Thoughts on "Prometheus"

I don't actually know if this will warrant "SPOILERS" or not, so read at your own risk.

Probably the first and most important thing I can say about Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" is that I enjoyed the experience of seeing it, and despite the feelings on it that I have settling in, I'd recommend most go, and work out their own feelings on the movie just the same. It is the sort of work that perhaps I must damn with faint praise, ranking it in line with things like Christopher Nolan's "Inception" or James Cameron's "Avatar" - a beautiful film which might be just a little too in love with itself, it's own vision and mythology, all of which is propped up with too much exposition [that might not, in fact, tell you much] a sort of shallow philosophy that I imagine must resonate with someone, if only for the fact of shared experience.

In many ways, comparing "Prometheus" to "Inception" and "Avatar" is the fairest thing to do. They are all films that will appeal to a certain kind of fan, perhaps not just of science fiction, and not necessarily all the same kind of fan. Though there will be people who will herald all three as favorites, I imagine there will be less crossover than some might expect, each camp using their movie over the other two as "why this is good, and the rest are not." Still, it is my belief the three will find a home together when it comes to film discussion, and to me that feels right, as all three are the same strange mix of entertaining and disappointing, deep and superficial. 

But perhaps I am showing bias, as my experience with all three were decidedly similar, especially "Prometheus" and Nolan's "Inception." I left both with the strong urge to see them again, not necessarily out of that "Lord of the Rings" level of enjoyment or fandom, but because of a pervasive feeling of puzzlement, a need to look at this rather complex machine of parts both moving and not that managed to suggest motion even when still. What's moving here, what isn't? Is this feeling that there's something at work I'm not seeing truth, or a kind of hoax, a pandering trick of the narrative to make feel think more is going on than there actually is? Can what I'm looking at, watching, and again, enjoying, stand up to any sort of scrutiny, can it be figured out, are there answers to the questions it poses? Is my wonder the result of an artistic stirring, or have I fallen for some elaborate trick, it is all just humbug? 

These kinds of movies spur me to figure such things out - they want analysis, they ask to be discussed by merely being, to be dissected, argued over, perhaps endlessly. In some ways, their biggest accomplishment is to stir a second screening, even in an ambivalent or casual viewer. It would be easy to dismiss this instinct as the film student in me, but I personally don't believe that to be the case, as I think my inclination to approach everything with a critical eye doesn't preclude some works being presented as something which should be approached in such a way. [To wit: perhaps no one involved in the movies' creation ever expected my philosophy thesis on "Death Wish" and "Kill Bill," or Jonathon Lethem's novella of essays on "They Live," but your "2001s," your "All the President's Mens" - these were movies made in hopes to get their audiences thinking, not just about the issues they address, but the craft and presentation involved as well.]

And I suppose there is the other compliment I have for "Prometheus" and the trinity I've appointed it a part of: in this it is successful, and thus a surprise to me, and joy, that films like it [and "Avatar," and "Inception"] can get made, and made on the blockbuster level of movies. That anything remotely cerebral can boast both the hype, the budget, the opening of something like a "Harry Potter" or an "Avengers" is a joy to me, and a callback to a time I consider to be bygone. A time when a blockbuster could be artistically and intellectually relevant, along with entertaining.

Is "Prometheus" entertaining? In it's way. The movie was built around the performance of Micheal Fassbender, and it shows - his character of the android David is the movie's centerpiece [whether he should be or not is an argument for later], and thus he is given the best lines, some of the best moments, and his machinations within the film are the most enjoyable, if not unsettling. There is something remarkably teenage-like in his movements, his shallowness and ego, his puckish sensibility and the fact that we feel as though he's the character truly in mid-growth. There's a charming subtly to the character, in both dialogue and performance, and even if I had despised every moment of "Prometheus" I feel I would be compelled to return to it if only for this singular character. Furthermore, he feels unique - a step between something, a missing link in the robots we've seen portrayed on screen - somewhere between the eponymous Wall-E and Alien's Bishop, or the Replicants [I thought back often to the failed "AI" - a character like David was ultimately the linchpin missing from whatever that pile was attempting to say].

The cast is talented and interesting, though greatly lacking in character - specifically things to do, and things to say. As actresses, both Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron [particularly the former] had the potential, especially with their characters, to blow Sigourney Weaver and Ripley out of the water, as both boast a level of craft and presence quite a bit greater than Scott's original female protagonist, which is saying something. However, the end result lands far shorter, their characters are too skeletal, and though both are trying to bring an extra level to the basic archetypes they're portraying, Theron doesn't have enough to build from, and Rapace's real brilliance seems to be snatched out of nowhere, dragging along the clunky dialogue and "I can never be a mother" cliche as best it can [which might have built into one of the movie's more horrific scenes if not introduced only as an afterthought], never quite able to compensate for the dead weight. 

The rest of the characters are unremarkable, again a shame, because this cast is exceptional, and chews up the scenery despite not being given much in the way of teeth. The crew is mostly made up of working stiffs, as if they are there to fulfill the jobs necessary on a mission like Prometheus's, and thus each seems to have little in the way of an opinion as it concerns the movie's action. Is this some sort of subliminal commentary on the unthinking working drones, who never look hard enough at anything in the world to inform something resembling a worthwhile belief or point of view? Maybe, it certainly feels diminutive towards them, but ultimately, really, they are all just expendables, "Red Shirts" in the science fiction vernacular. They don't feel like they matter, so should we care they have nothing that matters to say?

Ideally, but in this case, not really. The original "Alien" is almost equally dismissive of it's supporting characters, and while I wish those who were being picked off one-by-one had a little more to make me care about their deaths ["Cabin in the Woods" did a better job this summer when it came to making me give a damn about those I knew *had* to die], it would be necessary to keep me going. Still, much how "Prometheus" asks to be discussed, it's underlying philosophy - some great but vague tie between faith and science - cries out for more perspectives, which are never really given.

The horror aspect of the film is what will bring many to the table, and sadly, is not really there. Sure, there are some absolutely squirm-worthy moments in the movie, and I was left writhing in my seat on more than a couple of occasions. And that's good. I enjoyed those scenes, and would mark them as the movies greatest accomplishments - both memorable and frightening. One in particular even manages to recall Alien's unique brand of suspense, body horror, and claustrophobia, all in one frightening and desperate scene. Sure, it's not a traditional scare, nothing here is, but it's very, very strong, and hopefully what the film will be remembered for. There's also a nice level of... I am reticent to say "suspense" in the film, but from the very beginning, something is decidedly, deliciously uncomfortable about "Prometheus," and this feeling doesn't abate until very late in the film, about at the same time of the horrific scene which I have only vaguely mentioned here, which on thinking further about I'd call the movie's too early crescendo.

Losing that feeling is disappointing, especially as it begins the ending sequence, a series of fairly standard scifi and action cliches to tie everything up, suddenly turning what has presented itself as a thinking man's movie [again, whether it actually is or isn't is not relevant to this point] into a montage of events you don't need to be a first year film student to call. Everything you think is going to happen does, and the manic violence isn't bad, it just feels out of place. Other things that should be more frightening are presented too clean, too clinically to actually warrant a good scare, or even build the suspense that isn't quite there. Perhaps this is just a side-effect of the beauty of "Prometheus," a rare case of something being lost in the way it was shot; more likely, this sense of removal from the action springs from the convoluted nature in which the movie explores creation through science - selfless, cold, and composed, as if it's all an experiment behind glass.

Like most summer movies do now, the film boast two endings, though not in the after-credits sense [nothing negative meant, I do love some post-credits shawarma], the one I will designate as the first taking place between Rapace's Shaw and Fassbender's David, struck me as particularly satisfying. Shaw's decision not to discard her faith after all she's seen, and perhaps less importantly, not to return home, but rather continue to seek out her creators, her Engineers, to confront them and ask why they've forsaken us, hits a powerful yet simplistic cord, one that recalls for me the overarching plot of Garth Ennis's comic masterpiece "Preacher." So while not new, it remains novel, this idea that God and Faith are separate, and because of that, the former becomes something that can be tracked down and held accountable, while the latter is the sword said tracker will wield on just such a crusade. 

David's reaction is noteworthy too - a sort of bargaining for his own life, a calm, yet striking call back to very human stages of grief. Pinocchio becoming a real boy, in far more frightening and violent circumstances. Ultimately, "Prometheus" doesn't feel like it earns either of these realizations or transformations in the characters, but the actors believe and the sentiments are strong, novel, and ring true. Better buildup would be wonderful, but success is achieved nonetheless. It left this viewer ultimately satisfied, more willing to forgive the science-or-religion-or-both cliche, and the hollow structure that props that particular conundrum up.

What I consider the film's second ending is more problematic - though a  fist pump moment for the fan in me, and a practical necessity for anything so tied to "Alien," I almost wish it hadn't happened. "Prometheus" has a lot of flaws, but it's biggest handicap, whether you deem it successful or not, is its tie to such a classic in genre. Most have said far more enjoyment can be found by divorcing "Prometheus" from "Alien," and I do believe there is some truth in that, so having the progenitor of one of the most famous monsters in film pop up at the end feels damaging to "Prometheus" as a work unto itself. Other nods to "Alien" are equally vexing - things are smoother, newer, presented as prototypes to the violent legacy to come. And sure, some satisfaction can be gleaned from a tip of the hat to the source material here and there, but it mostly serves to remind the viewer they are not watching "Alien."

An aside; I can't help but wonder how much of  "Prometheus" suffers from both the absence and lingering presence of H.R.Giger. As Giger's designs are clearly the basis for much of what we're seeing, those things built off of them, not directly a part of his designs, feel like derivatives, even deviations. "Prometheus" struggles - it is very much a part of "Alien's" world [or "Alien" is a part of its], but these incongruities distract, leaving it half anchored. Not quite it's own thing, but not something entirely new, either, and uncomfortable as whatever that is.

Yet despite all its problems, "Prometheus" cannot easily be dismissed. It calls back to a Kubrick-style of filmmaking not often seen anymore, the artistic blockbuster, the big-budget exploration of an autuer, not necessarily looking for audience, but expecting an audience nevertheless. A movie presented on a level and in an arena  more often reserved for popcorn escapism, it at least attempts for something more, while demanding tolerance for its ideas, even if not outlining perfectly just what those ideas are. Yes, it's brazen, but perhaps that sort of audacity deserves it's own bit of respect.

Still, the story feels too simple for the scope of its themes, each beat happening more because it feels like it has to, rather than developing organically, and while "plot holes" are the least of the movies problems, many will see them as sticking points for the overall experience. Smaller, more charming aspects of the experience are lost in a lot of the spectacle as well, and "Prometheus" will struggle with this - if it's a movie that demands to be seen again, it could make the experience a little more riveting early on, but the glacial pace of the film's first half is always going to be a bit of a bore to get through. The characters' lack of development remains problematic too - if this was just an action movie, or one of the summer standards "Prometheus" finds itself sharing the marquee with, maybe that wouldn't matter, but what looks like big ideas are being presented here, and the characters who engage with those ideas are as important - if not more - than any supposition the movie dares to present about the nature of, well - anything. These are the shortcomings of the experience that is "Prometheus," and yet somehow, "Prometheus" remains an experience still.

As part of the trinity I mentioned before, those equally flawed and self-indulgent money-sinks "Inception" and "Avatar," "Prometheus" asks for much, and gives very little in return. And like with those, the highest compliment I can give it will sound like a disappointing condemnation to some, and a ringing endorsement to others - that I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

It goes without saying, but what did you think? About "Prometheus" or my response. If you expect your comments are going to be an essay unto themselves, email them to me. I'll post them as guest blogs, with your permission.

1 comments :: Thoughts on "Prometheus"

  1. Thought I'd add this - - an interesting analysis of the film that's going viral. It's... in-depth, and if nothing else I really like the writer's style [dude is super-mindful of the fact the movie does not exist in a vacuum, both socially, and as a piece of pop culture], though it's a little heavy-handed and none of it addresses the fact that all of that could and maybe is true, yet none of it matters if the movie doesn't work.