Just before I went to Clarion West last summer, a little movie called Prometheus came out.
Some of my fellow classmates went to see this movie that first weekend, while I skipped out — I was tired and, frankly, I’ve never been a particularly ardent fan of the Alien franchise anyway. (We’ll get to that.) Anyway, I apparently made the right call. For the next six weeks, I heard nothing but shit about what a complete and utter letdown Prometheus was. One student in particular was so disgusted that his frustration could be heard from pretty much anywhere in the house. (If you doubt this, you have clearly not yet met Indra and heard his awesomely deep voice. I mean, it booms. It’s fantastic.) I will freely admit to being amused by his outrage, and knew I would have to watch this movie myself one day and see if his fury was warranted.
Indrapramit Das, I dedicate this review to you.
A scientific expedition on a distant planet to explore humanity’s origins goes horribly, horribly awry. As they do.
1. If you’re not up on your Greek mythology, let me give you the quick-quick version: Prometheus was this dude — okay, this Titan — who took fire from the gods and gave it to mankind.
Now, I can see how this particular myth might appeal to scientists, and I can understand wanting to name your super cool spaceship after it. However, if you read a little further, you find out that Prometheus is punished for this crime by being tied to a rock while an eagle feasts on his liver. Does that sound grueling? Sure, but let’s make it better: Prometheus’s liver grows back each night, so this happens over and over again. He does get out, eventually, but an immortal has to sacrifice his life for it, and if anything can give a Titan PTSD, it’s probably watching something repeatedly chew the shit out of his internal organs.
The point of this little lesson? Don’t name your fucking spaceship after something that ended HORRIBLY. I mean, honestly. It’s like you want things to try and eat you.
2. So, the Alien franchise . . . I’ve seen both Alien and Aliens. I didn’t care for Alien the first time I watched it — I found it impossibly slow — but grew to appreciate it a great deal more when I watched it again in Seattle. (Parts of it are still stupidly slow, though. I refuse to back down from that.) I liked Aliens a lot too — oh, back in the days when James Cameron didn’t annoy the ever-loving shit out of me. But I can’t work up any interest in Alien 3 — not when I already know pretty much everything that happens — and I’ve yet to hear a good thing about Alien: Resurrection from ANYBODY.
My point is, while I do like the first two films quite a bit, I’m not deeply attached to them, and I didn’t figure I could really be disappointed in a not-quite-prequel, no matter how shitty it was.
3. I was wrong.
Prometheus isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but that’s a long damn way from saying that it’s good. In fact, I’m honestly not sure I understand why anyone would think that it was good. There’s definitely potential here, but the story completely fails to capitalize on that potential, and seriously, this movie has so many plot holes and logic leaps I’m not even sure where to begin.
I’ll go into more details in the Spoiler Section, of course, but a partial list of these issues?
A. Science that even I can call out as bullshit. Me.
B. The significance of the discovery that led to the whole expedition.
C. Characters who 180 everything we know about them thus far for no reason.
D. Inexplicable character motivations for very serious plot points.
E. The most incompetent crew known in the entire history of God.
F. Guy Pearce.
4. Besides being illogical and incompetent, the majority of characters in this movie are also just downright unlikable. For instance . . .
I don’t think Rapace is to blame for this — in one scene, she’s actually pretty awesome — but her character, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, annoys the shit out of me. The idea of a Christian scientist searching for her creators is really intriguing, or would be, if Shaw wasn’t a truly terrible scientist who comes to conclusions that make no sense whatsoever. Also, there’s this moment:
Fifield (Sean Harris — heh, I totally know a Sean Harris! He’s not this one) is grabbing a gun, as he’s about to step foot on a completely unknown alien planet. Shaw’s immediately like, “No guns.” In the meantime, Mek and I look at each other and are like, “Oh, she’s one of those scientists.”
