Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

by Douglas Buck November 21, 2017 10 minutes (2314 words) 3D Blu-ray

A small group of brilliant scientists (if not all the most dynamic performers) head off on an expedition funded (based on a LOT of assumptions and the flimsiest of evidence) by the nefarious (and hopefully familiar to anyone paying attention to these “Alien” films) Weyland Corporation to a far off planet in hopes to discover a living alien civilization. And along with the ghostly shapes of a lost culture who perhaps hold the key to the origins of mankind itself… as well as its coming destruction.

I don’t usually pay all that much attention to these corporate blockbusters that every month (if not more frequently) overtake the cinemas like a new strain of an overwhelming virus, mostly because the recurring symptom of mass Pavlovian reactions of shrill excitement surrounding them tend to leave me feeling a tad alienated (much better to retreat into the lonely comfort of the rep cinema house, even if having to deal with the alternatively maddening, though fortunately rare, ignorant condescension of the cackling hyena hipsters). So it was a few years after Prometheus’ theatrical run before I even realized it had anything to do with the “Alien” franchise. So with my current goal to set eyes upon all things “Alien” (which meant all things “Predator” as well, as the films crossed over) in the interest of being properly prepared to see the most recent Alien: Covenant, it was time to give Prometheus a whirl.

It also afforded a nice opportunity to check out how my home 3D projector worked and, I have to say, it was pretty spectacular. While even the cheapest of these 3D efforts has the opening credits shooting out at ya in style, man, this film’s massive moving spaceships, inspired ‘Alien”-like production design (from the moody, deliberately cramped interior sets and long dark hallways of the spaceship, as well as the impressive cavernous hive of the deceased alien Engineers) and profoundly gorgeous shots of natural landscapes and waterfalls (on what is never explicitly stated as Earth, but I’m thinking it’s meant for us to assume) that almost feels ripped from an IMAX nature doc, prove yet again how no one can match Hollywood, born as it is from the most powerful strain of Capitalist hucksterism ever created merged with gobs and gobs of cash to throw at it, in selling sensation and bombast.

As far as the overall conceits of the film, with the reveal of the Engineers (these big dopy looking albino guys, whose perfectly muscular physiques would leave ‘300’ comic book creator and uber-right winger Frank Miller drooling) being the ultimate creators of human kind (as well as, perhaps, much of life in the universe) and having the story ultimately intertwine itself all the way back to the original “Alien” space jockey as well as presenting the birth of what appears to be the very first (and somewhat underwhelming) alien, I give Scott and the film props for not only attempting to create a real mythos (while dropping any connection to the two dumb, if sporadically entertaining, Alien vs. Predator films)… and, yet, unfortunately, the whole thing feels overinflated while, at the same time, limited in its scope.

It’s as if Scott (who can never be accused of being the most philosophical of filmmakers), in trying to imagine the beginnings of creation, could only conceive of it in the most obviously patriarchal Christian terms. For instance, I always thought that mysterious space jockey was a life form in itself and that what we were seeing in “Alien” was some kind of exoskeleton. What a disappointment to realize it was just the space helmet for one of these muscular, freaky, all white uber-menschen (with the film’s score even overtly referencing the rousing triumphant orchestral theme of the original 1978 Superman every time their ghostly apparitions come on screen). And there’s something really dubious about our lead female archaeologist dismissing a lack of any concrete evidence whatsoever and ‘choosing to believe’ anyway. And with the film itself equally rejecting Darwinism through its entire ‘created in the image of the Uber-man’ conceit, I’m starting to wonder if the Scott and his posse aren’t a bunch of Biblical Creationists posing as liberal filmmakers (well, to be fair, Hollywood is the bastion of faux liberalism, so they’d fit right in).

The idea of ancient all-powerful humanoids having been on Earth planting the seeds of mankind’s creation could conceivably be an interesting way to expand upon the “Alien” mythos… and yet I couldn’t help but be reminded of how brilliantly that original Star Trek season 2 episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (in which Kirk and the crew stumble upon a planet that’s home to the ravaged, last remaining Greek Gods; having been the original creators of Man, they were shunned by Modernity and the newer Christian Religions and ultimately banished to this lonely planet, sadly doomed as their vanity-based strength and power withered away at no longer being worshipped) handled a similar idea, only with much greater resonance (and actual pathos and emotion – Prometheus, on the other hand, is a pretty cold fish).

Working equally against any attempted depth to the film is the swelling adventure score that, along with celebrating Nietzsche’s uber-menschen, works really hard to treat what we’re witnessing as superficial and just good ol’ entertainment, as if the film’s composer Marc Streitenfeld decided to not only channel John Williams, but Williams somehow was mistaking what he was scoring was Spielberg’s latest Indiana Jones effort.

Surprisingly, there is barely much dramatic tension in the first 40 minutes or so, as we have only the vaguest notion of what we may find on this planet they’re visiting (and we’re under the assumption it’s a friendly alien ‘invitation’, which our main two protagonist couple archaeologists seemingly glean from a thread of evidence of a couple of repeating stick figure cave paintings). Now, perhaps Scott and the writers thought this worked well enough in Alien, but they’ve forgotten in that wonderfully tense film that the crew of the Nostromo are responding to what they think is a ‘distress’ call (not some kind of meet-and-greet event) so threat is already hanging in the air. And, of course, everything about the interior space ship setting in Alien – from the actors, to the sense of genuine clutter and claustrophobia – is wonderfully textured, with some of the greatest character actors ever assembled in one ‘Robert Altman’-esque naturalistic ensemble piece, who define themselves through action and presentation, rather than, in that typical awful modern Hollywood style of Prometheus, delivering wooden dialogue that is clearly there to convey individual ‘character’ information to us, in which they each keep telling us ‘who they are’, rather than for us to see the creation of a genuine interesting character.

