Friday, June 15, 2012
An Alien prequel with almost none of the original’s relentless suspense or scrappy irreverence, Prometheus plays a lot like one of those bloated costume dramas from the ‘50s in which people like Laurence Olivier swanned about in togas, making lots of declamatory speeches.
Granted, it’s considerably better looking than those films ever were. But even the visuals, which usually knock you out in director and art-school grad Ridley Scott’s films even if nothing else is working too well, are often disappointing here. Prometheus is consistently handsome and occasionally gorgeous—especially in the first few minutes, during which a montage of soaring aerial shots makes Earth look both beautiful and forbidding, familiar and yet alien. But it also looks ploddingly predictable, even prefab, at times.
It’s not Scott’s fault that the military-industrial grunge look he helped pioneer in Alien has spawned so many imitations. But surely he and his crew could have come up with something stranger and more alien-looking than the striated, gun-metal-gray walls of the cavelike construction scientist Elizabeth Shaw (a competent Noomi Rapace) and her research partner/boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green, far too callow) gravitate toward the moment they land on an ominous planet, or the orderly rows of oversized, goop-streaked earthenware they find in the tunnels.
The two have been traveling through space for years, on a ship that’s navigated by cool cat Captain Janek (Idris Elba doing a generic American-dude turn) and commanded by gimlet-eyed Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), but ultimately controlled by David (Michael Fassbender, by far the best thing in the movie), a silken-voiced robot who acts on the wishes of a dying industrialist (Guy Pearce, buried under layers of surprisingly bad old-guy makeup).
They’ve been traveling through deep space for many light years, but—thanks to the wonders of youth-preserving hypersleep and the demands of summer tentpole movies—Elizabeth and Charlie look freakishly youthful and fit. The two pose (mostly Marshall-Green), emote (mostly Rapace), and rush around doing stupid stuff like a pair of teenagers in a slasher movie, taking off their helmets to breathe in the alien air before ensuring that it’s safe, and zapping a dead alien’s severed head with electricity to reanimate it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew mostly mills about anonymously, exhibiting at most one identifiable trait apiece, which makes it that much harder to care when one of the Earthlings falls victim to another of the sticky-slimy, phallic little Alien-issue masses of muscle, tooth, and sinew that keep bursting out of their stomachs, burrowing into their mouths, or squeezing them to death with huge, squid-like tentacles. It also doesn’t help that the action is so muddily staged and filmed that it’s often impossible to tell what’s happening when violence breaks out, as it does every few minutes.
A few inventive new gadgets pop up now and then, like the little vibrating metallic balls that dart off like Snitches in a game of quidditch, mapping the terrain the scientists are exploring and transmitting back real-time 3-D pictures to the mother ship. But others are cartoonishly gimmicky, like the Rubik’s Cube-looking contraption Charlie activates to project pictures around a room while he lectures, or disappointingly low-tech, like the flashlights that don’t seem to have progressed one iota between now and 2093, the story’s present tense.
Worse yet, the story darts about as nervously as one of those little mapping balls, hitting more than its share of blind alleys along the way. Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof try to make up for the lack of narrative cohesion and sustained tension with half-hearted feints at profundity about relationships: between children and parents (or surrogate parents), between creators and the beings they make, and between man and God. I’m pretty sure Prometheus is trying to say something about the tension between scientific knowledge and religious faith, too, but I’ll be damned if I know what.
Fassbender does his prodigious best to illuminate what appears to be a seismic inner conflict roiling beneath David’s preternaturally calm exterior as, like his fellow ‘bots in A.I., 2001, and Alien, he struggles to come to terms with the humans who made and then abused him. But there’s just not enough in the script to let us in on whatever’s behind the droid’s apparent flip-flop from obedient servant to murderous mastermind and then back again.
In the end, I had to agree with David when Ellie insisted on flying off to the aliens’ home planet (and, no doubt, a planned sequel) to get some answers. He tells her he doesn’t understand why she would care what they say; she tells him that’s because he’s a robot.
Maybe she’s right. Then again, maybe he just has no patience for vaguely defined missions with delusions of grandeur.
Written for TimeOff