Friday, 8 June 2012


++ 00% SPOILERS ++

For those you who don't know the name Prometheus comes from Greek mythology; he was one of the titans, a race of ancient immortals who were the original gods until they were overthrown by Zeus and his brothers establishing  the more familiar Hellenic pantheon of deities. Prometheus however is most famous for  for his activities after his race were deposed, namely stealing fire from the Olympian gods and giving it to mankind. For this crime, Zeus sentenced Prometheus to be chained to a rock and have a monstrous eagle to feast upon his ever regenerating entrails for all eternity.

Now the act of creating a truly classic film has often been compared to the difficult and hazardous business of stealing fire from the gods. However in this digital age should you fail in your mission, it's not giant raptors you have to worry about, it's the bloggers, film buffs, and fanboys; the legions of scary monsters and supergeeks, that dwell in the Stygian spaces of the internet that isn't full of pornography yet, that will be descending on black wings to eviscerate you time after time for endless untold aeons. 

And merrily skip from one flame-based metaphor to another, certainly Sir Ridley Scott was playing with fire when he announced a return to the universe he established in Alien. To begin with for the director who launched this scifi-horror franchise to return was a risk enough in itself - Alien is a truly classic film and stealing Olympian fire twice is a tall order even for a director of  Scott's stature. Furthermore to helm a return voyage later into the interstellar spaces he mapped out as a young firebrand, so many years later when at the other end of his directorial career, there was a massive risk of the venerable Sir Ridley ending up with, if you'll pardon the pun, egg on his face.

And while for any creator to revisit territory which had previously birthed a classic is dangerous ground, however the hazards are considerably increased when said classic is a movie like Alien, a film which has not only been hugely influential and established a whole universe through sequels, books and comics, but also spawned a multitude of ravening fans. And such a fandom, contrary to what you may expect, doesn't tend to be composed of the most easily pleased of folks as anyone who has seen assorted recent internet backlashes can attest...

But that said, to say the excitement generated in the months before the release of Prometheus was been immense seems something of an understatement. Every teaser, press release, interview and trailer has been exhaustedly discussed, analysed and dissected and a marketing machine in over-drive has pumped out a deluge of promotional material to provide grist for this never ceasing mill. And in this hot-house climate, I think it's fair to say that expectations of this movie had been raised to astronomical levels - excellent publicity to be sure, but potentially the hype had reached levels that the film itself could never hope to match. 

However if of the above wasn't perilous enough, Prometheus was to be set BEFORE Alien and explore the much debated mysteries of the Space Jockey, that enigmatic alien skeleton found dead at the controls of the derelict craft harbouring that cargo of eggs that Kane and co. were to so memorably blunder across. Now the questions raised by this mystery pilot and his ship are an integral part of the brilliance of Alien, a cosmic space in which the imaginations of generations of movie lovers have played, endlessly wondering where it came from, forever pondering the relationship between that doomed mummified giant and his monstrous freight, seemingly doomed to eternal riddling in the dark between the stars...

...until now.

And that dear reader is the biggest hazard of them all. Now Ridley Scott is a director who has never been content to rest on his laurels; he's never settled down into simply churning out films in the same style or genre, and while all his movies have an almost trademark level of quality direction and visuals, he's always been looking to tell different stories in different ways. However, even for a director who relishing taking risks, to even contemplate hinting at the answers to the Space Jockey questions is an act of breath-taking bravado. For surely even if the solutions Prometheus offers are good ones, the odds are that fans have already considered those possibilities and hence the movie's revelations will seem stale. But more to the point, after all these years of cherishing those xenomorphic mysteries, any answer, even one from the original auteur, could not be as satisfying as exploring the imaginative void the questions open up. 

