This week Joe West finds solace in space movies.
Space is a cruel mistress. And also frigid, which doesn’t exactly make it ideal mistress material in the first place. But as a canvas for cinematic exploits, there is none so grand or mysterious.
The 2012 summer release schedule is surprisingly well stocked with films involving intergalactic elements, but operating in this genre is no guarantee of success. It is a double edged sword. Or a twin beamed light sabre.
There are two main types of movies that concern the great unknown. The first involves humans in a passive role, sitting on our gaily spinning verdant rock as we allow an alien influence to visit us. The second sees our species actively setting out into space, seeking adventure from aboard craft which are invariably speckled with arbitrarily designed carbuncles and laced with wheezing, neon-lit corridors. I find this latter category far more compelling, for obvious reasons.
Last month saw the release of a little French-funded space film called Lockout. It features Guy Pearce hilariously miscast in the role of Agent Snow, a kind of 1980s action hard-ass caught in a near-future dystopia. The convenient thing about setting something on a space prison, as is the case in this derivative but not un-fun movie, is that you can create a believable sense of place without a particularly massive budget.
Movies like Sunshine and, to a less affordable extent, Event Horizon have followed this model effectively. The horror of being stuck in a sealed tin can where aliens are as much a threat as other human beings makes these movies popular and is something that Prometheus is expected to replicated on a somewhat larger scale next month. I’m assuming it’s going to be pretty similar to Jason X.
On the other hand Men in Black III, which is out this week, will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors and sit stubbornly in the passive fraternity of extra terrestrial flicks. It’s plot will focus on Will Smith going back in time to the 1960s and involving himself in a romp with some aliens that won’t scare the kids. While the original was inventively dark, the lame dud of a 2002 sequel does not bode well for the third outing.
The producers of Men in Black III are probably concerned that aliens were the subject of the biggest flop of 2012. The dismal performance of Disney’s John Carter, which barely scraped past its $250 million production budget at the global box office, was seen as an indication by many that at least some areas of the galaxy contain financial kryptonite.
The problem may be that space is most effective when employed to evoke fear in the audience, either through the threat of alien invasion or via the cabin fever generated in the claustrophobic confines of a hulking space craft. As soon as you give an alien a wacky Brooklyn accent, or try to make exploration a noble and knowable cause, the magic dissipates. Essentially I want extra terror with my extra terrestrials.