Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Despite Being a Muddled Mess, “Prometheus” is Still Worth Catching

As the ambiguous android David, F-bender continues to
prove why he's one of the most exciting actors around.
Going into this summer season, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus had about as much heat as any movie not named The Dark Knight Rises. A pseudo prequel to the Alien franchise Sir Ridley helped launch 33 years ago, the film was clouded in mystery and had built some great momentum with a slew of viral ads (one of which acts as a worthwhile epiologue to the film) and some haunting imagery.

I was one of the many who were pretty pumped to see the film, and, in fact, I saw it at an advance screening prior to its June 8 opening. And yet, here we are, over two months later, and I’ve still yet to write a word about it.

That’s partly because I’ve been busy with school and moving into the new house, but it’s also because I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. I didn’t have passionate love for it, but I also didn’t hate it, and so it sort of just receded to the background. In the end, I mostly agree with what is currently written on the Tomatometer consensus over at the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page: “Ridley Scott's ambitious quasi-prequel to Alien may not answer all of its big questions, but it's redeemed by its haunting visual grandeur and compelling performances -- particularly Michael Fassbender as a fastidious android.”

The film certainly is ambitious, and I can say with confidence that I was engrossed while watching it. The visuals are undeniably stunning (more on that in a bit) and there are two sequences in the film – the surgical abortion scene and the first foray into the Alien caves – that are just absolutely masterful, specifically the abortion one, which could go down as the best scene of the year. And while I wouldn’t say the performances are universally compelling (almost every character is vastly underdeveloped), Noomi Rapace certainly brought it and Michael Fassbender outright stole the film (this guy IS the next great Hollywood actor).

But, man, this is a problem movie. Generally speaking, I think the film faces unfair hurdles related to expectation. People expected an action movie in the vein of Alien and instead were presented with muddled existential ruminations strung together by a few action set pieces (at least one of which – the scene where Logan Marshall Green’s Charlie goes all Event Horizon on the crew – seems out of place and solely included to up the action quotient and off most of the cast).
This right here is in the running for best scene of the year.
In that respect, Prometheus was bound to disappoint even if it did deliver on all the esoteric stuff, and that kind of stinks, because I really liked the fact that Scott was willing to revisit Alien (and in fact, lift the film’s structure) with a completely different goal in mind. Still, I can tell you that the majority of the audience I saw this with seemed pretty annoyed by the film’s tone, which isn’t really a fair film criticism, as much as a practical reality.
Having said that, there are a whole lot of actual flaws here that bring the movie down a few pegs. First and foremost, while I like that the film ambitiously attempts to tackle big ideas, the undertaking is undercooked, with plenty of unanswered questions, poorly developed characters, plot holes and confusing character motivations that make the film nonsensical (and even borderline incoherent) at times. I don’t really feel like listing them all to prove a point, but this video here does a pretty good job highlighting most of them, so if you’re interested, check it out.
Then, of course, there’s the whole approach the film takes in mostly being one long set up for a potential sequel. I’m not totally against that on occasion, but generally, that type of approach compromises a film. When it’s a franchise with an individual episode that mostly stands on its own, that’s ok, but when it’s this type of mindbender, it feels like a cheat.
Despite all of these problems, the film deserves major plaudits for its transcendent visuals. Prometheus marks the third film to use 3D in which I actually enjoyed the technology and thought it added to the experience (the first two being Hugo and Avatar).* The ability for the camera to exploit depth and spatial nuance here is striking and so realistic that at one point I got annoyed that a woman’s head was blocking my view until I realized that was actually Charlize Thernon, obstructing the camera’s view of the video feed she was watching as her character Mereditch Vickers.
*Is it just me, or is it odd that the two filmmakers to fully utilize and take advantage of the 3D advancements made in the post Avatar world are 69-year-old Martin Scorsese and 74-year-old Ridley Scott? Isn’t this the type of thing one would expect younger, less established directors to embrace (ala when George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Cameron himself were leading the charge on special effects advancements throughout their 30s and 40s)?  Instead it’s the old hands who are pushing the new medium, and I guess that’s not about to change, as the 58-year-old Ang Lee (same age as James Cameron) seems destined to join the group with Life of Pi.

In the end, the movie features too many positives – the sublime Fassbender, that abortion scene, and some Oscar-worthy visuals – to totally disregard. Prometheus is somewhat of a failure, but it’s a noble and interesting one that can really stir a lot of rousing debate, and that earns it a certain level of respect in my book. B-