Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Film Review | Prometheus (2012)

I've noted in the past that returning to a franchise a long time after the last installment is a potentially hazardous thing to do in the film business. You run the risk of upsetting a lot of die-hard fans or even tarnishing the legacy and image of well-respected pieces of cinema. The bigger and better thought of your original film is, the higher the risk you are taking. Ridley Scott obviously didn't read my advice, returning to the Alien franchise (or is he?) as director for the first time in over three decades since he helmed the original in 1979. Since Scott kicked things off, we've had three sequels of varying quality, but undoubtedly one of the best loved horror sci-fi franchises ever created. We've also had two genre crossover entries in the Alien Versus Predator spin-off franchise, which hardly did the series' credibility any favours; Prometheus is therefore Scott's chance to pull the film franchise he spawned back on track, but also has the potential to disappoint many who revere Scott as the man who first brought us Ellen Ripley and the xenomorph.

Prometheus tells the story of archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who, after discovering several images from different ancient civilisations all including the same star map, become part of the crew of the eponymous spaceship on a mission to discover the secrets of who created humanity. Amongst the crew is android David (Michael Fassbender), whose agenda becomes more and more suspect as Shaw, Holloway and the rest of the crew begin to uncover the secrets of the moon they have landed on, LV-223.

The film's "shared DNA" with Alien, as Scott has described it, is something of a double-edged sword: it lends the film credibility, and gives ample context to the universe in which it is set; but it also sets the film up continually to comparisons with Scott's iconic franchise opener, which is essentially setting it up to disappoint. The only film in the Alien series that comes close to the quality of the original is the first sequel, Aliens, and one of the key reasons behind its success is that it didn't try to emulate the original. As far as a sequel can be, it was its own film; it continued the story of Ripley and the xenomorphs, but was also individualistic in terms of genre and style.

Ignoring for the moment that Prometheus inhabits the same universe as the Alien franchise, it's a fairly solid sci-fi thriller in its own right. Rapace takes a little while to find her feet, but becomes a compelling protagonist as the film wears on, and by the time the final act began I was rooting for her all the way. Fassbender's performance as David is also compelling and rich, with the android ironically displaying the most depth of any character. Idris Elba and Charlize Theron do well with what they're given, but never really have the chance to fully flesh out their roles. The rest of the cast are fine, but their characters feel more functional than anything else.

Scott also shows he still knows his way around chillingly horrific sequences. There are several genuinely tense and claustrophobic horror scenes, the best of which involving a hi-tech automated surgery table. The only problem is, I came away wishing there were a few more. When Prometheus is making you squirm in your seat it becomes an adrenaline-pumping, terrifying experience. But Scott leaves too long between these moments. Whilst much of the mythology and science is genuinely intriguing and intricately constructed, it's never nearly as compelling as the scary parts, and at times the film begins to get too wrapped up in its own saga instead of providing something a little more entertaining.

Even though it's arguably not part of the Alien franchise (arguments as to exactly how it fits in with the original quadrilogy will almost certainly go on indefinitely, and to give my definitive take on it would involve dropping some massive spoilers), Prometheus lends itself almost too easily to comparison with it as mentioned earlier. It's never as good as Alien or Aliens. But it is superior to Alien³, and is a deeper and better crafted film than Alien: Resurrection.

Unfortunately for Prometheus, when it is inevitably compared to the first film it will almost always fall short: Shaw is not Ripley, and Rapace is not Sigourney Weaver; Prometheus the ship, whilst impressively realised, will never have the gritty, rough-and-ready charm of the Nostromo; the majority of its crew will never feel as human as Ripley's charmingly workaday colleagues. Fassbender is the sole element that matches up to his Alien counterpart, giving just as enigmatic and unsettling performance as Ian Holm's Ash. But whilst the comparisons are there, it's not fair to judge it solely through comparison. On its own merits, Prometheus is an enjoyable and well made film. It is flawed, but there's enough here that works to make it a compelling and worthwhile watch.


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