Movie Review: Prometheus
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Director Ridley Scott grabbed audiences by the stomach and took them on a horrific journey into space with "Alien." He returns to the science-fiction genre for the first time in decades with "Prometheus," the tame and confused prequel to his 1979 classic.
Thanks in large part to the brilliance of the first "Alien," as well as Scott's other successes (most notably "Black Hawk Down" and "Gladiator"), "Prometheus" has received more fan and critical buzz than almost any summer movie that doesn't include comic heroes and villains.
But lovers of "Alien" and Scott's adept hand with action will likely be disappointed with this unnecessary and cluttered bit of cinematic preamble. Scott moves too far from his roots as a great entertainer, pulled by the hokum of a screenplay that contemplates a plethora of half-baked philosophical ideas.
"Alien" had audiences on the edge of their seats. Eerie silences burst into extraterrestrial exclamations of violence and gore. Every dark corner of the ship Nostromo held the potential for terror. In "Prometheus," the spaceship feels more antiseptic and benign, and the sweeping music throughout feels better suited for a Spielberg melodrama than a horror.
Scott still has an eye for epic landscapes and the sublime, as evidenced by early scenes of a muscle-bound ivory figure (a proto-human?) deteriorating into a rushing avalanche of water (primordial soup?) as something of a creation story for mankind. But questions remain: Were humans built from a super race? Was mankind's creation intentional? One assumes the movie may hold the answers.
Flash forward to 2089, and a couple of scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (TV veteran Logan Marshall-Green), have discovered cave paintings around the world that point to a star map they believe may hold the answer to mankind's origins. What an odd, but convenient, assumption.
Shaw and Holloway are not just partners in inter-galactic anthropology. They have a romantic relationship, and his skepticism is meant to play off of her faith. But the relationship, intended as an adversarial exploration of belief systems, ends up falling flat thanks in part to Marshall-Green's one-note acting and a startling lack of chemistry with a somewhat cloistered Rapace.
The couple joins a mission aboard privately funded spacecraft Prometheus and sets out to find the star map, which the rosy-eyed Shaw calls "an invitation." That's the kind of naïveté that gets people killed. The ship's name, a nod to the titan who stole fire in an attempt to bridge the gap between gods and men, is a heavy-handed allusion to the crew's mission to discover man's origin.
We catch up with the crew asleep in pods (just one of several callbacks to "Alien") as they nod for their two-year journey to deep space. It is here we meet the most interesting character of "Prometheus," the cyborg David, played with measured control by Michael Fassbender ("Shame").
David pokes around the silent spacecraft, busying himself with ship maintenance, bouncing a basketball with alien awkwardness and watching "Lawrence of Arabia," looking for clues to the conversational ease of normal human speech. Fassbender even resembles Peter O'Toole a bit.
Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) has control of the space venture and, one assumes, David, as the representative of the Weyland Corporation, a nefarious-sounding organization serving as Prometheus' patron. With her stern glares and admonishments, Theron, in full body jumpsuit, resembles the sporty version of her evil queen in "Snow White and the Huntsman." As with many plot points in the film, there is a suggestion of duplicity in Vickers' behavior, but the idea is never fully examined, just another loose end that drifts off into space.
Joining Shaw and Holloway for their journey is a rag-tag crew with none of the memorable personalities that joined Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley. Idris Elba (a revelation as Stringer Bell on "The Wire") plays the ship's captain Janek as a folksy Southern boat pilot with a forced accent. And there are others, but they are so thinly painted, you won't care whether they live or die.
We also discover that Peter Weyland, the multibillionaire funding the operation, has come along for the ride. What, then, are his intentions? Well, when a billionaire old guy goes tromping through space, one can imagine he is after only one thing (and it's not a hot alien trophy wife). Life everlasting!
Guy Pearce, in pounds of prosthetics that leave him resembling the Emperor in "Return of the Jedi," curiously plays Weyland, whose presence weakly conjures ideas of the search for eternal life and the role and power of corporations. More ideas!
Once the ship reaches its destination, the team sets out to look for traces of the Engineers, the race of progenitor aliens possibly responsible for our existence. But contrary to Shaw's best hopes, the aliens don't seem very pleased to have been reacquainted with humans. And then, as they say, it is on.
Unwanted infections take hold, a host of slithering and frightening alien life forms are introduced to the rushed story, and people start dying. As the space battle escalates, Shaw must go to heroic lengths to protect humankind.
The final sequences are such an obvious nod to a sequel to this prequel that you can almost envision the slew of advertisements that will run during the 2014 NBA Finals.
The script from Damon Lindelof (co-creator of "Lost") and John Spaith simply tries too hard to inject what could have been a taut action film with pseudo-intellectual ideas about spirituality, faith and the destructive nature of man.
The slight storylines take themselves too seriously, bogging down the action. Wooden performances from most of the cast, excepting the always strong Fassbender, feel as unbelievable as the story the film is trying to tell.
Scott shows a restrained hand with his use of 3D and makes the most of the visual gimmick, specifically with his hologram star map and a mesmerizing chase scene, but the script saps the director's strengths. There is a clarity and dark purity to Dariusz Wolski's cinematography and shots of the alien planet, but the visuals are little more than a beautiful shell protecting a hollow center.
The screenplay offers few answers to the multitude of questions it raises. Maybe that is the intention of this uncalled-for prequel. But I didn't realize there was ever a clamoring for an explanation of how "Alien" came to be, and I don't assume there will be much curiosity of how the story of "Prometheus" ends.