11 June 2012

ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES

Prometheus is a film abnormally resistant to definitive statements, and movie reviewing is a form that lives and breathes definitive statements, and this brings us to a pretty pass. I will, anyway, begin with what might well be the only absolute judgment on the film that I'm willing to pass, and it is this: the last 25 minutes of the movie, perhaps just the last 20, are an unmitigated car-wreck of lousy dramatic contrivance, shamefully illegible editing, on-the-fly changes to characters that serve only to keep driving things forward and to hell with logic, a sequel hook that promises further emphasis on the least interest parts of this movie, and a final gesture that is, I am certain, meant to be read as a complex way of underlining the degree to which the film both is and is not a prequel to and remake of director Ridley Scott's 1979 breakthrough Alien, but which plays instead like an excruciating bit of fan-service tacked on by people who neither understand nor care for the original film that they're referencing. I will confess that it is all ramshackle enough to leave a rather acidic taste in the mouth, so much so that I found myself filing out of the theater wondering if I had actually enjoyed a movie that was for every bit of its first hour as satisfying in every way as any effects-driven summer picture has been for at least a couple of years now.

That theater was, by the way, a 3-D IMAX venue, and that is the way I propose you should see the film; if not in IMAX, then at least, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, in 3-D. This is unquestionably the best use of that sometimes-gimmicky, sometimes-revelatory, sometimes-both technology since Hugo; and hey, look, I was just able to make another definitive statement, a positive one this time! But back to my point, which was: Prometheus is often good and sometimes bad and occasionally horrendous as a narrative, but it is never, ever, less than a stone-cold masterpiece of design and world-building; production designer Arthur Max and set decorator Sonja Klaus and a whole platoon of credited art directors have very nearly equaled the genre-defining achievement of Alien, in creating a futuristic world that is wildly detailed and extraordinarily plausible, not just as a natural development of our own current level of technology and design mentality (the film is set, rather optimistically, in the latter half of the 21st Century), but also because it has been fully worked-out as a world to itself in which everything makes some kind of intuitive sense and there are no buttons for the sake of buttons, no high-tech idiocy that nobody would actually want, though it "looks cool". It is really quite great, and that's before the film ends up inside an extra-terrestrial spacecraft, where our human protagonists accidentally unlock a video log that re-creates the three-dimensional events of 2000 years ago using floating incandescent particles that take the shape of creatures running, shooting, dying; in 3-D, this single effect is everything that spectacular Hollywood movies are meant to be the best at, a transporting moment in which a cluster of very imaginative creative types all bend their skills together to create something that is, for one sublime moment, like absolutely nothing else.

So, yeah, the film looks astounding, and on those grounds alone I cannot help but suggest that every last person reading this should see it. And not even feel guilty about it, either. Because it's not like Prometheus has a really bad script, nor that Scott does a poor job of directing it. To tell the truth, I still haven't quite made up my mind on how the film functions as a drama, though I will confess that my suspicions have been tending consistently towards, "not very well".

The short version of the plot: a pair of archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, fighting the English language to a draw) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), have discovered fairly ironclad evidence that at some point, thousands of years in Earth's past, the planet was visited by a race of space travelers who very well might have had something to do with the creation of humanity, though what "something" that is is a mystery. This discovery triggers the Weyland Corporation to send a science vessel, the Prometheus, on a mission to the planet apparently described in Shaw and Holloway's artifacts, in the hope of meeting the creatures that made us. The usual assortment of unstrustworthy types are assembled onboard, the most important being Captain Janek (Idris Elba), extraordinarily shady Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and other Weyland represenative David (Michael Fassbender), a state-of-the-art android specially appointed to the crew as an agent of no less a figure than industrial giant Peter Weyland himself (Guy Pearce, giving an indescribably distracting cameo in some of the worst old-age makeup this side of Armie Hammer). And once we get this far, the plot is basically Alien in the broad strokes and even down to some very fine points of specificity.

