volterator: (Terminal)
Ridley Scott's return to science fiction has been awaited since the early reappraisal of Blade Runner as a classic, and after thirty years the wait is over. Much is made of this being a prequel to Alien, but for me I can see a lot of Blade Runner in its preoccupation with the origins of life and the idea of the soul. Compared to those two SF films he's made in the past and the films he's made since first giving up that genre Prometheus has to offer quite a lot in order to not disappoint. Fortunately Prometheus is the best film Ridley Scott has made in thirty years. Unfortunately that's not saying much. Obvious stuff out of the way first: The plot is an absolute shambles and the ideas well worn and boring, if not repellent. It's a shambles because the logic isn't logical - it compares very poorly to Alien from the perspective of writing craft, and this has none of the great lines of Alien or especially Blade Runner. It also doesn't matter that the script is rubbish and I'll explain why as best I can.

The plot: 80 years from now we have manned interstellar spaceflight. Human archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw and her boyfriend Charlie-something find ancient art depicting a star-map and giant figures and take this as an invitation to follow it. They get funding from a corporate sponsor and fly off. When they get there two years later they find a terrestrial planet and on it a dome structure full of tunnels. In there they witness a projected recording of a fleeing giant alien which leads them to a chamber in which things start to go a bit wrong for them. Surreality and horror ensues, which is a huge relief after such a boring concept as ancient astronauts with a space opera chaser.

The film works because Scott has a skill with tone and imagery that transcends narrative. Admittedly he hasn't always needed to rely on it quite so much. On Alien the script he was working from was particularly crafted and coherent with big simple ideas, on Blade Runner it was suggestive and spare. Here he's working against a sometimes quite poor script to put incredible and resonant moments on screen. The plot is offensively bad when you work it out, and exhibits an appalling disregard for scientific fact, but it dodges that at first because it's not an expository film. It's surrealist spectacle. Whenever it concerns the aliens it becomes purely about tone and image. Take the first scene. We fly over an impressive, treeless and glacier sculpted landscape. An oval shadow, massive, rolls over the grasslands. A river rushes and moils as we glide over it to a waterfall. Enormous and panoramic, water crashing in the pool far below. A robed figure walks along the bank to the precipice, lowers his hood to reveal a hairless, marble-white head, his brow heavy and chiselled. Drops the robe away from sculpted muscles. Raises a jar and opens it and we see the writhing and twining things within, thick with tarry slime. He looks up at the solid, black oval disc parting the clouds and obscuring half the sky, and then back down at the jar, which he lifts and drinks. He gasps and then roars. His pristine skin is shot with black, branching and spreading. The camera zooms alarmingly in, through his skin and into his body. We see black, twisting clouds in the spaces in his tissue; we're at the microscopic scale. Strands of his DNA helices fur with black, snap like stressed chains.

Outside, we see his body, burnt and desiccated, pitch and fall into the exploding waterfall down the churning torrent into the pool below. His body drifts by on the pool bed, meat crumbling off his bones.

An alien commits suicide by ingesting something which destroy him, systemically, at the level of his DNA. All of which is really quite cool. Problem is, the suicide itself has no obvious significance to the plot and is both unmotivated when we see it and completely unexplained. We either learn what kills him later or why, or maybe both? It's a plot tangle, rather than hole, but it's the first indication that these aliens are going to be inscrutable and violent and that something black and horrible waits. It alludes that he's performing an experiment on himself while the floating ship watches, but that's an extreme way to conduct scientific inquiry, so these guys are an odd bunch. Ultimately the white aliens relationship to the plot is deeply stupid, and so is this scene. The white aliens are brilliant though (as an aside it makes me wonder if Scott has read The Book of the New Sun. He probably has). It's that oddness in the aliens that reflects on all the other characters too.

