Film is an art form like no other. It is one of the few mediums, if not the only, that utilizes the talents of many to create one solid work. The end result of such massive collaboration can elicit a range of emotions, various criticisms, and very different personal experiences. It is a great thing to find a work of art that impacts not only its audience, but also its medium. A curious side-effect from creating such masterpieces is the desire to revisit, reinvent, or rehash the original work in an effort to repeat the same financial and critical success while still breaking new ground. While it is not hard to see the reasoning behind such an effort, it is difficult to understand why most attempts end in failure.
Take a look at the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Alien series. A New Hope, the first film ever made in the saga, set the bar for special effects and strongly influenced the rise of the blockbuster and high-concept spectacles. This film brought magic back to the screen, but perhaps more astounding was the creation of a film even more advanced and thought-provoking: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s rare for a sequel to reach the heights of its predecessor, but to surpass it is a truly scarce occurrence. Then you have the Indiana Jones series. Raiders of the Lost Ark and its prequel Temple of Doom received equal amounts of praise for their technical achievements, humor, and all-around fun. The character of Indiana Jones has become one of the most recognizable icons in the world.
Another recognizable icon, though quite a bit more terrifying, is that of the titular monster from Alien. Our first introduction to this nightmare creature was not only a commercial success, but also continuously receives praise for its realism, which is not easy to do with a science fiction film. Many films since have tried to exploit elements of Alien. You have the more obvious copies of creatures and plot, and the more subtle attempts to deliver similar pacing, atmosphere, and tone. While the first film in the series can be considered more horror than sci-fi, its sequel, Aliens, brought more action to the universe while delivering comparable success (both financial and critical).
With all three of these series, they didn’t just start with a simple film. Each first film created a universe that understandably filmmakers and audiences alike would want to return to. Fortunately we have at least one or two entries in each set that deliver the same impact and mastery of the original. While one could analyze how subsequent films were able to succeed, what’s important in this discussion are the failures. Yes, there are fans of each and every film that is being referred to as a “failure,” but there’s a general consensus that the Star Wars prequels, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Alien Resurrection failed to capture the magic of their predecessors.
Some blame the involvement of new parties, such as a different director, different screenwriters, different studios, etc. One could argue that bigger budgets take away from the focus on the art or that when certain people are still involved but now have millions upon billions of dollars, they are surrounded by yes-men who no longer objectively call out bad decisions. If an easy explanation existed for why certain films failed to live up to their origins, it would be no big deal to reverse engineer a guideline for making masterpieces. But there really is no precise recipe for expanding a cinematic universe in a way that delivers the same impact and magnificence throughout. So is it really fair to expect such a thing?
Come to think of it, this is supposed to be a review of Prometheus. Why all this talk about Star Wars and Indiana Jones? Because despite any claims by Ridley Scott otherwise, Prometheus is an expansion of the Alien universe. In fact, the span of time between when both films take place is only 29 years! Scott’s proclamations that this is not a prequel were annoying even after just seeing the trailers for the new film, but now after actually watching the whole thing they are even more insulting attempts at misdirection. It makes sense that an auteur would want his latest entry in a franchise to be taken in on its own and viewed as either a fresh beginning or a standalone work. But after seeing exactly how closely tied this film is to Alien, it’s nearly impossible to detach it from the hopes and expectations everyone had that Prometheus would evoke if not rival the accomplishment of our first introduction to this universe.
To be fair, different generations will have the ability to view this film on its own merit. Some moviegoers will experience it with fresh eyes, never having seen any of the other films in the series. Others may have seen the earlier films but don’t hold them in such high regard as the generations who saw Alien or even Aliens in the theatre. Taking this into consideration, it’s important to discuss Prometheus as a stand-alone movie. And above all else, regardless of whether you like or dislike the film, it deserves to be talked about. Looking at this one film, to examine the heart of it beyond genre conventions and ties to a pre-established universe, you need to focus on perhaps the most necessary component of any great movie: Is it a good story?
Without getting into any big spoilers, the movie centers around archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover/significant other Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) aboard the scientific vessel Prometheus. They are part of an expedition to follow a “map” that they believe will lead to man’s creators, and hopefully answers to the age-old questions of “why are we here” and “where did we come from.” The voyage is funded by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and the Weyland Corporation, so of course there is a company representative on the ship in the form of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Rounding out the ship’s more notable inhabitants are the captain, Janek (Idris Elba), an android, David (Michael Fassbender), and two scientists: botanist Milburn (Rafe Spall) and geologist Fifield (Sean Harris). The map has led them to a distant moon they call “LV-223,” where the team as a whole is informed of their mission to find ancient aliens that seem to have created the human race. While exploring the surface of the planet, they come across an unnatural structure, and proceed to examine it. Once inside, the team finds some answers, yet they lead to more questions, and definitely more than they bargained for.
