“You are here.” Hmmm…
In spite of all the marketing and hype to the contrary, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus quickly establishes itself as an entirely different film from the groundbreaking Alien of which this is a sort of prequel. Right away, Marc Streitenfeld’s quietly ominous score strikes a contrast to Jerry Goldsmith’s work in the original film. Plus, the enigmatic opening sequence looks and feels unique. Whereas Alien was almost completely contained within a claustrophobic, man-made metal and plastic dungeon, Prometheus begins with a swooping 3D shot across rugged, natural terrain to a vertiginous waterfall formed by a muddy, surging river. It’s steeped in a curious awe of nature that never really figured into Alien but in a way will factor into the story at hand.
It’s too bad really that neither Scott nor the studio had the confidence just to make a big budget stand-alone sci-fi picture because that’s ultimately what Prometheus is. The two are linked, but they don’t need to be. Neither enriches the other. In fact, waiting for Prometheus to be Alien is needlessly distracting and a waste of the new film’s energy. Energy that could’ve been spent making Prometheus great instead of merely good, which is what it ultimately is. There are monsters to be had here, but this is not really a monster movie at all.
Briefly and without spoilers, the story involves the discovery of a series of historic artifacts that seem to point to the possibility that Earth has been repeatedly visited by an alien race – sort of a Chariots of the Gods situation. Patterns in the images point to a specific alien solar system that just happens to have a planet with a moon that just might support life. A space mission is funded by the mysterious Weyland Corporation to investigate whether there are aliens and if they are the ones who created mankind. Naturally there are (or were), but it remains to be seen what their exact connection is to us. You’ve also seen enough of these things to expect that Weyland will have some kind of sinister ulterior motive that may or may not be in the best interests of the crew or the rest of mankind.
Even thematically, you can see right off that Prometheus has more in common with Blade Runner or A.I. or 2001 than Alien. Yes, it turns out this mysterious alien race is the same as that of the “space jockey” who piloted the wrecked spaceship containing the alien eggs in the original film, but so what? Knowing that adds nothing to the original film. Knowing about the eggs and what they portend definitely adds a measure of suspense to Prometheus, but I often found myself simply waiting for the monster to show up instead of letting the film play out in its own way. And, while a monster figures into the terrific set-piece sequence (I’ll only say it involves some squirm-inducing emergency surgery and leave it at that), these parts almost seem like they belong to a different film. In the end, I couldn’t completely fight a sense of regret that the film wasn’t more like Alien even though it’s a solid film on its own.
As such, the best thing about Prometheus is simply being in the hands of a master visual stylist like Scott who has created yet another whole new universe to play in. There’s a richness and a detail and a specificity to the massive sets and the ships and the equipment that feels familiar and foreign all at once. It’s a feeling Scott perfected in both his classics Alien and Blade Runner and he’s able to do it again here. I spent the first half hour of the film just enjoying looking at things and how they worked. And, as you’d expect, Scott makes the most of the 3D. Prometheus isn’t quite as confident or imaginative in the use of depth as Scorsese was with Hugo, but 3D is much more than an afterthought or a gimmick and these are some of the niftier 3D images I’ve seen.
In terms of the story, Prometheus unfortunately isn’t quite as successful. The big philosophical ideas that hold it up, ideas about the search for God and our own creation, aren’t nearly as big or as well developed as they could’ve been nor are they particularly original. The already mentioned Blade Runner and A.I. are this film’s most obvious forbears. The questions Prometheus digs up are also never very satisfactorily addressed. In fact, there’s an increasingly disheartening sense as the movie goes along that the whole thing is just a setup for the inevitable sequel, which of course it is. There’s nothing wrong with that and it might pay off down the line tenfold, but I’d have preferred a little more self-contained satisfaction here and now. Call me impatient.
While thematically Prometheus isn’t as bold as it might’ve been, the writing excels in the smaller details, especially in interactions between the characters. Those characters could’ve been more sharply drawn, but the capable cast makes the most of them. Idris Elba (HBO’s The Wire, BBC’s Luther), is terrific as the blue collar ship’s captain. In fact, I wish a few of the other characters had been trimmed back and Elba had been given more room to work. When is Hollywood going to realize that this man needs to be the star of his own picture?
Even better than Elba is Michael Fassbender (Shame, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class) who plays the obligatory (for an Alien picture) android, David. There’s a sinister iciness to him at times, but it’s tempered with an engaging childlike wonder that again recalls Steven Spielberg’s A.I. and the David central to that picture. Fassbender’s aloofness is not a surprise, but that childlike quality is a new and appealing wrinkle from him. He’s the story’s main driving force and he completely delivers.
The jury is still out I think on Noomi Rapace who made a huge international splash as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish versions of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and here makes her 2nd English language film after Sherlock Holmes. She plays Elizabeth Shaw, half of the husband/wife archeology team who discovered the original artifacts back on earth. As written, she’s one of the most interesting characters – she’s a scientist but also religious and on the verge of confronting the very questions at the root of both her work and her beliefs – and she handles the considerable physical aspects of her role very well, but some of the quieter emotional moments weren’t quite as convincing. Perhaps that’ll come as she gets more comfortable acting in English.
Charlize Theron meanwhile was unfortunately saddled with the least interesting of the main characters. She plays Meredith Vickers, an executive with Weyland who you know right away will have some kind of ulterior capitalist motive. As written, she’s just kind of a one-note ice queen which plays too cleanly into Theron’s wheelhouse. That’s the way Theron comes across naturally and it’s only when the role has some unexpected nuance that she really seems to shine. There is little nuance in evidence here. That’s not to say Theron is bad, she’s just disappointingly not all that fascinating.
Adding up the good and the not-so-good, Prometheus is overall a good time at the movies. Though it doesn’t reach classic status, it still has the look and feel of one and that feeling alone is enough reason to see it. Add to that the appeal of Fassbender and Elba and it’s even worth seeing a second time. It’s actually the rare movie I wish had been longer. Most movies never justify a run time over two hours, but Scott is a skilled enough showman and he has an interesting enough story that he could easily have slowed down and developed it further. Instead, we’re just going to have to wait for the sequel to see if it plays out. Interestingly, because it can bounce off of Prometheus instead of being roped to Alien, the sequel has a shot at being an all around better film. We’ll see. For now, this great looking, well-acted, smartish sci-fi picture will have to do. And it does.
Filed under: Review