Prometheus (2012) Review

A movie review article by: Steve Morris, Shawn Hill, Dylan Garsee, Paul Brian McCoy

 

STEVE MORRIS:

This REVIEW is in two halves – this section is the lovely paddling pool where you can read my thoughts without any dirty SPOILERS, uh… floating around. What an unpleasant opening metaphor. The second section, which I’ll mark loudly, is going to have HEAVY SPOILERS so consider yourselves warned!!

Ridley Scott’s Alien is a masterful piece of claustrophobic filmmaking, which even now stands alongside only Jaws as one of the defining horror films for cinema. Like Jaws, it contains surprises which even social familiarity hasn’t managed to spoil. You may know about John Hurt, but you certainly aren’t expecting the Ian Holm surprise, or the Tom Skerritt surprise! Which is why fans were delighted to hear that Scott would be making a thematic prequel to his classic sci-fi, called Prometheus.

And to start with, that delight carries the movie along. There are two prologues before we get into the space section of the film, and these give us a chance to see the two new additions to the series: serious CGI which looks absolutely lush and visually gorgeous; and scientists. The characters in this film are a lot smarter than you’d expect from a horror film, even if their common sense is shoddy in the extreme. As such, Scott is able to use his cast to talk about bigger themes than before, and address them directly. Much of Prometheus reveals itself to be a look at the idea of faith and religion, and the conflict of science and progress. Sci-fi has always been the perfect Launchpad for such philosophical explorations, and Scott makes full use of it.

Unfortunately, he does so in a decidedly obvious, non-subtle, and trashy manner. Prometheus’ characters are a mix of intriguing and clangingly clichéd. And worse, several of them start as the former before revealing themselves to be the latter. Much of the problem is with the script, which is – bluntly – absolutely terrible. The dialogue rings false, the relationships between the central characters feels forced and unlikeable, and all the visual flair in the world can’t hide the fact that many of the cast can’t carry this sort of role. While Idris Elba’s role as a seen-it-all Captain harkens back to the second-hand nature of the original Alien movie, we also have Noomi Rapace’s central character and her fiancé, who are simply dreadful to watch.

There are exactly three good performances in the film, and everybody else is hindered by wooden dialogue, bizarre motivation, or… well, acting deficiency. Michael Fassbender is the clear highlight here, with his role as a typically-ambiguous android (he’s revealed as such in the first scene, that’s not a spoiler) startlingly interesting and delicate a performance. He’s matched, almost, by Charlize Theron as a shady senior figure on the ship, and the aforementioned Elba, who is starring in a different film entirely – a more interesting one.

Scott’s decision to open up the field of play is the main problem with the movie. Instead of a cramped space for tension to boil inside, he instead has a much larger cast of crewmembers on-board, as well as several different locations running all at once. And the side-stories for each don’t fit cohesively next to each other. They feel awkward, and towards the end of the film start sabotaging each other because of it. Scott’s direction is as assured as ever, but the story falls apart extremely quickly, and the characters simply aren’t fun to watch. The end of the film is a damn mess, and possibly one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen in a cinema.

When my screening finished, it was booed by the audience.

** SPOILERS FOLLOW**ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE**YOU’VE BEEN COMPREHENSIVELY WARNED**

** SPOILERS FOLLOW**ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE**YOU’VE BEEN COMPREHENSIVELY WARNED**

So let’s get into what was going on here. Fassbender and Theron are the two actors with the most interesting roles to play here, and Fassbender in particular is given a lot to do, and a very difficult job of balancing it. And while he manages to do it, the logic of his character’s actions make no sense whatsoever. My reading was that his aim was to keep his operator alive to meet these ‘Engineers’, or to lead him into a trap. One of the two. Which makes his decision to infect the annoyingly one-dimension scientist a bizarre one. What was he expecting to gain from this? Why murder anyone, and why then try to force Rapace’s character into an alien birth?

Not that Rapace seems particularly bothered by this. After she goes through a gross and deeply stupid body horror operation sequence to get it out, she doesn’t show any sign of anger at Fassbender’s actions – not even when he tells her how he led her fiancé to his death. Fassbender’s fate is incredibly strange, here. His story seems like it might be going somewhere, but it abruptly ended to anti-climactic purpose by the Engineer.

