It's been a whopping thirty-three years since Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott gave us a seminal film in both the science fiction and horror genres: the classic (some say masterpiece) Alien. The film was not only a commercial success, but has gone on to near universal accolades, including a laundry list of award nominations and wins in 1979. Wins include the 1979 Oscar for visual effects, and a nod for art direction. It won Saturn Awards for best sci-fi film, best director, supporting actress, and got a nod for Sigourney Weaver. It also was nominated for best makeup, special effects, and writing. I could go on--there were nominations for the BAFTAs, Hugo Awards, Golden Globes and on and on and on.
The film spawned three sequels and two spin-offs with "Sister" franchise, Predator. In general, and with the arguable exception of Aliens, the sequels are all considered generally inferior to the original. Aliens is an interesting case, in that it smartly took an entirely different approach to the subject matter, delivering a film that was gruesome, hard-hitting, and action-packed in addition to horror. It was, in many ways, the forerunner of modern survival horror films and can draw lines to the 2003 remake of Dawn of the Dead, amongst other things.
Alien, however, was purely a psychological horror film. It was a movie with a loping pace, a slow burn at both ends that delivered a few climactic and shocking payoffs. It's a film about how when we go too boldly into the unknown, we not only sometimes get bit, but eaten alive. It's about a technician on a commercial mining ship who finds her inner toughness and becomes one of the greatest sci-fi heroines of all time. It's about the struggle between civilization and the primordial chaos at the heart of everything. It's quite literally mythic in scope.
Now, three decades later, Ridley Scott has chosen to revisit this bleak landscape, and tell another story that is equally mythic, and even moreso when one considers the questions he asks (some of which he quite deliberately fails to answer). Despite his admonishments that the film stands on its own, one's understanding and appreciation for the movie is certainly enhanced by having seen its cinematic predecessor, and given that it in some way tells the story of the mysterious derelict alien pilot that the Nostromo's crew finds with its chest exploded, it is indeed a full-on prequel.
So, did I like it? Yes, I did. However, this is absolutely not a film that's for everyone, and Fox's marketing campaign for the movie actually hurts it in the long run, rather than helps it.
So, let's get to the nitty-gritty: the good, the bad, and the ugly of Ridley Scott's Prometheus.
Most of you by now have figured out that I tend to like a lot of movies--it's tough to get a bad review from me. That's largely because I tend to be pretty good at picking flicks I know I'm going to like. No doubt if I were getting paid to do this, and going to see all the new releases every weekend, I'd have a lot more negative reviews. That being said, I found a lot to like in Prometheus. This will be an interesting review, because you'll see me spin a lot of the same points I make as Good in the Bad section as well. We'll get to that in a minute.
First up are the characters. I found most of the main characters (not all, but most) to be wonderfully nuanced and complex. They all had intriguing motivations for being there, and for doing the things they did. Even the bad guys in this film weren't really bad guys. For example, if you've seen the original Alien you know that robots are trouble. The android David in this movie is no exception; he causes no end of disaster, but instead of it being because he was ordered to make "all other concerns secondary," it's because he's amoral and insufferably curious. The line seen in the trailer where he looks at his finger and whispers, "Big things have small beginnings" is wonderfully creepy, as is a rather unsettling conversation he has with one of the characters about who made whom and why. David is a character who wants to know who he is, and he doesn't have the moralistic compunctions of humans to stop him in his quest for answers.
Our main character, the Ripley-esque heroine Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, is both an anthropologist and a devout Christian. When someone suggests that if aliens engineered humans, that means God doesn't exist, she simply responds, "Who made them?" Shaw is insatiably curious, indelibly heroic, and she's got a set of brass balls the size of Texas, if you'll excuse the colloquialism. She is eminently likeable, even in her folly.
One of the most interesting characters, to my mind, is Charlize Theron's Meredith Vickers. She's the corporate suit in charge of the expedition, and if you've seen Aliens, you know that Weyland Corp executives are trouble. However, unlike Paul Reiser's character in Aliens, Vickers is not just a two-dimensional sleaze ball. She's definitely a dark character, and something of a villain, one who will inevitably choose herself over others, but she's wonderfully nuanced and this is in no small part due to the fact that Theron is an outstanding actress.
Beyond the actors, there is the storyline. This is definitely a classic hard sci-fi storyline; it's not space opera and there are not dogfights and explosions in space (well, there is a somewhat massive explosion at one point, but I'll avoid spoilers). No, this explores the classic themes that good science fiction is supposed to explore--the nature of humankind. Who are we? Why are we here? Who is God and can we find him out there somewhere? And finally, the big question: do we deserve to live? The film is extremely ambitious for the themes it tries to explore, and to a large degree it succeeds. Much like its predecessor, it is a slow burn that builds suspense until some of those questions are answered in shocking ways.
