I will preface everything that I'm about to say with the following: PROMETHEUS is not the worst film ever made. Michael Fassbender is very good in it. I like the glass bowl helmets. Large stretches of it are very watchable.
Despite this, I can’t remember being as outright frustrated and irritated by a film since I was forced to go watch the likes of SANCTUM 3D and THE TOURIST for Den of Geek, a pair of apocalyptically awful stinkers. PROMETHEUS is the masterpiece it clearly wants to be when compared to those two wet farts, but its intense mediocrity is in a way just as if not more offensive.
I’m going to try and break down exactly why I took against PROMETHEUS so thoroughly, in some detail and with a number of *SPOILERS*, so proceed with caution if you’re weary of them.
Also, if you’re wondering why I’ve spent so much time analysing and dissecting a film that I clearly don't care for, it’s because 1) I have no life, and 2) I think reactions to it have been so strong and so polarized that I genuinely want to hear people’s reasoning for why they think it’s good or bad. What is that the admirers see in PROMETHEUS that I’m not seeing, and vice versa?
Here’s why I think PROMETHEUS doesn’t work:
Besides David, the film doesn’t have any characters in it
This is by far the film’s biggest crime, and it’s one to be laid pretty much solely at Lindelof’s door. It is remarkable how bland every single character is in PROMETHEUS, and that’s even before you compare it to the likes of ALIEN and ALIENS. The dialogue is woefully stilted, which doesn’t help when trying to infuse the crew with some personality – resulting in laughably forced lines like “Listen - I like rocks! I LOVE BIG ROCKS!” - but then the dialogue’s not exactly overflowing with naturalism and comic brio in ALIENS either.
The key difference is that while Cameron may not have an ear for snappy dialogue, he knows how to create memorable characters and then have them interact in ways that both feel true to the story and drive the plot organically forward. He builds good character arcs that pay off in ways that are both logically and emotionally satisfying, and that reward the viewer for investing themselves in them. Look at Gorman and Vasquez in ALIENS – “You always were an asshole, Gorman” – that’s a minor subplot between two secondary characters, but there’s nothing in PROMETHEUS that comes close to that level of emotional pay off.
Cameron’s not even good at writing three-dimensional characters – Vasquez, Sarge, Carter, Hudson et al are all cookie-cutter archetypes, when it comes down to it. But you care about them, because they’re firmly established as a weird kind of family unit early on, with their own internal bonds and conflicts. This is also very true of ALIEN – remember that the most famous moment in the whole series comes out of a scene of the crew just hanging out and having dinner together.
The only scene where we get to just hang out with a character in PROMETHEUS is where we see David’s daily routine while he looks after the ship, and it’s no coincidence that this is probably the best scene in the film, and David is comfortably the best character. Otherwise, the characters are all hurriedly introduced and thrown together, both in the film and in the script, and you never get a sense that there’s any conflict or even any off-screen interaction between any of them, ever. They all just seem to show up, say their awkwardly forced dialogue, then disappear down a hole to start getting picked off, like in a cheap slasher. Except the kills aren’t frequent or gruesome enough to make things enjoyable even on that level.
PROMETHEUS’s idea of ‘strong female characters’ are not strong female characters.
My least favourite moment in the film comes during the scene between Shaw and the recently-infected Holloway, where he says something to the effect of “creating life is the best thing anyone can do,” to which Shaw responsds by turning on the ol' waterworks, complete with her bottom lip actually wobbling.
I hate, hate this moment because it instantly sets Shaw up as a sniveling wuss, (seeing as her whole job is findng out about the origins of life does she cry every time anyone brings it up?) with not one but two of the most clichéd driving personal demons you can give a character: 1. Haunted by parents’ death, 2. Unable to have kids. It would be fine if both or even one of these things are ever explored, but they never are, beyond this horrible scene (the leads have zero chemistry, but that’s another issue) and a short, pointless flashback where I’m pretty sure her character says “Why do people die, Daddy?” *gag*
As a result, these bits of info come across as cheap narrative shorthand as opposed to an actual relatable character being fleshed out onscreen. Similarly, they’re there to invoke sympathy in the viewer (as in, “Look how hard her life has been”), as opposed to empathy, which already marks her out as weak. You could argue that this film is about her making the transition from a weak-willed woman reliant on her boyfriend to a alien-killling action hero, and there’s a degree of truth in that – but it still feels unearned, because the backstory is so half-hearted.
Also, I’m not sure being the last to survive in a film like this necessarily makes you a de facto strong female character - lest we forget Ripley was a fucking badass before she had to take down her first xenomorph. So was Lisbeth Salander, for that matter.
