In Space, Nobody Can Hear Your Confusion: A Review of Prometheus

Before I posted this review I checked mrqe.com for other reviews, and was surprised at the critical reception Prometheus has received. Generally, critics seem to like the film. Roger Ebert gave it a 4/4 and wrote a typically smooth review of it, full of praise. Roger’s a good reviewer, I just don’t agree with him on this one. Matter of fact, I had trouble finding reviews that I did agree with. Andrew O’Hehir at Salon.com came the closest. So anyway, I’m offering up my own critical opinion, as someone who has depths of respect for Ridley Scott, especially for Alien and Blade Runner, which as I wrote in this post, I like much better than Kubrick’s mind-numbing 2001.

First the good: Ridley the visual stylist does not disappoint. Prometheus is a beautifully crafted film; CGI, analog visual effects, just plain good cinematography, are all used to their strengths and fleshed out in hip 3D. Scott is to be commended here for his restraint. He doesn’t show us anything that’s less than 100% believable, a design ethic he followed strictly with Blade Runner and Alien but let go of a bit with Gladiator, where he seemed a bit too intoxicated with CGI to realize that it wasn’t quite up to his ambitions. But with Prometheus he gets it right, and it’s a visual tour de force. When it comes to 3D, Scott and his team know better than to simply throw things at the audience, and instead they use the technology to give every scene a subtle depth and realism. In terms of the showing, Prometheus is completely absorbing.

It’s in the telling where Prometheus falters, and falters badly. Spoiler alert! I’ll try not to reveal too many of the key plot points, though the plot being as murky as it is, I’m not really sure what the main plot points are. This illustrates a key problem with the film.

Prometheus opens with some beautiful panoramas of Iceland, I assume, standing in for primordial earth. Fitting then (if you know anything about that cold island nation other than they like whaling and made Bjork) that the first living creature we see on this planet is committing suicide, drinking some gunk borrowed from the alien apiarists from the X-Files. This black gunk is a major character in the film, and in the years since the X-Files it seems we are no closer to understanding what the heck it is, exactly. This vaguely albino humanoid watches a UFO fly away (quite prettily), then he…melts, falls over a waterfall, and, I think, generates all life on earth. We get a nice shot of his DNA shriveling and then the gunky stuff reforming it into a new strand of DNA.

Remember this point for a few sentences, because I’m not sure the filmmakers did. This vaguely albino dude reappears later as the “engineers”, a race of Übermenschen who don’t get enough sun and focus their energy on seeding planets for life and then wantonly destroying them with insidious and inexplicable biological weapons. When the hapless crew of the Prometheus literally bags a head of one of these engineers, we learn (in that super quick way that everything happens in the latter 21st century) that their DNA is a 100% match for humans. Flash back to the sacrificial prologue…why recombine the DNA if you’re just going to end up with the thing that you already are? A few seconds later the Übermensch head explodes in a disgusting display of puss and blood. I think I know how they got this effect; they simply asked the head to try to make sense of the rest of the film.

Prometheus is not the first work of science fiction to explore the possible alien origins of life on earth. Scott was inspired by Erich von Däniken’s 1968 “expose”  Chariots of the Gods, which started the whole “ancient astronaut” thing and has been widely and roundly derided since for relying on shaky or even completely fabricated evidence. While the idea that life arrived on earth and was not created here out of a massive ocean of primordial Dinty Moore beaf stew is certainly plausible (exobiologists call it Panspermia), Daniken’s version is full of fanciful hooey and I’m afraid the pseudoscientific DNA of the film’s premise infects the rest of the story, so much so that it sometimes comes across as a supernatural thriller and not a science fiction one. The worst offense in this category was the dial-a-sandstorm that seemed to jump right out of an old cut of The Mummy, and the spider-walking mutant geologist, Fifield (Sean Harris) who seems to have taken walking lessons from The Exorcist’s satan-possessed Regan. More on that later.

A good story could still have been constructed out of the ancient astronaut hooey, cross-bred with the intriguing “space jockey” character glimpsed in fossilized repose in Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien, for sure, but Prometheus fails on the basis of not making any sense whatsoever out of any of the source material. To get right down to it, Prometheus suffers in two key areas that have to be attended to if you want to make a film that feels real: pacing and procedure.

Michael Fassbender’s marvelous creation, the robot David, gloating because he gets the plot of Prometheus. Why oh why can’t he explain any of it to us, or to the other characters? And where can I get one of those holographic planetariums?

First the pacing: once the Prometheus lands on the planet LV223, the whole show is over in what appears to be about 24 hours. There’s no reason for this, other than to create tension and keep the film moving. Like the sandstorm. The whole affair seems rushed, which is strange for trillion-dollar space mission to a faraway moon that might yield the secrets to the origins of life on earth, and even stranger for a 2+ hour film that seems to be drawing at least part of its inspiration from David Lean’s slow, meditative masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia. The weird thing is that the film itself isn’t nonstop action. There are quieter moments, but they just aren’t used very well. They could have stretched it out to 72 hours, kept a similar tempo (we moviegoers are very good at getting instant time breaks in films) and made it seem much more realistic.

