Saturday, June 30, 2012

Definitive Alien marathon: 'Prometheus', general review

Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)

Significant stretches of absence between instalments in a franchise can be a curse or a blessing. It may provide writers, directors, studios executives and all others involved in the creative process to sit back and digest what they have accomplished as well as what they still set out to do. Sometimes the decisions, despite plenty of time for a meditative process, dot not evolve into what audiences were hoping for. Ask the many embittered movies goers who waited anxiously for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Live Free or Die Hard. Science-fiction is a little bit different given that its very nature allows for some slightly loopier logic than in most other genres, therefore allowing the creators a wider canvas to take a series in different directions. The Alien franchise, as of the mid 00s, had devolved into a stale, pitiless shell of its former self. The AVP spinoffs virtually spelled doom and gloom for the once revered series which gave both sci-fi and horror a serious boost. Along came Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts in an attempt to revitalize it in ways fans were least expecting.

Very late in the 21st century, anthropologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green) make a most satisfying discover on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. A cave wall sports the markings of a 35 thousand year old civilization, and among the markings on the wall is a pictogram very familiar to their eyes: mortal men staring and pointing at a star far away in the sky, a familiarity stemming from the fact that Shaw and Halloway have discovered the same picture in various other regions across the globe where entirely different civilizations made their homes. For them, the answer is obvious: these different cultures which spanned separate centuries somehow worshipped an identical, intergalactic deity of some sort., one that may have created life on Earth, although that is but a hypothesis. The advancements in scientific technology permit expert astrologists to locate where this far off planet is situated in the vastness of space, and with the financial help of brilliant entrepreneur Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), a team of 17 board the space ship Prometheus, among them the aforementioned anthropologists, Weyland enterprise representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the ultra sophisticated android named David (Michael Fassbender). After over a year with the crew a state of hibernation, the Prometheus at long last lands on the mysterious world. The crew venture on foot in the caves of an alien civilization in the hopes of discovering where Man came from...

A commonality between Ridley Scott films, and more specifically those which are more epic in scale, is that he has a marvellous eye for details which bring the worlds of said films to brilliant life. Even his lesser acclaimed epics, such as Robin Hood, are lauded for the stunning set design (often courtesy of long time production designer collaborator Arthur Max), costume design and cinematography. Say what one will about the script, a movie goer is going to enjoy a feast for the eyes when director Scott serves up a large scale movie. That attention to detail which lends his worlds their own identities is one of the more startling elements about Prometheus, a film whose lavish visuals will allure just about anybody. To be honest, it is no coincidence that both this review and that which was published for Alien begin with praise for the artistry involved in the creation of these two movies. Whereas the earlier film was brilliant in how the filmmakers made what was in reality a modestly budgeted picture look stunning, this 2012 adventure has no qualms about announcing that plenty of money was spent, both in the minutia and for the awe-inspiring moments. Scott is a filmmaker whose strength, among other things, is in understanding the scale of objects. A trivial matter this is not. When producing a space, or science-fiction adventure which is supposed to feel grand, scale is of the utmost importance. There are moments when the Prometheus ship, prior to arrival at its destination, is set against either the largess of neighbouring stars and planets or simple the vastness of space. They are not meant to convey anything concrete so far as the plot is concerned, but they serve a existential purpose, that is, to emphasize that as sophisticated as the humans have become, they still are virtually nothing when compared to, well, literally everything that is 'out there.'

Scott is also a great proponent of keeping things as real as possible. Evidently enough, various aspects of the world building process demand computer generated enhancement, of which Prometheus feature plenty (the digital artists do a fine job. Poor CGI is nowhere to be found here), yet a surprising amount is hand crafted, thus keeping many critical visual cues as tangible as possible. The inner dwellings of the extra-terrestrial beings the crew encounter look aged, look like their is a sense of history about them. Set construction of this size feels like a lost art, and therefore seeing some of the best in the business given a chance to flex their muscles is welcomed.

