Great works of art happen by accident. No one probably predicted Alien was going to be a masterpiece and a classic science fiction movie. Given the film production’s tortuous history of script rewrites and studio meddling, its quality is remarkable. After all, at the end of the day it’s just Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None with a giant space monster and excellent special effects and designs. The movie had mysteries but it bravely refused to answer them. Alien wasn’t a movie about ‘big questions.’ People wanted to know more about the origin of the Space Jockey, the fossilised alien ship pilot, or why the ship was on that planet in the first place, or why it was carrying those eggs containing the face-huggers, or why they infected people with creatures that developed into giant killing machines. Alien, however, was a very incurious movie and didn’t dwell on these questions. Great art has these blind areas that stimulate the imagination of people and contribute to its longevity.
For some reason, however, Ridley Scott decided that the world needed to know, with absolute certainty, what the Space Jockey was and who created the aliens. Perhaps fearing the answers people found in their own imaginations were better than his own theories, he decided to settle the matter once and for all. So he turned to screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts. Lindelof and Spaihts are much better writers than Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, and David Giler and Walter Hill. They’re sophisticated writers, and sophisticated writers don’t just write monster movies. They write deep movies full of ‘big questions.’ And like a character in the movie says the most important question is, where do we come from? Given that we really don’t know, and probably will never know, I find the question, in the words of British philosopher A.J. Ayer, meaningless. But sophisticated writers are not deterred by the limitations of science, so they’ll find answers in pop science, namely Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?, which proposes that Earth was visited millennia ago by alien astronauts who created all mankind.
So when doctors Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find cave paintings with a star map, they’re immediately convinced that this discovery will lead them to the Engineers who created mankind. What evidence do they have to support that? None, but it also convinces Weyland Corporation CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in so-so make-up) to fund a trillion-dollar expedition because, again without evidence, the decrepit man is convinced the aliens can grant him immortality.
The sophisticated writers, no doubt operating under Tarantino’s creative maxim that ‘great artists steal,’ are at their most successful when they rehash the plot structure of the original Alien. A ship lands on an unknown planet, the crew penetrates an alien building, bad things happen, people run away, people are impregnated by monsters, androids do unethical things, people die, people fight the aliens, et cetera. There’s really nothing new here. The movie even includes the good old storm. You’ve seen it before, the storm. Whenever a movie deals with genetic experiments, there has to be a storm in it: whether it be scientists recreating dinosaurs (Jurassic Park) or scientists altering sharks (Deep Blue Sea), nothing shows God’s contempt for our hubris better than a convenient storm to cause trouble and get Act II started. Into the frantic pacing of this plot-driven action horror movie the writers dump lots of other big questions: what is the value of religion? Are myths true? Why did our makers abandon us? Are humans and androids truly that different? Can androids have souls? Sophisticated questions that barely plumb the surface of platitudes nor provide any new insights into them. Although it keeps hammering home these themes, it never explores any of them deeply.
An egregious example of this belaboring is the tackling of parenthood and father/son issues. The Engineers are our parents, but they’ve abandoned us, the way some parents neglect their children. Weyland neglects his daughter (Charlize Theron) but loves the android David (Michael Fassbender) like a son. Doctor Shaw can’t have children but – oh, the irony – is impregnated by one. Due to bad timing I watched this movie the day after finishing Coupling, so I couldn’t stop thinking of Kate Isitt admonishing her boyfriend: “No, no, no. Steve! Can we just clear this up once and for all? Alien is not really about parenthood.” Maybe, maybe not. But Prometheus won’t let you think it’s about anything else but daddy issues.
Poor thematic exploration aside, Prometheus has little to offer in terms of story or characterization. The scientific crew is unbelievable: the members are ill prepared to man a scientific expedition that cost one trillion dollars, their actions and decisions are bizarre, and they make strange assumptions without any evidence or logical trains of thought. We are supposed to believe that scientists will remove helmets on an alien world, after they’re told the air is breathable. People today, in preparation to trips to South America or Africa, must inoculate themselves against several diseases, and yet a journey to another planet is treated as seriously as moving from one town to another. A geologist with a digital map gets lost in a straight tunnel. A biologist previously terrified of dead alien bodies attempts to pat a clearly hostile alien creature. These are too many illogical actions. I think any work of fiction can be forgiven one act of irrationality to get the action going. French novelist André Gide called this the acte gratuit. But eventually they have to stop happening lest the viewer get tired of making apologies.
There are other moments that defy credibility, like Shaw getting up and running around half the movie, in intense physical activity, just after having conducted an abdominal operation to remove an alien being and stapled her abdomen shut. The anesthetics she takes along the way couldn’t really stop her sides from splitting open. But this is delving too deeply into the movie’s sense of realism and it’s obvious no one involved in it cared about realism at all. The big questions evidently stole all their attention. But although I have no confidence in Lindelof, whose TV show Lost I loathe as an example of everything wrong with television storytelling, we can’t forgive Scott for the paucity of the movie. After all, this is the man who wanted to end the original Alien with the monster biting Ripley’s head off, taking over the ship’s controls, mimicking her voice and sending the final report to Earth. Now Scott is a visual master, but a storyteller he’s not.
And in the end it’s the visual brilliance that salvages this movie. Scott hasn’t made such a beautiful movie since Blade Runner. It’s too early to tell if these designs will prove to have the same influence on science fiction, especially because competition is much stronger now and visual styles have flourished in cinema since then. But it is a gorgeous movie to look at, from the first sweeping shots of barren landscapes and gigantic waterfalls to the interior rooms in the alien pyramids. Anything not related to characters is excellent, from the way alien culture looks, to the way the sound plays a role throughout the movie, intensifying tension and putting the viewer inside the action. Scott is so clearly not invested in the characters that it’s no surprise the most interesting one is David, the android, excellently played by Fassbender. Whereas the others just tediously chew their lines as if they weren’t in the middle of the greatest discovery of human history, Fassbender’s nuanced body language alludes to a deep inner life that seems richer than any of the humans in the movie. One wonders why Scott didn’t just start a new franchise about artificial intelligence, when that’s what obviously fascinates him.
If you want to see the wonder of Alien devalued by needless answers, if you love brainless horror movies, if you like to marvel at technical craft, if you’re one of those harmless cinephiles who loves to see depth where it doesn’t exist, if you don’t care about thinly-disguised remakes passing themselves off as prequels and spin-offs inside a pre-exiting universe, there’s really no reason not to watch Prometheus.
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: Damon Lindelof, Jon Spaihts
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green
Runtime: 124 min