Movie Review: PROMETHEUS Remains a Stirring, If Muddled, Screen Experience

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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 the cast members 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 provides 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 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 five seconds flat (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.

Twentieth Century Fox gives Prometheus a grand Blu-ray debut in this four-disc collector’s set; that’s one disc for the 2D version, one disc for the 3D version, a disc devoted exclusively to supplementary materials, and a DVD copy (there’s also a downloadable digital copy).  A/V quality on the 2D and 3D versions is superlative.  Both dimensional experiences benefit from tremendous 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks that vacillate between the feature’s many scare/action sequences and composer Marc Streitenfeld’s operatic score.

In terms of picture quality, I’ll afford a slight edge to the 2D copy – the digital transfer is perfect, with natural textures, little edge enhancement, and great black levels (the inky shadows of the various alien tunnels have great depth and vibrancy).  But the 3D version more-than holds its own.  While the image is a hair darker than the 2D version (and that’s saying something, considering how visually gloomy the whole film is), it never descends into incomprehensible murk and loses very little focus and detail in the transition from 2D to 3D.  Better still is the quality of the 3D image; the pop-out effects evince no instabilities or frame shuddering, working instead to seamlessly transport viewers into Scott’s multi-plane canvas.  This is a showcase disc for 3D TVs and Blu-ray players – the opening sequence on a pre-prehistoric Earth and Rapace’s emergency self-surgery should be enough to turn skeptics into 3D converts.

And then there are the special features.  Brace yourself, ‘cause I’m about to drop one of those hyperbolic statements of praise that I normally hate dropping.  Even if you hated Prometheus in its theatrical format, the bonus features on this four-disc set are essential for film buffs; they analyze the picture from every angle.  On the 2D disc, we start off with two audio commentaries, and each is terrific in its own right: a solo track with Ridley Scott, and a joint track with screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (the commentary edits both participants together).  Disc one continues with “The Peter Weyland Files,” which have slightly extended versions of the unique marketing videos that previewed Prometheus‘ dominant themes and obsessions (Guy Pearce’s TED talk is the most dynamic one, but I preferred the lilting creepiness of the “advertisement” for Michael Fassbender’s David); a Weyland Corporation Second Screen; and just under forty minutes of deleted/extended scenes.

About those…

The only downside to this package is that it provides only the theatrical cut and not the extended cut that Ridley Scott hinted at after the picture’s theatrical release, and that’s a problem since many of the deleted scenes go a long way towards addressing the logistical concerns that viewers had with the film last June.  It’s important to note that not all of these excisions merit re-entry in the film – the beginning of the theatrical cut has an oblique menace not present in the longer alternate opening; the extended beat between Pearce and Theron is still much ado about nothing; and the alternate denouement plays even more like a neon sign-post for a Prometheus sequel than the current ending does – but the ones that do work feel so necessary that I’m at a loss as to why Scott and editor Pietro Scalia cut them in the first place (other than the ones stemming from, y’know, Prometheus‘ numerous budgetary and ratings concerns).  Ridley Scott has earned the right to release his movies in whatever format he wants them, and if he prefers this theatrical version, then so be it.  However, given the quality and nuance of the deleted scenes, I hope he reconsiders.

Disc three has the set’s other great supplement: the three-and-a-half-hour Furious Gods: Making Prometheus documentary.  Created by Charles de Lauzirika, who also directed the behind-the-scenes materials on Fox’s wonderful Alien Anthology set, Furious Gods covers every aspect of Prometheus, from pre-production through its post-production and release travails.  Some of this stuff overlaps with the two commentaries, but most of it is fresh, and it comes with an additional seventy minutes of “enhancement pods” to supplement key talking points.  Rounding the disc off is the Weyland Corporate Archive, which holds a vast repository of archival material, such as concept art, promotional footage, screen tests, and storyboard-to-screen comparisons.  The level of detail is exhaustive.

As a movie, Prometheus is flawed but engaging.  As a home media experience, it’s damn near perfect.  This four-disc set is the only way to go for film fans.

The Blu-ray Collector’s Edition of Prometheus streets on October 9th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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