The highly anticipated \'Prometheus\' is not only a major disappointment, but also one of the most frustrating films of the year. Note: spoilers ahead.
At some point in his career – perhaps after the unjustified derision of Blade Runner – someone told Ridley Scott that not only is he an artist, but he is also an auteur. Of course, this idea is pure ‘speculation’ (read: bull), but it might explain some of his poor dramatic choices. For those unfamiliar with the meaning of the term, auteur is a French phrase that refers to a superior category of filmmaker: one who is the ‘author’ of a film in the same way that a writer is the voice of their novels. According to the American theorist Andrew Sarris, this list of filmmakers includes Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, as their style and – by extension – voice, dominate their films more than the contributions of their collaborators. For instance, a failed film (like, say, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain) would be a much more interesting film to study than the success of a lesser filmmaker like Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, as Mr. Aronofsky is arguably an auteur and Mr. Hooper is not.
Unfortunately for Mr. Scott, the term is not an apt descriptor for his sporadic talents. Certainly, his first three films – The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner – point to a stylist with strong visual ideas and the versatility to jump from Napoleon-era Europe to deep space to a grim metropolis. Each of these films uses their environments beautifully, layering their settings with astonishingly accomplished long lenses and commercial-inspired smoke. However, those films also benefited from excellent screenplays that evoke their thematic concerns with wit and elegance. A multi-dimensional, reflective script powers The Duellists, operating as a solid character exploration and a study in social codes, whilst Blade Runner benefited from the dedication of the brilliant Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven, 12 Monkeys), who dramatised Scott’s exciting visual and narrative ideas for the screen.
Similarly, the science fiction/horror film Alien was a success of collaboration, not a singular vision (despite what Prometheus’ marketing would have us believe). Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett developed a script that featured some of the film’s most memorable moments, including the Kane sequence. David Giler and writer-director Walter Hill reworked the O’Bannon draft, rewriting the characters and introducing new beats to the story, such as the Ash subplot. Mr. Scott and Mr. O’Bannon hired the challenging French artist H.R. Giger to design the disturbingly sexualised creature. The great composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) contributed a moody and minimalist score, and the actors (especially John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto and a star-making Sigourney Weaver) brought an intense physicality to the material. In short, no one tried to play above the genre, treating Mr. O’Bannon’s story (initially titled the Roger Corman-like Starbeast) as if it were serious, intelligent science fiction.
Mr. Scott’s subsequent output, however, has become sporadic and increasingly inconsistent, with significant script problems plaguing most of his films, despite his regular success. The ultra-dull Somebody To Watch Over Me feels like a studio exec heard Lawrence Kasdan’s pitch for The Bodyguard and said, “You know what this concept needs? A nagging, irritating wife.” ‘American-in-trouble’ thriller Black Rain pays lip service to Japanese values whilst – Rising Sun-style – vilifying its people. Hannibal dents a previously credible franchise with its poor story choices and incoherent structure. Epics, Gladiator and Robin Hood, suffer from serious identity issues, a result of multiple writers and perspectives on the material. Kingdom of Heaven is more thematically lucid than his other epics, but still feels like a retread of a thousand other Joseph Conrad journeys, whilst the forced repartee of A Good Year would have made Billy Wilder wince. Oh, and military drama G.I. Jane has the stupidest line in film history. Not all of these films are terrible, but they are defined by poor choices in the writer’s room, with excellent actors and beautiful cinematography struggling to make up for these shortfalls in the scripts.
Prometheus marks a return, of sorts, for Mr. Scott, but not to the period – late ‘70s/early ‘80s – intended. Instead, Prometheus nods to mid-to-late ‘80s Scott, in which the British filmmaker was more concerned with crafting atmospheric, ad-inspired imagery in shallow films like Legend and Black Rain than developing a convincing and well-rounded script. Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof wrote the final draft of Prometheus (originally conceived as an Alien prequel written by The Darkest Hour’s Jon Spaihts). Unfortunately, Mr. Lindelof’s script brings out his worst, Cowboys and Aliens-like tendencies. Although Scott praised Mr. Lindelof’s additions to the lofty project before the film’s release, the script is poorly characterised and ineptly structured, a series of poorly defined action/horror set pieces rather than an emotionally resonant, thematically rich exploration of this fertile world. Mr. Lindelof’s writing is so bad that Prometheus is the worst of the Alien franchise (not counting the Alien vs. Predator films). Yep, Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are bad, even misguided films, but Prometheus trumps them by being bad AND boring, a deadly combination.
If Mr. Lindelof deserves credit, it is for his ambition in exploring a previously established world with new thematic concerns, notable ambition and hubris. Those themes were inferred in the previous series, but those earlier films (especially Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens) were addressing what human beings are willing to sacrifice for their survival. As indicated by its title, Prometheus focuses on the relationship between humanity and the creators. In some versions of the Greek myth, Prometheus, God Zeus takes fire away from humanity, but the compassionate Titan Prometheus steals it back. As punishment, Prometheus is chained to a rock, where an eagle eats his liver every day. Clearly, this narrative is felt in subsequent science fiction parables like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which scientists attempt to attain power by flaunting common social values.
