Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus Disappoints

Ridley Scott is another favorite director of mine.  He is up there with David Lean (whose work is a minor plot detail in the film I am about to review) and others.  A great classic film director. Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), and Gladiator (2000), among others.  His revisitation of his first film, 1979's awesome Alien, truly a remarkable film in many ways, was much anticipated by me.  Perhaps too much.  For though the film is not without merit, I feel Scott's directing was negatively affected by a mediocre script co-written by Damon Lindelof, a major writing force in the TV series Lost, which I enjoyed for years.

I was fortunate enough to see Prometheus yesterday, the opening weekend of a hyped-up film.  I saw the movie in IMAX 3D.  This is one of the more less-3D movies that I have seen.  It was great to see it in IMAX quality, but the film does not utilize the 3D aesthetic in any special way.  It would have been just as impressive to watch in "plain" IMAX like Inception was presented last summer.  At any rate, Prometheus is at times visually stunning, the special effects are excellent.

But, that's kind of expected these days.  The list of movies in the last ten years that failed critically and financially while displaying fantastic visual effects is a long one, and Prometheus may unfortunately join it.  Scott does a lot of things right, however.  The material (as given) is well-told, not hastily rushed, visually interesting, multi-faceted, metaphysical, and Scott manages all the pieces pretty well.  There is shock, there is fascination, there is a huge canvas handled in classic style.

There are several things to admire about Prometheus.  Again, the film is compelling to see.  Both the sets and the costumes are exceptional.  The scenes featuring David, the robot, are shot and edited in a way that almost makes them a movie within a movie, they are the film at its bestAlthough there is plenty of action, much of the film is moderately slow (the original Alien is almost half-way over before anything really happens) allowing (theoretically) story elements and characterizations to take root and build their own tension.  The film has several big ideas in it, up to and including where does humanity come from?

But the script is too much television and not enough Hollywood.  Not that 'Hollywood' is always art, but TV, at least in my mind, is more forgiving in details than great film-script writing.  Great Hollywood scripts build something, they climax with the effective mingling of a multiplicity of character and dramatic elements.  In Prometheus the story elements are fragmented, only one character is really developed (David, the robot), and the horror is an array of somewhat associated facts, rather than a singular monster.

There is potential for greatness in this myriad of facts.  Greatness of a Lovecraftian nature.  That Ridley Scott could not marshall all the necessary elements in an orchestrated fashion (as he did with the original Alien) is mostly a flaw in the writing.  The film attempts to examine a lot of weighty stuff in a serious and scary way.  But, at times the script asks us to forgive it too much.  I just don't accept a lot of the unmotivated behavior of the characters and the overall convenience of the film.   If you are going to ask big questions and to interject complex human relationships then you better deliver.  You have to make me suspend disbelief.

When the ship arrives on the moon of a distant planet, looking for a safe place to put down, without any scientific investigation whatsoever, it happily happens upon the exact mound complex spot where the "alien race" developed "weapons of mass destruction."  Cool idea but come on guys, at least make them look for the place.  This bulls-eye is bullshit, even if it does advance the story efficiently.  What it doesn't do and what every successful sci-fi movie needs to do is establish a reality in which viewers can relate to these characters.  And that reality has to be up to complexity of the storytelling.  Weighty subjects demand realism without chessy conveniences.

Another example:  As in the the original Alien, everybody dies but for one strong, central female character.  The deaths in the original were entirely believable and experiential for the audience.  The deaths in Prometheus are, but contrast, almost of a throw-away nature.  Near the end of the film the spaceship kamikazes an alien vessel.  The Captain of the Prometheus and his two pilots willfully, even passionately, commit suicide.  I do not buy it. The way this is written I have absolutely no reason to believe that these characters (none of whom I particularly connect with or have reason to root for) sacrifice themselves for humanity out of the clear blue yonder.  I have no reason to believe they would even have context for their sacrifice.  It's ridiculously bad writing and Scott's attempt to create heroism in this moment comes off silly.

The script is peppered with this type of mediocrity.  There's nothing wrong with not explaining key components of the story in a movie.  Ambiguity is often an entertaining quality.  See Christopher Nolan's Momento as an example.  But, if you are asking the big questions you can't just kill everybody off and leave holes in the storyThe script sets up entire character situations and then does nothing with them.  The way Guy Pearce is used in the film is an example.  Central to the plot, his character is introduced as a surprise and then just simply killed off, adding some complexity perhaps but doing nothing with it.  Characters in this film are more dead-ends (literally) than accomplices to structured story development. Lindelof's ambiguity is really just confusion cluttered with cheap exists that seem to me to weaken dramatic television.

I hope Ridley Scott is more engaged in the writing for his exciting sequel to Blade Runner.  I give Prometheus a 7.  It is not a bad film, it just doesn't live up to all its script tries to promise.


Anonymous said...

You have made a good summary of what I saw.

The ship was beautiful, the effects flawless and the views of planet gave a great sense of scale.

I was hoping that it would explore human origins (like 2001), but it ends up having slightly different aliens busting from peoples stomachs; haven't we done that in six movies already?

Anonymous said...

Good review wish I didnt feel the same way!
Seen it twice thought it interesting the first time which is not a 100% endorsement. The second viewing I wanted to scream at the screen but out of
politeness to my ticket purchasing neighbors, I just raised my middle finger in silent protest several times as character motivations and plot points became infuriating FIFIELD IS THE JAR JAR BINKS OF THIS FILM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!