Movies are the new ballet

This is my theory: superhero movies are filling that gap in our entertainment lives that would be filled with ballet, if we were wealthy and/or Russian. You go to the ballet to gasp in awe at the feats of physicality, to be emotionally manipulated by music, costume, movement, and spectacle, even if you don’t know what the fuck you are watching.

And let’s face it, Swan Lake makes a lot more sense than Captain America: Civil War.

That’s the only reason I can come up with to justify the giddy love for CA:CW, a movie that I and two 11-year-old boys found decidedly meh. The combination of beautiful women, muscular men, and choreography must just set the lizard brain awash in happy juice, decoupling it from all rational higher brain functions.

I love looking at Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans as much as the next person, and I love Sebastian Stan’s glower, Chadwick Boseman and Paul Bettany’s voices, and everything about RDJ’s Tony Stark (but mostly the cool tech). The costume design and manufacturing, the special effects, most of the fight choreography, the shot compositions: all great. But like so much ballet and opera, it’s sound and fury with no significance, no story that can survive even the barest consideration.

Spoilers follow.

From a big picture standpoint, MCU need Cap and Iron Man to fight in this one. They couldn’t do the Civil War storyline from the comics, because it’s no longer topical to talk about how awful the Patriot Act is (although it should be). Also, Tony was just an ass for no reason in the comics…but in giving Tony credible motivation for the movie, they put Cap in the position of being morally in the wrong. Which he should NEVER be.

There are two stories in CA:CW. One is about the Sokovia Accords, and the other is about vengeance, pretty much. It’s about the fact that the Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parents, and Cap has somehow known this and not told Tony. The Sokovia Accords is Scarlet Witch’s story, but since female characters don’t get to have stories, it’s used here as a giant misdirection for the audience and the backdrop for the bad guy to pull off his amazingly convoluted plan to set two of the Avengers at each other’s throats.

Swan Lake asks the audience to believe that a human can shapechange into a swan. Everything else is pretty straightforward, following the excellent advice that a story can only have one fantastical element in it. If none of the other rules of physics applied in Swan Lake, it would be surrealist at best, rather than a classic.  CA:CW asks the audience to believe all the superhero stuff: a woman can do telekenesis and mind control; a couple guys were given serums that made them super-strong and durable, frozen for 50 years, and are OK now; a man is mind-blowingly rich and flies around in a magic metal suit; several characters have suits or accessories of the magic metal, which breaks every law of physics; a guy can become bug-sized or giant-sized, still be heard when he’s bug-size and not dent the ground when he’s giant-sized, etc.

With all that the rest of the story needs to be plausible. Instead, we’re somehow supposed to believe that there were at least three perfectly positioned and IR-equipped cameras exactly at the spot where Bucky ambushed the Starks. One caught the action from the front of the car, one from the back, and one was just right to get a close-up inside the car. “No witnesses,” say Hyrdra, but man they were great about ensuring the video record.

OK, but even if you give the movie that dumbass premise, we then have to believe that Zemo decrypted all of the Hydra files Black Widow made public, somehow found the video in them when no one else did, and then thought “I know! I will make Iron Man and Captain America fight each other! This will tear the Avengers apart! Somehow that will make up for my loss…and it’s so easy! All I have to do is make sure Iron Man sees this. I’m sure Captain America already knows it, and I’m sure he will act to protect this Hydra assassin, because I’ve seen the first two Captain America movies and I know that Cap’s love for Bucky is stronger than any other relationship he has!”

Having come up with this watertight plan, Zemo does the obvious: he emails Tony.Stark@starkindustries.com, Subject: You need to see this and attaches the mp4 file.

Except no, he doesn’t.

