Author Archive

MOVIE REVIEW: Pacific Rim (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite impressive action and effects, Guillermo Del Toro sends a labored, often lifeless love letter to the giant monster genre.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: When giant monsters rise from a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean, humanity engages them in battle with an army of behemoth robots piloted by pairs of human beings.  When the struggle continues for more than ten years, master pilot Raleigh Beckett is called back in to service for one last surge.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Incredible monster design; stunning action sequences; Charlie Day’s amusing turn as a xenobiologist and “kaiju” groupie; Ron Perlman as a dealer of black market alien remains.
CONS: Charisma free leads in Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, and Rinko Kikuchi; routine, derivative, and clichéd screenplay, allowing interesting subplots to be overtaken by uninspired central plot; unmemorable dialogue spoken by mostly dull characters.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Man of Steel (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Overly long, sloppily scripted, needlessly violent, with changes that need not—and in some instances, should not—have been made, Zack Snyder’s telling of the classic superhero’s origins, despite some good touches, never coheres into a unified whole.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Kryptonian scientist Jor-El sends his only son to Earth as his own world perishes.  The boy grows to manhood and learns of his identity and extraordinary powers as a renegade general from his home planet demands his surrender.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good cast, with strong performances by Russell Crowe and Amy Adams; incredible rendering of Krypton; small, standout scenes.
CONS: Muddy, redundant script; too much action; too little character development, with the main characters underfinished; a major change in the title character that goes against his primary image.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Though it starts strongly, the sophomore journey of the fresh-faced crew of the starship Enterprise covers too little new ground.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS:  When a rogue Starfleet agent attacks a secret archive, Captain James T. Kirk is tasked with hunting him down and terminating him.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good opening sequence; strong interaction between Kirk and Spock; good turns by Karl Urban and John Cho.
CONS: Anemic, especially in its revelations; far too derivative of the previous movie; laughable emotional sequences; action scenes that drag on far too long.

Star Trek Into Darkness, director J. J. Abrams’s follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek, is everything its predecessor was, only too much more so.  This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though several good things work in its favor.  Abrams’s gamble with making over Gene Roddenberry’s classic space opera with a new perspective on a much-beloved universe and fresh faces on seasoned characters reaped a handsome payoff, though astute audience members wondered if he could sustain what often seemed a one-picture trick.  They had a right to question how a crop of young actors possibly could play roles so identified with elder thespians that they wove their dramatic tics into the fabric of their characters.  Loyal fans, by contrast, knowing the full future history of the United Federation of Planets and the floor plans of the NCC-1701 U.S.S. Enterprise down to the last rivet, expressed honest trepidation at possible revisions to Roddenberry’s timeline, to say nothing of its philosophical underpinnings.  The resulting Star Trek was an entertaining if occasionally brainless affair, balancing well the expectations of both a summer movie crowd and faithful Trekkers despite dangling plot lines and scientific rationales bent into configurations that would snap the most pliable rubber.

But it worked even after the novelty wore off, and proffered challenges for a sequel.  Could Abrams and company make a follow-up that was less cluttered with the need to make the new timeline work and more focused on the things that made Roddenberry’s utopian vision compelling—namely, character and story?
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MOVIE REVIEW: Iron Man 3 (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Messy and needlessly convoluted, lacking much of the cleverness and insight of Iron Man and Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3 still engages thanks to director Shane Black’s remarkable set pieces.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: As Tony Stark deals with the emotional fallout of his previous adventure with the Avengers, the terrorist knwon as the Mandarin strikes targets in the U.S., once more causing Stark to return to service as Iron Man.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Watchable action sequences; good twist on the Mandarin character.
CONS: Characters too broadly drawn; routine and at times clichéd screenplay; feels smaller than previous efforts.

