WARNING: This (extra long) review / ‘dissection’ contains spoilers, mild vitriol and utter disappointment. You have been warned.
So, one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the year arrives and, good grief, why did it bother? I should mention now that I was looking forward to this film possibly more than anything else this year, including the Avengers and Dark Knight Rises…
Greenlit quickly by a studio with summer dollars in their eyes, and instigated on a whim by Sir Ridley Scott’s enduring fascination with the backstory for the ‘Space Jockey’ featured in the original Alien, Prometheus has been dangled before us in tantalising fashion, for most of this year, in one promotional avenue or another; witness Guy Pearce (more on him later) in character as Peter Weyland delivering a pompous TED talk; see Michael Fassbender as android David in a Weyland Corp promo… Noomi Rapace, as Dr Elizabeth Shaw, even got in on the act, in a video addressed to Peter Weyland, campaigning for the Prometheus mission.
Expectations were high for Prometheus, and rightfully so, given the talent involved; this is Ridley Scott we are talking about here, one of Britain’s most accomplished directors ever, and a frickin’ Knight of the Realm to boot, steering a ship, literally and figuratively, derived from a concept that he has kept alive in his imagination since 1979. Since his Oscar-laden ‘comeback’ movie, Gladiator, in 2000, Scott has consistently operated within the Blockbuster arena of the multiplex, delivering hit after hit, most of them great pieces of entertainment (Hannibal, Matchstick Men, Body of Lies, Robin Hood – and even the maligned Kingdom of Heaven found its critical worth as an extended director’s cut), but arguably, Scott hasn’t quite reached the high standards of his first three films; The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner. He has been careful not to associate Prometheus too closely with his original entry in this series, Alien, coyly saying that it is set in the same ‘universe’. But let us be clear about one thing that is certain: Prometheus is a prequel, and a shoddy one at that.
And with Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s SF glory days of Alien and Blade Runner seem even further away now. For what we have here is a mess.
Scripted, in the loosest sense of the word, by John Spaihts (solitary previous credit: disastrous SF flick, The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (he of JJ Abrams’ staple of writers, responsible, either in full or part, for the Star Trek reboot-quel, Cowboys & Aliens, and of course Lost, which he steered to its whimpering finale, and the upcoming World War Z and the as-yet-untitled Star Trek sequel; he is an inexplicably busy writer!), and channelling, in spirit at least, the much referenced Erik von Daniken’s cult book, Chariots of the Gods (basically, aliens as creators of humanity).
The initially slick set-up lures us into a false sense of expectation, as a perplexing prologue featuring a (literally) white-skinned giant (not Space Jockeys any longer but ‘Engineers’) sheds his cloak atop a waterfall, in the shadow of a huge flying saucer-esque vessel, and then consumes a container of black goo, that proceeds to eat away at his body, killing him. He topples into the rushing water and we get a close up of his DNA being stripped away… What does this all mean and, more importantly, what significance does it have on the plot of Prometheus? Not a great deal, other than a bit of faux-intellectual chin-rubbing about the creation of mankind, blah blah blah….
Next up, flashing forward (perhaps) to the far future, we are introduced to the two principal characters of the upcoming mission; Dr Charlie Holloway (the underused Logan Marshall-Green, resident himbo-in-space and very unconvincing scientist) and his missus, Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, sporting a peculiar haircut and accent), discover a lost cave whilst excavating in the deepest wilds of Scotland, circa 2089AD. (It is reassuring, perhaps, to see that about 80 years into the future, Scotland’s weather seems to have remained consistent…) In the cave is a wall painting depicting a giant humanoid towering over kneeling humans, pointing to five circular objects above him; planets. The two doctors are thrilled; this is the confirmation they have been seeking. Off to the stars they go…
Two years later, aboard the starship Prometheus, we are introduced to David (Michael Fassbender), android caretaker of the ship whilst the rest of the crew sleep. He appears to have a fascination with the film, Lawrence of Arabia, which he watches adoringly, mimicking Peter O’Toole’s blonde barnet, and cycling around the ship, playing basketball, and being nosey with the memories of the sleeping crew (a sinister voyeurism that hints at David’s future conduct). Please note, that David’s fondness for L.O.A is ultimately pointless, other than influencing his appearance and speech (in a recent press junket, when asked about David’s movie choice, scriptwriter Damon Lindelof pronounced that it was thought to be a “cool” reference; this is indicative of the level of thought and intellect that appears to have gone into most of this movie’s plot – more examples to follow!).
