Prometheus (US - BD)
Gabe scrambles a personal defense of Ridley Scott's flawed Alien prequel...
Archeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map that they interpret as an invitation from humanity’s forerunners, the ‘Engineers.’ Determined to find out more about them, the couple boards the scientific vessel Prometheus, created and funded by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), CEO of the Weyland Corporation. Lead by mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and monitored by Weyland’s android David (Michael Fassbender), the team of explorers find a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth and embark on a thrilling journey to the darkest corners of the universe where they fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.
There’s absolutely no mistaking exactly how big of a mess Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is. I understand exactly why at least half the film-going audience despised the experience and why fandom is comparing it to other disappointing belated sequels, like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the alpha and omega of prequel whipping boys, The Phantom Menace. However, I happen to have enjoyed Prometheus. A lot. At first, I was simply stricken by Scott’s outstanding visuals and left numbed. Soon enough I awakened from my beautiful sci-fi stupor and was enamored by the B-movie charm found in the film’s prevalent narrative and logical shortcomings. I often claim my favourite kind of blockbuster is the kind that mixes arthouse with tried and true B-movie conventions. The best ones feature stronger characters and plotlines than Prometheus, but we can’t always get what we want. What I find most interesting about this situation, as opposed to so many other times I’ve been on the wrong side of the opinion fence, is that I don’t find myself entirely ostracized when stating my opinion. Plenty of viewers (some of which probably defended Avatar) have flat-out dismissed the entire film, but, on the whole, I find even those that didn’t enjoy the film are more than willing to talk about it on a surprisingly civil level. Love it or hate it, I’m guessing most of you can’t recall another feature this divisive in 2012 inspiring more enticing discussion than Prometheus. Not even the year’s genuinely great films are this much fun to talk about.
And guess what? This is a review, not a two-way conversation. You are all held captive by my opinions. Mwa ha ha ha ha.
The main problem, among many, is that of expectations. As Scott himself put it, his film ‘shares DNA with Alien,’ but it shares just as much with ‘big idea’ sci-fi epics, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obviously Alien owes something to Kubrick’s film visually, but Prometheus shares much of writer Arthur C. Clarke’s basic premise, and thus, the (supposed) promise of an intellectual treatment of the themes. The problem here being that the mysteries posed by the film’s oh-so-perfect trailers were never going to be answered in any satisfying manner. Any answer will be nothing more than ‘an answer’ and, in this case, an answer isn’t as compelling as a question. Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof ( Lost) and Jon Spaihts (the blindingly daft The Darkest Hour and other unproduced, supposedly great sci-fi scripts) seem to understand this, but make the fatal mistake of not knowing exactly what information to withhold. As nuance after nuance is more or less plainly laid out in front of us it appears that Scott and Lindelof realize they’ve played all of their cards, and to counter they suddenly whip-out an entirely new deck, effectively rebooting every supposed answer we were given. The supposed moral is that there is no answer to man’s big questions, which I actually appreciate. But then they pull cheap tricks, like silencing David’s words to the surviving Engineer, as if this particular mystery will make any difference on the remaining minutes of the film, which tend to betray everything else that came before. This is ultimately the most frustrating thing about Prometheus – the realization that nothing we just watched really counted – it was all an elaborate set-up for a sequel that will supposedly answer the unanswerable questions. I will concede that this is unequivocally bad storytelling and exactly the kind I complain about on a regular basis.
One of these supposed ‘empty mysteries’ that doesn’t bother me is that of David’s intentions. In fact, I very much appreciated the process of trying to discern his sometimes random, destructive actions and found that almost every conclusion was an amusing one. My favourite reading is the simplest one – David is a jerk that enjoys pushing buttons, literally and figuratively. Without discussing his actions in too much detail or contrasting the theory with others, I like the way David works as a prototype/amalgamation version of the artificial humans that appear in Alien and Aliens. He’s got all the grace and heart of Bishop while presenting Ash’s indifferent evil in a more personal and ambiguous light. He’s also clearly an analogue of 2001’s Hal 9000. Then there’s the fundamental ingredient of Michael Fassbender’s wonderful performance. Fassbender appears to be one aspect of the film that even less amorous viewers seem to think worked. And who doesn’t want David to do bad things to this crew anyway? I certainly wasn’t a fan of Holloway and I liked the movie. I’ve heard it discussed that Fassbender’s polysemousness character treatment of David is the symptom of a larger problem – that of Scott being more interested in exploring androids than the promised big ideas. Again, I understand the sense of disillusionment, but don’t understand not wanting to explore androids along with Scott, especially given Fassbender’s portrayal and the fact that androids fit the theme of searching for one’s creator so well.