The biggest threat posed in Iron Man 3, the first post–Marvel’s The Avengers superhero movie featuring a member of Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking team-up, is neither Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and his group nor the Mandarin’s (Ben Kingsley) terrorist bombing plot, but scope itself.  Iron Man worked because director Jon Favreau injected independent film sensibilities into a blockbuster comic book movie, something that other directors either never attempted or tried unsuccessfully.  This hampered Iron Man 2, a soulless placeholder that, for all its numerous, crippling faults, still gave us Garry Shandling and Sam Rockwell in a popular superhero picture.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Apes of Wrath, edited by Rick Klaw

REVIEW SUMMARY: An eclectic, enjoyable mix of fiction and nonfiction suffering only from one or two significant absences.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 17 remarkable stories and four insightful essays all dealing with our simian cousins.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The strength of the fiction included in the anthology, from groundbreaking genre classics such as Leigh Kennedy’s “Her Furry Face” and Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” to lesser-known tales such as Gustav Flaubert’s “Quidquid Volueris”; interesting essays from Jess Nevins and Scott Cupp on apes in literature and comics, respectively.
CONS: Odd if understandable exclusions; one or two obvious inclusions; the editor’s own contribution on apes in cinema a bit too brief.

If one wanted to get technical, any story featuring a human being is an ape story; zoologist Desmond Morris even identified us as such in his 1967 book The Naked Ape.  So our fascination with gorillas, chimps, and orangutans, among others, in ethology and in popular culture, should come as no surprise; after all, our nearest genetic cousins share so many of our features that we cannot help but feel kinship and awe.  We gaze into these alien faces and of course see ourselves.
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FILM REVIEW: Oblivion (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Often visually arresting sequences never save this homage to 1970s science fiction films from flat characters, routine action, and uninspired direction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Decades after an alien invasion, a memory-wiped drone technician begins to question his assignment after an astronaut who resembles a woman in his dreams crash lands amid the rubble of a ruined earth.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Breathtaking imagery of a world devastated by an alien invasion.
CONS: Clichéd characters who never generate much life or interest, especially in the affectless performances by Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko; uninvolving direction by Joseph Kosinski; generic, uninvolving action sequences; flat screenplay heavily reliant on obvious plot twists; noisy score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapenese.
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FILM REVIEW: Evil Dead (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Dumb, noisy, and ultimately pointless reboot of Sam Raimi’s groundbreaking picture shows as much life as the revenants shambling across the screen.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Five friends meet at a derelict cabin in the woods, where one finds an ancient book deep within a cellar strewn with decaying animal carcasses.  When one utters an incantation scrawled in its pages, it summons the demons living in the woods.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Occasionally interesting shots.
CONSs: Generic characters and situations; strained pace; fumbled misdirection; routine direction; underfinished screenplay; poor nods to the earlier movies.
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FILM REVIEW: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Well-executed set pieces, clever touches, and tongue-in-cheek manner manage to save Bryan Singer’s mostly by-the-numbers fantasy adventure.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Farm boy Jack accepts a payment of beans for a horse, which sprout into a beanstalk beneath his home up to a world of Giants who are none too happy being relegated to a land away from humans.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Efficient direction from Singer, who finds a good balance between action and humor; reasonably good casting (especially of Stanley Tucci as Roderick and Ewan McGregor as Elmont); amusing, often clever sight gags; interesting blending of the classic English and Cornish folk tales.
CONS: Largely bland leading man and woman; character motivations at times make no sense; script’s blending of folk tales not smooth and starts too slowly.

It must be a challenge to make a fantasy movie in the wake of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (to say nothing of the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise), especially when it comes to making movies out of other successful series, each more anemic that the last.  Challenging and even foolhardy; how many of even the genre’s most devoted fans would bother to sit through, say, Joe Johnston offering a cinematic tour of one of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, or even (wait for it) a Zack Snyder–helmed rendition of Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Sha-na-nara?  Even scarier, how many would want to?
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FILM REVIEW: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

