– Summary –
Director : Ridley Scott
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Rafe Spall, Sean Harris.
Approx Running Time : 124 Minutes
Synopsis: Two scientists traverse the reaches of space to uncover the long-hidden mystery of the origin of our species: and in doing so, place Earth in deadly peril.
What we think : After all the hype, after all the build-up, the end result is a resounding “meh”. Prometheus is little more than a director trying – and failing – to recapture the magic of a film he made three decades prior; I suspect this failure is due more to a confused and confusing script, a script which gives us characters we don’t care about and behavior we don’t understand. As an entry into the Alien universe, Ridley Scott has crafted a film devoid of any genuine thrills or awe, and as a film trying to explore the building blocks of humanity, it comes across as a join-the-dots construction of semi-formed ideas with a kindergarten-level idea of theology.
In space, no-one can hear you being an idiot.
I, like most folks, was eagerly anticipating Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he created in Alien, a universe continued successfully by James Cameron and David Fincher, among others. I bought into the game played by the promotional material, which advertised the film as a kind of hybrid sci-fi horror with an attempt at a deeper meaning. Initially, the foundation of this film was a dead-set prequel to Scott’s 1979 film, however soon into production it became clear that Scott wanted to go off in a slightly different direction while still inhabiting the same universe, and so Prometheus was born. As an audience, we had enough faith in Scott as a filmmaker that whatever he was going to attempt would be to the betterment of the Alien franchise, and for film in general – after all, Scott practically invented modern Science Fiction Films with Alien and Blade Runner, two iconic films which are held in high esteem to this day. Prometheus features a damn fine cast, a familiar world to inhabit, has very high production values, and a team of behind-the-camera artisans most film productions would kill for. Prometheus had everything going for it, including public goodwill for Scott to succeed in bringing scary back.
This review contains spoilers.
Why then, is Prometheus such a disappointment? The film left me not only asking what the point of it all was, but why they even bothered in the first place. The story is set many years prior to Alien, where two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Swedish actress and star of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover strange symbols scattered around the Earth, which leads them to believe Earth has been visited by alien creatures – and they set out to find them. On board the interstellar exploration ship Prometheus, owned by the Weyland Corporation (as established by a holographic message from corporation founder Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) prior to landing on the distant moon, LV223), the crew of fellow scientists, explorers and technicians learn that they’re on a mission to locate signs of life on the barren planetoid, which they soon do in the form of a massive spheroid pyramid. Weyland executive Vickers (Charlize Theron), who has ulterior motives to Shaw and Holloway, instructs the exploratory team entering the pyramid that should they encounter any alien life form, they are not to approach, speak to, or in any way interact with it. The ships primary robotic form, David (Michael Fassbender) is also on a mission for an unseen party, and after discovering strange material inside the pyramids structure, he poisons one of the crew in order to fulfill some unknown order, setting in motion a chain of events that will put the Earth in very great danger.
The film seems to divide people into two distinct halves: the first half are the people who went to this expecting to see another Alien film and didn’t get it, and the other half are the folks who went in expecting a ripping sci-fi action flick, and didn’t get it. The key flaw, in my opinion, to Prometheus’s failure as a film is that Ridley played with peoples expectations without every figuring out what the end result was going to be. By pinching ideas from the Alien universe and not delivering an Alien film, Scott’s avoided repeating himself (even if this film does have parallels to imagery in his original Alien) and tried to shoehorn a different film into our preconceived ideas, a fact which is the crux of my argument. I remarked to one of my friends as we left the cinema that the film preyed upon our knowledge of the previous Alien films and used that to fill in a lot of the blanks, without ever generating its own tension or entertainment. The film relied on me to have the knowledge of Alien (and to some degree, Aliens) to get more out of it, because the philosophical and theological elements Scott tried to put into this film just don’t work within the context of the story. It was like two stories trying to inhabit the same film, and neither worked in harmony with the other. Heck, even the single, noticeable, tacit nod to James Cameron’s sequel is jarring, with a character at one point exclaiming “we are leeee-aving!” just like Corporal Hicks did.
The fundamental flaw of the film is the script. It’s nonsensical and thwarted as a coherent narrative by unfinished subplots, awfully stupid characters and a sense of impending horror that never eventuates. Screenwriter Damon Lindelof, together with co-writer Jon Spaihts, have tried to take Ridley’s Alien world and take us back to “where it all began”, so to speak, with the introduction of the infamous “space jockeys” of the first movie – you know, that massive alien creature the crew of the Nostromo discover sitting in what looks like an uber-cannon. Scott implied that Prometheus would contain “strands of Alien DNA”, yet this film not only contains strands, it contains practically the whole box and dice from the original concept – and then works damn hard not to use it in a way that’s interesting. Sure, an archaeologist exploring her inner demons while battling nasty alien creatures sounds a lot like the last Indiana Jones film, but here, with Shaw as the central protagonist enduring more anguish than any human has a right to, Prometheus feels clunky. There’s an underlying subtext of faith, of belief in God, and Shaw is meant to portray an Everyman Believer of sorts, whose faith is tested by the events of the film. The story tries to say that the closer she gets to discovering “our maker”, the further from her belief she’s forced to turn. In this sense, Prometheus is ripe for some terrific narrative exploration, and yet the film only skirts the boundaries of these concepts. Shaw’s character is only paid lip-service to her links to her faith, a seemingly inadequate amount for a film filled with so many tremendous images.
Indeed, Prometheus is a visually sumptuous film. Ridley Scott’s dazzling eye for framing, composition, visual grandeur and lighting is in full force here. The visual effects, especially, are superbly integrated into the movie – they’re so realistic you truly do forget that what you’re watching is actually somebody’s keystrokes on a computer. George Lucas might learn a thing or too here. However – and here’s the kicker – the story never once supports the visuals. Ridley’s so focused on making this film as visual as he possibly could, that he forgets to make sure the story, the very concept of the film, supports this. And to make matters worse, Ridley’s inability to create any tension throughout a lot of the film is also glaringly evident. There’s about three moments of genuine tension, genuine scares in the entire thing, and for a film running some two hours, that’s a critical failure for the audience.
As for casting, the entire roster of genre characters is included – the strong willed corporation babe, Vickers, who thinks she’s got a grasp on what’s going on, but soon learns otherwise. There’s the sarcastic, wisecracking ships captain (Thor’s Idris Elba), and his crew of alternative ethnic types, as well as, of course, Noomi Rapace’s central heroine. Rapace has proven herself a more than competent actress, but she’s stuck in this film as a character so similar to Alien’s Ellen Ripley that it’s both awkward for the audience and retread-tired for the story. Rapace is forced to go through a wide range of emotions, emotions that never ring true because her character isn’t developed enough on screen to warrant our empathy. Shaw has little-to-no arc beyond what was written on the page, and Scott is either not willing to try, or unable to achieve, bringing her to life in any meaningful sense. Rapace is solid enough with her performance, but it woefully undermined by a wobbly set of character traits. Her on-screen partner, Holloway, is more than capably embodied by Logan Marshall-Green, although his character is about as obnoxiously stupid as you can get. One minute he’s a sweet-natured archaeologist traipsing about the alien planet with as much awe and bedazzlement as Shaw, and the next he’s a vodka swilling alcoholic bemoaning how life isn’t fair – and there’s no reason for it. Indeed, I was sitting in the cinema wondering if I’d had a micro-sleep and missed a key sequence where he turned from a reasonable sort of guy to a complete douche. Made no sense. Again, it’s not Marshall-Green’s fault for the performance, because he does a good job, but the script and Scott’s directions of it in terms of this pivotal character makes no sense whatsoever.
Charlize Theron, meanwhile, gets her hands dirty as this films’ Carter Burke (Remember him? The douche from Aliens who set the face-huggers on Ripley and Newt? In this film, that character’s now a smoking hot woman!) and she seems to be loving it. Theron chews through her scenes with icy stillness, a sense of arrogance emanating from her character that you just know will come back to bite her, big time. (Hint, it does! Yay!) Idris Elba, looking a lot more scruffy than he did in Thor, comes off a little like Robert Shaw in Jaws, all gnarly and salty, like some barnacled space-junkie who’s seen too many asteroids. As a character, he’s a bit of nothing, but Elba does well enough with the few funny moments Scott gives him – it’s like we’re expected to find him funny and cool and everything, but Scott does nothing to give us a reason to. Disappointing.
Michael Fassbender, playing the ships on-board robot, David, is easily the most potent character of the movie. He’s somewhat androgynous in nature; we are never quite sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy, because he’s a passionless, emotionless robot. Scott dips his toe into the old chestnut of a robot in search of his feelings (several times, characters prod David with the knowledge that he’ll never be human and capable of real feelings, to which David usually responds with a weird little grimace) but it is an arc which is never resolved. Fassbender, who seems to be in every film ever made since 2010, rocks the socks off this character, though, even if he, too, is undone by a terribly disjointed script. Disappointing.
Easily the worst choice made by Ridley for this film was the decision to cast Guy Pearce as an elderly Peter Weyland. Pearce is as capable an actor as there ever was (seen his work in Memento, for example?) but exactly why they needed to cast a younger dude as a centenarian and plaster his face with a tonne of old-age makeup seems somewhat inelegant compared to the rest of the film. Why not just cast an older actor for the role? The problem with “old age” makeup is that it looks like makeup. You can’t hide the fact that it’s a young guy under all that prosthetic work, and if the chuckles the audience I saw this with is anything to go by, it’s definitely the moment at which you get the sense that Prometheus is going to slide downhill quite quickly. It’s not like there was a need to have Pearce in the film at all, since he never appears as a younger version of himself to counteract the requirement for the older variant, so again I ask: why not just cast an older dude in the part and save some money on make-up? Disappointing.
Another of the films major problems is that the characters – thanks to the script – behave in such stupid ways you can’t understand how they passed whatever test they needed to to make it onto this ship in the first place. The people in this film behave so irrationally at times you can just feel the script buckling under the weight of its own stupidity. Theron’s character, a hard-ass corporate type, flails about with no genuine parameters as to what she’s about, leaving us to wonder what her motivations are; when she does reveal her true motives, it’s too little, too late, and we just don’t care. Idris’ ships pilot is equally bad – he’s stuck in the cab of the Prometheus the entire time, and yet when the crap hits the fan, he’s more knowledgeable about what’s going on in the pyramid than the guys who’ve been out there? I don’t buy that for a moment. And finally, there’s a moment at the end, where Shaw and Vickers must try and outrun a crashing alien ship, that they not once stop and think that if they run sideways instead of straight ahead, the ship will bypass them and they’ll be safe? I know I heard a few murmurs to that effect in the audience as I watched. Even the dude sitting next to me muttered “for Gods sake, run sideways you idiot” or something to that effect. Even he’d lost patience. Another example of characters behaving stupidly: if you’re in a dark cavernous recess inside the dank, dusty pyramid, and a snake-like creature springs up looking for all the world like a damn cobra snake, you don’t – repeat, don’t – gaw and coo to it like a kitten. Chances are high that the thing’s not gonna be in a good mood (look at where you are, you idiot! Think an alien ship has kittens running about?) and, as it plays out, you discover that not only are these people imbeciles, but completely lacking in any normal sense of self-preservation whatsoever. And as a film-making technique, Scott proves he’s lost the touch to deliver a decent scare. Because these people are so silly, it ruins the tension of the scene. The entire audience is willing these people to turn and run, which they don’t, so you just sit back and hope the inevitable is at least gruesome enough to offset the idiocy you’re watching. Disappointing.
Try as I might, there’s nothing creatively I can find as a positive in this film. Wait….. about the only genuinely cool thing to come out of Prometheus is Mark Streitenfeld’s evocative, Silvestri-like score, a score so potent it nearly makes up for the disinterest in the rest of the film. Nearly. Kudos too to DOP Dariusz Wolski, and the magnificent job he did in making this movie look so awesome. Seeing the cavernous interior of the Alien ship once more and the exact nature of what I can do lit up like a firework party, as well as the barren landscape of LV223 and the interior of the Prometheus (which, in a cool tip of the hat to Alien, looks a lot like a forerunner to the Nostromo) is just a joy. Of note – the space jockey characters are actually pretty cool creations, even if they’re never explained or adequately built up as a villainous type – which they are, no doubt – although having said that, there’s a pretty ferocious moment in the final frames of the film in which Shaw and one of the “engineers” (yes, that’s what Shaw and Co call these uber-humans) go toe-to-toe, before the ultimate Alien fanatic will whoop in delight at the progenitor version of a face-hugger arriving to…well, save the day. The final reel of the film is Ridley at his awe-inspiring best, with explosions, action and effects all coming into a triplicate union that actually does amaze – but by then you’re already out of the film and half-way home in your head. It’s too little too late, and that’s a shame. Had the first two thirds of the film been as gripping as the admittedly cool final battle/chase/explosions were, then this film would have been awesome. It’s a film filled with eye candy.
It’s just such as shame the eye candy isn’t matched by any inclusion of brain-candy, because had it been so, Prometheus might have been a top class film. It’s the kind of film you just wish with all your heart lived up to the dazzling visuals, but the scripting and the lack of coherent direction ensure it’s never going to accomplish whatever it was the production team hoped to accomplish. I’ve said a number of times now that I was disappointed with the film, and all I can do is reiterate that once more – Prometheus is a disappointment of a film, a film so diminished in coherence and logic, so lacking in a single, genuine character arc that’s not a bunch of screaming, that to call it anything but what it is is to do it a disservice, and to do you, gentle reader, a disservice also. Had this film been a stand-alone, non-Alien kinda movie, perhaps it would have allowed Ridley to keep himself in check and actually work harder to generate characters we care about. Had this film been a pure Alien film – and I think it should have been so – there’s no doubt the faux-faith rubbish they served up as “character development” would have been cast aside in favor of a lot more scares, a lot more action, and a lot more terror.
Yeah. I was disappointed.