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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Movie Review: PROMETHEUS

Spaceship from Prometheus
The spaceship Prometheus. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)

Movie Reviews
By Bernie Jablonski

This is probably the quintessential example of my reaction to a shocking scene or event in a movie. I saw Alien in 1979. It’s still the only movie in that series I’ve seen. I was twenty-one years old, I believe, and saw it at the Norridge Theater when it was only made up of one or two theaters. (Norridge is a suburb of Chicago, not bordering it buy engulfed by it.) Fairly early in the movie, when the crew of the cargo ship Nostromo is on the surface of a distant planet, investigating what they believe to be a distress signal, one of the crew, a poor fella named Kane (John Hurt) discovers a squat stump of an organism, pulsating and emitting light. He gets closer and peers in, where he sees a mass of throbbing, gooey protoplasm (and believe it or not, they were able to do throbbing, gooey protoplasm pretty well by the 1970s.) Naturally, Kane looks inside. The mass throbs even faster and then JUMPS OUT OF THE STUMP AND ONTO KANE’S FACEMASK.

Oy, what a shocker! I, along with everyone else in the moviehouse, screamed bloody murder. We all had a good giggle, and in a little while were treated to an even more gruesome scene, the notorious “barbecued chicken” scene. In 1980, my senior year at SLU, I was with a friend of mine from the Theater Department, John Waldschmidt, and we were watching a 16 mm projector version of it in the campus social hall, where we watched recent movies about six or seven months after they had been shown in theaters. As we approached the throbbing-protoplasm scene, I grew anxious. I started to sweat. As the face-hugging got nearer, I realized that there was nothing I could do, nothing I could do to escape, nothing I could do to help John Hurt. As the protoplasmic mass shot out at Kane’s face, I did the only sensible thing to do. I screamed.

And no one else did. There must be a cultural difference between St. Louis and Chicago. My friend John turned to me and asked me, in a slightly annoyed whisper, if there were going to be more scenes like that in the movie. I assured him there weren’t, which in my mind meant I really had to control my behavior, because there were scenes like that coming down the pike.

Great anticipation has greeted Prometheus. It’s not only directed by seventy-five year old Ridley Scott, who directed the original Alien (and none of the sequels), but the rumors were swirling around that Prometheus was an Alien prequel, something that Scott denied at first, but later, in a vague way, suggested that it might be. He said that the last twelve minutes of the new movie would make the Alien fans happy. (After seeing the movie, I would say that it was the last thirty seconds that seemed to have anything to do with the original movie. Unless I missed something. After releasing the Director’s Cut of his 1982 film Blade Runner, Scott said that with this new version of BR, anybody who couldn’t tell whether Decker (Harrison Ford) was an android or not was an idiot. I remain, to this day, an idiot. He’s also working on a movie with some kind of connection to Blade Runner.)

For me, what makes a Ridley Scott (or Peter Weir) movie special is the beautiful, stunning vistas (or detailed, painterly, small, intimate scenes),  and the music accompanying them, almost telegraphing us how to feel, but in a way well-integrated with what’s happening on the screen. Look at the saturated 1970s-style use of color and texture in American Gangster. The bright, hopeful look for the doomed Thelma and Louise. The dystopic, claustrophobic misery of Blade Runner (which, along with Alien, brought about a naturalistic, noirish look to science fiction). And although I was incredibly repulsed by the fate of Ray Liotta’s character, Scott and his cinematographer, John Mathieson, gave Florence a beautifully antiquated look in Hannibal.

I’d say this movie was worth the wait. For fans of the series and for science fiction fans, it’s a great ride, and it’s interesting to consider how far we’ve come in special effects since Alien, where a lot of shots of vast stretches of space or planetary surfaces were done with easily detected miniatures. For drama fans who accept science fiction if there are good characterizations and genuine tension, it should also work, much like Star Trek did in 2009. The characters are more fleshed-out than not, with a few of them downright fascinating, and the production design and location work (in Spain, Scotland, and especially Iceland) is peerless in that Ridley Scott way.

To some it may start off slow, but others may appreciate the time used to help us appreciate the characters before all hell breaks loose. Near the end of the 21st century, an archaeological team, led by two scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) who are also lovers, discover extremely ancient cave paintings in Scotland that are uncannily like other cave paintings throughout the world. They make the connection that the thing in common among these paintings is a visit from aliens, who seeded our world and possibly others. A team is assembled, including the lover-archaeologists, and the next time we see them, they are on the spacecraft Prometheus, and have just been awakened from a two-year slumber in suspended animation. They are met by an android (that word is never used in the movie, although some characters incorrectly call him a “robot”), and an officer from the corporation backing the mission, played by Charlize Theron about as chillily as she played the Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman. Her name is Meredith Vickers.

