Guest Movie Review: Prometheus
If you were to ask me what my favorite movie was, I wouldn’t be able to give you a definitive answer. Instead, I could offer you a short list of five films that I absolutely love, ones I could watch any time, anywhere. Three of them are boring picks, and show up on the American Film Institute’s charts every time they are compiled: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Casablanca. The next two I dare you to figure out.
My other two choices aren’t normal fodder for “best of” lists: Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast and James Cameron’s sci-fi flick Aliens. Released in 1986, Aliens carried the perfect combination of an excellent story, outstanding acting and exceedingly well-done (even by today’s standards) special effects. It heralded a golden age of science fiction films and came from a director who was, at that time, at the top of his game. Of course, if Ridley Scott had not introduced the ground-breaking Alien in 1979, there would be no Aliens, and the universe would be a much emptier place (on the plus side, there would be no Alien Resurrection, but I digress…).
Alien was far different from any science fiction film that had come before; with a creature designed by Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger and a screenplay and characters imagined by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, the movie helped bring about a new era of science fiction excellence. The giant, acid-spewing, brain chomping xenomorph discovered on planet LV-426 was just the first of a new generation of sci-fi legends, running the spectrum of good (Robocop) to bad (Predator), and playing both sides on occasion (Terminator). But the Alien itself was unique even when compared to its brethren. The stuff of nightmares, born of a hive queen, a parasite that plants an embryo inside an unwilling host – the monsters Scott helped create weren’t evil, or at least not consciously so; they were big bugs, using their horrific reproductive system to survive, at our expense. In the end, that made them more terrifying than intergalactic trophy hunters or indestructible robots from the future. These creatures weren’t out to end us because they had no use for us or because they thought they were better than us, but because we were useful – as food and incubators. It made for some compelling movie moments, even if not every director has been able to fully realize the Alien’s potential.
So when it was announced that Scott was developing a prequel to his breakthrough sci-fi masterpiece, a lot of people became justifiably excited, myself included. Here was the man who had helped build the Alien universe over thirty years ago, signing on to take us back to arguably his greatest story. Unfortunately, that initial announcement in 2009 was followed by less than heartening rumors, from 20th Century Fox’s clash with Scott over his selection of commercial director Carl Erik Rinsch to actually helm the film, to the apparent necessity of a rewrite for Jon Spaints’ screenplay, eventually performed by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. And of course there was all the confusion over whether or not Prometheus would be an actual Alien prequel, or whether it had strayed so far as to be a completely original experience. Still, as it’s been fifteen years since we’ve had a proper Alien film (the poorly-conceived crossovers with the Predator don’t count), there was no way that Prometheus wasn’t going to be the most anticipated release for me this summer, or even the whole of 2012.
Perhaps those high expectations (not to mention the excellent trailers and viral videos released over the last few months) are why I can’t help but feel disappointed in what ultimately became of the director’s final product. In the new movie, set eighty years in the future, an archaeological team lands on the surface of a distant moon, brought there by the discovery of an ancient star maps discovered on Earth. Doctors Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that this moon is the home world of the Engineers, an ancient race that was actually responsible for laying the groundwork for the human race. Funded by the Weyland Corporation, the starship Prometheus is full of enigmatic personalities, such as corporate overseer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and lifelike android David (Michael Fassbender), all with their own agendas. What they discover will leave them fighting to control the decisions that may or may not lead to the extinction of Earth.
It’s a shame those agendas are nearly impossible to follow, even as a third party observer. The problem is that Lindelof’s screenplay (and perhaps Scott’s film edits as well) gloss over or simply leave out a ton of information, some of it critical to understanding why characters would act the way they do. People’s motivations are nearly incomprehensible – and not in the good way, where we know that we will eventually understand everything. No, instead, he or she (or it) will do something and we can only hope that they left some clue behind as to why. I’m not against being left out of the loop; mystery and intrigue are the spice of cinematic life, after all. I don’t need to be told everything, since wrapping things up neatly is an error that too many filmmakers commit. But being told nothing is just as bad, and while this may lead to some interesting conversations after the final credits roll, those conversations will be pointing out the film’s extremely large number of plot and logic holes, not revelling in what Prometheus actually does right.
