A week after setting down on LV-223 for the first time, my feelings towards Ridley Scott's grand return to SF/horror are overwhelmingly ambivalent. Seldom have I seen a film where the gulf between its strong points and its faults is so vast. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Prometheus ranges from the truly sublime to the utterly vapid.
The frustrating thing about the film is that when it works, it works so damned well.
The frustrating thing about the film is that when it works, it works so damned well.
The first act of the film is close to perfection. The opening sequence involving the "Sacrifice Engineer" and the seeding of life on Earth is nothing short of magnificent, as are the subsequent shots of the USCSS Prometheus against the cold beauty of deep space. So too, the images of the ringed gas giant (which may or may not be in the Zeta II Reticuli system*), and its two moons LV-223 and LV-426 (upon which the events of Alien and Aliens will take place some 30 and 90 years later respectively). The entire prologue is simply breathtaking.
Also wonderful are the opening shots aboard the Prometheus, before the crew of 16** have been awakened from their hypersleep dreams. These scenes of Michael Fassbender's David-8 tending to the sleeping crew's needs, maintaining the ship, worshipping Peter O'Toole and diligently expanding his Artificial Intellect (& physical prowess) are a great introduction to the character who will ultimately prove to be more fleshed out and satisfying than any of his human counterparts. These scenes also serve as a nifty introduction to the cool-as-hell interior design of the starship, as the camera stalks through its corridors, messdeck and corporate staterooms. The pacing throughout this portion of the film is spot on, nicely echoing the slow-burn first half of Alien.
It's after the crew is awakened from hypersleep that some aspects of the film start to creep inexorably southward. During the first few exchanges amongst the Prometheus' crew, we get our first inkling that Jon Spaihts' and Damon Lindelof's screenplay is simply not going to deliver the iconic character ensembles of Alien and Aliens. Amongst a couple of other clunkers from some of the crew & mission specialists, Fifield's assertion that he's "just there for the money" feels painfully like an attempt to ape Parker's character from Alien. As with last year's dismal The Thing prequel (for all its faults Prometheus is an infinitely superior film to that turd), this is the first of many "nods" to Alien that feels just a little too on the nose. We are subjected to more of these Alien "homages" later on, such as when David is decapitated, obviously mirroring the decapitation of Ash.
Unfortunately, as the film progresses, the shallow, undeveloped nature of the majority of the characters only becomes more pronounced.
However, character development is only one of the script's issues. I'm usually very forgiving of illogical character motivations and actions in films (I'm a horror fan after all, and horror movies are notoriously full of them). However, some of the things that occur in this film are just bafflingly stupid, and almost all of them revolve around the actions of the mission scientists.
Consider this: Weyland Industries is the sole financier of the Prometheus mission at a cost of one trillion dollars. As this mission has the potential to be the single most important voyage of discovery in the history of humankind, one would assume that the company would hand pick the absolute cream of the scientific community in every field, and that they would have little trouble doing so, being the most powerful economic entity in the solar system. Right? Apparently not.
First we have Logan Marshall-Green's Dr. Charlie Holloway (Dr. Shaw's archaeologist partner) removing his helmet in a potentially lethal alien environment. Regardless of the fact that they've detected a breathable atmosphere in the Engineer's pyramid, it just seems like a profoundly idiotic thing to do. Sure there's oxygen to breath, but what about airborne pathogens? Personally I'd rather leave my helmet on than risk space-Ebola. And I'm not even a scientist! What's worse is that all of his fellow teammates immediately follow suit. I get that Ridley may have chosen to do this to make the character's identities less ambiguous, but it's just silly.
Then things get sillier. Geologist Fifield (Sean Harris) and biologist Milburn (Rafe Spall) totally freak out when they find the remains of a dead Engineer. I found it very difficult here to suspend my disbelief that any serious scientists would react in this way. After they become separated from the rest of the team, their behaviour takes a turn for the worse. I was actually reminded of Laurel and Hardy whilst watching them bumble around like fools. Simply put, this should have been one of the scariest parts of the movie, and it was a very ill-conceived idea to inject comic relief into proceedings at this particular point. After running around, acting like terrified children, Milburn decides it would be a good idea to pet an obviously hostile, rearing Hammerpede, and... oh dear.
