Gary Raymond casts a critical eye over Prometheus: the troubled production from Ridley Scott as he prepares to re-enter the Alien universe.
Warning: although this review contains no plot spoilers it is a review and not a teaser, so some things are discussed therein that may or may not completely ruin the film if you have yet to see it.
Although there are no spoilers in this review I have to begin by drawing attention to the end of Ridley Scott’s much awaited Prometheus. The reason for that is we, the audience, will never be allowed to appreciate just how powerful that ending could have been without the interference of the over-zealous marketing team, the loud-mouth guardians of the know-it-all fraternity, and the tendency of the director to mention in interviews for the last thirty years that he had a desire to make an Alien prequel. The revelation at the end is deadened by expectation, the droplets throughout the film that signal we’re headed where we’re headed are rendered powerless as we already know where we’re headed when we buy the ticket. (You are only forced to play Where’s Wally when you’ve been told that Wally is somewhere in front of you.)
Having said that, the film is an accomplished sci-fi thriller, albeit one with its fair share of flaws. These flaws, in the hands of another director with less experience in blowing things up and giving women flame-throwers, may have destroyed the film entirely; but as it is they are annoyances, frustrations, further proof (if needed) that Scott is now a workaday filmmaker, more capable than most in his field of mainstream blockbuster.
And a blockbuster this is.
The plot is fairly simple: a space crew of scientists and grizzled less-well-defined folk set off through the universe to answer the call from ‘their makers’ that two of them found in the detail of an ancient cave drawing. What they find at their destination is less than welcoming, of course. Nasty things happen. We all sit in the dark waiting to see what all this has to do with Alien.
Scott, it must be said, is a maker of great films who has not made a great film since Blade Runner in 1982. The dazzle, sentimentality and a good lashing of Hans Zimmer in Gladiator in 2000 have kept his stock way above a more likely career average that should have him closer to the stable of the irretrievably moribund Ron Howard or even – gulp – his brother Tony (a man who tries so hard to convince us his lurid sense of panache is anything other than vomit actually made my clothes smell with his Man on Fire).
So, the hype surrounding this film was largely manufactured on top of the fallacy that Scott is a director anywhere near the top of his game. That said Prometheus has moments of genuine spark, a shadow, a glare, a flash of real nastiness that is reminiscent of Scott at his irascible best. The fact the camera refuses to turn away from the goriest moments is encouraging. What is less encouraging, however, is just how long the film takes to get to these moments, and just how full of faux-tension the run up to them is. The claustrophobia of his greatest films, Alien and Blade Runner, is completely missing here. At one point I found myself wondering if the camera was just going to watch the characters walk down corridors for the entire film. Scott does not seem to remember the glory of the tools at his disposal in the late seventies and early eighties. The chest-bursting scene in Alien came as much as a shock to the audience as it did to the cast (who had not been told of what was to come). But now the audience is waiting for abdomens to pop everywhere. The overkill – an almost fetishised enfranchisement of shock – was not helped by the sequels. By the time Sigourney Weaver’s alien ‘baby’ pops out as she falls into a sublimely unconvincing fiery backdrop in Alien 3 we are in self-parody territory (almost the same territory that saw Freddie Kruger become a children’s toy in the nineties). It is when horror gets overdone that it becomes funny.
There are no laughs here, apart from certain moments of the script. At best the dialogue is bland, at worst it is patched together with clichés. Scripted by Damon Lindelof, co-producer of modern TV’s greatest punt-stroke-swindle, Lost, and John Spaihts, a writer who seems to have more unmade sci-fi films in his bottom drawer than Tom Cruise has in his Sunday Service. The characters are thrown at you with leaden expository one-liners. The faith-issues of Noomi Rapace’s Dr Elisabeth Shaw (something to do with her father being devout despite his wife having died, and something to do with her believing in something without evidence) smacks more of clawing at the wallets of the American religious right than it does of any attempts to add philosophical weight to proceedings. Either way, it is nimble, and treated with almost perfunctory contempt by Scott’s attention span.
