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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Prometheus

Prometheus (Four Stars)
U. S.: Ridley Scott, 2012


John Hurt, anyone?

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s first science fiction movie since Blade Runner three decades ago, and a prequel of sorts to his first s.f. picture, Alien (1979), shows how much the genre has missed him. It’s a stunner — a space epic that’s truly epic, a horror movie that’s truly horrifying, a science fiction show that doesn’t skimp on either the science (or pseudo-science) or the fiction — and (this is a surprise) an action film that is just as good or better between the action scenes. iT’S a movie with good actors (including Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce) playing sometimes juicy, sometimes interesting roles with smarter-than-usual dialogue, at least for this type of picture.

On a technical/visual level — as you’d expect from the director who piloted the Nostromo into near-doomsday in Alien, and took us to the ultimate futuristic film noir Los Angeles in Blade Runner — this movie really knocks you on your keester, transporting us to another fantastical world full of wonders and amazements: in this case, a distant barren, desert-like moon where, somehow, life on Earth may have begun, and where for some of the characters in Prometheus, it will almost certainly end.

There are narrative flaws, and some scenes that seem more than a little ridiculous, and dialogue that’s sometimes not so smart after all, and hell, you can quibble about anything, and people do — but, in the end, I don’t think those shortcomings are all that severe or important. Alien and Blade Runner both had mixed reviews at first (Blade Runner’s were more than mixed and it wasn’t even a box-office hit), and over the years, they’ve both assumed classic status. Eventually, I expect Prometheus may too. Scott’s new movie is extremely violent, and the last half (if not, interestingly enough, the first) is full of the body-ripping, stomach-heaving, jump-out-of-John-Hurt shock scenes that were the hallmarks of the whole Alien series. But you knew that going in — or at least you know it now.

Prometheus supposedly shows you what happens before the rocky voyage of the Nostromo in Alien, and it takes place mostly in 2093 — after one scene in unrecorded pre-history, and another in 2089. (Far enough away, we don’t have to worry too much about catching up to the year, as we did with “1984,” or 2001.) And it’s about a voyage undertaken under the auspices of departed (but present through the magic of digital recording) zillionaire/philosopher/entrepreneur Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, under tons of latex) to travel to a distant moon where the mysteries of the universe may be unraveled. The prehistorical scene shows a mysterious silver man-like being poisoned by a blackish liquid and expiring to bits in a vast waterfall, scattering his DNA to the winds of Earth. The 2089 follow-up shows Shaw and others musing over cave drawings or ancient space maps ot pictograms that all seemingly point to one place, the moon to which the ship Prometheus is now headed.

Aboard, and blissfully unware of the troubles ahead (though you‘d think they’d be a bit more edgy about traveling anywhere in deep space) — is a team that includes Noomi Rapace as religious explorer Elizabeth Shaw, Shaw’s love interest and fellow explorer Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), the hard-ass boss of the expedition Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), cool Captain Janek (Idris Elba, in a very cool performance), doofus geologists Fifield and Milburn (Sean Harris and Rafe Spall), stalwart crew guy Ravel (Benedict Wong), and others, notably Michael Fassbender as blue-eyed David, Prometheus’s top performer and probably the best movie android since Jude Law as the robot gigolo in A. I.: Artifical Intelligence.

What lies in store for this bunch are a barren landscape that resembles Monument Valley after a blitz, and the remnants of the lost humanoid civilization they’re seeking — beings called Engineers (undoubtedly silver ones) whose DNA perfectly matches ours, and whose cave-dwellings and conference rooms and tombs are gorgeous and Giger-like and almost certainly inhabited by something squiggly and alive that means us, or our fellow humans on screen, serious harm. Prometheus, by the way, is the guy who stole fire from the gods, to his regret.

Noomi Rapace burned up the screen as the punk hacker/heroine of the Swedish Steig Larsson Millenium movie trilogy, and her performance here — as committed and passionate and screamingly “present” as if she were hanging on for dear life to a skyscraper ledge — suggests that it might have been smart to rehire her for the American remakes. (Sorry, Rooney Mara.) Here, as the apparent post-Alien series replacement for tough gal-in-distress Sigourney Weaver, she does everything you could want, and a little more. Charlize Theron, as the tough- boss-in-distress isn’t used enough; for my money. We could use also some more of Idris Elba’s cocky hipster captain — and maybe a few more scenes with Theron and Elba together. Everyone else is fine, including the octopus. (See below.)

But the top player in Prometheus,  as I mentioned already, is Fassbender, as the angelic-looking android-robot David, an inspired creation. Scott and his writers have come up with a not-really-original (Remember Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” or Asimov’s robots, or, for that matter, A.I.?) but, in this case, brilliant approach to the Prometheus’s android. They make him seemingly the most sensitive, humane, seemingly caring guy aboard ship, while Fassbender also plays him with a subtle, slightly mechanical behavior that suggests his skin and heart are artificial and there’s a computer brain inside. (His human model, whom he watches constantly on TV, is the young Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence.) And there are other levels to the character we discover only grdually.

David’s glassy smile and beatific quietude suggest that goodness, consideration, even humanity, can all be programmed, and that we might like it better if they were — we might prefer it if good people had the reliability of robots. Among the movie’s great scenes are the one in the cave room where David switches on the ghostly, electronically drizzly remnants of the old moon-dwellers and raptly conducts a kind of music of the spheres concert. Another is his incredible Talking Head scene with Shaw. They’re both among the movie’s highlights, and the first one has no action at all.