Which is also what happens with Theron. Her character seems like she has an important agenda to play, and the film builds this up accordingly… and then throws it away with an uninspired ‘twist’ which isn’t follow-up on, and a maddeningly arbitrary death sequence which in itself drove most of my audience to boo the screen. Scott is able to build up tension despite the lack of atmosphere in the film, but he singularly fails to deliver on either a satisfying emotional level nor a thematic one. His thoughts about religion, death, and creationism are shunted out to one side as soon as Rapace goes through her bizarre abortion, and are replaced with pretty CGI map rooms and increasingly frustrating death sequences.

Never have characters felt like extras more than the crew of the Prometheus. Their inclusion in the story serves no purpose, and Scott really would’ve been better off leaving them on the cutting room floor and compacting his cast more interestingly. As it is, we have a series of excellent actors like Theron and Elba struggling to make anything of their underwritten characters. There’s a horrible sense of inevitability which clouds over the film while you watch it – it starts off buoyed by the legacy of the franchise and high-calibre cast, and then slowly melts into a d-movie with incredible pretensions.

Scott is a capable, witty director, who has experienced a damning decline over the past decade or so. While there is so much promise in Prometheus, which is well-filmed, and produced brilliantly, the writing simply isn’t there. The story is appalling, the characters fizzle into drizzle, and there’s none of the thematic interest, or even feminism, that you could find in Alien. Prometheus hits cinemas dead on arrival, a dead fish that mistakes flopping for philosophy.


Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet's 139th most-favorite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. He's on Team X-Men, you guys.


SHAWN HILL:

So many things come to mind when seeing this movie. It has a history, a legacy, a future to write and rewrite. It has signature themes that have already been evolved over the course of at least two subsequent franchises. It's important to remember that whatever those non-Ridley Scott films addressed themselves to, the kernels of inspiration were all to be found in the original.

This one in a way, by jumping back in time, both continues the story and grounds it (or, make that, founds it). So we have prickly concepts that seem familiar, mostly involving the terrors of the body, especially sexuality and birth. Here those fears are literally magnified by a deeper focus on anatomy, biology, and microscopic DNA. The sexuality of female characters (or the classic male/female divide between threatened wombs/orifices and phallic attempts to penetrate and invade) remains paramount. The illusion of safety provided by the iconic space suits, with their egg-like helmets that fail to keep air in, or keep infection out, make everyone thinly-shielded and vulnerable, male and female alike. Here the suits are sleeker and less armored than the samurai suits employed in the original film, leaving no one any safer.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the script is by the writer of the final episode of Lost, which is pretty much tantamount to the ultimate example in unanswered questions and the sidestepping of the entire narrative thrust of a long-winded series, one that gets so caught up in explaining matters of faith and belief that it skips over logic or even basic story structure. Elizabeth Shaw, the ostensible main character, is both genius and childishly naïve, beset by sexual threats but also protected (barely) by religious belief. So crosses and crucifixions figure as much into this narrative as rape scenarios, and it's a very uneasy and clunky mix, to jump from questions of eternity and the soul to hastily performed self-surgeries and drastic emergency life-preserving measures.

Yes, we get a one-upping the chest-bursting scene from the original film (the image that haunted the 2nd and 3rd films, unlike the fourth which was more concerned with the phallic mouth poking its way in – as opposed to out of – the body voraciously), in that Shaw at one point, in those white bandage-like under things favored by cryogenic sleepers, must perform a caesarian on herself (one that she attempts also to make an abortion, when she sees what comes out) with the aid of a robotic surgery capsule initially calibrated (for no clear reason) only for male patients. Horrifying, and unlikely that an archaeologist would have the requisite medical knowledge, but then everyone in this film seems able to wave their hands at an endless array of blinking lights and get exactly the result wanted, which in a way signals the bizarre realities of a sci-fi future all by itself.

