Thursday, 21 June 2012

Late Review: 'Prometheus'

Last night I finally went to see Prometheus after, well, more or less everyone else in the Western Hemisphere. Going in, my expectations weren’t high. Yes, I was hoping for something great, but the general critical consensus wasn’t exactly encouraging. “Yeah, it’s alright... I guess” can only inspire so much confidence.

In any case, it’s gotta be better than Alien: Resurrection... right?

My first impressions? Braveheart. I’m not kidding, the way the camera swept down through the clouds, before rolling over a gorgeous view of mountains, lakes and waterfalls as the opening credits appeared made me think someone had stuck on Mel’s historical epic by accident.

As it turns out, this wasn’t going to be Braveheart IN SPACE, but rather Prometheus. The Alien prequel we’ve heard whispers about for many years, but never realistically expected to see after Fox let it all go pear shaped with that whole Alien vs. Predator debacle. But let’s not get wrapped up in the past.

Ancient clues discovered by archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) depict humanity worshipping a race of tall humanoid beings, which Shaw dubs the “Engineers”, who seemingly hail from a distant world. Her finds attract the attention of decrepit billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce looking like future Biff Tannen), who dispatches a team on the scientific vessel Prometheus to discover the origin of life as we know it. After a two year journey across space, the ship finally reaches its destination, and its crew are soon plunged into an orifice-violating nightmare.   

I’ll get Prometheus’ single biggest issue out of the way first: it feels like half a story. We’re constantly introduced to plot points that are promptly all-but forgotten about. I don’t want to spoil anything for the three guys who still haven’t seen it, but a lot of threads are skipped over and left hanging. You can possibly put this incoherence down to the undeniably rushed editing style that leaves much of the film feeling gutted. Who knows, this could be a case where an extended Blu-ray cut isn’t totally pointless. For the time being, we have Sequel Bait: The Movie, and as a stand-alone film... it doesn’t work.

This undercooked quality of writing sadly extends to the characters, as with a few exceptions, the crew of the Prometheus lack that special human quality which was so prevalent onboard the Nostromo. Shaw is likeable enough as a lead (not sure what was up with Rapace's accent though), while the obligatory android, David, is borderline fascinating (mainly thanks to yet another great performance from Michael Fassbender), but the rest aren’t well defined at all. Charlize Theron has a number of mood swings that all apparently revolve around her default corporate mega bitch setting, an underused Idris Elba’s surprising transformation into Captain Exposition in one scene left me reeling, and another character’s display of previously unmatched stupidity made want to scream DO NOT TOUCH THE PENIS SNAKE.

And on that phallic note, is there anything in Prometheus which even comes close to H.R. Giger’s original biomechanical terror? There are obvious design homages to where it all began, and hints of psychosexual horror do remain, but no. Not really. The effects team serve up a small selection of slimy critters that, although excellent in design, don’t enliven the imagination like one would hope, while the most impressive part of the Engineers (previously known as Space Jockeys) are their abdominal muscles (wo-ho-oah).

It’s not all totally disappointing, of course. For one thing, Prometheus is absolutely gorgeous. This is a Ridley Scott film, so one should expect nothing less than an aesthetic treat. By extension, I loved how there was a large reliance on practical sets for the actors to genuinely interact with. Though far glossier in design than the dank mining vessel setting of Alien, the world of Prometheus shares that same tangible quality which so effectively sets it apart from those other sci-fi/fantasy films that are left feeling hollow and artificial from an all-too obvious reliance on green screen CGI wallpaper.

And it must be said, Prometheus does contain by far the grisliest “Alien Birth Sequence” since... I don’t know, Xtro maybe? It’s all kinds of nasty (surely responsible for the film’s R/15 rating), and happily adds to the Alien series’ history of uncomfortable body horror. It’s far and away the film’s most memorable part, too. In fact, I think Prometheus was at its best during those gleeful moments of full-on schlock (watch out for the mutant geologist rampage!). I mean, I was overjoyed when the final act suddenly regressed into slimy tentacular hilarity. Please feel free to insert your own Japanese porn joke after the full stop.

... You done? Good. Anyway, for all I didn’t like about Prometheus, I still ended up enjoying it way more than I should have. I’m in Cowbows & Aliens territory again, it would seem. Because at the end of the day, with its botch-job storytelling, forgettable characters, gory deaths and goofy creatures, Prometheus is a big budget throwback to all those cheesy sci-fi horror flicks spawned from Alien’s success during the 80s. Think Inseminoid, or Titan Find. I mentioned Xtro. While it surely wasn’t intended, Scott’s latest is cut from the same cloth, only with some real talent and big bucks to support it.

From the very beginning, the big issue surrounding an Alien prequel was the extent to which that original film would be affected by any new revelations. Many of us never even wanted a back-story in the first place to keep the saga’s mysteries unresolved. I myself was quite relieved during Ridley’s “It’s not a prequel anymore!” stage of Prometheus’ development.

Quite honestly, the aftershocks aren’t nearly as disastrous as they could so easily have been. No, I’ll no longer wonder if that fossilised pilot Dallas, Kane and Lambert first discovered in 1979 was actually some kind of highly advanced species of elephant seal, but Prometheus simply doesn’t give us enough answers for Alien to be spoilt just yet. And as frustrating as many of those aforementioned unanswered questions are... a few are rather tantalising.

I guess we’ll have to wait for Prometheuses to see if they really do screw it up.