Friday, July 13, 2012

Beautiful Stupidity: Prometheus

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to Alien and return to science fiction film making, is an amazing and frustrating experience that may just be the smartest-looking stupid movie of all time.

After a dazzlingly beautiful prologue sequence set on a primordial world, the film kicks off with a couple of wide-eyed archeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) uncovering ancient cave paintings in 2089 Scotland that appear to confirm their theory that life on Earth was seeded by aliens they call Engineers. What’s more, the Engineers have left us instructions for how to find them.

The archeological dynamic duo convinces wealthy old industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in strangely unconvincing old man makeup) to fund an expedition to go out and meet the aliens, and we’re off. The remainder of the film follows the crew and scientists of the titular starship as they explore the ruins they find on the Engineer planet and eventually try to survive when things inevitably go to hell.

Those one-line character descriptions above may seem shallow and dismissive, but the film doesn’t give viewers much more to go on than that. The characters and their murky motivations are by far the weakest element of the film. When we first meet the motley crew during an early briefing scene, they quickly establish themselves as a thin collection of archetypes and clichés. The laziness of the characterization becomes almost laughable at one point when a character flatly states his motivation (“I’m not here to make friends” he growls for no particular reason).

Attempts are made to provide some depth to a few of the characters, which mostly backfires. Charlize Theron’s cold corporate raider is meant to be humanized by family drama, but that conflict only serves to rob her of agency, rendering her a useless observer for much of the film. Two crew members are given a wisp of a subplot regarding a wager made early in the film, which annoyingly becomes the sole focus of their conversation for the rest of their screen time. The result is an audience that at best doesn’t care if these characters live or die, and at worst actively roots for the monsters. The two bright spots in the cast are Michael Fassbender’s fascinating and strikingly unhuman performance as the android David, and The Wire’s Idris Elba as the believably pragmatic ship’s captain.

As thin as the characterizations are, the script (by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame) is even thinner. There are enough plot holes and glaring inconsistencies to keep sci-fi message boards humming for years, and many of the actions taken by the characters are downright stupid. One of the most boneheaded moments involves a character who professes to be a biologist taunting a cobra-like alien by sticking his arm in its mouth, with predictable results.

Everything that is wrong with Prometheus is very nearly eclipsed by what is right with it: the frankly gorgeous cinematography and production design. Its clear that the visuals are what really mattered to Scott and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski as every shot is dripping in mood and atmosphere, imbuing even the stupidest scenes with a sense of dignity and importance. The visual effects work is excellent, looking convincingly impressive without being overwhelming . Special mention goes to Scott’s use of practical effects whenever possible, a rarity in this day and age.

It’s a shame that all that artistry and technical wizardry is in service to a script that falters on nearly every level. Here’s hoping that when the time comes for the inevitable sequel, Mr. Scott puts as much effort into creating a compelling story as he does into creating compelling images.

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