A Prometheus Review Unbound
(Editors Note: This preview contains spoilers after the jump. Like, major spoilers. Not the “you might get a hint” spoilers, but “wow, so that’s what’s going to happen!” spoilers. Just saying’. -TK)
by Sam Wilkinson
Last night, I saw Prometheus and since leaving the theater, I have tried to figure out a way to write about the film that does it sufficient justice while simultaneously reflecting the film I think I saw. Instead of attempting to weave together my conflicting opinions about the movie, I thought I would instead write two reviews: one, a critical exploration of a legitimate Alien prequel, and two, a complete meltdown about the execution of this prequel.
A Critical Exploration of a Legitimate Alien Prequel
At the beginning of Alien, the Nostromo receives a distress beacon from something. It is sent to investigate and upon doing do so, discovers a strange horseshoe-shaped spacecraft filled with the eggs that will become the Alien monster of HR Giger’s imagination. The entirety of Prometheus is spent getting us to nearly the point that the distress beacon was transmitted. Anybody claiming otherwise is engaged in either outright deceit or in a careful marketing strategy designed to take Alien’s cultural cachet without undermining the original film. Everything we see in Prometheus is present at the beginning of Alien – that horseshoe spaceship, the space-jockey, the eggs. In this section though, I will avoid the spoilers that will be present in the next section.
Prometheus works best when it fleshes out the world that the Nostromo’s crew enters after responding to the distress beacon. Whereas Alien thrived because everything was so remarkably cramped and dark and damp (a trick that it managed to get away with despite having us believe that interstellar travel is a normal part of human activity), Prometheus shines because it gives us a bigger world. From the movie’s bizarre opening sequence on a planet of huge waterfalls to Prometheus’s arrival on the moon LV-223, everything is enormous and beautiful. It is also intimidating, which the movie mines for effect repeatedly. The research team aboard the Prometheus explores large caverns filled with huge statues; the monsters the later encounter are enormous; so too are the ships themselves (vessels more maneuverable than what we saw in what are now canonically later films). Equally large is the plot itself, which revolves around the search for Gods , the precipice of death, and the madness of both. Let it be known that at no point were this film’s creators thinking small.
The star of the film is Michael Fassbender’s David, an android whose intentions are questionable right from the start. David is both a hybrid of the later Alien’s and Aliens’s Ash and Android, a hyper-vigilant, highly capable robot whose machinations are never entirely explained, but especially unlike Ash, we know from the outset that he is the other when held up against the rest of the Prometheus’s crew. He is simultaneously good and bad and indifferent and unlike every other character in the film; he is oddly the one who has the most soul. At least in part because of David, things begin to go awry for the ship’s crew, largely in predictably ways, as the confident search for God becomes a hapless attempt to escape. Things go wrong so quickly and so spectacularly that the film is in its dying moments before you have the opportunity to breathe. There are no quiet moments. There is no subtle collapse. First there is hope and then there is anguish and at no point is there an in-between.
To put that another way: Prometheus does the job of a prequel, simultaneously exploring and informing the mythology of one of cinema’s great horror achievements.
A Complete Meltdown About The Execution Of This Prequel
I try studiously to avoid reviews before I see something, but I gave in to the temptation, reading one article before actually going into the theater, an article that warned in a general sort of way that the characters might not necessarily achieve the sort connection with the audience that the crew on the Nostromo did. This was written gently and beautifully and, I discovered, wrongly. It isn’t that the characters in this film are bad so much as it is that the characters in this film are stupid. Literally, laughably stupid. Here’s a list of a few of the dumb things done during the movie, a list that is spoiler heavy:
-The ship’s captain (played by Idris Elba, who inexplicably abandons his own British accent for a less-than-stellar Texas affectation) warns the scientists that there are only a few hours of daylight left and that they should begin their exploration the next morning. “This is our Christmas,” one says, “and we want to open our presents.” This indifference to danger is shrugged off.
-A geologist who enters the caverns (and who helps map them) freaks out when he realizes that they are not alone. He and a biologist flee the group but manage to get lost immediately. Separated from the group, they are forced to spend the night in the caverns, which they do, fearfully. Or at least, fearfully until meeting what can only be described as a space cobra, a creature which they immediately and playfully embrace (if you’re being kind) or taunt (if you’re disgusted with the film) and which unsurprisingly embraces them right back.
-After characters have already begun dying, something is seen outside of Prometheus’s bay doors. They are immediately opened, without question, without concern that doing so might further endanger the ship’s crew. You’ll be shocked to discover that it wasn’t the Easter Bunny standing out there.
-Perhaps most ridiculously, a grunt in the background is told to leave his weapons behind, as this is a “research mission.” It is one thing to have questionable ideas, but these characters and their collective decision making is straight out of slasher films. They might as well have said, “I’m going out for a lonely walk on the abandoned Indian burial grounds near the woods where the murderous butcher used to go camping with zombies.” People in the theater were laughing, and not in an oh-I’m-so-amused sort of way, but more in are-you-absolutely-serious-right-now sort of way.
As we were leaving the theater, somebody I was with glumly said, “Well, characters have to do stupid things to advance the plot…” in a defeated sort of way. This is generally true of immediately forgettable horror films. Alien though? The only bad decision that the Nostromo’s crew made was bringing Kane back aboard the ship, a decision made both out of compassion for their friend and on the advice of ship’s chief science officer (the duplicitous android Ash, who has been ordered to bring the xenomorph back to Earth with or without the ship’s crew). In other words, at no point did the characters make bad decisions that created a cleavage between themselves and the audience. The horror of Ash’s double-cross is that he manipulated the characters into doing something that everybody in the audience would have done too.
That’s just the immediate decision making that we see on the screen. Never addressed are things like the composition of the ship’s crew (“How did these idiots make it through the interview process?”), the journey’s plan (“Driving dune-buggies on a moon known for its silica storms sure seems reasonable!”), the lack of preparation threat (“Are we gonna need anything more than a few flamethrowers, a few handguns, and a few shotguns?”), and the lack of a cohesive plan (“How about we just run around aimlessly, even though we’ve got machines capable of mapping out everything ahead of us?”) undermines the film at every turn.
Each small absurdity builds upon the last, with every twist and turn getting harder and harder to accept because everything that leads up to it was equally insane. By the time we reach one of the movie’s many reveals (that the trip was actually designed to procure immortality for the ship’s owner, Peter Weyland, presumably the namesake of Weyland-Yutani from the later films), nobody in the audience cares because nothing has built even remotely to that moment.
This could go on. We could discuss the squid baby. We could discuss the Buster Keaton–esque set piece with the rolling horseshoe spacecraft. We could discuss the Engineers. But we’re not going to, because by the time that you dedicate energy to these things, you’re not thinking about something that would actually be productive, substantive, or genuine.
So I’ll finish like this. If you want a huge slasher film, watch Prometheus. If you want something worth your time, try Alien again.