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Black Gate Goes to the Summer Movies: Prometheus

Friday, June 8th, 2012 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

prometheus-posterIf you plan to see Prometheus this weekend, know that you are in for an endless buffet of visual astonishment, especially if you spring to see it in IMAX 3D. Ridley Scott belongs to the breed of filmmaker who can justify the use of the 3D gimmick. He poured everything at his disposal to make his new science-fiction film worth the extra dollars, euros, pound notes needed to watch it in an immersive environment. Prometheus is visual and aural splendor for the cinema.

Know also that you will meet flat characters who often do idiotic things (“Don’t pet the freaky alien snake-thingy! You call yourself a scientist?”) and more idiotic things (“Don’t take off your helmets, you morons! You call yourselves space-explorers?”) and more idiotic things (“Don’t go down into the basement alone!” Well, that doesn’t specifically happen, but many equivalent things do.); a script that turns its initial concept into a shapeless mess by the halfway point; and the general disappointment of watching what promised to be an amazing return for Ridley Scott to the Alien universe he helped create ending up as standard science-fiction thriller pulp.

Does this add up to a good film? Uh, I’m willing to say it does. And whether “good” is enough for you when it comes to Prometheus will depend on how much you anticipated its release and how much you devoured of its brilliant promotional and viral campaigns.

Prometheus presents a puzzle for me personally: It is far below what I wanted as a dramatic experience, yet the cinematic experience of it is stupendous. The tension here offers plenty to ponder, but in a meta-critical sense that has little to do with the story that Prometheus offers. What makes a good film? What makes a good story? What makes a good film story? How much do expectations alter those questions? Are they all the same questions? Yes? No? Buy a vowel?

I guess what I am trying to say is that you should go see Prometheus for yourself, no matter what the critical consensus says, simply because it engages in questions about filmmaking and will no doubt begin tons of debate.

The questions the film’s story brings up are far less interesting, and that is what I find unquestionably the most disappointing aspect of Prometheus. The marketing promised a “big idea” science-fiction film exploring humanity’s place in the universe, with the extra tease of seeing how all of this tied into 1979’s Alien, now rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. Alien presented cosmic concepts through the implications of its cinema-changing design and the many things it left unsaid; Ridley Scott seemed on the verge of re-capturing some of that magic, but by going a different direction within the same universe.

I will avoid spoilers as much as I can regarding how Prometheus and Alien connect (something Scott remained cagey about during all parts of the production), but that is easier to do than I expected, because Prometheus is light on surprises. Its shocks are standard “movie twists,” where you thought B followed A, but turns out also C, D, and — gasp! — E! In other words, surprises that don’t re-write the movie alphabet. They aren’t terrible (although some don’t make any sense), but they aren’t those Big Ideas the film needed to shove itself closer toward the 2001: A Space Odyssey cosmic mind-blower that Ridley Scott started chasing before he fell into shooting a mediocre script.

prometheus-entryAnd boy, does Scott chase 2001. Hard. He knows he can’t beat Kubrick at this — he’s publicly said as much — but when the first shot of your film is the exact same shot as the opening of 2001, and the next shots are vast sweeps over primitive landscapes that only require a solarizing affect to give viewers Dave Bowman flashbacks, you’ve placed yourself a bit too deep into the Kubrick game.

But… this opening is one of the better parts of Prometheus. It has the sense of the epic and monstrous, and Marc Streitenfeld’s score — one of the movie’s strengths — creates the weight of the dawn of life on Earth.

And the Big Ideas pretty much stop there. If you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, you know most of the story already. The remaining surprises are the small ones.

To re-cap what the trailer laid out: Archaeologist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner/boyfriend Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) piece together disparate images from ancient cultures to create a star-map, and propose that an alien civilization that may have fashioned humanity is inviting them to return to their creators. The Weyland Corporation, at the behest of the dying Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in shoddy old age make-up), raises a trillion dollars to send the spacecraft Prometheus toward the habitable moon surrounding one of the stars, LV-223. (Alien and Aliens took place on LV-426, so already Scott is making good on his promise that this isn’t exactly a prequel to Alien, but in the grand scheme of things it hardly matters.) Along with Shaw and Holloway and a primarily disposable crew are Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the icy and unpleasant Company representative, and android “David” (Michael Fassbender), whom Weyland considers his “son” and appears to be running on his own agenda.

