Oh what an opportunity, lost!
Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
I feel like this review needs rows of mourners wailing and rending their clothes. Prometheus is a tragedy in the classical sense but the real tragedy is what didn't happen on the screen.
Ok, broad strokes? Great visuals, some gory scenes of stupid people/things dying, an even messier plot. There are several Ridley Scott's. This is not the Ridley Scott of "Alien", "Blade Runner" or "Gladiator". This is the Ridley Scott of "G.I Jane" and "1492: Conquest of Paradise".
Good stuff first, because Ridley Scott does do some things very well, even in his lesser efforts.
1. Visuals were incredible. Scott and his Cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, create some dazzling images, with photography and digital effects. The ship itself, the Prometheus, looked cool. Cool counts.
2. Key casting and direction of the lead actors was good. Michael Fassbender should be getting some serious awards for his work as David. Likewise, Charlize Theron, who I rarely think of as a great actress, was magnetic and almost overshadowed the nominal lead, Noomi Rapace. (who is nearly out-acted by her abs)
3. Creature design, though the most striking still owes a debt to H.R. Geiger (and H.P. Lovecraft), there was some very interesting work done with the 'snake' and the Titan Neanderthals (Prometheans?).
The bad. I'll try not to get too rant-y but there will be some spoilers. And I'll start with the important stuff, in case folks get bored :)
1. Characters that don't act like people:
I've seen people in horror movies, who exist only to be killed for the audience's entertainment, act with more personality and sense. It is stunning to think this director made Gladiator. Let's start:
The world's worst biologist who encounters an alien species and then tries to make out with it. Or something. This is the same yib-yob who ran the opposite direction from vague reports of 'lifeforms' found on the map.
The "geologist" with mapping drones connected to his suit's computers who gets lost. This is the same guy who looks like he walked out of a Russian prision and treats everyone like crap. Who hires someone like that for a legendary space expedition.
The captain's 'flirtation' with Meredith Vickers. No set up, no chemistry. He just asks if she's a robot and she agrees to have sex with him. Got to remember that line, apparently it's like gold. This one dings both characters.
The entire crew who, having landed on an alien world AND after one of the members is mysteriously infected by something, takes off their spacesuit helmets. Heck, just taking the helmets off the first time. They were on planet, what, an hour? No chemical or biological studies. They just hear the air is breathable and...off come the helmets. Star Wars had more scientific rigor.
Taunting the android. Why? Comes out of nowhere. Trying to show the Charlie Holloway is a jerk?
The nearly-unnamed guy responsible for team security who, when Noomi Niceabs says she's not going to allow guns (or flamethrowers which, you know, all spaceships carry in the future) for the protection of the group as they explore an utterly unknown planet. Dings to him for allowing her to overrule him, dings to her for being a hoplophobe idiot.
The captain who never asserts authority. Or even tries to. Or do anything except occasionally look out windows or computer monitors and make jokes like a Middie.
Noomi Niceabs. Oh where to begin. The 'out of nowhere' comments on her infertility, her actions for the entire last act of the movie, her lack of anger/suspicion towards David. She felt like she was in a bubble the entire time, never that she was in control of anything or had clear-cut duties. Which is true of many of the characters but since she's the lead, it really stands out when she does dumb thing and fails to call others on their dumb actions.
I could go on but I'll stop and just say, again, these characters -with the solitary exceptions of David and Meredith Vickers- do not act realistically.
2. Goals and Motivations are not clear:
One of the klunkiest line of the movie (and that's saying something in a film with more bad dialog than "Manos: Hands of Fate") is Charlie Holloway's line about 'agendas you aren't telling us'. But no one seems to have an agenda except Wayland and Noomi Niceabs and their only motivation is 'I want to ask the aliens why were born'. That's not a motivation, that's a college freshman's dorm musing.
Why did David keep poking into things he shouldn't have? Was that his character trait? (I'll buy that) Or was he under orders? Why infect Charlie Holloway? What was that supposed to accomplish? Why not follow the experiment through?
Why is Charlie Holloway here? Just to hang with his girlfriend?
