Monday, June 11, 2012

"We were so wrong..." - 'Prometheus' review

The very first shot of Prometheus, Ridley Scott's much-hyped, already much-discussed return to science fiction (not to mention the Alien franchise, sort of), is of the Earth backlit by the sun, the camera gently moving up to catch a glare of light. It's the first in a long string of references to Stanley Kubrick's seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the whole structure of the first act -- a pre-history event, iconography that beckons a journey to the limits of space, an explicit pursuit for the origins of humanity -- to neat little dialogue inversions like "Open the back door now!" as opposed to "Open the pod bay doors, Hal" or, my own favorite, a robotic "Good morning, David" early in the film that almost echoes HAL 9000 in cadence. It's even got some nice little visual nods, like an old-age Guy Pearce who looks remarkably similar to the old-age Dave Bowman at the end of 2001.

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Prometheus is not a remarkably original film. Nor does it claim to be. Its structure, dialogue, and visuals quote quite freely from other Alien movies, from 2001, and from other cosmically-inclined sci-fi. Its search for the origins of life is, as many detractors have already pointed out, nothing special. In fact, Prometheus is a deeply flawed film. It doesn't quite know what it wants to do with its pursuit-of-God storyline, and that's actually because -- wait for it -- the whole thing is a damn MacGuffin. It's a set up, a cruel joke the film plays. The search for God (or, the alien beings who created us), as it were, actually turns up pure Evil (or, the aliens that will try to destroy us). Many of its ideas feel half-baked, its dialogue is pretty poor, and the most captivating character is the robot. But still, it's hard not to marvel at the thing, a behemoth of a visual accomplishment that feels like a "flash sideways" (for Lost fans) into the Alien universe.

After a few ambiguous opening scenes that tease the alien race our crew of star-gazers, scientists, and corporate workers attempt to hunt down, Prometheus truly begins its astounding first act. Michael Fassbender as David, the crew's soulless android, walks around the pristine ship, spies on his sleeping crewmembers' neuron activities, and watches Lawrence of Arabia (as a sidenote -- the brief look at Lawrence in 3-D is pretty weird but absolutely gorgeous. And I feel awful for admitting that). He even dies his hair blonde and tries to mimic the mannerisms of Peter O'Toole. It's creepy how well Fassbender pulls this off, but the real hat trick here is that the film is telling you up front that these characters, this entire plot, is nothing original. It's a conscious reappropriation, a postmodern and rampantly excessive blend of signs. One thing I would love to chart on a second viewing is how David incorporates Lawrence's ideologies and words into his actions (there is at least one moment where he consciously says lines from the film).

Prometheus has a really incredible sense of space, with some grandiose shots really bordering on the sublime. Ridley Scott has, even in his weaker years (aka, the last decade), always had a great sense of the visual, the awe-inspiring. He knows how to work with great cinematographers and designers to really create worlds. And even with a few too many wide landscape shots (gorgeous though they may be) and a few too little claustrophobic moments, his work as a director is nothing if not impressive. Be it on the spaceship Prometheus or in the Chamber where the crew discovers remnants of a race who may (or may not) have created life on Earth, Scott finds ways to channel wonder and terror in perfect alteration, thanks in large part to the work of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Even the 3D feels wonderfully precise and atmospheric throughout.

Unfortunately, these technical elements -- including Dave; again, let me stress just how great Michael Fassbender is in this movie -- are about where the greatness stops. The crew has some nifty players, notably Idris Elba, who does a great little bit as the gruff, salty-if-depressed Captain, and Charlize Theron, whose ice queen corporate representative has a nice bit of nuance that she manages to bring out even if the screenplay doesn't. And, lest we forget, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, finally back to being fearless after that banal Sherlock Holmes detour), this film's Ellen Ripley (her nickname is even Ellie -- get it? Get it? Get it?). Rapace has the gentleness to make Shaw work as a genuinely curious and benevolent researcher, but when the crap hits the fan -- look out. There's a scene in the middle of the movie (you know it if you've seen it), where Rapace is just incredible. It's terrifying, and will suck all the air out of the auditorium (regrettably, it's probably the only truly scary scene in the movie).

Then there's the rest of the nonsensical crew that do and say really stupid things. It's in these sideline characters (of which, let's face it, there are simply too many) that screenwriters Damon Lindelof (of Lost notoriety) and Jon Spaihts really show their short-sightedness. But even if their dialogue is sometimes maddeningly redundant, their characters peskily inert, and all the inter-personal conflicts easy to peg from a mile away, I still can't completely fault this screenplay because it has some real balls. It both de- and re-mystifies the Alien franchise by presenting you with what you think are answers, only until you realize these are just assumptions the characters are making. You think things are connecting directly to Alien, only to realize they aren't. At least, not really. Or, not yet.

Yes, Prometheus ends with a lot of "oh hey, there's a sequel coming" nonsense (and Lindelof has said as much, unfortunately, because I think the film does stand on its own). When it's not poking towards Alien and just running on its own steam, Prometheus is pretty outstanding. It's got nifty thrills, magnificent visuals, and a search for the absolute Truth that only ends with a slap in the face. It's too easy to dismiss Lindelof/Spaihts' screenplay as lazy, unoriginal, and hackneyed. There are things about it that meet those labels, sure, but it manages to wedge together two very diverse structures -- Alien and 2001. Or, to put that another way: it's about monsters that devour humans, and it's about humanity's metaphysical search for the great beyond.

In that sense, it's incredibly high concept. It's a film that will alienate a lot of people (ha, alienate; get it? Get it?), and I'm incredibly curious to see how Ridley Scott inevitably re-edits/expands it for DVD release. But while I'm able to recognize that it's got some gaping flaws and the last half hour is nowhere close to what the first hour promises it could have been, I can't help but find Prometheus a curiously laudatory effort. It has big aspirations for its franchise and for its genre. It avoids feeling like an annoying prequel while still answering some questions, avoiding others, and emerging as its own story. Ridley Scott may have ultimately traded the deftness of Alien for the bombastic and none-too-subtle lavishness of his recent epics, but somehow or another, it works. It's almost great. Almost.


Anonymous said...

So it was just okay?

Dan O. said...

The promotion for this film made it look freakin’ awesome but also, a lot like Alien and I think that’s the big problem with the film. It’s pretty much the same formula used over again and even though Scott tries his hardest to get our heads past that, it’s too obvious, too quick. Good review James.