PROMETHEUS (Dir. Ridley Scott)
Verdict: 4 stars (out of 5) – Opening Weekend
Did you really enjoy Alien but were disappointed that it didn’t ask any ‘deep’ questions – despite the fact that it spawned a decade of academic masturbation? Luckily for you, the very same Ridley who directed Alien returns to the franchise with Prometheus. This film is a prequel (and yes, it is very much a prequel) to the first Alien that combines the expected and fantastically-grotesque death scenes with some very grande, if frustratingly unanswered, questions and themes. The film follows the spacecraft Prometheus, whose crew are sent by Peter Weyland (played by a Guy Pierce who looks like Emperor Palpatine) to follow the clues of Earth’s earliest civilizations that promise an intelligence beyond the stars. Led by the scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who ‘knows’ aliens exist because of her ‘faith’ in them, it turns out that this search does indeed lead to intelligent alien life…that actually created humanity in the first place. What a TRIP! The crew finds an alien building, stupidly put themselves at risk, and before you know it everyone is being killed by freakish creatures while bleating about the meaning of human life. A recipe for success on any day of the week!
Firstly, Prometheus absolutely lives up to the franchise’s reputation for terror and gore. I’d even go so far as to say that Scott outdoes himself: while the scenes of aliens abusing human bodies are sparse, these scenes award our patience by delivering and expanding upon the violent, quasi-sexual penetrations and exits that inspired the academic hard-on for the first Alien movie. Even if it’s expected in an Alien prequel, the scenes of alien attacks startled and deeply horrified me in a wonderful way. Like it’s predecessors, Prometheus parades our deepest subconscious fears about sexual intimacy on the movie screen through a display of fearlessly-perverted versions of the womb, birth, sex and genitalia. There are enough images of hostile wombs, forced entries, dangerous vaginas and viral fetuses that today’s grad students can easily spend hours making Freud relevant…again. Even the movie’s android asks: “Don’t all children want their parents to be dead?” This is where Scott’s movie is its bravest and most brilliant.
Speaking of androids, it’s both incredible and ironic that the movie’s most compelling character is the robot David (played by Michael Fassbender). He is robotic enough that you almost don’t fault him for doing the very evil things he does since he is programed to do them, but Fassbender adds enough nuanced malevolence that we are given a small basis by which to to hate and vilify him. The ambivalence that David inspires is one reason why he is so intriguing as a character – the other reason being that his relationship to his own human makers parallels the relationship between the human species and the ‘engineer’ aliens that ‘created’ them. Elizabeth Shaw’s questions for humanity’s alien creators are, in a way, questions that David has already had for his human makers.David even sets up the existential posturing of Prometheus by asking: “Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?”
However, these fascinating questions are raised but not answered, and this is both one of the most interesting but also frustrating aspects of the film as whole: its grandiose questions remain thematically rich yet are ultimately left unexplored, which makes the experience of the movie tangibly unsatisfying. Prometheus is a movie of vast surface: terrific ideas and themes about creation, evolution and choice are evoked and explored on only in passing as the movie hurtles on towards its giant question-mark of an ending.
The central problem with Prometheus is that it is entirely too much like Alien. Questions concerning the origin and purpose of humanity are answered by an Alien movie (first-rate horror at the hands of largely unknown organisms), which is inevitably inadequate. The existential issues that are raised demand a different movie than the one we are presented with.
For example, humanity is uniquely positioned in the movie both as ‘creators’ (having created A.I. like David) and the ‘created’ (having been created by the ‘engineers’), yet this promising premise isn’t explored in any substantive way. Through both the overt questions of Peter Weyland and the overall tension between the creators and creations, the movie merely reminds us that existential questions like “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!?!” are enthralling questions that deserve to be pursued. You have characters like David and even the ship’s corporate officer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) bringing up issues of parental anxiety and responsibility (mirrored in Weyland’s wish to meet humanity’s true ‘parent’), yet the movie quickly leaves these concerns behind as Prometheus becomes more engrossed in the unexplained motivations of an intelligent alien species.
This thematic ineptness is exemplified by the fact that we never learn why these humanoid aliens created the fiercely predatory creatures of the Alien movies, nor why they created and then decided to destroy mankind. There’s also the issue of how the gene-fragmenting alien goo works, as this one substance produces all of the film’s gruesome effects with very little explanation. Consequently, you get a somewhat lazy story and a film that stumbles through some pretty large narrative gaps because it didn’t continue the bravery it demonstrated in depicting horrifyingly-sexual acts of violent impregnation. Even Prometheus’ appeal as an explanation of the origins of the mysterious pilot and the creatures in Alien is lost. And even when you grant a continuation of the subdued, minimal story and set of Alien, for Prometheus it still feels as if the credits rolled before something scary and violent exploded out of the stomach of the guy who had the pregnant spider on his face…the stage is set, but the movie ends just as the curtains open.
However, the movie’s effects demonstrate a Ridley Scott that is at the apex of his visual ability – the beautiful details of the movie provide a meticulously constructed atmosphere that contributes to all its scenes. You see a passive prairie landscape flicker on a wall-screen of a crashed, tightly-spaced vessel that has bloodstains on its damaged electronics. You see a holographic program meticulously detail Earth’s location in the cosmos. You see the semicircle alien ship crash spectacularly, DNA forming in the middle of cells, a desert storm hurl pieces of glass around, Michael Fassbender’s flawless face…you get the picture. The movie bears the striking imagery that distinguished Scott’s own Bladerunner, Gladiator, and the like.
Beyond Michael Fassbender, the acting is also adequate if not good. Noomi Rapace cries and screams when she needs to, and her annoying habit of bringing up her ‘faith’ is staunched just enough that it doesn’t ruin the movie’s big questions with a stupid answer. Some characters die before we can even get to know them, but that is balanced by the characters that are given time to develop, such as: Elizabeth Shaw, Meredith Vickers, Peter Weyland, and above all, the eerie android David. As with most of these types of movies, the character’s importance to the plot determines how far they make it before death. So that guy that the camera never cuts to…yeah, he’s going to get viciously killed in five…four…three…two…
So this movie deserves to be seen, immediately, and is immensely enjoyable. Just be prepared to deal with a little frustration when it decides to move away from the grotesque piles of human remains to clumsily address the themes portended by the movie’s overly-symbolic title. Even if the movie intended to have a huge question mark at its center, it could have provided more context and motivation so that we could enjoy at least some answers as to how the aliens and their spacecraft came to be, how their weaponized organisms work, and why they created these awful creatures in the first place. Shaw’s whole “why god, why” bleating becomes our own “why, Ridley, why…all I wanted was to know why…”
Movies that do it better: Alien and Aliens are obvious comparisons (and Prometheus fits among them wonderfully), The Thing (1982) does worse things to the human body, The Exorcist obviously produces the same coming-out-from-within terror, The Fly is masterfully grotesque in focusing on the morphing human body, the first two Terminator movies give you the epitome of scary robots, as does Blade Runner, I Am Legend also produces entertaining ‘scientific’ monsters…and if you want a similar plot where humanity’s creators seek to destroy everyone you can play the Mass Effect franchise.