Monday, June 11, 2012

Pretender of the Faith

Every culture has a creation myth, a story that explains the origins of the cosmos. Vividly detailed and fantastical, they work well enough as symbols and allegories, but as literal, beginning-to-end narratives they are convoluted, illogical, and absurd. (To take only the most familiar example, three days separate the creation of light and the sun in the book of Genesis.) The hype for Prometheus, bolstered by its world-building viral marketing, has approached religious fervor, not least for the striking imagery in its trailers that promised a return to form for the debased Alien franchise from Ridley Scott, who kicked the whole series off in the first place. Sadly, Scott seems to have fallen for his own hype, as far as religious significance goes. Prometheus, no longer what it could be but what it is, is a ponderous mess that spends too much time asking and refusing to answer questions about gods and monsters instead of giving us a goddamn monster movie.

The setup, as could be gleaned from the trailers, is promising enough. Scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have found in artifacts from ancient cultures across the world what looks to be a star map indicating communication from an alien race. A team of 17--the most important of which are Weyland Corporation tool Elizabeth Vickers (Charlize Theron), droid David (Michael Fassbender), and captain Janek (Idris Elba)--is dispatched to the corresponding star system, which just happens to have a planet with a moon with a similar atmosphere to Earth, in order to make contact with our putative creators. The premise is comforting in its familiarity as a deliberate throwback to the original Alien, with enough room to develop into its own thing; the problem is it can't make up its mind what it wants to be. 

To be blunt, there is too much shit going wrong, with none of it going wrong enough and much of it happening for the wrong reasons. There are a number of intense scenes and action sequences that are in themselves often effective--I'm thinking of one character's death by flamethrower, a crazy surgery procedure, and the awakening of the Space Jockey--but they are arrived at by narrative contrivance and  character stupidity, with people who should know better getting lost or going off to have sex at the most (in)convenient moments. I'm not even joking about the sex. In true slasher fashion, two characters get killed off because the people that are supposed to be monitoring them are having a shag. That kind of plot gimmick is merely obnoxious in a Friday the 13th knock-off about horny teenagers; in an A-list movie with a median age of 30-something cast it's positively embarrassing.

Worse yet, instead of the good scenes escalating the tension and pushing the story forward, their consequences are often immediately forgotten as the film switches gears and focuses on some other subplot.This is bad enough for any movie, but especially deadly for an Alien film. There are something like five or six different kinds of creatures populating this movie, but after a signature scene each one is then not seen or even referenced again unless convenient. As a result none of them ever registers as a major threat, and so nothing like the claustrophobic dread of Alien--or hell, the balls-out adrenaline drive of Aliens--never materializes. There's too much to keep up with, and most of it doesn't matter anyway.

The primary issue is the movie's insistent harping on its bizarre creationism. The story is constantly derailed by further investigation into the nature of the giant human(oid) aliens, and several dialogues are given over to Shaw's "faith," both in a vague Christianity--her cross necklace becomes an unlikely object of interest--and in her alien creators thesis. It leads to some painfully unconvincing plot developments in the last act of the movie, and more besides, it is a conceptual non-starter. To constantly lecture the audience on a religio-scientific thesis about aliens that exist only in the movie's universe is the quintessence of missing the point. It turns what should have just been the film's Macguffin, the means to get the characters to their deadly ends, into the entire purpose of the movie. Imagine George Lucas devoted not just a scene but all of Star Wars: Episode 1 to explaining midichlorians, and you begin to grasp fundamental wrong-headedness of the enterprise.

Of the inflated cast, only Fassbender comes out relatively unscathed. His David is calm and detached, and the implications of his relationship with human beings is about the only thematic detail the movie gets right (at one point he sagely notes that man's creators are likely to regard them the way they regard their own creations, robots). Theron plays the 'company man' role cold as ice, but late plot developments force her into increasingly reactive and nonsensical behavior. Ditto Rapace, who does what she can to sell the movie's theology and try to keep the story from coming completely apart, but by the frantic ending it's simply too much for her to be able to salvage.

At one point David, ever the voice of reason, when asking Shaw why she is pressing on to discover the truth about the aliens and faith and all that, says something along the lines of, "sometimes the answers aren't important." That could certainly be applied to Prometheus itself. To the extent that it explains elements of the original Alien, it merely confuses (particularly in terms of the creature's biology, which dilutes the elegant simplicity of egg-->facehugger-->queen/chestburster-->egg into a mess of infection and cross-breeding impregnation). When it comes to explaining itself, the film is even more circumspect, with its ending serving as a jumping-off point for further revelations in an all-but-guaranteed sequel. As both atheist and moviegoer, I'm not much interested in making that particular leap of faith.

No comments:

Post a Comment