But this is a movie meant to thrill in part by its visuals, true, but also with its story and, one hopes, with its characters. In this regard Prometheus is thankfully a departure from the general pace and tone of the earlier entries. Up until this point the series has alternated between more horror centric stories and action centric stories. Prometheus, while clearly dependant on those two ingredient to a certain extent, is the first in the series to feel very much like a science-fiction picture. It involves a scientific expedition on a newly discovered planet where anything can happen. To top it off, the purpose of said expedition is to unravel the mysteries behind the creation of life as it is known on our home planet. The springboard for the entirety of the film is discovery, investigation, and maybe even understanding, provided what the team finds is pertinent in the least. In that sense, as state of the art of Ridley Scott's film is, it does have an old school sci-fi feeling to it. It is not much of a spoiler to write that the mission does not proceed swimmingly, with various hurdles preventing the protagonists from not only finding the answers they came looking for, but surviving at all. It is a story arc which has been used many times over, although in the hands of a capable storyteller like Scott, it feels right, it flows well and when ambition turns to fear for one's survival, the movie is very fun overall. 


What many people noticed when the production process commenced was the stunning cast assembled. Michael Fassbender is unquestionably one of the most in demand actors on the planet at the moment, and for good reason. It seems as though he can do no wrong, even in movies which fail to garner universal acclaim. David is possibly his most complex role to date, following in the footsteps of Ian Holm, Lance Henriksen and Winona Ryder. He is not even a real 'he' at all. David is all machine, albeit a remarkably accomplished, capable of emulating nearly all of a human's reactions at the most logical moments. He is as close to being a person without actually being a real person, which makes his character arc all the more fascinating when it begins to seem as though he is, in fact, trying to best his mortal counterparts in conniving fashion. Fassbender, marvellously talented as he is, understands the complexities and the nuances that the role demands of him, pulling off an exquisitely off putting performance. He is at times fun to have around, at times just a shade too mechanical for comfort, and at other times eerily lifelike. With such a fantastic performance from Fassbender, it seems like Noomi Rapace, who plays the actual heroine of the film, might get lost in the shuffle. While not equipped with the same credentials has her Irish colleague, she is a talent in her own right, having demonstrated her capabilities in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Her Elizabeth Shaw is quite an emotionally and spiritually driven individual. She is revealed early on to be a devoutly religious person, which is curious given her willingness to accept the possibility that aliens, not an almighty deity, created humanity. Those two battling philosophies, rather then tear her apart, end up making her the most steadfast member in wanting to understand the secrets of life on Earth. Rapace is very, very good in the role, giving the picture an emotional, three-dimensional weight that none of the other other cast members do. Admittedly, the script itself does not allow the other actors to tap into anything very emotional, including Rapace's lover in the film, Logan Marshall-Green, who is serviceable as the gun-ho explorer, but nothing more. Charlize Theron is quite capable of playing an icy corporate representative, and she does just that here, but again, the script asks nothing more of her. Idris Elba, as Janek, is Prometheus' captain, although appears to exist more for some comedic touches than anything else. Like Theron playing a stone cold businesswoman, Elba can adeptly play his part, the frustrating thing being we know he can do more.

Some will call foul about the fact that, in the end, Prometheus refrains from legitimate and conceited efforts in trying to get to the center of what Shaw and her colleagues desire. The response to that complaint is twofold. First, what sort of explanation would have sent thousand of abating movie goers completely satisfied and, second, what sort of film would that have left Prometheus as. It is, first and foremost, a sci-fi adventure picture, not a philosophical or scientific thesis on the genesis of mankind. There are wonderful documentaries about that already and more will surely be made in the years to come. The chances that Prometheus will shock and awe people as much as Alien or even Aliens did are slim, but it is nevertheless a great piece of entertainment.

1 comment:

Ben Russell [The Movie Man] said...

I loved your review! Shed some light on certain aspects on the film which I didn't pay too much heed to.

However, I didn't really like Prometheus. It's not bad, but it overcomplicated things that should have been simple. It raised questions and only answered some of them. Then those answers raised even more questions. I think Scott bit off more than he could chew. None the less, I didn't mind Prometheus.