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Directed by Ridley Scott
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard
Malcolm: Even under distant suns, no new ideas.
Tony: Well, new to the “Alien” franchise but not new in any other sense. This is a film that owes as much to Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book “Chariots of the Gods?” (if that’s too obscure, think “Ancient Aliens” on TV) as to the previous films.
Malcolm: I’ll admit to some tyranny of high expectations. Between 1979 and 1982, director Ridley Scott nearly created the modern science fiction film with “Alien” and “Bladerunner.” Sure, the “Star Wars” movies did more box office, but I would argue had far less influence.
Tony: Influence is a loaded term – it depends whom you’re suggesting was being influenced. The “Star Wars” films probably influenced more fans while the others influenced more folks in the business – writers, directors, cinematographers, etc. And “Alien” doubtless caused many more sleepless nights.
Malcolm: So this time combine Scott, a $125 million budget and a stellar cast, and what do you get? A by-the-numbers suspense flick where the characters die off in reverse order of fame. Throw in some plots holes, multiple examples of inexplicable decision-making by people who were judged competent enough to go on an interstellar science mission, and a few sciency ideas mashed up in a mumbo-jumbo-tron…my buddy Ed summed it up well: “It either needed to be a lot better, or take itself a lot less seriously.”
Tony: I agree – I think it’s a problem to throw out some pretty significant ideas about the origins of life as we know it, for example, and then fail to follow through with those ideas or even to make the ideas themselves unambiguous. Although I think I enjoyed the overall film better than you did – it looked great and does manage to do a passable and tough job of filling a prequel-ish void in a respected series. But it seems to get weighed down by its own sense of self-importance. Although, on some level, I'm surprised it wasn't more expensive.
Malcolm: Which gets to how I could enjoy the likes of “John Carter” and “Battleship,” while panning this epic space opera—those films didn’t ask to be taken seriously, they just needed you to pay the carnie and strap yourself in for the ride.
Tony: They do both have the virtue of never taking themselves too seriously, albeit that they are also flawed films. It’s just that they’re easier to forgive as being fluffy summer popcorn movies rather than the latest outings in one of the more respected science fiction franchises in film. But they also have the dubious distinction of being two of the largest box office flops of recent times, which doesn’t bode well for Taylor Kitsch, the lead actor of both.
Malcolm: “Prometheus,” meanwhile, pretends to be about those big issues: life, death, god, reproduction, science. Yet the writers clearly lacked an understanding of genetics or human nature. The plot, such as it is, involves ancient travelers who left us codes and might have created us in their image. Yet it also seems to hold out the idea that they’re related to us to not to the rest of life on earth. One key discovery geneticists have made is that while life may have popped into existence millions of times, here and elsewhere, all known life on this planet—worms, grass, mold, your cat, you—descended from a single origin. Nitpicking? Sure, but it could have tried a little harder to make sense.
Tony: It does get quite muddled at times. I don’t like being told that two beings that look similar but not quite the same in some marked characteristics have exactly matching DNA – just tell me that their DNA is remarkably similar and I’ll be satisfied. Also, we’re left without any clear sense of intent: Pretend for a moment that you discover that I infected some poor sap with the common cold by sneezing on them, that doesn’t provide any great insight as to whether or not I did so on purpose (and if so with good or bad intent), did so by accident, sneezed intentionally but without knowledge of the likely outcome, infected multiple other saps with the same or other sneezes, etc. You just know that one sap is sick because of me. And often intent is more interesting than causation.
Malcolm: Yet this would be a minor point if other aspects of the script worked, but they didn’t. There’s lots of action movie shorthand—the nice guy, the angry guy, the two dudes are bro-rivals. But repeatedly characters behave in ways that make no sense, either in terms of logic or emotion.
Tony: I don’t think I was struck so much by events not making sense as by them not being surprising. I felt like the film kept holding back in order to try and surprise me, but generally failed to do so.
Malcolm: With all that, there are a couple of performances that nearly save this thing. First is Noomi Rapace, who I’m becoming more and more impressed with even as she’s starring in worse and worse movies. Given a fairly flat character to work with—her archeologist comes from the “scientist who still has faith” cookie cutter—she manages to create a human center for the film in an often-understated performance that reminded me a lot of Sigourney’s Weaver’s in the original “Alien.” She’s also perfect for action movies: a short, muscly sparkplug who you actually believe could pull off the physical feats portrayed. Though I was kind of annoyed by the name they picked for her—Elizabeth Shaw, transparently meant to evoke the character that made her famous, Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” movies.
Tony: For me, she did all that she was being asked to do but didn’t thrill me with any of it. It seemed like a very workmanlike performance – as did most in the film. Much of the time I was wondering why her partner in science and life, whom she came on board with and who seemed like her equal, suddenly became a disillusioned heavy drinker and general liability. During a period in the film when we’re being introduced to a fairly mixed bag of thawed out crew members, I had to remind myself a couple of times who he was, because he didn’t seem like the earlier same guy. It's also a busy couple of weeks for Charlize Theron, with "Prometheus" coming hard on the heels of "Snow White and the Huntsman."
Malcolm: The other lead performance is the always-great Michael Fassbender as David. Imagine Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey”—if Hal was prissy, self-absorbed, actually had a physical body and always kept his hair just-so. His deadpan delivery, even of sometimes painful lines, is also just-so in such a way that he steals many of the scenes he’s in. David also makes a lot of inexplicable decisions too, but at least there is an explicable reason why. As things dragged on, I found myself hoping these two would hop into a spaceship and fly off to a better movie.
Tony: It’s funny that you were bothered by the name “Elizabeth Shaw” because I was quite distracted at times by the name “David.” For me it just seemed like an overt reference to the young artificial boy in “A.I.” with many of the same kinds of remarks being made about not really being able to feel emotions, etc. He was like the younger David all grown up, if only he was capable of growth and of aspiring to go on ill-fated deep space missions. But I didn’t approach the end of the movie wishing for anybody to fly away together like that, I don’t think I really cared enough about any of the characters to want much of anything for them. I was mostly struck by the feeling that although I quite enjoyed certain parts of the film, I was expecting that it would be a more interesting film to talk about than to watch.
"Prometheus" opens today in wide release, including in several Sacramento multiplexes.