Act of Valor and Crossing the Line

So I was going to write this review for Act of Valor yesterday, but then it completely slipped my mind due to reasons.

Let us begin O:

So Act of Valor is a movie about Navy SEALs tasked with rescuing a captured CIA agent, which leads them to discover a deadly terrorist plot. Naturally, they are the ones who are sent in to stop said plot from occurring on US soil.

It started off life as part of the US Navy’s recruitment initiative, but then grew into a feature length production.

If you were witness to the film’s advertising, you are probably aware of its one draw card. The film stars active duty SEALs using actual military hardware, firing live ammunition, and carrying out actual battlefield tactics.

In that regard, the film acts as a peek into the life of a SEAL. There is a standout moment near the beginning of the film in which the SEALs infiltrate a terrorist installation. It’s quite interesting stuff seeing how SEALs would carry out a stealthy infiltration. Moments like these aren’t really seen in other films. As an Ask Men article charitably put it, other films are pretenders.

It is a shame then that the action is let down by an overuse of shaky cam and quick cuts. It can be argued that shaky cam can create a cinéma vérité, documentary, or “you are there” feel to a film (see Saving Private Ryan for a successful example), however, an overuse of handheld camera work can annoy or confuse a viewer. Your mileage may vary on this, by the way. But an almost constantly shaking camera with quick cuts between subjects without care for considering the geography of the scene can leave the viewer confused as to who is doing the shooting and who is getting shot. A particular instance I can bring to mind is a car chase early in the film where the scene cuts from the inside of one car to a 1 second shot of the outside of another car to the inside of that car and someone being shot in the head. Having the camera focus on the backlit backs of characters’ heads also added to the confusion of the scene, something a few more seconds of film footage showing the outside of the second car would have reduced.

There were also a few tracking shots in which the camera was merrily bouncing around.

I state again that this was a shame because the film presents you with something you rarely get to see in a work of fiction; active duty SEALs using the tactics they would use in the field and firing live ammunition. It seems like a missed opportunity to more clearly portray how these highly trained men do their work.

Onto the story side of things. It honestly seems like the plot was a bit of an afterthought. It is a fairly standard hunt for the terrorists movie. There is no character development beyond the one SEAL who wants to spend more time with his family increasing the number of times he mentions his family as the film goes on. The villains aren’t dwelled upon long enough to understand their reasons for wanting to attack America. They just want to attack America due to some nebulous and all consuming hatred for the country. It feels like their characterisation was ripped from post 9/11 headlines, while the body of the articles were discarded.

One can be excused for not feeling attached to the SEALs. They sure are active duty SEALs, and with that comes an expected lack of acting talent. Line delivery during most of the movie is what one can expect from non-actors. The villains fair better with the line delivery, however, leading to an awkward situation where they seem more real and relatable than the good guys. The SEALs really come into their own during the film’s numerous action sequences, as can be expected.

The plot of the movie is strung together by scenes of exposition, and every transition into another portion of the world has a map overlay that makes it feel like the loading screens from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trilogy. Generally, the entire narrative structure of the movie feels like a generic military shooter. It pains me to compare the narrative of a film to a video game to highlight its shortcomings, but that really is the tone of the film. Adding further to the video game allusions are the numerous first person perspective shots where the audience gets to see what the SEAL sees. I do not recall any first person kills, but the resemblance was uncanny.

Oh, a positive to note, the film had quite wonderful sound design. Well, as far as the bullets whizzing past and the gun reports go. I did find myself getting sick of the repeated squelching sounds of the many, many headshots in the film. Seriously, there were a lot of headshots. One would think they stumbled into a zombie movie part way through.

I would say watch it just to see how SEALs actually operate. Do not, however, expect a good film, or even an okay film.

