Thirty-three years ago we were told that in space no one could hear you scream. But with massive financial and critical success and an enormous fanbase that extends beyond the remits of traditional science fiction, millions heard Alien’s call.
Ridley Scott’s “serial killer loose in a haunted house… in space” movie managed to do two things that have made it one of American cinema’s most iconic films: it utilised the ideal horror movie pacing perfected during the 1970s; and it gave audiences more iconic visuals than most directors can create in a career – including three creatures (or rather stages of a single creature) that are burned into the public consciousness forever more.
Where the franchise went next is well known; a hugely successful (and worthy) action movie sequel followed before diminishing returns struck with a vengeance, resulting in cash-in crossovers with the Predator movies. Now Scott has returned to the franchise and the genre that made his name, setting a sci-fi epic in the universe that he, writer Dan O’Bannon, Walter Hill, James Cameron, H. R. Giger and others have built over the years.
So you’ll forgive me if I’m going to compare Prometheus to Alien. Because the comparison is drawn in the material, it is drawn in the film’s advertising and it is drawn by their shared director. I will, however, also critique this film with my Alien cap off (if I had an Alien cap, it would look like a facehugger for the top of my head), lest anyone accuse me of being a fanboy disappointed that Prometheus did not live up to expectations.
Because expectations aside, in front, wherever; Prometheus is a troubled beast.
The film is set mostly in 2093, aboard the exploratory spaceship Prometheus. The crew have come to a newly discovered planet, deep in space, following archaeological evidence that points to early human contact with alien life forms. These creatures may or may not be the creators of all life on Earth, and are therefore our gods. Either way, they left us a way of finding them.
We are first introduced to David, an android, played with perfect disconnect and scene-stealing dryness by Michael Fassbender. His mechanical motives are for the most part unclear, but he is a welcome reintroduction to the Alien universe. He bears a somewhat unhealthy fascination for the archaeologist couple at the film’s centre, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). The pair argue about her faith even as their exploration clearly shows her faith to be erroneous. Sure, why not? Aren’t these the kind of questions sci-fi should be dealing with in absolutes?
It is not long after exploring one of the structures they find on this alien world that things begin to look a little suspicious. What are these ominous holograms and murals? Why does that giant statue look human? And why is very little still alive? Also, since this is an Alien movie, what secrets are the corporate types back on the ship hiding from the team?
The story soon transitions smoothly into a tense horror/thriller as the mission goes suitably haywire and things that should never have been uncovered are unleashed. But much like the mysterious black goo that the crew of Prometheus find on the planet, the plot and its themes soon morph into something far more nasty, indescribable and, well, terrible.
Let’s just say this now and be done with it, Ridley Scott is a superb filmmaker who has been on the front line of the craft technically, ever since he got into the game. Even the biggest detractors of films from Legend to Kingdom of Heaven cannot fault his technical skills. Prometheus is not only no exception, but it is arguably his greatest-made film – his camera marries ultra-detailed sets with crisp, realistic CGI (let down by some very bland, darkening 3D), while his editor keeps the story flowing and the tension, for the most part, bubbling. This is a well made movie. But it is also a badly misjudged one.
At the core of Prometheus’ troubles is a schizophrenic script that suffers as much from meddling and rewrites as it does from a blatant case of just-not-ready-to-shoot-yet. This falls under three categories: dialogue, character and story.
The dialogue is the most noticeably embarrassing. When the crew begin to awaken from their sleep aboard the ship, we are subjected to the sort of chat that we might expect of a mismatched band in space, but eschewing the charm of the crew of Alien’s Nostromo (and other movie vessels, it’s just fun to reference Alien) in favour of ad-libbed banter. This adds realism, one supposes, but it lacks purpose or entertainment. Later, a geologist character says the word “rocks” as much as possible – we have to conclude the script had no written dialogue for his character; he was just given flashcards that said “rocks” on them. The ship’s two co-pilots engage in a bet about what they will find on the alien world, assumedly as stand-ins for the audience. But it’s all so forced; the audience isn’t stupid, it can question these things itself. Sadly, patronising the audience is one of the Prometheus script’s nastiest habits – towards the end Charlize Theron’s character reveals a minor (utterly unnecessary) plot twist throwing EMPHASIS on one word (accompanied by a spike in the music) as if to ensure that everyone down the back of the class understood and processed this already very clear twist (that remains utterly unnecessary to the story).
And then there are the characters; flimsy at best. Rapace’s Elizabeth gets the best of it, as a proto-Ripley with genuine aims within the film. These are undermined however by the character’s religious faith, apparently deriving from severe daddy issues, that like the pastor in M. Night Shyamalan’s preposterous Signs remains steadfastly Christian in spite of insurmountable evidence contradicting such traditions. She is also unable to have children, which without a Newt (the girl in Aliens) or a Jones (the cat in Alien) for her to redirect her affections to, says nothing about her character other than forcing an underwhelming dramatic scene with her lover. Charlie, played by the hopelessly uninspired Marshall-Green, is another anomaly of the script – it is unclear if we are meant to be on his side at all, agree with his opinions in any way, even care about him. Through clumsy writing and a humdrum performance, most of Prometheus is spent hoping he will be killed off sooner rather than later.
