Friday, June 15, 2012


Movie Review: Prometheus

Director:  Ridley Scott

Reviewed: 15 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Prometheus wrestles with philosophical questions unusual for a science fiction thriller of its pedigree and budget.  Who made us?  Why did they make us?  Where does life come from?  Why chose to extinguish said life?  Although I admire its scope and its overreaching, there is simply not enough cohesion for the film to work brilliantly as a work of art that Ridley Scott intends it to be.  How strange that 33 years later, the director with unparalleled visual effects and budget cannot approach the level of terror and artistry and fun on his cat-and-mouse game on a darkened Nostromo?

Prometheus is a film right in my wheelhouse: I don't remember a time NOT being scared of H.R. Giger's alien creatures.  Aliens was my first exposure to the series when I spent the summer with my cousin Chris in Ellicot City, Maryland, and a friend of his was obsessed with the film.  Obsessed.  I knew the names of all of the marines, as well as the types of aliens attacking them on that planet where colonists had mistakenly set up a base.  Alien 3 was a film that I responded to in high school for its darkness, nihilism, and its seeming ending to the Ellen Ripley story.  In high school, I also went backwards to watch the original Alien film, watching it and thinking about how slow it was to get going, how 45 minutes into the movie nothing had still happened.  But its visceral punch (spray of blood, swishing of tails, mouth inside mouth) got me.  My dad told me that Alien was the first film he and my mom went to see after I was born.  Our neighbor Retta babysat me as they went, maybe to the Hillside Square Theater, maybe to the Hillside Mall, both gone.

So, why the extended build up and lack of payoff in this review?  Well, that's the trouble with Ridley Scott's film.  It begins with an alien of some kind (not the kind we're used to seeing) ingesting something and having the DNA dissolve itself into the water.  Opening shots reveal a landscape that from above resembles the human body: arteries of water, cracks of rock, flowing of waterfalls.  We're in deep right from the beginning.  Cut to a picturesque Scottish archeological dig where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, very good) discovers cave pantings thousands of years old which point to large creatures beyond the stars and a sort of welcome invitation for humans to find them.  Cut to the Prometheus, a gigantic vessel with 17 crew members aboard in hypersleep heading towards LV-223, the planet seemingly indicated in the cave paintings (and multiple other sacred sites throughout the planet).  Well, I guess 16 members are asleep.  Ridley Scott curiously focuses on David, the Weyland Corporation's android (the predecessor to Ash and Bishop, presumably) meticulously cleaning the ship, learning alien languages, riding a bike while spinning a basketball (?), and modeling his hairstyle after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a curious connection to a story of conquest, a stranger in a strange land.  His fingerprint has a W for the Weyland Corporation engraved into its whorls.  David engages in his own scientific discoveries, reads dreams, and engages the crew member with philosophical wordplay (though nothing is as wildly fun as Lance Hendricksen's android Bishop putting his hand over Bill Paxton's marine's hand and playing the knife game!).  Scott's focus on David makes him one of the most interesting members of a motley crew that sadly is less interesting than both the crew of Alien and Aliens.  Charlize Theron, introduced dripping wet from hypersleep and crunching out push-ups, emerges as Meredith Vickers, representative of the Weyland Corporation who funded this trillion dollar trip to the stars, and stands out as does Idris Elba as Janek, the Captain of the ship who seems to have conflicted loyalties and a few fun lines of dialogue but not enough.  Nearly everyone else fades into the background.  A make-up encrusted and nearly unrecognizable Guy Pearce appears via hologram as Peter Weyland, mysterious benefactor of their trip, founder of the company responsible for sending the Nostromo and the Marines into harm's way in previous (later, chronologically) films.  

In an astonishing unbroken sequence, Prometheus majestically banks and lands on the planet near a stunning array of pyramid hives and straight lines ("Nature doesn't make straight lines" one scientist muses) with a long take that evokes the spookiness and beauty of Mayan temples, Egyptian pyramids, and Easter Island statues.  I think Prometheus is at its best when Scott is showing these long shots and evoking the sublime and the beautiful, drawing parallels between Egyptian sarcophagi and the pods used for space travel, the runes on the doorways that are both old technology and new.  The build-up is quite intense, and as a viewer, the fear of an alien popping out is always omnipresent.

For Shaw, a Christian as evidenced the cross necklace that she prominently wears, this trip into the unknown is a spiritual one, one that will answer the unanswerable questions that opened this review.  Alas, the film then becomes bogged down in its own tropes (bad weather causing the group to fragment, crew members making reckless decisions, violations of quarantine, David being David, etc...) it swerves farther and farther away from those questions.  Yes, there are dune buggies (cool!), red flying soccer balls that scan the area and form a video game like hologram back on the ship (double cool!), as well as spooky shots of dark caverns being explored which always make the people look like they are in the esophagus of a larger beast.  Shaw is subjected to the single scariest sequence in the film, which I won't spoil, but I will admit to squirming in my seat during it.  The way Ridley Scott and his script addresses motherhood and abortion is both riveting and disturbing.

