June 14, 2012
Screaming, and Loving It
After discovering that civilizations separated by thousands of years shared the same pictogram, Doctor's Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway surmise that it is some sort of invitation by beings from another world. What sort of beings? Why, the ones who created us, after all. Shaw and Holloway take their discovery the powerful Weyland Corporation, which funds an expedition aboard the vessel "Prometheus" to the world that the pictogram leads to. Aboard the ship, amongst the rabble of crew members and scientists, is an android, David, who is wrestling with his own budding humanity. Also along for the ride is Meredith Vickers, a Weyland employee who seems to know more than she is telling. Once they reach their destination, Shaw discovers that she was right, that the pictogram pointed to a world inhabited by alien beings responsible for humanity's creation. She also realizes that she should have never attempted the expedition, and soon, the entire crew is battling a destructive threat that, if uncaged, could mean the end of the human race.
Ok, yes. It is a prequel to Alien... sort of. There are elements of that film here. It clearly takes place in the same universe, as if the inclusion of the Weyland Corporation, androids, and a fifteen second final scene weren't enough to tip you off to that. But Prometheus is not interested in simply setting the trial of Ellen Ripley. No, it has something far more intense on the mind. Prometheus is all about questions. Right from the beginning it's clear that the movie is trying to answer the most loaded question of all; Where do we come from? Did God create us, or some other beings, and if so, who created them? So many ideas are thrown at the screen, that it's inevitable that some of them wouldn't be answered, and indeed, you leave the theater with many more questions than answers.
But that's ok. First off, there's plenty of room for a sequel here. And secondly, the film isn't about giving you the easy way out. It wants to provoke conversation, about the meaning of the events and the implications of them. The last big science fiction movie to attempt this was Inception, and Prometheus succeeds far more admirably than that did.
Unfortunately, all this philosophical debating does get in the way of the actual movie. While the narrative is tight and holds onto a steady forward momentum, a lot, and I mean most, of the characters are left in the dust. Oh sure, Shaw and David, the real stars of this thing, are developed beautifully, but everyone else is barely touched on at all. They just fulfill you basic character conventions of the genre, conventions that Scott help call into existence with Alien. You have your trigger happy head of security. You have you skeptical, sardonic scientist. You have the nice guy who wants to be friends. You have your steely corporate executive who is none to keen on taking anyone's bullshit. None of these archetypes ever really transcend their predisposition traits, so you know how each one will play out.
Luckily, the two main players are anything but archetypical. As Elizabeth Shaw, Noomi Rapace displays grace, intensity, curiosity, and sheer balls of steel. Shaw is something of a paradox, a scientist who believes in God. She's on the search for beings who created life, which is something she herself cannot. Her arc is beautiful, as she goes from an eager adventurer, excited to discover our origins, to a frantic survivor when she discovers it was nothing like she thought. Rapace is excellent, proving to everyone that she is more than just a little girl with a dragon tattoo.
Her equal in terms of narrative focus is the android David. Through him, the film presents interesting parables. Shaw is looking for her creators while David is attempting to be more like his. Michael Fassbender continues his streak of incredible performances, presenting a chillingly robotic specimen that is also imbued with traces of humanity. At times funny, at others scary, his David is one who calls into question many of the characters motivations. At one point, he asks Holloway why humans created him. "Because we could" remarks Holloway. "Imagine your disappointment if you got the same answer" quips David. It's a remarkable performance, and Fassbender disappears into it completely.
Everyone else performs well, though, as previously stated, they aren't given as much to play with. As Vickers, Charlize Theron is all gruffness and chilling intensity. It's another quasi-villanous role, which Theron can do like no one can, even though it's not as meaty or interesting as Ravenna from this summer's Snow White and the Huntsman. Idris Elba turns in another scene stealing supporting performance as the captain of the "Prometheus" and Guy Pearce shows up briefly in a memorable cameo as the aged Peter Weyland.
It really is a pleasure to see Ridley Scott return to sci-fi. After years of historical epics, crime dramas and war films, I was worried that he would have lost his touch. He hasn't, not by a long shot. Though Prometheus boasts a significantly higher budget and top of the line special effects, it is the still the same, visually precise, claustrophobic style that Scott perfected with Alien. He displays a keen mastery of shot composition, artfully creating an humbling sense of scale. Prometheus is a big ship, but is dwarfed by the majestic storm clouds of the planet and the never-ending nethers of space. Often times, Scott will the pull waaaaaaay back, so the the ship is nothing more than a dot against a back drop of chaotic weather and landscapes.
His use of symmetry is also amazing. Many times, the object of focus is placed directly in the center of the shot, heightening the sense of space and the claustrophobia, which really helps with the tension.
Oh yeah, make no mistake. Scott still knows how to scare your pants off. The "No one can hear you scream" tagline certainly applies here. Though it's not as relentless as Alien, and boasts more scenes of "big action", Prometheus is still an unbearably frightening and grotesque thriller. Ok, sure. A good amount of that terror is instigated by characters behaving stupid, but, for the most part, this is intelligent horror, more keen on making you uncomfortable rather than grossing you out. A bevy of well conceived jump scares, plenty of scenes of die hard suspense, and a sequence of body horror so intense, it gives the chestburster a run for its money; it all adds up to a quality horror movie.
It's not perfect, but Prometheus presents a return to an older style of sci-fi, one that didn't eschew intelligence in favor of spectacle. Though it has it's foot firmly in the realm of blockbuster, it is still of the smarter ones to come along in a long while. Boasting incredible visuals, a duo of superb performances, and a complex, but ultimately rewarding screenplay, Prometheus is just what I was hoping it would be. If the story continues on from here, I can't wait to see where it goes. The fact that xenomorphs might be included no longer matters.