Now, don’t misunderstand me. This has nothing to do with second amendment rights or anything like that. This has to do with common sense: it’s not a terrible idea to arm yourself with some kind of weapon when entering a totally and LITERALLY alien environment, especially if you’ve had no contact with the aliens in question and have no idea if they’re going to be hostile or not. If they’ve invited you for peace talks, I’d get that. But an invitation from a bajillion years ago that, for fuck’s sake, isn’t even definitively an invitation? Please. Wear a godamned gun somewhere on your person or, at the very least, have some kind of taser, electric baton, pepper spray, or other non-lethal weapon stashed in your space-purse.
But no — that would be semi-reasonable conclusion, and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is not a reasonable character: she’s a pure-of-heart scientist who’s probably watched The Day the Earth Stood Still way too many times. I would love to see more idealistic protagonists in movies and films — the challenge, unfortunately, is writing complex, idealistic protagonists who have the capacity for making intelligent decisions from time to time.
You wouldn’t think it’d be all that challenging, but apparently it is.
Also . . .
Shaw’s boyfriend, fellow archaeologist, and Tom Hardy-look-a-like, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall Green), who is possibly supposed to be a brilliant, charming rogue but is actually a dickish, smarmy asshat, makes ridiculously stupid decisions, like taking off his helmet in an alien atmosphere. (Cause he’s a cowboy, baby.)
I actually liked Marshall-Green in Devil — despite how bad that movie was — and there are scenes in this movie where I think he’s good too, but it’s possible that another actor might have made me buy into the devil-may-care scientist routine and thus find him more sympathetic. For instance, Actual Tom Hardy. I mean, seriously. This guy’s just likable.
5. In fact, the only worthwhile character in the whole crew?
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Captain Janek (Idris Elba) is fairly amusing too.
Unfortunately, that’s only because I like Idris Elba so much — Janek himself is extremely incompetent, and his entire arc is so thin and cliched that I’m almost rolling my eyes just thinking about it. (I read some review — I can’t remember where — saying Janek had a great arc. We’ll talk about this in the Spoiler Section, of course, but no. No, he doesn’t.)
Michael Fassbender, however, is undeniably brilliant as the android, David. If the entire movie was solely about him, I probably would have liked it a lot better. Admittedly, there are some serious character motivation problems here too, but David is at turns funny, sympathetic, and utterly creepy, and the potential in his storyline is just huge.
If only the screenwriters didn’t fail him at almost every turn.
6. Yeah, I’m calling out you, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. This script is some serious, serious weak sauce. This is thinner than the sauce I attempted to make for chicken cacciatore a few nights ago and let me tell you, my friends, that’s pretty fucking thin.
The fact that Lindelof is one of the three main screenwriters on Star Trek Into Darkness is NOT making me happy right now.
7. Finally, I guess it’s worth mentioning that the movie looks pretty good . . .
. . . but that’s not enough for me. Prometheus feels more like an outline of a good story or a quickly written first draft that no one bothered to actually edit. The themes are interesting — again, the potential is there — but they aren’t developed very well. For some reason, I went into this movie with the idea that people’s confusion and distaste stemmed from a confusing and possibly surreal ending. I wasn’t really expecting to like it myself, but I figured it would be more of a matter of personal taste rather than downright bad writing.
But there actually is a difference between an ambiguous film that makes you think and a film riddled with plot holes, conveniences, and pointless mysteries. Prometheus is definitely the latter of the two. No matter the effects, no matter the cast, this movie cannot overcome its ridiculously weak script.
Want more details? Venture forward . . .
So back to this guy:
This is an Engineer. At the beginning of the movie, he’s on this planet — presumably it’s Earth — and he drinks this bad black goop juju that, like, disintegrates him. His falling-apart body goes down a waterfall, and I guess this begins life on Earth or something? At least human life — I’m a little unclear how this works, honestly. We later find out that we have the exact same DNA as the Engineers — which, wow, even I know how dumb that is — so I guess his death kickstarts our evolution? Maybe? Admittedly, science isn’t my strong suit, but this doesn’t quite seem right. And seriously, we have the exact same DNA today as our super tall, grey-white, hairless, and completely ripped ancient alien forefathers did a bazillion years? Does that make any kind of sense?
