Motion Pictures Reviewed: Prometheus

The wait is over: three decades after Blade Runner, Ridley Scott returns to the genre he redefined in Alien‘s spiritual precursor/successor, Prometheus. Does Scott’s bombastic space case make for universal appeal, or does it find him going boldly where every man has gone before?

A few months back I posted a relatively breathless preview of Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus, the insanely-hyped science fiction creationist epic set before the iconic space-horror visual orgasm that was 1979’s Alien. Ever since 1982’s Blade Runner, Scott’s spent the past 30 years distancing himself from the genre that put him in the critics’ corner, inspiring film students, sci-fi junkies, and popcorn-lovers alike to openly embrace the ideas of subtly dystopic, corporately-controlled intergalactic shitshows. Alien, in particular, broke new ground in removing most of the sheen from futuristic space operas, opting for ethereal, industrial settings full of claustrophobic hallways, junktastic computer interfaces, and VHS-quality video feeds: it was situations and characters were realistic and the horrors that followed them were as strikingly inventive as they were visceral. Flash forward another three decades to 2012, and Scott’s budget (not to mention his ambitions) have become substantially… well, larger, a scale he uses to crank everything in Prometheus to an eleven on the “holy cow”-scale.

How is babby formed?

Scott’s desire to “think big” and “go big” with his artistic homecoming carries over into the main gist and (initially) driving idea of Prometheus: who are we, as human beings, and where did we come from? Scott’s “answer”, at least for the second half of that question, is a giant, bald, blue-pale muscleman who drinks some nasty black stuff in the first minute or so of the movie that causes him to rapidly decay, fall over a waterfall and spread his DNA around a prehistoric landscape, all after watching a gigantic spacecraft silently float away through thick grey clouds, back into the infinite sea of space. It’s an almost poetic hook that begs more questions than it does answers; fitting, given the nature of the ideas Scott aims to tackle here.

What’s with the sci-fi tendency to name spaceships after ill-fated mythological characters???

From there, we’re whisked off to 2093 aboard the Prometheus, a corporately funded deep-space research vessel tacked with uncovering the origins of mankind from the furthest regions of our galaxy. Their destination (with nods to devoted fans of the Alien franchise) is LV-223, a distant moon archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find numerous references to in ancient pictograms they found around the world. The uber-old depictions of humans worshiping giant humanoid figures that point toward a star system lead the two young scientists to conclude that these “gods” were actually prehistoric astronauts, inviting latter-day humans to “meet their makers” (a phrase ironically and a bit too overtly thrown around throughout the flick courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s crack/cracked-up script).

Brushing up on their history, no doubt…

What follows would be a bit too telling for people looking forward to literally unearthing the mysteries Scott hints at here, but I guarentee you there’s plenty of blood, sweat, and tentacles lurking in man’s cradle once the Prometheus has landed. Alien-franchise fans will have a blast with the impressive mythology-integration Lindelof brought to the table, particularly the shady background dealings of Weyland Industries, the company funding the expedition. Aside from the aforementioned alien nasties, the movie’s primary antagonists are these slippery corporate-types pulling the operation’s strings. Charlize Theron’s appropriately icy expedition supervisor Meredith Vickers makes interesting character-development turns, going from skeptical authority figure to surprisingly desperate woman-wronged; it’s fascinating and impressive that Lindelof could make such a seemingly two-dimensional character as deep as she is, but disappointing how short-lived and under-utilized her potential ends up given her strengths.

She’s as cold as ice…

Most other characters fall under this catagory as well: Repace’s Shaw goes full 360 on her concepts of faith throughout the film and demonstrates jaw-dropping resilience, yet lacks the rebellious punch of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. Idris Elba’s role as a blue-collared ship captain is appreciated but underplayed by the action at hand, especially given that he barely leaves the cockpit the entire movie. Marshall-Green’s Holloway character is wasted as a mere foil and romantic connection for Repace’s, leaving his potential impact in the film relatively unrealized.

Elizabeth Shaw’s not quite Ripley, but she still has to put up with some horrific situations in her underwear.

The rest of the crew are unfortunately underwritten, often carrying glimpses into what could have been (Sean Harris’ Fifield, the stoner geologist very much opposed to going down that dark, scary looking hallway over there) rather than what ends up being, which most of the time is a bloodied corpse. Most the blame falls on Lindelof here: he spends far too much time seeking ways to satiate franchise fan-bases without paying enough attention to drawing out his characters and making them act in believable ways. Believable character action, in particular, becomes an increasingly rare commodity as the body-count rises, crew-members often showing a lack of scientific restraint unbecoming of supposed world-class scientists.

Rising above the pack, however, is the ever lauded Michael Fassbender, sporting a fascist-esque blonde hairdo and impressive Peter O’Toole inflection. Playing the ship’s synthetic science officer (again, wetting the mouths of every Alien-franchise fan ever), David, Fassbender wryly takes his familiar role and inventively turns it upside-down, dropping hints at David’s underlying intentions and curiosities lost on the rest of the crew which merely shrugs his being off as pure mechanization. Watching Fassbender’s near-invisible wince when his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce under a crapload of makeup), says via hologram that David is “the closest thing to a son he has” despite the fact he “will never have a soul” is as heart-wrenching a display of humanity as any Scott has ever filmed in his near 40 year career. Early parts of the film dedicate themselves to observing David’s routines prior to the rest of the crew waking from their two-year hypersleep: he shoots hoops one-handed riding a bicycle… he studies countless languages and recites them perfectly… he watches Lawrence of Arabia, quoting O’Toole obsessively… he even watches crew-members dreams, a robotic voyeur seeking to understand what makes us tick. It’s creepy and intriguing all at the same time, ultimately trumping the initial creationist tones the rest of the script begs the audience to pay heed to.