Charlize Theron’s character comes across even worse, with even blunter attempts at trying to make her appear ‘strong’ – dig her icy manner! Her raw sexuality! Her naked push-ups! Of course, despite all this she’s still hopelessly in the shadow of her father (sorry, I mean…FATHER!), and impressively stupid, instantly cracking under pressure once shit gets real, before her inability to figure out how to run in more than one direction (something Shaw also struggles to get to grips with) leads to her eventual splatty demise.
There are so, so, so many dumb moments
I’ve mentioned loads already, but special mention to: Rafe Spall trying to pet the worm alien for no reason; the way two of the crew just wander off and hang out in an underground tunnel on an alien planet for ages, with no one attempting to contact them; David’s decapitated head and its schizophrenic functionality; that fucking flute; “This machine was built for men”; and, obviously, Guy Pearce wearing Spike Jonze’s JACKASS make-up.
It doesn’t even look that good
Okay, I’m pushing it here I know, but hear me out. Even people who don’t like the film have declared it as ‘visually stunning’ and ‘a feast for the eyes’, yet I’m not convinced: the set and costume design is certainly impressive, but there’s a sterility to it that I feel prevents it from inspiring the kind of awe in me that it seems to have in other people.
Ridley Scott’s got a reputation as world-builder, but there isn’t much of a world here. There’s the ship (which looks great), then a massive cave, which turns out to be another ship in the middle of the desert. It’s not exactly BLADE RUNNER, or even STAR WARS.
Also, the creature design is incredibly bland, at least to my eyes. The Engineers look like pinless Pinheads, and the giant squid is, well, a giant squid. Neither of which intrigue me much, to be honest.
Bringing up ‘big ideas’ does not make PROMETHEUS a film about ‘big ideas’
Throughout the film, there’s a lot of hinting at questions like, what does it mean to create life? What are the responsibilities of those who create life? Is the fact you have the power to create life enough reason to do so? Will what you create eventually conspire to destroy you, and does that fear affect your decision to create anything in the first place? Can an artificial intelligence experience human emotions, like curiosity and dissatisfaction?
These are all very interesting existential quandaries, and there’s every chance you might see PROMETHEUS with an equally pompous friend and go back and discuss all of these issues at length, perhaps over a game of whist and a steaming mug of peppermint tea. The problems is, these questions are explored in as much detail in the preceding paragraph as they are in PROMETHEUS, i.e. barely.
There are tonnes of these weighty ‘ideas’ in PROMETHEUS but they feel tossed in seemingly at random: it’s as if Lindelof woke up hungover on the morning he had to hand in his final draft, realized he hadn’t put any ‘themes’ in (or any characters but priorities are priorities), so Wiki’d ‘the meaning of life’ and shoved in a different theory on every page.
He doesn’t demonstrate the ability as a screenwriter here to convincingly address these themes, or, crucially, the attention span. LOST was the same, flitting between hardcore sci-fi, time travel, action-adventure, buddy comedy, paranoid thriller, war movie, horror, ghost story, and pure WTF on an almost scene-to-scene basis.
The difference is firstly that LOST had great characters where PROMETHEUS has none, and secondly that all of those things are fun to watch where big existential questions are not: you can’t play fast and loose with them in the same way. You don’t have to answer those questions, obviously, but If you’re incapable of exploring them in any meaningful way, don’t bring them up in the first place.
Speaking of unanswered questions…
Clunky, inept storytelling
Some have argued that the film’s many mysteries and loose ends are a good thing, as too many films go out of their way to spell out things for audiences. LIndelof recently went on record as saying that the Architect scene from THE MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS is the worst scene in film history, and he’s right, it’s pretty bad.
But there’s a difference between avoiding obvious exposition and making audiences fill in some things for themselves (which is something I am 100% in favour of - one of my favourites of the year is MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, a film in which the meat of the storyline takes between the lines and offscreen) and what we have in PROMETHEUS, which is a total lack of any kind of storytelling payoff.
There’s no sense of accomplishment, no sense of catharsis, no sense that we’ve learnt anything or made any progression over the course of the two hours, and it’s all down to Lindelof’s ADD storytelling. His script is like a magician in a family restaurant, who sits down with you, gives you ten minutes of patter while shuffling cards, then gets up and moves on to the next table before performing the trick.
Characters are skipped around, with some being forgotten about entirely (who are the two guys wo sacrifice themselves with Idris Elba at the end?). There are a number of giant plot holes - perhaps expected in a film like this, but still irritating when combined with all the other haphazard stuff that is going on. Some huge plot points are passed over without much comment (wait, Weyland's on the ship?) while others are afforded immense gravitas when they’re almost totally irrelevant (see: “…FATHER!”).