He teaches himself Russian and German (let’s assume he already spoke English and Sokovian), decrypts all the rest of the Hydra and SHIELD stuff on Wikileaks, builds an EMP generator in a closet in a German hostel (or brings it, which might be even harder) during UN meetings he clearly planned for, develops Mission: Impossible-level disguise abilities, makes himself look like the psychologist that he somehow knew would interrogate Bucky after Bucky is apprehended due in part to the interference of Black Panther, which Zemo somehow also knew about. Oh yes, he had previously disguised himself as Bucky in Vienna in order to have the cops go after Bucky. All that under the noses of the JTTF and JSOC, so that’s comforting. In and around this he located former Soviet Hydra agents, out-smarted and out-fought them, located the secret Hydra base in Siberia, dragged Cap, Iron Man, and Bucky to it, killed the Hydra murder squad (because he knew that it wouldn’t be ALL the Avengers coming after his ass), and then played the video there.

Zemo is AMAZING.

He is like 5000 times more competent than any of the Avengers. He should be running Stark Industries. He clearly plans big, and then fucking executes like a boss. And he’s got no superpowers and no bank account.

But we still have the Sokovia Accords. It’s almost possible to believe that people would be so scared of superhumans that they wouldn’t be able to think through “If Scarlet Witch had left the bomb on the ground, many more people would have died,” but I still feel like that was all a giant waste of screen time. Not as much of a waste as the Spiderman stuff, which was a mini-movie, because the Spidey stuff was just clearly a trailer for the next set of Spiderman movies.

It’s possible CA:CW could be recut to actually be about something. Zemo’s right – an empire that falls because it comes apart from internal fighting never returns. Marvel had a chance to talk about the internal fighting in the US, fomented and fed by the media’s control of what people see and when. Zemo chose what the heroes saw and when and led them to conflict, but there was a core of truth that pushed Red Guy and Blue Guy to fight. This could really have worked, but I suspect RDJ didn’t want to be seen as a Trump proxy, and Marvel, a media giant, didn’t want to criticize the media.

Next time, I’ll spend the $100 it cost me to take two kids to this movie on ballet tickets instead.

 

I finally watched Prometheus.

It was a sub-optimal viewing, as in order to convince my son that he didn’t want to watch it, I had to let him watch part of it. Not every movie with spaceships is Transformers, but he won’t believe me. Fortunately, the movie was just enough like a real movie that I could tell when shit was going to go down, and got him out of the room just before it did.

I probably need to watch it again, but I am going to start a stream-of-consciousness critique, which I may or may not edit before posting. In fact, I probably should edit, because I’m going to need to separate my indulgences in lit-crit goofiness like “Prometheus as a retelling of The Wizard of Oz,” “Each character in Prometheus mapped to a Famous Sacrifice,” and “Why there weren’t Prometheus Happy Meal toys.” from the real analysis. Also I think the movie might map to the Major Arcana.

The TL;DR version: It fails as a cinematic narrative in much the same way Finnegan’s Wake fails as a literary narrative. It’s obviously a philosophical mythopoeic work, but it’s a crappy science-fiction movie. Of course, no one’s tried to make The Golden Bough or The White Goddess into a movie before, I don’t think.

The long version, with spoilers:

It was GORGEOUS. I agree with those who say that it was as much a Blade Runner prequel/sequel as an Alien prequel…and I think the Kubrick discussion isn’t far off either. In fact on some levels it can be read as a response to Kubrick.

I had no idea Ridley was a pastafarian, but it does seem to be an argument for the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His Noodley Appendage.

I don’t think I’ve seen that many penises and vaginas in a movie since Caligula.

There are a TON of references in this film to other works of art, most of which you should pick up on (Lovecraft, 2001, Yeats, both Shelleys, etc.) That might be a post in itself, if no one’s done it. I’ll add two that didn’t inform the film, but which are related:

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi by Pat Cadigan

Ultimately I think Scott (and his writers) are too mired in Christianity as a base state to really work with their theme well, and while Alien was held up as a feminist touchstone, this movie reminds us that that was totally accidental. I wish that instead of trying to revisit Ripley and have a Final Girl, they’d just gone ahead and made David the main character that he so clearly was, thereby stitching Alien and Blade Runner even more closely together and really underscoring Scott’s career question “What does it mean to be human?”

