Thursday, June 14, 2012

'Prometheus' directed by Ridley Scott, 13th June 2012

‘Prometheus’ is a very frustrating movie.  It’s jampacked with amazing visuals, brilliant performances and stunning futuristic design.  Unfortunately, all of this is completely destroyed by a series of directorial/script blunders that squanders any goodwill the film fosters in the audience. 

Spoilers below.

An air of mystery and anticipation has surrounded this film almost from its conception.  It’s served the film well, a series of cryptic trailers and fantastic viral videos featuring the stars have only served to build anticipation without spoiling what was to come.  All signs pointed to it being a prequel in the ‘Alien’ franchise, but apart from some vaguely familiar looking images in the trailers, audiences were totally in the dark as to whether the iconic xenomorph would appear here. 

Adding to the anticipation was the triumphant return of Ridley Scott to science fiction.   ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ are universally recognised as classics of the genre, and this film was eventually confirmed to be a return to the ‘Alien’ universe.  Early reports seemed to describe a forward looking film that wasn’t afraid to explore big ideas in an original and unique way.  Even after some reviews began to come in saying that the plot was confusing, I optimistically assumed that they meant confusing in a ‘2001’ or ‘Solaris’ kind of way. In short, I was very much looking forward to seeing this film. 

As I watched the film, I found myself somewhat enjoying it, but felt that it was raising a lot of questions without answering any of them.  As I was leaving the cinema I was a bit confused as to what had happened, and by the time I’d finished walking home I’d come to the disappointing conclusion that the whole thing was a flawed and frustrating missed opportunity.

What makes the film such a disappointing experience is that it clearly has so much potential.  This is a film with a lot of strings to its bow.  First and foremost are the visuals.  Scott’s science fiction has a reputation for creating ‘lived in’ spaces.  From the grimy space trucker aesthetic of the Nostromo in ‘Alien, to the steamy, wet and neon soaked streets  in 'Blade Runner' every aspect of his set design is carefully considered in both design and function.  

Prometheus is no different.  The sets are consistently jaw-droppingly beautiful in a way which both strikes the viewer as both a call back to 1970s retro and to futuristic conceptual work.  The ship here, the titular Prometheus is a departure from the scuffed up spaces of the Nostromo.  It’s a new “trillion dollar” ship and everything is shiny and luxurious.  The ship features a pool table, fully stocked bar and a basketball court – no expense has been spared, as they say.  Despite this, there are certain callbacks to the ‘Alien’ design aesthetic.  For example, surfaces are lit from below, casting eerie shadows over the faces of the characters.  The interiors on the alien world are also directly and intentionally reminiscent of those of ‘Alien’.  H.R. Giger has worked on both of the alien sets, and his black, glossy biomechanical influence is in abundance.  Every set in the film is an extension of a particular philosophy of design, and it all comes together beautifully.  You very rarely get a sense of a background detail being non-functional in some way.

This film also boasts a riveting performance by Michael Fassbender as ‘David’, the humanoid robot that joins the mission.  The ‘Alien’ series of films has traditionally featured these synthetic people, and while their morality varies, they tend to feature somewhat more complex motivations than a lot of the human characters.  David is no exception, and he is by far the most interesting ‘person’ in the film.  Fassbender’s performance is almost uncannily precise, he behaves like someone with a preternatural sense of awareness and spatial coordination.  There is a stiffness and poise to his body language that subtly sets him apart from the rest of the crew members.  During an early scene in the film, the characters are receiving a somewhat expository lecture from a hologram as to what their mission is.  Everyone else is slumped somewhat tiredly in their seats, but he is sitting upright, and attentive.  He is never portrayed as intrinsically good or evil, just as someone who has been given a job to do and is getting on with it.  Even when he does do things that are unquestionably immoral and duplicitous we’re still on his side.  I couldn’t help but wonder as I saw him poison someone’s drink if we were supposed to feel that he’d tipped over the moral event horizon, but, the guy whose drink he was poisoning was exceptionally annoying so I could somewhat see his point. 

 Although Fassbender is the obvious stand-out in this film, pretty much all the cast acquit themselves very well.  In particular, Idris Elba’s working class ship’s captain is always fun to watch (although Elba is good in pretty much everything) and Charlize Theron portrays a strong and forceful corporate manager with a streak of vulnerability to her. 

Our heroine is unfortunately one of the least interesting characters in the film.  'Shaw' played by Noomi Rapace is an archaeologist/physician/scientist (when the script calls for it) and seems a very vague Ripleyesque survivor character.  She's pretty bland though, and while the film tries to suggest she has some depth by revealing her Christianity and infertility it feels a bit inconsequential and pointless.

So you have a top flight director, a huge budget, a great cast - what can go wrong?  It seems like an odd set of priorities that you can throw untold millions at the screen to create a believable futuristic world and employ a fine cast of actors while having the actual plot and dialogue of the film be so dreadful.  The rather shaky and confusing plot of the film is propelled by bizarre character decisions and events happening that directly contradict what’s happened in the previous scenes.  I can excuse a lot of this sort of thing if it’s an excuse to move the plot forward and convey an important philosophical message, but it’s hard to take the film seriously when your characters seem to be complete idiots who deserve everything nasty thing that happens to them.

