Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus: a review

In the interests of keeping this blog more active, I’m hoping to post more regularly on topics of quasi-academic interest. I have a few posts on contemporary fantasy I’m working up as a sort of Game of Thrones postmortem, as well as some thoughts on the ever-expanding zombie genre.

But I thought I’d start with a film review. I saw Prometheus last night, which counts as my second-most-anticipated summer film (big shock: The Dark Knight Rises takes first place). And wow, it was a train wreck.

And yes: spoilers to follow. Lots and lots of spoilers.

I should know by now not to get my hopes up too high when a new Ridley Scott film comes out. I imagine it must be frustrating for him to have done his best work early on—Alien and Blade Runner, those two mainstays of film classes (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taught them) were his second and third feature films, respectively. Since then by my count he has had one unqualified success (Thelma and Louise), two flawed but powerful films (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator), a number of much more deeply flawed but still watchable films (Black Rain, G.I. Jane, American Gangster), and a host of unmitigated disasters (White Squall, Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven, Matchstick Men, Robin Hood).* He also directed Legend, which falls into that odd category of being something that isn’t probably nearly as good as we remember it, but we all saw it at the age of eleven, so for some it gets a pass.**

On the whole, not a great track record. But here’s the thing: the great films are so great that they come very close to balancing the sheet, and makes those of us who are devotees of Alien and Blade Runner*** live in hope that his next film will match their aesthetic and narrative brilliance (and, let’s be honest, the sheer coolness).

We keep hoping. And keep getting disappointed. But this time, there was renewed hope: Scott was returning to the scene of his first major triumph, and creating a prequel to Alien! At first, there was skepticism … but then, as teasers and trailers started appearing, there was cautious but ever-growing hope. It looked AMAZING, for one thing. And for another, the more we learned about the premise, the better it looked. Never mind that we could pretty much figure out the story from the trailer: an exploration team follows ancient clues promising to unlock our origins as a species to a distant planet, where they encounter some sort of contagion or infection that will threaten our existence, and in a climactic scene the crashed spaceship they discover in Alien, well, crashes.

Whoever did the marketing for Prometheus should quite possibly have written the script—it probably would have been smarter. All of the trailers and ancillary bits of publicity (such as a TED talk done by Guy Pearce’s megalomaniac CEO Peter Weyland, circa 2023) were greater, in the end, than the sum of Prometheus’ parts. There’s a paper to be written somewhere about how skillful viral marketing frequently seems to eclipse the artistry of the film being advertised … but for now, I’ll limit myself to reviewing Prometheus, which I saw last night in IMAX 3D.

OK, so the positive things first: one, it looked every bit as good as the trailers promised. See, this is the ambivalent thing about Ridley Scott’s crappy films: however crappy the story, they always look amazing. So you always see hints of Alien or Blade Runner in his signature style, which makes brilliant use of light and shadow and the contrast between grandiose, totalizing shots and close, claustrophobic terror or anxiety. And you know that, of only the story wasn’t shite, it could be a brilliant film.

Certainly, this was the case with Prometheus. As I said, I saw it on the IMAX screen, and if you’re going to see this film, go see it in the theatre.

Second positive element was the cast. It was both a mitigating factor, and a total frustration that almost every one of the actors was (a) a consummate professional, and (b) someone I just loved watching. Lisbeth Salander Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy [correction--the actor I took for Tom Hardy is actually Logan Marshall-Green. Properly contrite am I], Stringer Bell Idris Elba, and Guy Pearce (in a whole lot of prosthetic makeup that qualifies as the film’s worst special effect). The one out of place person was Charlize Theron, who just seemed outclassed by the rest of the cast. She played an ice queen executive in charge of the mission, and was so wooden and toneless that I kept waiting for her to turn out to be an android.

On the other hand, Michael Fassbender played an android, and played it brilliantly. One of the best parts of the film is him alone on board the spacecraft while the rest of the crew slumbers in cryosleep. The subtlety of nascent threat he brings to his emotionless robot is easily on par with Ian Holm’s not-dissimilar character in the original Alien.

