Prometheus And The Pain of Fandom
I’ve let my feelings about Prometheus settle for a week and in many ways I’m no closer to an actual consensus on whether it is good or not. There are a myriad of dilemmas I face. For one, I hold the legacy of the Alien franchise very near and dear. Then add Ridley Scott to the equation who not only directed the very first Alien, but the equally substantial Blade Runner. Basically I’m a total fan boy and while I can say this experience has not pained me as deeply as say Attack of The Clones, I can’t help but feel some remorse. Although there is still hope.
The very first thing I did after watching Prometheus was watch Alien. It can’t be emphasized enough how much impact the 1979 movie starring Sigourney Weaver had. When you think about it, Alien was just two years removed from the release of Star Wars and although Star Wars is the bigger franchise, I think it is a credible argument that Alien left the larger legacy artistically and creatively. No one ever tried to recreate Star Wars stylistically. Although the notion of epic, trilogic, blockbusting machines certainly permeated Hollywood marketing practices since.
Alien actually accomplished a couple things that are very important. It redefined science fiction, space, and horror movies simultaneously and accomplished this in the wake of Star Wars, which also redefined genres while becoming box-office gold. But Alien went in the complete opposite direction. It is an utterly horrifying experience and for people who were very young when they first viewed it like me, well lets just say we don’t take indigestion lightly. Flying on the Millennium Falcon is every kid’s dream. Flying on the Nostromo is every kid’s nightmare. All these years later I can’t tell what is more terrifying, the actual movie, or the mind of H.R. Giger. But beyond the imagery, there is a story of survival and perseverance delivered with such urgency that it has become the benchmark for every action film since. Few can keep up with that amount of tension.
Prometheus has been billed as an Alien prequel although Ridley Scott has been adamant that it really isn’t. I really feel that Prometheus is very true to the spirit of the original Alien. I could boil both down to this formula:
Mysterious Circumstances – Investigation – Confusion – Betrayal – Run
There is a critical reason this formula works for Alien and not Prometheus. Let’s examine Alien first.
In Alien there are many unexplained circumstances. For one, we don’t really know why the Nostromo picked up the distress signal that caused the ruckus. It is heavily implied they were deliberately sent there. But we don’t know why. The “Space Jockey” is the most obvious unknown. We know he is an extraterrestrial who got chest-busted and he may have been transporting xenomorph eggs. We also don’t know Ash’s motivations for betraying the crew. Did he just really admire the creature or was he under orders? Then there is the fact we know next to nothing about the actual creature beyond its acid blood and birthing practice. All of this lack of information might give the impression that this is just hack story-telling. In actuality the viewer knows nothing beyond what the crew of the Nostromo knows at a given moment. It’s very immersive, because their confusion and fear plays out in front of you and makes the experience all the more terrifying. At a certain point in the film, it doesn’t matter where it came from or how you got there. You need to get off that ship now.
Counterintuitive to the nature of most films, Alien is a very effective and visceral experience for its lack of depth. The brutal nature of the experiences the crew of the Nostromo face becomes the focus of the movie. There really isn’t anything more simplistic than survival. Astoundingly in three subsequent movies all of these mysteries are at least dabbled in save one: the Space Jockey. How fitting that it be Ridley Scott who takes us back to it. It has been impossible to keep expectations low. I’ve tried to avoid the endless blitz of commercials. The original trailer was maybe the best I’d ever seen, leaving me thoroughly pumped. It incorporated Alien-style quick cuts with the emerging font, that siren sound, and a plethora of what-is-going-on moments.
Then I saw the movie. Visually, it’s stunning. The design is spot on. The story is intriguing. There are great performances by Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender. It follows the Alien formula after all so there is mystery and fleeing. I understand Ridley Scott’s need to make a separate entity, but it was too drastic for its own good. It really needed an anchor. It was more than a rumor that this movie was reworked. The original script by Jon Spaihts was a truer prequel and Damon Lindeloff of Lost fame was brought in to rework and expand it. Also Prometheus would be at least a two movie endeavor. Good thing too because we know nothing after watching the first. My initial reaction after the credits rolled was something to the effect of: well I guess they’ll tell us in the second movie. That is particularly frustrating.
