Prometheus (*½)

With all that goes into a movie – even relatively small indies – I sometimes wonder how so many of them end up being as misguided as they are.  You have writers, directors, producers, and who knows how many other outside collaborators all giving their inputs on a single story through several pre-production drafts and months of principle photography all the way to post plus test audiences.  How does a movie like, say, The Blind Side go through all of that and not have anyone say, “Hey, maybe that line ‘I’m not changin’ that boy’s life…he’s changin’ mine!’ is a little…trite?”  Then again, I guess you could apply that level of bafflement to a number of badly executed plans from otherwise smart, driven people.  Chalk it up to hubris, blind ambition, too many hands in the pot or whatever; at the end of the day, we’re still going to have to deal with the ill-conceived farrago that is Prometheus in front of us, the kind of bad movie that only a group of highly distinguished artists could make.

**Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**

And what a mess it is!  In my most recent Weekend Openings piece, I wrote in response to the film’s somewhat divided critical reaction that I would still embrace Prometheus if it aimed high enough.  But director Ridley Scott and writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts do not aim high so much as fire off in several different directions before shooting themselves in the foot.  To be fair, many critics – including my colleague Mike Ward – have all shared some misgivings about the screenplay, but it’s so fundamentally broken that it severely hobbles what few high points the film can actually boast.

Perhaps the most damning thing about Prometheus’ script is the same fatal flaw that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had.  Here is a story that aims for profundity but can’t be bothered to actually explore even one of its Big Issues with any depth so instead it lazily gestures at a bunch of half-baked ideas to compensate, and a director too preoccupied with the technology at his disposal to realize that (or care).  Its supposed interest in pervasive questions like the origins of mankind and our place in the universe are answered by nothing but tautological platitudes (“I believe it…because I choose to!”) and repetitive, skin-deep visual symbolism (how many times did we really need a close-up of Elizabeth fumbling around with her crucifix necklace?)…and that’s when they’re not abandoned entirely.

Outstanding performance, lackluster character.

But I could forgive the film’s awkwardness of its feints in the direction of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Scott’s own Blade Runner if the characters at the center of it were engaging and interesting.  But Prometheus’ principal cast is only 20% well-acted and 100% misconceived.  This is the kind of plot that hinges on the stupidity of its characters to drive it, and with the exception of one (well, technically three, but the other two pilots are so throwaway they barely register) Noble Sacrifice near the end of the film, every death or bit of misfortune could have been easily avoided had the victim used just an ounce of common sense.  Surely a group of scientists/astronauts would know that it’s probably not a good idea to just stand around and coo at a slimy alien worm-thing, or to insist on not bringing any weapons while exploring a planet light-years away from your own, or to get despondently drunk and taunt an android for its non-humanness after failing to find what you’re looking for on literally the first day of your expedition (never mind the fact that they miraculously discover the remains of an entire alien civilization within seconds of arriving on the planet), or to proposition someone for sex while being threatened by a death-trap planet that killed half your crew, or to run parallel with a collapsing giant toroid spaceship about to collapse on you?

I could go on.  The movie certainly does, pretending its supporting characters aren’t tired stereotypes and teasing us with bits of character details that end up being pointless red herrings in its scattershot story.  One that especially irked me were all the heavy-handed implications that Meredith Vickers was an android (one character in fact asks her point-blank if she is) before going absolutely nowhere with it and opts instead for a “twist” about her lineage that ends up having zero narrative impact.  Although for sheer ludicrousness nothing can beat Guy Pearce as the aging trillionaire Peter Weyland in a mound of embarrassing old-age makeup.  Why they didn’t just cast an actual old man as Weyland is one of many questions the film prefers not to answer.

The only two characters that leave a lasting impression are its female protagonist Elizabeth Shaw and the sinister android David, though I credit that mainly to their portrayals by Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, respectively.  Rapace once again proves an elegant and committed leading lady in a film that doesn’t deserve her, while Fassbender quite rightly has been stealing all of the “best in show” praise from critics for his impish, playfully sinister performance.  But any sympathy I had for Elizabeth’s terrified survivalist and supposed heroic character evaporated instantly when she makes a jaw-droppingly selfish decision at the end of the film to satisfy her own curiosity rather than go back to Earth and warn everyone about a race of superbeings hell-bent on mankind’s destruction.  David is also a mess of a character, whose development is so muddled and inconsistent that it borders on senselessness.  Fans will no doubt argue that such contradictory behavior makes him a complex figure, but ambiguity doesn’t fly when his “true mission” is revealed and he illogically bulls on with it despite everything that he has seen and done before then.  That he is being compared to the likes of Roy Batty and HAL 9000, two ingeniously-written characters whose motivations were so clear and sympathetic and, most importantly, believable, is shocking to me.

Apparently one can just "walk off" a traumatic surgery...

All of this is a confusing hodge-podge of underdeveloped plotlines, characters and themes crammed together, resulting in a narrative that’s almost impossible to get swept up in.  Like nearly all of his previous films, Ridley Scott is a visual genius, and the special effects used here (save for one CGI-overloaded climax) are absolutely stunning to behold.  In an age where science fiction films are looking increasingly gaudier, the detailed and harrowing production design of Prometheus is a welcome exception.  There are also some isolated moments of truly effective stomach-churning body horror, particularly the now infamous sequence where a self-surgery device cuts out a squid-like creature from Elizabeth’s uterus.  It is a gruesome, claustrophobic and terrifically suspenseful scene that capitalizes on my firm but admittedly unsubstantiated belief (perhaps one of our female readers can give better insight to this) that pregnancy is a far scarier physical state than most films would like to admit.  But even that highlight is botched when Elizabeth recovers so quickly from her alien pregnancy and subsequent impromptu abortion – and no other character even mentions it afterward – that I wondered if she dreamed the whole thing.  Actually, the film as a whole is very poorly paced.  Pietro Scalia, responsible for co-cutting one of the best-edited films I’ve ever seen, now acts as though he’s unaware of this thing called “dramatic beats.”  There is almost no attempt at slowly building tension or providing meaningful arcs; events just sort of happen in self-contained bursts, and the connecting threads to them are rushed through like that kid on the soccer team spending the whole game chasing after the ball.

Oh, and all that talk from Scott about how Prometheus is not a straight-up prequel to Alien, but shares “strands of Alien’s DNA?”  A bald-faced lie, and one that in many ways does more damage – if that’s even possible – to the franchise that should never have really been a “franchise.”  At least with the increasingly bad sequels (Aliens of course excepted) and spinoffs launched from his 1979 masterpiece a fan could argue that they just simply didn’t “get” Sir Scott’s vision.  With this film he has now joined George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as directors who engage in desperate fan service while losing touch with what got them those fans in the first place.  Alien just couldn’t be one of the finest examples of stripped-down, no-frills horror plotting this side of Jaws, oh no!  There’s a Grand, Deeper Meaning behind it all, nothing less than the origins of mankind, even if we fail to actually say anything interesting about it!  And stay tuned for the sequel that we set this up for with our tacked-on cliffhanger ending!

Bringing up the clinical, spare effectiveness of Alien in response to its bloated lump of an origin story is disheartening, but before any of you accuse me of being unfair by comparing the two, the movie practically begs for it, and even as a standalone feature Prometheus is a diffuse, crushing disappointment.