Scott returns to sci-fi with some really good stuff, and a lot of other stuff
Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1981) is grand and beautiful, and yucky (more than scary) and much too complicated, to the point of ridiculousness, though a lot of action, dazzling space gadgetry, and spectacular visuals (is Scott really good at anything else?) hold the attention to the end. And it may not matter, because this appears to be the big blockbuster film of the summer of 2012, probably unchallenged. If a full crowd can show up at 10:30 in the morning for the non-3D version, and applaud and cheer at the end, Prometheus has stolen the secrets of the box office gods and the hearts of movie geeks and fanboys. But though it entertains, it still disappoints, and at points it becomes downright silly, not on purpose but because the writing is so dumb at times in its adoption of cheap or irrelevant or tired devices.
Watch it for those visuals, which include an almost excessive use of the designs of previous Scott collaborator H.R. Giger — those are unique but overfamiliar by now, and best used sparkingly. The most enjoyable images aren’t Giger’s but the crisp and expensive-looking space ship interiors, the vast semi-fantasy landscapes, and most of all, splendiferous effects by the cyber imaging team to break up things and people into swirling masses of luminous ectoplasmic dots and lines. Those enveloping ectoplasmic swirls are about the only thing that’s not over-explained — or explained at all really — and hence they’re the film’s most magic moments.
The writing, not by Scott, is responsible for over-explicitness and corn and cannibalizes too many diverse sources. It borrows not only from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, but from the kind of cheesy back-to-the-past odysseys Nicolas Cage might star in, Saturday matinee B-pictures with sequels where men stagger into vast undiscovered tombs and rub hidden panels and giant green jewels light up. This time the cave-like structure, on a distant planet, contains — well, better not to say. This movie relies on numerous “reveals” in the latter reels — to jog us after the clumsy writing has allowed the excitement and freshness of vast space wear off.
An underlying influence, apparently, is the screeds of Erich von Däniken, a seedy Swiss whose books in the late Sixties and early Seventies tried to claim that ancient travelers from outer space had influenced human civilization. Thus Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), daughter of missionaries, whose desire is literally to “meet” her “makers” — out in space (don’t ask). When things turn nasty, she’s a real survivor, as tough as (if far more conventional than) her Dragon Tattoo role, Lisbeth Salander, and people will always talk about the scene in which she uses a giant laser surgery machine to perform a Caesarean section on herself. Rapace has been compared to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien movies, but Shaw isn’t as strong or interesting a character. Correspondingly, the diffuse Prometheus lacks the taught focus and scariness of the Alien franchise.
Then we come to the other characters, the spaceship’s motley crew, who tend to be unmemorable as well as expendable. A slight exception is the old trillionaire who funded the mission, who wants to discover the secret to longer life, played by Guy Pearce made up to look like a man made up to look like a very, very old man: you’ve seen this face only in movies (notably Kubrick’s Space Odyssey), but it has a sci-fi spookiness about it, not just the bad-makeup look Leo DiCaprio had as J. Edgar Hoover.
There’s a corporate supervisor of the space mission called Vickers (Charlize Theron) who’s in charge of making everybody feel like they’re still in fifth grade and have got a particularly mean homeroom teacher. To offset her there’s the space ship’s mellow captain Janek (Idris Elba). Only trouble is he’s so down-to-earth and working class he seems more like a security guard than a high-tech navigator. We don’t have to get to know Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), Shaw’s unctuous and self-satisfied husband, boyfriend, or partner; he like other crew members will be polished off before he’s acquired any lasting significance.
The character who stands out, and he’s there to entertain us, is an android called David, nicely played by the masterful Michael Fassbender. Fassbender’s not deeply challenged here, but is splendid nonetheless. While the ship is traveling for two or three years and everybody is frozen (Shaw vomits a lot when she’s awakened, a nice touch, and she’s told it’s “perfectly normal”), David is awake, memorizing ancient dead languages — so he’ll be ready to talk to the gods, later — and watching his favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia. The film probably steals something from David Lean’s big luminous landscapes; it steals from so many films. But David the android watches it to learn to imitate the accent and manner of Peter O’Toole. Too bad he doesn’t get to use his Lawrence shtick more later, but Prometheus is programmed for everything but humor. Fassbender does bring it what lightness and charm it has amid the embarrassing and less than compelling earnestness.
Definitely add Spielberg’s A.I. to the host of films Prometheus cannibalizes, and a geeky writer about the film, Curt Holman of the website Creative Loafing, says “…Prometheus makes a provocative comparison between the ethics of artificial intelligence and alien influence on human evolution,” but I just suggest for that you watch A.I. and skip the Erich von Däniken crap. There must be a better place for metaphysical speculation than a movie where people have giant octopus critters dive down their throats — yes, Scott plunders Alien here too, hard though it is to reconcile to the god stuff. And besides A.I., of course HAL in2001 and R2D2 in Star Wars are sources of David, who’s also got a touch of Jeeves as well as O’Toole.
Prometheus has an unusual visual gloss on it. But underneath that handsome surface is the writing of Jon Spaihts, whose previous credit was The Darkest Hour, one of the worst films of last year, and Damon Lindelof, whose last screenplay was another clunker, Cowboys and Aliens. And writing matters, always. Scott has produced a lot of good scenes, and amazing scenery. But this needed an editor, a good rewrite man to pare down the cast and the action to fighting weight.
DIRECTOR: RIDLEY SCOTT
CAST: NOOMI RAPACE, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, LOGAN MARSHALL-GREEN, IDRIS ELBA, GUY PEARCE, CHARLIZE THERON, KATE DICKIE AND OTHERS.
RUNTIME: 126 MIN.