Worth A Look: 10.71%
Pretty Bad: 10.71%
Total Crap: 16.07%
5 reviews, 26 user ratings
by Brett Gallman
One of the best assets of “Prometheus”--its initial insistence on telling its own story and not being completely slavish to “Alien”--is undermined because it never quite strikes far enough out on its own to escape the shadow of its predecessor. Instead, it’s caught there, juggling both its own needs and some shoe-horned fan service that only manages to further muddy its already murky and shallow thematic depths.What Ridley Scott and his screenwriters primarily set out to do is at least a little admirable; it refuses to be a by-the-numbers, connect-the-dots prequel. If you’re expecting this to cozily nestle right up against “Alien,” don’t. Instead, this is something of a loose precursor whose DNA just happens to incidentally intertwine with later events in this universe. Unlike many recent prequels, this is not a nod-filled, universe-shrinking story that answers every lingering question from previous entries. Of course, there’s only ever been one pressing issue for most, and that’s the origin of the xenomorph itself, and this is not a film that aims to completely explain that. It’s not “Alien: Origins” or “Alien: Prime” or any other half-hearted cash-in hatched at a studio board meeting.
"At least it's better than Alien vs. Predator."
In fact, “Prometheus” is the opposite of that, and there’s a reason its marketing has resisted the overt connection to “Alien.” Rather than concerning itself with the origins of extraterrestrials, it concerns itself with mankind’s beginnings, and it just so happens that these answers may end up lying near that same barren planet first seen in 1979. It’s appropriate that even Scott himself has referred to these films sharing DNA because genetic code is very much at the center of “Prometheus.” Where did ours come from? Why were we put here?
These are the questions posed by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who, along with her fellow scientist and lover (Logan Marshall-Green), discover a series of identical cryptograms around the world towards the end of the 21st century. All of them contain a star map pointing to a distant solar system that may contain answers. They commission an excursion through the Weyland Corporation, and the 17-man crew of the Prometheus awake after a two year journey. Upon their arrival, they begin scouting a moon; there are definite signs of alien life-forms that fell under duress, as their corpses are scattered throughout.
The identity of these space jockeys (first glimpsed upon in “Alien”) and the horrific incident that befell them is one of the many questions raised by “Prometheus.” In many ways, this is a much more ambitious movie than “Alien,” at least at first. It shoots for big, grandiose ideas that might be scattered among the cosmos, and it’s much more sci-fi than it is horror, or at least it has pretensions of being so. The nature of mankind’s existence is one of several threads spun out to be pondered; its basic tenants owe a lot to “Chariots of the Gods” (which was actually mined a bit before in “Alien vs. Predator”), but it’s also rooted in classic sci-fi tropes that warn against unchecked ambition. It insists that some questions are better left unasked, which is ironic since “Prometheus” asks a bunch of questions that barely get answered.
“Prometheus” is too ambitious for its own good, its reach constantly exceeding its grasp because it often doesn’t have a clue with how to bring all this stuff together. The script, co-written by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts, feels like it was Frankensteined together from two different cadavers; one definitely began life as an “Alien” prequel--the iconography and aesthetic prove that much--while the other feels like it was conceived as something completely removed. It’s actually the latter that charts the course, but “Prometheus” ends up feeling like an original science fiction tale whose brain has been stuffed into a lumbering, awkward body that wants to smash the shit out of everything it encounters.
The problem is that the two halves aren’t consistently and coherently stitched together enough. The heady stuff is great in theory; the kernel of “Prometheus” is fascinating, but it’s so intent on staying artificially mystifying that it forgets to add depth to its themes. Like its characters, it sets out to do one thing but is forced to take a detour when the plan changes, so you have all these scattered thematic threads dealing with parenthood, creation, faith, and even some residual phobia of corporate authority that bleeds in from “Alien.” So little of it adds up, though, and, whereas “Alien” winds tighter and tighter to organically integrate its themes and elevate itself above being a haunted house movie in space, “Prometheus” degenerates into a thematically effused mass of goopy schlock as it attempts to also be an “Alien” movie, or at least something vaguely resembling one.
