Prometheus


Prometheus

Michael Fassbender wonders about the pretty lights.

(2012) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson, Lucy Hutchinson. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

It’s the simplest questions that are the hardest to answer. Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? These are questions that have occupied scientists and philosophers since we were able to put a complete sentence together. We still haven’t answered them. Perhaps we never will.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) doesn’t think so. She and her husband Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) have been researching ancient civilizations and have noticed the same glyph appearing in all of them, despite never having met or interacted – a giant pointing at a star formation. Dr. Shaw believes that it is an invitation to meet our makers – and despite the presence of her father’s (Wilson) cross around her neck, she’s not talking about the almighty but of aliens.

She convinces Peter Weyland (Pearce), the mad genius behind the Weyland corporation, to finance the expedition and the trillion-dollar space ship Prometheus is constructed. The crew, including Shaw and Holloway, lie in suspended animation, tended to by David (Fassbender), the gently-spoken, polite android.

As they near their destination it is Meredith Vickers (Theron) who is awakened first. She is neither scientist nor crew – she is an executive from the Weyland Corporation and she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that no matter what the scientists are after, it is Vickers who is in charge. To say the least Shaw is unhappy about this.

However, they have work to do. The scientists believe that what they are searching for is an ancient alien race that they call the Engineers. These beings, in theory, may have caused or altered life on earth leading to the ascent of humanity. As Captain Janek (Elba), the ship’s pilot, brings the Prometheus down to the planet’s surface, straight lines are discovered. As we all know, straight lines don’t occur in nature. They have to be made by an intelligence. As they  come closer to these lines, pyramid-like structures rise from the valley floor. The Prometheus lands.

Immediately the impulsive Holloway goes to explore the structure, sending miniature probes ahead to map the structure and search for life forms. What they find is a game-changer – not every life form is benevolent, for one thing. For another, the most malevolent force against them may well be from within. And now that the Prometheus has discovered the secret of the Engineers, Earth now has a gigantic target painted on it.

The movie was initially intended to be a prequel to Alien but Scott decided that the xenomorph species that confounded Ripley had run its course; while the movie is set in the same universe, it is not a direct antecedent – or so they say (a final scene may well prove that to be false). There is a familiarity to the proceedings, some of which mirror the original Alien nicely (for example, the final log entry for the Nostromo as read by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is referred to in the final scene of the movie).

But make no mistake, this is definitely not Alien. That was more or less a monster movie with the crew of the ship being stalked and picked off one by one by a single alien. This time, the humans are doing the stalking. They just don’t like what they find.

I have to admire Scott’s willingness to tackle some of the more basic questions of human existence. He posits a theory that other scientists have long held – that without some sort of intervention of a superior intelligence, it is impossible for our species to have progressed as quickly as we have – although anyone who watches “Survivor” may tell you we may not have progressed as far as we’ve thought.

Theron, appearing as a villain in her second summer blockbuster movie this year, isn’t quite as memorable as she was in Snow White and the Huntsman but she carries some of the icy blonde evil from her work in that film over into this one. Here, she is if anything colder and more reptilian and the explanation for her behavior, when it comes, is less relatable than her motivation in Snow White.

Still, Theron isn’t really the focus here – Rapace is – and the veteran of the Swedish Millennium trilogy films shows that her star performances in those movies weren’t just a fluke. Rapace is a major star, one who is going to be headlining big event movies for a very long time to come.

Fassbender also shines here. His David is polite, well-mannered and soft-spoken. His tone is pleasant and soothing, sort of a HAL9000 with legs. He moves unperturbed through the movie, with an agenda that isn’t necessarily one that is shared by the scientists on board. David is a victim of his programming; he neither apologizes for it nor frets about it. He does merely what he is told to do by people who have no morals, no ethics.

Given the current mistrust and anger with large corporate entities, it makes logical sense that they are shown to be amoral and duplicitous with an agenda all their own and if sacrifices have to be made, well, people are as replaceable as post-it notes. In some ways, that’s far more chilling than the ooey gooey aliens that we’re shown but we’re far too inured by corporate misbehavior to be surprised by it.

Ridley Scott hasn’t done a science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982 but he still shows a tremendous confidence of vision. The special effects are amazing and for the most part, practical. For those who have issues with 3D, this one used a system based on the one that Avatar used and the shadows and darkness were added in post-production, which makes it a lot less clear when watching with the polarized 3D glasses we’re forced to wear to view it. In other words, it’s not so hopelessly dark that we can’t make out what’s going on, and the 3D is used to good effect here which is unusual for the gimmicky technology.

And yet my recommendation isn’t quite as high as you might think. For one thing, while the movie admirably tackles some pretty lofty subjects, it doesn’t always succeed in addressing them satisfactorily. I was also left curiously flat by the movie; while there are some awe-inspiring moments, this doesn’t have the fire that the first Alien had and I never got as invested in this film as I did in that one.

Prometheus is a movie that set high standards for itself and met a majority of them. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet enough of them to be a truly great movie. At least Scott and cohorts were shooting for greatness rather than trying to be all things to all audiences. There’s something to be said for that.

REASONS TO GO: Magnificent effects. Aims high. Rapace could be the next Sigourney Weaver.