REVIEW SUMMARY: A pretentious, self-indulgent, and ultimately silly first feature from director Panos Cosmatos that never captures the erratic grace or fitful elegance of early 1980s trash science fiction cinema.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: At the Arboria Institute in the early 1980s, scientist Barry Nyle performs experiments using odd metaphysical technologies on the mind of a captive young woman.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Michael Rogers, who looks precisely as a mad scientist should in a trash classic; unique attempts to give the visual and aural textures of a science fiction movie from the 1980s; odd, occasionally effective imagery, intriguing music from Jeremy Schmidt…
CONS: …all of which in the service of Cosmatos’s obtuse and uninvolving script and painfully redundant direction; set design and visual cues borrowed too heavily from other, better movies and directors; a finished product that never quite convinces it is of the period.
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FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Plodding, ponderous, and ultimately pretentious, Peter Jackson’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy never reaches its predecessor’s epic heights.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gandalf the Gray and a gathering of Dwarves enlist Hobbit Bilbo Baggins into a quest to reclaim treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Breathtaking realization of the riddle scene and the goblin kingdom beneath the Misty Mountains; impressive rendering of goblins, Gollum, and the brief glimpse of Smaug.
CONS: Lumberingly paced; script stretching the source material to excruciating lengths; Peter Jackson’s restless yet surprisingly murky direction; 48 frames-per-second resolution giving the entire movie a cheesy look.

They’ve made a mistake.  Several, actually.  Though clogged with too many songs and meals, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again benefits from a deft touch and, despite occasional lapses, an elegance in its telling, even when the twee narrative spills into the annoyingly cute.  While it occasionally touches on big themes, it recounts the adventures of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, and a band of Dwarves out to reclaim familial treasure from the Dragon Smaug in a way that never bogs down.  Perhaps it lacks the epic sweep of The Lord of the Rings, but its relatively simple quest makes it more immediate and, in a way, more engaging.

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FILM REVIEW: Skyfall (2012)

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: James Bond returns in a visually lush and emotionally involving adventure that benefits from a strong script and one of the best casts the series has seen in its 50-year history.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Outstanding cast, specifically Daniel Craig and Judi Dench in the forefront as James Bond and M, respectively, with Javier Bardem as the truly insane Silva; kinetic opening sequence; exceptional screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan; Sam Mendes balancing action and character nearly seamlessly; Roger Deakins’s outstanding cinematography.
CONS: Thomas Newman’s serviceable but unmemorable score; occasional plot contrivances that allow events to become too convenient; underuse of Bérénice Marlohe; odd elements that may disturb the series’ continuity for some.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Cloud Atlas (2012)

MY RATING:

SUMMARY: Audacious, daring, and never uninteresting, yet the execution falls far short of its visionary ambitions.

MY REVIEW:
PROS:
Visually absorbing and lush; interlocked narratives that run the gamut from historical journey to far-future adventure.
CONS:
Stories too jaggedly pieced together and never compelling on their own; intriguing cast playing things too broadly.

Tom Tykwer and the siblings Wachowski deserve a good deal of credit for attempting to bring David Mitchell’s sprawling novel Cloud Atlas to the screen.  Alas, they also must accept the blame for so much of what goes wrong with Cloud Atlas, which, like David Lynch’s completely wrongheaded adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, retains much of the structure and many of the characters but fails to understand the core theme.  Or perhaps they understood it, but felt they needed to change it to meet studio and audience needs.  The former seems more plausible; the creators of The Matrix Trilogy and the director of Run, Lola, Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer certainly have shown themselves willing to tackle bold projects, even when they demonstrate glib comprehension.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Looper (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Ambitious and often clever, Rian Johnson’s first foray into science fiction never quite pieces its philosophical content together with its thriller elements.

RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Time travel hitman Joe begins to have doubts about his chosen vocation when his next target is…himself.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, as Joe and his older counterpoint, respectively; notable supporting cast, especially Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano; good blend of science fiction and noir in a well-rendered future; effective set pieces and intriguing use of time travel tropes.

CONS: Second act slows to a crawl to introduce philosophical elements that do not mesh well with its suspense narrative; important story details revealed late, giving the story uneven structure; unconvincing makeup to make Gordon-Levitt look like Willis; Emily Blunt’s bland Sara.

