13 June 2012

Prometheus (2012)

The Greek myth of Prometheus involves a superior and powerful being who, out of compassion and the desire to generously give to his creation, gives fire to mankind, and is punished by his fellow powerful being "colleagues." His punishment is the daily violent consumption of his liver by an eagle - the liver grows back each day. With these images and ideas in mind - that of a god creating a creature both wonderful and violent, and giving a force both destructive and beneficial to that creature, and being punished for it - one cannot help but be enraptured by the questions, and there are many, many questions, raised by Ridley Scott's entrancing film.

Beginning with our interstellar Prometheus' voluntary self-annihilation at Victoria Falls, which allows mankind to exist by dispersing his DNA through the water, the film revolves around questions of sacrifice, consequence, compassion, and how they structure relations between people. The film begins with the discovery by academics of Scottish cave paintings similar to those found all over the world with large beings standing next to people, and a representation of a specific group of planets far, far away. These scholars of, seemingly all ancient cultures - Noomi Rapace and a sadly forgettable turn from Logan Marshall-Green - conclude that these alien engineers are suggesting we humans go visit them. As invitations to visit go, this one is probably the most vague and least well explicated or elaborated, but as one character says, they're running on faith - and hoping we'll follow them on some faith too.

From there the film smartly moves into space, which serves as a blank slate on which to project the crew's desires, both mundane and spiritual. As usual, Ridley Scott's fastidious attention to the environment in which he places his characters can be so lovely as to overshadow them. As is the case with our Ripley/Sigorney Weaver surrogate this time around, Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw. Between the child-like, tinny, inconsequential quality of her voice and a dour, flat aura/demeanor that persists even when she is supposed to be happy, the world Scott wraps around Dr. Shaw is frequently more interesting to consider than she is! And unfortunately, even with the cotton stuffing of a similar haircut and tendency toward survivalist intelligence, her performance falls far, far short of filling Ripley's shoes. The sparks of fire that Rapace exhibited at times in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011), and which seared her performance into people's minds in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009) are missing here completely, and I left feeling her current It-Girl status to be undeserved (and hopefully short-lived) if it lacks the vulnerability, reserve, complexity and power that made Weaver's Ripley someone to cheer for. In other words, Elizabeth was the one character I was supposed to care about most but cared about least. 

As the movie's titular heroine this would make one think the film suffers, but not as much since Scott has filled the other roles with actors of singular grace and nuance notably: Charlize Theron as the ambiguously motivated and alluringly sibilant Weyland Company representative, Idris Elba as the ship's aloof but humane captain, and Michael Fassbender in a benignly vicious role as the ship's android robot, David. The texture and tone of Fassbender's performance nearly deserves a review all its own, and is thrilling considering that, in what one can only assume to be a nod to the original film, at one point he is still emotionally compelling as a disembodied head! Overall his performance is so wonderful because he perfectly reflects - in gesture, facial tic, vocal modulation - the subliminal questioning about consequence and humanity that the film is obsessed with. For example, when preparing for arrival, as the only sentient "being" awake on the ship, David evokes a creepy voyeurism tinged/satiated by longing with very few spoken lines or movements. His performance fills one with wonder at the complexity of what it means to be human as reflected in what we project onto/into our creations.

After the perfunctory but necessary opening, we arrive on the planet LV-223, and in somewhat haphazard fashion at a site with ancient alien "buildings" - the first place you fly over has alien construction on it, really? Despite the revolutionary quality of this discovery, and despite the fact that he is supposed to be a brilliant Ph.D./scholar (who spends his life in remote locations, for long hours, plying small brushes in delicate strokes, seeking the bits of history that once assembled reveal a larger picture), Marshall-Green's Dr. Charlie Holloway acts like a frat boy on holiday. Understandably insisting on visiting the amazing discovery regardless of there only being six hours of remaining daylight, upon entering the system of tunnels and chambers, he quickly sours on the discovery when live alien beings do not immediately reveal themselves. Holloway turns to calling the central chamber with the massive stone head from the promo posters "just another tomb" without investigating even a fraction as superficially as the others (who, incidentally, are collecting a perfectly preserved alien Engineer's head and checking out massive oozing canisters within twenty feet of him). And so disappointed, he takes no samples/specimens, takes no notes, and spends precious time on an alien world getting drunk and laid on the ship. Holloway's further indulgence in downright brutish and insensitive treatment of android David for being a robot feels a bit ham-fisted, sloppy and odd as a way to keep the audience from caring for him too deeply, since we fully expect in a Ridley Scott film to care about those whose lives are lost. Thankfully, the character's unexpected, unusual, and unprofessional behavior is given little screen time, and the wonderful performances of the other characters dominate.

As is to be expected, the film is one of those where folks are picked off one by one, and since poor Ripley's 1979/2122 Nostromo crew is unaware of the history of the planet when they stop by to answer a distress beacon, we know none of them will make it home. This film is less concerned with making us care about all of the crew than the first film was, but the encounters between human and planetary "wildlife" makes up a bit for this. The creature effects are beyond amazing, and I was happy to see H.R. Giger's delicious manipulation of human reproductive and other body parts again brought to bear on the alien life. What also became clear is that, whether planned or not, the symbolism used in creating Alien's body makes sense considering the same superior beings who created us also created the Alien - albeit very indirectly, accidentally, and against their will. But I won't ruin the fun by saying more... Suffice it to say that more than one scene had the audience, and me as well, groaning out loud over not just the death of a character, but the appearance of the critter that killed them!

The action sequences are both awe-inspiring and lovely as the crew discovers planet LV-223 to be less cradle of the alien Engineers' civilization and more Area 51/1950's New Mexico desert. But the real thrill comes from the realization that each character's actions are constantly pushing and pulling at what the cost of sacrifice is, whether the sacrifice is one's body, one's life, one's dignity, or one's ultimate desires. In other words, obvious ideas about 'what it means to be human' aside, the film's strength lies in the other ideas it plays with. Ridley Scott's film glows with its ability to make the environment itself an active force compelling choice and suggesting that sacrifice is often as much about the human as it is about the "alien" - ie, the tension between that which is presumably us and that which is profoundly Not us/is hostile to us.

A bit esoteric a viewing lens, and maybe reading too much? Perhaps. But the unexpected depth and beauty of the film's play with the ideas of compassion and sacrifice made me less annoyed by 1) the  number of unanswered central questions and 2) the obviousness of inevitable sequels suggested by the end of the film. By managing to raise similar, but more complex questions than the first Alien, fans of the terrifying and the brainy are both sure to be satisfied, and excited for what Scott has planned next.

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Genre - A+
Epidermal/Ethnic Variance - C+
Visuals/Audio - A
Gender Rep - B
Narrative - B+
Gut Says - A
OVERALL GRADE: A-

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