To hell with themes and narrative balance, let’s move on to something more incidental that seems to curse all discourse in regards to Prometheus. If there’s one thing I hate about discussing a movie I liked with someone who wasn’t so fond of it, it’s that annoying tendency for the opposing party to pull out a single sequence as definitive proof of an entire film not working. This happens all the time and it never fails to not convince anyone of anything, because most movies, good or bad, aren’t made up of a single sequence. The only time this argument really works is when the single sequence comes towards the end of a film and effectively defines/redefines the entire thing. But even a bad twist or unnecessary coda can be easily overlooked if the bulk of a movie works without it, which is actually the best argument against Prometheus. Instead of pointing out the rather obvious manner Scott betrays his audience’s confidence at the very end of the movie, the one sequence that I’m most commonly and unimaginatively opposed with is the one where the dopey scientists are foolishly killed by slime monsters. Frankly, this scene didn’t even register as a problem when I first saw the film and I was a little surprised it ended up as a major bone of contention (something similar happened when everyone in the world but me was apparently bothered by Darth Vader’s big ‘NO’ at the end of Revenge of the Sith).
An essential thought that I’ve kept in mind while approaching Prometheus (all of the Alien films, actually) is that Scott always said he intended the original Alien to be little more than a well-made B-movie. While shooting Alien, he repeatedly cited Tobe Hooper’s proto-slasher The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a major influence. Throughout Alien’s otherwise professional and generally smart characters do incredibly stupid things for the sake of a good scare. These characters all feel natural, thanks to good performances and a lot of improvised dialogue, but they’re still set forth like an alien’s smorgasbord and still make choices according to that plot requirement. The only advantages the Prometheus characters have are titles that tell us they’re probably good at a specific scientific job. I agree that, if taken literally, these scientists aren’t acting very professionally, but I didn’t really expect particularly realistic characterizations from an Alien prequel, even an Alien prequel that promised huge ideas in its trailers. What’s worse is that I actually find the sequence in mind kind of clever and more than a little bit funny, because Scott is so very obviously playing with slasher movie clichés. The two burnout characters are killed while getting high (complete with bong noise), because they’re investigating strange noises and no one can help them because the people in charge are all having premarital sex. Hilarious. My argument does, of course, land among other entirely subjective points of view, because I enjoyed the way Prometheus recalled the other Alien movies (an exploration scene told through helmet cameras, creatures that ‘impregnate’ people, said impregnated person not being permitted back aboard the spacecraft, untrustworthy robots, the ‘final girl,’ et cetera). Others, I’m told, would’ve preferred an entirely standalone feature.
Another particularly personal element that makes this sloppy little movie so loveable is its supposedly accidental connections to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires. More than three decades ago Ridley Scott was accused of ripping off Bava’s super-low-budget sci-fi/horror hybrid when he made the original Alien. Co-writer Dan O’Bannon verified influence in some interviews (while denying it in others), but Scott refused to admit any similarities, swearing up and down that he’d never seen Bava’s film. The thing is that the similarities aren’t specific to the two screenplays – Scott used a very similar aesthetic to Bava’s, albeit with a much bigger price tag and a little help from H.R. Giger’s design work. Now comes Prometheus, a film that most behind the scenes accounts appear to credit Scott with over Lindelof or Spaihts and the once incidental similarities to Planet of the Vampires are now legion (spaceships named for Greek Mythology, human astronauts discovering ancient alien spaceship ruins, a long-dead alien species using the humans for their long-dead means). Scott’s and Bava’s films have arguably even more in common with Michael Bay’s The Island and Parts: The Clonus Horror – and the makers of Parts successfully sued (or at least successfully reached a settlement with) Dreamworks for the similarities. There is also no way in hell Prometheus’ costume designer, Janty Yates, wasn’t inspired by Planet of the Vampires costume designer Gabriele Mayer (who was also a clear influence on X-Men costume designer Louise Mingenbach).
