Do you remember the first time you saw “Alien”? Of course you do. You remember that marvelously constructed ship, that understated score, that terrible, consuming sense of foreboding, which builds and builds relentlessly until it (quite literally) explodes and careens out of control.
It was like nothing you had ever seen before. It was cold and unpleasant but contained just enough B-movie gore to keep it in the realm of the blissfully absurd. It had a hero in Sigourney Weaver, who was gorgeous and smart and just as kick-ass as the boys. And it had a freakin alien bursting out of some dude’s chest! Greatest movie ever!
In many ways I think Ridley Scott has always been trying to best that heart-stopping moment when the face-grabber tore itself out of John Hurt’s chest and made the director a sci-fi master. His filmography since then has been an uneven story of “go big or go home”- for every “Blade Runner” or “Thelma and Louise” there’s a “Kingdom of Heaven,” or, God help me, Russell Crowe as “Robin Hood.” I greatly admire Scott’s work, but he’s better when he’s not trying too hard. So when “Prometheus” promised to be a sort-of prequel in the “Alien” universe, I hoped. And I feared.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron
Now this is said with no hyperbole. Scott’s latest film is one of the most visually stunning things I’ve ever seen. Every shot is crafted exquisitely, from the first scenes filmed in a ferocious and beautiful Iceland, to the glowing, breathing interiors of the ship (named Prometheus), the primal caves of an empty planet the ship lands on, to the final computer-generated frame. It’s slickly produced without seeming overwrought, a rare futuristic space odyssey that seems organic, like something you could reach out and touch. I saw the version in 3-D, which was handled as delicately as the rest of the production (in one scene ghostly video images are shown in 3-D to glorious effect).
The action scenes are clean and fabulously spare. Instead of a barrage of implosions and manic camera movement (what we’ve gotten used to expecting in any big-budget film), the movie has a steady atmospheric flow. The engines always running- we’re just not always on full burn.
Unfortunately all of this genius, all of this artistry and craftsmanship and love, is in the service of a rather silly plot, about scientists/alien creationists who put themselves in cryostasis for two years to go to a distant planet which might be the home planet of the “engineers,” who made humankind.
Based on evidence they found from old cave paintings.
Of people looking at the stars.
Yeah, I know. No one would ever do that. Ever.
The rest of the plot echoes the first two “Alien” films, but in kind of stupid ways. There’s an android with dubious loyalties! The company sponsoring this multi-billion dollar trip also has dubious loyalties! There’s the strong female protagonist (played this time by “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s” Noomi Rapace), She is simultaneously mother-figure and messiah, the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc blah, blah, blah, feminist film theory.
As naturalistic and elegant as the production itself is, most of the characters seem carved from blocks of wood. Rapace does the best she can, but some of her lines of dialogue are so bad, it would be impossible for anyone to give it a good reading. Rapace’s co-star Logan Marshall-Green is ostensibly the second lead, but I was bored the second he opened his mouth. Same goes with most of the crew, who are the usual archetypes of brawler, nerd, etc. And there’s moments of the absurd, like Guy Pearce in extensive age makeup for no apparent reason.
But there are happy exceptions. Idris Elba makes one hell of a sassy spaceship captain (seriously, his closing line made the movie for me), Michael Fassbender as the android is I guess supposed to act like he’s carved from wood, but radiates a malevolent obtuseness that is more captivating than half the so-called humans on this dumb ship. And Charlize Theron as super-hot villain Meredith Vickers, the company man who lets those Mr. Scientists know that this is her show, is as stupidly fabulous as her character’s name.
Even the characters that work, however, seem a little off. Their reactions to the astonishing sites they’re witnessing, and later the escalating violence around them, seems slow and atypical. Their malaise at the craziness about them dulls the horror a bit, and throws you out of the scene.
There’s a reason my favorite shot from the first sequel, “Aliens”, is a blood-covered Bill Paxton shrieking “Game over, man! Game over!” after the first alien attack. This may be a ridiculous scenario, the line says, but dammit, shit has gotten real. It’s a moment that’s a true echo of the chest-bursting scene that has made so many Top Ten lists, curated by so many nerds over the years.
There is a scene like that in “Prometheus”- I’m obviously not going to tell you what it is, but it’s gross and terrifying and weirdly obscene. It’s another ridiculous scenario born out of nightmares, and it’s exquisitely produced. But the reactions after the scene- where the protagonist goes from here- almost killed the moment, negated it and made it forgettable. We need to know that the characters are just as horrified, just as traumatized as we are. We need Bill Paxton shrieking like a girl. We need Ripley (who we love, how could we not?) cowering in horror as a monster crawls out of her friend. To know that the people we’re watching care about what’s happening to them, in the way that we would care. That’s what makes our brains pick a film out of the throng and say “Yes. That moment. That’s what scared me. That was amazing. That was a classic.” “Prometheus” almost gets there, though not quite. It is, however, the closest Ridley Scott has come in years.