Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Prometheus – The Intellectual Movie About Non-Intellectuals

This critic shall do his best to divulge no major plot details outside of this trailer and the synopsis.

Earlier in 2012, before the materialization of the fiscal cliff crisis and the whole socialism-vs.-capitalism debate, I recall begging my dad to take me to see Ridley Scott’s much-hyped Alien prequel Prometheus. 20th Century Fox had assembled several brilliant trailers that showcased the movie’s strong elements while masking its weaknesses.  I gladly would have treated myself and my friends to the movie if not for the sheer idiocy of the MPAA, which liberally hands out R-ratings to science-fiction horror flicks that have no discernible connection to reality (did you hear about the 15-year-old who sprayed toxic acid on his girlfriend?  What about the 9th-grader who hid an exotic cephalopod in her closet that devoured her when it grew into a giant carnivore?).  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, as we’ll see), my dad didn’t want to see Prometheus even for free, and I didn’t feel like finding a fake parent in the parking lot, so I ended up missing my only chance to relish Prometheus, that is, on the big screen.  Although Prometheus may have entertained in the theater, it bores on a television set because its poor characterization and storytelling protrude like a slimy tentacle in Imax 3D.  Prometheus is what happens when you fuse Avatar, Inception, and a teenage slasher movie; the result is an unnecessarily convoluted and unclear plotline enhanced by pretty visuals that handsomely depict the gruesome demises of several threadbare, uninteresting characters who make ridiculously boneheaded decisions.

Prometheus opens with a series of jaw-dropping introductory helicopter nature shots, culminating in a scene at the top of a majestic waterfall.  Here we see a pale humanoid alien, apparently dropped off by an obscure spacecraft that’s rising into the clouds.  The alien drinks some kind of poisonous black goo that corrodes his DNA and causes him to disintegrate in a cool special effect sequence, the first of many to come; to our surprise, his DNA reconstructs itself at the foot of the falls, implying that new life emerges from the extinction of old.  This scene, which may be set on earth or another planet, is never tied into the rest of the film and exists for the speculation of Alien fans alone.  The next scene introduces us to the movie’s main protagonists, Dr. Holloway and Shaw, lovers and archaeologists who have discovered ancient cave paintings around the world that point to the same location in the universe.  They believe the diagrams are devoted to man’s creators, vaguely termed “Engineers”, and hypothesize that man can meet his maker by following the drawings’ directions.  Weyland Corporation deems their theory worthy of investigation, and so the CEO Peter Weyland draws up an expedition to visit the distant moon LV-223 in a starship called Prometheus.

Most of the ship’s crew remains skeptical of the mission’s basis, having given themselves over to Darwinism or materialistic beliefs.  The rest identify with some kooky creationist religion that describes the gods as material, mortal beings who created man through science and can be explained through science as well.  Dr. Shaw wears a cross around her neck but her beliefs bear not a semblance of Christianity, demonstrating the writers’ abject ignorance of her faith.  Anyway, an advanced android by the name of David accompanies the scientists on their space trip and consecutive moon romps.  Played with subtlety and deftness by Michael Fassbender, or Magneto of X-Men: First Class, David lacks a soul but turns out to be the most intriguing and multi-layered member of the crew.  After landing on the moon’s surface, the scientists immediately disembark and set out to explore a massive, hollow mountain.  At this point, Prometheus evolves from a thinking man’s movie into a haunted house flick with aliens.  One by one, the characters get killed off in creative and graphic fashions, perpetrated less by Fate and more by their own stupidity.

Prometheus would be a much scarier movie if its characters weren’t so idiotic and desperate to commit suicide.  Here’s a unspoilery example: entering the structure, the scientists find that their Engineers have been terraforming the moon, as CO2 levels are equal to those of Earth.  Apparently that’s good enough for Holloway, who promptly removes his helmet despite the protests of his companions.  Never mind the possibility of toxic chemicals in the air; anyway, Holloway lives to die another day, as well as everyone else in his party.  To be brief and spoiler-free, Prometheus’ characters continuously make decisions so implausible and stupid that their downfalls seem more forced than tragic.  Self-induced suicide is not tragedy, especially when character development is slim and acting is weak.  None of the Prometheus’ passengers besides the robot are humanized to a great extent, and none of the actors save Fassbender are capable of giving their characters life, which ironically should be an easy task, if you were to ask one of the scientists in the movie.  The Ripley role went to Noomi Rapace, who’s famous only for being exploited countless ways on camera in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies.  That she can’t even scream believably in reaction to the moon’s horrors is a testament to her acting ability.  Charlize Theron, who’s received acclaim in other movies, gives an unemotional and robotic performance as the ship’s leader, Vickers, which is ironic again, as the movie suggests that she may be android.  Prometheus would still fall short of true horror even if its cast were strong.  A good horror movie will subject its audience to terrifying ordeals triggered either by accident or by believable mistakes made on the part of its characters.  Prometheus’ intrepid explorers do make several tremendous errors, but none of them are remotely credible.