Two key components of a great story are three-dimensional characters and an interesting plot. While Prometheus definitely delivers a thought-provoking and entertaining plot, it fails to provide characters worth caring about. The fault in this instance doesn’t necessarily lie with the actors or the director, but when there is so little character development in the script coupled with jerky, lazy dialogue, it doesn’t matter who lives, who dies, or even what their name is because they will all be unmemorable. The most human and interesting performance actually comes from the android, David. Thanks to the brilliance of Fassbender and most likely more attention to detail when it came to writing scenes and dialogue for the character, you can really get a sense of who David is, what his dreams are, what his desires are, what his fears are. All of these questions are integral into understanding each character’s behavior and reactions to what they discover considering the grandiose philosophical tone of the film.
No care seems to have been given to any of the truly human characters. They were all two-dimensional and couldn’t really solidify their existence in the film. There were huge opportunities missed in regards to character; there should have been more tension between the scientists and the company hounds, between the soldiers and the working stiffs. Even with as brilliant as David was on his own, you never really got to see how everyone else felt about working with an android. Were some of them afraid of him? Were others distrustful? Did a few respect him? None of that is clearly defined or explored. Such attention could have helped the audience relate to the crew more, as it would have made them not only more realistic as characters in a film, but also to appear more realistic within the film’s environment and atmosphere. If it had been done right, you would have been able to see each character feed off of and relate to each other as real people would in unreal circumstances. Instead we get actors on a screen reading their lines, and hoping that the editors can make it look like they’re talking to each other.
When dealing with such an imaginative and profound storyline, you really need to be able to relate to and empathize with the people on the screen. When you can’t, you are taken out of the film and everything that occurs becomes less significant and less personal. When you connect with someone in a film, you experience everything with them. Every kiss excites you, every scare terrifies you, and everything that is important to them is important to you. With Prometheus, you not only don’t care who dies, but often you’re not even sure who just died. The scary parts aren’t even that horrifying because one fictional thing is attacking another. In fact, because of the fantastic special effects and amazing use of technology, the alien creatures in this movie have more depth and seem more real than the people you’re supposed to care about.
It’s incredible to think that with a story as rich and elaborate as trying to find the builders of man and seeking the answers to life’s oldest questions, more care wasn’t taken in crafting rich characters. The plot does have some redeeming qualities; every person can relate to the desire to learn where we came from and why we’re here. And it’s not hard to experience the wonder and magic of discovering the possibility of answers to these questions, and having the technological ability to seek them. Yet while there is so much to be explored with this subject, somehow the film only manages to scratch the surface and instead of focusing on getting one story right, it goes off in many different directions and tries to throw too much into one film, in effect watering down the majesty of its most important theme.
To recap: the two most important components of a good story are missing with two-dimensional characters and the inability to give proper attention to the main point of the plot. Surprisingly, this doesn’t mean that Prometheus is a bad film. Still treating it as a stand-alone picture, Prometheus does take some steps in the right direction which helps to even out the missteps. Again the form of film as an art medium comes into play with all the different aspects it takes to make a movie and the subjectivity of its experience. The best part of this film is the visual design. From the interiors of the Prometheus to the alien ship, from the surface of the planet to the creatures found on it, everything was expertly brought to life and made real. Of course, you can’t fairly critique the visuals without entering into the realm of comparison between this and previous Alien films, so now you must shift to consider expectations.
Production designer Arthur Max has stated that it was his team’s job to examine the art and visuals of Alien and in a sense work backwards off them to design sets (structures, vehicles, ships, etc.) that would need to be earlier and relevant versions of what came story-wise before the events in the first film, but cinematically after. This is no easy task considering the advances in not only film technology, but general technology since 1979 (the year Alien was released). This is one of the hardest things to tackle in sci-fi. Take for example Destination Moon from 1950. This film won the Academy Award for Visual Effects, and though it tried to realistically depict the prospect of space travel, it was still science fiction. The depiction of futuristic technology back then is vastly different from a future depicted in films from each subsequent generation, as it is between movies from the ’80s and today.
To create such a consistent and obvious relation between the technologies used in Alien and Prometheus is quite a feat. It definitely helped to have such a visual director so invested in the universe to begin with. Aside from ensuring that the sets looked accurate in relation to the timing of the story, there also had to be a reasonable and clear idea of the evolution of the different alien creatures. The design and effects of the aliens in this film (including the “Space Jockeys” or “Engineers”) was brilliant. While the expert execution of these elements helped the film as a whole and made it more enjoyable, it unfortunately served to further highlight the failure to offer up a similar caliber of human characters as was originally delivered in Alien.
It’s understandable why some don’t feel comfortable comparing a sequel or prequel to its predecessor, yet for a film that at times is laughably obvious in how it relates to Alien, it just doesn’t make sense to not compare the success of one to the other. In addition to and perhaps even because of so many ideas and plot points being thrown into 124 minutes, one of the other glaring missteps in this film is the music. The terror of the first film had just as much to do with the silence of some scenes and the haunting score in others. The only memorable sound design in Prometheus was the rather hopeful and mystical refrain that was more reminiscent of fantasy music like that in Krull or even the glorious and triumphant horn melodies in Jurassic Park. It was more out of place than bad, but again that can be attributed to the multiple directions the film tried to take. If the movie had been more upbeat and wondrous, the score would have been perfect. But with its dark themes and somewhat pessimistic outcome, the music was just plain weird.
