employees, those individuals didn’t back off and close down their activities in Sarajevo.
The film tells us that above all, these men are brutal, evil misogynists so utterly depraved that they’re willing to risk their whole enterprise — they’re so eager to keep savaging their sex slaves that they put their lucrative operation in danger, even going so far as to recruit a major UN official to risk his career facing off with Bolkovac. I feel as if I ought to be her ideal viewer (that is, I fully believe such misogyny exists), but instead she lost me with such exaggerated bad guys.JustMeMike: Good point. Seems a bit off, doesn’t it? The whistleblower is doing her thing, tooting her whistle, and they say, never mind, ignore this person — business as usual.
While we are making hay with the negatives, I have another. So Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave just continues to impress me) introduces Bolkovac to Peter Ward (David Straithairn). Rees tell her (and us) that Peter Ward is a good guy — you can trust him. Then Kondracki gives us a big plot twist. Don’t know about you, but I saw that one coming as well as the second twist. Seemed like she might have done better by bringing us in beforehand during the plotting. Anyway, I wasn’t fooled.
Didion: This returns to your earlier point: the film uses some of the oldest tricks in the thriller book, yet leaves gaps in logic — why didn’t we ever feel that Bolkovac was in danger for her life from these guys?
I’ve been thinking back to Hotel Rwanda and how educational it was for me — it made me realize that even if ethnic violence is so complex that outsiders cannot perceive good guys and bad guys, international intervention is necessary to stop massive genocide. As hard as that film was to watch, its message was crystal clear. The Whistleblower certainly raised my feminist hackles and showed me that the UN was so concerned with reestablishing a certain level of normalcy that it purposefully looks away from the issue of violence against women. That’s quite believable, and quite disturbing. But what more are we supposed to learn from this film?
JustMeMike: So who says The Whistleblower is meant to educate — if you mean call attention to the issue of sex-trafficking or violence against women, then certainly, but if you mean the UN looking the other way — then I’m not so sure. Of course it’s disturbing — but even the UN is administered by officials who are in charge of the local situations. So even if the local officials in Bosnia were either playing ostrich or were part of the profit taking — can we safely say that the entity known as the UN is directly responsible? That the blame goes all the way to the top?
Yet I can’t help but agree, that the issue of violence against women is quite disturbing. I wonder if Kondracki’s point is to alert and educate about the continuing violence against women, or to put the UN and private corps on notice that the whole world is watching and will watch even closer, or both?
But you know what’s tragic? I’m never going to watch The Whistleblower again, nor will I watch Hotel Rwanda again — they’re just so gruesome. I guess I’m saying that I did find this film “medicinal,” to use Kondracki’s terms, and that I find these biopic/advocacy films medicinal almost all of the time, which makes me loath to see them. So here’s a question: when these films are, say, less than stellar, does that actually have a negative effect: it makes viewers never want to see these films (and therefore keep their heads in the sand about Important Issues)?
JustMeMike: Whoa! Slow down a bit. I think you’re leaping into an abyss here. It is only a less than stellar film, not truly a film to abhor, and more likely while the film lacks that excellence that we want so much, it shouldn’t cause a pell-mell journey in an opposite direction…
Didion: But remember walking out of the theater with all those viewers stunned into silence? Ugh, who wants to experience that again?
JustMeMike: Guilty as charged your honor, but I meant that as in bruised and battered. If the film was a true dud, or worse, than the crowd would have been in a muttering and grumbling mode. I mean no one was demanding a refund, or saying that the Director’s Guild should rethink Kondracki.
Didion: All right, all right, I promise I’m not saying this is a bad film. It’s actually very effective, as I think both of us have attested, in getting viewers angry. But it’s SO bruising. Really, would you want to see this film again? That’s why I say “medicinal.”
This actually gets back to one of my favorite rants: that filmmakers should never show rape onscreen — and now I want to expand that rant to include violence against women. It’s so horrifying, such that I think film ultimately just stuns the viewer and makes you not know quite what to do with all that horror — when in fact these are horrors that happen to real women and children all the time.
JustMeMike: Wow — I think we could go for hours just on this last statement of yours. While I am agreeing that the rape scene was horrific, I think that the intent was exactly as you described it — to stun and horrify. All for the purpose of making sure we knew exactly how desperate and dire these women’s situations were. But yes, sadly, it went on far too long and was simply too much for most of us to bear. And on that basis — I will not watch the film again any time soon. But I won’t go as far as never again. Let’s revisit that rape and violence against women again later on.
Didion: There’s a less horrific, but more affecting scene in which Bolkovac goes out to the woods to find a woman dead — a woman she’d tried to protect, a woman who’d suffered extreme beatings earlier, a woman she’d persuaded to testify against the traffickers, now killed by them. For the first time, Bolkovac breaks down, even though she’s surrounded by some of the worst corrupt cops and UN employees (who are certainly responsible for the murder): she screams and cries. It’s a striking scene that, for me, completely worked in achieving what you describe: showing her sense of absolute horror at what’s taking place there. It’s a strange scene, too, in that it didn’t provoke me to tears (and everything gets me teary-eyed) — but I felt a true power in the scene.
