33 years after Alien comes the grand but unfulfilling Prometheus.
Otherworldly seas cascade outwards, terrific 3D suggesting they might wet the seat ahead of you. In a pristine spacecraft — with efficient yet showy design Stanley Kubrick would look favorably upon — a blonde robot with Lawrence Of Arabia’s hair walks about in flip-flops, learning languages and spying on dreams. The spacecraft, named Prometheus, reaches its destination. Cryogenically asleep humans are nudged awake, and missions outlined. ‘God does not build in straight lines,’ says a scientist as they land ahead of a visibly engineered settlement. Clinically clean cinema, at its most poetic.
It is elegant buildup, stark naked — and yet gorgeous — exposition, an effort of documentarian minimalism, offset by striking beauty. An effort that resuscitates lost faith in Ridley Scott. Back in 1979, the first Alien film was a masterpiece of psychological horror. Scott showcased the remarkable work of Swiss surrealist HR Giger, whose revolutionary creature designs became motion picture landmarks, taking up permanent positions in our collective nightmares. While thematically sophisticated, Alien had the heart of a slasher movie set in breathless space, to a breathless pace.
Prometheus has a very different heart. Designed to be epic, its scale drops the jaw by default. It poses a gigantic theological conundrum, questions the gods in Erich von Däniken fashion, and masterfully processes mostly everything impassively, through the eyes of the aforementioned robot, played by an astonishingly antiseptic Michael Fassbender. It is a film of immense craft, but the ticker — the visceral thrill, the stomach-churning alarm, the bonafide badassery — is muted. Prometheus stays spectacular till the spectacle actually begins. After which it becomes generically gooey. This film’s heart beats from under immaculately nailed floorboards, and the tale it tells is, eventually, quite banal.
It is also a tale of desperation and commerce, as Scott glosses tragically over the genuinely promising questions posed by the film, conveniently saving the answers for another sequel. Things then, after the excellent first hour, are resultantly rather weak. And sometimes handled with jarringly soap-operatic clumsiness. The adrenalin too runs cold; what good is an Alien film that doesn’t even once compel you to turn away, revolted?
Fassbender, as mentioned, is flawless, while Charlize Theron, for the second week running, finds herself straddled with a character too icy to be interesting. The screen-commanding Idris Elba is given too little to do, and Noomi Rapace, while valiantly trying to show her tough, Dragon Tattoo‘d edge, is decidedly not in the league of Sigourney Weaver, who I — and this film — much miss. Not missed is Giger, who contributes new designs consistent to his original work on the films, design that continues to astound.
It says an awful lot about a film questioning humanity that a robot emerges as its most fascinating character, and that may well be intentional. It is more likely, however, that Fassbender’s work as this nicely-nosed Pinocchio elevates the film. Smartly synthetic yet peculiarly vulnerable, the actor delivers an evocative performance, one so gray it feels labyrinthian. More than the scale and the visuals, Fassbender justifies the ticket price.
At a point in the film, that wondrous robot questions his own existence, and is brusquely told that humans made him merely because they can. He takes the jab in his stride and wonders how mankind would feel were their creators to say the same thing. At 74, Ridley Scott has shown he can. But is that truly reason enough?
First published Mumbai Mirror, June 6, 2012