Prometheus lands on LV-223 and discover the monumental evidence of the race that Dr. Shaw calls “Engineers” and their mysterious doings. Things go wrong. People make dumb decisions and get killed. Weird alien crazies pop up. Body horror. Conspiracies. Some muddle about religion. Fassbender being bad-ass. Very cool looking stuff. A hook for a sequel that heads the other direction from the “Alien” franchise. And then it’s over. Hey, The Dark Knight Rises comes out next month!

prometheus-fassbenderAncient astronauts “seeding” the Earth is an old genre concept, already knocked around by folks like H. P. Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, and the writers of Star Trek, before 1968 when Kubrick altered visual science fiction with it in 2001 and Erich von Daniken published his hilarious comedy Chariots of the Gods? (No.) Prometheus does nothing astonishing with the idea except make it look great — again. It’s backdrop for space-monster action, and occasionally it threads into the foreground in bland speeches from Dr. Shaw and underdeveloped religious themes.

Fassbender is the standout among the cast, both for his performance as David and for David as a character. David’s android inscrutability makes for some of the movie’s best scenes, and Fassbender’s physicality and line delivery create a great balance between comfort and menace. The mystery of what David intends, what he knows, and what he learns constitutes the smartest parts of Promtheus’s script, and Fassbender nails it. The scenes of him operating Prometheus during the hypersleep of the other passengers are a highlight, and show Ridley Scott doing his best 2001 channeling, as well as a great nod to one of cinema’s other epics, Lawrence of Arabia. (Appropriately, I once wrote a post combining 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia as examples of the power of immersive 70mm cinema, the ancestor of IMAX.)

The only other character in the film who stimulates interest is Meredith Vickers, and that’s primarily because of the presence of dependable Charlize Theron, who just gave me Evil Queen goodness last week with Snow White and the Huntsman. Vickers is an arrogant company automaton with at least one trick up her sleeve. It wouldn’t be enough of a trick without Theron in the part, however.

The rest of the cast … nobody’s really bad, although Marshall-Green is the most underwhelming of the leads. They are all just playing standard movie characters, which is a disappointment considering how much Scott got from the cast in Alien, taking what seemed like underwritten characters and making them unforgettable individuals. In contrast, watching Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Shaw having family issues with her boyfriend seems so trivial. It’s just standard movie business-as-usual, and Scott should have demanded better from both screenwriter Damon Lindelof and his actors. When even Idris Elba feels generic, something has gone wrong. And poor Idris gets saddled with the worst “What the hell are you doing?” moment in the movie, when a character does something that makes sense for the story, but not a lick of sense for what we’ve seen from the character so far.

prometheus-idris-elba-charliz-theronHowever, Prometheus never bores its audience; the visual aspects aside, the movie keeps a steady pace of bringing horror elements and a number of visual-effects action set-pieces. Although the movie never turns truly scary, it has a few queasy segments, especially the body-horror highlight of automated and rushed surgery. The finale gets maximum use from all the visual and sonic tools the filmmakers have at hand — people in my theater were actually plugging their ears because the cacophony turned shattering — and it almost distracts enough from how little is invested in the people on the screen or their bland quest. That is the dilemma of Prometheus encapsulated.

I mentioned it before, but it needs emphasis: Marc Streitenfeld’s score is amazing. The previous Alien films created a distinct music style for the series, coming out of Goldsmith’s atonal and eerie work for the ’79 classic. Streitenfeld breaks out of that mold with an expansive soundscape that feels as if he paid attention to all the epic music Goldsmith composed for Alien that Ridley Scott chose not to use. This music sounds like what I wanted the film to actually be, and complements the visuals marvelously.

All I can say about the effects work on the film that I haven’t already implied is that Prometheus already has a lock on two Academy Award nominations: Best Visual Effects and Best Production Design. Cinematography is also a strong possibility. I can find no fault in any of the technical categories, except the make-up on Guy Pearce. Prometheus isn’t eye candy, it’s eye caviar. (Yeah, I know a lot of people don’t like caviar — to my own shock, I do — so feel free to substitute “Peanut Buster Parfait” or other Dairy Queen delicacy of your choice.)

Ultimately, Alien suffers not a bit from whatever it is Prometheus is doing, which Ridley Scott probably intended. No matter what connections you can draw between the two films — and if you want Prometheus as a prequel to Alien, you can definitely have that — the bizarre mystery that infects the 1979 classic remains safely its own.

And, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch that film again. If Prometheus makes you do the same, that’s another reason to see it despite its many problems.

Musical bonus: Jerry Goldsmith’s “Theme from Alien” makes a brief return, enough to get him a credit in the end titles. Goldsmith is eternal!

