08 June 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Prometheus

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

If you plan to see Prometheus this weekend, know that you are in for an endless buffet of visual astonishment, especially if you spring to see it in IMAX 3D. Ridley Scott belongs to the breed of filmmaker who can justify the use of the 3D gimmick. He poured everything at his disposal to make his new science-fiction film worth the extra dollars, euros, pound notes needed to watch it in an immersive environment. Prometheus is visual and aural splendor for the cinema.

Know also that you will meet flat characters who often do idiotic things (“Don’t pet the freaky alien snake-thingy! You call yourself a scientist?”) and more idiotic things (“Don’t take off your helmets, you morons! You call yourselves space-explorers?”) and more idiotic things (“Don’t go down into the basement alone!” Well, that doesn’t specifically happen, but many equivalent things do); a script that turns its initial concept into a shapeless mess by the halfway point; and the general disappointment of watching what promised to be an amazing return for Ridley Scott to the Alien universe he helped create end up as standard science-fiction thriller pulp.

Does this add up to a good film? Uh, I’m willing to say it does. And whether “good” is enough for you when it comes to Prometheus will depend on how much you anticipated its release and how much you devoured of its brilliant promotional and viral campaigns.

Prometheus presents a puzzle for me personally: It is far below what I wanted as a dramatic experience, yet the cinematic experience of it is stupendous. The tension here offers plenty to ponder, but in a meta-critical sense that has little to do with the story that Prometheus offers. What makes a good film? What makes a good story? What makes a good film story? How much do expectations alter those questions? Are they all the same questions? Yes? No? Buy a vowel?

I guess what I am trying to say is that you should go see Prometheus for yourself, no matter what the critical consensus says, simply because it engages in questions about filmmaking and will no doubt begin tons of debate.

The questions the film’s story brings up are far less interesting, and that is what I find unquestionably the most disappointing aspect of Prometheus. The marketing promised a “big idea” science-fiction film exploring humanity’s place in the univsere, with the extra tease of seeing how all of this tied into 1979’s Alien, now rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. Alien presented cosmic concepts through the implications of its cinema-changing design and the many things it left unsaid; Ridley Scott seemed on the verge of re-capturing some of that magic, but by going a different direction within the same universe.
I will avoid spoilers as much as I can regarding how Prometheus and Alien connect (something Scott remained cagey about during all parts of the production), but that is easier to do than I expected, because Prometheus is light on surprises. Its shocks are standard “movie twists,” where you thought B followed A, but turns out also C, D, and—gasp!—E! In other words, surprises that don’t re-write the movie alphabet. They aren’t terrible (although some don’t make any sense), but they aren’t those Big Ideas the film needed to shove itself closer toward the 2001: A Space Odyssey cosmic mind-blower that Ridley Scott started chasing before he fell into shooting a mediocre script.

And boy, does Scott chase 2001. Hard. He knows he can’t beat Kubrick at this—he’s publicly said as much—but when the first shot of your film is the exact same shot as the opening of 2001, and the next shots are vast sweeps over primitive landscapes that only require a solarizing affect to give viewers Dave Bowman flashbacks, you’ve placed yourself a bit too deep into the Kubrick game.

But … this opening is one of the better segments of Prometheus. It has the sense of the epic and monstrous, and Marc Streitenfeld’s score—one of the movie’s strengths—creates the weight of the dawn of life on Earth.

And the Big Ideas pretty much stop there. If you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, you know most of the story already. The remaining surprises are the small ones.

To re-cap what the trailer laid out: Archaeologist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner/boyfriend Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) piece together disparate images from ancient cultures to create a star-map, and propose that an alien civilization that may have fashioned humanity is inviting them to return to their creators. The Weyland Corporation at the behest of the dying Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce in shoddy old age make-up) raises a trillion dollars to send the spacecraft Prometheus toward the habitable moon surrounding one of the stars, LV-223. (Alien and Aliens took place on LV-426, so already Scott is making good on his promise that this isn’t exactly a prequel to Alien, but in the grand scheme of things it hardly matters.) Along with Shaw and Holloway and a primarily disposable crew are Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the icy and unpleasant Company representative, and android “David” (Michael Fassbender), whom Wayland considers his “son” and appears to be running on his own agenda.

Prometheus lands on LV-223 and discover the monumental evidence of the race that Dr. Shaw calls “Engineers” and their mysterious doings. Things go wrong. People make dumb decisions and get killed. Weird alien crazies pop up. Body horror. Conspiracies. Some muddle about religion. Fassbender being bad-ass. Very cool looking stuff. A hook for a sequel that heads the other direction from the “Alien” franchise. And then it’s over. Hey, The Dark Knight Rises comes out next month!