It’s frankly bizarre at times.  At one point we have a biologist character who freaks out when seeing an alien dead body.  He’s distinctly shown as being entirely terrified, and this terror reaches a peak when he and a colleague are trapped in the alien pyramid due to a dust storm outside.  He’s in a panic, jumping out of his skin when he sees strange movements in the black ooze that runs around the room.  This all seems like perfectly reasonable behaviour.  Then a slimy, hissing penisworm pops up from the muck.  Now, you’d expect the guy to run a mile, but no, he kneels down and starts pretty much flirting with it.  You start to wonder if there was some miscommunication between the script and the design department here.  A few minutes later, after he’s attempted to pet the hideous angry worm monster it’s wrapped around his head and burrowing down his throat and you want to shout “Well what did you think was going to happen?!”.

The most astonishingly ill-pitched decision is the character’s complete lack of wonder in what they’re seeing and experiencing.  The two archaeologist/scientists who drive the first half of the film seem to have devoted their careers to travelling around the world deciphering clues that eventually seem to point them to an alien world.  Until they arrive at the world they admit that they have no actual proof that there’s any aliens out there, and understandably seem a bit nervous.  Then, in the space of an afternoon they discover an enormous alien building, a giant statue of a human head, a holographic recording of a group of aliens running down a corridor and an actual dead alien body.  You would think that this would count as an unreserved success, but everyone seems awfully casual and blasé about it.

At this point I think it’s instructive to look at a similar situation in another film.  In ‘Jurassic Park’ directed by Steven Spielberg we have a team of palaeontologists encountering dinosaurs for the first time in their lives.  We are given to understand that this, professionally, this is about the most shocking and awe-inspiring thing that could happen to these particular people.  We are shown their initial awe, which soon gives way to a mountain of questions and a certain giddy excitement that is sustained throughout the rest of the film.  Even as the characters are being attacked by the dinosaurs, there is still a sense of wonder that doesn’t go away.   The audience is carried along with their wonder – their surprise and joy is infectious. 

Prometheus’, is directed in an epic way with long swooping CG wide shots and seems to want to achieve the same thing.  As with the initial shots of the dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic Park’ we see the alien scenery tower over the scientists, but they seem remarkably incurious about everything.  This reaches its height when a team of characters are seemingly uninterestedly dissecting an alien head (which they manage to explode in their carelessness).  Everything we have been told about them would suggest that this would be a pinnacle of their ambition, but our formerly enthusiastic scientist Charlie is sitting in the background sulkily swigging from a bottle of vodka and moaning that he hasn’t met a living alien yet.  You want to reach into the screen and slap him around the head – “Look you idiot, there is an actual ALIEN HEAD in front of you!  Stop bloody moaning”.

With such dispassionate characters it becomes hard for the audience to feel the sense of wonder and excitement that the film seemingly wants us to.  If these people don’t care about what they’re seeing, then why should we?  This sense of detachment permeates the film.  Two characters are left alone in the alien building, they’re scared, they’re spooked out, a mysterious life signal is detected and then vanishes.  The ship’s Captain, who’s monitoring them, pretty much shrugs his shoulders and goes off to bed, leaving them to somewhat inevitably get killed by alien monsters.  At one point Noomi Rapace’s ‘Shaw’ gives herself an impromptu caesarean, and runs into a room covered in blood and slime.  No-one bats an eyelid.  As the body count racks up, and no-one seems to react to their colleagues being ripped apart you start to wonder if they’re making a point by having the human characters behaving like badly malfunctioning emotionless robots, while the actual robot character is fairly straightforward in his reactions to events.  I mean, if it worked in 'Blade Runner' why not here?

Even all this would be excusable if the film presented some interesting ideas and compelling concepts.  It doesn’t.  The film seems smug and self conscious when it frequently slips into it's philosophy mode.  The conceit that the film puts forward is that humanity is the result of genetic experiment performed 35,000 years ago by a race of giant white-skinned Adonises that the film refers to as ‘Engineers’.  In one way or another, all the primary characters are on a quest for discovery as to the origins of mankind.  The film seems to take enormous pride in its idea that maybe the Christian ‘God’ is actually an uncaring (or even hostile) alien race.  Thematically this is reflected in the parenthood issues that pepper the plot.  It’s reflected in having the robot David trying to work out why he was created by humans.  In Charlize Theron trying to win the respect and love of her father.  In ‘Shaw’ being unable to conceive and then giving birth to a monster baby.  There is also a plethora of somewhat lazy recycled sexual imagery from the ‘Alien’ films and a half thought rehashing of the are/aren't synthetics humans from 'Blade Runner'.  Frequently the film seems like someone who has swallowed every bit of rubbish from an Erich von Daniken book and is boringly vomiting it back up at you.

The questions the film posits are big questions, but rather than stake out its position clearly it seems content to wallow in  navel-gazing than attempt any kind of answer.  I think the failure of the philosophy of the film stems from the fact that their central conceit of aliens genetically engineering man is just not particularly compelling or original - I mean, this is essentially the plot of '2001'.  The way the film presents it is something like an atheistic version of creationism, and we have lines like “that’s 300 years of Darwinism down the toilet.”  To add to the philosophical confusion, we have a distinct focus on Shaw’s Christianity.  Apart from her being attached to a cross that’s worn around her neck, this goes absolutely nowhere.  We’re never told anything about her faith other than the fact she apparently has it. 

As you’re watching the film, you sort of expect these big questions to be answered in some way, and for the film to make some kind of point other than “Wouldn’t it be interesting if..”.  But as you reach the end, and the plot has degenerated into a giant monster man that’s out to get our plucky heroine it becomes depressingly apparent that the intellectual queries have fizzled out.   

I have always held that I would rather a film attempt something grandiose and fail rather than settle for a level of mediocrity.  I honestly would have rather they not bothered to try and tackle big questions here.  This film frequently feels a bit like being cornered in a pub by a boring drunk.

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