As to why this future seems more advanced than the one inhabited by the original film (which fits decades later in the timeline), chalk it up to the Nostromo being basically an 18-wheeler in space, and the Prometheus being the whimsy of a wealthy backer who can provide the best of everything. No reason to argue that the designs aren't of a piece with the original film, so beautifully realized by Scott to imaginatively suggest worlds of order and science and industry that he never has time to actually show in any of his films (except maybe Blade Runner a teeny bit). Scott is a master of set design speaking volumes visually, and this movie is beguilingly gorgeous from beginning to end, matching fonts with buttons with holograms with costumes with hairstyles with tattoos with the prettiest most convincing CGI you've ever seen. This is the best-looking sci-fi movie in years.

Scott's got all he needs as far as visuals and in casting (Guy Pierce, Charlize Theron and Idris Elba all acquit themselves with skill, as do the supporting cast of character actors comprising the crew). The alien world looks alien. There's a moment where the crew approaches the sort of hive-like ruin they find on the planet where I get a hint of finally seeing the filmed version of Rendezvous with Rama I've always longed for (where the tale of space exploration doesn't result in horror, but in wonder), but that's not the way this story goes. And not only do we get horror after horror piling up by the end of the film, we also get a rather pointless and predictable back story involving the corporate side of things which makes Paul Reiser's corporate flack in Aliens look like the height of capitalist critique. Guess what? Being rich doesn't make anyone happy. Michael Douglas told us that long ago.

I'm not going to mention Fassbender, because every other critic has already done that. He is indeed endlessly watchable, and the relationship between his artificial David and the bloody and visceral Shaw (as they vie for that main character status) is one of the more intriguing in the film. The excesses of the climax are almost balanced by the hints for a sequel (or, maybe we should call it parallel history, should it come to pass).

Shaw is no Ripley; she's not going to be remembered for that iconic drive to save human life (that was turned into mother for the second film, wise crone in the third film, and bitter ghost in the fourth). The self-abortion scene, if anything, makes Shaw an anti-mother, and you can't really blame her for what results from the fetal remains. She's a dreamer too foolish to avoid inevitable disaster; but she wises up pretty quickly, and has her wits about her when it counts the most, leaving her more than just a victim, and preserving her essential nature as an explorer. I don't know yet the legacy of this film so obsessed with immortality (another horror movie cliché), only that I will need to see it again.


Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at http://cornekopia.net.


DYLAN GARSEE:

I wish I liked Prometheus. I really do, because then I would have the shared experience of awe and wonder other people have with it. Really, I don’t have that many issues with the film. The philosophical questions it raises about our creation and the dazzling special effects really set this film apart from many other science fiction films. Prometheus instead crumbles on its most basic pillars with a weak script, terrible pacing, and downright idiotic choices made by the less than one-dimensional characters.

The film opens with a large human-esque being dissolving into a huge waterfall, planting the seed for the creation themes brought up throughout the rest of the movie. After discovering a starmap in a cave, scientists/lovers Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) head to the planet pointed at by the map. After traveling in space for two years in cryostasis sleep, Shaw and Holloway are awakened by David the android, marvelously played by Michael Fassbender. David proceeds to wake up the rest of the crew (except Meredith Vickers, who woke herself up to do push-ups) and everyone learns of their mission from hologram elderly Guy Pearce. Finally the ship arrives at the planet and after discovering a cave, things begin to go awry for the crew of Prometheus.

While the ideas presented in Prometheus are certainly unique and are almost guaranteed to get drunkenly argued over in college dorm rooms for the next 50 years, it can barely function and exist as a film in its own right. While it’s difficult to discuss plot holes in science fiction movies, especially in a franchise as deep and established as the Alien franchise, my problem lies not with the story; it’s the characters and their actions that nearly destroy everything this film has working for it. They feel closer to Sim characters than actual humans.

The biologist and geologist characters in Prometheus are especially troubling as characters. They’re both afraid of everything that moves in the cave, yet as soon as a cobra-like alien hisses at them, they pet it like a cat. Their actions alone rivals the stupidity of characters in mid-eighties slasher films, but the icing on the cake (in this scene, at least) is the fact that no one on the ship can send for help because everyone else on the ship is HAVING SEX WITH EACH OTHER. I’m honestly surprised that Michael Myers didn’t pop out at one point. Maybe this isn’t an Alien prequel, but instead a Jason X prequel.

