The explorer ship Prometheus ventures into deep space looking for a resolution that transcends logic and defies rational expectation. Only a few on board have an articulable notion of what they might find. Others have only a vague inkling. The majority are tagging along out of curiosity, potential commercial reward, or for kicks. There are clues that their mission may yield results, but with such ambitious, unfocused aims, no one can be sure.
Are we not finding ourselves on a similar voyage when journeying to our local theatre to behold Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise he so boldly began with such remarkable visionary prowess thirty-three years ago?
There have been many movies in recent years that faced impossible odds because of what they represented as opposed to what they actually were. Star Trek, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Watchmen come to mind. There, filmmakers were trying to top, compete with, or bolster their own accomplishments while at the same time servicing a fan-base whose intensity and devotion to the source material could not tolerate even the most minor misstep.
These projects inherently arrived with baggage, whether that was fair or not, because there was something beyond the success or failure of the individual film at stake.
Even though the studio and Mr. Scott never dubbed Prometheus an Alien prequel (which it was tantalizingly rumored to be in the months leading up to its release), perhaps to avoid the pressures alluded to above, it is undoubtedly part and parcel of that universe; certainly more canon-worthy than a trivial, however dynamic, gimmick like Alien vs. Predator. Although the film is Ellen Ripley free (the one character, born three years after the events of Prometheus, that tied all Alien films together), we do learn much about the rabid, ravenous creatures that would so significantly define her.
Watching Prometheus and then thinking about its predecessors in the Alien quadrilogy (a clumsy term I believe invented for 1997’s Alien: Resurrection), one cannot but recognize the story’s elemental limitations. Alien was undeniably excellent, but besides the artistic merit that Mr. Scott infused into his work, much credit can be given to the introduction of the concept alone. A horror film on a spaceship with a female heroine and one ingenious bitch of a monster. There is nothing quite like seeing John Hurt’s Kane give involuntary birth for the first time. James Cameron’s Aliens seven years later (perhaps the first sequel to just pluralize the original title – simple and genius and the source of much confusion to the uninitiated masses) wisely realized the potential to formulate the pieces into a rugged sci-fi action thriller. Much like he did with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor between Terminator and T2, Ripley was converted from victim with survival instincts into a tough as nails, ass-kicking, name-taking warrior (and Sigourney Weaver achieved icon status in the process). David Fincher’s Alien 3 in 1992 (and what a prolific trio of directors placing their stamp on a series!) was more or less an atmospheric experiment with the upside of wringing a few more dollars out of a venerable commodity, but it also double knotted the loose ends left by Aliens. It seemed to bring a sense of finality and closure to the trilogy. Then Alien: Resurrection stumbled onto the scene with a Ripley clone and a cyborg Winona Ryder proving that Hollywood is never satisfied to test the market’s appetite for more of a brand name at the expense of devastating a legacy. The film was less a resurrection than the disturbing of a corpse resting in peace.
Much like the Star Wars franchise which looked irredeemable after George Lucas sabotaged his own reputation by directing The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, the last film, Revenge of the Sith, was compelling enough to at least bring the saga part of the way back.
So now, intentionally or otherwise (and evidence points both ways), Captain Ridley Scott navigates the ship to turn it around. And to do so he decided that quality alone would not cut it. Prometheus is consumed by its quantitative values. Not in terms of running time (though it clocks in over two hours), but quantity of depth, of layers, of meaning.
Prometheus, in the guise of an action film about as profound as Cameron’s version (i.e. superficial), contemplates the origins of man and the cosmology of the universe. The silly and the sublime are pressure-cooked together to perhaps elevate the one and make palatable the other.
The ship Prometheus is funded by an ancient dying man (Guy Pearce in rather awful makeup) with an unclear agenda. He has sent an android (Michael Fassbender) and a cold woman who might as well be one (Charlize Theron) to execute his purposes. Along for the ride is a pair of idealistic lovebird archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) and a band of interchangeable alien Snausages. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose. A search for underlying esoteric truths results in a primitive bloodbath. Whether that is in itself an intentional message or lesson can be argued, but cross-promotions for the film with the NBA playoffs and Coors beer suggest that we need not speculate long. Without getting into detail, because, although Prometheus is flawed, it should not be spoiled, the film is lacking on all fronts save cinematography, costumes, and performance. Our characters' motivations are hazy, the plot is lazy, and the mythology does not compute. We leave the theatre thinking – an achievement – but our minds wander to a region that quickly undermines the film’s narrative integrity.
The movie is about unanswered (and maybe unanswerable) questions, and that is fine; questions are good, but in a story conceived by man, the audience needs to trust that the answers are out there, not simply manufactured thoughtlessly and posed. In life, we may not receive answers to the great imponderables, but we trust that a higher power is capable of revelation. In a movie, we must trust that the writers are equally capable. Our writers here are John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, and I have been down this rabbit hole with Lindelof before. He is the engineer of Lost; a show that was at times divinely brilliant, but left many feeling that the human writers could only soar so high before singeing their wings. Many posited that the lofty show’s failings were proof of a mortal imagination’s evolutionary limits when tackling enormous philosophical hypotheses. Much like with Lost, Prometheus is being analyzed and scrutinized, reinterpreted and reconfigured, by commentaries and super-commentaries, in blogs and articles, in order to make consistent what is inconsistent, make sense of what is nonsensical, make whole what is eternally broken, and ultimately make perfect what is the work of imperfect beings.
To his great credit, Ridley Scott has unleashed a spectacle (at times riveting) and a relevant film which brings a refinement back to the franchise he pioneered. I think though that the director was so intent on returning his spawn to glory that he mistakenly shot for Alien by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey, making it all the more disappointing when he inevitably came back down to earth and settled for Aliens by way of Lost in Space.