Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Warning: This review may contain general plot spoilers to Prometheus. I recommend you see the film first (it's worth it!), and then read my review, if you don't want to be spoiled. :-)

Prometheus is not an Alien movie. And that's really the only significant criticism I have for it. But while I was really hungering for another good movie featuring the Alien creature (the likes we haven't had since Aliens), I think it was the right decision for this movie. Unlike other movies that have capitalized on the marketing appeal of the Xenomorph (including the AvP series) - which were terrible movies, thus weakening the legacy of the Xenomorph - Prometheus is actually a really good movie; and while it may be a sort of Catch 22 in that featuring the Xenomorph would have cheapened the film (so sad that the Xenomorph itself has been prostituted to that extent), I sat through this film thinking how satisfying it would be to view those creatures in another film of this high quality (as I said, the likes of which we haven't seen since the original Alien and its supremely effective sequel).

That having been said, Prometheus is indeed an Alien Prequel - not in a strict sense, in that it ties directly into the latter film, but on a conceptual and intellectual level. And one of the strengths of this movie not just as a standalone title but as a part of the franchise is that, in exploring the genesis of the Xenomorph (albeit almost as an aside to the main thrust of the plot, which concerns the Space Jockey race), it contributes to the mythology of the creature and expands its legacy, which is also one of the main strengths of the Aliens sequel, in introducing the Queen and the species' hive-like properties.

But though the creatures in this movie are very cool-looking, with a definite sci-fi vibe, I felt that the movement away from H.R. Giger's original design reduced their impact as horror monsters. They were too smooth, almost soft, squishy. And while it's understandable that we're seeing related forms of the Xenomorph, probably predating the form that appears in Alien, which it hasn't yet evolved into, the net effect is that, while still being a sci-fi/horror, Prometheus clearly leans toward the sci-fi when compared with Alien, which, in spite of its heavy sci-fi atmosphere, was first and foremost a horror film - and one of the most fundamentally frightening of all time. Again, that's what I've really been wanting to see all these years - a good film (which rules out Alien Resurrection and Alien v. Predator and so on) that utilizes the Alien creature to its fully horrifying effect.

But just because Prometheus wasn't exactly the film I'd have liked it to have been doesn't mean that it was not a very good, very smart, and very appropriate continuation of the franchise (which is saying a lot given all the other titles in the franchise that have failed to do any of those things). I loved the implication that the Xenomorph was created as a biological weapon (indeed, the ultimate biological weapon), and am pleased that this film maintains the suggestion that the Xenomorph (which, ultimately, may appear in many more forms than the iconic one we're most familiar with - which I, personally, would describe as the "perfect" form) absorbs and retains qualities of its host, perhaps (this is my speculation) in order to keep the most advantageous qualities and discard the rest, in order to, from one generation to the next, improve its biological makeup in search of a more perfect form. This is a fantastic evolutionary advantage, and contributes to the appeal of this creature because it is not only aesthetically impressive but also conceptually fascinating.

Prometheus is an apt title for this film, which, to my nerdy delight, takes as its premise the "Ancient Astronauts" theory that an evolved, highly intelligent race is responsible for creating mankind. In the not too distant future, human technology catches up with our archaeological curiosity, and an expedition is sent to make contact with the race that presumably had contact with prehistoric man, thanks to identical star maps found in cave drawings across cultures. The myth of Prometheus tells of a rebel who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man, and was then punished, and this infuses our story with a deep level of symbolism and iconic interpretation. The story is fused also, via one of the main characters, with a religious curiosity. And though I'd have loved to see the depiction of a future where religion is altogether eliminated in favor of atheism, this character's spirituality at least provides us with the theme of questioning what God's role in the creation of mankind is, when science provides hard evidence of our creation, and whether or not the ones who created us can effectively be viewed as Gods.

As I stated, Prometheus is a really good sci-fi film. I was particularly intrigued by the characterization of the requisite android on the crew, which is also a tradition in the Alien series. Ash in Alien was a cold-minded villain, who unsympathetically held the value of his mission (procuring lethal arms for 'the company') above any concern for the survival of his human crewmates. Bishop in Aliens turned that expectation on its head and turned out to be (thanks to technical modifications made in subsequent versions after the era of the Ash model) a very friendly and helpful addition to the team. Despite occurring previously in the timeline of human technology compared to Alien and Aliens (a nearly inevitable problem that frequently occurs in prequels that take place in-story years, if not decades, before previous stories that were actually released years before the prequel), the android character in Prometheus, named David, appears to be light years ahead of them both (while adopting bits of both of their characters), demonstrating in a variety of ways both his impressive sophistication at emulating human emotion and curiosity, while not altogether being able to completely bury the fact that he is a synthetic human. However, I find his character to be utterly fascinating, especially in the combination of his incredible processing power (giving him abilities far and above what any human could acquire in a single lifetime), and his genuine interest in very human pursuits like music, sports, etc.

Another compelling character, although perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, is the main lead, who follows in the footsteps established by Ellen Ripley in Alien and Aliens (and also the other, less noteworthy sequels) of providing films in this franchise with a very strong female lead. She is Elizabeth Shaw, who demands answers from man's creators - namely, why they created us, but also, as the information begins to come in, why they might be trying to destroy us. David rightly asks whether the answer to that last question matters, but I am in agreement with Dr. Shaw, not simply because I, too, am inquisitive by nature (and this film does not provide as many answers as questions), but because their reasoning could very well explain not just whether or not the continued existence of humanity is actually best for the universe, but also could provide great insight into the nature of humanity itself, and perhaps even the nature of those who created us (who may not be very benevolent after all).

Prometheus borrows a lot of other elements from the Alien franchise, but, perhaps due to how well crafted the film is, it avoids feeling formulaic, and instead comes off as hearty tribute. Or, perhaps, the little touches here and there that add further depth and complexity to the elements we are so familiar with imbue it with a welcome breath of fresh air, lending them a feeling of freshness that a more superficial treatment wouldn't be able to acquire. As a result of this and other factors I have discussed, Prometheus feels very much in line with the Alien franchise, while at the same time distinguishing itself enough that it doesn't feel like a rehash of something we've seen before, and thus something superfluous that may as well not have been made. Quite the contrary. It is a smart, fresh addition that expands on the Alien legacy.

And for the dedicated Alien fans, there are enough elements thrown in here and there ("easter eggs", if you will) to tie this title in with the previous film, while not restricting itself to being a direct precursor to its events. In that way Prometheus does really present itself as a spiritual prequel to Alien, but while giving itself enough room to suggest a possible sequel. This could be an exciting prospect - albeit with a lot of risk, as sequels seldom live up to their progenitors; Aliens, within this very franchise, being one of the most remarkable exception to that rule in film history. But, if done properly - and I do realize that is a huge if - a sequel to Prometheus (which, to be effective - and not merely financially successful, must accomplish what Aliens did and build on the mythology of the alien creature - or, now, the Space Jockey race) could be immensely exciting given that it could present a better opportunity to reintroduce the classic (or close enough to be terrifying) Xenomorph once again within the context of an intelligent film.

The lack of which, I repeat, is my only significant complaint with Prometheus, even as I comfortably concede that the decision to exclude them was almost certainly correct. For this title. But maybe, just maybe, for the sequel...