In the future, time travel exists but has been outlawed, so of course only outlaws have time travel.  The Rainmaker, a mob boss headquartered in Shanghai who, based what audiences see of the year 2072, studied the methods of Pol Pot as well as Al Capone, sends those he wants taken care of thirty years into the past—the past being 2044—and into the sights of the loopers, hit men contracted specifically to eliminate said undesirables.  (Though one wonders why the Rainmaker, who appears to wield enormous influence in this future overrun by gangs, would go to the trouble of using time travel to rid the world of his enemies, rather than simply eighty-sixing them in his own time period without consequence.  Perhaps with absolute power comes absolute deniability.)  The loopers obey only a few rules: when you’ve killed your mark and discover bars of gold on his body (based on the loopers’ Kansas City headquarters in 2044, women need not apply), it means your loop has been closed—you are, in essence, responsible for your own execution—and your contract is terminated.  (Loopers never see the faces of those they kill because their targets wear hoods.)  Another, and perhaps even more important condition, is that the looper must not let the target escape.

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FILM REVIEW: Dredd (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Covering almost no new cinematic ground, director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland nonetheless concoct a tight, gritty, and resiliently dark picture featuring John Wagner’s and Carlos Ezquerra’s classic character.

RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: While investigating the deaths of three individuals in the 200-story Peach Trees tower, Judge Joe Dredd and rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson become the prey of drug lord Madeline Madrigal and her army.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Karl Urban, disappearing beneath the helmet to become Dredd; Olivia Thirlby’s nuanced Anderson; Lena Headey’s menacing turn as Ma-Ma; Alex Garland’s lean, spare script; Pete Travis’s tight direction; exceptional action sequences; good blend of gritty realism and fantastical ultraviolence, even when using slow-motion techniques.
CONS: Worldbuilding of Mega-City One sacrificed for speed and efficiency; unassuming score from Paul Leonard-Morgan; competent yet unnecessary use of 3D; perhaps not newbie-friendly.

Cinema history poses the most significant challenge in making a movie based writer John Wagner’s and Carlos Ezquerra’s Judge Joseph Dredd.  Forget that anybody who wants to bring him to life must contend with the iconic image of Peter Weller’s chrome-bodied cyborg in Paul Verhoven’s RoboCop; audiences inevitably will compare the vast urban landscapes of Mega-City One, regardless of how well rendered, to Bladerunner’s postmodern Gothic spires and Escape from New York’s decaying infrastructure.  When Dredd speaks in the panels of 2000 AD, fans hear Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan growling at yet another lawless punk ready to make his day.  Granted, the comic always borrowed heavily from others in crafting Dredd’s adventures; one followed the series for its audacious vision, not for its originality.
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MOVIE REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Messy, way too long, and with far too many missteps and misguided elements, Nolan’s final chapter in the rebooted Batman franchise still remains watchable because of its outstanding cast and several breathtaking sequences.

MY REVIEW:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Batman is called back into service eight years after taking blame for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent to save Gotham City from the psychotic Bane, and enlists the help of the mysterious jewel thief Selena Kyle.

 

MY REVIEW:
PROS:
  Visually stunning, with outstanding performances by the leads and supporting cast; incredible action sequences.
CONS:
Underdeveloped ideas and story; overlong; intrusion of science fiction elements breaks the tone of the series.

Despite the incredible high-tech gadgets, powerful souped-up vehicles, and near-magical ability of his utility belt to rescue him from any nefarious jam (much like Doctor Who twisting the knobs of his sonic screwdriver to turn any series of unfortunate events, ultimately, to his benefit), Batman is not, and never has been, part of the science fiction universe.  Large though his shadow looms over the ever-growing corner of genre populated by four-color heroes of a far more fantastic bent (from orphaned alien Superman to Amazon Wonder Woman, from laboratory success Captain America to super-science accidents Hulk and Spider-Man, incredible and amazing or not), Bob Kane’s seminal creation shares far more in common with the crime fighters of The Strand or Black Mask, a Sherlock Holmes in cape and cowl, a Continental Op who goes down the noir mean streets in operatic fashion.

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Marc Webb’s updating of Spider-Man’s origin story looks good but feels flat and, ultimately, too familiar.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: High school student Peter Parker’s investigation into his parents’ disappearance bring him to Oscorp, where he is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and begins to take on its powers.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Exceptional special effects; great chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone; early scenes where Peter learns to use his powers.
CONS: Lack of necessity in retelling the origins of the title character; inappropriate tone undermines the character’s primary appeal; too little humanity in the villain.

