One cannot help but notice that, cinematically speaking, director Ridley Scott’s best days seem to be behind him. They were glorious days, though short lived; nothing after Blade Runner could compare to his second and third films. One might also note that he left his best days behind at precisely the time when he left behind science fiction. It is understandable, then, if one supposes that a return to the genre that made him might also be a return to form. Alas, it is not so. Scott’s latest feature, Prometheus, is a disappointment even for one whose expectations were not that lofty.
Prometheus returns us to the universe of Alien, that sublime work of sci-fi horror that remade an entire genre. This time, it is the late twenty-first century, a few decades before Ripley, Dallas, Parker, and the rest will land on LV426. Cave paintings all over the world, and from many different millennia, have been found to depict a giant gesturing to the stars as smaller, human forms worship him. Through means not satisfactorily explained, two scientists, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), determine that this is an invitation from a race that created our kind. Not only that, but they are able to pinpoint the star system to which we have been beckoned. The infamous Weyland-Yutani corporation bankrolls a scientific expedition to the system and danger ensues.
A strange approach to the movie is taken, one which is a peculiar fit for a prequel to Alien. Whereas the original started when the story started, introduced us to believable characters whom we slowly came to know only by how they acted and interacted, and got down to the business of slowly creeping us out before scaring us senseless, Prometheus attempts a good deal more. It begins with an ill-advised prologue in which we see one of the mysterious beings, instead of discovering them for the first time with the crew later in the movie. After the prologue we see the prelude to the expedition, the scientists discovering one of the cave paintings, something rendered entirely unnecessary when they explain it all to the crew anyway after coming out of hypersleep. They even spend some time with character back story.
One of the keys to horror is how much is shown to the audience. It is often scarier to see less; perhaps I should say usually scarier. Alien achieved a consonance with this idea in its streamlined script. We might have been shown a prologue of the original Space Jockey crashing into the planet, followed by a title saying 2000 YEARS LATER, as we faded to the Nostromo crew finishing up final preparations for the trip back to Earth. We might have been given all sorts of backstory for the characters, but we were not. We saw only enough to orient ourselves and connect with the seven men and women on board, and the movie opens as late into the story as it can. This informational parsimony is a key to Alien’s enduring success; it sets the right tone, keeps us in the right frame of mind for a horror flick. Prometheus, I am sad to report, overindulges.
If that were its only sin, it would be forgivable and the movie still a success. Unfortunately, the script is so poorly written that I am tempted to declare that the reason for Lost’s decline has been discovered. All sorts of mistakes are committed, mistakes one would not expect to see from a mildly talented amateur.
First of all, there is no attempt to show us competent science in progress, and this happens more than once. When the cave painting is discovered, Holloway asks Shaw if she has dated it yet. This despite that fact that she only found it a few minutes earlier before calling for him to come see. Yet she gives him an answer accurate to within a millennium. I have never worked with cave paintings, but I just feel like this is implausible.
Later on, when the ship arrives at its star system and the crew awake, they eat one meal, have a pep talk, and directly land on their target moon without pause, preparation, or deliberation of any sort. I have never flown a starship, but I just feel like this is implausible. They rather quickly find a likely spot for alien activity and land next to some ancient structure. Without pause, preparation, or deliberation, they exit the ship and go exploring, showing less prudence and circumspection than one would expect from a Kindergarten class’s field trip (they rush inside, start pressing and prodding things and even take their helmets off when they learn the air is breathable). I have never excavated and explored alien structures, but I just feel like this is implausible.
Characters behave in strange ways just so something plotful can happen. When they first enter the structure, they come across an alien cadaver. The geologist becomes angry that they are spending their time studying it because it has nothing to do with his line of work. Instead of being fascinated by the discovery of an intelligent extraterrestrial species, or just getting down to doing his work with his own equipment, he yells at Shaw and declares that since there is nothing there for him, he is going back to the ship. While completely without logic of any sort, it does get him separated from the group so that scary things can happen. In another instance, one character deliberately infects another, and the motive is never revealed. But it does allow for an awesome fight scene later on.
MILD SPOILERS MILD SPOILERS
Even the laws of science itself are cast aside and shattered. A procedure is performed on a cadaver so old that it should have been dust, but they are able to jam something into its skull and use electricity to spark some life into it, despite knowing little about its anatomy. The Space Jockey’s DNA is revealed to be an exact match to ours. Even setting aside the Darwinian problems with this, no human who ever lived has come out looking like what these things look like; they simply cannot be an exact match to our DNA (so the previous point still stands).
Also, the head of a nasty little creature is cut off and it regrows in less time than it takes to read this sentence. I realize that the one implausible point of Alien was that the chestburster somehow grew to enormous size in such a short time without, apparently, eating much. But at least one character expressed surprise at this, a surprise we all shared, and the discovery of the skin it was shedding, like a snake, made for a nice step in the development of that thread.
Prometheus’ deviations from reality are many and entirely without rhythm or development. They just throw one thing after another at the viewer. Worst of all, perhaps, are the physical feats performed by a character mere seconds after getting a C-section.
END OF SPOILERS END OF SPOILERS
Finally, the cheap and lazy approach to the script leaves certain threads undeveloped or unfinished. They are merely forgotten. To cite one example, there is a big fight scene with multiple fatalities that occurs in the hangar/garage of the human spaceship. It happens and then is forgotten. Did anybody ever clean up the mess? Did anybody ever miss anyone who died there, or bury the bodies? Did it damage anything vital to their mission?
As far as I recall, the fight scene had no effect on the rest of the movie, and yet the human response to something like that is a good engine to drive the plot. In the original Alien, the death of Kane led to an effective scene where his body was shot out into space. Even if the fight scene had been the most wonderful thing ever filmed, it still hurts the integrity of the larger project because it has no effect on the movie, like a rock thrown in a lake that makes no splash or ripples. One gets the sense that it is there merely to be an action scene, and once the action is over, the writers did not want to be bothered with it anymore.
Despite some gorgeous photography and philosophical pretensions, Prometheus mainly deals in the sort of experiences one can get from a roller coaster. To do more, it would have to honor logic and character actions, make sure that the scenes were not only impeccable, but that they came together to form a coherent whole. These elements of logic of character and plot are what can pull an audience into the story and make it special. These are the elements that make it a story in the first place, and not merely an action demo reel.
Prometheus, however, is a cheap story, and it cheapens the Alien universe. I long ago wrote off Alien Resurrection as a movie that never happened, but that film did not try to ruin previous films. Prometheus might be harder to erase. It took the tantalizing enigma of the Space Jockey and killed its wonder by solving the mystery. Perhaps if the solution had been captivating it would have done no damage, but it turns out the Space Jockey race was engaged in acts fully as illogical as the actions of some of the characters in the movie. Maybe the project was simply doomed from the start as soon as it set its sights on that cryptic, fossilized pilot from another planet, the one who fascinated generations of fans. After all, who would remember a serial killer of prostitutes in London in 1889 if his identity had been discovered?
Science fiction prequels are going to get a bad name. George Lucas and Ridley Scott have taken the best franchises the genre has to offer and given us lame precursor stories, though Scott’s is nowhere near as bad as Lucas’s. Even if there is nothing in the present film to appall the libertarian — the theme of the evil corporation is hardly even detectable — there is plenty to displease cinemagoers of all political persuasions. And now I see that Ridley Scott is going to work on a Blade Runner project?
Someone stop him before it is too late.