Now for me personally, as soon as Scott announced Prometheus, my ticket money was as good as in the bank. And being very aware of how marketing campaigns these days are so saturated that you can end up bored to death with the movie before it hits the theatres, I chose to ignore all the promotional material spewing across the media. I only watched one solitary trailer so I could go in as fresh as possible and indeed even now as I write this, I still haven't broken that embargo and started digging through all those reviews and comments I've been avoiding for fear of spoilers, so I can give a fresh a review as possible. 

However for all my ninja-like spoiler-dodging, it was impossible to go within ten feet of the internet and not hear the somewhat cacophonous reactions to the movie. From the start, opinions of Prometheus have been mixed and to be honest, that wasn't a huge surprise to me. For a start, the level of excitement about the film in some circles that reached Avatar proportions... And we all know how quickly that tide turned, with inflated hype bursting in bitter disappointment. Secondly considering the endless slew of trailers, I was counting on a good proportion of reviews tending towards the negative through sheer over-familiarity.

And finally of course, the odds of Scott coming up with any answers to the questions left by Alien that would satisfy fanboys, despite the expectant frothing, were probably smaller than Jones' chances in Hell. Indeed realistically speaking, all the odds were actually stacked up against Prometheus before a single frame hit the screen. So then the news that the reviews were mixed was almost a relief as I was half-expecting an outright panning given all the factors outlined above. And regardless of the tenor of the advance word, I was still going to see Prometheus no matter what. 

And to place my cards on the table, I went in with looking forward to what Scott came up with, how he was going to handle this potentially flammable material, rather than any set ideas on what he SHOULD be coming up with. I had no pet theories or preconceptions of what should be added to the Alien mythos or a black-list of things that would 'ruin' the original - because to my mind if you are going to go in with such a partisan approach in the first place, you might as well just chuck your toys out of the pram now and save yourself the price of ticket. Indeed for me, the intrigue of Prometheus was the fact that Scott was likely to produce something unexpected rather than merely delivering something I could rubber-stamp with my own self-satisfied fanboy approval.

Now I appreciate I've spent alot of time so far in establishing the somewhat highly-charged context Prometheus inhabits. And having seen the movie, I think that said context will be the deciding factor to what you will make of it. However despite being a film that was always going to be divisive, there are some things I suspect we can all agree on.

Firstly as this is a Ridley Scott production, it looks fantastic; it's beautifully shot, jam-packed with excellent design work and generally upholding the cinematic attention to detail that is something of Scott hallmark. And yes, even the 3D is actually pretty decent. Although I wouldn't necessarily say that seeing Prometheus in 3D is a must, Scott certainly shows that he's one of the few directors that can use the technology to great effect to create a sense of depth in his imagined landscapes rather than just resorting to cheap poke-you-in-the-eyes gimmickery.

Secondly Michael Fassbender's performance as David is another tour de force from this rising star. The rest of the main cast all put in solid enough performances, but to be honest Noomi Rapace, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron are all left in the shade by Fassbender's turn. However it has be said that for the movie this is something of a double-edged sword; for whereas Alien had an ensemble cast feel with more or less equally weighted characters, Fassbender's stand-out performance, although very convincing, does draw attention to the fact that we are watching a movie with starring roles.

And it has to be said that Prometheus does play more like a movie than Alien does; one of the great strengths of that seminal deep space chiller was the almost documentary edge brought to the plot. However the story of Alien is basically a recycled B movie monster-on-the-rampage tale but treated in a gritty, well thought-out fashion (see Hypnobobs #80 - The Origins of Alien for more details), whereas the plot line of Prometheus is more ambitious, aiming to do somewhat more than merely bring biological detail and nut'n'bolts realism to an interstellar hitch-hiker who turns out to be the bogey man. Where Alien traded in spilt oil and venting steam claustrophobia, Prometheus is more concerned with the visionary landscapes of a cosmic odyssey.

Now as I'm keeping this review spoiler-free, I obviously can't delve into any real discussion of the script or plot. However What I can say is that I did find there were some rough spots - conclusions are reached rather suddenly, and some character motivations are little opaque. Plus there are isolated outbreaks of Basil Exposition syndrome and a subplot involving a trio of characters that doesn't seem to quite have the weight or relevance it should in the story line.