Haven’t we been here before?  It seems like only yesterday when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man opened to rave reviews and a huge opening weekend, with the pitch-perfect casting of its title character (Tobey Maguire), love interest (Kirsten Dunst, who went red to play Mary Jane Watson), and key villain (Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin),  to say nothing of scene-stealer J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, exceptional dialogue, and its…well, honestly, rather substandard effects, but those didn’t detract from the action and suspense.  Raimi followed it with a superior sequel (Spider-Man 2) written by Michael Chabon and a lifeless continuation (Spider-Man 3) crammed with too many villains.  Now Marc Webb, hot off the success of indie favorite (500) Days of Summer, takes the helm to continue… Read the rest of this entry

MOVIE REVIEW: Brave (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Beautifully shot, as one would expect from Pixar, but only intermittently engaging and sputters badly as it moves toward its climax.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When free-spirited princess and archer Merida learns that she must choose a suitor, she seeks the counsel of a witch to change her fate.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Beautiful renderings of the Scottish Highlands as well as exceptionally realized animated characters; good vocal casting; a vibrant score by Patrick Doyle; intriguing fairy tale and fantasy elements…
CONS: …that never really go anywhere; too much time spent in DunBroch Castle; uneven drama that runs out of steam as the movie approaches its conclusion; use of 3D largely unnecessary.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Dull, drawn out adaptation never even manages the B-movie fun the title would suggest.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Abraham Lincoln loses his mother to vampires and vows to avenge her death as the newly-formed United States tears itself apart over slavery.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The title elicited a smile.
CONS: Derivative direction, flat script, bored actors.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a one-note joke played for two hours by a bugler with asthma who lost his hearing during the opening cannon fire of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Its central conceit—that Honest Abe loses his mother not to milk sickness but through the bite of a vampire, thus transforming him into the Slayer-in-Chief—sounds like it might have made for one of the more diverting coked-out sketches Saturday Night Live used to toss out between commercials during the days when Lorne Michaels wasn’t afraid of the NBC censors.   Stretching it out to a full-length novel, as Seth Grahame-Smith did in 2010, in the wake of the massive success of his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, always seemed like a far more dubious proposition.  Now Grahame-Smith has enlisted the directorial eye of Day Watch’s Timur Bekmambetov to adapt his mashup into a feature film, and the result makes Zack Snyder’s 300 look like a Kurosawan masterpiece and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor a measured documentary. Read the rest of this entry

MOVIE REVIEW: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: A touching romantic comedy supported by a great cast, Derek Connolly’s smart script, and Colin Trevorrow’s understated direction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three Seattle magazine reporters cover a story on the man who placed a classified ad calling for time travelers.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Winning performances by all involved, but especially Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass; intelligent, taut, and unpredictable script.
CONS: Directorial missteps at the movie’s opening; liminal treatment of genre content might turn off some viewers.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Ridley Scott returns to science fiction with a lifeless, derivative prequel to one of his most famous movies.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After finding identical cave paintings throughout the world, a pair of scientists boards the starship Prometheus bound for an alien planet to uncover the origins of humanity, and uncover horrors they never anticipated.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong casting, especially of Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbinder; good looking visuals; strong incorporation of 3D technology.
CONS: Derivative screenplay and underwhelming direction; never engaging emotionally or intellectually; too familiar ground covered.

Like the prodigal son returning home, Ridley Scott comes back to science fiction after more than twenty-five years.  The count includes his beautiful but deeply flawed fantasy Legend; the last time he focused his camera on true quill science fiction was thirty years ago, with the now classic Bladerunner.  And if one judged Prometheus solely on the year-long anticipation and hype surrounding it, to say nothing of the viral future dispatches from Weyland Industries, its grosses would match Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s The Avengers within ten days and we would acknowledge it as an instant classic.  Hugo voters no doubt would bestow the 2012 Dramatic Presentation award early, sight unseen.
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