Something to behold.

When Fassbender’s not busy stealing the scene, however, the scenes themselves are: despite character flubs, Lindelof and Scott have established a very impressive universe in Prometheus, one that ties into the Alien-franchise without necessarily feeling constricted by its design choices. Indeed, here Scott aims for grandiosity on a level unseen in Alien, dreaming up cavernous structures, gigantic alien creatures, massive action set-pieces, and gorgeous landscapes. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no slouch on the visuals, his framing artful and technique engrossing. The 3D visual effects courtesy of the Moving Picture Company are some of the best realized since (as much as I hate the movie) Avatar, coming across as tastefully immersive rather than gaudily exploitative. Disappointing, to a certain extent, are some of the creature designs, branching a bit too far away from H.R. Giger’s source designs and opting for familiarly fleshy beings rather than distinctly (and bracingly) alien ones. That said, the visuals, as a whole will definitely not disappoint.

Nothing ominous about this at all…

Aside from somewhat sloppy writing and lackluster character development, the only other glaring problems with Prometheus are the numerous plot-holes and unexplained circumstances that sometimes pop up in the film’s second-act. I feel like the ball’s in Ridley’s court here: he overtly (and, even cheekily) sets up the film’s finale less as a culmination and more as a launching pad for a potential franchise, leaving his big questions mostly unanswered and his remaining characters’ blindly heading again into the unknown. For some, this turn may cheapen the experience, but for others (franchise fans in particular), it will only whet appetites for another outing. Visually stunning but a bit too rough for its own ambitions, this hype-machine grinds metal on literary levels, but proves ample popcorn-potential for most movie-goers. Prepare to meet your makers!

Back to the Future: “Prometheus” and the reclaimation of a genre

After a 30 year absence from the science fiction film scene, Ridley Scott circles back to the genre that made him a household name…

2012 is quickly shaping up to be a promising year for the Hollywood blockbuster: Christopher Nolan is already teasing American audiences with six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, Peter Jackson has every geek wetting himself over The Hobbit, and Joss Whedon is pushing The Avengers harder than your local housing-development scumbag pushes crack cocaine. Yet as exciting as all this may seem, none of it really holds much of a kick: we already know Knight is going to be a knockout and a critical darling, while I’m sure The Hobbit‘s overindulgence with CGI will have every nerd practically bawling over how “amazing” it all looks… and The Avengers? Well, it’ll make a sh*t-load of money, so who honestly cares what it brings to the table? The truth of the matter is that despite the promise, I’m not all that psyched merely because the promises made are not ambitious enough to not be kept. Hollywood’s abandoned risks and it’s a shame.

Yes, Chris... we already know this is going to be awesome...

And yet, from the darkest corner of late-career mediocrity, a challenger appears in the least likely of places: a future courtesy of an iconic past. After abandoning the science fiction genre after 1982’s seminal sci-fi/noir Blade Runner, Ridley Scott took up a number of forgettable thrillers and epics that earned him respect as a capable director, but a reputation for playing it relatively safe considering his ambitious beginnings with genre-defining pieces like Alien. Regardless of how skilled Scott was at conveying action and entertainment on mass levels, his art was never quite as exciting without the wonderment of an fully imagined setting providing an engaging backdrop for his blockbusters. That’s why, in my opinion, the news of his return to the genre that made him with the forthcoming Prometheus warrants the most excitement out of any large-scale industry project next year.

Already drooling over this trailer after 5 seconds...

Part of the genius behind Prometheus is the hype its managed to generate. Is it a prequel to Alien? Can we expect the creepy, atmospheric flourishes that made Scott’s other sci-fi ventures as effective as they were? Will it have enough explosions to keep an audience reared on the Transformers movies interested in its apparently heavy-handed plot? Judging by the incredible trailer I posted above, the answer, thankfully, seems to be a resounding “yes”.

Looks familiar.

The “DNA” of Alien Scott has been hinting at for the past couple months is immediately apparent in both the tone the film appears to take AND the presence of very familiar narrative facets present in the 1979 precursor (the derelict ship, space jockey “gun chair”, and Giger-esque “spine halls”). A schooled fan-boy might even find himself keen enough to catch a glimpse of a distinctive “Weyland-Yutani” logo on the crew members’ space caps in the trailer (particularly on Noomi Repace’s before she’s flung spectacularly by some sort of gale-force space wind). The trailer itself is commendably edited: the title-introduction a noticeable salute to the classic Alien trailer, and the expert pacing capturing contemporary trends in Inception-ized attention-grabbing without sacrificing tasteful shots of vistas and breathtaking color for hyper-stylization.

"Dark of the Moon" my f*cking a$$...

Beyond what I could see, Prometheus is also shaping up to be a very well written movie as well, a quality irritatingly absent in the genre as of late. Damon Lindelof’s presence always seems to do the trick when it comes to effective myth-making, so I had little doubt the magnitude of a story that spans from mankind’s creation through well into our future would be handled with aptitude and grace. The well-balanced cast also seems an effective draw, offering two conflicting female protagonists, a wide array of talented ensemble crew-members, and Michael Fassbender playing an android in existential crisis (sign me the f*ck up).

The great Derelict hope.

With merely a handful of screen-caps and a minute-long trailer to back its cause, Prometheus has already left me convinced it will be the knock-out stunner of 2012. Ridley: welcome back, man. It’s been way too long.