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Visually spectacular & ambitious, 'Prometheus' disappoints in the script

In Prometheus, Ridely Scott’s return to science fiction and (somewhat) the franchise that made him a commercial director, we are given a fairly ambitious genre film that eventually falters under the weight of its metaphors.

It is 2089 and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is an archeologist in search of the origins of man. She and her lover, Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Greene –who could be Tom Hardy’s younger, much hotter brother), discover that all of them have one thing in common: they all feature a giant man towering over humans, pointing to a collection of large circles. Cut to 2094 were 17 people –crew and a few scientists- from earth are traveling through deep space on the Prometheus. For the next three years, while they sleep, the android David (Michael Fassbender) takes care of them and the ship, while it learns languages of Earth through time and watching Lawrence of Arabia (does its dye its hair in an effort to be more human? Is David a Pinocchio metaphor?).

Anyways, we soon learn that what Shaw and Holloway discovered was that those circles represented a star system and because of Shaw’s passion and religious faith, it convinced aging billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) of the Weyland Corporation (the same company that sends the crew of the Nostromo to discover the acid-blooded xenomorphs in Alien) to fund the project. They eventually arrive and then explain to the crew (another throw back to the first film) the point of their mission is to find the Engineers –humanities forerunners. From there, the Prometheus lands on a moon in the system, near a large artificial structure and a team is sent to explore.  Mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) –a cold, corporate manager in the franchise tradition- orders them to avoid making direct contact.

And, of course, things go horribly wrong.

Going back 33 years and looking at Scott’s first film in the franchise (and its subsequent sequels), you realize that the structure of the film is fairly basic -people locked in a room, being picked off one by one by an unseen killer. This Ten Little Indian theme is standard in a lot of mysteries and horror because, in the end, it works -it’s not a very complicated, you know. A good writer and director knowing this, can try to enhance it with characterization of the people, in this case the crew of the Prometheus.

After seeing it, and sleeping on it, I began to wonder if the movie was way too smart for me to understand or was their analogies too intricate? In some ways, I’m reminded of some of the modern episodes of Star Trek TV series where the writers are attempting to saying something important in the story, only to abruptly end it when they realize their metaphor got too complex, so the crews depart, leaving many unanswered questions in their wake. Did writer Damon Lindelof and director Scott decide (and sometimes this can work) to let the audience come to their own conclusions instead of explaining everything?

And so, much like ABC’s multi-layered Lost (in which writer Lindelof help create and run) which never offered too much in a way of explanation as it ended, Prometheus  does the same here, giving us more questions and little answers. Of course, its production history may offer some understanding at why this film falls apart in the back-end. It first began life as an actual prequel to Alien around 2003; then shelved until writer John Spaihts script got Ridely Scott’s interest again in 2009. Still not satisfied with whole idea, Scott brought in Lindelof  to help flesh out Spaihts original script and to make it less of a direct prequel and more of film set in the same universe. This combination of scripts creates a plate full of scrambled eggs here.

What works here is the first half, the amazing visual effects, the set and production design and the performances from the cast, even if most of them are just fodder for whatever is happening in the moon.

I’m startled however, by how much Charlize Theron’s character of Meredith Vickers is wasted here. She seems to serve no purpose, beyond being the bad-ass corporate dick-head we know Weyland (and eventually, Weyland-Yutani) likes to run their company. When I inquired on another website what her reason was for being in the film, the response I got back was her character was a metaphor for a parent rejecting their child, as the Engineers reject the humans they apparently created. Which is great, but it should have been explained more. Plus, there does only one part in the film where Theron’s Vickers shows anything resemble an emotion; it’s her interaction with Captain Janek (Idris Alba), and his ponderous question of whether she’s human or an android.

Meanwhile, Noomi Rapace gives a workman’s style performance, eventually becoming much like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (and Rapace’s character in named Elizabeth Shaw, and is called Ellie by her boyfriend Charlie, so we get another nod to Scott’s film) in the best set piece in the film, the operating room sequence. Meanwhile, the painfully thin Fassbender gives a creepy performance as the android David; and we learn early on, this fake man is not any of the human’s friends.