Many more "scientific" absurdities follow: Whilst conducting the most important (and again, potentially dangerous) post-mortem examination in history, neither Ford nor Shaw bother to actually don their flimsy surgical masks. Meanwhile, Dr. Holloway throws a tantrum because they didn't find any living Engineers on their first completely cursory investigation of LV-223's surface, and like a petulant child, gets completely wasted on champagne. He's a fucking archaeologist right? You'd think he might be pretty excited about discovering the perfectly preserved remains of an ancient alien civilisation, not to mention the exquisitely preserved remains of one of it's denizens, but... nope. I guess Vickers is supplying some pretty classy champagne, and he doesn't want to miss out. Or maybe he's just a raging alcoholic. Whatever.
Then there are characters who are just sort of... there. Pilots Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong) are just window dressing, and Kate Dickie's Ford just sort of stands around looking constipated. These people are talented actors, and they are criminally underused here.
My final gripe about Prometheus is with the editing. After the leisurely pace of the opening sequences, the second and final acts of the film feel way too tightly edited. There's just no room left for the film to breath, and everything feels rushed and a little muddled. I'm assuming this was because of pressure from Fox's Tom Rothman to get the film down to a more commercially viable two hours. Scott actually announced just the other day that the home video release may reinstate some 20 minutes of excised material back into the film, and hopefully this will help to alleviate some of these pacing issues. Maybe even provide some much needed character development? We'll see.
Okay. By this point you probably think me an uptight, anally-retentive Xeno-nerd, with his space-panties all in a bunch. Fair enough, but I've dreamt of Scott's return to SF for 30 years, so please... cut me some slack. My expectations for this were HUGE. And the thing is, I actually really like the film. It blows Fincher's abortion and Jeunet's misfire completely out of the water, and as a result I can finally consider Alien a trilogy of sorts.
It's a heavily flawed film, but there's more than enough there to make me almost adore it.
Fassbender, Theron, Elba and Rapace are all great as David, Vickers, Janek and Shaw respectively. Particularly Fassbender of course, who completely steals the show. His David is every bit as memorable as Ash or Bishop.
The design of the film is virtually flawless: the ship, retro spacesuits (nicely reminiscent of Mario Bava's Planet Of The Vampires), planet surface, pyramid (exterior and interiors), Juggernaut, the Engineers themselves - all fantastic. Beyond the design itself, the film is just insanely cool to look at. Simply put, it is stunningly beautiful SF. The gore is disturbing, the effects mind-blowing and most of the various creatures very well realised.
I also love that H.R. Giger has finally been given his due (to a certain extent anyway) in Prometheus, providing two distinctive murals and receiving a prominent credit at the end of the film. I'm chuffed that Scott has re-appropriated Giger's unused Harkonnen castle design from Jodorowsky's failed Dune project. So too some of Ron Cobb's more ambitious designs for the Nostromo (particularly the bridge).
I don't even mind that the screenplay doesn't seriously address any of the philosophical questions that it raises (a huge problem for many other fans apparently).
Prometheus is grand science fiction with a pulp heart, and that's OK with me...
... but to return, finally, to the film's flaws - I was granted a remarkable insight into Prometheus (and SF cinema in general) mere hours after seeing it. Upon arriving home from the theatre and flopping on my couch, I was pleasantly surprised to find that ABC1 was airing Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running (for the second time in a year no less).
Made four years after VFX master Trumbull changed the game forever with his peerless work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running was always going to be slightly hamstrung by the simple fact that it's budget was one tenth that of Kubrick's epic (according to IMDb: $10,500,000 vs. $1,100,000). As a result it looks pretty dated. The sets are a low-rent affair, with hospital EKG machines standing in for computer monitors etc. The effects are shaky too. Having just witnessed the cutting-edge spectacle of Prometheus, it was akin to watching an old episode of Doctor Who.
Yet, despite having already seen Silent Running maybe half a dozen times in my life, I found myself once again completely enthralled by it. Spellbound, not by its design and effects, but rather it's rich screenplay by Michael Cimino et al, and that wonderfully unhinged central performance from Bruce Dern as Freeman Lowell.
By the time Joan Baez' voice was singing over the end credits, with Drone 01 tending to Earth's last forest, I could barely see for the tears in my eyes...
... and for all its extravagant spectacle, Prometheus could inspire no such emotion in me.
* In Alien, Lambert (the Nostromo's navigator) says in reference to the ship's position: "I found it. Just short of Zeta II Reticuli. We haven't reached the Outer Rim yet." which I always took to mean that they have not yet reached the frontier of settled space, and Zeta II Reticuli is the closest known star system. Now Ridley seems to be saying that the events of Alien, Aliens and Prometheus all take place in the Zeta system. It's all a bit ambiguous.
** Or is it 17 in hypersleep? Is David included in the crew manifest, or considered a mere component of the ship's hardware?