In space no one can hear you say WTF!?! “Prometheus”

June 26, 2012

Oh Prometheus…such a masterful ad campaign, such a disappointingly pedestrian movie. A lot of ink has already been spilled over this movie since it came out almost a month ago, so I’m not going to belabor this. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover one of the bigger movies of the summer. Also, I’m gonna SPOIL the hell out of this movie. Actually, I’m just going to assume you’ve seen the movie so I don’t have to summarize it. Kind of killing two stones with one bird there. Or two scientist with one xenomorph, as the case may be.

In the case of Prometheus, the heartbreak is not because the movie is bad, but because it’s just so average. The secrecy surrounding the film hinted at something epic—either something the filmmakers were reluctant to spoil or something so awful, they were afraid to show it. Either one would have been worth the anticipation.

Alas, there were no great revelations in Prometheus. It was not a movie that blew anyone’s mind, but nor did it flame out spectacularly by, oh I dunno, featuring the ass-weasels from Dreamcatcher, or retconning the Alien franchise by saying that the xenomorph was Ripley’s estranged father or something. What we got was a handsomely-mounted sci-fi film and a somewhat poorly-managed enquiry into the nature of humanity. Despite Ridley Scott’s protestations that Prometheus would not be a prequel to Alien, we chose to believe it would be. In the end, we shouldn’t have, since what we got was more like a spiritual successor to Blade Runner.

This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. After all, for a summer tent-pole movie to spend its time grappling with questions of humanity, religion, and faith is fairly audacious. After the past few years in which nearly every major blockbuster featured dudes in costumes with superpowers, it seems downright subversive.

The film isn’t poorly made, either. Scott directs with more effort here than we’ve seen from him in a long time, ratcheting up the tension, while building a mood that’s a potent mix of claustrophobia, wonder, and dread. He and his production staff manage the tricky task of creating a world that’s simultaneously sterile and lived-in. This isn’t the grungy, grime-streaked world of Alien, but we can always sense it beneath the surface, waiting to come out when this world isn’t new anymore.

It helps that the film is grounded by two great performances. Michael Fassbender does most of the heavy lifting, turning in a (truly) Oscar-caliber performance as the morally-nebulous android whose ambivalence masks powerful aspirations to humanity, or, perhaps, his idealized version of it that’s largely absent from his human counterparts (shades of Blade Runner here).

The other performance—and it’s easy to overlook—is Charlize Theron as Meredith Vickers, the icy corporate princess who has an agenda as deeply personal as anyone’s in the film. It’s easy to forget how good an actress Theron is—even after a career that began as eye-candy, snagged her an Oscar, and largely avoided the tripe that most beautiful actresses are stuck with. She’s never less than convincing, even in her early, fairly one-note scenes that mostly just show her ruthlessness. She makes a nice successor/predecessor to Ripley and a nice addition to a franchise that’s largely been built on powerful female characters and actresses.

Unfortunately, where Prometheus stumbles is in its screenplay, which screenwriter/producer Damon Lindelof uses as a receptacle for answerless mysteries. Here, as in Lost, Lindelof manages to amp up the RPMs without ever popping the clutch. His is a storytelling of pure frustration, refusing the catharsis of resolution. In Lost this served to keep people buzzing on the Internet and tuning in next week, but in a standalone feature film, it’s just hobbling. We’re not tuning in next week, and spare me the crap about how those questions will be answered in the sequel. I plunked down my 20 bucks to see this film, not to be primed for a sequel.

But aside from Lindelof’s empty, ornamental mysteries, the base story—the attempt to contact our (possible) alien engineers is itself riddled with lazy screenwriting. Red Letter Media did an expert takedown of the plotholes, but on top of that we have too many moments when characters do dopey stuff or deliver clunky lines of dialogue. One thing the original Alien never did was make the characters seem foolish. This movie serves those up in spades, making one of the movie’s biggest set pieces is contingent upon two characters doing things no rational human being would do.

On top of this, for a movie grappling with deep ideas, the characters seem unable to carry on a complex conversation about any of it. Why is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw so convinced of her theory that these aliens created us? “Because it’s what I choose to believe,” she says. Okay, that’s not an answer, and certainly not the response you expect from a scientist. When David professes his bafflement at why Shaw is so hell-bent on getting answers from the aliens, she replies, “Well, that’s because you’re an android and I’m a human being.” Again, not really a satisfying answer, and it utterly fails to address humanity’s need to define itself through philosophy and religion.

There are also the tool marks of a possibly more philosophical screenplay refitted to make it more horrific. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Fifield-monster’s attack on the ship. The scene is so isolated, so divorced from anything else going on in the movie that it looks dropped in. It doesn’t affect any of the cast and only involves Janek who just barks some orders and comes in late to finish off the thing. I strongly suspect that it was a late-game addition after the rough cut was screened. Of course, the whole third act is so rushed and choppy maybe it was always scripted and, like so many other elements, simply mishandled in editing.

So, in the end, despite a great marketing push, Prometheus is just another mediocre film that fails to satisfy, because its creators couldn’t be bothered to take another swipe at the screenplay. It’s such a pity that so much talent could only muster something that turned out to be great or terrible, but merely okay.

One comment

  1. I could have overlooked a lot of the issues if there was better character development and interaction with eachother, like you said. It’s like Ridley Scott was afraid that any meaningful dialogue would give away too much information (save for David’s character). Alien didn’t have complex dialouge because it didn’t need to, as the movie is so straightforward.

    Hopefully the extra footage on the dvd will shed some light on the plot points in the movie. Also, I’m still super excited for a sequel. Even if this movie was a dissapointment, it was still a good experience, and a good film.

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