"ALIEN" Parasite Partially Devours
Ridley Scott's Stunning Return To
Science Fiction by CEJ (posted 6/11/12)
(20th Century Fox / Brandywine / Scott Free)
GullCottage rating (*** on a scale of 1 - 5)
Dir. by - Ridley Scott
Written by - John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Prod. by - Ridley Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill
Dir. Of Photography: Dariusz Wolski
Edited by: Pietro Scalia
Music: Mark Steitenfeld
Running Time: 124 mins.
Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw), Micheal Fassbender (David), Charlize
Theron (Meredith Vickers), Idris Elba (Janek), Guy Pearce (Peter
Weyland), Logan Marshall-Green (Charlie Halloway), Sean Harris
(Fitfield), Rafe Spall (Millburn), Emun Elliot (Chance), Patrick
Wilson (Shaw's father)
Oh, PROMETHEUS, PROMETHEUS, what for art thou? Be thy an ALIEN
prequel as many hath surmised? Or be ye a new breed of “spin off”, an
entity entirely unto thine own, merely taking place within the same
universal realm as did Sir Scott’s original fright fest cum sci fi yarn?
This has been the hot topic of discussion on the lips of many a sci
fi fan (as well as every nightly entertainment news show for that
matter) since word first broke back in the early 2000s that one of the
most visually masterful directors of the modern era - Ridley Scott
(LEGEND, BLACK RAIN, GLADIATOR - hey, give the man credit; he's got the chops!), was interested in returning to the
thematic stomping ground of his first major mainstream cinematic
success, 1979’s (still) bone-chillingly clever (and still just as
bad-assed) thriller-diller-chiller, ALIEN. Having set the gold standard
for both “grunge realistic” / adult oriented science fiction, as
well as the tone of the modern horror film, ALIEN would prove a tough
act to follow. A task/challenge to which seven years later
writer/director James Cameron would prove himself more than capable.
Fresh off the success of his ownwatershed science fiction classic,
1984’s THE TERMINATOR, Cameron would cannily choose not to attempt
imitatingthe tone of Scott’s original, but rather take it’s characters
and scenario into a different genre altogether with 1986‘s ALIENS;
departing from the original’s “gothic haunted house horror in space“, to
a flat-out war film/action yarn, patterned in many regards after the
scenarios (including military/industrial corporate double-dealing) of
American involvement in Vietnam. And therein lay the "rub" as Mr. Shakespeare would say - the key to keeping
20th Century Fox’s newest franchise tentpole (following on the heel's of the studio's lucrative PLANET OF THE APES, STAR WARS and THE OMEN series) successful.
Each new film would have to be a different kind of film, and not just a revisit to withdraw stale, stagnant water from the same old rusty well; … which brings us to PROMETHEUS.
PROMETHEUS - Extended U.S. Trailer
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The advent of home video would help further cement ALIEN and ALIENS as valuable Fox commodities. And as such, the inevitable follow-ups would ensue. Unfortunately David Fincher’s ALIEN³ (1992) and ALIEN RESSURECTION (1997) - from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, AMELIE), would prove more technically proficient than narratively so, and the “ALIEN universe” would go into cinematic cryo-sleep (‘cepting that pair of comic-booky ALIENS VS. PREDATOR crossover flicks) for the next decade.
Scott, Theron and Fassbender at WonderCon (March 2012)
Upon Scott’s decision to spearhead his own ALIEN resurrection (even James Cameron for a short time was involved in pre 2000 efforts to bring the series back), message boards would light up all over the Internet; his choosing to return to planet LV-426 not greeted with a unanimous gauntlet of welcoming open arms, but rather a panoply of online and printed pundit/opinions running the gamut from shouts of glee from some fans of the original ALEIN, to charges of “money grubbing lazy hack” from others. It was (in some respects refreshingly so) the closest thing to a “fan boy“ bar fight. After all, George Lucas had recently returned in similar fashion to the stomping grounds of his original STAR WARS franchise; which had, in the opinions of many, proven a creative sacrilege. Yet amidst it all Scott and his story developers, John Spaiths (THE DARKEST HOUR, PASSENGERS) and Damon Lindelof (LOST, WASTELAND), maintained, “While ALIEN was indeed the jumping-off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place. The keen fan will recognize strands of ALIEN's DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large and provocative” (Scott in a January 2011 MTV interview)
And guess what? It wasn’t specious b.s., like that whole Tim Burton “This PLANET OF THE APES isn’t a ‘remake’ but a ‘re-imagining’” thing, remember? With PROMETHEUS it really is true. But as a film, … as a good film, does it work? Does it succeed? Well, ... most of the time - yes? But when it doesn’t, man! - does it show!
