Friday 2 November 2012

Prometheus – reviewed by Howard Watts (*spoilers*)

It was around 1980/81 when my mother sneaked me into a flea pit with her in Brighton to see Ridley Scott’s A L I E N, and I’d like to make it perfectly clear from the outset: I’ve been waiting for someone to address the origins of the “Derelict” and its occupant, the “Space Jockey”, for umpteen years since walking out of the cinema way back then. In advance of seeing the film I was familiar with the imagery from various books such as the Alien Photostory and The Making of Alien. Even then, Hans Rudi Giger’s “Space Jockey” seemed to me to be such a grand figure fused to his chair, peering into what seemed to be either a telescope, or perhaps a weapon. He appeared lonely, as if his proud appointment somehow involved a great sacrifice on his part. Despite the mystery surrounding his true purpose, I wanted to know more about him…

The trailer for Prometheus gave me hope—briefly I glimpsed the Jockey’s chair, unfolding upward from beneath the floor. At last!

Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise has been a long time coming. It’s almost as if he’s been waiting in the wings as he pursues other projects, keeping an eye on the pretenders to his King’s throne that tinker with the Alien universe, waiting for the right time to return and resolve the questions surrounding the Jockey and his ship that others have addressed in comics and shied away from in film. So it was with great anticipation I sat down in my £9.50 “Premier” Odeon seat, last Saturday afternoon.

Scott’s reputation is one of a man that knows exactly what he wants, a man that has an obsessive attention to detail, even going to such lengths as arranging a selection of pens in a mug “correctly”, during one shoot. It was all too obvious to me he would take this approach to his directorial duties and perhaps step up a gear while working on Prometheus, as all eyes, genre fans and fans of his previous films alike would be expecting such for his return to the Alien franchise. No such luck I’m afraid. Prometheus looks no different to any other recent genre entry. Perhaps it’s all down to the technology. Shooting with digital has removed that “waiting for the right light” moment, that instant where everything that makes a shot special and more importantly, in camera, sadly redundant. Now anyone with a digi-cam and a few PCs can shoot and pass it over to the “computer guys” to correct gamma and the like. In the days of celluloid the saying used to be “A good editor can make a great film from a bad director’s dailies.” Now it’s the post production CG art department’s job to do the same. Prometheus suffers from a lack of spectacle regards direction—light and texture seem to be considerably vacant from this movie, but more of that later. It’s now time to move on and talk about the story, so beware—SPOILERS!

A humanoid creature watches a huge disc shaped ship from a waterfall’s edge at it moves slowly away. He produces a cup of something, drinks it and his body disintegrates. He falls into the water and his body breaks down, a shot of his DNA helix shattering, confirming the DNA has been introduced into the planet’s ecosystem.

An archaeologist couple on Earth (Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace, and Charlie Holloway, played by Logan Marshall-Green) discover a connection in ancient cave paintings, carvings and illustrations. These identically placed circles, pointed at by a tall humanoid being lead them to believe (or rather jump to the conclusion) they represent a planetary system, and that we are being invited to come and visit them. Well, first off the illustrations were by early man, so the “invitation” element here isn’t at all implied by them, but rather our ancestors. Shaw is convinced the tall humanoid beings are our creators, and calls them Engineers. The other problem here is that the illustrations spanning thousands of years are from many different cultures and positions across the globe, begging the question; from what vantage point were these illustrations created? There would have to have been a single stationary point on Earth that each culture visited at some point to create these identical pictures/pictograms, that, and the fact over thousands of years the positions of the planetary bodies change, thus altering the relative position of the planets and stars. It also seems to be a bit of a leap of faith to conclude the circles actually represent planets, and not perhaps hurled cow pats, melons, a failed juggling lesson, or anything else for that matter.

The multi-talented archaeologists then match these circles to a planetary system, and we then cut to the ship, Prometheus entering said system. At this stage the story is moving swiftly along, without any conflict regards the funding or setting up of the mission, and the obvious ramifications from religious viewpoints if the Engineers are found to be exactly that. It would have served the characterisation better here to introduce hurdles regards the mission, until Weyland Industries step up to the plate and offer to fund it. It’s also strange that Prometheus journeys alone, without an unmanned science probe, sent in advance to gather and collate data to establish if the whole affair is worth it, and send the data back to either Earth or the ship.