Unfortunately, Prometheus’ characters lack the humanity, dimension and ambition of Dr. Frankenstein or Prometheus himself. Either, Mr. Lindelof does not know how to write a story of hubris in which his characters are intelligent, well-rounded human beings or his script has been script-doctored to death. Either way, almost every character in his script is irredeemably stupid, making empathy with their concerns very difficult. Almost as soon as the characters awake from stasis, they start making silly decisions. This would be acceptable if these characters were children or even teenagers, but these characters are meant to be brilliant scientists or other top professionals in their fields. Given some of their poor decisions, it is difficult to discern why a corporation would be willing to let these characters clean their very expensive ship, let alone be potentially responsible for earth’s first contact with extraterrestrial life. The intense Sean Harris (24 Hour Party People, Red Riding) is usually a very interesting actor, but you wouldn’t know it from this film: his geologist Fifeld only ever spouts inane, irritating clichés and – rather than acting as the audience surrogate intended by the filmmakers – his actions become very frustrating, very quickly. For instance, it is difficult to buy that the film’s geologist would find himself lost in the caves of moon LV-223, given that he is responsible for locating life on the planet. Yet, the moron Fifeld does, contributing one of many plot holes in the script. Although Mr. Scott suggests that the film is intelligent science fiction, characters like Fifeld contribute to the feeling that the filmmakers are only paying lip service to science: the character is a geologist in name only, whose function in the script is to find the alien corpses, and later kill the useless side-characters before the climax. These narrative decisions are just sloppy, an unforgivable sin for a project that spent years in the writer’s room.
The other characters are shallow to the point of facile. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw and Logan Marshall-Green’s Charlie Holloway are poor surrogates for the film’s faith vs. science theme, with Mr. Lindelof reducing these significant theological questions to a couple’s petty bickering. If Shaw was drawn beyond her archetype, Mr. Lindelof might have been excused for his shallow exploration of this theme, but the archaeologist is such a ludicrously drawn figure, jumping from scientist to victim to hero via several unconvincing sequences. Charlize Theron’s suit Meredith Vickers is – like many characters in the film – superfluous in the third act, with her ultimate revelation posing little-to-no impact on the film’s story. Whilst the decisions of Guy Pearce’s corporate honcho and Rafe Spall’s biologist are baffling to say the least, with both men failing to register the most obvious dangers of their environment. Again, these characters are meant to be professionals, not teenagers. The phoney accents don’t help, either. (Moreover, it is also a little difficult to understand why the filmmakers didn’t cast an elder actor in the Pearce role, as – whenever he is on screen – you think of the make-up and little else).
Structurally, the film draws comparisons to earlier films in the franchise, like Mr. Scott’s Alien and Mr. Cameron’s Aliens. In those films, the screenwriters structure the story in two halves, with a mystery surrounding the xenomorph eventually transforming into a story of survival, in which the character re-evaluate their priorities and reject the fiscal concerns of their corporations. In the horror film, Alien, the characters discover extraterrestrial life, but – when they recognise that the creature is not friendly – try to destroy it. In the action film, Aliens, the characters attempt to uncover what happened to a human colony, and – when they recognise that the humans are long gone – attempt to leave the moon and destroy the alien species.
Prometheus attempts to pull the same structural trick. For much of the film’s length, the film is a mystery, posing questions about the God-like monsters as well as the (human) characters’ motivations. Unfortunately, Mr. Lindelof’s reversals are shallow and half-hearted, a poor counterfeit of other writers’ work. Whilst O’Bannon and co. reverted to horror and Mr. Cameron transformed a potential horror scenario into an action spectacle, Mr. Lindelof’s script suffers from key identity issues. Is the film a horror story? Action? Thriller? Intelligent sci-fi? Seriously, what is this film? Scenes hint at each of these genres, but Mr. Lindelof does not have either the nous or discipline to merge these elements together into a coherent narrative, which is most apparent in its clumsy second half. For example, the image of the Engineer entwined with a squid-like life form nods to confronting sci-fi in the mould of William S. Burroughs. However, such ambitions sit uneasily next to a spectacular sequence of two ships crashing into one another, which provides a less ambitious display. Both of these sequences could be very effective in different films, but – together – suggest a film of two minds about itself. (The film also draws comparisons with Danny Boyle’s similarly themed Sunshine, which – too – reverted to expressionistic horror after the broadly humanistic leanings of the first two acts. However, at least that film had the decency to transform from one approach – humanism – to the other – nihilism – however frustrating this last-minute-switch is and how much it wastes its actors).
This hypocrisy is also apparent in another sequence, which – rightly or wrongly – may be remembered as the definitive moment of this film. It is the abortion sequence, equivalent to the Kane/birthing sequence from the original. Shaw becomes pregnant with an alien child, and performs an impromptu abortion upon herself. This moment poses questions, however, none of which were intended by the filmmakers. Firstly, what happened to the medical officers in the previous scene? Seriously, a groggy, disorientated Shaw somehow manages to knock both medical officers unconscious, but – with a corporation having a stake in her case – would not there have been some controls to stop Shaw from exiting the medical bay? Secondly, why is there no serious discussion of the biological implications of this birth? For a film that alludes to the concept of God and creation (and features plenty of boring discussions between Shaw and Holloway about the subject), this concept of an alien/human hybrid is not explored once the Engineers decide to kill humanity. Thirdly, how does Shaw transform from a scientist into a victim into an action hero over the course of a limited running time? Seriously. In the second film, Ripley is no conventional action hero, like Shaw, but through perseverance and experience manages to tackle the Alien Queen. However, Shaw is suddenly outrunning aliens and spaceships over the course of the final act as if she were auditioning for a superhero franchise, with the character’s physical deterioration having no impact over her actions. Finally, why would Mr. Scott think that this sequence would be an acceptable substitute for the Kane scene? The original sequence taps into primal fears about the unknown (and man’s fear about the birthing process), but this is a poor substitute, given its obvious repetition of the original concept and the credibility issues it draws about the characters and situation.
According to Mr. Scott, audiences can look forward to more entries into this Prometheus series, something hinted at in its final scenes. Perhaps a sequel can expand some of the ideas of the film (Notably, what were the Engineers’ motives? Are they all the same? etc.), but – with the same writing team at Mr. Scott’s disposal – it is difficult to be optimistic about such a possibility …
Prometheus is in cinemas now. Read our official review (and very different take!) here.