Saturday, June 9, 2012

Friday Film Review (on Saturday): Prometheus

I imagine the pitch meeting Ridley Scott had for Prometheus went something like this:

Scott: I want to do a science fiction epic
Fox Executive: Wonderful! We wanted you to return to the Alien franchise.
Scott: No, this will have nothing to do with Alien.
Fox Executive: How much do you need?
Scott: About 200 million dollars.
Fox Executive: Well, we'd only be willing to give you that money if you do an Alien movie.
Scott: (pause). Fine, it's a prequel to Alien.

Scott has tried to downplay the connection to Alien that his new opus Prometheus has, and rightly so. People who show up looking for another installment in that series will be disappointed It is better to look into this movie as a fresh offering with some Alien Easter eggs.

The story centers around Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, played with sufficient intensity by the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace. She and her fellow scientist and lover, Charlie Holloway, find that several ancient civilizations painted the same star map that leads to a specific planet light years away. The both of them are convinced that it was an invitation left by aliens they call “the Engineers” whom they believe created human life. So they set off on the multi year journey with a no-nonsense captain (Idris Elba), a frosty executive (Charlize Theron), an artificial person (Michael Fassbender), and an assortment of motley crew members. If you notice that I didn't give any of their character names, that is not an accident. I can barely remember them because that is how inconsequential most of them are.

When they finally arrive on the planet, we open up a host of great and lofty questions: If we are not alone in the universe, what does it mean? How do we understand faith at this point? Do we have free will? These are fantastic questions that I would love the film to explore in the context of this sci-fi epic. But it can never reach those heights because the characters are too stupid to convincingly engage in the debate. I don't mean that they lack sophistication. I mean that all of the characters do incredibly stupid things that only make sense as a means to let horrible things happen in the movie. In my review for For Greater Glory, I said that reaching for the stars elevated the movie, even if it fell short. The opposite is true for Prometheus. The work suffers because, like a high-schooler quoting Nietzsche, it doesn't seem mature enought to really deal with its own questions.

You may think I am being too hard on the script. But I have numerous examples. SOME SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH. SKIP AHEAD TO REMAIN SPOILER FREE. You are on an unexplored planet where the air is unbreathable. You find one room in ancient cave where the instruments say that the air is breathable. Do you take off your helmet for no reason? Yet that is what all the characters do. Let me repeat: ALL of the characters do this. None of them say to themselves, “You know, since we have no idea what kind of alien mahambi is out there, I'll stay safe in this suit.” When you see an alien that looks like a cross between a cobra and a piece of a Y-Chromosome bearer's anatomy, is your first instinct to pet it? If you were told that life forms were wandering a cave thousands of years old, would you bunk in a room oozing black puss? If you saw a crew member suddenly appear out of nowhere folded up like a Russian contortionist, would you immediately bring them into the ship? If the answer to these questions is “no” then you would not qualify for a seat on the Prometheus. And that is but a sampling of the stupidity. It didn't need to be this way. You could come up with a logical reason why someone would take off their space helmet (“Oh no, I tripped and cracked my helmet... oh wow, I can breathe!”) and the like. But they didn't. And because their actions are unfathomable, I cannot follow them as they continually make decisions that no person interested in self-preservation would make.

This is why comparisons to other installments in the franchise are inevitable and will cause Prometheus to suffer in comparison. In the best of the series, James Cameron's Aliens, all of the characters are memorable and well defined. We can also clearly follow the thinking of our characters, (“I say we dust off and nuke the entire sight from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.”). I kept waiting for a clear-headed Hicks or a pragmatic Hudson (“Bishop should go! Good idea!”) to emerge from Prometheus, but it didn't happen.

In terms of the visuals, you can feel the production value with every frame. Ridley Scott is still very adept with the camera and the 3D is put to very good use. Rapace comes off as passionate, but we never attach to her the same way we did to Sigourney Weaver. Michael Fassbender's synthetic person David feels like the grown-up version of the main character of the same name from Spielberg's AI. His motivations seems unfathomable, but Fassbender makes him fascinating to watch. But the visuals and the acting are not the problem. It is the story.

As stated before, Prometheus raises lots of questions. Some of them deal with the nature of religion. Often, modern science fiction seems to be anti-religious (e.g. Contact). But Prometheus takes the question very seriously. I was actually very pleased that when one character says that the existence of the Engineers disproves God, the response is, “And who made them?” But I don't think they take religion seriously enough. When coming to a crisis of faith, a character is asked why they still hold onto their religion. They respond, “It's what I choose to believe.” But choosing to believe something has no bearing on whether or not is actually true. I may choose to believe that when I die I will get reincarnated as a dung beetle, or I'll go to Purgatory, or I'll have 72 dark haired virgins waiting for me. But my believing it doesn't make it true. People of faith don't think that things are true because they believe them. They believe them because they think they are true.

MORE PLOT SPOILERS. SKIP AHEAD. And one scene in particular I couldn't help feel as though they were trying to do a sci-fi space abortion analogy, which felt very awkward and could have been written differently. And it is okay that they don't fall completely on the side of faith vs science (a false antagonism in the first place). But they raise too many questions without answers. It is okay to have some kind of thematic or cinematic ambiguity to spark debate, especially when dealing with ultimate questions. But when the plot is intricately linked to these questions, and these questions are the only thing drawing you in, then you have to answer at least some of them. But Prometheus does not do that. In fact, I don't think it answers a single relevant question raised by theme or plot. The guys I watched  the movie with made a pact that if they made a sequel, we would have to see it, just so we could get closure on the first movie.

Overall, I think Prometheus is a missed opportunity to do something very special in science fiction. They tried to force cookie-cutter characters into an ambition plot. But they forgot Aristotle's great insight on this: Plot is character.

2.5out of 5 stars

(note on rating system: Here is the key to understanding the ratings.)
1 star = avoid at all cost
1.5-2 stars = bad but had one or two good things in it.
2.5-3 stars = average to slightly above average
3.5= worth your time to see, at least as a rental
4= worth seeing in the theatre
4.5= worth seeing on opening night at evening prices
5= Must See! Highest quality

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