Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday Review: Prometheus (2012)

    They went in search of our beginning. What they found… was a lot of stuff that went “Boo!”

    Prometheus was the Greek titan that stole fire from the gods. When they found out, the gods punished him by tying him to a rock, where an eagle would peck out his liver every day. Each day his liver grew back, thus starting the cycle anew and continuing for the rest of eternity. The moral of the story? Some things man was not meant to know. Or, to elaborate further, sometimes hidden knowledge is not all it’s cracked up to be.

    So it is entirely fitting that Prometheus falls far short of the mark. Ridley Scott here returns to his roots, revisiting the themes (but mainly the set design) of Alien - giving us a movie that not only purports to explain the origins of the Giger monstrosity from the first film but the beginnings of humankind itself. The story revolves around the expeditionary crew of the Prometheus traveling to a distant planet in search of alien life-forms, clues of which were discovered by archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in several digs around the world. The ship arrives at its destination after a two-year long voyage, and discovers the remnants of another ship, whose inhabitants have seemingly been wiped out by their own biological weapons.

    For years Scott talked up the possibility of an Alien prequel, claiming he was always curious where the infamous “Space Jockey” from the egg room came from. In Prometheus we find out these Jockeys (here called Engineers) are actually responsible for making biological life on Earth. For what purpose? The movie doesn’t tell us. It’s all about the big questions - not the answers. Which is all fine and dandy (and what most philosophy boils down to anyway), but the mission statement of the film is about explaining these Engineers - we learn everything we’re going to know about them in the opening scene, and nothing more as the film goes on.

    What Scott is doing here is basically merging the sensibilities of Alien with 2001: A Space Odyssey - the first shot of Prometheus is virtually identical to 2001’s. But unlike Kubrick’s movie, and as much as Scott and his filmmakers would like us to believe, Prometheus isn’t nearly as interested as exploring the mysteries of the universe as it is icky things jumping out of the shadows and killing off the Prometheus crew. 2001 drew its power from ambiguity: when Keir Dullea traveled “beyond the infinite,” what he found was so strange it couldn’t possibly be comprehended by human perception. Prometheus wants to trod much of the same ground, but the film is basically structured as a mystery - a jigsaw puzzle slowly put together piece by piece as the story develops. Unlike 2001, the mystery here can be understood - it’s just that Scott withholds the final piece (possibly for the inevitable sequel). It creates a disconnect throughout the movie that Prometheus never fully recovers from.

    It also doesn’t help that the film has one hell of a lazy script. This is real first-draft material here - character motivations, dialogue and the whole plot are severely undercooked. The characters are without shape, and they do things not because it’s what they would ordinarily do, but rather so they can move the plot forward. It’s kind of like watching the actors being jerked around on a chain - one minute they’re evil, the next they’re not. All of it leading to a poor ending where the fate of the Earth is in the balance and nothing of note is really resolved (not really surprising, as co-writer Damon Lindelof is responsible for one of the biggest wet-fart endings in history on Lost). It’s not a terrible movie, but it is frustrating - even though they’re virtually wasted, the pieces are all in place for something truly interesting.

    Pieces like Michael Fassbender. As the android crew-member David, Fassbender is the absolute best thing in the movie (kind of a trend throughout the actor’s career). David is assigned the upkeep of the ship while the crew is in hyper-sleep for two years, and passes the time by playing basketball and watching Lawrence of Arabia - he even dyes his hair blonde so he’ll more resemble Peter O’Toole. Although the script constantly undercuts his character (like it does everything else), Fassbender’s work here is phenomenal. For most of the run-time, his face is the blank expression we normally associate with an android, and yet Fassbender conveys a wide range of emotions: childlike curiosity, wonder and awe.

    Noomi Rapace does what she can, but her character suffers the most from the script. There are elements of her character that are perfect for the film’s themes - her faith in God, her inability to have children, her drive for discovery - but they’re introduced only when the script needs them. For instance, *SPOILERS* how she relates her infertility right before her alien-infected boyfriend has sex with her. Then, boom - she’s pregnant with an alien fetus *END SPOILERS*. It’s the hallmark of lazy writing, introducing character traits only as they’re relevant to the script. Also disappointing is Shaw’s struggle with her faith upon learning the Engineers created humanity. There is set-up for an intriguing exploration of religion vs. science, faith vs. fact - but it’s brushed aside at the end in favor of explosions and people getting killed by more alien beasties. Rapace throws herself into the role, going through the ringer both emotionally and physically, but it winds up being all for naught.

    Idris Elba plays ship captain Janek, and he reflects the blue-collar aesthetic of the original Alien. Elba grounds the movie nicely, never letting the proceedings get too pretentious when he’s around - although I would have enjoyed his performance more if he’d done it in his original English accent: his southern drawl is atrocious (there’s another character with an equally bad southern accent, which all but disappears after his introductory scene). Charlize Theron plays Meredith Vickers, the high-ranking executive for the Weyland Corporation (which has funded the expedition) who tags along to make sure the company’s money isn’t wasted. The script keeps trying to shove her into the villain role, but it just doesn’t take - primarily because she seems like the only one who makes sane decisions. There’s also a twist to her character rather late in the film that could have been fascinating had she had more of a presence throughout, but as it is feels cheap and tacked-on. The rest of the cast is filled with unmemorable actors giving unmemorable performances for completely empty characters - they’re there to get picked off one-by-one, nothing more. Oh, and Guy Pearce makes a brief appearance in horrid old age make-up.

    The real star of the film are the technical aspects - the cinematography, the sets, the visual effects and the sound design are all top-notch. For all his waning ability as a storyteller, Scott can still make a good-looking movie. He also uses 3D to marvelous effect, keeping the signature atmosphere of the Alien franchise with added layers of depth. Building off of H.R. Giger’s original designs, the look of the Engineers and the other aliens are suitably creepy, although they don’t come anywhere near the twisted genius of Giger’s sexualized abominations (I did like the penis-shaped snake that unfolds into a vagina-esque mouth, however). The film is also legitimately terrifying at times, one surgery scene in particular coming close to rivaling the chest-burster scene from Alien.

    One of the main reasons Alien turned out so well was because, at its heart, it was a simple story - the added layers were built around the central concept of a group of people stuck on a ship being menaced by a monster. Building off that, the filmmakers were able to make an instant classic, a film that influenced every horror and sci-fi film that followed. Prometheus set its goals higher, its themes loftier, but ultimately devolves into little more than a creature feature - a jumble of ideas that never go anywhere.

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