June 10, 2012

Film review: PROMETHEUS (spoilers)

Poster by BLT Communications
Just in case you missed it right up there in the blog post title, this will be a SPOILER filled review of Ridley Scott's Prometheus
That covered, we can move on. 

And yes, hello. Welcome back. It's nice to come back and write about movies again and what better one to kick back in with than the highly anticipated prequel/side-quel/whatever to Alien? Lets get down to it shall we? Brass tacks as it were. Prometheus, celebrated director Sir Ridley Scott's return to the petered out Alien franchise, is really rather stupid. 

Yep. Stupid. For a film nominally about the search for the beginnings of human life, helmed by one of the smartest and visually interesting directors still working, Prometheus is monumentally bone-headed. The script, by Damon Lindelof from a draft by Jon Spaihts, is riddled with plot-holes and peopled by barely sketched and needlessly contradictory characters who blunder about and occasionally find themselves running into barely explored themes.

I barely even know where to start with talking about this. Before I saw Prometheus, I'd heard chatter that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. But still, I went in with my high hopes. Slightly dampened, but still. C'mon, right? This was Ridley Scott returning to Alien territory. Alien is still the best all of the various Alien films and sequels; much like the horrific xenomorph that stalks the corridors and ducts of the Nostromo it's a sleek, fierce and deadly film. There's no fat on Alien's bones and it is still a remarkable, frightening film. Prometheus has no idea what it is. It tries for drama, dread, thrills, deep questions and more and comes up short on all accounts.

Let's start with the characters. The ship Prometheus is peopled with a huge array of extraneous barely seen characters who are summarily beaten and chewed and killed to absolutely zero effect. They're barely there as cannon fodder. Our main characters fare little better. Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw is a barely defined muddle of a generic "scientist". At various points she is an archaeologist, astronomer, xenobiologist and more. Oh, and she's also vaguely religious too. 'Cos science and religion y'know, man? Woah. Her partner/husband is even less well defined, seemingly only to serve to get infected with the space-worms they find and then knock up Rapace with an alien space baby. Yeah. Sure. Okay. Whatever.

Similarly wasted are Rafe Spall and Sean Harris as a stupid biologist and oh-he's-a-geologist? respectively. Spall is a nerdy biologist who, at his first sight of a (dead) alien body decides he wants to scarper back to the ship. But, after he and Harris get lost (again, stupid stupid plot-hole. Harris is the geologist for fuck's sake! Not to mention there's a big ol' holographic map back on the ship detailing all of the explored caves and where everyone is. And they all have nifty gadgets on their suits that provide them with co-ordinates. It is unforgivably bad writing that they get lost) and they find some mutated-alien goo worms that look exactly like penis eels with vaginas for faces, Spall wants to give it a cuddle. Freaked out by a long-dead alien but totally ok with a living alien creature.

Coming out slightly better off are Charlize Theron as the calculating boss, Meredith Vickers and Idris Elba as the charming, working-class pilot Janek. But they're not really given enough to do and the film would have benefited from focussing on them more. In fact, I would have much rather followed Theron's icy corporate type than Rapace's poorly defined scientist; she's a better character and Theron is a markedly better actor. Oh, right - and Guy Pearce shows up in old-man make-up as an elderly Peter Weyland 'cos... there are no old actors in Hollywood? And he's Theron's dad - which is just thrown out there arbitrarily and entirely un-revelatory.

It's Michael Fassbender, as the android David, who really comes out the best. Fassbender's performance is great from beginning to end; some of the best stuff is in the first 20 minutes and is just David hanging out, shooting hoops, watching (and cos-playing as) Lawrence of Arabia during the crew's cryo-sleep. He's fascinating to watch and you get the feeling Fassbender has been tricked into thinking he's in a much better film than he actually is.

