Ridley Scott’s ”in-universe” Alien prequel is a mess of beautiful visuals and a muddled, incoherent plot.
NB – LIKE MOST OF MY REVIEWS, THIS DISCUSSES MANY PLOT DETAILS, INCLUDING THE ENDING. SO DON’T READ AHEAD UNLESS YOU a) HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE, OR b) DON’T CARE.
Hype and heavy expectation can be an absolute curse for any movie. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, released this weekend, has a double curse; not only has it been massively hyped, both by Fox and by online forums, it also bears the heavy burden of being – sort of – a prequel to the Alien series, one of the most beloved sci fi franchises in cinema. I’ve been a victim of hype before, many times – Fatal Attraction and Snakes on a Plane leap to mind – and I’ve learned to go in with my expectations lower than the hypers would expect.
Nonetheless, I know Ridley Scott, when on form, to be an immensely talented director. And I wasn’t expecting hordes of toothy xenomorphs due to Scott’s, and the studio’s, insistence that this was only tangentially related to the Alien series, instead taking place “in the same universe”. So I wasn’t coming in as a fanboy eager to see facehugging/chestbursting action, but as a sci fi lover keen to see an ingenious piece of work from a talented director who hasn’t done sci-fi since 1982. A combination, then, of high and low expectations – I wasn’t expecting a ‘proper’ Alien prequel, but I thought with the talent involved that this could be very good.
In the event, I was quite disappointed. Not that Prometheus is a bad film; far from it. It’s impeccably crafted, with Scott’s trademark visual flair, some nice character turns from an undoubtedly talented cast and some genuinely tense (and icky) set pieces. It’s just that, well, as a sum of its parts it doesn’t add up. For this, I think I can largely blame the writer (though I doubt a director of Scott’s reputation had no input into the story). The script for Prometheus has been knocking about Hollywood for years, going through multiple drafts by writer Jon Spaihts, until it ended up in the dubious hands of Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. As a result, the Prometheus that ultimately made it to the screen suffers from many of the same problems as that iconic series – it has the same lack of closure, explanation and internal logic. Like Lost, it thinks it’s terribly profound and really isn’t.
As the concept drifted further away from being a ‘straight’ Alien prequel, Lindelof clearly felt the desire to do a deeply profound sci fi movie that stood up well on its own. But it can’t escape the ‘baggage’ of being even tangentially connected to Alien, and that’s something it doesn’t coherently address, with the ‘slimy creature’ scenes feeling almost tacked on.
That movie seeks to explore not the Aliens, but the mysterious skeletal figure found “grown out of the chair” in the wrecked spacecraft from the first Alien movie. It’s a good idea (though I seem to recall Dark Horse Publishing doing it years ago in their spinoff comics), and has the potential to be very interesting. The trouble is, Lindelof welds it to another movie entirely, one that tries to tackle Big Philosophical Concepts, but doesn’t quite have the reach to do more than debate them – unsatisfyingly.
Chief among these is the really big one – why are we here? That’s one that writers of all stripes have tried to deal with over the centuries, none very successfully; even the great Douglas Adams could only come up with “42”, so Lindelof seems to be biting off more than he can chew on this.
He chooses to address it by hooking it up to the hoary old idea that humanity was created by visiting alien astronauts millennia ago. This is far from a new concept; most people remember it from Erich von Daniken’s cheesy book Chariots of the Gods in 1968, but even the BBC were doing it back in the 50s – it’s the basic plot of 1959’s Quatermass and the Pit. And of course Doctor Who has done it countless times – the human race in that show has been interfered with by so many aliens, it’s a wonder we don’t all have multiple personality disorder.
