There will be those who go into the highly buzzed Prometheus, prequel to Alien, and come out well satisfied with a pretty good scifi flick (sub-genre: spaceships and aliens) with excellent special effects, a sinister, witty turn by Michael Fassbender as a robot and some sensational horror sequences.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvXKN5Fz_OE[/youtube]

Above: the ingenious and amusing promo clip which is not included in any way in the movie, so feel spoiler-free to enjoy; its brilliance proves Ridley Scott remains a hot ad man.

The Scott baggage

And then there will be those, like me, who go in with some trepidation, conscious that the director Ridley Scott has often not lived up to his best as the man behind four first-rate films: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Gladiator. Three of those had enough original inspiration to fire up entire trends (perhaps not T’n’L despite its startling premise and demise?). One great film is sufficient for legendary status, but Scott has somehow managed to bullseye four times without quite having the laurels bestowed upon him.

Alien infected every scifi horror movie after 1979 with its stagey silences and half-dark interiors, and the seminal, unsurpassed monster designs of H. R. Giger. Blade Runner, only three years later, is disputably the greatest science fiction film ever made (yes, yes, 2001), mashing a chase thriller with metaphysical themes. And a seminal, unsurpassed set design — future retro grunge is still the default setting of many scifi space flicks. And, and, its score by Vangelis that achieved a remarkable fusion of traditional moves with a convincingly speculative sound.

Reviewing Prometheus, New York magazine’s David Edelstein wonders if “Scott might be the most overrated director alive” which sounds harsh, but perhaps only in the way one speaks about an inconstant lover.

Portentous Prometheus

Which is why I found Prometheus somewhat disappointing. I was hoping for a lot, without really expecting the goods. We passed on the 3D, but it certainly looks and feels spectacular (though with some quantity of cheesiness — eg, a bit too much of the star spangled sense-of-wonder with David robot/Fassbender gazing raptly into a holographic Earth in space; eg, the gung-ho rebel yell scene near the end etc). Utterly gripping too are the horror moments — thoroughly frightening and gruesome with the most compelling extraction scene since Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator.

The unconvincing bits are many: the implausibilities of plot points — with the crew splendidly unprepared or naive in the face of first contact — didn’t they read any of the NASA handbooks on what to do when meeting an alien race? — don’t touch them, don’t touch suspicious artefacts that look like unexploded bombshells leaking oily gunk, don’t touch anything! Half the ship’s staff seem quite naff, with most of them not invested with any reality; that is, they’ve been cast as alien fodder. The chronology is no really, too: on Earth in 2089; then light years away in another star system by 2094. No space or time is that relative.

The biggest letdown for me were the big questions it popped but declined to propose any answers for. Like Gauguin‘s painting, and indeed, Blade Runner‘s excellent efforts in this vein, Prometheus asks: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

The movie opens with a mysterious ritual enacted in a ravishingly austere landscape over a waterfall (not CGI, but Iceland) that, in retrospect, seems about the beginning of life on Earth. And the Fassbender/robot poses the same questions as the replicant robots in Blade Runner — why are we here; who made us, etc — an echo of the questions asked by the scientist played by Noomi Rapace (artfully named ‘Lizbeth Shaw, an echo of her uncrushable Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tatoo; Shaw/Rapace acquits herself with great feminist credit). Naturally, then, the movie pits the religious (“I choose to believe”) scientist against the atheist robot. It feels pretty shallow, and reminds me of a remark that Scott’s work is marked by “a cold, sleek glamour” born of his TV advertising background (“[His] people tend to look pretty good even when they’re suffering horribly.”*).

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I was trying to keep it shortish, but felt obliged to add for clarity:

The crucial issue for me is one of tone. One may ignore the problems of timing** in the film, and dumb, no, stupid responses to evident danger, but if nothing else Scott is a great visual stylist, and in his best four, a stylish storyteller, his themes and morals embedded rather than explicit.

In Prometheus it’s pretty didactic: the know-it-all robot*** — who really does know what there is to know, and is fearless to boot; and the scientist who has placed her fate in faith — coming out to the stars to meet her (our) Maker; driven by the demons of her mother’s early death; and because of her own inability to have children. Of course, the rationality symbol that is David-robot also supposedly has no morals, or, feelings; the unreliable robot has been a scifi trope since the ’65 TV series Lost in Space, and propagated famously in Alien. Dr Shaw wears a cross; we see David-robot take the cross off her (“in case of contagion”!); later we see her put it back on. Much later, David-robot asks why she still needs to know the answers to the much-repeated questions she wants to ask her Makers. She says, point blank, because I’m human, and you’re not.

In contrast, right at the end of Blade Runner (first version), Deckard, a cop who extends extreme retirement to rogue replicant-robots, ponders in a voice over as he escapes with his replicant love interest,

I didn’t know how long we had together. But then, who does?

Moments earlier, a replicant expiring in the rain had declaimed,

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Only faintly purple, but sheer elegance in comparison. In 1982 Ridley Scott pierced with a needle; thirty years on it feels like he’s sawing with a steak knife.

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Anyway, Scott wants us to think — or, Scott wants us, or the critics, to think he is thinking a few steps ahead of us. Well, okay, why not, whatever. In any case, the movie is simply not as fresh or as original as one would have hoped, and as Scott has previously achieved (and for which we can always remain grateful). But if you want to be scared silly in a glamorous place where they can hear you scream****, head to your nearest multiplex.

Discussed on podcasts:
At : *Filmspotting
At: Parallax Podcast with Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster et al, episode #8
At: Slate Spoiler Specials (with lots of spoilage)

**Of all the places on the planet(moon) the ship “Prometheus” finds to land, it happens to be exactly where the alien artifacts are. And the crew go supermarket shopping within like fifteen minutes.

***Constant Gardener remarked, “the robot walks just like Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory).”

**** Alien‘s indelible slogan: “In space, no once can hear you scream.”

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Voice Choice

Yes, I know they had to pick Darren Percival and Karen Eden, and yes, as they told us and kept reminding us, they were all sick and buggy. And yes they were “pro, pro” professionals — and the show went on. But didn’t Diana Rouvas deliver the most stylish, pin-point turn of the night? The prize will go to the most distinctive voice, a battle between Our Darren and Our Karise, but in past episodes the judges/coaches had repeatedly hoisted the mantra, “Best on the Night.” But not, alas, last night. So, will it eventually be a boy, or a girl? Good luck, Diana, you were fab-u-lous. On the night.