Bring expectations down to Earth
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 8, 2012
“Prometheus” began life as a prequel to “Alien,” Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 science-fiction action film; along the way it became a stand-alone project, its chief claim to fame being that it marked Scott’s hotly anticipated return to the genre since his similarly genre-defining “Blade Runner.”
So the biggest surprise about “Prometheus” might be just how unoriginal it is, given Scott’s track record as a genre game-changer. Visually impressive and featuring one or two breakout performances, this anticlimactic exercise too often plays as though it has been cobbled together from archetypes, imagery and tropes from countless other movies.
The disappointment takes its time settling in after a promising overture, during which Scott’s camera swoops majestically over an otherworldly landscape, a portentous orchestral score signaling that, rather than traffic in pulpy escapism, “Prometheus” intends to take itself very seriously.
Soon enough, we meet the principal players of “Prometheus”: Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), archeologists who are leading a group of explorers in the year 2089 when they happen upon a cave of futuristic dreams. Wall paintings confirm their competing theories regarding the extraterrestrial source of life.
When the action picks up a few years later, Holloway, Shaw and their ragtag team -- overseen by chilly corporate honcho Meredith Vickers (played by Charlize Theron in a witchy turn in keeping with a similar character in “Snow White and the Huntsman”) -- have boarded a spacecraft called Prometheus, which, under the sponsorship of Weyland Industries, is taking them to an undisclosed location and, presumably, to the origin of the human species itself.
At least that’s the fondest wish of Shaw, who as portrayed by Rapace (best known as the Swedish actress who played Lisbeth Salander in the first version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) emerges as one of the movie’s most nuanced characters, a scientist as compelled by her belief in God as by cold, hard facts.
Holloway, her love interest, is supposedly her opposite number, believing in Darwin rather than a higher being.
But the role of spiritual other half by rights belongs to the starship’s valet: a serenely servile android named David, played by Michael Fassbender in a performance reminiscent of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Dirk Bogarde’s “The Servant” and Peter O’Toole’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” which David studies assiduously to learn how to be human.
As always, Fassbender delivers an assured and subtle performance of superb control and physical expressiveness, but the fact that his references are made so explicit is of a piece with “Prometheus’s” derivative style, which nods to everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Star Trek” as Shaw and her crew explore a darkly forbidding planet. (Even the holographic ghosts that they momentarily encounter seem vaguely reminiscent of something else -- in this case, of Tupac Shakur’s recent posthumous appearance at the Coachella music festival.)
Scott can always be relied upon to create bold visual designs in his movies, and “Prometheus” is no exception: The movie looks good -- from the ship’s crammed bridge and Vickers’s snow-white, Swarovski-chandeliered cabin to the glyphs, cylindrical ruins and biomorphic pod-shapes that dominate the labyrinthine pyramid where the crew does most of its intergalactic spelunking.
It’s a pity that Scott climbed onto the 3-D bandwagon for “Prometheus.” Its striking visuals aren’t enhanced but undermined by the effect -- here utterly devoid of depth or surprise, even when slithering, albino space-lampreys begin to pop out where they’re least expected.
If it beggars belief that an otherwise intelligent scientist (played in the film by Rafe Spall) would actually reach out and touch a hissing alien cobralike life form, how else will “Prometheus” get to the goopy parts? Rest assured, it does get goopy -- not to mention gory and grotesque, from a nasty subcutaneous worm infestation to a climactic sequence involving a self-administered surgical procedure that manages to be risible, repulsive and rapaciously sadistic at the same time.
All the God-talk and philosophical musings about morality and “meeting our makers” aside, “Prometheus” is primarily about delivering those visceral, terrifying jolts. That it does so without generating the taut suspense and moody atmosphere of its antecedents qualifies as one of its greatest failings.
Then there are the myriad loose ends, from a maddeningly random, unresolved moment between Vickers and Prometheus's salty-dog pilot, Janek (Idris Elba), and a confounding episode involving David and Holloway, to the fundamental question — why destroy what you go to the trouble to create? — that lingers after the inevitable carnage ensues.
Presumably, some of those questions are left open to create demand for a sequel to the erstwhile prequel of all the other sequels. But in the case of “Prometheus,” that prospect is less a tantalizing promise than an idle, ho-hum threat.
Contains sci-fi violence, including some intense images and brief profanity.