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‘Prometheus’ gives philosophical approach to sci-fi

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Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 8:11 am

So far, this has been the year of Every Bad Thing. International strife is intensified with each passing day. The world’s economies are teetering on the verge of collapse. No matter who U.S. voters elect as president, we all are completely screwed in one way or another. The list of horrible things that are occurring or await us is too ponderous to even attempt to enumerate, and that’s without even getting into the personal burdens that have been weighing on my mind, rendering me an insomniac. Yet the thing still troubling me most out of all this turmoil is the fact that it’s getting harder and harder to find a decent movie.

This is not hyperbole. Movies are supposed to be our escape from times of trouble and tribulation, and when things are at their worst, that is when the wretched movie-going masses are in their greatest moment of need. When our sorely needed two-hour escape is denied us by studio executives and filmmakers who insist on catering to the lowest common denominator, it makes everything else seem that much worse — like a final, unexpected slap in the face from a would-be savior.

The flip side of this, of course, is that experiencing so many crushing disappointments so continuously makes every “good” movie seem like a great one — just as a dehydrated man in a desert would gulp down a warm Mountain Dew given half a chance, so too do I cling to “good” movies during a dry spell.

Which brings us to “Prometheus,” director Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to the sci-fi genre in general and the “Alien” universe in particular. The film is not without its drawbacks (the unnecessarily protracted first 30 minutes may be enough to bore you out of the theater, were it not for Scott’s predictably impressive production design), and to say that it lives up to expectations would be stretching the truth just a bit. But hot damn, after the kind of dreck we’ve been subjected to these past few months, it definitely feels like a triumph.

And there are other potential triumphs on the horizon. Next week we’ve got “Rock of Ages” to deal with (my interest in the film has been tempered by a closer look at the trailer and some vicious word of mouth), but after that it’s all sunshine and lollipops with Pixar’s girl-power epic “Brave” and Steven Soderbergh’s male-stripper ditty “Magic Mike.” This will be a solid summer yet! (That may be a delusion, but believing it will at least help me sleep tonight.)

First, rumors started swirling that “Prometheus”  was going to be a prequel to Ridley Scott’s revolutionary sci-fi/horror masterpiece “Alien,” with Scott attached to return as director. Then Scott himself squashed these rumors by stating definitively that, while it may have some peripheral connection to his 1979 film, this would most certainly not be an “Alien” movie. It was finally released, and many reports confirmed Scott’s claim. So let me clear up the confusion: “Prometheus” is unquestionably an “Alien” prequel, and anyone saying otherwise is either being willfully obtuse or too paranoid about spoilers.

In a sense, this is a “stand-alone” movie with its own story and characters that could still function if removed from the “Alien” universe. It tells the story of the Prometheus, a research vessel dispatched to a distant planet to discover the origins of life on Earth, transporting a doomed crew that includes a handful of grunts, some overly curious scientists and, as per usual, an android with an ambiguous agenda (Michael Fassbender, easily the standout in an impressive cast). They find some startling answers to their Big Questions, and in the process uncover the terrible secret of space that threatens to destroy not only them, but all mankind.

You could show the film to someone who had never even heard of the “Alien” franchise, and they would understand and appreciate it to a satisfactory extent. And that’s all well and good, but the film’s “stand-alone” status doesn’t alter the fact that the precious few answers discovered by the end of “Prometheus” are intrinsically tied to the “Alien” franchise. The story’s primary antagonists were featured briefly in Scott’s original film, and the implications of their actions in this prequel have a profound effect on our understanding of the events of the entire series. So it’s not a prequel simply because it doesn’t feature the classic “aliens” or face-huggers? That may be the dumbest thing I’ve heard in at least a month, but it seems to be a popular opinion.

“Prometheus” presents more of a probing, philosophical/theological approach to sci-fi than its action/horror-geared brethren (I’m sure that’s why Scott wanted to downplay the franchise connections). Who are we? Where do we come from? Why has our maker abandoned us? Are we playing god in regards to our development of artificial intelligence? What does it all mean? Who invented liquid soap and why? Few answers are offered, but in the end that’s not really the point. The film probes these issues in a sophisticated and engaging manner, and is sure to spur some stimulating discussions. Many of these discussions will surely revolve around Space Jockeys and the “Alien” franchise, but at least there is more lofty potential.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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