I was ambivalent when I first heard about Ridley Scott’s planned summer blockbuster Prometheus.
This pseudo-prequel to Scott’s seminal space spooker, 1979’s Alien
, promised to reveal the backstory concerning the giant, elephantine alien (the “Space Jockey”) who was the original host to the chest-bursting critters we are all familiar with. I wasn’t sure if this history should be explored. I liked the fact that you could write your own myth for the mysterious creature, seen only briefly, fossilized in his chair, who was never meant to be more than a metaphor for folly repeating itself.
Well, Ridley Scott must have sensed my inner conflict, because after finally seeing Prometheus, I still have no frikkin’ idea what the story of the Space Jockey is.
It’s not that Prometheus
didn’t have time to tell us. The movie clocks in at a chunky one hundred and twenty-four minutes. And yet despite some memorable visuals and a few well executed creeps, Prometheus
suffers from underdeveloped characters, a meandering story and loads of unanswered plot threads (no surprise; Damon Lindelof, one of the two screenwriters, scribed many episodes of Lost
). And this from a movie whose sole premise is “…and now it can be told!”
Sadly, these movies have more in common than just their posters.
It was really disappointing to have the film wind up this way, especially since it starts off quite promising. An intriguingly weird humanoid stands on a cliff and slurps down some goo from a petri dish while we watch a spacecraft rise into the heavens. What follows may be the birth of the human race, but we won’t know that for sure until… well, ever, but in the movie’s logic, until thousands of years later. That is when the monolithic Weyland Corporation dispatches the Prometheus, a nifty (and somewhat underutilized) spacecraft to a distant planet, the location of which has been foretold by ancient pictograms found around the world, allegedly left behind by aliens and discovered by archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace,
fresh off of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
of the Swedish edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
) and her boyfriend Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green).
Prometheus is not
the god who rolls a rock up a hill forever. Please stop getting that wrong, people! Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, and for this was sentenced to an eternity of having his liver eaten out by birds. And so we sense that mankind is about to receive forbidden knowledge again, this time from the aliens who might in fact be God. And in the process we will receive the dark knowledge that Ridley Scott forbade us in Alien.
Like Prometheus then, the director’s hubris ought to earn him a hepatectomy-by-vultures. What we wind up with are half-answers, inexplicably useless characters, and themes of religion and father worship which never really lead anywhere.
Shaw and Halloway, though theoretically the prime-movers of the mission, really have nothing to offer once Prometheus arrives on the world which may house the answers to mankind’s origins. Instead, they are merely fifth wheels, “true believers” sent on the mission by the buzzardly Peter Weyland (played for no comprehensible reason by Guy Pearce in unconvincing old man makeup). Corporate villainy is of course afoot, symbolized in the heavy hand of ice queen Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and David (Michael Fassbender), an android with a Pinnochio complex, equal parts loyal Bishop and treacherous Ash, who is marvellously overemphasized in the story. It is ironic that in one scene it is pointed out that David needs no space helmet since he doesn’t breath air. In fact, his character sucks air desperately needed by the other characters, most of whom we never form any attachment to. As a deliberately two-dimensional character in search of a third, David never acquires an arc, and yet hogs half the movie.
David also does the work that really should have been left to Shaw. he deciphers all the alien secrets, and always knows more about the deceased “Engineers” (the gods they have come seeking) than Shaw, who really ought to have been the Sherlock Holmes of the movie.
However, if David knows more than he is letting on to the rest of the doomed crew, he doesn’t share it with us, either. Instead, one clue leads to another leads to nowhere, as weird and horrifying events multiply but never form a complete picture. The explorers do indeed find an alien complex, deceased Engineers, a mysterious effigy to Man and a room full of cylindars bubbling with black goo. But as weird and evil life forms start to emerge and kill people, or zombify them, or put deadly cuttlefish in their bellies, it all adds up to a mess. The story can’t keep track of where to put its attention. At one point Shaw is battling for her life against an alien that she finally locks in a room, while elsewhere the crew is fighting one of their own who has returned from the dead with the strength of an ox. But a moment later both are completely forgotten as a new and less-interesting plot element is thrown into the mix. Shaw doesn’t even warn anyone that they now have a slithering monster locked in a room that just anyone might walk into!
On top of all this there is a failure to build a mood. The story should have started on a bright note, with the explorers about to discover the greatest secret in human history, then a slow decline into horror as the onion is peeled. Instead, the mission starts off bleak, with all the characters drawn either as flat or as assholes, with only mundane curiosity and less sense than the Engineers gave a snail. The clues and kills do not build to any kind of revelation, and finally the ship’s captain has to deliver a line of expository dialogue that he pulls out of his ass to make clear what the plot never does.
There are some nice artistic flourishes. The android David has a corporate logo for a fingerprint, and there are splashes of beauty to the Engineers and their technology that play neatly against the grisly nightmares they unleash. This would all work better if Prometheus
remembered its gothic roots, and recalled that the Space Jockey’s world, as seen in Alien,
was like a dusty attic in a haunted mansion. Prometheus
is a sci-fi Amityville Horror
that forgets that the house is the star and has its characters spend too much time down the street at the mall.
As long as Ridley Scott was returning to his roots, he also should have brought screenwriter Dan O’Bannon with him. If the story and characters in Prometheus don’t gel, then the dialogue is profoundly worse. Writers Damon Lindelof and John Spaihts give us a script that borders on cheese while lowballing the science, presuming that the knuckle-draggers in the theater need lines like “no contaminants detected” to be spoken aloud by the computer and written in boldface on the screen and
repeated by the technician at the helm. Jesus, Futurama
gives its audience more credit.
After all this confusion, Prometheus
‘ big secret is that it is a set-up for a sequel. Sorry Ridley, but after thirty-three years of waiting for the story that should never have been told, I don’t think I will be coming back for more.