The "Space Jockey" from ALIEN (1979)
As promised, no plot spoilers here. Suffice to say, those familiar with the original ALIEN, and who’ve seen any trailers or pre-release stills from the new PROMETHEUS, are already aware it’s basic plot concerns the explanation of how one of the most famous single images in cinema history, that of the “space jockey” - the ancient extraterrestrial pilot who’s crew was decimated by the title character of the first film, came to be sitting in that navigation seat when the crew of ALIEN’s “Nostromo” refinery vessel touches down on the mysterious planet LV-426 and finds him. In explaining the events leading up to that iconic image, Scott’s PROMETHEUS takes a few surprisingly deep philosophical and theological turns in plot and characterization. As Cameron’s ALIENS smartly chose to become a different kind of film than it’s predecessor, so does Scott’s new film wisely do the same - in this case taking the route of a bonafied “heady” straight-up old school science fiction epic of the literate and literary variety; the kind of plot (and subplots) one would expect from the pen of say Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradubury or Orson Scott Card. Kudos to Spaiths and Lindelof.
During the 1960s and 70s, what many (including us) still consider the heyday of the science fiction film, speculative cinematic excursions like Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY and Ken Russell‘s ALTERED STATES would boldly go where most angels feared to tred - into that “38th Parallel”-like thematic/narrative minefield detailing the conflict (or not?) between true science and the beliefs of practitioners of faith based philosophies. Other filmic explorations into “the great controversy“ would sporadically pop up over the years to intelligently pepper the debate, among them a December ‘85 TWILIGHT ZONE television episode adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke‘s THE STAR, Adrian Lynne‘s biblically themed JACOB‘S LADDER (1990), and most significantly Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 version of Carl Sagan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning CONTACT.
More often than not, however, the bulk of films entering the discussion, such as STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (remember? - the one Shatner directed), and even Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE (1979), would handle the subject matter with a degree of ineptitude embarrassing to those on both sides of the argument. Not so with Scott’s PROMETHEUS. It’s opening five minute pre-credit sequence (a sci fi set piece take-off on the visual prologue of Roland Joffe’s own "faith debate" film THE MISSION - 1986, and filmed at Iceland’s Dettifoss waterfall) is stunningly gorgeous - both visually and thematically. It simultaneously grabs the audience’s attention, sets the tone, and gets things off to a wondrous philosophical start via what Scott does best, using some jaw dropping imagery to drive home thematic intent. Those familiar with the writings and theories of Erich von Däniken (his book CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, and the notion that the first life on earth was of extraterrestrial origin) will get a charge out of Scott’s visual poetry-like interpretation here.
After the operatic opening, Scott, Spaiths and Lindelof keep things moving nicely for the next hour with what emerges as one of the better (as well as sober and somber) sci fi outings in recent years. As expected, the technical mastery of film craft evident from Scott and crew is nothing short of spectacular. The cinematography of Dariusz Wolski (including the aforementioned Iceland, along with Morroco, the Mojave Desert, Alicante, Spain, and Wadi Rum Valley, Jordan) will surely be a front-running Oscar contender next year; as will no doubt the production design of Arthur Max (a two-time nominee already for Scott’s earlier GLADIATOR - 2000 and AMERICAN GANGSTER - 2007). And the costumes of Janty Yates (ENEMY AT THE GATES, GLADIATOR) walk an effective line between “future chic” and old school ALIEN “blue collar grunge”.
The sound design and editing of Ann Scibelli, Mark Stoeckinger and Tim Walston is lushly immersive. And the special effects (over 1,300 CGI shots, executed primarily by Technicolor’s Moving Picture Company and Peter Jackson’s New Zealand based WETA Digital) are - as expected - of epic depth and scope. But the nice thing (and please pay attention future sci fi films) is they don’t take over the film. Even the 3D here (part filmed; part converted in post) is more for atmosphere and depth than “spill your popcorn” visual jolts. In fact, depending on how comfortable one’s glasses are, you just may just forget it’s in 3D at all. The format has truly and relatively quickly matured since it’s modern re-introduction in AVATAR three years ago, from nifty-gimmick to bonafied filmic storytelling tool when in the right hands. Notwithstanding all of it’s technical merits as a film geek‘s wet dream (and if you go, do see PROMETHEUS on as huge a screen as possible) it’s theme, narrative and characters emerge as it’s best assets.
