Tuesday, 8 September 2015


Prometheus (2012)

Starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender
Directed by Ridley Scott

SPOILERS, SORRY (but it has been out since 2012)

Back in 2012 there were rich pickings to had when it came to blockbusters arriving in cinemas.  Near the top of the heap of those most keenly anticipated was Ridley Scott's "Prometheus", and with good reason.  From the outset it was touted as a prequel to that same director's own classic "Alien", which had been released back in 1979. If true to any degree, this was a wildly exciting prospect, given the high regard in which that film is held and the influence it still weilds over science fiction and horror films today.  But that franchise had somewhat fallen into disrepute.  Mistreatment of epic proportions by the studio, 20th Century Fox, had seen just one superb sequel, James Cameron's "Aliens" in 1986, followed by a string of increasingly sad disappointments, culminating in 2007's "Aliens vs Predator: Requiem", the second of a pair of ill-judged attempts to spawn a crossover series with Fox's sci-fi action franchise "Predator".  A prequel seemed to be the ideal solution, as it could allow the "Alien" universe to be imagined in new and interesting ways.  Unencumbered by the events and timelines of those unfortunate sequels, hirtherto unexplored stories could be told.  And Scott, despite some misfires in his portfolio, had attained an 'elder statesman of cinema' reputation; surely if anyone could pull things back from the brink and reinvigorate both the series and the genre it would be him.

The publicity campaign was cranked up a few gears for this one.  On-set "exclusives", reports, interviews and features popped up in seemingly every magazine and on every website going, albeit with journalists sworn to secrecy regarding all but the scantest plot details.  Viral videos and websites appeared, including a special TED Talk by Peter Weyland, a character in the film.  But not much was really given away.  Even the advance trailer was wordless, mimicking the quickly-cut glimpses of scenes from the clip which had trailed "Alien", and used the same eerie soundtrack of screeches, as the letters of the film's title gradually take shape across the screen.  The parallels were obvious.  Sir Ridley, however, did his best to dampen down the prequel rumours, admitting only that the two films would share "strands of the same DNA".  A word he used often to describe this movie was "fresh".

But the hype might not have been wholly necessary, because on the face of it, even without the potential heritage and the attachment of one of the great modern directors, "Prometheus" was a good prospect.  The plot, what was know of it, had a team of archaeologists discovering a prehistoric cave painting on the Isle of Skye showing a humanoid figure pointing to the stars, to a particular constellation, far out of sight of the people of the time.  They surmise that it is an invitation from an alien race of creators - dubbed "Engineers" - and duly find themselves, a few years later, halfway across the universe in search of answers.  Things are not guaranteed to go smoothly.

Now, even those with a steely resolve can find it hard not to buy into the anticipation for a film, or any entertainment, when it reaches these sorts of levels.  And in the quest for info, what was true in the past [ Find out what Michael "Batman" Keaton likes to read on long-haul flights, only in this weeks issue! etc etc. ] seems more intense nowadays; what has been lost in terms of print media has been replaced by use of the internet, social media and scrolling entertainment news.  Even after a film has passed through cinemas, there are the "dvd extras", double-disc "collectors editions", and alternate cuts.  The hunger for every last detail is created and then fed to consumers who may not even have known that they wanted it.  But once they have the taste for it the prelude has become as important as the headline act.

So what of the film itself, on its own terms?  Well, to give it its due, it comes out of the traps pretty sharply.  After a short promotional video for the Iceland Tourist Board, we find a giant, white-skinned, hairless humanoid figure, naked save for a loincloth.  This, we discover, is to be one of our Engineers, and standing on the top of a volcano by the stunning vista of an enormous waterfall, he promptly sets about engineering; that is, he drinks a vial of black liquid, which very soon causes him to convulse, disintegrate, and eventually dissolve into the waterfall, dissipating his DNA - strands of which are shown in Fincher-esque CG - through the planet's waters.  In the skies above, a huge spacecraft flies away.  It's clearly hinted that this is pre-historic Earth, although never explicitly stated as such.  This directly precedes the discovery of the cave markings which spark the interstellar jaunt, implying equally that the alien race planted the seeds for life on this planet.  It's a visually striking scene, which posits an interesting idea, and poses epic questions; who made us? And why?

