Now Playing: Prometheus

dir. Ridley Scott, 2012, USA

Rating: 8.2

Now playing at theaters everywhere is Prometheus, a much-hyped, surprisingly excellent Alien prequel that offers intelligent, meticulously crafted, beautifully designed riffs on familiar genre elements. 75-year old veteran director Ridley Scott has not made a science fiction film since Blade Runner way back in 1982 and Prometheus at its best is so staggeringly good that it makes you wonder why. Scott has always been a masterful visual stylist and an obsessively detailed director along the lines of a Stanley Kubrick or a David Fincher. Unfortunately, for most of the past 30 years his talents have been squandered on projects that were not worthy of his time or attention. (Gladiator is one of my personal nominees for the worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever and I would rather eat my own brain than have to sit through Hannibal again.) But sci-fi and Scott go together like bacon and eggs as evidenced by Alien and Blade Runner, both of which are now firmly established as classics of the genre, and Prometheus manages to rekindle memories of the best aspects of those movies while also having a few new tricks up its sleeve; Prometheus follows the same basic template of the original Alien (which, unique for its time, was essentially a slasher film that just so happened to utilize sci-fi iconography) while simultaneously asking the big philosophical questions of Blade Runner: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What does it mean to be human?

The plot of Prometheus involves an expedition by a team of scientists to a distant planet, the purpose of which is to investigate the origins of human life on Earth. “Prometheus” is also the name of the ship that takes these characters on the trillion dollar mission, which is being funded by an elderly tycoon named Weyland (Guy Pearce under a ton of latex), who hopes that the answers they find will enable him to live forever. Among the diverse crew members are Janek (Idris Elba), a pragmatic pilot, Drs. Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), a couple of humanistic “true believers,” Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the heartless corporate-type who is in charge and, most memorably of all, David (Michael Fassbender), a genius android who comes across like a live action version of 2001‘s Hal 9000. This is a remarkably strong cast (with the unfortunate exception of Marshall-Green, whose presence supplies a slice of hipster cheesecake in lieu of a performance). Fassbender, in particular, shines; he is spectacularly eerie and yet also strangely sympathetic as a non-human who always speaks in even, perfectly measured tones and whose laugh always sounds just a little too forced. The brilliant parallel that Scott draws between the Aryan features and chilly demeanors of David and Vickers is apparent long before Janek jokingly asks Vickers if she is a robot. Her response provides one of the movie’s few lighthearted moments.

Sparks begin to fly as the scientists, many of whom are at cross-purposes with one another, discover an alien tomb and begin arguing over if and how the mission should continue. There are plenty of surprises from this point forward, none of which I will give away. Let me just say that Prometheus is an unmitigated visual triumph that consistently offers one jaw-dropping shot after another and needs to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated. Scott, working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max, seamlessly blends location footage from Iceland with brilliantly designed sets (the alien tomb’s dank, cavernous, honeycomb quality put me in the mind of Fritz Lang’s Indian tomb) as well as computer generated effects. This is not, I hasten to add, the flat, thinly textured, animated-looking CGI that Takashi Miike likes to slather over his films because he finds it funny but that the average Hollywood comic book movie wants you to accept at face value. These are dense, thickly textured digital images with impressive depth and a green-blue-black color scheme that makes them resemble lush, monochromatic oil paintings. The 3-D effects are also intelligently and judiciously applied; as some commenters have noted, Prometheus is in many ways a movie about movies, a quality that is perhaps most apparent in the way that the film’s most ostentatious stereoscopic effects also appear as stereoscopic effects to the characters (e.g., video images appear before them as three-dimensional holograms).

But Scott’s technical mastery would be nothing if Prometheus did not also hold viewers in thrall for every one of its 123 minutes. There are a number of magnificent, white-knuckle suspense set-pieces that rival anything that has come out of Hollywood in recent years (including a scene where two geologists confront a snake-like reptilian creature in the womb-like tomb and a truly horrifying body-horror sequence involving self-inflicted, robot-assisted surgery). Scott refreshingly plays these genre elements straight and true, which gives the film a winning balance of humility and grandeur. As a result, the more cosmic moments effortlessly conjure up a sense of wonder that something like the arty, overly-pious Tree of Life could never match. (Prometheus also proves that contemporary genre movies can be self-reflexive without being fashionably cynical a la The Cabin in the Woods.) Having said that, Prometheus is not perfect. In addition to the miscasting of Marshall-Green, the screenplay (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) is perhaps overly stuffed with more characters and subplots than is strictly necessary, and the orchestral score also underlines the awe-inspiring moments a bit too emphatically for my taste. But these are minor quibbles considering the film provides so many images and ideas that do genuinely inspire awe in the tradition of the best science fiction movies – not only Alien and Blade Runner but Metropolis, The Thing From Another World, La Jetee, Alphaville, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris as well. Even if Prometheus were only half as good as it is, however, I would still urge everyone I know to see it in the theater. It is, after all, a big-budget “tentpole” movie that is rated R and aimed at adults and God knows those are rapidly becoming an endangered species.