David the synthetic human—played excellently by Michael Fassbender, now enters the story, and we see him carrying out perfunctory duties until Charlize Theron’s deliciously miserable character, Meredith Vickers, wakes up from hypersleep and orders David to defrost the remaining crew. There’s perhaps a little too much screen time here, showing David’s lonely existence. The bike riding, basketball playing, reading (wouldn’t he simply “download” information?) the watching of the crew’s dreams. This is where the film once again fails to up the believability stakes, as the assembled crew resemble a bunch of random guys, without any professional traits to back up their positions or establish character. The ship enters the atmosphere, cruises along for a few minutes until Holloway notices a structure with a road leading to it, just around a mountain. A road? The ship lands upon the road and an expedition team set out. It seems very strange that they manage to find this relatively small structure so easily on such a huge planet/moon, and I would like to have seen Prometheus sitting in orbit while the crew discuss their mission, personal objectives and generally getting to know each other. This would have characterised the crew for us, and we could bond or not with these professionals during their conversations—much in the same way we did during Alien’s and Aliens’s character establishing scenes. Prometheus could then have dispatched an orbital probe to comb the surface and search for any signs of life or structures. Instead, the crew are treated to a holographic introduction to their mission (they weren’t told about it before they left? Certainly, but the scene’s just for our sake and exposition) by Peter Weyland, played by Guy Pearce. Donning heavy make up to make him appear very old was a mistake. I don’t understand why an elderly actor was not used for this role, as the make up, as good as it is, really is just that. This doesn’t make sense. Upon research, it seems Guy Pearce sans make up has appeared on the net as Peter Weyland, as part of the film’s viral campaign. But still, wouldn’t an elderly actor have been a more intelligent choice to play the ageing Weyland? Surely it’s far more important for the product (the film) to make sense than the advertising (viral campaign)? Pearce’s portrayal isn’t at all convincing either, his lines delivered perfectly without any vocal trait to illustrate age, his eyes too alert amid the plastic, his movements inconsistent.

So the investigating team set out, and are ordered to leave all weapons behind. Now this is really, really silly. It’s not only a huge signpost suggesting they will need weapons later, but also goes against common sense. Early pioneers and settlers carried weapons for defence, and any explorer paddling up the Amazon today wouldn’t be without a machete. I would like to have seen weapons allowed, but one of the characters to comment something along the lines of, “What use are weapons against a god, if that’s what you expect to find in there? With a wave of a hand we’d simply vanish.” The vehicles speed upon the road (why didn’t they send out another team in the other direction to see where the road leads to?) and are surrounded by a bleak landscape, devoid of any vegetation or signs of animal life. The structure they find is similar to Giger’s “Egg silo” pre-production art for Alien, and his “Harkonnen castle” Dune concept art, so it’s good to see his influence is still present. Once inside the structure, in an utterly bonkers move, Holloway decides to remove his helmet as the instruments detect breathable air. What about airborne contaminants, poisons, hell—even pollen! Shaw’s reaction is underwhelming, as she utters “Charlie, no!” in a half-hearted attempt to stop him, while the other “professionals” simply look on with indifference—if they’re not shown to care, then we can hardly follow their lead, and an air of “what the hell” is established as the norm once more.

Further along the corridor the team find remains of humanoids, resembling the Space Jockey—the Engineers, and in a blatantly expositional move, David activates a holographic recording of what happened to them some two thousand years previously. The team find a decapitated Jockey’s head, severed by a closing door—take a tip from Otis Lifts and install a safety feature next time, Engineers—which David opens. Inside a large expressionless humanoid stone head sits above rows of what look like two B&Q black plastic plant pots placed rim to rim, but are actually ampoules. The production design really lets the film down here. The head really needs an expression to at least instill some reaction from the team and audience, which for the most part, considering their circumstances remain (characteristically) emotionless. The scale of the whole room is disappointing also, as it’s really not that grand. I would like to have seen the stone head with an open mouth, with perhaps the Ampoules as teeth. Upon the ceiling a painting can be seen with a classic xenomorph with its head bowed at the centre, the walls are Gigeresque.

