Friday, June 15, 2012

‘Prometheus’: Review


If you are a frequent reader of this humble web log (thank you), then you have noted that I do not often do movie reviews.  More’s the pity – I have been quite fond of movies all my life and would visit them more often if the urgencies and commitments of life did not otherwise constrain me (much as they constrain a more active attention to this web log).  But like most else within these electronic pages, I can slip one in from time to time, and Prometheus is a movie that deserves mention.

David, Shaw, Holloway, Ford, Fifield approach their destination

I am a big fan of Ridley Scott, and I am drawn particularly to his cinematography most of all – he is perhaps my favourite, after the demise of Stanley Kubrick.  His treatment of Gladiator, particularly the opening scenes at the unnamed Battle of Vindobona, must be seen on the big screen to best appreciate its stunning beauty; his dark Blade Runner practically created a new genre of science fiction milieu; Black Hawk Down is a superb treatment (though some parts and characters fictionalized or combined) of the American debacle and heroism at the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993; even his early Legend, an experiment with fantasy, is worth seeing (though Tom Cruise is said to have hated it, and its effects are now somewhat dated) for the mesmerizing portrayal and characterization of Tim Curry as Darkness.  Even his marginal films like the historically challenged Kingdom of Heaven command a viewing for his staging.

But perhaps Scott’s most overall contribution to the movie industry is that he directed Alien, and thereby launched a story line repeated and expanded upon through its series of movies and its amalgamation to the Predator story line (almost teasingly foretold by the scene toward the end of Predator 2, where the protagonist finds himself in a trophy room aboard the Predator space craft – an Alien skull can be seen among other trophies in the background).  Though he only directed the one movie, his vision set the pace and his is the best of the set, except in that rare instance of a sequel competing in quality with the original, in James Cameron’s (Titanic, Avatar) vision of the next movie of the set, Aliens.  (As if the laws of nature scrambled thereby to restore balance to the universe, Aliens3 and Alien: Resurrection were astonishingly bad.)

Scott’s return to the series after some 33 years is to create a prequel to Alien, with the main story line beginning some 30 years before the events of the first movie.  It exists, though, in a separate story line, creating a foundation but not necessarily a direct connection to the first movie.


The movie starts by drawing you into a sweeping transit of remote and sterile mountains and ice before settling into a valley with a raging river, and a hooded figure standing beside it.  The scene seduces you still further when the figure reveals himself to be a powerful yet pale and eldritch form of human, staring at an enormous spaceship hovering almost off-screen.  As the spacecraft ascends to depart, he opens a small container of viscous and bubbling goo which he ingests, with the immediate reaction of tearing his body apart, cell by cell.  He collapses into the river that carries his disintegrating body downstream, and we see that the destruction is carried even unto his DNA, which then recombinates with the local elements.

This then carries us to the year 2089 and an archeological expedition to the isle of Skye, where the two leaders of the group, a young couple with more than a professional interest in each other, find a Paleolithic site of cave drawings, including the figure of a large man pointing to a grouping of orbs in the heavens, and they are overwhelmed with delight at a confirmation at its finding.  We are then swept again to several years further into the future and some untold light-years from Earth, aboard a giant spacecraft named Prometheus.

The crew is in stasis (a familiar technique found in the other Alien movies), cared for by a solitary David (Michael Fassbender) who we see carry out a lonely routine over an indeterminate yet seemingly long period of time.  Among other things, we see David learning a reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language, and see his interest in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.  David develops a certain fascination with Lawrence (actually Peter O’Toole’s much taller rendition of him) and he focuses on a particular scene from the film where Lawrence demonstrates the match trick.  Eventually, an alarm alerts him that the ship is approaching its destination.  He assists as the rest of the crew comes staggering out of their deep sleep and assembles for the first briefing.  It is an odd mixture of personalities yet carries a resemblance to the same crews we’ve seen before, but this carries with it the fact that some are meeting for the first time, as is carried home by the practically sociopathic reaction of the character Fifield.  The reason becomes apparent with the briefing.

The purported leader of the expedition and corporate representative is Vickers (played with a morbidly fascinating sense of coldness by Charlize Theron), who starts the briefing with a huge, life-sized holographic recording of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), a very old CEO of the powerful Weyland Corporation, which built the Prometheus.  The recording is obviously made before the departure of the ship, and Weyland tells them that he is by now likely dead.  He emphasizes the importance of the mission, and introduces the crew to David (“like a son to me”) and the fact that he is an android (another homage to the Alien series).  Weyland then introduces the two archeologists we have seen before – Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) – now members of the crew, and tells the audience that the two of them have convinced him to undertake this expedition.  He declares them the leaders of the undertaking, at the clear and unsurprised displeasure of Vickers, and then leaves the rest of the briefing to the two as he literally fades away.

Ridley Scott on set with Noomi Rapace

Shaw and Holloway fill in the details: the cave drawing they found is practically identical, though much older by far, to several other drawings found in archeological sites of a wide scattering of ancient civilisations on Earth.  Shaw declares these to be an invitation for us to find those early space travelers, whom she calls the Engineers, and the grouping of orbs in the early pictographs are (somehow) only associated with a quasi-habitable moon circling a ringed planet of a distant star, where they have just arrived.  The crew has been hastily assembled before a rapid departure from Earth, and some (particularly Fifield the geologist and Millburn the biologist, played by Sean Harris and Rafe Spall) are motivated only by the large chance at substantial reward.  The captain, Janek (Idris Elba), is highly competent with a confident sense of leadership, who cares little about the pecking order of the expedition other than the fact that the Prometheus is his ship.

