Calculated not to alienate

In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. With Prometheus the Blogville banshees finally have their way. Here is Ridley Scott’s long-promised Alien prequel, giving us the gory glory of the story before the story. The film is, according to taste, amazing, inspired, formulary, chaotic, cataclysmic, catchpenny or – in a phrase (albeit as long as the spaceship’s signature crawl past the camera in the deep-space introduction) – exactly the way it had to be to fulfil so many expectations of so many people.

The Prometheus, containing astronaut Noomi Rapace, robot Michael Fassbender, bankrolling expedition boss Charlize Theron (in her own Manhattan-style apartment) and other shrewdly picked stars south of the A list, is, we learn, the ship that touched down on the alien planet before Sigourney Weaver and the Nostromo. Its mission? To discover the race, or its remains, that first created human life, as indicated by newly discovered terrestrial cave paintings. Some doubters persist: “If you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism . . . ” Of course we are. This is a movie. And it is set in 2089 AD.

The gloves come off quickly; likewise the helmets (there’s oxygen in the mysterious hollow “mountain” they find); likewise, later, several limbs and corporeal human accessories. “The keen fan,” Scott has said, “will recognise strands of Alien’s DNA.” The keen fan will be regularly concussed by these strands. There are the eggy canisters on the alien floor; the decapitated android who retains conversational powers; and don’t expect the first film’s most famous horror moment not to get a cover version…

Damon (Lost) Lindelof and John Spaihts’s screenplay is canny in all senses. It is skilfully, opportunistically crafted. It is full of can-do moments empowering the digital special effects (monsters and machines that use or cannibalise H.R. Giger’s marvellous old designs). And, broadly, it could have come from a can. Freshness here is as rare as air. Sweden’s Rapace, launched into star-space by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, seems as boxed in by her English dialogue as by her helmet. We long, throughout, for Alien’s high-end funky supporting cast (Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt). Best in show here is Fassbender. His robot tools his locution after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (his personal inflight movie), blonds his hair likewise, and moves about like a kinetic sculpture carefully testing the basics of human verisimilitude. He, like the rest, ends up as mayhem fodder. But if there is another Alien spin-off – a pre-prequel? – the Blogville banshees must insist that Fassbender stays on board.

From life’s creation to its un-creation. Béla Tarr, the Hungarian minimalist who crafts lyrical nightmares in black and white (Werckmeister Harmonies, Sátántangó), declares that The Turin Horse will be his last film. Who could be surprised? What on earth could he do for an encore? This dark, wild, extraordinary film has already spawned as many interpretations as there are critics. Mine? It’s a reverse Creation. The story unfolds – or unravels? – over six days, in which a rural cart-driver (János Derszi, resembling a Michelangelo prophet) and his daughter (Erika Bók) find subsistence and existence mysteriously slipping from them.

In images gouged from Tarr’s monochrome palette, the daily battle goes on between the Beckettian rituals of domestic continuity – she dressing the old man for work, he and she finger-eating their single steaming potato, the horse being fed and tended – and an outside world showing signs of terminal convulsion. The wind howls and batters. (It’s a struggle to walk to the well in the yard.) The woodworm stop making noises. The horse stops eating and drinking. A band of rowdy gypsies traipse through, like some last herald of terrestrial anarchy or first evacuation party from Life on Earth.

Midway – roughly – a visitor delivers a speech of apocalyptic foreboding. Late on, father, daughter, horse and cart slog beyond the skyline, only to return moments later (all in a single static long shot). Back in the house, the lights fail. And that’s about it for plot; though let’s mention the spoken prologue relating to Friedrich Nietzsche’s sobbing embrace of an abused cab-horse in Turin on January 3 1889, after which the philosopher stopped writing and went to live for 10 years with his mum. Another form of reverse creation, wouldn’t you say?

If I declare that the film is thrilling, beautiful and nearly heart-stopping you will say: “Oh you critics. How you love suffering. How you must think suffering is art.” No, dear reader, I have known real suffering: I have sat through Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The Turin Horse, unlike that, is darkly funny. There is a lunatic poignancy to the steadfastness with which father/daughter hew to their daily habits: lifelines to the dream of an unchanging world. There is a corresponding horror to the moments in which familiarity cracks, hairline-fissuring faith, hope and comfort. And in case you mistake this near-wordless story for a modern-day silent movie, lend your ears to the soundtrack. Its bewitching colours – now a gurning electronic score (like a hurdy-gurdy) playing an extended, ineluctable danse macabre, now the eternally protean “music” of the wind – are the mocking continuo to a story about the worst horror of all. When the continuity stops. For each of us; for all of us.

Whisky is God’s gift to humanity. Almost nothing on Earth surpasses it, so The Angels’ Share, from the directing-writing firm of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty, knows it is the best McGuffin for a story of Scottish teenagers planning the perfect robbery. The film won a Cannes Jury Prize last weekend. That’s what you get for sweetness, panache and a little light politicising. Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a Glaswegian with a petty crime record, wants to steal into a castle with his mates and siphon off a wee dram – a few thousand pounds’ worth – of the world’s most valuable antique malt.

That the script writes itself, or seems to, is a tribute to Laverty’s unshowy skill. This Loach, likewise, is unrecognisable from the Loach who batters a subject to death when political passions overcome cinematic flair. Brannigan is exactly right for Robbie, a cussed charm on the outside, inwardly the unforced sense of a tormented soul. There is a beautifully portrayed weeping fit as he listens to an assault victim’s mum hold forth in one of those police-organised “meet the casualties of your crime” sessions. Nowhere in the movie is reality short-changed for story effect. Even the ageing, English-accented whisky expert (Charlie MacLean, playing himself in all but name), who might have been a prime target for old-colonial derision in another Loach film, has his cameo in the sun: a gleaming joy in his task, a winking delight in communicating whisky’s winking beauty.

Who ever thought we needed Snow White and the Huntsman? Hollywood’s fairy tale fad reaches its nadir with this listless, witless, bum-numbing adventure-whimsy featuring Kristen Stewart (Snow), Charlize Theron (Queen) and, as the seven vertically challenged miners, a cast of Brits (including Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane) for whose judgment you weep and for whose future – or those of their agents – you tremble.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.