Released just over a month after The Avengers and preceded yesterday by trailers for The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man, Prometheus - Sir Ridley Scott's return to ideas first explored in Alien, 1979's gamechanging sci-fi-cum-horror - is the most recent franchise release dragging expectations and hysteria with it. Regardless of its links to predecessors - as happily considered as they may be - Prometheus is, by its own merits, an inadequate film. (Spoilers follow.)
It begins with two prologues: in the first, a well-defined humanoid greets a spaceship that is about to land on his (sic) planet... then offs himself in sacrifice. In the second, a team of explorers discover a cave on the Isle of Skye, in which are ancient paintings that suggest a knowledge of some far-off planet; consistent with those of other ancient peoples, the paintings point to a superior being in whom the origin of human life might be sought.
In 2094, then, an exploratory crew of dramatic throw-aways travel aboard the Prometheus to this planet in the hope of meeting their maker(s). The crew, which includes scientific explorer couple Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), is captained by Janek (Idris Elba) and supervised and served respectively by funding corporation Weyland Industry's two representatives, Vickers (Charlize Theron) and David (Michael Fassbender), an android who models himself after Peter O'Toole's T. E. Lawrence.
Though David is the film's sole robot, Fassbender lends it its only soul; Theron adds chill and Elba returns to the kind of American twang for which his acting became famous in The Wire, and which somehow sounds more natural than his own Cockney, as displayed in TV's Luther. Marshall-Green, meanwhile, cuts a suitably irritating, obnoxious figure, branding an unmatched arrogance that screams for some kind of archetypal comeuppance. (Science begets morons, eternally.) As central heroine Shaw, a scientist who chooses to interpret the world in creationist terms, Rapace endures the emotional strains that accompany an unthinkable run of bad fortune. These principals comprise a cast of unsympathetic and dull characters between whom there is little chemistry and for whom there is no character development.
Such quips seem unfair. It's an Alien film; ergo, who cares about dramatic plausibility or character interaction? So, looking beyond some risible dialogue and an unforgiveably muddled and uneven script, an attempted list of merits... Production design is impeccable, and is visibly respectful of the 1979 film even beneath the curiously cartoonish cinematography - an unpleasant, rather ugly mix of blue and ecru. The film retains a clinical design even when Marc Streitenfeld's original score suggests tonal confusion on its composer's part. Directorial compositions are unremarkable, serving story adequately enough... which leads us back to the woes of the script.
Things will go wrong in the dark. The stretch of narrative leading to this ghastly realisation is treated in such a casual manner, though, that the film risks losing its audience's interest before any of the interesting things occur. The scene in which the stranded Fifield (Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall) fail to befriend an alien snake is superbly handled, however, ensuring that as the first scene in which effortlessly gullible humans meet predatory extra-terrestrials, it is immediately unforgettable. Later in the film, skin-tingling horror is foregrounded and sustained when Shaw programmes an enclosed surgery pod to perform an emergency removal operation on her own gut, fetching out the squirming embryo of a would-be chest-bursting xenomorph and stapling her back together before she desperately seeks an exit.
Our own familiarity with this iconic creature almost seems matched by Shaw, whose encounter with it should be even more horrifying than it seemingly is. Indeed, instead of being its primary focus, such bursts of horror seem designed only to further the film's aspiration towards a spectacular actioner... And it's in this regard that it gets bogged down. Suggesting at least two plot strands in which problematic father-daughter relationships double as cues to the overall theme of creators rejecting their offspring, the film never quite justifies their inclusion - an old-man-in-prosthetic turn from Guy Pearce is merely distracting.
Scott of course is strategically reconciling with one of his own children. (A Blade Runner sequel is apparently and suddenly also in the works.) Having spent some years in the critical and/or commercial wilderness, he seems adamant here in exploring previous ideas whilst also adjusting them to a climate in which size is mistaken for quality. A nod to David Lean seems cheekily self-vindicating.
Unfortunately, the film operates on similar levels that Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith did: aware enough of a fanbase it needs to respect and satisfy, but presenting its world with such comparative aesthetic flash that it can only conjure a real and legitimate nostalgia for the original. The formal and technical innovations that defined Alien's design remain unmatched by this ultimately limp effort, whose bombast overwhelms finer moments too few and far between.
Posted Saturday, June 02, 2012