I do have to give Scott some credit, however; Prometheus was probably going to be difficult to pull off no matter what. At least on the technical side, he hasn’t lost his touch. The universe in which Prometheus takes place is gorgeous to behold, and there have obviously been giant leaps in special effects technology that can render the vastness of space and an utterly alien planet with such ease. Scott does an incredible job designing the inside of the Prometheus itself, making the massive ship feel like a real place. The creature effects? Eh, not so much. I was unimpressed with Scott’s human-like design for the Engineers (better known as the mammoth “Space Jockeys,” briefly introduced way back in Alien), though their appearance is at least only a small part of the film itself. Overall, this was the prettiest and most believable setting I’ve found for an Alien movie (and one of the best ever), one that begs multiple viewings for the visuals alone.
When Scott launched the Nostromo back in the seventies, he crewed it with a versatile and volatile bunch that impressed thanks to their lack of frills, blue collar workers whose only wishes were to escape the monster invading their ship and get home to their families. While the crew of the Prometheus is not quite as anonymous as that first flight, they still get props for being one of the most talented casts in theaters this year. There are a number of performances I could put out there as outstanding, from Idris Elba’s casual and loyalty-earning ship captain to the icy tension Theron brings whenever she enters a room, to the amusing interactions between Rafe Spall’s articulate and friendly biologist and Sean Harris’ brain-addled geologist. Guy Pearce even does a good job, though I do wonder why they asked him to play the elderly Peter Weyland when they could have gotten someone older and not spent millions on prosthetics. Sadly, both Rapace and Marshall-Green fall short. Marshall-Green wishes he had the talent of the man he resembles, Tom Hardy, and Rapace doesn’t quite have the presence that Sigourney Weaver held throughout the original Alien and its three sequels. That might seem like an unfair comparison, but if Scott hadn’t spent most of Prometheus actively asking What Would Ripley Do in regards to Shaw, my thoughts might have gone along different lines.
But all of these people pale in comparison to Fassbender, whose portrayal of David is so incredibly fascinating that I would be tempted to give him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar right now. I already believe Fassbender was robbed by not even being nominated for his performance in Shame last year, a trophy he would have won given half a chance. In David, he is asked to play something between human and robot, a subtle nuance that would be outside the realm of possibility for any lesser actor. When the film opens and we are introduced to David, we are given an excellent opportunity to see what makes him so special. Fassbender obliges, and what we witness might be remembered as one of the best opening montages of any film in the past decade.
If it weren’t for the multiple illogical script and plot inconsistencies that plague Prometheus from beginning to end, it might have been the best movie released this year. But they do exist, and while I still really liked the movie, I can’t even say it’s the best this month, let alone 2012. As it stands, it ranks highly, as the #5 film of the year. There’s a remarkable story in here about faith and how it might be altered when believers are issued evidence not found in the scriptures of their Lord. It’s too bad that minor tale is smack dab in the middle of a formulaic story with predictable, silly twists, and enough unfulfilled potential to choke a rhino. The worst part of the experience is Scott’s attempt to bridge Prometheus and Alien, a sticky mess that felt tacked on. I can almost see the creative process: Scott starts to put together a prequel to Alien, before meandering and allowing himself to stray from the monster he helped create; then, as the film comes closer to fruition, Scott realize he was would alienate (no pun intended) his intended fan-base if he included nothing about the Alien, and so he slaps on the face-hugging, body-chomping creature for our supposed pleasure. It’s a gesture as hollow as a Hollywood apology, and nearly as sincere. In the end, this is what is most disappointing about Prometheus, and those who have been clamoring for a true follow-up to that 1986 classic will likely feel the same way.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast. You can find his latest film reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson.