Sunday, July 1, 2012

Movie Review: Prometheus

Directed by Ridley Scott. 2012.

How critical can one be of a film exploring the origins of mankind while Adam Sandler's carnival of juvenilia wails on in the adjacent theater? Rather, if its director is Ridley Scott and he had the pretention to call it Prometheus. In fact this latest of Scott's offerings is the most ambitious film in the Alien series he launched in 1979 with the finely crafted gothic horror Alien. His return marks not only a leap forward for the franchise in technical polish and panache from the c-grade schlock of Alien vs. Predator, but a new seriousness of purpose, I can't resist, alien even to the best films in the series like James Cameron's 1986 Aliens and its progenitor.

Like much else in Prometheus the premise is a science fiction staple: whence man? Alas, the premise is the only unconfused element in Prometheus. Almost. The plodding opening is clear enough. One hundred or so years from now scientists discover identical markings in ruins of ancient dwellings from across the world. They all share the image of a man, his hand raised to the heavens pointing to a cluster of five stars. The scientists conclude this is an invitation and a few years later a trillion dollar mission is on its way through the cosmos financed by, well, trillionaire Peter Weyland. On board are a scientist couple, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), with Captain Janek (Idris Elba), Mission Commander Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and the android, David (Michael Fassbender.)

The Characters

Charlie Holloway, scientist, explaining things to the
audience–I mean crew.
I would hasten to add that, with the exception of Dr. Shaw (Rapace) not one of these characters is especially likable and hardly any of them are well drawn. Holloway, while mostly rude and unpleasant, is rendered uninteresting by the fact that his aggressive interest in the mission never translates into any virtue or vice. In one scene he casually sits on the counter drinking alcohol from a bottle while the other scientists probe an alien head. Is this supposed to be hubris, indifference, arrogance? He has a tattoo of a crucifix on his shoulder which must mean. . . something, I guess.

Captain Janek
Janek would have been tolerable as a gruff captain if he were better at his job, although he comes into his own at the end when he suddenly develops values of use to the plot. The fact that he several times says he "just drives the ship" would make him a good Brechtian everyman if he didn't have that last minute change of heart. Actually, that change in which Janek says his only goal (his new only goal, I guess) is to prevent anything from reaching Earth would be interesting coming from a conservative character, contrasting the scientists, but the writers didn't do that. He also meant aliens and their goo and not ideas, so never mind.

Commander Meredith "Grumpy-Pants" Vickers
Vickers is a frigid shrew throughout and is surprisingly unimportant. Late in the movie she is revealed to be the daughter of the elderly Weyland, the ship's financier, whom we also discover to be on board. So what of the relationship? She seems like she's there to protect him, or to prove something to him since he seems devoid of any paternal love for her, but then she says she didn't want him to go on the mission while she was stuck on Earth. So. . . why is she there and why does she matter? If she doesn't matter then why can't she just be in charge of the mission? Why did Weyland hobble her control over the mission by saying the scientists were "basically in charge?" Hey, wouldn't it have been interesting if maybe she was trying to take control of the mission for her own purposes, like Prometheus, or if she wanted to overthrow her father and take control over his power and dynasty, like Zeus did to his father, Cronos?

David the android watches Lawrence of Arabia and studies humanity, meaningless facts without the context of David's character and androids in general.   At one point David watches the opening of Lawrence of Arabia where the colonel puts out a match by pinching it and explains to his fellow officers that the tricks is not minding the pain. This seems significant, is it making some point about accepting pain in life? Does David feel pain? Does he understand what Lawrence means? He doesn't react to it at all and no one else does either even though many other people are present. Is it supposed to be significant that he learns about people by way of movies?

In a fleeting moment of meaning and comprehensibility, David asks Charlie why Charlie made him, which I guess is supposed to mean why mankind made androids. Charlie responds, "because we could." David then asks whether Charlie would not find such an answer from his own creator quite unsatisfactory. Yet what kind of questions is this, and what kind of answer? Wouldn't mankind make androids for particular purposes? Why is this David's response, anyway? I guess he could have said anything because we don't really know anything about his character so no answer would have been out of character. I guess he just said what the writer needed so David could say what the writer wanted. Oh, and why would David ask such a question of Charlie, and not Weyland, the man who considers himself David's father?

It is mentioned that when Weyland stops programming David that he will be free. So at the end when Weyland is dead and David helps Dr. Shaw escape, is this important? Why does he do this? Out of altruism, to get himself off the planet, to make up for lying to her?

Michael Fassbender has fairly been praised for his performance, but David's sympathetic character results simply from his often sad looking face. We in fact do not know enough about his nature or aspirations to have opinions about him. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation we know about Data's limitations and aspirations to become human so what he does has context. In Aliens, Lance Henrikson's android character Bishop is clearly there to serve them. In Prometheus, well I just wrote three paragraphs trying to figure out what's going on with this character.

Peter Weyland
Weyland's character makes sense insofar as he says what he wants: to meet his creator and for his creator to save him. Let us think for a moment, though. First, the movie operates under the premise that a race of people created man. No mention is made, however, of the possibility that these creators are immortal, so is Weyland looking for the exact alien that created him? What if that alien is dead? Would another alien know, or care? Do all of these aliens make people? This problem is similar to David's above where the necessary distinction between individual and group is entirely left out. Second, why does Weyland want his creator to save his life? Obviously he doesn't want to die, but does he want to live forever? Does he just want to be cured of something? Is he afraid of death? Does he want to accomplish something? How shallow Weyland's explanation suddenly seems when we actually ask questions. He would be more interesting as a character on a quest for the fountain of youth, or who wanted to ask his maker why he had to die, or to redeem or forgive him, or anything more specific than simply saving his life.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw
Finally we come to our heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. She wants to discover the creators of mankind for the sake of knowledge but she also has faith in Christianity. Like her father, she "chooses to believe" and Shaw seems intent on reconciling her faith with what she expects to find on the planet. When her husband asks what she'll believe after finding the aliens Elizabeth replies, "Well who created them?" This faith is symbolized by a cross she wears around her neck and you would think that when David takes it away from her (because it might be contaminated) the moment would be fraught with significance, but it's not. Now because this moment is not significant, when she reclaims it that moment can't mean much either.

The bottom line is that these characters don't work in this context. It made sense for the cast of Alien to be gruff and unprofessional because they were deckhands whose lumpen grind was maintaining a dark, cold interstellar garbage boat. It made sense for the cast of Aliens to be rough and tumble because they were ripping marines. Those groups of people also didn't ask any profound questions: they were there to survive. This cast had to be professional and purposeful because they were on a trillion dollar expedition to discover the origin of humanity.

Now you might be thinking, "Hey, maybe the characters don't matter so much. Maybe the movie is about other ideas." That is indeed a fine notion, but if it is so then far to much time is devoted to them. 2001is not about the characters but it wastes no time with dialogue or any information about them.
It would have been interesting if everyone on the ship had different reasons for being there which could be compared and contrasted, and fulfilled or not fulfilled, or change and not change, et cetera, but the writers didn't do that.

The Plot

The plot contains even more holes and ambiguities than the characters and because it is very popular to praise movies that ask questions or that leave elements unresolved we must probe Prometheus' particular brand of not knowing and see if it holds up.

First we must note it is not as if the answerable but insignificant questions of this crapulent plot hide the fact that the ultimate question is unanswerable, but rather the insignificant questions are unanswerable too. Is this an absurdist, existentialist slap in the face? I'm not sure it's not and I cannot see any other legitimate explanation. Prometheus does not in fact "raise questions" it simply does not work.

Let's make a quick comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Prometheus recalls in its opening shot. In 2001, we wonder what the monolith is, why it occurs at certain times in history, whether man causes it, or it responds to man. We wonder about the nature of being and knowing, time and change. Prometheus doesn't ask these, or similar or any, questions, rather it simply leaves plot points unresolved. In the same way we couldn't figure out if what the characters were doing was significant to their natures because we didn't know them, we cannot figure out if what they are doing is significant to the plot because we do not have enough facts. The chaps at Red Letter Media have made a characteristically raucous and entertaining litany of questions left by Prometheus. I emphasize: raucous.

These questions are not interesting in and of themselves. They are questions not about philosophical ideas but about the plot, and who cares about the plot apart from the ideas it provokes? Because I don't know something about David's nature his character and what he does cannot provoke questions about. . . well, anything. The ending, however, makes a more definite statement. Shaw's decision to continue searching for the alien home world to find out why they decided, after they made man, to destroy us, demonstrates how deep rooted this question is in man's nature. Even after all of the death and destruction of the mission she wants to keep searching. Or does she just want to prevent them from actually destroying earth? Bah. . .

Overall, Prometheus doesn't generate questions about life but rather only generates questions about itself.

Technical Aspects

Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-film.
Besides the wettish, lapidary visages of the aliens I did not find much of Prometheus' visuals appealing. The sets are confined to the hallways aboard the two ships, neither of which are particularly memorable or beautiful. The foley effects in the opening act are terribly matched and synchronized. Without anything vested in the characters and without any understanding of the plot I found the pacing languorous, a problem compounded by the leaden dialogue. Since Prometheus has been praised as suspenseful, I ask: How can it be suspenseful if you don't empathize with any of the characters, have any idea about why they're doing what they're doing, or what the possible results of their actions are?

Prometheus features a musical motive which sounds whenever something is discovered. While I very much like the idea of a "discovery" leitmotif, it didn't really work after its initial use, largely because we never really discover anything.

Overall I cannot count Prometheus as a success and the exceptionally untied plot nips at the credibility of the writers to the point where I cannot even call Prometheus an honest endeavor, at least as far as the writing goes. It owes what unity it has to the technical work and talent of its director who must have labored enormously to tie together the film with visual language. For him and his considerable work and talent I wish a much better script.

A Note on the Poster

I much like the movie poster to the right, unfortunately it doesn't make any sense. First, if the planet was a military installation and the black goo in the jars was hazardous biological breeding gel, why are they stacked like that around a giant face, especially when the jars are stacked on shelves elsewhere in the facility? Second, the aliens were apparently planning on coming to wipe us out (I forget how we reached that conclusion, but I'll take it), but there was an accident on the planet that killed them and prevented them. So were they they only ones planning on killing us? Were there no other aliens who checked up on them? Did they die to? Were the surviving aliens still coming?

Anyway, it's a nice poster.

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