In regards to the pessimistic tone, that is one of the elements that enhanced the film as a whole. It was nice to see that despite their hope and attempts to get such lofty questions answered, every character faces a much darker and depressing revelation, and they do not find their answers. Many believed that the Space Jockey in Alien was a benign sort of creature, and through most of Prometheus we are further led down that path. So when the crew “meets their makers” it’s a nice surprise, and a believable one, to learn the truth. This was the plot line that really turned the movie around, but with so much going on around it some audiences may miss the significance.
***MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
Though a reference is made to “spoilers,” it can be argued that the taglines of two posters for the film (“The search for our beginning could lead to our end” and “We came from them. They will come for us.”) reveal just as much information. At this point it has been argued that best character of the film is that of David, and that the best plot/theme is the search for humanity’s creators. Understanding how the two work together sheds some light on why Prometheus deserves to be talked about and is a film that is rife with subtext. David, as a creation of man, can understand the need for answers. In a terrific scene, David is talking with Holloway about the question of where man came from and why, and what he expects. When David poses a similar question to Holloway, asking why man made him (an android), Holloway responds, “Because we can.” David then says, “Imagine how disappointed you will be if that is the answer you receive.” (Note: These quotes are strictly from memory so forgive any difference in actual words as the meaning is the same.)
This scene helps to define the reasoning behind many of David’s actions throughout the film that could be seen as uncharacteristic. David is not evil, he is not a robot-gone-bad à la Ash. David simply seeks companions, equals, a place to belong. It seems almost everyone on the ship harbors different levels of disdain towards David. Even though he was created by man, he far surpasses them intellectually and in his mind, emotionally. His isolation both physically and emotionally from those around him is expertly conveyed in the film. And while it may seem his motives lie in the true focus of the mission and the reason for its funding by the Weyland Corporation, the real subtext lies in his belief that the Engineers will see him as one of them, above humans, a god, and accept him.
When you strip away all the bells and whistles, this film is about gods. It is about our perceptions of gods, our desire for explanations, for a sense of reason and purpose, and the role that gods play in our lives. The title is in reference to the Greek titan Prometheus, known for his wit and intelligence and considered a champion for mankind. Prometheus was responsible for giving fire to mortals, which in turn enraged Zeus who promptly doomed Prometheus to eternal punishment. Prometheus’ story became synonymous with mankind’s quest for knowledge, especially regarding scientific knowledge, and the unintended consequences that can come about when men reach too far and explore forbidden ideas.
Just as tragedy befell Prometheus, so shall it for the inhabitants of the ship bearing his name. Their exploration does not end well, and an interesting correlation could be made between the Engineers and the savage, ruthless nature of the Olympian deities. Man himself can relate to the analogy with advances in robotics. Man wants to create technology that can do things better than himself, but not actually be better. Just as Zeus punished Prometheus for attempting to bring man to the level of the gods, man would seek to destroy its creation if robots ever equaled or surpassed him. It’s delightful to see that the Engineers follow the same behavior. As the tagline says: “We came from them. They will come for us.” It’s too bad we advanced enough to seek them out.
Most of the well-executed scenes that provide deep exploration of the overarching theme of man seeking his creator involves the creation of man, David the android. Another great example is in the beginning of the film. Everyone is still in hyper-sleep for the trip to LV-223 except for David, who keeps himself busy in endearing ways. At one point he is watching a scene from Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence extinguishes a match with only his fingers and without hurting himself. As the surrounding men look on in amazement and ask him to reveal his trick, Lawrence smiles and says, “The trick, Potter, is not minding it hurts.” This scene not only helps to connect the Prometheus allegory with the events about to take place, it also helps to explain the psyche of David and how he handles the discoveries about to be made.
David, despite being an android, does feel pain and is full of an underlying sadness. He strives in an obvious manner to be physically like the character of Lawrence, but also philosophically. The decision to use Lawrence of Arabia as David’s preferred film and character of choice was no random one. The themes in that movie deal with the main character’s struggle with his own personal identity and his divided allegiance between his fellow soldiers and the foreign tribesmen. David experiences similar struggles in Prometheus with both his identity and his subservience to the crew vs. his kinship in terms of intelligence and abilities with the Engineers.
As you can see, there is much to be examined and explored within the world of Prometheus in and of itself, let alone in regards to its place within the Alien universe. While there are disappointments and downright failures, there are some great visual and thematic elements to keep this film alive. It deserves to be seen in a theatre, probably even multiple times, and though it didn’t repeat the impact of the first or even second film of the series, it does open up the possibility of more amazing installments within this horrifying and beautiful universe. Taking into account expectations and an analysis of the film on its own, Prometheus earns a solid 3 out of 5 Nerdskulls.