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Review of Prometheus
Prometheus Disappointed
Review of the movie Prometheus

I really wanted to like this movie. I've been looking forward to it for months. I wound up not hating it, exactly, but it surely was disappointing.

Any work of fiction requires the audience to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. We pick up a book or go to a movie trusting the author to produce a credible and self-consistent world, populated by believable characters. An author breaks that trust when they do dumb things, or have their characters do dumb things. Too much dumbness and the audience can no longer believe in the story and all is lost: the fictional dream is broken and the reader or audience feels cheated. Science fiction has the additional burden of making the fictional world at least semi-plausible.

In "Stargate," for example, we're willing to accept the premise that aliens visited Earth during the time of the pyramid-builders in Egypt and left behind a "gate" that lets people move between star systems. That's impossible, of course, but for the purposes of the story we're willing to believe it. Starting with that one impossible premise, most of the rest of movie follows, and the audience can accept the fictional world "as real"--at least on its own terms.

In "Prometheus," almost from the first scene we see things that are not merely implausible; they are downright dumb. Just for a random example, consider how they locate the star system they visit. There are these two archeologists who find a half-dozen van Danekin-style cave drawings. From these drawings, astronomers supposedly locate the one and only star system the cave dwellers can be referencing. Sorry. That's just dumb. First, the cave drawings are what you expect of cave drawings: big, pointy stars in a constellation. This is supposed to be accurate enough for astronomers to uniquely identify a star system? Beyond dumbness. Further, are there multiple stars in the "star system?" If so, their positions would change over millennia since they'd orbit about each other; yet they stayed in the same constellation in all the drawings, whether from 30,000 years ago or 2000 years ago. That's dumber yet. It reveals authors who are either contemptuous of their audience, or are too lazy to think things through. Or maybe they are just dumb themselves.

Not all the dumbness is limited to science. Toward the end of the movie we witness a gigantic, ring-shaped spaceship crashing to the ground. Two of our characters run frantically away. One of them falls, rolls over a couple of times, and thus is saved. The other character stupidly runs in a straight line and gets crushed. Uh-huh, check. Both the ideas that you could save yourself by rolling over and that the other character wouldn't think of swerving are just dumb.

I'll give you one more example of dumbness before talking about plot disappointments. The expedition lands on a planet with a lethal level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Later, when they enter a pyramid, sensors report the levels have dropped. One of the scientists says, "Cool beans," and starts to take of his helmet. Dumb, but maybe the character is supposed to be dumb. Indeed, all the other characters say, "No, that's dumb. Don't do it." He does it anyway, takes a deep breath, and doesn't explode or turn green or anything. So now of course all the other characters take their helmets off. They do this after telling him it was dumb to take his off. Of course, the other reason for wearing helmets besides CO2 is to guard against biological contamination. The screenwriters know this, since this fact plays a role in a later scene. But here, they just have all the characters act stupidly for no reason. It's hard to stay in a story when the screenwriters insult your intelligence like this.

Now let's turn to the plot. I really liked the mythic potential of the plot. It had echoes of "Stargate," an implausible movie that I rather liked. But here, the whole thing is just...jumbled. The first scenes show a solitary humanoid, with a flying saucer hovering overhead, quaffing down some potion. We see him tumble into a waterfall and his body comes apart, while the special effects zoom down to a double helix that also dissipates. Later in the movie, we learn that this humanoid--who turns out to be ten feet tall--has "DNA identical to" humans. I'm not sure what that means, since he's ten feet tall and appears to have gills, but I mention this because of an inane interpretation Rodger Ebert gave to this concatenation of scenes: he concluded that this meant that the aliens were responsible for "bringing life to Earth." What? They have human DNA so they brought all life to Earth? Incredibly dumb. That doesn't even work as a metaphor. Instead, this is just a disconnected scene that never really ties to anything else in the movie: it's obscurity masking as depth. I guess the screenwriters thought we'd have forgotten this scene by the end--or we'd be asleep.

A movie that focused on the origins question could have been really interesting. This movie raises the question but doesn't do anything plausible or interesting with it. There are hints that the humanoids created us somehow, and other hints that they were in the middle of a military campaign against Earth when something went wrong and they went into suspended animation. There's even a vague hint, from a subplot involving HAL--er, I mean David, the on-board android--that they are derived from us. But the movie doesn't do anything with any of this. It just plops out these contradictory ideas with no depth or development to them. Bleh.

Since the screenplay repeatedly fumbles the human origins plot, the performances for this thread don't have much of a chance. Noomi Rapace, who was stunning in "The Girl with Dragon Tattoo," does the best she can with this dumb script. She portrays a strong, independent, and resourceful female character, reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the original "Alien." But the material is just...well, cartoonish. Take the surgery scene: it consists of slice, extract, staple, here's your alien, Mom. Then, after she takes a second to gas the loathsome creature, she runs through the ship with her stomach stapled. Uh-huh. The best actor in the world can't overcome that kind of world-class dumbness in the script. She's not helped by her love interest, Logan Marshall-Green, who seems to have graduated from the Paul Walker School of Acting.

Counterpoint to the "human origins" plot is a "who's my Daddy" plot involving the android, David, the corporate rep, Vickers, and the super-rich old dude who financed the expedition, Weyland. These three, each played by gifted actors, have the most interesting relationships in the movie. Fassbender's amoral David is a marvelous mix of HAL and Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia. (The overt reference the movie makes to O'Toole's performance could have been meaningful if the "human origins" plot weren't such a mess.) Charlize Theron gives an icy performance as the on-board corporate executive, with just the right nuance to leave us wondering if she's really an android. Guy Pearce, even burdened with layers of droopy latex makeup to make him appear ancient, does a credible job as Weyland. These three actors--especially Fassbender--breathe life into a rather hapless and predictable subplot. Clearly the screenwriters intended the "human origins" plot to dovetail with the "who's my Daddy" plot. It's unfortunate that the "human origins" plot is so poorly executed since this concept certainly has potential.

Other than the performances mentioned above, character development is also pathetic--possibly left on the cutting room floor. There are seventeen members of the crew, and they are dysfunctional mix if ever there were one (another bit of dumbness on a trillion-dollar mission). Under these circumstances, there ought to be ample opportunity for minor characters to shine, but the script fails yet again. At the end, for example, we have three characters who make a heroic stand, sacrificing themselves for the safety of humanity. However, two of the three had no more than one or two lines of dialogue prior to that penultimate scene, cheating the audience of any connection to them or their sacrifice. Dumb writing again.

On the positive side, the special effects and visuals in this movie are stunning. But, like so much else, they felt glued on as opposed to part of a holistic artistic vision. The original "Alien" derived much of its tension from the claustrophobic, brooding sets: shadow and light played with the audience to increase foreboding and horror. Here, however, the sets and special effects looked more like an entry on someone's resume for an Academy Award. Given the jumbled mess of the script, one really can't blame the designers. As with the cast, the woeful writing put them in a pickle: they didn't have much to work with.

I really didn't hate this movie, despite the above. I just expected so much more. At the end, it's merely another silly Hollywood science fiction movie, without a compelling story line. It confuses vagueness with mystery, obscurity with depth, and razzle-dazzle special effects with adventure.

I'd see it again, but only because I love science fiction.
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