The only reason Charlize Theron’s character exists in this film is set up the magical surgery machine in the magical escape pod for later in the film. She spends most of the movie looking rather sinister and dastardly, yet doesn’t act either way. The closest she came was setting Marshal-Green’s character on fire, which is totally reasonable, because there is no reason to let there be a man infected with an alien worm onto your $1,000,000,000,000 spacecraft.

I’ve been getting a lot of flack, as much as one can get in 3 days, for not liking this film. The number one response I get seems to be “Dylan, this is a sci-fi movie, so remove basic thought and just get absorbed into the atmosphere”.  It’s not that this is a bad sci-fi movie. It’s just a bad movie fundamentally. No amount of genre classification can change that.


Dylan Garsee is a freelance writer/bingo enthusiast currently living in Austin, TX. He is studying sociology, and when he's not winning trivia nights at pork-themed restaurants, writing a collection of essays on the gay perspective in geek culture. An avid record collector, Dylan can mostly be seen at Waterloo Records, holding that one God Speed You! Black Emperor record he can't afford and crying. You can follow him on twitter @garseed.


PAUL BRIAN MCCOY:

ALIEN - 1979

BLADE RUNNER – 1982

PROMETHEUS – 2012

 

There has always been a strange relationship between Ridley Scott and film critics when he tackles science fiction. If I were to hazard a guess as to why this relationship breaks down it's because these critics are more concerned with the words on the page of the script than the visual elements that are Scott's emphasis. Plus, there is an inherent cynicism in many critics when it comes to genre film. And now that anyone with a computer can write a snarky "review" this is compounded.

At this point I should probably go ahead and confess that I haven't enjoyed a Ridley Scott film since Legend (although Hannibal was quite fun in its own way).

Anyway, if you're a critic that prioritizes the words over the image, then there's almost no avoiding disappointment. With Scott, the image is king; trumping concerns about explaining everything, sometimes to the point of dismissing traditional character development as an unnecessary flourish.

But here's the thing, and it has been borne out by history: Scott is not dismissing character. The development is in the performance and the way the film is shot. The words are generally there to keep people entertained and to make sure the audience doesn't miss the more obvious elements of the film. A prime example of this is how much more satisfying Blade Runner is once the voice-over was cut. Immerse yourself in the images and the story reveals itself.

It is the same this time out. Most of the things reviewers are calling plot holes or examples of characters behaving out of character only to further the plot are really nothing of the sort. However, if you are not invested in the wonder and scale of what Prometheus is attempting, you're likely to just dismiss it and roll your eyes, all the while planning your next clever bon mot.

The visuals tell the story here more than the words.

And those visuals are telling a story that informed both Alien and Blade Runner before it. So much so, that it's almost as though they share continuity as Scott attempts to tie their themes together (and link us back thematically to the grandfather of modern science fiction film, 2001). The film is also informed by Mario Bava's classic 1965 sci-fi film Planet of the Vampires (in much the same way Alien was), Nigel Kneale's 1953 television mini-series, The Quatermass Experiment, and H.P. Lovecraft's 1931 novella, At the Mountains of Madness (so much so that Guillermo del Toro has abandoned his long in development adaptation).

Having had the opportunity to watch both a 3D showing and a regular 2D show, I have to say that I much preferred the 3D. This was my first contemporary 3D film viewing and thought that it was used magnificently. Scott avoids most of the more gimmicky uses of the technology, instead using it to enhance the scale and scope of the landscapes and generally create a sense of intimacy and immediacy. This was especially true in the alien map room scene, as it almost felt like I was there in the room watching the holograms swirl around me.

If you're going into this looking for another Alien, however, you are guaranteed to be disappointed. Alien is in the DNA of this film, for sure, but this is Ridley Scott coming at science fiction from a completely different direction. This isn't an attempt to mold science fiction into a horror or noir format. This is an attempt to create pure visionary science fiction that places humanity far from the center of existence, while leaving open the possibility for the divine (although there's still the big action sequence at the end). As such, it has very different priorities and approaches to story telling while maintaining a clear lineage with Scott's previous work.

