Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is an absolutely stunning and soul-searingly beautiful film. I saw it in 3D on an original IMAX screen (which undoubtedly assisted the breathtaking vistas), but if you want to see two hours of cinematic splendor this film will absolutely deliver that.
It is a testament to the film’s grandeur that I was absolutely captivated by it from one end to the other. Because everything else about the movie is mind-numbingly awful.
The problem can be easily summed up: The script is two tons of stupid in a one ton bag. The rest of this post is just a venting litany of its stupidities, so…
(1) Early in the film, while exploring an alien planet, the entire crew removes their helmets. This is the moment when I abruptly lost all sympathy or empathy with the characters, because they were all clearly idiots.
I mean, I was OK with the first guy doing it. He’d been consistently portrayed as cocky, arrogant, and naive. His instruments tell him that unknown chemical processes are terraforming the air to make it breathable and between his naivete, his arrogance, and his irrational faith in the goodwill of the Engineers it makes sense for him to do the stupid thing there.
But while he’s doing that stupid thing, literally everyone else is telling him not to do it. Then he takes off his helmet, he doesn’t immediately die after three seconds, and… suddenly everyone thinks it’s OK? Holy crap. You guys are dumb as bricks.
(2) Then, even after they believe that there’s the risk of biological contamination on the planet, they continue to deliberately walk around with their helmets off. The scenes of characters practically nuzzling their faces into alien chemicals with unknown properties are absolutely mind-boggling.
(3) From a structural standpoint, the screenplay fails again and again to provide necessary exposition. One of the things that made Alien an effective horror film was that the properties of the xenomorphs were clearly translated to the audience. This understanding allows the audience to experience dread when the characters wittingly or unwittingly take dangerous actions.
By contrast, the “black death” which forms the primary threat of Prometheus doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t seem to follow anything even vaguely resembling consistent rules: If you drink it, you get sick. If you get a face full of it, it turns you into a contortionist berserker. If some worms fall into it, they’ll turn into face-fuckers and kill you. If you have sex with someone who has been contaminated, then you’ll have a mystical pregnancy. The result of that mystical pregnancy will also face-fuck and kill you, but this time it’ll work like a facehugger and spawn a proto-xenomorph. If you get infected and then you get decapitated, your head will explode.
This failure of exposition extends to minor stuff, too: Sometimes the suits will process oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere. Sometimes they won’t.
(4) Ironically, despite failing to provide any of the clear exposition required to make the film successful, the screenwriter handles conversations between characters by having them speak in ham-fisted exposition without any subtlety or humanity at all.
It’s all well and good to want to tell a story about children wanting to kill their parents (as counterpoint to our alien parents wanting to kill their children), but your method for telling that story should be a little more subtle than just having both children say, “I want to kill you, dad.”
(5) On a similar note, the writer is clearly incompetent when it comes to setting up any kind of dramatic tension. For example, one of the climactic scenes is the main character begging the ship captain to take down the alien vessel before it can go to Earth and wipe out human life. Structurally, this scene is clearly meant to be tense: What will the captain do? Will he believe her and do the right thing? Or try to save himself and damn us all?
Only it’s not tense at all. Because two scenes earlier the writer went out of his way to have the captain literally say, “The only thing I care about in this universe is making sure that alien vessel doesn’t get to Earth.”
Wow. I wonder if he’ll do the thing he told us he would absolutely do no matter what just a couple of scenes ago?
(6) I’ve tried my best, but I can’t come up with any explanation for why David chooses to deliberately infect the archaeologist with the “black death”. It accomplishes absolutely nothing and does nothing to advance any of the agendas that David is supposedly pursuing.
(7) In a different film, I might believe that the willingness of Guy Pierce’s character to ignore the clear signs of biological doom that people are trying to warn him about is justified by his desperation to find a way to survive. But in the wider context of the film, it’s really just another bit of stupid to pile on top of all the other stupid.
(8) We can probably just toss it on the pile next to, “I want you dead and gone, dad.” “Oh? Really? Well, why don’t you just stay here in charge of the only ship that can take me home, then.”
(9) How do you lose track of two guys whose position is being tracked on a giant map directly behind you? How do those guys get lost when they have access to a map of the complex? Especially when one of them is the guy who apparently specializes in mapping and takes great pride in his “mapping pups”?
(10) So the aliens want to build a bioweapon to wipe out Earth. Fair enough. They build a facility on an otherwise empty planet because they don’t want to risk the bioweapon contaminating them. Good idea. But then why are they telling primitive cultures on Earth where the bioweapon manufacturing plant is? What is that supposed to be accomplishing?
(11) Holy shit! Their DNA is an exact 100% match for ours! … uh, okay. Then why are they 12 feet tall?
When the film throws a lampshade on “okay, let’s just ignore Darwinism” I’m willing to go along with it. But if you’re just going to throw stupid up on the screen over and over and over again, I’m going to check out.
I don’t mind the ambiguity of the Engineers at all. Their motivations for creating us? Their desire to destroy us? The possibility that the group responsible for the former and the latter aren’t the same group of Engineers? Those are all great questions and they’re probably better for not being answered.
On a similar note, I think the film would have been better if it had ended with Elizabeth flying off on her journey of faith and searching instead of tacking on a “BTW, this is totally a prequel” coda. It probably would have been better to bump that until after the credits if it absolutely needed to be there.
But since it is there, lemme speculate a little: My hypothesis is that the bioweapon-that-creates-xenomorphs didn’t stay contained to this planet. The xenomorphs escaped 35,000 years ago and evolved. The xenomorphs and dead space jockey we see in Alien are the legacy of that history.
What I don’t understand is what the opening scene of Prometheus is supposed to be. It appears to be an Engineer sacrificing himself in order to seed Earth with life while his ship flies away. (Note that after we zoom in on his genetic structure breaking apart, we see part of it recombining and forming new cells.) But if that’s true, I’m not sure how it’s supposed to hook into the legacy of Engineers being worshiped by primitive humans.