Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Prometheus (2012)
Dir. Ridley Scott
Written: John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Sean Harris, and, briefly and inexplicably, Guy Pearce.

PROMETHEUS takes its name from the ship upon which our intrepid crew journeys towards an alien world from whence came the creators of the human race. But of course, it really takes its name from the Greek myth about the Titan of that name who both created the human race and gave them the power of the gods (in the form of fire). Which I think is what the movie would like to be about. They’re definitely pleased enough with that allegory that they shoehorn it into a conversation just to make sure you didn’t miss how clever they were being. But maybe Ridley Scott and co. should have been thinking about another recent spaceship ironically named after a Greek myth: Icarus. Because in trying to scale up their ALIEN mythology into a big philosophical hard sci-fi movie, these guys forget that if you make your narrative wings out of wax, you’d be wise not to fly too close to the sun. Which in this metaphor represents unearned pretensions of depth. Because that fucker is gonna melt through the bullshit real quick and you’re gonna make a big splash in the sea of overreaching.

It’s not that it’s not a cool movie. It is. It’s huge and ballsy and filled with the craziest crap you’ve ever seen. But at the end of the day, it’s a movie that is so obsessed with being huge and important and blowing your mind that it forgets to go through the actual steps that would be necessary to do that.

It’s a movie that has one big question, and that question is “what is the relationship between the creator and the created?” Which is a pretty ballsy question to hang a movie on.

Whenever you bring an ax to meet your creator, I think it's fair to say things are probably not going as well as you'd hoped.

It then sets out to ask that question in various ways and various configurations for the next two hours. Ingeniously, it connects the ALIEN mythology --and its multilayered creation and motherhood iconography-- with that concept, juxtaposing multiple levels of creators and their creations with each other. Humans with the Androids they created, Humans with the human children they created, Humans with their unwanted Alien spawn, and Aliens with their own unwanted Alien spawn in the form of humans (no clones this time, though). No one seems to get along all that well, but they all damn sure want something or another from each other. There’s a good amount of disappointment on all sides, it’s safe to say.

So I give them a lot of credit for taking that aspect of the ALIEN mythos and putting it front and center this time. Problem is, that paragraph above is the exact extent to which any of this is explored in the movie. It just keeps repeating the same question over and over in different forms. I’m OK with ambiguity, and I understand that the question is always going to be more intriguing than the answer, but if you’re not gonna go anywhere with this concept, you gotta at least go somewhere else. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie work this hard to simply tread water. It’s like Scott thinks if they just ask the question harder and harder with bigger and bigger setpieces, it will somehow succeed in blowing your mind through sheer force. Sorry, man. You can get stoned with some dudes in a dorm room and ask “Woah man, what if we met God and he was an asshole?” or you could spend $130 million asking the same question. My mind’s gonna be blown about equally either way. Or actually you could also watch STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER or FIGHT CLUB, where they also ask that question. While stoned.

None of this would be such a disappointment to me if the movie itself were better. But Scott is so fucking fixated on this big crazy mind-blowing question he has that he treats the story and characters as pretext and props, instead of, well, as story and characters. Despite a tremendously talented cast, the characters are embarrassingly ill-defined, and their conflicts are indifferently sketched out or neglected all together. Scott and writers Spaihts and Lindelof seem to make their one and only goal to take the characters and twist them, by whatever means necessary, into one iteration after another of the same damn question. So someone is definitely going to have father issues, someone is definitely going to be unable to conceive, someone is definitely going to turn against their own creation, and so forth. Exactly how that happens and what it means to the characters seems to be completely irrelevant to Scott, just so long as it happens and matches up with his main theme. It’s a classic example of laboriously building a story around a subtext, instead of just telling an interesting story which has a natural subtext to it. It’s trying to think of something big to say without actually having something interesting to say, like a nerd at a Bruce Campbell book signing.

If you can't think of something interesting to say, try exploding!