As usual with a Scott film, we have a handful of fully realized characters at the heart of the film, with Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace forming the narrative core. This is their story as they each embrace their faith and search for something beyond what they've known before.

The relationship between Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) is not the Religion/Atheism dialectic that many reviews will have you believe.  They have a very strong chemistry and the contrast between Shaw's slow but steady advancement toward satisfying her scientific curiosity and Holloway's impulsive leaps into the unknown make for a clever commentary on their own respective relationships to faith. The skeptical Holloway takes these leaps regularly, while the steadfast Shaw pokes and prods before inching forward.

Fassbender's David, the robot "son" of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) is caught up his own questioning of faith and purpose. Unlike Shaw and Holloway, David knows exactly who made him and why. The pseudo-familial relationship between him and his "father" is further antagonized by the actual familial relationship between Weyland and his daughter, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Weyland's attempts to put off death are keeping her from gaining the keys to the kingdom, and his embrace of David as a son is an insult.

But they both make it clear: David is a tool and a servant. The film is about his search for relevance and freedom within the confines of his programming. Like a combination of HAL from 2001 and Roy Batty from Blade Runner before him, he longs for more than that for which he was made while staying passive-aggressively in thrall.

The supporting cast, Theron, Pearce, and Marshall-Green, all do excellent jobs within the confines of the script. As actors in the earlier science fiction ventures of Scott have done, they elevate any weaknesses on the page, investing the characters with personality and a sense of history that shows through without having to spend time providing info dumps. Pearce's casting is odd, as he seems to have been cast in the role solely to take part in the viral marketing campaign, and thus is forced to wear old-age makeup for the rest of the shoot. The standout in the supporting actors, though, is Idris Elba as the Captain of the Prometheus, Janek.

Elba infuses his performance with nuance and personality, making Janek a wonderful combination of mystery and openness. In a way, he's really the audience's point of view character, watching and commenting on the events and the other characters' narrative movement. He's likeable and heroic, and isn't above messing with the two obnoxious scientists, Fifield (Sean Harris) and Milburn (Rafe Spall), nobody really likes. As far as the script is concerned, they are there to fail and die doing something stupid, and Janek doesn’t concern himself with them.

Although co-pilots Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong) are equally lacking in depth on the page, their actions in their final scene serves to elevate them, making them into something more than just the jokey buddies hanging around in the background. Kate Dickie as Ford is pretty much a blank slate, however, shifting whichever way the script needs her to shift as the story goes on. That said, she soldiers on and does a fine job with what she's given.

I keep hearing about a "third act collapse" with this film, and must admit that while watching it, I kept wondering when the collapse was going to kick in. I had to check my watch to make sure I hadn't missed it somehow. I felt it worked perfectly with everything that had come before, and married the film to the tradition of the science fiction that served to inspire it.

Was it convenient that there was an Engineer still alive in stasis? Of course. That's how fiction works. Was it unbelievable? Not in the context of the established narrative. Why do they want to kill us all? This isn't answered, but it is implied. The final scene was unnecessary, but I enjoyed having the proto face-hugger and Xenomorph introduced for the "first" time.

If you love science fiction, you should love this film. If you love film making, you should love this film. If you love strong scripting you'll probably find a lot to nitpick. However, while you're doing that, look around at the science fiction film landscape. You're not going to get much better on this scale. This is nothing as simplistic and insulting as Avatar, for example.

I loved this film despite any minor quibbles I might have had about individual lines or what others think is out-of-character action. This is solid science fiction that also works in horrific moments of body horror and amazing moments of sheer wonderment. Are there weaknesses in the script? Sure. But it's a Ridley Scott film, so that's really irrelevant, as the Alien and Blade Runner reviews at the top make painfully obvious.

Ooh, I just read that there are 20 to 30 minutes of deleted scenes that will be included on the DVD/Blu-ray release. I just started giggling!


Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.

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