(Warning: Lots of spoilers for the film Prometheus, you have been warned!)
So, has there been a more disappointing summer film than Prometheus? Ridley Scott’s much anticipated, much hyped return to the Alien universe has arrived more with a damp squelch than the anticipated thud, with many criticising the shaky plot and characterisation as the worst offenders. The truth is, no film would have been able to live up to the hype, but even with that caveat Prometheus emerges as such a gigantic mess that’s difficult to argue that it’s even half the film it promised to be.
Its primary problem is that it cannot seem to decide what it wants to be, thus compromising all possibilities and failing at them all. Is it a contemplation of the relationship between man and God? Yes, but then it fails to explore the wider ramifications of this idea. Is it about how we should tread carefully as we step into the stars? Yes, but then the mistakes made are so fundamentally stupid that you can’t help but hope that if these are the finest minds humanity has to offer then we may be better of extinct. Is it a return to the familiar, old, haunted house? Yes, but it’s so half-hearted that it’s almost laughable.
The fault cannot be laid at the studio – Scott as ever retained control over the final cut and one gets the sense that no matter how much excised footage is returned it won’t solve the fundamental problems with the film. Little things highlight the lazy writing in which rather than answer (or even allude to) the questions set up earlier in the film it instead raises further ones, one eye on the potential for a sequel to the potential parallel franchise. Yes, it shares the same universe as the first three Alien films, but it losses sight of the atmosphere that made them the dark mirror to Star Wars. The rich dialogue of the first two films is jettisoned altogether, instead replaced by clunky lines that highlight the lazy approach. When one character remarks “Are you suggesting that we jettison three hundred years of Darwinian thinking?” you wince – the time frame is wrong (it’s closer to two hundred years). It’s a small thing, but it drags you out of the action.
The characterisation is similarly poor, aside from Fassbender’s David and Rapace’s Shaw, we get little in the way of even the briefest of sketches of the other characters and thus find it impossible to invest in them come their (inevitable) demise. Theron & Idris Elba make the best of their bad lot, but you get the sense that both of them are only there to collect the pay cheque ahead of more interesting work. Some characters are deemed so un-important that their ultimate fate is left entirely off screen – one assumes that when Shaw escapes from her proposed incubators she did not kill them, it’s difficult to know and even more difficult to care by that stage.
Internal logic is jettisoned along the way – yes, the removal of helmets as a means of increasing the sense of danger is an old, established trope, but it’s one that Alien managed to avoid by design. Here instead the characters act dumb to the potential dangers, even when they’ve lost another of the identikit cast to the vaguest of villains. Even the nods to the original series are devoid of logic, the pre-end credits reveal promoting more of a “Huh?” than “Oh!” Yes, it’s movie-science, but before it all made sense within its own cosmos. The sequence trades the elegant Egg > Impregnate > Alien mechanic for a more clumsy Goo > Infect > Impregnate > Squid > Impregnate > Alien mechanic – if these are engineers then they’ve chosen a convoluted means of delivering a weapon. And don’t even get me started on how two species with identical DNA can be so different!
Even Scott’s direction and almost legendary sense of quality control are missing. The film lurches forward with no sense of direction, scenes feel almost static (not a factor of the 3D cameras as Scorcese showed with his prowling cameras in Hugo), even under lit. Whilst it’s all designed within an inch of its life (The Prometheus itself is beautiful) there are times when its delivery feels rushed, especially whenever The Engineer’s are on screen. In many ways they suffer a similar problem to the creatures in The Thing prequel, the CGI creations cannot match the visceral quality of the physical effect originals. This in no more apparent than in the final conflict between The Engineer and The Squid, which devolves into one bunch of beige-brown pixels fighting another bunch of beige-brown pixels. There are flashes of the Scott of old, the opening vistas are stunningly beautiful, but unfortunately they showed the ultimate failure of the film to live up to its big ideas – Tree of Life managed to do the same far more poetically in twenty minutes last year (and made far more sense) than this ever does.
Scott even fails with the requisite nastiness, the caesarean scene just doesn’t effect you on the same primal level of the far more primitive chest-burster scene in the original – it may not seem fair to keep comparing them, but Scott’s done so since day one – it all feels too sanitised, to clean. It’s hard to believe that there’s the same bunch of chain smoking freaks pulling rocks halfway across the universe in this one.
Thinking about it since, the question of whether a decent film could be salvaged from the mess has played on my mind. It would take a radical rework to even begin to make sense of the mess, but a few proposals;
- Drop the opening scene of The Engineer, it highlights the issues with the CGI (it looked wrong from the first moment) and adds nothing to the film. Have the ship depart from the surface of the planet (unnamed), but leave questions as to whether they’ve merely visited or had a hand in its creation.
- Reduce the size of the crew, many aren’t given characterisation and so we don’t feel any sense of loss when they die later. Reducing the size allows those that remain to take on the characterisation of those that have gone and tightens the focus.
- The earlier, inquisitive “I-want-to-be-human” David is far more interesting than the latter version and allows for greater question over his ultimate loyalties. By removing the scenes of him actively infecting other members of the crew the is-he-isn’t-he game can be played, is he an Ash or a Bishop?
- Remove Vickers & Weyland from everything other than recordings, his presence makes even less sense than the rest of the film (and that’s saying something).
- Slow down the initial investigations of the citadel, make the sense that “We are out of our depth” the reason why we fail rather than “We were bloody stupid and rushed in”.
- Unexplained zombie crew members are not scary, and make no sense – parasitic control is scary, but there has to be the sense of there being a progression to this point rather than a random incident.
- Shaw should kill Charlie, not Vickers. It increases the sense of isolation and what have we become? It increases emotional investment in Shaw, especially if on then realising she is pregnant she is torn as to whether to abort or not.
- Don’t tell us the kid’s a squid – a sense of the unknown for the birth (is it an Alien?) would increase the tension. Normal birth scenes (especially premature) can be terrifying, look at the larvae sequence in The Fly.
- Jettison the squid / alien at the end, it’s a shout out to old but highlights the deficiencies of the new film and feels like one end too many. If The Engineer is the focus, don’t let them be defeated by something out of the left field. The heroine is reduced to purely opening a door rather than fighting for her life, it cheapens the deal.
Ultimately, the best advice would have been to leave things alone – but established franchise like this are hard to ignore from a monetary view. Given the damage to the established films this does, one can only hope that Scott ignores those urges to return to Bladerunner (a film where the mystery has an even greater role to play) and potentially alienate even more fans. Prometheus emerges as a major disappointment, unable to even be classified as an interesting failure and a serious drop in form from the once reliable director.