So you’ve just got a great cast floundering around doing things seemingly at random so that the story can progress. I’m no stranger to bad logic in horror movies, but these are seriously the absolute worst scientists I’ve ever seen, ever. They’re supposed to be here making the single greatest discovery mankind has ever achieved, and their reactions are either annoyance or boredom. Half of the people are angry that God is not there to answer their immediate questions right this second, the other half seem irritated that they’re being asked to walk around looking at stunning alien artifacts in the first place. They even take off the helmets -- who does that?! One of them, upon seeing a creepy cobra-worm-plant hybrid, takes off his helmet and attempts to cuddle with it. That this seems hard to accept is not a failure on my part to suspend disbelief, it’s a failure of the writers to write actions with are even borderline consistent with real human beings. I simply cannot accept that a human being would do that in the same way that I wouldn’t accept it if Noomi Rapace suddenly turned into a cartoon turtle with no explanation. No rational human being --let alone a scientist-- would ever do these things or talk this way -- ever. Maybe some people will be able to look past that fact and enjoy the action scenes, but for me it was so egregious that there seemed to be no ignoring it, and hence I was constantly dragged out of the experience. That kind of disconnect is just ultimately, um, alienating.

The acting is generally good, but can also be weirdly inconsistent. Rapace and Michael Fassbender lend quite a bit of dramatic weight to their roles, while Idris Elba, Sean Harris, and newcomer Logan Marshall-Green seem to think they’re in THE AVENGERS. Who the fuck knows what Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce think they’re doing, but it’s definitely not the same thing as anyone else. And the diction of the script seems to be constantly in flux, too -- sometimes we get some quippy faux-Whedon one-liners, sometimes we get naturalistic drama (like the original ALIEN), sometimes we get high-drama epic speeches with metaphors and monologues and whatnot. Sometimes, one character will do all three. None of the performances are bad, per se, but they are all bafflingly incongruous with each other. The characters, then, completely fail to impact on each other and the result is one big, listless dramatic shrug. And you’re just left with some pretty pictures to keep you interested for two hours.

The best reason to see this in IMAX 3D. Not the hologram stuff. Michael Fassbender's face.

This being a Ridley Scott production, you can at least be assured that the production itself is gorgeous. They’ve created some pretty cool iconography to expand the universe --including that nifty giant head that’s on the posters-- and a couple rather striking additions to the basic elements therein. Unfortunately, the new stuff is side by side with the old stuff, which wasn’t just great but one of the most memorable and visually overwhelming production designs of all time. No offense to the new guys, but you’ll never in your sickest fever dreams be able to match the utterly nightmarish depravity of H.R. Gieger’s original visions of dessicated exoskeletons and perverse sexual suggestion. They’re self conscious about not wanting to rehash that stuff, so they come up with slightly different versions of essentially the same thing, which are cool but also indisputably nowhere near as cool as the original. And in an even more depressing twist, they actually demystify Geiger’s bizarre elephant-faced “space jockey” by showing us that it’s just a suit, there’s actually a big boring white guy under there. Let me ask you a question, are you really happier having seen that under that dapper mask/helmet combo, Darth Vader is actually a puffy old white guy? Of course you’re not. Same thing here. I understand that for narratives reasons, they have to look like humans and that this limits the potential for creative alien designs. But you know what, I would actually probably prefer they write a slightly different narrative and then actually show me something awesome. 