The captain of Prometheus informs the team a silica storm is coming, so they’d better head back to the ship as the storm might last longer than their suits’ air supply. Strange, my mobile phone can update the weather regularly, yet the tech aboard the ship detects this storm when it’s just close enough to provide a threat—blatant motivational plot point yet again. So, two of the team (despite mapping the structure in 3D with floating spheres, and having this displayed on board Prometheus with the team’s individual locations) manage to get lost inside the structure while the other team members head back to the ship, racing ahead of the storm which just happens to be heading straight down the road towards the ship. Unknown to them, David has stolen an ampoule while the other team members retrieved the severed jockey head. The two stranded team members (names unimportant), one a geologist who insists he’s only interested in rocks, but never picks one up, let alone takes any interest in them—the other, a biologist, find themselves in the ampoule room. The idiotic biologist, upon being confronted by a cobra-like Alien thingy, crouches forward, talking and encouraging the thing as if it’s next door’s new Labrador puppy. The obvious ensues and I didn’t care.

By now, my patience with the whole brainless, ludicrous affair had evaporated. I didn’t care what happened to any of the remaining characters, realising my £9.50 would have been better spent on a book, or three pints of Hophead and a packet of crisps down my local. From then on the film falls into sheer idiocy.

I was eventually treated to the Engineer’s chair unfolding from beneath the floor, and watched as he took his seat and his suit enveloped him. I then wondered why hide the chair beneath the floor. It only takes up the same amount of space below deck, so why bother? Simple answer; it looks good on screen, but the pained reality of this shot is that it’s akin to knocking a hole in the wall to put a wardrobe in the next room, rather than put it against the wall. Engineers they may be, interior designers they ain’t. I also wondered at the point of the Engineer donning the suit and helmet, deciding I’d never be fully satisfied by these guy’s explanations, if any were forthcoming, and it would be better for me to simply leave it at that.

Prometheus is a huge disappointment on every level. Acting is at best, adequate. The visuals are at best, average. Scott delivers a few familiar shots—such as low camera angles aboard Prometheus as characters enter shot. But what really lets the whole shoddy affair down is character and story, or rather the lack of both and the failure to answer the questions posed in favour of passing them over to a probable sequel. Well, when I found out Damon Lindelof was responsible for the final script, everything fell into place. He maintains his inability or refusal to answer questions he poses in his writing, and continues to fob the audience off with idiotic characters that bear no resemblance to real people.

There’s no continuity with what’s gone before, or with what’s going on at the moment. But hey, following established rules is no fun for the writer without the determination, imagination and most importantly talent to create valid reasons why such rules can be circumvented. It’s far easier to just ignore them, along with the intelligence of the audience and fans and do exactly what you want. Dan O’Bannon would have gone slack-jawed dribbling mad.

Obviously Ridley doesn’t get off without a rap across the knuckles. He knows how well regarded and respected his 1979 work is among genre and non-genre fans alike. He had a duty to himself more than anyone to ensure Prometheus lived up to not only 33 years of expectations, but also to the hype generated by the viral campaign. For me, the campaign was not needed. Scott + Alien = guaranteed ticket sales. All he then had to ensure was that the whole movie made sense and at least maintained the quality of the first film, perhaps even upping the stakes on the most basic levels of filmmaking and storytelling. It fails on all counts, and I for one wished James Cameron had decided to pursue his take on the story of the Space Jockey and the race’s role in the whole scheme of things. As Vickers says to Weyland, her father: “A king has his reign and then he dies, it’s inevitable.” Sadly, how very true. Scale is sadly missing here—the magnitude / impact of the story they’re trying to tell with the characters, their reactions, the physical scale of the Engineers themselves against the human crew, Prometheus itself, the structure, the emotionless stone head—all are diminished by indifference and not shot well. Ridley seems to have found a cure for his obsessiveness.

As David says during the film; “Big things have small beginnings.” Unfortunately for Prometheus this is utterly true. If viewed as a prequel to Alien, it will always remain a small beginning leading to a big thing…

1 comment:

  1. Finally saw this film - what a disappointment, even though my expectations were so low. There's a decent sf horror film in there, but it's buried under a blanket of complete b*****ks. It's basically Chariots of the Gods: The Movie, and no one wanted that, least of all half-heartedly hitched to the Aliens series.