Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ reaches for greatness but comes up short

06.01.12 5 years ago 39 Comments

20th Century Fox

At this point, the “Alien” series has managed to survive well past any expiration date I would have imagined possible.  The framework of the series has been bent and twisted and reshaped to accommodate several different styles and voices.  There is nothing about the series that I still consider sacred or off-limits, no single definition of what makes an “Alien” film.  For each new filmmaker, the series seems like a blank slate, a box of toys they can play with any way they choose.

While I haven’t been a big fan of many of Ridley Scott’s latest films, the idea of him finally returning to this world that he defined in the first place was an exciting one, and I’ve been intensely curious about “Prometheus” since the film was first announced.  I’ll admit that the constant game of “is it a prequel or isn’t it?” has worn on me, though, eroding much of my enthusiasm simply because I hate it when people play coy about things.  I’d rather hear nothing at all about a film than spend a year hearing the same cryptically worded quote over and over, especially since it has seemed transparently obvious since we first started seeing stills and footage that this is definitely connected directly to the first film in the series.

My own curiosity has been nothing compared to the voracious appetite for any hint of news about the film that I’ve seen from readers not only of our site but any site covering it.  At least for genre nerds, “Prometheus” seemed to be one of the films that had been pre-ordained as a heavy hitter for this summer, and the expectations people seem to have for it are almost too much for any film to meet.  I would advise anyone who is worked up to a frenzy right now to temper those expectations.  You’ll be happier if you do, and it may help you see “Prometheus” clearly.

First and foremost, the film is a remarkable technical accomplishment, and Ridley Scott’s use of 3D photography is amazing.  Deep and immersive, with one of the most stunningly-realized science-fiction settings I’ve ever seen, “Prometheus” is eye candy of the highest order.  The films is packed with imagery that is haunting and gorgeous, and the way Scott brings the technology of the future to life is so convincing that I found myself wondering when I can get my hands on viewing screens or user interfaces like the ones we see here.

On a story level, the film is more of a mixed-bag, and this is where I think the great debates about the movie are going to be centered.  There is real ambition to what Scott has done here with screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, and I admire that they’ve tried to make a science-fiction movie about ideas.  The biggest problem, oddly, is the thing that got them the greenlight in the first place.  If this film wasn’t burdened with having to serve as a prequel to the “Alien” series, it would be much stronger overall.

The film certainly starts well.  The opening sequence, accomplished completely without dialogue, suggests the origins of our species and implies our place in a larger universe, doing so with strikingly composed and startling images.  We then jump forward in time to the near-future, when Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Dr. Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave painting that is the final piece in a puzzle they’ve been chasing, one last clue to what they believe is proof of extraterrestrial contact with ancient man.  Shaw sees the images as an invitation for mankind to travel to what she believes is the place we were created.  It is an act of faith for her, and her work convinces gazillonaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund an expedition.

Considering the scale of much of the imagery, “Prometheus” is actually a fairly claustrophobic narrative.  The crew of the Prometheus lands on the planet that Shaw has led them to, they explore, some bad things happen, and there’s a big finish.  It’s all handled in a very linear fashion, and I think people will be surprised when they realize that, all the bells and whistles aside, “Prometheus” is basically just a monster movie with a very slow burn.  There are big questions about faith and mankind’s purpose and the origin of our species that are hinted at and flirted with, but given the choice to go with a scare or dig deeper, “Prometheus” goes for the scare every time.  The last act of the film in particular piles on some crazy images and ideas, and Scott stages all of it well.  But when you take the time to set up a film as an exploration of ideas and questions of a spiritual nature, it feels like a misfire when things basically devolve into a very well-crafted haunted house.

I must confess that I simply don’t get Noomi Rapace.  I’ve seen all three of the films where she played Lisbeth Salander, I saw her in the “Sherlock Holmes” sequel, and now I’ve seen her here, and I just don’t get it.  She is one of those performers who always feels like they are delivering lines to me.  I don’t get any sense of real inner life from her.  It doesn’t help that she’s playing opposite Michael Fassbender here, whose David 8 character easily steals the entire film.  Just as much as the “Alien” series is about giant weird creepy xenomorph monsters, it is also about the milk-bleeding synthetic human androids that show up in every film, and Fassbender makes David 8 unforgettable. There are so many fine touches to his work that any time the film is focused on something he’s not involved in, it feels like some of the energy dissipates.

Charlize Theron actually seems even less human here than in “Snow White and the Hunstman,” and her Meredith Vickers has a private agenda that is fairly anti-climactic once actually revealed.  It’s a non-starter of a role, and I feel like if she’d been excised completely, you’d have the exact same film, never a good sign.  Idris Elba has an underwritten role as the ship’s captain, but he takes the little details and makes them all count, creating a warm sympathetic presence with minimal screen time.  Beyond them, the cast quickly grows indistinguishable, with many of the background scientists and crew members never given a name or a personality.

Having said all of that, I still found much to like about the movie.  It is an astonishing experience to sit through, taking in the world designed by Arthur Max, bathing in the crystal-clear 3D photography by Dariusz Wolski.  Even with my narrative issues, I plan to see this again at the IMAX 3D theater at the Rave here in LA, and I look forward to exploring every corner of what Scott and his collaborators have built.  There are some very effective sequences in the film, and Rapace has a scene in the second half of the movie that is harrowing, brilliantly conceived, and instantly iconic.  It is one of those movie moments that people will talk about all summer, and for good reason.

I think my biggest problems with the film come from a mindset that is simply standard operating procedure for Hollywood these days.  First, this is clearly meant to kick-start a new series of films, and the way the movie ends is such a half-hearted cliffhanger, a sort of half-measure, that it fails to satisfy, and by design.  Second, because it is a prequel, the ticking clock that the film uses to ratchet up tension in the film’s climax doesn’t work.  We know it can’t happen.  We’ve seen the other movies.  There’s no way it plays out as they suggest, and so there is no real tension.  It is a problem that every prequel has, and “Prometheus” doesn’t manage to figure out a way around the issue.  I’m tired of movies being treated like TV shows, where each film is just a set-up for the one that follows.  At some point, I’d rather just see a complete story, well-told, without a game plan in place for more movies.  I understand that for Ridley Scott to get the film greenlit, it needed to be connected to a property that Fox could exploit, but a good business decision is not automatically a good creative decision, and in this case, the thing that got the movie made is also the thing that hurts it the most.

I am still trying to process the almost preposterous degree of artistry that is on display in every frame of “Prometheus,” and I guess I wish the script had engaged me to the same degree.  As it stands, it is a decent, well-intentioned prequel to a series that had painted itself into a corner, and while I don’t think it reinvents anything, it at least reinvigorates things enough to make this worth seeing on the biggest brightest screen you can find.

“Prometheus” opens in the US on June 8.

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