As Alien: Covenant hits our screens, what better time then, to look back at Ridley Scott’s first Alien prequel, “Prometheus”, and discuss everything that’s wrong with it.
The film opens with an “Engineer” creating life on Earth by drinking a black liquid, which causes him to disintegrate. As ways of creating life go, surely an intelligent race of super humans could have dreamt up a less traumatic method? It’s a bit like changing the original Greek myth to Prometheus bringing fire to humanity by setting himself a light.
The film then moves to the main story, with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering cave art showing early human civilizations across the universe. Shaw then takes a massive leap in logic by concluding the art work is an invitation by an alien race. Not satisfied with one bizarre leap in logic, Shaw goes further still by assuming these aliens not only visited earth, but created the human race.
In the first Alien film, the characters were primarily made up working class engineers, who displayed relatable motivations and a fair amount of common sense, i.e. the film depicted real people behaving in a realistic way. The characters in Prometheus do not have a similar grounding. From the distractingly latex Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the odd decision to keep secret that Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) was Weyland’s daughter to Shaw explaining her ill thought out theory out load in front of other people, this introductory scene fails to lay down a solid foundation for the characters.
This lack of foundation in confounded by further introductory missteps. There are too many characters in the film the audience don’t need to care about and who have no bearing on the story. An example of this, are the two pilots doing their inconsequential bet. The characters are shown to be childish and unprofessional, making them un-relatable. This is then exacerbated by the fact that they have nothing to do with the plot, giving the audience even less of a reason to emotionally invest in them. Speaking of plot, the ending is carelessly flagged very early in the film. As the ship enters the planet the crew are heard to say that ‘If you’re without your helmet in this atmosphere you’ll last 2 minutes’. As a result of this clunky dialogue the audience can easily guess what the ending will include, and the film has only just got started.
It’s been mentioned hundreds of times before, but it’s worth mentioning again. The expedition took their helmets off way too quickly. For a crew consisting of top end scientists you would have thought they would have left their helmets on until they had determined the location was safe? (For further dumb scientist stuff see their handling of the alien head and their inaccurate alien DNA discussion) Overlooking the ridiculous reactions of Fifield (Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall) to some ancient corpses, considering all the technology the crew had at their disposal how on earth did Fifield and Millburn manage to get themselves lost? The expedition released scanners before entering the vicinity, allowing Captain Janek (Idris Elba) to see exactly where everyone was. No-one should not have got lost.
Then there’s the follow up Fifield/Millburn scene, with the clearly creepy and obviously dangerous alien vagina snake. The fact that Fifield and Millburn go from running away scared of a dead corpse one minute, to happily playing with some dodgy alien vagina snake, with no fear whatsoever, the next minute, is incredibly disjointing and undermines the scene.
How Fifield’s mutation is then handled not only confuses his own demise, but also the overall plot of the film. As there’s no continuity between the death of the “Engineer”, Fifield’s mutation, Holloway’s poisoning and Shaw’s impregnation the audience is left confused as to how exactly the “Alien” came into being, which surely is the point of this film? Speaking of which, it’s never fully explained why David (Michael Fassbender) felt the need to poison Holloway with the black liquid. It’s a shame, because out of all the characters in the film, it is the android David who is the most fully realised, relatable, and quite frankly, human.
Which leads us to the Shaw and Holloway relationship. Initially the pair come across as being nothing more than professional partners and friends, yet, half way through the film it turns out they’re in a romantic relationship. They then proceed to have a strange conversation about how easy it is to create life, that upsets Shaw, because as it turns out, she can’t have children. This out of place conversations is only there to try and give Shaw’s pregnancy scene some depth, and is possibly one of many nods to Space Jesus, but the handling of the characters up until that point has been so poorly handled the scene falls flat.
