director: Ridley Scott
starring: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron
My lack of movie review authoring over the last year is due partly to the “reality” commitments of a career, significant other and various other familial obligations, but mainly due to the lack of real thought-provoking cinema that stirs something in me to write about it. Enter the much-anticipated, much-hyped “Prometheus,” marking Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in 1979’s seminal “Alien.” I hold the latter and its James Cameron-helmed sequel in high regard, and so the moment I heard whisperings of a potential Scott-helmed prequel, the fanboy geek in me began to get giddy. They hype has been building over the last six months, rising to a fever pitch with an onslaught of trailers, viral videos and interviews. So, does “Prometheus” live up to the hype? I’ll attempt to answer but will delve into spoiler territory to do so. If you haven’t seen the flick, I’ll only suggest that it’s a must-see film, albeit not one without flaws. Check it out, then come back here for the rest. Oh, and do yourself a favor and see this on IMAX while you can — consider it mandatory.
I’ve seen it twice now, and I’m glad I did before rating it. A second viewing went a long way toward dispelling some of the misgivings I had about the film’s execution, though not all of them. That said, “Prometheus” gives its audience plenty to think about and debate. Any flick that sticks with you and gnaws at your conscience is worth the effort to see. The audience at the midnight premiere showing I went to sat in stunned silence for about a minute after the end credits began to roll. The nervous energy that kept everyone at maximum tension throughout the film was then released in the form of anxious, urgent discussion of what we’d just witnessed. I think that’s always a good thing.
The film’s “big ideas” about the origin of human life are as thought-provoking as they are sacrilegious. I shudder to think what the religious fundamentalists of the world will think of the subversive theory that our creator(s) may not be of the holy ghost variety. Then again, I’m not inclined to think the apparent origins of human life on Earth are as obvious as they seem to be on the surface of “Prometheus,” specifically in the opening scene. Holloway asks a pertinent question about halfway through the film: “who made them?” in reference to the engineers. Indeed. The idea of faith versus science runs throughout the film, which should be no surprise since former “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof had a hand in the scripting duties. Rapace’s Dr. Shaw is the “woman of faith” serving as the counterpoint to everything the film seems to be showing us on the surface. She can’t bring herself to think of humanity as a failed science experiment of godless, malevolent engineers. My mind continues to churn with analysis of the possible truths the film hints at.
Let’s talk specifics about what worked and what didn’t. My list of what didn’t has shrunken since my second viewing, as I sat through much of my first viewing terrified of what might be lurking around the next proverbial corner of the film. I wasn’t focused on the ideas, characters and dialogue enough to have appreciated the underlying subtext. That said, “Prometheus'” biggest flaw is that it doesn’t exhibit the greatest strength of “Alien” and “Aliens:” the characters. Noomi Rapace does a perfectly capable job as lead protagonist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, but Ellen Ripley she ain’t. The rest of our cast is good but largely unremarkable save the remarkable performance of Michael Fassbender as android David 8. Fassbender has been on a roll since “Inglorious Basterds” a few years back, and he’s the acting highlight here.
The visuals of “Prometheus” are second to none. With the opening sequence of the film, it’s clear they’ll trump any character work, sweeping over the terrain of a primordial planet (Earth?). This carries on throughout, whether in the deepest reaches of space or the lower atmosphere of LV-223, the planet upon which the good ship Prometheus makes its landing. This is a film that begs to be seen in IMAX 3-D. If you’re going to make the effort to see it in theaters at all, you must do so on IMAX.
While the many CG effects shot are flawless, it’s the practical work that really impressed me. I think most audiences don’t think about it consciously, but the presence of real, practical sets versus the green screen fakery inherent in movies like the Star Wars prequels IS discernible, no matter how talented the effects artists. The massive sets that create the reality of the Prometheus and the engineer pyramid put you there with the characters. Add IMAX and 3D on top, and you’ve got one of the most impressive-looking movies of all time. I’m just as impressed (and disgusted, at times) with the makeup work. I love the design of the engineers, evoking humanity and the exact opposite at the same time. And the “HOLY F#@K!” moment of the film (you know what I’m talking about) was as mesmerizing as it was revolting. I couldn’t look away despite the fact I wanted to.
