The way some people are talking about this film, it’s as if they think Ridley Scott to be the film’s namesake, gracing us with talent that could only have been stolen from Gods. After all, he has done it before, time and time again, with personal favorites including but not limited to Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, Blade Runner, and especially, especially Alien. These films are epic in scale, beautiful to behold, and feature larger-than-life characters who act remarkably human.
So it’s fair to say I have high expectations of Scott, and higher ones of his return to the Alien Universe, which has been besmirched in its countless iterations. Ridley Scott returns to the genre he created (or at least reinvented) and honestly, I wish he hadn’t.
That’s not entirely fair. I still hope he will, and I’ll reserve my full judgment until after the sequel, but I have this nagging feeling it is I who will suffer the fate of his film’s namesake, forced to suffer repeated punishment for attaching myself passionately to one genre. Perhaps I’m too particular with my sci-fi tastes. Maybe I should just go play more Dead Space.
Sure, Prometheus has beautiful and believable special effects, its share of visually arresting sets, and a decent score. But those should be a given in a Scott film. And yes, I did prefer it on my second viewing. But I want more, and it’s insulting to Scott to expect less.
Here are my problems with the film; writing, acting, and direction.
Prometheus begins with a clockwork setup spanning millennia, promising an intricate story whose pieces just might explain the origin of the lethal xenomorphs (the alien monster), their connection with the mysterious Space Jockey of the first film, and, if we’re lucky, the answers to mankind’s most important questions of how, why, and who. Instead, the story stumbles over its complexity and ambiguities, gifting us only vague hints, half-baked ideas, and a enervating finale. I’m not one to complain about a few loose ends or inexplicable motivations, especially in a sci-fi flick, but these faults are the rule, not the exception.
Enter Damon Lindelof, co-creater of Lost, script re-writer for Prometheus, and master of recondite plots. Lindelof suggests the script is too reliant on concepts from the Alien series and proceeds to style the script into his “let’s see how much nonsense our fanboys will justify and media scholars with analyze to death because hey…it’s way too late to back out now” school of screenwriting he uses so liberally in Lost. He sees no reason to feature xenomorphs and all their familiar tropes because, after all, Prometheus shares only “strands of Alien’s DNA.” So sure, Prometheus is not technically a prequel. Instead of coming into its own, it comes across more like amateur Canadian fan fiction.
Lindelof begins Prometheus with a first-rate first act rife with religious imagery, mythological meta-stories, philosophical conundrums, and sci-fi tradition…everything that might imply an epic and intricate conclusion. It hints at depth without being too complicated and has many signs of being a great script. As Lindelof’s story gets more convoluted, it’s as if he confuses himself in his ambition. George R. R. Martin he isn’t, and Lindelof’s writing gets lost in its grandeur, totally ignores his protagonists, and then fizzles out when it should be going supernova.
The writing reminds me of the great leaps of faith the Wachowski “brothers” demanded of the audience with their The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions. It was apparent after the trilogy concluded that it takes more than liberal sprinklings of religious imagery, hints of a grander story, and promises of an epic conclusion to distract an audience from clumsy writing. It is said of the Targaryens that greatness and madness are but two sides of the same coin. Likewise, when writing with such ambition, I believe banality and profundity share the same relationship. Every time I watch a film with a wildly ambitious first act, I hold my breath, hoping the coin lands true. While I don’t need a director to hold my hand and tell me everything, I don’t want him to cast the widest net possible in the hopes his smarter viewers give credit where it isn’t due.
The real stars of sci-fi movies are all-to-often the special effects or grand plots, but it’s folly to ignore what I consider the most important element of space flicks…human interactions. What’s so great about space as a narrative device? It isolates and humbles humans with its lonely, vast distances and relative scales. It challenges us by making our most simple behaviors of moving, breathing, and eating difficult or deadly. And, as a young McCoy puts it: “Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence,” it scares us with its limitless unknowns. Prometheus touches on these elements, but its characters seem relatively unphased.
The Prometheus cast is rife with wasted or miscast talent, with the obvious exception of David, Fassbender’s curiously curious android. The acting is at times painfully wooden, with little and less motivation, development, or depth. It’s cliche to say the most emotion from any actor came from David the robot, but I’ll say it anyways. Why is Captain Janek so downright negligent? Why is Charlize such a bitch? Why is Holloway such a movie-bully to David? Why cast Guy Pierce as a decrepit old man? Why not cast Bishop? And the lead girl just sorta sucks.
I am aware sci-fi needs its share of negligent captains, boastful soldier-types, and reckless scientists, but it seems like the entire crew of the Prometheus is comprised of “first-to-die” nitwits, cowards, and hot-heads that have no business being on an interstellar expedition…much less a Ridley Scott cast. Darth Sidious’s appearance at the end of the film seals the deal of hilarious archetypes, unless you count Charlize “Ice Queen” Theron’s hilarious Disney death as a result of her inability to perform lateral movement.
When I think Alien, I want to think horror, and body horror at that. I long to see the tension and sheer terror as a result getting being hunted by some unknown, unseen horror. I want more David Cronenberg “new flesh,” foreign entities invading our body, humans slimed and cocooned and treated as egg sacs, men getting pregnant, etc.
Prometheus ambles along with no tension at all, and features precious few of the aforementioned endearing elements that are a hallmark of the Alien series: that brilliant abortion scene, some phallic/vaginal cobras the scientists mistake for a cute pet, a giant starfish and Darth Sidious’s thoroughly disgusting feet. There was little suspense, less getting chased or hiding, and when it came down to it, no fighting (where did that ax go?). I do believe the actors’ shortcomings are no small part of this lack of tension.
In terms of personal preference, beautiful sets ‘inspired by’ (ie stolen from ) HR Giger and revolutionary special effects (that level of SFX perfection where you don’t even notice them), weren’t enough to save the mise-en-scene from its lack of artsy composition or slower pacing that I prefer in my sci-fi. Some complaints point towards its unimaginative plot elements. But I believe sci-fi’s a referential genre—Prometheus is no exception, paying homage to its predecessors, Alien films included.
There are a lot of great things to be said about Prometheus, and you can read them anywhere. So yea, it’s a great scifi movie. But I want more. I want a unbelievable movie…a visceral movie. I’m selfish like that, and my disappointment is a result of my high expectations of what I believe Alien to be.
The android David counters Holloway’s cruel ‘because we could’ comment with the riposte “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” I’m glad Prometheus will never have to struggle with its own inadequacies, ever-fearful that Ridley Scott revisted Alien simply because he could.
Bonus Section: What to see instead
Space is the Place:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Blade Runner (1982)
- Moon (2009)
- Sunshine (2007)
- Stalker (1979)
- Duck Dodgers and the 24 1/2 Century (1953)
- The Host (2006)
- Below (2002)…well, it’s basically space
- Pitch Black (2000)
- Solaris (1972 & 2002)
- Pandorum (2009)
- Alien (1979)
- Aliens (1986)
- Dead Space and Natural Selection (video games)
- The Descent (2005)
- Ren and Stimpy S01E03 “Space Madness” and S01E05 “Marooned” (1991)
- The Terminator (1984)
- Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989)
- Altered States (1980)
- The Thing (1982)
- Event Horizon (1997)
- Hellraiser (1987)
- eXistenZ (1999), the Fly(1986), or any other David Cronenberg flicks