By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 16, 2012)
My God, it’s full of stars: Michael Fassbender in Prometheus
I really need to get this out of the way first. “From the director of Blade Runner.” Really? Really, marketing mavens at 20th Century Fox? That’s your best tag line? I think we both know that Mr. Scott is not likely to concoct another genre film as perfect in its seamless blend of hard sci-fi and existential noir. That counts as his “Sorry, only one per career” grant from the Movie Genie. Besides, virtually no one makes that kind of sci-fi anymore: just enough CGI to render a futuristic tone, yet on the whole, believably organic. You’re setting the bar way too high. So don’t tease. OK…I feel better now. On with the review.
As we teeter on the cusp of the movie season I call Big, Dumb & Loud, hope may have arrived for sci-fi geeks. It is in the form of the latest film from director Ridley Scott, returning to the universe of the “Alien quadrilogy” (his own franchise kickoff Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection) with a prequel called Prometheus. Does it live up to the hype? Since I coughed up top dollar to see it (in 3-D IMAX), I feel justified in paraphrasing J.R.R. Tolkien: I liked half of it half as well as I should have liked, and less than half of it as well as it deserved. And if that is akin to saying that it isn’t as good as 2001: a Space Odyssey, yet not as bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space, well…then so be it.
Not unlike 2001, Scott opens his film with An Enigmatic Yet Profound Event. Through an impressively mounted bit of CGI wizardry, we observe a humanoid creature making like a 17-year cicada on the banks of a roiling, primeval river (I can say no more). Flash-forward to 2093 and our introduction to the primary players, the majority of whom are tucked away in stasis pods on the good ship Prometheus, currently nearing the end of its deep space journey to an obscure moon. Their caretaker is HAL 9000…I mean “David” (Michael Fassbender), an android employed by the corporation that owns the ship and is funding the mission. As the humans groggily emerge from their hibernation, the makeup of our intrepid team comes into focus.
In addition to the requisite AI character, and in strict accordance with the Alien series template, there’s the Prickly Yet Pragmatic Ship Captain (Idris Elba) and the Corporate Weasel (a very strict Charlize Theron). The remainder of our pod people turns out to be field scientists of various stripes; including a biologist (Rafe Spall, son of Timothy) and a geologist (Sean Harris). The scientific arm of the crew is being led by two archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), who have sold their corporate sponsors on the idea for the expedition based on the commonality of “star maps” they discovered among the relics of several otherwise unrelated ancient Earth cultures. All roads lead to the aforementioned moon.
Also in accordance with the Alien universe, the team stumbles across Something Probably Best Left Undisturbed. But you know scientists, they always have to touch (as Buckaroo Banzai once sagely advised: “Don’t tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to”).
While Prometheus is imbued with a vibe similar to his 1979 film (thanks in large part to the visuals by DP Dariusz Wolski, whose previous credits include darkly atmospheric sci-fi/fantasy thrillers like The Crow and Dark City), Scott has largely eschewed the classic horror film tropes in this outing; opting for a more ambitious script (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) that tackles bigger themes.
In other words, he isn’t providing an “origin story” that merely serves to explain the alternate Alien universe; he’s suggesting an alternate version of mankind’s origin story ( What does it all mean?). As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that he’s taken on more than he can handle in 2 hours. Perhaps the problem is that Scott is beholden to his Alien universe, and that for the disappointing finale, he fully acquiesces to the season of Big Dumb and Loud.
There are positives. Performances are solid; Rapace (the ‘Ripley’ character here) displays an ability to flex her instrument beyond the indelible persona she created as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Fassbender brings subtle complexity to his android that transcends the material he’s given to work with. From a technical standpoint, I have no complaints. Scott is a filmmaker with a deep grasp of filmic language; he meticulously composes every frame (I consider his 1977 debut, The Duellists, second only to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as cinema’s most visually stunning period piece).
That said, you still have to tell a cohesive story, and this one is all over that star map. There’s also too much dialog devoted to spelling everything out for the audience. Sometimes it’s good to leave a little mystery (why do you think that 44 years after its release, people are still debating the “meaning” of 2001?). As Rod Serling said, sci-fi is “…a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.” What Serling (and Kubrick, and Tarkovsky) knew, and what Scott may have forgotten, is that while the best sci-fi has a lot of imagination behind it, the best sci-fi also leaves a lot to the imagination.