Saturday, June 23, 2012

Prometheus Movie Review

Ridley Scott’s highly-anticipated return to science fiction after a 30 year hiatus turns out to be provocative, fascinating and also deeply flawed. Scott has continued to ride a wave of good will brought about by having directed two of the best science fiction films of all time. Since then, he’s unleashed a stunning torrent of fodder for the masses, the vast majority of which has been utterly forgettable – even the best among them like Black Hawk Down.

In Prometheus he returns to Alien territory in a film that takes place within the same universe, so to speak, but is really cagey about the connections until the end. It takes place about 30 years prior to the events in Alien and like other prequels made long after their predecessors, it suffers from use of technology that is far more advanced than what was used previously. Consider that in Alien a simple two-dimensional grid pattern screen is used for tracking the creature and Dallas, represented by crude dots. In Prometheus, a high tech 3D holographic image of an elaborate system of caves can indicate where ay life is. To the great credit of the production team, the design of the eponymous ship: everything including walls and corridors; doorways and hatches, is fairly consistent with the original. Considering it is still the fictional Weyland Corporation, that makes good sense.

Prometheus provides two prologues before the story proper begins, which should tell you something about how complicated they’ve decided to make it. The first presents grand vistas of barren landscapes (Iceland?). An alien ship hovers over a waterfall. A chiseled humanoid, albino-looking extra-terrestrial drinks something that makes him double over in pain and disintegrated, his DNA falling into the water below. Presumably we’re meant to glean that this is the beginning of life on earth. Some alien intelligence has seeded the earth and set conditions for the genesis of human beings. DNA findings later in the film indicate that this same species of alien has the same DNA as us. It’s a fascinating sequence that suggests interesting questions about the origins of life, or maybe just man, on earth. This is the direction the film ultimately takes as the second prologue involves Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering cave paintings in the Scottish highlands. Apparently this painting has symbols also seen in other images from disparate cultures that span thousands of years of human history. This leads them to jump to the conclusion that some alien intelligence wants them to come find them in another galaxy.

This is all well and good, and for scientists interested in the origins of life this should represent an excellent jumping off point to seek answers. But why doesn’t it occur to anyone that if some alien culture left Easter eggs on earth 30,000 years ago, the likelihood of their being around to dispense answers in the present day to the mysteries of life is highly unlikely in the best case scenario? This is one of my central complaints about Prometheus: the science is poor while the fiction is, at times, great fun. If we take the prologue to be earth in a pre-life, or even just a pre-human, state, that puts its date at anywhere between 2.5 million and 3.8 billion years ago. Evolutionarily speaking, no species lasts long enough to traverse that many eons. When you start to calculate the time line, you realize that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts didn’t concern themselves too much with such details. Part of what makes Alien so successful is that it’s a totally self-contained film and storyline. There’s little discussion of the science outside of the biology of the creature they discover. The simplicity makes it believable. Lindelof and Spaihts extend their wings a little too far and lose their way in the process. When you bring in evolutionary science and the origins of the universe you’re treading on thin ice.

The story itself is really about a group of scientists who travel to the deep reaches of space on a four year mission to seek out this alien life that left these messages on earth. All they find upon arrival is a 2000 year old alien corpse that mystifyingly freaks out the biologist they brought with them. This same biologist who is frightened of a 2 millennia old dead guy is later so intrigued by a living snake-like alien life form that he goes face to face making eyes with it. There are more than a few inconsistencies and plot wholes like this one spread throughout the film. The cast in addition to Rapace and Marshall-Green includes Charlize Theron as Meredith Vicker. She’s the corporate representative on board. If she strikes you as lacking emotion and even acting a bit like an android at times, there’s a good explanation for that (one that could have been explored a little more if the screenplay weren’t so bogged down in making a monster movie), but it’s not what you think. There’s also the wonderful Idris Elba as the ship’s captain Janek. As a character, he’s not very well fleshed out, but Elba is such a good actor he even made Thor a little worth watching for his minor role. Guy Pearce makes an appearance as Peter Weyland wearing the worst old age makeup I’ve seen. It’s Back to the Future II bad. It’s so bad I thought it had to be a put on, that the character wasn’t as old as he claimed or something.

Finally there’s Michael Fassbender giving the film’s best all around performance as David, the android on board. Fassbender makes David so difficult to read. He’s an android designed to mimic human emotions to make his human counterparts more comfortable (homage to Haley Joel Osment’s character David in A.I. perhaps?). Theoretically David has no wants or desires. He does not act with malice or benevolence – only with intent. He is Weyland’s greatest creation and (without giving too much away I hope) notice the curious way the alien humanoid, when they finally meet him, touches David’s head and regards him, perhaps noting that his own creation (human beings) have achieved the ultimate evolutionary level of playing god by creating an artificial intelligence. Scott is great at creating these little subtle moments, but the sum total of the film’s parts don’t add up to anything truly profound.

What the scientists discover about the dead alien and the living organisms they encounter is shocking (probably more for them than for us) and part of the fun is in the discovery of viewing, so I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say that Scott quite clearly never had any intention of answering any of these wonderful questions that are posed early in the film. Lindelof and Spaihts don’t really seem to know where they’re taking the film except that it seems deliberately designed with a sequel in mind. But if we forget that for a moment, because I can’t allow future story possibilities to change my opinion of the work at hand, then the only conclusion I’m left with is that writers who don’t have any real answers to these big questions or who don’t bother to tackle them with full strength maybe don’t have any real convictions or anything interesting to say. Sadly, that’s how much of the film feels.

The production design is simply phenomenal, however. I can’t recall a more fluid and unobtrusive use of computer images in a film. Scott has his visual effects team employ physical effects and models in conjunction with the CGI so that the original Alien remains a visual cousin to the film. A lot of the old H.R. Giger designs are reused and reworked to create new images that are all quite familiar.

There is so much that is worth discussing in this film and I think that’s reason enough to recommend it. Even when it’s bad, it’s bad in a way I haven’t really seen from a big studio tent pole movie. It strives for something greater even if it falters along the way. It boldly recalls the great science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey with several visual cues and story elements. Ultimately I think the film would have worked better if Scott had unloaded the Alien baggage and made it a standalone film without any connection to it. At times it feels like a forced narrative trying to loop around in connection. I’m intrigued by the ideas and it irks me that this all feels like a ploy to get me to spend more money in two or three years.


  1. "The first presents grand vistas of barren landscapes (Iceland?). An alien ship hovers over a waterfall. A chiseled humanoid, albino-looking extra-terrestrial drinks something that makes him double over in pain and disintegrated, his DNA falling into the water below."
    Yes - the landscape is from Iceland and the waterfall is Europe's most powerful waterfall named Dettifoss.

  2. I actually knew it was Iceland because the end credits have a thank you or some mention for the Iceland film commission or the Icelandic government. I don't remember which.

    But I was trying to express that while watching the opening, my first thought was, "Hey, that must be Iceland." The credits at the end confirmed it for me.