Monday, June 11, 2012

"It's time to be great again, my lord." - "Prometheus" Review

If there is one rule to keep in mind when naming a spaceship headed off on a mission of dire importance or consequence to the human race it should be as follows:
1. Do not name your spacecraft after a tragic Greek character.
Between the doomed Icarus of Sunshine and the haunted Nostromo from Alien, the results have never been particularly successful.  Whether it be an act of pure stupidity or divine retribution it ends up being no coincidence that the characters in Ridley Scott's return to science fiction break this fundamental movie rule and adopt the moniker of "Prometheus" for their spacecraft.
Are these characters, a scientist team led by Elizabeth Shaw (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Noomi Rapace) and android David (Michael Fassbender), aware that Greek myth Prometheus's quest to steal fire from Zeus and bring its knowledge to humanity would have him bound to a rock for eternity whilst an eagle ate his liver?  As they set out into space it appears their quest isn't so different from Prometheus's; they are out to confront their maker and take from him the secret to humanity's origins.  This irony isn't lost on Ridley Scott, a master artist whose return to the genre has been eagerly awaited, and with great -- and perhaps faulty -- hubris he has also titled his film Prometheus.
Scott's Alien, tangentially related to Prometheus, remains amongst the best -- if not the best -- that science fiction and horror have to offer; not to mention that it birthed the strongest female action heroine, Sigorney Weaver's Ripley, to ever hit the silver screen.  At its heart Alien is a simple horror story, told in the most stunning of ways, featuring the classic murder by numbers plot, ridiculed by this year's Cabin in the WoodsPrometheus, on the other hand, is a far more ambitious film, possibly even moreso than Blade Runner, as it tries its hand at philosophizing about the origin of life on Earth, the various concepts of faith, and even the notion of life itself.
This concept of faith is not only a visual motif of the incredibly beautiful Prometheus, a film whose visuals are only eclipsed in recent memory by last year's The Tree of Life, but it is also the variable that quickly becomes the key to whether or not each member of the audience will enjoy the film.  This isn't to say that a belief or disbelief in the almighty is in any way necessary for enjoyment but instead a belief in the creative team, both Ridley Scott and writer Damon Lindelof (LOST), behind Prometheus.  It is a film that is at times glorious and beautiful while simultaneously being opaque and frustrating.  
To the non-believer the film's many unresolved questions signal poor writing that could quickly become plot(black)holes that threaten to devour the film whole.  However, to the believer these questions could become something even greater.  They could become ponderous enigmas that invite the viewer to use their own illuminating curiosity to peer through the darkness.

I consider myself part of the latter camp or a believer, if you will.  That's not to say that I don't find parts of Prometheus's mythology and story to be needlessly convoluted and complicated because at the end of the day I do.  Add onto that a great deal of poor character writing (evidenced by incredibly uncharacteristic decisions made by key characters in the third act), moments of dialogue and Alien references that feel like studio notes directly injected into the film, and the reality of Prometheus breaks down quickly.  However, I don't think that the many unanswered questions posed by Prometheus, and there are many, need to be directly answered by the film.
Prometheus's scientists have discovered images from around the world that point them towards the skies and a familiar star-system that presumably houses the Engineers, an alien race that created life on Earth.  Lead scientist Elizabeth Shaw, whose cross-shaped necklace dangles around her neck, assembles a team and spacecraft, the aforementioned "Prometheus," sponsored by Alien's Weyland Corporation to explore the system.  She wants to know the answer to the fundamental question about life on Earth and as an audience so do we.
However, when things on the moon LV-223 don't turn out to be quite what they seemed the question changes from "Who created life on Earth?" to "Why do these 'Gods' want to destroy life on Earth?"  These are questions whose answers will most likely be unsatisfying, no matter the reason, and so Prometheus makes no attempt to answer them, despite throwing a few hints the audience's way.  Instead, the film utilizes the context for those questions to examine the role that faith has in the lives of its protagonists.  This exploration is perfectly framed by the characters of Elizabeth Shaw and android David whose faiths couldn't be more opposed.

On the trip to LV-223, a two-year tour, David (Fassbender) studies not only every language ever discovered by humanity but also humanity itself.  He does this by delving far into the dreams of the crew, deep in hypersleep, and by studying the film Lawrence of Arabia (my favorite film.)  In Lawrence of Arabia he finds the perfect human specimen to model himself after; Lawrence is of-course an average man given the power and seeming immortality of a God.  Before long, robot David is reappropriating Peter O'Toole's famous lines in the most soulless and horrifying of fashions.  It is apparent that he has become obsessed with humans, if not envious of their apparent ownership of souls.
When he questions their motivations to meet their makers the co-lead scientist Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green) responds, "To find out why they made us."
David questions, "Why do you think your people made me?"
"We made you 'cause we could."
"Could you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?" David retorts, as coolly as one would expect an android might.

While the humans onboard the ship are willing to do anything and everything to get their answers, David already knows why he has been created.  This line of questioning almost gives him the permission to ask and act on the question, "If humans were created by the Engineers and they created me, what makes creating life so special?  Can I create life?"  His ultimate malice is the result of being a creation that already knows the identity of its maker, its reason for existing, and at the same time that beyond death there lies nothing for him.
His pairing with Shaw, who clings to her religious beliefs even after she's met her supposed maker, helps to highlight Prometheus's attitude towards the very question that its scientists are attempting to answer.  Shaw's dogged attempts to find that answer result in nothing but disaster for her and her crew, including several scenes that make the chestburster scene from Alien seem tame.  Ultimately Shaw's quest for answers, like our own, will most likely go unfulfilled. Instead, the better question is, "Will we like the answers to our origin if we discovered them?"
Is it humanity's greatest folly to constantly be searching for unknowable answers that might not be satisfying (as David suggests), or its greatest strength?  Either way, it is clear that in Prometheus it is what makes us human, as is clearly evidenced in the difference between Shaw and David.  We might never figure out the answer to why the Gods want to destroy us, but that’s between us and them.  Prometheus instead addresses a far more interesting question, not "What made us humans?" but "What makes us humans?" 

For a full discussion of Prometheus (with SPOILERS) listen to THE FILM GRIND!

3.5 / 4 Reels



  1. OK, you get to play host:

    What plot hole bothered you most - I'll tell you how I worked it out.

  2. I'm not sure that this is the game you want to play. I don't think Brian or myself have a particular complaint about "plotholes" in this film. There are the things like the geologist and biologist getting lost in the pyramid despite being hooked up to the ship who could navigate them, but most of the ideas and sequences work out. However, there is a deal of poor character writing and desicisions made by characters which tarnish the script. It hurts a film that is trying to be smart and discuss big ideas when the people in it aren't smart, when they are supposed to be.

  3. Just got done watching it and I can’t say I was all that impressed with what I saw. Yeah, it had its moments that were tense and a little freaky but it never fully got off the ground for me. However, it’s a beautiful film the whole way through and one that should definitely be seen in 3D no matter wherever you may be. Good review Dan.