Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.
The annals of science fiction are wrought with tales of exploration and discovery gone wrong. Starting with the best of intentions, an idealistic explorer makes a startling discovery that they believe will open up a world of possibilities for humanity and usher in a new Golden Age for mankind. Until it doesn’t. Then it is realized that best of intentions have opened up the fastlane to Hell and our once-idealistic explorer is forced to ask themselves, “What have I done?” The same could be said about filmmaking, as hopeful filmmakers set out to create a bold new vision that they’re certain will wow audiences until they’ve realized they’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of a fiasco. However, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus isn’t a fiasco, but merely a massively underwhelming movie that was a victim of its own ambition. Yet there still hasn’t been that moment of “What have I done?” Instead, Ridley Scott is steadfast in making more and more sequels to the prequel that isn’t a prequel but is totally a prequel.
In the run-up to the release of Prometheus, there were all sorts of questions hanging over it – Is it an Alien prequel? If so, how will it connect? Ridley Scott was quoted as saying that Prometheus would share “strands of Alien‘s DNA, so to speak.” That would be an understatement, as a number of elements within Prometheus are actively trying to recall the aesthetic of Scott’s 1979 sci-fi masterpiece. While it should be stated that Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts try to forge something new, Prometheus is still beholden to all the flaws that are most common in prequels – call backs to the originals and an active attempt to explain what was once ambiguous. It’s all but impossible to explain something like the Space Jockey when you’re competing with 30-plus years of individual imagination. Sure, the film isn’t as bad as any of the Star Wars prequels, yet it still suffers from similar storytelling problems. Basically, Prometheus is the midi-chlorians of the Alien world.
It would be hard enough to tell the story of Prometheus in a manner that would be satisfactory to most fans if it were just about the origins of the Xenomorph. But Prometheus takes it a step further, linking the origins of the deadly alien to the creation of life on Earth by these mysterious beings known as Engineers. It’s a cautionary tale of biting off more than you can chew. The year is 2089 and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her colleague and boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered numerous cave paintings that present a map of the stars; the maps created in civilizations that had no prior contact with one another. The two get an expedition funded by Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce under layers of old-age makeup) of the Weyland Corporation in order to travel to LV-223, the suspected home of the Engineers. Along with an expansive crew, the ship Prometheus is helmed by Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and overseen by the shrewd corporatist Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and her trusty, duplicitous android David (Michael Fassbender). What they were looking for isn’t on LV-223 and a mysterious black ooze unleashes something beyond our darkest nightmares.
For all the mysteries that Prometheus introduces, nothing is given an adequate conclusion. The intent of the Engineers is barely explained, and the explanation presented – that LV-223 was a military installation created by the Engineers and destroyed by their black ooze – comes across as half-baked, especially when the one surviving Engineer goes on a killing spree for reasons far beyond the talents of its writers (which isn’t to say that either Spaihts or Lindelof aren’t talented). Everything that goes wrong in Prometheus is entirely the fault of David. But there’s never an attempt to bridge David’s actions with motivations – why would he sabotage this mission with experiments that are resoundingly unscientific, like slipping the mysterious black ooze into Charlie’s drink? Sabotage for science, or something like that.
The human characters of Prometheus are as underwhelming as the android character’s motivations. Elizabeth Shaw had potential to be a far more interesting character than the final product; her faith, which supposedly is a key characteristic, is handled mostly through dream sequences, never really allowing the character herself to define her belief system. Then of course there’s the superhuman manner with which she’s able to run about following a gruesome cesarean to remove an alien lifeform she’s been impregnated with. A couple shots of medicine and a few staples and she’s able to outrun aliens, Engineers, and crashing spaceships. Theron’s Meredith Vickers is a crude stereotype of a driven, successful woman, handling all affairs with a cold demeanor that borders on psychopathic at times. Towards the end, she refers to Weyland as father, suggesting that her icy façade is to compensate for paternal neglect. Even her demise – crushed by a falling spaceship – isn’t really an end fitting with her character. Weyland himself is an undercooked character, still the entire finale rests on his actions; he hopes that an encounter with an Engineer will grant him a longer life. Most confusing of all, there’s not a single sound reason for a quality actor like Pierce to be slathered in obviously fake makeup instead of hiring an age-appropriate actor.
However, all is not bleak within Prometheus. It has to be said that the film is a marvel in terms of its production design by Arthur Max, as well as the art design by Alex Cameron, Anthony Caron-Delion, and Peter Dorme. Combined with the sturdy cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, Prometheus looks way too good for its muddled thematics and teases for future installments. Another little touch I really like about Prometheus is David’s affection for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The android not only employs lines of dialogue from the film, he bleaches his hair to more resemble Peter O’Toole while trying to mimic the iconic actor’s line delivery and mannerisms. It is by far the most memorable character trait of Prometheus’ roster of characters.
Prometheus concluded with a tease for a sequel as Elizabeth Shaw and the disembodied head of David take flight towards the home planet of the Engineers followed by the genesis of the Xenomorph creature. It’s a frustrating ending because it leaves the answers to the next installment, which Ridley Scott recently confirmed as his next picture and will be titled Alien: Paradise Lost. I honestly don’t know of anyone that has been anxiously awaiting a sequel to Prometheus, and for good reason. It’s a film of big ideas; ideas so big that they exceeded the grasp of those who conceived them. Prometheus isn’t a wretched or awful film, merely a frustrating one because it puts off answering its own questions until its sequel. Unlike the characters of Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Damon Lindelof, and Jon Spaihts have yet to learn that some things are better left unanswered.