I’m not saying Prometheus should have proceeded like an actual NASA mission, with each push of a button spelled out in a three-ring binder of mission protocols, but still, the illusion of some kind of deliberation would have helped. Case in point: when Prometheus enters the atmosphere of the planet, they fly around for a few minutes until they spot a series of structures and a very convenient road to land on. “Look!  Over there! God doesn’t built in straight lines…” (They obviously never heard of columnar basalt.) A more realistic approach (pun intended) might have been to scan the planet with radar and check out some images…spend a few minutes of story time on it that would take the same number of frames. Then they’d know where to land, and we’d have a nice opportunity to see some procedure, leading us to believe this a real mission with real people on board. Helps us suspend disbelief, helps character development. As it is, there is almost none of this in the film. Things just happen. People just act.

The characters also seem to suffer a profound lack of impulse control, such as when our ill-fated protagonist Charlie decides to snap off his plexiglass helmet and breath the fresh alien air, despite the presence of ominous black slime. He never saw the X-Files! The characters stumble around stupidly like this, with little of the discussion that might help us, the audience, connect some of the film’s many dots–or believe that the characters at least are trying to connect them.

Thus when characters do make a major decision, we have no idea what they know or don’t know, and thus we really have no idea where, other than the script, the decisions are coming from. When Idris Alba’s Captain Janek tells our heroine, Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace), that he has to make sure none of the scary alien weapons of mass deconstruction make their way back to earth (where it will wipe away all narrative structure) it seems to come out of nowhere. Until then he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to anything but the tail end of Charlize Theron’s sadly underutilized Miss Vickers. I’ve never been a fan of the kind of films where the characters always state the obvious, but here a little bit of that would be in order. Take another instructional look back at Scott’s Alien: the characters in that film were all intensely curious about what was happening, spying on one another, gossiping, arguing. There was a chain of command, weak though it was. We understood the character’s motivations and decisions, we understood why they clashed. There was consequence and causality, and thus the film made sense, and scared us.

This leads us to the Red Herring to swallow all Red Herrings, the afore-mentioned Spider-Walking Mutant Fifield. Dying from the discovery that alien snakes have acid for blood, and that said blood doesn’t mix as well as with plexiglass as cucumbers and yogurt do, and shouldn’t be used for a facial, he returns later with his heels over his head, unfolds and kills several of the crew, in fact, several of the crew I’m convinced we never even saw before that and were only introduced to die in that scene. They weren’t wearing red uniforms, no. That touch of winky humor would have made this nonsensical scene easier to take. Maybe there was some explanation left on the cutting room floor. But again, it just seems as if the whole story had come unglued by this point.

It’s instructive that the fanboy forums are preoccupied with who dies when and how in the film. It’s not at all clear. There are 17 crew members but we never get to know most of them and half a dozen or so are taken out with the mutant attack above. In Alien the crew was smaller, but you knew each of their fates. The same was true of Aliens, James Cameron’s excellent sequel. The landing team was 15, but each character had at least something to do and each had their own end tallied, however briefly. Again, consequences and causality, these things matter. I’m willing to take the Spider-Walking-Mutant Fifield as something that might get explained later, but the fact that nobody mentions the event again underscores the suspicion that maybe the whole spider-walking mutant Fifield attack…thing…was added later in the script and thus remained disconnected from anything else. Too much of Prometheus is like this.

Here again it’s instructive, and devastating, to compare Prometheus with its progenitor, Alien. The Xenomorph in that film had a clear and creepy biology, from the egg to the embryo-carrying facehugger to the chest-bursting…chest-burster. Everything except the creature’s seemingly calorie-free growth was terrifyingly understandable. In Prometheus, we get Engineers who share our DNA but are whiter and bigger than us and start up their hologram-guided ships with a pan flute. We get some black goo in clay jars, a kind of menacing Dead Sea Scroll juice, that seems to melt characters or explode their heads (depends on the character), but before it does so, seems to take over their sperm to impregnate their otherwise infertile lovers with giant squid in search of a Engineer’s face to hug. There’s another life form, the snake thing (officially called a “hammerpede,” which clarifies nothing) that seems to enter people’s mouth just so it can pop out again and scare the other crewmembers. I wish I could say I made at least some of that up.

Prometheus had so much potential. Sure, it rests on hooey, but it could have still been fun, scary, smart and thought-provoking. The actors were up to it, especially the standout Michael Fassbender, whose robot David was a masterful construction. The visuals did not fail. Ridley Scott had all the pieces to tell a great story. I wish he did. Tell a story, that is. Instead the plot of Prometheus is suggested in a series of disconnected action sequences, gross-outs and quixotic throw-away glimpses. Some critics seem to be arguing that it’s exactly this opaqueness that’s the film strength. I don’t think so. Unanswered questions are okay in a film, and necessary in one like Prometheus, but so is plot that the audience can follow and at least a glimpse of an underlying logical structure. I can’t help wishing I could go back in time and sign Guillermo del Toro to supervise the construction of Prometheus. Any of del Toro’s films, from the silly but fun Blade 2 to the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth are infinitely better constructed in terms of narrative arc. The secret is the aforementioned pacing and procedure. Pacing to keep things moving in a fast but believable rate, and procedure so we know what the heck is going on, and why. Or at least, we know we’re not supposed to know, but will be informed later on. Ultimately it’s about suspension of disbelief. Prometheus managed some of the best sci-fi visuals ever but failed to provide the storytelling to make it all believable. The sad thing is that I can really imagine the film that could have been.

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