Tuesday 3 July 2012

Film Review | Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott

I really need to stop listening to the internet.

The internet, if I'm reading it right, does not approve of Prometheus. That's why it took me a month to get to the cinema to see it, despite the hype, and my initial excitement. Because after Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and the two loathsome films in the Aliens vs Predator franchise, I did not need another crushing disappointment in a series I'd come of age in abject awe of, and according to the fast-gathering critical consensus, then the me-too fan reaction that followed in its footsteps, that was all Prometheus was.

Culled from the conclusions collected by Metacritic: "Alien's poor relation" is "hardly a masterpiece," but at least "it's not boring." Instead, "it's clumsy revisionism," "derivative and passe," even "overreaching." One reviewer goes so far as to suggest Prometheus a pale shadow of Brian de Palma's Mission to Mars.

Seriously, Slant Magazine? Why don't you shove that assertion up your angle?

The most honest opinion of the lot comes from the Austin Chronicle, whose pet critic admits that Prometheus is "a glorious mess well worth seeing, but light-years away from what fans were expecting," and that, if you ask me, is the issue underlying almost every inch of moaning about this movie: namely, unreasonable expectations.

So let's be clear here. Prometheus is indeed an Alien prequel. It occurs in the same world. It involves, eventually, the exact antagonists. But think on this: none of the original sequels, right through to the rubbish ones, were mere reiterations of the previous films' principles. Each of the Aliens has a mood of its own... a different genre descriptor and a characteristic slant on the continuing narrative. Why, then, does it appear that what people wanted from Prometheus was Alien all over again? And how is Prometheus' inevitable failure to effect the same sublime sense of terror as the first and finest instance of the franchise anyone's problem but our own?

Better that critics had taken issue with those aspects of Prometheus that underwhelm independently rather than the above array of issues outwith it. Damon Lindelof's script, for instance, co-written with The Darkest Hour's Jon Spaihts, has a tendency towards the obvious: there's some truly terrible banter, and some of the narrative's supporting characters are ripped right out of the Alien playbook. In more prominent roles, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce and Idris Elba do what they can with what they have, but what little they're given to work with is so crude and/or transparent that it's practically laughable — they're completely wasted.

Meanwhile, a week on from my trip to the cinema, I'm still not sure what to make of Noomi Rapace as our scientist protagonist Elizabeth Shaw. She's certainly no Sigourney Weaver... but let's leave that aside, because as established, Prometheus need not be Alien to be a fine film in its own right. Even then, though, Shaw came across as too passive a protagonist to command the audience's attention. At the outset she's a believer, and Rapace at least carries her character's faith, but shortly after the crew of the spaceship Prometheus touch down on the promised planet, she seems more sheep than shepherd. Furthermore, she's saddled with a borderline offensive arc. Rather than a strong female hero in righteous remembrance of Ripley, Shaw, for the most part, is a demurring woman who wears very little, and suffers from some very gender-specific issues.

One last niggle before I get to the good bits: though the vast majority of the visual effects are excellent - indeed, in a rare turn, I even appreciated the 3D - a few stand out in their amateurishness. During the silica storm, a flying doll put me in mind of that dreadful shot from Spider-man. The Engineers - formerly known as space jockeys - aren't so awful, but they are, I'm afraid, wholly inappropriate to the Alien aesthetic. (If you've seen a few of Tool's terrific music videos, you'll have glimpsed these massive babies before.) And when the snake-aliens first "interact" with our cast... oh, don't even get me started!

On the other hand, some of Prometheus' effects-heavy scenes are astonishing. From the monumental opening sequence, as powerful as it is picturesque - props to the Isle of Skye for looking so like an alien landscape - to the grisly, Cronenberg-esque emergency procedure Shaw undergoes in the middle of the film; and from the unbound wonder of the Engineer's chamber after it's been "activated" on through the explosive climax planet-side, Prometheus is as visually stunning as it is aurally bombastic.