Prometheus was shot using the highest of the high-end Red Epic digital 3D cameras and made by one of history’s most visual directors and an extremely talented cinematographer in Dariusz Wolski. Anything less than the best Blu-ray video presentation is a felony. Fortunately, this 2D, 2.40:1, 1080p release is top of the line, fusing the Red format’s ability to create sharp, high contrast textures and smooth, bloomless colour blends. Anything that makes for a good HD transfer appears here, from big, complex wide shots brimming with a mosaic of textures, to the intricate details of microscopic chemical reactions. I hadn’t noticed until this viewing that Scott and Wolski deal largely in the most basic colour palettes of all four Alien films. This makes for an uncanny, beautiful/ugly combination of Scott’s own sickly greens and James Cameron’s cool blues. The filmmakers even appear to take the ‘brandy’ palette of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection into account. Prometheus tends to skew more yellow than the other Alien films and it is often these yellows that pop against the often more staid palette, though there’s also quite a bit of red highlighting throughout the production design. And I haven’t even talked about the all-important black levels, which are deep and pure without sacrificing important details. The transfer isn’t entirely quibble free, though. There are minor sharpening effects on the finer details of some of the most expansive shots, specifically around the black edges of higher contrast items, and I also noticed occasional hints of banding effects on some of the smoother blue background blends. Otherwise, I’ll be damned if I can find anything to complain about, expect maybe that this is one of those transfers that make me wish I had a bigger set. Something IMAX-sized would probably do.
There are some movies you just have to listen to loud. I don’t care how they feel about the film itself, but I can’t imagine anyone would find this mix’s extreme dynamics and use of natural and unnatural aural elements anything short of perfect. Prometheus’ sound design is so utterly meticulous that it pushed my aging system (5.1, not 7.1) to its limit and even beyond in some cases, as the heaviest LFE rumbles (usually relating to a spaceship engine of some kind) vibrated by my poor subwoofer into a buzzing state. The entire film is so incredibly lively in this regard I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of approaching any of the sound critically. The pre-title opening sets the stage with entirely nature-based effects that steadily increase in volume to a huge rush of massive cascading waterfalls, yet the subtleties of more intricate noise are not lost as the first Engineer drinks his creepy liquid and very loudly dissolves into a series of cracking bones and fizzling blood. Aboard the Prometheus, the ship itself is consistently buzzing with the atmospheric hum of beepy-boopy computer noises and vocal echoes bleeding throughout stereo and surround channels. Outside the ship the engine’s roar moves throughout the room, blowing debris past the viewer and into the rear channels (most apparent, obviously, during the silicone storm). It is aboard the alien ship, however, where the sound design stands apart from other clean and loud action movie mixes. Here, the sound bridges that natural versus unnatural gap more often, including cave-like ambience with slight alterations to mark it as uncanny and the sound of the Engineers’ bizarre biotechnology systems. The aforementioned dangerously punchy LFE presentation gets an equal treatment in the eclectic and dynamic range, and features a lot of abstract, electronic dips. Marc Streitenfeld’s original score is among my personal favourites this year and possibly the best of the more traditionally symphonic choices. Streitenfeld manages to create memorable melodies in his original themes and pay proper homage to Jerry Goldsmith without regularly quoting the Alien composer directly.
I doubt I need to waste more page space complaining about Fox’s somewhat cruel decision to release the bulk of Prometheus’ plentiful extra features with only the 3D Blu-ray release, despite the bulk of their customer base not having 3D capabilities. I’ll just move on to the fact that I was sent the less extras-heavy, 2D, two-disc (one Blu-ray, one DVD) set for this review. The extras begin with two feature commentary tracks. The first track features Scott on his own. Scott is always a good commentary listen; he’s got a curmudgeony grandpa meets influential college professor meets down to earth celebrity artist from New York in the 1970s flow to his speech. He’s great about filling space without overwhelming his audience and he does it all without sounding as if he’s taken more than a minute of his day to prepare for it. I think the fundamental thing to take from this track is that Scott was really enjoying the creative process of digital 3D and exploring the imagery of a sci-fi universe. He does cover the story and characters throughout the track (often in literal descriptions of the on-screen action – as if we can’t see with our own eyes), but is more interested in story themes and the specifics of image-based storytelling (he loves describing the reasoning behind the most incidental background detail). This isn’t among the director’s best tracks, but it’s still stronger than the average director’s commentary, especially considering that key curmudgeon component.
