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The Alien prequel that isn’t an Alien prequel isn’t all that great – Prometheus

June 9, 2012

I have bones to pick with this movie.

Before I break out my flail, let me say that Prometheus isn’t a bad film. It’s actually gripping in parts. Director Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to his old science-fiction stomping grounds has a number of visually stunning scenes within its runtime, and several sequences that will have even the most grizzled theater-going veteran squirming in their seat. The early tension in the film is thick, and the build into the roots of the Alien mythos is fraught with all the awe and scope you could hope for.

But there are so, so many problems. This is not thinking man’s science fiction, despite the promise of “big ideas” coming our way. In fact, the film is surprisingly stupid at times, as if Scott took a class at The Michael Bay Institute for Just Because Filmmaking. It pains me to say that, but it’s true. Not to sound like a dick, but the people who think this is a smart movie may be imbeciles.

I took some random notes as I was watching. What follows is the general gist of them, mixed in with other thoughts and expanded a bit. There are spoilers within. BE WARNED. It’s impossible for me to gripe (and praise) without going into some detail. If you have plans to see this film, by all means go and do it, and if you’re so inclined come back here later to agree with me or call me some manner of moron. But if you don’t want to know anything, skip the paragraphs with the numbers next to them.

  1. There are several homages to classics of the past in the film. The opening scenes of a world aborning are almost lifted right out of Dave Bowman’s acid-trip voyage at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there’s actual honest to goodness footage from Lawrence of Arabia to be found early on. To put a five star epic like that within your own work is a risky move, and is done at your own peril. It can easily backfire whatever the intention is, because there’s an automatic juxtaposition that comes with the inclusion. The viewer puts things side by side. In this instance, it backfires. To appropriate Lloyd Bentsen’s most famous line: I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia. Prometheus, you are no Lawrence of Arabia.
  2. Much was made in the long build to this film of how Scott and the rest of the Prometheus team were trying to distance the project from Alien, despite the “DNA” connections. I think this may have filtered into the dialogue, because the crew of the titular vessel, in discussing the “Engineers” of humanity that they’re looking for, are fond of semi-jokingly referring to them as Martians. I don’t know if the word “alien” is mentioned once, despite that being the OBVIOUS descriptor for the dramatic quarry. (Maybe it’s in there, but I don’t recall hearing it.) Most of this film’s action is set in 2091. Right now it’s 2012, and no one uses the term Martian to describe people from outer space. Everyone under the age of 70 would say alien. Unless there’s a Martian revival in 80 years, this strikes me as odd. I realize this seems to be a minor thing, but it irritated me. A lot.
  3. Michael Fassbender plays David, an android valet/scientist/creepizoid who carries much of the load in this film (and is also the one with the fondness for Lawrence, modeling some of his behavior after Peter O’Toole’s eponymous hero). Fassbender was delightful last year as young Magneto in X-Men: First Class, and here he follows that with another fine summer genre movie turn. He’s sometimes chillingly malevolent, sometimes achingly human, sometimes ambiguously motivated, and always a joy to watch. Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron, the two female leads, also do fine work, but Fassbender steals the show just as he did last year. (In other cast news, Idris Elba is utterly wasted and Logan Marshall-Green plays a character I wanted to punch in the face.)
  4. Memo to Hollywood: If you’re going to have a really old guy in your movie, and you at no point are going to be showing that really old guy as a younger man, than go right ahead and cast a really old guy. Don’t cast a younger man in the prime of life and stick stupid rubbery makeup all over his face and let said younger man “act” like an old guy. It makes about as much sense as casting a white man to play a black man — or vice versa — and it looks just as foolish. Guy Pearce is unrecognizable as an elderly gajillionaire who finances the Prometheus mission, and for the life of me I can’t fathom why they felt the need to hire him, apart from the notion that Guy Pearce is some SERIOUS FILM darling that would bring a cachet to the cast. If so, SHAME ON YOU, MOVIE. (Don’t get me started on the third act “surprise” he’s involved with.)
  5. There are slimy, viscous, violent scares in the second half of the film that are sure to satisfy those craving such things, and there’s one bit that’s about as disgusting (in a good way) as you can get. Put it this way: I was a caesarean birth, and I now have much more sympathy for my mother’s plight. (I’m guessing she had some medical assistance, though.) Be assured, this single minutes-long section — you’ll know it when you see it through your fingers — is what got the R rating from the MPAA.
  6. The last act of this film is a cliche-riddled mess. Lame “surprise”? Check. A silly reveal of a family connection? Check. A giant, highly advanced alien — oops, forgive me, MARTIAN — who’s adept at slugging people? Check. Groan-inducing Team America-esque “We’re with you to the end, Captain” lines from characters you’ve barely met? Check. Gaping holes in the plot left unfilled? Check. Damon Lindelof, most known as a cock-tease showrunner on Lost, clearly brought his “leave everyone hanging with mysteries and trick them into thinking the hacky crap they’re seeing is great characterization” A-game to scripting this affair. At least I didn’t spend a year watching people fart around in God’s waiting room or whatever this time around.
  7. There are times when Marc Streitenfeld’s score, which is generally not good at all, assumes a pounding intensity that reminded me, of all things, of the opening music in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. I love Prince of Darkness, so this is far from a bad thing.
  8. There are holograms present in the Engineers’ digs that give our explorers much sought after exposition. It’s unclear how these holograms are accessed so easily and why they would immediately show information that would be so key. What I said above about Just Because Filmmaking? Yeah.
  9. We’ve waited 30+ years to meet the Space Jockeys, and they’re by far the most intriguing aspect of the film, though it’s a bitch that their origins and motivations are still up in the air by the end. I’m so frustrated by the dumbness of this supposedly intelligent film, I’m not sure that I want to learn any more. Let sleeping dogs lie, you know? I’m tempted to tell Sir Ridley to take his potential prequel-sequel and cram it.
  10. Ah. Yes. Xenomorphs. Chest-bursters. Face-huggers. You won’t have to be eagle-eyed to spy their cousins, though it might be another layer to the frustration for you to wonder at… Actually, I’ll shut up. Though I haven’t spoiled all that much, I’ve said enough. (Well, not quite: After all the protestations from Scott/Lindelof et al. about how this isn’t an Alien film, the last image almost comes across as a middle finger to the Alien-loving audience.)

