I went to see Prometheus at the Odeon with high hopes, if not expectations: I’m a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi films Alien (1979) and Bladerunner (1982), and the Alien franchise in general – particularly James Cameron’s first sequel Aliens (1986). I was excited to see what Scott would do with his much vaunted prequel-that-is-not-quite-a-prequel, taking us back to the Alien universe; but also painfully aware of just how many big budget blockbusters of recent years have for me cinematically and dramatically been damp squibs. Scott is one name I guess I trust enough to take a chance on, and based on the impressive visuals of the trailers online I decided I would also overcome years of resistance and prejudice and see Prometheus in 3D, and IMAX 3D at that. I have held some pretty firm and perhaps pre-conceived ideas about the whole of the latest 3D thing; some of which were dispelled and some of which were confirmed by watching the film. In fairness to Ridley Scott and the excellent cast and crew of Prometheus, I will separate this review out into two sections somewhat, as the 3D element is probably true to all of the current wave of 3D cinema and not particular to this film. First let’s look at the film itself.
I won’t provide a full synopsis of the film; there are plenty of those out there if you want that; but suffice to say that Prometheus is set pre-Alien, and explores the origins of the ‘Space Jockey’: the larger than life, semi-humanoid alien biped with the strange helmet and mask (and first apparent victim of a ‘chest-burster’) found at the heart of the derelict alien ship on the surface of planet LV-426 in the original 1979 movie (or more properly, the origins of his species, as Prometheus is set on another planet). Wrapped up with the origins of the Space Jockey it turns out, are both the origins of the human race and the origins of the fiendishly destructive Alien (with a capital A) strain itself.
The titular Prometheus is a scientific survey ship sent to investigate the possibility of alien life following clues discovered on Earth by archaeologist Noomi Rapace, funded by ageing Weyland Industries founder Guy Pearce (in heavy makeup), and overseen and assisted (with various degrees of duplicity) by executive Charlize Theron and ‘synthetic’ (robot) Michael Fassbender. It’s fair to say that to some degree the rest of the crew of the Prometheus are along for the ride. The film explores in a fairly intelligent way some classic sci-fi themes: origins of our species, the creation of the universe and our place in it, higher intelligence, alien civilisations, life after death and science versus nature; but not surprisingly, Scott’s universe suggests more questions than answers, and that indeed simply asking questions may well open Pandora’s box and unleash all kinds of unspeakable mayhem upon us (and as with the previous films it is parasitic infection, penetration and genetic mutation we must fear most).
So what is done well? Well for the most part, I’m happy to report that most things are: the richly-visual scale, complexity and ‘realism’ of Prometheus universe is grandly realised; the cast are excellent, with Rapace and Fassbender being notable for their respective portrayals of the strong female lead (there are scenes that will make your skin crawl and set your teeth on edge as Rapace endures her particular Alien encounter) who is very different to the gun-toting Ellen Ripley, and Fassbender as the ‘synthetic person’ who is sometimes as complicitous as Ash and other times seems as empathetic as Bishop. It is also entertaining to see the attractive Charlize Theron in a role in which she is so completely lacking in moral character that you would happily feed her to the first monster that comes along. The aged Pearce for me was perhaps a weak link; I love Guy Pearce, and these ageing ‘transformations’ are always heralded with the gravitas of so many hours in make-up and did you know that was such and such under there; but I can’t help but feel that there must be many older actors who could have portrayed the (fairly flimsy) role just as well without the distraction of the prosthetics.
Intrinsically, for Alien fans there is enough of the Giger DNA of the original movie to make it firmly of that universe, with variety and revelations aplenty to make you hungry for more; though the film undoubtedly asks at least as many questions as it answers – which is perhaps how good sci-fi should be (and certainly leaves the door open for future instalments). I was a little worried early on that the pacing may be a little ponderous, but by the end the tension and the action ramped up and overall it was actually just right.