“Prometheus” is not without its flaws and, while some of them have been lessened by a second viewing, there are still some issues. The hallmark of the successful Alien franchise films are their characters, each with distinct personalities that force the audience to invest in their well-being (or rooting for their demise). While the crew of the Prometheus isn’t a group of cardboard cutouts, none of them compare favorably to those in “Alien” or “Aliens.” As I said earlier, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is good but can’t hold a candle to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (though I gave Shaw credit for giving herself the Cesarian section from hell). I like many of the other characters, Holloway and Captain Janek in particular, but the good moments they did get seemed abbreviated and lacking the depth to make me truly care about them. I do wonder what may have been cut in the way of developmental scenes to get the film to its 2 hour and change running time. I eagerly await the eventual DVD.
One of the modern cliches of horror films are its characters’ tendency to do stupid things that leads to bad things happening to them. I don’t know about you, but taking my helmet off; touching alien corpses and petting alien cobra snakes would likely be the bottom three things on the “List of Things I’d Do When Visiting an Alien Planet.” Millburn’s sudden change of heart, going from “I’m scared of a long-dead alien corpse” to “Hey, cute little alien snake, come here so I can pet you!” is the most non-sensical moment of the film and one that really bothers me.
Also non-sensical is approaching an obviously-deformed crewmember who’s been missing for hours after spending the night in an alien pyramid after finding his pal dead with an alien cobra down his throat. “Hey buddy, welcome back to the ship! What is that, a new yoga pose?”
One of the stories about the film’s conception and production I’d heard multiple times leading up to the release is that Charlize Theron had “worked with” Ridley Scott to develop her Meredith Vickers character and give it a little more meat. I assume that meant making her Peter Weyland’s neglected daughter. I don’t have a huge issue with it, but it felt shoehorned into the movie, and altogether without subtlety. The awkward line and emphasis on “FATHER” is groan-worthy and a needless distraction, especially at that point where the film was nearing its climax.
The final big flaw, one which I’m conflicted about, is the film’s final scene. The now-dead engineer, impregnated by a giant facehugger (there’s your evolutionary link to the Alien franchise) gives “birth” to a clear predecessor of the alien xenomorph we meet for the first time in “Alien.” While the scene in and of itself is “cool” from a mindless fanboy perspective, it doesn’t work as the epilogue to everything that came before it. It’s another example of where shoehorning something in to satisfy a third party (whether it be Charlize or the nerdy fanboy contingent) dilutes the potency of what could have been an even greater film. I do wonder what my take would be had the scene been tacked on after the end credits instead of robbing the chockful-of-potential shot of an operational engineer ship taking off LV-223 with Shaw and David en route to their homeworld.
Other nerd points:
- The alien ship in “Alien” is NOT the one in “Prometheus.” “Alien” takes place on LV-426 (aka Acheron) many years later. The eventual “Prometheus” sequel may or may not link more directly to “Alien,” but I think we’ve learned enough now that we can draw our own conclusions as to how that ill-fated craft ends up on LV-426 and creates some very bad days for Ellen Ripley and her counterparts. My take is that the alien development we see in “Prometheus” (David infects Holloway, Holloway impregnates Shaw, Shaw gives birth to giant facehugger, facehugger impregnates engineer, engineer gives birth to xenomorph) is one of the first steps in the evolutionary development of the alien we eventually see in “Alien,” and the engineers use this development as a bioweapon. The ship full of eggs in “Alien” is a military bomber en route to some unfortunate planet, ready to deliver its payload.
- Why do the engineers want to destroy humanity (assuming the conclusions drawn by the Prometheus crew are true — and I think they are based on what those urns started to do the moment they detected a human presence)? David indicates the engineers were all but ready to take off in their ships for Earth, loaded with the payload of black goo. The carbon dating of the engineer corpses in the pyramid places their time of death around 2000 years ago. The film takes place in 2093, placing their time of death right around the birth of Christ. Were the engineers none-too-please to learn humanity was, in fact, worshiping a false god? My other thought stems from the way the living engineer treated David upon meeting him for the first time. He seemed initially to be embracing him as one of its creations before having a change of heart and ripping his head off. Did the engineer realize David was an artificial creation of humanity and get pissed humanity was taking their own try at playing god? I hope Shaw gets her answers in “Prometheus II: The Wrath of Ill-Tempered Albinos.”
- Plenty of questions about what the black goo was designed to do and why there’s a giant human and/or engineer-like head in that storage room, but I’m much more interested in the relief of the alien on the wall overlooking a sarcophagus-like container topped by a translucent, green stone of some kind. To quote Brad Pitt in “Se7en:” “WHAT’S IN THE BOOOOX?!!”
All in all, I’m thrilled Ridley Scott’s back in the sci-fi game, and while “Prometheus” isn’t perfect, it’s a worthy entry into the genre and one that outshines much of the other dreck currently gracing our silver screens.