Apart from the dialogue, the script has much else to answer for. The prologue, it becomes clear, is completely redundant (not helped by the stodgy dialogue). The filmmakers seemed also to feel the need to connect this crew of Earth’s top scientists to the crew of the Nostromo, a band of gruff, hardworking merchant seamen-in-space. In Prometheus the crew are made up of the most unlikely set of scientists you will ever meet. Rather than conscientious and diligent, we have Logan Marshall-Green’s Dr Holloway, straight out of the GI Joe school of shaving, who pouts around the spaceship more like it’s the parents’ living room in Kevin and Perry Go Large. Even less convincing and utterly annoying is Sean Harris’ punk geologist Fifield who has anger management issues that would immediately disqualify him from any jobs involving an hour with other living organisms in Monument Valley, never mind other human beings in an enclosed space for several years. It is difficult to understand why on earth the filmmakers decided to make Fifield such an utter arsehole.
What is less difficult to understand is why, in a film that has DNA as a central plot point, Charlize Theron has been cast to do nothing other than provide an example of the potential excellence of human gene pool. If anyone else can explain the reason for her being in the film I would be intrigued to hear it.
There are many positives, however. Noomi Rapace is very watchable as the proto-Ripley, Dr Shaw. She gets little joy out of the blind-faith blind-alley part of her character’s motivation, but it doesn’t really matter, because when she’s called upon to provide action she does so in the film’s most memorable scenes. Idris Elba, cashing in on his recent success providing voice-overs on Vodaphone adverts, provides a glimmer of that other stalwart of the Alien movies; the doomed good-hearted male. But it is unlikely he will end up being as warmly remembered as Tom Skerritt, Michael Biehn, or even Charles Dance, as his role is just not given the directorial support it needs. There is a void between Scott and his actors in Prometheus that would take more than two and half years in cold stasis to breach.
Michael Fassbender, however, as the droid David needs no such support (even if Scott was remiss enough to ignore the fact that by calling his droid ‘Dave’ I would spend much of the film waiting for one of the crew to mimic Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The crew must have seen the film. Idris Elba has Steven Still’s squeeze box, for goodness sake. They must know who Stanley Kubrik is).
Fassbender is reliably excellent. With a comb through his hair, Fassbender manages to convey in one moment what Sam Rockwell took an hour and a half to do in Moon. Even though Fassbender is making roughly two films a day at the moment, he is still an exciting prospect for when he becomes matched with a truly great film, as he will undoubtedly be at some point. He is currently being touted as both the new Brando and the new De Niro. What De Niro had that Brando did not was a Scorsese. That could be what Fassbender needs if he hasn’t already got him in the brilliant Steve McQueen. But will McQueen do what Scorsese did and stop making exquisitely grubby little backstreet dramas and move into the mainstream?
One thing is for certain, Ridley Scott is nobody’s Scorsese. For a while he was barely anyone’s Tony Scott. In comparison to his most recent, say, two decades of film-making (that has included such unmitigated dross as Robin Hood, American Gangster, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal and GI Jane) Prometheus is a triumph, even if only of concept rather than execution. I left the cinema without disappointment as I never felt Scott had it in him to recreate the genius of Alien in the first place. What he has made is a big-budget horror film (that Alien fans will not hate) with some moments that stick; no mean feat in today’s dead end horror market.
Scott has recently confirmed the rumours that he will direct a new Blade Runner film, perhaps based on one or all of the pulp novel sequels, none of which were penned by Philip K. Dick. Perhaps he could get Harrison Ford to ‘do an Indie’ and play an ageing Deckard who hands his leather long coat over to his hitherto unknown lovechild he had with Rachel in the intervening years. Hopefully the child, a rebellious teenager, could be played by Shia LeBeouf, or Justin Timberlake, or maybe even one of the children of Brangelina. But luckily, for all of Ridley Scott’s faults, he’s not Steven Spielberg. Not yet, at least.