Ever wonder what happened to big/epic/serious/science-fiction movie-making? When style would mix with brains? When spectacle could sit comfortably next to emotion? Today we get pummeled with machines that make noise and cause destruction just to wow us with how well the computer graphics people can create two dimensional robots go boom. There is no heart. Just dazzling visuals that feel as empty as a bowl of Ambrosia salad after a red-neck picnic.
So it is with great unabashed delight that I report on a welcome return to form; not just from a film’s director, but in a type of film-making that can still "wow." The director is Ridley Scott. The film is "Prometheus.". Not officially billed as a prequel to the "Alien" franchise, "Prometheus" can certainly stand on its own as a thinking man’s science-fiction film that takes big ideas and lets them swirl around your mind as you are visually enraptured by what is unfolding. So what IS unfolding you might ask?
"Prometheus" opens with glorious shots of a world of forests and mountains, of lakes and rushing rivers. As the credits complete, a figure appears on a rock formation above a volatile waterfall. It wears a cloaked robe, and when it pulls back the hood we see a humanoid being - so white it could be transparent - an image of physical perfection. Eyes, nose, shoulders, chest, legs - there is not a flaw. That figure then opens a small bowl-type object and drinks the unusual black substance inside. This causes the figure to writhe in pain; and swiftly its body breaks apart and falls into the watery abyss.
Cut to the year 2089 where researchers Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, from the Swedish "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a cave of 30,000-year-old paintings with unusual markings that match ancient artifacts from around the world. In them, there seems to be a message concerning a particular solar system - something our team of scientists believes to be a message from alien life forms asking us to come find them.
Three years pass and Shaw and Holloway are a part of a crew that has travelled for two years in cryonic hibernation aboard a spacecraft known as the Prometheus. The goal is to find the star system mapped out by these various cultures and learn the secrets of where we came from.
Other crew members include: David (Michael Fassbender) a cyborg in charge of running the ship while learning to disseminate a plethora of languages while the crew sleeps. Idris Elba is Janek, the ship’s dryly-humorous captain. And Charlize Theron brings to life the coldly calculating Meredith Vickers, a Weyland Industries executive who is aboard the ship to represent the company’s mysterious alternative motives.
Once the crew is awakened, they’ve arrived at their aforementioned destination where Shaw and Holloway reveal the reason for their journey. The other crewmembers seem to be either annoyed or apathetic about their mission, while Shaw and Holloway (who are incidentally, a couple) are beyond ecstatic. Half the crew soon suits up and step foot on the planet that they hope might hold the key to the origins of the human race. When they discover a pyramid type monument, they enter it - mapping the inside and discovering truths they could have only imagined.
This is where I will stop, because the joy of "Prometheus" is in unraveling the story as it progresses. The other joy is pretty much every single aspect of the production - which is superlative. The CGI is nearly flawless; the production design by Arthur Max is stunning from the sleek and icy interiors of the Prometheus to the HR Giger inspired cavernous rooms inside the pyramid. This is one jaw-dropping film to enter. Creature effects (because, yeah, there are some nasty things in this film) have a look that is more realistic than what comes from a computer and harkened back to when film monsters and aliens felt tangible and real - and that much more scary. Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski, ASC astounds us with a visual landscape that demands attention. The size and scope of the ship and the alien world is fully captured making the audience feel like they are actually inside these sets. And not since "Avatar" has 3D worked so beautifully on film. In fact, I don’t know if I’d ever want to see "Prometheus" if it isn’t in 3D - it works that well.
The performances here are spotless. Theron is making it a habit of late to play icy cold characters. Between her turn as the mean girl of adulthood in "Young Adult" to her operatic role as the Evil Queen in "Snow White and the Huntsmen," she is certainly solidifying her mastery of frosty meanness with a hint of tragic vulnerability.
Marshall-Green is enjoyable as the excitable Holloway who just wants to realize his dreams of discovering something ground-breaking. While he could have played it too cocksure, he brings an innocence and romanticism to the role that adds a layer of depth not often seen in similar characters.
But it is Noomi Rapace that becomes our focus. And in Ridley Scott’s long history of strong female characters, Rapace adds to that legacy with Shaw. She is tough and powerful; beautiful and naïve. When bad things happen, we feel for her. She’s not just the tough gal that can take on the world. She is a smart and independent woman who has to become stronger than she ever thought possible - both physically and emotionally.
Many will wonder how this film fits into the "Alien" franchise. Scott has admitted it simply takes place in the same world as the "Alien" films, but isn’t necessarily a prequel. Well... I think he was just trying to play with audience expectations, because there is a definite link - although you don’t have to have seen any "Alien" films to enjoy "Prometheus." It stands on its own as a cerebrally elegant science fiction epic that begs us to consider the nature of our beginnings while also questioning our beliefs; whatever those beliefs might be. That might seem like an overwrought chunk of sci-fi hokum to swallow, but when a film can make you question our origins, what happens after death, and thousands of years of religious dogma - that’s a film I’m intrigued by.
And that is exactly what the best science fiction has always done. It astonishes us with a world we have never before seen, and then forces us to look inside ourselves at the nature of our existence and our place in a world so large it’s impossible to comprehend.