The Alien relationship is by far the most puzzling and difficult aspect of Prometheus - much more so than its ballyhooed thematic ambition about the origin of life and mankind's relationship to its creator, a notion that the filmmakers undoubtedly regard as more profound than it proves to be in the execution, in part because it is a truly ancient idea in science fiction, and in part because Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof rely on overt Christian imagery as far too much of a crutch. What is clear enough is that the film takes place earlier in the chronology of the same universe as Alien, though not necessarily any of its sequels or spin-offs; that, in fact, the events of its closing act can be scene as a direct precursor to the events of Alien, with a sufficient number of leaps of faith; that the plot is largely a repeat of the original film, with a slow-moving first half given largely to establishing the world though not the characters (who are largely ciphers), following as the ensemble does some exploring, and then it gives way to a second half in which something is awakened that was best left alone and a great many people end up dying before... well, I guess it's technically spoilery to say more, though anyone who has seen Alien has absolutely no excuse not to predict in fairly good detail what happens at the end of the movie.

It is not only tempting, but practically obligatory, to understand Prometheus as being Scott's commentary on Alien, how cinema has changed since then, and how his own career has evolved; it is virtually impossible to regard Prometheus as being just its own thing, though I think it would be a good deal easier to enjoy it if one could manage to do so (though, if it truly were its own thing & not meant to be thought of as an explication of Alien, it would thereupon become necessary to regard it as one of the most unabashed and shameless Alien rip-offs that has ever been made). Simply trying to parse out how the two films are related - something the last scene of Prometheus makes both unavoidable and insoluble - is to engage in a kind of laboratory experiment Scott is conducting, in which Prometheus is a litmus test for fanboys. And by recycling most of the ingredients of the 1979 film in a completely new emotional register, Prometheus demands that we re-evaluate our perspective on that film while also calling attention to how we respond to the new film; it's also something of an experiment in how meaning is even generated in film, because what amounts to an identical plot is given completely different emphasis because of what strikes me as being the most important difference between the two films, which is that Alien is first and above all a horror film, and Prometheus, despite a profoundly grueling scene of body horror that is its very best sequence in a walk, simply isn't.

All of this is theoretical and fascinating and dense, and not really at all what watching Prometheus is like; it's the post-film debate that tries to make sense of the weird hodge-podge that the movie itself ends up being. Really, there's quite a lot that's terrible about Prometheus: it is a film of ideas in which the ideas are allowed to starve from inattention, and it is a film about finding the answers to great questions that doesn't itself ask the questions nor muse about the answers. The nice way to describe it is as a genre riff that marries the sobriety of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the thrills and action of a sci-fi monster movie, but that's being awfully generous to the screenwriters. The cast is uniformly lost in characters that don't do much of anything besides stand around and brood until the third act causes them to act in utterly inexplicable ways, with the single, marvelous exception of Fassbender, whose Peter O'Toole flavored performance of a android with just the slightest inkling of self-awareness is the only point where all of the philosophisin' and thematic grinding actually meets a human dimension that makes it feel like anything other than a blind.

But then... it's gorgeous, and until the editing starts to implode, it's so very easy to get caught up in the moment-to-moment energy, and the way that all of the inexplicable and esoteric gestures at the edges of the film, that make no sense if you don't spend three days mucking about in viral videos and extra-cinematic folderol, can wash over you in a sort of blanket of sensory overload even if none of it makes any sense, and even if it certainly feels like doing the work of figuring out how it does make sense would just lead to disappointment... it's engaging in every other regard than on an intelletual level, and this is absolutely terrible for a movie that makes such a big fuss about thinking, but it's far more than most big studio movies with their crabbed, factory-produced visual sensibility can claim, and if there's nothing here remotely satisfying on the level of Scott's earlier experiments in science fiction and visual style, at least it's not because the film assumes we are idiots. That alone is refreshing in this day and age.

7/10

22 comments:

Rob Niven said...

I've been wanting to see this film all weekend. Unfortunately, thanks to work I have to wait until Thursday. That leaves me trying to reconcile all the conflicting opinions I hear about it.