I wonder if the FPS allusions were deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. Act of Valor, while on the surface level being a tribute to the SEALs who have fallen in service to their country, is part of a Navy recruitment initiative. What better way to increase interest in the Navy amongst the new generation than by tapping into the video game zeitgeist? Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 earned a mind numbing $400 million in the US and UK in its first 24 hours alone, with Call of Duty: Black Ops (developed by the much derided Treyarch) making a cool $360 million in first day sales. That is big money and a large potential audience for a film of this kind.

There is big money in the macho, testosterone fuelled and highly fetishised portrayal of war, and it seems like that is all that big media will cater to. It is a safe investment and it makes people feel like they too can be a hero. We are a generation of armchair Operators. Soldiers on the digital front.

With that said, let us segue into the second part of this entry.

So last night I played Spec Ops: The Line, hence why this review wasn’t posted then. It got me thinking, here is a military shooter that uses all the game play elements seen in popular third person shooters (A cover system, two weapon limit, regenerating health, turret sections, an “A380” section for lack of a better term) and subverts them to drive a knife into the player’s conscience and twist. It is a game that hates you for wanting to enjoy war. It is a game that punishes you for wanting to be the hero. It is also a game that raises interesting questions about obsession, morality, and choice on the battlefield.

Spec Ops: The Line has one of the most interesting and horrifying stories I have seen in any game and it stands on the polar opposite of Act of Valor.

Spec Ops pushes the message that war is a hell of our own making and that the road to war, though paved with good intentions, is a road leading straight to hell. It reduces Delta Operators to fallible and corruptible. It brings into question whether men can truly even understand the truth of what they are witnessing, and foresee the consequences of their actions.

Act of Valor is a film that glamorises the Navy SEALs and military intervention. It is hero worship with the aim to pay tribute to servicemen with one hand, and draw in fresh blood with the other.

It is really encouraging seeing the ever demonised video game medium pushing an anti-violence, anti-hero worship message. I would like to explore more sides of war than the one that makes it look like a good idea enacted by just and honourable men.

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A Second Opinion of Prometheus (spoilers)

A second opinion of Prometheus can be read here.

I really do believe this review, filled with spoilers, raises some interesting points about Prometheus. More specifically, in delving into spoilers, it is able to discuss the thematic underpinnings of the film in greater detail.

Prometheus does cover some interesting ground, the nature of the rift between creator and creation is explored through the human crew attempting to make contact with the aliens (that looked like Greek statues) and David’s attempts to understand and win the approval of his creators, humanity. I do find the fact that the way the relationships played out were reversed to be quite an interesting touch. David experimenting on crew members and mentioning that he would appreciate being free and that every child wants to see their parents killed was the opposite of the aliens who engineered and created humanity and then chose to destroy it.

I have already mentioned I enjoyed the brief exploration of faith in the face of undeniable proof to the contrary. I also enjoyed the aliens looking like Greek statues. It was interesting to see the aliens take the form of the human ideal rather than some monstrosity. Their design served as visual shorthand for their status as our creators, a role that is often filled by God in a theological sense. That our “gods” would want to kill us is a disquieting notion indeed.

The main issues I have with the film lay in the screenplay. It was an incredibly weak screenplay committed to an otherwise excellent production. The writing did not do the deeper philosophical questions any favours. The poor characterisation did not do the human drama or tension any favours. The scattershot nature of the menace presented by the alien planet did not do the horror any favours.

I am not complaining that the movie did not answer all its questions. I do enjoy a bit of ambiguity in movies. It makes for a much more interesting cinematic experience. I am complaining about the fact that so many things were thrown into the mix that they were dropped almost as quickly as they were brought up. A film that raises a question, explores it, and then leaves you to make your own mind up is a satisfying film. A film that raises a dozen questions and then focuses on attempting to one up the director’s other films instead of said questions is a film that feels like a first year philosophy essay, full of points of interest with no underlying thesis.

