“The trick is not minding that it hurts.”
That’s a line of dialogue from “Lawrence Of Arabia”, where the titular character explains how he’s able to snuff out a burning match between his fingers. Apparently, it’s not about mastering pain. It’s about not allowing the pain to master you. There is a difference. Quoted in “Prometheus”, this nugget of wisdom also applies to my viewing experience of Ridley Scott’s latest film, which I found to be deeply flawed but ultimately quite enjoyable.
Not everyone will be as forgiving. In the one week that it’s been on release, it has already burnt a lot of viewers. The biggest accusation being leveled at the film is that it asks way too many questions without providing any satisfactory answers. While that’s not entirely true, the detractors have got a point. ”Prometheus” is sometimes frustratingly vague and often just flat-out illogical. Plot holes abound, and the script requires the audience to connect dots that are barely there to begin with. In most cases, it’s commendable for a film to get the brain working. In this case, it’s slightly too much heavy lifting on our part.
Hang on, I seem to have gotten somewhat ahead of myself. Let me back up a little to put things into proper perspective.
First of all, forget all the denials from the filmmakers and the studio about this not being an “Alien” prequel. It is. It tells a story that can easily be taken as a precursor to the people, places and events of “Alien”. Why did they lie? Well, it’s probably to distance themselves from the damage done by the last few movies. Namely, “Alien Vs Predator” and its much-derided sequel. I’d even go so far as to say the franchise was already broken in “Alien³”. As a cinematic property, the Xenomorph was overexposed and could no longer be taken seriously. Yet the universe it inhabited was rich and intricate, and that’s precisely what drew Scott back. In his 1979 film, we were introduced to the so-called ‘Space Jockey’, a mysterious giant discovered as a corpse frozen in his spaceship’s command console, his exploded chest indicating that he too had fallen prey to his cargo of Alien eggs. It begs the question: how the hell did that happen to him?
“Prometheus” does not answer that question. Not directly, anyway. Scott and his writer Damon Lindelof (working off a treatment by Jon Spaihts) were interested in building an entire mythology not on but around that one ill-fated character. Now, when Ridley Scott dreams, he dreams big. And bold. The Space Jockeys — called Engineers here — have been elevated to the status of gods. Literally. The story’s central conceit is that mankind was artificially manufactured by extraterrestrials… which essentially rips apart all notions of entrenched theological belief. It’s ballsy, though not exactly unexplored territory, as followers of crackpot theorists like Zecharia Sitchin or Erich von Daniken will tell you.
One of the main reasons science-fiction is my favourite genre (besides the robots, spaceships, and laser guns) is that it can be deeply profound and thought-provoking while disguised as populist entertainment (Robots! Spaceships! Laser guns!). Hard sci-fi in particular is at its best when exploring big ideas and examining the human condition. You can tell that Lindelof and Scott had grand ambitions for this film way beyond just making a scary outer-space monster pic. Upon exiting the cinema, I struggled to grasp a clear thematic point. Perhaps the film hasn’t got one. With a bit of time to stew it over in my head, I’ve kind of strung together the very loose threads “Prometheus” throws at us. It seems to be saying something about the inherent artificiality of creation. In this context, the creation of life itself. Or, to take it a step further in the direction I think the film is getting at, the ultimate pointlessness, cynicism even, in creating.
It’s no coincidence that the android character David 8 features so prominently in the narrative. He’s pretty much a poster boy for this point. David is ‘alive’ but only in an artificial sense, since he’s a product of his creators: man. This parallels the revelation that we too are mere products made by distant beings. There’s a scene between human scientist Charlie Holloway and David that sums up the sentiment. When asked by David why they made him, Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, bland) tells him coldly it’s simply because they could. To which David replies: ”Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” Indeed.
The film is peppered with nice little moments of insight like this. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the filmmakers go nowhere with them. Yes, “Prometheus” is a film of ideas. The problem is, the ideas aren’t fully-fleshed out, making them either confusing or unsatisfying. A good example is the theme of faith versus science, where main protagonist Elizabeth Shaw is portrayed as a religious person. Yet we never really see that faith being put to the test, or being called upon to cope with the extreme circumstances she’s put through. Then there is a very interesting thread about her being unable to conceive children. But that information is just dropped randomly into a scene only to be referenced later on in a rather oblique, albeit horrific way. That scene and its payoff would’ve been much more potent if it wasn’t just one of many things thrown into the mix.