The rest of the ragtag crew (17, in total, but you wouldn’t think so from the small amount of characters we are introduced to) awakes from cryogenic sleep to chuck their guts up before a hearty breakfast and mission briefing. In previous Alien movies, the classic ‘breakfast’ scene (I’m thinking particularly in Alien and Aliens) is used to effectively flesh out characters and their relationships; see Parker and Brett in Alien bitching about shares, see Hudson, Hicks and company trade stories and bravura in Aliens before they all become xeno-snacks. In Prometheus such a scene is over far too quickly, and beyond a moody exchange between the tattooed geologist-with-an-attitude, Fifield (an underused, and poorly written for, Sean Harris) and Milburn, a cheery biologist (Rafe Spall), with nice specs and ‘aw, shucks’ accent, there is nothing for us to really get stuck into as an audience. There is the suggestion of a sinister security detail aboard the ship, but we don’t get to know any of these ‘mercenaries’ (as they are described on the credits). The other curious character aboard the ship is that of Meredith Vickers (a vicious Charlize Theron), corporate ice-bitch and Weyland representative . Her presence appears to be to guide the interest of Weyland Corp, and gives Holloway and Shaw an ominous private briefing…
“Do you have an agenda that you’re not telling us about, Miss Vickers?” asks Holloway.
Well, duh, talk about spelling out the obvious from the get go. She even has a swanky med-bay in her private quarters (which is, of course, a WARNING of a FUTURE PLOT DEVELOPMENT…)
In the hangar bay, before a gathered crew, a holographic message plays from Peter Weyland, CEO of Weyland Corp, funder of the Prometheus mission (and the shadowy company from the first three Alien movies, albeit with the Yutani addition to the name in those movies). A plummy-toned Guy Pearce, in old age make-up that makes him look like an extra from the Akira manga, spins on the Prometheus myth (that would be Greek mythology, with the Titan Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, yadda yadda, blah). Holloway and Shaw takeover the talk, and with the aid of some rather nifty holographic touch ‘air’ effects, Holloway explains the significance of repeating patterns throughout many ancient cultures around Earth, depicting the same image of a giant figure pointing to five planets…
“A star map?” asks a doubter.
“No, an invitation,” says Shaw.
Intrigue notched up a level, the crew descend to the planet’s surface, landing in a long, open valley, a neat sequence of giant structural mounds sitting along the central line of the valley … and duly wonder, rightfully so, why they have been invited out to a grey rock in the middle of space…
An exploration team suit up and head out to the first ‘mound’ and begin to explore. And for saying this is supposed to be a crack team of scientists / explorers they do behave in a rather silly way. Holloway, for example, cannot wait to pull his helmet off and have a giggle, letting alien condensation drip on his face. (Right, I am no scientist, but even I know that the very nature of scientific exploration and discovery is not to tamper or interfere with an environment, to be respectful, to test and sample, again and again, and that means precautionary measures like KEEPING YOUR HELMET ON). Meanwhile, the android, David, appears to have one-up on everyone else in that he seems to be able to read the ‘Engineer’ hieroglyphics decorating the walls (conveniently the Engineers’ written / spoken language is an amalgamation of many ancient Earth languages; stick ’em together and what have you got? Bibbitty bobbety boo!) – ultimately opening doors, and activating a peculiar holographic replay: an interesting sequence that is never really developed or explained, or referenced again. Frustrating, yes! We see light images of the suited Engineers running in blind panic down the corridors and into a particular doorway, which David duly opens, revealing the ‘ampule chamber’ (as Scott has christened it). A decapitated Engineer is found in the doorway and his head is taken back to the Prometheus. The chamber they discover is decorated in unusual HR Giger influenced designs that, frustratingly (that word again), are never focused on enough to provide any hint at why they are there; there is a fleeting image of an Engineer clashing with a classic xenomorph ‘alien’. Hinting at future plotlines? You betcha, script theory 101. There is also strange black goo leaking out of the ampules. Some weird little worms get caught in the goo. Yes, we’ll see them later. David collects an ampule and takes it back with him to the ship. Because He Has An Agenda. And there are lots of Engineer corpses around, neatly piled together, some with holes in their chests. Which you would think is a nice foreshadowing of an encounter with the aliens as we know them, perhaps even a facehugger? Nope, nothing. Balls to this.
