Charlize Theron’s clothes are awesome. Like the silver-coated small-animal bones strung together in a headdress than hangs down onto her forehead:

Also, the Dark Forest is really cool, and the dwarfs are excellent.

Otherwise, Snow White and the Huntsman is a big mess of over-writing and confused themes that looks great (terrific CGI, creative ideas behind it) but feels incredibly shallow.

Now, I could complain about all manner of things, like Kristen Stewart’s acting (my friend M mused wryly as we walked out of the theater: “I sure hope Kristen Stewart never gets stuck in a paper bag”) or the preposterous notion that she is “fairer” than Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna.

But let’s not be small.

Instead, let’s complain about the writing, because this film is confused (not unlike Stewart, above). What is this film about?

The original tale, as it comes to us from the Brothers Grimm, is a pretty simple catfight faceoff between an evil queen who wants to be the prettiest and a good, innocent girl whom everyone loves, especially the dwarfs. Queen puts girl to sleep with poisoned apple. Girl gets kissed by prince, and their marriage ends the evil queen’s reign. (In one particularly horrific version I still remember from my childhood, the queen gets punished by having to wear a bewitched pair of iron shoes that force her to dance until she dies. I always wanted to know why, if Snow White was so nice and all, did she permit that punishment?)

In short, the original doesn’t really leave much room for a feminist reading unless you are prone to wishful thinking, or if you are a clever writer of fan-fic. Mostly it’s a tale of men taking care of the delicate Snow White — various dwarfs and princes and whatnot — while she talks to fawns and bluebirds and perhaps sings a song. Feminist it’s not.

Snow White and the Huntsman wants to turn Snow White into an action hero. Or perhaps I should say that at some point in the writing process someone said, “What would happen in she kicked some ass?”

The writers didn’t really follow through, however. Except for that one scene in which Snow White makes a very nice running & sliding move down a drainpipe to escape from Ravenna’s castle.

Mostly she’s dragged unwillingly toward bravery, leadership, and violence by helpful men. When the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor except with a Scottish accent and darker hair this time) helps her slog through the awesome Dark Forest, he slices off her ridiculously long gown to miniskirt/ thigh level to help her move.

So helpful to have those men around for their quick thinking, because no way would that have ever occurred to this Snow White.

It’s not that vestiges of a feminist vision behind the film aren’t still in evidence, but they mostly emerge from Ravenna’s mouth and/or her backstory, which are actually kind of interesting. “I was ruined by a king like you, my Lord. Men use women,” she tells Snow White’s father on their wedding night. If that seems like a kinky thing to tell your new husband, she follows it up by offing him in short order. Later, when she meets the Huntsman, Ravenna says ominously, “There was a time when I would have lost my heart to a face like yours. And you, no doubt, would have broken it.”

Of course, beyond this level of man-hating there isn’t much sisterhood. Mostly Ravenna spends her time sucking the youth out of pretty young girls … because the youth-and-beauty theme still predominates.

Helpful information: the film was co-written by three men with all-over-the-place resumés: John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World), Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove, Killshot, Drive), and Evan Daugherty, who has no films under his belt at all.

Now, I’m not a robot: like anybody else, I’m perfectly willing to watch Chris Hemsworth affect a Scottish accent and get sweaty and dirty as he protects Snow White.

I just had a hard time when the Huntsman tells Snow White that she needs to take on leadership in raising an army to fight the queen, and she demurs … until that magical kiss raises her from the dead and she finally assumes the role of leader —

— only to give the Worst. St. Crispin’s. Day. Speech. Ever. Let’s just say that Kenneth Branagh will not be looking to Stewart to star in any forthcoming interpretations of fiery Shakespearean heroines, at least any characters that have lines that don’t need to be mumbled.

There’s also a very confusing plotline in which Snow White is proclaimed to be “life itself” despite the fact that she brings death and destruction wherever she goes. Oy vey.

In other words, whatever impulse motivated the writing of this film (that is, beyond the impulse to create narrative set pieces in which the CGI experts could make shit look cool) ultimately falls apart because the whole thing is a mess.

What I realized after witnessing so many potentially feminist plotlines dissolve into anti-feminist helpless girl and/or catfight scenarios was that this is the quintessential statement of what media critic Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” — the film makes gestures to feminism to calm us down, to remind us that it’s not a retrograde tale like the original fairy tale, but it makes those gestures merely to brush them aside and assert the same old sexism as ever. Indeed, it sells sexism to women under the guise that this sexism is somehow feminist.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Hemsworth is a hunky bit of all right, nor that the dwarfs are enacted by an utterly delightful assortment of great actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost,  Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris), nor that Charlize Theron makes the best bad guy ever, nor that her clothes are so great, nor that the CGI is so watchable.

What matters is that we’ve been sold another bill of goods in the form of that red apple, people. And once you take a bite, you drop into such a deep sleep that you’ll be mistaken for dead.