My Summer Movie Scorecard
Prometheus . . . . . . . . . . B
Snow White and the Huntsman . . . . . . . . . . B
Men in Black 3 . . . . . . . . . . C+
Battleship . . . . . . . . . . D
Dark Shadows . . . . . . . . . . C-
The Avengers . . . . . . . . . A

Next week: Nothing on my list until Brave on the 22nd. I’m instead going to do something grotesque involving Conan the Barbarian. Yeah, the recent one.


Ryan Harvey is a veteran blogger for Black Gate and an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author. He received the Writers of the Future Award in 2011 for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and has two stories forthcoming in Black Gate, as well as a currently available e-book in the same setting. He also knows Godzilla personally. You can keep up with him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com, and follow him on Twitter.

18 Comments »

  1. Another spot-on review, Ryan!

    I was blown away by the sheer spectacle, but left entirely dissatisfied with the storyline. The movie promises to answer questions that it never answers at all. Also, there were three self-sacrifices that seemed incredibly unrealistic. And I still have no idea what exactly was going on in the opening scene. Instead of giving a plausible sci-fi theory that supports its world, the movie just ends with another big question (or, series of questions). The cinematic equivalent of a great-looking babe who’s a total tease.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - June 8, 2012 9:24 pm

  2. I watched it in 2D and I was nuked by the “eye caviar” (eww fish bait)—or the eye almond roche. I felt like I was a teenager again watching an almost nakee Sigorney Weaver when Noomi runs around. The surgery scene killed the mood and I doubt if I can play Operation or the Stuffed Toy Claw game again.

    I liked how it played on the original Alien but where the hell was Jonesy? That cat was cool and made it when the red shirts were dropping left and right.

    I think what was missing in the picture was opportunity for the stars to act. The script was rolling along and then suddenly takes these weird twists. It was as if the writers were following a flowchart “insert a stupid take off our helmets here” instead of finding character building moments. For instance when the biologist and geologist retreat to the surface and then bravely try to pet the snake thingy that just didn’t make sense. Why not have only room for six of eight and have the biologist volunteer and the geologist draw the short straw. And Charlize Theron roasts one of their crew with a flamethrower and no one says boo but Shaw. Huh? And Idris Elba who can make a character like Heimdall be badass cool the writers give him NOTHING to work with. The two red shirts who have nothing better in their life than to make bets cheerfully join the captain. I mean it is okay to make flat characters but eye freakin’ caviar! That sucked! What a waste of talent. Everyone was out of character including the aliens. Think about it. Some ancient beings leave a message with a dozen primative humans to come up to LV-233 to their biological weapon center which they will gladly send a payload to Mother Earth because??? That was poorly done. If I were the writer I would have given mankind a Star Trek beat down–that is when the superior alien race says that you are a savage and you need to grow up. I would have had the alien god say that mankind was a biological weapon intended to eradicate the Earth. That would have made the Hollywood libs happy and given the alien a good reason to saddle up and deliver destruction to the Earth as well as explain why they don’t stay in touch.

    Having Charlize Theron squished was also unfitting. Think of something ala Berk from Aliens. I would have had Charlize Theron blast off and leave Shaw behind only to be the Cuthulu thing’s bitch in the escape pod. That would explain the origin of the Brood Queen and been a fitting end to Theron’s character.

    I agree with your assessment though Ryan. It was a good movie overall. The visual was probably the best I’ve seen. Accept for the make up job on Peter Wayland it was all good.

    Well, now y’all know why I don’t write movie reviews, just read em. Great job Ryan.

    Comment by Wild Ape - June 8, 2012 10:50 pm

  3. Thanks for the review!

    “…no matter what the critical consensus says…”

    At the moment, the critical consensus seems to be largely positive. In fact, it seems the “pre-ordained sci-fi/fantasy nerds” are the ones most likely to like the movie, but be somewhat disappointed (see aintitcoolnews, for example).

    Meanwhile, the movie critic I trust the most, Richard Roeper, gives it an A+ and calls it one of the best movies of the year. And while not quite as trustworthy these days (for my tastes, that is), probably the most well-known critic, Roger Ebert, gives it 4 stars out of 4.

    I haven’t seen it yet. Hope to this weekend, but with a baby in the house that will be dependent on getting a babysitter. Hopefully, my experience will hew closer to Roeper’s and Ebert’s than yours, but either way it sounds like it will be fun!

    Comment by awsnyde - June 9, 2012 7:16 am

  4. Great review, Ryan. Agree with virtually everything you said — especially Guy Pearce’s make-up.

    [And while we’re on the topic, what the hell was the point of casting somebody 50 years younger than the character? Why not cast someone a lot closer in actual age?]