 But as lovely as Fassbender’s performance is, it is one of the narrative problems: I’ve seen this story before. As prequel to Alien, it anticipates that story; but coming twenty-three years after the original was released, it feels simply derivative. I’m sure there’s some brilliant psychoanalytic reading to be done (“Recursion and Return: The Iterative Narratives of the Alien Franchise”), but really it just sort of feels done. A few elements:

  • A cold and self-interested corporation desires to exploit a discovery on a distant planet, and is willing to sacrifice its crew.
  • An alien species is discovered, all dead through some mysterious plague.
  • A cold and inscrutable android deliberately puts the crew at risk.
  • A not-so-dead alien species contaminates the crew.
  • The cold and inscrutable android gets decapitated.
  • The ship is destroyed to prevent the malevolent life form from getting to Earth.

Sound familiar? It’s understandable to have a certain amount of repetition when producing new films in an established franchise, but really, this just felt lazy.

The premise of the film is this: two archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Tom Hardy), having discovered the same star system diagram in many ancient texts, convince the head of the massive Weyland Corporation to bankroll an exploratory expedition to the star system. The predictable disasters as partly outlined above ensue. But the larger philosophical/theological question deals with our origins on Earth. The film opens in a primordial landscape atop a massive waterfall. A huge, musclebound albino humanoid watches a huge flying saucer (Ridley Scott likes to work large-scale) depart into the clouds. He (?) then eats a mouthful of grotty-looking stuff, and promptly begins to disintegrate in great pain. The perspective shrinks to the cellular, and we see his DNA breaking apart. He falls into the water, and again, at the cellular level, we see DNA recombine into new strands and then turn into life.

Very obviously, this is the pageantry of new life forming on Earth. Skip ahead millions of years, and our archaeologists make their find. Skip ahead a few more years and the exploratory ship Prometheus arrives at the planet.

"All in the game, baby ... all in the game."

The premise is intriguing and compelling, but not executed well at all. The questions of god and belief, of evolution vs. design, and of parents and children are all handled in terribly hamfisted ways. Eventually it becomes reduced to simplistic paternal drama. Peter Weyland we assumed was dead. As it turns out, he’s on the ship, his presence known only to the android David and Charlize Theron’s robotic-but-not-a-robot expedition leader Vickers. It was made clear earlier that, as Weyland’s creation, David considered Weyland his father, and Weyland considered David his son. In what is perhaps the most unsurprising revelation of the film, Vickers is Weyland’s actual daughter. Weyland has smuggled himself along in the hopes that, in finding the origins of life or meeting its engineers, he might be granted longer life … which, in a particularly hackneyed moment, Vickers complains is against the natural order of succession.

The twist, such as it is, is that our “engineers” were using this planet as a weapons lab—and that they were planning to return to earth and wipe us out (for reasons that are never made clear). The substance they discover in the alien bunker and the underground ship is evidently some sort of agent that mutates DNA in malevolent ways—as Stringer Bell (sorry) observes, it is a biological weapon. And once it gets loose in certain crewmember’s systems, it wreaks its havoc and starts producing monstrosities that only identifiably become the H.R. Giger alien of the earlier films in the final sequence.

It is when the bio-weapon starts making its presence known that the film’s wheels start to come off. Charlize Theron’s wooden acting notwithstanding, the film has a lot of promise early on. Michael Fassbender’s solo sequence in the spaceship in particularly gave me hope … but in hindsight, that was mainly because he didn’t have any lines from the script to speak, and instead was just Michael Fassbender being compelling. The more the script reveals itself, the worse it gets … and Ridley Scott’s reliable standby, his visuals, lose their power once the excesses of the alien/bio-weapon become, well, excessive …

Don’t get me wrong—I like a good gory alien monster flick as much as the next guy (provided the next guy is a total SF nerd), and the Alien franchise has always delivered on that front. Except … well, think of the first Alien. The gore and the horrifying figure of the alien are shocking, but strategically so. The story of how Ridley Scott didn’t warn his actors that he would be spraying them with real blood in the “birth” scene—and so the shock, horror, and disgust on their faces is not feigned—is one of those great bits of film history lore. In Aliens, the gore takes a backseat to the action, but there is enough of it—and the aliens are sufficiently terrifying and repulsive—that we still cringe at key moments.

