Friday, June 29, 2012

Prometheus: A Journey Into Outer (and Inner) Space with Ridley Scott

The best science-fiction movies offer interesting stories & ideas along with their action & special effects. Ridley Scott directed two films that are considered among the genre’s best: Alien (1979) & Blade Runner (1982). Scott revisited both films with director’s cuts; Alien in 2003, and Blade Runner in 1992 with “The Director’s Cut” & again in 2007 with “The Final Cut.” Those films (and their various versions) have legions of loyal fans, and are still discussed and debated in the fan community. Alien went on to spawn several sequels, including James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), but Scott had never returned to the Alien universe with a new story: until this summer.

His newest film, Prometheus (2012), is full of big themes & high concepts in the grand sci-fi tradition. In 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway make an amazing discovery. Pictograms in caves around the world, from different time periods and civilizations, seem to contain the same image. Shaw & Holloway believe the similar drawings may be a star map leading us to the superior beings who created the human race. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation (the “Company” from the Alien films) funds a deep space mission to the site, hoping to discover the origins of humanity.

Once they arrive at their destination, the crew of the Prometheus discover the remnants of an ancient civilization...and something far more dangerous. These “Engineers” not only created humans, but also a bioweapon of terrifying ferocity. Shaw & Holloway investigate the origins of these beings, and find themselves with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, other members of the crew, including Weyland-Yutani representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the android David (Michael Fassbender) are pursuing their own mysterious agendas.

Fans of Alien will enjoy the visual cues & references to the original film. If you’ve ever wondered about the “Space Jockey” discovered by the crew of the Nostromo, you’ll get some answers here. And we also get some clues regarding the origins of the nasty creatures Ellen Ripley battled in the four previous films. But the most intriguing ideas here are the larger ones: Who created humans? What if those creators decided we weren't worth having around anymore? And if you designed an ultimate weapon to wipe out an entire race, what if turned on you instead? It's no accident that the Prometheus is named after the immortal figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods as a gift to man. His punishment was to be bound to a rock, where each day an eagle fed on his liver, which then grew back and was consumed again the following day for all eternity.

The concept of “who created us?” has often been explored in science fiction novels and films, including some memorable episodes of the original Star Trek series, novels like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as well as one of my personal favorites, Five Million Years To Earth (1967)Prometheus does a good job of combining some classic science-fiction ideas, and filtering them through the fabric of the world of Alien. The script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of TV’s Lost) answers some questions, while allowing you to draw some of your own conclusions. Though some elements of the story are a bit predictable, and it seems somewhat over plotted at times, it’s an entertaining journey; an interesting combination of thoughtful science-fiction, action movie and horror tale.

The cast does a good job, with Theron turning in her second solid performance in a genre film this summer (after Snow White & The Huntsman) and Idris Elba (TV’s Luther) nicely underplaying the role of the Captain. Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” film trilogy) who is very effective as Shaw, conveying the delicate balance between the character’s religious beliefs & her scientific curiosity. And then there’s Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) who is excellent as David, the android who knows more than he's telling about the mission, and may have some secrets of his own. Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) appears in an important supporting role.

Scott’s direction is excellent in this visually stunning film. He’s a master craftsman at the head of a great team, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Pietro Scalia (both of whom have worked with the director on previous projects), and production designer Arthur Max. The entire technical team has done a marvelous job, giving you a real sense of being in another time & place. This is a science-fiction film that looks like a science-fiction film. It’s a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed in widescreen, with expansive use of the frame in some well-designed shots.

I’ve purposely stayed away from revealing too much of the plot & story elements here, so you can enjoy Prometheus on its own merits as you view it for the first time. One note of caution; there are a couple of sequences (like the Chest Burster in the original Alien) that are not for the squeamish. Prometheus is currently in theaters. It’s tentatively set to be released on home video (in an expanded edition from director Scott) in October. Feel free to post in the comments section below if you’d like to add anything, or discuss any of the points I brought up in this review. Prometheus can stand alongside Ridley Scott’s other two science-fiction projects as an example of what can be accomplished when a talented filmmaker is working at the top of his game.

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