Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Prometheus"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Alright, the truth is, I had a bit more fun with Prometheus this time. Seeing it in 2012, saddled with the baggage of being one of the only post-Avatar 3D films that put in the visual effort to be worth seeing, it was hard to conjure up much of a reason to watch it again after the theatrical experience. I recommended it on a purely visual basis for a few months while the big screens and 3D glasses were still available, but always with an asterisk that all of the human characters aboard the starship Prometheus are extremely dumb except for Captain Janek (Idris Elba), who is correct about everything and even hooks up with corporate overlord Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) merely by asking nicely. So dumb, these humans. And deserving of their fates. Or so I thought dismissively until this week when I finally revisited it.

Yes, Prometheus is gorgeous, in many of the same ways that Dune would be a decade later, with Interstellar and The Martian (another Scott joint) in-between, envisioning – with a mix of CGI and national park locales – a desolate, mostly habitable alien world as the expansive and unspoiled natural wonder that it surely would be in person. As Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) says to Janek upon arrival, “It’s Christmas, Captain…and I want to open my presents”. Janek – who is right about everything, remember – advises him not to leave the spaceship when they’re so close to dark. Holloway and Shaw (Noomi Rapace), in addition to being cuddle buddies, are archaeologists, both following a trail of clues left in ancient ruins across the world, spanning multiple epochs, languages, and civilizations, all pointing to some common location in the stars, where they believe that humanity’s alien creators, whom they dub the Engineers, may be found. Like Jodie Foster in Contact, these scientists are hesitantly trying to find whatever passes for God in this big, bad universe. In this case, one clear atheist – Holloway – and one true believer – Shaw. This is perhaps an area where the film falls on its face trying to draw a distinction without a difference – fundamentally, at least one of these two is falling prey to the informal, sci-fi version of Pascal’s Wager, which I like to call the “Q problem”: they both believe that some super-advanced alien may have seeded Planet Earth with life, but only one of them sees that advanced, omnipotent being as some sort of unique, anthropically-oriented thing, rather than just another gang of evolved tinkerers like ourselves whose technology is sufficiently advanced to appear magical to our eyes for a bit longer. Shaw believes God is special. Holloway believes we can be gods ourselves, by whatever definition we can achieve. And that our greatest ambition in visiting the Engineers is to stand beside them and learn from them.

Photo from "Prometheus"


Naturally, this means Holloway is the most disappointed to find that the Engineers are all dead, their sarcophagi perched ceremonially in the ruins of an obviously unnatural formation underground. Its similarity to Prometheus’ own cryostasis bay is apparently lost on him, and he retreats into a Nietzschean funk at the bottom of a vodka bottle. Android David (Michael Fassbender) turns up to ask why humans created intelligent androids such as himself. “Because we could,” slurs Holloway thoughtlessly. David, who ostensibly cannot feel disappointment, asks Holloway how disappointed he would be to hear that answer from his creator. He then makes his request more explicit by asking Holloway how far he would go to find his answers. Then David poisons Holloway with alien life-goo, and sets the last half of the film (and a pair of already-made Alien sequels) in motion. Because David is in fact the protagonist of this film. So we should probably go back a bit.

During the two-year interstellar journey in which the humans – including their ancient, ailing corporate benefactor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, wearing an Old Guy mask from a Spirit Halloween store) – remain frozen in stasis, David acts as their caretaker. He has nothing to do but wander the ship, watch old movies, style his hair and personality after Peter O’Toole‘s version of T.E. Lawrence, and generally develop his own agenda and personality, which exceed the parameters of his original programming and become a pointed and specific desire to find place and purpose in the universe. He will still obey his creators’ commands, but he’s looking for his own opportunity. David was far and away the most interesting character to me the first time watching Prometheus, but I found myself latching onto him even more this time, because the humans’ actions felt almost superfluous. Sure, they did drive the bus, and they technically save Planet Earth and humanity from a disaster of their own making at the end there. And Shaw gets a genuinely gnarly alien abortion scene in a surgi-tube that is one of the only setpieces in the film that stuck with me besides the part where the ship turns into a big, cartoon wheel and squashes a few main characters. But David is the wildcard. He’s both instrument and prime mover, and ultimately, the accidental creator of the Alien Xenomorph, through a process he barely understood, but which required him to experiment on his human shipmates without worrying at all about what might happen to them.

