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Atomic Blonde

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In the middle of David Leitch’s unashamedly achingly 80s spy thriller, there is an action sequence presented in a protracted long take. The sequence is stunning in its execution, as combatants clash in an elevator, up and down stairs, into and out of rooms, guns spit, knives and razors slash and fists, feet, elbows and all manner of available weapons collide with bodies. It is a breathless and bravura set piece that genuinely hurts and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the effects of this violence. The rest of the film hangs off this tent pole, rising to the set piece’s crescendo and then falling away from it and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Atomic Blonde never quite reaches such a height again. Despite this, Leitch still crafts an effective period spy adventure from Kurt Johnstad’s script, based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. The city in question is 1989 Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a city of vice, corruption and constant surveillance. Into this seething swamp of sin comes cool as (and frequently immersed in) ice MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), sent to retrieve a list of undercover agents, which is also being hunted by the CIA, KGB, French intelligence and probably the dodgy bloke on the corner. It’s a well-worn plot imbued with regularly crunchy action and great attention to period style, as the film is blaringly 80s in its fashion, music, decor and geopolitical backdrop. Practically every scene emphasises a mise-en-scene that is garish, vivid and frequently drenched in neon; if there’s a film with more blue filters this year I’ll be very surprised. Looking back on this period with such overt nostalgia, Atomic Blonde is a fairly insubstantial 115 minutes, but it has enough kitsch charm and stylistic brio to earn its keep.

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Kubo and the Two Strings

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Earlier this year, I reported that it was very pleasing to see that most of the audience for Zootropolis were over twenty. I had a similar experience when viewing Kubo and the Two Strings – ostensibly  a film aimed at a young audience – in an auditorium with no small children in sight. They missed out, for Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the year’s delights. A fine cast including Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey add lively and emotional voices to director Travis Knight’s stunning visuals, as Kubo and the Two Strings blends drama, humour, heartbreak and action in a seamlessly splendid world of the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) on the run from his malevolent grandfather, the Moon King (Fiennes). Aided by a sentient monkey (Theron) and a samurai warrior trapped in the body of a giant beetle (McConaughey), Kubo embarks on a mystical quest aided by his magical shamisen that grants life to his origami creations. The visual invention of the film begins at the level of Kubo’s artistry and steadily escalates, with pratfalls that are very funny (mainly involving Beetle), thrilling action sequences involving Kubo’s aunts (Mara), and some moments that are genuinely scary. This is to the film’s credit, as while the scary moments may be strong for small children, they need not be prohibitive and ensure that the film does not lose its nerve. Perhaps the ending is a little soft, but it does provide a fitting ending to a sumptuous and enthralling tale of storytelling, magic and artistry.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

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Recent film adaptations of fairytales are a mixed bag. For every Frozen there is a Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Snow White and the Huntsman was a decent expansion of the Snow White story, turning the ‘fairest of them all’ into a Joan of Arc-esque warrior. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is both a prequel and sequel, explaining how Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) came to where we first see him in the earlier film. The backstory also raises points that are then developed following the events of Snow White and the Hunstman. And that’s about it. While the fantasy world is prettily designed and there are some interesting formulations of the magic of sister sorceresses Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and Freya (Emily Blunt), director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan fails to give the film an epic sweep or battle scenes that are more than functional. On the smaller scale, Eric and Sara (Jessica Chastain) are passably engaging as romantic swashbuckling heroes (despite distracting faux-Scottish accents), but their story similarly lacks heft and impetus. The film swings unevenly between romance, action and comedy, the last of which is largely provided by dwarves Nion (Nick Frost), Gryff (Rob Brydon), Mrs Bronwen (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach). This unevenness is the main problem – the film never seems sure of its agenda and, as a result, the handsome production design and sometimes stirring music has little dramatic meat to add to. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is passably pretty, but ultimately (and not in a good way) leaves the viewer just a little cold.

88th Annual Academy Award Predictions

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It’s been a road of some indeterminate length, and I’ve given my views on some of the categories. But at long(ish) last, here are my picks for the 88th Annual Academy Awards. As before, these are both what I believe will win, and what I would vote for were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which is not the same as “should win” – I’m not that arrogant).

