Monday, June 11, 2012
PROMETHEUS - Ridley Scott's Mesmerizing Yet Frustrating Return to Sci-Fi
- This is going to be a hard review to write. The fact is ... I immensely enjoyed Prometheus. In some ways, it completely blew me away, and from a purely visual/aesthetic viewpoint, it was one of the most spectacular and beautiful films I've seen ... ever. And there were ideas here that I loved, moments that were mesmerizing and memorable. Just sitting back and watching this film in glorious IMAX 3D and being swept away by its grim and majestic sci-fi universe ... was one hell of an experience at the movies.
And I've been thinking about PROMETHEUS. Since I saw it, I've been rolling it over in my head. I want to make some sense of it - I want to believe that the film is great and that it simply demands multiple viewings to fully comprehend. But I've come to realize that this is a film that simply has to be taken down a peg for its flawed storytelling. Even though I was able to "just go with it" for much of the movie, this is indeed a film that arrives to us diminished from what it might have been.
The thing is ... Ridley Scott became a sci-fi icon on the backs of films that told stories in broad, at times almost abstract strokes. Alien, Blade Runner, Legend ... these are films that have a lot of ambiguity and that leave much to the viewer's imagination. They are films more about ideas and imagination and visual world-building than complex plotlines. And that's what makes them so resonant and captivating. Prometheus is almost the equal of those films in terms of sheer sense of imagination and visual wonder. Of course, Blade Runner and Alien never had the advantage of coming out in IMAX 3D. Prometheus, meanwhile, has perhaps the best use of 3D yet in any live-action film - silky smooth and seamless, yet completely immersive. But, back to the storytelling ... what's so frustrating is that Prometheus COULD have been a simple and more abstract story if told in a slightly different manner. But writer Damon Lindeloff had a couple of major obstacles in terms of crafting the script: a.) he was tasked with creating a story that - seemingly more for commercial reasons than anything else - had to tie-in to the mythos and continuity of the Alien films, and b.) he had to grapple with his past history as a TV writer and as a writer of highly episodic, serialized content.
Because, man, PROMETHEUS feels in a way like an incredible TV pilot. But as a movie, that means it's less than fully satisfying. The problem is, Lindeloff structures the plot like an episode of LOST. Throughout the film's running time, questions are posed that seem to demand specific answers: Why did one character betray another? Why were certain secrets kept? What are the true motivations of various characters? What is the explanation behind some of the various creatures that terrorize the cast - how did they come to be? Now, the movie COULD have been written in a manner so as not to pose these sorts of specific questions. But instead, it's LOST all over again ... one shoe drops, but the other shoe doesn't. The whole plot is built around key question marks practically flashing on the screen - "why did he do that?", "where did those come from?" - but they all end up being red herrings, because the payoffs never come. I've been thinking a lot about the film, as I said, and trying to figure out what IS in the movie and what ISN'T. Some may say "it's all in the movie." But that simply isn't true. And that's frustrating, because there's no room for interpretation - ALL interpretations are equally valid because we just don't have enough information to posit anything except pure guesses. And at some point, you have to wonder: how much of Prometheus was meant to be ambiguous, and how much of it simply got gutted in the development process? At what point do you draw the line between feeding an audience's imagination, and simply crafting a film that's full of swiss cheese-esque holes?
Ridley Scott is no stranger to these sorts of debates. BLADE RUNNER contains one of the all-time most talked-about ambiguous endings in film. But the genius of that ambiguity is that it presents us with two possibilities - each casting the story and the character of Deckard in a different light. Is Deckard a replicant, or isn't he? But Prometheus never sets up that sort of narrative framework to go off of. I'll talk more about the plot in a second, but I'll just quickly mention the arcs of two key characters: Weyland - an elderly CEO and billionaire (Guy Pierce) who travels the cosmos in search of the key to eternal life, and David - an android who serves Weyland. In short, we're left to infer just about everything about these characters and the motivations behind their actions. It hurts, because both are potentially awesome characters. Michael Fassbender in particular plays David so well - he kicks ass. But why does David do the things he does in the movie? I have no idea. I can guess - there are a dozen possible and sort-of plausible reasons. But we just don't know, and the answers aren't between the lines either. But what's weird is that Scott and Lindeloff seem to *want* to say something profound with David. They clearly want us to - through him - think about life and death and creation and destruction and good and evil. But David ends up as a total cypher - we want to latch on to this amazing performance from Fassbender, but we end up just transplanting concepts from other stories about robots and artificial life onto his character - because he's such a blank canvass. Now again, in the original ALIEN, there was an android character who played a similar role. But let's face it, Ash in Alien - and Alien as a whole - never had much pretension of being the sort of philosophical mind-trip that Prometheus wants to be. Alien just wanted to be a futuristic survival movie, thick with atmosphere, that scared the hell out of you. Prometheus is trying to be more than just a horror flick. It aims to be about life, the universe, and everything ... but at that, it only partially succeeds.
So let's back up for a minute, and talk about the plot of Prometheus. Essentially, this is the Alien-verse, but in a timeframe just prior to Ellen Ripley's infamous encounter with the deadly xenomorphs aboard the Nostromo. Where we're at now is the several decades in the future, at a time when huge advances have been made in space travel. Even as humans now have the capability to explore deep space, a quest comes up worthy of our newfound capacity for insterstellar discovery. A husband-and-wife team of scientists - Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green) - has been tracking ancient etchings across the globe, and have found common-denominator depictions of godlike alien beings descending from the heavens. Accompanying each of the etchings is what the scientists believe to be a star map. Now, they are convinced that they've found a roadmap to another civilization - a civilization that just might be our creators, our gods. They've also conviced Peter Weyland, an aging innovator whose company seems to have pioneered advances in both robotics (producing a line of lifelike androids) and space travel/exploration. Weyland funds a journey to the stars in search of the alien beings and their secrets. He deploys Weyland Corp. representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) to oversee the scientists and their mission. Vickers, Shaw, and Halloway are also accompanied by a crew that includes Janek (Idris Elba) - the ship's world-weary captain, an erratic geologist named Fifield, and David - Peter Weyland's personal android assistant, who oversees the ship while the crew goes into hypersleep for the bulk of their journey.