The greatest criticism people levy against Prometheus is that it leaves too many unanswered questions. While ambiguous and incomplete plotlines are not a problem in essence (Inception is a superb film that leaves a couple pivotal points up to the audience’s interpretation), Prometheus’ writers and editors did a distinctly lazy job in constructing the movie’s final draft.  As I said earlier, characters act without explanation or logical justification.  I was continuously baffled as to why these brilliant scientists assumed without evidence that this new alien species must have created human life.  Nor did I understand why David’s allegiances were constantly shifting, although I suspect it could be a glitch in his system (we get no explanation).  Furthermore, the background of the movie’s Engineers and their motive are left entirely to the viewer’s imagination and speculation.  I could tolerate a little ambiguity on this subject, but forcing the audience to fill in virtually all the dots is the mark of a slothful writer.

Prometheus tries to emulate The Matrix by tackling a lot of heavy theological and philosophical questions, such as “Who created us?” “With what purpose?” and “What is the nature of life?”  Unlike The Matrix, it examines none of these inquires with much depth or clarity.  For example, David asks Holloway at one point why humans made him; the man laughs at the question as he answers simply, “We made you because we could.”  David is silent for a moment before saying, “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”  “I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.” Though amusing, this 4-sentence conversation isn’t long enough to postulate a fully developed argument about man’s relationship to God, and the theme is never revisited in the film.  Scott raises the topic for his audience’s consideration, but drops it before finishing his point.  Immortality is brought up later in the movie, when Vickers ponders, “A king has his reign, and then he dies.  It’s inevitable. That is the natural order of things.”  The dialogue is good, but then the scene veers off to show the next victim of violence/poison, and the reason for our mortal existence is never revisited.

While the movie fails to adequately flesh out all its smaller themes, I do believe it advances a general message through the main body of its plot.  Taken holistically, Prometheus is arguably a dark satire on the folly of materialism.  The movie is an extended mockery of those agnostic scientists who believe either a) that a higher being did not create man or b) that our creator was just another material, mortal figure who had superior scientific knowledge that man too can access to create life.  The passengers of the Prometheus strive in vain to attain God’s glory and become immortals; in their confusion and desperation, they turn to worshipping earthly beings that are no less created than man.  The Engineers are not gods but mere beasts of nature that men have foolishly upheld as deities.  As punishment for the scientists’ sin of idolatry, God uses the Engineers and their biological super-weapons to brutally slaughter the crew, who realize too late that their mission, to find God and discover his ways, was futile from the start.

While Prometheus certainly doesn't defend Christianity specifically, I contend that the over-arching themes of its story are critical of earth-worship and materialism. Mr. Scott probably didn’t intend such a movie, but it’s impossible to ascertain his personal interpretation due to the storyline’s overwhelming vagueness.  The great thing about fictional works is that the audience can take away whatever message they like, disregarding the author’s intent; e.g., conservatives can enjoy The Hunger Games as a dystopia about tyranny and big government even though Suzanne Collins has said that the danger lies in small government.  Likewise, 1984 is widely regarded as a warning against collectivism and statist government, despite George Orwell’s support of socialism.  Prometheus’ viewers are free to decide the movie’s message, whether or not it aligns with Scott’s views.  The meaning is open for debate on a multitude of online message-boards.

In spite of all these flaws in its storyline, Prometheus is a visually appealing movie.  Reading about the production of the film on Wikipedia and other sites, I find that Mr. Scott deliberately kept CGI and green-screen use to a minimum, instead opting for big sets, detailed puppets, miniatures, and makeup to compose his scenes.  As a result, Prometheus’ special effects look more authentic and realistic than those of, say, Avatar or John Carter, which overused computer-generated graphics.  Scott’s team also has a mastery of digital effects, creating complex CGI holograms and enhancing landscapes to make them look more gigantic and mysterious.  The production design on the aliens themselves is great, and the final scene (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) detailing the birth of a xenomorph will send quivers across many viewers’ skin.  Prometheus stands beside The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises as one of 2012’s most visually impressive movies, and I’d venture that it trumps the other two in originality of art design.  I must also praise the movie’s musical score, which compliments many of the scenes nicely, adding suspense and terror that one wouldn’t normally feel in the midst of such boring characters. 

Unfortunately, special effects and technical artistry do not equate to an enriching film, as Avatar demonstrated 3 years ago.  Prometheus looks good and offers an interesting performance by Michael Fassbender, but fails on two major accounts: to make us care for its heroes in peril and to properly explain the philosophical quandaries so many of them grapple to understand.  Like Elizabeth Shaw, those who watch Prometheus will still be looking for answers long after the credits roll.

Grade: B- (Where A is Inception, B is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and C is Slender)

And here is how Wall-e could have been a good movie.

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