Fifield and Milburn all of sudden decide that they are cowards, above scientists (I’m sorry, but for a mission of this importance only the best and brightest would be chosen to go? I can appreciate the big paycheque motivation, but COME ON), and return to the Designated First Casualties scene – sorry, return to the ship. Except they don’t. Because a storm hits, in timely fashion, prompting the exploration team to return to the ship. But Fifield and Milburn, being of the rather idiotic breed of space explorer, end up back at the mound, and ultimately back at the ampule chamber. Oh, those worms from before? They have now mutated into predatory, phallic worm-cobras! Goodbye Fifield and Milburn.
One intriguing thing glimpsed in the storm is the top of one of the mounds; there is a strange head shape atop it. Ultimately pointless in this movie, but for HR Giger fans out there, you’ll recognise this as being very similar to one of the designs he did for the Harkonnens in the pre-production phase on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated attempt to make Frank Herbert’s Dune. Just saying.
So, good old Charlie Holloway is on a downer because, you know, they should have found something of worth, beyond a head (for a top scientist, he behaves like the stroppy school jock; but he has a point – why have they come all this way to find an abandoned complex? A question left unanswered…). So, Holloway is innocently moping around in the crew area, when he unwittingly becomes the unfortunate victim of David’s Agenda. A bad case of eye worm ensues. And Holloway inadvertently impregnates Shaw with his now corrupted seed…
But while Holloway was moping, Shaw was having a poke at the Engineer head the team brought back, and she and a Scottish doctor called Ford (Kate Dickie) examined the Engineer’s bonce and re-animated the brain, just to see the head in its final moments duly get dissolved by black goo. Hmm, black goo = death. A bio-weapon, perhaps?
Above: David discovers a map of the universe (sponge buttons out of shot)
What happens next? Well, once the storm has calmed down by the next morning, they decide to go and search for Milburn and Fifield. Holloway has become ill and is getting worse quickly. The team find find Milburn’s body, but no sign of Fifield… David meanwhile has a good old explore of the alien tunnels and finds a cryogenic chamber, where one Engineer is still alive. David plays with some spongy buttons (I kid you not – the Engineers operate their sinister tech with the use of big squeezy SPONGE BUTTONS!) and activates a swish looking holograph of the universe, finding Earth and ultimately discovering (it is hinted at very loosely) that the Engineers were planning on visiting our planet.
Back at the ship, Captain Janek (a drawling Idris Elba, one of the highlights of the film), detects Fifield’s helmet signal and they turn on his in-helmet display. He is outside the ship…
But he is a crab! With a big head! So, we have established that the black goo mutated the worms in the ampule chamber. Now, these black goo-mutated creatures either kill (the worm attacked & killed Milburn), or the black goo mutates (Fifield got goo on his helmet that melted through to his face). So far, this black goo stuff doesn’t appear to have a consistent effect. Now, this is never really touched on by any of these scientific types. BECAUSE IT IS A PLOT HOLE. If, for example, the black goo restructures its targets DNA in a way unique to its host, then fine, that I might buy. Not at any stage of the film is anything as logical as that last sentence even brushed upon. NOT EVEN BY ANY OF THESE SUPPOSEDLY TOP SCIENTISTS!
Fifield-crab tears its way through nameless crew members (seriously, why should we care? If we’ve never met them and they have no name, then they are clearly just there to get chomped – but I say again, why should we care?? In Alien, I was gutted when Dallas was lost, in Aliens when Frost, Apone, Hudson, even Gorman, et al, were done for. In Alien 3, Charles Dance’s Clemens is the heart of the film; in Alien Resurrection, Michael Wincott’s Elgyn takes the film with him when he goes. These were all characters, with names, with presence).