But you know what — I can actually forgive most of that. Maybe there’s some science genius going on here that I’m not getting because I’m an English/History kind of girl. What I simply can’t forgive is the logic leap necessary to connect a bunch of cave paintings to the knowledge that aliens engineered our entire existence.
So, there are these nifty cave paintings all around the world, right, and they all show the same thing — a bunch of dots that happen to look just like a place in a distant galaxy far, far away. Shaw and Holloway (correctly) believe that there are aliens who have engineered our existence, and that these cave paintings are actually an invitation to come meet them. I have my doubts that these paintings are advanced enough to plot out a course to the other side of the fucking universe, but that’s actually not my big problem here.
This is my problem: why do Shaw and Holloway think that these aliens have engineered us? Where is the evidence for that? All they have is a bunch of weirdly identical cave paintings . . . which, hey, cool, but how exactly do the same scribbles over and over equal, “Aliens definitely created us, and they want us to travel across the universe and go chill at their pad! Cool!”
I could maybe see Shaw theorizing that aliens had once come to earth or something, left a map . . . I mean, there’s no hard evidence for that, but I can see the thought process that gets you there. But why in the hell does Shaw decide that these aliens created us? I can’t see any evidence backing up that hypothesis. (She doesn’t know about the identical DNA yet.) I can’t even see how she would have come to that idea in the first place.
In fact, let me give it to you Writer Joe and Writer Susan style:
Writer Joe: Wait, Writer Susan. I’m confused. I know Shaw needs to believe in the Engineers because, well, the whole plot depends on it. But how are we selling that to the audience? Should we come up with some actual evidence to support her theory?
Writer Susan: Well, Writer Joe, we could, but that sounds awfully hard. Oh, I know! Shaw will be a Christian, and there can be a whole, like, theme or something about simply choosing to believe in a thing even without hard proof.
Writer Joe: Or any proof.
Writer Susan: Or any proof. But that’s not going to matter because people won’t care if we make any sense or not — we’ll be discussing religion and science together in the same movie, and that automatically makes us DEEP. I’m smelling Oscar here, Writer Joe.
Writer Joe: Gosh, Writer Susan, I see what you mean. I bet that’s just what the creators of Battlestar Galactica said before the series finale aired.
Writer Susan: . . . fuck off, Writer Joe.
Look, I’m neither a scientist nor a Christian, but I’m pretty sure — despite whatever the political BS in this country says — that there are plenty of people who excel at being both. But Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is a terrible scientist: you can believe whatever you want on your own time for free, but you can’t just look at a few cave paintings, pull some random, thematically-relevant conjecture out of your ass, and call it science. That’s BULLSHIT.
Okay, moving on to other things that don’t make sense:
1. Why does David poison Holloway with the bad black goop juju?
Okay, Holloway’s been a total asshole to David the entire movie thus far. I get that. But David’s whole purpose on the ship seems to be serving his human daddy, or maybe killing him — more on that later — and infecting David with an unknown substance doesn’t seem to be much help in that regard. Unless David was just curious. I’d actually be okay with that — David strikes me as the type to have a pretty morbid sense of curiosity — but this is a pretty huge plot point. The audience doesn’t need to know a character’s motivation for every single thing they do, but sometimes it’s important, lest people figure the discussion in the writing room went like this:
Writer Joe: Okay, but why did David infect Holloway again?
Writer Susan: Because Holloway NEEDS to be infected. After he gets infected, he can have sex with Shaw, and Shaw can grow an Alien Baby overnight, even though she’s barren, and we can have the creepiest scene in the whole movie.
Writer Joe: Well, sure, Writer Susan — I mean, that WAS a great scene —
Writer Susan: Thank you.
Writer Joe: — but why does DAVID infect Holloway?
Writer Susan: You’re going to be a pain in the ass about this for the rest of the review, aren’t you, Writer Joe?
