Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Prometheus

[Update: you can read a nice piece on the movie here.]

Those of you who know me well know that my favorite film of all time is James Cameron's Aliens. (Yes, about the monsters that pop out of people's chests. I know.) It is, I think, the perfect blend of science-fiction and action, entertaining every time, yet also well made and featuring solid performances--Sigourney Weaver actually received an Oscar nomination for her role. The movie also stands alone as a sequel that developed yet honored the material of the original 1979 Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) film Alien. The two films are very different: the original is no popcorn action flick. Their strengths are distinctive. Instead of arrogant marines with nukes, guns, knives, and sharp sticks, Alien is full of powerful visuals, impeccable pacing, and, of course, our worst nightmares.

And it is from Alien that Ridley Scott's latest film, Prometheus, develops. Not as another sequel to the once respectable franchise, nor as a prequel in the strictest sense, but as a movie sharing, as Scott has remarked, something of the DNA of the original. Prometheus unfolds with the same imaginative character and seemingly in the same future as Alien

In many ways, in fact, it feels like a retelling of Alien, and some very intentional parallels between the film's heroine, Shaw, and Ripley from the original film only reinforce this. Yet Prometheus goes places and raises issues totally foreign to the other films. It deals not only with terrors, but also with questions of meaning and our place in the universe. More specifically, Prometheus asks these questions in a world where human life has suddenly been found to be a result of extraterrestrials' presence on Earth in the distant past (an idea that's pretty popular today, actually, if the New Age section at Barnes and Noble tells you anything). We'll return to this later.

Early on, this film recaptures much of what has been forgotten in sci-fi films in recent decades. Space is a world of mystery and discovery again--a spirit the film-makers tapped into, not through the wonders of space exploration but by the puzzles of archaeology and paleontology. This approach allows the world of the film to beckon the viewers on in an unique and potent way. This mystique draws us finally into the dark reality of this universe.

We arrive at the reality mid-way through the film, and it is a nightmare.
The lines are not straight or crisp; things blur around the edges. You aren't quite sure what is driving this nightmare, besides fear and death and hatred. But this fog overwhelms us suddenly and violently, choking the audience, suffocating us. I actually appreciate the shroud left over most of the film's monsters--any more clarity about their own origins or the fates of those they attacked would have made it too easy to try and understand the horrors and then distance yourself from them. The ambiguity leaves a layer of potential and fear that the viewer cannot easily dismiss. Then there is a respite: we are allowed to emerge out of the other end and return to the foolhardy and futile plotting and intrigues of the characters. But at this point you know not to invest much in their schemes; after the nightmare, their smallness is too apparent.
And then we return to the nightmare, and everything, everyone, is quickly consumed by it. And the film ends.

Prometheus, in short, is about a quest for answers and origins that only finds chaos and death.

As my wife and I talked about the movie afterwards, she complained that while it broached the questions of God, humanity's origins and purpose, it never gave these the attention or time they demanded. The words were spoken, and then the movie went on. I disagree: I think Prometheus is entirely devoted to these questions, but spends much of its time and energy exploring the implications of the 'answers' it offers. Whether humanity has a purposes, whether we were even created on purpose, is not entirely clear. What is clear is that human origins are not a part of something glorious or beautiful, some loving act of conception and nurture. They arise from a chain of events that is disgusting, filled with destruction. Creators that seek to eradicate the works of their hands; creations that embody and intensify the brutalities latent in their creators and finally unleash those things back upon them. Once the literal monsters our progenitors created are known, humanity wonders whether it might not have been better to be the result of chance, without maker, without design. When Shaw, after the worst horrors of the film, retrieves her crucifix and pulls it again around her neck, David asks her, "even after all of that...?" Why would one even hope for a Creator in a universe as frightening and wrong as this one? Much of the film builds up to this question.

Many of the visuals are striking--a credit to the original designs by H. R. Giger that carry over from Alien, and the sheer scale of the sets. This is only reinforced by the film's at-times-perfect score. Michael Fassbender's performance as David is excellent, capturing the distance and precision of Lance Hendrickson's android character, Bishop, in Aliens, along with a space for so much more, for growth we never see but could believe.

On the whole, the film takes what is not an uncommon trope in science fiction--aliens are responsible for life on Earth--and moves from here into uncomfortable questions about what we are willing to believe about this universe and our place in it, what could possibly possess us to hold on to these beliefs. It's so, so disturbing, yet (especially the first half) completely engrossing. It offers no easy answers to the questions it raises, if any at all, leaving you to wonder. And shudder.

Prometheus is rated R for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language. The horrors that are possible in the world of the film are, for the most part, much worse than the actual, on-screen violence. There is one scene in particular, involving emergency surgery, this is pretty rough. Take the R rating seriously.

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