Almost ironically, David is the most human of all of the characters. He really is more relatable than any of these other dunderheads. Upon discovering alien life - honest-to-gods proof or alien life and civilisations, not to mention being the things they had set out to find in the first place - there is almost uniformity in how the crew reacts: meh. Dead or not, this marks the most significant discovery in human history and no-one really gives a shit. Because Scott wants to hurry up and get to trying to scare you.

This seems like a lot of bitching, and a lot of bitching at surface details at that. Apologies but it's just, the more I've been thinking about it, the more pissed off and disappointed it's making me. 
This could have been, and really should have been, something more. Something larger than any of the Alien films, grappling as it does with the very beginnings of mankind. There was the chance for Prometheus to be an elegant, moving science-fiction film with some great terror thrown in. But  Scott obviously no longer even cares about things like story, characters and themes. He's all about the visuals. And, to bring in some positivity, the visuals in Prometheus are suitably staggering. They are images of strange, otherworldy beauty; vast alien landscapes (some right here on Earth) that stretch to the stars. But now, much like his brother Tony, Sir Scott only seems to give a damn about how it all looks. 

It just, aaggh! It's all so monumentally stupid. The second scene of the film has Rapace and her partner man finding a series of cave paintings on the Isle of Skye in Scotland - except the cave paintings are lifted directly from the Chauvet cave already and recently explored by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Sure, your average movie-goer will probably skip right over that but to me it is a perfect example of the lack of ambition inherent to the film. Scott and Lindelof aren't interested in exploring questions any further than just asking the questions. And by asking the questions, I mean they have characters, at various times, asking these questions directly.

Prometheus is a visual marvel, I cannot call attention away from that. It looks absolutely phenomenal - quite possibly the best looking film of the year. But there's nothing really going on underneath that. The film is all surface, desperately pretending to have hidden depths but failing to engage in any meaningful way. It doesn't hold a candle to the original beast and Alien still stands tall as the greatest of them all. 

As a bonus: I think I've solved the riddle of Prometheus. In the film, the Engineer's (the space jockey creators of human life) are killed off some 2,000 years ago, just before they're readying to wipe out life on earth. And the question is asked (often but, again, barely explored): why? I think I have the answer. What happened 2,000 odd years ago in human history? Why, Jesus Christ of course. The Engineers got wind of this and that's where the decision came from. King of the Jews? Can't be having with that! The Engineers are inter-galactic anti-Semites. YOU'RE WELCOME.


  1. Welcome back!

    So, so disappointed with this movie both as a part of the Alien legacy and on its own merits. You've nailed pretty much all of its failings and while he hasn't quite plumbed the depths of Lucas, it's a woeful mis-step by Ridley Scott. The fact that Fassbender still remains great in his role shows how good he is, as opposed to merits the script and story creating a great character.

    1. It just... gah. You could quite easily spend all day & night pointing out the plot holes and illogical leaps the film takes. But the biggest failing, for me, is the complete inability to actually engage with any of the really huge themes the film is ostensibly trying to explore.

  2. I found it entertaining, in a totally brainless way. But way too many plot holes. Hawaii wasn't inhabited until 300AD, which is a few hundred years after all these aliens died. So how did they know about them, it was clearly being implied the aliens had visited? Whoops. Didn't you totally expect the old man was going to be Peter O'Toole for a brief moment. That would have been awesome. That start with Fassbender on the ship was probably the best part, and he really looks like O'Toole. Also lucky I'm not squeamish as, a month or so out from giving birth, I was at least able to find self administered alien foetus caesarean inappropriately hilarious. From behind my fingers.

    1. Holy crap it would've been AMAZING if they'd got Peter O'Toole to play Weyland!

      Gods, I cannot imagine watching that alien caesarean while pregnant. Yikes.

  3. Firstly, great to have you back.

    Secondly, my patience is wearing thin with people quibbling over plotholes in this film. I can count the same
    number of holes in the original 'Alien', and both films will be remembered for being the fourth most successful of their summers whilst making audiences watch A-grade B-movie R-rated horror.

