Originally published July 10, 2012
To make it a little easier to digest, I divided the review into seven sub-sections that lend some narrative to what I thought were the problems with the movie:
1. Prometheus is a “Bootquel”
2. What is Prometheus About?
3. Things Happen in Prometheus just because they happened in other Alien movies
4. Everyone is stupid and nothing makes sense
5. Characters are cliches with no real motivation; actors are wasted
6. Wait, what?
7. The real problem
Prometheus is a Bootquel
I’ve come up with the term “bootquel” to describe movies that blur the line between being another installment in a franchise and being reboots or remakes of the movie that started it. (The other composite word I came up with for this review is “dickgina”, as in the aliens in this movie look like dickginas.”) Since every movie released now has to be turned into a franchise, no matter how implausible (hello, Hangover 2) bootquels have become more and more common with mixed results: Casino Royale, Superman Returns, Fast & Furious, Final Destination and the new Star Trek, to name a handful.
Lots of times bootquels re-tell the original story with some minor changes or bring back the original characters or actors. The idea is to try to attract new fans while retreading enough familiar territory to keep older fans excited. Bootquels aren’t always bad but sometimes they turn out terribly for the same reasons Prometheus does: the plot is so rehashed that I don’t even feel bad spoiling most of it in this review (and I intend to, so be warned!). Going far beyond simple homage, the writers never attempt to throw viewers a curveball by turning one of these well-known sci-fi tropes on its ear, instead copying some moments from other movies scene-for-scene. It’s clear the movie was written based on everyone’s expectations about what should happen in an Alien film instead of what makes sense for this story. And that raises my first question:
What is Prometheus about?
Leaving all the behind-the-scenes chatter and geek speculation aside, as near as I can tell Prometheus is meant to be some sort of “origin story” of the alien species from the original movie. This is already a problem. We should know from bitter experience that some things just work better when they’re enigmatic and mysterious.
The writers, Spaihts and Lindelof, had the difficult tasks of making Prometheus feel like Alien, even though the story is totally different. After all, if aliens aren’t around yet, how can you make a movie about a space crew getting ripped apart by aliens? The fact that this tiny bit of forethought didn’t occur to anyone forecasts Prometheus’ laundry list of problems.
Things happen in Prometheus just because they happened in other Alien movies
Lindelof and Spaihts manage to capture all the right beats whether they make sense or not, proving, at least, they have seen Alien before. In the opening sequence we’re introduced to the main characters as they awaken from hypersleep. Shortly after, the crew sits through a holographic Power Point presentation that explains the purpose of the voyage. Briefing scenes like these are really meant to educate the audience but unlike the similar briefing scene in Aliens, the crew of the Prometheus are freelance experts, not marines. It doesn’t make sense that they would be hearing details of the voyage for the first time when they’re nearly at their destination. It would’ve made more sense to have this scene while they were still on Earth, maybe as a flashback.
Late in the movie, David the android (played by Michael Fassbender) copies Paul Riser’s plan from Aliens and conspires to impregnate the main character, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) with an alien embryo in the most implausible manner possible that involves also ripping off District 9. See, in Aliens, Burke (Riser’s character) tried to sneak an alien back to the Company by smuggling it inside a crew member. The reason this plan makes no sense in Prometheus is that, unlike Burke, Weyland and David have total control over this mission. Also, no one has any reason at this point to suspect their intentions or that the alien life forms are dangerous. David could simply take as many samples home as they want and infect people there, if that’s his plan.
Everyone is stupid and nothing makes sense
The crew of the Prometheus are mostly scientists, yet they don’t really seem interested in things like discovering life on alien planets or the secret of mankind’s creators (or “Engineers”). In fact, when they learn that this is the mission, they mostly seem annoyed and inconvenienced. These “scientists” also skirt basic precautions that rational people in any profession would take, including taking off their helmets on an alien planet or casually disregarding a probe that detects alien life signs.
Major character developments don’t make sense, either. Weyland behaves like a villain despite never really doing anything bad. Near the end of the movie he reveals his “true motives” for embarking on the mission: to the use the knowledge on the new planet to prolong his life. Unlike the secret agenda of the Company in previous Alien movies, there’s nothing particularly nefarious about Weyland’s true intentions, so why hide them from the crew in the first place? He’d probably have faired better by letting them in on his plans and working together.