We never get a clear idea of who is doing what and why. Contrast that with EVERY other Alien movie, even Alien: Resurrection, every motivation there is clear to the audience. Bad, bad, sloppy writing.
3. Deus Ex Monster:
I'll get past the alien squid-thing growing to the size of a small Honda, it makes no sense but the first Alien (1979) did much the same. So be it. But having the giant squid monster be the means of killing off the Promethean is just sloppy. He appears, she runs for the alien containment/medical room, opens the door. It grabs the Prometean and makes sweet, sweet mouth love to it. Both aliens drop. The end. She doesn't defeat it, like Ripley did, over and over. She just acted like a shadchan to get those two crazy kids together. Insufficient and stupid plot resolution.
4. Death by rolling space donut
Lots of problems here with the spaceship that gets rammed, falls to the ground and begins rolling.
First, the two women on the ground start running the DIRECTION THE DONUT IS ROLLING. Not perpendicular to it's falling direction. Rabbits have more sense.
Second, when Noomi Niceabs falls to the ground like every sterotypical woman running from a monster, all she has to do to avoid the hundred-foot-high rolling spaceship is to just roll to the side two or three times. Maybe going three yards, at most, out of her way from where she fell.
Finally and most dammingly, why kill off Meredith Vickers this way? For laughs? Because all I heard was laughs and groans when the space donut rolls over her. Why spare her from the ramming of the Prometheus - death that could have at least given her some dignity and heroism - only to crush her stupidly under the rolling space donut. Is she a symbol of the corporation and thus to be hated? Are we supposed to cheer when she dies?
5. Fuzzy science/cosmology/theology
I am not a hard sci-fi guy. For me, story comes first, how do people use the tech, not how does the tech work. So I won't go into questions about how does the Prometheus travel faster than light (since I'm assuming the planet is further than 2 light years away)? Or how does such a ship land on a planet. No, I want to go into the story explanations that don't make sense.
That said, why wasn't there a real survey of the planet for biological dangers? Hell, mosquitoes via malaria, kill millions of humans and that's on our planet. At the end of the movie, what is Noomi Niceabs going to eat and drink as she goes her merry away across the stars? What is this, MST3K?
Why is the Prometheus so huge and luxurious? The Nostromo felt like a real spaceship, comparatively small area for the crew. Easier to heat/cool and provide air for. Here, we have basketball courts, grand piano, a garage the size of a parking lot.
Are we supposed to believe that the Prometheans seeded Earth with their DNA? Wouldn't sex work easier? I mean, how can we be a perfect DNA match for these giants if they just dissolved one guy down to his DNA in a waterfall? Wouldn't there be radical changes in DNA structure? And, if they did seed Earth with life, how is it possible we still have the same DNA profile, are they saying that evolution and mutation doesn't happen? I mean, Von Daiken's theories are more believable than that. We, as an audience, are never told what we are supposed to believe.
Or what the characters believe. Which comes into next area: the aliens themselves. Why create us, if they did? Why decide we should be destroyed, if that's what they decided? Why do you need to ask a random member of this alien race the meaning of life? I mean, if you were a sub-species of humans and grabbed the equivalent, a pilot on a plane or ship and asked him why we supposedly created them, what would they say? What would they do? I don't know but I doubt they'd rip someone's head off and then kill everyone else around them. See, we never hear the answers to any of these questions. Frankly, I don't think its proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they even created us. I mean, they dress up like elephants. Maybe there's another species that created both of us? Why is this the easiest or most likely explanation? Same with the 'revelation' that they were headed to Earth to kill us. I didn't see any proof of that, any more than a map of the U.S. in Jeffrey Dahmer's glovebox meant he was going to New Mexico to kill everyone there. A map is just a map, man. This is just one nit pick, but I hope you see my point: none of this movie was well-thought-out.
Finally, the theology. I'm not going to get into this too much but what kind of Christianity does Noomi Niceabs believe? And what kind would look FORWARD to the revelation that giant white guys created us instead of a loving God? Is she Unitarian? Does she even believe in God? Or is the cross just a memento from her father, who had equally fuzzy theology? That's what it feels like? I mean, if you're making a movie about the origins of life, why isn't there a frelling conversation at least taking place of divine creation vs evolution vs giant white elephant cosplayers?
