Sunday, June 10, 2012

Alien Evolution: Ridley Scott's Prometheus

After a stunning opening scene in which an “Engineer” from another world plunges down a waterfall and contributes a genetic stew that starts human evolution, and a wonderful sequence in which an android named David (Michael Fassbender) occupies himself on a two-year voyage riding a bicycle, learning alien languages, shooting baskets, and watching Lawrence of Arabia, Ridley Scott’s prequel to Alien rushes its pacing and jumps too quickly into sci-fi shock and schlock. But the film is a visual feast throughout, and I enjoyed its use of allusive tropes to set the scene for Alien.

Ridley Scott goes for a grand, epic introduction to the Alien saga. Visually and conceptually, he succeeds, but too many of the film’s parts don’t work as well as they could have. He strains too hard to start the action instead of spending time slowly building tension as he did in Alien. Disregarding how effective Alien and Cameron’s Aliens are because they don’t reveal the creatures too soon, Scott rushes to ram a creature down someone’s throat, and when it happens it becomes the film’s worst moment. A scientist, previously petrified and eager to get back to the protection of the ship, thinks a cobra-like serpent is cute and puts his face right up to it. A trillion-dollar mission, and they hire the dumbest scientist in the world! Meanwhile, the top-notch scientists picked for this mission are responsible for a whole hell of a lot of scientific ineptitude. They touch everything; they work too quickly on the Engineer’s head and blow it up; and they take off their helmets at the risk of contagion.

Visually, however, the film is worth seeing more than once. I loved the Engineer at the waterfall; the Prometheus entering the planet’s atmosphere; the Engineers’ “installation;” the bust of the über-Engineer; and the holographic schematic of the universe. My favorite image is the shot of David watching Lawrence of Arabia. In 3-D, this image has incredible depth. For the most part, however, 3-D doesn’t do much for the film, and I enjoyed it just as much in 2-D.

Deep down I’m a sci-fi geek, and I have a lot of admiration for Alien. I enjoyed Prometheus, despite its flaws, and got a lot of satisfaction out of the nifty tie-ins to the other Alien movies. I loved the cryodeck; the breakfast table chillingly reminiscent of the original chest-burster scene; David shooting the perfect basket, an allusion to Alien: Resurrection; the unveiling of the “space jockey’s” seat; the horseshe-shaped alien ship; the artwork inspired by H. R. Giger; and all the elements of the creature’s biology that will combine to form that awesome fucker that causes such terror aboard the Nostromo. I also liked what I took to be an allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey: the aged, wrinkled Weyland sitting on the satin-covered bed, in a room with white floor panels, as he prepares to learn the truth about man’s evolution.

As for the performers, Noomi Rapace, in the role of Elizabeth Shaw, seems ill-cast, but she works her way into her role, builds up her presence in the film, and when she heads for the med pod, she’s awesome. Charlize Theron, coming right from Snow White and the Huntsman, seems in a wicked witch rut, but she has some good moments. “My room. Ten minutes.” Michael Fassbender does the most with his role. He gets a little silly, but only momentarily. He makes the early sequence when he’s the only one awake on the ship the best part of the film, and he carries much of the movie with his cold, inexorable pursuit of his directive. Finally, the best performance by a prop goes to the med pod that does emergency surgery on Shaw in the film’s most gripping scene.


J.D. said...

I also liked this film despite its flaws. It's nice to see a serious-minded SF film amidst a season of largely forgettable summer blockbusters. The script is certainly the weakest aspect of the film but I fell so in love with the visuals and the preformances of Fassbender and Rapace that I was willing to overlook the flaws. I also thought the always watchable Idris Elba was excellent as the grizzled ship's captain - his blue collar character a nice nod to ALIEN.

Hokahey said...

J.D. Thanks for the comment. Glad you found much to like. I really enjoyed Fassbender pretending to be Lawrence. It was a touching aspect of his being a robot.

Elba's character was a good one - yes, a nice nod to the Alien crew. At first, it seemed inappropriate that he should be the captain, but then he was perfect.