    I'm just glad Prometheus has a messed up Caesarian section scene, creepy eyeball infections and Fassbender just dominating 2011 & 2012. Sure as hell beats anything in Alien: Resurrection or Alien3

    1. There's quibbling over plot-holes, and there's being frustrated with absolutely nothing making a damn lick of sense. And characters are, as I said, barely that. I'll happily breeze past plot-holes if I've got a well defined character or two to hang on to. But they aren't to be found in "Prometheus". They're all so ill-defined and then killed off so arbitrarily and no-one seems to really give a shit. Fassbender's David is the one shining light in all of that, and even his motivations are a little confusing at times.

      "Alien" is still effective today - it still creeps me the fuck out. I was never, not once, on the edge of my seat with "Prometheus". I really wanted to be - my anticipation of frights a-coming before the film was high - but they never came.

      That messed up C-section was a great, freaky scene - but why the hell was the fancy-pants Medi-pod only set for male patients? It's an obstruction that is easily overcome by Rapace's character pushing a bunch of buttons and serves no real purpose.

      Sorry. I'm going off again. I certainly don't want to get into an argument about this. You enjoyed it and that's cool. I'm really seriously glad you did. I didn't. I couldn't. There was just too much poor script-work for me to.

      And a quick random side-note/addendum to my crack theory at the end of the blog post - apparently it was scripted, but not filmed, that Jesus was one of the Engineers. And they were gonna kill us all off because we killed him. I was close!

  4. Interesting. Thanks for your response. I agree the characters are less interesting (or, more importantly, given less screen time per person) than those in 'Alien'. If anything, they should've made the ship Prometheus much smaller (ala the Apollo missions of the 60s) and had only two or three people on it. Those people should not have been geologists (or whatever they were), they should've been astronauts, or at least anthropologists. Slimming down the crew-count would have made for a much more claustrophobic film. In any case, I find nearly everyone in 'Alien' unlikeable, and I felt similarly about 'Prometheus'. The only film in the Alien series with characters I truly care about (and like) is 'Aliens', and that's because Cameron really made sure you knew the Main Characters of that cluttered ensemble were the core-family unit of Hicks/Newt/Ripley/Uncle Bishop. Dunno if you feel similarly? There are definitely some out there who love the deeply-flawed personalities in the original 'Alien', so I'm happy to be in the minority on that one.

    Anyway, agree-to-disagree and all that, but I'd love to read a follow-up post from you if you re-watch 'Prometheus'. I'd be interested to find out if your opinion changes or mellows. As an example of a 'plot-hole' that is actually explainable without it being overtly-explained-by-way-of-exposition... the male-only MediPod would've likely been brought onboard just for Weyland, right? And his daughter would've got the flash digs because they were actually intended for him, without telling the rest of the crew? I mean, send the richest dude alive to space in a fragile state... it'd make sense to bring one of the 10 MediPods ever created along for the ride! And you'd surely wanna finely-tune that thing to work exclusively for an octogenarian male, right? Where 'Prometheus' really let itself down was the lack of overt exposition in some places, while it had way too much exposition in others.

    I think something you and I can definitely agree on though is that 'Prometheus' needed another two or three drafts on its script. It needed someone with the clout to tell both Fox and Ridley Scott "no, we're going to ditch that plot point, because it is only key to the wider-Alien-series-Universe... not key to this particular narrative that we're telling in this particular film." I reckon it also could've used someone saying "Ok. We've got the bones of an interesting tale here. Now, what worked in 'Alien'? Have we succeeded in emulating that in this scene?" I reckon the majority of the time, the answer to that last question would be "no". So, in that regard, you're right. It's a flawed film if we hold 'Alien' to be the gospel.

    1. Heh. Uncle Bishop.

      Yeah, the Medi-Pod. Thinking about it more (good gods why?), I get that you can explain it as being calibrated for Old Man Weyland. That totally makes sense, without question. But it seems entirely pointless - Rapace is able to get around that calibration easily enough. And if the audience is wondering "What? Why balls only?" as some sort of lead in to the reveal of Old Man Weyland - well, it's kinda forgotten in the really tense C-section and then he's revealed in pretty much the next scene (although, you already kinda knew he was on board with David sneaking around talking to him).

