Film Junk Take Two: Prometheus and Interstellar

take2

Watching movies and teasing out their greatness is fun. Our new Take Two column introduces the next level of film appreciation while making it easier to come up with sharp opinions and comments that kill. Here’s the way it works: we arbitrarily (very arbitrarily) pair two movies. (Veteran commenters will immediately recognize their first chance to criticize). The movies will have similarities and differences. We call them out to make interesting points, reveal classic director’s moves, and expose takeaways that will have you thinking. When you’re finished, the two films will be totally refreshed. And you may have even changed your mind about which one works better for you.

Our first Take Two is Prometheus (Ridley Scott) and Interstellar (Christopher Nolan). Simply viewed, they are both about galactic journeys. One is a quest for knowledge and the other, for survival. Common SF tropes of course, but with these two directors at the top of their game, it’s fun to see how they bring them to life (or not).

Warning: Light spoilers ahead. However, if you haven’t seen these movies by now, you’re probably in the wrong seat.

Prometheus

Interstellar

Transhuman: New & Improved

David
Kudos to Scott and Michael Fassbender for creating David, the android with the smirking eyes. He is a very unsettling ingredient in the ship’s on board chemistry. And in pursuing his own agenda, he contributes to the expedition going off the rails. However his severed head delivers redemption as he (it?) finds a way to pilot Elizabeth off-planet in search of more answers.
A Minimalist Approach
On your first encounter with TARS, you would be forgiven for thinking he was a spaceship coffee table with design roots in IKEA. Not the case. Although his shape and locomotion are rooted in real prototypes, his function is mostly as a wild card for plot mechanics and script asides. He does this ably. But he brings little character, no surprises.

Is There an Alien on Board?

Are You Kidding Me?
Whether or not the director calls this a prequel, we’re sure the audience thinks it is. Once again the xenomorph returns in it’s various stages of gestation. And needless to say, it still gets in the crew’s face with acid and attitude. An early holographic sequence nicely hints at its presence terrorizing the Engineers. When we see it for real, it is an epic battle.
Take Tesseract Six Please
Given humanity’s struggle with the physics of a 5th dimension, it’s a good spot to insert benign aliens or future humans into the story. They remain a subtle enabler for Cooper and Co. building the wormhole that makes the journey plausible. Their tesseract is also a nice combination of physics and future magic. Although never seen, these beings’ understated presence give Interstellar some much needed SF cred.

Turning Science into Fiction

Trust Me
When it comes to the science, Scott pretty much takes everything he needs as a given. And this approach gives rise to some of the films best visuals: the slick cryogenic sleeping units, the ship’s bridge, the mapping bots, and the holographic planetary display. He presents these images with such authority that he generates instant credibility with creative inspiration and adroit CGI.
Keep it Real, Man
Unfortunately for Nolan, his widely proclaimed allegiance to real science backfired somewhat. Not only did it create a critical wave of nerdy nitpicking but it introduced a pedantic element that kept the story flat and routine. Except in a few notable sequences, he never turned amazing science into awesome cinema. Obviously he’s does that in the past but science was not his muse this time.

Yikes! Not just eye candy!

Engineering Degree in Panspermia
Scott opens over the top. Literally. A startlingly visualized, pumped up humanoid strides to the lip of an ancient waterfall. He swallows a liquid that reduces his body to raw DNA. In a moment, he plunges into the cascade seeding the planet with life. Genesis powerfully reimagined.
Look! Over by those Mountains…
Exiting the wormhole, the astronauts land on a planet covered in about a foot of water. Retrieving debris from the previous spaceship, Cooper notes movement on the horizon. Not an alien life form, not even mountains, it’s a giant wave that Endless Summer never imagined. Riding it is Interstellar at its most compelling.

Signature Move

Gender Diversity
So why not use a woman as the male lead? SF loves alpha females. This creative call adds an unsettling paradigm shift to all the alien movies, skewing their stories to the unexpected. And it still works here. Signature Move No. 2? The android loses his head (three times in three movies!) but never stops talking. It never gets old.
Playing With Time?
It’s no surprise that Nolan again shows his mastery of cinematic time. In this story, he utilizes (lightly) Einstein’s Special Relativity to have his characters age differently. This might be a first where time dilation (time slows the closer you get to light speed or a dark hole) is actually applied too real dramatic effect in an SF movie.

I Did Not See that Coming

The Autodoc will See You Now
After some seriously unscientific DNA transmission, Elizabeth’s android (and gynecologist) David tells her she’s pregnant. Given she’s unable to conceive, she is correctly suspicious. Wracked by abdominal pains, she runs to the Autodoc where she prescribes herself a C-section. The ensuing scene tops the original alien bursting out of a human chest. Harrowing as only the movies can do it.
Actually It Didn’t Come
One of the weaknesses of Interstellar is that it is so rooted in the plausible, very little of it is surprising or dramatic. Dr. Mann’s effort to eliminate Cooper is not a surprise being reminiscent of Pettengil’s murderous nudge of Santen over the Martian cliff in Red Planet. Interstellar definitely needs a few more unexpected jolts.

What Was He Thinking?

It’s Up to Us….
The most egregious fail is the final kamikaze run of the ship’s crew. Seemingly from out of nowhere, the Captain and his two crew members get religion and take down the fleeing engineer and his ship. Given the minor time spent with these characters (a waste of Idris Elba’s talents too), their allegiance to the human race seems more plot convenience than heart-felt.
Release the Kraken
Mercifully, there’s no Kraken, but Prof. Brand’s multiple quoting of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” creates the same effect as Liam Neeson’s immortal command. In second place is the much-referenced “love is a universal force” hypothesis. Sadly, it does not survive the double whammy of being in a film where scientific accuracy is a priority and script writing maybe not.

Is There a Take Away?

The Original Spark
How life formed on Earth has been one of our most intriguing questions and it was the ancient inspiration for the Prometheus legend. But when humans mess with the gods – in this case the engineers – you have to watch out for your liver (metaphorically speaking). Like any good director Scott puts his own narrative to it. As Liz and David’s head off to find the home planet of the Engineers, the seed for the next film is planted.
It’s What We Humans Do
With his focus on his characters and their human qualities, Nolan is basically turning Pogo’s dictum (we have met the enemy and he is us) upside down by saying “we are our own best answer and we can do it”. Our intelligence and our resolve have enabled us to succeed on great journeys in the past. Now with our scientific breakthroughs, we’re ready for the next big step.

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  • Promising start to a new column! Nicely done.

    Not that this is supposed to be a “which film wins” discussion, but for my two cents I prefer Prometheus over Interstellar (though I love both).

  • Lisa

    Zergnet has finally arrived to FilmJunk…

  • If it was zergnet it would be titled “5 things you never noticed about Interstellar.”

  • Lori Cerny

    What an unexpected holiday surprise.

    All I ever wanted for Christmas was… more FilmJunkiness.

  • kyri

    wish this was a podcast

  • Captain Morgan

    Love this. Any way to incorporate it into the podcast?