SPOILER WARNING!!!!!! This review spoils Prometheus and Alien. You have been warned.
So another fecking Alien movie came out.
The iconic series about a species of predatory (in more ways than one) extra-terrestrial monsters has been on a downward spiral since the 90s. After the one-two knockouts of Alien and Aliens, critical reception kind of diminished until we got the Alien vs Predator films, an idea too awesome to fail, and somehow they managed to make that happen. Twice.
After that crippling disappointment, director Ridley Scott returned to the franchise that jumpstarted his career with Prometheus. Taking a different approach, the movie both worked as a prequel the Scott’s original film and a spin-off looking at the Space Jockey, the armoured behemoth found by the characters right before coming across the Xenomorph.
With the marketing and, by all accounts, the filmmaking not quite sure if this was a strict prequel or this was a separate sidestory, the movie came out to some…mixed responses. To say the least. It was lambasted for its stupid writing decisions, poor characterisation and endless set up to future movies. And I will say, while a lot of the criticisms are valid, I’m going to chime in and say it’s not *that* bad. And with Alien: Covenant just released (note: I have not yet seen it), I think it’s as good a time as any to explore the film, where it went right, and more importantly where it went disastrously wrong and left a rather ugly mark on the franchise.
Let’s start with the good, most obviously being:
Visual Style and Direction
Won’t spend too much time on this as I think most people will agree here. The visual style in Prometheus is stunning. Incredibly well-detailed and layered, it really gets the appearance that this world is alien without ever feeling too show off-y. Same with the tech on the ship; it’s advanced, but not in an unbelievable way. It helps you buy the environment of the world, and is very reminiscent of Alien.
It’s not just aesthetics that work here. Some of the best moments in Prometheus are when the characters shut up and let the visuals do the talking. The rule of show don’t tell seems to be a dying art in cinema, particularly as our entertainment feels more spoonfed to us than ever. A lot of Scott’s strengths as a director is his ability to tell a very compelling story without the use of dialogue in a sequence.
Take the opening: we get our first sight of the Engineers in what appears to be a prehistoric Earth, the beautiful moody and slowly forming land masses erode around it as it drinks a concoction that seems to cause it pain. It completes its ritual, falling into the water and what appears to be a genome forms from it’s body breaking down. We’re told such a powerful story with mystery, intrigue, pathos, metaphor and excellent tone without a single whiff of dialogue. Similar scenes like this that include David’s morning routine (the best character in the film arguably because of this) and map sequence. These moments capture a tone and symbolic cohesion better than most of the film ever manages to.
So yeah. Visuals yay. But is that all that’s there to praise?
If you think about it, it could have been so easy for Scott and co. to just make this film about the weird creature that the Xenomorphs attacked. Just make it an edgy, well-shot thriller and be done with it. But Prometheus decides to take this and actually do something quite remarkable with it in terms of big budget blockbusters; tell a story with it.
Shaw’s search for truth of creation, while desperately overstated, forms the spiritual backbone, and this theme alongside purpose permeates throughout. It’s established pretty early on how dedicated she is by showing her right into the archaeological dig while her boyfriend is away somewhere at camp. She never stops searching for these answers, and that never ends throughout the story. Like it never ends for all of us, really.
It’s not just Shaw that serves this purpose, however. David is the same, and used to deliberately contrast humanity’s callous disregard for its creations with the Engineers’. He fights against his own creator-namely his ‘father’ Weyland-by understanding and manipulating his surroundings. He is shown to be a robot who grew beyond his basic programming to be an emotional, self-motivated being. He is contrasted with Shaw because he does not care about his creation-he knows why he is here, and he eventually rejects his creators because of it. David eventually holds his ‘God’ to task by using Weyland’s arrogance and want to prolong his life against him, which inevitably gets him killed. Shaw eventually learns to hold the Engineers to task by the film’s climax.
Most of the other characters do not challenge this convention in any real facet. They are scientists (…in theory) and play the roles that are given to them. Shaw’s lover Holloway is a scientist way more interested in observation and exploration than gaining answers and belief. He’s also arrogant, reckless and foolhardy, which eventually leads to his downfall as he severely underestimates David’s self-actualisation and gets spiked by him. Fiefield and Milburn are more skeptical of Shaw. They’re scientists purely devoted to their chosen fields. Vickers is completely devoted to getting her father’s approval, even if she’ll never admit this. Janek, the pilot, is an exception of this, going against his command and thinking outside the box if it means defending the Earth.