The second commentary, which I sampled alongside Scott’s for the sake of getting this review out in a timely manner, features writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. It’s probably important to note that these guys do not appear to be in the same room and that this isn’t a back and forth discussion, but rather, a cut-and-paste affair where the commentators are not acknowledging each other. Not surprisingly, this track is driven by the film’s story, including invaluable descriptions of what changed between the various versions of the screenplay. Spaihts has the more interesting side of the track since his screenplay was the first draft and features the biggest differences to what ended up on screen. Subsequent interviews have revealed he wasn’t very happy about these changes, but he’s a perfect gentleman here, at least on the surface. He’s an expert in sounding complimentary while crediting some of the more iffy plot points to Lindelof and Scott. What I like about Lindelof’s side of the track, besides the fact that he’s very personable and interesting to listen to, is that he’s already defensive about plotting problems, despite having recorded the commentary before the film was even released. Clearly, he knew there were problems and even apologizes a bit (sort of backhandedly).
Next up are the highly anticipated deleted and extended scenes, each with a short description and optional commentary with editor Pietro Scalia and visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers (36:50, HD). These scenes, 14 in total, fill in some of the blanks, but mostly in vague visual terms. I don’t wish to spoil exactly what these add to the story, but do believe only a small number of the detractors’ numerous issues with the production. The best stuff for the film overall is character-related, but I’m guessing people will talk more about the much less ambiguous scene between Weyland and the surviving Engineer.
Under The Peter Weyland Files, you will find text files supposedly written for/by Weyland and four pieces of ‘extended universe’ footage, some of which were used as viral marketing before the film was released. Quiet Eye: Elizabeth Shaw (2:40, HD) is a video interview-like-thing with the character that is reminiscent of the Replicant tests in Blade Runner. Happy Birthday, David (2:30, HD) is a faux-commercial for a consumer version of the David android. Prometheus Transmission (7:10, HD) is apparently something that would’ve been transmitted ahead of the ship to the supposed Engineers, including profiles/interviews of the major characters (seemingly for Weyland’s in-house purposes), a look at various objects found on the ship, and images from various future cultures of the world. TED Conference, 2023 (7:00, HD) is a faux-TED speech from Weyland and seemingly the only reason Guy Pierce was cast to play an extremely old man.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘This whole review reads suspiciously like a laundry list of excuses, Gabe.’ And you’re mostly right. Prometheus could’ve been a classic and even my abiding affection for its pitch-perfect, arthouse-meets-exploitation imagery can’t blind me to its screenplay’s many holes. But I still think time will be kind to the film and that Scott’s form over function approach will prove at least somewhat influential. Not Alien levels of influential, of course. This two-disc, 2D release set is a bit disappointing for not including Charles de Lauzirika’s super-long behind the scenes documentary, but does feature a bunch of deleted/extended scenes and dual commentary tracks, along with nearly perfect audio/video quality, so it’s far from a total loss.
I want to leave you with the reminder that Ridley Scott’s films have long been criticized for a lack of narrative strength in his films, specifically the film’s that went on to be largely reevaluated cult favourites. While reading reviews to Prometheus I was struck by how similar the reactions were to those of Blade Runner upon its original 1982 release. I’m not saying that Prometheus will necessarily share Blade Runner’s largely positive second considerations, but crazier things have happened. Here’s a brief sampling of those 1982 reviews:
Quote: He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that's the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story. – Roger Ebert
Quote: It's easy enough to pinpoint the film’s flaws, particularly its poorly written and developed screenplay and Harrison Ford's unambitious, crushingly dull performance. Yet I don't think I’ve ever been as spellbound at the movies as I was during both viewings of Blade Runner. – Joel E. Siegel, City Paper, Washington
Quote: And it's also a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned. Almost nothing is explained coherently, and the plot has great lapses, from the changeable nature of one key character to the frequent disappearances of another. The story lurches along awkwardly, helped not at all by some ponderous stabs at developing Deckard's character. – Janet Maslin, New York Times
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD Special Edition resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 9th October 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, DVS 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Hindi, Telugu, Tamali, Ukranian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Ukrainian
Extras: Director Commentary, Writers Commentary, Deleted/Extended Scenes, The Peter Weyland Files, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron
Genre: Action, Adventure, Horror, Sci-Fi and Thriller
Length: 124 minutes
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