It’s always difficult to locate that fine line between well-managed abjection and excess, and I suppose it’s always going to be somewhat subjective. But I found Prometheus crossed that line once we got to the scene of Noomi Rapace’s self-administered caesarean (never mind that it isn’t exactly believable that she would sprint away from the surgical pod after having her belly stapled), and then the final confrontation between the engineer and the proto-Giger alien. Perhaps it was the engineer being orally raped—which if it wasn’t obvious enough, the alien then shudders orgasmically and collapses, presumably dead … or perhaps just post-coital, at first it isn’t clear. But … blecch.

"Hm. Yes, I do feel like someone is watching me. Why do you ask?"

Anyway, I’ll leave off with some nerdy nitpicking. First: the basic premise of the film is that the alien species that created us left clues so we could find them. However, the planet to which they send us isn’t their homeworld—it is, as Stringer Bell (sorry again) realizes, a weapons plant remote from their home because, as he observes, you don’t manufacture incredibly dangerous biological weapons in your own backyard. And the film ends with Noomi Rapace leaving with the segmented David in tow on another of the alien ships to find their actual homeworld.

So … why would aliens leave behind directions to their weapons stockpile? Wouldn’t that be like bringing immigrants to the U.S. to Area 51 rather than Ellis Island?

And secondly—and this is the thing I just can’t get past—SO MUCH of this film was obviously designed to cater to diehard Alien fans. Everything about how the film ends sets us up for how Alien begins, except for one utterly baffling discontinuity. In Alien, when the crew of the Nostromo**** enters the alien ship, the first thing they find is the dead alien space jockey strapped into some sort of flight chair. It is long dead, and its abdomen has a hole as if something exploded out of it. After John Hurt’s character has the alien burst out of his belly, we realize in hindsight that the alien space jockey died the same way.

In Prometheus, when David wakes the last remaining “engineer,” the big alien proceeds to kill everyone present except Noomi Rapace, who escapes, and David, who is decapitated but can still talk, and then straps himself into the flight seat to complete his mission, presumably, to wipe out Earth’s population. The alien ship takes off, and Stringer Bell (no apologies) rams the Prometheus into it and causes it to crash … in precisely the position the crew of the Nostromo find it twenty-nine years later.

Now, as I was watching the film—and I’m curious to know if anyone else was thinking the same thing—I kept thinking “OK, so space jockey guy has an alien inside him. When did that happen?” My best guess was that David, for inscrutable reasons, somehow infected him with the bio-weapon … but that seemed far-fetched at best. But then, he leaves his ship to go after Noomi Rapace, and instead ends up tangling with the big-ass mutant alien. At this point I’m thinking, “OK … so he gets impregnated and goes back to his ship to, I don’t know, try to take off again, and THAT’s when the alien comes bursting out.” But no … apparently, he dies when the mutant alien essentially orally rapes him. And then so does the mutant alien. And in the film’s final sequence, the Giger alien (these alien distinctions are getting cumbersome, sorry) bursts out of his gut. FAR AWAY FROM HIS SHIP.

Argh. I can forgive hamfisted storytelling, but not baffling stupidity. It’s as if Scott and his screenwriters (one of whom was Lost’s Damon Lindelof—any comments, Nikki?) didn’t actually bother to re-watch Alien, but just went on vague memory.

At any rate. Bottom line: Prometheus was, to say the least, a massive disappointment … but after so many disappointments from Ridley Scott, I really shouldn’t have expected anything different. That being said, it was a hellishly impressive work of visual art, true at least in that respect to Alien, with many breathtaking moments and subtle grace notes. A shame the story couldn’t live up to that.


*Then there are the films I haven’t seen, which may include a gem I’ve overlooked. But somehow I doubt it.

**Though perhaps less so now since Tom Cruise detonated his career and retroactively made us see the batshit in all his earlier roles.

***I leave out Thelma and Louise here, because however great a film it was, it does not have the same cachet as the other two. Speaking for myself, I love it, but it inspires none of the fanboyism that Alien does.

****Anyone else wonder why they didn’t give Prometheus a similarly Joseph Conrad themed name? The Narcissus? The Patna? Typhoon?


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but Tom Hardy doesn't play a part in this movie!!!!!!! Shame on you; this should not happen in a review like this! It's his so called 'look-a-like' Logan Marshall Green.

Chris in NF said...

Oops ... Correction made.