Saturday, June 9, 2012

Alien Origins: PROMETHEUS

Prequels are tricky things. Give the audience exactly what they think they want and they might be superficially satisfied at first, but your film is ultimately a trifle that explains away the original film’s mystery. Throw the audience a curveball and they’ll be frustrated and discontent. The trick is finding the right balance, which is precisely what director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaiths have set out to do with Prometheus, a film set some years before the events of Scott’s 1979 film Alien, that classic of science fiction horror. What Scott and his writers do here is not describe the backstory of Alien, showing what created the distress signal that led a space freighter and its crew to certain doom from extraterrestrial infestation, but to layer on extra mysteries. This is an engrossing production that operates from a similar stylistic point of view – stately and patient pacing and carefully detailed design – but, aside from a shared fictional universe and a plot that loosely sets the stage for the franchise that follows its events, Prometheus is very much a work that creates an identity of its own.

Part of what made Alien so great was the way it was about characters who had a job to do and set out doing it. They just happened to be interrupted in a spectacularly frightening and entertaining way. Similarly, Prometheus follows a crew of professionals aboard a spaceship (also called Prometheus). They’re off to sort out the mysteries of the universe. It’s a routine exploration, or so the crew assumes. In the group of seventeen are scientists, doctors, pilots, and security. We come to know some of them as the spacecraft arrives at its destination and the hibernation chambers open up. There’s an all-business, sharp-tongued company leader (Charlize Theron), a grizzled captain (Idris Elba), and an ensemble of mostly likable researchers and technicians (character actors Sean Haris, Rafe Spall, Emun Elliott, Benedict Wong, and Kate Dickie). Watching over them as they slept, ensuring nothing went wrong with the ship, was the android, David (Michael Fassbender), who moves with stiff precision and speaks in a way that’s not quite flat. During the trip, he was taught information pertinent to the expedition. Now, he’s eager to help. He’s programmed that way.

Leading this team, at least on the scientific front, is a couple of archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), partners scientifically and romantically. They’re the ones with the theories that have convinced trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund this exploration into deep space based on a theory that involves a lot of research a big leap of faith. All around the world they have found hieroglyphics from many cultures depicting giants pointing towards a planetary grouping in the sky. These researchers have somehow extrapolated a map through the universe that they’re sure will lead them to the origins of the human race. They think they’ll find the “engineers” of humanity, but that’s just one possible outcome. When the crew is informed of their true mission, they’re skeptical, but get down to business. The movie proceeds as a terrific rush of jargon, a jumble of pseudo-scientific, quasi-spiritual, pop-philosophical inquiries as the explorers land on the planet and find a structure that is most definitely not naturally occurring. It’s filled with cavernous, craggy halls and echoing chambers filled with massive carvings, oozing containers, dusty control panels and, most frightening of all, large alien corpses.

The film follows the exploration as it slowly, inevitably, falls to pieces through human error, hidden agendas, clashing personalities, and, of course, the mysterious things lurking in the shadows. It doesn’t all make sense by the end; push a little against the plotting and it starts to unravel around loose ends. But the characters are so convincingly acted and with personalities so clearly drawn that I didn’t interrogate their decisions in the moment. I was eager to see what they would discover and how they would react to shifting conditions and information and grew worried for them as new dangers arose. While the film was rolling, it caught me up in a spell of masterful filmmaking. I found it gripping, creepy, and mostly fascinating. This is an intense movie with a slow, inescapable crescendo of suspense played meticulously, soberly and earnestly.

That’s the approach that Ridley Scott has brought to so much of his work as director and a big reason why the quality of his output is so spotty. For every Alien or Black Hawk Down there’s a G.I. Jane or A Good Year. With Prometheus, though, he’s back working in the genre for which he’s most beloved and which he hasn’t been seen since 1982’s Blade Runner. Sci-fi is a genre suited for his detailed approach of complex visuals and serious-minded skimming across the surface of deep topics. (This film’s thematically complicated, or maybe just muddled.) It’s a film about the origins of the universe, but is really only interested in that topic insofar as it provides the opportunity to show off incredible imagination, riffing off the iconography of Alien to find its own great images.

This is an attractively photographed film, a powerful feat of visuals. It’s without a doubt one of the best looking blockbusters in recent memory. It feels out-of-time in style and approach in the best possible way, a cold melancholic 70’s sci-fi mood (a bit of Silent Running, perhaps, or, further back, 2001: A Space Odyssey) in a story told with modern tools. The cinematography from Dariusz Wolski is lush and gorgeous, with impressive 3D depth and a steady sense of space and scale, drinking in the wholly convincing effects work from a small army of artists and Arthur Max’s intricately detailed production design. These images are allowed time to resonate, to be absorbed into the larger texture of the piece in a satisfying way. (See it on the biggest screen you can find!) It’s so dissimilar in approach to the shaky-cam chaos cinema technique so popular over the past several years, even among Scott’s own films, that to see such restraint, such lovingly displayed visual skill, is some kind of marvel.

That’s why, as much as I retroactively doubt my response to the film as I sit here poking through some of its flimsy plotting and unexplained character motivations, especially in the last twenty minutes or so when the aftermath of a virtuoso sequence of body horror goes curiously unacknowledged for a while, I can’t shake the feeling that the movie had a powerful contemplative undertow. The robot man, so scarily, perfectly inhabited by Fassbender, is a created being fully aware of that status, observing humans who are embarking on what is perhaps a futile and, in this case, self-destructive, search for their own creators. There’s a powerful exploration of creation myths stirring half-formed under the gripping style and enthralling pace of Prometheus.

The wordless opening sequence, striking, beautiful, horrifying, could be taken as metaphor or dream or literal truth. The camera soars over a seemingly untouched wilderness until it finds a pale pure-white human-like being standing over a waterfall. This humanoid slowly begins to tear apart at the molecular level and topples over into the water, drifting away as a black mist dissolving into the water. Only then do we jump ahead into the film proper. So, real or imagined within the world of the film, what’s going on here? Is this a creation story? It seems to fit the expedition’s thesis. This immediately arresting curtain raiser announces the film as one that’s out to slip around audience expectations. By the end, though, it’s sure to please those out looking for xenomorphic clues, while still becoming something all its own. It’s a non-prequel prequel that uses a franchise’s groundwork without using it as a crutch, and sets off to explore its own massive ambitions. It doesn’t quite realize them to the extent that perhaps it should. (I might change my mind upon a second viewing, which will happen very soon.) But there’s no use denying how stunning, absorbing, and effective a piece of filmmaking it is. 

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