The scene sets up an important element of the film.  Shaw, we know, is a devout Christian, and she is questioned by Millburn (and others throughout the film, including Holloway) about her faith.  In this instance, Millburn practically guffaws with incredulity about her belief that the Engineers could be the source of human life on Earth, declares that this questions centuries of established scientific evolution, and points out that if what she says is true, what does that say about her religion?  She remains secure in her convictions and responds that the question then becomes about the source of the Engineers.  (This echoes the current discussion – for example, when astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle was confronted with the mathematical conclusion that life could not have been a happenstance of coincidentally merging elements and conditions on Earth, his response was that the necessary life-generating substances must have come from some comet that struck the Earth.  The religious response was: Then where did the comet come from?)  A critic from a Catholic site finds the movie “problematic for viewers of faith” but I must disagree – the Bible says nothing about us being unique among the heavens, only that we are beloved of God.  Yet throughout the movie this same theme – where do we actually come from? – recurs again and again.

They soon find that the moon in question lacks a civilisation but they do find an outpost of the Engineers – an enormous dome that is an abandoned relic, and they set out to explore it.  The movie then unfolds in some ways that are predictable, such as the separation of two members who must remain behind in the dome while the rest of the party returns to the ship to avoid an enormous sandstorm.  Some call this formulaic but I find it plausible.  (The same circumstances have happened to me – ‘We know where you are.  Dig in, hunker down, we’ll come get you in the morning.’)  The pace then picks up as remnants of the Engineers and a strange cargo of pods (we know what they are, even if the crew does not) are explored to discern why they were there, and what was their purpose, as the film quickly takes on a horrifically Alien tack.

As I have said, the compelling notion of the film is its staging and sound design, though the editing and some of the story development is choppy.  I saw the 3D version, and it is filmed without the gimmicks that accentuate it.  This gives it a more realistic feel without it being distracting.  (As a personal note: my eyesight challenges me in depth perception, though I have adapted in ways that are oddly beneficial in my military career.  Nevertheless, I find that 3D illusions are inexplicably quite effective with me, and I just can’t get enough of them.  I find the understated use of the technique very satisfying.)  The sets have also faithfully reproduced the original disturbing designs of Engineer technology and Alien physiognomy of Swiss surrealist H R Giger.  It may at times be somewhat overwhelming but stays within the envelope.

H R Giger

The best performance is turned in by Fassbender as David.  I had been unfamiliar with his work up until now, but he clearly is a linchpin of the plot development.  His android is a new technology at this point in time and he gives the sure impression that he is learning as he goes (there is an undertone of Blade Runner here), as opposed to the more advanced androids in future versions, though I have the distinct feeling that his portrayal is based somewhat on the great performance turned in by Lance Henriksen in his two characters in the previous Alien films (the android Bishop in Aliens and Alien3, and Charles Bishop Weyland on which the android is based, in Alien vs Predator) .  Much has been said about how he is fascinated by O’Toole’s Lawrence, and he consciously copies the character in his appearance and mannerisms, but most people seem to miss the significance of the hologram scene he watches early on, and Lawrence’s explanation of the match trick.  Besides adding to the religious undertone of the plot, it appears to give him insight into the human psyche, which he acts upon.

Rapace’s Shaw is also very well done.  Rapace is best known for her role as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish production of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and she turns in another bravura performance here, starting as an idealistic and almost naïve scientist (she tells a dumbfounded Fifield, as they are about to disembark from Prometheus, that since this is a scientific expedition, he will have no need of weapons) but more than keeps pace with one horrifying blow after another.  (Remember that the Alien series has always been a science fiction and horror category, and is not less so here.)  The hook that Ridley Scott provided in the first Alien was that even though the crew knew that there was a monster, they didn’t know what or where it was, until it makes an appearance at the very end.  Scott’s genius is that he is able to maintain that same pace throughout Prometheus.

Theron is solid as Vickers, giving an eerily adept performance as the cold corporate bitch, with a twist at the end (well, maybe two).  Elba’s Janek is a short part but well played.  The disappointment comes with Holloway, who never seems to rise above our impression that he is nothing more than Shaw’s boyfriend, and Pearce’s Weyland is too mechanical in his portrayal of the old man, with make-up that is too plastic and distracting.  Rounding out the cast with good brief portrayals are Kate Dickie as the Scottish medic Ford, and Emun Elliot and Benedict Wong as the ship's engineers.

The plot of this movie, but perhaps even better the plot of the sequel (and there will be a sequel), depends upon minor, almost throw-away comments that crop up, and keep the viewer alert once he is aware of it, like the Lawrence of Arabia scene, or the radio-carbon dating result.  Other steps come more violently, as when David can finally put his dead language knowledge to use, and most of all with Shaw’s sudden need to adapt the medical technology of Prometheus.  I expect that some critics’ complaints will dilute with the resolution of the next installment.

The climax is spectacular, both visually and thematically, and introduces the next question of the quest – Why would an advanced race that took the trouble to create us, now be so bent on our destruction?

Prometheus is highly recommended, except for the weak of stomach at some parts.  This is the most important addition to the series to date, and will stand as one of Ridley Scott’s finest works.

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