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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.

Director Ridley Scott with star Noomi Rapace

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:

  1. The film is too short to do justice to the plot
  2. The film becomes an action film too abruptly
  3. 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.


Didion: It’s crazy! it can take the story nowhere if humans and their Engineer creators are at war with one another!

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?

So we have a conception, an abortion, a birth, and a rape all in one film. Scott is one complicated dude, isn’t he?

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?

I like everything about this plot idea. Beautiful, horrible former high school queen, Mavis (Charlize Theron) is now in her late 30s, living in Minneapolis and ghost writing for a young adult series of novels about high school drama. When she hears her old high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have had a baby she decides that he’s The One Who Got Away. She goes back to her small, provincial Minnesota home town to help him escape from what she’s sure is a life in hell. All the while she’s trying to finish writing the last novel for the increasingly unpopular series, which the publishers are about to shelve. Written and directed by the same pair, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, who produced the snappy Juno (2007) and starring the excellent Theron, the only question is: why doesn’t it quite work?

The problem isn’t Theron, that’s for sure. I’ve only seen her be funny once before (in Arrested Development) and she’s good at it. It’s a tricky part, because she’s such a resolute anti-heroine. She’s just incredibly pretty — and let me say that watching her for 90 minutes almost makes you want to drool in spite of yourself — yet her character is a dark, alcoholic, depressive bitch on wheels. As mean as Mavis is, Theron has to make you feel for her, even against all your better judgment. Within the first 20 minutes I realized something about that horrible girl in my high school: being that pretty can make you paranoid such that you imagine envy and death rays coming out of every other woman’s eyes. (Which made her all the meaner.)

In short: this film is made for all of us who weren’t Mavises in high school, and it’s made for one purpose: so we can delight in her misery. Problem: that’s not really a very good plot.

Here’s my theory: the problem with this story is that ultimately we learn more about the screenwriter than we do about the main character. This woman is more eager to punish Mavis than she is to write a tale that works, and she starts by giving her character zero redeeming qualities. Mavis can clean herself up really nice for Big Appearances, but most of the time she’s dragging around in sweats and with her mascara running — if not passed out, face down, on a convenience piece of furniture. Diablo Cody passes up no opportunity to pile on the list of ugly habits and vicious character traits. After a while you start to think that in writing a story about a woman who never become a real adult, Cody has revealed that she just can’t forgive that bitch.

So at some point around the 2/3 mark, you start to feel the story working against itself. You start to feel that no prom queen, however psycho, would have wound up so utterly pathetic as Mavis. And you grow weary of the litany of humiliations she must endure. Especially because it all contrasts so strikingly with the fact that the camera just loves Theron. Sometimes I wondered whether Reitman and Cody were likewise entranced by her; there’s something schizophrenic about watching Theron slit her eyes like the meanest of all mean girls, yet her mouth is so perfectly shaped that you can’t quite concentrate fully on her meanness.

I also like the idea that she would form a weird friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a guy who was so bullied by Mavis and others in high school that he wound up being brutally beaten and left for dead. He still walks with a crutch and tells her freely that his penis was disfigured at the time, too. Turns out, he’s the one person willing to tell Mavis that she’s delusional and self-destructive — not that it helps, or changes anything. Not that the film really convinces you that Mavis would be friends with Matt.

So for all its good ideas, the film winds up stuck in a bunch of old-chestnut tropes that it can’t work its way through:

  • you can’t go home again
  • small town virtues vs. big city emptiness
  • will the shlubby loser wind up being Mr. Right?
  • catfight between women
  • will damaged anti-heroine heal herself?

Alas. Cody seems to have decided that her ending would avoid the gravitational pull of any of these narratives, and instead offer us something that avoids the sense of an ending at all. It feels, a bit, like she skipped out on us.

I’m looking forward to seeing Theron do more off-kilter parts. But I’m having trouble mustering any enthusiasm for Reitman and Cody. Juno was a spunky little movie — a much better than average, B+/A- kind of flick with an appealing heroine who had lines that were a little bit too good for a high school kid. But they needed more work on the script for Young Adult, a clearer vision for the movie, and less awe of their terrific lead actor. It’s too bad, because they started with a great plot concept.

This film, like Steig Larsson’s book, serves up satisfying feminist retribution to the men who hate women.  And I’m probably that viewer the filmmakers dreaded:  someone who walked into the theater with a lot of trepidation, way too familiar with Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of books and worried that the film would be too literal or not faithful enough (aka the Harry Potter dilemma).  Count me as officially relieved, then, that they did a good job of selecting the right parts to put into this 2½-hour film, leaving out only (and sadly) most of the twisty-turny corporate corruption narrative.  They found the right guy to play the muckraking journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist):  homely and decidedly middle-aged, his face a bit sunken by gravity and acne scarring.  Most of all I fretted that they would have played the character Lisbeth Salander as a gorgeous sexpot hiding behind her goth makeup and piercings.  Noomi Rapace is the perfect movie rendition of Salander — not so skinny and withdrawn as in the book (some of whose characters even wonder whether she’s autistic or brain damaged).  Rapace prompts the viewer’s curiosity and sympathy while still being unknowable and filled with an alarming rage.  Her version of Salander mediates between her still surface and her occasional bouts of violence by using her black eyes carefully in all her scenes — when they dart a bit, you know she’s accessing her magnificent intellect like the computers she hacks so effortlessly.  Still waters run deep, she shows us.