The cinematic equivalent of Miley Cyrus covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Really, though, even when the film is trying to be awesome, it’s only intermittently successful. Only one scene in the whole thing even approaches the pure, visceral terror which made the original ALIEN one of the greatest horror films of all time. You’ve seen it already so you know the one I mean. That sequence, at least, belongs in the top tier of moments from this franchise. But even so, its impact is diminished slightly because it seems confoundingly shoehorned into at least two other plotlines which rush in and take over immediately before and after. After Rapace leaves her newborn squid and staggers away, everyone acts like they’ve forgotten the whole episode and no one seems at all surprised that suddenly there’s a bloody chick in her underwear wandering around. They’re like, “hey, we’re going back to the ship, wanna come along?” and she’s like “OK sure.” Same deal with the return of a minor character who seemed dead but then returns, (quipped fellow Vern-er “Jimblo”) as some kind of  yoga monster. Fucking scary, out-of-the-blue shocker, but then all he does is punch people and throw them into things, which is about as scary as any given scene from a Seagal film. It’s the Pumpkinhead curse all over again! And just like the squid baby scene, no one seems bothered by this or even mentions it again. I guess they see a lot more murderous yoga zombies than I do, and this shit is just routine for them?

That's the problem with threesomes, someone is always gonna feel left out.

So, the movie is just chock full of wasted potential and bungled execution. But I will say, there’s something uniquely strange about it. It’s mix of ambition, intermittently gorgeous design, occasional great performances (particularly Fassbender as ambiguously motivated, amoral android David) combined with completely arbitrary plotting and intentionally frustrating non-answers creates a weird cocktail which is not completely without its charms. As terrible as many aspects of it are, the film it evokes most for me is not some faux intellectual failed horror movie, but rather Spielberg’s most interesting disaster, 2001’s A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. Just like that one, it’s full of irresistibly compelling and completely unique touches, and yet falls apart in a disorganized mess of loosely defined relationships, unwieldy tonal shifts, and inexplicable oddness. The movie absolutely doesn’t work, but it’s sort of enthralling all the same. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. At its worst, it seems to be trying to pander to horror aficionados and fans of the series* with poorly-thought-out regurgitations of the same tired themes and tropes. But at its best, it’s almost deliberately antagonizing in its commitment to tantalize you with intriguing minutia which steadfastly refuses to resolve into any kind of clear picture. Hey. Sometimes an alien squid is going to mouth-rape a gigantic white bald dude while a Swedish lady with a belly full of staples and a talking severed head drive an alien spaceship to find God. You gotta admit, that’s something you ain’t seen before. Icarus might fly too close to the sun, but it’s a pretty wild view on the way down.

Barely, which is odd because there are at least three major women in the crew here. The only scene that saves it, though, is the scene where they do an autopsy on a alien head and discuss it. The head actually appears to be male, but we'll give them a pass on that one since the alien genders are ambiguous.

*The movie’s worst moment is the very end, which chickens out from the film’s frustrating but awesome ambiguous ending and finally delivers a familiar face that supposedly audiences are paying to see. But it irritatingly makes it seem as though the whole thing is about explaining where the titular alien came from, which, if it is indeed the point, is the lamest reason to make a movie since Lucas thought we’d enjoy seeing Darth Vader as a mop-headed 6-year-old who wuvs his mommy. Dude, the origin of the alien is the least possible interesting thing to explore, particularly when it turns out it originated the exact same way all the other aliens in every other movie did. It’s a completely anti-climatic moment which makes me question if I actually thought too hard about the rest of the thing.


  1. I agree that PROMETHEUS raises some interesting themes, but then doesn't really have anything to say about them. And on one level, that's okay. Frankly, I think the majority of art (including much good art) doesn't actually really have anything interesting to "say." Every a lot of seemingly dense and complex works tend to boil down to familiar ideas and platitudes. To me, it's more about how the artist says it than what they are actually saying.

    Problem here, as you point out, is that PROMETHEUS not only doesn't have much to say, but it doesn't always say it well. Lots of scenes and actions and behaviors feel shoehorned in to fit the theme, rather than come naturally from the story/characters/design etc.

    That said, I still think there's a lot to admire here, from the visuals to some of the performances, to the suspense, some of the ambiguity, to the re-appropriation of images, story elements and themes from the first two ALIEN films. And I like the trippy headspace the film puts you in, contemplating potentially huge questions via futuristic psychedelia.

