Friday, June 8, 2012

Prometheus - Be careful what you look for . . .

There’s been so much said about what Prometheus would be like that it’s a bit of a relief to finally have the film OUT. First, it’s Ridley Scott making an Alien prequel! Then, it’s Ridley Scott saying that (while he meant to at first) now he’s not making an Alien prequel! Then, the trailers hit and this thing looked all the world like the first chapter in one of cinema’s biggest science-fiction franchises.

I am pleased to report that Prometheus is, despite what Mr. Scott would have us believe, CLEARLY an Alien prequel (albeit one that goes reaches back a bit sideways), while it’s certainly a standalone story and can easily be enjoyed on its own merits. While you don’t have to know the Alien mythology to enjoy/understand this film, I’ll be the first to admit that it certainly helps. Ridley Scott hasn’t worked in science fiction since the early 1980’s and the prospect of him returning to a genre where I feel he’s done his best work is endlessly exciting.

Here’s the story. After discovering the same pictograph in numerous digs around the world, two archeologists convince a wealthy corporate head to send an expedition to a distant planet to respond to a supposed invitation from what they believe are the creators of all life on earth. Upon arrival, the crew finds a lot more than they bargained for and must fight for their lives against forces from without and within.

I hadn’t quite expected Prometheus to be such a beautiful film from a strictly visual perspective. From the opening sequence of a gorgeous earthlike planet in which intelligent life is about to be planted to the introduction of the alien world, the coloration is so much more lush than anything I’ve ever seen in an Alien film up to this point. There are oranges and purples and blues that really stand out, particularly when the action moves inside the dome, where it’s all grays and blacks. There are some shots here that would make lovely wall hangings, particularly moments where the little dune buggies/big truck are racing away from or toward the Prometheus. There’s a shot of the away team trying to make it back to the ship before a storm hits that’s just remarkable.

The performances are uniformly good, particularly Michael Fassbender’s turn as David, the android always at the center of the intrigue in Prometheus. David seems to have a completely different agenda than just about anyone else in the film, and I’m really not sure what’s going through his head. These androids that Weyland Corp. uses tend to be really cagey fellows with a way of hedging their bets and keeping you guessing as to what their true motives really are. At first, he seems to be working for Vickers (Charlize Theron), but then it’s apparent that he’s still getting instructions from some unnamed man. When we later learn who that person is, it’s not made much easier. As stranger and stranger things start to happen, it makes one wonder why David is taking matters into his own hands so drastically. I could go on and on about this, but then this would morph into a discussion more than a review. Let’s just say that I’m left to wonder if, on some level, David might be even more sinister than the ominous creatures the crew encounters.

I do think that the film would have benefited from being a bit longer. Certain themes  are presented and examined in such a perfunctory way that it shortchanges the film from becoming as compelling emotionally as it is visually. For example, Shaw (a strong Noomi Rapace) is a person of faith who comes to the planet fully believing that she’s going to have a chance to answer an invitation to converse with the beings that created intelligent life on earth. She’s on the verge of the most important scientific breakthrough in human history and she approaches it with the simple faith that it’s going to happen, and happen a certain way. When circumstances on the planet surface turn out to be drastically different than she’d anticipated, I wanted more. Let’s delve deep into what it means for Shaw to be a person of faith that’s being challenged by such an unexpectedly evil place. Let’s give her an extended scene where she really talks with someone (probably David) about what it means to her.

Think about it. It’d be perfect. Being an android, he does not understand what conviction of this kind is really like, and she would be able to explain what her faith means to her and how she reconciles it in the face of what seems closer and closer to certain doom. I think it would have really fleshed out the narrative more effectively, but, unfortunately, it’s not what we get. I think this might be a weakness of Scott’s in general. We tend to arrive at certain scenes thinking of how they might have affected us, instead of how they have affected us.

Much like the Nostromo in Alien, the crew of the Prometheus is mostly made up of working/middle class folks, which is a welcome change from the usual conventions of science fiction. They certainly haven’t got the endless poise of the crew of the Enterprise. They’re just a bunch of people that want to earn a paycheck without having to suddenly deal with a bunch of strange alien creatures that want to do all kinds of terrible things. I really like that about them, even if they’re sometimes saddled with pedestrian dialogue that’s clearly there because there’s a camera watching and witty things must be said.

Prometheus is also not as frightening as I’d expected, but that's not a bad thing. While I was prepared for the worst, and an almost immediate body count, the film takes its time to set things up in such a way that you stay on your toes when the punches start hitting. That said, the film’s single most effective sequence is terrifying. It’s the scariest do-it-yourself surgical procedure this side of 127 Hours that I’ve seen in a movie in a long, long time, and just about had me holding my breath. 

The subversion of expectation is one of this film’s strongest suits. Given where the franchise has been before, there are a few directions that you’d expect the film to head in that it neatly sidesteps. Even when there are nods to what’s come before, they’re done in surprisingly innovative ways. There are several narrative bombshells present here, and part of what makes some of them so effective comes with a knowledge of the franchise. “Well, he’s the same as THAT was, so THIS can’t happen.” Then, when it does happen and the rug is pulled out, you’re left to figure out what that means now.

Having seen the film in 3D, I’d argue that you’d do better stick to 2D and save the extra money. Personally, I don’t really have much of an interest in 3D unless it’s the work of an artist using the format with specific intentions, like Cameron’s Avatar or Scorsese’s Hugo, in which case 3D is a necessity. With Prometheus, the pedigree’s certainly there, but it didn’t take long for me to almost forget entirely that the film was in 3D at all. If it’s not enhancing the viewing experience, then it can be done without.

A lush, engaging look at a familiar mythos through new eyes, Prometheus is a strong piece that I’m almost positive will benefit from repeated viewings, and I'm certainly looking forward to trying to put the pieces together again. For a notorious one-and-done guy, that’s one of the highest compliments I’ve got. 

This one deserves it.

4 stars (out of 5)

No comments: