Saturday, June 9, 2012

Smoke, Not Fire

This is the problem with pre-screening hype - it gets expectations up.  Instead of just having a nice little movie, it has to be the BIGGEST THING EVER!!  Instead of showcasing stylish framing and camerawork, it has to SHOCK YOUR SENSES!!  And instead of adding a puzzle piece or two to an existing storyline, it has to ANSWER ALL THE BIG QUESTIONS!!

Prometheus does none of those things, although much is promised.  It's not a bad film; in fact, director Ridley Scott shows once again that he knows how to both capture breath-taking beauty through a camera lens and how to create memorable environments for his characters to cavort within.  But ultimately, Prometheus is a movie that didn't need to be made, much less hyped to within an inch of its life.

The chief problem here is Alien, which shot Scott to A list stardom some thirty years ago.  (His position there was cemented with Blade Runner a few years later, a two-fer that made him a science fiction darling, if not a downright wunderkind.)  Alien is so good and stands up so well after all these years that . . . well, let's put it this way.  Alien is the horror equivalent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee didn't write a sequel, prequel, or much of anything afterward.  It's not that Prometheus is bad; it's that it's not Alien, yet it tries to answer the questions Alien left unanswered.  Here's a tip, Hotshot.  There's no reason to answer them and trying to just feels forced.  There's a heavy patina of philosophy and theology coating Prometheus and it doesn't fit well.  It certainly can fit well in science fiction; in fact, I've said repeatedly that science fiction is a genre that is ideally suited to asking the Big Questions such as "What makes us human?" and "What really matters?"  But just because a film asks those questions doesn't make it a Good Film.

Alien is all about cramped spaces, shadowy things-that-want-to-kill-us, and figuring out how to survive as the crew are picked off, one by one.  (And a cat.)  Prometheus can't do that, because we already know what was a mystery in the first film.  We already know what the aliens are and how awful they are.  We already know the shape of the ship and the look of the bridge.  Wisely, Prometheus doesn't try to flat-out copy that.  We get a large cast of scientists who have followed cave paintings to a faraway moon in hopes of "meeting our maker."

The problems begin early.  The first scene, which is lovely and terrifying in turns, is not needed and removes any trace of mystery from the rest of the film.  The film further suffers from too large a cast - it never gels as an ensemble and there's not enough screen time to develop each character, so a few become throwaways.  The scientists aren't particularly curious about the alien civilization they've discovered, they are overly mercenary, and they make some deeply stupid decisions.  While Alien gave us Ellen Ripley,  Prometheus thinks simply passing the Bechdel Test automatically makes it a Worthy Film.  Charlize Theron's Vickers has daddy issues and Noomi Rapace's Shaw has way too much symbolism tied up in jewelry.  Alien gave us a treacherous android and a shadowy corporate agenda.  While Prometheus retains both, those elements have lost the power to shock us.  Oh, and sex is bad and pregnancy is a horror.

Prometheus is not without its moments, however.  Michael Fassbender as the android David is especially noteworthy and Idris Elba as the captain could be - I suspect there's a scene or two on the cutting room floor that should have been left in there on that score.  The scope and sweep of the cinematography is jaw-dropping and deliberately invokes David Lean (maybe a key to the android's name, now that I think about it), especially Lean's masterwork Lawrence of Arabia.

In short, Prometheus wants to be an Important Film and it tries mightily to be that.  Unfortunately, along the way, Scott substituted bombast for joy.

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