Despite what I said here yesterday, I did try to fit in a documentary today and have this review as well, but it has taken me all afternoon to write this up. Also, I was in the pub. Was I celebrating or was I drowning my sorrows? Read on and find out.
Some tales are best untold
All across the planet, in the remnants of civilisations separated by thousands of years, the same pictogram can be found: human beings bowing to a large figure who is pointing at a constellation; in all of them, the same constellation. Scientist Elizabeth Shaw believes these pictograms represent not only the creator of man, but an invitation for man to visit his creator on another world. With sponsorship from the Weyland Corporation, Shaw and her partner Holloway lead a team of researchers on the ship Prometheus to find this other world, and shake the hand of God. Squick ensues. Also some cack-handed philosophy.
All I can say is, why? Why this? Why now? In interviews to promote the release of Prometheus, Sir Ridley Scott has said over and over that he enjoyed the various sequels to his 1979 classic, but he expressed his disappointment that none of those films’ directors ever decided to explore the mystery of “the space jockey”, the large, elephantine-faced, long-dead victim of an involuntary xenomorphectomy discovered by Kane and Dallas on the planet later known as LV426. Do you know why that is, Ridley? Because you don’t make a sequel to tell the story of the set dressing. The space jockey was only there for atmosphere. He was a visual short-cut to indicate that those characters were in a ship, and that some bad juju was afoot. How can you tell you’re in an abandoned ship? Because there’s a dead pilot in a chair. How do you know there’s bad juju afoot? Because the dead pilot has a big hole in his ribcage. That is all he was. The story was Ripley and the xenomorphs. That’s why the sequels followed Sigourney and her ongoing mother issues. You want to tell the story of the space jockey? That’s what fan-fiction is for.
So this is what being underwhelmed feels like. Prometheus was comfortably one of the most eagerly anticipated films of this year. The trailers were a bit spoilery but the various viral teasers were magnificent; a demonstration of how it can be done right. Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland addressing the TED conference in 2023 was a masterclass in world-building and character set-up without using a single frame of the movie itself. Without even explicitly stating that there was a movie being promoted, in fact. It is just a shame that the same level of originality and wit couldn’t have been applied to the actual film.
That’s not to say the film fails on every level of course; there are many good elements on display here. Forgive me for going back to this well, but it is another testament to how good Noomi Rapace was as Lisbeth Salander that she is almost entirely unrecognisable as Elizabeth Shaw. She fully commits to this role, and out of all the character moments that would pull you into the world of Prometheus, there is only one that she is not a part of. Shaw is the emotional core of this film, there’s no doubt about it. The standouts amongst the rest of the cast are exactly who you would expect: Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron. All three do very good work, but each is ill-served by one aspect of their characters. In Elba’s hands, the ship’s captain Janek is the only person here who would fit in with the crew of the Nostromo. He has that same laid-back attitude and temperament, and reacts in a wholly believable way once the faecal matter/ventilation interface kicks in, but why oh why did Scott insist that he speak with a bad Deep South accent? We’ve got an international cast playing an international ship’s crew, so why not just let him speak like the native Londoner he is? Rafe Spall is similarly afflicted, but he doesn’t get enough screen time to really make an impact. Charlize Theron plays Vickers, the Weyland Corporation liaison whose company pedigree is one of the least surprising surprises in cinema history. She is by-the-book and pragmatic to the point of heartlessness, but she does have a great scene with Janek about half way through the flick that is nicely humanising. Her problem though is in her final scene. No spoilers here today, but the stupidity of what she does at the end of the film almost completely negates everything established about her as a character. Finally, Fassbender. David is the latest in this franchise’s series of androids. His very existence seems to cancel out an accepted fact in the earlier (or later) films, but I’m not getting into that here. My problem with David is not Fassbender – he’s as reliable as always – but it’s that one of the key actions that he carries out during the film makes entirely no sense whatsoever. There is no motivation for it; there is no explanation for it; there is no clearly understood purpose for it at all. According to Damon Lindelof, David is acting out of ego and his own insecurities, wanting to be “praised for his brilliance”, but there is nothing in the film itself to support that.
All of these problems (along with everything else that disappointed me about this film) can be laid at one door: lazy writing. Jon Spaihts wrote the treatment and the first drafts before Scott handed it over to Lindelof, who took what was apparently a much more obvious prequel that would lead directly to LV426 and started veering off that course, leaving a story that would “share strands of the original’s DNA”, which appears to be an evasive way of saying that they want to leave room for more Prometheus sequels before the Nostromo trundles overhead. The script professes to want to ask The Big Questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? Burger King or McDonalds? Now, I’m all for that, in principle. Hard sci-fi is something that is sorely missing from these days of big-budget blockbusters. You normally have to plunge into the often murky world of the indies to find a film willing and able to tackle the sort of subject matter that books have been looking at for decades. Unfortunately Lindelof doesn’t seem to have the chops to pull it off. I can’t help thinking that the most common phrase to pop into his head as he was writing was “wouldn’t it be cool if…”
While the story is found wanting, the visuals are not. Prometheus is stunning to look at. This is the first of the Alien films to have any location shooting and the locations Scott has chosen are immense. The black volcanic surface of Iceland has an unearthly cast to it already, and it is amplified with some suitably imposing architecture to create this supposed “cradle of life”. The sets are excellent as well, particularly the ship’s bridge/cockpit area, and there are some gorgeous original Giger works in the alien chambers. The 3D is a waste though. There were entire scenes where I took off the glasses and there were no 3D elements on screen at all. It’s not as if the post-conversion missed a bit; the film was actually shot with 3D cameras. Considering the premium ticket prices, that’s just unforgivable. With all the icky goo and tentacles this movie has, you’d think there could have been at least one good jump-out-of-the-screen moment.
In closing, Sir Ridley, I say this: I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. You’ve let me down, but more importantly than that, you’ve let yourself down. Now I want you to slowly and carefully step away from the Blade Runner sequel before anyone else gets hurt.