6. No resolutions of the questions raised
I touched on this before but let me list a series of questions the plot explicitly raises but aren't answered:
a. Did the Prometheans create us?
b. Is the space goo a weapon?
c. What is David up to? (this one in particular needs a lot of sub-questions)
d. What's the deal between Meredith Vickers and Weyland? I mean, why bring up parent/daughter/son issues if you're not going to do anything with it?
e. Why were the Prometheans rushing to go into the room full of the ooze? That place was a dead-end and they already seemed to be suited up and infected
f. Why did that Promethean's head explode?
g. What was Charlie Holloway turning into?
h. What DID the snake thing do to....who was it? The geologist wackjob? What was he turning into? What made him psychotic?
i. Why was there a mural very clearly showing an Alien queen in the goo room?
j. Why were those ships/aliens abandoned on that world?
k. WAS David able to communicate to the last Promethean?
l. Did that first Promethean know what was going to happen to him when he drank that goo in the beginning? Because he looked surprised...
m. How the hell does a person get their stomach opened and stapled shut and then run around like a maniac without the wound reopening/getting infected or her dying later as she flies off on space donut #2
I could go on and on. Very, very few questions are resolved in this movie and most of them are along the line of: Will a space donut squish a hot blonde? Can a Promethan beat a giant squid baby in hand to hand combat? Can you go run around like a triathelte moments after emergency surgery with your stomach held shut by staples? Actually...I sort of wish they hadn't asked that last question at all.
7. Undercutting wonder/mythology
The first Alien movie did a whole lot of things well. One of the big ones, was finding the first flying donut, the space jockey corpse, the eggs. It gave you the immediate feeling of 'we are not alone in the universe' and at first, it was legitimately exciting for the Nostromo crew who discovered it. The Space Jockey himself was wonderful: Huge, like a calcified elephant man. The revelation that these were just spacesuits was...very much a let down. First of all, who dresses up like elephants? I hate to keep harping on this but it's really silly and odd. I can't figure out what the purpose of the elephant costumes are except to raise our expectations that there are non-human, intelligent races and then to dash them when we find out that they're huge, white guys. Genetically human.
Next you have this huge discovery by David, the map, one of the alloyed moments of wonder in the movie. That gets turned into a genocide machine. It was like finding a magic wand only to discover it used to belong to Stalin. And he used it on the Cossacks.
Even the aliens aren't Aliens. First its just goo. Then they were snake vagina things with an oral fixation. Then huge white guys. Then a squid baby which turns into a Star Spawn of Cthulhu. Finally, at the end, long after everyone else has left the crashed pod, we see a....not quite Alien alien. Which does nothing but yawn, like most of the audience has.
8. The Future is...just like now. Only dumber.
Ok, this is just a failure of imagination. When we first see Noomi Niceabs and her whiny jerk boyfriend Charlie, they could have literally walked out of the REI store in Seattle. It's supposed to be 80 years in the future but we don't even see anyone using their equivalent of the Ipod. Blade Runner looked more futuristic. Next, you have these cool hovering mapping drones that fly by....I don't know, magic? Anti-gravity? They don't have rotors or engines. So why does they cargo hold have vehicles that wouldn't be out of place today. Basically two ATVs an a custom RV.
Contrary-wise, the only guns we see look like Glocks but make a little flashy-thiny. Why not keep using modern firearms? Unlike transport, communication and electronics, those haven't changed radically in the past century.
On an alien planet, why aren't drones sent in to map and explore the place first? Hell, we do that in Afghanistan, now. And the supply lines of the Prometheus is a hell of a lot longer than just going up through Pakistan. Why isn't the android? Why aren't a LOT of androids going? This actually comes up in the, much better-written, Alien comic books Dark Horse put out decades ago. David doesn't quite seem unique, at least if we believe the fluff and promos that came out prior to the movie premier.