I've been wondering how both sides of the argument on this film could be true. Your review did an excellent job of pointing out where the film succeeds and fails, I really appreciate being able to get a full picture of the film now.

Hopefully I'll still be able to enjoy it come Thursday. Thanks for the great review!

The.Watcher said...

Tell me something, Tim: I haven't seen the movie, but would it be fair to say that the last hour sucks because not enough time is given to the story? I mean, could you see a Special Edition come out which fixes a lot of narrative/character problems, much in the way of Alien 3? Or is the movie fundamentally broken, again, much like Alien 3?

KingKubrick said...

@ watcher,

I said the same thing after watching Prometheus in theatre last night. I said to my buddy that I have no doubt that there will be a Director's cut that's at least 30 minutes longer. The last act, like Tim said, abruptly jumps from plot point to plot point with little in the way of build up or explanation (think of the finale of Sunshine).
Then lo and behold, I read an interview with Scott on Collider today where he says there will be a director's cut that's substancially longer. I don't think we'll end up with a masterpiece once the footage is added in but maybe a film that's less chaotic. Still, see it in the theatre. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission.

RickR said...

It sounds like you enjoyed it more than I did (or at least thought marginally more of the end result than I).

I perceived it as a big, gorgeous art direction orgasm without a clue about what ideas it wants to explore, what truths any of its ambiguity might be concealing, and without any idea about how humans actually behave, or how actual scientists actually do actual science.

It was pretty, but it pissed me off.

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

There's one thing I've been wondering about, has there ever before been a thing like 'Prometheus'? Isn't this a movie a little unprecedented?
I mean, it undeniably takes place in the Alien-universe, yet it can't really be called an Alien-film as such, I'm fairly certain that the backstory in this film doesn't at all jive with the backstory established in the Alien comics, not that the Alien-universe ever really had a very strict continuity. I don't think it really fits the profile of a reboot, it's only a sort-of-a-prequel, what is it exactly?! I don't even....

That said I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and will most definitely go see it a second time on the big screen. I do agree that the end scene felt tacked on, but I'm just such a big Alien-fan that it was the kind of fan service that was pretty much exactly tailored to me.

Christopher Bowne said...

Saw it twice (neither time in 3D, that'll be next time) but it was better the second time after I'd kicked it around in my head for a while. 
I agree it feels like they were forced to cut to keep running time down. It will be nice to see some scenes fleshed out. 
 
**SPOILERS**

I agree with Scott in an interview where he cut out Shaw trying to defend herself with the axe, though.  Better to leave the Titan-thing as something you can't even defend yourself against.
I believe this is a film that gets better with a second viewing.  I thought the chain of inseminations was cool. David has his chance at creation by inseminating Halloway, then on to Shaw, and finally a Titan via her 'child'
It's funny, if you look back at the original reviews of ALIEN at the time of release (I used to do this obsessively at the library on the microfiche readers) you had about the same proportion of likes and dislikes.  Most Rotten Tomato reviews are new or reevaluations by original critics.  Some reviews sum it up as basically: cynical derivative money-grab rehash of Star Wars, Jaws, Exorcist and countless 50s B-movies, but with mostly forgettable characters (except Ripley) and at a (mostly) boring pace.  You'd think they were expecting an Altman or Woody Allen film.

**END SPOILERS**

I was reminded of the dream logic of 'Susperia' and 'Halloween' and many HP Lovecraft stories.  It seems the best movies and books work at the brainstem level.  That's where this one, as well as Alien, worked for me.

@RickR agree it was an art direction orgasm and I need to see it a few more times to really take it all in. There is definite chaos in the plot. I imagine you've seen Alien 3 several times and have been repeatedly frustrated by it. I think I agree with you that it is basically a failure in the end. It would have been interesting for the Company to have got a hold of Ripley and turned her into a lab rat or something.

@ Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson I agree it is hard to place it. I wouldn't be surprised if Ridley honestly doesn't care whether it adheres to the universe or not and I don't mean that as a bad thing.

