Friday, 26 October 2012

Prometheus – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Ridley, Riddled, Didley, Diddled. In Greek mythology Prometheus was a trickster god who betrayed his own kind and allowed the Olympians to gain ascendancy over the Titans. He championed mankind (as then it was, prior to Pandora), not only saving them from destruction at the tempestuous, lightning-wielding hands of Zeus but also giving them (or giving them back) the secret of fire and—to pull further on the thunder god’s beard—duping Zeus in perpetuity out of the meat of all sacrifices offered to him. In punishment for his duplicity Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver torn out daily by an eagle, forever and ever until even Franz Kafka lost interest and declared this ongoing repetition to be thoroughly pointless.

Students of the cinema will note several key features of the Prometheus myth: firstly, that the protagonists (with the possible exception of the eagle) act almost entirely without motivation; secondly, that for its dramatic impact the tale relies heavily on the evocative, grandiose and (to a large extent) shocking imagery conjured by its narrative; and thirdly, that the story rollicks along quite shamelessly over plot holes and the rocky logic of convenience (most notably in the rough-as-guts abdominal surgery that is perpetuated upon Prometheus in the name of entertainment). For all its symbolism the legend of Prometheus remains perilously light on substance.

Cut to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which draws not only on the original Greek myth but also upon subsequent connotations of lone scientific endeavour and experimentation gone wrong. (Hence, the frequently overlooked “or” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.) Scott is renowned for his cinematic creation of immersive science fiction worlds (Alien, Blade Runner). Indeed, he is a doyen within the genre, and it is little surprise, then, that he renders Prometheus with all the sensory grandeur and visceral suffering that is warranted by its mythically portentous subject matter. So far, so good, and as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw and the crew of the spaceship Prometheus travel in search of the “Engineers” who bequeathed star maps to all of Earth’s ancient cultures, it seems that the film may indeed impart to the viewer much of the epic mastery it so undoubtedly promises.

And yet, it doesn’t take long before Shaw and company (surrendering their weapons to the goodwill and high spirits of Christmas) throw good practice to the wind and so charge on in to explore the caveat…

Prometheus is overly ambitious in its aims, seeking not only to symbolically embody two contrasting mythologies but also (unofficially) to prefigure Alien—the Scott and sf/horror archetype with all its innate expectations—and also (we might fear) one or two as-yet-unfilmed “prequel sequels” that, once bequeathed the Promethean gift of fire, will burn with little purpose beyond elucidating the specially created obfuscation of Prometheus itself. Where successive scriptwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof fail (or succeed, depending on your viewpoint; but in either case, they’ve done it terribly) is that they’ve imbued Prometheus with all the structural integrity and narrative coherence of the original trickster myth. The paucity of logic that they’ve brought to the script—and let Scott’s complicity here be noted—must surely be worthy of some award, even within the moth-eaten wardrobe of Hollywood’s finest; for Prometheus on the big screen is a story with more holes than plot, and as the credits roll and the conspicuous absence of consulting logicians gives way to an innumerable flock of liver-ripping effects artists, one cannot help but voice the irreverent thought that each of these (doubtlessly talented) individuals must surely have in some way sponsored one of the film’s groundbreaking array of logical non sequiturs and effects-without-cause.

When Titanic was released in 1997, would-be viewers who knew of James Cameron were split into two factions: those who preached the word “Terminator” with great if indiscriminate fervour; and those who more cautiously adopted the stance, “Yes, but unless there’s actually a Terminator onboard the boat…” And upon this distinction, plot- and theme-conscious cinemagoers were saved while those who romanticised about an omnipotent director went oh-so-tragically down with the ship. Now, whereas Titanic was quite blatantly a trap, advocates of Ridley Scott may find Prometheus a more insidious lure to avoid. It is, after all, clearly Alien-esque as a prequel (although, so too did Predators pass as Predator-esque; at least long enough to ruin 2010), and in contrasting the masked humanity of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) with the monstrous evolution of the Promethean android David (Michael Fassbender) it draws obvious inspiration also from Blade Runner. Moreover, Prometheus is visually bountiful (a Scott trademark that may be enough for some viewers) and carries a cleverly dissonant score by Marc Streitenfeld, the measured dose of which evokes a sense both of majestic, space-faring enterprise and unsettling, best-left-alone secrets. Yet, where Streitenfeld succeeds in wielding the musical staff à la Jerry Goldsmith or Vangelis, the same cannot be said of Ridley Scott in reprising his own role as classic dark science fiction “engineer”. For all that Prometheus might carry itself as a sovereign majesty cloaked in nuance and mystery, hinting as if at some greater meaning just beyond reach, for the most part Scott merely rehashes Alien and Blade Runner themes—bringing nothing more to them than a cinemagoer would by heating up old popcorn—and while doing so presents a supposedly new, quasi-religious take on the SF universe, which, although overtly pursued, remains poorly developed and indeed deliberately unfulfilled. In stark reality, Scott’s touch is little more than the shambling and gratuitously exhibitionist gait of Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor dressed only in clodhopping moonboots.

Ultimately, the “Ridley-Scott-ness” of Prometheus is nothing more than a façade (or perhaps an enormous carved head that really has no business being there). The support cast might make the most of their screen time—particularly Idris Elba (Captain Janek), who is characterised astutely “against” his current small screen persona in Luther—but the lead actors are given either clichéd or cardboard cut-out roles (sometimes both), and in all other respects the movie suffers from the clunky chains and fearsome improbability of its script. Lines are dropped in with the subtlety of spanners, drawing attention (perhaps unwisely) to plot points that are significant only in that they further preclude any possibility of the story being taken seriously. Motivations are sacrificed to the sanctity of myth. Style, in short, triumphs over substance, to such an extent that Noomi Rapace (Shaw) subjects herself to an extemporised Promethean gut-rip so ludicrous that it can only have been inspired by too much red slushee and one of those “skill-testing” machines that can often be found in the cinema foyer—the ones where people enamoured with soft toys can attempt to snap one up by manoeuvring a dainty metal claw into position above a fluffed up pile of cuddly aliens. The individual gaffes perpetrated within Prometheus are too numerous to catalogue without comparative reference to a George W. Bush highlights reel, but suffice to say that Scott, Spaihts and Lindelof have chained their story to its rock without any input from bona fide cryptologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, astrobiologists, or even gastroenterologists—once seated the audience is force-fed such codswallop that it finds itself spattered not merely with plot vomit but with the actual, exploded remains of stomachs seeking to jack-in-the-box evacuate from their infected carriers.

Such is the epically shallow and turgid nature of Prometheus that even the characters themselves seem to find its script difficult to swallow, a highlight being when Sean Harris as Fifield (a geologist) realises he’s been scripted in by accident and spits the dummy, declaring, “I like rocks. I love rocks. Now, it’s clear you two don’t give a shit about rocks. All you do seem to care about is giant dead bodies, and I really don’t have anything to contribute in the giant dead body arena…” Whereupon he stomps off back to the ship; but of course, as the person in charge of mapping out the structure they’re exploring, loses his way and doesn’t make it. Pinned to their seats as the eagle twitches its beak, disgruntled ticket holders surely will empathise.

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