Sunday, June 10, 2012

In Theaters: PROMETHEUS (2012)

(US, 2012)

Directed by Ridley Scott.  Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Patrick Wilson, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Emun Elliott, Benedict Wong, Kate Dickie.  (R, 126 mins)

After several years of coy, "is it an ALIEN prequel or not?" teasing, Ridley Scott's highly-anticipated PROMETHEUS is finally here.  Returning to the universe created in Scott's 1979 sci-fi/horror classic, PROMETHEUS is a study in dualities:  the filmmakers never openly said "This is a prequel," but it clearly is.  It strives to provide answers but ends with only more questions.  It wants to be a serious sci-fi film but is compelled (obligated?) to be a big CGI extravaganza.  It's one of the most exhilarating film experiences of the year and at the same time, one of the most frustrating.

Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace) encounters some unanticipated problems

In 2093, the crew of the space vessel Prometheus is on a secret, $1 trillion mission privately funded by the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, under a ton of old-age prosthetics).  Weyland was intrigued by the work of archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who have tracked cave paintings, up to 35,000 years old and all from different cultures and time periods, depicting a unique star formation.  The religious Shaw interprets these paintings as invitations from the "Engineers," what she terms the early examples of humanity, and she believes the outer reaches of space hold the key to man's origins, or could even direct them to God himself.

Michael Fassbender as David

Along for the ride, in addition to Janek (Idris Elba), the captain, are other scientists and medical staff, but also Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an ice-cold Weyland bean-counter and ballbuster, and David (Michael Fassbender), a dream-reading android with motives of his own, but ostensibly in charge of general maintenance during the crew's two-year hypersleep to their destination.  Once there (a distant moon called LV-223), they find a large pyramid-type structure filled with remains of an alien life form, as well as large cylinders containing a black fluid.  But who are these aliens?  Why did they land at LV-223?  Why do they share human DNA?  And what is Weyland's real purpose in funding this exploration?

Charlize Theron as Meredith Vickers

With many references, callbacks, and visual cues (the H.R. Giger interiors, the overtly phallic and vaginal alien imagery) from ALIEN, let's get the major question out of the way first:  yes, it IS a prequel to ALIEN, despite all the talk that it was a separate story that "takes place in the ALIEN universe."  Which is also true, but yes, it's a prequel.  Written by LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (who penned last year's dreadful THE DARKEST HOUR), PROMETHEUS is 2/3 of a terrific film.  It moves slowly and methodically, much like the 1979 film.  Made in 3-D and filled with stunning visuals and astonishing production design, PROMETHEUS is an often breathtaking cinematic achievement just from a filmmaking perspective.  Scott is at the top of his game through most of PROMETHEUS, and its central theme of the origins of life, humanity's place in the universe, and what happens when we die make this feel like a very personal film for the director.  Scott is still going strong at 74 and doesn't appear to be slowing down, but 74 is closer to the sunset of a life than say, 50.  But about 2/3 of the way through, something happens.  I don't know if it was scripted that way or if something hit them in the editing room, but suddenly, it switches from philosophical and meditative (read: uncommercial) to a by-the-numbers, big-budget summer movie, almost as if someone else came in and started calling the shots. Scenes seem to be missing.  It switches gears and becomes a huge sci-fi action movie, and the characters start doing stupid things that stupid characters do in big, stupid action movies.  ALIEN was mostly quiet, controlled suspense with expertly-timed jolts, and in the last 1/3 of PROMETHEUS, Scott channels his "Ray Liotta eating his own brain in HANNIBAL" side and goes for uncharacteristic slime and gross-out moments, with a couple of sequences that recall old-school David Cronenberg. 

It almost feels like Scott starts to lose interest in the film, and, around 90 minutes in, it just flies off the rails and almost completely implodes.  Not that it becomes a bad movie, but it just suddenly becomes a very different movie.  Even the final scene comes off like a hastily-added coda that was probably tacked on at the last minute in an attempt to keep the internet fanboys from crashing message boards and social media with their list of grievances detailing why Ridley Scott owes them.  I've seen enough films to know behind-the-scenes discord when I see it, and the last 35 or so minutes of PROMETHEUS have the distinct aura of a studio exec breathing down Scott's neck and telling him to philosophically ponder man's place in the universe on someone else's dime and start showing some aliens, gore, and crashing spaceships.

Ridley Scott directing Rapace

PROMETHEUS is still a fascinating film that's worth seeing, especially on the big screen.  But it's also a very flawed one that still seems like a letdown in some ways.  At Scott's age, this could've been his defining career statement, but by the end, you wonder what, if anything, the film was trying to say at all.  It'll be interesting to see if the DVD/Blu-ray release includes a director's cut (as is often the case with Scott's films), because despite its many moments of brilliance, this PROMETHEUS ultimately feels compromised and incomplete.

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