Tim said...

There's already way too much going on for me to respond to everybody, point by point, but as far as a director's cut goes: I am 100% certain that there's a 140 minute version of this film that I like a hell of a lot more. There is not a version of any length that I expect to regard as a masterpiece. But who can say? It only took about 90 extra seconds to make The Descent one of the best horror films of the 21st Century, who knows what kick-ass footage is lying in wait for the director's cut of Prometheus?

Mike said...

I've seen it twice now. I liked it the first time but thought a second viewing would help me understand it more. It was better the second time, but there are still some glaring problems that I have with it:

***SPOILER-ISH***

-That thing was not beautiful or cuddly! That reaction bugged the hell out of me both times.

-When you extract a thing from your body, you don't just leave it hanging around for someone to stumble upon. That's worse than not flushing!

-All they have to do is mention that the surgery machine has the ability to heal muscles after laser incision and I would be happy to believe it!

-No one seeing this movie would have complained if it ran 2:20. Who is forcing the obvious cuts?

*** END SPOILER-ISH ***

Ah well. I wish I could love it. They came close to something great here and it's disappointing that they couldn't follow through.

Lastly, I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way about The Descent. The U.S. was seriously cheated by that edit.

Zev Valancy said...

On an only tangentially related note (from someone who hasn't seen the film): Why is old-age makeup always shit? Is it that difficult to create? To film? It seems like every instance of old-age makeup in a film these days is a trainwreck, and I can't imagine why it's that difficult. Has anyone got the technical knowledge to enlighten me?

Chris said...

Tim, I know it doesn't really matter, but I must say that that did not feel like a 7/10 review. I was expecting a 5/10 when I got to the bottom.

Caleb Wimble said...

Oh my, you were infinitely more forgiving than I, though I suppose that could in part be due to unrealistic expectations. I'm surprised you take so little issue with the pacing of the first few acts, though, which had to have featured some of the most unnecessary, mindless, and repetitive dialogue of any scifi "epic" in years.

The full catalogue of my complaints being contained hereabouts: http://waxineloquent.blogspot.com/2012/06/did-iqs-just-drop-sharply-while-i-was.html

Tim said...

Zev- And yet The Iron Lady is, I would dare say, next to perfect on that front. Who knows?

Caleb- I will not disagree with you at all on that front, except to say that I think I was so taken by the visuals that I either did not notice or did not care. Which is shabby of me, but I take comfort in this being a film that seems to have given a great many people a great deal of similar trouble.

jjjonatron said...

I can admit there were some flaws in the script, but overall I agree with people here in saying that I think a lot of it would improve with a director's cut and another 20-30 minutes added to flesh some things out. I saw it twice, and like everyone else who's commented and seen it twice, I liked it more the second time (though I was more hyped through the first viewing). A lot of things become clearer and even some of what the characters do seemed a little less explicable; I think with so much going on in the movie it was frankly hard for anyone seeing it to take it all in.

So there are two, maybe three problems I had with the movie, and that's these: Charlize Theron's line reading of "FATHER", Noomi Rapace's wonderful "I can't have children, what does that make me?", and the way the biologist reacts to the Xenosnake. But that last thing, which is kind of ridiculous, was something I was willing to overlook. Really, really stupid, sure, but it's the first time he's seeing alien life. I'm willing to concede that someone would be that excited/dumb.

Honestly beyond that I've been seeing a lot of hate and bile spewn towards the movie for its dumb characters and don't understand it. Yes, the biologist is an idiot, but beyond that at what moment does anyone do anything really moronic? Shaw leaving that monster behind in the machine is something I probably would have done; it seemed to have died/passed out and she was trying to run the fuck away from it... and I dunno who else does anything inexplicable. Shaw keeps going out of love for her husband.

Oh one other problem I had--redhead Fifield comes back randomly as a zombie after the last time we saw him he had plastic melting onto his face and suffocating him? Feel like that transition is probably a deleted scene somewhere.