It’s so weirdly paced that it suggests that the finshed film isn't anyone's ideal end product, which brings me to...
The whole “it’ll make more sense in the Director’s Cut/sequels” business
Firstly, Prometheus is almost dead on two hours, and I think you should be able to tell 95% of movie stories just fine with a running time that long. Secondly: how the hell is Ridley Scott – Sir Ridley Scott, no less - not getting final cut on this film? At this stage in his career, on a franchise as fail-safe as ALIEN, he’s seriously not allowed to go over two hours? THE AVENGERS is over two and a half hours, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is rumoured to be pushing three, but PROMETHEUS can’t have an extra twenty minutes? I don’t buy it, especially as Fox execs made a big deal of how happy they were for PROMETHEUS to be R-rated, regardless of what effect that would have on ticket sales. Perhaps Ridley was equally concerned about the effect it would have on potential grosses, and wasn't prepared to take the risk on both?
Here’s a direct quote from Scott that might answer that:
"It is important that films are successful and I am fully supportive of that because I'm not just a director, I've been in this business long enough and, to a certain extent, I'm a businessman.”
And then the sequels. There are apparently another two films that would bridge the gap between the PROMETHEUS franchise and ALIEN franchise, and for all Scott and Lindelof’s pillow talk of how PROMETHEUS is able to stand on its own, subsequent interviews have shown that they both also clearly have had one eye on the ‘franchise’ the entire time.
A recent interview with Lindelof hints that Ridley wanted to leave more out of the PROMETHEUS script in order to save more for the sequels, which presumably means his ideal version of PROMETHEUS would have been Michael Fassbender wandering around combing his hair for two hours.
Which brings us, finally, to the crux of the matter…
It not only feels shallow, but cynical as well
It’s pretty clear now that the whole back-and-forth on whether PROMETHEUS was an ALIEN prequel was part of a very calculate marketing strategy. It ultimately has almost nothing to do with ALIEN throughout, and is all the better for it, to be honest, until the horrible tag at the end, which plays like a middle finger to anyone who did actually come expecting a proper ALIEN prequel.
We don’t need to see the xenomorph here, but it’s there anyway just to tease us and hook us in – “you never know, if you show up for the sequel, the alien might be there”. A less cynical person would say that it’s been linked to ALIEN because it’s a deeply personal project that needed that hook in order to get big studio funding, but the film itself doesn’t bear that out.
There’s a massive, massive difference between ‘world-building’ and ‘franchise-building’, and PROMETHEUS is solidly in the second camp. With its expensive 3D tickets, endless fanboy-teasing, aggressive promotional campaign, and shameless sequel-baiting, the film feels like a big, money-hoovering corporate monolith not unlike the titular ship itself.
What’s even more annoying is that criticism of the film has been met with rejoinders of: “Your expectations were too high”, or “You wanted another ALIEN and PROMETHEUS isn’t that”. Well, Lindelof and Scott have been talking the film up to the press non-stop for the past two years, going great lengths to suggest that PROMETHEUS would be in the vein of the original ALIEN, so they haven’t exactly ‘managed expectations’ in this regard.
But more importantly, I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant, for me at least, as I’m genuinely not that invested in the ALIEN mythology. I love the first two films, and enjoyed the third and fourth to varying degrees, but I’m not bothered about seeing the universe extended necessarily.
All I expected from PROMETHEUS was a well-made film that didn’t insult my intelligence, and in that sense it did not deliver. I like Ridley Scott, I like Damon Lindelof, and I feel like both of them either got co-opted by financial issues or consciously made detrimental decisions at some point in development, that someone should have stepped in and stopped from ever happening.
If you watch the documentaries on ALIEN or ALIENS, you’ll see that those films were dragged kicking and screaming into life by a variety of talented creatives, all pulling in different directions, but fighting tooth and nail in getting their work recognized as they were clearly working on something they believed in.
There’s no sense of PROMETHEUS being bled over in this way - that's why it's disappointing, as opposed to the fact there's no face-huggers in it or whatever. Instead, it feels like a film hatched over cigars in a boardroom by men poring over balance sheets, then infused with its 'big ideas' as an afterthought, which makes its faux-profundity and overall portentousness even harder to swallow.
There is a good film somewhere in PROMETHEUS, I'm sure of it, but I can’t class it as anything other than a big mess and a crushing disappointment . I remain open-minded and hopeful that perhaps another layer of complexity - or, even better, enjoyment - will reveal itself to me on a second viewing, but unfortunately somehow I doubt it.
I’ll reiterate though – I do really like the glass helmets.