There is a lot to watch in this movie.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, just watched this eve on my own. I enjoyed it, not as much as hoped but i suppose i had expected too much and probably too much of the original. I didnt like 3-d anyway, it focuses too much on small areas of the screen and blurs the rest and it also darkens everything too much. Those glasses are pretty annoying. The script was a little too jazzed up for a bunch of scientists on an intergalactic mission. Being a smart chap that i am, it was just a little silly. There is nothing wrong and everything right having factual dialogue with serious people when theyre on an interstellar mission i.e. a bit more uber functional like 2001, almost dry like... the street talk always wreck it, talking about getting laid and im in it for the money, and f you blah blah.. i mean come on... thats just silly in itself .. marines in aliens get away with it because THE ARE MARINES in an industrialised galaxy (at that time)... anyway, Id have liked a realistic script over a jazzed up hollywood version. The reason being is because what was scary is that the originals treated deep space exploration in the future and a potential encounter as more science probability as apart from fiction.. clever folks that love these movies dont really focus on the tech stuff or the effects but more the reality of the human involvement, and that has been the real draw back. Thats just my opinion. Directors contemporise everything to a fault instead of, like in decades past, trying to break new ground, create a message or ake a point to the main stay of ther audience. Maybe thats just captilism devouring itself hollywood style as marx predicted, but scripts are really dumb these days, just to sell "sodas" as the saying goes. Also, less is always more. Final problem is i think this lined up a sequel intentionally instead of just telling a story. Anyway, as a sci fi geek, i enjoyed it all the same but it wasnt the sensational life affecting cinematic moment where u go off and tell your mates all about it that id longed for... that wait continues. The genesis of the original alien will be interesting all the same, i just hope they give the script more gravitas and realism next time over the yahoo cowboy nonsense thats been in vogue the last twenty years.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I hear what you are saying about the contemporary dialogue. I find that irritating as well. As I said, some of those scientists come off as the dumbest scientists in world. I could have gone with something more elevated. But I enjoyed this movie for what it is. I like the connections to the other movies, and the look of this film is worth repeated viewings. Yes, I agree, I am still looking forward to another ground-breaking sci-fi classic. This was not it; but Scott has made two of them already.

FilmDr said...

I had lots of mixed feelings about the movie, but I agree with your appreciation of the visuals and of Fassbender's performance. The original Alien effectively kept the extraterrestrial mysterious and (one could say) Darwinian in the way it had to survive by any means possible. Prometheus seems to shift in the opposite direction, denying Darwin's theories of evolution in favor of the Engineer's rigging of the genetic pool. I found it weird how often the astronauts found parallels with humanity on the distant planet--the human head shrine-like place, the parallel genetics. The original Alien strikes me now as humorously crude, but much more straightforward in terms of plot and characterization.

Jason Bellamy said...

Is there a thematic link between David and Lawrence of Arabia? For a bit, I thought I saw one (I won't say what for now), but in the end it just seemed random -- surprisingly effective but random.

I found several things to like about this movie, and because I'm not in love with the original franchise and don't remember it well, this movie was under no pressure of expectations, and I couldn't tell how much was allusion and how much was purely original. I also wasn't too bothered by the many, many, many logic problems, because I had low expectations.

What did bother me, however, was the crappiness of the dramatic structure and screenwriting, which manifests itself in several ways. A few of them ...

* When Noomi's character gets on the ship, she immediately runs over to that medical pod and molests it, which of course is just an excuse to explain what it is for a key scene later. I understand why it's important to have the medical pod explained. But is it too much to ask that the screenwriters find a more elegant way to explain it? (This complaint could be pointed at several other moments in the movie.)

* "My room. Ten minutes." How on earth does nothing come of that?!?!? Easily the biggest screenwriting fuck-up I can remember in recent years. They need a director's cut of the movie where that scene is followed by one of those "missing reel" titlecards from Grindhouse. I mean, at least pretend that, yes, we're all curious whether Theron is or isn't human. At least pretend that you know that line is only a great line if you follow it up. We didn't need to see the sex. We at least need to know if the sex happened.