Disclaimer: I may change some of these after I see Brooklyn. Also, I am changing my Supporting Actress prediction, so don’t bother pointing it out.

Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Room

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Director

Lenny Abrahamson – Room

Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant

Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Adam McKay – The Big Short

George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road

Predicted winner – Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant

My preference – Lenny Abrahamson – Room

Actor 

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo

Matt Damon – The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

Predicted winner – Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant

My preference – Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs

 

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Actress 

Cate Blanchett – Carol

Brie Larson – Room

Jennifer Lawrence – Joy

Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Predicted winner – Brie Larson – Room

My preference – Brie Larson – Room

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Supporting Actor

Christian Bale – The Big Short

Tom Hardy – The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone – Creed

Predicted winner – Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

My preference – Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

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Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara – Carol

Rachel McAdams – Spotlight

Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl 

Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Predicted winner – Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl 

My preference – Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

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Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short

Brooklyn

Carol

The Martian

Room 

Predicted winner – The Big Short

My preference – Room

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Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out

Spotlight

Straight Outta Compton

Predicted winner – Spotlight

My preference – Spotlight

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Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Sicario

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Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Cinderella

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Editing 

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Spotlight

 

Make-Up and Hair

Mad Max: Fury Road

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The Revenant

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – The Revenant

 

Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – The Hateful Eight

My preference – Carol

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Original Song

Earned It, The Weeknd – Fifty Shades of Grey

Manta Ray, J Ralph & Antony – Racing Extinction

Simple Song #3, Sumi Jo – Youth

Til It Happens To You, Lady Gaga – The Hunting Ground

Writing’s On the Wall, Sam Smith – Spectre

Predicted winner – Til It Happens To You, Lady Gaga – The Hunting Ground

My preference – Writing’s On the Wall, Sam Smith – Spectre

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Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – The Revenant

 

Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Mad Max: Fury Road

My preference – Sicario

 

Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – The Revenant

My preference – Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted winner – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My preference – Ex Machina

TFA

Animated Film

Anomalisa

Boy and the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

Predicted winner – Inside Out

My preference – Inside Out

Inside Out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent – Colombia

Mustang – France

Son of Saul – Hungary

Theeb – Jordan

A War – Denmark

Predicted winner – Theeb (complete guess and as I have not seen any, I have no preference.)

 

Documentary Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Predicted winner – The Look of Silence (complete guess and as I have not seen any, I have no preference.)

 

Animated and Live Action Shorts – I have no knowledge of these so no predictions or preferences.

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Oscar Views – Part Four

Oscar-2016-Nominations

Confession time: I have only managed to see one of the films nominated in the category Best Actress. That film is Carol, which I liked very much, and in which Cate Blanchett was her usual wonderful self. It is debatable whether she and Rooney Mara are both in lead roles, or indeed if Mara’s role is more central than Blanchett’s, but Blanchett is the one up for Best Actress. I would be perfectly happy for her to win, but she won’t. Since winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, Brie Larson in Room has stood out from the pack. Larson subsequently picked up the Screen Actors’ Guild award and the BAFTA for Best Actress. Given the overlap of members between these institutions, I confidently predict that Larson will win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Of the other nominees, Blanchett won two years ago for Blue Jasmine but if she were going to win this year there would have been indications. Jennifer Lawrence may be an Oscar darling and I was genuinely surprised when she won for Silver Linings Playbook, but this does not appear to be her year. Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years is a left field choice, and Saiorse Ronan’s time will come, just not this year for Brooklyn.