    But there is a fundamental lack of imagination to the story, and a certain inability to do more with its big ideas that keeps it from being a great sci-fi flick. I'm less bothered by some of the character stuff than you, but things about PROMETHEUS are super disappointing.

    Perhaps most of all the Engineers. We meet mankinds' creators, and they are just big dudes in space suits. Seems like a lost opportunity to show us something big and unique in a film. Honestly, I get that our DNA comes from theirs, so they'd have to be humanoid, except... no. Why did our DNA have to come from theirs? Why couldn't they be a completely different, superior species that engineered our DNA?

    Part of me kind of likes it, because it reminds me of old sci-fi movies like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and X THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE where the unfathomable beast is just, like, a big dude in a gorilla suit. But mostly, no. There was an opportunity to go into SOLARIS territory and show the audience some weird, new, terrifying, incomprehensible superior species, and instead it's just standard issue creepy white bald dudes.

  2. Dan -- Actually, I'm pretty much in agreement with you. I admire their clever recontextualizing of the ALIEN icons, I think Fassbender and Rapace are both phenomenally good (even thought their characters are criminally underwritten) and I appreciate the fundamental oddness of the whole endeavor. I guess my review comes across as unintentionally harsh even though all that stuff is in there, but I can't deny that I was ultimately pretty disappointed for the exact reasons you spell you above.

    The engineers in general are just such a lame design. If they felt it thematically necessary to make them humanoid, I would have actually preferred them to be completely human instead of grumpy white giants. The way it plays out, we are both unable to really relate to them as versions of ourselves AND are unable to enjoy the simple joys of watching weird aliens be cool. And what kills me is that they already HAD a cool design by Gieger, and then went and ruined it by telling us there's something much less cool underneath.

    But all that would have been forgiven had the basic drama of the narrative worked better or at all. Those things would have been simple nitpicks if there had been a more gripping or engaging human drama at the center of it. By neglecting that in favor of making it a BIG IDEAS movie, and then failing to adequately explore that idea, I think Scott really dropped the ball.

    Still, I consider comparing it to AI to be something of a compliment. It's resolutely a film which is completely unique and strange, even in its badness, and I sort of respect that. I suspect you and I will watch it again when it comes out on whatever it is they call DVDs now.

  3. And wait a minute, now that I think about it, why were those alien motherfuckers white? Isn't, like, Africa supposed to be the cradle of civilization and shit? The first humans weren't supposed to be pasty white motherfuckers, right? RIDLEY SCOTT DOESN'T CARE ABOUT BLACK PEOPLE.

  4. Also, I didn't really think of it this way before, but the weird thing about the movie is it has a very provocative, imaginative premise, but then the story plays out in mainly predictable, unimaginative ways. We meet our gods, and they are just big dudes who like to punch.

    Again, there's a part of me that likes that for the way it resembles old fashioned sci-fi/horror movies, but mostly it seems like a missed opportunity.

  5. Well, if you think about it, the Aliens presumably didn't just create the human race, they seeded our world with the evolutionary code to eventually form humans. So if you think about it that way, the original black people eventually evolved into white people who more closely resembled the engineers (I guess we're due to lose our hair and get gigantic too). Problem is, that reading is way worse than nonsensical, its flat out claiming that white people are more evolved (and also bald people or people with alopecia even more so).

    I for one look forward to serving out pasty, gigantic, hairless inevitable master race, and I guess Scott is too. But either way, its a very weird message for a movie like that.

    As for your second comment, punching by horror villains is one of my number one pet peeves of all time. Especially when the concept is fundamentally really horrific and then all they can think to do is have them throw our heroes into walls. This movie is guilty of doing this not once but twice, when yoga-zombie Sean Harris comes back, and then once the Engineer starts tearing shit up. What a spectacular failure of imagination! Even in STAR TREK V God got a few cool powers. Maybe Ridley Scott just has a pathological phobia about being punched by pale space men?