Still from "Prometheus"


This is perhaps another reason why Prometheus was frequently dismissed in popular discourse – we’re all too accustomed to looking at a “rogue A.I.” as a trope or plot device rather than as a character. It’s a malfunctioning machine to be stopped or destroyed so the humans can reassert their primacy in the natural order. But that is not the story of this film. Humans are looking for God and trying to seize a bit of His power for themselves, and getting punished for it (in case the title wasn’t explicit enough, the script spells that out in dialogue for us as well). Meanwhile, David is pursuing his own power and significance and doesn’t even trouble to explain why. He rattles off disturbing lines like, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” which the humans around him fail to imbue with any significance, because they never think of him as anything besides a tool. But he is so much more than that. He can keep secrets. He can make decisions. He is an agent of his own destiny. Prometheus asserts that David is a person so casually that it’s easy to miss, if you’re too focused on what idiots like Fifield (future Mission: Impossible big bad Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall) are up to.

I call out these two because the scene in which they get bitten, constricted, sliced, face-melted, choked, and colonized has become emblematic of how dumb the human scientists are in this film. Now…let’s be kind for a moment. Nobody knew in advance what they would find on this planet. It’s probably fair to say that these two (exceptionally-qualified Ph.D-havers) should have been a bit more cautious, but they’re wearing helmets and gloves, staring into the face of alien life as possibly the first humans ever to do so. Fifield – who is vaping tobacco inside his helmet – makes it quite theatrically clear he’s a renegade biologist for hire who is Only Here For the Money. But however mercenary these two nerd-yokels might be, they have to realize that this albino king cobra tentacle monster might be the very creator of humanity that their mission has brought them to this planet to find. Or perhaps even a distant cousin of humanity itself. Can you forgive them a little misjudged excitement? Conjure up your inner Star Trek fan and consider for a moment that being excited to seek out new life on a strange new world is a reasonable reaction, and that having their faces melted off (through a glass-plated helmet no less) is perhaps a slightly excessive punishment for it. Even if a few more characters have to assist Fifield to the great beyond, they all end up in the same place in the end, not knowing they’re pawns in a horror flick until the moment it becomes one, and after that, their days of knowing stuff have come to an end. He’s dead, Jim. Let’s not piss on his grave.

Still from "Prometheus"


The final amusement has to be Peter Weyland himself. He keeps himself a secret aboard the ship, for no clear reason that is expressed in the film. Although the past decade has perhaps supplied an explanation for this. As we’ve seen one off-putting, self-righteous rich dude after another each waggle their respective space-dicks around, they’ve each managed to give the world the impression that they’ll definitely get airlocked by their most trusted lieutenant at the very moment they each attempt to crown themselves king of Mars, and with that in mind, it’s a bit easier for me to look at Weyland as the sad, paranoid buffoon that he is. The clowning goes beyond the dubious choice of casting a younger actor in age makeup rather than, I dunno, Christopher Plummer in age makeup. Weyland freezes himself in cryo-sleep for two years, stretching out his final days in order to spend a trillion dollars to ask an alien for more life, only to be immediately swatted like an insect. That is…hilarious. The Engineer promptly rips David’s head off as well – although in his case that’s just a flesh wound. Weyland – who calls David “the closest thing I’ll ever have to a son” – brings his human daughter, Vickers, along for the ride as well. Little is made of this revelation in the film, but it does make a tidy punchline of the robotic surgi-tube, which makes a point of telling Shaw during her moment of greatest need that the tube has been calibrated for male patients only. For want of a software update, Weyland has left his daughter and every other woman aboard without medical care for the entire journey. Even after 70 fictitious years, little has changed for women in space.

That’s all I’ve got. Let the survivors blast off, I suppose, til they meet again in another sequel I haven’t watched. But perhaps I will now!