* How on earth did the screenwriters think that we'd find heroism in Sulu and Chekov sacrificing themselves in the end when all we know about them is that they like to gamble? Again, the complaint isn't that I don't know these characters, it's that the screenwriters seem to believe there's actually dramatic tension/uplift/heroism/etc there. (And does the captain really say, "Arms in the air!" or whatever that was? Please tell me that's an allusion to something. Otherwise it is THE LAMEST line of dialogue I've seen all year.)

* This has been cited elsewhere (I think in Jim Emerson's piece, for one), but I cringed when one of the crew members inexplicably becomes some super-human zombie monster just to kill off the other people on the ship. What. The. Fuck. Again, it's not a LOGIC problem that annoys me. It's lazy screenwriting. Someone needed to give a shit.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the thoughts. Yes, the big transparent dudes are manipulating genetics, but I like how they seem to be experimenting with parts of the alien creature which will, actually evolve on their own, like the face hugged, the egge from which it will spring, and the shape of the alien when it is born.

Funny, on recent viewings of ALIEN, I did not find it crude. It is so guarded with the look of the creature, and that works. And I think it is visually advanced for its time and works well for me now. What elements do you find crude?

Hokahey said...

Jason, thanks a lot for the comment. I agree with the logic problems and the badly written moments, bit I liked this movie enough that they didn't ruin the experience for me. And there are more where those came from. The Fifield/zombie scene was ridiculous, gratuitous action. The "hands off!" line is most likely the worst line in the movie. Another awkward moment comes when Shaw returns from her operation, walks in on the old guy to whom any threat is life-endangering, and no one asks this bloody, stapled, nearly naked woman what the hell happened!

I'm most interested in the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA element, which I don't consider random at all.

Both Lawrence and David are outcasts who can't fit in. Lawrence doesn't fit into Brit society, and he doesn't fit in with the Arabs all the time either. Similarly, David is an outcast freak.

The "not minding that it hurts" line is important, and David repeats it twice. David wants to be entirely human, and pain is a big part of that.

I suppose he could have been watching any classic movie about outcasts, but it works well that Fassbender looks like O'Toole and he, as David, does his hair to look like Lawrence.

Also, the "no man needs nothing" line is significant. When Weyland dies, he says "There's nothing," and David says, "I know." Weyland wants to believe in God and heaven. David would like to believe in those human yearnings too. That's why Shaw's cross ends up in his utility belt.

So, I don't see the Lawrence bits as random at all.

As for the "lost" sex scene, it would have been interesting to see Theron pounding away on top of the captain, and, cut to his face, and he is still wondering whether or not she is a robot, but I wouldn't have wanted an absolute answer.

FilmDr said...

I found the cathode ray tube computer screens crude, the blinking LEDs, the way some of the visions of space through the ship's windows looked like rear projections. Also Ash's decapitation scene looked fake to me, although I understand that Scott's art direction is exemplary for its time.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr., I see what you mean. They made an effort to look futuristic in some ways, but the tube screens and the ancient keyboards stick out as anachronisms, but maybe it's
a suggestion that the corporation cuts corners when they can, which would be in keeping with the truck drivers in space element. I like how since MINORITY REPORT, sci-fi movies go with the holographic, touch-activated computer screens.

Jason Bellamy said...

Finally looping back ...

OK, yeah, I thought the outcasts bit united David and Lawrence. Although where I thought things got a little random, is that Lawrence doesn't respond to being an outcast by vengefully plotting to fuck over innocent people in obedience to some twisted father figure. I didn't pick up on the link between "no man needs nothing" and "there's nothing" -- but that's strong and makes the outcast mood even darker. Good stuff there!

I like your interpretation of "the trick is not minding that it hurts," but I'm not sure I find it convincing. Maybe I just need to see it again. As for Shaw's cross, I took David taking it as a rejection of her silly beliefs, not a desire to feel them -- if he wanted to believe like she did, wouldn't he put it around his neck and not in some jar, like a toxic specimen?

As for the nonexistent sex scene: Oh, make no mistake, I wouldn't want a definitive answer to the question of whether Theron is mechanical. Agree with you there. But, uh, yeah, we do deserve to know whether they had sex.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the further thoughts, Jason. A second viewing reveals interesting details even if you have to suffer through the Fifield/zombie attack.