By Richard von Busack
Whatever it lacks, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus ( Prometheus tickets and showtimes here) is an antidote to Avatar. The giants this time are less blue and more forbidding. But the contrast between fantasies is like leaving one dorm-room party of the blissed, for another one where the cynical students are airing their own world-view of complete doom.
We know Earthlings are the seed of aliens from Prometheus’ beginning: we scan ancient ice age landscapes, probably Terran (actually Icelandic). Underneath a departing flying saucer, a kamikaze blue-white waxy giant scatters his DNA into an ancient waterfall.
Get a good look at this humanoid (but not quite humanoid) alien, with the strange angle to the bridge of his nose, and a buff stomach that appears to have an eight-pack instead of a six-pack. You won’t get another view until the end of the movie.
As in 2001 (so much about this film could be started with the sentence, “As in 2001…”) we proceed from our distant past to our future. In the 2090s, the Chariots of the Gods-style research of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) win this couple a berth aboard the deep-space explorer Prometheus.
What clinched the ride: the discovery of a Cave of Forgotten Dreams style mural, showing a giant alien gesturing to an alignment of stars. It’s a pattern repeated in prehistoric civilizations all over the globe.
Keeping a sleepless vigil over the crew of the Prometheus, as it dozes through the thousands of miles, is the android David (the terrific Michael Fassbender).
Like any good proactive movie figure, this robot knows how to amuse himself. He plays basketball, he rewatches Lawrence of Arabia on the 3D viewer, and he even gives himself a Peter O’Toole haircut in honor of his hero. (The robot seems particularly fond of the match-lighting scene: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”)
Prometheus is nigh-humorless, but David gets all the film’s best jokes. Note how the Weyland Industry’s logo is branded in the whorls of his fingerprint.
When the crew wakes, they’re not nearly as interesting. The usually imposing Idris Elba is the salty ship’s captain (he even plays a concertina, like a pirate).
Elba’s warmth opposes the cold-blooded skin-tight suit clad commander (Charlize Theron). Inbetween these two human poles is a number of soon-to-be murdered expendables.
The ship lands on a planet of grit and cold, near a volcano-sized hive full of artifacts. Inside are caverns, 2000-year-old mummified cadavers, and a living slime very much like the “Black Oil” from the X-Files series.
Prometheus’ effects are already being described as immaculate; that seems inflationary when they’re just pretty good. The planet’s surface is a grey, forbidding strip-mined looking valley, with a ghostly ringed planet setting over the horizon.
Instead of closed-circuit cameras, the long-dead humanoids made 3D holograms of themselves. These are whirlwinds of pixels; the giant figures run around, or even through, the living humans exploring their home.
The idea of a mission to find the engineers of the human race is enthralling. But Prometheus unfolds into a dim, visually monotonous movie of spelunking and marveling at statues that look like pre-Columbian Mexican cabezas.
Seeing these statues, one could mention the old objection to the ancient-astronaut postulator von Danikin’s ideas: not just that they’re plagiarized from H. P. Lovecraft, but that it’s racist to suggest that ancient civilizations couldn’t raise their own monuments or carve their own art without the help of space seed.
Elizabeth wears a cross around her neck to show her faith in God isn’t shaken by these aliens who share our DNA (the diabolical David tries to snatch the cross away from her on grounds of “contamination”).
As she becomes Prometheus’ Surviving Virgin, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s script starts to lose its integrity. Elizabeth’s arc isn’t well built. We learn Elizabeth’s father was a missionary, but we get a line of dialogue, instead of visual storytelling, that lets us know her father’s death anticipates what happens to the crew.
The script also has to dump in Elizabeth’s deep longings to bring forth a baby. The news comes with such quickness that the information seems ridiculously out of nowhere.
Rapace, whose lean, cool menace allowed three hastily written Dragon Tattoo films to work, is here sort of wee and sweet, like Bjork. It takes her a while to get up to that level of violence-infliction that her fans expect.
Scott uses practical effects (i.e. rubber and latex) instead of CG for the creatures that worm their way into the crew or jump down their throats.
But nothing here can top the original Giger designs on the cephalopod monsters. As it leads remorselessly into a sequel, Prometheus only has a teaser: a junior version of what will later (presumably) become the memorable “Big Chap,” the steel-toothed, tyranno-squiddo-king crab.
The wayward Aliens franchise reflects fantasies of motherhood, possibly because of the horror of the way xenomorphs reproduce. In a scene that seems like a shrewd parody of the roadblocks recently set up to prevent abortion, Elizabeth has to get one of the larvae out of her fast. It’s a grisly, hideo-comic scene and one of Prometheus’ finest. But the black humor of seeing this punishment for her dearest wish, doesn’t really work because, again, Elizabeth’s story hasn’t been set up.
The bomber-crew astronauts are undifferentiated grumblers. Why aren’t they more wowed by their journey? The movie gives us an absence of info about Earth in the 2090, except in the sight of a few gadgets aboard.
Have we been to other planets by the 2090s? Is this just another trip to just another dead rock by these travelers? (1986’s Aliens hooked its audience by letting them know this wasn’t going to be a standup fight…it was going to be “a bug hunt” by soldiers who knew how bad such a hunt was going to be.)
Is the Prometheus’ supposed to be blasé in honor of 2001? The tattooed whinging ginger Fifield, played by Sean Harris, complains that he’s only on the planet because he’s interested in rocks…and then he doesn’t even get interested in the rocks.
And why, in the future, is the theatrical old-age makeup not improved? It’s on Guy Pearce, as the evil Weyland himself. And it’s dreadful.
A mark of elderly directors (Scott is 74) is a kind of fatalism; you see it in Kurosawa’s Ran, an essential disinterest in whether warriors make it out alive or not. And Prometheus, which begins and ends with self-destruction, has a greater grindhouse indifference to death: as long as some of these crewmen get it, it doesn’t matter in which order they die.
The icy smile on David (as in 2001’s “Dave”) becomes the film’s compass, one the film needs one badly. You start to harbor bad robot thoughts that this crew is too stupid to live.