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Film Review: Prometheus

Prometheus (2012; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Emerging from a succession of imposing, primordial landscapes, a hooded figure stands at the brim of a thundering waterfall beneath a massive, floating oval spaceship. Removing its robe to reveal a powerfully-built, classically-sculpted humanoid figure, the titanic manlike being ingests a black liquid from a rudimentary cup with the careful precision of a rehearsed ritual. The tincture does not agree with him, to say the least; in fact, it disintegrates his magnificent physique from the inside out until he tips into the surging cataract, his limbs, torso, and head crumbling into black dust and swept away in the torrent.

Thus enfolds the semi-metaphorical opening scene of Ridley Scott’s more-than-semi-metaphorical sort-of prequel to his 1979 science-fiction-horror classic Alien. Taking a welcome respite from grimly serious (and occasionally racially suspect) historical epics, Scott returns to what brung him to the show, attempting to turn back his own aesthetic clock as well as that of a film series and expanded universe increasingly given to B-level space marines vs. frightening alien monsters generic shlock. The message and tone of Prometheus is evident from its Greek mythological title and encapsulated in the above-described initial sequence before being drawn out in a narrative sometimes surprising and memorable but just as often conventional and cliched: tread lightly when creating life, because death is usually quick to follow.

Ridley Scott is never not interested in the Big Questions, especially when treading on sci-fi territory, and they animate his kinda-reboot of the Alien franchise as a deep-origin prequel set in the same universe. Prometheus demonstrates this most clearly, engaging in a visually and referentially dense conversation about the nature of existence with not only the Greek philosophers but also with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Isaac Asimov, Carlo Collodi, Sigmund Freud, and (not to be left out) Stephen Stills. Not to mention the original Alien, of which Prometheus is often an uncanny clone, blurring the line between thematic echoes and Hollywood focus-group generic element reproduction. Knowing nods of recognition will accompany the revelation that Damon Lindelof co-wrote the screenplay (with Jon Spaihts), as the dense layering of philosophical, mythological, scientific, and pop cultural references and bursts of pulpy incident will be richly familiar to legions of Lost fans.

The eponymous spaceship’s crew awakes gradually as they arrive at a barren, rocky world where they expect to find the answer to a common star map riddle unearthed by a hotshot archaelogist couple (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) in their digs across Earth in the late 21st Century. This riddle, Doctors Shaw and Holloway believe fervently, is nothing less than the origin of the human race in neither Darwinian nor monotheistic Genesis terms, but as a star seed of an advanced form of extraterrestrial life. Their work is apparently persuasive enough to convince a wealthy, very elderly CEO (Guy Pearce, unrecognizable in age makeup) to fund a mission to the world that they believe holds the key to this most confounding of locks.

The cryosleep of the Prometheus‘s crew is suspended by the ship’s android, David (Michael Fassbender). He’s had lots of free time in between monitoring their vital signs and the ship’s systems on their multi-year space journey, and has apparently spent most of it watching Lawrence of Arabia over and over (the benchmark to which Historical Epic Ridley Scott seems to forever be reaching for and therefore not a surprising name-check). He patterns his appearance and speech patterns on Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence just as those who conceived of and executed the mission he is a part of patterned that mission on an interstellar strain of Lawrence’s arrogant imperialistic meddling (Fassbender is spectacular here; there are bigger movie stars, but this man is slowly laying claim to the title of the world’s finest actor).

The ship lands on the planet, investigations begin into the monolithic structures on its surface, and motives begin to clash. Set against the scientific/spiritual idealism of Shaw and Holloway is the corporate boardroom refinement and precision of mission leader Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), as well as the proletarian pragmatism of the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba). David, though apparently as incapable of motivation as he is incapable of emotion, seems to be working at cross-purposes to everyone, perhaps on secret orders from the absent CEO back home, though it would be telling too much to go into that much further.

Like Alien, this intellectually resonant framing is all too soon overcome by sequences of intense corporeal horror as the Prometheus team discovers that the starseeding Engineers who built those galactic superstructures met their end at the hands (or claws and fangs) of some familiar-looking creepy-crawlies of their own creation. The first attack by a milk-white eel-worm larvae in a dark cavern is troubling even if it is predictably staged by Scott. It is fully eclipsed, however, by a tantrically extended and exquisitely squeamish sequence of Dr. Shaw surgically removing a squidish embryo surreptitiously implanted inside her. Rapace’s Shaw is Prometheus‘ self-evident Ripley figure (she’s even got a contemporary take on Sigourney Weaver’s perm-mop hair), and this scene is the pinnacle of her hardy semi-feminist survivalism; she even must work around patriarchal assumptions to achieve her life-saving abortion, as the automated surgery pod can only perform male-centric procedures (the right to choose, indeed).

Also like Alien, the visual design of the film is almost more to the point than its entertainment or metaphorical features. It was interesting to watch it so soon after Jodorowsky’s Dune and see some of the late H.R. Giger’s unused designs for that film employed onscreen at last, as well as ship and technological designs indebted to that project’s other creative minds. As in Alien, the design reaches out from the backgrounds like a searching tentacle, grabbing hold of Prometheus‘ grand philosophical implications and injecting them with parasitic suggestions of organic/technological hybrids and disturbing, monstrous, intensely sexual incubii. There are some stabs at awe as well, as when David stands in the midst of a holographic star map and Marc Streitenfeld’s score reaches its apex of stellar wonder.

Prometheus skews too much to action blockbuster convention for its own good, however. There are not one but two scenes of characters outrunning gargantuan threats that they would probably not stand a real chance of outrunning. The grander message, too, is more alarmist than visionary. It skeptically equates scientific exploration and inquiry into human life’s origins with the titular Titan’s gods-defying gift of primitive technology to primitive beings, Greek mythology’s take on the Judeo-Christian myth of the embrace of knowledge, loss of innocence and fall to sin. The examined life seems like a fine thing, but that process of examination can unearth some very disturbing things. After all, Socrates never had to face down a ravenous tentacled arthropod, so who is he to tell us what is and isn’t worthwhile? Prometheus says the lion’s share of what it has say in its opening minutes: our insatiable desire and curiosity for self-awareness is an existential threat. Finding out what we’re made of can take us to pieces. Magnificent as the film can often be, the rest is just so much elaboration and frothy filler.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. October 7, 2015 at 4:30 pm

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