Turn away if you don’t want to get spoilt.
We won some free cinema tickets on a milkshake and have been saving them for one of the various summer blockbusters we’re looking forward to. On leave this week after spending the weekend in Jersey, the weather was so awful (preventing me from cycling or getting to the allotment) we decided we’d go and see Prometheus on Tuesday afternoon and use the free tickets up. I almost wish we hadn’t bothered.
I’ve been looking forward to Prometheus since hearing that Ridley Scott was wanting to do something related to Alien; I’m not a fan of him as a director per se, but I love Alien and Blade Runner, and the things he was saying – about not wanting to make a straight prequel – sounded good and right. Resurrecting the franchise would be tiresome; examining new ideas from the same universe seemed like a bona fide good idea, especially if it allowed Scott to lavish modern cinema techniques and technologies onto a sci-fi context.
Sadly, Prometheus is, to my mind, a victim of modern mainstream cinema blockbuster idiocy as well as a beneficiary of modern techniques and technology. I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the man who made Gladiator and Black Hawk Down; Scott obviously has no issue with the overwhelming of plot and character by spectacle and set-piece, and I’m left wondering if the subtle successes of Alien and Blade Runner were side-effects of the limitations of Scott’s technical film-making back then – if you can’t CGI an enormous monster or a 3D galaxy map or an extremely invasive wide-awake abdominal surgery scene, you develop compelling characters and confusing moral dilemmas by accident?
So, what irritated me about Prometheus? Firstly, I didn’t give a crap about any of the characters. Not one. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender were very watchable (Fassbender especially during the brief Wall•E-esque scenes where he wandered the ship alone, watching David Lean films and bleaching his hair), but I didn’t care about either of them, and the rest of the cast were irritating, pointless, or nondescript. The crew aboard the spaceship also suffered from “Sunshine Syndrome” – which is to say that they were (almost) all far too beautiful to be believable as scientists. I work with academics; none of them look like Logan Marshall-Green. None of the cast on the Nostromo in Alien did, either, which added to a sense of believability, and therefore empathy and sympathy, and therefore dread and terror.
Charlize Theron’s character was almost completely without purpose; I literally have no idea what she was in the film for (apart from to satisfy the Male Gaze with some near-naked push-ups and skin-tight uniforms), as any hint of tension or drama that was suggested early on evaporated. The casting of Guy Pearce was bizarre, and seemed to be justified entirely by clever pre-opening viral marketing and as an excuse to use a load of old-man prosthetics. Idris Elba’s character seemed like the most rounded and likeable, but was given barely any screen time. Sean Harris’ character was an excuse for a haircut and some mild dissonance. Rafe Spall, who I really like as an actor, was equally pointless. In fact it’s a quote from Spall about why he was so excited to be in Prometheus that best illustrates my issue with the film: “That’s why I wanted to be an actor, to be in a space suit on an ‘Alien’ set.”
Because I think Damon Lindeloff and the whole Comic-Con / Wonder-Con culture ruined Prometheus by making it pander to whooping expectations of spectacle. Lindeloff, we know from Lost, is an ideas man who needs a steadying hand to say “why?” instead of “why not?” every time he says “let’s do this awesome cool thing!” “Because it would be cool!” is not justification enough. So “let’s have the Space Jockey be a giant god-like humanoid with an exact match to our DNA despite translucent opalescent skin and huge stature, and let’s have them have created mankind in the dim and distant past by drinking a disintegration potion and dissolving their biomatter into a lake in Iceland” should have been met with enormous incredulity rather than gurning acceptance. Let’s not even get into the “let’s have a surgery-pod that performs complex operations on still-waking patients in space, and have it perform a kind of weird appendectomy / caesarian on Noomi Rapace, while she’s dressed like Leeloo from Fifth Element, and extract a giant CGI alien fish from her abdomen” suggestion.
“Let’s immolate people who are possessed for seemingly no reason!” “Let’s have a giant worm force itself down someone’s throat again and again! And have acid for blood!” “Let’s have a giant starfish monster with a vagina-like maw, and let’s have it have a fight with a giant translucent opalescent skinned godlike humanoid creation alien with our exact DNA! In space!” “Let’s have ancient cave paintings be of advanced alien civilizations consisting of giant translucent opalescent skinned godlike humanoid creation aliens with our exact DNA!” “Let’s have the android infect the male archaeologist with an unidentified micro-thingy, and then let’s have the male archaeologist have sex with the female archaeologist and impregnate her with rapidly-gestating alien starfish spawn!” “Let’s explore the very reason we exist! In space!” “Let’s have an entire planet be a bio-chemical warfare laboratory breeding some nasty bio-weapon which may or may not turn out to be the Giger-alien!” “Let’s have an android mirror the creationist dilemma and want to be Lawrence of Arabia! In space! And then let’s tear his head off and expose his milky circuitry guts, because that’s a trope we have to have in every film!” “Let’s add a mean female character with daddy-issues!” “Let’s have Guy Pearce in old-man prosthetics!”
Much less happens in Alien than in Prometheus, and it’s a much better film for it. The “themes” are much less lofty, the awe and terror much closer to home, much more intimate, and much more affecting for it. Likewise the spectacle is more modest, more real, the characters (and their cats) much more identifiable and understandable. So much of what does happen in Prometheus is unexplained. It’s like the inverse of dramatic irony; neither characters nor audience, nor, seemingly, director, writer, or producer, seem to have a clue why anything is happening. It all just happens because “it’d be cool to have this happen!”; there’s seemingly no internal logic.
There’s plenty more I could moan about, but I’ve already written a thousand words. I don’t think Prometheus is a “bad” film, per se – it’s an enjoyable cinema experience, it looks amazing, and so on and so forth – I just think it could have been much, much better.