Ridley Scott’s Prometheus portends a foundation for us to understand the Alien films. Now, that can be one way of appreciating a movie, knowing its origins and motivations, sometimes unearthing great stories that were in the original movie’s idea, albeit in embryo. Such is the appeal of creation. Scott had, however, more and more often towards the film’s launch, insisted on downplaying the effect of Prometheus as prequel, and rightly so: he knows that, under that pretense, the value of the film would then have to come from finding a way to complement, or even do it one better (if really ambitious), the masterpiece that is 1979′s Alien. In fact, I’m sure he knew it would almost be unavailable to him to create the means to construct a film that would be significantly connected to the Alien saga and on a par entertainment-wise. Not that a film as prequel must entertain in the same way as its sequel, but almost always its the case that the audience will expect ‘something’ like it. That much seems sound to me.
At the same time, the web is filled with deep believers that this movie will dig the appropriate space to make the Alien movies make sense, and it’s just out of my scope here to discuss that.
So forget Alien prequel: Let’s take Prometheus for what it is at the moment. And — to be very blunt — I found it’s not that much.
In terms of plot, the gigantic bust in the image above, with lights shining on it from the minute humans, should be revealing enough: it’s an anthropology about human origins. It maybe worth noting that, connected to Prometheus, though unconnected to Scott, is the 2004 film Alien Vs. Predator, which I spontaneously watched one lazy afternoon last month. There we learn that predators led humans to their own self-awareness and civility, and that we worshiped them as semi-deities. Aliens, meanwhile, were understood literally: beings totally other, other than our Gods and other than us, with origins unknown.
Large humanoid, an ‘Engineer’
And that’s more or less the stance of Prometheus, but without predators: the film begins ambivalently, with a large humanoid ingesting a black substance that we all know will prove corrosive; its body is instantly demolished from the inside-out, its limbs crack, and it falls over a waterfall, down to the water’s ground, with its DNA rupturing and contaminating the water. And that’s it, that’s what it says about origins: there were, before us, something like humans and something like black, hostile liquid. There’s a spaceship above him, but it’s not clear what that says at all about human origins and the origin of the aliens. I really don’t subscribe to the naïve interpretation of those who think the opening scene explains the birth of humanity and that of the aliens (for creating humanity they get label ’Engineers’). It really doesn’t. All Prometheus tells is the story of how events between those two things, the large humanoids and the black goo, conspire to create the banana-head aliens (they’re called ‘Xenomorphs’). That is really how the film begins and ends.
Everything in between, however, could make for a good film, I think, but doesn’t. The dialogue, especially around the two main female characters, is fairly glib: Theron’s character represents the same corporate sneer that was present with Ian Holm and Paul Reiser in Alien and Aliens. She says little, cares only about inheriting her dying father’s corporation and getting laid; and when she does talk, looking serious, we’re not interested. Perhaps it was expected, and always is if we’re trying to get reality right in films, to include the corporate impediment that has always stood in the way of human inquiry. But the ads for the film sold Theron off as some main voice for and reason to see the film, yet she is neither.
The only interesting thing with Theron’s character is that she has many tells of being an android. I’m not sure that hypothesis holds up; but I do know it’s pretty inconsequential to the film overall, and doesn’t make it great by any means.
The voice of the main female lead, Noomi Rapace, isn’t much better. She represents what Prometheus looks to get across as the philosophical note of the film, the pursuit of truth and the human sacrifice therein, in the name of something bigger than us. But they played it the wrong way by making Rapace come across as this blind Christian (she bore a crucifix at all times) who believes what she wants to believe because ‘she chooses to believe it’ — a precarious choice of tenet if your pursuit is of that which commonly passes as truth. Still, intellectual stuff aside, it’s just an unexciting, somewhat clichéd presentation on the film’s part.
Fassbender as android David
What’s worse, however, is made evident in this main character’s relationship to the film’s other lead, the android Michael Fassbender plays. Rapace — most of the cast, really — only makes predictable conversation with Fassbender, emphasizing how he can’t feel the conviction of belief and so on because, holy smokes, he has no soul. There’s really nothing strained between the human/non-human divide, nothing that makes us think more about it, or at least be scared of it (like with Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Not that they did that in the other Alien movies; there they relied upon the suspense of revelation, with Ash in the first film, and the promise of forgiveness and the hope of a harmonious coexistence between humans and androids, as was with Bishop in the second film. But with Fassbender, it’s all revealed at the outset: he’s an android, doing shit without the crew knowing it, which leaves us with nothing to interpret in his character besides being some means to quickly facilitate the plot. We know even at the outset he is probably going to jeopardize the whole odyssey, since he’s gaining presupposed plot time while they’re all asleep at the beginning of the film, studying up on their histories and dreams, learning their weaknesses — his knowledge of which, predictably, will all be used to some end, and is.
The closest they come to sounding a promising note for viewer’s reflection happens, I think, with only one conversation. Rapace’s heroin character, representing the interminable human search for cause and meaning, is warned by the android, David, that the answer to her ‘why’ question about human origin may be just as banal as the answer to the question of ‘why’ humans created him, namely: Because they could. But it never goes deeper than that conversation. Perhaps this is a high expectation of mine; after all, it’s Ridley Scott’s film, not Terrence Malick’s.
As far as characters go in this movie, Fassbender’s, I think, will be remembered as best, even if just for his appearance. He’s gorgeous in Prometheus, modeled after Lawrence of Arabia‘s Peter O’Toole, whom he even quotes occasionally. Though while I suspect much praise will be thrust at his portrayal of a wayward and insouciant android, I don’t think it is terribly well earned, since he has the countenance of unwanted vacancy anyway. It’s not that profound.
Since none of the aforementioned — the pretense of prequel, the plot, the dialogue, the characters — really stood out for me, I can only in passing recommend Prometheus as general viewing, nothing special.
With the exception of a barely-recognizable Guy Pearce and one scene that tries to match the classic chest-busting scene of John Hurt in the first movie, and almost does, the best thing about this film is the outstanding, though deceiving, trailer.
Just watch and listen. It says: Oh?! What is this? What is going on? Something wrong?! Run!