Presence-wise, Michael Fassbender as the android David steals his every scene. He brings an impression of of wide-eyed innocence tempered by a sparkling sort of intelligence to the token role, rendered so simplistic in the script, and though I dare say there's little question as to whether he's one of the good guys or a calculating company man to the last, Fassbender's nuanced performance elevates the entire affair. Without him, one can only wonder what would have become of Ridley Scott's return to his roots.

That said, the film's legendary director equips himself magnificently, considering. In fact, for my money, Prometheus is Scott's most impressive movie since Gladiator. Here, his eye for grandeur has never been better, and his capacity to startle is on fine form; the threatening sense of tension he establishes may fall somewhat short of that dominating the original Alien... but then, doesn't everything?

And the script, for all its aforementioned faults, has an absolutely fascinating idea at its heart. Prometheus is a philosophical rumination on the origins of the species: an account of how humanity came to be, by way of some evil aliens. If you're interested in a film that'll make you think, Prometheus has that. Prometheus is that. Days later, the questions it asks, and the daring implications it makes, are as alive in my mind as they were while I was sitting in the cinema.

Prometheus is very far from a perfect film, but let's not hate on it simply because it isn't Alien. Ask yourself: is that really what you wanted? Or just what the internet, in its infinite wisdom, led you to expect?


  1. Well said Niall. I enjoyed the film, I enjoyed the beauty of the FX and camerawork. One thing I certainly did not like was the final scene which seemed to undo a lot of what the film, it's director and writer were trying to say. In fact, it seemed like a sop to the hordes of Internet fanboys. Rapace, Fassbender really good with everyone else treated as cannon fodder.

    And having inadvertently seen my son being delivered by c section, old Ridders certainly hits the squeamish button square on the nose in that scene.

    Now onto Dark Knight Rises

    1. Yeah, that last scene was a bit much, wasn't it? In fact the whole idea of this film as the start of a franchise leaves me with mixed feelings. I think what Prometheus achieves - more than most folks give it credit for - should stand alone, lest the mythos become even more muddled.

      Now then, as you say Iain: on to The Dark Knight Rises. Which I still think should have been called Batman Ends!

    2. As someone who is not particularly obsessed with Alien (not that I dislike it, mind you, but I've only ever seen the first), my problems with Prometheus weren't its faithfulness or lack thereof but rather...

      1. The massive logical gaps. If the planet wasn't important to the Engineers but was simply a military base, then why did all the ancient Earth cultures have its location? Why, instead of advertising this as the most important scientific mission of all time and therefore getting the most qualified people possible, did the mission's planners decide to simply trick a bunch of miners into coming out?

      2. The characters' stupidities, such as how the supposedly brilliant archaeologist is disappointed to "only" find proof of alien life and walk among their ruins on the first day.

      3. The fact that every reaction scene seemed cut out. For instance, nobody ever comments on how the woman scientist is covered in grotesque scars after her (admittedly fantastic) scene in the surgical unit, or how she was supposed to be contaminated. And like how nobody ever mentions the zombie crewmember once they've exterminated him.

    3. I've give you points two and three, Nathaniel, but as to the first part of your first problem: my thought, and perhaps I'm over-thinking things, was that it was a trap. A lure for our species to follow to the planet and the weapon there when we came of age. That dovetails decently with a line I recall... along the lines of "Sometimes to create, you must first destroy."

      Got to give Prometheus that, though: it's a thinker of a film. Mishandled and crude on occasion, but the base is there. Like in Sunshine! Which so happens to be one of my favourite SF films ever. Which probably says more about me than I mean it to.

  2. I enjoyed this film as well, and I was struck by your remark about listening to the internet. What happened with me was that I was very excited for the film to come out and then was showered with bad press for this film. It took me 3 weeks before I made the time to see it ( not that I would not have gone at all, I just became far less excited) and was pleasantly surprised by this film. I thought it was a fine science fiction film, the best one since District 9 or Moon, and like you would conclude it's actually Scott's best film since Gladiator ( though the Kingdom of Heaven director's cut is about as good as this film).