The Swedish title of both film and book is Men Who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor, which makes me want to know exactly why that title got lost in translation to English).  Therefore, it’s custom-made to appeal to me, and not just because the author’s feminist rage at sexual and psychological abuse of women is so satisfyingly on display:  its other main character is lefty, heroic journalist Blomkvist (and how much do I love a story of heroic journalists, from “His Girl Friday” to “All the President’s Men” and “Good Night and Good Luck”?).  Hired to solve the 40-year-old disappearance and likely murder of the young neice of a Swedish corporate magnate, Blomkvist shares the story equally with Salander, a young woman whose formidable outward appearance serves as armor against the horrific life she’s had, of which we only get glimpses.  It’s because of her hacking skills that she gets involved in the case, and she eventually moves up to the remote part of the Swedish coast where Blomkvist is working.  They begin to realize that in addition to being related to a miserably mean family of former Nazi sympathizers, the missing girl had stumbled onto a string of serial murder/ tortures of at least six women shortly before she disappeared.

If the journalist in the film channels the male author’s well-meaning feminism, Salander has long personal experience of abuse and rape.  One of the things I liked so much about the books is that Larsson didn’t try to get the reader to “understand” or effuse emotion at Salander, the rape victim; rather, he wants to do something about it, perhaps partly via the books.  In the process he offers women like Salander an enormous respect that the paternalistic shits who write for “Law & Order: SVU” should watch carefully. The film doesn’t back away from the brutal scene in which she’s abused and raped by the new lawyer appointed to serve as her guardian, a man in a uniquely powerful position to inflict this abuse.  Neither does it back away from an equally brutal scene in which she enacts retribution against him.

It’s worth pausing to think for a moment about rape onscreen, which I truly hate.  From “Boys Don’t Cry” to “Monster,” I think these scenes in general are far too disturbing to advance the story, and become sick set-pieces unto themselves.  Moreover, such scenes often reflect a broader popular culture that tends to write off such violence as exceptional (that guy is a sick nutcase) or targeted solely at marginal women (the female-to-male Hilary Swank character in “Boys Don’t Cry” or the butch prostitute played by Charlize Theron in “Monster”).  Authors Sarah Projansky and Jacinda Read have criticized both the 1970s sexploitation rape-and-revenge narrative (which even has its own Wikipedia entry) and its contemporary version.  Does it work in “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” or is it merely more of the same?

I’m going to argue that it works, though I have a reservation.  Salander may well be a marginal woman, unknowable and resolutely determined to please no one — cloaked in unprettiness, unimpressed by anyone — but the film makes it clear that she has done nothing to prompt the rape.  The film also makes it clear that her abuser isn’t a crazy, exceptional misogynist; its very structure is premised on the knowledge that misogyny is rampant, ranging from the horrific to the mundane.  Neither does the film insist that the rape defines her, explains her subsequent motives, or transforms her from one person to another.  She remains fully in charge of her bisexual sex life after as before.  But despite saying all of this, I admit, the rape scene still doesn’t sit right with me — there’s still something deeply wrong with showing that kind of exploitation of women onscreen (I’m willing to argue it’s different in a book), and Salander’s satisfying punishment of her rapist doesn’t make it right.

But I’m willing to stick to heralding the Salander character because she’s such a refreshing alternative to the barrage of patronizing narratives about abused women and children in U.S. television and film, narratives that turn them into easily digestible, stereotypical victims for an unimaginative audience.  Enjoying the fact that she never becomes an object makes me realize how thoroughly exhausted I am by screenwriters who aren’t really willing to admit or come to grips with the fact that one out of six women is raped in her lifetime. (See this story from the Washington City Paper about how the police treat women who experience rape, making it all the clearer why Salander feels an antipathy for the cops.)

I have two regrets.  First, that Larsson’s premature death at age 50 means that Salander is limited to only three books (and potentially three films).  And second, that David Fincher is concocting an American remake of the film.  Let’s all hope it isn’t true that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Johnny Depp are being considered for the Blomkvist part.  (Remember the end of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure,” when his adventure is turned into a major motion picture starring James Brolin as PeeWee and Morgan Fairchild as his girlfriend Dottie?)  Late-breaking note:  Emily Rems of Bust Magazine says she “shudders to think” what Hollywood will do to butcher the feminist storyline.