Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus is not Alien. If that fact is something you can understand and embrace, walking into the theater, the chances are you're going to enjoy the two hour running time.

If this isn't a fact you can both understand and embrace, the odds are in favor of disappointment.

It's a good film. It is a very different film than the film that is responsible for the franchise. It is, in more ways than not, a much bigger, much more ambitious film than Alien. Ridley Scott is a different man now than he was when he made Alien, and there's obviously a lot on his mind. Prometheus is, in another way, classic Ridley Scott as well. Some of Scott's better films have managed to tackle Big Ideas and present them in interesting ways while also being entertaining pieces of popular art. Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down being two of the better examples of Scott's ability to tame his narrative ambitions enough to produce films that have some depth and weight, yet find their way into the hearts of people who aren't looking for little more than entertainment in a movie theater. There's a lot of venom out there for Black Hawk Down, because it gets lumped in with other action-ish films dealing with the military as a simplistic piece of nationalist propaganda, but in reality, there's a good deal more to that film than the kind of empty headed, uncritical flag waving of the films it so often gets categorized with. What it isn't, is a preaching, preening work of anti-war, anti-military or anti-government propaganda, which is often what it's detractors seem most upset with it for. Personally, I don't like to be preached at via celluloid, whether or not I find some sympathy with the sentiments being expressed. If I want preaching, I'll go to a rally or go to a church. Decent narrative art, much less good or great narrative art, doesn't need to resort to communicating to the least common denominator in order to say something worth while. Even as Ridley Scott has directed a few films that seem to have been driven by little more than bloated arrogance (I'm looking at you Robin Hood), he has proved he can direct films with Big Ideas in a subtle and deft way. 

I have a feeling Prometheus is going to suffer a similar fate in many ways, separate and apart from the fact that there's going to be a large contingent of people who are going to be disappointed that Ridley Scott didn't deliver Alien wrapped in a new package and tied in a sparkling bow made of the latest special effects. As absurd as science fiction often is when looked at from the perspective of literalism, if Scott had attempted to make Prometheus in the vein of being nothing more than a spectacle of summer movie going, it would have been laughably absurd. Big Idea science fiction can slip into being deeply, unattractively, unknowingly campy very easily, and Prometheus avoids any of that, even as there are a few moments of definite gallows humor.

I was superficially aware of what Prometheus is about. I was aware that it was a "prequel" to Alien. I'm not going to spoil anything about it without providing a warning, and anyone who's been following the film or seen the various trailers is going to be familiar with the idea that the story basically surrounds a research team that goes to a far off planet searching for what they believe are the origins of humanity. I was expecting this to essentially be set up for the film, and that it was going to veer away from that kind of heady subject matter as quickly as possible in order to make with the death, destruction and bits and pieces of people flying around. It was pleasantly surprising to find that these things are part of the over all narrative and even as the film does manage to find a few ways to be even more gratuitously disturbing than Alien, those basic ideas don't end up on the back burner in a way that makes this stupefied, brain dead film making. If anything, it's 2001: A Space Odyssey, through Ridley Scotts lens instead of Stanley Kubricks. They are very different film makers, with completely different motivations and intentions, but much of the skeleton and framework is there. Needless to say, Scott is much more deeply cynical about humanity than Kubrick was. He's also much more concerned with being able to get his films into the marketplace and see them succeed than Kubrick was, which is both good and bad. Not everything can be as mind spinning as 2001, and frankly, I wouldn't want everything to be either. A spoonful of sugar can be very helpful in making the medicine go down when your dealing with a popular commercial art form like contemporary film, especially a film with a budget like that of Prometheus. It's the reason George Lucas is known for Star Wars and not THX-1138. They're both great films, but they represent two separate ends of the spectrum of cinematic experience. Prometheus is in the center of that spectrum.

One of the advantages of having made films that were commercially successful, but that were also able to handle Big Ideas adeptly is that Ridley Scott can now cast just about anyone he wants, and it shows. Relative newcomer and one of the current It-Girls, Noomi Rapace (who gave a great performance in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the two films that followed it) takes the lead role here. Charlize Theron is cast as an ice queen executive of Weyland Corporation, Meredith Vickers. One of my personal favorites to get the award for todays most under rated actor, Idris Elba, plays the ships captain and Guy Pearce puts in a performance in a small role as the head of Weyland Corporation, Peter Weyland. And then there's Michael Fassbender in the role of a Weyland Corporation android. There are a few other minor characters as well, Sean Harris, playing geologist Fifield being the stand out. All of the actors taking on the major characters have at some point in their careers given exceptional performances, and if I have any single complaint about Prometheus, it's that there isn't quite enough character development here to really give a cast this good it's due. It took virtually no time for me to buy into the larger story and the world Scott was creating, another half hour of good character development would have made this a great film. It's a good film. It's worth seeing, and worth seeing repeatedly because of how well it manages Big Ideas and entertaining storytelling, but it's a very good film, not a great film. I'm also aware that I probably have a higher tolerance for films with a two hour and thirty minute running time than the majority of the movie going public. From the standpoint of the film's overall quality, it's one significant drawback is that the characters don't get enough time for the audience to become both invested in them and to identify with them enough to make the stakes of the film as high as they could be. This isn't to say that they're one dimensional characters either, probably because the actors breathing life into them are all capable of such great work, but more to say that without those actors, the chances are very good that they would have come off as one dimensional and one note. It was either a problem with the script to begin with or a necessity to keep the film from running beyond the two hour mark.