Once we catch up with the future, the year 2193 to be precise, we learn that the good ship "Prometheus" is on its way to planet LV-223 (so in the same system as LV-426, setting for "Aliens") with our passengers in hypersleep (a trope of the "Alien" series).  We are introduced to the obligatory "artificial person", David, who spends the voyage riding around the empty ship shooting hoops, spying on the dreams of his passengers, learning ancient languages, and watching his favourite film, "Lawrence of Arabia".  As he styles his hair after Peter O'Toole's blond flick, he watches the famous scene where Lawrence extinguishes a match with his fingertips for the amusement of his fellow soldiers; "certainly it hurts... the trick...is not minding that it hurts."  After a cursory introduction to the wakened crew, of whom only 5 or 6 have any meaningful dialogue, and a mission briefing from a dead hologram, they set off to explore the giant structure found on the planet's surface.  Inside, they find the dead bodies of several Engineers, one of them decapitated, and a cavernous chamber overseen by a massive sculptured head and filled with cylinders of viscous black liquid.  With a storm rapidly approaching they take the Engineer's severed head back to the ship, whilst David removes a sample of the liquid.  Fun and games ensue...

At first look, the film is solidly entertaining.  The story, whilst treading very familiar ground, bowls along relatively briskly.  It throws out questions, some of them narrative related, one or two philosophical, but moves on to the next scene and the next question before anyone has much of a chance to realise the previous one hasn't been answered.  There are some good shocks, and a suitable amount of gloopy gore.  The cast are really playing second fiddle to whatever terror they've unleashed.  Noomi Rapace as lead scientist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw makes a fair fist of playing the plucky heroine (even at one point recovering in double quick time from a rather atypical medical procedure).  Permanently cool Idris Elba as ship's Captain Janek seems intentionally disinterested until the final reel; Charlize Theron plays the superbitch Meredith Vickers to requirement, although her tightly pulled back hair and space age power dressing chic do some of it for her.  Most of the rest of the crew, including Rafe Spall and Sean Harris, are essentially marked for doom from the start.  Unsurprisingly rising above all is Michael Fassbender as David, somehow managing all at once to be subservient and supercilious, innocent and scheming.  Where (Ian Holm's) Ash was coldly no-nonsense, and (Lance Henriken's) Bishop was exasperatedly normal, David is different, suave, multifaceted and harder to read.

As one would expect from Scott, the film looks amazing.  The Cinematography is by Dariusz Wolski, veteran of, amongst many other things, "Dark City", one of the most striking sci-fi films of the last 20 years; even without the 3D offered on its cinema release, the film's look is deep and textured, with cool greens and blues layered beautifully over bedrock grey, and properly does justice to Arthur Max's grand Production Design.  Double Oscar winning Editor Pietro Scalia keeps things tight and snappy, and whilst Marc Streitenfeld's theme sounds like it belongs in a World War 2 score, it at least is reaching and epic-sounding.   Strictly by the rules laid down within itself, not to mention the "Alien" series at large, the film contains severe gaps in the logic of what the intentions of the Engineers are - particularly in the last act - and what the oily substance actually does.  This suggests, rather presumptuously, that people will have to wait for the / any sequel to find out, if they're still interested.  Ideas wise, there is some interesting stuff floating around.  Shaw wears a cross and clings to a faith in God and Heaven because "that's what I choose to believe", the same reason she gives as justification for the mission.  If science shows that the Engineers did create life on Earth - their DNA is indeed shown to be a match for human - the question remains, who made them?  David and Holloway (another scientist, and Shaw's lover) debate creation; why did men make him, an android?  How would they, humans, cope if they found their creators but discovered equally trifling motives for their own existence - "we made you because we could"?  There's obviously the film's title, too, which invokes the Greek myth of the Titan who created mankind and then stole fire from the Gods, for which he incurred eternal punishment at the hands of Zeus.  Do the Engineers equate to Gods, with Humans equating to the mythical Prometheus, creating life in the form of androids like David, and giving them the "fire" - the gift of thought, self awareness, and intelligence?  It's diverting, and a little more than you'd find in your average blockbuster, but it's hardly "2001", and certainly is never allowed to get in the way of the marauding alien life-forces.  It feels a little too pat, though, simply to throw all this into the mix without having anything firmer to offer.  So, first impressions are that the film is a pleasing, almost overwhelming, but ultimately a little unsatisfying, entertainment.

