So it’s finally here. Prometheus is in cinemas, but letting a ton of fans down hard. I’d hoped they were wrong and just had their expectations too high, but I must admit that I had a small amount of trepidation all along. I didn’t want to admit to it, but could the power of Alien be replicated in today’s industry? Could Ridley Scott recapture that magic, or at least deliver a quality film?
Sadly, the answer is no on all counts. Prometheus is a beautiful moron of a film, squandering gorgeous production values on an ambitious but dimwitted and undisciplined screenplay. A few elements entice, but beyond that, it’s a failure.
That’s my spoiler-free assessment, but to discuss why the film doesn’t work, I need to get spoilery. The full, ruin-the-movie-for-you review is under the cut if you’ve seen the film or don’t care about a plot that will likely piss you off.
During its development, Prometheus morphed from a two-film Alien prequel to a single film without the word Alien in the title. When Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof was hired to rewrite Jon Spaihts’s script, he argued that the film should be less tied to the 1979 original in order to function as its own film. Scott agreed, and so speculation began on this added layer of mystery: how exactly Prometheus would or wouldn’t tie into Alien. Scott would only say that it shared the same DNA as Alien, which turned out to be a plot giveaway because that’s exactly how the creatures in this film connect to the xenomorphs.
The ubiquity of franchised films made Prometheus‘s wilful disconnection from its roots refreshing and seductive, but consequentally the film is thoroughly muddled. Still obliged to connect to Alien even if it doesn’t feature the creatures as we know them, Prometheus occupies a strange limbo. Although replicating the sophisticated slasher style of the original with new, vaguely connected monsters, it also tackles the von Daniken notion that humanity was seeded by an alien race similar to us. For reasons left strikingly unclear, these life-loving aliens genetically engineered horrific creatures to serve as weapons of mass destruction which then pick off the crew of the Prometheus. They intended to use them to destroy the humans they created and perhaps other races on other planets.
Why, you ask? That fundamental question, the point of the entire film, has to wait for a sequel that may never be made, apart from a hinted notion that the Engineers are punishing us for crucifying Jesus, who was actually himself an Engineer. Leaving aside the value of that plot nugget, it’s peripheral to a plot that distracts with its voluminous inconsistencies and plot holes. Themes of faith and Christian religion are broached too haphazardly for the implication to seem fundamental. Instead, it becomes an afterthought perhaps left ambiguous because it was not properly integrated into the script.
That the script was written by Lindelof should therefore come as no surprise. Lost demonstrated his conviction that posing a question that suggested a concrete rather than pleasantly ambiguous answer is more satisfactory than answering it. Best to keep the audience guessing or leave them to grasping for any point at all (Lost in Space, indeed.) Say what you will about the superfluous Avatar sequels that are in development, but at least that film provided a complete arc.
So we are left with a pick-em-off SF horror movie that looks marvellous, but offers little else. Arthur Max’s production design is quite ravishing, incorporating H.R. Giger’s designs for the then-unnamed Engineers’s ship in Alien. The planet itself looks sufficiently real and close to our own yet still wrong somehow, so it looks quite wondrous. The film is almost worth seeing for the visuals alone, but for little beyond that.
Michael Fassbender is typically strong as the android David, seemingly convinced he is in a much better film than his castmates. He’s the only fleshed-out character, thanks to Fassbender’s performance and an early sequence of him roaming the ship while the crew are in stasis. The scene of him watching and mimicing Lawrence of Arabia has a texture and richness reminsicent of Scott’s early films. It wouldn’t be out of place in Blade Runner. How ironic that the android character is the only one who exhibits any inner life at all. I’d suggest the irony was deliberate if the neglect of the human characters didn’t scupper the film.