Where were we? So, Fifield’s head ends up crushed underneath the tires of the returning exploration team, a seriously ill Holloway amongst them; the black goo in his system seems to be changing him into a HR Giger inspired mutant. Ms Vickers arrives to greet them, concerned about Holloway’s infectious possibility, having overheard Shaw’s desperate transmissions back to the Prometheus. Vickers grabs a flame thrower and crisps Holloway to death.
Shaw, angry, and in the grip of grief, suddenly starts to get ill and duly discovers she has an alien foetus growing inside her. David and Ford try to restrain her to put her back in cryo (that old Carter Burke ‘get through customs’ manoeuvre) but Shaw escapes, and … goes to Vickers’ deluxe med-bay! Knew it would come in handy. She performs a self-abortion (!), pulling out the foetus and stapling her stomach back together. (This sounds ridiculous as I’m writing it so you can just about imagine how daft it looks onscreen) The foetus starts to grow and sprout tentacles. Shaw does a runner, right back into the arms of David and Ford… who are in the process of attending Peter Weyland, who has been in cryogenic sleep all the while (David and Ford clearly having forgotten that they were supposed to be freezing Shaw and her ‘baby’). One plotline quickly abandoned in favour of an equally ridiculous one. Shaw seems to be the only one genuinely surprised that Weyland is on board. But by this point most of the cast who would also be surprised have been killed off… It is a daft appearance. It is slightly incredible, mostly incredulous, and very, very pointless.
It all smacks a bit of Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) in AVP. Paul WS Anderson got there first though, eh? Peter Weyland makes some rubbish jokes about Shaw’s alien abortion (“Didn’t think you had it in you”) And then he suits up, as Pete wants to meet the Engineers. And it turns out that Vickers is his daughter (which ultimately has no bearing or relevance on the plot, whatsoever). And that David is the closest to a son that Weyland ‘never had’. So Shaw decides to suit up and join them. Despite David hinting at the fact he was responsible for Holloway’s death. The look on Shaw’s face acknowledges this. And this is never dealt with – you would think Shaw would like to at least have a stiff word with David? Hmm? But no. That’s it. Another plot hole ignored. Onwards!
Oh, and Captain Janek appears to have a revelation at this point and, without ever having left the ship, suggests to Shaw that perhaps what they discovered was a military facility. A theorem that has at no point been discussed (coming from David, for example, it would be more digestible), Janek has hardly been involved with the exploration’s findings, and it all smacks of exposition fuelled illogic, plot hole tomfoolery!
David, because he appears to be one step ahead of everybody, manages to wake up the last surviving Engineer (with the aid of what appears to be the Ocarina of Time – again, I kid you not, not only sponge buttons, but also a SPACE FLUTE is required to operate the Engineer tech. !). And the Engineer turns out to be a bit of a grump. David speaks to him in the Engineer lingo, and gets his head ripped off for the trouble. The Engineer proceeds to chuck everyone else around, killing Weyland, Ford and the rest of the nameless mercenaries. Again, we care, why? Shaw pegs it, the Engineer sits in his big seat and launches his ship, because that’s what it was all along. The ‘croissant’ ship lifts off, but the proud crew of the Prometheus, led by Janek, decide to crash into the croissant… (this is supposed to be a noble sacrifice, but because we care little about Janek and his wingmen who, like just about everyone else who started out on this mission, we haven’t been given anything like enough time, reason or information to give a hoot what they do)
Vickers and Shaw eject to the planet, along with Vickers’ ‘lifeboat’ – which is what her quarters were all along! But hold on, didn’t Shaw leave the weird foetus there…
The Prometheus crashes into the Engineer’s ship, forcing it to land on its side… duly crushing Vickers, in one of the daftest screen deaths yet in this film. Shaw heads back to the lifeboat to discover her baby is all grown up. David warns Shaw via transmission that the woken Engineer is on his way for her (an accurate presumption), so she tools up… with an axe. She lures the Engineer into the lifeboat and introduces him to the kid with the tentacles who, it turns out, is a big face-hugger, and wraps up the Engineer in its loving arms. (At the back of my mind, I’m thinking, hold on, are we actually getting somewhere with this??)