However, I have a degree in religious studies and I get off on those kinds of things. Not everyone will appreciate or enjoy what Scott is trying to do.
Many of the things I found to be good about the film, others will (and have) dislike intensely. This is particularly evident in the pacing of the film. While I found it to be deliberate and suspenseful, others will absolutely see it as simply slow paced and boring. I have made comments online that this is because we live in a society where everyone gets their information instantly at light speed in 140-character chunks, and I stand by that. However, Fox's marketing campaign does not help this at all. The trailer for this film is rapid-fire. It's fast-paced and heart-pounding and makes it seem like it will be a pulse-pounder thriller rather than a philosophical and psychological horror film. It's really no wonder that many are going to see it expecting Aliens more than Alien, and given that the mini-review I posted on facebook may have seemed rather harsh towards those who didn't enjoy the film, I should offer apologies and qualify that it wasn't intended to be so but was (alas) written at lightning speed after I'd seen one too many complaints about how badly the film sucked.
Back to the review, however. So the film is paced very deliberately and for those wanting a more pulse-pounding thriller, it just isn't there. I'm going to mark it down for the poor advertising that presented the film as something quite different than it actually was. That I knew what to expect was more a factor of me having followed this film closely from inception to release, and not at all because of the marketing.
Next, the characters. I said earlier that many of the characters are wonderfully nuanced. Unfortunately, this isn't true of all of them. There are two scientists aboard the Prometheus, a geologist and a biologist, who appear to be there for no reason other than to be victims in the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern mold. Indeed, we have a biologist who encounters a dead alien body of the sort nobody has ever seen...and turns around and runs back to the ship. Yet later, when a living (and rather frightening-looking) critter rears up threateningly in front of him, he admonishes it as "cute" and tries to touch it. Again, avoiding spoilers I won't tell you how that plays out, but it's an incredibly paradoxical approach to a character with no depth whatsoever. His geologist compatriot is apparently distinguished purely by his mohawk and Scots accent, and really adds nothing whatsoever to the plot. These characters were hackneyed to the extreme.
Finally, story elements. Some folks will no doubt find it exceptionally irritating that many of the philosophical questions put forth (with promised answers) are not only not answered, but are quite deliberately left unanswered, and the film is patently set up for a sequel. Some just won't care about the philosophical questions at all, and it's questionable whether or not the marketing campaign makes it clear how important said questions are to the overall story. Indeed, there are so many questions raised to ponder that a 2-hour film simply can't do them all justice. Some are simply sidelined after being posited once or twice; others are explored, but only half-heartedly. It would be interesting to see a director's cut of the film but one wonders just how long it would have to be to properly explore all of the territory that it opens up.
Fortunately, it's very pretty to look at.
Visually, as one would expect of a Scott production, this film is breathtaking and arresting. The special effects are well in keeping stylistically with the original Alien, but easily accessible to (and taken up a notch for) 21st-century audiences. Everything from the cryo-pods to the ships themselves are gorgeous, as are the bleak alien landscapes. I was completely blown away by the opening sequence of the film and desperately want to know where on Earth it was shot (if indeed it was shot on location) because those waterfalls are amazing.
If you have ever seen a Ridley Scott film, it's no surprise for me to tell you that the set design and visuals are just out of this world (no pun intended); if you haven't and you just want to see a film for its visual beauty, this is a film to see.
I will say that the 3D was largely unnecessary in this film. While it's used to great effect for things like holographic displays and viewscreens (one particular scene with David took my breath away) overall it doesn't add a thing to the movie and I get the sense that like far too many films these days, it was done at the insistence of a studio who demanded 3D for the sake of 3D. Ridley Scott likely put all of his 3D budget into a few shots that he thought would be worthwhile, and didn't worry too much about it elsewhere. So if you missed this flick in 3D...don't worry about it; you're not missing much.
Aside from the 3D, I've nothing bad to say about the visuals. They're crisp, clear, and even in the most chaotic scenes are easy to follow. Ridley Scott is a master director, there's not even an argument about that, and it shows.
Conclusion and Rating
Prometheus is a visually stunning potboiler with a very slow burn and shocking payoffs that is a worthy successor (or predecessor, as it were) to Aliens. Future outings, if the box office warrants, have great promise. However, the film is not for everyone, and a poor marketing campaign that promised a high action thriller has many people being disappointed with the gradual build of the actual film. Characters are an even split between nuanced and interesting, and dull and insipid. The film asks some great questions, but tries to tackle way too much for one film to effectively handle.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 kernels.