A potentially dark, intelligent film gives way to poor characterisation and ham. Adam Brereton discusses Prometheus, AI and the current sci-fi love in. Warning: may contain spoilers.
Ridley Scott has never been the kind of director to shy away from ambitious projects. In his groundbreaking adaptation of Blade Runner, which did justice to Philip K. Dick’s novel by refusing to adapt it directly, Scott left the question of whether Deckard is a replicant ambiguous – and in doing so invoked the inherent moral ambiguity of inquisitors throughout history. In Gladiator he revived the sword and sandal genre that had been neglected since Ben Hur. He let Anthony Hopkins off the leash in Hannibal, and his unfilmed version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune remains one of film’s great apocrypha. Sure, he’s screwed up a bit along the way (A Good Year, Thelma and Louise) but when he’s good, he’s good.
Prometheus isn’t exactly one of Scott’s triumps, but it’s not a total mess either. Where the Alien quadrilogy was unflinchingly tough feminist sci-fi, the fifth instalment is a beautiful, special-effects skeleton of a film, covered with a big chunk of ham.
The big, ambitious question at the heart of the movie – what if our creators don’t love us and instead see us as a mistake – is a classic horror trope begun by H.P. Lovecraft, and it could have been a great antidote to the current Avatar-generation sci-fi love in. Lovecraft’s materialist horror imagined a galaxy where inscrutable terrors lurk out there beyond the stars, immeasurably powerful and far beyond human comprehension, and was all the more terrifying for it. Alien prequel or not, I was excited to see Scott take that theme and moxy it up with some cool explosions; in space, God can’t hear you scream.
The film starts with a white human-ish alien self destructing off a grim waterfall, ostensibly the act that created life on Earth. It’s a classic case of telling, not showing, which isn’t always a problem as long as the telling is done well, which it’s not. Why tell the audience straight up exactly how it happened, without any ambiguity? If there’s anything that should be left at least a bit open, it’s the act of creation. But hey, this is sci-fi, where everything is either subtle and complete, or utterly ham-fisted.
The whole of human history later (and then some), the two scientist-protagonists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a prehistoric cave painting with a mysterious star-configuration. It’s been replicated in their other discoveries, and straight away we’ve skipped forward a few decades to the spaceship Prometheus chasing the star map, where a bunch of soon to be murdered scientists, soldiers and the like sleep peacefully in classic sci-fi cryo stasis.
Watching over them is the android David (Michael Fassbender). Like his appearance in Inglourious Basterds, Fassbender dominates the movie. David’s character is the crux of the film’s exploration of “what it means to be human blah blah”, and he bucks the standard tropes for robot characters in films, who are either Asimov-style servants, R2-D2 bleepers or “almost human” cyborgs discovering their humanity (think Arnie’s lava thumbs-up in Terminator 2 – “Now I know why you cry!”). David has discovered humanity already, and he despises us, thanks very much.
When Holloway says humans created the Androids “because we could”, David replies that perhaps the creators made humanity for the same reason – on a whim. And what’s made on a whim can be brushed away; the human characters depend on David for safety while they’re asleep and vulnerable, but once they’re out of his care he preys on them sadistically while pursuing his own agenda, only partly derived from his programming and his obedience to old man billionaire Weyland (Guy Pearce in shitty old man makeup).
In the film’s key sequence, David infects Holloway with an alien bio-toxin, which gets him flamethrowered by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), whose forgettable blonde-corporate-ice queen-bitch character thankfully gets squashed later on. Holloway in turn impregnates Shaw, who gestates a disgusting alien foetus that must be removed in a tense, bloody ad-hoc machine caesarian.
Shaw, covered in gore and hastily stapled up, throws herself into a space-suit to return to the alien ruins where the Engineers are stockpiling xenomorph death goo to dump on Earth. She is confronted by David, and Fassbender lays on his best British sneer for the quip of the film: “I didn’t think you had it in you. Oh. Poor choice of words.”
The Shaw-David protagonist/antagonist struggle – Shaw, the religious-humanist scientist, David, the sadist product of science – could have been the skeleton of an incredibly tense sci-fi murder-horror flick, with the humans trapped on an alien planet between xenomorphs and the android assassin in their ranks. But Scott’s big servings of ham and cheese spoil the tense mood, and plot holes left wide open for the impending sequel are too broad to be explained away as deliberate Blade Runner-style vagueness.
For instance, the Prometheus is crewed by a host of forgettable stock characters: scampy young pilots, scampy young geologists, scampy young security staff. I couldn’t remember any of their names thirty seconds after they were introduced, and didn’t give a shit when they died. Two of the unnamed pilots have a bet going on about something or other that wasn’t immediately obvious even by the time they’d kamikazed the ship to stop the Engineer dumping millions of alien death-spores on Earth.
Likewise, the last of the Engineers, advanced enough to create life and explore the stars, turns out to be an Incredible Hulk fan once revived, going for the movie-standard “RARGH SMASH” routine. Scott sets the whole film up for this one encounter and then wastes it by making him an alien Andre the Giant. What’s more, the whole purpose of the space mission, for the old man Weyland to get “more life” (whatever that means) is dashed away when the Engineer caves his head in. Why even include the sub-plot to begin with? Why include any of the half-developed sub-plots? Just give me an android stalker-murderer in space please, and leave the rest out.
Eileen Jones, film reviewer for The eXiled (and probably the best, no bullshit film reviewer writing in English today), describes Prometheus as “one of those big ruined films that are worth talking about in terms of how it got ruined, and how it might’ve been saved.” I couldn’t agree more. Who cares if it wasn’t the hoped-for prequel to the glorious Alien franchise; it’s a beautiful, fun film in its own right (the SFX are astounding and the 3D is immaculate). Yes, the plot holes are big enough to pilot a spaceship through, but hopefully a sequel (and maybe a director’s cut) will go some way towards fixing the mess.
I wonder whether the film may have worked better as an HBO-style TV series, with fewer characters and more time for the relationship between Shaw and David to truly develop. At any rate, Fassbender’s performance is worth the price of admission on its own. As he says in the film, mirroring Peter O’Toole’s classic line from Lawrence of Arabia, “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” So it is with Prometheus; ignore the obvious fuck-ups and you’ll find yourself enjoying a decent sci-fi horror blockbuster, if not the movie you’d hoped for.
Adam can also be found at The Nose.