Revealing the answer to a mystery with another mystery is extremely lame and incompatible with the idea of a prequel. Prometheus is a rock solid, slam dunk science fiction concept: What happens when you go looking for God in space? It’s absolutely brilliant frankly and shares many elements with 2001: A Space Odyssey in that regard. Instead of Hal we have David and instead of evolving towards peace we find chaos. We have the iconic space jockey ship from the first Alien but we’re on a different moon. That should have been enough distance for Ridley Scott. But it wasn’t. When asked if the xenomorph would make an appearance in Prometheus Ridley Scott replied:
“No. Absolutely not. They squeezed it dry. He (the xenomorph) did very well. (He laughs) He survived, he’s now in Disneyland in Orlando, and no way am I going back there.”
While I wouldn’t expect Ridley to go back to Disneyland or World, I fail to see what is wrong with embracing his own legacy. The bevy of new creatures, including what appears to be some proto-variant of a xenomorph along with what can only be described as a body-hugger in the form of a giant calamari, clearly shared similarities to traditional Alien creatures. Now adaptation is nothing new in the franchise. James Cameron added more bone structure in the head to indicate age, and Alien Resurrection introduced hybrid alien/humans. But the manner in which Prometheus reveals these new creatures is kind of maddening. I couldn’t tell if they were a life form native to the moon that mutated when it came into contact with a biological agent or if they were an unintended consequence born from the agent itself. Then Prometheus seemed to bite heavily from Alien Resurrection when Noomi’s character gives birth or rather aborts a new species.
I might have accepted all of this confusion knowing a second movie was coming, but there was another more critical flaw. One thing I consider a trademark of the Alien franchise is the terrific use of ensemble casts. Whether it’s Yaphet Cotto and Harry Dean Stanton griping over pay or Hicks telling Hudson to shut up, each movie had its own flavor that made the quest to survive that much more triumphant when they lived and tragic when they died. I pretty much wanted everyone to die in this movie. In particular I’m thinking of archeologist Charlie Holloway. He is the worst scientist ever. When his quest to find the creator of humanity hits a snag, he goes on a drinking binge and proclaims the mission a failure. He does this despite the fact he’s in space, may have found God’s house, and it’s only been five minutes. Plus there are about eight ships they haven’t even touched yet. Seriously dude get a grip, you’re in space. Also don’t accept a drink form a cyborg that utterly seethes humanity’s existence. I understand that his lack of faith was supposed to juxtapose the faith of Noomi Rapace’s character but it was the shallowest attempt to make Atheists look like doo-doo I’ve ever seen.
The concepts are very high in Prometheus and warrant real, meaningful examination. It just comes across as rushed and lacking in depth. In Alien the concepts didn’t require explanation because they were simplistic. In Prometheus for example, Captain, Janek reveals that the alien ship is some kind of biological weapons depot. He can’t really know that. It’s the same experience as the first Alien movie. At that blistering of a pace with not an ounce of scientific study completed on the material who could know? But this tidbit of dialogue fits Ridley’s vision of the original ship on LV-426 in Alien:
“I always figured it’s a weapon, and I always figured that [the ship in the first Alien] was a carrier of weapons.”
Again, that is a great concept but it’s speculation. We don’t know the Engineers’ motives. We just have a hypothesis made in a moment of panic. At the end of Prometheus, Noomi Rapace is the lone survivor and she sets off to find the answers, reserved for a second movie.
Despite my gripes that Prometheus struggles from lack of character development, too harsh of a disassociation from the franchise, and not enough reveals, it’s still an enjoyable movie. It just wasn’t the legend in the making I thought it would be despite my best efforts to repress such thoughts. Even if a second movie arrives I doubt that it would really even answer many of the questions I have and if it did, I’m not sure how I would feel about Prometheus. I just won’t know until the pre-sequel arrives. Honestly, I think if there was just one more easter egg or a distinguishable link to the other films it would have been more engaging.
As a final test to see if Prometheus was as bad as I thought or a gem in the making I watched what is usually considered the weakest movie of the franchise: Alien Resurrection. Great pain fell upon me as I realized I liked it more than Prometheus. It has Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder, and Sigourney Weaver and that made a big difference. Watching the special features I realized that the shooting of the underwater scene alone bonded the cast for life because it was an insane ordeal to make. I’m not saying you have to nearly drown your cast to generate great chemistry amongst actors but it helped this movie. Because without their interactions, I doubt the movie would be watchable. I realized the only problem I had with Alien Resurrection was the same one I always had. I don’t like the hybrid alien. The design isn’t up to the quality of H.R. Giger’s work. Everything else is pretty solid. All of my questions were answered in that movie. Prometheus just leaves me wondering what could have been and what will be.