Ultimately, a few of their loftier ideas end up not being fully realized, and the film offers little in the way of surprises –I not was shocked or startled that Peter Weyland (Pearce in old age make-up that is surprisingly poor) pops up where he does, and who his child is (oh yes, why does Lindelof always have stories that have some sort of Daddy issue). And why would anyone even support his narcissistic goals is beyond me (oh yeah, money).

Was, the film, in the end, too smart for me, or did Scott and Lindelof create a complicated story that did not need to be  this complicated in the first place? Sure, it’s ambitious to tell a real science fiction story in a film format –rarely ever done these days. But when you add metaphor on top of metaphor and then realize you have no ending, then maybe it was time to go back and start getting rid of a few of them.

3 Comments

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  1. Jeremie says
    June 14, 2012, 5:43 pm

    Oh no. This is one of those situations where the film is so confusing and indirect that it just seems like it is smart. I found it to be fun, but very disappointing, plot wise. I know not all questions were meant to be answered, but in this case, there were only two big questions going into the film: Who is the space jockey, and where did the xenomorphs come from?

    I walked out of Prometheus, having only gotten half answers to those questions, and with a dozen new questions. It’s sometimes good to leave the audience a little hungry. It’s never OK to confuse the hell out of them and say, “You’ll figure it out in 2 years when we release the sequel.”

    And like you said, the movie held up fairly well in the first half, but falls apart as soon as people start dying. A large part of the confusion revolves around Janek, David, and Vickers. All three of these characters have so much unexplained history coming through in their behavior that I sometimes genuinely can not tell what they are thinking during some of their stranger moments. And when Janek just magically figures out that the black liquid is a biological weapon to be used to remove humanity in favor of a new pet project? Way to skip half the damn movie just to cut in a few more gruesome death scenes.

    Plus, Weyland’s motives are obviously not as simple as long life. But that isn’t touched on for even a single moment.

    I don’t know, I suppose the film wouldn’t have been so completely baffling if it’s plot hadn’t been so impossible to reconcile with previously established fiction. When I try to connect the dot’s, I just keep coming up with meaningless scribble.

    And holy shit Pearce’s makeup was embarrassingly bad.

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  2. SG says
    June 16, 2012, 6:03 am

    Pearce looked like the old man version of Biff from Back to the Future 2. You know, from 1989. That shitty amateur makeup job was so distracting. Why the hell didn’t they just get – you know – AN OLD MAN to play the old man?

    I assumed it was because they were going to have him rejuvinated and become a younger man again later in the film. Guess not. So WTF?

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  3. Jerry says
    June 18, 2012, 1:16 pm

    I always hate to judge a sequel by what came before but when you’re following a couple of the greatest sci fi horror movies ever made it’s impossible not to. As a standalone sci fi it was decent, beautiful visuals, confusing, but at times intriguing script. As an entrant into the Alien series well below the standard of the 1st two but much better than the awful Resurrection or AVP’s, maybe comparable to the 3rd installment which was stripped down but still scary and interesting. Scott seems to have forgotten what made the 1st so great, what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. Here the “Company” isn’t a mysterious entity with dark objectives but a real person who is right out where you can see, the grit and underlying social stresses are missing, stuff that gave the first two depth and nuance. I heard that Scott didn’t want to just remake previous Alien movies but do something different and new, well then why rehash Data from Next Generation “searching for his humanity”? There’s a fine line between being pretentious and profound and a script that evokes “Chariot of the Gods” type pop science slides dangerously toward pretentiousness. Yes, there’s a lot to nitpick about scriptwise so go watch it on the big screen and let the visuals wash over you, try not to think about it too much, there’s some good tense scary moments and fabulous special effects.
    One more thing: I was terribly disappointed when the Engineers were revealed to be…US! Come on, this sort of thing has been done by Star Trek many times. We’ve all seen it on TV! Couldn’t they come up with something more interesting for the big screen?
    Too bad, it could have been a great one but instead is just decent.

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