Saturday, 2 June 2012

Prometheus: Sir Ridley Fails To Recapture The Flame


Prometheus marks Sir Ridley Scott’s return to the scifi genre after a thirty-year absence.

Prior to Prometheus Sir Rid made two sci fi movies – Alien and Blade Runner – both acknowledged classics of the genre and of film in general. Since then he’s been messing around with various other genres with varying degrees of success, his most successful venture creatively and financially being the awesome Gladiator, which single handidly reinvented the big screen historical epic. But post-Gladiator he hasn’t really hit the mark, except for perhaps the tense and brutal Black Hawk Down. His last effort was 2010’s Robin Hood - a dull misconceived bore. Legend has it that after seeing James Cameron at work on Avatar, Sir Rid asked his agent “Why am I not doing something like this?” Which led him directly to Prometheus.

Prometheus has a bit of a history. Originally it was conceived as a direct prequel to Alien, possibly to be two films made back to back. Talk was of James Cameron producing and Sir Rid directing. Ideas were exchanged, scripts written, but then budgets were deemed waaay too huge and risky for two adult-minded scifi horror films. Lets not forget, as great and as popular and Alien and Aliens were and remain, neither were huge box office money makers. They both did very well at the time but made nothing like the money of a Star Wars or even the best Star Trek. No Alien film has ever made more than $80m in the US. Plus Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection were both critical and commercial flops, which of course then led to the woeful Alien Vs Predator debacle. In short, Fox weren’t gonna spend huge money on two back-to-back prequels to what was only a modestly successful film franchise. But the idea wouldn’t go away. Sir Rid was eager to get back to scifi. Fox were eager to have him back doing scifi. And so new writers were brought in and the focus of the film (now just the one) was retooled in to what we now have, namely Prometheus. It is not an Alien prequel Fox and Sir Rid were telling us. It is a film that expands upon ideas set out in the Alien films but goes beyond them. It is a mystery, an intelligent and thrilling scifi exploration in to the secrets of humanities origins somewhere out there in deep space.


Prometheus is most definitely an Alien prequel.

It is set in the same universe, has the same design aesthetic, has the same nasty corporation behind all the bad shit that goes down, and has icky monsters at least part inspired by the great HR Giger.

Sadly, what it doesn’t have is the same focus of narrative, strong core characters, tight editing, and downright pant wetting scares.

You see Prometheus really wants to be deeply intelligent and deeply profound, whereas Alien was simply a gorgeously made horror movie. A haunted house tale set in space. But Prometheus wants desperately to be more. It sorta wants to be 2001 or 2010…with added gloop, tentacles and gore. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t have the focus or the deep and subtle intelligence of either 2001 or 2010. Yes, it has a big idea at its core (though one that has been done lots before) but it doesn’t do anything especially interesting with that idea. It poses lots of questions, touches on lots of themes around parenthood, creation of life, mortality, what is God, biological warfare, how far is too far for scientific experimentation etc. But the problem is, it doesn’t provide any answers. All it provides is more questions and lots of slime and some crazy tentacles and a big supposed ancient and massively intelligent alien/godlike being who in the end is only there to break necks and run around smashing things up. Yup, Arthur C Clarke sure missed a trick. Not! And what big revelations the movie does provide are pretty obvious early on to anyone who’s seen or read any scifi or who just has half a brain and is paying attention. Because Prometheus has some of the most unsubtle plot sign posting I’ve seen in ages. It almost screams at you, “LOOK, SEE THIS? THIS IS GONNA BE MASSIVELY IMPORTANT LATER ON.” So when the big revelations come near the end, they ain’t that revelatory. I was just thinking, “Yeah? And…?” But the “And” ends up being a standard run around corridors avoiding a hulking monster dude after escaping a big alien space ship that’s taking off (straight out of the end of the X-Files movie). Only with none of the tension and scares of, um, say, Alien.

Basically the script for Prometheus is a mess. There are too many questions posed with too few answers given. And there are too many characters, most of whom are paper thin and do nothing, serving no real purpose other than to do stupid things and get killed (No, don’t take the helmet off. No, don’t go off on your own just cuz you got grumpy…) Perhaps its biggest problem, though, is that there simply isn’t a strong narrative throughline to the story. No clear objective or obstacles to overcome, just the odd appearances of gloopy slime and weird tentacles, with no big, solid, tangible threat. People get infected with stuff and turn in to mutating sub-Thing-like creations who then have to be killed via flame throwers, while others get melted from acidic eel things or get impregnated with baby squids. To be fair, the DIY caesarean section sequence is by far the best and most successful part of the film. It’s intense and utterly gross. Shame it ends with the person then able to run around, jump craters and fight a ten foot tall albino dude despite having just had major abdominal surgery. Huh? I think not.