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

20 responses to “Now Playing: Prometheus

  • jilliemae

    Whatever, I loved Hannibal.

  • Bherz

    Yeah, I’m not liking the trend toward big budget pg-13 movies. Nice to hear this one is rated R.

    You know its funny the way the ESPN headlines have been mimicking movies nowadays (or maybe I’m just now catching it). When the OKC thunder just won the western conference championship, the headline was “How The West Was Won” and the current headline for the mainpage article on the NBA finals is “There Can Be Only One” which correct me if I’m wrong is from Highlander.

  • david

    8.6,wow,your ratings and reviews are the most positive one I’ve seen,Mike.I have not seen a sci-fi film for years,maybe I should give it a try .

  • Zach Olmstead

    One thing I’ve been pondering about this film. Everyone’s calling it a prequel, yet no one seems to habe referred to it as an origin story, which I think is a better classification.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Good point, Zach. I think the word “prequel” sounds almost synonymous with “cash-in.” Ridley Scott is smart to say it’s not a prequel but that it takes place “in the same universe” as Alien. In any case, it works well as a stand-alone film.

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  • Mark Ferguson

    I had so many problems with the poor script and bad science that it threw me out of the movie experience. I would give it a generous 6. I am glad that he kept it an “R” rating. I am happy that Walter Hill got paid. I will see the Bladerunner sequel, if that gets made, but that will probably be the last Ridley Scott film I’ll see in the theater.

  • Adam Wilson

    I have to say first, that the movie looked gorgeous and provides a great template for how a 3D movie SHOULD look…but I can’t get past the shoddy script, hollow characters, awful line readings, unbelievable character actions, and missed opportunities. It’s fine for a movie to be willfully obscure and I have no problem with maintaining the same level of knowledge as the characters, but to compare something so full of style and devoid of substance to Solaris et al. is a big stretch. It seemed to take the slasher genre entirely TOO seriously by including several stereotypical characters just waiting to be killed off (or rolled over). Elements that were introduced were just as quickly discarded, everyone on the crew seemed to forget what had just happened minutes earlier, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS a biologist discovers a crazy cobra-looking thing with a vagina mouth and treats it like a kitten (I wonder how that was going to go). Then there’s the fact that all along Scott’s been saying this isn’t a prequel to Alien, and OK, fine, but then the movie comes so close to being a prequel for Alien that you wonder why they just didn’t go the whole way.

    On a side note, you might want to change the reference to Weyland in your OP as it is kind of a spoilery element (his motivations aren’t made clear until later which precludes certain events).

    I know this has been a divisive movie, I’d love to have a reasonable discussion with others who care. Thanks for keeping up the awesome blog!

  • michaelgloversmith

    Mark and Adam, thanks for commenting. I’m honestly shocked at how often I’ve heard the script for this movie come in for criticism. I reveled in its ambiguity. I was hooked from the dialogue-free opening scene, which I thought was abstractly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Those landscape shots were incredible and were what first put me in the mind of Solaris. Perhaps the “stock movie elements” (of which the cobra-vagina-mouth was surely one) didn’t bother me as much because of the way Scott alternated them with the more daring non-genre moments. The film seems so riddled with mysteries that I can’t wait to see it again and try to tease them out. With the exception of Marshall-Green, I really enjoyed the characters and the actors who played them.

    I also saw Snow White and the Huntsman a few days ago. Now THAT, my friends, is style over substance!

    • Adam Wilson

      I just can’t help but feel that a better movie ended up on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. How else to explain the use of Pearce in ridiculous-looking make up, which I’m sure took hours to apply, when he never appears in the film as a younger version of himself (and yes, I saw the TED teaser)? The conflict of belief between Rapace and Marshall-Green is brought up and barely addressed. Theron and Pearce’s conflict is less than a footnote. SPOILERS!!!! I find some the theory that some have put forward that she’s an android intriguing, and there’ve been interviews with Scott where he mentions an early draft of the script had the Engineers punishing us as a race for crucifying Jesus (who was an alien) which is nuts, albeit maybe a crazy-awesome kind of nuts? I just think 15-20 minutes to flesh out some of the characters would have benefited what was for me an exciting, but problematic movie.

      • michaelgloversmith

        There will apparently be 20 minutes of new footage in the now-obligatory “extended edition” of the film coming out on Blu-ray. Perhaps that will flesh out the characters for you!

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