Scott has long been considered a great director. I think it’s time we re-evaluated that. He’s made numerous films, and they always have a technical competency to them that’s assuring in a world where there’s so much tripe. But what are his great, GREAT films? Alien? Yes. Blade Runner? Yes — the director’s cut, at least. Gladiator? Ehhhh – maybe not, despite the Best Picture Oscar. Other than that? Thelma & Louise? Black Hawk Down? There are crowd-pleasers in there, but transcendent works whose artistry helps define a medium? You have to go back a long way to find a surefire candidate for that.

That’s where a lot of my frustration comes in. This was Scott’s return to the universe that gave him his one true out of the park grand slam, one that never needed a director’s cut to iron out kinks (and excise awful narration). That this film, which starts with such promise, peters out so poorly is hard to swallow. Maybe you can’t go home again. But I had hoped that Scott could. He didn’t. Maybe he didn’t even want to.

Despite all the flaws, I can still recommend this movie to people. You could do a lot worse. But lordy lordy, this could have been so much more.

I give Prometheus three GAME OVER MANs out of five, and that’s probably too generous.

One Comment leave one →
  1. phil permalink
    July 12, 2012 9:14 am

    You should hear the Skeptics guide to the universe podcast tear this film to bits.

    Map makers who can’t find their way to the entrance to a cave.
    Biologists who try and pet snake like animals who exhibit threatening behavior.
    Getting attacked by a monster and not mentioning it to anyone!!
    Trying to outrun something when you can step to one side.
    Exposing yourself to alien pathogens.

    Etc

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