As for the story itself, it's engaging, interesting, thought provoking and entertaining. It takes fifteen or twenty minutes to get itself fully rolling (including a prologue that runs for roughly five minutes), and moves along swiftly. One of the reasons I say there could be another half hour devoted to character development is that at no point did I feel like it was dragging, belaboring a point a little too heavily or wasting screen time. The narrative moves along at a quick pace. I haven't fully read any other reviews at this point, but I have seen a few headlines for reviews mention an issue of inconsistent pacing. I don't think that was a problem at all. There are scenes that slow the pace down somewhat, but what's happening in those scenes was interesting enough for me that I wanted to slow down and spend some time there. The world that Prometheus takes place in was well drawn, and well worth slowing down to look at and listen to. One of the things that I think works best in the film is how layered some of those scenes are. When there are a number of people trying to grapple with a thing like the creation of humanity, the dangers introduced in the film and then an android that knows full well that it's been created by humanity, and all of the conflicting motivations between the scientists who proposed the idea for the mission, the ships crew, and the Weyland Corporation that is bankrolling the mission, the scenes can be layered deeply enough to have a different meaning for every character in each particular scene and suggest different possible outcomes for the film. To that end, it's very well constructed.

One of the most interesting things about Prometheus is that it could stand completely on it's own, as it's own film, whether or not it there had ever been an Alien franchise for it be connected to, and it also contributes to the overall mythology of that film in ways that enhance that mythology well. Though it does call back to some aspects of the franchise, it doesn't wear it's connection on it's sleeve as either the only reason for it's existence or the best reason to see it. For fans of the original franchise (especially the first two films) there are some moments that give explanations that are well thought out and logical in the mythology, but are also somewhat surprising in that context. It's one of the best examples of a prequel in that context, especially when connected with a franchise as popular, successful and rabidly loved as this one. It not only sets Alien up perfectly, it adds entire new dynamics to much of that films narrative, giving some of it more depth.

It's also a really bold film in a few ways. Given the idea that it deals very directly with the origin of humanity, there's an entire county worth of room to make people angry and to generate controversy. That is one of those questions humans have been dealing with since we developed verbal communication and the ability to understand abstract ideas. The thing that makes it bold, instead of just a cheap ploy to actually attract controversy, is that it never takes sides in any of it and by telling the story as it does, it's more or less guaranteed to anger a certain percentage of people on every possible side of that argument. It does that without seeming to have an agenda of any kind other than asking certain questions about human vanity and arrogance.

The bottom line is Prometheus is going to be the kind of film that grows in popularity and stature over time. Because there has been so much made of the connection to Alien, it is probably going to unfairly gain the ire of many critics and movie goers. If not because it's yet another franchise film in a period of time where there seems to be so little original material, unconnected to some franchise or other marketable property (toys, board games, video games etc.), then because it is a very different film than the others in the franchise. But, at the same time, because of it's connection to the franchise and how well it manages to stand on it's own while making very good contributions to the mythology, it will develop an appreciative fan base that will sing it's praises loudly enough for other people to give it a second shot, with a more open mind.

Spoilers and Questions

Did anyone else take the meaning of the prologue to suggest that humanity was a mistake, and that the "Engineers" didn't actually mean to create humanity? I initially took that scene to depict some kind of ritual, honor suicide, which would suggest that the creation of humanity wasn't completely intended. In thinking about it though, I could definitely see how that was the way The Engineers understood how to create another life form. Given the rest of the film, and that whatever that black goo actually was seemed to be an evolution causing agent, there's definitely an argument to be made that The Engineer in the prologue was using it knowing specifically that combined with the elements on Earth, there would be some kind of evolution. I particularly like the first explanation, that humanity's creation was a mistake, because of how well it speaks to the theme of human arrogance that has run through the Alien franchise since it's inception. I also think it would be a really bold thing to suggest, even in narrative form.

Did anyone else think that the substance in the vases actually was some kind of evolutionary miracle gel or was it actually a weapon of mass destruction or possibly both? I initially took it to just be a kind of substance that more or less caused something to evolve in the shortest possible term, but when Idris Elba's character mentioned it as a "weapon of mass destruction," I started to question that idea.

How interested would anyone else be in seeing another film, what would essentially be a sequel to Prometheus, following Noomi Rapace's character? Is that actually viable, and what exactly does that mean for the rest of the mythology and the franchise?

Here's a really great breakdown of the Big Ideas in Prometheus. Laremy Legel has put it together over at /Film.

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