‘Prometheus’: Setting your mind on fire, but not the screen

June 6, 2012

As an act of cinema, “Prometheus” is stunningly designed, shot with great purpose in a serious fashion.

When it finally shifts gears from “Building Dread” to “Action,” director Ridley Scott finds his sweet spot: cannily designed, well-crafted suspense in the familiar pattern of tension and release, tension and release.

As a movie, however, it never quite fulfills and I left “Prometheus” feeling unsatisfied, ultimately.

To my mind, the questions left hanging after Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, “Alien,” eventually were answered in the subsequent three sequels. But Scott teams with writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (of “Lost” fame) to create an origin story that raises all kinds of new lines of inquiry, among them mankind’s beginnings on Earth, as well as the beginning of what became the Alien in Scott’s original film and its subsequent continuations. As it turns out, this film also comes with a built-in “to be continued” ending.

The film begins in 2093, about 30 years earlier than the original film. But the same company (or its forebear), the Weyland Corporation, is paying to send the Prometheus, a manned ship filled with scientists, to a distant corner of the galaxy, where the seeds of Earth’s beginning may reside. The crew includes a pair of scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who made the discovery that sparked the expedition, Charlize Theron as the corporate black hat along to supervise, Idris Elba as the ship’s no-nonsense captain and Michael Fassbender as an android who has his own objectives for the journey.

Once they reach the planet, they find evidence that extremely intelligent life engaged in what soon becomes clear is something ungodly. It’s no coincidence that the ship they’re on is called Prometheus. But who are the ones tampering with the fate of mankind and subsequently getting burned? It isn’t necessarily the Earthlings.

As the crew members begin to decipher the clues about what they’ve found and what it means, the conflict ultimately pits common-sense survival instincts against crass business interests. As always, the people who have bankrolled the expedition harbor a hidden agenda, one involving the ability to control and weaponize the bizarre biological weapon on the new planet. It’s an urge that apparently is primal and a lesson, Scott is saying, that has gone unlearned from the very start.

What the arriving Earthlings discover is the dormant product of that experiment, resting in what appear to be large vases and oversized cocktail shakers, inside structures that were obviously built by the hand of … something.

The question of newly created life destroying the life form that created it is part of the law of unintended consequences in most science fiction. It’s one of those bad endings reserved for those who try to harness the powers of God and begin to see themselves as gods, as a result. But evolution is one thing; creating a deadly life-form that adapts and evolves to its environment is quite another.

As we learn, part of the creature’s mutation comes from its interaction with a human host, as it quickly gestates, growing to viability in a day or so. That becomes a matter of concern to the redoubtable Rapace – who discovers she’s been impregnated with an alien. She has to program a computerized surgery chamber to perform an impromptu Caesarean on her to remove the rapidly growing alien, in the most amazing and agonizing sequence of the film.

Of course, it’s also its most far-fetched. In terms of recovery time, Jack Bauer has nothing on Rapace’s character.

Scott’s film seems deeper in retrospect, though watching it requires patience. The layers of deceit in the story are less surprising than the depth of that self-destructive and self-deceiving urge to play God – and the ways that urge backfires unexpectedly.

Ultimately, the writers’ examination of the issue is deeper than the film itself, wrapping up a story by tying together all of its darkest impulses. “Prometheus” transforms the idea that one mistake cascades into another into one unending Moebius strip, that seems to move back and forth in time.

While “Prometheus” is a serviceably well-made sci-fi thriller, the ideas it unlocks ultimately are more intriguing than the movie itself. In other words, it’s a movie that’s more fun to think about afterward than it is to sit through.

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