Review: Prometheus

The opening of Prometheus provides what is, by far, the most haunting and poetic scene in the entire movie—which is by no means to say that what follows is not artistically accomplished.  The rest of the film is quite good, but you couldn’t apply those two adjectives (“haunting” and “poetic”) to it, exactly, nor would you want or expect to.   But the first scene is impressive—and it needs to be considered in light of the wild ride that comes after it.  It’s also the kind of thing that would be ruined by verbal explanation, one of those surprisingly rare moments when a movie manages to convince you that a picture really is worth a thousand words, that the film is accomplishing something transcending its script (which is why I hope they don’t try to explain it in a sequel–though they apparently are, already.)  Throughout the course of the film, the audience will be moved to ponder the question (whether at the conscious or subconscious level, depending on how tuned in they are): “Was life on earth created out of purely material chaos, or was there a grander design, a lofty and noble purpose behind it all?”  The beauty of the first scene is that it provides the only true hint in the movie to whatever answers this question might possess.  It might not clear anything up, but it is highly suggestive—Ridley Scott must know something about the many religious myths that relate the idea that human beings were originally created from the fragments of a sacrificed god…

The strength of the movie—elevating it above the standard, special-effects  intensive summer blockbuster—is drawn from the fact that it uses a conflict of eternally absorbing interest to center it thematically: design vs. essential chaos.  (It could be argued that this conflict is really one of the few questions of genuine interest to any truly thoughtful person.)  Even though some of the critics I’ve looked at have only praised the movie for spectacle, while simultaneously accusing it of being derivative, I think that they’re missing something.  It’s rare that an action-adventure movie that needs to please an audience looking for sci-fi hi-jinks and splatter-horror also manages to do something more.  While, obviously, a movie geared towards an art-house audience—like The Tree of Life—has the leisure to get more philosophical and expand on its viewpoint to a greater degree, Prometheus uses exciting bits and pieces culled from other films, with a less explicitly philosophical perspective, to buffer its central conflict—such as Scott’s own Alien or the “body horror” of David Cronenberg’s movies (there’s a totally horrifying and genuinely disgusting scene in Prometheus that I don’t want to ruin for you).  But the threateningly primal life forms rising up to overwhelm, infect, and destroy human beings in Prometheus are more than simply thrilling examples of special-effects magic and artist-designer H.R. Giger’s perverse genius: they’re symbols of something we all fear—a return to the dark primordial cesspool from which our physical forms evolved, and to which sudden chaos and unrestricted impulse can often act to return us.   Those lower life-forms are contrasted with what is best in the humans and aliens in the movie—who can both seek reason, order, and design, attempting to carve a little haven out of “Chaos and Old Night” (as Milton called it), while all too easily succumbing to that primal swamp.  The movie’s violence and grossness are not an audience-pleasing device at odds with the rest of the movie’s message.  Rather, they represent the use of traditional sci-fi/horror plot points to help transmit that message—something for which the movie should be admired rather than derided.

Also, among generally fine acting, Michael Fassbender’s performance stood out as being particularly excellent, as he delivered lines like “It’s not a traditional fetus,” with a strangely knowing and ironic (for a robot) dead-pan expression.

I highly recommend Prometheus.  While I wouldn’t quite rank it on the same level as a mind-blowingly inventive and thought-provoking science-fiction masterwork like, for example, the original The Matrix, I would still say that it’s significantly more than the usual blood-and-guts, alien-invaders shoot-em-up that we’re all used to by now.

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