What is striking, however, is that Best Actress is the only award I expect Room to pick up, despite its nominations for Picture, Directing and Adapted Screenplay. This is an annoying trend in Best Actress winning films – the only thing honoured about the film is its leading lady. Recent winners including Lawrence and Blanchett as well as Julianne Moore and Sandra Bullock were either in films that had no nominations beside Best Actress, or were in films that had multiple nominations but won nothing else. Indeed, the last time a film won Best Picture AND Best Actress was 2004, when Million Dollar Baby was the big winner and Hilary Swank took home her second Oscar. Interestingly, her first win in 1999 was for Boys Don’t Cry, a film that won no other Academy Awards and had no other major nominations. This is a depressing reminder of the paucity of films with major roles for women. Granted, Room is up for other awards, and much had been made of Mad Max: Fury Road’s feminist credentials, and Brooklyn is also a female-centred story. But the other nominees are all focused on male characters and traditionally male endeavours – finance, law/espionage, (space) exploration, survival, journalism. Meanwhile, the “women’s” films consist of a story of motherhood and a period romance, while Mad Max is an equal opportunities survival story. A Best Actress nomination for Charlize Theron would have been nice, but no such luck. The Best Actress nominees are largely in traditional female roles – mother (twice!), lover, wife, girl-becoming-woman. Lawrence as the entrepreneur in Joy is the more unconventional role, and applause to her for building a career in these distinctive roles. Congratulations to Brie Larson, but I wish the competition was more varied.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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“My name is Mad. My world is fire,” growls Max Rockatansky’s (Tom Hardy) opening voiceover of George Miller’s return to the Mad Max franchise after thirty years. For the next two hours, the viewer encounters this fire in all its blistering, barraging, petrol-fuelled mayhem, resulting in one of the most relentless action movies of recent years. There is a dazzling beauty to Miller’s action choreography, the camera both sweeping around the pimped-up vehicles that tear through the post-apocalyptic landscape and yanking the viewer into the heart of the deafening chases and brutal encounters between flesh, metal, rock and flame. Hardy brings a world-weary indomitableness to the role of Max, leaving the dramatic thrust of the narrative to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa’s arc has been the source of some controversy over the apparent feminist invasion of a “man’s film”. Frankly, more active roles for women are always something to be applauded and Furiosa makes an excellent protagonist as well as a fine foil to Max. Her altruism and his nihilism are contrasting but complementary beliefs in a fragmented and pitiless world. This balance of the genders is further reason to admire Mad Max: Fury Road, as it means the film largely avoids the sexism so depressingly familiar in action cinema. It is unlikely to herald a new dawn, but for its running time the film is a gripping and refreshing contribution to the genre.

“Prometheus” the Expressive Text

A little late in the day, I offer my reaction to Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction.  It is perhaps interesting that Scott’s re-entry into the genre has been marked by a 30 year absence, filled with films from such diverse genres as crime thriller (Black Rain, American Gangster), military drama (G.I. Jane, Black Hawk Down), historical epic (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) and conman tragi-comedy (Matchstick Men).  Yet Alien and Blade Runner cast long shadows over the director’s career, creating an initial level of anticipation for the viewer.  The film’s marketing increased this anticipation, with viral marketing giving details of the Weyland-Yutani Company and snippets of the characters.  The stage was set for something special, spectacular and superb.

The reaction to the film, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been mixed, but if there is a consensus, it is that Prometheus failed to live up to its hype.  Plenty of online comments have lambasted the film, with such comments as: “Prometheus is a train wreck”; “Prometheus is a vacuous experience. Just well-directed nonsense with magnificent production values. Plenty of it makes little sense and one can only hope that a Blu Ray ‘Director’s Cut’ will prove more satisfying. Why did you create us? Because we could. Why do you believe? Because I choose to. These one-liners are metaphors for all of Prometheus’ secrets”; “Prometheus – Not an alien film!!!! And not good. One has to worry when the only interesting character is a freaking robot. Far too long. Nothing explained”; “Ridley Scott is a hero of mine, but Prometheus is not the intelligent, emotionally satisfying prequel that Alien deserves. It’s a derisory, empty experience – and anyone who loved Alien is surely too old and too smart to be fobbed off with something this bad just because it’s shiny”; “Alien worked because it focused on believable characters stuck in a terrible situation, without that believability the film would be greatly lessened. Prometheus, lacking that, is uninteresting”; “With a little more thought, Prometheus could have addressed the plot holes I and others have noted, and as a result been a tighter film with more tension and surprises”; “The CGI is good and the acting would be fine if the actors had been given something worthwhile to do. But every other aspect of the film was a disappointing waste of time”.  Other responses go into more detail – “My God, We Were So Wrong”, “Prometheus Rising” and others.  Critical response has also varied, with critics such Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert being impressed with the film, while publications such as Empire, Variety and the Guardian have been critical but not damning.  The only aspect of the film to attract universal acclaim, it seems, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David.