Bit by bit:

1. The opening. All the reviews I read prior to seeing it seemed to indicate that hyper-muscled bald dude was CREATING life on EARTH. Sure, it looks a lot like the uber-myth of the god-king being sacrificed willingly to create life. I concur that the myth is present, but I don’t think he was creating life…based on the story, I think he was destroying a human-like life (maybe humans on Earth, maybe humanish on Earthish) in favor of tentacle life. I’m not sure any of the myths say that the king took out the dominant life-form with him at the end of his term and replaced it with cephalopods, so I think this scene is best understood on two levels – it gives us the symbolic basis for the film (sacrifice of self to create and destroy) and it gives us the story resolution (the Engineers are editing their work).

2. The anthropologists. Looking forward and looking back. Mostly this introductory scene seems designed to call back to the intro via the landscape and foreshadow the exploration of the Engineers WMD base via the chipping into an underground cavern and reading the art.

3. Suddenly we’re on a space ship. Massive narrative disconnect for all audience members; this isn’t how stories are told. Why is David being a creepy memory-Peeping Tom on Shaw out of all of them? Mostly her memories tell us she’s Christian by choice not by default, that she married a guy who looks like her father, and that this movie is still about death and belief. Also that David’s a creepy bastard.

4. David. Nice Michaelangelo shout-out in the name. Also an interesting flip in revealing the Replicant on the crew right away. Might as well call him a Replicant even tho they call him a robot in the movie. If Holloway had ever called him a skin job I would’ve been very happy not only for the BR nod but it would’ve helped explain why David chose to slip Holloway a mickey.

Oh. Crap. David’s in love with Shaw. That’s the only explanation for his actions in watching Shaw TV and impregnating her via Holloway while removing Holloway. That’s lame.

Totally awesome that David resonates with Lawrence of Arabia. I had to have the hair-bleaching scene explained to me. David’s identification with movie Lawrence explains his motivations later, so this works. Plus it introduces the B theme, “Who’s the alien here?”

Nice “Hello David” HAL nod from the language teacher.

5. Wake up and meet the crew. Shaw has morning sickness already? Otherwise why is she the only one barfing? Does cryosleep interact badly with Christianity? (Many jokes possible about that). Vickers does push-ups before cleaning off the after-birth, so she’s “more human than human?” LIFE and WET are clearly associated symbols in this movie.

As in all of human myth, so OK.

It would’ve been nice if we actually, you know, MET THE CREW during this “meet the crew” scene. I never figured out who anyone was except Idris Elba and the anthropologists and Vickers. But then, I didn’t care either. I miss Harry Dean Stanton. Too bad I’m spoiled for Vickers’ identity, because I bet we were supposed to think she’s a Replicant also…oh, no, she’s TRYING to be one to please the old man. Who is, quite obviously, her father. And has bought out Tyrell Corp and moved into Tyrell’s offices, apparently.

I guess Vickers picked some of them? Which ones? Why not all? Who picked the others? Did David hire them from craigslist? WHAT IS HER JOB?!?

Why does Weyland bother lying to the crew about his death?

And who is running Weyland while the ruling family is away on Dad’s spa day?

6. Tour the ship. Why are there two piloting stations? Why are there normal planetside sinks? Drinking game starts for how soon and with whom the med-bed becomes an important plot point. Vickers’ quarters are the old man’s bedroom from 2001.

7. Explore the new planet. Let the Stupidity Games begin! Of course we brought dudes who want to bring weapons, but of course the anthos say no. Because no anthropologist in the history of ever has brought spear-carrying bearers just in case. Why wouldn’t you bring weapons? Maybe because then everyone will say later “Oh, the Engineers think humans suck because they always have weapons” and it will be as deep as the Dagobah tree scene in The Empire Strikes Back? Or maybe just because Scott wanted to red-flag that characters will now start making totally unrealistic and bewildering decisions? Or to force me to link to TV Tropes with every sentence if I recap the action? I don’t know.

8. Explore the tunnel system. As a long-time Lovecraft fan and Call of Cthulhu player, my first reaction is “Cthonians!” Turns out I’m not wrong. My 8yo son’s comment is “They’re in a spaceship?” and he’s not wrong either.

I so totally want those probe scanner things. Someone make those already! But have them have a unique signal for “I’m at a door and need help by something with thumbs.”. Also I’m curious how they can differentiate between a door like that and a wall…but they do.