Review continues below official trailer.

Vickers assembles the motley crew. Among them is the captain, played by Idris Elba, doing an impressive Chi McBride, and a geeky scientist named Millburn (Rafe Spall), and a rapacious one named Fifield (Sean Harris). For convenience’s sake, let’s call them Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (And as you know, it doesn’t matter which one is which.) They assemble in a neat little theater on the ship, and listen to a go-get-em-Tiger speech by the CEO of the corporation that sent them, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce under heavy prosthetic makeup, which he wears the entire movie; I couldn’t figure out why they would submit an actor to that for no useful reason, but then I watched some of the viral fake commercials for the Weyland Corporation used to promote the movie on YouTube, and I got my answer). Apparently, the company is behind the crew on this mission, with no nod at all as to the reason why they are. It seems the journey is for pure discovery, but the real intent eventually becomes apparent.

The crew lands on the planet, and even though Vickers tries to exert what she sees as her absolute power over the crew, they go to explore a possibly manufactured mound on the surface. This action, of course, leads to all proverbial hell breaking loose. The conclusion (actually, there are two of them), as I said before, is not a direct link to Alien, but should satisfy fans.

(We must now take time to play to prurient interests. Please forgive me, but doubtless there has to be adolescent males of all ages and both genders wondering if there is a Sigourney-Weaver-in-her-underwear moment in this film. This question is answered early, as our first sighting of Charlize Theron is while she is dripping wet, in her underwear, and doing push-ups. This is pleasant. There are other scenes of a similar nature, but trust me, they are not as pleasant, at least not for the character. Blushing severely, we now return to our usual programming.)

The acting in Prometheus is favorably reminiscent of the ensemble in Alien, which featured fine work by character actors like Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, and the immortal Harry Dean Stanton. Three actors in this movie do particularly fine work. Charlize Theron, whose last three movies I’ve seen, is forever expanding the limits of the types of characters she can perform, and here, without being one-dimensionally bitchy, she captures the aura of someone protecting the investments of someone important. About three-quarters of the way through the movie, we discover a twist about her, and this deepens the characterization. And there is that skin-tight jumpsuit thing. (OK, I’ll stop.)

Noomi Rapace (rah-POHCE, if you were wondering), was a revelation to me. I haven’t seen the Sweedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (nor its sequels), and looking at her here, I wondered how this sweet, sexy, compact woman could do justice  to the fierce Lisbeth Salander; then I remembered how sweet, sexy, and compact Rooney Mara is, and the great job she did with the role. I am looking forward to see the versatility she brings to her career, now that she’s started to appear in more English-language films. She becomes the point-of-view character in Prometheus, and her great passion for her lover and her insatiable desire to find out what message the “Engineers” had for their begotten race is almost palpable. She is also required to do some pretty athletic escaping and some portray excruciating, claustrophobic fear in a particularly memorable sequence.

Michael Fassbender, as the android David, was the character that really absorbed me. We first see him watching Lawrence of Arabia, grooming himself to look like Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence, as well as mastering his voice (the reason for this is explained in one of the viral videos). He assists the crew in whatever way possible, although he is not endowed with super-strength or invulnerability. What is striking, though, is his manner of being frank, particularly with Rapace’s character, in a way that seems somewhat taunting and menacing, even though one gets the sense that David probably doesn’t intend to be that way. 

Some trepidation that sci-fi fans might have with the idea of a prequel centers around the release of last year’s The Thing, which was marketed as a prequel to 1982’s Kurt Russell version of The Thing, but the movie only proved to be revealed as a prequel in the last few minutes; it mostly felt like a remake of the Russell film, with the lead now played by a woman, but essentially the same story. The 2011 movie had no real, interesting build-up to the 1982 one. It was a disappointment that soured sci-fi fans and caused its death at the box office, leading some of us, I’m sure, to be wary. Prometheus was not a disappointment that way.

In a theater with a thunderous sound system, no one can hear you scream, but the entire audience did share in a communal, cathartic giggle after a particularly suspenseful sequence. No, I didn’t scream. But squirm I did. Plenty.

Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.

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