Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2012


On the origin of species

The 'Alien' series is given new context in 'Prometheus,' Ridley Scott's inquisitive, frustrating, gorgeous folly

20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce
Rated R / 2 hours, 4 minutes
Opens June 8, 2012
(out of four)

"Big things have small beginnings," utters the android David about halfway into Prometheus. He is talking about a single drop of a potent biological agent, fully aware of the massive consequences that single drop will have. He is also talking in a very literal sense about the whole idea of creation, and in a more meta sense commenting on the film itself and its peripheral relationship to the Alien franchise. This is only a pseudo-prequel - producing a separate mythology of its own while tangentially re-contextualizing the original series - but it would be remiss if it didn't acknowledge its place in the canon.

But it could just as accurately be said, "Big ideas have small beginnings," and in many ways Prometheus feels like the small beginning of what should have been a bigger idea. Not that its ideas aren't Big, in the sense that they revolve around mankind's biggest questions about the nature of its existence. But . . . well, the bigger the idea, the higher the stakes, if you'll pardon yet another idiom. And in this case those high stakes often go unmet.

The final result is, frankly, all over the place, a fascinating but unwieldy concoction of cerebral sci-fi and monster movie, held back as much by its own conflicting intentions as by its inability to dig deeper into its philosophical conceits. What should seemingly be the meat and potatoes of the film's thematic apparatus is too often reduced to clunky exposition and truncated backstory.

That being said, those philosophical conceits are enough to give it a certain level of intrigue. I was fascinated and frustrated, the inevitable end result of any film that doesn't quite justify its promise.

As most are probably aware (to one degree or another), in Greek mythology Prometheus was a god who, among other things, created human beings out of clay. In the film, the vessel Prometheus is on a fact-finding mission on a moon in a distant star system, its team of doctors and scientific specialists tasked with uncovering no less than the secrets of mankind's creation, out of clay or otherwise.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend/fellow archaeologist Charlie Holloway (skinny Tom Hardy Logan Marshall-Green) believe - or at least hope - they will quite literally meet their makers, come face to face with the so-called "Engineers" they now believe created humans thousands of years ago.

Elizabeth and Charlie's optimism about the expedition is tempered once they've awakened from hypersleep. The ship is ostensibly run by the ominous Miss Vickers (Charlize Theron), an ice queen who seems to have her own agenda. (An example of the oft-shoddy dialogue: "Miss Vickers, is there a hidden agenda you're not telling us about?!" Subtle, guys. Very subtle.)

And then there's David (Michael Fassbender), the android who seems to be in on everyone's secrets, while hiding a few of his own. Fassbender, unsurprisingly, is one of the film's great highlights. Consider the way he produces a kind of precise, mechanical, almost ballet-like body language. Or his compassionate smile and countenance, but with that sinister twinkle in his eye. It's a virtuoso performance by an actor who's as good as anyone in ths business right now.

His character ends up serving a variety of purposes, not the least of which goes right back to the central theme of creation. David has the same unspoken desire to discover (and perhaps even destroy) his Creator as Elizabeth and Charlie do. And his role in the creation process is ultimately executed in, shall we say, proactive fashion. He is the key figure in Prometheus, a window into the soul of both the creation and creator. One would think the humans would fill that role, but no, they're more about self-discovery than anything else. Their creating has already been done - now they're just looking for answers. The film is ultimately about beings and their relationship to their creators - and the moral and ethical responsibilities they/we have to their/our creations. David exemplifies all of the questions and contradictions that come with that.

Movies dealing with anthropological/existential discovery or speculation almost always have a running thread about belief vs. reason, with at least one character of faith defending it as a defining characteristic of humanity, and at least one character of no faith refuting that position in the face of verifiable fact. Prometheus is no different, with Shaw filling the role of the faithful and David on the opposite end of the discussion.

What's aggravating is how unmotivated it seems in this case - even more so than usual. The subtext couldn't be more clear as it is, yet the film feels the need to address it further, and in literal fashion. "Hey, look, she's wearing a cross! Conversation starter!"

And as so often happens, it winds up simply landing on a trite message of faith that the movie could have done well enough without, if only because at this point, "We're human beings - therefore we believe!" is such a tired and empty refrain.

What's interesting about Prometheus is how much more ambitious it is, at least in terms of its thought, than Alien, its direct inspiration. That movie was brilliant in part because of its simplicity, and the laser focus that Ridley Scott brought to it. This one - Scott's much-celebrated return to science fiction after a 30-year absence - is going for something bigger (there's that word again), but that ambition is also part of its undoing. Personally, I still don't quite know how to feel about it. It has sequences of excellence and a great breadth of curiosity about its subject matter. And yet we can't help but wonder how that curiosity could have been followed with a bit more probing. The clearest conclusion may simply be that Prometheus is a tantalizing effort - for better, and for worse.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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