For the most part Ridley’s direction is good and fine. The film sure looks pretty. The photography, design, art direction and visual effects are all impeccable. The score is lushly sweeping too, with a lovely main theme and hints of Goldsmith’s classic Alien score popping up here and there. I’d recommend people see Prometheus for those reasons if no other. Sir Rid sure makes gorgeous looking and sounding films.

However he drops the ball in two major areas.

First, the film is sloppily edited. Characters appear and disappear for large amounts of time. You have no idea where they are or what they are doing. Several of them I still don’t know who they were or what their purpose was other than to die. When it comes to the big set pieces the editing is fine but never elevates the film to being overly exciting. There is a distinct lack of tension throughout. The most successful stuff (apart from the caesarean) is the smooth and elegantly put together sequences of Michael Fassbender’s David alone on the ship early on, going about his day to day business. Loved that.

Second, despite what some of the blurb might say, Prometheus just isn’t scary. There are a couple of mediocre jump moments (a radio squawk got me) but none of the ‘monster’ stuff is remotely scary or tense. Only the earlier mentioned caesarean sequence really makes you squirm and grip the seat. The rest is just cgi tentacles and oozing slime. Remember Harry Dean Stanton’s demise in Alien? Capt. Dallas in the air vents? Ripley vs. the Alien in the escape pod at the end? Nothing like any of that here. Not so much as a shiver raised.

So what about the cast?

In the lead role of Dr Shaw, Noomi Rapace with her amazing cheekbones is fine. She’s a very good actress and does the job selling her curiosity, her fear and her need to find out the truth of creation, to try and legitimise her own religious faith. She does lots of running and pleading, lots of pained expressions. And that’s fine. But there’s nothing here to rival her extraordinary work as Lisbeth Salander. Meanwhile Charlize Theron (looking awesome in shiny tight space clothes) is icy and coldly hostile as the dodgy rep from the company. Plus oh so sexy as always. Idris Elba is nicely laid back as the ship’s captain. And Logan Marshall-Green is, well, solid as Noomi’s co-scientist and boyfriend. But by far the standout performance comes from the always awesome Michael Fassbender as the ship’s android David. Oddly, as the non-human amongst them all, he’s the one with the most depth and the most interesting character. Fassbender plays him as a cross between Hal 9000, a curious innocent child, a fascinated fanboy (he geeks out for Lawrence of Arabia) and an unflustered wryly-observant butler. And he’s quite brilliant. To be honest, I was always wishing the movie would get back to him, not really caring what happened to anyone else. And then we have Guy Pearce. Ah, Guy Pearce. Love the dude. Great actor. But why the hell was he cast in this? He’s buried under a ton of some of the worst old age make-up seen for a long time. In HD you get to see every rubbery looking wrinkle. He looks like Johnny Knoxville’s old man in Jackass. I kept expecting his old man balls to start swinging. They should have cast an actor of the right age for the role. Should have been Peter O’Tool, which would have worked wonderfully with David’s Lawrence of Arabia obsession.

Now, all of this sounds like I didn’t like the movie. Like I have a major downer on it.

And I kinda do.

But despite all of its problems I did still enjoy Prometheus. Just nowhere near as much as I hoped I would. As I expected I would. It has great stuff in it. The look and design is worth the ticket price alone. As is Fassbender. And Noomi’s cheekbones. And Charlize’s shiny space ass. But it could and should have been so much better. The core idea is fine if unoriginal. It just needed a better writer to come in, hone the script, focus it down, and add some depth and concentrate more on a few less ideas. And it needed Sir Rid to tighten his editing and to inject a lot more tension and some real honest to god scares.

I was really hoping for something special from Prometheus. And the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel. And I hate that. Alien and Aliens are peerless classics. With Prometheus Sir Ridley Scott had the chance to make a gorgeous looking, smart, rather profound film that made its audience think while also rocking them to the core in terror. He certainly achieved the first of those, skimmed the surface with the next two, and pretty much failed outright with the last.

But, hey, at least it’s a big budget space ship based scifi flick that looks amazing. Something we almost never get anymore. And for that, at least, I’m grateful. I just wish it had been so much more.

3.5 (out of 5)