During interviews leading up to the release of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof did their best to downplay any branding of their new film as a “prequel” to Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic, Alien. Their explanation as to why it wasn’t certainly came across reasonably enough―talking points included a desire for the film to stand on its own merits as well as serve as a springboard for a potential new franchise separate from the increasingly silly Alien films. It’s too bad they missed the most compelling reason to distance the two: one had a great script. Despite consistently astounding production values, Prometheus is hobbled throughout by a screenplay that would have been jettisoned out of the airlock normally reserved for scripts rejected by the SyFy Original Channel. (And seriously, does SyFy reject anything?)
In many ways, Prometheus is that knockout, gorgeous girl in school who, deep down, wants to be appreciated for her smarts, but―God help her―is simply not very bright. She’ll do fine enough in the box office of life, thankyouverymuch, but every time she tries to pretend she’s something she’s not―dropping some pseudo-scientific nugget in a conversation, say―it accomplishes little more than sharply reminding her audience of the gap between what she’s trying to be and what she is. Much in the same way, Prometheus is, visually, a knockout. And it wants us to understand it has so much more on its mind than it’s capable of getting across. But then it opens its mouth.
The story begins with archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering an intriguing prehistoric cave painting depicting a giant man pointing to what’s assumed to be a cluster of stars by Shaw (who willfully undermines the Scientific Method seemingly every chance she gets, with her constant, nebulous protestations of having faith). “Of course!” exclaim the characters. “Are you serious?!” exclaim the audience. From there, we’re off on a trillion-dollar trek to the stars, funded by the mysterious and shady Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in full geriatric-face) of the Alien-universe’s sinister Weyland Corporation. The eponymous Prometheus space vessel is complimented by a bathos-mining crew of ship’s android (Michael Fassbender), Weyland corporate suit (Charlize Theron), ship’s captain (a sadly underutilized Idris Elba) and a dearth of security forces. That Weyland would rest the fate of a trillion-dollar mission to an unknown planet on seventeen crew members (most of whom show no signs of having met, let alone trained together) and virtually no security forces reveals the real “Big Question” of the Alien universe―how the hell did his business succeed in the first place?
But oh, it’s pretty. The film continuously presents the audience with obvious parallels to Lawrence of Arabia, a film watched by the android David (Fassbender) in his attempts to gain insight into the folly of humanity’s collective potential/hubris. Instead, these moments mainly serve as a reminder that Ridley Scott, a filmmaker with the soul of a classicist painter, has David Lean-esque faculty when working under the guidance of a solid script. The first act, in particular, showcases Scott’s mastery of the use of negative space in his compositions. It’s the film’s middle―and especially last acts―that remind us that for every The Duellists, Blade Runner and even Black Hawk Down on Scott’s résumé, there is a Legend, G.I. Jane and Hannibal.
As the plot of Prometheus relies on increasingly improbable decisions and behaviors from its characters―presenting one staggeringly stupid, sub-Friday the 13th horror movie victim after another as it does so―it becomes clear Scott’s latest effort belongs in a less hallowed region of his oeuvre than the film from which it so glibly professes distance. (Frankly, it seems a little disingenuous for the filmmakers to emptily crib beats from Alien, occupy its home and then claim otherwise.)
As for wanting the movie to stand on its own, apart from Alien? Mission accomplished. Scott and the screenwriters played the part of their own character, Elizabeth Shaw, as they threw a deeply flawed script into an otherwise polished production, confident that blind belief, and not competence, would bear fruit. They would have been better off channeling their inner Ellen Ripley and pulling the release to the airlock before this voyage departed.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Stars: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce
Release Date: June 8, 2012