PROMETHEUS: Worth A Ticket – For the Visual Splendor, Not the Plot
Expectations were undoubtedly too high for PROMETHEUS. The Alien franchise (and notwithstanding Ridley Scott and co-writer Damon Lindelof’s hemming and hawing on the subject, it’s utterly clear that Prometheus is nothing but a prequel entry in the franchise) has never been one for deep thinking. Scott’s 1979 Alien was one of the most visually influential films of its generation, and in an era before the word “mash-up” existed, it brilliantly melded a haunted-house movie with science-fiction. James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens, thrilling in its own way, was a war movie set in space. (Alien 3, although fascinating to look at and important as the feature debut of David Fincher, was a misfire–as Fincher is the first to admit–and Alien Resurrection was worse. We need not speak of the Alien Vs. Predator products.) Yet for some reason, a belief developed that Prometheus was going to have Something To Say about the nature of the universe, in a 2001-ish way.
It does not. Actually, in the most prosaic possible way, it sort of does, in the sense that Prometheus does provide a literal answer as to where mankind came from, but that explanation is only there as the excuse for the same kind of icky horrors that the first Alien provided.
In terms of genre, Prometheus is actually the most conventional of the series. It follows the oldest trope of speculative fiction: the scientists who probe too deeply into the mysteries of the universe, and live to regret it. In this case, they’re Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). They’ve found proof that every ancient civilization on Earth traced its roots to giant not-quite-human figures, who point in pictograms to a particular constellation of planets in the sky. Elizabeth and Charlie convince industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to finance an expedition to that region of space, hundreds of millions of miles away, in order to find out whether the inhabitants are the aliens who created life as we know it. (If you’re wondering if an all-powerful industrialist might have an ulterior motive for spending a trillion dollars or so to track down the original space people, you’ve probably seen the other Alien movies.)
The spacecraft Prometheus has many of the kind of crew members we met on the Nostromo in 1979: blue-collar captain Janek (Idris Elba), completely life-like robot David (Michael Fassbender), ruthless representative of the corporate financiers Vickers (Charlize Theron). Unfortunately, the rest of the crew is relatively faceless, unlike Alien, which was cast in depth with an ensemble that included Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, and Veronica Cartwright. Once the new group has landed on the planet, all their fancy technology and smarts, exactly as you’d expect, can’t save them from what’s lurking, and secret agendas are exposed.
Prometheus becomes much schlockier than you’d expect–in some ways, even more so than Alien–but it’s filmed with genuinely spectacular majesty. Gigantically expensive special effects movies are no longer unusual, especially in summer, but only a few filmmakers have a true gift for the epic, and Ridley Scott is one of them. (Actually, by the standards of summer tentpoles, Prometheus reportedly cost a very reasonable $130M.) One of the little jokes of the film is that the robot David learns human behavior from watching old movies, and the actor he patterns himself after most is Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but the joke is also self-referential, because Scott shoots the alien planet very much like David Lean filmed the Middle Eastern desert. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (who’s often worked with Gore Verbinski and Tim Burton) is awesome, digitally enhanced for a monochromatic look. Sonja Klaus’ production design, with many nods to Alien, has the sweep of spectacle. The CG effects are, of course, state of the art. Scott doesn’t overuse the 3D, and at least in a theater that cares about lighting levels, the film, much of which is set in dark locales, does a remarkable job of keeping the image clear and well-lit.
All of this fantastic craft isn’t in the service of very much. Prometheus is a cold movie: Fassbender is a robot, Theron’s character is so icy someone accuses her of being one as well, and Rapace, while believably heroic in the story’s later stages, simply isn’t the warmest actress in the world. There’s little opportunity for emotional involvement, and the surprises that pop up late in the game are neither satisfying nor all that surprising. The script, which Lindelof rewrote from Jon Spaihts’ original version, barely offers any characterization but has plenty of flat dialogue. While one doesn’t miss the cheap jolts that Scott disdains this time around, without anything else, the storytelling becomes a bit desultory. The plot lacks the focus of the original Alien–instead of one creature that morphs into different forms, this one has a variety of killer creatures that show up to annhilate or be annhilated, then it’s on to the next. And at the movie’s ending, we basically find out that the entire film has been a teaser for Prometheus 2.
Woody Allen, when told that sex without love was an empty experience, famously replied that as empty experiences go, it was one of the best. And that’s sort of the case with Prometheus: there’s always something marvelous to look at, it’s certainly never boring, and you can look forward to the next time being even better. Just don’t expect the secrets of the universe.