Yet, for all of its intrigue and gorgeously dark visuals, Prometheus stumbles.  Ridley Scott drops Meredith Vickers' character for about 30 minutes straight only to have her reappear and pick up as if nothing has happened.  Explorers who get lost (despite a plethora of technology) and are forced to stay overnight in the cave act nonsensically (maybe we're supposed to believe they are hypnotized?). A final action sequence seems rushed unnecessarily, so the decisions by major characters, from suicide to fleeing, seem curious.  The conclusion never seems ind doubt.  And, Ripley-I-mean-Shaw's final confrontation with an alien again feels rushed and shot clumsily as to drain the suspense and fear from the scene.  Although the payoff is quite good and fitting.  I like both Rapace and Fassbender's performances in this film, and I remained disappointed in a late choice regarding Theron's character.  It seemed like there was more potential to be explored and a possibility of a double-heroine attack duo.  But, alas.  

I will admit to the breathtaking aspect of seeing moments from Alien referenced in this film in terms of sets and production design.  There are moments of great suspense and horror and much leaning forward in my seat.  Yet, the very last shot of the film seemed superfluous as well as not as well-made from a production standpoint in an obvious and unnecessary piece of exposition (If a viewer cannot connect the dots without that, I don't know what to say).  For me, it was unnecessary.  However, as a film, the ideas in Prometheus are interesting and raise questions about biological warfare, creating and destroying a species or planet, as well as the David factor, the android questioning its makers about why it was made, a nice touch.  The barren woman who suddenly becomes pregnant, the possible reasons why earth would be targeted, the infusion of Christian symbols and motifs of sacrifice are all similarly thought-provoking and cloudy.  I remain a fan, yet frustrated.  Why didn't Scott have the boldness to wrestle even more deeply with these ideas?  Who made us?  Why did they make us?  Where does life come from?  Why choose to extinguish said life?  Ridley Scott clumsily telegraphs a potential sequel; here's to hoping Prometheus makes enough money to enable someone, maybe not Ridley Scott, complete this grand vision.  Is there a director's cut of this film that will answer some of these non-commercial questions?

The 1979 tag line for Alien, one of the best of all-time, states "In space no one can hear you scream," but I wonder if they can hear you become frustrated and confused.  I'll have to ask David.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, James. I think you are spot on about most of what makes this film appealing and, thus, what leads it to disappoint. It does gesture toward some larger questions that are very interesting--the very favorite of mine being the ones that raise doubt about whether artificial-life deserves to be treated as subhuman even as it exceeds human ability. These wonderful questions aren't engaged fully, though, and this is frustrating. If we think back to Blade Runner, some of the same themes are explored in terms of artificial life, but this is almost the entire focus of the feature. Meanwhile, Prometheus tries to accomplish ten times as many things in the same time, while also aiming to be a box office hit. This bodes badly for philosophical meditations, and that's certainly something to reconsider in cinema today, especially when high quality series have the ability to explore these questions in significant depth to a degree that a feature film simply cannot (I'm thinking here of the superb Battlestar Galactica remake that will put films to shame on the artificial life theme for decades to come, I suspect).

    Economies of time and space (no pun intended) also put real limits on how many characters can be developed and to what depth. Promtheus definitely suffers from overextending in this realm, even if I think Shaw manages to echo-rather-than-duplicate Ripley's character.

    And yet the photography and effects were stunning. The bizarre plot holes are almost forgiveable when we feel the impact of the magnetic storm. The sets/locations are really are incredible, and all the cool things you mentioned were definitely cool. (I'm with you 100% on the Shaw medipod scene. Whoa.)

    My final estimation is that I was lucky to love Alien(s) but without having ever been obsessed with them. I didn't feel so much weight from those films and I was able to lower my expectations. I expected a beautiful and fun space thriller, and that's what I got. This doesn't rate very high on my scale of "fine cinema," but that doesn't necessarily limit my enjoyment. And, aside from comparisons with other android characters/performances, I thought David was superb. I really wanted the film to focus even further on him, and I loved his role as both a benevolent and malevolent force among the crew...

    For what it's worth, though, I'd rather there not be a sequel and instead that in ten years I'm commissioned to write the script on a reboot. I think fewer characters and lower stakes (can this be an accidental discovery rather than a search for our makers?) could lead to much more intense payoff. The magic of the first Alien film, of course, was its containment.