(Some spoilers, but nothing which strays too far from what one could glean from the trailers)
Taking in the midnight showing of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" on Thursday night into Friday (for which I was rewarded with a nice little promotional poster) I can now understand why Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has expressed reservations about ever getting H.P. Lovecraft's justly-beloved novella, "At the Mountains Of Madness" produced. There is something decidedly Lovecraftian about the film, something wonderfully unnerving, in all the right ways.
After coming home from the film, I took the dog ('the Woofocyte?') for a wee hours' consitutional, under a brilliant starlit sky, frosted by a crisp, gibbous moon. On any other night, this would have been a serene, elevating sight. That night, however, the heavens seemed sinister, redolent with menace, haunted by leering eldrich specters which lurked in the inky abyss, the blood-freezing whispers of ancient, calculating intelligences, beyond the reckoning of any human mind which would not go mad at the misfortune of understanding them too well.
That's kinda the vibe of this thing.
The discovery that a host of ancient civilizations --with no possibility of contact with each other-- had adorned their walls with symbols depicting the same set of stellar coordinates prompts the mounting of a scientific expedition to plumb the depths of a great many mysteries. Some appalling things ensue. And some Very Big Questions are raised...and not especially tidily answered. It's not unlike if Sir Arthur C. Clarke had written 2001: A Space Odyssey, while under the influence of some really vicious hallucinogens...perhaps something derived from belladonna-like alkyloids (/gratuitous "Altered States" reference). It has a similar scope, partakes of a similar sense of awe and wonder. But its ultimate lessons (such as they are) sound a far more disturbing note on our prospects, should we choose to pursue some questions too far.
The tone of the film is spot-on, crafted to induce a steadily-mounting sense of dread. Like in "Alien," the technology is presented in a way to make a geek bounce in his seat, but is just recognizable enough that we can see ourselves operating the controls...which only heightens the dread. The score is effective for the most part, with a main theme which evokes both wonder and warning. I would have preferred a more minimalist musical footprint, though, as it can be just a bit intrusive during some set-pieces. Seldom have I so mourned the passing of the great Jerry Goldsmith (all the moreso at the brief homage to his seminal "Alien" theme).
The visuals in "Prometheus" are simply spellbinding. It really does appear that we have reached the place where no story is untellable, where no image in the imagination cannot be convincingly committed to film. The ship is marvelously designed, rendered to perfection, and moves through space with a sense of mass and power and flawless physics. 3-D is often an afterthought, a way to amp up ticket prices, while intermittently jumping off the screen at you to go "BOOGIE-BOOGIE-BOOGIE" in your face. This is not the case in "Prometheus." The 3D is immersive and essential, by turns conveying a daunting, dwarfing scale to things, and a terrifyingly claustrophobic closeness to other things from which you would much prefer to keep your distance. I saw this in IMAX 3D, and I heartily recommend that you do likewise if you can. As a sensory experience, there is simply nothing about which I can complain in this film.
Michael Fassbender's performance as the "artificial person," David, is one of the highest of the high points of this film. The scenes of him roaming the halls of the ship while the crew rests in hypersleep are unforgettable, as he learns ancient languages, sinks perfect baskets while riding a bicycle, and emulates Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia. What if Commander Data were not governed by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? On the whole, he'd just as soon be helpful and agreeable toward humans. But of what would he be capable, were he "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality?" David's innocent wonder and infectious curiosity are utterly disarming, at the same time that his altogether dispassionate view of the universe (and all who live in it) is chilling in the extreme.
Noomi Rapace's performance as Dr Elizabeth Shaw has gotten a bum rap in assorted circles. This is not, IMHO, just. The simplicity of her character is also its complexity: she is a Believer. She's the sort who never would have seen the "cookbook" thing coming. She speaks to our Better Angels. She is heartbreakingly slow to wake from her dreams, and that awakening is very viscerally shattering to her. The form she ultimately takes is both consistent and changed. She is angry, but wounded and still not altogether without hope. She is not especially sophisticated, which is both her appeal and, I expect, the source of much frustration.
Charlize Theron's Vickers is a perfect embodiment of The Company, an icy pragmatist whose main priority is her own survival ("all other priorities rescinded"). Her character is, in many ways, more cybernetic even than David's, which makes one scene with the irresistible Idris Elba's Cajun Captain Janek (from whom I truly wish we'd seen more) all the more hilariously effective.
Noomi Rapace's partner and love interest, Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green) is also a truth-seeker, but his motivations are rather less pure than Shaw's. He has an occasionally over-the-top air of striving to dominate nature by wresting her secrets from her. He is, in short, something of a jerk, especially to David. His lack of empathy and insight leads to all manner of unpleasantness.
This last is one problem which many viewers have had with this story: people behave in irrational, stupid ways. At times, distractingly so. I do share the irritation with some of the choices which people make in this film, but --without giving too much away-- there is some sense to staffing this expedition with people who may not be the most disciplined and professional sorts. When things start to go Very, Very Wrong, these people do not exactly bring their A-Game...which acts to move things along with an increasing inevitability. Most of the characters are pretty superficially treated, but we do get just enough to fit them into the puzzle. I am more than willing to grant that such a large ensemble, if given a more full treatment, would have weighed down an already deliberately (if at times erratically) paced film to an excessive degree.
Some have complained that this film raises a number of questions which it does not then go on to answer. Duly noted and agreed. But, at its heart, this is not the sort of story which needs to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. There are some profound meditations at the core of this film, questions about our origins, purpose, and fate, questions which hinge on the motivations and priorities of forces so removed from us in space and time and sophistication that it would be the height of hubris to fancy that we could just Get To The Bottom of them (this is, in fact, the tragic flaw in Shaw's and Holloway's characters, and it bears reflecting-on that we should become too huffy at the thought that some mysteries remain mysterious!). Again, there is a strikingly Lovecraftian message that we puny humans meddle in the affairs of the Dark Gods at our extreme peril, regardless of the purity of our motivations.
In short, I do love this film...but not unconditionally. I do recommend it...but not unreservedly. As I've said, the pacing at times lurches and drags. The score is a bit too in my face at moments (nothing like the outlandishly obtrusive "Predator" score, mind you. But also nothing like the atmospheric "Alien" suite). Some characters never venture far from one-note stereotypes. On balance, though, there is much more here to love than to dislike, and nothing to hate.
Final note: this is NOT (merely) an "Alien" prequel. That would be rather like saying that the Old Testament was a prequel to the book of Mark. The conditions are set for "Alien," but pretty much as a side-note to a profound and ambitious science fiction story..which is what this is: a tale of macabre science fiction (not "horror," as such...though there are some decidedly horrific things which happen --parents take careful note!).