The two archaeologist ‘power couple’ leads are pretty bland (and, yes, I include Noomi Rapace, who, for me, has never been particularly interesting or dynamic) and the fact that the dude falls into an alcoholic depression upon the discovery that the entire civilization they’ve come to find is dead, rather than being orgasmically excited at an entire fossilized alien society to study sitting right there before him – he’s an archaeologist, for God’s sake! – makes zero sense (and how could anyone making the film not notice this!?). Between this and her riding on ‘faith’, it surely has gotta be enough to get these two fakers’ licenses revoked, no? And why would a major corporation spending beaucoup dollars on the expedition not just tell the crew what the mission was for, rather than jeopardize a revolt if some of them didn’t want to take part once they arrived (well, other than the obviously clunky reason of allowing the scriptwriters a way to explain the script to the audience). And when that scientist keeps reaching with awe and wonder for the alien life form that is clearly threatening to him (I mean, it’s hissing and baring it’s teeth, but the guy acts like a 5 year old kid drawn away from the schoolyard by promises to look at a pedophile’s puppy), it turns what could have been one of those deliciously perverse alien movie moments into one that had me annoyed with the filmmakers for forcing me to endure the arm-cracking torture of a character that they were too lazy to set up with any respect. And, seriously, why would ANYONE (especially SCIENTISTS!) just take their helmets off under uncertain off-world conditions! Again, just mind-bogglingly lazy movie making.

Now I guess some would argue that it’s not fair for genre folk like myself to so harshly judge a film for its narrative inconsistencies and stupidities, as we hold up so many sci-fi and horror films as great that are filled with the same things. I’d argue, in the case of Prometheus, and most Hollywood fare actually, these films hold firm that the narrative is King. It’s fundamentally what the entire experience is centered around (ultimately, if I look at the more insidious reasons, it functions as a corporate way to contain and limit people’s sense of too much adventurous speculation, ponderings and, dare we think it, actual individual critical thinking – in other words, ‘STICK TO THE STORY like everyone else and we’ll do the thinking for you, thank you!’) so one of the things I judge Prometheus against is what it’s asking me to judge it against; the narrative.

I suspect the first cut of the film had to be much longer as there is all sorts of gaps and underdeveloped moments throughout at crucial times (such as the ‘heroism’ of the three at the end, which to be effective in that bullshit, ‘aren’t humans just great when it counts’ pat the audience on the back kinda Hollywood way would have required seeing a developed camaraderie between them or an understanding of who they really are, none of which is there). And why didn’t they just hire a great aging thespian to deliciously sink his teeth into the role of the aged patriarch of the Weyland Corporation (speaking of which, nice to see Scott at least remaining true to one of the conceits of his two great genre films, Alien and Blade Runner, being the eventual insidious empowerment of all-powerful corporations) instead of burying an unrecognizable Guy Pearce in not particularly convincing old age makeup (I mean, does anyone not realize that’s a younger guy doing his best to hobble around?) unless, I can only imagine, there are some scenes sitting on a cutting room floor somewhere of Pearce’s Weyland out of makeup and either restored to youth somehow, or as a robot in its creator’s image, or in scenes from his past. And Charlize Theron, as the mysterious possibly-robotic Weyland Corp representative head of the expedition is clearly the latest “Alien” franchise uber-bitch mother, isn’t particularly dynamic, which might partly be due to a loss of crucial scenes revealing more of her (other than the odd, out of nowhere scene of the black Captain, played by Idris Elba, one of the few here who could likely have fit right in with the naturalistic ensemble of the Nostromo, suddenly seemingly scoring with the highly skin-contrasting fair haired ice queen).

It was fun to see the image of a vast ‘alien hive’ like creation straight out of the “Aliens” comics. The comic continued the “Alien” story directly after the events of the second James Cameron directed effort – being the last great one, after Scott’s original haunting masterpiece — and branched off into all sorts of fascinating, ambitious and entirely different directions (such as a telepathic link forming between aliens and humans leading to the creation of a new radical religion, the merging of a black market for the ‘goo’ the aliens cover their captured humans with being highly addictive and destructively transformative for humans who taste it, and a further development of the nefarious machinations for control over the aliens between corporations and the military with little concern for collateral damage), often with many of the ideas nicely finding their way back into the movies. As part of this whole “Alien” madness, I’ve read the first five of the six Dark Horse collected volumes of the comic books and, I have to say, they’ve been far more consistently good than the film franchise itself has been.

The gushy massive amoeba-like creature is pretty cool (and a welcome presence in its non-anthropomorphic – and destructive — state of being!), and its emergence from out of the Rapace character’s belly is nicely squirm inducing (if, again, a bit underwhelming because I didn’t care less about this dense scientist couple), but the really standout element of the entire enterprise is the robot David, played magnificently by Michael Fassbender, with the character showing subtle reactions of resentment towards humans (for the supposed ‘humanity’ they taunt him with) mixed with a cold determination at the sociopathic acts he’s been programmed to carry out. I couldn’t quite figure out if it was the script itself that created this memorable figure, or the subtle complexities that Fassbender himself brought, or both. Either way, he’s great and the best part of the film. I was happy to hear David’s returning for the latest (and likely last) entry, Alien: Covenant, as it has finally arrived in the viewing queue.

As far as Prometheus, lots of big and impressive 3D bells and whistles signifying some decent sci-fi ideas, made by people seemingly unable to recognize, or unwilling to spend the time on (those big corporate sized CGI effects must be served, after all!), the myriad frustrating script problems (why, it almost feels like a Ridley Scott film… oh, wait… it IS…).

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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