Let me put my cards on the table right up front: I think Ridley Scott???s 1979 Alien is one of the best movies ever made. It???s one of a handful of truly perfect films. Casablanca is another. While obviously different in every other respect, both films had a certain aura of accidental genius about them. Alien began as a substantially different film from the nail-biting haunted house masterpiece that made it to the screen. (It was originally titled Star Beast. Try looking up the history of that screenplay on the Internet, if you want to see what I mean.)
25 years after the task of creating a sequel to his landmark film was unexpectedly given to another director ??? a fellow by the name of James Cameron, perhaps you???ve heard of him ??? Ridley Scott returns to the Alien universe with Prometheus. Unfortunately, it???s trapped in that misbegotten gutter of film genres, the ???prequel.??? That was Mistake Number One from a director who now had a budgetary and technological blank check to make any film he wanted. Nothing in this deeply flawed, maddening movie is an accident.
Prometheus could just as easily have been a sequel to the earlier Alien films, following a mission launched after Ellen Ripley’s death to discover the ultimate source of that horrifying acid-blooded life form. I think we would all have been willing to indulge Scott by forgetting about the fourth movie.
Instead, the new film is improbably set in the very near future ??? 2089, to be exact. Its crew possesses vastly more advanced technology than the doomed crew of Alien???s starship, which is visually tough to reconcile ??? a problem common to sci-fi prequels. The Prometheus has free-floating holograms, flying map drones, and a scanner that allows an android to read a slumbering human???s dreams. The much later Nostromo from Scott???s 1979 film was running off a jumped-up TRS-80 with monochrome text displays.
With that quibble aside, it???s easy to recommend the beautiful visuals in Prometheus. Every scene is a work of sci-fi art, every visual effect flawless. Of course a lot of this is accomplished with CGI, but the computer graphics are cleverly used to render some really impressive scenery. The prologue, depicting the very dawn of mankind, is simply breathtaking.
You???ll then get to enjoy roughly half of a very good science fiction movie. It???s not a haunted-house thriller in space like Alien; it???s more akin to Arthur C. Clarke???s ???Rendezvous with Rama??? in spirit. Cave paintings have been discovered around the world, depicting the same image of a mysterious giant pointing at a cluster of stars that couldn???t possibly be seen from Earth. Interstellar space travel, reaching distant star systems in only a couple of years, is apparently possible in 2089, so a dying corporate mogul (inexplicably played by Guy Pearce in withered-old-man makeup) spends a trillion dollars to send the starship Prometheus to answer what scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the one true Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) believes is an invitation from humanity???s alien benefactors??? or perhaps even creators.
Along for the ride is a large crew of utterly forgettable, disposable background characters, which was Mistake Number Two for Ridley Scott. Alien worked so well because the small crew felt real, and generally conducted themselves in a believable manner. We got to know them. They had distinctive appearances and personalities. It hurt when they died.
Instead of the character-actor Murderer???s Row Scott installed on the Nostromo in 1979 ??? an all-star team boasting the likes of John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, and Harry Dean Stanton ??? Prometheus is one of those films where I???m not entirely certain all of the characters actually had names. Once the interesting landing and exploration segment of the film is complete, and the crew starts dropping like flies, it has less emotional resonance than watching a video game cut scene. There isn???t even any gruesome creativity to most of their deaths. I can???t recall another big-budget special-effects horror film where so many victims died from simple blunt-force trauma.
Nothing these people do makes any sense at all. This is forgivable in the case of the android David (Michael Fassbender, turning in a fantastic performance that puts him on a different level than anyone else in the cast.) David is a machine, and does what he has been programmed to do. In standard Alien tradition, no one else on the ship realizes quite what that is, until it???s far too late. The film is a bit muddled in how it expects the audience to feel about David. He???s so much more interesting and fully-realized than any other character that you can???t help but feel sympathy for him, but he does things that make it difficult to sustain that sympathy.
Everyone else is simply off their rocker. Damon Lindelof, one of the clowns who ruined television???s ???Lost,??? has a screenwriting credit, and the same stink of lazy, contrived writing hangs over every scene in this production. Characters behave inexplicably in order to advance the plot, and in several cases, they withhold incredibly vital information from each other for no good reason, leading to deadly consequences ??? a ???Lost??? trademark.
The entire mission is improbably ill-conceived. Nothing about the equipment of the Prometheus, or the behavior of its crew, suggests they thought very hard about what might happen when they encountered an alien race thousands of years more advanced than humanity. Astoundingly, we???re told that the hand-picked crew of this trillion-dollar mission, the most important voyage in human history, never met each other before they woke up in orbit over their ominous destination ??? we see them introducing themselves over breakfast.
One character cracks under the stress of investigating the long-dead alien installation discovered by the crew, abandoning the mission to return to the ship. Despite the high-tech surveying equipment available to the crew, he manages to get lost. A few scenes later, when he encounters a real live alien creature, of extremely disturbing appearance, he acts as if he just wandered into a petting zoo.
The most intense scene in the film is utterly ruined when a character literally bounces to her feet and runs away after major surgery, displaying a resilience that would impress Daffy Duck. A top scientist who discovers he has been exposed to a horrifying alien contagion decides to keep it to himself and tough it out, saying nothing until he???s deep in the bowels of the alien ruins, and suddenly becomes too weak to walk.
Scott bungles a number of scenes he would have known how to mine for tension in 1979. There comes a moment late in the film when the ship???s captain (Idris Elba) glances at the camera feed from a crew member presumed lost??? and realizes the missing man has suddenly appeared right outside the ship. This could have been an incredibly creepy, intense scene, but it???s blown off without any dramatic buildup. The final major-character death is more… comical, in a Wile E. Coyote way, than horrifying.
Prometheus is full of lost opportunities like that. It feels as if Scott really didn???t want this to become a horror film, but the studio insisted, and his heart just wasn???t in the final reel. Alien can still keep you up all night, thirty years later. Prometheus is not even slightly scary, in large measure because the faceless crew of idiots generates no attachment with the audience.
Many reviewers have given Prometheus great credit for asking Big Questions, but that???s not really what happens. Dr. Shaw ostentatiously wears a cross, and speaks briefly about humanity???s hunger to meet our Creator, but there are no deeper ruminations on religion or philosophy ??? everyone is too busy poking their fingers into alien goo and suffering the consequences to pause for deep conversations. It would have helped enormously if Shaw were developed more fully as a character early in the film, but vital details of her background are dropped carelessly in conversation late in the script, making it difficult to understand where she???s coming from until the audience doesn???t really care anymore. The most intriguing scene in the movie occurs when David the android asks one of his human crewmates why humans created him, and wonders if humans could handle receiving the same callous answer from the alien Engineers.
Like ???Lost,??? Prometheus is a cheat ??? a huge con game in which weird, provocative images are thrown on the screen, but answers and explanations are never given. It???s not a cosmic mystery, like the great sci-fi novels it clearly wants to emulate, because it doesn???t give a convincing sense that the writers are keeping logical, mind-blowing answers close to their vests. There???s some fun to be had for hardcore sci-fi fans who want to spin their own theories over coffee after the film, but sadly it squanders a good deal of that goodwill with a groan-inducing plea for a sequel, followed by a completely unnecessary epilogue that hits us over the head with something that was already fairly obvious.
Expectations were very high for this movie. It???s terribly sad that it couldn???t meet them. And if you were worried that the trailers already gave away most of the plot, you???re entirely correct. Prometheus is a beautiful film, containing very little of the unexpected, but an overdose of the inexplicable.