Sunday, June 10, 2012


 2 / 5 

I'm beginning to harbor a grudge toward Damon Lindelof, one of the screenwriters of Prometheus and one of the people behind the TV series Lost.  The two projects have a lot in common, from ancient mythologies and giant stone statues to a cast of characters who act in stupid ways because the script requires it.

Lost took one of the best setups in TV history, five seasons of astonishingly good action and drama, and squandered them for the sake of being clever.  Prometheus takes two seminal science-fiction films, Alien and Aliens, and uses them as a backward setup for a big, intergalactic shaggy dog story.

Here's how Wikipedia defines a "shaggy dog" story: "an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline."  That's pretty much how I felt about Prometheus (and Lost), though in the hands of director Ridley Scott, it at least looks absolutely spectacular and moves like wildfire. But on balance it's more infuriating than entertaining.

Prometheus wasn't made by fans for fans, it was made by obsessive completists for obsessive completists.  Around its mid-point, I was reminded of a moment in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and the Scarecrow find the Tin Man, and behind them a strange bird moves behind a cabin.  Prometheus is like watching a prequel to The Wizard of Oz that isn't about Dorothy, the wizard or Munchkinland, but about that cabin, who might have built it and why it was in that particular spot.  Frankly, it doesn't matter.

The cabin in this case is a set from the 1979 Alien, designed by H.R. Giger.  It was only seen for a few minutes, but was so nightmarish and exotic that it developed its own mythology among science-fiction fans.  What was that creature, why did it look so strange, and was it looking out a telescope or sitting at a massive cannon?  There must be a fascinating story behind it.

Maybe so, but Prometheus doesn't tell it; instead, Lindelof's script (co-written with Jon Spaihts), raises more questions than it can begin to answer, and just as he did with Lost, Lindelof seems to delight in promising resolution, then denying it.

Prometheus begins with an inscrutable prologue that doesn't make sense even in hindsight, hinting at a "mythology" that the writers are too timid ever to examine again, but is undeniably stunning visually.  (The movie was shot in 3-D, which is as superfluous as ever and distracts from the gorgeous visuals by dimming them sometimes beyond recognition.) 

Meanwhile, back on Earth ...

Two archaeologists find cave drawings that, for no apparent reason, they think serve as a map to another solar system where our "engineers" (that is, God) lives.  Why do they think that?  Who knows. But they're soon on their way a trillion miles from Earth.  The spaceship they're traveling on is called the Prometheus, and on board is an android named David.  It's filled with scientists who barge in first and ask questions later, which is good for action stars, not good for space travelers setting foot on an unknown planet that appears to have life on it.

Michael Fassbender is nominally the film's star, mostly because his careful, sly performance as David is so riveting.  A cross between HAL-9000 and the little boy robot from A.I. (curiously named David, as well), he's the only fully drawn character in Prometheus, and he's not human.  There are other people on the Prometheus -- too many of them, actually, and as the film spirals into loud, intense action, perhaps it hopes we won't notice that none of them are particularly interesting.

The filmmakers have made two specious claims about Prometheus: First, that it's not a prequel to Alien; and second, that it asks some profound questions about who we are and why we're here.  What nonsense.  The story is directly tied to the Alien movies, and the spiritual drama is just a smokescreen for the fact that the screenplay has absolutely no idea where to go.

Prometheus is a series of scenes that all have some kind of subtle wink or elbow jab at hardcore Alien and Comic-Con fans who will appreciate its references to obscure moments from previous movies.  It is not, however, a comprehensible or interesting linear narrative.

That leaves it with some great moments, terrific visuals and crisp editing.  The central performances by Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and especially Michael Fassbender are captivating, and help distract from the suspicion that the actors may often not even have been in the same room with each other during filming; there seems no connection, particularly between the Theron and Rapace characters.

And it has, in the end, got the alien himself, as well as some interesting precursors to his other variations -- the egg, the "face hugger," the slithering little beastie that pops out of John Hurt.  Those creatures are monsters, and Scott directed a brilliant, brooding, scary, unforgettable haunted-house movie, which James Cameron later turned into a relentless war adventure in which the monsters invaded both bodies and dreams.

Prometheus is more of a plodding (but beautiful) Comic-Con presentation: "The Art & Mythology of Ridley Scott's Alien," moderated by Damon Lindelof.  Yes, we're impressed by how much you know, sir. Now can you tell us a story?

Prometheus just keeps relentlessly hitting us over the head with beautifully choreographed action as it goes nowhere.  By the end, it's almost as if the movie itself is surprised by the body count and doesn't know what to do next, so it throws in one last visual goof designed to make fanboys squeal.

It may.  I just really wanted to get out of the theater and go watch either of the first two far superior, lithe and relentlessly suspenseful Alien movies, to enjoy them -- not deconstruct them.

Viewed June 9, 2012 -- Arclight Hollywood

1 comment:

  1. What were you expecting exactly?

    The film was always going to be a stage-setter rather than a full construct in its own right (rightly or wrongly), nobody every claimed anything else.

    The human/android characters were not fleshed out, I agree, but was there really any need for them to be? Shaw (not bad but could be better) and David (good but should have been either sly or less sinister) are the only two who mattered, that was obvious from the start. Vickers was rather poorly and pointlessly portrayed as the "wicked witch" and probably overbuilt for what her plot role was.

    The most interesting character was undoubtedly the Engineer and that was handled well. I fear that you missed that point, this movie and it's sequels will be the story of the Engineers and Humans, not the Aliens we already know and love.

    The story is laid out, The Engineers genetically modified a planet from their own stock for some unknown reason and appeared ready to send a virus to wipe it out. Why? Was earth one of hundreds of similar experiments? Were they wiping us out because we had gone wrong (as Shaw Assumed)? Was it all a plant to develop a super weapon (making us the lab-grown rats).

    Honestly the premise it sets up is very promising.

    I only had three complaints. First (as a completionist I guess) is that the Engineer did not die in the chair as he was found in Alien, though I do accept it might have been a different one. Second was the idea that there were many ships there but none were found during decades of occupation and terraforming work in Aliens. Third the weather patterns being so different.