Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review: "Prometheus"

Down to its title, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, the director's return to science fiction after three decades, has some lofty ambitions. Opening with shots of a primordial earth that recall moments of last year's The Tree of Life (well, until the hulking white alien shows up...), Scott's film, written by Jon Spaihts and Lost alum Damon Lindelof, though executed beautifully in terms of atmosphere, can't quite muster the courage to fully follow through on its somewhat lazy attempt at grandiose wonderment about our place in the universe. Still, the film's successes, of which there are plenty, deserve credit, and as far as being an engaging, well-crafted ride goes, Prometheus hits all of the right notes, even as it fails to launch into the same legendary stratosphere as Scott's previous sci-fi endeavors. 

After a beautiful prologue that captures the mysterious origins of all life on earth (DNA strands exploding out of a single, towering creature as it decomposes), the story proper begins with a team of archaeologists in Scotland. At a cave in the Skye Islands, the team has discovered a 35,000 year old cave with a painting that appears to show a large figure pointing toward a cluster of stars. Chief among the group are Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who are also romantically involved. Their discovery, the latest in a series of digs conducted over several years, finally gives them enough evidence to receive funding from the powerful Weyland Corporation to find the star cluster, and see if there are any planets capable of sustaining life. The goal, at least for the archaeologists, is to see if mankind can truly meet its makers.

And, for roughly 45 minutes (an hour?), Prometheus remains set in a state of calm, just as Alien did decades ago before letting hell break loose. We witness the ship's Peter O'Toole-idolizing android, David (Michael Fassbender) waking the ship's crew up from deep sleep, and though David's presence sets the scenes apart from the complete stillness of Alien's opening, there remains something oddly magnetic about the sequence. It's in this first hour that Scott shows what made his first two forays into sci-fi so special: a willingness to take time, and slowly build a sense of place and atmosphere. Whether it's on board the titular transport/research vessel, or on the planet the crew lands on, the production design and visual effects create a remarkably tactile world, one that doesn't feel overly reliant on nice-looking, but plastic-y digital creations. As captured by cinematographer Darius Wolski, the locales of Prometheus posses a cold, at times slimy sheen that only adds to the overall feel. Even in the dark, subterranean exploration scenes when the team first enters a massive pyramid, there remains a sense of clarity to the imagery.

That the film gets the tone right so early on is an obvious boon to the overall effect. The performances are effective as well, although the size of the cast means that there are quite a few throwaway characters who are merely there for bad things to befall them. When the actors come through, however, they shine, even as Spaihts and Lindelof's script leaves them lost in space without much in the way of arcs. Rapace, most famous for being the original girl with the dragon tattoo, makes an appealing heroine, with a nice mix of vulnerability and steely determination. The combo comes in handy when the actress is required to go through a bit of Cronenberg-esque body horror in a scene that, while never reaching the impact of a certain moment from Alien, will surely leave many uncomfortably squirming in their seats. Fassbender's fastidious android is also fun to watch, with his mix of calculated distance and semi-human behavior proving to be one of the film's most intriguing mysteries. It's one of the few times that Fassbender has avoided injecting a true element of emotional vulnerability into a role, and thankfully it pays off and makes David more interesting to watch. Marshall-Green, as the science-first counterpart (as contrasted with the Christian Dr. Shaw), has some nice moments as well, although he's ultimately not given much that distinguishes him from the lower rungs of the ensemble aside from more face-time. Finally there's Charlize Theron, in her second icy role of the summer, remaining pretty one-note, while still being a compelling presence. Watching her yank David aside to pull information out of him is one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film, and there's nary a slimy monster in sight.

And speaking of slimy monsters, don't worry, Prometheus has its share. Whether it's the serpentine first creature the team encounters - which, when closed up, looks like an icky, pale tulip from the bowels of hell - or the tentacled menace that finds its way into a crew member, the creature designs and effects all come through. They're entirely CGI creations, yet they're rendered and shot with such skill that they feel uncomfortably real and dangerous. Only a large, squid-like monster fails to feel fully tactile; the bigger the creation, somehow the less real it feels.

Yet for all of its strengths in production design, direction, and atmosphere, Prometheus has, to invoke another name of myth, an Achilles Heel. The culprit is, unfortunately, the script. After opening such grand possibilities on the thematic front with the opening, Spaihts and Lindelof settle for a more routine execution that never quite follows through on its potential. The quest for mankind's origins and our place in the universe becomes more plot-point than theme, so that even when the film reaches its conclusion, it fails to inspire the same sense of awe that the visuals do. The direction manages to elevate the material and create some truly exceptional moments, but by the time Prometheus settles into its hectic final act, the weaknesses of the writing become too apparent to ignore, even as the film remains an entertaining journey. The first encounter with an alien creature, though effectively unsettling, is undermined by the outright stupidity of one minor character ("hey, look! some creepy snake creature. I should totally try to interact with it! No way that it will do anything aggressive!"). Character development also gets tossed aside, even with Shaw, the character most ripe with potential for a full, satisfying arc. As things get more hectic, Prometheus simply abandons attempts at ideas in order to simply satisfy the thrill-ride quota, which ends up leaving the last act feeling overly long. There's a handful of mini-conclusions that feel like they should segue into the very end, only for the film to keep going.

Yet despite its flaws, it's hard to deny that Prometheus succeeds in enough places (though perhaps not brilliantly so) that it works, even as it devolves into a more standard sci-fi thriller as it progresses. The ideas are admirable on paper, though on screen they feel more like hastily sketched out premises that the writers forgot to follow through on. Still, once one removes the pretense of Spaihts and Lindelof's writing, what remains is still a rollicking, atmospheric, gorgeously-rendered slice of science fiction, filled with enough tension and thrills to make it memorable, albeit not to point where we'll be talking about it years from now. Whereas Scott's other two sci-fi films both made significant stylistic and thematic contributions to the genre, Prometheus is merely a nicely-handled entry that boosts its profile, without doing anything to give it a special place in the sci-fi canon. 

Grade: B

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