Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Prometheus (2012) A Film by Ridley Scott

(DISCLAIMER: If you're sensitive to spoilers, I suggest not reading beyond this point.)

The onslaught of questions asked by Ridley Scott's Prometheus represent the worst kind of cinematic ambiguity; raised by manipulative loose ends in the plot line, they send overzealous audience members circling internet forums to decode the implications of single images, lines of dialogue, and story developments, hoping to uncover some grand meaning that the filmmakers excessively hint at but never once intend to explore. Essentially, they're not the type of questions whose answers yield productive insights into life, only into the superficial world created by the film, and what good is that? If this sounds reminiscent of the clusterfuck presented by ABC's Lost, it's probably because the same writer behind that six-year spiral of narrative dead ends is responsible for penning Prometheus, an Alien prequel of lumbering complication and pseudo-mystical underpinnings. Scott's always been a director whose films owe a great deal to their screenwriters, and in this case the bloated absurdity of his new film seem to derive largely from the keyboards of Damon Lindelof and co-writer Jon Spaihts.

Prometheus' most notable addition to the mythology of the franchise - as well as the Other around which the film revolves - are the Engineers, a breed of buff, silver, computer-generated humanoids who maybe gave rise to the xenomorphs which dominate the other four films in the series and maybe even spawned human life on Earth. Scott visualizes this evolutionary event in the opening sequence, a series of sweeping Icelandic vistas culminating in a scene of an Engineer sucking down an intergalactic oyster, convulsing, and being carried down a waterfall, where its swirling DNA is suggested to be the root of the planet's life. For this sequence, Scott makes gaudy use of CGI, presenting an animated tour of the reaction occurring in the Engineer's veins and subsequently of the DNA tossing around in the icy water, shots that recall early David Fincher in their desire to reach for the macro within the micro. It's one of the few sequences in the film that is not tainted by simpleminded blocking and lousy dialogue, and one of the only ones that seems, despite its Fincherian gloss, to be pure Scott visual design.

Lindelof then leaps ahead millions of years to catch the tail-end of two hipster scientists' tour of caves around the world in search of etchings that will support their tenuous theory that something extraterrestrial created human life. (In this film's world, despite their utter scientific ineptitude, it turns out they're right.) Next, the scientist couple - Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) - is seen aboard the massive titular space shuttle having apparently convinced rich corporate fogey Peter Weyland (an embarrassingly prosthetically aged Guy Pearce) to fund their far-flung hypothesis, and they're working alongside a crew of blue-collar morons who agreed to take the trip having not been briefed on the purpose of the mission. When that belated briefing comes, the only justification for its apparent absurdity is that it's what Shaw "chooses to believe," the first obnoxiously pushy hint that she's of Christian faith, and therefore, according to Lindelof, good as dead. As ship captain Meredith Vickers, a self-parodic Charlize Theron wears her hair in a tight knot to telegraph the fact that she means business (contrary to Rapace's shaggy look), bosses the crew around, and shoots the kind of menacing glances that are designed to suggest turbulent backstory at the holographic Weyland recording who somehow knows the positions of the crew members in the room.

Then there's David (Michael Fassbender), an uncomfortably human-like robot introduced tending to his routines on the dormant ship in another of the film's proudly Scott-influenced sequences. David, while one of the most intriguing, if fraudulent, characters in the film, is also the source of some of the biggest failures, as Lindelof and Spaihts have no idea what to do with him. Clearly hearkening back to other sci-fi inventions such as A.I.'s identically-named David, 2001's HAL 9000, Bicentennial Man's Andrew Martin, and of course Alien's own Ash, David shares those figures' mix of chilly benevolence and potential menace, an aura of ambivalence quite functionally handled by Fassbender. But David sits lamely on the fence of all the narrative action in Prometheus, a constant but mostly unproductive presence. Lindelof continually flirts with suggestions of possible conspiratorial impulses churning within David but regularly defaults to presenting the character as a passive drone. The current of emotional uncertainty that David erects in every situation he's in is contagious, but the script fails to find a way to make something significant of the character.

Once the Prometheus ship lands at its destination (a cosmic valley traced with unnatural line segments and divided by a gargantuan hollow dome), the film seems committed to stuffing its story with as many subplots as possible within the two-hour limit asked of the summer blockbuster. Hoping desperately to "find answers" (the extent to which Lindelof's main characters constantly refer to their search as such reminds one of the cries of Lost's target audience), the crew barges right into the massive breeding ground of the Engineers, who are gradually stirred from rest by their presence. Inscrutable clues - holographic helmeted figures running the dark halls of the facility, black goo oozing from tall pods, shape-shifting murals on the walls, a supernatural sandstorm (the whole affair starts to recall those abominations known as The Mummy franchise, and it turns out Spaihts is signed on to write a reboot) - warn the scientists of danger but they plow forward regardless, greeting death and frustration at every turn. The demise of punk geologist Fifield (Sean Harris) and Starbucks-regular-cum-biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall) is perhaps the most idiotic death scene in the entire franchise, a moment of true stubbornness aiming for a shock scare that treats the audience as if they've never seen a horror film.

In contrast to the slick simplicity and frightening restraint of Alien, Prometheus progresses like a schizophrenic mess, attempting to disguise its absence of real tension or momentum with a fast, loud pace and an insistent symphonic score. Out of this clunky design comes the occasional scene or moment that produces genuine terror; Shaw's self-abortion, for instance, is a thrillingly deranged set piece that overcomes the narrative contrivance surrounding it (for some reason, David and the crew members trying to contain her and place her in cryostasis just seem to disappear) through the utter viciousness of its execution. But then there are also plenty of major moments that suffer, such as the spatially confused rescue of Shaw by David in the torrential sandstorm, the rushed, sentimental death of Holloway, David's discovery of the holographic symbology in the Engineers' cave (unlocked by a ridiculous magical ocarina line), and most problematically the reveal of the totally unimportant twist that Vickers is actually Weyland's daughter.