Parenthood is also a huge theme. Alongside David and Vickers motivations, it also plays into Shaw’s, as it’s heavily implied that her religious fate was completely motivated by her father, who ended up dying of Ebola. His passing also provides another hint as to why the Engineers could want the humans dead, as they see them as a clear threat and don’t really consider their autonomy or right to an explanation in the exact same way we wouldn’t consider it for a deadly disease we are fighting. But this is a bit more tenuous than the parent one as we didn’t create Ebola the same way the Engineers created humans. The creator/parent theme is a lot clearer, as it even has dialogue speaking about how we always end up wanting to kill our parents. We always want an explanation from them, and that answer is not ever really that satisfying. The Engineers have as little to give to Shaw in terms of an answer the same way Weyland has little to give to Vickers in terms of approval.
Prometheus is about facing our creators and holding them to account for their failings. It never has satisfying answers, but that is just how the world works. Shaw wants answer for humanity’s purpose, and has strong spiritual convictions. Despite having her fate tested and facing the reality that our creation has no real greater meaning behind it, she holds strong to her Christian beliefs and demands a better answer. David learns to go past his creator’s programming and manipulates him to bypass his almost God-like arrogance, causing him to die in the process. Janek’s uses the ‘mothership’ to defy orders and these creators to do what is best for our species. Even the Engineers’ other creation, the bioweapon goop stuff, ends up turning on them and wiping all but one of them out. The arrogance of these ‘gods’ is eventually taken down a peg.
The most obvious example being the ship’s name. Prometheus, being the Greek titan who created life, stole fire from Zeus and the Olympians to give to man. Weyland named the ship that with the pretense of bringing a form of longevity to humanity from the Engineers. He, of course, ignored the part of this where Zeus chained Prometheus and had his liver be pecked by eagles for eternity. Defying these creators can have severe consequences, but that does not mean it shouldn’t be done.
So that’s the main thing that makes this film interesting. What else is there?
Alien, and Visual Cohesion
This movie is a prequel, so inevitably they’d need to make some form of cohesion to the 1979 classic, especially getting the director back into this material. What I really like that kind of combines the two positives above is the connection to the infamous sexual imagery that the late, great H.R. Giger composed for the series. More weird vagina snakes and suggestive hatching and the like are all abound here, but they actually decide to amp up the rape metaphor and evolve it to be connect to the parenting theme.
The abortion scene is an excellent update of the chestburster scene, as it takes the same basic premise and amplifies it to rather horrifying realisations. Shaw’s biology is pretty much being fucked with by this bioweapon, as she was sterile beforehand, like a mischievous and incredibly cruel god. What makes it different and helps advance this visual metaphor is that Kane is utterly helpless when this is happening, whereas Shaw rebels against the invasion. Indeed, she becomes the parent rebelling against her child. This horrifying and violent encounter could be the synthesis of what makes her decide to confront these beings at the end instead of asking them broader spiritual questions about creation. She sees these horrors and actively rejects them, similar to Ripley rejecting demands from her ‘Mother’ (the ship) in the 79 film.
Having this play so similar to the chestburster scene makes the changes appear more apparent. I think making the jump from unwanted assault to unwanted pregnancy is well handled, even if it’s a blunter version of Alien’s subtext. Other instances, like Millburn treating the weird snake creature like a child and how Shaw’s ‘child’ turns into a proto-face hugger and basically envelops the Engineer after attaching to its face, like it’s being forced back into the womb, also come to mind.
So this is all great, right? Well…here’s where I go into what failed, and the movie’s adherence to Alien may not be the greatest thing after all:
Alien Overkill, Structure and Interference
Film is a collaborative process. It’s a lot of guys with a lot of ideas contributing to either make or break the finished product. And, inevitably, with a project this big and with the hype surrounding it, interference by the studio was inevitable. The hype accumulated for this fucker was astonishing, and I really think the one-two-knockout of disappointment of this and Man of Steel the following year really kind of killed buying into this kind o marking build up for a lot of people. It certainly did for me. It was really hard to tell if this was going to be an Alien prequel or if it was going to be a sidestory set before the first movie but more focused on the Space Jockey. Having seen the film, it’s still really hard to tell which it is.