The script abandons everyone else, leaving the actors to fend for themselves as they react to horrific things and attempt to inject some feeling into cliched dialogue like “What the hell are you doing!” and “You’re the most special person I’ve ever met”. Sadly, lead Noomi Rapace can’t even do that. She’s terrific when panicking and freaking out, particularly in the intense abdominal surgery scene that is a highlight of the film. Otherwise, her delivery is flat and uninviting. Elizabeth Shaw does little to garner our sympathy or interest. She’s just a scientist on a mission with a scientist boyfriend. This is my first Rapace film, so I’m struggling to see the appeal that led Scott to fight for her to be cast.
Everyone else is going through the motions. Her boyfriend, Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) is a buff dude who knows stuff and doesn’t like androids (congratulations Lindelof on squeezing in hackneyed android prejudice where none is needed). Charlize Theron is servicably chilly as corporate observer Vickers, whose deepening is scuppered by the yawn-inducing revelation that Weyland is her father, complete with sledgehammer-subtle delivery that undercuts any resonance it might have had.
And the cast is otherwise too big. Who cares about the two guys on the bridge when they sacrifice themselves at the end? Pointlessly, I might add. Both Alien and Aliens had a manageable cast where each character and actor got to make an impression. Not so here.
And nice as it always is to see Guy Pearce, why in the name of all that is holy was he cast to play an old man?! Was the TED viral video that important to them? Is there a shortage of old actors who can work the requisite hours? I suspect a scene with him as a younger man must have been cut or left unfilmed. Ditto Patrick Wilson in a grainy flashback; why cast him in such an unremarkable scene?
I’m trying to resist unfair comparisons to Alien–or any, for that matter–but what it achieved with characterisation is instructive for all contemporary films that coast like this, not just Prometheus. The script didn’t bother with backstory. Instead, the characters feel authentic and lived-in. The naturalistic acting style helped, with overlapping lines in Altman-esque fashion, but much more was conveyed with little. Recall the scene where Ripley confronts Ash about opening the ship doors against her order. The purpose of the scene is straightforward and the dialogue not particularly resonant, but the interaction is rich with nuance through body language and tiny asides.
Obviously, an Altman approach may not fly now as it did in 1979. But the fundamental lessons remain. Good writing generates character economically and without exposition. Instead, Prometheus‘s script is content to spout cliches and call it emotion. I cared about no-one.
This is so prevalent a trend in blockbuster filmmaking, even in films I’m excited for like Prometheus, that I’m becoming seriously burned out. It’s not as easy as flicking a switch, but I want to stop anticipating films. Following their progress and development is enjoyable, but takes time and energy that so rarely pays off. The Avengers did and The Dark Knight Rises hopefully will, but too many still disappoint.
If Prometheus‘s narrative had worked, then I might not feel so jaded. But it’s a trainwreck. In addition to the sleight-of-hand I mentioned earlier regarding the Engineers’s motivations, there are numerous plot holes and boneheaded decisions that undermine the film’s ambition.
For one thing, it even fails to set up the very situation that inspired this film in the first place: the Space Jockey in the chair. Granted, Scott and Lindelof veered away from creating an overt prequel, but since that control room is prominently featured in the film, why not connect the films? Instead, the sole living Engineer is impregnated and dies in Vickers’s shuttle, with a more fully formed creature emerging that resembles an Alien, only less primally horrifying. Why not have the Engineer return to the ship after being impregnated, as Kane does in Alien, climb into the chair, and then have the alien burst out of him. Simple, no?
Apparently not. After all, the control room contains several dead bodies, including Weyland. The Nostromo crew don’t find them in Alien. So was that ship one of the others on the moon that David mentioned? If so, that ship also emerged from the ground, and also crashed, just as this one did? And was also overrun by the biological WMD cargo it was carrying? Seriously?
It appears that this moon is entirely different to the one the Nostromo visits. Indeed, this moon is LV223, whereas the Alien moon is LV426, as designated in Aliens. However, both orbit a massive planet with a small set of rings, and combined with the crashed ship, we’d be forgiven for thinking it was the same planet. If it wasn’t, why go to the trouble of replicating the circumstances of Alien and confusing us?