    But that was one of the minor WTF moments for me. There were so many more, I came away almost entirely dissatisfied.

    Most of my complaints stem from the wildly inconsistent and unlikable characters, from Charlie Holloway — who sits chugging alcohol while Shaw performs epic surgery on a dead alien head, then sulks around because all the aliens are dead — to the cowards who bolt back to the ship because things get too creepy in the opening few minutes on planet, then display absolutely idiotic bravery in wanting to pet the killer alien.

    When the entire crew was willing to take off in their anxiety to get off-planet — callously abandoning Shaw as she ran desperately back to the ship — and then suddenly agreed to sacrifice themselves to save earth with virtually no explanation, I gave up trying to understand or sympathize with any of these awful characters.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 9, 2012 10:38 am

  5. Now that it’s been brought up, John, yes, the abrupt and non-sensical decision for the crew to to sacrifice themselves because Shaw said they should (even though they’ve never cared what she said before) while screaming with unearned joy . . . that’s a horrible moment that feels like a first draft. As I said, Scott should have demanded better, but with all the work put into the film, this just somehow, I don’t know, slipped by.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 9, 2012 2:58 pm

  6. I also agree with John Fultz when he said:

    > I still have no idea what exactly was going on in the opening scene.

    Big white alien kills himself to dump DNA into a lake, presumably seeding the earth with DNA for the first time… or something. They couldn’t use grass clippings for that? They’ve got DNA.

    Big stupid aliens.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 9, 2012 7:02 pm

  7. Got a babysitter, and will see “Prometheus” tomorrow morning. I have little doubt I’ll like it, maybe even love it. But I just watched “Another Earth” this evening, which is truly science fiction as art, and will certainly be one of my favorite movies of the year, and it seems doubtful that “Prometheus” will live up to it.

    Comment by awsnyde - June 9, 2012 10:21 pm

  8. Loved it personally, and don’t really agree with any of the criticisms here, except the bracketed comment in John’s comment (old-age makeup never looks realistic!).

    or example, and I’m not going to debate each criticism point-by-point you’ll be ecstatic to know, when the Prometheus was about to take off, there were large fissures opening in the planet due to the alien ship preparing to take off. So to me it looked like Shaw couldn’t make it back to Prometheus, and Prometheus was a very large craft, without the agility to pick her up. They decided to go kamikaze, as it were, because of Shaw’s point that they wouldn’t have anything left to go back to–which would lead to what could best be described as a delayed but certain slow death in space.

    As for other criticisms, I personally feel they were either explained in the movie, or could be easily explained otherwise (my ease in suspending disbelief may well have something to do with that, but if it allows me to enjoy more entertainment, all the better for me 😉 ).

    While I do think “Prometheus” was fantastic, my feelings hewing indeed much closer to Richard Roeper’s and Roger Ebert’s reviews, it was not as good as “Another Earth”, which I watched last night as noted in my previous note. So while “Another Earth” is science fiction as art, “Prometheus” is science fiction as spectacular entertainment.

    Comment by awsnyde - June 10, 2012 8:28 pm

  9. “There are those who believe that life here began out there — far across the heavens.”

    Comment by Joe H. - June 11, 2012 4:22 pm

  10. Awsnyde,

    Glad to hear you enjoyed it — and that the sacrifice at the end made sense to you. It gives me hope that it will make more sense to me on a second viewing, too.

    On the other hand, I’m still not sure I’ll ever like the characters. I especially hated Charlie Holloway. It’s hard to enjoy a film when your hero comes off as an idiot (taking off his helmet in an alien environment) and petulantly self-absorbed.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 13, 2012 12:13 am

  11. I liked enough of the characters, whether heroes or villains, that the few that were annoying didn’t bother me. Yes, Charlie would probably be one of the annoying ones–though I had no issue with his removing his helmet once the sensors, or whatever they had, told him it was breathable. Not something I would do personally, but I’m far from being a daredevil. In fact, I would call him rather less annoying than just not that interesting of a character. I think he was put in as fodder. 😉

    I found them annoying, but actually didn’t have a problem with the actions of the other scientists. That said, one plot point I haven’t been able to explain in my own head is why everyone started running scared when a bunch of holograms run by. Really?

    Comment by awsnyde - June 13, 2012 7:26 pm

  12. […] have a week-long break between summer movie reviews, the gap between Prometheus and Brave, so I have chosen to return to Ghosts of Summer Pasts. Not long past. Just last year. […]

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  13. […] would think at the start of the summer that Brave was concealing more of its plot and themes than Prometheus? Strange days, my […]

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