GOD TOO MANY THOUGHTS. Really I loved it. It's the best Alien movie since Aliens, so even with its flaws I'm nothing but happy about what we did get.

Also, for anyone wondering about possible plot inconsistencies between Prometheus and Alien, Scott's said that there's at least two more movies between the events of Alien and the events of Prometheus. So the xenomorph busting out of the promethean in the safety pod is not the scene we stumbled on to in Alien, but that's because we're not on the same planet as Alien. LV-223 vs. LV-426. :P

RickR said...

"but beyond that at what moment does anyone do anything really moronic?"

Holloway removes his helmet when it is discovered the alien structure contains a breathable atmo.

A scientist does this. And he is cautioned not to.

There can be any number or any kind of alien microbes in the air. He removes his helmet anyway.

The humans are covered with microbes from earth, and will contaminate the site they came umpteen bazillion miles to explore. They all remove their helmets anyway.

"Scientists" do this.

It was at this exact moment when I began rooting for all the characters to die.

KingKubrick said...

@ RickR

Or (spoilers), we found a 2000 year old alien head, let's electrocute it to bring it back to life. Why? Why would you risk such an important discovery? How would Shaw know to stimulate the brainstem with electricity? She's a archaelogist not a biologist. The wholes in the screenplay become more glaring the more you think about it.

RickR said...

"On an only tangentially related note (from someone who hasn't seen the film): Why is old-age makeup always shit? Is it that difficult to create? To film? It seems like every instance of old-age makeup in a film these days is a trainwreck, and I can't imagine why it's that difficult. Has anyone got the technical knowledge to enlighten me?"

I'm not a makeup artist myself, but I'm close enough to the field to offer some insights.

Generally speaking, aging is (among other things) a process of subtraction. As we age, our skin loses collagen and becomes thin and sags. Our cheeks become hollow, we develop a "neck wattle" etc, we lose muscle mass, etc. Aging "takes away".

Makeup, OTOH, can only add, it can't subtract. Any makeup artist will tell you that old age makeup is the most demanding test of their skills, and a lot of their success depends on the underlying physical/ facial structure of the actor they're working on, the lighting skills of the cinematographer etc. It's very very hard to do well.

Which is why we can point to a scant number of brilliant examples of the technique, and many many mediocre to poor ones.

Sssonic said...

Yeah, no, I'm sorry but no amount of beautiful visuals, and I freely admit they ARE beautiful, can account for how fundamentally brain-dead this script is. Never mind all the ridiculous plot-holes or muddled Themes, these characters just do not add up at ALL for me. I think this is the rare instance where I liked a movie considerably less than you, Tim, but at the very least I'm glad I went to see it...even if the movie itself really isn't terribly good, IMO.

Unknown said...

Pretty funny that the author dings the film for editing. Try proofreading your review if you want to pull that arrow from the quiver.

Daniel Silberberg said...

@Unknown: editing means something different in filmmaking than it does in copywriting. Also, Tim's review isn't a portentous narrative that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and collaboration between thousands of people to make.

nd said...

Re: the old age makeup... the real question is casting. Why hire a too-young actor in the first place?

RickR said...

Bumping 5 1/2 months later- nd, you are correct about casting (Gloria Stuart in "Titanic" is a good example, and even then she was wearing old age makeup to add another 20 years to her real age when the film was made). In the specific case of "Prometheus", there were scenes showing a youthful Weyland that were shot, then later deleted. So...Guy Pearce in the role. But all we get in the finished film is Pearce in distractingly bad makeup.

My favorite bit of casting to pull off an age trick is in the current season of "American Horror Story" where flashbacks involving a youthful James Cromwell are played by the actor's son, and boy does the family resemblance work!

David Greenwood said...

Just saw this flick, and I only have one thing to add: Guy Pierce's make up didn't bother me at all. The guy looked like what he was: someone who has used technology and whatever else he can get his hands on to prolong his life at any cost whatsoever. In the future you too can be a 200 year old freak of nature if you are that afraid of death. So yeah, it looked awful. Well done.