Wll, when are they coming? Are there crazy violent scenes in Prometheus, scenes that suggest the young David Cronenberg or George Romero on acid? Or the first Alien?


Well, what about the scene, toward the end, where Noomi Rapace’s heroine character — religious, crucifix-wearing astronaut/explorer Elizabeth Shaw — gives herself a Ceasarean section, all alone, shrieking with terror, pulling from her womb a thrashing silver octopus-like being of obviously malign intent, and holding off its wriggling demonic assaults before killing it — and rejoins the others eventually, without even mentioning her delivery misadventure and with nobody inquiring whether she feels okay? Well, why not. Girl’s got a lot of moxie, and time is fleeting.


It’s obviously a scene intended to remind you of, and maybe possibly surpass, the legendary John Hurt scare moment in Alien. It doesn’t. It can’t. Still, if Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (Cowboys and Aliens) can make you (or me) swallow something like that (the scene, not the squid-thing), they’ve obviously got us on a narrative hook of maximum intensity. While watching Prometheus, I was mostly so swept up by the imagery and the mood and the tension, I really didn’t care that much if they tried to sneak some whoppers and lulus past us. (Well, I did care, but the movie had compensations enough to cover it.) It’s probably the best big studio movie I’ve seen so far this year. Not the best script, mind you. The best moving picture.

The template for both the first Alien and Prometheus — movies about small, isolated groups of humans besieged by a malignant space alien or aliens — is probably John W. Campbell’s famous story “Who Goes There?” which was later made, not very faithfully, into Howard Hawks’ and Christian Nyby’s zingy 1951 pop classic The Thing from Another World, and later, more faithfully, into John Carpenter’s gory and generally underrated 1982 The Thing. The 1979 Alien sort of reset that template for all time, at least for movies. (It’s still much used and abused). And the succeeding movies in the Alien series — the ones directed by James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (forget the ludicrous Alien Vs. Predator spin-offs) — all good, intelligently-made shows with mostly terrific art direction and action — tended to miss that special mixture of macabre arty/fantastic backdrops, stomach-churning horror and simmering suspense that made Scott’s Alien so special. (Cameron’s sequel, the 1986 Aliens, surpassed Alien in action, but it’s still not as good.)

Prometheus gets the old mix back, at least partly, and it shows why Scott belongs in a small select group of great science fiction moviemakers for adults that includes Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, Andrei Tarkovsky and Christopher Nolan (and, if you want to let the kid stuff in, Spielberg and Lucas and Nolan doing Batman). And it also shows why it’s a happy event that, in his 70s, Scott has resumed work again in the genre he does best. (Sorry, Thelma. Sorry, Louise.)

Scott produced the movie with his old Alien mates Walter Hill and David Giler, and they’ve made it as exciting and beautiful and full of shock and awe as you could want. But they’ve also made it with an almost incongruous elegance and an old-fashioned style that at times suggests a movie that’s referenced repeatedly in Prometheus — David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. That kind of grand allusion is a welcome respite from the carnage-stuffed shlocko actioners snd script-challenged horror holocausts, edited as if by machine gun, that we often get. I was surprised when some of my fellow critics complained that nothing much happens in the first half of Scott‘s movie, and that there’s not enough action — because there’s plenty of action and violence in the second half.

Anyway, that’s something I really thought was especially good about Prometheus: its greater attention to conversation and character and mood-building, the way it held back the big shocks and the blistering physical stuff for almost half the movie, so that we could learn about the characters, get mesmerized by the eerie atmospherics and Dariusz Wolski’s grimly beautiful cinematography, get lost in the H. R. Gigerish cave interiors, and just generally get saturated in the setting and story. That’s good classically structured moviemaking and critics, of all people, should probably support it when they see it.

Isn’t all that what a lot of the expensive actioners or science fiction shockers are seemingly too nervous to give us? The worst of those more action-pcked movies mostly follow their own map, a pseudo-Terminator template: open with a bang, close with a bang and, in between, stuff in as many bangs as the bucks and the budget allow. But isn’t that the kind of moviemaking we’re a little sick of, impressively energetic as it may seem to some? No one could legitimately complain that Prometheus doesn’t deliver the goods, action-wise, horror-wise, or that Scott isn’t giving full vent to the science fiction movie-making gifts he displayed in his earlier classics. But he also hasn’t been seduced (at least totally) into some of the big, bad, big-bang, bombastic business-as-usual big-movie strategies of today, movies that hammer you from first scene to last, as if the audience might possibly be driven to the exits unless they got more explosions, more yucks, more blood and guts, twenty more corpses in the next five minutes — and then, for a rest and a breather, we can have the leading ladies take off their clothes.

Don’t worry. Scott and Rapace and Theron don’t skimp on sensuality either. After all, this is an offshoot of the series that introduced Sigourney Weaver and scanties in deep space. Prometheus gives us space pulchritude too, but in moderation. And it gives us scares and chills and nausea and hellacious violence, all the things discerning audiences supposedly demand, or so somebody believes. Yet this movie also knows how to make us wait. How to be patient. In space, after all, nobody can hear you…Oh, you know what comes next. JOHN HURT!!!!!!!!



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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Prometheus”

  1. Russell says:

    The 3D aspect, which was so stunning in the opening scene, eventually gave way to complete immersion, to the point where I forgot I was watching it in 3D (with the exception of scenes with Theron in it.)


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon