Sunday, June 10, 2012

Film Review: Prometheus

Sure, much of the dialogue may be quite silly and pulpy, and yes, many of the decisions by supposedly intelligent characters may very well be looked upon as ranging anywhere from misguided to downright ridiculous (one certain scene wherein an otherwise bright biologist decides to play cute with a cobraesque alien creature with inevitable bad endings is so stupid it is unbelievable in any scenario), but between the visual splendor of the film and the oft-times physical tension of the narrative, it is a pretty safe bet to make the bold exclamation that after years of cinematic doldrums, Ridley Scott, the once and future king of psychological space horror is indeed back in rare form with Prometheus, the director's twentieth film.

Actually, to put all the proverbial cards on the table, one surely must admit to having lost faith in Ridley Scott as a director lo these past two, perhaps three decades or so.   Outside of thinking Blade Runner pretty damn close to a masterpiece of the genre (which I believe we all probably should) and Alien a near pitch perfect blend of sci-fi and horror (again, a reasonable thing to do), the oeuvre of Sir Ridley has not really been anything for which most, this critic most definitely included, have been able to muster up any sort of vim or vigor or excitable hullabaloo.  Sure, we get the occasional bon mot (the enjoyable but overwrought Thelma and Louise, the oft-maligned but visually stunning Black Rain, the visceral Black Hawk Down), but overall what we get from Scott most recently is mediocrity disguised as arrogant prestige (the tepid, though with occasional chutzpah of American Gangster, the inexplicably well-received nonsense of the Oscar-winning Gladiator,  the unfortunate banality of things like Body of Lies and Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood) - which makes his latest all that more refreshing to watch.

Now before we attempt to dive head first into what makes Prometheus such an enjoyable film to watch (and perhaps those things that maybe hold it back a bit from its potential) we should probably clear the air, so to speak, on any debates that may be raging about this being an Alien prequel.   Both the director and 20th Century Fox have laid it on pretty thick as to this not being an Alien prequel - mainly, one supposes, in order to get a wider audience than just those Alien aficionados.   But still, the imagery is here.  The references are here.  The H.R. Giger-inspired iconography is here.  For all intents and purposes, Prometheus is indeed an Alien prequel, or at the very least a peripheral prequel that perhaps acts more as part of a shared cinematic universe as opposed to the very thing that gave birth to the world that would one day become Alien and its non-Scott directed sequels.  What this new film amounts to then, is not necessarily the mother or father of Alien but it's older brother or perhaps a wayward uncle.  Though Prometheus shares DNA with Alien, it by no means retroactively begat the 1979 film.  Like the heroine of the film, searching for her maker, we have yet to come across that particular creature.  But, as we are here to speak of the new, not the old, I digress.

What Prometheus does amount to is a return to form of the director.   What Scott has always been above everything else, is a visual storyteller.  We see that in his early sci-fi work and we have seen it in varying degrees of success ever since.  Now we see it again in Prometheus, only stronger than it has been in decades.  Now let's face the fact, that even though the director's best and most popular works are of the genre, Scott has never truly been a science fiction filmmaker.  Save perhaps for how one looks at his mostly forgotten but quite engaging Legend (more fantasy one supposes), Prometheus is just the director's third film in the genre, but even so, it is a genre where Scott excels where otherwise he does not.  Prometheus, taking place in and around the year 2091, is the story of a group of mismatched space explorers searching for proof that some as-of-yet discovered ancient alien race is responsible for all life as we know it - and being so, is the director's most grandiose tale yet.  This is where Scott is at his best.   Whether it be the claustrophobic confines of an abandoned ship under attack from a horrific deadly menace or the noirish world of runaway androids in a futuristic dystopian L.A. or an epic search for the beginning of everything, this is where Scott needs to be.  This is where Scott needs to stay.  This is where Scott is most at home.