I was wondering why the video game media would mark down a game like Spec Ops: The Line because despite the fact it tackled some heady themes about dehumanisation and morality during armed conflict, it stayed too close to conventions of gameplay mechanics. I think I finally have an answer for that after watching Prometheus. It was a movie that aimed high but was ultimately dragged down by its uninspired characters that made the same mistakes that dumb, stoned, teenagers make in teen slasher movies. The conventions of horror dragged it down because the film did nothing interesting with them. It just laid them out on the table and said, hey, this will get the body count up and that’s good enough for us.

Another film that explored ideas while being forced to follow horror conventions was The Cabin In The Woods. It stuck so true to horror movie conventions that you could almost predict how and when certain characters would be killed and why. However, unlike Prometheus it used its strict adherence to horror conventions to convey its message rather than undermine it. Smart writing allowed characters to be bent into archetypes they did not originally fit because it served the death toll’s best interests. However, the characters being bent out of character was an in story occurrence and not a product of a screenplay that forgot which characters behaved in which ways.

I suppose the type of message Cabin was trying to get across also helped with lessening the impact of the film’s strict adherence to horror conventions. It was not talking about man’s relationship with god, a parent’s relationship with its children, the horrors of pregnancy and the sadness of infertility, the makings of a human being compared to an automaton, the adherence to one’s faith when challenged by empirical evidence to the contrary, or the dangers of using biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction to both the target and those deploying them. A simple and cliched horror script does not do those lofty ambitions any favours.

But at least Prometheus tried to make us think. It may not have been as successful about it as it had hoped it would be, but it tried its little heart out and looked pretty while trying

Prometheus

Prometheus was a film that totally did not deliver enough Titan action. In fact, I am fairly sure, for a film titled Prometheus, it did not show a single Titan in it. The lack of Titans in films with titles otherwise suggesting their presence hasn’t been seen since… Clash of the Titans.

The only thing is Prometheus had another Titan to contend with. While Clash of the Titans is held by many to be a classic, if only for its then revolutionary special effects, I don’t think anyone had high hopes for the remake. It looked pathetic and it performed pathetically. The titan that Prometheus had to deal with was Alien.

Prometheus is a semi-sequel to Alien. It is set in the same universe as the Alien films and attempts to expand on one throw-away detail in the first film. It began production as a direct prequel, but then became its own beast. I heard about the shift away from being a direct prequel and was a little concerned. I then read what the film was about and my heart sank. I was grateful they decided to make it its own thing based on what the screenplay ended up being.

However, the final product used so many iconic images from the Alien franchise that it became difficult to disentangle it from the rest of the movies. This is where the majority of my dissatisfaction with the final product stems.

Put simply, Prometheus is not a great film. Put even more harshly, Prometheus is not a good film.

Now that’s out of the way, I can begin to talk about the film on its own terms. I am trying something out here and I would like you to play along. I would like you to read through the following twice. The first time I would like you to ignore any of the indented text. Then when you re-read it, I would like you to read all of it.

In the near future scientists discover a star system that has been hinted at in numerous ancient artworks from a number of unconnected civilisations. This prompts the Weyland Corporation to fund a trillion dollar expedition to the system to seek out answers to humanity’s origin and the rare opportunity to meet our makers.

The rant about titans at the beginning may seem spurious, but the film actually strives to make a thematic connection to Prometheus’ quest to bring fire to humans and his eventual punishment. It is mentioned in dialogue in fact. This is one of the problems with the film. It is thematically grand in scope, but nothing ever ties in with anything else. Prometheus’ betrayal of the Gods and eventual punishment, religious faith, morality, the fear of mortality, the nature and use of biological weaponry, and the meaning and purpose of humanity are all themes that Prometheus name drops and then decides to do nothing with for the rest of its runtime. Any one of these themes tackled with seriousness and care would have made for a strong, thinking person’s horror film. In the end, the film was much too ambitious for its own good and its kitchen sink approach allowed for only superficial exploration of the questions it raised.

