Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Prometheus: If you reach for the stars, you’re going to burn your fingers

Prometheus is a film that tries to offer up some glimpse at the real meaning of life, while also providing some genuine chills and shocks, all wrapped up with heavy doses of intense spectacle. It doesn’t quite reach the heights it is going for, but is still well worth the ride.

Like The Avengers, it is not a great movie, but it is a very good film, and like The Avengers, I found far more to like than dislike. (And at least they know how to credit people properly, with H R Giger’s contribution to the whole Alien saga properly credited.)

In fact, while the lack of a prominent Kirby credit at the end of The Avengers ultimately left me leaving the film with a bad taste in my mouth, there wasn’t a single thing I actively disliked about Prometheus. There are things in it that just don’t work, holes in the story you could drive a power-loader through, and a few plot points that left me cold, but I still enjoyed the film a great deal. (It helps if you don’t go into it with any kind of preconceptions, with most of the negative reviews I’ve seen so far resorting to “But that’s not what I waaaanted”, which is no kind of criticism at all.)

There are loads of spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, move along. Nothing to see here.

Some things I liked about Prometheus:

* It is a goddamn beautiful film. The production design is razor-sharp, there are some incredible uses of location and every now and then there are shots that are straight out of a Chris Foss painting. (And Foss = pure sci-fi in my brain.) There are wonderful shots, familiar from previous Alien films, of spacecraft descending on a planet and just being swallowed up the sheer size of another world, and some slightly off-putting light on a strange new planet, and some sharp uses of bright colour amongst the dead dust.
* It’s also genuinely nice to see a huge, bombastic and expensive film that isn’t aimed at eight-year-olds.

* And it’s not just for kids because it features some genuinely distressing scenes - including a bit of DIY surgery that is almost unbearable to watch - and several other moments of harsh and disturbing horror. It’s because it really does really reach for the profound, and that is a lot more than you can say for the average blockbuster. Prometheus is about the search for the meaning of life, and comes back with some slightly worrying answers, while Transformers is about giant robots smashing into each other. I know which one I always prefer.

* I also find it really, really funny that one of its ultimate points is that God is real, and he hates our fuckin’ guts.

* Even better, the sequel bait suggests it will be a case of man (or, more likely, woman) vs God in forthcoming movies. Bring it on.

* I mean, I like the cerebal sci-fi more than anything. 2001 is easily one of my favourite films of all time, and I finally got around to seeing the original Solaris a few weeks ago, and I freaking love it. Anything that tackles the big questions of life, the universe and cricket should be a bit obtuse, because the subject matter is so big.

*I just think it doesn’t hurt if you can spice up the action by having someone’s face burnt off with acid while you're asking those questions.

* Noomi Rapace is great, and even manages to convince with her British accent every now and then. But she sells the intensity of the moment like few other actresses can manage, and follows in Sigourney Weaver’s footsteps by giving us a lead character who isn’t smarter, or more charming, or funnier than anybody else, but will do whatever it takes to survive and not let these bastards take her down, no matter how painful it gets.

* I also really liked the use of good, strong character actors like Rafe Spall and Sean Harris – I find Spall to be an endlessly fascinating and watchable actor, (I still always think of him as one of the Andy’s, and he was terrific in The Shadow Line), while Harris has become the go-to guy for wiry psychos, now that Robert Caryle has mellowed out a bit, and was great in the Red Riding movies. (He was also, of all the onscreen Ian Curtises - Ian Curtii? – the best Ian Curtis.) Both don’t get a hell of a lot to do in Prometheus, but they do it well.

 * In fact, there is some terrific acting across the film – Idris Elba brings a large amount of charm, even though he barely leaves the cockpit, Charlize Theron is eerily convicning as a cold woman who suppressed almost all of her human emotions a long time ago, but it keeps spilling out, and I really like the way Logan Marshall Green strutted around like he was the main character in the film, when everybody knows he is going to be the first victim.

* But even with all that talent, Michael Fassbender still stands out as the robotic David. Always incredibly calm – he is comically relaxed during the tense rescue from the rock storm – with an insatiable demand for knowledge that leads him on a singular agenda he shares with nobody, especially not his creator. David has a slight disdain towards his creators because they’re so disappointing, but shows real enthusiasm at the discovery of flute technology, and Fassbender is intentionally and literally channelling his inner Peter O’Toole. He’s do damn charming, that he keeps doing things other people tell him not to, and gets away with it with a shrug and a “sorry”. He has moments of robot despair and robot glee, and that isn’t easy.

* The lovely wife hasn’t seen the film yet, but when she does on Friday, I know she is going to demand I build her a Fassy-bot.

And then there were the other parts:

* There wasn’t anything I actively hated in the film, although it won’t be surprising if those of a strict religious nature find the theological implications of the story troubling. There are huge holes in the story, and sometimes people act incredibly stupidly to get things moving (a biologist fails to recognise the most hostile reaction a new animal can show, a captain lives his bridge unmanned), and sometimes things happen for no other reason than “C’mon, we gotta get the plot moving”, and sometimes there are bits that just don’t make sense (How does the thing in the med-bay grow so large when it has nothing to feed on? That mass has to come from somewhere….)

* And it doesn’t live up to its own philosophical goals. It really does reach for something profound, but gets totally tripped up on its own implications. There are no real answers to those big questions here, even though there are lots of hints.

But that’s all that really bothered me about the film. The initial critical reaction appears to be one of slight disappointment, but I really think that’s largely a mix of unrealistic expectations, and concerns about plot over spectacle. I’m all about the intense spectacle, and Prometheus delivers plenty of that.

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