Bright Lights Film Journal

Lost in Space: Stunning Special Effects Can’t Obscure the Flaws in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012)

“What is human?” Scott asks. “Make us care,” the audience replies.

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-hyped prequel to Alien, his seminal 1979 excursion into body-horror Alien, feels like a love letter from Scott to himself. Like most of his films, Prometheus is a gorgeous hodgepodge of awe-inspiring visuals, half-baked Kantian ponderings, bodily mutilation, and terribly flat characters. It inspires and infuriates in about equal measure.

For 40 years, Scott has habitually crafted large-scale, lavishly sensorial films that are, despite their keen attention to detail and visual panache, mostly devoid of character development and emotion. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, though. His frigid and detached approach to filmmaking makes Alien and Blade Runner all the more chilling. The cold, sometimes selfish crew of the Nostromo is singularly-minded and goal oriented; ultimately they are not very far removed from Ash the android, or the parasitic perpetual killing machine that has taken up residence on the ship. What exactly is the main difference between humans like Blade Runner‘s Deckard — stoic and seemingly uninterested — and an android, or a Replicant?

What is human? Though he drops hints — to varying degrees of coherence in various cuts of the film — he never really answers this question.

Much of Blade Runner‘s critical success rests on its darkly meditative atmosphere and ambiguity. It’s like a cynic’s Buddhism rather than pure existentialism. The film, initially a failure, then a cult hit, and now a certified classic, lends itself to pseudo-philosophical musings, the most often pondered (though not necessarily the most pertinent) of which is concerned with Deckard’s humanity: Is he a Replicant?

Do you really want to know that answer?

The paranoiac Philip K. Dick was obsessed with perceptions and definitions of humanity; his delusions of shattered realities and identity crises permeated his works, made them chilling and cold, but enthralling in their psychological complexity. Scott taps into this paranoia, with the android of Alien hiding among its crew, as the Replicants try to do in Blade Runner; these non-human beings don’t stand out until they’re exposed — they’re among us already.

Now in Prometheus, Scott once again delves into ponderous, existential questions of innately unanswerable quality. What is the meaning of life? Why are we — humans — here? And where do we come from? That the film is steeped in obscurity and unreliability isn’t surprising either, given Scott’s past offerings and the nature of science fiction. That he throws heavy, multifaceted ideas at us isn’t surprising either, given his penchant for open-endedness; to answer all of these questions would be kind of disappointing and more than a little pretentious. What is surprising, however, is the uneven quality of the film’s writing: the story (by Jon Spaihts and Lost writer Damon Lindelof) feels like a rough draft, with characters lacking any color, plot twists that are more annoying than jarring, and too many endings trying to tie up too many threads. At the end, viewers are lost, adrift in the ether..

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover/research partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), archeologists searching for humanity’s origin, discover a cave drawing depicting a group of planets in some forlorn corner of the world. The hook: these drawings look strangely akin to cave drawings found in other, far-removed caves from long-separated cultures from various generations. Shaw thinks these drawings are ancient star maps — an invitation from The Engineers, out creators, to come find them.

Four years and a trillion dollars later (their sales pitch for a grant must have been stellar because their rather outlandish extrapolation gets funding immediately, though everyone else assigned to their research mission seems to laugh their thesis off), they’re aboard the cryptically named exploration vessel Prometheus. The vessel owner and project funder is Mr. Weyland (Guy Pearce, buried under layers of makeup; why didn’t they just get an older actor? Is this another play at people not being who they appear?), owner of the Weyland Corporation. (I was kind of hoping that Lance Hendrickson would make a cameo here, as he played Weyland in the abominable Alien 3, but no such luck.) Charlize Theron is the icy mission director, who, upon exiting cryosleep, wastes no time in dropping to do pushups in her skivvies; this brief scene is likely Scott playing a small joke on viewers who proclaimed him sexist for having Sigourney Weaver strip to her extremely tiny underwear at the end of Alien. Theron’s director doesn’t care about science — why should she? She’s a businesswoman. Her priority is . . . well, it’s ambiguous. But previous Alien films have taught us that anyone associated with companies or corporations probably aren’t out to better humanity.

