Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Divorced From The Marketing, Prometheus Is Still More Than “Alien: The Next Generation!”

The Good: Interesting characters, Engaging philosophical elements, Great effects, Decent pacing, Good initial story, Good acting.
The Bad: Plot develops into something far too familiar (derivative).
The Basics: With Prometheus, a science vessel inadvertently awakens a powerful, potentially malevolent force that might redefine humanity’s understanding of itself!

Entering 2012, there was no film I was more excited about than The Dark Knight Rises (reviewed here!). From pretty much the moment Anne Hathaway was cast as Selina Kyle, I was psyched. But on New Year’s Day, I visited the IMDB and saw the movie poster for Prometheus posted there. And I began to look into what the film was about. And suddenly, there was a new movie I was anticipating. With the earliest press about Prometheus debating whether or not the movie, which Ridley Scott had announced as the story of the “space jockey” from Alien, would actually be a prequel to Alien, I was hooked on every scrap of information that was released about Prometheus.

So, I began to consider what a prequel would actually mean. If the film was actually going to be about the giant alien seen in the crashed derelict spacecraft in Alien, it would – I reasoned – have to be set quite some time ago. After all, the “space jockey” was a fossil. So, it seemed logical that any real prequel to Alien that focused on the space jockey would have to be about how that crescent-shaped ship crashed on the planet with the methane crystals in the atmosphere. To satisfy fans – and I am a fan of the Alien Quadrilogy (reviewed here!) – it would have to establish the space jockey setting the twelve-second repeating beacon that the Nostromo was sent to investigate and answer how the space jockey became infected with the alien that burst out of its chest, leaving the fossilized remains.

By those criteria, Prometheus is not a prequel to Alien. Set in the same universe as Alien, Prometheus is an entirely tangential story that populates the Alien universe more than it has been (in Aliens, one of the Marines refers to Ripley’s seeing an alien in such a derisive tone that makes it sound like humans have not had much experience with extraterrestrials, despite other Marines referring to sex with the, presumably, androgynous Arcturians). A science fiction-horror film that tries to be smart and cerebral, Prometheus develops into a fight for survival on a distant world that is likely to please the fans of the Alien franchise.

Except for those looking for something truly new.

The only real, lasting, disappointment from Prometheus is that the build-up implied that the film would be something truly new and different. For all of the incredible aspects of Prometheus, the plot structure too-closely mirrors other installments in the Alien franchise, so that the film that originally seemed audacious enough to truly do its own thing, eventually becomes a whittling down process that seems more like it is trying to squeeze back into the mold, as opposed to truly break it.

That said, Prometheus is incredible and must be seen on the big screen (biggest possible!) in order to truly appreciate the depth, scope and grandeur of all its aspects, even its scariest ones.

Following the discovery on Earth of potential extraterrestrial influence with disparate ancient civilizations, the Weyland Corporation sends an expedition to a remote sector of space in the hopes of discovering who those aliens were and how they influenced humanity. The android, David, awakens the crew of the science ship Prometheus, who include scientists, the ship’s captain and a representative from the Weyland Corporation, Meredith Vickers. Landing on a moon around a gas giant, the Prometheus crew finds an alien structure and inside they discover alien bodies. They also find storage containers. With a sandstorm coming that will cut off the team from the landed ship, the chief scientists – Shaw and Holloway – and David return to the Prometheus.

Aboard the Prometheus, the scientists study an alien head they recovered, while David opens one of the alien containers and infects Holloway with material from it. With the storm passed, another team returns to the temple to find those left behind dead. David accesses another level of the temple, which is actually an alien space ship. While Holloway’s health worsens, David learns that the aliens had, in fact, been to Earth and they may still have plans for it. Desperate to stop the spread of the parasites that are growing within Holloway and Shaw, as well as prevent the ancient aliens from returning to Earth to wipe out humanity, Vickers, Captain Janeck, David, and Shaw work against the alien entities and the sinister Weyland Corporation.

Prometheus is notable in that it does what both great science fiction and great films do; it successfully tries to explore something greater than itself. In many ways, Prometheus is an incredibly well-detailed extension of the old adage that one should not look into the face of their own gods. Elizabeth Shaw is, from a young age, motivated by a strong desire to learn and seek her creator. While she is a scientist, she adopts the idea that humanity was seeded on Earth and the artwork from ancient cultures implies to her that the engineers of humanity’s development returned or lived among ancient humans. Hers is a quest to, essentially, seek out her god.

In many ways, that is the quest of David, as well. Programmed by the Weyland Corporation, David has a full understanding that his programming is limited to a human mindset. David wants to experience something more and his place in Prometheus solidifies the metaphor of the dangers of seeking god, especially when one has something they want of it. Both Shaw and David yearn for discovery (though David has been programmed alternative directives) and Prometheus starts as their search.

