Wednesday, June 13, 2012

PROMETHEUS: An Engineering Marvel

It's a bit of a mess, Prometheus, but it's an exciting, visually stunning, and ultimately satisfying mess. I was a fan of Ridley Scott's Alien from day one (a bunch of us in Chicago saw it three times on opening day in 1979) and damn near as much a fan of James Cameron's Aliens (1986). The subsequent films in the franchise went downhill and finally over the cliff, but those first two entries set an impressive benchmark for science fiction films for the next few decades. It's possible that Prometheus, at least in the spectacle department, has bumped it up another notch. Now, while this movie ostensibly ventures beyond technical excellence and delves into meaningful, universal themes — such as the origin of our species and the mystical and religious beliefs that have pervaded our various cultures since the beginning of time — it's not fooling anyone. Prometheus, like Alien before it, is a big old B-picture in extravagant garb.

In the late 21st century, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover that virtually every ancient civilization on Earth has left a record of having encountered oversized humanoid beings from a specific cluster of stars. Sponsored by billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who, for his own reasons, desires to learn the ultimate answers, Shaw and Holloway venture spaceward in the Weyland Corporation's spaceship Prometheus. Along for the ride, we have some 15 crew members and scientists, plus a prototype android — Weyland's brainchild — named David (Michael Fassbender). Overseeing corporate interests on the mission is the lovely but icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), whose authority is constantly at odds with the exuberant scientists and crusty captain Janek (Idris Elba), all of whom have their own priorities for the mission. Once Prometheus arrives at the planet where Everything Evidently Began, the exploration of where we came from begins in earnest. The elder race, whom the scientists call "The Engineers," have apparently left some serious evidence about just what they were up to way back when, and — as we in the audience have all been figuring (and hoping) — it isn't terribly benign.

The epithet "Engineers" basically says it all, especially as it relates to the origin of our favorite aliens. For a time, in fact, the film appears to be revealing events that directly precede the original Alien; however, as the plot unfolds, the connection between the two films becomes less direct, and I think this may be for the better. Prometheus works as well as it does because it exists as more than just a prequel, which cannot be said of the recent prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing, to which Prometheus actually pays subtle homage. In fact, at the very end of the film, the not-so-subtle suggestion of the Aliens' genesis proves superfluous, if not actually detrimental to the picture. If a direct link is necessary, there are umpteen better ways one could be made.

The film's focus, like Alien before it, is fear of the darkness. Of the unknown that lurks within it. Though graphically much more explicit than its forebears, Prometheus successfully generates dread of what's out there because, even when you've seen the "out there" up close and personal, you don't know whether you've seen it all — much as in The Thing — or even a representative sample of it. The big questions, all that philosophical stuff that might have been meaningful to the characters, these things don't mean squat to us; we're busy ducking and covering because the fuckers on the screen are bloody lethal. And we pretty much believe in them. For that couple of hours in the theater, I sure as shit believed in them.

Some movies invite you to pick them apart, chew them up, and spit them out. A few weeks ago, Dark Shadows offered me an engraved invitation to question it, deconstruct it, and show it no mercy. Prometheus, by all rights, should have offered me the same invitation, and if I felt it worth my time, I could rip it apart and be downright happy about it — especially when it comes to the department of supposedly intelligent people doing bonehead things — yet, perhaps oddly, I feel no such compulsion. Unlike Dark Shadows, I never felt that Prometheus was insulting my intelligence. It may toy with thoughtful, imaginative concepts and do little with them, but it never sets up any real expectation that it's going to do more than that. Happily, it forgoes political sermonizing, à la Avatar. It's about the critters. Those nasty, beautiful, monstrous critters. I scratch my head over reviewers scratching their head about what this film actually means. Really, seriously?

None of the characters stand out as particularly deep or distinctive. Even the relatively unspectacular crew of the Nostromo kept us engaged with constant, witty banter. Not so much in Prometheus, though I couldn't help but appreciate one brief, sexually charged encounter between Captain Janek and Ms. Vickers, as well as the crew's display of loyalty to Janek at the film's climax. Scientists Shaw and Holloway, whom we see at closer range than most of the others, are far from pointless but don't give us much to identify with. David, the nonhuman, is easily the most entertaining personality in the film. Excellently portrayed by Michael Fassbender, David is an amalgamation of Alien's Ash, Star Trek: The Next Generation's Lt. Cdr. Data, and 2001's HAL 9000. David models his appearance and mannerisms after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a film he is apparently fond of. The fact that the eccentric Weyland created David for his own selfish reasons tells us all we need to know about his raison d'être. The playing out of David's drama is probably the most satisfying of all the characters in the film.

Prometheus is a catalog of cinematic flaws, but a near-masterpiece of visual and emotional excitement. I'd love to catch it again at the theater, and I expect it'll be a keeper when it comes out on DVD — as much for Charlize Theron in her black catsuit as the incredible special effects. For those who just don't get it... you have my sympathies.

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