Another glorious Ridley Scott mess

June 25, 2012

So I’ve seen Prometheus, the new Ridley Scott movie. Summing up: What a glorious mess.

The setup is intriguing. About 80 years from now, archaeologists Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover evidence that an alien race which they call the Engineers created humanity.

More accurately, they have found what appear to be star maps in artifacts from ancient human civilizations scattered across very different places and times, meaning that these cultures never had contact. The leap of faith — one of many — that this professional and personal couple make is that aliens are our makers. Corporate honcho Peter Weylanda (a heavily made up Guy Pearce) buys into this theory and dispatches a scientific expedition led by Shaw and Holloway aboard the eponymous starship to what they believe is the Engineers’ point of origin.

Prometheus is helmed by Captain Janek (Idris Elba) but under the nominal control of icy corporate bureaucrat Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Further muddying the lines of command are the actions of David, an incredibly intelligent and very meticulous android who answers to a mysterious authority. The identity and motives of David’s true master constitute something of a third-act revelation — although anyone who’s paying attention should be able to identify the person lurking behind the curtain well in advance.

When the expedition arrives above LV-223 — apparently a neighbor of the planet where Alien and Aliens, to which this is ostensibly a prequel, took place — the crew is awakened, introduced (both to each other and to the audience) and briefed for the first time. Upon entering the atmosphere, their vessel by chance stumbles across artificial structures on an Earthlike but otherwise lifeless world. The starship lands and the scientists drive to the front door and walk right in to begin exploring.

They find a long-dead extraterrestrial in a ominous chamber. As a violent storm suddenly begins bearing down on the site, the scientists grab the decapitated head and David covertly takes a mysterious canister. In a development that defies logic, two scientists (obvious cannon fodder) are stranded overnight in a crumbling pyramid while David dissembles the canister and the rest of the cast probes the head.

Shaw and her colleagues determine that the Engineers’ DNA matches ours, meaning that they in fact did create our species. David, oddly, decides that Holloway is willing to be an involuntary guinea pig; he infects the scientist with a tiny sample of a black substance taken from the canister.

By daybreak, the stranded scientists have met bad ends, and Holloway has begun feeling odd. From there, the mission falls apart rapidly. Holloway’s infection turns out to have alarming consequences for Shaw, who conspires with Janek to attempt to prevent the planet’s doom-laden cargoes from being transported offworld.

The story is intriguing enough, and the visuals are simply glorious. (I saw Prometheus in a regular theater but still would like to see the 3-D version, which has drawn raves.) The script, however, has so many vaguely drawn characters, inexplicable actions and logical flaws that this movie infuriates even more than it dazzles.

Why does the person pulling the strings aboard Prometheus stage a relatively transparent sham when this deception seems both pointless and sure to be revealed? Why are Holloway and Shaw so clearly expecting to begin conversing with the Engineers when proof of alien intelligence has eluded humans since the dawn of our technology? Why is Shaw running out of oxygen one minute and able to set aside her worries the next, despite apparently not having adjusted her spacesuit? Why did the Engineers seem to be such a mean-spirited race?

The answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind of Hollywood spectacle. Meaning that, as usual, logic has been subsumed to would-be awe-inducing visuals. Whatever intellectual or philosophical heft Prometheus aspires to is sacrificed because of pandering to the Ritalin-shortened attention span of the modern audience.

Scott’s latest outing is too badly flawed to be truly classic. But it has enough nice moments, many of them quite horrific, to be worth seeing. On the Alien quadrilogy scale — with Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection at the bottom and Alien and Aliens at the top — this new entry stakes a claim to territory somewhere in the middle. It’s an interesting space, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

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