But the theme of exploring humanity’s origins and trying to understand who we are and why we exist comes to a pretty abrupt end once Holloway is infected. Instead of simply following that course and trying to provide the audience with answers which were bound to disappoint theists everywhere, Prometheus takes a right turn into horror. The cerebral aspects of Prometheus are not completely negated or done away with – there is an entire conspiracy plotline that becomes far more active in the film’s latter half that is smartly presented – but once Holloway and Shaw become human incubators, Prometheus makes the transition from mildly scary science fiction to an action adventure film that is more in line with the standard horror film than Star Trek or Star Wars.

Prometheus manages to present engaging characters – which might be why it is so disturbing that the film turns into the bloodbath it does. While there are a few members of the Prometheus crew who never leap into being more than background characters, the main crew is remarkably well-defined. Even Vickers, who initially is cast as a cold, efficient, Company-oriented woman who might seem to have no real personality to her outside a sense of ruthless efficiency, is given a compelling reason for all of her actions in the film’s latter half. The relationship between Shaw and Holloway (who is an atheist) works well as an “opposites attract” type relationship while they share a common interest in the archaeological evidence they collated prior to the flight and a sense of adventure that makes their journey together seem plausible.

But, like Alien, Prometheus takes a step back from its characters to become a film that is a series of confrontations and desperate escapes. This, of course, leaves the viewer feeling somewhat jerked around as the characters one gets invested in in Prometheus do not have great chances of survival and the body count in the film is predictably high.

What sets Prometheus apart from other science fiction horrors, in addition to the philosophy and stronger sense of characters at the film’s outset, is the caliber of acting. Prometheus might seem to be playing with a stacked deck with Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and Michael Fassbender (with brief initial roles from Patrick Wilson and Guy Pearce as well), but the performers truly do give something new of themselves, each and every one. In Prometheus, Elba has a more casual and accessible role as Janeck than in any other role I have yet seen him. He is professional, but approachable and Elba plays Janeck as a guy who cares, which offsets Theron’s Vickers very nicely, as they share many scenes together.

As for Charlize Theron, Prometheus gives her a nice chance to play villainous with more purpose than she was able to illustrate in Snow White And The Huntsman (reviewed here!). Theron plays steely well and she makes Meredith Vickers often feel less human than Michael Fassbender’s David, but she makes the role work. As Vickers is given more backstory, Theron infuses more emotion to her, without ever making the character go through any form of ridiculous transition. Theron establishes Vickers with a strong sense of personality and she never slips from that.

As the resident android, David, in Prometheus, Michael Fassbender obviously has a significant acting challenge. Fassbender continues to impress with his range as David. In Prometheus, he manages to play a character that is clearly not human, while making him seem more than just a guy with somewhat stiff mannerisms. For lack of a better analogy, Fassbender does not make David into a character like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, as an android searching for what it means to be human. Instead, Fassbender manages to simply embody an android by acting soulless. His performance is without spark or zest and that wonderfully frees him to make David seem like an android, without making him unsympathetic. Fassbender dominates his scenes and he still has the ability to evoke complex emotions with simply a look.

The obvious protagonist in Prometheus is Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace. Prometheus is actually the first film I have seen Rapace in and it was enough to make me willing to look her up in other works. She plays Shaw’s idealism exceptionally well – with literal wide-eyed excitement and she is credible in the film’s later sequences which require her to seem both tormented and as something of an action heroine.

The effects in Prometheus are absolutely amazing, making it a visual wonder that ought to be viewed on the biggest possible screen. Having now seen it again, this time in IMAX 3-D, I have to say that is THE way to see Prometheus! Ridley Scott uses the whole canvass for the IMAX presentation and even on that, there are several moments, like when the Prometheus is entering orbit and the atmosphere, that the ship is tiny, even in IMAX. It will be virtually impossible to see on DVD!

The 3-D effects for the IMAX presentation are simply stunning. Because the film was filmed in 3-D, the effects are like watching a box filled with characters and settings, as opposed to post-produced 3-D, which basically looks like two levels. Prometheus is rich in depth, even in the smaller moments, in 3-D IMAX.

As well, the audio presentation is exceptional. Events like the silt pounding the ship and crew make one's chair vibrate from the intensity and the climax of the film is so much richer with the IMAX soundsystem. I was also much more aware of the soundtrack the second time through and the haunting theme to Prometheus lends the film a wonderful sense of adventure and, later, horror.

But Prometheus is not flawless; it’s own familiarity robs it of that. But for fans of the Alien franchise who have been looking for something exciting that is new but on the familiar canvass, after so many false starts and disappointing sequels, Prometheus feels like coming home.

For other works with Micheal Fassbender, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
X-Men: First Class
Jonah Hex


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all of the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Nice review W.L. I was entertained, to say the least, but I think I was expecting something so much better after all of the promotion for this flick. Maybe it was too much like Alien.