Watching Prometheus provokes more of a shrug than anything, but it’s not an entirely hopeless shrug. It misses the mark, but it’s reasonably entertaining in doing so, has at least one terrifying scene, and ponders big questions about the nature of the world and the relationship between science and religion. Thankfully, it doesn’t give easy answers either, but that comes off more as a result of not addressing the questions as much as it could have.
The narrative, as it is, plays kind-of like a remake of Ridley Scott’s first Alien film even though it insists on its prequel status. Essentially, a bunch of characters venturing to a far-off alien land meet the neighbors before everything goes awry. The film is, thankfully, sufficiently meaty and fleshy to earn its semi-horror stamp, but it’s more interested in pondering things like science vs. religion and man’s ego and “what is man?” and all those tried-and-true sci-fi ideas that, to be honest, used to be a whole lot more interesting before they were pummeled to death. A bigger problem, however, is that the film feels like a weird off-the-wall mixture of body-horror and kind-of incoherent, esoteric sci-fi musings about “the state of things”. I’m all for a game attempt at style-bending, but this one bounces from evisceration to idea to evisceration to idea and it’s awfully easy to walk away waving your hands up in confusion and never really being able to put them down. The film tries a lot and doesn’t succeed especially well at any one thing, but at least it is trying a lot in the first place.
The biggest problem however is that the film tries to be humanist but can’t muster up a truly human character in the bunch. The closest is, perhaps intentionally, non-human Android David (Michael Fassbender), who remains an enigma even as we see him coming to terms with the world around him. All the “humans” are one-note, perhaps befitting Scott’s meditation on the fallibility of man, but it’s not nuanced enough to earn this argument. At the very least, I’ll give Ridley Scott credit for trying to return the brains to horror filmmaking, or for trying a big budget horror film in this day and age at all. It’s just a shame he forgot how the best horror films combine subtext with feeling conveyed through filmmaking. Here we get a sense he’s a little too willing to have his characters talk it all out and intellectualize something that could have been handled less didactically and with more fleshy filmic aplomb. A less elementary problem, but a funny one nonetheless: the film commits a cardinal sin of many horror films, in that its characters, for all their philosophizing, are often on the dumb side when it comes to pure survival.
This all combines to give the film a curiously detached and inhuman feel, which would be fine if the film more openly and directly addressed the callous nature of humans trying to understand the world around them and succumbing to that world. Many better science fiction films have hinged on this, seeing their character’s appreciation for life overcome by their quest to understand life, and have intentionally favored a distant, difficult, Kubrickian aura to filmically imbue this distanced non-humanity to the audience. Perhaps that is what this film was going for, but Scott doesn’t massage this out of the text well enough for it to excuse the film’s difficulty or clinical in-humanity, especially when the film is, unlike many horrors that play with irony and humour, deadly, even blandly serious. All it has in its bag of tricks to make up for these flaws is the admittedly stunning force of its sweepingly baroque visuals – admirable for being enigmatic as well. But this has been done better before, for instance in 2001, a film with a surer sense of vision and a more intentionally confident sense of clinically cold distance for effect. This film falls considerably short, but not for lack of trying. As a rule, however, tight efficiency and filmmaking craft win out over self-indulgent narrative ambition. Prometheus is a curious blend of the two, but too often the latter wins out.
The key to the success of 2012’s Dredd, a sort of remake of the god-awful 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd (although technically it’s just a re-adaptation of the comic book the film was based on, but then everyone says that to avoid the remake label, don’t they?), is that it is beautifully, elegantly simple beyond belief. The film ruthlessly sticks to its simplicity from beginning to end. There’s a pointless but terse and efficient opening monologue which sets out the state of the world, and then it burns-off any stray sensations or alternative tempos for just about the most incendiary display of ’70s B-picture purity this side of, well, The Raid.
The story is mercifully simple: Dredd (Karl Urban), a future police officer, and his rookie accomplice Anderson (Olivia Thrilby) being tested for qualification, find themselves in dire straits as they are stuck in a massive apartment block in Mega-City One with the block’s unofficial crime-lord leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) hot on their tail. From there, it’s basically just our two not-so-plucky heroes rising to the top of the complex to capture Ma-Ma, all the while facing her countervailing attempt to, you know, have them killed.
The only real downside is that it’s shockingly similar to the same year’s earlier, and better, The Raid: Redemption. That being said, The Raid was a terrific premise for an action movie, a tight, lean, mean affair that handles its (thankfully) little plot exposition in the midst of near-constant bone-crunching action following a terrific, suspenseful 30 minute buildup that explodes and doesn’t let go. The problem with too many action movies isn’t that they have badly written narratives or characters. It’s that they don’t realize they have badly written narrative and characters, and they place too much emphasis on getting us invested in an overly-complicated plot and generally refusing to get on with it already. Few things are as important to a film as character, but in the absence of character, pure craft can get you just far enough, and if The Raid was monumentally pure, even balletic craft, Dredd is pretty solid too. And I’ll take a film that understands its craft and runs with it over a film that tries to be something it doesn’t know how to be any day of the week.
Well, I lied: there is another downside to the film, technically speaking, which is that it’s kind of indefensible as morality (what a surprise?). This film revels in its violence and even sometimes makes fun of it, and it achieves new heights in violence-porn in a number of slo-mo sequences designed to give life to a drug which literally slows down the mind for no reason other than “hey this looks cool”. Worse, because the drug users usually only have reason to be graced with the presence of our subjective camera when Dredd comes knocking, chances are when the drug is in effect, we won’t just be watching them watch TV and eat ice cream. Worse, Dredd himself, and the whole film, seems steeped in the sort-of quasi-fascist justice that so often populates action films where criminals are equated to villains, and the law becomes an objective, Manichean morality.
The only thing to truly combat all of this is an undercurrent of sly gallows humor aimed, purposefully, at Dredd himself. Throughout the film, he never threatens recanting his terse, monosyllabic speech. He reacts like a dead-pan pastiche of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry role, fitting the film’s distressingly, almost comically, fascist intent – except of course that film was meant to be deadly serious, while this one has a cheeky slyness about it. Dredd wields the sheer arbitrariness of its brutality, not to mention the open inhumanity of the main character, almost meta-textually, quietly poking at any presumption that any of this could possibly mean anything.
Which leaves the film in a bit of a quagmire. The film’s questionable ethics can’t hide or undo the simple fact that it is unmistakably well-crafted and put together. In place of narrative ambition or any sort of attempt at artistry, the film emphasizes no-holds-barred filmmaking, directorial bravura, and gritty, terse camerawork. It feels refreshingly free of loftier ambitions, with director Pete Travis working as a craftsman who knows what he wants and succeeds at doing only that one thing. With so many blockbusters these days stepping all over their self-important grandeur, a work that keeps it low and close to the ground is a pleasure. But it is an extremely guilty one, and afterwards you feel like you need a two hour shower, or some Foucault.