Byon Jun 6, 2012
The good news is that Prometheus is the third best Alien movie after director Ridley Scott’s original, and James Cameron’s Aliens. The bad news is that when you’re better than Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, that’s not much of a compliment. Revisiting the site of his 1979 breakthrough like an architect trying to figure out what made his first foundation so sturdy, Scott has crafted a film worthy of the scope of what the franchise has become. But in creating an origin story not just for the series but virtually all of human history, Scott generates more questions than answers, which feels appropriate – if similarly disappointing – since Damon Lindelof, executive producer and writer of TV’s last great source of mythological consternation, Lost, worked on the screenplay.
A gorgeous, epic adventure whose ornate production seems to have been thought through more in more detail than its story, Prometheus is a film that deserves an ‘A’ for effort but something closer to a ‘B-‘ or ‘C+’ for execution.
Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist who helps discover a series of similar cave paintings that suggest the existence of an extraterrestrial presence. Taking the discovery as a sign that humankind was meant to follow these creatures to their point of origin, she and her research partner-cum-boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) join an expedition which takes them into the deepest reaches of space. Landing on a mysterious planet, they soon find evidence of life, but Elizabeth and Charlie are summarily informed by their corporate benefactor, Meredith Vickers, (Charlize Theron) that they aren’t to engage with life forms even if they find them.
Discovering the carcass of an alien creature, they bring its head aboard their ship, the Prometheus, and begin running tests. But when the Prometheus’ robot manservant David (Michael Fassbender) begins his own exploration of the alien site – with decidedly different aims – Elizabeth, Charlie, Meredith and the rest of the crew are forced to decide between discovering the truth about humankind’s origins, and facing almost certain death.
For the first hour and fifteen minutes or so, Prometheus offers most of what an Alien fan might want from a sequel – or, yes, prequel: unhurried, ponderous shots of lumbering spaceships as they navigate their way through alien landscapes, characters who are alternately thoughtful and practical, a story which hints at themes and ideas larger than the specifics of the narrative. But in spite of the specificity of the script in defining certain characters as fearless, impetuous or otherwise reckless, there’s seldom been an ensemble that made more terrible decisions.
As soon as the Prometheus lands on the planet, a team goes out to explore; once inside the alien stronghold, the team members remove their helmets; after the expedition, not even these brilliant scientists think to conduct tests to ensure they’re uncontaminated; and when terrible things start happening, to paraphrase Ellen Ripley in Aliens, IQs appear to drop sharply and never seem to recover. (Don’t mistake these criticisms for an accurate chronology of events in the film.)
Even as a fan (to this day) of Lost, there’s no getting around the fact that as a storyteller, Lindelof doesn’t always know the difference between creative uncertainty and narrative ambiguity, and never has that been more problematic than in Prometheus. One can imagine he and Scott had invigorating conversations about what to reveal and what to leave unexplained, but watching the final film, it’s not clear if anyone involved ever knew how to explain much of what remained unrevealed. The opening scene, for example, features an alien creature – eventually described as an “Engineer” – seemingly sacrificing himself, or perhaps conducting an experiment to see the effects of drinking a mysterious black beverage. What is he doing, and why? And perhaps more importantly, why do we see this first? Willing as I am to accept the limitations of my own intelligence, I am skeptical of any explanation that someone might suggest the film itself provides.
Then there are the basic story problems, which have less to do with any purported mythology than they do with constructing a narrative which makes even remote sense.
[Spoiler alert:] After David collects a sample of the substance which earlier killed the Engineer, he decides to test it out – and there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why. From my vantage point, the two options are “to see what might happen,” and “because someone programmed him to,” but neither of those satisfies anything but the audience’s vague curiosity what its effect will be – is it a calculated distraction, or a sincere experiment? Either answer feels unsatisfying. Later, a character believed dead returns to life and begins attacking crew members with superhuman strength; despite my best efforts to contextualize his or her behavior in the mythology of the whole series, there’s no precedent for it, and after the incident is resolved, it never happens again, or is explained. For a film that’s often incredibly ambitious and thoughtful, there seems to be a remarkable lack of consideration for how and why these events occur within the story. [End spoilers.]
While it’s easy to get disappointed the film’s acquiescence to the conventions of the earlier installments in the series – if not those of horror films where a group of people are picked off one at a time by some killer or monster – there are nevertheless some beautiful and brilliant moments that make the film almost worthy of the expectations placed upon it. As a character, David is an indefatigably fascinating creature, a machine that develops the same kinds of idiosyncrasies as a car we drive or some other piece of technology we use until its behavior is unique to our experience, and Fassbender gives his incremental evolution such dimension and substance that we neither vilify nor identify with him, but simply understand his niggling questions and irresistible ambitions.
Although he occasionally knows more than he should (and from a narrative standpoint, much less), Idris Elba’s pilot, Janek, is a complex and interesting character in the way that Michael Biehn’s Cpl. Hicks was – the clock-puncher with hidden depths, and better yet, a conscience. And in the great tradition established by Sigourney Weaver’s original portrayal of Ripley, Rapace’s Elizabeth is not some superheroine waiting to be unleashed, but a very normal woman who discovers hidden reserves of determination and strength, purely in the face of adversity – if not mortal danger.
Scott’s directorial sophistication has certainly appreciated since Alien, if only in the sense that he knows what will keep an audience engaged, and chronicles the world(s) within the film with a kind of pastoral beauty and a simplicity that allows audiences to feel, in a remarkably unique way, that they’re really being transported to another place and time. And when so many other movies are content to create only the narrowest context for their adventures – whether they’re meant to be fun, dramatic, or scary – that’s a considerable achievement. It’s just a shame that Scott’s reach as a director exceeded the script’s grasp, because had Lindelof and his collaborator, Jon Spaihts, narrowed their focus, or simply tied together a few more of the loose ends, the film might truly have been something special.
Instead, fans of the franchise get something that more closely resembles what they love about the first two films, but doesn’t quite achieve the same effect. In which case, if Prometheus’ ultimate ambition is in fact to be a prequel to Alien -- to lay the groundwork for the terror that is yet to come – where it succeeds best is as an embodiment of the evolution of an organism en route to fulfilling its destiny. And while Scott’s film fails to bridge that distance in a cohesive much less fully enjoyable way, what exists here is a provocative enough foundation that it leaves me willing to endure – if not genuinely eager to see -- another effort to close that gap in the future.