15 June 2012

Prometheus Review

So here it is, after a 10-year wait - so long absent from science-fiction, the man who brought us Alien and Blade Runner finally makes his return to the genre. Not just that, but a return to the Alien mythos - albeit reduced in significance when compared to the original concept for the film. Couple that with the a title that has all sorts of mythological subtext, and you have it: Prometheus. Sadly, the film is very much one of two halves.

The set-up is genuinely fantastic. Archaeologists discover a curious constellation of stars that crop up in the artwork of many different ancient cultures on Earth, despite it being impossible for them to have communicated with each other. There's also the fact that there's only one possible star cluster that matches, and those that made the drawings couldn't possibly have been able to see it. So a plan is made to send an expeditionary force to the cluster - and specifically, a life-supporting moon in orbit around a gas giant - to find out what's there, and why it seemed like we were being told to go there.

The first hour or so of the film's two-hour running time is dedicated to the set-up - motivating the characters, moving them to the aforementioned moon, and laying the framework for what initially promises to be a spectacular second and third act. Visually, it's absolutely breathtaking from the get go - the opening sequence is incredibly pure and thoughtful sci-fi, bringing to mind Arthur C Clarke's style of 'show, don't tell'. It offers no explanations - there's not a word dialogue - it just happens, and it's an incredibly arresting, disturbing and ultimately intriguing sequence that serves to make the set-up that little bit more effective.

That's not to say the rest of the film pales in comparison, with detailed, intricate special effects and a lovely contrast between the stark, industrial practicality of human technology compared with the organic, H R Geiger-designed and inspired alien architecture, an aesthetic brought over from the films that preceded it. The visuals are draped in Alien mythology, both overt and subtle, but never intrusive, and it's these design details, coupled with Scott's still-keen eye for the visually majestic, and Dariusz Wolski's gorgeous capturing of the really-quite-alien Icelandic landscapes, that give the film an incredibly rich visual palette.

The performances, too, are for the most part good, with the stand-outs being Idris Elba's ship captain Janek, Charize Theron's Vickers, the frosty commander of the mission, and Michael Fassbender's android David. It's Fassbender who truly steals the show, utterly nailing an unsettling, Lynchian vibe to the character. There's something not quite right about everything he does, and one of the film's better moments is a study of quite what androids get up to when all the humans are in hypersleep, although again, this appears in the film's first act.

Moving on to the second half, this is where the problems with the film start to raise their heads. For a group of individuals purporting to be on an expedition seeking out God himself - or the closest available substitute - the crew of the Prometheus do not make intelligent (or even semi-intelligent) decisions when under pressure. There's a lot of talking going on the first act - with the grand idea of finding the Creator being discussed with a decent level of intelligence and a dab of philosophy to boot and whilst this permeates the film, not a one of the character's actions in the second half reflects the grand plans made in the first.

In fact, not a one of their decisions make sense - all sorts of questionable behaviour abound, with characters not communicating with each other despite a pressing need to do so, and making immoral and bizarre choices that jeopardise both themselves and the crew, despite ostensibly acting in their own interests. Its not even a case of us, having seen the preceding films, being one step ahead of the characters - these people are on the frontier, light-years away from home, with the best communication technology imaginable, and they are simply not using it, logic be damned.

There are some lovely moments - moments drenched in the mythology, moments of fascinatingly awful body horror, and moments of pulse-pounding adrenaline, but the decisions that chain them together simply don't smack of a crew who could ever or even should ever have been put together. Perhaps this is one of the movie's points - that putting together this sort of mission requires more than 2 years planning and a bit of money thrown at it - but in a world where horror and sci-fi tropes get subverted as often as they get played straight, in a film like this, intelligent characters making intelligent decisions is a must, and there's a distinct lack of this in Prometheus' second and third acts.

There's other minor irritations, such as a dearth of actual answers to both questions we had before, and those that were raised whilst watching the film; the awkward, unnecessary international casting follies - Englishman playing American? Swede and Australian playing Brits? Really? Idris Elba did't need to be American; Noomi Rappace didn't need to be British; Guy Pearce didn't need to be in the film at all but for that one TED 2023 viral that went out. But perhaps the most irritating of all is a piece of body horror involving a robotic surgery machine that is well played visually, but is stymied thematically by an irrelevant contrivance in its build-up that is almost entirely endemic of the film having had its script drastically over-hauled during production.

For a film that had so much riding on it - both in terms of audience expectation, and in terms of the mythology driving it - the finished product is something of a mixed bag. The visuals impress, the attention to detail is astonishing - subtly integrating the film into Alien canon, whilst never dictating the direction of the plot - and as has already been said, the first hour of the film is a masterclass in setting the scene. But the sheer lunacy of some of the characters decisions, the lingering smell of grinning incompetence over the finale and a plethora of other oddities that all exclusively stem from weak writing in the second and third acts means the story lacks resonance, and without this, the film ultimately fails to engage properly. See it for the visuals and the deepening of the Alien mythos - even if it does raise more questions than it answers. Just temper your expectations of the story being told around it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

MUST see if only for The Fass'. Best review EVAH, mein herr.