Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Friday, 1 June 2012

Review: Prometheus

In film, no one builds worlds like Ridley Scott

It has often been said that Ridley Scott is at his best when he is creating worlds. Gladiator and Blade Runner stand as testament to this, but on a smaller scale, though no less impressive, sits Alien, his 1979 Sci-Fi horror.

The success of that film is down largely to its incredible design. Not only do we have the worn-down, yet futuristic, confined spaceship, but in the film’s first act we have this intriguing planet, complete with mysterious, wrecked starship and an infestation of the eponymous beasties. The world is complete, draws you in and makes a not too comfortable place to have your fears played out.

That legacy of original design was trampled upon in James Cameron’s bland, action follow-up, Aliens, and the less said about Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection the better, but now, 33 years after the original, we get a new edition from the Alien universe: Prometheus.

Scott has hesitated to call this a prequel. Whilst it technically is, one can see just cause for his reticence. This film could readily stand on its own, so if you haven’t seen the original film, this is open to you. If you have seen the original, then let me assure you: it will be satisfying.

We begin on a virgin planet Earth. A humanoid creature watches a spaceship depart as he drinks some fluid, which rips apart his genetic structure and disintegrates him entirely as he falls into a river. In the water, the DNA reforms and a new form of life comes into being. Years later, a group of scientists find some cave paintings and launch an expedition to a solar system represented not just in those ancient artworks but also others from different primitive societies. Is this a clue to our origin? They go and explore, but what they discover could be far more dangerous than they ever imagined.

An origins story then, in many senses of the phrase. Not only is the film playing on that vital philosophical curiosity which humankind has always had about where it comes from and why it is here, but it is also creating the mythology of a pre-existing, fictional universe, giving it richer depth, detail and nuance. Scott is building worlds again.

And boy how he builds this one. Prometheus gives you one of the most staggering achievements in filmmaking design ever. That is no exaggeration. It looks stunning and every shadowy nook, sleek corridor and other-worldly object is built meticulously. Furthermore, the visual effects are just breathtaking and utterly believable throughout. Indeed, the only misstep is the spectacular but unsuccessful make-up for Guy Pearce, playing the very old Peter Weyland, in a very odd casting choice (couldn’t they have just got somebody who was, you know, old?).

The film works on this grand scale, moving away from the confined, claustrophobic suspense of Alien. This is a sci-fi thriller, more than a horror film, but it does pack in some good scares and “dare-you-look” moments which I obviously won’t go into here for fear of the spoiler police. Nevertheless, the central thrust of this story is the mystery of this foreign planet and our creators, known as “the engineers”, and also the motivations of our characters (as ever in the Alien universe, not all is as it seems). To that end, the stand out performances are Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, who is a hugely sympathetic protagonist, the ever-brilliant Michael Fassbender’s ambiguous android David, and Idris Elba, who takes on the Alien stalwart of cool, black dude with aplomb.

However, the film, lacking the effective simplicity of Alien, does fall short of absolute classic territory. It has an undercurrent about faith and what one chooses to believe which is over-played, confused and inconclusive. Also, though it looks awe-inspiring, it lacks a genuinely iconic sequence, such as the one John Hurt so gruesomely provided in 1979. This is nitpicking though: it’s a staggering technical achievement and a great blockbuster being absolutely gripping throughout.

Early indications are that it hasn’t lived up to some critics’ hype, a fate which its remorseless marketing machine can, in part, be held responsible for. However, it will very likely find favour with the general public, being a bold new addition to this universe, and one that seems to be inviting a sequel by leaving many questions tantalising posed but frustratingly unanswered. Regardless of these considerations, it is once again time to head down to the cinema and let the master-builder Mr Scott make another astonishing world for you.

Rating: A-

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