starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron
screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
directed by Ridley Scott
by Walter Chaw It's time, probably long past time, to admit that Ridley Scott is nothing more or less than Tim Burton: a visual stylist at the mercy of others to offer his hatful of pretty pictures something like depth. If either one of them ever made a great film (and I'd argue that both have), thank the accident of the right source material and/or editor, not these directors, whose allegiance is to their own visual auteurism rather than any desire for a unified product. For Scott, the conversation essentially begins and ends for me with Alien, Blade Runner, and Black Hawk Down (for most, it's just the first two, with a political nod to Thelma & Louise)--genre films, all, and each about the complications of mendacity given over to lush, stylish excess: the gothic, biomechanical haunted house of Alien's Nostromo mining vehicle and its hapless band of blue-collar meatbags; the meticulously detailed Angelino diaspora of Blade Runner and its Raymond Chandler refugee; and Mark Bowden's Mogadishu, transformed in Black Hawk Down into a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Again, there's that utility. Without it, Scott's films are impenetrable monuments to style, as smooth and affectless as a perfume advertisement--and the more you watch them, the less memorable that style becomes.
It makes sense that well into his dotage Scott would return to Alien (next up, a Blade Runner sequel), seeking to recapture whatever lightning there was in that particular bottle, but, alas, key collaborators like screenwriter Dan O'Bannon and cinematographer Derek Vanlint are dead--and whatever O'Bannon's replacement Damon Lindelof is, he's also the idiot who wrote a few seasons of "Lost" before foisting Cowboys & Aliens on audiences that just didn't deserve the punishment. Trusting Lindelof to shepherd an Alien prequel (no, it isn't; yes, it is; no, it isn't; okay, it sort of is) to fruition--to, more importantly, make something of Scott's exhausted panache--is the kind of miscalculation that results in unique disasters like Prometheus. Make no mistake, it takes a lot of money, energy, and anticipation to make a movie this bad. Without anticipation, after all, without a bedrock legacy of one of the finest science-fiction films of all time, there couldn't be this level of disappointment. Prometheus is a film as poorly-written, as badly misconceived, as Episode 1--their greatest common thread that they're products of creators with terminal weaknesses exposed in the gaudiest way possible on the grandest stage imaginable. I should say, too, before we continue, that for all its bad thinking, bad writing, and bad acting, Prometheus is worst of all really, truly boring.
Prometheus is that conversation about God you get suckered into with some moron. Its arguments begin and end with "I believe, so should you" and proceed into "yes there is, no there isn't," and by the end, the accidental (I think) conclusion is that Faith is good, God is an impassive observer if He indeed exists, and the bad guy is, ready? Evolution. It seems that ancient hieroglyphs on Earth point to a constellation of stars around which there is one moon--you know the one--capable of supporting Life. This doesn't explain why said moon, once our pilgrims arrive there, proves incapable of supporting life, but never mind, try to keep up. Prometheus at its heart is a 2001 knock-off, with its unearthing of ancient artifacts pointing to an invitation to exploration, its suggestion that human evolution is the product of alien intervention. But where 2001 correctly avoids trying to decipher the mind of a superior, alien intelligence (like a Christian god's, n'est-ce pas?), Prometheus rails against the question in circular, puerile dialogue that not only stops the film repeatedly in its tracks, but also supports the maxim that any film that namedrops God this much isn't going to have anything to say. If Prometheus begins a question in your mind about Faith and the mysterium tremens, then I hate to be probably the eighth person to already tell you this today, but you're a fucking idiot. Beginning as a ripper of 2001, Prometheus is by its end the gory remake no one wanted of 2010. We haven't come full circle from Scott to Scott, but instead witnessed the devolution--and we've been watching it for decades--of Scott into Peter Hyams.
The archaeologists (or paleoanthropologists, or hikers, or art critics, the fuck knows/cares?) are Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend/partner (the fuck knows/cares?) Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). For what it's worth, Marshall-Green is the spitting physical and spiritual image of Peter Facinelli, who played the same basic character with the same affliction in producer Walter Hill's studio-mutilated Supernova. Could Prometheus be, in part, Hill's underground attempt to cuckold his failed project on a director (Scott) who obviously doesn't really care what the material is so long as he can graft his pictures onto it? There's enough blame to go around. Shaw and Charlie, in the offscreen backstory we perhaps needed but are eventually grateful not to endure, get decrepit billionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund a space expedition to planet zero in search of God. God! Don't you get it? Don't you? It's God! God! God! Okay, pay attention.
Along for the ride is a ragtag band of ruffian space pirates, including the ones who're probably going to be dead first, geologist and ethnic colour Fifield (Sean Harris) and milquetoast biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall). I mention these guys because when they arrive on space moon delta, the geologist exhibits absolutely no interest in the indigenous geology and the biologist thinks it's a great idea to fuck with a space cobra. Their lack of curiosity is a perfect reflection of the film's own lack of subtlety and introspection. The reason Alien and Blade Runner work as larger conversations has everything to do with how deeply big questions are buried in its text; the first reason Prometheus fails is because, by bringing those Big Questions to the surface, it leaves giant empty graves in its text. (The second reason it fails is that no one in it ever behaves as though they could screw in a lightbulb.)
