Tuesday, 5 June 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Prometheus

Watching the Alien franchise, in its successive iterations with different writers and directors, is a strange and disjointed experience; each film is distinctly different in style, tone and quality. Ridley Scott’s Alien is rightly regarded as a classic of horror cinema (although it’s fascinating to read the less-than-glowing contemporary reviews from 1979), while James Cameron’s Aliens is equally as good, in a completely different way. It’s always been tempting to imagine though, what Scott would have done with a sequel. Now we have some idea; Prometheus is, in effect, Ridley Scott’s Aliens.

It’s a tough movie to review, since I’m loathe to give away the resolution to the film; that said, so many of the plot beats are predictable that it’s questionable that it could actually be ‘spoilered’ at all. This is due, in part, to the impressive viral video campaign that preceded the film’s release. The Weyland Corp. promotional videos give an impressive sense of reality to the universe in which the film is set, but have the drawback of making very little about the set-up seem in any way surprising. We pretty much know what we’re getting as we go in. Equally, though, the film’s storyline is simply not very original, treading well-worn ground familiar from many a science fiction film.

I fear I’ll damn this movie with faint praise. So much of it so is so very, very good, yet I left the cinema feeling strangely flat, and I wasn’t alone. The friends I went to see it with, which included both a proper film buff and someone who has never seen any of the Alien films, were all a little ambivalent about the movie. Still, it gave us all plenty to talk about, always a good achievement for a production, although the discussion was perhaps less philosophical than the creators of the film would have hoped.

Prometheus tries very hard to be a philosophical film. It poses deep questions regarding the origin of humanity: Where do we come from? Is there a creator? If so, would it be a good thing to meet him, and could we bear to hear his opinion of us? More questions are asked than answered, and it’s all good, meaty sci-fi fare. None of the revelations are particularly enlightening or surprising, though. What we do discover is that humanity was created by a race of ‘Engineers,’ genetically human extraterrestrials, who, for their own reasons, decided that we shouldn’t be allowed to exist after all. Evidently, we weren’t quite what they had in mind when they played God. I have to say, though, the Engineers were a disappointment. Since I first saw Alien, as an impressionable kid (as with so many of us), I was dying to learn about the Space Jockey, the mysterious, petrified starship pilot and first victim of the Alien. Now we meet his people, and discover that the impressively unearthly skeletal look with its elephantine skull is nothing but an elaborate spacesuit. Underneath, they’re just humanoids, albeit huge, godlike ones. I wanted something less human.

Spaihts and Lindelof provide a decent enough script, for the most part, with the exception of a couple of very corny lines of dialogue. For the most part, the dialogue is believable, with characters speaking portentously when trying to sound self-important and becoming far more naturalistic when ‘off-duty,’ as it were. There are several decently funny moments, a quality I wasn’t expecting, although sometimes we laughed at bits that weren’t actually meant to be funny (many people in the cinema, myself included, snorted at the final shot). The storyline is decently structured, linear but not boring, for the first two thirds or so, but loses its way somewhat in the final act, when the film veers further from its exploration and philosophy angle and fully embraces its horror movie roots. It isn’t a prequel to Alien, as such, although the films remain relevant to each other. I like the idea of exploring the greater universe of the classic film, rather than doing a straight lead-in or remake (and what we learn here, whether explicit or inferred, pretty much invalidates the questionable history presented in the Alien vs. Predator crossovers).

As I said, this is, in a way, Ridley Scott’s Aliens. Rather than presenting us with a hoard of xenomorphs, however, he chooses instead to provide a host of new alien creatures, all of which are impressively designed in themselves, but none of which are as original or as effective as the thirty-three-year-old Alien. The array of monsters are great fun, but make little sense; it’s maddeningly unclear just how they all fit together. They don’t seem to be separate species, as the various attacks lead to a plethora of further creatures being birthed or bursting forth. It’s a bewildering life cycle, nothing like as believable as the already complex stages of the xenomorph. It may have been planned out meticulously, but on screen it has a definite made-up-as-they-went-along feel, with a bit of zombi-ism thrown in. the horror is effective gruesome, and calls into question the 15 rating, but it’s never as gross as some of the movie gore we are familiar with now. I personally have an issue with operations and things happening to eyes, so a couple of sequences I found difficult to watch, but hardier horror-hounds will have no bother.

