June 11, 2012

Space is the Place

by Steve Dollar

PROMETHEUS director Ridley Scott, with Noomi Rapace

Who isn't a sucker for a good outer-space yarn? Thirty-three summers ago, Ridley Scott chomped through the guts of that candy-ass Star Wars crap and unleashed Alien on the shrieking matinee masses. It was like a Sam Fuller war movie crammed in a tin can, a vessel simultaneously erupting with Cronenbergian body horror, externalized in the creepy-erotic majesty of H.R. Giger's design, and cannily importing a decade of splatterific outrage from the grindhouses and drive-ins to the budding twin cinemas of middle America. All that, and Sigourney Weaver—the Final Girl to end all Final Girls—hanging tough in her iconic panties, and a cat named Jones.

James Cameron upped the ante with Aliens, and Scott never looked back. Until now. The promise of Prometheus has had fanboys and girls in a steaming lather all year. And not undeservedly. The director hasn't done sci-fi since 1982's Blade Runner, and the digital revolution now offers the technology to imagine things on a movie screen that really do look futuristic. Ironically, perhaps, the film is a prequel to Alien, or rather presented as part of the Alien origin myth that can now progress as its own franchise. The razzle-dazzle CGI deployed suggests technological advancements that far exceed anything at hand in the quartet of Alien movies, a paradox we'll have to live with.

Prometheus

Sometime in the last decade of the 21st century, a pair of scientists uncover a series of startling similar cave paintings at remote locations around the world that suggest the possibility of alien visitors during mankind's prehistory. The eggheads, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are able to identify a configuration of stars in the drawings that are discovered to exist in our own galaxy. Out there lay the answers to existence—and an explanation for an opening sequence in which an ancient titan commits his flesh to seed the primordial muck out of which man evolved.

Soon enough in cryogenic time, the pair are onboard the spaceship Prometheus, now hovering above a desert planet whose mammoth rock formations may harbor some answers about the identity of the "engineers," as Shaw calls them, keepers of some divine spark whose cause her missionary parents served and died for. The ship's sleeping crew has been tended by David (Michael Fassbender), an android who obsessively styles himself—in grooming, manner and speech—after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but also conveys an uncanny chill of otherness that another David—Bowie—projected in The Man Who Fell to Earth. It's a tribute to the adroit, nuanced turns of Fassbender's performance that he plays a rather sinister character whose wicked charm and ambition wins sympathy. He is, to quote the Forbes magazine slogan, a capitalist tool, in ways that only become apparent after the Big Third Act Reveal That Really Isn't Breaking News. But simmering underneath the duplicity, David encourages the audience to look for his own agenda. One of the flaws of the much-derided screenplay (co-authored by Lost's Damon Lindelof) is that it introduces themes and motifs such as this only to leave them dangling or only half-baked (kind of like Lost). It's all metaphysics for the ADD-afflicted. But, like the screenwriters, I don't care, either. It's too bad, but the acting compensates. Shaw, a true believer among empirical materialists, offers a complex profile of a scientific mind who won't discount faith, and finally proves to be a scrapping Ripley 2.0. And not least, of course, is Fassbender and his "Mum," Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, veins coursing with freon), the corporate bitch-on-wheels who seems to have less of a soul than her automated minion (at least until the crew's sole burly African-American gent, the commander played by Idris Elba, torments her with his squeezebox repertoire and scores some sexy time).

Prometheus

The pair of them could free-style a lost in space chamber comedy in homage to Alien-creator Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter's Dark Star, part of the sprawl of classic SF movies that are the DNA of Prometheus (down to the retro-clunky transparent air helmets). But then the film wouldn't get to uncork all its fancy 3D effects, or make use of the sublime, hypnotically freaky Giger interiors that surround the adventurers as they explore the caverns underneath a massive geological formation. There, natch, they discover some enigmatic chambers patrolled by deadly ... well, you know. In the film's most spellbinding, magical sequence, Fassbender's robot accesses a subterranean control room where he uncovers the Big Secret (no spoilers here) and is soon in the midst of a swirling holographic dance of the universe—as transported as a six-year-old at the county fair. It's the very kind of moment where all the technology at play and on display fully justifies itself, in symbiotic unity with the story.

Prometheus doesn't sustain anything like that for long, as it seesaws between 2001-inspired philosophical questing and suspense/action/gut-gobbling good times. As to the latter, Scott offers a surprising latter-day parallel to the John Hurt chest-bursting scene of the original Alien, but this time reframes the concept as a kind of pro-choice endorsement. It's the instant when tender souls will blow their cookies, but its inclusion only validates the movie's awesomeness—flaws and all.



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Posted by ahillis at June 11, 2012 5:28 PM