Still, it’s a time-honoured sci fi staple, and there’s nothing wrong with relying on those per se. But Prometheus thinks it has something fresh to say on the subject, and it really doesn’t. It deals with the whole issue of creationism in various exchanges; at one point, android crewmember David politely asks why archaeologist Dr Holloway was so keen to find his Makers. “To ask them why they made us,” he responds, to which David says, “I might just as well ask why you made me.” Holloway’s answer – “because we could” – is hardly satisfying, as David points out. Elsewhere, his girlfriend Dr Elizabeth Shaw (not the one out of Doctor Who) is a devout Christian and Creationist. For her, the idea that mankind was ‘made’ by an alien species doesn’t shake her faith at all. “Then who made them?” she enquires, logically.
That, however, is about as philosophical as the movie gets on its Big Question. Those ‘Makers’, of course, are the race from whom that mysterious corpse in the first Alien comes. But really, why did they need to be? The movie could stand up perfectly well (OK, reasonably well… ish) with no connection to that franchise at all. It doesn’t help that the Makers are demystified from that tantalising skeletal carcass by the revelation that its appearance was actually a hi-tech bio-organic spacesuit. Lift off that unsettling ‘skull’ helmet, and underneath there’s just a very tall, buff bald humanoid. Empire magazine’s review puts it best – "So basically they’ve spent two years in cryo to discover that God is Jason Statham."
The movie hinges on the idea that ‘they’ visited primeval Earth (at least I assume it was Earth, it’s not altogether clear in the pre-title sequence), drank a weird black substance inescapably reminiscent of The X Files’ black oil, then fall into a waterfall with DNA unwinding and turning black all over the place. Even after the end of the movie, it’s not clear what’s going on there.
Nor is it ever clear why, having created humanity, they’re so displeased with the results as to want to unleash a fearsome, evolving bio-weapon to destroy it. For, as the archaeological crew dispatched to follow a ‘star map’ found on cave paintings discover, Earth was the ultimate destination of the bio-weapon that turned on them so catastrophically before they could deploy it.
To be clear, there is some very good stuff in this movie. The CG and effects are predictably good (as they should be with a budget this size), and hooked to Ridley Scott’s undeniable genius with visuals. The production design makes nice nods to that seen in the original Alien, with the interior of the Prometheus ship distinctly resembling that of the Nostromo, and the interior of the alien temple/ship closely mirroring HR Giger’s original designs for that.
The cast are also well-chosen. Michael Fassbender’s Lawrence of Arabia-obsessed android David is, as many reviewers have mentioned, the standout. Bleaching his hair to more closely resemble Peter O’Toole in that movie, he also looks very similar to David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Like that character – and so many others in sci fi movies – David is the outsider, looking in on humanity with bemused incomprehension. He’s the creation of aged plutocrat Paul Weyland (Guy Pearce in some extremely unconvincing ‘old’ makeup), and “the nearest thing to a son” Weyland has.
Clearly Weyland’s a bit of a sexist, as it turns out that frosty corporate shark Miss Vickers (Charlize Theron, basically doing the Carter Burke character from Aliens) is actually his daughter. Her character’s less well-handled – she plays it so coldly that it seems like the obvious twist is that she too will be a robot. Until the script cleverly wrongfoots us by having Idris Elba’s salty Captain Janek actually ask her if she is. She responds with an invite for a shag back in her quarters, and nothing more is heard of the issue – presumably she was flesh and blood after all. But that’s dealt with so early that I thought it might have been more interesting for David to be revealed as not a robot after all; sadly, that didn’t happen, as it might have made for a more interesting twist.
Neither have any particularly clear motivation for their actions. With Miss Vickers, there’s the hint that she’s got some serious daddy issues to go along with her voracious capitalism, but it’s not spelled out. David has the incurable curiosity of other ‘outsider’ characters like Spock and Data, but there’s nothing to explain his decision to, basically, spike Dr Holloway’s drink with an alien toxin he knows nothing about. There’s no hint that Weyland, or his company, know anything of the true nature of what awaits them on the barren moon they’re visiting, so it can’t be the usual underhanded dealing we’ve come to expect from other corporate reps in the Alien series.
