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Director Ridley Scott returns to the universe he helped create in Alien, the 1979 science fiction horror classic. Those fans of Alien that have analyzed the development of that film know about the mercurial, ever-changing course that its production took, and how a disagreement over the movie’s budget nearly forced Scott to scrap plans to build the set for Alien’s greatest reveal, that of the fossilized creature sitting in its pilot’s chair onboard its crashed vessel. Without that set and creature, the Space Jockey, there would never have been a Prometheus, the sidequel/prequel Scott has now made.
Unfortunately, Prometheus cannot rise to the cinematic greatness that Alien rose to. While the 74-year-old filmmaker hasn’t lost any of his brilliance at painting vivid celluloid pictures on-screen, there are just too many problems with Prometheus’ story to derail its ambitions, or to give its audience a new reason to scream in space.
Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay attempts to reboot the Alien franchise by distancing it from the four Alien films that have come before, not just in time but also with regards to the creature itself and the characters. Ripley, the central heroine of the Alien saga, would be a one-year-old when Prometheus opens, but the DNA of having a strong female character as the picture’s lead remains. She comes in the form of Noomi Rapaci (star of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), an archaeologist with deeply held religious beliefs about her creator. Indeed, Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw has found evidence that humanity was created by extraterrestrials, and that they are inviting to come visit them in a distant star system. With herself and her boyfriend/fellow scientist Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green), they convince the Weyland Corporation t fund a trillion dollar expedition to the distant planet believed to be where our creators are.
The rest of the movie follows pretty much what you can expect in these kind of sci-fi films: space travelers land on faraway planet, investigate some alien buildings and then find out that they should never have landed there. Much like Alien’s seven person cast (not including the man who wore the creature suit), Prometheus’ 17-person crew is mostly there to serve as faceless meat for the grinder save that the characterization and motivations of the Nostromo gang were given better due. While enough screen time is given to Michael Fassbender’s David 8 android to make him an interesting character in the film, Charlize Theron isn’t given much more to do but whirl her ice queen moustache and serve as the movie’s stick in the mud. Idris Elba is the ship’s likeable captain but he’s pretty interchangeable with any starship captain of the week you’d see in an old episode of Star Trek. And when some unbelievable actions are committed by supporting players Milburn and Fifeld inside the alien temple on the planet, all good will or believability in these characters is jettisoned out of the airlock.
The problem with Spaihts and Lindelof’s screenplay isn’t that it’s short on ambition but that you can punch holes in it like water-logged paper. People do stupid things that don’t make sense in real life, but when it happens to characters in the movie that you’re watching, you’re drawn out of the moment and cease to care about that world and the events that you’re watching. This happens several times in Prometheus and it’s usually done to speed along the plot or give rise to a moment of action.
As for the creature design, I commend Scott for trying to do something new and stay away from the original Alien shape. No one can dispute that H.R. Giger made something darkly beautiful and horrifying when he made the Alien and its two earlier stages of its lifecycle, the chestbuster and facehugger. Yet when you see the creatures in Prometheus, none of them seem to stand out and feel unique. Maybe the creature designers were trying too hard to make their looks tie into their future descendants that we see in Alien.
Surprisingly the one creature design that I did like was what the Space Jockeys looked like. Prometheus supposes that the fossil we see sitting in the pilot’s chair is a biomechanical suit for a human-ish-looking being. Frankly, I’d prefer it that the Space Jockey was indeed something truly alien and not related to humans at all, but if Prometheus is to paint that picture, then at least the look of the human-like Jockeys comes across as creepy and slightly unnerving. However, this is a minor point in a movie that had far bigger problems than whether or not the Space Jockey race is related to us.
Another big problem is that several of the underlining points that propel Prometheus’ story aren’t addressed within the confines of the film. It’s one thing to introduce a mystery in Alien like “Where did the Space Jockey and the Alien eggs come from?” and not resolve it. Alien wasn’t supposed to give you that conclusion; it was about a creature killing off the members of a spaceship one-by-one and you wondering if anyone would be left alive by the end.
With Prometheus, right off the bat we’re given the mystery as to why the Space Jockeys seeded Earth with life. When Shaw and the Prometheus crew arrive on the planet, they never learn that answer. In fact, the actual encounter with the Jockey race is very much the opposite of what they expected to find – even though the evidence pointed to a peaceful reception. We’re never given a clear theory as to what the true motivation of the Jockeys are, which means that there’s no satisfaction and payoff for the movie’s central question. It’s like watching Star Wars and everything is leading up to the end battle with the Death Star, but the movie stops before we get to seeing the final fight. The answers might come in a second movie but you can’t help but feel like the movie came up short.
I’ll give Scott, Lindelof and Spaihts a point for trying to create something grand and new with Prometheus and to inject fresh life into a much beloved franchise. Nevertheless, when Prometheus is judged on its own and not as an Alien prequel, it comes across as clunky and clichéd.
Worst still, if I were to grade Prometheus in the Alien pantheon of films, and also as a creation from the same guy that brought that fantastic first film, then I’d have to take my gloves off and hit a lot harder. Prometheus falls far short of the genius of the original Alien, and it in fact if you take the storyline in Prometheus as Alien canon, the new story strips away the alienness of Alien. Wasn’t this creature and its origin supposed to be not relevant anyway? It was more than enough that humans found something in a dark spooky corner of space, something that we made assumptions about because of our own human lifecycle, and we were completely and spectacularly wrong.
It comes down to this: I don’t want the Alien to be related to us. It’s supposed to be alien. I also don’t want the Space Jockey to look like bald bodybuilders, or for us to come from their heritage. I believe that there was no reason to try and explain these mysteries, and that in fact if Scott really wanted to go for the full deal, he should have completely broken away and come up with something that didn’t have any connection with Alien except that it takes place in the same universe and with the menace of something best left undiscovered. But like I said, judging Prometheus against the first Alien isn’t entirely a fair thing to do – but it may in fact be a far harder thing for a lot of the fans of Alien to ultimately control.
I wish that I could say that I liked Prometheus, or even that I would like to see where things progress if there’s a second movie. I just can’t.
Review Score: 40 / 100