I get the impression that the original intention was just to explore the Space Jockey, with Xenomorph stuff just sprinkled in. However, pressure from how hyped this was getting as an Alien movie eventually sunk in, and they tweaked it to make include more stuff to appease this. My point being that, for one reason or another, the film turned into a fucking tug-of-war game between being a carbon copy of Alien and using the world as a framework to explore the shit I mentioned above. The end result is that there are scenes whole cloth from it that just appear in here. That is a major problem.
‘The Same, But Bigger’ is a term to describe sequels that do nothing to really advance the plot of the original film, but instead copy the plot beats and do things to make it appear ‘bigger’. Stuff like the Bridget Jones sequel (the first one, not the baby one) and Die Hard 2: Die Harder come to mind. This is usually due to studios really not being interested in doing something new or interesting with the property, just utilise the brand in the safest way possible. What’s worse is that the Alien sequels, despite their flaws, tended to avoid these trappings by doing something new and innovative with the story. Guess Scott, the writers, or the studio didn’t get that memo, because the structure of the story and the plot beats are way, way too similar to the Alien, but bigger!
Want your treacherous robot? You have it, except now he’s a bit more ambiguous and everybody knows he’s a robot! Want a cryogenic sleep scene? Here you are, except now we’re monitoring their dreams! Want a ragtag crew of downbeat civilians? Here they are, except their scientists and former military because…sense. Remember that scene where Ripley locks the crew out for fear of contamination? We have is here, except it’s dumber and Vickers has a motherfucking flamethrower! The initial contact scene with the creature? Now we have two people getting killed in brutal ways instead of surviving and letting the tension build! Even the plan to sacrifice the ship to save the world from this menace is similar, also said menace surviving this murder attempt only to be killed by our surviving lead opening a hatch.
All of this would be okay, as the idea of echoing could play into the overall thematic arc of fighting against purpose and the frailty of creation, except outside of the abortion scene none of this feels like it’s here to add anything other than reminding people of a better film. Alien is a slow burning, incredibly methodical and perfectly paced movie which spends one of its two hours just setting the crew of distinct but very ordinary blue collar workers (IIIIIIN SPAAAAACE!!!!) getting picked off by a creature they have no knowledge of. It’s a slasher movie in space. Prometheus, from the get go, sets itself up to be more overtly thoughtful and exploratory than this, and yet doesn’t manage to be NEARLY as interesting because the characters are not as well defined and the story is too heavy-handed with what it wants to tell.
One more example of studio interference, not necessarily connected to the Alien comparison but it warrants pointing out: the scene with the zombie Fiefield was a studio mandate. There are loooooong stretches of this film without action, and they were getting worried that audiences would get bored of this. This is fine…okay it isn’t as I actually LIKE build up, but it’s placing is right before the action-heavy third and literally it’s the scene prior to the alien abortion and Weyland being found alive. Considering how anvillicious the movie is, at least funneling that into discovering this world and this mythos may have put that to good service, and I genuinely liked the exploration of the Engineers and how the characters were reacting to discovering something so monumental to the creation of life on Earth (remember, ‘subtle’ isn’t synonymous with ‘good’). Instead we get a jumbled, confused, poorly structured mess that doesn’t really know how to market to its audience despite its fantastic potential and genuinely great elements.
I won’t even get into the clusterfuck to the Xenomorph references! That post-credit stinger is so pandering (and contradicts the mural seen earlier, but whatever).
Okay, now with that crossed off, we go into what is probably the thing that really sinks this film in terms of a lot of fans’ eyes:
The. Fucking. Writing
Two screenwriters are credited for Prometheus: Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts. Spaihts is a genre writer with some pretty good ideas, but seems tempered with an inability to communicate them that successfully and the fact that his scripts keep getting attention from huge studios and well-known talents (why?! Why did you have to be so successful, Jon Spaihts?!?!?!?). One of his first scripts that got a lot of attention, Passengers, was a jumbled, tone deaf disaster and ended up on my bottom 10 of last year. Lindelof found success as the co-creator and co-showrunner of Lost, but ended up being a one-trick pony. His scripts tend to display broad characterisations and an obsession with making everything frustratingly unclear and acting like this is a ‘mystery’. Mystery can be great if it’s done with purpose, not a false sense of intrigue to string the audiences along (it could explain why his work tends to be better received on TV). So two pretty flawed but talented writers who are not exactly complimentary and, being blunt, this is some of the worst work for both of them.
