Movie Review: Despite Issues, PROMETHEUS Is Uncommonly Provocative

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–Note: to read Part One on Alien (1979) in my four-part “Prepping for Prometheus” series, click HERE. For Part Two on Aliens (1986), click HERE.  For Part Three on Alien3 (1992), click HERE.  For Part Four on Alien: Resurrection (1997), click HERE.

Prometheus marks director Ridley Scott’s first science-fiction film in thirty years, and on first glance, it suffers in comparison with its predecessors.  While 1979’s Alien found Scott applying Kubrickian distance to an otherwise-rote slasher movie and 1982’s Blade Runner buried unknowable questions behind its revolutionary visual effects, Prometheus has a contemporary slickness of its own.  Gone are the previous features’ grungy, murky surfaces; the space tech and set design skew more iPod than NASA, and the various alien wonders get their digital perfection from the WETA VFX experts who handled Avatar and The Lord of the Rings.  Prometheus may be an Alien prequel, but the craft behind it is resolutely of the here-and-now.

So, too, are its inspirations: screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof have cobbled together a narrative equal parts philosophical tract, pulp space opera, and Cronenbergian grotesquerie.  Prometheus doesn’t aspire to the purity of Alien or Blade Runner – it wants to be everything to everyone, and for its first half, it succeeds.

Two things strike you about that opening hour: the visuals and the pace.  Working mostly in Iceland with his longtime production designer Arthur Max, Scott’s filmmaking eye presents an alien world teetering on the precipice of “gorgeous” and “savage.”  It’s fitting that he sight-checks David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia because Prometheus shares that masterpiece’s knack for conjuring up sweeping, endless vistas.  The look couldn’t be more dissimilar from Alien‘s claustrophobia; even when Prometheus goes inside, the results are eye-popping, like the massively scaled alien chamber presided over by a looming, gigantic steel head.  Whether he’s offering a glimpse into the earth’s extraterrestrial origins (Prometheus‘ impressive/disturbing high point) or creating nightmarish alien entities, Scott has created an instantly iconic sci-fi landscape.

Better still is the restraint he shows in exploring this world.  It takes Prometheus a long time to get bloody, and Scott uses that slow buildup to effectively lie out the pressing agendas at work.  We hang out with the major players, watch them travel through space on their way to a planet that might house Earth’s progenitors or investigate endless pyramid structures on the planet’s surface, and that time only increases the suspense.

We wonder how devoutly religious scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) will handle the possibility of meeting a non-divine God, or how that discovery could impact her relationship with her devil-may-care boyfriend and partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, giving Prometheus‘ lone bad performance), or how Shaw’s journey links to her mysterious financier Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, making a meal from a nothing part).  Most of all, we consider David (Michael Fassbender, giving Prometheus‘ best performance), the resident synthetic attendant, and how he processes the mission’s religious and moral implications; ostensibly, David should feel nothing about anything he’s not programmed to care about, but Fassbender’s lovely, mischievous work suggests the existence of a surprising – and often threatening – emotional intelligence just beneath the android’s placid surface.

Note: this first half is not perfect.  There are too many characters than the movie knows what to do with (including Rapace, who takes until a grisly setpiece at the midpoint to settle into her role), and Spaihts and Lindelof’s script prefers to have them blurt out their motivating traits and thematic concerns rather than to let these pieces emerge more organically.  Still, the drive and aesthetic force on display more-than compensate for any flubs, and it is refreshing to watch a summer blockbuster busy itself with ideas rather than just action.  Had Prometheus maintained this focus until the end, it might have become a brainy blockbuster to rival Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

The second half, on the other hand, drops that front, as Scott and his team take Prometheus from the realm of literate crowd-pleaser into a far more unforgiving place.  Unfortunately, when the narrative switches gears, so does the quality of the film.  Scott’s direction remains peerless (it’s his most technically confident, visually opulent drama since 2001’s Black Hawk Down), but the script hits more than a few rough patches.  Characters start behaving erratically – the last act reveals Theron’s enigmatic Vickers as a person of little importance to the story – the plot takes some unnecessary detours – as reclusive billionaire Peter Weyland, the great Guy Pearce gets saddled with an inexplicable narrative reveal that exists to provide the climax with a twist it doesn’t need – and the patience and slow build of the first hour disappear in favor of frenetic action beats – a crashing spacecraft sequence exists only so that the Prometheus trailers would have cool explosions to show off.

Very little of this material is outright bad, but the movie doesn’t offer much connective tissue to link it together.  It plays like a “Sprint to the Good Stuff” version, and a little more time and patience might have enhanced the coherence (and the scares) on tap.  Rapace’s final confrontation against Prometheus‘ Big Bad suffers the worst; what should be a tense standoff between different species extinguishes itself in about fifteen seconds (the Prometheus trailers are full of evocative shots deleted from this segment, so in some reality, an alternate cut does exist).

Despite these concerns, I found myself responding the strongest to the picture’s back end.  Whatever its faults, once Prometheus commits to its thematic darkness, it plunges the audience in without a tether.  See, much to their surprise, Shaw and her team do, in fact, meet humanity’s makers, and they run counter to 2,000 years of religious teachings.  At best, the film argues, God is a distant, inhumane savage who regards His creations the way a boot regards an ant (to reference another 2012 summer blockbuster), and at worst, He does not exist.  In both scenarios, the universe on display is random and brutal and full of horrors, a world where mainstream Hollywood often fears to tread (especially if they – like Prometheus – have a R rating and cost almost $200 million).

In his final scene, Pearce shares a moment with Fassbender that is breathtaking in its nihilism, and Scott never discredits their exchange for the sake of placating the crowd.  We expect our blockbusters to affirm and support, and how curious – and wonderful – that Prometheus remains steadfastly, stubbornly resistant to that notion.  In space, it’s not just that no one can hear you scream – it’s that no one cares if you do.

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