But any film, particularly one of this type, should probably stand up to multiple viewings, even more so when it has offered itself up for as much scrutiny as this one did.  This is where "Prometheus" starts to unravel.  Freed from the necessity of having to follow a story, the viewer can pick up on any of the multitude of things in the film which are either factually incorrect, irrational on the part of its characters, or otherwise nonsensical.  Red flags are raised almost immediately with the calendar placement of the narrative, 2189 for the discovery of the star map, 2193 for the main action, less than two centuries hence.  In the grander scheme of things this means nothing, but it's generally better when an it's an unspecified future (as in "Mad Max", set "a few years from now") and not inherently obsolete ("2001", say, or Scott's own "Blade Runner", set in 2019).  There are plenty of niggles, some trivial - David's description of the passing of time (x years, x months, x days, and 36 hours - not one more day and 12 hours?), Vickers' description of how far they've traveled ("half a billion miles from earth") - some just annoying.  The geologist gets lost, despite operating a mapping device; the biologist loses the plot at the first sign of alien life; the man who bankrolled the mission pretends to be dead, only to turn up at the end demanding eternal life from the EBEs (and why was Guy Pearce even cast as an old guy, to suffer under dodgy prosthetics, when a genuine older actor could have played the part?); the ship just happens to come down, apparently randomly, right next to the structure they want to investigate; despite the cost and importance of the mission, half the personnel hadn't met each other or even been briefed prior to taking off; the trained scientists throw procedure to the wind and think nothing of bringing the alien head onto the ship without any checks, and then decide to try to spark it back to life; no-one thinks to check whether there's a massive storm brewing as they head out; David deliberately infects a human with the alien substance, with unknown consequences, and for no apparent motive; the black gooey stuff infects Holloway but doesn't grow inside him, it grows an entity inside Shaw after they have sex; Shaw conducts an emergency caesarean section on herself (!) but is running around the place moments later; Elba seems to have lost the American accent he perfected on "The Wire" and sounds more Balham than Baltimore; the Engineers, we've been led to believe, created life on earth but at the end seem hell-bent on destroying it  (why?); two supposedly intelligent people don't seem to realise that the way to evade a rolling obstacle coming towards them is to run in a different direction out of its path (although Theron's death is brilliantly played); and in virtually the final shot, a fully grown Xenomorph alien emerges from an infected Engineer, which makes for a great image but belies the carefully crafted life-cycle of the creature previously seen.  It's just nonsense.

Excessive scrutiny?  Perhaps, but there are so many things which could have been rectified without much effort.  The unsatisfying nature of the script has drawn criticism to one of its scribes, Damon Lindelof, a key contributor to the tv series "Lost", which many felt lost its way and posed more questions than answers.  As a tv veteran, it certainly seems he has drawn inspiration from the great "The X Files", which wrote the book on posing the rolling-question.  The film is certainly full of "X Files" lifts, from the black oil onwards, but it doesn't carry them off with the same class.  But what works on tv, when an audience can always tune in next week in the hope of answers, just isn't good enough in this medium.   The nicest thing to say about the film is that it's entertaining.  Perhaps it suffers the misfortune of having been made in 2012, and is thus subject to the kind of film-making necessary for "big movies" now, rather than in the 1970s.  As a "team in space on a mission" film it makes one yearn for "Sunshine", "Event Horizon" (yes, even), and of course the original "Alien", which is a masterclass in characterisation and tension in comparison.  It's beautiful, but it's still a mess.

So, unfortunately, given the huge potential, high expectations, and ties to other films, "Prometheus" hurts.  Of course, the trick is not minding that it hurts.