What more you need to know is simply that the name of the ship is Prometheus, named after the Titan of myth who sought the secret of fire and got burned for his hubris. Very quickly, amidst mixed motivations both spiritual, scientific, and corporate, we realize that the crew of the ship Prometheus may be in for more than they bargained for with this mission.
The thematic scope of Prometheus is vast and epic. While ALIEN only hinted at its larger universe, Prometheus tries to define the very nature of the universe itself. The movie even begins with a mesmerizing Genesis scene that is its own alien-infused version of the creation myth. Soon enough, the film hints at revelations about not just the iconic aliens of ALIEN, but of the secret origins of ALL life. Yep, this is one cosmic, grand, ambitious film. And honestly, there are two areas where Prometheus absolutely excels. One is when it's simply in planetarium mode, dazzling us with sprawling alien landscapes, burning our retinas with eye-melting techno-wizardry, and sweeping us off our feet with grand visions of the far reaches of outer space. Ridley Scott, at 74, is still THE MAN when it comes to crafting evocative sci-fi visuals. And with this film, he also proves to be the anti-Michael Bay. Those of the ADD generation may not have the patience for the methodically-paced opening act of the film, but I loved it. I loved that Scott lingers and lets us soak up the epicness, and immerse ourselves in this cosmic playground. The semi-retro-sounding, epic-cosmic score only adds to the grandeur, with bombastic, haunting tones that give the film even more of a larger-than-life, operatic feel. Forget for a moment every critique I mentioned earlier - story complaints aside, make no mistake - Prometheus is pure audio/visual awesomesauce. The brilliant visuals here deserve an Oscar. The score is fantastic. And Ridley just directs the hell out of this film as only he can. The man knows how to create a mood of foreboding otherworldliness, and he does so here in legendary fashion. The images that this film assaults you with are truly the stuff that dreams - and nightmares - are made of. The CGI is elegant and artful, and the shot composition is crafted for maximum impact. On that note, the second area where the film really nails it is in the Alien-esque moments of action-horror. Scott crafts some true holy $%&#, nightmarish moments of otherworldly terror, and when business picks up, the movie delivers with some crazy human vs. creature showdowns that will leave your jaw hanging.
As mentioned, there are so many little moments in the film that are GREAT. Some of these moments are quiet and contemplative ... Fassbender as David watching Laurence of Arabia and trying to emulate it ... Idris Elba being badass and telling Charlize Theron what's what ... an absolutely incredible sequence where David uncovers the secrets of the alien race that the crew has sought out, and is literally surrounded and engulfed by the knowledge of the ancients. On the other hand, some of thes film's great moments are balls-to-the-wall insane ... a riveting and squirm-worthy scene of Noomi Rapace having to self-operate ... and a final, Alien-esque showdown with a hideous Lovecraftian monster.
I also thought that most of the cast was excellent, even if their characters had rather thin backstories at times. Rapace was quite good in the lead. Theron was suitably cold and calculating. Elba was a badass. Marshall-Green seemed a little in-over-his-head though. And Guy Pierce, while good, was hampered by some very odd f/x to make him seem aged.
So I'll be honest ... in writing this review, I was hoping that I'd come to some sort of internal consensus about the film. But now that I've talked about its merits and its flaws, I still feel torn. Prometheus is an incredible, state-of-the-art aesthetic experience. I can't recommend enough going to see it in the theater on the biggest and best screen possible - and yes, in 3D. And I also give it credit for being so thematically ambitious and daring. This is a movie that's going to be talked about and debated for a long, long time. And of course, you never know ... a sequel that follows up on some of the questions posed here, or even a couple of choice re-inserted or re-cut scenes (there's already talk of a director's cut on blu-ray) could be enough to force a reexamination of the film and force it to be looked at in a different context. But who knows. Was this film intended to be Part 1 of a multi-part epic? If viewed as the first chapter of a serialized story, then hey, a lot of my concerns might be a moot point. I also dont know if this is simply a film that got hacked to bits by the studio. We all know that Ridley Scott has a long history of having his films butchered upon release. And yet ... I've seen some interviews with Scott and Lindeloff, and I haven't seen any comments in the vein of "what happened was ____, and don't worry, that will be further followed up on in the imminent sequel." And then I also think back on LOST, and think about how that show was so effective at posing questions, yet ultimately - frustratingly - unable to provide satisfying follow-through. And I can't help but wonder if Prometheus is a similar beast - a movie so wrapped up in building up its mysteries that it forgets that mysteries alone don't make for a satisfying narrative. But as I said, it's extra-frustrating because the aesthetics of the film are so strong, so powerful on their own, that the film probably would have worked better had it been *more* minimalist. Instead, it feels like the plot is only given to us in half-measures - wanting to craft a cosmic mythology, but not having the vision to go all the way. Prometheus is so close to being a classic that it hurts. And I may just end up having a soft spot for it over time ... we'll see. But right now, my feelings are too conflicted to call Prometheus unequivically great, given the less-than-wholly-fulfilled potential of Ridley Scott's return to the world of science fiction. That said - Sir Ridley - more, please. You're too brilliant of a filmmaker not to return to this genre, and Prometheus teases us that, with the right script, Scott can still be as good as ever.
My Grade: B+