WARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and do not wish to have any element of the story revealed, don’t read this post. There’s no spoiler-text on this one, so proceed at your own peril.
As a fan of Alien and Aliens, I’d been looking forward to Prometheus for some time. For the first time in years, a real director—the first director!—was going to take this series and do right by it. I bought the ticket, took half a dramamine (it was in “XD Real-D 3D,” and I didn’t know what to expect motion-sickness-wise), washed it down with a Cherry Coke and a hot dog, and settled in.
There’s good news and there’s bad news.
The good news is that Prometheus was better than every Alien sequel and spinoff in the last 25 years.
The bad news is that’s not saying much.
Ridley Scott said this movie was simply supposed to “share strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak.” Instead, it seems he tried to recreate Alien but failed. Actually, it seems he watched Alien vs. Predator and thought to himself, “I’m going to remake this movie and get it right.”
So he took AvP (ancient markings point to an extraterrestrial origin of man, let’s investigate), cut out the Predators and set it on a faraway moon instead of Earth. Then he rehashed some of the trappings of the older Alien films: Slimy corporation driving the mission? Check. Strong female lead? Check– hell, let’s have two! Parasitic aliens impregnating humans? Check. Don’t come on the ship or you’ll contaminate everything? Check. Decapitated robot? Check. Last-second escape from ship about to be destroyed? Check. The blue-collar black man with a fake accent knows how to save the day? Check, but this time, they’ll actually listen to him!
And then Ridley threw in some new twists, which weren’t bad, but could’ve been handled better. For instance:
- Shaw is infertile! Fine, but don’t tell us about her infertility two seconds before she gets knocked up with the white starfish. Tell us earlier in the movie: either put the love scene earlier in the movie, or have it come up matter-of-factly during a physical when she wakes up from cryo-sleep.
- Old Man Weyland was on the ship all along! Great idea, poor execution. Why? Because of the scene in which David speaks to Weyland through the dream machine. It was almost as bad as David turning to the camera and telling the audience in iambic pentameter, “He is on board but they don’t know it yet.” Why not try a little harder to build up suspense? Mention that part of the ship is sealed off, and it’s company business so mind your own. Then maybe you discover that the life support stats suggest more people are on the ship than the crew’s roster indicates. What is it? Livestock? Extra crew? Other aliens? Maybe they’re hoping to bring something back to Earth? Let the crew grow more curious, let the audience grow more curious…. and then reveal it’s Weyland. He’s not dead. He paid his trillion dollars, and damned if he isn’t going to meet his maker.
- Vickers is Weyland’s daughter, which explains the antagonism between her and David! It’s a sibling rivalry! She even ham-fistedly spits the word “Father” at Weyland. But I thought this twist made the story cornier instead of deeper, because it didn’t need to be a twist. Just call her Meredith Weyland from the get-go and let us witness the rivalry as we go along.
- There are dozens of flying horseshoes on LV223, so the heroine can escape after all! But why not mention it more than ten seconds before the end of the movie? It’s a cheap gimmick at that point. Why not bring it up earlier, say when Stringer Bell figures out that LV223 is (probably) a great big bio-weapons lab gone awry? (I will grant that the dramamine was kicking in by this point; I may have missed the discussion of other ships.)
Let me talk for a second about String. If you’ve seen Idris Elba in Luther, you know he’s an Englishman. If you’ve seen him in The Wire or The Office, you know that he can do American accents well enough that Americans generally don’t believe he’s English. So what happens? They give him a phony down-home Cajun accent. It makes him sound buffoonish. I hope that wasn’t his decision.
His accent was atrocious, but String was smooth in this movie. He talked Charlize Theron into the sack, he figured out what the engineers had been up to and what happened to them, and he breezily talked his crew into a kamikaze attack. Seriously, it went something like this:
GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: The Space Jockeys are going to attack Earth! Stop them! Trust me!
STRING: Well, we’re unarmed so let’s just ram into the big horseshoe-lookin’ thing. Y’all OK with that?
CREW: Yeah, we’re good.
Okay, it wasn’t that simple.
Actually, now that I think about it, yes, it was that simple. No argument, no disbelief, no provocative attack by the Space Jockeys against the ship itself. Just “Trust me!” And then String crashes Serenity into the horseshoe.
The movie looked beautiful. Oscar-worthy beautiful. Every setting looked like an actual place, every part of the ship looked right and real. I thought the engineers and the giant white starfish were a little too CGI-ish, but that’s a minor quibble.
My favorite shot was a simple one: that of the Prometheus as a mere point of light streaking through the stars. Sci-fi movies usually show close-ups of ships in transit; this one pulled much further back in order to give you a sense of how mind-bogglingly big space is. It reminded me of the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph, which shows Earth as not even half-a-pixel, and that’s viewing it from just past Saturn. The ship remains a teensy speck as it falls into orbit around LV223, and only then do we see close-ups of the ship. We are small, and the universe is so big and empty that “big” and “empty” don’t even begin to cover it.
Allow me to remake the movie in my own mind.
Prometheus has a good story: it’s about a strong, intelligent woman who has longed to discover the secrets of space and humanity since she was a little girl, makes a historic discovery, gets financed by a scheming entrepreneur who seeks to extend his own life, and sets off in search of truth. In other words, it’s Contact, with everything going blood-spatteringly wrong in the third act.
But Prometheus isn’t paced like Contact, and it feels less epic as a result. Contact spends half an hour showing you the life of Ellie Arroway before her discovery, so that the audience can develop a connection to her. The equivalent scenes in Prometheus lasted maybe five minutes, with much of it compressed into a holographic reading from a dream machine.
So let’s edit the first act. First, dump the opening scene, which essentially shows an engineer planting the seeds of humankind on Earth. That scene kinda ruins the excitement of the DNA match scene, i.e., when Shaw proves that humans are not indigenous to Earth. The audience already knows that as fact, so… yippee.
Instead, we’re going to open with Peter Weyland’s fictional TED talk from 2023 (this ended up as viral video). If the film is partly about the folly of hubris, then that clip alone will provide all the hubris you need. Then spend a little time showing Shaw’s work leading up to her discovery. She makes her discovery in 2089 (?), but nobody wants to fork over the cash to do anything about it—until she remembers Weyland’s now-historic speech. So she convinces Weyland to finance her mission (more viral video). He cuts a check, we’re about thirty minutes into the film, we’re a little more emotionally invested in the main characters and the quest, and now we can take the story to outer space. Granted, I just made a two-hour movie even longer, but the pacing felt kind of rushed anyways.
We can nick a few seconds off the other end of the movie by cutting the last scene: a new alien bursting out of the dead engineer and roaring. That scene belonged in a cheap slasher flick. It was awful. Cut it. Just end the movie with Shaw and David blasting off in the flying horseshoe, pressing on despite the tragedy, humbled by flying too close to the Sun but trying again anyways. (I know that’s Icarus, not Prometheus, but you get the idea.)
It wasn’t a bad movie, but it was still a disappointment. Maybe it’ll improve on a second viewing.