Prometheus

What are my chances?

Prometheus, previously titled Paradise, and which I’ve privately renamed Battle for the Planet of the Space Jockeys, is Ridley Scott’s reimagining of 1979’s Alien mythology.  This time, however, Scott is armed with twenty-first century movie effects and has poured copious amounts of CG into an otherwise live action film (which makes one wonder whether he would have done the same had he possessed the technology in the seventies).

The popular question concerning this film seems to be whether or not it is a direct prequel to Alien.  The short answer is no, because Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original, didn’t write Prometheus, having passed away in 2009.  Instead, we’re stuck with Damon Lindelof, whose unbridled hubris and laconic dialogue rendered the final season of Lost nearly unwatchable.  Lindelof’s writing has not improved, but having screenplay groundwork previously laid by Jon Spaihts and a plot structure defined by Alien, he manages to keep the goings-on (relatively) tight in this case.  I did occasionally feel “Island Syndrome,” however, during certain scenes in which the actors were clearly making the dialogue sound better than it actually was.

Set several decades before Alien, the film follows Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo), a religious archaeologist who discovers identical cave paintings all over the world, most recently on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  Along with her romantic partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), whose sensibilities starkly contrast her own, Shaw receives funding from the Weyland corporation (the company of devious motives for which Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo worked in Alien) to follow the coordinates suggested by the paintings, which lead to a previously-unexplored world in outer space.  The two are joined by a crew that will bring back immediate memories of the motley group of marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, in that they are unprofessional, disagreeable, and harbor an inexplicable disdain for the protagonist.  The film’s deuteragonist, though, is David (Michael Fassbender), an android in the tradition of the other films.  While David is described as having no soul, he displays limitless curiosity, seemingly genuine care, and a very real sense of vengeance.  Going against a popular sci-fi trope, David doesn’t want to be like his creators (who are, in turn, searching for their own creators in space); in fact, he’s quite relieved to be nothing like them.  Also onboard is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland executive with the compassion of a wolverine and the personality of an ice cube.  Guy Pearce makes an appearance as the elderly Peter Weyland, the megalomaniac who runs the company, and considering the tenure of his appearance in the film, I’m not sure why Scott couldn’t have cast a famous older actor instead of making Pearce go through five hours of makeup for a walk-on role.

The space expedition, as it must, quickly devolves into bad decisions, bickering, and jump-scares.  The less important/interesting members of the crew (a geologist and a biologist whom I mistook for mercenaries based upon their behavior) are the first to be picked off by the indigenous denizens of the planet, which clearly resemble the alien “facehugger” of the original film.  From here, however, the story does not fall into the slasher-movie structure of killing off each crew member one at a time as they grope around in the dark.  The discoveries and intrigue begin to pile up, including the revelation that the “space jockey,” a being discovered in passing by the crew of Alien, was a member of the species that may have spawned humanity and now wants to destroy us.

Sadly, Ridley Scott has never been as good with characters as his brother Tony (who along with Quentin Tarantino crafted True Romance, pound for pound one of my favorite films).  The former has always focused on set pieces before the people and stories inhabiting them, and therefore the character deepening (which should not be confused with character development) does not get off the ground until well into the adventure.  After Holloway, unbeknownst to Shaw (“but knownst to us” – Mel Brooks) has been intentionally infected with an alien agent by David, we get a tender scene in which Shaw reveals her sterility and her desire to “create life,” a possible motive for her obsessive quest for knowledge concerning the Engineers.  This is, for the most part, all we get.  The film relies on its action to familiarize us with the characters from there on out, and conversations between them serve to reinforce their respective dominant traits: Shaw is quixotic, Vickers is ostentatious, Holloway is a skeptic, Janek (Idris Elba) is a stoic, Fifield (Sean Harris) is a bit of an asshole, and so on.  Attempts to deepen them beyond these traits are glossed over.  David is the one who remains a mystery.  He gets his own scenes before anyone else does, puttering around on the ship for two years while the human crew members sleep through the countless light years it takes to reach the Engineer planet, and even though we get to spend this time with him, we’re never quite sure what he wants.  He’s always following orders, sure, but Fassbender often lets slip (in both his expressions and clever dialogue) that something more is going on in that milk-and-pasta-filled head of his.

Vickers is another anomaly.  While the rest of the crew, despite being esteemed scientists, continually fall into the Principle of the Inept Adventurer (moving toward scary places, thrusting their hands toward the maws of alien beasts, and taking their helmets off on an uncharted planet, which not even Buzz Lightyear was dumb enough to do), Vickers is always pragmatic.  She stays indoors when she knows something dangerous is outside.  She demands that everyone do their jobs and follow protocol.  When Holloway is infected, she will not let him back on the ship, and a scene reminiscent of one from Alien in which Ripley refuses to allow the infected Kane back onboard, yields ghastly results.  The issue is that the screenplay sets her up as an antagonist, then hints that she will eventually let her hair down (which she should, since the antagonistic forces in the film severely outnumber the good guys by the third act).  After the standoff scene, Shaw and Vickers are well-established as the yin and yang of the ship, two strong women made enemies by Vickers’ rash actions, but they barely, if ever, have another interaction before the story’s climax, and Vickers’ part in the film ends with an “isn’t that cool?” moment meant to inspire applause, but which rang hollow for me.

Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is the film’s character centerpiece and performance gem.  Once the cast is inevitably shaved, she is forced to carry on plenty of scenes by herself, and these contain the most revealing bits of her character’s steadfast nature.  The film’s most frightening scene comes when Shaw is implanted with an alien embryo (retaining the original film’s theme of unwanted pregnancy) and must perform a Caesarean section on herself in order to remove it.  Suddenly, the horror is real.  The tears are genuine.  The sci-fi landscape crumbles away for a few minutes and we are left in a whitewashed room with only our heroine and an impossible decision.  In this scene and forward, Shaw begins to mirror Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the unwavering protagonist of the original film series: fixations on motherhood (Shaw is sterile and later must remove an alien fetus from her own body, Ripley’s daughter died and she must later care for an orphan), relentless pursuit of their respective alien Others (Shaw must gain knowledge, Ripley must destroy them), and a sort of quiet sympathy that radiates from both, despite their apparent two-hundred year gap (though their real-life timestamps are all too evident from their hairstyles).

Finally, H.R. Giger’s art style is well-preserved (the space jockey, the interior of the spaceship and pilot’s seat, the phallic-headed alien).  His name appears in the credits, but I do wonder if he was on set painting everything himself like he was decades ago.  Regardless, the use of his unique style (considered in the seventies to be too horrifying for audiences) is the linchpin for any argument in favor of this film being a true prequel (besides all the chestbursting, of course).

“Prequel” is a term I dislike for reasons created by George Lucas at the turn of the century.  Consider Prometheus, then, part of a grand mythology, one defined mostly in the imagination since it only spans three 120-minute films (I do not acknowledge Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, nor the Alien vs. Predator series), and a look at the other side of the mirror concerning powerful female figures through the sci-fi/horror ages – a rarity for genre fiction.

The Alien DNA is all there, but I promise, connecting stories with your imagination will work and satisfy much better than comparing graphics and storyboards.  It always has.

Prometheus (2012); written by Damon Lindelof; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron.

Unstoppable

Thank goodness the word itself is never spoken in the film

My father worked on the railroad during most of his early years of employment.  He was out on the tracks repairing switches, one of the more dangerous jobs in the field.  He’s told me countless tales of his railroading adventures.  As a sort of homage to the old days, he keeps an ever-expanding model train set (Lionel O-Gauge) in the basement of his house.  Back to that in a moment.

My love for the films of Tony Scott is no big secret.  True Romance is one of my favorite films (see my discussion of that film), and if you haven’t seen Spy Game or Domino, I’d urge you to do so.  Do I even need to mention Top Gun?  This year’s lick from the younger Scott brother is Unstoppable, a fairly straightforward thriller concerning a runaway train.  The cast includes Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer who recently received his 90-day notice; Chris Pine in his second-ever leading role as Will Colson, a young conductor paying his dues; Lew Temple in an excellent supporting role as Ned Oldham, lead railroad welder and “country boy;” and Rosario Dawson in a mature turn as Connie Hooper, a train dispatcher.  Ethan Suplee, Jessy Schram and T.J. Miller also appear, as does Kevin Dunn as the greedy railroad boss more concerned with property than personnel, though whenever I see him I can’t help thinking of his role as the annoying Joel Hornick in the early seasons of Seinfeld.

What keeps Unstoppable from becoming popcorn pre-holiday movie fare is the heart behind it and the attention to realistic detail when it comes to the railroading profession.  Train 777 runs away fairly early in the film, and from there on it could have been nonstop shirtless Chris Pine action, but the film actually goes against the grain.  Colson isn’t an action hero: he has issues at home that eat away at him throughout the workday, and he genuinely tries to learn from Barnes.  Barnes has his own sob stories, including a dead wife and apathetic daughters (who work at Hooters).  These back-stories serve as little more than ways of setting up reasons for Barnes and Colson to survive the ordeal, but the characters introduced are interesting, almost becoming the audience ourselves as we watch the crisis unfold on the faux news reports (though the fact that a single news chopper is following the 70+ miles-per-hour train the entire time becomes a bit silly).  The opening of the film does not concede to the trappings of the action genre, as we slowly pan over the yard, watch the trains rotate on their platforms, and witness the mundane grit and grime of the workday.

Scott’s unique visual style really shines here, with arguments between characters escalating into choppy, curse-laden montages, and shots of train 777 barreling along the Pennsylvania tracks take the form of morphing, multiple-shot images from the underside of the moving behemoth.  Leave it to Tony Scott to say to a camera crew, “I’d like a shot from under the train, while it’s moving.  Thanks.”  Where this could have been a standard autumn thriller to hold us over for True Grit and the obligatory holiday blockbusters, each little facet of Unstoppable goes above and beyond.  You may even get a laugh or two before you leave the theatre.

A film like this reminds me of my dad’s train set.  It’s full of visual candy and rapid movement, but it draws a deeper interest in how the railroad works.  Of course, it is not the railroad itself, in fact little more than a complex diorama, but it’s an entry in a proverbial museum, facilitating the process of chronicling the history of a vital and beloved profession.

Unstoppable (2010); written by Mark Bomback; directed by Tony Scott; starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson and Lew Temple.

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