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Prometheus (2012)

DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott

CAST:

Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, Benedict Wong, Patrick Wilson

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL MENTION SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

One’s appreciation of Prometheus might be heavily-influenced by what one goes in expecting.  Despite Ridley Scott’s attempts to downplay Prometheus‘ description as a prequel to his 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien and have it viewed as a stand-alone story, many were disappointed by its loose connections and markedly different aims to its predecessor.  While it does contain elements of horror, Prometheus is less single-minded in its intentions than Alien and has far broader themes it’s trying to tackle.  Chief among Prometheus‘ flaws is that it bites off more than it can chew, but it’s still an intriguing sci-fi entry for those not expecting too much xenomorph action.

crewAfter a brief, somewhat vague prologue with an alien being sacrificing himself and kickstarting a chain reaction of growing DNA strands, we jump ahead to the year 2089.  Scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her colleague and boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover a series of identical cave paintings across different ancient civilizations around the globe, which they believe depict alien beings who interacted with–maybe even created–ancient man and gave coordinates of a star map for humans to visit their creators.  In 2093, Shaw, Holloway, and others come out of cryosleep onboard Prometheus, a trillion dollar vessel funded by Weyland Industries and its elderly, dying CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, under heavy age makeup), on a mission to explore the planet they believe is the homeworld of the extraterrestrial “Engineers”.  In addition to Shaw and Holloway, the expedition also includes several other scientists, a security contingent of mercenaries, the laid-back Captain Janek (Idris Elba), frosty company representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and the android David (Michael Fassbender), who in Alien series tradition has an inscrutable demeanor and ambiguous motives.  Upon landing, the crew investigates a huge pyramid, but finds only long-dead remains and containers of a mysterious black liquid.  But soon life forms reveal themselves with aggressive intentions, and some onboard the ship carry out their own agendas.

Prometheus promises more than it delivers.  The set-up is effective and the premise intriguing, and the early scenes establish an ominous tone that will feel familiar to fans of Alien.  While certainly not devoid of the shock/horror aspects (in fact, one scene in particular comes close to or equals the “birth” in Alien), it is less the central focus and in many ways Prometheus is a more ambitious film.  At its heart is not a crew being picked off one-by-one by an alien monster, but no less profound and weighty a question than the origins of mankind.  There are themes of “be careful what you wish for”, as well as a little touching on faith and what it means to be human.  Unfortunately, Prometheus bites off more than it can chew.  Screenwriter Damon Lindelof (who also wrote the TV series Lost, which many also found maddeningly ambiguous) sets up lots of questions and only scratches the surface of any of them, leaving some completely unresolved.  The pace, after a promising set-up, is meandering and uneven, and the climax is open-ended.  With two exceptions, the characters are woefully underdeveloped, to the point that a “surprise twist” and climactic self-sacrifice lack impact, and one principal character’s death is disappointingly anti-climactic.  Still, what’s onscreen is intriguing , albeit flawed.  Prometheus‘ biggest flaw is probably overreaching, and one could argue it’s better to aim too high than to settle for a generic dumb sci-fi action flick (whatever its flaws, Prometheus is not dumb or generic, nor is it heavy on action).  The visual effects are first-rate, but in fact the most striking shots are not CGI, but the sweeping, beautiful vistas of mountains, valleys, and a massive waterfall (filmed in Iceland) that open the movie.  The premise is thought-provoking and there are some fascinating moments scattered around, particularly a visually wondrous sequence involving David finding himself standing at the center of a holographic universe and literally holding Earth in the palm of his hand.  Another scene packs an impact of a more visceral, gut-wrenching variety; Shaw’s self-inflicted C-section is genuinely hard to watch.

So, is Prometheus really an Alien prequel, or is it a stand-alone film?  The answer is a little bit of both.  The existence of Weyland Industries (not yet Weyland-Yutani Corporation), androids who seem to bleed milk, and at least forerunners of the creatures from the Alien series make it clear that it takes place within the same “universe”, and it deals in a limited way with the xenomorph’s possible origins, but that’s more a tangential subplot than the main focus.  If you come here expecting to see the xenomorphs back in action, you’ll be disappointed.  There are common stands between Alien and Prometheus, but in many ways, Prometheus stands apart, and is only tangentially an installment of the Alien franchise, more an interesting footnote or side chapter than a full member.

With two exceptions, the characters are underdeveloped, and most of the background scientists and mercs exist as monster fodder.  The first exception is Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, whose Elizabeth Shaw begins as a wide-eyed idealistic believer and must endure an even more harrowing experience than Ellen Ripley.  Shaw never goes into badass action heroine mode, but while her strength is more internal than Ripley’s, determination and fierce survival instincts are traits the two share.  The second, and arguably the most fascinating character in the movie, is Michael Fassbender’s David, who is cut from a similar cloth to Ian Holm’s Ash from Alien but may be even more intriguing (he gets interesting little quirks, like being so enthralled by Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia that he styles his appearance and accent after him).  Fassbender affects a robotic gait and speaking style, but also imbues David with a childlike curiosity unrestrained by human concerns of morality.  It’s the second “big summer movie” (after his young Magneto in X-Men: First Class where Fassbender has a leading role, and he’s again the most arresting presence on the screen.  

Everyone else is two-dimensional at best.  Charlize Theron plays Vickers as such an ice queen that at times she almost seems more robotic than David.  Idris Elba is the laid-back Janek, and Guy Pearce has a small but important role as Mr. Weyland, though he is buried under heavy age makeup.  Logan Marshall-Green’s Holloway comes across as an unlikable ass, making it hard to connect emotionally to his relationship with Shaw or his fate.  Rafe Spall and Sean Harris have “monster fodder” written all over them, and Patrick Wilson has a brief cameo in a flashback as Shaw’s father.

Prometheus is often as frustrating as it is intriguing, and it suffers from pacing issues, undercooked subplots, and an open ending, but a movie that asks questions worthy of thought and discussion is more laudable than one that allows–even requires–the audience to check their brains at the door.  Prometheus has its share of flaws, but stupidity is not among them, and that is more than be said for much of what litters the summer movie landscape.

* *  1/2

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