I am surprised at the reception Prometheus is getting in the press. I wasn’t a huge fan, but for the most part, it’s getting positive reviews, even from people I’d expect wouldn’t review it well. Adam from Filmspotting gave it a pass (to his credit, Josh did not), Ebert gave it 4 stars, A.O. Scott was generally positive, and heck, even the snobs over at the Slate Culture Gabfest were pretty happy with the movie. In fact, it seems like everyone is talking about this movie. The weird thing about all this is that every one of those positive reviews acknowledges the things I hate about this movie, but for some reason, they don’t seem to care as much. The consensus seems to be that the movie is gorgeous and visually stunning, but stupid (which is usually attributed to the script). I agree with that, but I guess I place a higher value on storytelling than critics.
I suppose I can see where they’re coming from, but as a Science Fiction nerd, I’m wondering if I hold movies like this to a higher standard than the more general film nerds out there. Part of it is that there really are so few science fiction movies out there that actually capture the same sensawunda feeling I get from reading science fiction… and one of those movies is definitely Ridley Scott’s first Alien film. To me, this sets a high bar, and Prometheus doesn’t even come close to that level of storytelling.
Prometheus certainly strives for more than Alien, and I suspect that ambition mollifies some critics, but I would much rather a film that delivers on what it promises than a film that reaches for the stars and doesn’t even come close. I’m ultimately not even really willing to credit the film for ambition, as its attempts at depth are all ham-fisted and awkward at best.
The film certainly starts out with some promise. I was a little on-edge when we first see the spaceship in a series of admittedly pretty establishing shots. This is a nitpick, but the engines were firing, as if the ship was in a constant state of acceleration. This is typical in a Hollywood film, but rewatching Alien made it a depressing thing – this was something the earlier film got right. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not important, and I was willing to overlook it at first, but looking back on the film now, I find it emblematic of the intelligence displayed in the film. This is where being a science fiction fan probably kicks in – I like a film that at least makes an effort at scientific plausibility and rigor, and this film has almost none.
I was quickly heartened to see the montage of the robot David, played excellently by Michael Fassbender, as he went about his duties on the ship while the human crew slept for the 2 year duration of the trip. There’s a focus on character there that isn’t really present in the rest of the film. After that opening sequence, Fassbender’s David is generally relegated to playing the sinister robot that no one can trust. This is also a bit depressing, because at one point, it almost seemed like the film was really going to deliver on the parallels between the humans looking for their creators, and David’s struggle with his. Part of the problem with any ensemble piece is that the story will often not give enough attention to the side characters, or it will give too much attention to everyone and muddle the results. We see both in this film. I think there was a lot of potential in the story for David’s character, but it is mostly squandered.
The more we learn about the plot, the worse the movie gets. We’re treated to a clumsy scene of exposition where the two main scientists in charge of the expedition explain what’s going on, and in the process they neglect to display any scientific prowess at all. They make crazy inferences from millenia-old cave paintings, attribute the whole thing to a race of “engineers” that actually created the human race (despite not having even a modicum of evidence), and fall back on spiritual hooey when questioned. Now, the whole science versus faith struggle can be an interesting one and certainly warrants exploration, but while this film makes overtures in that direction, it never really goes more than skin deep. These are just sloppy plot points used to get our hapless humans into dangerous situations with monsters and stuff.
Charlize Theron plays the corporate suit, meant to be smarmy and icy cold like the other businessfolk in the Alien universe, but she never quite comes off that way. She seems mildly selfish and concerned with her own well-being, but her display of basic knowledge about things like quarantines (I mean, seriously? This is an expedition to find alien life on an alien planet, and there’s no easy quarantine procedure?) and self-preservation comes off as being slightly refreshing in a movie where a geologist responsible for mapping an alien cave system gets lost. I think Theron’s performance is pretty good, but she’s just written very poorly. She has a scene with the ships captain, Idris Elba (who does a fair enough job representing the “trucker in space” archetype established in the original Alien), which is cliched and a little off, but actually works because, you know, there’s two people acting like normal human beings. But otherwise, she’s given some pretty shit lines (I found it odd that she actually pronounced the word comma between “No, father” at one supposedly revealing scene later in the movie… oh wait, she didn’t pronounce it, the script was just that bad) and her characters arc really goes nowhere.
