Hollywood Sci-Fi Goes Back to the Future
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
Columbia Pictures, 2012
Twentieth Century Fox, 2012
Sequels remain a Hollywood staple. But looking back over this summer’s would-be blockbusters, it’s encouraging to see the studios experiment with ways of remaking and recycling old material that are a tad more clever than simply repeating the same formulas that made a lot of money the last time they were trotted out.
The result is an uneven mix of familiarity and freshness. The Bourne Legacy builds on a reasonably intelligent series; Dark Shadows resurrects a 1960s soap opera that has already inspired various spinoffs; and The Expendables 2 serves up as much star power as the 2010 original delivered, although many still find it very expendable indeed.
And so it goes. Total Recall recalls the 1990 hit of the same title. Men in Black 3 reinvests in Agent K’s popularity by giving the part to both Tommy Lee Jones, who plays him old, and Josh Brolin, who plays him young. The Avengers unites Marvel Comics characters who have been around for ages, including The Hulk, who saw the light of day in the early 1960s, and Captain America, who emerged way back in 1941.
Most of these epics hail from the science-fiction genre, which often deals with things to come. If the current crop seems oddly retro, which it does, blame a Hollywood time machine that has somehow gone into reverse. Fasten your seat belts, movie fans, it’s back to the future again!
These things said, borrowing heavily from the spirit of movies past doesn’t necessarily prevent a picture from providing pleasures of its own. This goes for two of the more intriguing summer spectacles still on display in theaters: The Amazing Spider-Man, which retells the origin story of its eponymous superhero, and Prometheus, a sort-of-prequel to the long-lived Alien franchise.
Spider-Man is another spawn of Marvel Comics, which introduced the teenage hero in a 1962 issue of Amazing Fantasy. Between 2002 and 2007 he appeared in three big-budget movies directed by fantasy specialist Sam Raimi; last year brought Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the most expensive show in Broadway history; and various TV series spotlighted him in earlier years. Could a franchise with such a long pedigree ever seem original again? The copyright holders evidently thought not, so they decided to start spinning the saga all over again, spiffed up with new plot details, a fresh cast, and eye-boggling 3-D effects.
As always, the plot hinges on nice, nerdy Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) becoming superhero Spidey after getting bitten by a genetically altered arachnid. We also learn that Peter’s parents mysteriously died when he was a kid, perhaps because Dad was doing secret research on interspecies gene splicing. Now Dad’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), is continuing the work at a bioengineering plant run by an unseen capitalist.
Connors has one arm and wants to discover a way for humans to regenerate limbs the way some reptiles do. He’s a good guy until he turns into a giant lizard, whereupon he becomes a bad guy whom Spidey must destroy. Here the picture draws heavily on everything from Godzilla and The Wolf Man to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Altered States; listening to Connors gloat over his new abnormal strength is like reading Sigmund Freud’s first reactions to cocaine or hearing James Mason’s cortisone-addled character decide he’s smarter than God in the Hollywood classic Bigger Than Life. It’s almost enough to distract Peter from his bashful love affair with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whose father is a New York police captain on a vendetta against Spidey’s vigilante tactics. Also present are Peter’s cuddly surrogate parents, Uncle Ben and Aunt May, played by Martin Sheen and Sally Field in performances of record-setting tedium.
The pyrotechnics and romantic angles of The Amazing Spider-Man are executed reasonably well, but its ideology is more interesting to contemplate. For starters, who is the unseen capitalist behind the science center that funds Connors’s research? He must be mighty ruthless if you judge by his lieutenant, Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan), a steely-eyed bureaucrat last seen heading for Brooklyn to test an experimental potion on unknowing patients at a VA hospital. The movie is progressive in this regard, warning that unrestrained, unaccountable money can manipulate science and technology without worrying about the public good.
The single best thing about The Amazing Spider-Man is its portrait of Peter as a really smart, diligent, well-meaning young man both before and after his life-changing spider bite. Glance at the general run of youth-oriented movies and you’ll see a disheartening parade of gross-out comedies and thickheaded horror flicks. How refreshing it is to find Peter—and Gwen, for that matter—standing conspicuously above this lowbrow crowd! The value of sharing and selflessness even gets a nod, as Peter struggles to balance personal obligations with his dawning sense of purpose as a crusading superhero. Go Spidey!
On the downside, Connors’s missing arm carries a vague suggestion that he’s somehow incomplete as a person—a hint that’s violently borne out when he methodically turns himself into the lizard version of a werewolf—and it can’t be accidental that the picture’s other big villain, Ratha, hails from Asian climes. In all, however, The Amazing Spider-Man deserves two and a half cheers. Its physics are cartoonish and its metaphysics are nonexistent, but it’s a teen-pic with a brain, and that’s worth celebrating.
Prometheus has a more modest family tree but a similarly oldfangled aura. Its progenitor is Alien, the movie that put Ridley Scott on the intergalactic culture map in 1979. Scott left the sequels to other now-famous filmmakers: James Cameron directed Aliens in 1986, David Fincher did Alien3 in 1992, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet capped off the series (until now) with Alien: Resurrection in 1997. Two related pictures, Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, arrived in 2004 and 2007, respectively, getting blasted by reviewers’ ray-guns but making gazillions of dollars anyway.
And now Scott has reentered the fray, perhaps lured by the same 3-D bells and whistles that embellish the Spider-Man picture. His dark-toned Prometheus is an off-kilter prologue to Alien, replacing the heavy-industry spaceship Nostromo with the scientific-research spaceship Prometheus, sent into the heavens by a super-rich geezer who’s looking for that old standby, the secret of eternal life.
The quest gets going when two married scientists, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), decipher hidden signs in ancient carvings, concluding that Earth was visited by aliens from outer space in primeval times. Why did they come and what did they want to tell us? These are the very questions that pseudoscientist du jour Erich von Däniken posed during his fifteen minutes of fame in the 1970s.
Prometheus might have given serous thought to this premise, but it opts instead for strenuous action. Still, the film has glimmerings of intelligence. Elizabeth, the daughter of missionaries and a practicing Christian, has a cross on her necklace and speaks of death as a stage of spiritual growth rather than an end of everything. Her opposite number is Vickers (Charlize Theron), a schemer and trickster who’s running the expedition according to secret instructions from this movie’s wicked capitalist, whose malign intentions lend Prometheus a moral subtext similar to that of The Amazing Spider-Man. Also similar are the extensive allusions to stories of yore, from the ancient Prometheus myth to modern movies. The story’s obligatory android (Michael Fassbender), for instance, watches the 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia for tips on acting human.
That’s not a bad choice, actually. And you could do worse than catching Prometheus as the summer wanes. Compared with Rapace’s recent escapades in the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels, her presence in Scott’s outer-space adventure is downright soothing.