6 June 2012

At the Cinema: Prometheus

Prometheus (Ridley Scott/USA/123mins)

 *Spoiler warning Major plot points are revealed below*

Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction filmmaking was always going to be full of anticipation and awe – and perhaps a bit of trepidation. Several decades after he created one of the benchmarks in sci-fi/-horror filmmaking with Alien, he decided to go back to the stuff of dark, otherworldly beings, space travel and the threat from within. With Prometheus he’s made a film of audacious and inspired breadth, one full of tantalising suggestions and themes, and vast ideas to chime with its many scenes of tense action. It of course relates to Alien, though does so in a variety of interesting ways. But it also veers off on an intriguing tangent, keener to explore what could be expanded from one previously undeveloped thought within Alien (where did that bizarre, fossilised being sat in the pilot seat of the derelict ship actually come from?) than in pursuing a rigorously direct line toward Ripley and co’s future findings. However, comparisons are inevitable and unavoidable: Prometheus acknowledges the world of Alien, is indeed set in that universe, and yet works diligently to creatively swerve around it. Scott posited this plan from day one and in his own steadfast way he’s followed through on his promise in a grand, fascinating manner. The word ‘prequel’, though, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The plot begins on a planet, probably Earth, at the dawn of time: a cloaked human-alien figure (called ‘Engineers’ here, but ostensibly the ‘Space Jockey’ character in the pilot’s chair) drinks something that violently disagrees with him and he falls – and falls apart – into a waterfall, thus very likely seeding life on earth; a massive spaceship ominously tilts overhead and life adapts in the depths of the water. Zipping to 2089, two archaeologist-scientists, and lovers, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshal Green) find cave pictograms suggesting alien visitation on the Isle of Skye: is this a map or an invitation? Corporate honcho Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) pays their interstellar fare and then they’re both cryo-sleeping their way to a far-off moon, LV-233, along with 15 other crew members aboard the exploratory ship Prometheus to investigate just what those mysterious inscriptions might mean and hold for life on earth. The outlook isn’t good: they’ve been invited to a weird, bad party where the hosts are less than hospitable. Shaw and Holloway are joined by an android servant, David (Michael Fassbender), duplicitous Weyland suit Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), jovial ship’s captain, Janek (Idris Elba), and a support crew that comprises botanist Millburn (Rafe Spall), geologist Fifield (Sean Harris) and medic Ford (Kate Dickie).

Prometheus is full of tantalising suggestion, through which it offers up more than a few thoughtful questions regarding its key themes: human inception; faith in, and attempts at playing, gods and “makers”; the necessity and drive to search for bigger answers to our creation. Scott and his writers (the script was originally written by Jon Spaihts, and then later reworked by Damon Lindelof) evidently wanted to create a new sci-fi arena, and perhaps turn it into a fresh saga, by focusing on a different set of questions than what were pondered in Alien. Why repeats the exact same thoughts and ideas from 33 years ago? It is both an “Alien film”, part of the canon, if you like, and an entirely new enterprise; but it works best if you dial down your desire for it to perfectly dovetail with the exact events of Alien. It doesn’t strictly segue into that film and I very much doubt it was ever intended to, evident by the way in which the plot is left unarguably open-ended. But it does lay foundations which lead up to it. I appreciated the move away into a fresh terrain (literally, this isn’t LV-426, the planet where the action of Alien/Aliens occurred), whilst still admiring that it retained, as Scott himself mentioned in the release preamble, “strands of DNA from the first film.” It largely succeeds with its many elusive references, and motors wilfully along throwing them open to sometimes follow through on them and occasionally leaving them hanging. This could be due to a slightly muddled script, a by-product of the editing working to accommodate a plethora of diverse dramatic content or some sheer bloody-mindedness on Scott and co’s part. It’s entirely open for debate.

One of the criticisms of the script is that there are gaps in the plot and characters aren’t well enough developed. These are fair concerns, but not entirely justified. The script rejig is evident at certain points in the film – there are leaps made in the narrative that feel as if scenes had been written then discarded or perhaps filmed then edited for brevity – but, even so, a relatively thorough through-line is present. Actions and consequences build in fine fashion, enough to outlay the film’s intentions, but halt just shy of telling us everything. The alien ‘contamination’, spread of infection and eventual revelation as to what it results in (the cycle that begins with the gooey, black organic substance contained in cylindrical ampoules that the crew discover arranged in strange patterns in the ‘alien temple) follows a logical and organically just path as it did in the Alien films. The race to meet a satisfying conclusion does sometimes make impractical narrative bounds to get there, but an element of vigilant confidence on our part is required. Had Scott and his writers filled in every blank, and casually mistrusted an audience to supply for themselves the somewhat easily intuitable events on screen, then the film would’ve been judged for being overly complex or too obvious. Some of the dialogue does fall to the ground with the thud of a space helmet, but I saw this as the something to enjoy in the cheery, cheesy spirit of, say, a b-movie one-liner of old, instead of idly bemoaning its lack of Shakespearian depth.

