Prometheus, Part 1: Future Imperfect
I find myself grading on a curve when I go the movies these days. Maybe Hollywood really doesn’t ‘make ‘em like they used to,’ or perhaps I’ve just grown a little too familiar with my favorite popular art form, and that familiarity has bred some contempt. Either way, it’s very rare for me to see anything of late that truly excites or moves me, that exceeds my very experienced expectations.
Despite hopes to the contrary, I’m forced to report that Sir Ridley Scott’s new sci fi opus, Prometheus, must be graded on a curve. It is not a great film, nor a perfect one, but its best qualities outweigh its worst and help it stand out from its middling Hollywood Summer of 2012 classmates.
The story: in the late 21st century, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a 35,000 year-old cave painting on a Scottish isle depicting a humanoid figure pointing to a cluster of six stars. Our intrepid explorers interpret this (along with a number of other, similar pictograms from ruins around the world) as proof that human life was engineered by an alien race (henceforth known as—shocking—The Engineers). An expedition to the world believed to be the target of the six-figure star map is bank-rolled by industrial magnate Charles Weyland (Guy Pearce, in heavy old age makeup), and our story begins in earnest. When Shaw, Holloway, and their fellow explorers touch down on the unnamed LV 226, they discover a complex of ancient pyramids—and, of course, something terrible and frightening inside.
What unfolds from there is pretty standard sci fi and horror fare: chambers are uncovered housing materials that the explorers cannot identify and do not understand; the corpses of long-dead aliens abound, filling our explorers with dread at the thought of what might have killed them all; and ultimately, the expedition’s clumsy poking about awakens two or three terrible things that threaten their lives, and even the well-being of good old planet Earth, trillions of miles away.
You can see what’s happening here: we’re being served a fairly by-the-numbers what-have-we-stumbled-upon horror film, in the tradition of everything from The Mummy to John Carpenter’s The Thing to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Disappointingly, Scott’s cast of characters are drawn in the broadest of strokes, and are provided very little opportunity to interact in simple, everyday ways before the strangeness is unleashed and survival instincts kick into high gear. We learn that Dr. Shaw is a woman of faith and religious belief; that her archeologist boyfriend isn’t; that corporate representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is a profit-hungry, control-obsessed shark; and that David, the resident android (played with chilly intensity by Michael Fassbender), is fussy, polite, and more than a little passive-aggressive in relation to the humans he serves, whom he obviously considers inferior to himself. My primary gripe with Prometheus resides here, among the garden of un-exploited possibilities that encircles these fine actors and the interesting characters they might have created, given the right material and sufficient opportunity. Because sufficient human interest is never established, the surrogate terror that could have infected the audience once the true purpose of the pyramid is revealed is never achieved. Consequently, we’re left with a film that is not unenjoyable, but that feels blunted in affect, like a normally-compelling person plied with heavy mood meds.
That, however, is where my complaints with Prometheus end.
(There be spoilers ahead, mateys. Abandon ship if ye wish to know nothing more.)
What Prometheus does well, and why I’ll praise it to the skies, lies not in its characters or their reaction to their situation, but in the situation itself; the staggering visions offered by Scott and his crew; and the big, crazy, cosmic questions that the situation raises, both for those locked inside the narrative, and those merely bearing witness to it. This is a skillful, visionary film full of big ideas despite the narrative balls that it occasionally drops, and Hollywood is so woefully short on skillful, visionary films full of big ideas that the arrival of this one—warts and all—strikes me as reason enough for celebration, and a mitigation of our disappointment that the film doesn’t feel more satisfying.
From the opening scene—a puzzling, wordless passion play in which a humanoid alien on a planet that may or may not be a primordial Earth seeds said planet with his own DNA by his apparent suicide—to its closing scenes—when the faithful Shaw demands to know why the alien Engineer she has discovered hates mankind and seeks nothing less than its complete extinction—Prometheus dares the audience to wrap its head around some daffy but delirious notions about the origins of our species, the value of faith, the pitfalls of exo-planetary discovery and exploration, and the implications of encounters with an alien species. All of these big questions arrive wrapped in the handsome, awe-inspiring visuals that Scott and his crew have borne out of powerful CG processors and their own boundless imaginations, and the questions raised linger long after the end credits have rolled. Where did we come from? What if we were created by another race? What would we say to them if we could meet them face to face? And how would we react if we met our makers and learned (oh dear!) that they regard us as little more than an unwanted byproduct of their cosmic meanderings? Pestilential vermin, to be isolated and eradicated?
Could we face the grim reality of such a revelation?
Would we be equal to standing firm against out makers, and preserving our life and liberty by force?
Granted, these questions are never fully answered in the course of the film: they are merely raised, and they remain, after the viewer has left the theater, to haunt, taunt, move, reprove and puzzle the curious, imaginative viewed all the way home. Considering that most modern sci fi films churned out by major studios involve ridiculous alien invasion scenarios or endless scenes of giant robots destroying skyscrapers (or both), I found Prometheus’s heady existential ponderings and vertigo-inducing cosmic shock to be a welcome relief from standard sci fi cinema idiocy. Though hobbled by listless characters and some odd story turns, this is, nonetheless, a science fiction film more akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The arrival of such a film, however imperfect, should please anyone tired of leaving the movies with no questions to ponder, no mysteries to penetrate, no deeper resonances to absorb.