With a fairly large ensemble cast (17 crew aboard the Prometheus vessel), to draw a handful of character sketches, develop personal story arcs, and bring them to logical conclusions is no mean feat within the confines of a two hour film. And kudos to Scott and co. for not indulging in the oh so commonplace contemporary notion of cinematic self-importance, wherein one’s “filmic vision” absolutely cannot be told in under a 2 ½ hour running time. PROMETHEUS puts this notion into cryo-sleep utilizing a handful of effectively economic (and in a couple of moments, genuinely heart tugging) character turns by Noomi Rapace (the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), Idris Elba (the LUTHER tv series, THOR, ROCK ’N ROLLA) and especially Michael Fassbinder (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, SHAME) as the ship’s android valet “David”. They manage to accomplish quite of bit with very little, bringing a history and weight to their characters where the exigencies of story progression and exposition preclude extended dialog exchanges
Oddly enough, Oscar winner Charlize Theron’s character (and yes, we’re intentionally refraining from designating each person’s particular function within the story) comes off as the most underwritten and/or underperformed. If there’s a two-dimensional individual in this line up, it’s surely her Meredith Vickers. And with that said, we must also alas and at last segue into another of the film’s shortcomings - in fact it’s major one;
that which comes close to crippling PROMETHEUS as a whole: namely, it’s
indebtedness to Scott’s original ALIEN.
When this film falls back on
the original‘s “DNA” (as Mr. Scott cleverly puts it), it's amazing how much it actually falls
short. Notbecause it can't muster it's own chills or snatch a few
well deserved yelps out of the audience. Hardly. There's one sequence in particular which has already reached THE EXORCIST-level of infamy with patrons passing out in the theater. But quite simply because IT'S GOT NO REASON to rely on the earlier film. It's good enough on it's own.
What work's in PROMETHEUS (it’s stunning technical execution, performances - and, sorry ALIEN fans, the characters here are much more interesting than those in the 1979 film; and it’s philosophical daring-ness) works wonderfully well. For that first hour there's sheer audience engagement. And there really isn't much action or chills per se. The engagement is that of ideas. What's happening and what the characters are talking about, and the reasons each person is making this trip (selfish or altruistic) are quite sufficient to engage us. That first half is just so damned good, that even when the film makes it's somewhat uncomfortable shift from “heady” sci fi to “thriller” mode, it’s still 5 times better (and smarter) than the majority of either of those genres out there currently being offered to cinema audiences. The constant “referral” to ALIEN is distracting, ultimately unnecessary, and (to borrow from the franchise’s primary mythos) like a parasitic creature organism living within the body of a host … to that host’s detriment.
An analogy - from another Fox franchise in fact. After the success of 1988’s DIE HARD (based on the Roderick Thorp novel NOTHING LASTS FOREVER), for the sequel DIE HARD 2, the producers chose to place the main character of the original film - John McClane, into the plot of an entirely different novel by another author: 58 MINUTES (by political thriller writer Walter Wager), wherein a cop battles terrorists who’ve taken over an airport while his wife’s plane circles overhead, low on fuel, and will crash within the titular “58 minutes“. In some respects PROMETHEUS feels like this - like the forced superimposition of an original story onto an existing popular franchise. And in the end the superimposition winds up as an irritating imposition. Feel's like we’re watching a smart, witty, handsome, successful and brilliant guy at dinner who's so insecure, he needlessly keeps dragging out pictures of his Porsche to impress his date … whom he’s already won over. Okay, enough lame analogies.
In the final analysis, lets say 65% of the film works in spades, and Ridley Scott's return to the science fiction milieu (which he helped turn into a bonafied art form thirty years ago, by the way) is a stunning success. As for that other 35%? Hmmm? We're willing to take it. A darned shame though. Without that ALIEN material, PROMETHEUS had the potential to be another INCEPTION - an original watershed science fiction film people could still be discussing and debating years from now. As is, Scott’s newest is a damned good installment in the ALIEN franchise. But ultimately it ends up as just that, another installment. It'll be discussed over the weekend, then again for a few days after it’s Blu-ray / DVD release, but sadly, probably not much more.
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