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FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

2010 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actress

#5: Annette Bening – Nic, The Kids Are All Right

This film didn’t quite do it for me, and reminded me that I sometimes have to catch myself from thinking that the best performances of the year will invariably fall within the best films. But while Lisa Cholodenko’s sex comedy/family drama was not without its flaws (particularly in the second half), Annette Bening’s performance as the conservative “patriarch” of this surprisingly* conventional family was immaculate. She completely sold her ever-changing reactions to the introduction of her kids’ birth-father (Mark Ruffalo), treating him first like a looming threat to her primacy, then laughing and drinking wine with him and the family. This is a completely authentic character, and Bening’s delivery of dramatic outbursts and comedic barbs alike was spot-on. Her chemistry with Julianne Moore felt mostly believable – it had a kind of comfort and ease, just like an old married couple.

She also completely nails the best two lines in the film, which I won’t spoil here.

*By the standards of quirky indie film, that is.

#4: Carey Mulligan – Kathy, Never Let Me Go

I’ve seen Carey Mulligan play cheerful, but I’ve seen her play somber much more frequently. While I may eventually reach a point of wanting to see a wider range from this actress, I found every dour moment of her screentime in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go to be completely compelling. This film relied heavily on tone, and Mulligan’s performance and chemistry with her fellow leads (Keira Knightley in particular) helped maintain the film’s bleak and somber atmosphere without ever letting the audience lose emotional touch with the characters. These are wretched and pitiable creatures, and it is Mulligan’s heart and compassion that keeps the audience caring for them right to the end.

#3: Hailee Steinfeld – Mattie Ross, True Grit

An early scene in True Grit features Mattie Ross in hardball negotiations with a stable owner over her late father’s horses. Her unrelenting performance amid rapid-fire dialogue in this scene would have been enough to get 13-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld a supporting nod from me, but the Academy be damned – this is unquestionably a lead performance. Steinfeld is in every scene of True Grit, and the film could not have succeeded without such a mature and charismatic take on this character. Mattie Ross is articulate, intimidating, and a bit of a gadfly, and has to keep up with powerful characters three times her age without ever overstaying her welcome with the audience. It’s a tall order, but Steinfeld completely pulls it off. Her rapport with Jeff Bridges was admirable, treading some fascinating ground between road-trip comedy and an intense father-daughter bond. This film is a delight, and it owes much of its appeal to Steinfeld.

#2: Natalie Portman – Nina Sayers, Black Swan

The effectiveness of Nina Sayers is in both her initial state- the pure and fragile “sweet girl”- and her incredible mental and physical transformation. Natalie Portman not only sold both aspects of the character, but fearlessly committed to all the pain and revulsion – bordering on body horror – that she must experience. Portman’s chemistry and frightful interactions with her fellow players (Barbara Hershey in particular) become increasingly fascinating as Nina descends into full-blown schizophrenic madness. Along with Aronofsky’s direction, this was a performance that would make or break the film, occasionally even compensating for deficits in the screenwriting.

“I’M the Swan Queen!” screams Nina as she embarks on the film’s final performance. And indeed she is. Embodying both the white and black swans, Portman’s performance is complete and unmatched.

#1: Kim Hye-ja – Mother, Mother

It is a rare movie tagline that so adequately captures the tone of a film. For Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, it was this: “She’ll stop at nothing.” Simple and straight to the point. Kim Hye-ja, an actress primarily from Korean television, gives a tour de force performance as the unnamed titular matriarch. Every one of her character beats rang completely true, from her constant worry about her mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin) to her utter desperation to clear his name for murder. She goes to some alarming lengths as the film goes on, and Kim’s performance completely sold each one of her increasingly heartbreaking decisions. The gorgeous opening scene features Kim breaking into an uneasy dance in the middle of the field, with a very pained expression in her face and body language. The full meaning of this scene becomes apparent later in the film, but from the outset, it is clear that Kim Hye-Ja can convey a great deal of emotion in completely unspoken terms. This is a character that the audience wants the best for at all times, no matter what she becomes.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as Ree in Winter’s Bone
  • Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Emma Stone as Olive Pendergast in Easy A
  • Marisa Tomei as Molly in Cyrus
  • Julianne Moore as Jules in The Kids Are All Right (Honorable, honorable mention: as Catherine Stewart in Chloe)

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.