So did David poison and kill an innocent man, and endanger the whole crew, not to mention Earth itself, out of mischief or malice? No explanation is given. Neither is it clear what he hopes to achieve by allowing Holloway’s girlfriend Dr Shaw to be infected via sex and then gestate an “extremely unusual” pregnancy. Clearly this is part of some kind of a plan, but it’s never followed up on after she escapes the attempts to drug her and conducts an extremely gruesome Caesarean in an automated surgery machine.
Still, that C-section – and the gruesome wiggling cephalopod it pulled out of Shaw’s abdomen – was one of a number of genuinely icky set pieces that were clearly aiming to rival John Hurt’s ‘birth’ scene in Alien. Elsewhere, stranded crewmembers Rafe Spall and Sean Harris were attacked by a nasty looking tentacle that broke Spall’s arm and plunged Harris facefirst into a pool of black oil, infecting him; and Holloway, peering anxiously into the mirror, was horrified when a minute black tentacle began waving in his iris.
But this just highlighted the movie’s all-over-the-place pacing. It started out slow and atmospheric; no problem there. But each time something nasty happened, and it felt like things were about to ramp up in pace, the movie slowed right back down again afterward. It wasn’t until the final, explosive twenty minutes or so that it felt like it really got going. And even then, it didn’t really make a lot of sense.
With one of the Makers still alive, having decapitated David and beaten Weyland to death, it launched its ship, destination – presumably – Earth. The three remaining Prometheus crew then seemed to accept their fate – to ram the ship with their own and die – with remarkable alacrity. Perhaps if they’d been given much in the way of character up till that point, their noble self-sacrifice might have been more emotionally resonant. As it was, you just wondered why they went along with the idea so readily.
Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to like Prometheus – perhaps too much. Even as it stood, it might have worked as a standalone bit of mystic sci fi, even without satisfying much on its existential questions, like the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Sphere. But tying it into the Alien franchise (via the “same universe” at least) did it few favours. It left too may loose ends, even on its own terms, setting up a lot of questions that are never really answered (like Lost) about the involvement of the Makers in the creation of humanity and their subsequent displeasure with the results.
Firstly, what was the opening sequence all about? Why did that alien take a substance that corrupted his DNA then fall into a waterfall? I’ve read some theories that it was meant to be the ‘seeding’ of life on Earth, but that didn’t look totally lifeless to me. Plus, the DNA we saw was turning black, not usually a good sign.
Second, while I get that the Makers are developing an evolving bio weapon (that will presumably evolve into the xenomorph seen in earlier films), it’s far from clear why they’re doing it or what precisely it does. It makes Sean Harris turn into a hyperactive zombie with a swollen head, while it causes Noomi Rapace to ‘give birth’ to a cephalopod (with, apparently, no later ill effects from the contamination). I don’t mind a film where I have to reason out the plot without direct exposition, but this didn’t even offer me the pieces to do that in any definitive way.
Third, I know that it’s not specifically an Alien film, but it is definitely a prequel of sorts. Yet it doesn’t end up with the Maker who inexplicably got so angry with Mankind sitting in the chair where he was discovered in Alien; he dies, his chest burst open, on Prometheus’ lifeboat. So that one can’t have been the one from Alien, unless he dragged his burst carcass back over to the wrecked ship. The script does make clear that there are plenty of other ships on that moon, so it could be another, but I fail to see how a sequel can manoeuvre another of the Makers into that position without, essentially, repeating what was done here.
Ultimately, I felt that, like Lost, it tried to hard to grapple with Big Philosophical Concepts without really having the reach to do so. I like Ridley Scott, and his visual flair was still very much in evidence. But surely at some point Scott must have said, "but this doesn’t make any sense!". Because I certainly said that a lot. Prometheus is a movie that tries too hard in every way, and falls short each time. It’s not a bad film; but it’s not a good one either, and certainly not the masterpiece the pre-publicity was heavily hinting at it being. It’s basically beautifully made fan fiction, with all the plus and minus (but mostly minus) points associated with that.