Posted on 6/13/12 01:23 AM
Ever since the announcement in late 2010 that director Ridley Scott was going to return not only to the realm of science fiction cinema for the first time since Blade Runner but specifically to the universe he helped to establish way back in 1979 with the modern masterpiece Alien, speculation has run rampant as to just how much of a prequel (or if, indeed, it would be a prequel at all) we would have with the film, known as Prometheus.
The aura of mystery increased when a trailer emerged in December of 2011 which clearly referenced the derelict ship and it's fossilized passenger (known to fans as The Space Jockey) originally discovered by the unsuspecting crew of the Nostromo in the '79 picture while Scott simultaneously insisted that although the "DNA" of Alien was evident in Prometheus, it was not a direct prequel .
Well, Prometheus has at last landed and it turns out that Scott was quite right. Although Prometheus does indeed share common plot elements with Alien, it's really a stand alone film more concerned with asking it's own questions than it is with directly setting up the events of his previous film.
The movie opens with an eye popping and gripping sequence where we witness the origins of life on Earth. Fast forward several million years to earth circa the year 2089 and Doctor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall Green) discover evidence via cave paintings that otherworldly visitors were in contact with humans eons ago. The doctors are convinced that these beings- whom they refer to as "Engineers" - were the progenitors of the human species. Whereas Dr. Shaw pursues this from a faith perspective, Dr. Holloway is a strict adherent to Darwinism..so when it becomes apparent that the ancient visitors left clues to which star coordinates they originated from, both scientists want to try to find these "engineers"and discover for themselves who their makers really were and perhaps discover why they created us.
Enter Mr. Weyland (Guy Pearce, under some impressive age makeup) , who Alien franchise fans will recognize by name as one half of Weyland Yutani- ie the notorious Company so oft referenced throughout this series.
Weyland agrees to fund the search for the engineers..and so off goes the scientific research vessel Prometheus into the far reaches of space in search of answers. In addition to Shaw, Holloway and a team of assorted researchers (including an amusingly abrasive geologist played by Sean Harris) along for the ride are Janek, the captain of the Prometheus ( Idris Elba), Weyland Yutani company employee Meredith Vickers (a cold Charlize Theron) - charged with supervising the mission - and David (Micheal Fassbender), a state of the art android who may or may not have an agenda that could prove dangerous to his human counterparts.
The research team narrows the search to a moon located in the system the cave paintings indicated. Once there, they stumble upon an installation clearly designed by the Engineers. Unfortunately, they also stumble upon something else .......something human beings were not meant to find.
The first thing to realize about Prometheus is that , for much of its running time, it bears a stronger kinship to Blade Runner than it does Alien, despite being set in the same universe as the latter. Prometheus is less a horror film than it is a straight forward science fiction piece that happens to get to some terrifying places as the story unfolds.
There's been a lot of discussion about the quality of the screenplay by Lost veteran Damon Lindelof. This movie - like much of Scott's work- is destined to be divisive. Already there are two factions- those who think the film is smart and savvy, asking some big questions about who we are and where we come from (not all of which it is willing to answer) and those who think it represents poor screen writing , with a clunky script that cannot be redeemed by excellent direction and stunning visuals.
I fall resolutely into the first category. I've always enjoyed ambiguous science fiction that poses more questions than it resolves ( 2001: A Space Odyssey anyone?) and I think it's a shame that such a sharp, legitimately entertaining film is being criticized because modern audiences no longer want to be challenged to think about what they've seen after leaving the theater and would rather have every single idea spelled out in exact visual detail . People feel so cheated if they don't see everything in detail that if the aforementioned 2001 were released today, it'd have to end with the character Dave Bowman walking into the Mos Eisley bar on Tatooine in the original Star Wars instead of leaving the appearance of the extraterrestrials an open question . Prometheus opts for the mystery. And just to be clear, as it happens I felt that this movie did answer just enough of its questions to be entertaining while leaving enough open ended to entice audiences to a potential sequel.
In regards to the the performances : They're nothing short of remarkable. Scott has always had a knack for assembling talented casts and this one is no exception,with Rapace and Fassbender the highlights of the film.