Then Shaw goes back to the crashed croissant and finds David. She tucks his head into her bag (I laughed!) and they decide to find another croissant ship (David reassures her there are more and he knows how to fly them; when things have got this ridiculous, why stop, eh??!). Shaw wants to find where the Engineers are from and why they had it in for the Earthlings.
Let me stop myself there (briefly): So, let us get this straight, all this fuss about an ‘invitation’…. Why would the Engineers leave a map to lead future mankind out to, essentially, a kind of testing ground / science base, one that has succumbed to a disaster. It just seems a rubbish payoff. You could understand if, perhaps, an ulterior motive had been revealed (the Engineers want test subjects!) but we don’t even get that. A good opportunity for a 2001-style plot (which Scott cited as an influence) is utterly missed in favour of poor space horror…. And we are left with lots of questions, the answers to which would have been far more interesting than the pap we have been served. For instance: who are the Engineers? What is humanity’s relationship to the Engineers, and why did they, as is suggested, create us?
To top it off the huge facehugger that got jiggy with Shaw’s Engineer pal, turns out to have impregnated said Engineer with a proto -Alien. It pops out (and is yet another weak interpretation of Giger’s excellent original), gives a screech… and that’s it. Film over. Shaw and head-David fly off into the horizon and the land of crappy sequel possibilities.
Yes, abosolutely no attempt is made to link this film to Alien. Not one bit. What Sir Ridley has done is made the mistake of ignoring his original fascination (who are the Engineers?) to then make a film that is such a poor spin on space-based horror. The truly fascinating thing about the derelict ship in Scott’s superb Alien, aside from the Space Jockey / Engineer, is the cargo of alien eggs. How did they get there? Why did they get there? Where were they being delivered to? These are the questions that Prometheus should have had a go at answering. Instead we will, in all likelihood, have to wade through another couple of crappy sequels to get to that payoff (which is likely due to the fact that Prometheus has been a success; it has at least made double its $130 million budget back). But will it be worth the wait? The Lindelof / Spaihts script raises some intriguing questions early on in the film – but then duly ignores all of them, instead settling for crappy, incredulous space horror of the poorest kind. I shudder to think where they might take us next… I would prefer they didn’t, and that this is all a bad dream…
A special mention goes out to the score, by Marc Streitenfeld. It is perhaps one of the most unsuitable scores I have ever heard for a film. It is not particularly bad music, but it does not sit well in this film. We need the rich darkness of the James Horner variety to pull us into Scott’s vision – not some bizarre sweeping, uplifting score that reminds more of Star Trek. Here is something to ponder on, with regards to film music: a good score compliments a film, accentuating the onscreen action, and involving the viewer in the story. A poor score does the opposite, jarring against the film and ultimately disconnecting the audience from the narrative.
The only truly good thing about this film is the visual effects and the production design, as they are, generally excellent (sponge buttons and naff creature design aside). Rapace, Fassbender, Theron and Elba are reliably good in roles that are poorly written, but they don’t come close to saving this film. Oh, and why cast Guy Pearce to then just cover him in prosthetics? Was he only cast so that he could play a young Weyland in the TED promo? Seems an odd choice, and is ultimately a waste of a great actor. (by all accounts he is excellent in the upcoming John Hillcoat-directed, Nick Cave-scribbled Lawless, so some redemption at least for our Guy…)
Prometheus makes Alien Resurrection worth a watch. And that is something I thought I would never write about a Ridley Scott film. But cheer up, next in line for Sir Rid is the new Blade Runner film…
Andy Jamieson, Editor, geekzine website & newsletter
ps – this rant is dedicated to my hardcore geeks who have been listening to an unfiltered version of this for weeks now. JT & JT, SM, and of course MP (Ocarina of Time!), you know who you are. And overseas but not forgotten, DJ.
pps – if you still haven’t seen Prometheus, it is apparently still out at the cinema on general release. Go see Moonrise Kingdom instead.