I don’t think it really counts as “terraforming” but okay…as long as you understand it was just this underground installation and they didn’t intend to do the whole planet and you don’t take–

–your helment off. Oh well, dumbass. Fortunately no one else is dumb enough to follow your lead without observing the effects over more than 30 seconds.

OK, you all deserve to die.

Also, why aren’t you noticing all the writing on the walls? IT’S OKAY DAVID’S ACTIVATING IT. Oh good, the CCTV still works. Why are you running after them? I’m so confused. In the future people don’t think right. Maybe it was the cryosleep.

9. I can’t go on. From here on out, other people have done a far better job than I can at pointing out the painful plot and character nonsense. Let’s just get into

10. MEANING and SYMBOLISM. Other folks somehow think the black goo reacts to the nature and intent of those wielding it, but I’m not sure I see that. Maybe I could buy that it reads souls, but I really think it’s just ichor. When it senses life, it activates, unstitches the life’s DNA into something else, and starts reproducing into tentacles. So little worms turn into penis-vagina cobras.

I’m not being overly Freudian here btw. Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Not So Smart refered to the snake as “he” when it was a tune with a knob head. When the labia cobra hood unfolded they called it “she.” Also shot comp, as it rises up from between Tweedle’s legs, and it’s appearance intercut with two sex scenes.

Hey, maybe this film has a life-reproduction-creation theme?

I’m also not sure I buy that Jesus was an Engineer and they got pissed off because we killed him. If I accept (and I do) the film’s theme of “sacrifice creates life” then I have to believe the Engineers would be down with the Jesus story – it’s just another sacrificed god whose death grants life to others. Also, I don’t see ANY textual support that Jesus was an Engineer. Yes, something happened two thousand years ago…I guess…actually I have to talk about crap science again here.

Shaw and crew find the decapitated Engineer, stick a skewer in him, and say “He died 2000 years ago.” I guess that’s Earth years, but we don’t know how many Earth-years it took for the Prometheus to get from Earth to LX-Whatever. (OK, checked Wikipedia, 2089 is discovery, 2093 is arrival. Assuming Shaw and Holloway got to talk to Weyland immediately, the connection to “live forever” was made immediately, and ship was created, funded, crewed, etc. immediately, trip took 4 years. Seriously? Science fail AGAIN. In fact, I can’t believe all that would’ve taken less than 4 years so whatever, my brain hurts). And wait, I was going to focus on SYMBOLISM AND MEANING rather how nonsensical this story is…But if we go with 2093, that would mean Jesus would have been killed in the Year of Our Lord 93, and simultaneously the Engineers ran into the urn room and one got decapitated…

Nope. We’re back to “Narrative Mess,” not “Thematically Persuasive.”. I also don’t see the on-screen connection between “thing Earth humans did” and “Run for the urn room right now.”

(This reminds me…due to the multiplicity of Erth cultures the Engineers apparently husbanded, and due to the existence of Aliens in space but not Earth, I assumed that the Engineers made humans on lots of planets, or, any that would work. I also saw multiple planets in the navigation rock band room, and they had to highlight Earth, so same assumption. Apparently I’m in a minority with that assumption.)

I forgot the one writer wrote the ass-pull that was Lost. WHERE’S THE POLAR BEAR?!?!? But Scott doesn’t film what the writers write – just ask the Blade Runner writers. So I think I need to get back to WTF are you trying to say, Ridley?

So far I’ve got themes of sacrifice to create life, refusal to die causing destruction, creators editing their creation, fertility and moisture and cthonian primordial ooze vs. Arid and barren and Apollonian straight lines, who is the alien, and under/over everything, What does it mean to be human?

I also see a real and painful tension between a longing to believe that the Romantics were right, and humans have value…and a paralyzingly fear that we don’t. That there isn’t anything special waiting for us, and that we were created just because someone could.

And any day now, that creators “Human Period” may end, to be remembered only in retrospective exhibits and art history classes, and the creator will move into his “Tentacles and Teeth Period” which everyone will agree comprises his masterworks.