The kitchen sink approach to the writing permeates all levels of the film. Characters are not characters as much as they are devices to provide impetus to the plot. They are exactly what they need to be in order to lead to the next horrific development. At points in the film characters will do something in complete contradiction to their previously stated course of action with no justification at all. For example, early in the film two characters are spooked by a particular room in a formation the crew is exploring. Later on they voluntarily return to the same room they were eagerly attempting to escape, have no fear of the room, and then even engage completely out of the character they are meant to be. The characterisation in this film was on par with, if not worse, than that in Avatar. Avatar may have had boring, utterly flat characters, but at least they were the same person throughout the film.

This disregard for characters’ motives and professions expand to almost the entire cast. Biologists approach foreign and clearly hostile lifeforms with little regard for their safety, geologists spend half the movie being represented as gruff security specialists before suddenly informing everyone that they are not hired muscle but are actually scientists, characters aren’t even introduced and just show up later in the film, and no character save for Fassbender’s has any clearly defined and consistent motivation. It is worth noting that his performance is also the strongest. He really disappears into his character, and that is something special to see.

In sharp contrast, Alien spent its first act developing each character, building motivations and relationships and adding dimensions. They were not archetypes or stereotypes, they were miners in space. Miners in space that just wanted to go home and get paid.

Moving on, there are many horrors that await the crew of the Prometheus. None of them are at all well developed enough to be seen as a credible threat. By this I mean to say that a new threat pops up seemingly at random with no foreshadowing and no build up only to be dealt with by scene’s end. Prometheus is so busy throwing cool and unusual menaces at your face that the film loses all sense of tension and feels akin to an amusement park’s haunted mansion ride.

Alien, on the other hand, was a slow boiling flick that introduced a clearly defined, singular source of danger and then built tension around the crew members’ fight to survive it.

Unfortunately, for a film that attempts to not be a direct prequel to Alien, it ends up being rather derivative of it. Fine details are different, of course, but the structure of the film’s first act, the exploration of the ruins and the introduction of body horror elements all call back to Alien. The film being set within the same universe makes it all the more obvious. With the themes it paid lip service to, Prometheus could have truly been its own beast. It could have been a thought provoking exploration of adherence to religious faith in the face of indisputable evidence to the contrary. Instead Prometheus ended up feeling like a failed attempt to make the lightning strike twice with only the barest attempt to give it an identity of its own.

Things that can be said to be in the film’s favour are its spectacular special effects, amazing art design, and beautiful cinematography. Prometheus may be an absolute mess of a film, but it is a gorgeous to look at mess of a film. It basically looks like a more polished version of Alien given the amount of art direction they share. I would not say this is a bad thing at all given how spectacular the art direction was in Alien. As mentioned, Fassbender’s performance is one of the high points of the film and he brings a real sense of menace to the film that is sadly lacking in other areas. There are also one or two sequences in the film that deserve attention for how well they were staged. An encroaching sandstorm and an impromptu caesarean are two sequences to watch for, though the latter is not as grisly as some may have you believe. It may still make some viewers uncomfortable, mind.

Prometheus was a mess. It was a well executed, at times exciting, and always visually stunning mess, but the fact remains that the film could have really done with a rewrite or twelve. Inconsistencies in the characters should really have been picked up and dealt with. The film should have been less thematically ambitious and stuck to one idea and done it well. The idea of a person dedicated to Christianity discovering that humanity was engineered and brought into creation by an alien species rather than God and her struggle to justify her continued faith to the rest of her crew would have made for a much more interesting film. There were elements of this conflict in the film but they were pushed aside far too quickly to be explored by the audience. Even dropping the theologic angle, the film could have ramped up the body horror, trimmed the cast and developed the characters and it would have been better than a visually stunning, quasi-intellectual generic slasher flick set in space.

That is the sad part, really. It had the potential to be so much more and just ended up being a slasher film with some sci-fi trappings.

All in all, a gorgeous and sporadically exciting disappointment of a film with great potential in the hands of more competent writers.

Imagine I gave the film a 6/10. I’d say if my deconstruction of the film could be boiled down to a number out of 10, 6 would be it.