There are numerous other plot holes the characters have to leap over. In one scene, Rafe Spall’s biologist character is too freaked out to touch a clearly dead Engineer. But in the next, he happily approaches the alive and potentially deadly snake creatures that emerge from the black liquid. Plus, Sean Harris’s geologist gets lost despite being the one mapping the tunnels. Best of all, Idris Elba’s Janek walks in at one point to hastily explain to Shaw that, of course, the structure is a military installation for the creation of living WMDs, which then turned against their creators. When was this made obvious? Might have been nice if we could learned this at the time rather than through exposition.
And then there’s the long list of truly stupid or bizarre character actions. I’m appalled at the nerve or at least obliviousness of Scott deploring the Alien vs Predator films when he’s delivered one equally foolish. Let’s run through them.
- The Prometheus crew violate virtually every scientific and investigative principle, constantly compromising their own safety. Holloway removes his helmet because his readings declare the air breathable, despite the risk of toxins they cannot take. The rest of the crew follow suit.
- That they wander straight into the tomb/ship without first sending probes to map and scan the area (because they clearly don’t have that capacity…) is itself moronic.
- Spall’s character, a skilled enough biologist that he is hired for a trillion-dollar expedition, tries to pet an unknown massive cobra-like creature.
- Idris Elba proves himself a shitty captain, smoking a cigar in a spaceship and laughing at the crewmembers left behind in an uncharted alien space. He does somehow know the storm will be over by morning though, despite not being skilled enough to see it coming before it appeared on the horizon.
- Why does David see fit to risk his own security and that of Weyland by testing the effect of the ooze on Holloway rather than with, you know, the scientific method?
- After experiencing an unthinkable physical and emotional trauma by operating on herself to remove a foreign parasite from her womb, Shaw goes on the next expedition. Plus, no-one in Weyland’s room seems to care that she has wandered in half-naked, covered in blood with a stapled abdominal scar.
- And why does Shaw tell no-one about the squid baby in Weyland’s surgery machine, both to vent about “holy shit, you’ll never guess what happened” and also to ensure it’s definitely dead. Even David doesn’t care. Incidentally, how does it grow to that mass at the end with no other matter in the room for it to process?
- Why the hell would Weyland fund a trillion-dollar expedition on the off-chance that they will actually meet the aliens and that they might just offer him immortality, despite no suggestion that they have this capability?
- Why does the Engineer find it necessary to chase and kill Shaw? How does he even know where she is? If he is sufficiently invested in his mission to kill the pesky humans in his control room, why doesn’t he run to one of the other two ships to head to Earth?
- Oh, and how does he plan to use these living WMDs when they are so volatile that they killed off the entire crew? This time, there’s just him.
- Oh yeah, and if the Engineer can breathe the moon’s air, why is the air on the ship human breathable? How can he breathe both?
- And how does human and Engineer DNA match when there are abundantly obvious differences between us.
How was this script greenlit?!!
After the wretched Robin Hood and now this, Ridley Scott has clearly become incapable of developing a worthwhile script and eliciting vital, strong performances. Nothing in Prometheus is significantly more stylish or accomplished than other conventional blockbusters. Scott clearly has a lot of confidence visually, but that’s it. The radical, understated spark of his older films is gone. Sure, directors change and he’s an older man now, but you’d expect his facility for directing actors and building characters and narrative would improve rather than wither.
Although not as serious, his decline reminds me of that of George Lucas: he is no longer capable of subtlety. He openly prides himself on delivering fiscally responsible, efficient, and technically accomplished films. He declares he is a businessman as well as an artist. Well Ridley, that much is clear. You’ve assembled all the ingredients of a successful, satisfying science fiction epic, but failed to stir and cook them.
My god, what a letdown. Big filmmaking has almost lost me. Time for me to broaden my film education, watch more indie and foreign films, or just read more. Hollywood is failing us again and again, promising audacity and delivering product to get, in Scott’s words, “bums in seats”.
So where’s my Kindle?…