What’s the Big Idea? by Kyle Anderson
When is a prequel not a prequel? When it’s Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, of course. I don’t think a film has been this hyped and overhyped in quite a long time. While the marketing for the movie was quite interesting (specifically the faux TED-talk and the “Happy Birthday, David” promo), I did get the sense that maybe 20th Century Fox were worried that people weren’t going to see it. They went to great lengths to make sure the trailers and such conveyed that this was Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction and that it was a “prequel” to his 1979 masterpiece, Alien. This was Fox’s doing. In every interview I heard from people about Prometheus, the stars, writer, and director all made clear that this was a film that took place in the same universe as Alien but that it was its own film. I’ve heard a number of reviews from both critics and friends in the United Kingdom, where it opened last week, and their views went anywhere from absolute disappointment and anger to mild praise. Well, I won’t bury the lead anymore – I quite liked it. It’s by no means perfect, which I will discuss, but I found it really interesting, mostly-well acted, and gorgeously designed. If this means I have to turn in my geek card, so be it.
I think the main thing we need to realize is that Prometheus is a science fiction movie in the purest sense of the term, which is completely unlike Alien and Aliens, the two films which people rightfully claim as the best in the franchise. Alien, though taking place in outer space and containing some allusions to the dystopian, corporate world, was not sci-fi but Gothic horror. It’s a haunted house-style monster movie. There are a small group of people, cut off from help or civilization, forced to contend with a hideous creature picking them off one by one. That, friends, is a horror movie, and a very effective one. Aliens, James Cameron’s 1986 follow-up, was also not a science fiction movie; it was an action movie. A group of heavily-armed soldiers are completely outgunned and outmatched by an enemy they underestimated. Both films use the guise of science fiction to tell another kind of story.
Science fiction is about big ideas and people learning things about themselves and our place in the universe. In this way, Blade Runner IS a science fiction film. It’s about themes and concepts (and design and look) more than characters specifically. Prometheus shares a lot with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Erich von Däniken’s controversial 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods?, and even some of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulu Mythos,” specifically his 1936 novella, At the Mountains of Madness. These offer explanations for human development and advancement through involvement with extraterrestrial beings. This is essentially what happens in this film. Through archaeological discoveries, a scientific expedition believes they have found evidence of ancient, extraterrestrial “gods,” who were worshipped by primitive peoples on Earth. A very rich industrialist (played by Guy Pearce in super-old-age makeup) funds a space exploration to the planet believed to be the origin of these creatures. Once there, they find the millennia-old “engineers” for which they’re searching, as well as something far more malevolent they were engineering and couldn’t control. These “parent” aliens, it turns out, are of the same species as the “Space Jockey” which appeared as a corpse in the first film.
Spearheading this mission is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover/partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who believe they’re finding their makers. Also aboard are a team of scientists and a crew of pilots, helmsmen, and security personnel lead by Captain Janek (Idris Elba). And it wouldn’t be a movie in the Alien world without a company stooge with ulterior motives (Charlize Theron) and a sinister android (Michael Fassbender). I’ll say it right now, there are too many characters. I made a mental note early in the film that Scott had surrounded himself with some really excellent actors, however as the film progresses, they don’t all get things to do. This is the biggest downfall of the movie: the characters don’t have enough time to be characters. The most interesting and well defined is Fassbender’s David who is truly the best part of the film. As an artificial man, made by humans, he already knows his makers, yet they treat him like a machine. There’s a real Pinocchio quality to him and his, if not desire to be human, his desire to be accepted by humans. This directly mirrors the human’s desire to be accepted, even loved, by the things which created them.
The design of the movie is quite fantastic. Scott has such an attention to detail that you really get the sense that this fictional world exists and everything has a purpose. His use of color and lighting is remarkable and it does seem like future worlds are where he’s at his best. If there’s a problem with the direction, it’s that everything is shot in wide or medium shots and lack a lot of the mood of Alien, despite similar production design. Again, though, Scott isn’t making a horror movie with sci-fi elements, he’s making a sci-fi movie with horror elements and, in as much as he allows us to see what’s going on and see the world we’re inhabiting, he does a fine job.
Now, the script. I mentioned earlier that the biggest downfall is that there are too many characters and not enough for them to do. This is part and parcel to the script. Nothing is given a chance to breath and none of these big concepts that are introduced are explained very much. The original script, when it was going to be a direct prequel, was written by Jon Spaihts, but when it was taken in a different direction, the writing duties fell to LOST head writer and Star Trek scribe, Damon Lindelof. It’s easy to blame him for the problems in the story, but he’s a good writer and his years on LOST made him the perfect candidate to raise this big, human-defining questions. Characters talk a lot about the plot and not a lot about much else. But, what likely happened is there was a great deal more to the movie, both character stuff and plot stuff, that was cut for time. The film clocks in at 2hrs 4mins and I wouldn’t be surprised if the first cut didn’t clock in at 2.5 or 3 hours. And I would have been fine with that. Given that the studio seemed dead worried that people wouldn’t go see the movie unless it was as much like Alien as possible, they likely cut out important things to make it as streamline and action-y as possible. It truly feels like an incomplete film.
As always, it seems, the marketing has done Prometheus a disservice. Ridley Scott said in an interview that this film is two films removed from the beginning of Alien, and I think it was this knowledge that helped me temper my expectations. People expecting what was promised them by the advertising would quite rightly be disappointed but, as ever, I think you have to judge a film on what it is and not what you wanted it to be. I went in expecting to be let down and instead found myself generally riveted and engaged the whole time. There are parts that are fairly silly and the climax is overly quick and not particularly satisfying, but otherwise I thought it was a good science fiction mystery with a fantastic central performance by Michael Fassbender. Overall, as a cinema experience, I’d say 7.5 out of 10. What I’m really looking forward to is Ridley Scott’s inevitable director’s cut to be released on Blu-ray in a year’s time or so. In that, I think, we’ll truly find the great movie in the middle of this pretty-good movie.