A mysterious signal … Fuzzy … Indistinct … But enough to wake you from your sleep … The computers are decoding it … Picking out fragments … Yes, yes … It’s a review … A review by The Cellulord … Put it on screen:
|It's behind you!|
It’s a struggle, these days, to avoid spoilers. There are a few films every year that I really want to approach from as much a position of ignorance as possible. Prometheus was one such film.
You’ll be aware of how ubiquitous the marketing for this film has been: Leaked photos from the set, feverish fan-site speculation about the film’s content, virals, trailers, trailers for the trailers, broadcast adverts for the trailers … It has been an almost unprecedented media blitz which required a concerted effort from me to avoid. But I managed. If you, like me, have been stopping your friends in mid-conversation, turning off TV channels at a moment’s notice, leaving expensive magazines unread and avoiding your favourite websites just in case … And you haven’t yet seen the film … Then don’t read this review.
Cos I’m gonna spoil that fucker but good.
Have they gone? Good.
|Michael Fassbender ... He's got the whole world in his hands!|
Just like you, I suspect, I was rooting for this film. I have a long and varied relationship with Ridley Scott’s films, particularly his two masterpieces – Alien and Blade Runner … But I’ll be the first to admit that even his best work is riven with problems, plot-holes, contradictions, omissions and continuity errors … Because these things simply don’t interest the director. He worries about the most infinitesimal details when it comes to the look of a film, but he seems to care not one jot if the story works.
Blade Runner is, simply put, my favourite film. I know every frame of that thing and am fully conversant with its many short-comings … But I don’t care. The over-all effect of the film, the sheer beauty of its vision, the poetry of the script, the clumsy vulnerability of the performances and the unique, ground-breaking work Scott’s team put into creating the greatest mise-en-scene ever seen and heard in a movie eclipse any need I may have for the film to make any damn sense.
So, I expected Prometheus to be a beautiful mess, just like all of his films. I was, therefore, not disappointed.
Very much like the original Alien, it is a film of two halves. Where Alien’s first half was a detailed, grimy, rambling depiction of the boredom of deep-space-flight in the year 2122 (when such things are commonplace), filled with wonderfully human moments (such as the ‘below-decks’ staff bitching about money) and a spaceship more convincingly real than anything previously seen on film (and, yes, I include 2001 in that) … The second half of the film was merely a predictable, derivative old-dark-house movie. A very good one, with some genuinely scary moments and memorable images … But far from the pioneering work of the film’s first half.
With Prometheus he gives us, again in the first half, a gorgeous, exquisitely realised depiction of first-class space travel some twenty years earlier. The space-ship has been carefully designed to accommodate 30-years worth of advances in real-world technology (hence the transparent screens etc) but is just similar enough to the Alien aesthetic we know and love (just look at those doors, for example) that we feel comfortable in familiar surroundings.
|Those sets just feel like home ... For space-truckers and chest-bursters.|
There is an discussion about the delightful design-work in the film – executed by Arthur Max – here.
The design of the spaceship, the special effects with which it is realised and the intriguing questions thrown-up by the pyramid as they explore it are everything I had hoped from the film … I was impressed. Particularly by Michael Fassbender as David.
Because I had kept myself in media black-out with this film, I didn’t know he was an android, but the film’s opening moments make this obvious without having to state it. A lovely personality touch is that he is basing his behaviour on Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia … Which, given Fassbender’s startling resemblance to O’Toole, is a brilliant notion. It also gives us our first hint that, just like most of the other ‘synthetics’ we have met, he isn’t to be trusted. Lawrence wasn’t a humanitarian, nor was he entirely balanced, so why would David be?
David - as he appears in the viral ad – Which I hadn’t seen, so didn’t know he was synthetic. It reminds me of 2001 ... You?
Cleverly, the film doesn’t restrict itself to cues from Scott’s Alien film – such as the wake-up from hyper-sleep; in the relationship between David and Weyland we have echoes of Batty and Tyrell from Blade Runner. There is a nod to Cameron’s re-defining sequel, Aliens (in the line “We are leaving”) there are one or two moments inspired by 2001 (a film Scott clearly adores) and, of course, there is David - a walking quote of another film Scott has clearly always been influenced by: Lawrence of Arabia … Which is a film about colonialism – And what is arriving on other planets if not the first step in colonialism? As David says, when looking at a droplet of infected black liquid “Big things have small beginnings” … A line of sagely advice offered to Lawrence in David Lean’s film.
|Big things have small beginnings ...|
In these opening scenes, we are introduced to a rag-tag group of scientists who have been brought together to search for evidence of alien habitation and very quickly find a row of rounded pyramids … Which scratched away immediately at my memory until I realised where I’d seen them before: In The Book of Alien … They are based on HR Giger sketches for an earlier, unrealised version of Dune – a film Scott was himself attached to thirty-years ago, and an artist with whom he, famously, had a good working relationship.
See ... Here are the illustrations from way-back-when and the comparable images from Prometheus. Firstly the long-distance view:
Then the close-up of the decoration:
David is our guide to the USCSS Prometheus, flapping around in flip-flops. I kept seeing future tech gadgets that I wanted for my very own, I was immersed in a beautifully realised future world.
The teasing glimpses of the pyramid are just Alien-like enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, but different enough for us to not really know from where the threat might originate … But we know a threat will, soon enough!
|So Prometheus is not an Alien film ... Honest.|
Then the plot proper starts … And everything starts to unravel. The second half of the film begins with David, just as the first half did. He activates controls in the alien pyramid by confidently pressing unreadable symbols in the correct order. I’m sorry? So, has he been here before? Is there something we haven’t been told?
Yes. There is much we haven’t been told and, as the film proceeds, these things become harder and harder to ignore. As the film proceeds, you become more and more convinced that a lot of the exposition is missing. Now, Scott is no stranger to so-called ‘Director’s Cuts’ (indeed the phrase was coined for the 1992 re-release of Blade Runner with which, ironically, he had no involvement). But a long hard look at Kingdom Of Heaven (2005) shows a film which was limp and lacklustre at the cinema but, in the extended form on DVD (which is fully 45 minutes longer) much of the character development and political intrigue has been reinstated – giving the film a much better grounding for the action of its third act. One can’t escape the feeling that the same will happen with Prometheus … Because there is so much of it which, in its present form, just doesn’t add up.
Take, for example, the pre-title sequence. We see an alien (that we eventually learn to refer to as ‘An Engineer’) destroying himself so his deconstructed DNA can mix with a planet’s water supply. Was that Earth? Were The Engineers kick-starting life here? If so, why is the DNA black … When the rest of the film shows us unambiguously that black stuff made by The Engineers is bad? Alternatively, was this The Engineers extinguishing life on A.N. Other planet? If so, what relevance does that have to the rest of the story? If The Engineers created life on Earth, and are now planning to destroy it …why?
|Of all the destinations in all the alien spaceships in the universe, their target planet had to be mine!|
Maybe the cave paintings that guide us to them are a trap … Maybe they were waiting until we were sufficiently developed to find them. Okay, but why then kill us? What’s the point of creating life if all you intend to do with it is destroy it? These questions are, I suspect, something that Lindelof will have added to the script, given that they do resonate with the what’s-it-all-about final series of his TV show Lost. Like that TV show, he’s happy to pose conundrums, but less interested in giving us the answers.
Then there’s the whole Weyland question. Guy Pearce appears in the viral ad for the film as a young man but, by the time the movie begins he is as ancient as Dave Bowman in his white Regency bedroom. How come Weyland knows about The Engineer? He clearly does – otherwise he wouldn’t spend the trillions to go to their planet! How, if he knows already who they are and what they do, can he be so spectacularly wrong as to believe they can give him immortality?
Guy Pearce as he appears in the viral – but not the film.
Wayland is, presumably, the son of the character Lance Henriksen played in 2004’s Alien v Predator (if we are to assume that film is, as the saying goes, ‘canon’) who also funded an expedition to a pyramid whilst at death’s door in the faint hope that he may somehow waylay his death. But maybe – and I’m going out on a limb here – Maybe that’s something dredged-up from Ridley Scott’s own psyche. He is, after all, an immensely powerful force in Hollywood, a man who commends hundred million dollar investments at his merest whim … But he’s 75 years old. It must cross his mind that his ability to tackle such vast projects won’t last forever. Maybe a wish for immortality is a perfectly understandable, perfectly human response to that circumstance …
|Ridley directs Noomi Rapace ... There'll be two films ... One, two, see?|
But these are just background concerns one thinks about afterwards … There are more pressing issues that hobble the film while you are actually watching it. What possible reason can David have for infecting Holloway on the ship when there are people in the pyramid being infected already? Surely he would realise that that would be dangerous to everyone onboard (including his employer).
This plot seemed unnecessary and, for me, this notion that the android is content to sacrifice the whole crew was one similarity to Alien too many (along with the ‘you’re not bringing that infected person onto my ship’ scene) and the talking head at the end.
But there is much about the script which, ultimately seems to make no point. I fear this may have come about because Jon Spaihts was hired by Scott to do a direct Alien prequel, whereas Damon Lindelof came on board later, to make it less Alien-like and add all the so-called ‘unique’ content. It seems that the two writers were working on different films and conflicting elements of both made it through to the finished film.
Maybe this explains why we are clearly told that this is NOT the planet seen in the first Alien (that was originally called Acheron, although it was later re-dubbed LV-426, whereas this is LV-223) yet everything we see – from the terrain, to the dust-storm to the (ultimately) crashed spaceship - strongly suggests it is the same (even down to the final ‘do not come here’ warning message).
|The same but different ... This isn't LV-426, clearly ...|
Then there seems to have been a struggle over the characters … Neither writer wanted to surrender their favourite. Why else do you need two disposable Red Jerseys – in the form of the Biologist, Milburn, played by Rafe Spall and the tattooed Geologist, Fifield, played by the ever-creepy Sean Harris? Why does the ship have two commanding officers – in the form of Charlize Theron’s mission-leader, Vickers (who may also be a ‘droid) and the actual Captain of the ship, Janek – played by Idris Elba? Why do we need to have two Archaeologists who get infected? There’s an awful lot of padding in here that a good re-write should have disposed of economically.
The stand-out sequence in this second half is The Caesarean Scene – where Shaw, (who, in typical stalk-and-slash style, is the hero and therefore most-likely survivor) is infected by her husband. In a matter of hours she becomes three-months pregnant, then, in the next few minutes, seems to have carried her alien spawn to full term. This sequence is genuinely nerve-shredding, but it still has the tang of familiarity about it – Not least in its similarity to John Hurt’s legendary Chest-Burst.
|And, see, another one of the film's loose-ends ... That red space-suit you can just see in the background - Someone went to a great deal of trouble to design that ... So that Ms Rapace can stagger past it without noticing it.|
But, no matter how much pain-killer she stabs into herself, it stretches credibility beyond breaking point that she can carry on charging around and saving the world so soon after surgery.
The Engineers are a lovely idea but their mission (based on the information we have so far, at any rate) makes not a lick of sense. In holograms we see them running and being killed. Yet, the Engineer that David defrosts immediately attacks him and sets the controls for Earth. Was there a civil was going on on-board? If so, how did they manage to contain the infection and lock it up on the Big Head room?
|Ridley and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski give good head!|
See, there was a clear intention with this film, to make it unfinished. They wanted to seed enough questions for them to be able to fill a sequel. This is why the alien creatures we see resemble more Lovecraft’s Cthulhu than Geiger’s alien … Because they have not yet reached that stage in their evolution. That’ll obviously come about in the next film – if they ever get to make it. But, The Engineers know what the end result will look like since they have clearly depicted an Alien Queen in one of their murals. So, why the delay?
|The mural in the pyramid. See, tell me that's not a Queen. Seen once in the film then promptly ignored ...|
Given that I’m almost two and a half thousand words into this review and have barely mentioned the characters, you can probably tell how much of an impression they made on me. We are told that there are seventeen crew on the ship, but I could name, maybe, five.
Charlize Theron took time out from stripping-off in Dior commercials to play the important role of Person-Who-Stands-In-The-Background-While-Stuff-Happens. She doesn’t contribute anything significant to the drama and the expected third-act reversal (where she turns out to be an android too) never happens. Doesn’t mean she isn’t, but we don’t get told.
Noomi Rapace successfully avoided the inevitable Ripley-comparison and is entirely convincing as the scientist with the crisis of faith … But she’s far less convincing (or interesting) as one half of the archaeologist couple. Logan Marshall-Green plays the other half and, despite coming across as far more personable than she, he is basically thrown-away. His single, sole function is to infect his girlfriend. But it would have been a simple task, to have David infect her directly. Or have one of the snakes in the pyramid do it … thusly negating the need for that character entirely.
|Is that Dior you're wearing, Ms. Theron?|
The always-watchable Idris Elba is Capt. Janek who sits back and watches events unfold from a distance then calmly takes charge when the moment is right.
Fassbender is, as I’ve mentioned, captivating as David – the charming cuckoo in the nest … But, as for everyone else … I’ve forgotten them already.
The film is, as predicted, a mess; a beautifully designed, perfectly photographed mess. There are moments that made me laugh out loud, moments that made me shiver with both delight and dread … But they were all in the first half. The second half just made me want it all to spend a moment explaining itself.
Maybe the extended BluRay (if we got one) will explain more … Maybe the second Prometheus film (if we got one) will explain more… But I paid good money – and quite a lot of it – to see this film in this form … I feel I deserved a film with a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end … I deserved closure and I didn’t get it.
There has already been a storm of interpretation and speculation on the film – here and here, for example.
Unlike their film, Scott and Lindelof explain themselves at Wondercon. That’s one bad hat, Damon.