There’s also a subplot that doesn’t involve Bolkovac: a story of one of the victims’ mothers, who asks her sister-in-law for money to travel to Sarajevo to find her daughter. Very slowly, she comes to realize that her brother is the very person who sold his niece into sex slavery. This, for me, was the plot element that showed how simple greed for money is the core of the entire problem.
JustMeMike: There you go. Weisz breaks down with a combination of horror and guilt after she finds that Irka has been killed. Very potent stuff. I am on board with your thought about Greed for Money being at the core of the entire problem. Greed rarely exists on its own. It generally goes with seeking of power. When combined, there always will be victims.
But let’s take a look at the film the opposite angle. What did we like about the film? I liked Weisz/Bolkovac’s fearlessness and determination. I liked Redgrave’s grace and her soft looking but steely authority. Talk about aging and looking great. Wow. And I liked Straithairn’s beard.
Didion: And let’s specifically note that if at all possible, one really ought to have such piercing, bright blue eyes if one is permitted to age with a magnificent head of silver hair like Redgrave’s. I’d also be willing to watch David Straithairn butter pieces of bread for two hours straight.
Weisz was great — really great. But no matter how good she was, and no matter how she seemed absolutely present for all her scenes, the part didn’t allow her a whole lot of range. Sorry to keep bringing up Erin Brockovich, but that part was kind of delicious in contrast — Bolkovac was much more straight-up police in contrast.
JustMeMike: Since we’ve covered stuff that we didn’t care for, and then we slid over to stuff we did like, I’m wondering if we can find something where there is a divergence of opinion. To start I’ll offer a question — why are these monitors granted diplomatic immunity?
Didion: We do seem to be arriving at an unusual level of agreement on this one. I’m not sure why they’re granted immunity, but we can speculate that it was due to the perceived importance of protecting UN missions in general and perhaps concealing the complicity of higher-ups? Or at the very least protecting the higher-ups from having disregarded Bolkovac’s charges.
The more I think about it, the angrier I become — this film discusses such disturbing and important subjects, and shows how much they’ve been ignored by international overseers like the UN, yet it’s not a tight enough or persuasive enough film to make heads seriously roll. It was also weirdly buried with a late-summer release, as it’s the very furthest thing from a summer film — I mean, it had to compete with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!
JustMeMike: I guess we are still agreeing. The late summer opening may not be so weird. If the producer and releasing company privately feel that the film is flawed, then giving it a bad slot, as well as a limited opening, virtually guarantees a smaller ROI (return on investment). It’s called limiting your down-side because by reducing the number of screens you also reduce the number of physical pieces of film that you need.
How about this as a question: Is there something about Bolkovac’s make-up that we haven’t enough facts for? I mean in her divorce, and it was her second divorce, isn’t it still unusual for the court to decree that the husband got sole custody of the daughter. Why did that happen?
Since we don’t know — are we supposed to guess at a reason — or reasons: Is it possibly that Bolkovac was a woman who took up relationships rather easily? Maybe she slept with other police officers while still married?
And three — we witnessed a phone call from Bolkovac to the daughter — who seemed not to want to talk to her mother. The call ended all too quickly. So what is your take on these three events, either singly, or taken altogether as group?
Didion: Wow, I’ve got two very different responses to the question of Bolkovac’s personal life. The feminist in me says, I want her personal life to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistleblowing. The one thing that seems obvious is that this is a woman who took her job so seriously that it was doubtless detrimental to her relationships. There’s a big moment early on when she decides to stay in Sarajevo rather than return to her daughter — and she decides to stay because she knows she’s doing good work there. Re: her custody agreement, I assumed that, as is becoming more common these days, a judge determined that her ex offered a more stable home life for her daughter than she could (and there’s a reference to her having a poor attorney). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from police procedurals on TV, it’s that cops are often too distracted to make good partners and parents. (Thank you, The Wire.)
I did find, however, that her relationship with the Dutch peacekeeper to be both wholly under-developed and more than a little nerve-wracking. I kept wondering whether he was really a bad guy, whether her leap into that relationship was poorly-considered. I think the filmmaker ultimately didn’t know how much to make this a biopic, how much to make it a thriller, and how much to make it a ripped-from-the-headlines tale. I wished Kondracki had either left out that storyline, or delved in further.
JustMeMike: You said, “As a feminist, I want her personal story to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistle-blowing.” The underline italics are mine, not yours. But can you clarify that statement. Isn’t this about whistle-blowing? I think that you are right when stating that the whistle-blowing is more important than the personal story — but why is this from the perspective of a feminist, rather than just a perspective?