And therein lies the rub: the “Alien” connection is surreptitiously ingested, but it ends up hatching and bursting right through the chest of “Prometheus,” thus keeping it bound and unable to truly delve into what it sets out to explore. There are ideas that have nowhere to go because the film wants to also be a monster movie, and, oddly enough, this is when “Prometheus” is at its best: when it’s replicating the primal terrors of the original film, only they’re filtered through a B-movie lens that captures alien insemination, acid-baths, immolations, and face-bashings. It’s much more “Galaxy of Terror,” “Forbidden World,” and “Inseminoid” than it is “Alien,” and, as pure, escapist pulp, it’s thrilling in the moment, especially because you’re hoping it leads to somewhere that pays off the setup.
However, it never quite comes back around--all of the questions that are raised early on are either deferred or hastily-answered before the characters can have a showdown with the gods they have come to visit, a meeting that comes after some twists and turns that have little impact outside of harming the film’s pacing and logic. By the end, you have a movie that initially tried so hard to skirt on the fringes of “Alien” but ends up hovering right over its center, and there’s never even any compelling reason to do so.
Nothing about this film will significantly alter your perception of later films in the series, which is fine for those movies, but “Prometheus” suffers because it’s trying to reverse engineer “Alien” DNA into its own, right down to a fanboy money shot that does nothing for this particular story. Ironically enough, it’s the type of shot you would expect from a movie that struck out to be an “Alien” prequel from the get-go, but it feels more like a post-credits Easter egg than it does the right closing shot for this movie, which actually ends up feeling like a 2 hour overture for something yet to come.
The good news is that I’d watch more of what Scott and company were up to here; the film’s script is slipshod, but Scott elevates it as well as he can. Comparing it to a couple of Roger Corman produced trash flicks probably set off some alarms, but “Prometheus” is gorgeously realized and carries the same polished sheen and precision as “Alien.” Scott and his production designers masterfully replicate the aesthetic of “Alien” without being overly nostalgic for it, at least until the film hits the wasteland planet, particularly its tomb of horrors that’s remarkably similar to the Giger-esque derelict scene from the original film, right down to the elephantine space jockey. Atmospherically speaking, this set is a fantastically dank and creepy, shrouded by mist and scored by hissing, flittering sounds in the background. There are times when the measured, suspenseful approach here recalls the haunted house mentality that defined the original film.
Of course, Scott has more at his disposal in the way of digital wizardry, but even it’s mostly seamless; Scott goes big, but it’s never so big that the effects can’t keep up and effortlessly render the film’s various spaceships and creature designs. Both will obviously seem familiar, particularly the latter, as we’re once again dealing with a malevolent force that loves to penetrate bodily orifices, only there’s something rather vaginal about the one here that could possibly tie in with the subtle themes of motherhood if it didn’t serve as the morbid punchline to the squirm-inducing fate of one of the characters.
Scott’s handsomely mounted production is also filled with an impressive cast that’s playing a different type of characters than the ones that were aboard the Nostromo. Whereas they were essentially the truckers of the galaxy, these are scientists, pilots, and corporate overlords. Outside of also being reduced to her undergarments, Rapace’s Shaw is no Ripley because she has a strong conviction that’s guided by her curiosity, faith, and the memory of her dead father. She’s easy enough to acclimate to and her relationship to Marshall-Green’s character exhibits some of that earthy, everyday quality that made the Nostromo crew so affable.
Other highlights include Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, the icy alpha-bitch that lords over the Prometheus. She’s so calculating and robotic that one wonders if she isn’t some sort of soulless android, and her shady mannerisms seem to be hoarding something (one of the many mysteries of “Prometheus” that don’t pay off). Idris Elba emerges as the best human character in the whole bunch; he’s the ship’s captain with a charming southern drawl, and you could easily imagine him sidling up next to Yaphet Kotto or Harry Dean Stanton on the Nostromo.
But like Theron and so many of the characters here, he’s given precious little to do, and there are some fantastic character moments that get drowned out. The crew here is large, making many of them expendable fodder--you have a couple of geologists (Rafe Spall and Sean Harris) that are unnaturally ornery considering they signed up for this mission. They, too, get some fun moments, but “Prometheus” doesn’t end up being much of a character study. In fact, there are beats involving typical slasher movie tropes--pot smoking, gratuitous sex, and illogical decisions--that merely serve to shuttle the film from one sequence to the next.