Again, I could go on but it looks like they made much of this movie on the cheap. If it's the future, let it be futuristic. Minority Report, A.I., hell, even the Fifth Element at least looked like they took place in the future. This, not so much. It's just in space, sorta. Kinda. Not really. If you're making Sci-fi, embrace that.
9. Bad special/makeup effects
Most of the visual effects were great. But not all. Sometimes the Promethians looked real, other times, they stood out like huge, white, sore thumbs.
CGI monster fights CGI monster. Who cares? King Kong made us care because the beast had personality. None of these aliens do. Hell, most of the humans don't either.
Which brings me to Guy Pearce, an actor I usually enjoy watching. He's a very good actor. But he's forced to act here under old age makeup that a costume shop might sell. Well, maybe not quite that bad but it looks like a bad mask most of the time. He does what he can with what he had but his performance was wasted under that crappy makeup. Making him old without being a prune with a bad pedicure would have worked. Give the guy an incurable disease, worked for Steve Jobs...
10. Missed opportunities
Ah, last but oh so not least. If you're still here, still reading then you must have felt the same pangs I did. 'What might have been?' Ridley Scott shot a movie with enough shots to create one of the best damn trailers I've ever seen. Seriously, it still gives me chills and I know just how crappy the actual movie is.
First, always, start with the story. Don't hire a guy who couldn't close the deal with audiences (Damon Lindelof, who helped ruin Cowboys and Aliens AND Lost, so far as I can tell.). Have a single theme, stick to it; have a plot, stick to it; create a few characters we care about; keep the plot twists to a minimum. This is some of the worst writing, worst dialog I've ever seen in a movie. And I have watched a ton of movies in my 42 years.
The hands-down best part of the movie was David. What he wanted. What his quest was. This could have been a magnificent artificial life vs alien life digression. The movie pretty much starts and sorta ends with him. It should have focused on him, let him be our POV. The alien already on board ship. Wasted opportunity.
Charlize Theron plays the ice bitch to perfect. She acted as robotically as David. What if she HAD been? A daughter and son, both artifical, both competing for their father's love or to realize his vision in their own way? Because lets face it, the first androids will look like Charlize Theron. Or ED-209. But probably a hot chick is what we're going to make human-realistic, especially if the Japanese keep leading the way.
The Space Jockey. I touched on this a bit but there was a huge plot theme that could have been built about creating life and it getting the better of you. Destroying you. (See David, above) Nope. It got mixed in with some weird wishy-washy Ancient Astronaut human origin crap.
The Alien. If Scott had really embraced the 'Alien Prequel' plot, again, I think he could have hit it out of the park. I understand he doesn't want to chew the same bubblegum twice. But in that case, why make this movie at all? Why connect it to Alien via the Space Jockey and the Geiger mural and crappy Alien queen rising from the Promethean's body? Do it or don't do it. This half-assed way of doing things just pisses people off.
Guy Pearce is a great actor. Use him in the movie or don't. The bad make up and bare cameo is a waste. Have him be on the ship, Ahab-like or Carl Dehmam from King Kong. Or have him appear in hologram (without the old makeup) if you want him to be dead.
The Prometheus legend. The price, the sacrifice, the benefit to mankind. Nothing done with this. I could weep.
Relationships. Every character in this movie was short-changed by the script, even David. We don't see enough of these people together. Alien did this well. Aliens did it to perfection. There are so many interactions that got no screen time. Even Noomi Niceabs barely had any screen time with Charlie. The reason the Captain hooking up with Meredith Vickers didn't work is we didn't see any come ons or flirting or attraction prior. Seriously, I've seen porn with more plot that their relationship. Speaking of...
Charlize Theron, naked. I mean...you wrote a sex plot in with her. Give the people what they want. Why is on-screen sex so much worse than a on-screen c-section?
Speaking of that, a great chance for pregnacy horror here got wasted by fast-forwarding that plot line. What a waste. It could have built and built and built until we were ready to explode, not just her belly. Raises the horror but then doesn't handle it as well as it should have been.
Well, that's enough. Again, this could have been great. Instead it was just...pretty bad with some good visuals and some good acting.