Sunday, 15 July 2012

BLOCKBUSTER: Prometheus (2012)

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Prometheus (USA, 2012)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce

It's taken a very long time for me to figure out exactly what I think about Prometheus. If you were one for damning with faint praise, you might call this an achievement in itself: the majority of modern blockbusters are so generic and predictable that we don't need to think long and hard about them after we leave the cinema. And while it has been hyped as much as the next mega-blockbuster, Prometheus promises so much more, delivering on just enough of it to win you over even as you sit there scratching your head.

 
To get the most obvious point out of the way, the film is visually stunning. Ridley Scott has always been a director who can create entire worlds on screen; we can imagine the locations and scenarios he shoots existing beyond the four corners of the screen, even if these worlds don't end up making much sense. Prometheus feels like it was intricately storyboarded by a craftsman, and in its opening section it delivers the kind of awe that we have seen from Scott before. The opening credits are Wagnerian in scale and feeling, enticing us with a combination of visual beauty and threat.
 
One of the problems doing any kind of prequel is how to account for technological changes, either within the film's universe or in the actual production values. While the Star Wars prequels showed a complete disregard for this, Prometheus actually takes the time to provide some kind of rationale as to why its spaceships appear more technologically advanced than those from Alien. The key to understanding this lies in the function of the Weyland Corporation.
 
Because we are several films before the events of Alien, we are seeing the Corporation in its infancy. It makes sense that it would have been interested in exploration when it was being guided by its founder, and that effort would therefore have been taken to provide spacecraft that were up-to-date and pristine. What we see in Alien is the result of commercialisation and bureaucracy, where the crew of the Nostromo put up with what they are given. There are the same arguments in both films over pay and corporate paranoia, but at least in the world of Prometheus there is the merest possibility of the Corporation having good intentions.
For its first forty minutes Prometheus comes across as a deeply atmospheric science fiction film. There is a real eeriness to the alien planet, complimented by Marc Streitenfeld's dramatic and suspenseful score. But even in the scenes leading up to this, there is a sense of slow-burning intrigue as the mission is explained and the archaeologists' evidence unfolds. Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that exposition is a bitter pill that must be sugar-coated for audiences, and in its opening act Prometheus does this splendidly, having the confidence to keep a lid on matters while pulling us slowly into this increasingly spooky universe.
 
Even if nothing else about Prometheus worked in any way, the ideas that it raises are very interesting. It is a demonstration that Scott genuinely understands science fiction, and how at its best it communicates the deep ethical and philosophical questions which shape and trouble mankind. Oddly enough, the majority of its ideas are closer to Blade Runner than to Alien, a fact reinforced by the increased screen time accorded to Michael Fassbender's character.
 
Prometheus is primarily concerned with the origins of mankind, and the possibility of extra-terrestrials either intervening at key stages of our development (like 2001) or being involved in the creation of our species. The title refers to the Greek titan who stole fire from the Gods, and was punished by being chained to a cliff, where every day an eagle would feed on his liver. As a literary figure, Prometheus represents both humanity's ingenuity and insignificance, serving as a warning against overreaching in our quest for knowledge, progress or purpose.
 
The film owes a great debt to H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness - such a big debt that Guillermo del Toro was prompted to postpone his own adaptation. Scott's vague implication that the creation of mankind was the result of a horrible accident is analogous to Lovecraft's conception of a universe which is either indifferent towards humanity or actively seeking to destroy it. In both cases the creating or God-like force is dualistic: it provides life and takes it away, and which species receives which treatment is essentially down to chance.
 
Prometheus uses its Lovecraftian elements to briefly examine the role of religious faith. Noomi Rapace's character is established to have some form of Christian belief, signified by the cross she wears and her conversations with her father. The film explores how faith in God would be impacted by the knowledge of alien involvement, which could challenge preconceived notions of the image of God, the assumed purity of His morals, and the idea that human beings are unique because they were divinely created (however literally). The crisis of faith which Shaw undergoes isn't always as focussed as it should be, but at least Scott resists easily resolving it.
 
Just as Alien slowly shifted from science fiction to gothic horror, so Prometheus steadily brings in more horror elements as time wears on. Some of this is rooted in the terror of Lovecraft and the Greek Myth, which conjure up the threat of total human annihilation. But there are equally a number of gruesome scenes which are far closer to Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. The scene of Shaw performing a caesarean on herself and removing a squid-like creature from her womb is deeply disturbing, for reasons good and bad.
There is much to admire in Prometheus, in its ideas, engrossing visuals and general eeriness. Unfortunately its execution isn't always great, and as the film rolls on it starts to fray and unravel when it should be focussing and building. The problems do not entirely consume the film, but they are symptomatic of the increasing trend for spectacle over narrative cohesion. What we end up with is a slightly more sci-fi inflected version of The Tree of Life: spectacular, substantial and highly cinematic, but with not enough story to tie it all together.
 
First off, the film has too many characters. In Alien we had seven people to focus on: the claustrophobic surroundings and naturalistic dialogue meant that we cared about each one of them. Here we have 17 to contend with, and only Shaw and David feel properly rounded. Idris Elba spends most of his time scowling into middle distance, while Charlize Theron's role is reduced down to wandering around in jumpsuits being a bitch.
 
Noomi Rapace is convincing on an emotional level, but her accent is a little forced and wanders occasionally. The best performance by a mile is Michael Fassbender, whose rendition of David stands somewhere between Peter O'Toole (whom the character idolises), Ian Holm and David Bowie. Fassbender claims to have based his performance on Bowie's work in The Man Who Fell to Earth - an example of a film in which substance can come through in the face of narrative difficulty (and indulgence).
 
Despite its strong roots in sci-fi and horror, the plot of Prometheus feels increasingly weak as the action escalates. The last twenty minutes are really drawn out as all the character arcs have to be rounded off and the majority of the alien civilisation is destroyed. The ending feels like a blatant attempt to set things a sequel, Avengers-style, while you wish Scott just had the confidence to reinforce the universe's pessimism and kill them all off.
 
For all the time we spend thinking about the philosophical issues it raises, our enjoyment of the film is hamstrung by its mechanical inconsistencies. There is little attempt made to tie in the opening image (the alien disintegrating into the waterfall) with what happens later on, nor is any explanation given as to why David attempted to infect Shaw's husband. The mechanics of having acid for blood is explained even less than it is in the Alien sequels, and there is not enough evidence provided as to how the engineer could have turned into the alien at the end.
 
Prometheus is a film you find yourself desperately defending even as you yearn for it to work better. It is neither the deeply nuanced success nor the unmitigated disaster that reviewers have made it out to be. It is neither more nor less than a deeply flawed film, whose flaws can be forgiven or at least mitigated by its several successes and Scott's enormous ambition. It falls well short of Alien and Blade Runner, but you sure can't blame him for trying.

Rating: 3/5
Verdict: The Tree of Life in space

2 comments:

Yes, I tend to agree with much of what you say. It's quite interesting to see how much this polarized viewers, I know some who loved it and I know some who hated it.

I gave it 3/5 finding flaws in the poor characters, there were, as you say, far to many for us to care for them.

Thanks Myerla. I don't understand the hatred for it at all. Guess not everyone who saw this saw The Tree of Life, or the many flawed gems of Vincent Ward

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