Facing the greatest challenge of his career to date, Ridley Scott largely fulfills expectations with “Prometheus,” a thrilling 3D sci-fi spectacle, which in its grandly detailed visual design and awesome imagery offers moments of sheer joy and unmitigated exhilaration.
World premiering in Europe (I saw the movie in Paris on opening day with cheering crowds), “Prometheus” will be released in the U.S. by Fox June 8. With the expected critical support, strong embracement from the fans of the “Alien” series, and relying on the studio’s shrewd marketing campaign and veiled in secrecy plot, “Prometheus” can achieve huge commercial appeal, both domestically and internationally.
For months, Scott, his crew, the actors, and the studio execs all kept mum, only saying that their upcoming “Prometheus” will share DNA with “Alien,” especially in its last reel. Their gimmicky strategies have worked quite well: “Prometheus” is both a movie event and an event movie.
This “Prometheus” is rich enough in images, and ambitious enough in ideas (not all of them fully developed or realized), to warrant repeat viewing by many young viewers. “Prometheus” stands a chance to become a hot midnight movie, a cult item in the way that Scott’s “Blade Runner” became years after it was made.
There are at least four ways to look at and evaluate “Prometheus,” arguably the most anticipated movie of the summer (perhaps of the whole year).
First, the role of “Prometheus” in the career of the three-time Oscar nominee (but not winner yet) Scott, who has not made a sci-fi picture in decades, or 30 years to be exact, since the cult noir “Blade Runner,” in 1982 (which originally was a flop).
Second, Scott was under pressure to provide a significant connection to the first film in the series, “Alien,” in 1979, which back then came out of nowhere and is still one of the scariest sci-fi-horror movie I have seen.
Third, “Prometheus” needed to be successful as a stand-alone sci-fi thriller, targeted at viewers who were no even born in 1979, and may not have seen the entire franchise, which thus far has had four chapters, each made by a different director, “Alien,” “Aliens” by James Cameron in 1986, “Alien3” in 1992, featuring the (disappointing) feature debut of David Fincher, and “Alien Resurrection,” in 1997, by the French Jean Pierre Jeunet (better known for “Amelie”).
Fourth, by casting Noomi Rapace, the bright and alert Swedish actress from the original “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, Scott needed to show that Rapace could carry a film on her own shoulders, having previously played only a supporting role in a Hollywood movie.
Add to it the usual industry pressures to deliver a commercially successful movie, due to a long production process, huge budget, costly CGI effects, and 3D technology, and you have a task of mammoth proportions.
The film’s only major problem is the writing. Indeed, the screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, based on ideas by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, and original design elements by H.R. Giger, is not only uneven, but promises more original ideas and thematic provocations than it can possibly deliver.
The ship is named Prometheus in reference to the god in Greek mythology who alternatively gave fire to man or shaped man’s image from clay, thus was instrumental in changing the entire evolution of mankind. In doing so, he angered the gods and suffered mercilessly for it. These aspects of the myth have analogies in the movie’s story, though not all of them are fully developed or entirely convincing.
That said, I realize that most viewers these days don‘t go to sci-fi thrillers to be stimulated and provoked intellectually (as they did during Kubrick’s heyday of “2001: Space Odyssey,” or even later, in Spielberg’s reworking of Kubrick’s “A.I.”)
It is therefore a pleasure to report that, with the exception of the film’s thematic aspirations, Scott has met honorably most of these challenges.
“Prometheus” is not flawless: In more than a few moments, you feel that the film aims (but strains) to say something philosophically significant about the origins of human life (borrowing from Kubrick), suggested by the binary oppositions that define the narrative: construction versus destruction, creator versus creation.
It is probably a coincidence that the opening reel of “Prometheus” stands in sharp opposition to the first images that began Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” both apocalyptic features about the end of the world, which came out last year.
Scott and his brilliant cinematographer, begin their epic saga with eerily beautiful and haunting images of a planet in the early phases of evolutionary birth. They then sharply cut to the view of a pale humanoid ingesting toxin. We get the idea right away: This film will be about birth and death.