Speaking of which, Weyland’s plan seems extremely speculative. With the level of technology available aren’t there clones or android bodies Weyland can put himself in? Lobbying for stem cell research would seem like a better use of his time and money than this voyage. A simple line of dialog could address this but it begs the question of anyone in the audience that’s paying attention. Of course, if proper time was taken to develop characters, we might understand why a man with seemingly limitless resources would become desperate enough to undertake such an expensive, risky mission to begin with. Which raises the next point.
Characters are clichés with no real motivation; actors are wasted
Here’s a fun game: watch Prometheus and identify all the sci-fi character archetypes. There’s a traitorous android, an uptight officer, and even one of those lovably blue collar characters that’s always a pilot or mechanic and, inexplicably, has access to trucker hats and 70s classic rock 100 years in the future. The main character, Ellie Shaw, is an obvious composite of Ripley and the protagonist of the same name from Contact (Weyland reminds me quite a bit of the aging, near-death financier from that movie also. Coincidence?)
Sadly, none of the characters in Prometheus are as interesting as the templates they were based on. Unlike Jody Foster’s character in Contact, Shaw is not struggling internally to cope with being a scientist and a woman of faith. Finding evidence of the Engineers doesn’t seem to change her spiritual or scientific perspective at all, in fact. “But who created them?” she says with little rumination after finding conclusive evidence that the human species was created by ‘roided-up space aliens. You think something like that would spark greater self-reflection on the question of faith, but nah. They also tacked on something about Shaw being sterile as a last-ditch grab at the motherhood theme from Aliens.
Since there’s so little character development, the talent of a pretty fantastic cast goes to waste. Noomi Rapace is fine as Shaw, but it’s not really even clear she’s the protagonist until about an hour in. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce (under tons of old age make-up) had only a handful of lines between them.
Why does a tiny amount of black goo turn you into a space-zombie that can impregnate women with aliens through normal human intercourse?
How did David know the infected guy would sleep with Shaw before going crazy and murdering everyone on the ship or simply dying from the disease?
Apparently the black goo was a biological weapon devised by the Engineers to destroy humankind. As biological weapons go, this one has two huge flaws: 1) it is just as effective against your own team and 2) it turns your enemy into something much worse than what they started out as. This would be like the US shooting terrorists with a weapon that makes them stronger, faster and shoot lasers from their mouths before eventually dying.
Why do the walls of the Engineers’ ship and base look like it’s made from demonic corpses like an alien colony or a stage from Contra?
Why is the ship’s biologist irrationally afraid of everything, including an alien corpse, but not the horrific-looking dickgina alien that comes out of the pool of black goo? Hasn’t he seen Star Wars?
When Shaw learns that Weyland is alive, why doesn’t she tell him about the disease that turned that guy into a space zombie and that she just surgically removed an alien baby from herself a few minutes ago? Why does she agree to go with him to the Engineers’ ship after he lied about his death and his true motives?
Hasn’t Vickers ever seen that Droopy cartoon with the falling tree?
The real problem
There are a lot more things I could nit-pick (no, really—like why do the Engineers look like the final boss from Street Fighter 4?) but those things aren’t the worst problems. See, Alien was really just a good horror movie. It doesn’t really matter where the alien came from or even what it’s called—it just has to be scary. Ridley Scott does create some real moments of terror, but they would be more effective if we actually cared about characters and the plot made sense.
The problem with movies like Prometheus is that both the writers and the audience are too familiar with other installments in the franchise. Instead of working on character and plot, writers capitalize on what audiences already know about Alien movies to fill in the blanks. The audience is guilty here, too: we have our expectations about the what’s supposed to happen in a movie like this – exploration of Gigeresque corridors, discovery of alien pods and cadavers, inevitable android betrayal – and we don’t pay a lot of attention to how it happens as long as it does happen. At that point, all that’s left is kitsch – a random array of images meant to arouse our nostalgia or otherwise cheaply titillate the audience. What else can you say about a movie that ends with a tentacle rape?