Now while there are these moments which to me seemed to lack the usual Scott polish, I'm holding off ringing the Plot Hole Alert. And this is mainly because I've seen enough films to spot the dread spectre of edited for run time lurking in the shadows; my Missing Scenes Detector was going pinging like a motion tracker in the deserted med labs of Hadley's Hope at a couple of points. Indeed Sir Ridley has said he cut out alot of material to get an acceptable 124 minutes, and I heavily suspect this duration was something more desired by the studios than Scott himself. Remember these days Hollywood doesn't want blockbusters with restrictive age certificates, and having already shrank his potential audience with its rating from the MPAA and BBFC I don't think it's too far from the mark to guess that the studios were very keen on a two hour running time - longer movies mean fewer showing, which equals in turn less of those all important opening weekend ticket sales.

Hence while there are moments than lurch like a defective android rather than smoothly glide like the rest of the film,  I'm opting to reserve judgement until the inevitable Director's Cut surfaces as I do think that many of the clinks and clanks will disappear in a longer cut and these scenes were the movie seems to lose it's rhythm are properly orchestrated once more. But that said, as it stands I don't think these instances are either numerous or sustained enough to sink the film. Yes, Prometheus is flawed but not in a majorly fatally way in this regard.

However where the film may well die death lies within what expectations viewers are bringing to the table. Now although Ridley Scott has said from the beginning that Prometheus is not a direct prequel to Alien, many of us are directly or indirectly assuming it is. C'mon, let's be honest here, despite Scott stressing that it just 'shares DNA with Alien', we've all blithely ignored it and have gone in looking for connective tissue to his 1979 opus. And the fact is if you're going in expecting this flick to be Alien Part 0, you've landed on the wrong deserted planetoid my friend!

At this juncture I do want to tackle something that could be considered spoilerific, although  the detail I will be revealing is in assorted promotional media. However as I missed this fact due to my self-imposed embargo but had fun figuring it out during the movie, if you wish to do the same, skip this section and come back to it later after you've seen the film...

Spoiler-levels will return to 00% after the bad sub-Giger doodling that I did in English class instead of listening to how great Jane Ruddy Austen is...


Now then, it is very important to note that Prometheus does not take place on LV-426 aka Acheron, the mist-shrouded and lava strewn world we see in both Alien and Aliens - the events in this movie occur on the moon LV-223, an astronomical body in the same region of space. 

And the reason I mention this is because during the research for this review, I have chanced upon more than a few people remarking on perceived plot holes that only exist if you are labouring under the apprehension that the alien worlds seen in Alien and Prometheus are one and the same. More to the point, if you think they are, then by the climax of Prometheus you'll be thinking that old  Ridley has seriously dropped the ball, wondering if his memory is on the blink and most probably consider the movie a pile of insulting garbage.

Now having not yet trawled through all the assorted reviews and podcasts yet, I'm not sure how widespread this misapprehension is, but with the received wisdom, often a suspect commodity, being that Prometheus is "the prequel to Alien", the question is does the movie make it clear enough? After all, not every movie goer rabidly consumes all that the marketing machine has to offer and if alot of reviewers have there LV-426 and LV-223 conflated, it would account for some of the negative reactions this movie is getting.

For Alien geeks, it should be obvious that these are not the same planets - for a start, their atmospheres have different make-ups and the moon our heroes visit is referred to LV-223.  However for the casual viewer, what is there to indicate that this is a different world? Well most obviously the landscapes are vastly different - LV-223 may be desolate and barren but it's very similar to Earth, whereas LV-426 is a stormed-wracked blasted hell-world. And the fact that there are... shall we say... structures and features revealed during Prometheus, that the crew of the Nostromo find no trace of, should make it very clear that the movies are taking place in different locations.