The story perse is set in December 2093, and it may be useful to remember that “Alien” was set in 2122, “Aliens” 57 years later, in 2179, and “Alien Resurrection” in 2381.
The narrative then introduces its two protagonists: archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and scientist Charlie Holloway (played by stage actor Logan Marshall-Green), who is her lover. The couple is aboard the spaceship Prometheus, leading a crew whose goal is to discover the aliens that initiated life on Earth.
Four years earlier, Shaw, a devout Catholic (she proudly wears a cross necklace), has discovered a series of star maps on cave walls, left behind by aliens thousands of years ago. As a result, she sees them as a good reason to blast off into space and pay a visit. Holloway is less driven and more skeptical than Shaw. He holds onto his rational and empirical scientific thinking, which allows the writers to juxtapose beliefs and instincts versus hard facts (yet another binary opposition).
The duo is joined by the efficient captain Janek (Idris Elba) and the tough, business-minded corporate exec Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, who at one point was to play the lead). Very much in the vein of the first “Alien” pictures, there are tensions, arguments and signs of anti-authoritarianism on board. Who’s in charge? Who should be obeyed?
Is there need to say that the visit to planet Zeta 3 Reiculi doesn’t go well? Right after landing, the scientists go through an underground cavern, where they first encounter the alien specimens. Should they try and kill them, or take them on their spaceship?
The most interesting character, in what’s a small gallery of largely stock types. is David (the handsome and busiest actor around, Michael Fassbender, this time around in blond hair), an endlessly curious android. Through the child-man, innocent-dangerous David-Fassbender, director Scott pays homage to David Lean’s “Lawrence pf Arabia,” when David (channeling and mocking Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” and perhaps HAL 9000 in “2001”) watches a clip from Lean’s 1962 masterpiece.
The least developed and least convincing character is Peter Weyalnd (Guy Pierce, barely recognizable, covered as he is with tons of makeup), a technical tycoon, who in a particularly verbose scene, delivers a speech about the myth of Prometheus (which is the ship’s moniker) and arrogantly announces the ultimate mission, to change the world.
It’s also predictable and disappointing that the team’s scientists—two geologists, played by Sean Harris and Rafe Spall–meet a particularly brutal and bloody demise, which follows the long-held anti-scientific reasoning in Hollywood movies.
Scott and his brilliant production crew compensate for the narrative’s higher but unfulfilled philosophical aims and other dramatic shortcomings with an extremely intricate and elaborate visual design, which is nothing short of dazzling and haunting–even by standards of big-budget, CGI-driven Hollywood blockbusters.
And though “Prometheus” lacks the genuinely shocking scares of “Alien,” which were novel at the time, it does contain enough tense-ridden and action-full sequences to please the hardcore fans who favor the second chapter, James Cameron’s “Aliens,” over Scott’s 1979 original.
This is particularly the case of a scene in which Shaw, following in the honorable footsteps of Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Officer Ripley, climbs into a metallic structure to destruct an alien that’s in her own body (You could feel the squirms and gasps in the audience during that eerie sequence).
Elizabeth Shaw – Noomi Rapace
David – Michael Fassbender
Peter Weyland – Guy Pearce
Janek – Idris Elba
Charlie Holloway – Logan Marshall-Green
Meredith Vickers – Charlize Theron
20th Century Fox release of Dune Entertainment and Scott Free/Brandywine production.
Produced by Ridley Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill. Executive producers: Michael Costigan, Mark Huffam, Michael Ellenberg, Damon Lindelof.
Co-producer: Mary Richards.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, based on ideas by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, and original design elements by H.R. Giger.
Camera: Dariusz Wolski.
Editor: Pietro Scalia.
Music: Marc Streitenfeld.
Production designer: Arthur Max.
Supervising art director: John King; art directors, Peter Dorme, Anthony Caron-Delion, Alex Cameron; set decorator, Sonja Klaus.
Costume designer: Janty Yates.
Sound: Simon Hayes.
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