Another example of the film being almost all tease is our relationship with the Engineers. One moment we’re told they wanted us to visit them, another minute they turn out to be quite unwelcoming. The motivations and behavior of the Engineers are pretty much indecipherable.
So’s the behavior of the human characters. Some make very dumb decisions that no sane or intelligent person would make, while others have a sudden change of heart that comes out of nowhere. The only explanation is that the script called for them to react that way. If there wasn’t so much stupidity on display, I’d have a much easier time believing that “Prometheus” is as smart or deep as it wants us to think it is. Plus, it’s surprisingly derivative, lifting stuff from a whole bunch of other movies, like “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”, “Leviathan”, “Contact”, and most disturbingly, “AvP”.
Right. So with all these flaws, what’s there to enjoy? Why, a lot actually. “Prometheus” is hands down the most visually stunning film I’ve seen this year. Practically every frame is art. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is breathtaking, especially in early scenes where the camera soars across the cosmos or over some vast alien landscape. A lot of it is CGI of course, but the true artistry on display is the way Scott composes his scenes. He has the ability to convey both epic scope and intimacy within the same shot. Scott is a master visual craftsman, and when he’s on top form like he is here, he has no equal.
The other great thing is that he takes considerable delight in traditional crafts like building physical sets, props and vehicles, and shooting on location as much as possible. As a result, the film is grounded in the kind of vitality and immediacy that only comes from doing it for real. The designs are top-notch too, with the ship, spacesuits and holographic displays capturing a sleek, sexy vision of future tech as paid for by the all-powerful Weyland Corporation. The look of the alien structures and creatures are suitably creepy. However, if I have to compare them with artist H.R. Giger’s originals, they are decidedly less inspired.
This movie has repeat viewing value based on the strength of the visuals alone. It’s okay to forego the 3D though, which may be one of the better uses of the gimmick but is still unessential.
Scott also hasn’t forgotten how to thrill. He builds and sustains tension quite effectively, so even though the action is used sparingly you’re never left wanting. And when it does happen, it’s pretty gripping. The film’s standout scene isn’t even an action sequence per se. It’s more of a horror set piece, where Shaw has to deal with the consequences of the Engineers’ life-giving “gifts”. Gore-hounds will be pleased, while everyone else, especially women, will cringe at this nightmare scenario. It doesn’t quite top the classic ‘chestburster’ scene from “Alien” but it’s damn close. Noomi Rapace really sells the agony and the terror, too.
Speaking of the cast, they’re mostly just there to serve as the next casualty. Rapace has the leading lady’s role and she does the best with a largely colourless character. She’s not the take-charge heroine that Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was, but I don’t think her character needed to be. On that front, Charlize Theron’s Weyland executive Meredith Vickers is a closer fit, running the expedition with a no-nonsense, rational calm not demonstrated by the rest of the crew. Oh, and she looks hot in a skin-tight bodysuit.
But the one who will be (deservedly) getting all the attention is Michael Fassbender. The man is regularly the best thing in any movie he’s in, and this is no exception. As the fastidious, morally ambiguous android David, he alone is reason enough to recommend this film. Fassbender is one of those gifted actors who has such supreme command of his craft that he doesn’t even have to “do” anything in a scene. It’s all about subtleties with this guy. Just a glimmer in his eye and the intent of the character changes. It works beautifully for a character like David, where you’re never sure whether to root for or against him. Too bad awards shows don’t consider genre fare to be worthy showcases of great acting.
The film’s numerous successes only serve to bring its failings into sharper view. This is a good film, where with a bit more thought put into making smarter choices script-wise, it could’ve been a great film. I also believe Scott’s penchant for ruthless self-editing in his theatrical cuts have hurt it. He has already gone on record to say that the Bluray/DVD release will contain 20 minutes of new footage. That can dramatically change a film for the better, as it did with his own “Kingdom Of Heaven”. Studios are only too happy to have shorter theatrical cuts since they allow more screenings per day. Never mind if the work is compromised. I have a feeling a lot of my problems with “Prometheus” will be cleared up in his impending Director’s Cut. Probably.
As it stands, I have to judge the film on what is, not what it could’ve been. And the “engineers” of this product have betrayed a slight sense of cynicism in its creation, where they put way more thought into the execution than the conception, and where business comes before art. The result is an experience that is both punishing and rewarding in near equal measure.
I just don’t mind the stuff that hurts, simply because the execution is so brilliant.