04 June 2012

Aliens vs Anthropologists

Before this weekend, I hadn't seen any of the movies in the Alien franchise, but I felt I ought to see at least the first movie before checking out Prometheus, in part because I was worried the former might not compare too favourably to its newer, flashier relative 30 years on. And I was a little disappointed by Alien. I wanted to be scared and excited, but I was really just a little bored. Visually, it's a stunning film, of course, but Ridley Scott seemed to be working way too hard on the build-up without enough pay-off for my 21st century eyes. Maybe I've just been tarnished by too many flashy, showy blockbusters, but it felt like there wasn't enough plot and there definitely wasn't enough dialogue for me (I was amused to read on IMDb that a lot of the lines were ad libbed--but about 90% of the dialogue consisted of characters calling out other characters' names).

Enter Prometheus--not a prequel but a story taking place in the same universe as Alien, 30 years earlier. It is 2089 and palaeoanthropologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have just discovered some ancient cave paintings on the Isle of Skye that seem to hint at humanity being created by a benevolent extraterrestrial presence thousands of years earlier. Thanks to the wonders of commercial space flight (fast becoming a reality), three years later our researchers find themselves being de-frosted on a spacecraft about to reach a very distant planet--one that they believe may contain the key to our origins. As someone who often works with palaeoanthropologists, I'm not sure I would send any of them into space, especially not when the two in question are also an item, but there we go.

Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) runs a tight ship, assisted by David (Michael Fassbender), an android created by Peter Weyland (a prosthetic-drenched Guy Pearce), the aged owner of Weyland Corporation, which funded the mission. It transpires that the motives of the Weyland Corporation (and therefore Meredith and David) may not entirely match those of our scientists, however. Nonetheless, on landing on the planet, the team are initially elated to find signs of life--less so when said life turns out to be a) hideous, b) violent and c) really scary. Is it worth hanging around with such unpleasant hosts to potentially discover the true story of human origins? Again, the team's opinions differ here. The plucky Elizabeth has faith in her thesis, but David tends to disagree and begins working on an experiment of his own, the consequences of which may not be what he had intended.

The basic structure of Prometheus is very similar to that of Alien, but it has been heavily adapted to suit a 2012 audience. Scott had initially considered a romance sub-plot for Alien, but it was canned, presumably to give the film a tighter focus. In Prometheus, meanwhile, Elizabeth and Charlie are so in lurve, and there is even an off-screen sex scene between Meredith and one of the other crew members. There's also a hell of a lot more dialogue. Oh, and it's quite funny and keeps things moving. The explosions are bigger and so are the scares--there is a particularly horrible scene in which Elizabeth must undergo surgery conducted by a machine in manual mode. I thought the first hour was great but during the second hour, it seemed to lose focus and dragged on maybe 15 minutes too long.

Rapace puts in a strong performance as the tough Elizabeth, who is both handicapped by and strengthened by her faith. Fassbender, as ever, steals the show as David the Fassbot, who spends hours learning as many ancient human languages as he can and who learns how to act human by watching old movies and spying on the crew's dreams while they are in a cryogenic sleep. When asked why he is putting on a helmet to go out onto the toxic planet when he can't breathe, he explains that he was designed to be the way he is because humans aren't always tolerant of or receptive to those who are different from them. In any case, Fassbender got the terribly polite tone / dead eyes trade-off down to a T. Oh, and Rafe Spall, who plays a geologist, is a good laugh too.

Overall, I was entertained by Prometheus but hardly blown away. Some may find it sad that I enjoyed it more than Alien, and part of that may be down to seeing the former on a big screen at the cinema and the latter on the small screen. Incidentally, I saw Prometheus in 2D and I really don't think the 3D version would have added anything because I felt suitably immersed in the action.

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