What is interesting about these responses is that they have been largely comparative, a common complaint being that Prometheus is not Alien, nor like Alien.  This is fair: Prometheus does lack the slow, drip-feed menace of the earlier film, and when the scares come, they are thrills and spills rather than tension and suspense, and its action compares poorly to that of Aliens.  When compared to Alien and Aliens, Prometheus does come up short.  Compared to Alien 3Alien Resurrection and (whisper it) Alien VS Predator and Alien VS Predator: Requiem, it excels.

If the rest of the franchise is left aside, however, how does Prometheus stand on its own?  Many criticisms have been directed at the script, rather than the style, to which I return later, but to consider the script first, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay does lack characterisation, or character detail and distinctiveness.  The simple reason for this is that there are too many characters – 17 in total, but many are disposable and could have been amalgamated, providing less cannon fodder (or should that be alien food?), which would have increased the tension as the major characters have less to hide behind.

In terms of the major characters though, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Captain Janek (Idris Elba) are fine, and Fassbender’s David is a great character, superbly played, and a useful expression of the film’s major themes, to which I shall return later.  As Peter Weyland, Guy Pearce (under a tonne of prosthetic make-up) is somewhat wasted.  Indeed, considering David’s interest in Lawrence of Arabia, it is a missed opportunity that the role of Weyland is not played by Peter O’Toole (who recently announced his retirement from acting).

These responses highlighted a common issue for me in film analysis.  Characterisation is not a major concern for me, a position that I find interesting as it appears to be unusual.  For years, I have been irritated by the complaint: “I didn’t care about any of the characters”, because this concern, to me, is given disproportionate weight.  Why is it necessary to care about the characters when there are events going on?  What is going to happen next has always been more important to me than to whom it happens.  For example, in relation to The Dark Knight Rises, I want to know what will happen to Batman (Will he live or die? Will he retire from crime fighting?  Will it end with him going back on the job?), but am less concerned about what character development there may be.  Similarly, with Prometheus my interest and enjoyment of the film are related to what will they find on the planet and how will they deal with it.

I may be demonstrating the accuracy of a stereotypical male response, simplified as “men like plot, women like character” and oversimplified as “Men like action, women like story”.  I cannot speak for men in general, but for me, plot and story are more significant than character.  This is not to say I have no interest in character – I find many characters fascinating especially those in the films of Michael Mann that I have analysed in great detail.  Character is one pleasure within texts, but I do not regard it as essential – the progression of events is just as rich a pleasure for me.

One comment that my position invites is “If you don’t care about the people you’re watching then why spend your time watching them?”  It’s a good question – if I am not overly concerned about the people onscreen, what am I getting out of the experience?  My enjoyment for events over people is not as straightforward as plot point A to plot point B to plot point C, they need to be presented in an engaging fashion, and it is this presentation that is crucial to the specific enjoyment of cinema, at least for me.  The medium of film employs a multitude of techniques, features and elements, and it is the combination of these elements that makes film work.

Furthermore, I think there is a certain responsibility on both sides – films and viewers work together to create meaning, theory, analysis and audience studies have demonstrated that film viewers are not simply passive receptacles.  Characters can indeed be under-developed by screenwriters, unsympathetically or unconvincingly played by actors and edited out of films – perhaps more of Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers was left on the cutting room floor, for example.  But if you do not care about a character, might this not be down to your own reaction, taste or personality as much as the film text itself?  It seems unfair to blame the film for not presenting a character that you will care about, because how could the filmmakers possibly know what every possible viewer will need from a character to care about them?  A response to this is that “good writing always means good characters, so when I don’t care about the characters it’s because the writing is bad.”  To me this is too easy, simplistic and a little arrogant – good and bad writing are not determined by objective standards, however much we like to believe they are.  Good writing is good writing?  Character is character?  According to what?  To whom?  Who decides these things?  Critics?  Academics?  Audiences?  None of these groups collectively agree, so is there not space in textual, cultural, aesthetic, artistic appreciation for all views, responses and positions?