Links to Alien are mostly in the general aesthetic, with the Giger-inspired Engineer structures and the truly vast vistas on display. It is a visually stunning film, with the right mix of model work, location filming, CGI and puppetry to create a truly impressive world. Beyond the look though, Prometheus does share deeper sensibilities with Alien, preying as it does on the same discomfiting notions of bodily invasion, rape and, particularly, pregnancy. Another element that harks back to Alien is in the presentation of a robotic character. Unlike Ash, David is revealed as an android from the outset, and the writers avoid the hoary old clich├ęs inherent in a robot character for the most part. David is part inquisitive child, part scientist, part emotionless ghoul. He is aware of his deliberate similarity to human beings, but refreshingly, harbours no desire to become human himself. In spite of his apparent lack of emotion, he displays a cruel sense of humour that really brings the character to life, and is more memorable than any of the others on the mission. Michael Fassbender puts in a perfect performance as the android, and pretty much steals the show.

Other members of the cast make an impression, to varying degrees. Noomi Rapace never quite convinces in the action heroine role, but this is perhaps unfair - everyone seems determined to compare her with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, she is a very different character. Elizabeth Shaw (is that a Doctor Who reference, or have I got Time Tunnel vision?) is a scientist with faith, and her search for her creator is the focus of the film. Rapace is generally very good in the role, but her character never makes that much of an impression. Also, whatever the dialogue coaches might have been striving for, she does not sound British; she’s still clearly Scandinavian, so why not rewrite the character’s background to accommodate that?

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty good as her partner Charlie Holloway, although he is doomed to be forever known as ‘the guy who looks a bit like Tom Hardy,’ and once he’s out of the picture, his character is pretty much forgotten. The poor guy doesn’t even make most of the starring cast lists. Out of the large (perhaps too large) cast, also of note are Idris Elba as ship’s captain Janek, Charlize Theron as the sexy ice queen Vickers, representing the Company, and fun double act Fyfield and Milburn, played by Sean Harris and Rafe Spall. Miscast is Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland. I understand that they had him appear in the Weyland Industries viral video as a younger man, but it all seems unnecessary, covering him up in aged make-up and made to shuffle about hamming it up. Given David’s admiration of Lawrence of Arabia (and Fassbender’s apparently), why not get Peter O’Toole to do it? That would have been perfect.

While it’s surely no spoiler to say that things do not go well for the mission and that most of the characters die, I shall keep the ending hidden from those who do not wish to know - highlight the text at the bottom of this review if you want to read it. Before that, I have to give my final verdict as being a qualified success. Somehow, for all the revelations it does give, the questions it raises further, the exciting action sequences, the effective horror, the film never quite seems to gel together, perhaps there’s too much going on. Perhaps it falls between two stools, as both intelligent sci-fi and schlocky body horror. Perhaps it’s due to the mission of the Prometheus failing so abjectly that it almost seems like a colossal waste of time. Whatever the reason, there’s something strangely dissatisfying about this technically impressive and generally enjoyable film. Possibly, it’s a victim of expectations. I was looking forward to this so much, and expecting so much from it, that I could never be anything other than a little let down by it, and I think that many probably feel the same. Watched on its own merits, forgetting that it’s the long-awaited Alien follow-up by Sir Ridley Scott, it’s a very fine film.

So, the finale… a strangely uneven ending, clearly left open for a sequel. Shaw and David, what’s left of him, prepare to leave in an Engineer starship and seek out their homeworld. This could be a very interesting, direction for a sequel, if they could pull it off, but it smacks of deferring answers. Why the Engineers created life, why they developed an array of living biological weapons on another planet, why they seem determined to destroy what they once created… the questions need to be answered or definitively left unanswered. Shaw demands answers, and she won’t stop till she gets them, but will we really want to wait for them?

And yes, that final shot… are we to infer that the Alien we know and love is the final stage of the weapon-life forms’ inexplicable life cycle? Anyone watching knew that the Engineer’s final fate had to be a xenomorph birth, but instead of the classic chestburster we get a redesigned version of the creature. Not only does it not look as good as the original, it’s almost cute. Seeing that it doesn’t actually link up with Alien at all (this is a different incident on a different planet), why was it included at all?


  1. I was unimpressed with the film, I found it boring and pretentious. There were far too many unanswered questions (or even questions the director had forgotten to ask - or was too scared to ask) undisclosed facts, and details left unexplored..

    A far more interesting film could have been made which would have explained the events leading up to the voyage of the Prometheus...because it's certainly implied that there's a lot we don't know.

    It appears to be merely a marketing ploy to launch another movie franchise.

    1. I agree that the build-up would have been interesting to see. I don't think it's just another marketing ploy - although I'm sure the studio execs saw it that way - I think Scott, Lindelof and Spaihts were trying to make an intelligent, worthwhile film. Shame they didn't manage it.