There is the overwhelming feeling that Scott does indeed bring a certain conceptual gravitas to Prometheus as the founder of the series; and capably steers the ship back on course, avoiding obvious pitfalls and clichés. The fact that much of the final action does not take place in half-darkened, strobe-lit corridors but in daylight on the planet’s surface is commendable.
Overall this is a quality sci-fi which will stand the test of time (and repeated viewings) and will particularly please Alien fans.
3D or not 3D?
I have for a few years now resisted seeing films in 3D. I think this prejudice has developed to a degree because of the otherwise poor quality of some of the signature offerings that have been made since the system resurfaced in its latest incarnation and became not only a selling point for effects-heavy ‘event’ movies and animations but ‘de rigueur’ for pretty much anything and everything else the studios release (with an accompanying cost to producer, distributor and consumer). I even resisted seeing Cameron’s much-hyped Avatar in 3D. When I finally saw it in 2D, I’m bound to say my now-fading impression is more of a quality cartoon for adults than a profound piece of sci-fi cinema.
I have had previous experience of the current system going back to Universal Studio’s Terminator 3D theme park spectacle in 2000. The technology is to a degree impressive; what has worried me I guess is how I would enjoy it as a two hour plus viewing experience, and more particularly how intelligently it would be employed in the course of quality story-telling. Prometheus both dispelled and confirmed some of what I previously thought.
First of all, even wearing my prescription glasses under the 3D glasses provided by the Odeon for their IMAX screening resulted in a relatively problem free viewing experience, without nausea or headaches; though there was some flare almost constantly in my left eye which I can only put down to lighting, projection or more probably the particular glasses I had not being clean or being scratched.
As for the effect (and I have no doubt that the 3D in Prometheus is nothing short of state of the art) – some of it I liked and was appropriate, some of it as I suspected was not so. The images I have to say were certainly super-sharp and HD crystal-clear; and I can not deny that both in the opening (Prometheus arriving on the planet) and in the final spectacular action sequences the 3D indeed provided a scale, dimension and sense of immersion that constituted event cinema; just like the theme park ride.
However where the effect falls flat to me is in the rest (i.e. majority) of the narrative storytelling. Often the technology does not simulate three dimensions at all; simply layers of two dimensional images floating on top of each other; like watching a moving decoupage. Far from immersing me in the story, it in fact brought my attention back to the illusion constantly. Like watching a hologram, it looks very clever but you are painfully aware that it is not real. I don’t think that this technology, even when compared to many of the tried and tested traditional film techniques (lighting, depth of field, focus etc) is anywhere near sophisticated enough to replicate what the human eye sees in infinite layers; or what the eye and the brain interpret when watching carefully crafted ‘2D’ cinema as being of the real world. So what you are left with, other than the occasional thrill ride, is a piece of contrived trickery, with all its seams showing and its backside hanging out. That’s not to say that the technology won’t continue to improve of course; but therein lies the rub, because while time and money is spent developing it, the intrinsic quality of the movies that are made for it continues to decline. A big part of me hopes (and suspects) that just like previous incarnations, it will eventually die a death.
I would like to finish by saying that in 2D or 3D, Prometheus is very definitely a quality film well worth seeing on the big screen of a darkened theatre. In fact I would even say if you are going to see anything in 3D, see Prometheus. At least there is certainly nothing gratuitous in the way the technology is deployed there, and it fails to spoil a good film (and does enhance some parts of it).
By direct comparison (and by way of illustration), shown at the same screening was the 3D trailer for the new Amazing Spiderman; perhaps a more typical 3D offering, which, once the novelty of Spiderman swinging out of the screen across the theatre at you wore off (second time for me, just during the trailer), otherwise looked like absolute excrement.
I’ll probably see Prometheus again as soon as the opportunity arises. But I don’t think I’ll be back at the IMAX any time soon.
Film: Highly Recommended
3D: No thanks!