Friday, 8 June 2012

How I Wonder What You Are: "Prometheus"

Mild Spoilers Ahead

Prometheus has been one of the biggest question marks in terms of big studio releases for quite some time. This is director Ridley's Scott return to science fiction- the genre in which he made two classic films, Alien and Blade Runner, which are also the two films which have defined his career. But what made the idea of  Scott returning to science fiction even more intriguing is that Prometheus is a prequel to Alien. The big question mark of the film that I mentioned earlier was how much of an Alien prequel this would be. Early on it seemed we'd be getting a straight up Alien prequel and then it seemed Scott wanted to make a standalone film, with the title of the film being called Prometheus instead of something with Alien in the title. And then we heard rumblings from the cast that the film would have connections to Alien. And from then on, it's been interesting to ponder how the movie would blend it's own story with elements from the first Alien film.

Essentially, while I feel Prometheus is a good philosophical sci-fi horror film, the things it's doing don't all click together. On the one hand, it's asking big questions regarding the dawn of the human race, who created us and why, what it means to be human, darwinism versus creationism. It's also trying to provide some good old fashioned sci-fi horror scares- while at the same time trying to take the first Alien and put it in the context of these big philosophical ideas. As I said, not everything clicks but I admire Scott for putting all these elements in the same film and I feel he has created an bizarrely fascinating take on the whole idea of making a prequel. It also feels this is the most ambitious and go-for-broke Scott has been in quite some time.

The big philosophical question at the heart of the film is "What if God is an alien?" Two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map in various caves belonging to ancient civilizations. These civilizations have no connections to each other, leading them to believe they were left there by beings from outer space and are invitations to come find them. A few years later, Shaw and Holloway are on board the ship Prometheus, heading towards the planet these "engineers" are believed to have originated from. The ship lands near an ancient structure, which the crew plans to investigate.

Performance wise, I think the movie is pretty solid. Swedish actress Rapace, who was the orginal Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a slightly unconventional choice for the lead role. That's why I think it works. She brings a certain texture to her performance that I think would be missing with another actress. Elizabeth and Charlie are in a romantic relationship and their relationship is presented rather nicely. They do seem authentically in love. Charlize Theron plays Martha Vickers, who works for Weyland Industries(sound familar?) Theron plays Vickers as cold and detached and as the film goes along and we learn about her relationship to Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), founder of Weyland Indutries, a bitterness and sense of entitlement. I would have liked a little more development with her and her relationship to Weyland. Idris Elba, as Janek, the captain of Prometheus, has some good character moments as well. Overall, the character development is solid but I wish there were a few more character beats for Theron and Elba.

Michael Fassbender as the robot David was my favourite performance and character. I think one of the hardest things for an actor do to is play a robot without coming across as...well, robotic and boring. Fassbender makes David both charismatic and mysterious. What are his motives? How human is he? You feel a tiny bit of Blade Runner- and also 2001 seeping in regarding. I wish the film had pushed these questions about David's humanit and nature a little further, particularly sincce they do link to the idea of creation in the film. I love how David draws inspiration from Lawrence of Arabia- essentially Fassbender is doing a riff on Peter O'Toole. He quotes a line from the film and when asked where's it from, he replies rather sincerely, "from a film I like." I liked that moment a lot.

A conversation with Holloway draws comparisons between the "engineers" and humans. David asks Charlie why he was made by humans. Charlie tells him it's probably because they could. David then asks Charlie how'd he feel if the "engineers" told him the same thing. What if the creation of human existence was as simple as that? It implies that if we were made just because it was possible, also means we are expendable, which becomes the major threat of the film in the third act.

I do love the idea of aliens creating humans. It's a bizarre and almost awe-inspiring idea, especially since, and others have brought this up, if aliens created us, who created them? Elizabeth is a woman of faith and it's interesting she accepts this notion that aliens could have created us. She's accepting of a re-interpretation of God or at least another element in God's design.

As the film moves along it's hard to get Alien out from the back of your head. I hung to every image that was reminescent of Alien and every reference that seemed to tie in to its mythology but I always wanted more from that universe even though I knew I wouldn't get to see the Xenomorph. I don't think it's a flaw in the film so much as it's a result of the unshakable perception that this is a prequel to a great science fiction horror and one wants to see as many connections as possible. At the same time, I found it hard to reconcile all the film I was seeing with the film and mythology it was tying in to.

I think if the script, by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof had reconciled these elements in to a straight line or a more cohesive whole, I feel I could have settled in to it a bit easier. I feel the main problem with the script is that it's not always clear on certain aspects of the "engineers" or how they relate to the origins of the Xenomorph. The final moments of the film are kind of awesome but there's also that feeling "Okay...that was weird." Now, I wouldn't want the film to literally explain every detail but I would have liked to have had a clearer sense "Okay, that's how everything fits together." The ending of the film also can't shake the whole "setting for a sequel" feeling. I wish the film had a more definitive ending that felt that it connected smoothly with the events of the first film. That would be the more satisying ending but it seems we'll have to wait for a sequel to reach that point.

One thing Scott does in this film that I like is how he creates a different feeling towards space travel in this film than in Alien.  In Alien, space travel had this feeling of banality. They were truckers in space, just doing a job. Even when they fine the alien ship, it's more creepy and mysterious than awe-inspiring. In Prometheus, it's more about the thrill of discovery, of what's out there. When things turn darker, it's a good seg-way to what Alien is about- the possibility that what's out there has the possibility to destroy us. In Alien, the robot Ash says the Xenomorph has no delusions of morality and one could draw the same conclusions about the "engineers."

Scott has put his very lean horror film on a mythological scale. Looking back at the Alien series, I felt after the second film the series didn't move the story or mythology forward enough. This seems like the first Alien related film in some time that truly feels like it wants to do something different with the mythology. Scott had to go back and a little to the side to give us a fresh take...but he did it.

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