In Greek mythology, Prometheus got in big trouble for handing over the secret of fire to mere mortals. In modern day, he represents the quest for human knowledge and achievement. Of course, he wound up tied to a rock and having an eagle peck his guts out every day.
Apparently the team who embarks on their own quest for knowledge in the spacecraft that supplies the title of Ridley Scott's highly anticipated new film hadn't gotten the foreshadowing memo. For them, asking questions about human origin, and actively seeking answers, is the beginning of Bad Things happening, but then we audience members, who are privy to Ridley's dark horrific alien past, know that going in.
Much has been made of keeping the plot under wraps. "Prometheus" is both its own stand-alone story, as well as a prequel of sorts for the "Alien" film series. It involves two curious scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) discovering a series of cave paintings they believe to be maps pointing the way to the distant galactic home of an alien race who might hold the secret to human origin.
They and a small team made up of scientists, engineers and one android, set off into space (where, apparently, no one can hear your hubris) to find out. When they find the planet they believe they were pointed to, Bad Things happen. In the film's breathtaking opening sequences, the audience gets vague clues about how "IT" all began, and the mystery begins.
"One of the Most Visually Beautiful Sci-Fi Films Ever to Be Released"
Unfortunately, in the rest of the film's 124 minutes, no solutions or real answers are forthcoming. The downside to Ridley Scott waiting 30 years to revisit his "Alien" world is his desire to create a story that is all things to all people— summer action blockbuster, philosophical treatise on origin, gory monster movie, thinking man's sci-fi flick…some of which are too at odds with each other to make a cohesive classic that will stand the test of time.
The upside to Ridley Scott waiting 30 years to revisit his "Alien" world is he has made one of the most visually beautiful sci-fi films ever to be released, especially in 3D. He also has offered us two characters who are compellingly obsessively watchable, played by Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender. David, as played by Michael Fassbender, is fastidious, enigmatic, and as full of secrets as a robot can be.
He takes his human inspiration from his own in-flight movie, "Lawrence of Arabia," and adopts Peter O'Toole's blonde locks and English clipped accent. He is neither above a dirty job or being jealous or below showing what appear to be genuine emotions and self preservation.
Ridley Scott apparently told Fassbender to look at the movie "The Servant" with Dirk Bogarde, where a manservant exploits power over the master and slowly flips the roles to enslave him. As for Fassbender's characterization, he said the ingredients for developing David included David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," the replicants in "Blade Runner," Greg Louganis' physicality, and Peter O'Toole's "Lawrence." As a result of his putting this mix into action, we the audience find ourselves wanting David to survive not least so we can learn a few of his secrets, and more of what motivates and inspires this particular man-made sentient being.
Heroine of Story Equal to "Alien's" Ellen Ripley
Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the heroine of this story, is at least the equal to Ellen Ripley, the historic icon of the original (she is rated in the top five of all time on many best movie hero lists), and in several respects is even more of a badass. Still, we must give all props where they are due, as she would never have existed had Ripley not come first.
It is as if the existence of the heroine Ripley, who was not defined by any limiting preconception of femininity, allowed for Rapace's Shaw to be a more complicated representation of female power. Shaw is a mix of feminine sensitivity, determination and analytical pragmatism. She is the ultimate believer, committed to joyful exploration, and though she is someone who has already known hardship, she carries into the story a chosen innocence that is hard to undermine. She is the most well-developed of the players, and makes choices consistent with her character arc, allowing the audience to become engaged in her struggles and root for her survival.
Not so for several of the others, who make a frustrating number of inexplicable choices, as exampled by the biologist who attempts to pet a creature of unknown origin, or the manic geologist who ignores signs and sounds of death to search for monetary gain. What?!? You, sirs, get what you deserve. As ship's captain Janek, Idris Elba, acting colossus that he is, is woefully underused, and sadly one dimensional, as if his entire role or arc was a concession to the blockbuster audience mentality and expectation.
Charlize Theron's Meredith Vickers is a study in hard-nosed minimalist discipline. There is a fascinating interplay between her and David, as they subtly compete to be more or less human. Their relationship and interaction could have been more examined, but as it is, it still serves to open discussion about where the line is drawn in being given or being robbed of humanity.
Production Design Shines
Several memorable set pieces will stay with you far after the end credits. The beginning sequence of the movie is exquisitely beautiful and is a valid excuse for Scott to have waited till now to add to his Alien chronology. The visual effects have advanced perfectly in time for showing his otherworldly landscapes. There are also two scenes, each featuring Shaw and David alone interacting with future technology, that are alternately as terrifying and mesmerizing to the audience as they are to the characters. These scenes, coupled with their characterizations, is reason enough to venture into an IMAX or 3D showing of "Prometheus."
A mention should be made that surrealist H. R. Giger's set designs from "Alien" are used as inspiration for a variety of sets later in the film, and allow for a juxtapositioning of the skeletal organics of the original "Alien" and the corporate industrial whites of the ship in "Prometheus," reminding me of several Apple offices I've visited, which is an interesting reference, however subliminal, to Ridley Scott's 1984 Apple commercial.
As to creatures featured in the film, who knew it was possible to outdo a face-hugger? The creatures we do see, we see more up close and experience more firsthand, not just through the enhancement of 3D, but also by the varied interactions of the various crew to them. The multi-genre, sci-fi, action, horror mashup that we would expect of this film allows 3D to embrace a diversity of opportunities and situations not offered previous to this film.
Some will depart the theater overwhelmed with the film's greatness, and some will be underwhelmed by its disjointedness, pandering and just failed promise. Most will meet in the middle within a few days. The great scenes are impressive enough, and the weaknesses in the film are glaring enough that many are left loving the film but not giving it "classic" status—unless that label can be ascribed on sheer beauty alone.
I am still left with frustration that no questions asked at the onset of the film are answered, but I am satisfied enough, I might say even impressed, that the visual landscapes and characterizations, however uneven, allow for a positive and at times even transcendent cinematic experience.
About this column: Leslie Combemale, aka "Cinema Siren," is a movie-lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. Visit their gallery online at www.artinsights.com, and see more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.