There are many instances where the actors reveal more telling aspects to their characters than initially apparent. With seventeen cast members and a lot of ground (quite literally) to cover, some characters were never going to get the time to play out their individual arcs. (Alien had 7 characters; Aliens just over twenty.) One or two barely speak and serve as bystanders or mere background padding (the Weyland security team who loiter around the ship’s deck) and a few are perfunctory presences (the unnamed guy that Fifield, after “turning”, kills first; the always-armed Weyland bodyguard). But many of the key crew members experience moments, however fleeting, that enhance our understanding of them and show curious or subtle character interaction; these are the kind of details that may get lost within the throng of on-board elation or panic. The way Scott directs – particularly in the first forty-five-or-so minutes – and the way he structures scenes and certain shots positions characters together to interact in ways that establish links: David and Ford talking idly on the ship’s approach; Millburn’s and Fifield’s awkwardly humorous early pairing; Shaw and Janek sharing moments of amiably complicit bonding before the ship’s landing. The script sets up such small, almost throwaway moments of interaction so they can be brought narratively to fruition later: David and Ford are joined in their complicity with Weyland after it’s revealed that she’s solely on board, not to simply be the ship’s medic, but to act as Weyland’s personal doctor (and of course David is Weyland’s “son”); Millburn and Fifield continue their banter until a shared fear of the team’s discovery leads to mutually unfortunate fates for both; and Shaw and Janek seem to almost intuitively know that it will take the biggest sacrifice of all to stop “death” being delivered to earth. Such connections are made early and cemented – albeit in piecemeal fashion – later on. The thread linking characters is there to be picked up on.

The performances of the main cast complement one another well. Lighter moments on the ship come courtesy of hearty Elba and his squabbling co-pilots Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong). Theron acts as an unsettling embodiment of corporate shiftiness regarding the threat that awaits them; she’s always lurking mysteriously but, as she loses her grip on events and comprehends the implications of what’s in store (and is shunned from daddy’s affections) she softens somewhat, and becomes more fascinating as a character. Marshall Green does cocksure science bragger well enough to warrant his prime position among the cast. Guy Pearce adds to his earlier cameo by popping up to sport some excessively wrinkled makeup and reveal just why he’s funded this doomed expedition. And Fassbender commands in his pivotal role, one in which the frosty charm seen in some of his other work (Shame, Fish Tank) is put to fine, apt use as a robot who has his own terrible plan to execute. But it’s Rapace’s film. Her arc is the one that connects the narrative together. The prideful, open-faced curiosity and eagerness of her earlier scenes (in the cave and during the debriefing after hypersleep) is deftly offset by what happens to Shaw later. After a scene of, how to say, unpractised surgical conduct, Rapace has to mentally and physically wrench Shaw along; she exerts palpable fear at the mounting disaster the expedition has become and desperately wrestles with a nagging internal conflict regarding her faith. (Notice how blankly she reacts to David at the end when he says, “Even after all this, you still have your faith?”; and watch how both her expression and her demeanour visibly sours when she puts on Charlie’s ring as she stands in front of a mirror – the realisation of what this has all lead to, and the big decision as to What Happens Now, irrevocably dawns on Shaw in a devastating way.)

Visually Prometheus is an astonishing achievement. The vast set design created on a grand scale for the inside of the tomb-like temple – the one which houses the a collection of ominous vase-like containers, arranged in similar fashion to the eggs in Alien, that spread out beneath the huge stone humanoid head, as seen in the promotional campaign – is an astounding technical feat. It allows the cast to interact integrally with their surroundings and impress upon viewers genuinely awed reactions (depending, of course, on what takes were used). Dariusz Wolski’s photography makes highly effective use of muted, hazy-neon hues and bright whites to highlight the ship’s slick interiors and crepuscular lighting for the industrial-eerie layout of the “Engineers” ship; a suffocating air is convincingly conjured in both locations in impressive, differing ways. Pietro Scalia edits everything with keen efficiency, making the multi-stranded action within the two main locations coherently and dramatically thrilling. Marc Streitenfeld scores everything with, alternately, appropriate low-droning tension and shifts into grandiosity; his score adds playfully hopeful notes to certain scenes too. And the special effects are top-drawer and maintain perfect-pitch throughout; there isn’t one scene which contains less-than-stellar effects work. Scott brings a long career of well-observed directorial judgments onto Prometheus with him. He makes sly nods toward his previous sci-fi work, yet finds fresh ways to visualise an environment of both exploration and dread. Whether it’s seeing the expanse of the USCSS Prometheus cut a sliver through a planet’s atmosphere from afar or following the crew as they investigate confining, unfamiliar labyrinthine corridors, Scott directs with inquisitiveness of a newcomer; it feels, with each scene, that he’s wholly and progressively fascinated with this world he’s exploring.