While all of the humans are in cryosleep, the android David (Michael Fassbender, whose stunning turn here is an amalgam of Hal 9000, Jude Law in A.I., and Ash from Alien; he carries the film through its narrative lulls without chewing scenery) keeps the ship in order and passes the time with some ambitious hobbies: He learns 2,000 ancient languages, rides bicycles, plays basketball, rides bicycles while playing basketball, and, using a nifty visor device, watches people’s dreams as if they were youtube videos. During this scene we get the first brilliant moment of the film that doesn’t rely solely on visual allure; David is watching a scene from Lawrence of Arabia in which Peter O’Toole plays with his lighter (remember: Prometheus was condemned to eternal pain for giving fire to humans). David, fascinated by the ambitious and determined T. E. Lawrence, restyles and dyes his hair to look more like O’Toole. He says it’s a film he “likes,” implying that he has the capacity for enjoyment, though he later says he “understands” human feelings but cannot feel them himself.

And thus a confliction, but not necessarily a contradiction, is born. It percolates every scene for the rest of the movie and draws deep connections to Scott’s prior films; that David, an android, is the most compelling character in the film furthers Scott’s proclivity for blurring the distinction between humans and machines, further obscures the definition of “human.”

Later in the film, David is told he’s “not a real boy.” Is David a modern Pinocchio? Is a wish — or rather a lust for humanity, for a soul, David’s true motivation? Can an android even have a motivation? It becomes clear that David has his own plan; how can a lifeless android have provocations? Appearing as a hologram, Mr. Weyland says that David is like a son but doesn’t, and can’t ever, have a soul. So what is a soul? Calmly, with a barely noticeable tinge of restrained rancor, David tells crew members of his inability to feel emotions. He also quietly mentions his belief that there is nothing after death. This clashes with the ardently Christian Shaw, who devotedly wears her father’s cross. (The dichotomy of her devotion to both Christianity and science evokes memories of Scully in The X-Files.) When asked why she thinks that there is a heaven, or that the Engineers will even exist, she responds, “Because I choose to believe so.”

If Michael Fassbender earns a Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, rest assured that it is not an apology from the Academy for snubbing him after his turn in Shame. He’s the only performer in this movie to transcend the bland writing; his serenity is somehow menacing.

The first hour of the film is marvelous. Scott fills the screen with Terrence Mallick-esque pans of gorgeous landscape; nature, undisturbed, is the most beautiful image in the movie. Scott’s vision is laced with lush but calculated imagination: the various devices and gizmos whizz and whirl and fly and glow with beauty and mysterious opulence, and even when I had no idea what their purpose was or how they functioned I was captivated. (My favorite gadget is the Pups, small orbs that fly around, scanning areas and projecting them in a 3D map on Prometheus.) The special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen. The shot of the Prometheus landing, its monolithic hull shaking the ground (and the theater), made my stomach do a flip, like the first time I saw the T-1000 morph, or the T-Rex rear its ugly head, or Neo dodge bullets. It is the best CGI I’ve ever seen..

Where the film starts to derail is when two loud, clumsy comic relief characters—Redshirts by any other name—get separated from the group (of course) and run into an alien organism (of course). Do they run? No, they choose to put their faces right in front of it, cooing to it about how beautiful it is, and then they try to touch it. Haven’t they ever seen a horror movie? What follows is the first grisly scene in the movie, but it isn’t scary 1) because it’s shot without the austere minimalism of Alien, the camera in that film being fairly static and the action unnaturally, and therefore uncomfortably in center frame; here, there are quicker cuts and the camera is less graceful, and 2) because any and all suspense was euthanized the second we met these throwaway characters. They’re not John Hurt; their sole purpose, we can quickly deduce, is to get mutilated by computer-generated monsters that look an awful lot like dicks. And this rampant stupidity is one of the film’s biggest flaws: characters touch gooey stuff, and put their faces where they obviously shouldn’t, and wander off on their own, and trip and fall over nothing. When a giant object is falling towards them, they run in the least logical direction to avoid it. They feel more like stock horror characters than brilliant scientists.

And when they start to get killed off, no one flinches. No one is fazed. Only Charlize Theron displays any fear or surprise in a scene that should have been emotionally turbulent, but instead falls flat because of the flat characters. These are some of the dumbest scientists since Jurassic Park. And at least Spielberg’s dino feed were funny, colorful characters (“Hold on to your butts.”)

