Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Prometheus" lights spark, doesn't catch fire


directed by Ridley Scott
starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce

Early reactions to Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” already seem to be dividing into two main camps: those who find it profound, and those who find it profoundly silly.

I fall somewhere in the middle, since I enjoyed “Prometheus” on a visceral level but found it a bit of a narrative and intellectual mess. Sometimes a scary alien movie is just a scary alien movie; “Prometheus,” however, seems to want to be something more, and doesn’t quite get there. It flirts with some high-concept ideas about creation, existence, and the nature of humanity but doesn't seem to know what to do with them - or if it does, doesn't show that to the audience. Perhaps this is why its plot is riddled with dead-end threads, head-scratching elisions, and developments that just don’t make sense. For all that, the film's still entertaining, even if thinking about it at any length afterwards leads to exasperation and/or extreme overanalysis.

"Prometheus," in good old sci-fi tradition, tracks the exploration of a strange and forbidding planet – stunningly rendered through a combo of CGI, soundstages, and footage shot in Iceland – by a team of scientists and mercenaries from late 21st century Earth. Leading the mission, at least in name, are a pair of bright-eyed archeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) searching for an ancient alien race they believe may have created humans (and, it’s implied, life on earth generally). Shockingly for no one who’s seen the movie trailers, they find a lot more there than they bargained for – most of it somewhere on the scale between creepy and monstrous, definitely lethal, and extremely hostile and aggressive when aroused.

The connection between “Prometheus” and Scott’s “Alien” has been one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood – assuming it was ever really meant to be a secret at all, which I doubt – though the precise nature of that connection is only hinted at until the very last few frames of the movie. But “Prometheus” also shares DNA with the director’s other masterpiece, “Blade Runner,” in its interest in the moral implications of creating life and being “human.” Here it’s the humans (Rapace’s character in particular), not the androids, who are trying to meet their maker. And yet one of the main characters, “David” (Michael Fassbender, fantastic) is an android whose presence is both necessary to the humans’ quest and a silent commentary on it.

David is, to borrow “Blade Runner”’s famous catchphrase, “more human than human”: he can pilot a ship without rest for two years, speak any and all languages ever known to man, shoot baskets while riding a bike one-handed in a perfect circle, and mix a perfect cocktail. Early on, we see him watching the film “Lawrence of Arabia” with apparent pleasure, and in fact his refined cadences and the elegant insouciance of his demeanor seem to be channeling Peter O’Toole – if Peter O’Toole were a robot. David’s expression, regardless of how tense or even dire the situation, remains calm and politely attentive; occasionally there’s a flicker of something else, when, for example, he’s confronted with something new to him or when he's insulted by one of the other crew members (notably Marshall-Green’s scientist, who seems unsettled by David’s very existence). But it’s no more than a flicker, not long enough to ascertain what that “something” is, though enough to create a feeling of vague unease.

It’s a marvelously calibrated performance by Fassbender that should but probably won’t get an Oscar nomination, and it pretty much steals the show from the rest of the cast – a cast that includes acting heavyweights like Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, and Idris Elba, but whose characters mostly remain underdeveloped. In some sense, Dr. Shaw and David represent two sides of the coin in mankind’s efforts to understand his own existence – faith and science, creator and creation, parent and offspring – though the boundaries are blurred enough for each of them to contain elements of both. What’s frustrating about the movie is that it never develops these connections in a sustained or coherent manner. The problem isn’t that the movie poses questions it doesn’t answer, but rather that it doesn’t provide enough for viewers to come up with their own answers - at least, not without importing a lot of outside knowledge or speculation to fill in the blanks.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy for moviegoers not looking for any particular insights into the meaning of human existence. “Prometheus” is visually gorgeous and immersive (say what you like about Ridley Scott’s uneven filmography, the man knows how to direct a great-looking movie), even without the 3D, and effectively builds an atmosphere of slow-growing dread and suspense. Once bad things actually start popping out, the movie loses in logic what it gains in the ick-jump factor – yet it also gives us an absolutely riveting sequence that I unfortunately can’t describe at all without giving away major plot points, other than to say it’s terrifying, features Dr. Shaw’s only true moment of Ripleyesque badassery, and is apparently already stirring controversy in certain circles. Not being a member of those circles, I submit that that sequence, together with Fassbender’s performance as David, are alone worth the price of admission. More broadly, whatever its conceptual flaws, the film succeeds in bringing viewers into another world – a palpable, beautiful, dangerous world literally light years from their own. If summer movies are about escapism, “Prometheus” offers it in spades.


Michael Fassbender: A+


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