It’s not without flaws. Some narrative decisions do seem slightly baffling and some lines clang. And there’s occasionally the sense that some aspects were possibly a touch over-thought-out in pre-production. Events aren’t tied up in way that those wanting absolute closure or All the Right Answers will be satisfied by. But who’s to say they needed to stop the story dead here. The threads left hanging inspire as much curiosity as they do bewilderment. But its successes far outweigh its issues, and even its few imperfections are interesting and healthy topics for further thought. (I noticed many of the problems easily fall away on a second viewing.) But let’s see if there’s any lasting passionate debate with well-measured consideration behind it – and with maybe a dash of hindsight, say, and some space to let the thing play out widely first – before consigning it as a ‘disappointment’. For now, it's an ambitiously fascinating and near-endlessly compelling slice of science fiction filmmaking carried out with considerable skill. It’s entirely striking, often exhilarating and driven by interesting questions. I'll happily take audacious, inspired, messy, elaborate and involving cinema, which attempts to strive for ideas to work alongside its sublime thrills, over many other films that don’t even have the balls to try any day.


  1. Bang on, Craig. The clunkiness was jarring at first, but I thought as the film let its hair down in the second half it added to the air of B-movie-ish thrill to proceedings, releasing it from the Alien-like sobriety that I think most of its more vehement critics feel it lacked. I particularly liked the post-colonial subtext beneath it all (the Lawrence of Arabia nods, mention of 'Ebola'), a smartness which it wore refreshingly lightly, yet resonated throughout the storyline of 'enlightened' explorers unwisely trampling in foreign territories under the pretext of discovering mankind's past.

  2. Thanks for reading! I really found that the issues I first noticed evaporated on second viewing (not that they were huge issues to begin with), and more subtle aspects arose by being immersed in the film again. That's a good point, re: subtext, as there is a great deal of stuff in it(Colonialism, as you say, and suggesting questions about belief and how they're undermined etc) that it, clearly or obliquely, tips its hat to. There's more going on than initially apparent and that makes it all the more fascinating, I feel. Plus, such gorgeous visuals. It's a gem for those alone.

  3. Craig..beautiful..'piece'..fantastic film...have seen it 12 times...and each time...I 'think'...'ponder'..see..more..Its become a metaphorical..Psyche...'study'..along with a visual stunner... a fine...fine..masterpiece...it truly..'poses' the right images.. and information..just enough..for the viewers..to go
    with thoughts & feelings that are fascinating to them..

  4. Great review. I liked the film a lot and saw it twice. The only major flaw was the Fifield character.

  5. Great review and pretty much exactly my feelings. I found it to be a bold and visually stunning film that shoots for the moon (no pun intended) and, even if it falls short, takes you somewhere chilling and interesting.

    The constant refrain upon release of 'the characters do things that are stupid' seemed to come from people who had forgotten Ripley going back for the Jones The Cat in ALIEN. Who's to say that wouldn't have been lambasted if it came out nowadays?

    So much of the negativity seemed to come out of a desire to make a funny joke on social media sites - about how it "doesn't make sense!" or the 'old' make-up, for instance. Alternatively, just to join in with the whupping it received from some critics, just because it's fun to 'snark' on things. It baffled me then and it baffles me still. If PROMETHEUS is a terrible science-fiction film, then people need to watch Guy Pearce's other SF film of 2012, LOCKOUT.

    (And who wants a science-fiction film that explains away absolutely everything, anyway?! I'd much rather filmmakers leave some mystery, either for other films in this 'universe' or for the inside of your head.)

    I really enjoyed it both times I saw it in the cinema and I've come home from work to find my new blu-ray copy of it here. I can't wait to watch it again. Maybe this time, I'll be able to ascertain what David's motivations *really* are...