Friday, June 8, 2012

Prometheus 3-D

If It Walks Like An "Alien", Quacks Like An "Alien" . . .

Eyes Wide Shut: Noomi Rapace as Dr. Shaw and Michael Fassbender as David in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus". 
20th Century Fox

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, June 8, 2012

The first hour of Ridley Scott's sci-fi adventure thriller "Prometheus" is so terrific, and so thoroughly enveloped in the exploration of themes and ideas -- man vs. machine, creator vs. destroyer, emotion vs. stoicism, belief vs. skepticism, evolution vs. creationism, parent and child and the interchangeability/fusion of each of these -- that you expect a masterpiece to break out.  Visually sumptuous, suspenseful, rich in atmosphere and spatial depth, "Prometheus", a muscular, squirmy, phallic enterprise which opened at midnight this morning across the U.S. and Canada, makes for a feast of excitement and tension. 

In 2093, or thereabouts, a group of explorer-engineers are sent in the space ship Prometheus to the ends of the universe to explore the origins of mankind and are charged with executing a mission to track the secret source of cave markings made years before.  Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) leads a team blessed by an old, dead (or both) Peter Weyland, whose hologram images bestows wisdom and presides over a motley crew policed by Meredith Vickers (a stoic, icy Charlize Theron) and captained by the wisecracking, sometimes blasé Janek (Idris Elba).  Buried under poor aging make-up as Weyland is none other than Guy Pearce, great in the film "Lockout" a couple of months ago but wooden, stale and trapped here. 

I've had this conversation with several fellow film critics: why on earth can't Hollywood movies get aging make up right?  The film "2010: The Year We Make Contact" didn't.  "J. Edgar" really didn't either.  I can't think of an American film that has, at least in the last 30 years.  Why not simply cast an older actor or cast Mr. Pearce as is and get him to act "older"?  Why not be bold?  And that's my core complaint about "Prometheus": for all the alternately dazzling and soothing spectacle of its first hour photographed by Dariusz Wolski, and Marc Streitenfeld's wondrous music score (he also brilliantly scored Mr. Scott's "American Gangster"), it just isn't bold or brave enough to be a mind-blower as a film, even if its visuals are.

One may not always be aware of what is going on in Mr. Scott's film but one gets the basic movie convention ideas: we know that all of these explorers will not return safely.  We know that planet Earth may not be safe unless drastic actions are taken.  We know that those sharp, snake-like gooey things aren't man's best friend.  They impale and seem to spend a lot of time jamming themselves into or out of men's mouths.  The men who meet such terrible misfortune are royally screwed, sucking on something they never wished to.  In these moments science fiction becomes homoerotic fantasy, and a good portion of the second hour showcases lurid, grotesque eruptions of anatomy. 

Amidst a gargantuan landscape of heat, darkness and lucid special effects enhanced by 3-D, Mr. Scott makes no bones about his love of Stanley Kubrick's magnificent all-time film "2001: A Space Odyssey".  The director's homage blankets "Prometheus" -- from its production design in some scenes including a close-up shot of the moon early on virtually identical to the very first shot of "2001" -- to the Douglas Rain tone of voice used by Weyland Industries robot David (Michael Fassbender), a human-like new century HAL 9000 of sorts.  Mr. Fassbender, who often trades on intensity and stoicism as the very appetite of his acting strengths, is tailor-made for this role, an über-machine whose voice is slightly colder, slower and more distant than Mr. Rain's HAL voice but no less orchestrating. 

In some respects "Prometheus" is about the journey of different species, about distinguishing emotion from enigma, and chronicling the stages of creation, composition and compromise of the body.  The film explores the fragility of mortals and immortals alike, and the brittle nature of the corpus regardless of type.  Various stages of the film forage in the disembodiment of characters, machines and even time.  The stages of degradation in all of these bodies, human and others, is interesting until Mr. Scott decides to up the ante to full blast to wholly unnecessary levels later on.  (Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof wrote the film's screenplay.)

David, however, is a cute calculation on the director's part, and though a robot he is the film's central, tenuous balancing act of co-existence between robot and human.  Yet David has more emotion, or at least an approximation of feeling, than the humans, including Dr. Shaw, a Ripley rejuvenation, might think.  David has trained himself to absorb memories of meaningful moments and expressions, and he regularly summons them.  He uses "Lawrence Of Arabia" as his chief and favorite test subject, and a line from David Lean's epic film has Mr. Fassbender channeling Peter O'Toole, in one of the film's early bits of comic relief.  David is exploring what it means to feel as he does some things underscored by the line we hear spoken from Mr. Lean's film.  David at least understands what emotion and memory means to humans, so to that degree he has a shred of empathy for them.  

Between Mr. Kubrick and Mr. Scott it's the latter who possesses greater optimism about humankind and machines and their co-existence and interdependence than Mr. Kubrick did in his classic film.  Still, there's an earnestness, truth and stark purity about the late director's remarkable and prescient visions of 1968 that Mr. Scott's latest film, for all its emulations, doesn't scratch the surface of.  "Prometheus" seeks to be archeological in its journey towards origins of humankind and assorted chicken-or the-egg dilemmas regarding creation and creator but goes only so far in its second hour as retreading the horror territory Mr. Scott has canvassed before.

Indeed, the film's second hour is its own biggest problem: the promising themes and ideas of the first hour are torpedoed by lazy, gratuitous filmmaking.  It's as if Mr. Scott either failed to trust the audience's ability to grasp or follow the ideas of the first hour through until the film's conclusion, or decided that abandoning the ideas and resorting instead to schlock and gratuitous horror would give the audience the thrills he thought they were craving.  "Prometheus" could have (and should have) been a classic, had it maintained the ambition and the courage of its convictions -- namely, the courage to carry them all the way to the finish line.

Ironically, a summer film of eleven years ago that also featured a robot named David, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" -- Mr. Kubrick's idea and story directed by Steven Spielberg -- did the very thing "Prometheus" fails to: challenged audiences, providing no easy answers and inviting discussion.  Unfortunately "A.I.", released in 2001 just two years after Mr. Kubrick's untimely passing, died quickly at the box office in North America and elsewhere but remains a powerful film that disturbs and provokes long after it ends.  When "Prometheus" ends the feeling is empty.  You have been feasted and feted but not fulfilled or nourished.  You can hear the gladiatorial words "are you not entertained?" ringing loudly in your ears.  (It is safe to answer affirmatively.)  Worse yet, a sequel to "Prometheus" is more than hinted at.

My cynical gut prompts me to ask whether Mr. Scott had an eye on box office returns while deciding to knock down the carefully structured building blocks of that sensational first hour.  Mr. Scott has imaginative visions on film, whether adapted ("Blade Runner" is still Mr. Scott's finest hour) or not ("Black Rain", "Thelma & Louise") and in his direction of a film knows how to execute the visceral aspects of story as a spectacle of resonant shock drama, especially in "Thelma & Louise".  In "Prometheus" however the shock is all for shock's sake.  A film this expensive that promises and heralds itself as "not an 'Alien' prequel" -- skepticism of Mr. Scott's own quote here will abound in spades for audiences -- should have delivered and demanded much more.

With: Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson, Benedict Wong, Lucy Hutchinson, Emun Elliott

"Prometheus" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language.  The film's running time is two hour and four minutes.  Also in Imax 3D in select theaters.

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