One area in which Scott is very successful are his inside jokes. Though the layout of the ship is different than it is in Alien (i.e., the Space Jockey is in a different, smaller room; the eggs are replaced by vases; etc.) and the monsters act and look far different than the ones in any previous Alien film, Scott still makes references, subtle and overt, to other films, which fans will love. My favorite touch is the overwhelming amount of vaginal imagery; Scott has repeatedly denied the conscientious use of phallic imagery in Alien, explaining that “it’s a horror movie” and he just wanted to scare people, not invoke Freudian imagery. But, largely due to H. R. Giger’s wildly sexual art and set designs (which are very consciously phallic), people continue to evaluate and analyze the dick imagery in Alien. So in Prometheus, Scott gives us Vagina Dentata. Lots of it. I actually laughed at seeing the close-up of the vagina monster’s thrashing tendrils and gooey mouth as it prepares to gobble up a male victim.

These creatures are certainly gross but not the least bit scary, which is another big gripe: there is one appalling, unbearably terrifying scene that will make the pro-choice movement pump a collective fist, but the rest of the movie lacks scares. And yeah, fanboys will cry, “It’s not supposed to be scary!” (Like they can read Ridley Scott’s mind.) But Scott gives us suspense for an hour, building up to something that never arrives; he delivers us one great scene in the whole second half. (That’s two great scenes and more than three bad ones, for those keeping track at home, which does not fulfill Howard Hawks’ guidelines for a Great Film.) The suspense leads nowhere, and the action is kind of silly. I’ll be surprised if Scott gets a nod for Best Director. The CGI is amazing and there are some sublime visuals, but Scott seems to have forgotten how to shoot an action scene, or how to pace a film.

But my biggest problem with Prometheus are the characters. They’re not interesting at all. There isn’t one character whose death I mourned, and there’s only one exchange of dialogue that begins to approach the quips Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein fired at each other in Aliens. This is where James Camero ntrumps both of Scott’s entries, no contest; Cameron gave us colorful, likeable, empathetic characters with personalities. His depiction of Ripley is the strong, takes-no-shit heroine to which we’re all accustomed. Vasquez (Goldstein), a female soldier with a bigger pair than any male in the film, is as tough and competent as Ripley, but she’s different. That sounds so simple but it’s difficult to do without seeming contrived. She isn’t a guy transported into a female body, and she isn’t just a butch version of Ripley. She has history with Bill Paxton’s motormouthed Hudson. There’s depth to these characters. Their relationship changes and grows as the film moves on, culminating in a scene (the one in the air duct) that is thrilling, sad, bittersweet, clever, and fitting, all at once. Cameron doesn’t cheat or take shortcuts. He earns his thrills and his characters earn our empathy, our love.

(If it seems unfair to compare Prometheus to Aliens, that may be because it is. But humans, whatever that means, can’t help it. We inherently think associatively. Can you watch The Dark Knight and not compare it to the comics, or the previous films, or the animated series, or the Bat nipples, or Adam West? I can’t avoid comparisons to Alien and Aliens for the same reason that New Criticism can never work: It’s unnatural.)

I I liked Prometheus to a point, largely because of the first hour. But I’m not sure how it will fare over time. Fanboys proclaim its greatness online (though these people also confuse  “there/their/they’re”), but how many scenes will become iconic? I can guarantee one scene, and maybe David’s Peter O’Toole seen will find its own place on film buff hard drives, but most of the film is disappointing. Cameron’s film is nonstop, unrelenting excitement, climax after climax. He creates a series of magnetic moments; every scene feels like an accomplishment in itself. The first encounter with the Xenomorphs; the facehuggers in the bedroom; the Xenomorphs coming through the ceiling; our first view of the Queen; and, of course, the Ripley vs. Queen fight—the battle of the mother figures (which, I’m not hesitant to admit, is my favorite scene in movie history; “Get away from her you bitch!” gives me chills). And Scott did this, too, in Alien: How many times have you had a stomach ache and had someone joke that an alien was gonna burst through your stomach? Alien doesn’t just rest on this one iconic scene, either: the exploration of the ship; the mysterious Space Jockey; the legion of eggs; the facehugger; the first encounter with the grown alien (that damn cat!); the race in the air ducts; Ash’s malfunction; Ash’s head talking; Ripley fighting with Mother; Ripley in her miniscule underwear.

I can’t say for sure yet, and movies do take time to gestate, but I think that, although Prometheus showcases two great scenes, fantastic visuals, and some occasionally thought-provoking philosophy, its relation to Alien and its debated status as “prequel” or “standalone” will unfortunately be its legacy.