A pair of recent cinema releases remind us that some things are best left in the past
Going to the cinema today has become, with a handful of exceptions here and there, a game of contrast. As terrific as Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist and JJ Abrams’ Spielberg homage Super 8 are, the influence of these nostalgia pieces has spread for all the wrong reasons; more and more films feel like a copy of a copy of a copy, regularly leaving one pondering that they really don’t make ‘em like they used to. How else to explain the lacklustre nature of the American Pie gang’s recent “reunion”?.
Fitting this “contrast game” to a tee are Ridley Scott’s latest work, Prometheus, and the return of the Men In Black to the big screen after a ten-year absence. The former sees Scott repeatedly trying to remind us that he is still the same suspenseful visionary of Alien and Blade Runner, even after three decades and plenty of routine bombast. Unfortunately, for both him and us, it would seem that he got the words “recapture” and “remake” mixed up. For Prometheus isn’t a prequel to Alien; it is Alien, right down to the opening credits, slimy creatures, untrustworthy robot and the gutsy heroine of a science vessel with a motley crew. The difference – and it’s a very telling one – is that the life and soul has been sucked out of the picture, to be replaced by a bloated setting and much less human characters.
Archaelogists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map in the Isle of Skye, prompting Peter Weyland (an unrecognisable Guy Pearce) to fund a scientific mission to discover the building blocks of mankind, otherwise known as “Engineers”. Among those also along for the ride are android David (Michael Fassbender, deserving better than this) and the antagonising mission director (an exceptionally cold Charlize Theron). Cue the requisite shocks, alien encounters, plot twists, supposedly stunning visuals and “surprising” revelations, all in 3-D. The question is not so much about whether the crew will find survive and/or find what they’re looking for, but whether viewers will care enough about something this soulless and hollow.
Starring in a film about a hollow man - and it's a hollow film, alright - was one of actor Josh Brolin's best forgotten moments. It would be years before he truly escaped his father James's shadow, with the likes of No Country For Old Men and W. leading the way. (If the latter film wasn't good, his performance certainly was.) When watching him as the young MIB Agent Kay in Men In Black III (hereafter MIB3), however, all you see is regression on his part. Such a word pretty much sums up the whole film, which thankfully does away with the excessive pandering and commercialism that plagued Men In Black II, but comes nowhere near matching the first film's spontaneity, liveliness and imagination. Essentially, MIB3 is a sloppy remake of Back To The Future (heck, even the tagline is a Huey Lewis And The News song) without the heart, the energy, the element of surprise or even the humour. Since when did the MIB series become so humourless?
Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement), a bad-tempered alien who blames the young Agent Kay for the loss of his hand and for imprisoning him, escapes from his correctional facility on the moon and time-jumps back to 1969, killing Kay and in turn preventing the McGuffin - alright, a protective shield - from being deployed around Planet Earth. When the present day Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) disappears, his partner Agent Jay (Will Smith) realises something's amiss, and time-jumps back to late 1960's America himself to save both his partner and the world. Cue déjà vu, and not just that of the BTTF kind.
When a formula that once seemed fresh and snappy becomes as stale as this one has now become, the key is to rely on the charm of the actors to carry it through, as in Ghostbusters. (Tommy Lee Jones is, in essence, a more world-weary Bill Murray.) It's nowhere to be found. Instead, you get something resembling the last few Only Fools And Horses episodes, where absolutely everything in the production has worn thin - the direction, the music, the punchlines (Bill Gates, Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga are aliens? Yawn) and especially the acting. Time, disappointing films and more "serious" projects have sapped most of the fun from Will Smith's performances. Josh Brolin is a pale imitation of what Tommy Lee Jones was at his peak - and Jones doesn't approach his limited screen time with anywhere near the same amount of verve he showed in the second film, let alone the first. It's like we're watching his No Country For Old Men alter-ego in an MIB suit. Emma Thompson (Agent Oh, the new head of the "Men" In Black) looks like she'd rather be anywhere else. And Jemaine Clement's villain is cartoonish and superficial, the kind that leaves no impression whatsoever.
It's depressing to recall Kay's great comment about humanity from the first MIB and realise the unfortunate irony that, like Prometheus, there's absolutely no humanity to be found here. Soul-sapping, formulaic and uninspired movies like this, and Prometheus, are the sort of things best forgotten about.