I dearly wanted to love Prometheus. No other film this year had me as rabid with excitement; I sat drumming the armrests in the vast IMAX theatre on opening night, head buried by my bulky 3D glass, eyes fixed on the eight-storey screen, maltesers at the ready. As the lights dimmed, I turned to my friends with a cocky grin; “This is going to be amazing.”
Two hours later, as the house lights burst on, there was no fight left in me for bold proclamations. The cinema had become a hot-bed of frustrated whispers. For a few minutes I fought it. I tried to think happy thoughts – the production design, a well-executed scene here or there, Michael Fassbender (thank you, Michael Fassbender) But it was no use. The wave of disappointment had me, and it was going to be a while before I washed up, spluttering, on the shore.
Yes, there be spoilers ahead.
I appreciated that Prometheus separated itself from the Alien series – few direct links, little cribbing from the earlier, superior films. If only other prequels had that restraint. Ridley Scott genuinely had a new story to tell. I only wish he had given it a once-over before rolling the cameras. Stripped of franchises, expectations, sequels and prequels, what is left?
Sadly, a fundamentally inept piece of storytelling.
The opening half hour is promising. The film never again reaches the heights of the early two minute sequence where android David navigates the research vessel alone, watching Lawrence of Arabia on loop and dying his hair to evoke Peter O’Toole. After the ship touches down, once we’ve taken our fill of the gorgeous design and visuals, Prometheus devolves rapidly.
It is one of the worst cases of “and then” storytelling I have ever seen. Most often, (let’s give David Lynch an exemption) a good story will employ cause and effect – one action leads to another, escalating until the climax. In Prometheus, things just happen. One character is infected and set on fire. And then a zombie attacks the crew. And then Idris Elba is an expert lecturer on bio-weapons facilities. And then Noomi Rapace needs a squid abortion. And then Guy Pearce appears in old man makeup. No build, just disjointed incidents. The squid abortion, at least, is a good, tense scene, but it has no relationship to the film around it. No other character asks about the alien squid monster roaming the ship, and Shaw sure doesn’t behave as though she’s had major surgery. Did a rock thrown by an irrate Lost fan hit Damon Lindelof so hard on the head he forgot his Screenwriting 101 classes? Or is most of the film sitting in the trash can in an overworked editor’s lab?
However, the problems with the film don’t just come down to plot holes and poor characterisation. It’s easier to forgive a film for storytelling flaws when it has something to say. But here is where Prometheus fumbles more disastrously. The film seems to mistake characters asking one another profound questions for actually exploring these profound questions. The film’s ideas never go beyond the scope of a stoned teenager’s first brush with philosophy. ‘Aliens created mankind’ isn’t exactly a new thought. But it appears the Ridley Scott and his team put down their pens and patted themselves on the shoulder at “we discover an alien race that can create life with black goo”, confident they’d created on hell of a mind-fuck.
Here, I think, the film’s own premise is actively working against it.
The log-line for Prometheus is ‘scientists search for the origins of life on earth’. This is the overriding goal for our protagonists. As they discover these origins almost immediately, the question for the characters shifts (or is stripped back) to “why?” It’s that age-old question – “what is the meaning of life?”
Now, there’s no problem with art exploring the meaning of life. You could probably argue that most art does, in one way or another. But it’s one thing to explore these ideas – it’s another to make “discover the meaning of life” the driving force for your characters. How the hell do you satisfy that character journey?
It would make sense, of course, if the character journeys changed. For instance, from ‘find the meaning of life’ to ‘get the hell of out here!’ But they really don’t. The film’s climax is brought about because Weyland (old man Guy Pearce – and look, I love Guy Pearce, but why not hire a real old man?) wants to quiz the last surviving Engineer, and everyone else goes along with it. And instead of intelligent discussion, this ‘superior being’ goes homicidal.
Prometheus tries to have it both ways. It explicitly asks big questions, but it gives us, and the characters, no answers. Shaw and David fly into space at the film’s conclusion with the question still on their lips. It’s reasonable for a film not to want to answer that question (it’s a rather enormous one), but, by leaving it so open, it means our characters’ journeys are incomplete. If the film had given the characters an answer to its questions within the story – “why are we here?” “why did they create us?” “why do they want to destroy us?” – it would give them somewhere to go, something to respond to. Instead, the characters are deflated and disappointed, and their reaction is naturally mirrored by the audience. It is an empty gesture, as token as the crucifix necklace that Shaw toys with.
A story has no obligation to answer all the questions it raises (the best often don’t) but if you’re not going to satisfy them, don’t make these questions the pillar of your characters!
For a counter-example, see Ridley Scott’s own Blade Runner. Another story packed with big ideas on life and what makes us human. Yet the characters don’t spend the film asking “what makes us human?”, and the film gives us no definitive answer (why would it?). And yet it is still a dramatically satisfying film, because the character journeys that these ideas are explored through come to an rewarding end. Roy Batty’s quest for more life ends with resignation at his mortality. Deckard accepts love and happiness with Rachel as genuine, despite its artificial foundations.
Theme arises from the action. I feel that by making the themes drive the action, Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof set a bar too high for themselves to clear.
Prometheus exists because the filmmakers had ideas they genuinely wanted to explore, but they’ve failed to craft a story to service those ideas. It’s a sad reminder that, even with the best cast and crew in the business, a film is no better than its story.