I don’t want to turn this into a catalog of nitpicks and complaints about how wrong everything is in the movie. Others have done a pretty good job nailing stuff like that down, but I do want to call out the worst offender. Right, so we have a group of scientists exploring a series of alien cave systems. They come across a long-deal alien being. The geologist immediately freaks out and wants to leave, which, ok, fair enough. Then the biologist joins him? In other words, the person who would ostensibly be the most interested in a dead alien body decides to leave too. Ok, fine, I can deal with that I guess. Then they get lost, which I think I already mentioned makes no sense, as the geologist has been mapping the entire place with his fancy probes, but whatever, they’re lost and there’s a storm outside and no one can get them. So they make their way to the creepiest location in the building, a room with a bunch of vases leaking suspicious black liquid. Ok, sure, let’s go with it. Then an obviously aggressive and terrifying snake-like alien creature pops up like a cobra, spreading some flaps to reveal its teeth… and the biologist guy decides to approach it like it was some sort of adorable puppy. Now look, I get it, these characters aren’t aware that they’re in a horror movie, and as a prequel, they’re unaware that this thing has face-hugger-like attributes, but it’s acting in obviously threatening ways and the biologist, of all people, decides he should just stick his hand in its mouth or something? To no one’s surprise, it attacks him and eventually shoves its way down his throat, doing god knows what to him. Quite frankly, I don’t even really remember what comes of him. It’s sorta dropped later in the movie.
Like the aforementioned thrusting engines at the beginning of the movie, this is just one representative example of the many things this movie gets so very wrong. It’s a movie that pretends it has some sort of lofty goals of exploring mankind and creation and spirituality and all sorts of stuff, but the fact of the matter is that the people in this movie aren’t really characters. Some of them get a solid set-piece or two, but they’re otherwise bland plot-delivery devices, useful only so that the screenwriters can tell us what the movie is about (rather than letting us grapple with those big questions ourselves). Like I said, some of the characters get some good moments, but these only become more frustrating when you realize that they don’t really add up to anything.
For example, there is a great set-piece where our main protagonist (at least, I think she is) finds out that she’s “pregnant”… of course, she’s pregnant with some sort of alien organism, rather than a real child (in an awkward exchange earlier in the film, we learned that she was barren). Sinister robot David wants to freeze her for the trip home (normally that sort of thing would be left to the corporate weenie of the expedition, but whatever), but she bravely escapes and runs to a med-pod and gets it to extract the organism. It’s actually a really well executed sequence, and Noomi Rapace gives a great, raw performance here… but it’s just sorta floating in the middle of the movie. It’s not entirely clear why any of that happened or what difference it made and it doesn’t really fit with the whole biology of the Alien universe. In fact, the movie seems to assume that complexity is what makes the whole Alien life-cycle interesting, but that’s just so wrong. The original Alien portrayed a rather elegant system, and Aliens grew on that and expanded it in a logical way. This film just throws in extra steps and new creatures for the sake of doing so.
The film is gorgeous, well composed, even a little interesting. The first forty minutes or so show a lot of potential, but the rest of the movie fails to deliver on any of that promise. Nearly everything about this movie is well done, except for the script, which is just horrible. The fact that it’s a prequel to Alien, a movie that got all of these things right, only makes it more disappointing. I suspect that Sonny Bunch is right when he speculates as to how this movie got to be made as an Alien prequel, rather than as a standalone feature:
Ridley Scott: You see, it’s a movie about finding out who we are. It’s a search for God, in a way—and a reflection of what happens when God has judged you to be a mistake. We’re talking a big budget, high-octane movie with a spiritual side.
Fox Exec: Well, Sir Ridley, I’d be interested if the price is right.
RS: I’d say we can do this for, I dunno, $150M or so.
FE: Yeah, well, I dunno about that. I mean, your last few flicks haven’t exactly blown away the bean counters—Robin Hood, Body of Lies, American Gangster, A Good Year, Kingdom of Heaven…that’s a decade of flops, man. I’m not sure I can really authorize that kind of scratch.
RS: OK, well…….what if it’s a prequel to Alien? ::shrugging::
FE: HERE’S ALL OF THE MONEYS. ::hands over bag with dollar sign on it::
I don’t know that it happened exactly like that, but I do know that the prequel aspects of this movie are absolutely worthless. It adds nothing important to the Alien canon, and you could argue that it, in fact, subtracts rather much from the series. This could have been a good movie, which only makes it all the more depressing. Given Ridley Scott’s previous work, I have to wonder if there aren’t a few other versions of this film on the cutting room floor. Perhaps one with a noir-like voiceover that the studio thought might work, and a 5 hour directors cut or something. But I really can’t see how that could possibly save this turkey. There’s enough interesting stuff going on in the movie that it always manages to hold your attention, and I suppose there’s a few scenes were big stuff done blow up real good, but the film is ultimately lacking in the most important area: the storytelling.