Mission android David (Michael Fassbender) watches Lawrence of Arabia on a loop, bleaches his hair, and is from the start the nefarious HAL 9000 programmed for no good. Why a robot modeling itself after the gay English Che Guevara is evil is up to you to decipher. Though we never get a fix on David as a sympathetic protagonist, it's around to provide the "functional equivalence" portion of the picture's nitwit thesis, the portion Alien and Blade Runner provide organically--the question being that at what point is there no real difference between man and his created things once those created things start thinking for themselves. David from the start acts like a suspicious little twat, having its feelings hurt when Charlie acts like a jerk (and, by the way, if you don't want to kill Charlie and Shaw yourself after a few minutes, you're the android), spending a lot of its time acting like Peter O'Toole while soliloquizing to its finger, and generally doing everything Ian Holm resisted doing in 1979. If David can feel feelings, it brings up another Episode I complaint in that the technology in Prometheus is far, far superior to the technology of Alien. Consider the surgical iron-lung that can perform any desired procedure with its robot arms (although it can't tell the difference between a male and a female). This technology also exists in a timeline where it's apparently still possible for a woman to be infertile, which comes up, lamentably and without any real provocation, in a scene where Shaw--feminists, take note--gets hysterical only to be fucked into serenity by a genetically-altered Charlie. There, there, let me calm you with my penis. I mention all of this because there will come a moment where Shaw (and this is not much of a spoiler, but, hey, spoiler alert) becomes pregnant with something and climbs into the medi-pod to have it removed in the best girl-attacked-by-lasers scene since Michael York faced off against the plastic-surgery bot in Logan's Run.
It's a neat sequence if you ever wondered what a Caesarean section looks like, gonzo POV-style--even neater when you pause a moment to remember that the two crewmembers Shaw overcomes a few minutes earlier have, for no particular reason, stopped pursuing her for the length of time it takes her to endure the entire procedure. As far as stupid goes, Prometheus is an equal-opportunity offender. Throughout, Shaw talks about God and her faith--about how they're out there in the middle of nowhere to "talk to" the things that, millennia previous, during the prologue, "seeded" the oceans of the Earth with their own DNA for their own obscure purposes. When it turns out they're dead, their fate revealed obliquely in a ridiculous holographic effect (and fans of Alien, take note that these alien progenitors are the same species as the "space jockey" the Nostromo's crew discovers in the first film), Charlie whines about how he really wanted to chat with them, which is probably not what whatever his kind of scientist is is likely to whine.
Anyway, Shaw takes a mummified alien head off the alien bunker and sort of reanimates it long enough for it to explode, raising the obvious question of what it is that our heroes have found on galactic rock 222002. Well, it's a weapon, stupid--a head-popping one. It's probably a biological one as well, because it's black goop stored in metal canisters, and the way it works is that a scientist or some other imbecile fucks around with it until it explodes in their eyes and, um, evolves them or impregnates them or kills them or does something that triggers a lot of 3-D special effects. You're in trouble when a viral YouTube video of a hillbilly killing himself by doing something stupid to an animal is your central plot point.
Did I mention ice princess Vickers (Charlize Theron) and irie Capt. Janek (Idris Elba)? No? Never mind. Ignore, too, the senseless bromance at the end involving a couple of other negligible and fast-forgotten characters. At any rate, Weyland and his agent, David, want to collect samples of the weapon, because that's what they always want to do in this series of movies, either by bringing back one of the canisters or, even better (how could this go wrong?), by impregnating the girl hero--because, in this iteration, one of David's special android powers is knowing when Charlie is going to want to fuck his slow-thinking Swedish girlfriend. But wait: In addition to stealing their how-could-they-have-known-about-it goop, they also want to talk to the alien primogenitors, because...um...God. It's God! God! At the end (but not at the end enough), David asks Shaw if despite the shit that went down she still believes, and Shaw affirms that she does while clarifying that the reason she does and David doesn't is because David isn't a human being. Slam! Oh no she di'nt!
The essence of humanity, see, is apparently its unflagging ability and innate desire to Believe in a Sky Wizard and His Zombie Son, thus setting us apart from toasters and gibbons and Muslims and stuff that doesn't believe in all that. Prometheus also sets up the sequel where Shaw and her Basket Case sidekick confront the alien primogenitors with more and bigger questions about God and Creation and why our GOD would want to create something He would subsequently want to destroy. The last line of the film, which I'll resist spoiling for you, is the hoariest, most irritating last line in the storied and monstrously-unimaginative history of such things. In voiceover, even! Let's leave it with Faith is good; God isn't talking; and Evolution is a biological weapon that is an affront to God. Promethean fire in the Alien franchise, if you want to make a fine point of it, is the crucible in which we burn and the explosions from within--the visual representation of the devouring of our demigod's liver in a lonesome crag of the Caucasus. So, does this mean that only the most mindless and unquestioning of the devout will enjoy Prometheus? That Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was a predictor of the audience for this piece of crap? That's between you and your god.