Review: PROMETHEUS Soars, Then Stalls
And so I went into Prometheus as blind as possible, just on the off-chance that Ridley Scott had somehow captured that magic again, or even better, pulled off something entirely new and equally satisfying. To this end, I avoided trailers, early reviews, viral videos, message boards and script leaks. To be clear, I certainly didn't expect the movie to deliver some life-changing genre film experience -- Scott hasn't made a movie that I found particularly memorable since the Blade Runner/Alien days --but I wanted to be prepared just in case it did.
To conclude the personal anecdote quickly: Prometheus did not change my life, nor even my perceptions of sci-fi horror or big budget filmmaking. Most likely, asking any of these things from a movie with so much hype behind it is too tall of an order anyway. So then let's be thankful that Scott's return to sci-fi is by no means an unmitigated disaster -- it's visually stunning, well-paced, icky, intense and even thoughtful at times. In fact, It's one of the most satisfying huge-budget studio genre movie to hit theaters in years. But unfortunately, none of the visual pizazz and nausea-inducing special effects can mask the well-trodden ground that the plot covers or the fact that the script becomes noticeably clunky during the second half. These problems don't sink the film, but they're incredibly frustrating because Scott lays the groundwork for something much more intense and thought-provoking than he actually delivers.
The film begins on Earth in the year 2089. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her dopey boyfriend have just discovered a millenniums-old cave painting which, taken in relation to several other cave paintings from different civilizations and eras, seems to suggest that a certain, far-away star system might hold the key to the creation of human life. Two years later, with sponsorship from Weyland Industries, they wake up from hyper sleep in a spaceship symbolically named Prometheus, which is headed for the galaxy in question. They are, naturally, accompanied by a ragtag team of corporate employees and supervisors including the Icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who supervises the mission with an iron fist, a few scientists who talk like offshore oil-rig workers, the no-nonsense captain (played Idris Elba from The Wire, who gives more depth and life to his stock character than anyone else in the cast) and of course, David (Micheal Fassbender) the android who may or may not have a shady agenda.
When they first land on the planet, it looks barren and uninhabitable, not at all like a place that birthed mankind. But soon they find an underground compound that feels every bit as vaginal and womb-like as the sets in Alien, and they begin to work on, presumably, unraveling the mystery of human existence. These scenes unfold with a sense of foreboding and genuine wonder, and, thanks to the slow-burn pace, the film actually re-captures the feel of the original and the uneasy sense that anything might happen. It also poses some interesting and even unsettling questions about existence and the effect of scientific discoveries on long-held religious faith.
Even more exciting is the fact that Scott seems to indeed be telling an entirely new story set in the same world as Alien. All of the visual elements of the first film are here -- the claustrophobia, the sweat, the sex-organ obsessed set-design -- but they're all directed with elegance and straight-faced gravity, never pandering to the audience or playing like knowing winks. But once the inevitable menace emerges, the film alternately waters-down and tosses aside most of its intriguing elements and delivers non-stop action that seems designed to cater to the lowest-common-denominator expectations of an Alien prequel. Also, the echoes of the first film suddenly become relentless and frustratingly obvious.
That's not to say it's a steep downhill plummet to the end -- some of the sequences are indeed breathtakingly intense. In fact, one set piece alone is so jaw-dropping, inventively gruesome and insane that it makes the entire film worth the price of admission. However, there are also several incredibly bland sequences which ironically feel like toss-offs from the last third of Danny Boyle's Sunshine. Also, while the creature-effects and attack-sequences aren't simply retreads of Alien, it does seem like Scott has watched John Carpenter's The Thing more than a few times over the past several years. Most damaging is that the trajectory of the plot becomes so messy and unfocused that the film never manages to sustain any sort of intensity or suspense, but rather moves moment to moment. Some are exhilarating, and some are obvious and dull.
It's also during the second half that the weak-character setups start to hold the film back, as none of the arcs ever coalesce into anything particularly affecting. Theron's character turns out to be more layered on paper than we originally expect, but her one-note, stilted performance as an ice queen never really makes us care. Rapace proves herself totally capable as a blockbuster leading lady, but as her boyfriend Charlie gets more and more annoying, her infatuation with him becomes puzzling and frustrating, which in turn hinders any sort of identification with many of her emotions. Ripley had her flaws to be sure, but I'm pretty sure she would have told Charlie to fuck off long before they embarked on a space voyage together.
In between action scenes, the film labors to expand on the ideas and philosophical questions introduced in the first half, but by the end, it all feels convoluted and half-assed. Scott at times threatens to go into some pretty unsettling emotional and intellectual territory in terms of the implications of the events in the film, but he always steps back before actually confronting the dramatic potential head-on.
The film ends on a middling note that sums up its overall problem: It feels like Scott wanted to have everything both ways. Sometimes it seems like he's trying hard to deliver an intense, stand-alone sci-fi horror movie, but at others he seems all too eager to please anyone who wanted a retread of the the previous, superior film. He also seems earnestly interested in making a film that examines deep existential questions and long-held ideas about faith, and yet he's afraid to go all the way and risk (ahem) alienating anyone. He certainly directs the hell out of the movie, and as a result, it's quite a ride, one which totally justifies the 3-D and IMAX surcharges. Still, I doubt that any future generations will spend much time wondering what it would have been like to see Prometheus on opening day in the theater.
Note: I reviewed this after a packed-house opening day screening in Paris, where I'm based.