Inhabited with all the archetypes of the genre, Prometheus, the ship and the movie, is as much a character of cinema as anyone inside it.  Like Scott's own Nostromo or Kubrick's Discovery One before it, Prometheus is a living breathing entity that can be both safe haven and enemy number one to its inhabitants.  And just like in the aforementioned filmic cases, it is aboard this titular ship - and in the caverns beneath its ever-watchful, both maliciously and as guardian angel, eyes - where our grandiose story unfolds.  The film stars Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo, as an archeologist who, like Darwin centuries before her, has her faith shaken by her own discoveries; Michael Fassbender as David, an android that blends, to the actor's own admission, Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth, Dirk Bogarde in The Servant, Sean Young's replicant yearning for humanity in Scott's own Blade Runner, Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia and the HAL 3000 computer from 2001; and Charlize Theron as the smokin' hot, yet cold-as-steel head honcho who acts, along with David though to a greater degree, as the film's resident villain, or at least as the one voted most likely to get her much deserved comeuppance by the end of the third act.  We get an array of stereotypical fellow travelers (the gruff, don't-give-a-shit captain with a secret heart of gold; the rebel agitator who thinks he knows best; the bantering, comic-relief co-pilots) but these are the core three who, along with the good ship Prometheus, come together to form the crux of our space opera tale.

Now Theron may get pushed out of the limelight, as she is given very little to work with character-wise, but Rapace, and especially Fassbender manage to run away with the film on more than several occasions.  Rapace's Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a couldbe Creationist searching for answers she knows she will not like, is this film's answer to Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ellen Ripley - if this film actually needs an answer to the iconic Ripley, which it probably does not.   Perhaps she doesn't quite kick the ass and take the names that Ripley does in the series (then who does) but when we see her performing an emergency abdominal surgery - on herself! - we know this is a woman of the same strong stock.  Then again, this inherent toughness, this balls-out batshitcrazy personification should not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the actress as Lisbeth Salander in the movies.  But still, tough as those proverbial nails she may well be, it is Fassbender as David, who is, ironically enough considering his androidal beginnings, the humanity of the film.  Like Pinocchio, David is something inhuman who, though believing himself superior to human beings in every way, wants to be human himself.  The android who wishes he were a boy.  Of course this wouldbe boy, with his chilling voice that brings back memories of the aforementioned HAL (though with no singing of Daisy), is a sly, conniving and quite sinister sonofabitch with an agenda all his own.  Not the villain of the story but perhaps its antihero instead.

In sum, the visual audacity of the movie (once again, Scott is, if nothing else, a very visual storyteller) blended with the interuniverse brotherhood of the Alien films and the bravura performances of Rapace and Fasbeneder (and Theron when she is given the chance, as well as Idris Elba as the surly ship's captain) make Prometheus a welcome sight for those who loved Scott's earliest films.   Is Prometheus equal to the one two punch of the original Alien and James Cameron's machismo sequel?  Certainly not, as this film is the expansive, awe-inspiring yin to those film's enclosed, death grip yangs.  Is Prometheus all we were hoping it would be cracked up to be?  Perhaps not.  Is it the best damn thing Ridley Scott has made in thirty years?  Hell yes!  One of the taglines of the film, and something David states more than once as he antagonizes his human compatriots (and something one can read all about in David's own blog, one part of a pretty immense and immersive viral campaign for the film), is "Big Things come from Small Beginnings," and it is in these small beginnings that the birth of humanity as we know it through the Alienverse, will eventually be born.   No, Prometheus may not be the second coming of a bygone era of science-fiction - an Alien 2.0 if you will - but it still manages to be an enrapturing, enthralling motion picture experience well worth our time as moviegoers, as well as a film that avoids the overly-exposed and overly-exploded Michael Bay-esque idea of Summer blockbustery fare.  In the end, Prometheus may very be looked upon as the thinking man's Alien.  No more, no less.  And that is just alright with me.


Chip Lary said...

I liked this film (just posted my review), but I can tell I didn't like it quite as much as you did. It's funny that we both felt the attempt to pet the alien was beyond ridiculous.

Kevyn Knox said...

I think that a lot of those who are badmouthing the film (and I do not mean you btw) are perhaps being a bit too harsh because they wanted it to be the be all and end all of sci-fi movies - and it just is not that.

Candice Frederick said...

i kinda think it is a second coming of a new era of science fiction movies. it really restored by hope in them. and i thought the plot and script were just as beautiful as the visuals.

Kevyn Knox said...

Good to hear from a non naysayer. It is not as great as I was hoping for, but is as good as I was expecting. It will never be 2001, but what =could be, and why should we expect it to be. Still a solid, entertaining as hell piece of genre cinema indeed.

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