As someone who only watched the original Alien films for the first time earlier this year (yep, it’s true), I didn’t go into Prometheus with nearly so much investment or expectations as many of the other people clutter my twitter feed and Facebook wall. The day after the film was released, I was somewhat dismayed to see so many people poo-pooing the movie on twitter; despite a decent critical reception, fans seemed unimpressed by Ridley Scott’s return to Science Fiction and the Alien universe. Still, I went into the film last night without any exposure to trailers or any media (I didn’t even know Charlize Theron was in it!) and tried to throw preconceptions aside before I settled in my seat. Two hours later, I left the theatre feeling somewhat dirty, guilty for enjoying the film so much, despite its flaws, and wondering if I’d be shunned by the twitter-verse.
As an ensemble cast, I felt that the characters work (though they ain’t no Ripley and Newt), drawing obvious inspiration from the first two Alien films. It’s a shockingly beautiful film that deserves to be seen in theatres. All told, Prometheus is an enjoyable, gory, flawed film that crumbles under the weight of its predecessors (ascendents?) and utterly falls apart if you start to analyze the plot at anything higher than the book report of a fifth grader, but, if you cast that aside, there’s a lot to like. At least that’s what I choose to believe.
The fun begins after the jump. Watch for rambling, incoherent spoilers, or you shall be rolled over by a spaceship!
So, up here in Canada, we have a saying about particularly pugilistic hockey matches. We’ll turn to our friend and say, “Jeez, I came to watch a fight and a hockey game broke out!” It’s a tongue-in-cheek way to make light of our silly sport. About 1/4 of the way through Prometheus, a thought crossed my mind. “Geez,” I thought. “I went to an Alien prequel and an Intelligent Design debate broke out!” It’s an obvious knee-jerk reaction, and roots for the debate are visible even in the first Alien film, and more-so in Aliens, but it was still enough to tear me out of the movie from time-to-time. Of course, Science Fiction and the concept of Intelligent Design would appear to go hand-in-hand, but the way Prometheus straddles the line between theological debate and horror/action hybrid was too wobbly to say with any confidence that Scott’s film was a success. We were created by aliens? Okay, fine. But the aliens were actually human? Uhh. And now they want to kill us because we killed Jesus who was an alien? Urrrr.
The only thing that shattered my suspension of belief more than the thinly-veiled (or, smash you over the head obvious) Intelligent Design ‘debate,’ was Guy Pearce playing a hundred year old dude. Like, why not get an actual hundred year old dude to play the character. Like Christopher Lee. He’s old and awesome. Or maybe a seventy year old dude. Or a sixty-five year old dude. Guy Pearce? Walking around all rickety-like? Really? I kept expecting him to miraculously cast off his cane and crutches, suddenly young thanks to that black goop in the vases, the true purpose of the space voyage revealed. Instead, he just looked sort of silly for the second-half of the movie and then died. Sigh.
The rest of the cast is good. It’s clear that the writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, were using both Alien and Aliens as a template for this script, assembling a mismatched cast of misfits and charmers together to protect each other and triumph over the aliens, the interplay between the diametrically opposed Millburn and Fifield is charming and well developed in a short period of time with a few shared moments. I cared about those two misfits, a classic geek/punk foil, more than almost everyone else in the film. They are just two simple dudes caught up in something that’s waaaay over their heads. Also topping the list is Captain Janek, played by the enviably awesome Idris Erba, who, despite being away from the action for most of the film, seems calm and capable, an anchor on a mission that goes awry from the moment his ship lands on LV-223.
The film’s biggest flaw was the way in underdeveloped and ignored character motivations. We know that Shaw and Holloway were seeking after the potential of finding extra-terrestrials from the anthropological perspective of wanting to discover the secrets of humanity’s past and creation, but it’s also clear from their reactions to finding life on the alien planet, Shaw’s intense and reckless curiousity and Holloway’s recession into drinking, that their personal expectations and motivations were different on a root level. What they did each expect to find there? What did they each want to find there? The film barely explores that. Of everyone, it’s Fifield who has the clearest and best defined motivation: money.
“Geez,” I thought. “I went to an Alien prequel and an Intelligent Design debate broke out!”
Despite my earlier kind words about the ensemble cast, I think the film loses some emotional connection with the audience by spreading itself too thinly among the different characters. Holloway and Shaw aren’t the most original or compelling of characters, and certainly don’t have any of Ripley’s hard-nosed beauty, but their relationship, and the vast space between their philosophical ideologies, is interesting and at the core of the film’s themes of humanity and creation theory. Just watching their reaction to and treatment of David, a cyborg, is fascinating. But, instead, their relationship feels like it was given short shrift, robbing the film of emotional impact. David murders Holloway halfway through the film. If David were human, I’d say it was done in cold blood, but, he’s a robot and only acting on orders. The problem comes from the fact that Holloway, a character we’ve been attaching ourselves to since the second scene in the film, is killed for no discernable reason (an experiment by Weyland?) and there’s no consequence later in the film for the evil choices made by David and Weyland. They are ‘killed,’ yes, but not as a result of their evil behaviour, but rather just because of Weyland’s greed. There’s no reason to poison Holloway, and his death serves little purpose other than to shock the audience. Shaw never finds out about David’s deceit, and barely has time to grieve for her dead lover, which also robs an important character of a chance to grow beyond her original boundaries. Instead, she gives birth to his alien son a few hours after his death, and only 10 hours after getting pregnant. Man, just writing some of this stuff out makes me shake my head.
Oh, and then there’s that bit at the end when big, tall, horny, angry, blonde Charlize Theron gets run over by the big Alien spaceship, but, well… I’ll let the Penny Arcade guys handle that one.
I expect that a lot of these problems were created in post-production, as the realities of the film industry started to rear their head, tearing apart the original script and cobbling it back together into a Frankenstein version of Scott’s original vision. I mean, it’s not like the Alien franchise hasn’t seen that before. Or Scott’s other films, for that matter. Kingdom of Heaven, another of Scott’s films, received similar criticisms to Prometheus and was a mess in its theatrical form. The extended edition, released on DVD a handful of years later, is considered by many to be a exponentially superior film and one of Scott’s better films. If there any luck, we’ll eventually see a two-and-a-half hour director’s cut of this film that helps fill out Prometheus‘s holes and expand the film into a version closer to its intended state.
I’m being very facetious here, but, ultimately, I did enjoy the movie, more than most of the people in the geek circles I run in. It’s too bad the film spends so much of its time trying to be Alien and Aliens, relying on the theology to separate them, rather than mechanics or tight storytelling, instead of being its own creation, standing on its own merits like those two classic Ridley Scott films manage to do to this day. Exploring the viral/parasitic nature of the alien bio-weapons and the motives behind their self-destructive behaviour is genuinely interesting, but it seems like we’ll have to wait for a sequel (se/prequel? pre-sequel? presequel?) before we find even a hint of the answers that Shaw is looking for in the final moments of the film.
Unless, of course, Adam Whitehead’s speculation from our twitter conversation is correct:
Then, well, I don’t even know what to say…