But that said, I can understand that for a good proportion of the movie you may be expecting something to occur that would account for the differences in the landscapes. However by the last act, where the misapprehension is most damaging, certain things do occur that really should have the penny dropping that they are occurring on different worlds. And I do wonder whether that this plot structure is deliberate - I suspect Scott knew darn well that people will be going into this movie playing spot the Alien connection and set things up to keep folks off-track until the closing scenes.

Then again, other than presenting clear visual differences between the geography of the two planets, how can you make clear that the crew of the good ship Prometheus are touching down on a different world to one the Nostromo will be stopping off at in this universe's future? Is suspect, the crux of this problem is not that Scott was being too subtle, but that the benighted planet of Alien just isn't very well known as LV-426. It just doesn't have the same cultural recognition as phrases like 'face-hugger' or 'chest-burster' which everyone instantly associates with Alien...


So then although Prometheus does shed a great deal of light on the background to Alien, if you are anticipating a movie that dovetails neatly with the original film as last year's The Thing prequel did, you will be sorely disappointed.  However even if you have listened to Sir Ridley and are going into Prometheus as a different story in the same universe, you still may come away disappointed - for the light that is shed upon the lingering mysteries of the Space Jockey may well simply not be to your taste.

Now I'd stress heavily at this point, that if you don't like what is presented in Prometheus, that's fine and dandy. As  I said many paragraphs ago, it's a damn near impossible task to answer such enigmatic questions in a way that is satisfying after all these years of our own imaginings. And there certainly isn't any magic bullet answers to the mysteries of Alien that will satisfy everyone. It is a purely personal thing that the more I think about it, the more it seems guaranteed to play out across the entire critical spectrum.

However I'd equally heavily stress that if you didn't like what Scott revealed, it doesn't necessarily make Prometheus a bad film. Now certain aspects of the script I've already mentioned - yes, it isn't perfect as it stands - however everything else is top notch technically. But it's the story content that will be the most divisive and therefore if it doesn't float your boat I don't think it's strictly fair to write the movie off as rubbish; it'd be more accurate to say it's a film you disagree with!

Personally I rather liked what Prometheus delivered, but I will freely admit that one early reveal didn't sit well with my tastes initially. However by the end of the movie, I had accommodated this new piece of Alien lore, and the rest of the elements presented had truly fired my imagination. For whatever you may think about the revelations of Prometheus, Scott has wisely given us answers that pose yet more intriguing questions; the only kind of answers really a story teller should ever give to such long cherished mysteries.

Again of course, some will feel that either too much or too little was revealed. But again, it's horses for courses - it's impossible for Prometheus to be all things to all film fans. And all I can really recommend for  a film that will generate such an array of opinion is see it for yourself and find out how it plays for you.

For me, it was a very finely crafted film, that despite some rough patches was still a riveting piece of cinema. And yes, I did come out feeling very satisfied but you're own mileage may vary! Admittedly it's not perfect, but to put Prometheus in context one final time, even a flawed Ridley Scott film is still streets ahead of most of Hollywood's spawn.


Dan O. said...

Just got done watching it and I can’t say I was all that impressed with what I saw. Yeah, it had its moments that were tense and a little freaky but it never fully got off the ground for me. However, it’s a beautiful film the whole way through and one that should definitely be seen in 3D no matter wherever you may be. Good review Jim.

Jim Moon said...

Thank you sir! Prometheus is certainly an odd beast - not the easiest movie to review and try to account for the broad range of reactions it's getting :)

I suspect I may well end up returning to it when a Director's cut surfaces. And I'm intrigued that Scott's saying he built-in scope for sequels... the movie looks different again when I consider it as A Part One :)

Considering how differently the movie plays depending on your perspective, perhaps it should have been called Proteus!

Laura Fox said...

I had to look him up :)

I agree that nobody will ever be totally happy with Scott's answers, but I don't think this makes it a bad film. I think he knows exactly where it's going and if he doesn't, I'm blaming Lindelof for the glaring plot holes!