Sunday, 3 June 2012

Too big to fail: "Prometheus"

Prometheus promises to be many things - a backstory for Alien, not to mention the most overhyped movie in the galaxy - but crucially it's a homecoming of sorts for director Ridley Scott, regaining control of a franchise he launched back in 1979, and which has since been hijacked by directors good (Cameron, Fincher), bad (the hacks responsible for those AvP duds) and French (Jean-Pierre Jeunet). Though claimed as The Most Terrifying Film of All Time, what's often forgotten is how quiet, spooky, even still Scott's original was: released as the fractious 70s gave way to the rapacious 80s, it indirectly caught the peculiar chill of that post-Vietnam, pre-corporate moment in depicting a bunch of roughneck workers sent to do the dirty work of the powers-that-be. The new film preserves more than a little of that eerieness. You'll have to sit for almost an hour this time before the eggs hatch - a gestation period that allows Scott and his team to accumulate ideas, tension, ominousness, those elements that collectively come to show up the Avengers movie as so much noisy kids' stuff - but then sometimes the best event movies come to those who wait.

Hollywood has become greatly more commercialised in the three decades since Alien, and - perhaps because, as a producer and executive producer, he now spends almost as much time in conference rooms as he does on filmsets - Scott has become fascinated with business, its people and practices. Yet like his contemporary George Lucas, whose Star Wars prequels floated a toplayer of rebel-alliance posturing even as they descended into the most joylessly corporate brand-extension manoeuvres, it's never previously been clear whose side the cigar-chomping Scott is on: consider his 2006 comedy A Good Year, which sought to engage an audience with the sight of a banker unwinding on his hols. (Try pitching that movie nowadays.) Prometheus, however, strikes certain critical notes: what we're watching here is a business model that comes to collapse like the DNA helixes spiralling out under the film's opening credits.

Aboard the ship of the title, a ragbag team of scientists, blue-collar workers and outright mercenaries have been assembled with the aim of investigating a distant, Earth-like planet depicted in several cave paintings discovered by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) on the Isle of Skye. There have been more tenuous bases for adventures in foreign policy these past few years, so we go along for the ride. The mission has been bankrolled by an aging plutocrat (Guy Pearce, almost unrecognisable under latex make-up) and is overseen by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, as glacial as a boardroom table moving on two legs, rather than four). Vickers's stated aim is to minimise any risk, but we know that attempting to minimise risk in an Alien movie is as trying to hold back the tides; sure enough, once on the planet in question, her charges are soon removing their helmets against all advice, and taking off much more besides to bunk up with one another. It's like they want to die.

Vickers' aide-de-camp is the android David (Michael Fassbender), whose flamboyant blonde tresses are explained in a brisk, terrifically acted early sequence showing David mimicking Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. David, cursed with no soul of his own, worships Lawrence in the way some latter-day execs probably have a sneaking desire to be Don Draper or Patrick Bateman. At first, his mouthing of O'Toole's lines ("The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts") seems cute and funny, but the repetition of that phrase brings out its latent cruelty; when we see the android assuming the hot seat in an alien spacecraft, and putting himself at the centre of the universe in its holodeck display, we begin to have our doubts. A ship piloted by the blase Idris Elba (more concerned with Christmas tree baubles and bedding the boss than with the health-and-safety of his passengers) for a company that would hire Sean Harris (a serious rival to Joseph Gilgun in Lockout as the 2012 movie character you'd most want to cross the country to avoid in your local boozer) and welcome the hubris of T.E. Lawrence aboard is, surely, doomed to go down. 

If these characters are sloppy - human, you might say, and therefore fallible - Prometheus itself is grounded by the sure craft that's always been evident in Scott's work, even in  plodding duds like the recent Robin Hood. Alien, we remember, was an evolutionary leap in production design, both in terms of its H.R. Giger-conceived creature and its simultaneously sterile yet lived-in spaceship, here given a deluxe retrofitting. (Vickers' corporate suite offers hologrammatic snowscapes and a state-of-the-art medilab, pointedly unavailable to any junior members of crew.) Scott's obsessive attention to detail really pays off in tiny, yet awesomely suggestive syntheses of actor and effect: Pearce's gnarly yellow toenails, briefly glimpsed, or the Foley sound that accompanies Rapace doing up the zip on her jumpsuit in the wake of one particularly nasty incident.

There's certainly an element of cruise control here - that we're in the hands of an old professional, navigating whatever bumps the script (by Jon Spaihts and Lost's Damon Lindelof) presents him with - and it's not all plain sailing. The performers in Alien were largely veterans of a very low-key form of 1970s American cinema (think Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright), whose realism made the unreal appearance of that damn chestburster all the more alarming. In Prometheus, we're dealing with a motley international crew, drawn up to appeal to all available markets, who simply have to make more noise just to be intelligible over the din of Men in Black 3 next door. (In the modern multiplex, no-one can hear you scream.) Certain elements - Rapace's English accent, Kate Dickie's Scottish accent (which is, according to all available evidence, her own) - don't quite sit right on the ear; more generally, the film lacks the snap, crackle and pop of last year's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a B-movie in an A-grade gorilla suit.

Scott is maybe too old-school a filmmaker for that now, but he knows how to imbue his material with a sense of heft, weight, gravitational pull, if you will: this is a rare contemporary blockbuster to strike a balance between masculine and feminine (and Other), as well as between spills and subtext. For their part, Spaihts and Lindelof have twigged how suspense might be wrung within the prequel format: their characters are wide-eyed innocents (believers, in certain cases) who don't know what to expect from this territory, when those of us looking on do - which is why you fear the worst when low-billed Harris and Rafe Spall, left behind overnight on the planet, spot an eel-like creature emerging from a breeding ground and elect to engage it in play. 

This sequence - which, some have speculated, may have been added after audience previews demanded more alien activity - turns out to be a rarity. Much of the film is conceptual, ideas-driven, striving to tap into a general sense of unease about what's waiting for us, whether in the space the characters inhabit, or in time: the Pearce character is aboard to embody old age, fraility, and what happens when you find out even vast wealth can't insulate you from the terrors of the universe. The most disturbing thing in Prometheus isn't a specific image or sequence (although Rapace plays bodily intrusion every bit as vividly as she did in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but a two-word statement: "There's nothing." (And no, the character in question isn't talking about their pension fund.)

In this, the casting of an Australian actor to play a withered empire builder suddenly seems incredibly pointed, not to mention downright subversive. If NewsCorp shareholders wanted visible proof that Rupert Murdoch is no longer fit to rule, all they'd need to do is grab screeners of the Fox-bankrolled Prometheus and last autumn's borderline-Marxist In Time, widely released films that prove critical of the corporate mindset in ways that cut deeper than, say, the larky rib-nudging of the company's in-house joker The Simpsons. Among the many things Prometheus turns out to be is a treatise on power and powerlessness: on the way in which the will to power most often takes root in those without soul, and how, when the worst happens, it's the workers, not the institution, that get hurt first. Scott's film plays out 75 Earth years and who-knows-how-many light years ahead of us, but its triumph is that it never seems so very far away from home.

Prometheus is on nationwide release.

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