The characters are all a bit weird, but wonderfully portrayed. The stand-out performance is another non-human character, Michael Fassbender's android, David. We learn from the film that he has modelled his appearance and manner on Peter O'Toole's T. E. Lawrence, which he watches along with the crewmembers' dreams, during the two years they're in stasis and he's left awake. He's creepy and malevolent and sort of charming and clearly one of Scott's replicants and I'm very glad to see him on screen. An immaculate screen psychopath actually, but I can't go too much into that because of spoilers. I can say that the reasons for many of the bad things he does make little naturalistic sense unless you accept that his motivations and those of who he works for are implied and psychologically weird. I like it, but it's uncertain and elliptical.

Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw is the human heart of the film, and the themes of pregnancy and infection that have always been there in Alien are played out around her. She is the most naturalistic figure in the film, the sympathetic lead, and her faith in god aside, the least interesting to discuss. Her boyfriend, Charlie Holloway, the leader of the scientific team of the expedition is such an odd character. Overconfident, condescending and insensitive, he goads David and mocks him because he was created by humans, and later seems to say that creating new life is a trivial part of being human beings, because of our futuristic biotech. It's a great scene because he blunders over the subtext of what he's saying and manages to really upset his girlfriend, so I'm convinced he's a terrible boyfriend, and that's actually pretty good writing. I really like that the heroine is in a relationship with this character, who isn't sympathetic, because it further humanises her that she's put so much of herself into a relationship with a man who represents himself so badly. I'd say he's one minor villain in a film full of villains, who she has to overcome at great, counterintuitive pain to herself. I don't think she ever realises or comes to terms with that, but the film does. He's given the most telling line "Doesn't every child want to kill their parents?" It's a big theme - a Buddhist theme: Kill your parents, kill god, kill your teacher, and if the film has any depth, that's it.

The apparent main villain, corporate proxy Meredith Vickers, played by Charlize Theron is an interesting piece of writing too. I heard that Scott wanted her to be in the background of a lot of scenes without much to do to establish the presence of Weyland Corporation. It's a ballsy move and speaks well of Theron that she didn't try and get it beefed up into a full scenery chewing villain role (Anyway, if you want that Snow White and the Huntsman is out this weekend too, so massive kudos to Theron and her ego). She does come to the fore later in the film as the voice of steely authority, and with brutal decisiveness, so it pays off anyway. There's a conversation between Idris Elba's blue collar space captain Janek and Vickers later that's brilliantly knowing. I wanted to argue that the performances are all non-naturalistic at first, but they're not, they're just underdeveloped. Elba gets some of the worst of this as the working class hero. He's good though, and Steve likes his moustache.

Special mention must be made of Guy Pearce's heavily made up performance as Weyland, the ancient corporate moneyman behind the trip in search of the aliens, as his character is brilliant. He's Tyrell from Blade Runner, inverted, and it's sort of genius. Also, and I suspect this is Ridley's Geordieness coming out, he has a hussy Border Terrier as a pet, and I do love a hussy Border Terrier.

The film has a great way with exposition, largely avoiding over-explanation when the characters are not talking drivel and it's lovely to only have my intelligence insulted by just a load of plot holes rather than by heavy handed explanation of every beat, or both. Visually it's very well told. There are a lot of things in the script which are surprisingly good, but the plot isn't any of them.

There are a million more things I can say about the setting and the filmmaking. There's a scene in which Shaw wakes up in a hospital bed with David acting as her nurse which is brilliantly disorienting and is consummate horror filmmaking, but it's too spoilery to discuss. I want to suggest that there's another old Greek name that should be brought up here: Proteus, but I'll leave it at that. I want to talk about the way the white aliens are portrayed, their silence and surreality. There's a dreamlike illogic to all the scenes among the ghosts of the white aliens which I've alluded to earlier that I could talk about, certainly these are the parts of the plot which are least convincing while also being some of the scenes which are the most effective and affecting, but I'll save it for a more spoilery write up some other time. The less said about the black aliens the better, right?

It's a load of old bollocks in many ways but fortunately it's also pretty brilliant.


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January 2017

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