By Jacob Mertens.
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) sparked a series of inferior sequels, in no small part because the films failed to grasp what made Alien great: elegant simplicity. Alien crafted a lean build up of tension and fear, and while the narrative allowed a few twists and turns the details never interfered with the characters’ basic struggle for survival. The only sequel worth mentioning is James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which gained traction not through an act of mimicry but through redesigning the basic Alien template into a blockbuster format. Aliens had a larger stage, more deaths, more explosions, and a whole alien brood to work with. However, while Cameron’s film succeeded in generating suspense while sustaining a greater appeal to cinematic spectacle, it left something behind from Scott’s masterful science fiction benchmark. With a single alien set lose inside the claustrophobic confines of a spaceship, Alien encouraged viewers to allow the monster to stand in as a representation of their own fears. This harrowing narrative instinct simply has not carried over into any of Alien‘s modern incarnations. After all, the more complicated the story, the harder it can be for filmmakers to maintain that level of identification, and without identifying with the situation or the characters the film loses its grasp on authentic fear.
Long before I drew the obvious conclusion that Prometheus was a prequel to Scott’s perennial masterpiece, I had hoped the film would manifest as a swan song for the director. After all, this was the same man who had made Alien and Blade Runner (1982) back to back, two of the most influential science fiction films of all time. After a subsequent career filled with dull Oscar bait and valiant cinematic failures, excluding the underrated and visceral Black Hawk Down (2001), Scott returns to his roots in the depths of space. I cannot, however, muster enough nostalgia to forgive his film. If Alien succeeded due to elegant simplicity, then Prometheus fails due to trying to say too much. Apparently, the filmmakers were unsatisfied with simply frightening the audience; the film also ponders about our origins as a species and the potential harm of idolizing our makers. Sadly, these pontifications remain superficial and uninspired, and the few scenes of genuine horror get buried in the film’s existential floundering.
The film begins with Michael Fassbender’s fascinating turn as the android David, who totters about the austere spaceship Prometheus. When not managing the ship, David obtrusively watches the crew’s dreams while they rest in stasis and memorizes every line from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), an astute choice given how the vast Arabian Desert correlates with the eternity of space. Once the crew wakes, the audience learns they have been sent on a mission to meet with an unknown alien race, which scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe to be the architects of life on earth. Shaw and Holloway convince a wizened financier Peter Weyland (played by an unrecognizable Guy Pearce) of this fact, armed only with a series of cave drawings depicting identical space coordinates, leading to a dubious leap of logic. Truthfully, the architect theory represents one of any number of possible explanations for the coordinates, but the film fecklessly justifies it by a pronouncement of spiritual faith and moves on. Regardless of a lack of conclusive evidence, as Weyland staggers on the brink of death he pours his considerable resources into the space expedition, feeling a pressing need to confront his maker and brusquely ask “why?”
The most compelling story at hand in Prometheus is the parallel need for David to understand his own creation at the hands of Weyland himself. Unfortunately, the film sidelines this story by forcing David to enact a series of reprehensible actions that put the crew in danger, all of which remain incongruous with the character’s introduction. If the audience reads David’s character as sentient, an understanding that the film encourages through his need to understand emotions and culture, then his ambivalence of the crew’s annihilation should have more context than a passing line about how we all hold a secret desire to destroy our makers.
As problematic as I find David’s character though, he at least held my interest, helped in no small part by Fassbender’s phenomenal performance. The other characters felt like husks, no one more so than Pearce’s Weyland, whose desperate need to answer the mysteries of life should have been the emotional crux of the film. Instead, Prometheus poorly tries to hide away his presence on the ship and offers little exposition once he reveals himself. It is at this point that the film abandons its philosophical questions for the frantic thrills of its horror predecessors, and one might ask why they went through all the trouble in the first place. Additionally, for Shaw and Holloway, the film never clearly articulates what the architect theory means to them on a personal level. Viewers must simply apply their own reasoning, a ridiculous request given the film’s wasted two hour run time.
At most, I can only call Prometheus a beautiful mess, a fragmented curiosity filled with gorgeous CGI set pieces and an excellent acting turn by Michael Fassbender, wasted on an inconsistent character. If you must see it, then see it big and let the aesthetic splendor wash over you and pray that once the visual impact wears off you have a comfortable enough seat to fall asleep in until the surround sound rumbles to life late in the second act. Either that or wait until it comes out DVD, rent it from Netflix, watch Fassbender’s opening and then skip ahead to the alien abortion scene, an absolutely brilliant moment buried in the slog of this film. Trust me, you will know it when you see it, and when you do you might find yourself imaging what the film could have been if only the filmmakers could have kept things simple.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Sebastian Clare’s review of Prometheus here.