In the run-up to the production and release of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott did his best to distance the film from his 1979 Alien, saying: “While Alien was indeed the jumping-off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place. … The keen fan will recognize strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large and provocative.” This is exactly the kind of thing you’d say if you wanted to attract as broad an audience as possible to your movie and not just pander to fans of a horror/sci-fi classic, but it’s also stunningly untrue, and more than a little dumb. Much of Prometheus takes place in the exact same locations as Alien did, and though you don’t have to see Alien to understand Prometheus, there’s an absolute causal link between them.
So why would Scott say what he did? The cynical, media-criticism answer is that he was doing all he could to make sure the film made as much money as possible for its studios by bringing in as diverse a crowd as could be relied upon to take a chance on something that looked like a pretty heady sci-fi action/thriller. Maybe he didn’t even believe in or care about what he was saying. He just wanted to keep the bottom line strong. That’s probably part of it, but I think the statement also acts as a quiet revelation about Scott’s own inability to find an artistic basis for the film, which is so enamored of its “ideas” that it often forgoes certain basics like narrative, reason, and character. Screenwriter Damon Lindelof, reworking a script from Jon Spaihts, has created an erratic story populated with characters who swap personalities from scene to scene, and, as he did on “Lost” (which he co-created), he demonstrates a fondness for impressive-looking but empty set pieces that don’t actually connect with the story. They look pretty on a big screen, though. There are some good moments in Prometheus, and even a couple of great ones, but they float loose alongside each other instead of forming a larger whole.
It’s not that Prometheus shouldn’t be about “ideas,” either; it’s that it doesn’t know what to do with the ones it has. The film’s basic hook is the origin of humankind, but what starts off so promisingly eventually becomes a weak and unengaging mess. The journey to discover our ancestors kicks off when a pair of archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discover the latest in a series of prehistoric cave paintings that seem to reference a faraway constellation. After determining that a number of ancient civilizations, none of whom could have had contact with each other, all have the same painting of the same stars, Shaw and Holloway get billionaire tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund an expedition to the star system in question. Surely, they reason, Earth’s early inhabitants had the same cave art because they came from the same alien world. This is an engaging premise, and Scott brings an appropriate grandeur to the idea of exploring not just other worlds but other worlds that might be mirrors of our own. When the expedition team first reaches its destination planet after a few years of traveling in suspended animation, the film expertly evokes the immediacy of discovery and the thrill of adventuring beyond the edge of the known world. There are glimpses of a taut, riveting film that’s as much a meditation on hubris as it is a haunted house ride. Yet those glimpses are all we ever get.
One of the things keeping the film from fully exploring its central themes is the bungled way with which it handles character and narrative. The spaceship Prometheus is practically overflowing with people: Elizabeth and Charlie; Janek (Idris Elba), the salty, working-class captain; Vickers (Charlize Theron), the Weyland rep running the show; Fifield (Sean Harris), a geologist who acts like a serial killer; Millburn (Rafe Spall), a doctor who is staggeringly stupid; David (Michael Fassbender), an android “without a soul” who acts a whole lot like a human with higher-order reasoning and intentions; and various crew members who are given just enough screen time and dialogue that you can’t help but feel they had far more to do in a longer, unseen cut of the film. Lindelof isn’t quite sure what to do with all these people, especially when it’s time to bring them into contact with the alien artifacts that will propel the plot and evoke the much-heralded ideas of destiny and creation. As a result, they’re given one personality trait per scene — sometimes Charlie is Excited, but then he’s Angry, or perhaps Despondent — and promptly forgotten once the camera cuts to new action. Time and again I found myself wondering where everyone was, and what had happened to the seemingly vital people who had disappeared just moments before.
Additionally, Elizabeth’s search for answers is meant to tie into a vague crisis of faith as represented by her inherited belief in a quasi-Christian theology of death and the afterlife. Yet so little attention is paid by the film to that aspect of her character that it feels forced and awkward whenever it’s brought up. Worse: it’s redundant. She’s already a passionate scientist and energetic explorer, and the screenplay never finds a way to organically reconcile her spiritual beliefs with the physical application of her feelings. In other words, she’s not a person. She’s a collection of somewhat appealing concepts that never gel. It’s hard not to feel Lindelof at work here. “Lost” had some amazing moments and stories, but it was also notorious for contradicting itself as it unfolded. What’s so frustrating is that the script for Prometheus was, one assumes, finished before filming commenced, and not cobbled together during production the way the stories were on “Lost.” These problems did not just appear.
It’s amazing what you can do with well-placed dialogue and a few key scenes of actual friction. Scott’s Alien was masterful at this: Within minutes of meeting those characters, you started to understand who they were and how they worked together. Yet Prometheus robs us of the essential cinematic thrill of seeing characters grow, come together, interact, learn from each other; it prevents us from watching a story and instead gives us disconnected set pieces and (admittedly, often beautiful) images. The most egregious of these is a late-inning exposition dump by Janek, who has, without ever leaving the ship, figured out the true purpose of the alien planet and the exact threat it poses to his crew and humankind. We don’t get to see characters learn any of this on their own, not even at an accelerated rate. It’s just dumped on them and us so Scott can drop the last bit of pretense and get down to making a predictable, forgettable modern-day action film that’s long on spectacle and short on just about everything else.
Despite the clumsy emotional plot tacked onto Elizabeth’s character, Rapace is the only one in the film who manages to establish a connection with the viewer, however flimsy, and it’s because she’s the least prone to stupid decisions. The real thrill from horror movies like this one — people find alien life, poke it, learn hard lesson — is watching characters be pursued by fate despite their best intentions to stave off the inevitable. Yet aside from a few choice decisions by Elizabeth, everyone in the film acts as stupidly as possible at every given moment. Charlie goes skipping through the alien planet like a kid at Christmas; members of the science team throw caution, common sense, and scientific procedure to the wind by aggressively doing all they can to upset foreign life forms; people walk into deserted spaces when they should be quietly and quickly walking away. The horror of Alien was watching people trapped on a ship fight a monster in their midst. The men and women of Prometheus went looking for a fight, and they don’t know what to do when they get it. Even Fassbender’s David feels phony. For all his creators’ emphasis on his robotic and servant-like nature, he’s remarkably sure of himself and his actions. He’s not supposed to have a soul, or reason, but he knows how to take matters into his own hands.
Prometheus isn’t bad in the way you think of some movies as being bad. It’s just disappointing, frustrating, and off-putting. Scott’s clearly still a master technician, and the opening scenes actually make judicious use of 3-D to bring landscapes to life. There are great ideas here, but more, there’s a good movie, but they’re all buried by false starts, dead ends, and lazy writing. Scott’s made more of a prequel than he realizes or admits, too. The title of the film comes together with an assembly of letter fragments, just as Alien’s did, and a number of major moments in the film rely on a grand presentation of certain images or locations from the original film. He’s trying, to varying degrees, to use an imagined familiarity with the older film to create an acceptance of and awe for the new one. Forget the fact that he’s made a movie where characters rely on technology far more advanced than the tech of the movie that’s supposed to happen later (call it the Phantom Menace paradox); he’s made one that isn’t sure if it’s supposed to stand alone or cater to longtime fans. Scott feels like a man divided — or maybe just a man with his guts torn out.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.