CINEMA: Begin The Begin

PROMETHEUS (2012, directed by Ridley Scott, 124 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSIRK How Ridley Scott could’ve stayed away from sci-fi all these years is beyond me.  The 75-year-old director has had successes over the years, from his Oscar-winning Gladiator and his influential war flick Black Hawk Down, but nothing has stoked the eternal interest 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner continue to enjoy.   With Prometheus, Scott returns not just to sci-fi but to his Alien franchise, which since its James Cameron-directed sequel in 1986 has floundered in the hands of mostly well-meaning directors who have failed to make something out of the original’s myths and iconography.  Scott succeeds in making his prequel to the original story something more than just a rehash of past victories but the film’s script flounders in ways that the film’s awe-inspiring production design does not, leaving the film as a diverting yet ultimately disappointing near-miss.

Scott aims high right from the get-go.  Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Prometheus explored the birth of man and in the opening we see a near-human, milky-complexioned space traveler who seeds earth’s waters with the DNA needed create life.  Millions of years later, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s intense star Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave painting that features a spaceman pointing to a distant moon.  Thanks to the funding of a mysterious magnate (Guy Pearce in ridiculous age make-up; why take a job from an older actor?) the archeologists join an expedition to the far-off body to meet Man’s creator.

So far so good.  For Alien fans, we recognize that this expedition is the failed mission that drew the passengers of the Nostromo in the original film to the treacherous alien planet.   What made Alien and Blade Runner so memorable was the imagination in their production design and here Prometheus delivers on its promise, giving us fantastic landscapes where natural and man-made creation merge in spectacular ways that both reference and ignore H.R. Giger’s timeless design work .  This is what cutting-edge Hollywood movie making is supposed to look like, and the film’s smartly-measured work evokes awe without overloading us with detail.

Despite all its talk of divine creation and meetings gods, once the film arrives on its distant moon, it can’t help falling back into the catch-and-slay plot machinations of the original, without the original’s lean script and sharply drawn characters.  Perhaps this sloppiness of narrative is understandable when one considers that the screenplay was co-written by Damon Lindelof, head writer of the TV series Lost, a victim of its own confused plotting and dramatic dead-ends.  Where the original Alien spacecraft Nostromo had seven passengers, the Prometheus has an over-crowded 17.  The film awkwardly tries to shade them all in, including a somewhat nefarious Charlize Theron as a no-nonsense mission monitor and Michael Fassbinder as a unpredictable android, but only Rapace’s Elizabeth makes much of an impression.  It’s she who is infected with an alien in her uterus (although here they resemble giant phallic worms) and the ordeal she goes through to abort the fetus gives the film just an inkling of political reference.

Although engaging to its end, Prometheus never gets to fleshing out its deep questions and falls into an unimaginative  “let’s blow this thing up” type of climax, stranding its characters midway in a sequel-friendly manner.  Where Alien carved out a unique place in film history, merging its carefully-calibrated art-film pacing to the blockbuster precedings, Prometheus must satisfy itself with merely being a clever but dutiful franchise entrée.   While it may contain more invention and surprise than this summer’s monster hit The Avengers, Prometheus never achieves the greatness seemingly gestating in its belly.