Widening the thematic scope without sacrificing too much of the claustrophobia that made the original 1979 Alien universally spooky Prometheus takes the trophy for this summer's most adult-oriented blockbuster entertainment. The movie will leave your mouth agape for its entire runtime first with its majestic exploration of an alien planet and conjectures on the origins of the human race second with its gross-out body horror that leaves no spilled gut to the imagination. Thin characters feel more like pawns in Scott's sci-fi prequel but stunning visuals shocking turns and grand questions more than make up for the shallow ensemble. "Epic" comes in many forms. Prometheus sports all of them.
Based on their discovery of a series of cave drawings all sharing a similar painted design Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are recruited by Weyland to head a mission to another planet one they believe holds the answers to the creation of life on Earth. Along for the journey are Vickers (Charlize Theron) the ruthless Weyland proxy Janek (Idris Elba) a blue collar captain a slew of faceless scientists and David (Michael Fassbender) HAL 9000-esque resident android who awakens the crew of spaceship Prometheus when they arrive to their destination. Immediately upon descent there's a discovery: a giant mound that's anything but natural. The crew immediately prepares to scope out the scene zipping up high-tech spacesuits jumping in futuristic humvees and heading out to the site. What they discover are the awe-inspiring creations of another race. What they bring back to the ship is what they realize may kill their own.
The first half of Prometheus could be easily mistaken for Steven Spielberg's Alien a sense of wonder glowing from every frame not too unlike Close Encounters. Scott takes full advantage of his fictional settings and imbues them with a reality that makes them even more tantalizing. He shoots the vistas of space and the alien planet like National Geographic porn and savors the interior moments on board the Prometheus full of hologram maps sleeping pods and do-it-yourself surgery modules with the same attention. Prometheus is beautiful shot in immersive 3D that never dampers Dariusz Wolski's sharp photography. Scott's direction seems less interested in the run-or-die scenario set up in the latter half of the film but the film maintains tension and mood from beginning to end. It all just gets a bit…bloodier.
Jon Spaihts' and Damon Lindelof's script doesn't do the performers any favors shuffling them to and fro between the ship and the alien construction without much room for development. Reveals are shoehorned in without much setup (one involving Theron's Vickers that's shockingly mishandled) but for the most part the ensemble is ready to chomp into the script's bigger picture conceits. Rapace is a physical performer capable of pulling off a grisly scene involving an alien some sharp objects and a painful procedure (sure to be the scene of the blockbuster season. Among the rest of the crew Fassbender's David stands out as the film's revelatory performance delivering a digestible ambiguity to his mechanical man that playfully toys with expectations from his first entrance. The creature effects in Prometheus will wow you but even Fassbender's smallest gesture can send the mind spinning. The power of his smile packs more of a punch than any facehugger.
Much like Lindelof's Lost Prometheus aims to explore the idea of asking questions and seeking answers and on Scott's scale it's a tremendous unexpected ride. A few ideas introduced to spur action fall to the way side in the logic department but with a clear mission and end point Prometheus works as a sweeping sci-fi that doesn't require choppy editing or endless explosions to keep us on the edge of our seats. Prometheus isn't too far off from the Alien xenomorphs: born from existing DNA of another creature the movie breaks out as its own beast. And it's wilder than ever.
Way before streaming movies and the swiftly disappearing DVDs and the dear departed video rental stores, my step-father had a big bookshelf filled with VHS tapes on which he’d recorded movies from Showtime, HBO, PBS, Cinemax, whatever he could finagle. That bookshelf constituted my early film education, and one of the movies on regular rotation was Disney’s groundbreaking movie TRON.
The movie wasn’t my first encounter with the world outlined in blue and red, that came when my family went to Disneyland back when they had the PeopleMover, a sort of tram ride that at one point took you inside the world of TRON, light cycles zooming past you as the tram made its way through the grid.
So I love TRON, and I was excited to see TRON: Legacy, negative word of mouth notwithstanding. I brought up my excitement to my writing buddy Greg, only to learn that he thinks the original TRON totally stinks. I cast about for confirmation from someone, anyone, that TRON’s great and nobody except my friends Limor and Phil seem to agree that TRON’s, you know, totally awesome. But they’re so nuts about TRON that they made a TRON bag.
In an effort to mount my defense I went back and watched TRON one more time, and what I saw did nothing to get in the way of calling this week’s classic movie.
First, the bad. A lot of the efforts to make the computer world seem like our workaday world get real cheesy real fast. Trying to make a one-to-one balance in a totally alien world just doesn’t ring true, and has the flavor of bad 70’s science fiction. There’s also a certain cheese factor to the real world sequences, but a lot of that comes from the simple fact that the gleam has long left the video arcade rose. What was edgy in the 80’s can fit in your phone today. The acting in general isn't great, but it’s serviceable, and as always Jeff Bridges could do anything and make me believe it.
Nobody questions TRON as a technical achievement that created an entire virtual world through the combination of computer animation and a process called “backlit animation.” For backlit animation, all of the scenes in the computer world were shot on completely black and white sets. Once the shots were developed, artists processed each frame in a process similar to conventional animation. The fully computer animated sequences, which comprise less than twenty minutes of the film, animators used a computer that had a memory of 2 MB with 330 MB of storage. That’s one of the reasons the movie is so dark: black backgrounds require less detail and therefore less memory.
The secret stars of the film are designers Syd Mead, of Blade Runner fame, and French comic book artist, Mobius. If you’ve read any of Mobius’s brilliant comics you’ll recognize his signature style in the costumes worn by the programs, while you can see echoes of Syd Mead’s Blade Runner hovercars in the light cycles. Mobius and Mead do for TRON what H.R. Geiger did for Alien: create a cohesive world that feels somehow sensual and technological all at once.
The secret strength of TRON, however, is in the way it wields metaphor. 1982 is two years before William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer gave us a vision of cyberspace that was at once compelling, sexy, and relentlessly functional. Gibson famously wrote this most computer-centric of novels on a manual typewriter in his kitchen. He’s said that at the time he wrote the book, he knew next to nothing about computers, and instead looked at cyberspace as a metaphor for memory. That’s what Gibson saw when he looked into the depths of cyberspace.
When Lisburger looked into the depths of the cyberspace he saw the shape of a new religion. The programs who live in the computer world of TRON believe they can find salvation from the imperial machinations of the Master Control Program only through their users. Only by serving their users can the programs realize their true purpose. Lisburger asked the question “What are the theological and philosophical consequences of creating a digital ecology?” Which is, of course, what cyberspace is, and why fighting for freedom inside of it is so important. The fact that Lisburger’s asking the question with glowing blue and jai alai deathmatches, only makes TRON all the more awesome.
Incidentally, this is exactly where TRON: Legacy stumbles all over itself. Legacy can’t decide whether it’s about freedom of information, father/son dynamics, or the consequences of spontaneously evolved artificial life. Worse, when it addresses those issues it does so through talking, as opposed to dramatizing it through story, which is exactly what TRON does so well. Aside from a perfect score from Daft Punk, TRON: Legacy is exactly what detractors have always said of the original TRON: technological spectacle with very little substance.
I probably won’t ever convince Greg that TRON is a great movie, but I’m okay with that. I’ll save my enthusiasm for folks who get the “Now THAT is a big door!” joke, know what it’s like to dance your ass off to Daft Punk at 3:00 A.M., and spend their time teaching people how to make their very own TRON paraphernalia. I’m talking to you, Limor and Phil.