Sunday June 24, 2012
Other People's Reviews: Alex Bradbury on 'Prometheus' (2012)
Patricia's brother, Alex Bradbury, a marine biologist who works and lives on the Olympic peninsula, and author of several books on Brazil and Belize, is, it turns out, a big fan of Ridley Scott's “Alien.” Its prequel? “Prometheus”? He had this to say...
The best thing to be said for “Prometheus” – besides Idris Elba playing the concertina – is that it has inspired me to see “Alien” again. I saw it six, maybe seven times in the decade after it came out in 1979, and I still consider it one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Science fiction has never really interested me, in either print or film. And for me, “Alien” was always a classic horror film that happened to take place in outer space, not a sci-fi film. Indeed, almost all the best elements of the whole movie could have been moved to Earth and it would have still been a great horror movie. The alien itself, for example, especially in its most horrifying and believable life-forms –- the face-hugger and chest-buster juvenile forms –- could easily have been a previously undiscovered parasitic creature from anywhere on this planet: a rainforest, or a remote research station in Antarctica (a la “The Thing”). Perhaps a tug in the middle of the Pacific could come upon a piece of tsunami debris with strange egg-like life forms adhered to it. The only important aspect of “Alien” that wouldn’t translate easily to Earth would be H.R. Giger’s gorgeously creepy interiors of the spacecraft and the the planet’s landscape.
All of these elements are present in “Prometheus,” of course. The problem is we saw them all back in 1979 in the original masterpiece. Granted, we’ve had 30-plus years of improvements in special effects technology since then. And if “Alien” had been filled with clunky clay-animation effects from the stone age of cinema, a remake might have been justified on technical grounds alone. But that wasn’t the case. “Alien” looks nearly as good today as it did in 1979, down to every detail of the creature and every piece of set design.
With nothing new on that score to offer, “Prometheus” instead heaps on all sorts of unnecessary sub-plots, characters, and confusing philosophical ideas. “Alien” had a simple plot similar to “The Thing”: a remote station with a small crew is infected with an alien parasite/predator – today we might call it an “invasive species” — that knocks them off one by one. There was only a single sub-plot: the android working covertly for the corporation in order to get the creature back home, possibly for future use as a weapon. And even that single sub-plot in “Alien” could have been dropped as an unnecessary distraction (although we would have lost the scene where Ian Holm loses his head).
But in “Prometheus,” we get all sorts of unnecessary distractions: humanoids that have apparently landed on Earth and left their DNA, archaeological themes, and all sorts of philosophical and religious mumbo-jumbo. There are also far too many crew members and characters in “Prometheus.” Nostromo had a crew of seven, a good number for suggesting isolation and helplessness, while at the same time supplying the necessary fodder for the creature to destroy. The crew of Prometheus is at least fifteen, probably more when the hidden character (Weyland) and his entourage are revealed. There’s less terror when you’ve got a crowd like that, and less chance to build a little empathy with your characters. And most of the extra cast is pointless anyway from a plot standpoint. What point does Peter Weyland serve, for instance, and why should we be shocked to learn that the Charlize Theron character is his daughter? (And why, for that matter, is he wearing that awful prune-face makeup?).
There are even too many aliens in “Prometheus.” I like monsters, and these film parasites remind me of the very real creatures I saw today at work, pawing through mud on the beach — wriggling segmented pileworms, for example, with a semi-circle of tiny biting teeth. Because they were all so thoroughly and horribly believable, I enjoyed the various creepy life-forms that the parasite took in “Prometheus.” And there is some basis in biological reality for a series of distinctly different morphs of the same creature as it grows. But in this film, those different forms became confusing after a while. Were there actually several different parasites involved, or is this still the same single species ? “Alien” showed the creature in, at most, four life-forms: the egg, the face-hugger juvenile, the chest-buster juvenile, and the fully formed adult predator. Here we seem to have more variations yet, and I got the feeling that Ridley Scott simply wanted to throw all the great slimy creatures he had in his special effects arsenal at us, and hope we wouldn’t ask questions.
Likewise, there is far too much frenzied action, and a dearth of quiet nail-biting terror. I yearned for just a single scene as terrifying as the one in “Alien” where Harry Dean Stanton follows the ship’s cat into the bowels of the spaceship, water dripping from the pipes. It was a quiet, gut-churning episode, and there is nothing at all like that in this noisy mess of a movie. There are vehicles speeding about, flamethrowers, fights, gunfire, and exploding spaceships. Worse, much of the violence and action in “Prometheus” seems pointless, or at least unexplained. Why, for instance, does the giant humanoid fly into a rage and kill both Weyland and David — other than to provide us with another android beheading scene to echo the Ian Holm episode?
And speaking of gut-churning, the most harrowing scene in the movie shows Noomi Rapace surgically removing a parasite from her own body. But much of this episode’s power is lost on us, for two reasons: First, we know pretty much what’s going to come out – we saw it come out of John Hurt 34 years ago. Second, there is no element of surprise in this new film. When Hurt sat down to dinner we weren’t at all prepared for his little episode of indigestion. Even before watch “Prometheus” you know you’re going to see, at some point, some variation on the chest-popping scene. And Scott gives us way too much preparation for what’s coming, as Noomi grabs her gut and runs toward the surgery station. It’s gruesome alright, but not anything as shocking as the chest-popping scene in “Alien.”
Even some of the small charms of “Alien” are gone, replaced by stock sci-fi formulas. In “Alien,” the Nostromo was a space-going tugboat, its crew mostly blue-collar workers on a routine mission towing minerals. It was a nice touch, much like the gritty, funky vision of the future metropolis in “Blade Runner.” Prometheus, on the other hand, is on a scientific and archeological mission, filled with scientists, scholars and even, as it turns out, a “seeker” (Peter Weyland). And thus we are back in the pompous, cliché-ridden world of “Star Wars” and “2001: Space Odyssey.” There is even a reference or two to the latter film in “Prometheus.” Unlike “Alien”, this new film can definitely be pigeon-holed in the sci-fi bin. And the most annoying, pointless yet puffed-up episode in the whole film involves a swirling light-show of planets, stars and swirling lasers. Like drum solos and dream sequences, it seemed to last forever.
I can’t say that “Prometheus” was disappointing since I wasn’t expecting much. Scott is at his most entertaining when he’s working in totally new territory that he hasn’t explored before – “Gladiator” is a good example --- and I had low expectations for a special-effects extravaganza prequel to “Alien.” But I was hoping for a bit more focus. This was a hodgepodge. I walked out of “Alien” absolutely stunned. I walked out of “Prometheus” bored and confused.
-- Alex Bradbury, Port Townsend, Wa.