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Review: Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus

Rating

Director
Ridley Scott
Screenplay
Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Length
124 min.
Starring
Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Emun Elliott, Benedict Wong, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson, Lucy Hutchinson
MPAA Rating
R for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language

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Review
Volumes of ink have been written on the Alien franchise over the years. It's clearly one of the greatest science fiction series in history. Fifteen years after the last entry debuted in theaters, the big screen welcomes Prometheus, a film that goes back to the aliens' origins in a fascinating and frustrating way.

Set just under thirty years prior to the first Alien film, an expedition has been launched to locate the origin of man after a series of nearly-identical pictograms in cave paintings are discovered, each from centuries-separated ancient Earth civilizations. These drawings point towards a distant star system, which bring our protagonists face-to-face with a race of humanoid alien beings who brought about life on earth in millennia past. What they discover on the moon of one of the system's ring-laden planets leaves them, and the audience, with unanswered questions as mysterious alien creatures begin to attack and destroy the various lives brought to the planet.

Our favorite character of the series is nowhere to be seen, which isn't unexpected considering the Ripley of the first film wouldn't have even been born at the time the film takes place; but it still seems awfully vacant without Sigourney Weaver. Taking her place is the colorful star of various popular films, Noomi Rapace, whose debut was as the Swedish Girl with the Golden Tattoo. Her performance as one of the two scientists who discovered the cave paintings and are figureheads of the exploration of the distant planet, is quite good, but I wonder what could have happened with the discovery of some new talent. Could we have gotten a new Weaver out of the deal? Possibly, but undiscovered talent doesn't seem to sell tickets anymore. That's one of the reasons the cast is decked out with recognizable names like Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce along with the likes of Idris Elba who has appeared in a number of blockbuster features. There are several new or underexposed faces in the cast, but none of them are on the level of Ian Holm, John Hurt, Nancy Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Lance Henriksen or Charles S. Dutton. These types of character actors help create a believable backbone to the story that bigger names typically outshine.

Not that Fassbender, Theron, Pearce and Elba aren't good. On the contrary, Fassbender is absolutely mesmerizing as the morally conflicted android tasked with watching over the many crew members while they sleep on the two-plus year space mission. An interesting, but out of place mix of Henriksen's friendly, but unemotional android from Aliens and Winona Ryder's emotionally capable one from Alien: Resurrection, David has the tenacity and cleverness to be one of the best remembered characters from the film thanks to Fassbender's performance. Elba's strict, yet paternal ship captain is superbly realized. He doesn't have the grating pomposity or the gruffness that many such characters are given. He is perhaps the second-most conscientious character in the film.

Pearce, under the effects of unnecessarily heavy makeup, portrays the terminal corporate patriarch of the expedition. Pearce is barely recognizable in the role, which gives him some room to maneuver in terms of performance, but this seems to be squarely within his wheelhouse, which can also be said of Theron. Her character's presence in the film feels extraneous. Her development arc is almost non-existent until a startling revelation about two-thirds in and even then it doesn't seem to go anywhere; however, Theron does her best in the role. More evocative of the late-franchise Ripley, Theron is tough and uncompromising, yet compassionately strict. One particular moment early in the film where she's forced to employ a flamethrower has a touch of disgust, conviction and sadness, something that didn't seem like it fit with her character to that point, giving her unexpected depth.

Aliens and the films thereafter turned cast members into villains, giving them an opportunity to turn against the others on the ship in sometimes interesting and sometimes confusing ways. In Prometheus, there are shades of gray to each of the villains. There's no obvious antagonist among them, but each have moments where their decisions seem villainous. Director Ridley Scott does well bringing out the various positive and negative qualities of each character including the obvious heroine created by Rapace. These are conflicted and morally ambiguous characters that often comprise the casts in science fiction films.

Sci-fi, though, frequently gets a bad rep for being too fanciful and far-fetched and while that may seem the case, it's through this genre that the greatest analyses of modern culture, development and future self are identified and examined. Prometheus has a number of very interesting things to say about faith, religion and science, but much of that speculation is trapped behind a series of unanswered questions that are more distracting than helpful.

When Contact was released back in 1997, two friends and I stood outside the theater and later at home discussing the various questions that the film brought up in our minds. The nature of the universe, the loneliness of existence if we are indeed alone and the capacity of politics and military action to divert public attention from ideas that might cause a break down in its fabric. While standing outside of Prometheus, all we could do was debate the meaning of various pieces of the film, whether they had any significance, whether they defeated the purpose of any radical themes the film might have suggested and how they related to the other Alien films from a paradoxical perspective. Thinking more on it since then, I've realized that these questions are utterly unimportant to the plot and story that Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof were trying to evoke.

Whether they were intentionally vague to promote discussion or not, they serve as a method of enshrining confusion in the mythos. Sometimes too much mystery without resolution leads to anger and resentment and destroys much of the potential enjoyment a film may have had. This is, however, the nature of Lindelof's work. After J.J. Abrams left Lost, Lindelof was left as sole showrunner and his ideas became increasingly bizarre and ultimately annoying. The shows fanatic following seemed to dwindle and it was Lindelof's penchant for creating narrative threads that never resolve or take too long to do so that caused it to lose the luster of its promising introduction. The same can easily be said for Prometheus.

That is if it weren't for Scott's skilled hand behind the camera. I've been critical of Scott's post Thelma & Louise work. It seems to focus more on spectacle than intimacy and has seldom created characters that were as rich and complicated as those in Alien or Blade Runner. To an extent, this may have been the influence of generic Hollywood factory. Returning to the contemplative mood he created as one of the arcitects of the revitalization of the science fiction movement of the 1970's and 1980's. He creates mood and tone where the script seems focused on screams and anguish. Fulfilling the promise of 3D, his film has scope and grandeur blended with tension and depth. Yet, the film is overly embellished, creating a more visually streamlined environment that is as awe inspiring as it is beautiful.

This design is almost at odds with the tight, cramped, claustrophobic quality of the original film. A case could be made that before Alien, things were a lot happier and a lot rosier. It was a future full of promise. But how can a culture collapse so easily within the span of 30 years? After all, what we're presented in the preceding four features is a bleak, unsustainable future of technology-driven aggression. There are some beautiful elements to the future, but mostly it's a grim and bleak one that doesn't seem possible for such a short period of change.

Production designer Arthur Max is in line for another series Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction. It faces some very stiff competition this year, but recalling the mesmerizing design work of H.R. Giger and more notably Aliens production designer Peter Lamont, a case could easily be made for his inclusion. More likely, Prometheus will be competing in Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects. The crystal-colliding dust storm, dark recesses of alien ziggaruts and deceptively complicated technological interiors of the spaceship each have a tonal clarity that doesn't compete with itself to see how boisterous it can get. And there are plenty of quiet moments where the sound of heavy breathing is all you can hear. The mix is aurally pleasing without being overbearing, making it one of the film's elements I'd most like to see earn Oscar recognition. The Visual Effects are a bit more complex than the original films, but no less impressive.

No fan of the Alien series should miss Prometheus, but unless they are easily impressed, I don't think the writing is going to win adulation. It's a murky, over complicated string of questions, too many of them without answers, leaving the audience to ponder those queries in lieu of discussing the meat of the film, namely its discussion of the nature of religion. Were you to converse about the many points it makes against faith while supporting it, you might have something of a colorful and thought-provoking discussion on the matter, but that's if you can get past asking so many questions about scientifically-impossible scenarios established for the sake of progressing the story instead of supporting it.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Probables: Art Direction
Potentials: Original Score, Editing, Makeup
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Actress (Noomi Rapace), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design
Review Written
June 10, 2012

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