Rapace shows both humanity and resilience as Shaw and there's an intruiging ongoing thread woven into the film about her faith not quite being as shaken by their discovery as her boyfriend would expect it to be. When asked how she can still hold onto the concept of God as the creator when she now knows the Engineers were responsible for our origins, Shaw gives an answer one could realistically expect in that circumstance... a reply that,as a Christian, I might tend to provide myself : "They created us..who created them?" It's a testament to Rapace here that I was as heavily invested in her character as I ever was in Ellen Ripley.
Adversely, Fassbender is a stark wonder of polite, controlled condescension and duplicity as David. This is the fourth time since 1979 that we've seen an actor or actress play one of these automatons - Ian Holm led the way as Ash, Lance Henriksen took androids a step back towards redemption as Bishop and Winona Ryder was the inquisitive Cole , all prior to Fassbender's turn- but this is the first time I would bet that an Academy award nomination is forthcoming. I am completely serious. Fassbender is absorbing and impossible not to watch. Even when he's occupying a vast, technologically advanced set replete with an extra terrestrial cryo-stasis tube and computerized holograms of vast galaxies hovering in air about him, David commands your full attention. If Heath Ledger can win an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker, Fassbender must be given due consideration as Best Supporting Actor for the scene stealing work he does here.
Rounding out the core cast ,Theron is wonderfully nasty and unyielding as the icy Vickers, who holds a few important secrets of her own and- in role that has not received nearly as much praise in the press as it deserves- Idris Elba is both believable and likable as the captain. There wasn't a lot of detail about his character in the press for this movie and the ongoing back and forth Elba has with two men over the ship-to-helmet communication link (before events go south) was a particularly welcome surprise.
Another aspect of Prometheus certain to receive accolades from the Academy is the visual design. We've seen the depths of space and the surface of countless alien worlds on screen before, but never with this sort of detail and beauty. Scott doesn't merely film terrific effects and then throw them into the 3D mix..he uses the process as a paint brush, crafting exquisite compositions of color and shape. Early scenes of deep space are so lovingly rendered as to be jaw dropping ,with a ringed gas giant looming in the foreground against a deep, endless sea of stars. Later scenes of exploration reveal dark, winding tunnels leading into unknown shadowy depths, all with a clarity that makes it seem as if you literally could step through the screen into Scott's cinematic universe. Though this film would be an impressive visual feast even in 2D, I recommend that every science fiction fan get themselves to a theater and see it on the big screen in 3D at least once.
Now, having gone on about how this movie skews more to straight science fiction and how the visuals are so technically incredible, one might think that it sells short the fear factor that was such an integral aspect of Alien and its sequels.
While Prometheus doesn't try for that sort of sustained intensity, it absolutely hits some very scary high notes, including a bravura, brilliantly staged and executed sequence involving a self inflicted C-section that is as cringe inducing as it is terrifying. This is very much a creature feature in its own right, with it's own set of creepy crawlies as capable of carnage as any of the chest bursting Xenomorphs or arachnoid face huggers we've seen before.
With all of that praise, Prometheus is not a perfect film. The crew of the ship is too large- it's established that they have seventeen members on the team, yet only six or so have actual story lines and the rest are cannon fodder. In the original Alien, the Nostromo- a towing ship five times the size of the Prometheus - only had a crew of seven and the narrative was better for it. So points off for allowing the "red shirt " phenomenon to insinuate itself in a film that is far too smart to take that path.
The other criticism I have is with the pacing later in the film. There's been some press about how the second half feels rushed, but I thought the film held its pacing very well until things started to come together in the last thirty minutes. That's when it felt like scenes went by at a clip en route to a finale that -while spectacular- seemed to almost end before it started.
These missteps weren't enough to delineate the overall impact of the film, though. No, Prometheus isn't a perfect film- but it's a damned fine piece of science fiction , one of the best films in this genre to arrive in decades. I sincerely believe that in the years to come this movie will be re-evaluated and achieve cult status alongside Alien and Blade Runner as one of Ridley Scott's most accomplished works. It's a pleasure to see the director back in such fine form . Prometheus is a cinematic voyage that was well worth the thirty year wait and should be on the must see list of every genre fan.
**** out of ****