Ancient astronauts “seeding” the Earth is an old genre concept, already knocked around by folks like H. P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, and the writers of Star Trek, before 1968 when Kubrick altered visual science fiction with it in 2001 and Erich von Daniken published his hilarious comedy Chariots of the Gods? (No.) Prometheus does nothing astonishing with the idea except make it look great—again. It’s backdrop for space-monster action, and occasionally it threads into the foreground in bland speeches from Dr. Shaw and underdeveloped religious themes.
Fassbender is the standout among the cast, both for his performance as David and for David as a character. David’s android inscrutability makes for some of the movie’s best scenes, and Fassbender’s physicality and line delivery create a great balance between comfort and menace. The mystery of what David intends, what he knows, and what he learns constitutes the smartest parts of Promtheus’s script, and Fassbender nails it. The scenes of him operating Prometheus during the hypersleep of the other passengers are a highlight, and show Ridley Scott doing his best 2001 channeling, as well as a great nod to one of cinema’s other epics, Lawrence of Arabia. (Appropriately, I once wrote a post combining 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia as examples of the power of immersive 70mm cinema, the ancestor of IMAX.)

The only other character in the film who stimulates interest is Meredith Vickers, and that’s primarily because of the presence of dependable Charlize Theron, who just gave me Evil Queen goodness last week with Snow White and the Huntsman. Vickers is an arrogant company automaton with at least one trick up her sleeve. It wouldn’t be enough of a trick without Theron in the part, however.

The rest of the cast … nobody’s really bad, although Marshall-Green is the most underwhelming of the leads. They are all just playing standard movie characters, which is a disappointment considering how much Scott got from the cast in Alien, taking what seemed like underwritten characters and making them unforgettable individuals. In contrast, watching Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Shaw having family issues with her boyfriend seems so trivial. It’s just standard movie business-as-usual, and Scott should have demanded better from both screenwriter Damon Lindelof and his actors. When even Idris Elba feels generic, something has gone wrong. And poor Idris gets saddled with the worst “what the hell are you doing?” moment in the movie, when a character does something that makes sense for the story, but not a lick of sense for what we’ve seen from the character so far.

However, Prometheus never bores its audience; the visual aspects aside, the movie keeps a steady pace of bringing horror elements and a number of visual-effects action set-pieces. Although the movie never turns truly scary, it has a few queasy segments, especially the body-horror highlight of automated and rushed surgery. The finale gets maximum use from all the visual and sonic tools the filmmakers have at hand—people in my theater were actually plugging their ears because the cacophony turned shattering—and it almost distracts enough from how little is invested in the people on the screen or their bland quest. That is the dilemma of Prometheus encapsulated.
I mentioned it before, but it needs emphasis: Marc Streitenfeld’s score is amazing. The previous “Alien” films created a distinct music style for the series, coming out of Goldsmith’s atonal and eerie work for the ’79 classic. Streitenfeld breaks out of that mold with an expansive soundscape that feels as if he paid attention to all the epic music Goldsmith composed for Alien that Ridley Scott chose not to use. This music sounds like what I wanted the film to actually be, and complements the visuals marvelously.

All I can say about the effects work on the film that I haven’t already implied is that Prometheus already has a lock on two Academy Award nominations: Best Visual Effects and Best Production Design. Cinematography is also a strong possibility. I can find no fault in any of the technical categories, except the make-up on Guy Pearce. Prometheus isn’t eye candy, it’s eye caviar. (Yeah, I know a lot of people don’t like caviar—to my own shock, I do—so feel free to substitute “Peanut Buster Parfait” or other Dairy Queen delicacy of your choice.)

Ultimately, Alien suffers not a bit from whatever it is Prometheus is doing, which Ridley Scott probably intended. No matter what connections you can draw between the two films—and if you want Prometheus as a prequel to Alien, you can definitely have that—the bizarre mystery that infects the 1979 classic remain safely its own.

And, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch that film again. If Prometheus makes you do the same, that’s another reason to see it despite it many problems.

Musical bonus: Jerry Goldsmith’s “Theme from Alien” makes a brief return, enough to get him a credit in the end titles. Goldsmith is eternal!

My Summer Movie Scorecard
Prometheus . . . . . . . . . . B
Snow White and the Huntsman . . . . . . . . . . B
Men in Black 3 . . . . . . . . . . C+
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next new film in the series won’t be for two weeks: Brave.