Friday, June 15, 2012

'Prometheus' — Ridley Scott's bold, ambitious return to sci-fi

"Prometheus" is director Ridley Scott's much anticipated return to the sci-fi genre. His films "Alien" and "Blade Runner" were hugely influential to the genre, so it is understandable that expectations for this new film are massive.

First and foremost, this is an extraordinary looking film. H.R. Giger, the Swedish surrealist artist who provided much of the design work for "Alien," has created new visuals and designs that are darkly beautiful.

Scott, ever a masterful filmmaker, has created a vivid world in which all of his special effects are seamlessly integrated. The film is heavy with effects, but at no point does the visual fabric of the film feel fake or false. This is a film worth seeing if only for its visuals.

Much like when "Blade Runner" was first released into theaters, "Prometheus" is proving to be a divisive film with some calling it brilliant and others dismissing it as a colossal misfire.

Reasons for the distinct divide in opinion tie into the knowledge that "Prometheus" takes place within the same universe as the "Alien" franchise and so many people have preconceived notions of what this film should be. Fans hoping to see carnage with the iconic xenomorph alien will be disappointed.

Scott and his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, decided to focus on what fans refer to as the "space jockey," the fossilized creature found in "Alien." The scene in "Alien" was only a couple minutes long, but the origins of this character have been hotly discussed by fans over the years and thus were ripe for exploration by Scott.

The story sets out not only to explore the origins of this mysterious alien race, but of mankind itself. This brings the film closer in tone to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" than Scott's "Alien."

Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and her partner in digging and love Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered cave paintings and carvings from across the globe and separated by centuries that depict a giant humanoid creature pointing to the stars.

They deduce that Earth was visited several times by these creatures they've dubbed "The Engineers" and that it is very possible that they created us. The duo convinces the dying head of Weyland Corp. (Guy Pearce under pounds of makeup) to fund the trillion dollar trip to hopefully discover their makers.

Upon arrival they find that a race of humanoid aliens is seemingly deceased, but danger comes in the form of a black substance with extraordinary adaptive and evolutionary abilities.

The crew is made up of fairly generic stock characters, but then again so was the crew of the Nostromo in "Alien." The standouts of the supporting cast include Charlize Theron as a representative of Weyland Corp., Idris Alba as the captain and, most interestingly, Michael Fassbender as David, an android, who patterns himself after Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Fassbender, who last year appeared as Magneto in "X-Men: First Class," is extraordinary and, in terms of acting, is one of the primary reasons to see "Prometheus." Emotionless human-like robots are hardly a new concept, but Fassbender's performance is so precise that he makes the old idea compelling and new again.

Fassbender infuses David with a curiosity that sets off a disastrous chain of events. He gives David a sly, perhaps unintentional, wit that makes the character always interesting and hard to predict.

Repace, who was the original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," gives a solid central performance that is very much in the tradition of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Both Ripley and Shaw are forced to find a strength and survival instinct that they previously didn't know they had. Repace plays Shaw, a woman of faith, with an open mind hungering for answers.

Theron, on the heels of "Snow White and the Huntsman," gives another strong performance, but isn't given much in terms of multiple dimensions to work with. Even so she gives a forceful performance. Alba provides some comic relief, but, portraying a working stiff, he is able to see what is happening for exactly what is when others cannot.

Generally speaking, "Prometheus" doesn't follow the same story beats of either "Alien" or James Cameron's equally and justly beloved "Aliens." "Alien" was an extremely well made and suspenseful haunted house movie in space. "Aliens" took the approach of a taut, intense action film. "Prometheus" has elements of both, but a tone that is more cerebral and a pacing that is more about creating an ominous mood and atmosphere.

That being said, there are still plenty of icky, ooey-gooey visuals and sequences of suspense. There's a surgical scene involving Repace that is sure to induce seat squirming. It doesn't match the sheer shock value of the chest-bursting scene in "Alien," but it comes close.

The film has its flaws. Some of the dialogue between Repace and Marshall-Green is clunky and some characters do needlessly careless things. Even with its imperfections, this is a bold film. Within the framework of a summer sci-fi blockbuster, Scott has dared to make a film about ideas and present questions that go unanswered. It will surely frustrate many, but others will appreciate the ambiguity. It is an ambitious film that is worthy of exploration.


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