Writer Joe: I think I just might, Writer Susan.
2. How is Shaw miraculously uninfected after her cesarean?
Writer Susan: Oh, come on! You just said that was a great scene!
Writer Joe: Oh, it is, Writer Susan. Seriously. Alien pregnancies are inherently creepy, and Noomi Rapace is great here — there’s no doubt. But let’s say you have this baby inside you, and you do a quick emergency C-section to take it out. Now, when you take it out, the baby is still in, like, a cocoon or something, right, but a couple of minutes later, the cocoon explodes, freeing the alien baby to wriggle and shriek and try to kill Mama.
Writer Susan: Right. And then she escapes and is safe!
Writer Joe: Yeah, but the cocoon explodes and drips all over Shaw before the pod is finished stapling her stomach shut. Are you really telling me that one drop of black goo in Holloway’s drink is enough to turn him all gross, but Exploded Alien Baby Cocoon Parts in Mama’s exposed guts is totally okay?
Writer Susan: . . . . yes.
3. Why is Weyland some big secret? Why didn’t we just cast an old guy as Weyland? And if we absolutely HAD to cast Guy Pearce, why the hell didn’t we hire a better makeup crew?
First: Weyland is the old dude that’s funding the whole mission. But we’re told early on that’s he’s already dead — see, he was dying of a terminal disease, and the flight to Big Bad Alien Planet takes two years alone. But it turns out that Weyland is secretly in a hypersleep pod on the ship the whole time. Dun dun . . . dun?
Seriously, why is Weyland hiding on the ship that he’s financing in the first place? Could it be for a lame twist that’s utterly unnecessary? Yes, I think so. And what about the revelation that hard-as-nails Vickers (Charlize Theron) is his DAUGHTER!
Yeah, that’s a yawn too. Who cares if she’s Weyland’s daughter — that’s the reveal I’ve been waiting an hour and a half for? I thought Vickers was going to be interesting, dammit! Besides, if she just wants her father to die so she can take over his company . . . why doesn’t she just stay home, since the likelihood of him finding his Fountain of Youth in Space is incredibly small, and in the meantime, she’d be running the business for at least four years and probably in a much better position to push him out even if he miraculously returned.
Also the delivery of her Big Reveal . . . yeesh.
Like, I get it: you can enunciate words really clearly; that’s cool, but let’s step it back a bit, shall we, because that’s the kind of delivery I would expect from an actress in a soap opera.
(It should be said, though, that other than that line? I have no problem with Charlize Theron’s acting. She plays an icy, merciless, and creeptastic bitch very, very well. I only wish the character had been worthy of the actual performance.)
Oh, and back to Weyland . . . he’s inexplicably played by Guy Pearce, even though Young Guy Pearce never makes an appearance in the movie. Yes, I know he did promotional stuff for the movie, and there’s probably a deleted scene or two out there with Young Guy Pearce in it. YGP is still not in the actual movie itself and regardless, the makeup job is terrible. I actually forgot about Pearce’s name in the credits and spent most of the movie trying to figure out who Weyland was because I knew he wasn’t an old guy.
When you look at an old age makeup and know it’s a makeup even if you don’t know the actor playing the part . . . that’s bad.
4. Why do Fifield and Millburn spontaneously become morons for no apparent reason?
Actually, Fifield and Millburn are both pretty smart at first — the second they’re looking at gigantic decapitated alien heads, they’re like, “You know what? I’m out. This isn’t my field.” (What Fifield actually says is funnier: “Look, I’m just a geologist. I like rocks. I LOVE rocks. Though it’s clear you two don’t give a shit about rocks. But what you do seem to care about is gigantic dead bodies, and since I don’t really have anything to contribute in the gigantic DEAD BODY ARENA . . . I’m gonna go back to the ship. If you don’t mind.” Heh. If only he wasn’t such a pill up until this point.)
