Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review: Prometheus

The Big One

Head in the Clouds. (image from
It's been a long time since a blockbuster was preceded by so much fervor and hype. Indeed, many who were aware of Prometheus' legacy has been keeping track of it for a years now, when the rumour mill was only barely operational. The Internet kicked into spoiler overdrive over the last year: while some (myself included) attempted to navigate the minefield of pre-release information unscathed, others eagerly sought out every last scrap of information about the supposed 'Alien prequel' that they could. Even the potential for a 'PG-13' rating from the MPAA inspired furious retorts and conjecture on forums web-wide. But, finally, Prometheus has arrived: the bubble of hype has finally burst. Sure, curiosity remains about its box office potential (an increasingly rare 'R' rated blockbuster whose title doesn't make its franchise legacy immediately apparent). But only one question ultimately matters now: can it live up to its hype and beloved predecessors?

Since our counterparts in the United States are still awaiting the film's release, I will forego a synopsis and jump straight into the meatier stuff: opinion! Huzzah! The review shall be divided into two. The first will be for those who have yet to see the film. Bascially answering the simplest question of all: 'is it worth seeing or not' (which, to me, is one of the least interesting critical questions). However, we shall then delve into further analysis for those who have experienced the film, because this is a film that deserves a little more thought without having to take potential spoilers into account. Do not worry: the divide shall be clearly marked.

So, is Prometheus worth all the hubbub? In short: mostly. In long: it's a mess, but a fascinating one. Visually, it's a treat. Ridley Scott and his production team may have over considered the slick futuristic technology on display (I certainly lusted for the grimy industrialisation of Alien on a few occasions) but there are frequent moments of surrealism and mysterious beauty that truly wow. Thematically, it's bountiful in its willingness to explore big ideas. Darwinisim, objectivism, spirituality, the very nature of scientific discovery and curiosity: this is not a shallow film. Let us raise a glass to the science-fiction of big ideas, for once given the budget and production values it deserves. A blockbuster financially, but with oodles more ambition than anything else to come out of the Hollywood production line in recent times. Not to say it's a film devoid of pulpy thrills: a mid-film surgical diversion is the brilliant burst of intensity the film needs.

That said, its flaws are undeniable. While the ever wonderful Noomi Rapace impresses (finally shedding the potentially restrictive dragon tattoo) and a chilling, sinister performance from Michael Fassbender dominates, the supporting characters aren't up to much (barring the occasional moment of understated comic gold from Idris Alba). For every moment of visual wonder, there's one that veers too close to silliness. The script is clunky throughout: the dialogue struggles as it bluntly attempts to verbalise the film's thematic core, and its easily the film's weak link from beginning to end. The odd musical score simply doesn't work, with an inappropriate jingle repeated at the strangest of junctures. And the third act is an uncomfortable marriage between the film's intellectual ponderings and the demands of mainstream genre filmmaking. It's a mess, most definitely, but one that succeeds in engaging and provoking a little more often than it infuriates.

Noomi Rapace vs. Science


It really is a film that has its ups and downs. It's a film of contradictions: contradictions arguably represented by the Space Jockeys themselves. At times, I thought they were brilliantly creepy creations, but at others I thought they were unconvincing: far too obviously guys in makeup. But still, there were many haunting images throughout. The awakening disembodied head and its subsequent gooey explosion. The mystery and understated hostility of the alien environment. The powerful waterfall of the film's prologue. For once, the effects budget seems to have been put to good use, and although I remained unimpressed by the neon hues of the good ship Prometheus, it's still undoubtedly visually arresting. The tonal identity and pacing of the film are unique and fascinating. The med pod sequence is surely amongst Hollywood's great set pieces: violent, terrifying, unusual, intense. A perfect blend of directorial flair, inventive cinematography, passionate acting and inspired set design. It's not the only moment when the film's various elements come together beautifully, but it's one of the most thrilling.

Not too sure about the penis monster, though.

Thematically, I cannot praise the film enough. While I don't want to elevate the film's insight or importance, this is closer to 2001 or Solaris substance-wise than it is to its direct predecessors. It's altogether rare to see a film of this budget-scale with the bravery to explore bigger issues. It is a frequently provocative film about the nature of human curiosity, and our (potentially futile) search for fulfilling or definitive answers. That said, there were times when the film did suggest that it was a simple Christian allegory - not least because the sole survivor is a self-proclaimed true believer (as the clunky dialogue is so keen to inform us at length). While it takes some interesting liberties with those particular spiritual ponderings (including Christian ideals co-existing with scientific ones), it may leave a sour taste for some while very much appealing to others.

With Damon Lindelof of Lost fame in tow, the film will (and already has) been accused of being too ambiguous. I couldn't disagree more: in fact, the film is almost too blunt in revealing its links to Alien films past and overemphasising unimportant plot points. Was all the stuff between Theron and her 'dad' really necessary (particularly that god-awful aged make-up)? Why do the characters so frequently verbalise the film's grand philosophical concerns? Couldn't some of the mysteries have remained, well, more mysterious?

For me, the film's real problems lie in the final act. The 'noble sacrifice' of the surviving crew felt too predictable and riddled with cliche. The Weyland subplot felt like filler, while the characters' deaths had little impact, emotionally or otherwise. The tentacle monster / face-hugger ancestor (something almost out of the more questionable anime out there) exists on the wrong side of ludicrous, and its final confrontation with the surviving Space Jockey was silly. The real clunker was the epilogue, though, when the film's relationship with the Alien quadrilogy is made abundantly clear with a Xenomorphy cameo. It felt like an unnecessary reinforcement of the more subtle, provocative hints of the film's legacy presented earlier. Scott and Lindelof (and his co-writer), in a break from tradition, seems all too willing to answer questions that don't need answering. It's almost as if they don't trust the audience to put the puzzle pieces together themselves.

That said, Prometheus is still a film with an extremely distinct identity. For that alone it is worthy of applause. It's not every summer you get a blockbuster so deeply individual and thematically complex. The film is a success in a wide variety of ways, even if its failings frequently frustrate. Overall, it's a brave, fascinating experiments that - allowing for some of its more suspect and unsuccessful artistic decisions - has a plethora of rewards for the viewer. Prometheus is unwieldy, flawed, eccentric, thrilling, mysterious, blunt, thought-provoking, silly, exciting: and it's certainly the the best film about Xenomorphs since James Cameron slapped an 's' onto the end of Alien. In a film that tracks the evolution of the infamous menace, it's apt that it has evolved a stale franchise into something that feels new. A film where the viewer should embrace the flaws and all, and they may just emerge moderately impressed.

(Post-script: Film Ha Ha viewed this film in two glorious dimensions, as the recent Hara-Kiri proved the last straw for a redundant third. We urge you to do the same, and support the traditional cinematic form)

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