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Starring Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce

ONE VAPID WORK: Top-notch actors like Charlize Theron and Idris Elba are given little to work with in the script for ‘Prometheus.’ Courtesy photo.

Every film needs an idea—a central thought that guides the story. Something that carries over even after the film ends, when the lines of dialogue fade from memory, the details are gone and all that’s left is the framework. The truth is: The idea doesn’t even have to be a very good one. Maybe it’s something as simple as two people falling in love—or someone who wants another dead. Perhaps it’s something more complex, like a man who suffers from multiple personality disorder and murders guests at a hotel run by his mother. The idea of the film is always important, but the idea can never become more important than the content or the characters who inhabit the world born of it.

“Prometheus” is a film based on a magnificent idea: a crew of space-bound explorers seeking out the origins of humanity. A group of scientists discover a series of ancient paintings scattered across the globe that seem to point to a planet 35 lightyears away. Doctor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) believes in the possibility of a benevolent alien race’s involvement in mankind’s creation, a race she refers to as “The Engineers.” It’s a grand idea—seeking out our origins in hope of finding out not just how we came to be, but coming face to face with a superior race that can answer questions about the meaning of existence. Still, “Prometheus” is a one-note bore, which never manages to crawl out from under the “big idea.”

This is a problem that has hampered a lot of sci-fi films over the years: too much focus on science and not enough on fiction. And this is not a ringing endorsement of the science being portrayed in this film—more of an indoctrination of the need for stronger fiction. First off, there was not a human character I gave a damn about. I can’t even describe the characters as one note—maybe two notes between a dozen of them.

There’s a lot of talented actors onboard, though it’s almost baffling how little most of them are given to do. Noomi Rapace (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”) is remarkably game as a type-A, scream-queen spitfire who suffers all sorts of indignities throughout the film. The always solid Idris Elba (“Luther”) makes a righteous ship’s captain. And Charlize Theron seems perfectly natural playing a frigid, no-nonsense project leader. All of them are perfectly adequate for the roles but given nothing to do with them. The entire roster of characters seem to be from the sci-fi stock character pool; it’s a lot of good actors with a boilerplate script.

The most mind-blowing example is Guy Pearce. I love Guy Pearce—seeing his name in the credits of any movie is usually an encouraging sign. Then, he shows up in old-age makeup in a role that constitutes about 10 minutes of screen time before being killed horribly in a meaningless role that could have easily been played by anybody. What was the point of having a talent like Guy Pearce in a movie slathered in bad-age makeup for a role with no arc, no meat and no purpose? I respect Ridley Scott as a director, but I’d be lying if I said some of his choices didn’t leave me baffled and bemused.

There’s probably some irony that the most human portrayal the film offers comes from an android named David (Michael Fassbender), a malevolent and wonderfully disconnected artificial life-form whose intentions are never clear. He plots and schemes on behalf of a silent benefactor who has his own reasons for learning about the existence of our creators—none of which end up making a whole lot of sense.

Despite such qualms, “Prometheus” is a difficult movie to review because it’s not terrible. In fact, there are glimmers of greatness. The film is remarkably well-designed and provides some exceptional visuals. That’s a nice way of saying it’s an emotionally vacant, special-effects demo reel.

There’s some cool stuff to see, but the majority of the cool factor comes from very well-staged set pieces and a crazy good performance from Michael Fassbender. The movie fails to deliver any tension or scares. I kept waiting for the stakes to get higher or for some frightening moments of alien-inspired terror. They never materialized. Instead, “Prometheus” delivers a very polished, hard science-fiction story that asks some lofty questions and never bothers to answer them. What answers are provided come in expository throwaways that are never fully explored.

“They’re going to destroy Earth!” declares one character. How exactly do we know that? We don’t.

“This is where they make weapons of mass destruction!” screams another. How do they know they’re weapons?

The most frustrating part comes from a simple device used to start the journey: a series of cave paintings from around the world that point to the planet they set out to explore. We never find out who created them or why exactly this planet was a destination. If the planet is some weapons facility for an alien race, why exactly is there an ancient map on Earth for it? I don’t know a whole lot, but I know most highly intelligent races don’t leave maps lying around that lead to their weapons facilities.

I can forgive a film for absences of logic and reason (i.e. “Men in Black 3”), but when making a movie about the origin of the species, I expect it to be smarter. If it’s a movie about aliens killing a whole lot of people, it needs to be more intense. When stocking a movie full of quality actors, they need a script that makes it worth their time. “Prometheus” is just another big-budget film that feels like a wasted opportunity. That talented cast and that much money behind the camera should have produced something more profound. Or at least more entertaining.

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