Anyway, Fifield and Millburn get lost in the tunnels somehow — I guess they don’t have any kind of navigation equipment with them, and despite the fact that the Captain appears to be tracking their every move from the safety of his own ship, he can’t, I don’t know, just tell them the way out. And they’re stuck there overnight, of course, due to a Magical Sandstorm of Convenience. But while Fifield and Millburn keep wandering around the tunnels like dumbasses instead of finding a safe looking spot and sticking to it, at least they’re wandering away from the possible lifeforms in the tunnels with them.
However, the second that Millburn sees one of these lifeforms with his own eyes — a lifeform, by the way, that is distinctly creepy and not cute AT ALL– he immediately wants to pet it, even going so far as to call it beautiful — despite the fact that only a few hours ago, he was literally like, “Shit no. Let’s go in the opposite direction of any alien life anywhere.”
It is no surprise to anyone that Fifield and Millburn die horribly, since that’s clearly the only reason they ever existed in the first place.
5. Why don’t the crew seem to have any idea that they’re going to lose at least two years of their life in the search for Alien God?
Fifield’s bitchiness is mostly due to the fact that he went to sleep and woke up two years later. So . . . no one told these guys that they signed up for a four year contract? Are they indentured servants or something? Do they really not get briefings before they go into hypersleep and travel galaxies and galaxies away from their homes?
If this is the case, that’s fine, fascinating even, but you have to DISCUSS IT.
6. Finally, why is Janek allowed to be the captain of ANYTHING?
As I said before, Janek is really only likable because Idris Elba is likable. Otherwise, he seems as incompetent as everyone else on this ship. Here are some problems with Janek’s leadership:
A. He can’t navigate Fifield and Milburn to safety for no particular reason. (Nor does he seem particularly bothered by two of his crew being stuck in a bunch of creepy alien death tunnels.)
B. He sees signs of life in the tunnels with Fifield and Milburn, but since the lifesigns disappear after a few seconds, he automatically assumes that it’s a glitch. Even though it keeps happening.
C. He doesn’t assign anyone to monitor Fifield and Milburn’s signal before he leaves his captainly duties to go bang Charlize Theron.
D. He tells Shaw that she was wrong, that they haven’t landed on the Engineers home planet. Instead, they’ve landed on one of the Engineer’s military base planets where they’re actually storing weapons of mass destruction. How does Janek come to this conclusion? No one knows. Why does everyone on this ship keep coming up with random theories and stating them like they’re absolute facts?
E. He sacrifices himself to stop the Engineers from reaching earth. Okay, this isn’t an issue of competence or leadership — just bad, incredibly obvious writing, where the funny, kickback, I’m-just-an-average-joe captain has to go down with the ship to save all of humanity. It’s especially bad because the dialogue goes something like this:
Shaw: The aliens are going to destroy Earth!
Janek: How do you know that for sure?
Shaw: Trust meeeee!
Janek: Okay, I trust you. I will kill myself, and my two pals will kill themselves with me, because we trust you based entirely on one three-minute conversation we had a half hour ago.
There’s probably more, but I just don’t think I have the energy to go over any more. I think this movie lost me in the first ten minutes with Shaw’s ridiculous conclusions, and the weak storyline, plot conveniences, and thin characters did nothing to win me back. I wanted to at least like the parallels between David and his creators and humans and their creators, but the material just wasn’t good enough. Which may be why I was so frustrated with Prometheus, despite the fact that I have so little investment in the series as a whole — there’s SUCH potential here that’s completely and utterly wasted. All Prometheus really did was make me want to write a better AI story, and godammit, hard SF is NOT my strong suit. Shit.
Indra was right.
Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
CHARACTER WHO MOST DESERVES TO BE SLAPPED WITH A BIG, DEAD, SMELLY FISH:
Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. It really should be Millburn for his Darwin Award prowess, but I just can’t get past the idea that Shaw actually takes herself seriously as a scientist.
And if Michael Fassbender weren’t so damn good in this movie, it would be even lower.
God doesn’t build in straight lines. You probably shouldn’t run in them, either.