David at least has some characterisation, but alas too much. An unsuccessful fusion of Alien’s psychotic robot Ash (Ian Holm) and Aliens’ heroic robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the character is the result of clear indecision on behalf of the writers, who also throw clumsy references to his passion for Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence into the mix. While drawing allusions to Ash (and by extension, it must be added, 2001’s HAL) in his uncertain directive, his dangerousness is undermined by a rewrite blatantly designed to make Fassbender’s character more heroic (he is so hot right now, in fairness). But the constant backpedalling between hero and could-be villain offers us nothing other than a few fun lines delivered by a truly talented actor. If only it worked with the story.
Charlize Theron is farcically misused as the film’s token corporate henchwoman; playing the Paul Reiser role from Aliens if he were lobotomised. Idris Elba at least gets to have some fun with his role as the ship’s captain, but his best lines all sound ad-libbed, and his character cannot be described using any more complex words than “cool and good”. Other than that there is the angry one and the nervous one (are these dwarves or intergalactic scientists?) and a dozen or so redshirts who no one even tried to give lines to. Ellen Ripley is a more complex character than the whole cast of Prometheus thrown in together.
Finally, there’s the themes. And what big themes they are. Creation, death, the afterlife, rebirth. Prometheus should be admired for aiming so high. But it should be condemned for not knowing what it is even talking about. Aside from the universe-contradicting religious issues discussed earlier (somehow faith sort of wins in the end), there is the schizophrenic role (and yes, I’ve used that word again) of the alien “Engineers” – known in traditional Alien lore as “Space Jockeys”.
These creatures play the dual, oxymoronic role of creator and destroyer, but their methods are perverse and inexplicable. The film’s title alludes to the Olympians of Greek mythology, destroying earlier races of man due to their wickedness and keeping fire from later men as punishment. But in mythology the Olympians created law, and were thus able to judge mankind. But the Engineers do no such thing. They plant and leave, and while they might predict the creatures that arise they cannot judge them when they develop thought and morality within their civilisations. A gardener who returns to a garden to find it overgrown with weeds does some pruning, they don’t light the place up with napalm.
Are these godlike Space Jockeys good or bad, wise or insane? Well, we learn nothing, and depending on the likelihood of sequels and what they contain we may never. One of the film’s two writers, Damon Lindelof, was the primary writer on the TV series Lost; but while that show often meandered between questions without answering them, it never completely doubled back on a question without answering it either way – why did they make us? Why did they destroy us?
By the film’s conclusion we know so little we are left uncaring. The film turns the Space Jockeys into villains because it is easier than actually dealing with the fascinating questions it raised. A good mystery is a good thing, but a mystery for the sake of it is not. By the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the audience is left free to interpret what happened. In Prometheus we are not, we are simply not told, left in the dark, unentertained.
It is just sad that Prometheus was made when it was not ready. The production values are superb, but based so strongly on imagery from Alien, the template was already there to work with. The film’s one standout scene, an intense, nightmarish surgery, remains an homage to that most famous scene from Alien. The rush job isn’t just noticeable in the script, it can be heard in the music. While the film’s action scenes have a suitable pulse-pounding musical accompaniment, many of its slower, tenser scenes are backed by an utterly inappropriate piece of triumphant bombast that sounds a little like someone strangling the Star Wars overture. Miscommunication is the only thing that can explain such a disconnect between sound and image.
Another of the film’s most troubling decisions is to cast Guy Pearce as the nonagenarian Peter Weyland, the financier of the expedition. The 44-year-old is covered in barely successful old man makeup for the role. Two better courses of action might have worked here. One would be to take the smarter Alien Vs Predator approach (yes, I just used those words), where Lance Henriksen was cast as a member of the Weyland family, named Bishop, suggesting the robot in Aliens was built in his image – thus casting Fassbender in old man makeup as David’s maker would have been at least witty, if odd-looking. Alternatively, they might have CAST SOMEBODY THE CHARACTER’S AGE! There are certainly enough actors available over 70. If you wanted to be very smart with your references, cast Peter O’Toole! Pearce’s casting comes down to the fact that Pearce, sans makeup, played a younger Weyland in promotional material for the film. But what was Scott thinking? How could the master filmmaker be foolish enough to sacrifice our suspension of disbelief for the sake of an ad campaign?
As a slow-building horror film Prometheus works reasonably well, but with this budget and skill behind and in front of the camera it is ludicrous that you don’t care for the main characters any more than you might the errant teenagers in a bad slasher movie. The preposterous, unanswerable grand questions the film raises only serve to distract from the jump scares and body horror.
Prometheus is so well made, but so poorly handled. Perhaps it would have worked well outside of the Alien universe, with less to live up to and no need to attempt a (failed) tie-in at its climax. But that would have robbed the film of its gorgeous design, which, in the end, is the sole superb feature to recommend it on. Alien aside, it does the film no service that the two films it references most often are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia, which are, simply put, the two best-made films I have ever seen. It raises the bar far too high for even a spaceship to soar over.
In the end, this all comes down to Scott’s hubris. Knowing full well he has helped create one of the most iconic creatures and indeed images in the history of cinema, he has foolishly decided that somehow this creature is linked to the very meaning of existence. The result is confused and clumsy, with its ambitions reduced to pretensions of genius.
It’s a mess. A beautiful, terrifying mess.