The dialogue is sledgehammer-batteringly blunt. One great example is when Shaw reveals she’s sterile about a third of the way into the movie. Not only is the moment badly set up and clunky, but it’s just after David spikes Holloway and just before they have sex, so you’d have to be amazingly thick not to figure out what the fuck is about to happen. Fiefield gets the worst of this, as he gets saddled with lines like ‘I didn’t come here to make friends, I came here to make money’ (so why go on a two year excursion that takes you that far off the planet? This is another flimsy attempt to connect to Alien, but there it made a hell of a lot more sense because they were miners, not scientists), and ‘I love rocks!’ (that one speaks for itself).
Actually Fiefield and Millburn get the worst of this. They’re basically movie strawmen-there to snidely dismiss Shaw’s faith and undermine her. It’s why they’re the two first casualties and get killed by their own general idiocy. The problem with this, though, is that they actually have a point that the movie dismisses as cynicism? This mission could be entirely for nothing outside of a basic planetary exploration which is a massive waste of resources because Shaw has a religious hang up. They should not be portrayed so unfairly for bringing decent points up, because it shows how one-sided the movie is. Shaw’s convictions feel unchallenged because she’s NEVER framed as being in the wrong, only slightly conflicted about the terrible shit that has happened to her.
I’d go into more shit this movie throws at you, but nearly everybody has complained about the writing , so I’ll just sum up some other things that bothered me so I can wrap this up:
-Nobody briefs the crew about the mission until they’re just about to land on the planet. Be kind of what you tell people dedicating this much time of their lives for this, no?
-Weyland literally has no reason to hide the fact that he’s alive other than to make it a (really obvious) twist for the audience. Even if his goals are completely self-motivated, they are also the entire reason this trip was funded.
-Holloway taking his helmet off, while in character, was insanely stupid and even dumber that the rest of the crew follow suit. It’s hilarious that they only consider contamination AFTER he starts showing symptoms of David’s infection.
-I’m not as pissed at the ‘mapping balls’ Fiefield releases and him still getting lost. They map out the area for the SHIP, which he doesn’t appear to have access to. The fact that neither he nor Millburn don’t consider contacting Prometheus until well after the storm starts is contrived and incredibly stupid.
-Janek, portrayed as extremely compassionate and caring for his crew, abandons them to die twice. First when he leaves the two trapped scientists without any contact with the ship in a storm in order to fuck Vickers. The second when he crashes Prometheus into the Engineer’s ship, only giving Vickers and his co-pilots a chance to run without informing anybody else onboard.
-They have what could be the only remnant of the species that created life on Earth in the form of a decapitated head. I don’t care how eager Shaw is to find answers, trying to recharge is and destroying the sample should prevent her from being in any other field of science ever. She could have potentially doomed humanity from getting some answer to incredibly important questions because she’s an overeager moron!
-The alien goo just does whatever the fuck the plot wants it too. I can see there is some cohesion in how it functions, but the film really should have made this clearer.
-The fact that Shaw survives the final act is nothing short of miraculous.
-I’m not gonna criticise the running. It completely makes sense given the angle they were running at, the size of the ship and how it was falling. It’s completely reasonable that Shaw and Vickers don’t consider course-correcting when running for their lives. I’m only mentioning it because it’s what everyone talks about.
Prometheus is not a film without flaws. A lot, a loooooot of flaws. But it’s also one filled with potential, interesting concepts, a great character study in David, an expansion on the lore and some really awesome visuals and moments that sadly do not make up to a solid whole. Maybe that’s a dealbreaker for some people, but I’d much rather take a flawed movie that tries than a solid movie that’s dull. I get why people hate this, I get why it’s considered so bad; it’s achingly apparent this won’t be remembered as a cinematic great. But I think it has a good bit to offer, and hopefully it can be appreciated, warts and all.
I would say hope the sequel does well, but it’s already out and it’s gotten…pretty mixed results. Eh, I’ll check it out eventually…