For me, all elements of a filmic text, including the plot, character, mise-en-scene, editing, sound and cinematography, are tools for the presentation of the film’s meaning.  What matters to me, what makes a film (or any text) engaging, is the meaning within it, i.e. the sub-text and themes.  One of the first academic essays I ever wrote on film was concerned with the power of sub-text, and I didn’t do very well because I discussed sub-plot as much as sub-text.  Perhaps this early career trauma (ha ha) made me more sensitive to sub-text and it has become a major source of pleasure for me in film – what is this film actually about.  It may be deep and complex issues like those in Prometheus, and they may be explored in greater depth as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it can be a simpler notion of learning about one’s own courage or how do two people get together, as a great many films are.  How that central question plays out, for me, is what I want to see on screen.

To return to Prometheus, criticisms have identified the plot holes, but perhaps these holes are strengths – the narrative involves a quest for ultimate knowledge, answers to the ultimate questions, but instead grand narrative proves unreliable, leaving only incomplete interpretations and speculation.  This may be too generous – the plot holes are there and the script is patchy at best.  But visually and stylistically, the film is stunning – as expansive and looming a use of an alien planet’s environment as Star Wars or Avatar, and Scott makes great use of 3D in his signature world-building.  More importantly, these are not empty visuals or style for style’s sake – they serve the film’s central premise (according to my interpretation) of people getting out of their depth, largely due to their own hubris, scientific and otherwise.  This thematic conceit is expressed visually through the location filming (Iceland), the grand sets, and the deep focus potential of 3D.  My impression when viewing the film was one of being overwhelmed, on a regular cinema screen but in 3D.  3D is a tricky cinematic device, vastly overused and often for no good reason, but in the case of certain cinematic worlds, such as those of Avatar, Hugo and Prometheus, it does add something.

Indeed, this sense of being overwhelmed and engulfed is a common visual and thematic trope of Ridley Scott’s oeuvre.  From the expanses of the South-West USA in Thelma & Louise to the grandeur of Rome in Gladiator, as well as Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven and the rain-soaked cityscape of Blade Runner, the horrific urban war zone of Black Hawk Down and of course the claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo in Alien, time and again Scott depicts people in environments that threaten to subsume them, both mentally and physically.  Fear, courage, resolve, determination, panic and eventual defeat or triumph are juxtaposed against these odds, and Prometheus develops this idea further when the Engineers prove to be anything by benevolent.  Prometheus therefore continues the director’s interest in environments that are both beautiful and terrifying, overwhelming the people within them, landscape manifesting the overpowering forces that the characters encounter.  Rarely has this been more apparent than in Prometheus, which perhaps might have been better named “Icarus”, as the explorers indeed fly too near the sun and are severely scorched – indeed two spacecraft rise and subsequently fall.  This is one of the main ideas in the film, which for me is its ultimate and considerable strength.  It is a film of ideas, as the most interesting science fiction films frequently are: where, what and who do we come from?  Why do we exist?  How do we regard and react to our creators/parents?  And that old favourite, what does it mean to be human?

Through its exploration of these ideas, largely through visual devices and techniques, utilising the expressive potential of cinema, I suggest that Prometheus will make a very useful study text for film studies courses.  When asking students the initial questions about what makes film work, it makes sense to present them with something that depends on its filmic expression for meaning.  At the other end of the scale is another 2012 release, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), which is largely dialogue-based and has a very restrained visual palette.  Prometheus utilises cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound and editing for the major exploration of its thematic material, so I would certainly show it to students with the directive to look, see and interpret, rather than focus on the (admittedly apparent) shortcomings of the writing.

With its combination of big questions and horrific answers, I would class Prometheus as the offspring of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, perhaps midwifed by Blade Runner.  Doubtless many fans of these classics would lambast me for comparing Prometheus to them favourably.  I doubt Prometheus will become a classic of the genre as these have, it is unlikely to join the ranks occupied by The Terminator and Aliens, Star Wars and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but it is a science fiction film willing to ask big questions, and leave us pondering the answers.  That, for me, is reason to applaud it, and to teach it.