Which is too bad because the film seemingly wants to be, and it even goes so far as to crafting one of the most fascinating characters in the “Alien” universe yet in Michael Fassbender’s David. He actually is an android, a precursor to the Ash and Bishop models seen later in the series. Fassbender’s performance is incredible because he rightly plays him like a more primitive model: his voice is marked by a detached, lilted inflection, his mannerisms and movements a bit stiff and calculated. He is warm and inviting, an inquisitive, almost child-like creature at times who even has a droll, dry sense of humor. Unlike the opening tour of the eerily silent and slumbering Nostromo, our introduction to the Prometheus is a bit livelier because David has been kicking around for two years deciphering languages, shooting hoops, and watching movies. He’s even modeled himself after T.E. Lawrence, and we watch him do all of this as his fellow crewmen are locked away in their stasis chambers.
There is something sinister about him as well; some of that is also leftover “Alien” technophobia--we’ve seen what androids have done in this series before, and David often comes across as shady, taking orders from the supposedly deceased Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, buried under ludicrous old-age prosthetics). At times, even his smile feels disconcertingly foreboding, and you can almost see him becoming more human right before your eyes as the film progresses. He would serve as the film’s thematic lynchpin if the script weren’t so clumsy--in a movie where mankind is searching for its creators and the reasons behind its creation, he represents their own attempt to play god and create life. There’s no shortage of on-the-nose cornball dialogue about this and other topics, but it merely serves to reveal what was kind-of-sort-of on the writers’ minds as they wrote it, only they never figured out how to say anything.
That’s what “Prometheus” boils down to: a bunch of ideas and questions that allow the film to operate under the guise of hard-boiled science fiction before it finally gives way to being another monster movie. Interestingly enough, the early scene where David watches “Lawrence of Arabia” plants one of the few seeds that bear fruit. We see him imitate the dialogue from the scene where Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence insists that “the trick” is “not minding that it hurts,” and he’s referring to snuffing out a matchstick with his own fingers, a bit of foreshadowing for a film whose title derives from a myth centered around a Titan stealing fire from the gods.
The title ends up being somewhat ironic, as it turns out that there’s no fire to steal from the gods, and the trick is “not minding that it hurts” to discover that you may be the overgrowth in a Petri dish of a bunch of cold, unfeeling cosmic engineers. We’re not so much the clay carefully formed into mankind so much as we’re a flame that was meant to be extinguished (for whatever reason--this is another raised question that goes unanswered). The characters here are seeking divine intelligence but are instead met with an entombed Pandora’s Box meant to serve as some sort of divine retribution, and, like mankind in the original myth, they bear the sins of the titans who crafted them.
On some levels, “Prometheus” is a film about disappointment, and even its opening scene, a wordless, Kubrick-lite overture that takes place on prehistoric earth, arguably reveals the pointlessness of the search at the center of the film. Despite this, the film plays on as if it’s hoarding a bunch of secrets, and the shadow of “Alien” flickers on the wall as a distraction. Those shadows dance and sometimes mesmerizing dance, but they can’t hide the truth outside the cave: “Prometheus” is a mess, albeit one that’s been exquisitely and precisely arranged by Scott’s direction.
Does this make “Prometheus” itself a disappointment? If you’re expecting a masterpiece on the level of “Alien” or even the popcorn exactness of “Aliens,” then yes; it rests far behind those, but it’s at least the best film this series has seen since David Fincher’s ambition was similarly thwarted in “Alien 3” nearly 20 years ago, which is probably small comfort for fans who found themselves sinking into their theater seats during the “Alien vs. Predator” movies.This is a massively flawed film, but an intriguing and frustrating one because it’s too intent on both resisting its heritage and attempting to recapture its glory. Had it done more of the former or found a way to gracefully do both, it may have been truly brilliant. Instead, it’s just a ungainly but sometimes cool “Alien” movie that’s not really an “Alien” movie--but don’t tell it that because you might give it even more of an identity crisis.
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originally posted: 06/07/12 15:36:01