Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Prometheus" Movie Review by David Pretty

I officially gave up on the Alien franchise when screenwriters David Giler, Walter Hill
and Larry Ferguson decided to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3.  I couldn't believe that they were so quick to piss on the triumphant legacy of Aliens just to set up a tired rehash of the first film.  At that moment, I concluded that the franchise had gone out of bounds and I just didn't care anymore.

So, you can imagine my joy when original Alien director Ridley Scott returned to the franchise with a prequel that would, hopefully, put things back on the rails and return a modicum of dignity to the concept.

Did he succeed?  Well, yes and no.  Prometheus is, at face value, a beautiful mess.

Before I get into as many details as a reasonably non-spoilerish review will allow, here's the film's mind-blowingly awesome trailer:

In the year 2089 archaeologists Charlie Holloway ( Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover a similar series of pictograms which have independently appeared amongst several unconnected human civilizations.  These images depict a group of humans looking in awe at a larger figure which, in turn, is pointing towards a distant cluster of stars.  The scientists posit that human life was sparked by these titanic beings (whom they dub "The Engineers") and assume that the star-map is an invitation to meet our makers.

Rich, one-foot-in-the-grave industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) sponsors an expedition to this star system aboard the unfortunately-named scientific vessel Prometheus.  During the two year long voyage, the crew is kept in stasis pods and monitored by the fastidious, Peter O'Toole-obsessed android David (Michael Fassbender).

Upon arrival on the harsh planet of LV-223, Charlie spies an intriguing roadway ("Right there!  God doesn't build in straight lines.") which leads them to a massive earthen ziggurat.  A survey team ventures inside the mysterious catacombs and begin to unearth clues using a combination of remote probes and good old-fashioned nosiness.

David, in particular, seems to posses an odd affinity for the place.  He secret triggers a posthumous holographic log which documents the panicked flight of the original inhabitants.  For continuity junkies, these beings just so happen to resemble the ill-fated "Space Jockey" from the original Alien film.      

Eventually our intrepid explorers reach the core of the complex which is dominated by a huge sculpture of a human-like head.  As they enter the chamber, the murals on the ceiling above become mutable.  Black goo begins oozing out of a slew of canisters arrayed around the room.  The team wisely decides to skedaddle, arriving back at the ship just prior to a vicious silicon storm.

Needless to say, things begin to fall apart.  We soon learn that David has secretly smuggled one of the mysterious containers back onboard the ship and there's something alive in it.  Two of the team members who get lost in the maze experience a horrifying close encounter.  Elizabeth becomes the unwitting pawn in a gruesome experiment.  

To reveal anymore of the plot would be criminally negligent.  Just suffice to say that you'll probably need a scorecard to keep track of all the different xenomorphs and unanswered questions that the Prometheus screenplay seems to spawn.

First off, the film looks absolutely amazing.  Except for the odd murky misstep (Gladiator, I'm looking in your direction), Ridley Scott is truly adept at creating spectacular and completely convincing fictional environments.  Every costume, prop and set seems to have some organic purpose, some dedicated function.  From the deck of the Prometheus to the innards of the Engineer's lair, the art direction and production design alone make the movie worth a watch.

Scott also comes through with some incredibly frantic action sequences.  Witness Elizabeth's flight to self-surgery, the assault on Millburn and Fiefield and the chaotic, large-scale interdiction that occurs at the finale.  During it all, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski captures the cold austerity of the Prometheus sets and the epic final action beats with equal dexterity.

The performances range from good to Oscar-worthy.  Noomi Rapace is fantastic as Elizabeth.  Even when she's single-handedly giving added significance to the film's title, we still empathize with her.  I also suspect that Ridley Scott must have detected a Sigourney Weaver quality about her since many of her latter scenes are evocative of Ripley.

Of course, the other flagship performance here is Michael Fassbender as David.  Since we already know that David is an android from the very start, Fassbender plays the role to the hilt.  He's like a combination of Don Draper from Mad Men, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Although the script fails to give him a clarion sense of motivation (or we're left to assume that his erratic behavior can be excused away with "programming"), Fassbender's inherent charisma ensures that we don't write the character off at completely oblique.

Conversely, I have no idea why Guy Pearce was cast as crusty ol' Peter Weyland.  Not to disparage Pearce or his performance, but I have no idea why a director would opt for a barely-convincing makeup job when they can hire an accomplished older actor.  C'mon, somebody get Martin Landau or Sean Connery on the horn!

British actor Idris Elba (who was fantastic as Stringer Bell in The Wire) is perfectly cast as Janek, the skipper of the Prometheus.  He manages to strike the perfect balance between world-weary resignation,  wry humor, human empathy, gutsy fatalism and a fierce protective streak towards his ship.  As such, the script really didn't sell me on Janek's final solution to the alien threat.  Sorry, but the average shmoe would humor a million alternatives before choosing what Janek and his bridge crew decide on.

Logan Marshall-Green does a convincing job taking Charlie through several states of physical and mental stress.  As the true nature of the Engineers is revealed, his giddy initial thrill of discovery is convincingly deflated.  And while I can certainly understand his despondence, the script really doesn't give him a reason to act like a jackass to David.  In fact, their scene together seems to exist only to excuse David's next course of action.

Charlize Theron is appropriately stone-cold and acerbic as Meredith Vickers.  Due to her angelic good looks, she's almost miscast here, but she still manages to acquit herself quite nicely.  Her scenes with Fassbender and Pearce are particularly good, mainly because her motivations slowly come into focus.  The scene where she confronts David over his secret commiserations with Weyland is particularly tense.

As you've likely already gathered, the main problem with the film is its nebulous and overly-flakey script.  I really don't mind when movies lord a few secrets over us after the credits roll, but Prometheus is rife with maddening plot holes.  Although I can't table them without venturing into the realm of spoilers, just suffice to say that the convoluted alien entomology presented in Prometheus makes The X-Files look like E.T.        

At first, I thought that the failings were more mine then the film's.  After all, one of my initial "A-ha, gotcha!" moments was quickly debunked.  I honestly didn't notice that the planet Prometheus travels to (LV-223) is different from the planet featured in the first two films (LV-426).  Needless to say, I'm glad that I did a bit of research before writing this review.

Having said that, I still can't shake my suspicions that screenwriter Damon Lindelof painted himself into a corner just like he did on Lost.  My lingering impression of Prometheus is that either large chunks of the film were edited out or Scott, Lindelof and co-writer Jon Spaihts were trying to pass off their half-baked ideas for brilliance.  In the end, I'm left longing for Dan O'Bannon's original Alien script, which teased us with a sense of mystery while remaining altogether lucid.     

As a moviegoer who's routinely expected to ingest such mindless swill as Couple's Retreat and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, I think it's a tad churlish to criticize a film that doesn't connect all of the dots and actually inspires a healthy modicum of debate.  In the same breath, I just wish that Scott and company had provided more concrete evidence to support their assumption of ingenuity.


    Tilt: up.

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