It feels as though the film makers wanted Shaw to have a classic “Alien” birth scene, similar in vain to the first film. However, they had to figure out a way of doing it without killing her, so they invented an automated surgery unit, which in theory is fine. It’s perfectly reasonable to imagine in the future technology has advanced to the point where it could carry out automated medical procedures. What’s not so reasonable to assume is that in the future human beings will heal infinitely quicker than they do now. To have Shaw go through such invasive surgery and recover so quickly to the point she can run around, but not sideways apparently, is quite frankly, ridiculous. The film makers were trying to achieve too much here and sadly ended up undermining the very thing they were trying to set up. Also, at no point does anyone ask Shaw why she’s covered in blood. This, again, is an example of characters not acting like real human beings.
Similar examples include, Vickers mentioning she likes to have a backup plan, at the start of film, which is somehow supposed to justify her setting a mutated Fifield on fire. Worse than that, afterwards, no-one seems to mind that she burned someone him alive, just like Shaw didn’t seem too put out when David admits to killing Holloway. Another oddity is Janek. Apart from his, entirely understandable, attempt to bed Vickers and his ability to lose crew members, even though he has access to finest tracking technology, he is not central to the film. It’s strange then, that once the shit hits the fan he is the one to burst into Shaw’s room and explain the whole plot to her.
Ultimately, Prometheus is a confused hotchpotch of a movie, where characters act out of character and where questions aren’t left unanswered. And not because, as some say, that these elements add to an intentional air of mystery to the film, but because the script is ill thought through and is riddled with plot holes. If film makers had spent half as much time working on the characters and story as they did on the mythology, then this film would be amazing. Sadly, the makers clearly didn’t realise that answering the question ‘Where do we come from? with the answer ‘Aliens‘ (or to be more accurate, early humans) doesn’t answer the bloody question, because the next question is naturally ‘Where did the aliens come from’? It’s a circular logic that leads to no-where and to see a film that’s trying to tackling such big questions with an answer as lazy and ill thought as that is lame.
Fans of Prometheus try to explain away the film’s mistakes by saying “It’s up to the viewers to make their own mind up’. I’d agree if we were talking about a more airtight film, such as The Prestige. That’s an example of a great film, that has many unanswered questions and where it’s perfectly reasonable for audiences to come away from it with different takes on the story and its meaning. The film is structured so beautifully and cleverly, that you don’t mind not knowing the answers to everything because it still has an emotionally satisfying resolution. I know many of the issues Prometheus has are resolved in the Director’s Cut. But, that wasn’t the version shown in cinemas and it’s reasonable for audiences to expect a film to work in its own right. It should not need a supplementary film to be released four months later to explain everything that was left out in the original theatrical release.
Which brings me to my penultimate point, the film’s constant references to Space Jesus. The book Chariots of the God is clearly being crowbarred into the film, which, though an interesting concept, proved to be misplaced. Writer Damon Lindelof has a habit of leaving story points unresolved (Lost being an obvious example). This technique can pay dividends in films such as “Inception”, where it leaves it the audience to decide what the story meant and the fate of its characters. However, for this to work there needs to be a clarity of purpose in the story. In the case of Prometheus, the first script was originally written by Jon Spaihts, with Lindelof then adding the Space Jesus references in afterwards. Unfortunately, this lack of focus in the script produced a story that pulled in various different directions, resulting in a film that lacked a clear through line.
In the case of Prometheus, it took many years to make this film, as such, it’s safe to assume the numerous holes in the script and odd editing decisions were picked up and pointed out. Yet these holes and edits weren’t corrected, and we have to ask ourselves why. Surely some of the blame must lay at the feet of the director? It’s no secret that Ridley Scott is more of a “visual director” than an “actor’s director”. Having seen the special features in the Blu-ray release it’s clear that Scott’s focus was visuals and pacing, (which are bang on the money in this film), anything outside of that he seems to have given a short thrift. Considering the success of the first Alien film (which is unquestionably a classic) it’s looks as though Scott wasn’t pushed on the plot and editing, because no-one was in a position to challenge him on these points. It’s a shame, because to many Prometheus was a missed opportunity. Fingers crossed Alien: Covenant doesn’t make the same mistakes.
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