      But yes, it absolutely needed another draft or two. I think "Prometheus" is an entirely flawed film in its own right, "Alien" or no. As its own thing, its own film entirely divorced from anything else in the series, it just doesn't work.

      So, yeah man, agree to disagree. Although, we can also both agree that the visuals were breathtaking - I think I already mentioned I think it's the best looking film of the year? I doubt I'll be seeing it again though - I have neither the desire nor the cash to do so.

      But hey! More than happy to keep discussion like this going! I just wish we could be discussing the themes and ideas that the movie talked about... instead of the flaws that stopped it from engaging with those themes and ideas.

  5. you've hit the nail on the head there: "I just wish we could be discussing the themes and ideas that the movie talked about... instead of the flaws that stopped it from engaging with those themes and ideas."

    1. Cheers Mr. Calloway, and thanks for your frank discussion here in the comments.

  6. I didn't even read this (sorry, A) but I'm guessing it's the same argument my friends and I have been having all weekend. And my only defense for loving the crap out of it is thus: ignore the plot. and the characters. and the black goo. Prometheus was an exercise in world building and 3-d film production, and it did both of those things pretty damn well.

    (i also abandoned all hope for anything coherent after the House MD credits rolled in scene 1. So, y'know. That.)

  7. Plot "features" that I keep dwelling on:

    - How was the black goo in scene 1 different than the black goo in the entire rest of the movie? (Giving up after scene 1 was a great plan on my part, ps.)

    -Speaking of the goo, notice how it did a different thing to every single person it touched? Yeah. That. Even if you want me to believe that it's a DNA transmogrifier, that's dumb.

    - Evolution is still true, so are are we gonna Occam's Razor our way to millions of years of trial and error spitting out near perfect carbon copies of the engineers?

    - Why did Weyland like playing Hide & Seek SO MUCH that he had to build a SPACESHIP to do it on?

    - Did you seriously just Frankenweenie a 2000 year dead head back to life with goo juice? SERIOUSLY?

    - Given rate of development, why wasn't Space Kraken DEAD by the time Space Jockey came over to say hi? (On the other hand, SPACE KRAKEN. SPACE KRAKEN may be everything I never knew I wanted out of life.)

    - The merits of running for your life in a straight line from a giant rolling alien warship, vs sidestepping out of the path of destruction. Discuss.

    - Why Charlize Theron's character existed at all, given her ending. (In the pro column, Charlize Theron's ass in that spacesuit. Clearly the best actor of the entire film.)

    1. Ha! No worries M'ris - it's a fairly long review, mainly of me bitching about it. And yeah - as an exercise in world building and ridiculously pretty visual landscapes, "Prometheus" is a resounding, staggering success. Those opening shots of weird landscapes, on our own damn planet, were amazeballs.

      The squishing of Charlize reeeeaaaally annoyed me. Especially as there had just been a really thrilling escape from Prometheus for her, and she was a far more interesting character than Noomi. Just kind of symptomatic of the film: some really great scenes that had almost no relation to one another.

      Oh! Agh! And Fifield! How did he become all angry space zombie? Wasn't it t'other guy who got throat fucked by the black-goo worm?

      Also: SPACE KRAKEN. There's a movie right there.

    2. Did you read the LJ via Reddit post that got tossed around the internet today? It turns the whole thing into LET'S TALK ABOUT GOD, GOD GOD GOD - but it actually makes some of this stuff make sense. (Of course, if you need a 3rd party LJ post to make sense of your movie, something has gone horribly wrong somewhere in pre-production, but that's another story.)


    3. No, but I've read many other reviews, discussions and breakdowns of the film now. More than I think it really deserves and while I think some are finding connections and meanings that are not in the film itself, there is some very cool discussion going on.

      I'm just gonna watch some Battlestar Galactica now.