Stirring up a queasy brew of Christianity, Darwinism, Hollywood/science-fiction lore, and franchise mythology, Prometheus is a trigger-happy film. It seems game to gesture towards any conceptual template exuding a vague air of philosophical profundity (hence its relentless symbolic use of Shaw's cross necklace), and is willing to shift its supposed concerns at a moment's notice if it allows the narrative to keep churning rapidly, to keep sustaining a sense of escalating mystery. In fact, the film not only dances around heady ideas but also entertains any possible diversion from the central narrative thrust, seemingly ready to take a shot at anything that might stir up intrigue. Thus, the film includes: the momentary regeneration of Fifield, who, after being thought dead by the crew, arrives at the ship in monstrous form to throw some punches and then get trampled by a bulldozer and set aflame; the occasional hint of malicious intent in David, as if the mere suggestion of robot motivation equals a serious investigation into What It Means To Be Human; the oh-so-monumental awakening of Weyland, also thought dead by most of the crew, from cryostasis, who seeks immortality and bites the dust shortly after his arrival because of it; the thin-as-ice "is-she-human-or-not?" subtext revolving around Vickers, capped off by pilot Janek's (Idris Elba) brilliantly straightforward delivery of the line "are you a robot?". The list goes on.

What's lacking in all these red herrings is a sense of conviction, the kind of earnestness that makes storytelling devices anything more than devices strewn up awkwardly to imply narrative momentum. The film is overflowing with inconsistencies and lapses in narrative logic, some hilariously damning and others inconsequential. At their most glaring, they underscore a general laziness of construction that infects all of the film's stabs at seriousness, its overarching desire to be a major science-fiction event. Scott, as a visual storyteller, is rarely able to emerge comfortably and confidently from the narrative noise built up by Lindelof and Spaihts, and when he does, he has only unimaginatively sterile sets and an overworked digital effects team to play off of, allowing for little of the atmospheric beauty of the original. Prometheus is enjoyable enough as a loud, outrageous thriller, but it yanks so hard on the audience's chain for so long while being unsure of what to prioritize that I can't understand how it could satisfy even the most die-hard fanboys.


Loren Rosson III said...

Now tell us how you really feel. :)

On an intellectual level I agree with much of what you say, and I've been coming to terms with the fact that Prometheus qualifies for me as a guilty pleasure of sorts. But then too, I suspect you'd understand better how this film "satisfies die-hard fans" if you saw the other films in the franchise. As far as I'm concerned, Prometheus is a piece of art compared to Cameron's Aliens, though Fincher's Alien 3 would admittedly be a close rival if not for the entirely underwhelming presence of the alien itself.

Adam Zanzie said...

Scott's always been a director whose films owe a great deal to their screenwriters

I don't know if I'd even give him THAT much credit. To me Scott is a fine visualist who desperately needs better screenwriters -- or, at least, better stories. He is just not a very good storyteller.

The last Scott film I absolutely loved was the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven, but ever since then the results have ranged from good to boring. Prometheus is somewhere in the middle. For years now I've been waiting for Scott to deliver a comeback as great as the director's cut of KOH, but it hasn't happened. I fear his best movies are behind us.

Carson Lund said...

Loren, this is how I really feel! I actually watched Prometheus for a second time after commenting on your blog, and its flaws were even more pronounced. I didn't even find it as viscerally satisfying as the first time. Its laziness is too overt, and the film is just boring to me as a result. I'll get to the other films in the series at some point, but generally I've never been one to get too swept up in the allure of franchises. When I said the biologist's death scene was the most idiotic in the series, I was speculating. It has a good shot at that though, because it's one of the most idiotic death scenes I've ever seen.

Adam, thanks for the comment. I think you missed my point though. I was just trying to describe the way Scott's films work; the successes and failings on narrative and thematic levels come down to the screenwriters for the most part. I'm not giving the screenwriters credit, just stating that they have a big role in shaping these films.

Loren Rosson III said...

You're in good enough company with Prometheus, and I even partly agree with you despite myself, so I'll allow you your feelings. The real test of your reasonable standards (and speaking of sequels) will be The Dark Knight Rises in less than a month. I predict another one of your Inception-like diatribes, but hopefully Nolan delivers as good as I think he can.

Anonymous said...

The promotion for this film made it look freakin’ awesome but also, a lot like Alien and I think that’s the big problem with the film. It’s pretty much the same formula used over again and even though Scott tries his hardest to get our heads past that, it’s too obvious, too quick. Good review Carson.

Loren Rosson III said...

On another track, Carson: Did you see Solondz's Dark Horse by any chance? Something I'm burning to see, but it's playing nowhere close to Nashua.

Carson Lund said...

Loren, I didn't realize the Nolan is surfacing in less than a month. I might just save my money, to be honest, unless reviews are through the roof.

Dmmtr, thanks for stopping by. I don't necessarily think the structural similarities between the two films is a major drawback - it's kind of a necessary evil with sequels, a way of satisfying the audience's nostalgia. If Scott used the same structure but brought enough conviction or heart to it, all would be well.

Carson Lund said...

Oh, and no, I haven't seen Dark Horse yet.