Didion: It gets back to Erin Brockovich (again), in which the story is humming along and she’s got the new thing going with the hot biker guy next door and she’s figuring out all the details of the PG&E coverup — and then the story screeches to a halt so she can get an earful about how she’s not spending enough time with her children. Message: women who really care about their work are bad mothers. I was furious with that element, because otherwise the film showed a working-class woman who’s given a chance to care about something beyond the usual caregiving blah blah blah.
So if Bolkovac had been portrayed as prone to extramarital sexual relationships with her co-workers and/or not a dedicated enough mother, the film would have engaged in that same kind of preachiness and cheap explanation: “oh, she’s interested in helping these women because she’s kind of a slut!” or, “her work is so absorbing that she’s returning to her old bad habits of being a bad mother!” Films are more inclined to indulge in that kind of cheap explanation with female characters more than with male characters.
Instead, I like the idea that she’s just kind of a normal, straight-laced police officer who’s appalled by the situation she encounters partly because it’s just an example of really bad police work.
JustMeMike: Okay, that works for me. Avoiding the personal story because it would come at the expense of the real story of the whistleblower. Makes sense, especially since you have experienced a similar story and witnessed a derailment because the main story was hijacked for a while.
But that last line is also puzzling. Do you really mean the situation that Bolkovac encounters is an example of bad police work? I have a problem with that. If a narcotics cop busts a drug dealer and confiscates drugs, but keeps a portion of the drugs for his own personal use, or for use in getting confidential informants to snitch, or even for re-sale, is that bad police work, or is that simply criminal behavior? I’d say that the private contractors who were heavily involved in sex trafficking were big-time criminals.
Didion: Whoops: I meant to refer to an early point in the film, when she sees the police failing to go after the wife-beating husband. It’s really early on, when no one suspects anything about the sex trafficking — and what I liked so much was that she seems to approach the issue wholly from the perspective that this is lazy/bad police work. That is, she didn’t respond “as a woman” or from any exaggerated feminine sympathy — she just wanted a crime prosecuted properly.
JustMeMike: Okay, makes sense. And yes, I liked that part very much. She became gung-ho about solving that one, and seeing that justice, or at least an investigation, stepped into the picture.
Didion: I think, after thinking about this for a couple of weeks, I most regret that Kondracki had chosen to make this as much of a thriller as it is. I think this made her inclined to gild the lily — as in, it made her exaggerate plot elements like the way the corrupt UN officials and peacekeepers went to such lengths to humiliate and discredit Bolkovac in order to keep beating and raping women sex slaves. I kept thinking, “Even if that’s true, it’s not believable, and once my trust in the story’s gone, I just don’t know what to do with all those gruesome images of women being beaten.”
JustMeMike: I’m with you on all of that including Kondracki’s decision to make the film into a thriller. Only I won’t go as far as you do. I think (like you) that this was her fundamental mistake. On that basis, I won’t call it a thriller. But I will go as far as to label it a thriller-wannabe.
Didion: I like the mixing of genres on the whole, but I do think here it muddies the waters. Can I ask one more question of you — that is, what do you think this does for Rachel Weisz’s career? I’ve been thinking lately that she’s making some smart choices lately — from The Constant Gardner to The Brothers Bloom to this … she’s good at American accents, and she’s getting a wide range of very smart acting imprinted onto the American conscience (and god knows this is where the movie money is made by international actors). What do you think — was this strategic?
JustMeMike: Absolutely strategic as in well-played. I recall first seeing her in a film about a sniper called Enemy at the Gates. She played a Russian girl called Tania Chernova and she certainly seemed European to me then. Now, she doesn’t seem European at all. I think she’s marvelous — she has the looks, and the smarts, and I think variable roles are her strong suite. By the way, Weisz has a new film coming quite soon — The Dream House — her co-stars are Daniel Craig and Naomi Watts. It is in the horror genre. Coincidentally, and strangely, Craig’s character is guess who — another Peter Ward.
I saw a preview for The Dream House recently — alongside trailers for a number of creepy thrillers (one called Martha Marcy May Marlene [whew!], and the other called Take Shelter, with the always-creepy Michael Shannon). Looks like a damn good Halloween season coming up, if you ask me.
So, JMM, do you have any final thoughts on this one? A quip? Some kind of pun on the idea of whistleblowing?
JustMeMike: Not really… I don’t think this film needs a pun from me. I would recommend the film and despite its flawed structural elements, one can walk away at least pleased that some one, even from the wilderness of Bosnia stood up and blew the whistle. I have a feeling that I should give you the last word so you can get in a final thought about on-screen violence against women. By the way, I’ll be in China for Halloween.
Didion: I’m less enthusiastic about the film overall, and not just because of the on-screen portrayal of violence against women. As much as I appreciate what Weisz and Kondracki wanted to do, it’s not as good a film as I’d like, or effective enough re: advocacy against sex trafficking.
Many thanks, JMM — and let’s keep our eyes peeled for good films coming out this fall that might offer more good conversation — maybe even one of these creepy Halloween flicks.
JustMeMike: Thank you Didion for the enjoyable dialogue. I’m ready and more than willing to toss back a few more Sidecars with you again.