Thursday, July 5, 2012

Prometheus: Somehow, Without Spoilers

The critical reception for Ridley Scott's Alien prequel, Prometheus, has been mixed, but all the reviews I've read seemed to agree on one thing: that regardless of whether it was good or bad or somewhere in between, the movie was, at least, ambitious. I have a great fondness for "ambitious," even where it's hamstrung by horrendous execution. When it comes to art, I'd often rather watch someone fail while shooting for the stars than just succeed at shooting fish in a barrel.

So I finally get around to seeing Prometheus, and the question that kept coming to my mind was: where's the ambition at? On one level, I guess it's obvious: someone's spending $200 million on a movie, it's beautifully shot and they even took the trouble of post-converting it to 3D. So yeah, I get that ambition is involved in the undertaking. But in the story?

Let's put it another way. Did any of you guys see Alien vs. Predator (AVP)? Ridley Scott's on the record saying that he just couldn't bring himself to see it. Which is a shame, since he kinda sorta made a remake of it just without the Predators. How ambitious is that?

Hear me out: here's the setup. A pair of archeologists make a discovery of an image believed to be a constellation that's repeatedly referenced in the ancient art of multiple, unrelated, civilizations - including a prehistoric cave painting. As in AVP, an eccentric super-wealthy person named Weyland decides to fund an expensive and ambitious expedition based on some paper-thin archeological justification. As in AVP, the expedition features a misfit crew of experts, ranging from scientists to mercenaries. And once they arrive at their destination, the experts start acting like morons, with deadly consequences (again, like AVP).

Heck, I can be more generous to the expedition from AVP for two reasons: 1) it's easier to be caught flatfooted by extraterrestrial tomfoolery when you're exploring an ancient ruin on Earth, rather than on a planet half a billion miles away, and 2) those characters were in a freakin' B-movie directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, not a summer tentpole film directed by Ridley Scott.

I can't believe he wore that stupid scarf...

Back to Prometheus, the archeologists are played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, as scientists, hold the science. Rapace's character is an old trope, the scientist as spiritual seeker. She's the kind of person who--despite being a supposedly-elite scientist who would plausibly be put in charge of a trillion-dollar expedition--answers questions about the evidence backing her hypothesis by saying stuff like, "I choose to believe that it is so."

The seeker-scientist trope is awful, because it suggests that there's an irreconcilable gulf between science and religion, and that the only way for scientists to behave is to either do the science thing and be atheists or be, basically, completely unscientific New Age/Creationist types who somehow got PhDs (presumably by correspondence course). Meanwhile, Rapace's partner in archeology and romance is a type of unconvincing movie scientist never seen before, to my knowledge: an "ESPN X-Games scientist," a phrase that is both depressing and a direct quote from the actor playing the role, according to IMDB.

The rest of the movie sags around this hollow core: the franchise's best entries have enjoyed a strong sense of place and realistic workplace dynamics. The crew of the Nostromo made sense as co-workers with petty jealousies, banal complaints, and some true friendships; the Marine squad in Aliens had a similar grounding function.

The crew of the vessel Prometheus never makes that kind of sense, with its unscientific scientists and unadventurous interstellar explorers. They're largely a group of strangers, who act like they've never met before waking up from cryosleep. That setup aids exposition, (while the characters are introducing themselves to each other, they're also introducing themselves to us) but more so than the monsters and special effects, it also reminds you that you're watching a movie.

I can't go too much further into the plot without spoilers, and I'm pretty sure either Thaddeus or I will revisit this movie to bring the spoilage, so let's discuss what I liked about the film. As I said earlier, Prometheus is frequently beautiful, and many of the effects are stunning. Unlike some entries in this franchise, Prometheus contains some real scares and extremely tense moments. Most of the performances are well above the level that the script deserves--Charlize Theron and Idris Elba are mostly wasted, and Rapace brings a lot of personality to her oddball scientist.

The main reason to see Prometheus, then, is for Michael Fassbender's David, who sometimes seems like a refugee from another, better film. David's an android, a predecessor to the franchise's other artificial intelligences, like Ash or Bishop (although, due to the paradox of prequel science, he seems more technologically advanced than the models that followed after him). His performance ranges from childlike and bright-eyed to inscrutable and sinister, and he's the only character--aside from Rapace's Dr. Shaw--the film goes into enough depth to really create curiosity about who he is.

In a film where most of the cast's motivations are fairly simple and one-dimensional, David's the one thing that keeps you guessing. Trying to find out why he does the things he does is the only real temptation I have to see the seeming-inevitable sequel to this film

The weird thing is that despite all the annoyances at the start of this review, I'd still be intrigued to see a sequel. I'll be even more intrigued to see if Prometheus's DVD release comes with a director's cut that fixes (or at least mitigates) the flaws in the theatrical release, because heaven knows, Ridley Scott's done that before. Mildly recommended, with reservations.


  1. Great review, DJ! Let it be known that I take no snarky joy from learning that this movie was as flawed as I expected it to be.

    I don't like hearing that quality filmmakers took a presumably intelligent concept and married it with rock dumb characters and development. Or that they wasted Idris and the rest of the cast, save Fassbinder. These problems suggest that the flaws go even deeper than I had expected.

    I was so skeptical that this movie was being made for all the wrong reasons - to wrap up a "loose end" that felt cool because it didn't need to be explained, to continue a franchise, to spend and make buckets of money. But I always supposed that someone could produce a good work even with such poor motivation. The failings you point out mean that there wasn't enough care put into some critical parts of film-making.

  2. I don't know that the movie was made for "wrong" reasons, but the ideas that it had, combined with the restrictions of a prequel--there's a lot of dicking around about whether it's a "direct" prequel or not, but it really doesn't matter that much--don't really make for its own movie. Still, there is natural curiosity about the Aliens and where they came from and who, exactly, the elephant-faced guy from the original derelict on LV246 was, and that's as good a direction to take with this franchise as any. The problem is, once you get past all the fan service that you need for a prequel, there's not that much room left for a story of its own. Damn, I'm going to have to write more about this movie, aren't I?

    1. See, the thing is that it's exciting and cool to live in a universe where stuff like that is even out there. That's why I hoped for lots more in the Alien franchise, and I didn't need any of the titular monsters to come back. I like the fact that we know so little about the situation in the first Alien; the raw speculation is a great touch. I also really loved how big everything was - clearly this ship was meant for creatures MUCH larger than humans.

      But no, apparently, that wasn't the case. That's a costume, if I've heard right, of a creature that created life on earth (of course), and is also involved in creating Aliens (of f---ing course), and... lots of other lame-sounding ideas.

      lol, DJ, yes, you're probably going to have to write more about this movie. I'll have some good links for you to check and possibly include in a later post, tho...


Chime in!