REASONS TO STAY: Fell a bit shy of its lofty goals. Never really blew me away.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be intense although not terribly gory and the creature images can be nightmare-inducing. The language isn’t particularly child-friendly either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the conditions for Scott to do the film was that he not be pressured to tone things down for a younger audience. He was supported in this by 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Rothman who allowed Scott to make an R-rated film, even though that might cost revenue in the short term.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solidly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey

ICELAND LOVERS: Many of the exterior scenes were shot there, as well as in Scotland.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Exporting Raymond

State of Play


State of Play

Russell Crowe sheepishly discovers that this isn't casual Friday, as Helen Mirren scolds him.

(Universal) Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

One of the casualties of the Information Age is the newspaper. Once the prime source of information for nearly everybody, it was done in first by the television newscast and finally, by the Internet which could deliver news instantaneously, rather than by the next morning. Oh, the daily newspapers are still around, but their circulation is dwindling, ad revenue shrinking and their role changing from government watchdogs to gossip-mongering rags that are rapidly losing their relevance.

Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is a bit of a dinosaur in that regard. A reporter for the Washington Globe, he is familiar with the intricacies of the federal government and has sources in nearly every office building from the Capital to the D.C. police department. Scruffy and disheveled, he is a man who cares more about the truth than is perhaps fashionable.

He is called to the scenes of what appear to be disparate deaths – a young African American career criminal shot to death in an alleyway (with an unfortunate bicyclist also gunned down for being in the wrong place at the worst time) and a young Congressional assistant who threw herself under a Metro subway train.

The nagging question was whether she fell or was she pushed. Further complicating things is that she worked for Representative Steven Collins (Affleck), McAffrey’s old college roommate who is married to McAffrey’s college lover, Anne (Penn). Collins is a bright light in his party, a possible presidential candidate in the making. He is heading a Congressional investigation into a company called PointCorp, whose service is similar to what Blackwater provides in real life. His assistant was spearheading the research into PointCorp which makes the timing of her demise even more suspicious, but this is overlooked when it is revealed – by the tearful Collins himself – that the congressman was having an affair with his assistant.

This is the kind of juicy scandal that the news media lives for these days and the Globe’s matriarchal editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Mirren) wants to leap onto the more salacious aspects of the story. McAffrey, however, sees something more sinister at work and starts to dig deeper and quickly discovers a link between the alleyway murder and the death of the assistant – the victim was carrying a PointCorp briefcase at the time of his murder.

With McAffrey’s objectivity in question, Lynne assigns political blogger Della Frye (McAdams) to the story. McAffrey regards her in probably the same way the Neanderthal regarded Homo sapiens. Still, the further the two of them dig, the bigger the body count becomes. Now, not only are they racing against the clock to get the story, they must find a way to stay alive before it’s published.

Director Kevin Macdonald is developing quite the resume with The Last King of Scotland, Kindertransport and One Day in September to his credit. Here he is given a script that reduces a six hour BBC miniseries on which this movie is based into 127 minutes. That’s a lot of condensing, but it works out very nicely. Macdonald keeps the strings taut and the tension high throughout the movie, interspacing it with shocking acts of violence (the opening sequence depicting the alleyway murders and the subway murder are masterfully done).

Russell Crowe, when given the right material, is ridiculously good, and this is his best role in years. He plays McAffrey with a combination of bulldog determination, a somewhat naïve regard for the truth and a weary cynicism that makes him realistic to most of the print journalists I’ve ever met. His byplay with Mirren are among the movies highlights.

Affleck, once a promising leading man in Hollywood before poor script choices derailed his career, has settled in nicely as a terrific support actor. Here he plays the crusading politician with the right amount of grit tempered with vulnerability. He never overshadows Crowe, but compliments him instead, and makes you wish you could have voted for his character.

The big problem with this movie is its ending. Quite frankly, up until the last 20 minutes of the movie, this is a superb film; then, the wheels come off. The ending is frankly unbelievable and makes you tear your hair out and shout at the screen “Oh come on, do you think we’re STUPID?!” I was quite flabbergasted because everything about this movie was well thought out, brilliantly conceived and superbly planned up until then. It’s the kind of thing that breaks a movie lover’s heart.

The movie does strike an elegiac chord for the daily newspaper; throughout the movie, Mirren’s character laments that nobody reads them anymore and complains about how the new corporate publishers are pushing for lighter, fluffier fare and a colorful, dumbed-down graphics-heavy look of the kind more and more newspapers are adopting in an effort to stave off the desertion of their subscribers. I don’t know how long daily newspapers can last in the current environment; they will probably always exist in an online format, but some of the great newspapers of this land are barely hanging on and whether or not they can survive in the coming years is very much in doubt.

Still, the newspaper-set movie is an exciting one; it yields up images of truth seeking journalists like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men or the snappy repartee of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in His Girl Friday. Perhaps those sorts of movies (and others like Absence of Malice and The Paper) are also destined to become archaic relics of a bygone era; all I know is that a movie set at a newspaper is bound to be more dynamic and exciting than one set at an online blog.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Crowe’s best performances in years. This is a very smart thriller with some wonderfully shot sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is just plain godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some bad language, some sexuality and some drug references. That’s a lot of “somes” but no “lotses,” so you should feel okay letting most teens see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McAffrey’s cubicle contains a partially-hidden picture of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporters from the Washington Post. Woodward later makes a cameo appearance at Anne Collins’ press conference.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the Blu-Ray edition, the U-Control feature’s “Washington DC Locations” feature allows you to see on-screen text and Google Earth graphics to show the government buildings and street locations where the scenes take place (and were frequently shot).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: A Good Year