Hollywood seems to be in a prequel state of mind (read: in a franchise re-booting, milk it for anything it’s worth, business as usual state of mind). With prequels of Planet of the Apes and The Thing, a prequel to Alien couldn’t come as too much of a shock. Prometheus has been one of the most heavily anticipated movies of the summer, which means it comes with a built in letdown factor.
Prometheus marks Ridley Scott’s first directorial foray into science fiction since his seminal movie, Blade Runner (also being re-made). With a screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (Lost, Cowboys & Aliens), he manages to echo Alien while creating a back story set in a thoroughly imagined world of its own. Hands down, the movie is gorgeous to look at and within ten minutes of the movie, the amount of detail that went into is evident.
From the beginning, the movie sets the tone for the themes and issues that run through it. The movie opens with shots of a planet, both dark and hauntingly beautiful. Set against this tableau is a pale-skinned humanoid, who ingests something that causes him to break down at a genetic level. Even with these few simple frames, the film poses questions: Who is this? Why are they here? What is its purpose? WHY IS IT TOUCHING THAT? WHY. IS. IT. DOING. THAT? These are the type of questions the writers continue to pose and leave the audience to keep guessing at.
“God does not build in straight lines.” –Holloway
Enter: humans. A scientist couple, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who have discovered recurring patterns in ancient cave paintings all over the world. They interpret them as a message from alien creators, inviting them to come visit them. [WHY?] A trillion dollars later, specifically December 2093, they’re on the spaceship, Prometheus. Together the audience is presented with a crew of skeptical scientist (Green), “red shirts”, a ball-busting corporate shill (Charlize Theron, fresh from Snow White and the Huntsmen), and a black guy (Idris Elba, who is cool in anything) all of whom might as well have walked around with the words “Monster Snacks” on their foreheads. Oh, and a scene chewing robot (Michael Fassbender).
And therein is the second problem in a nutshell. The movie is full of stock characters who barely rise above the level of caricature, who (pretensions of deep philosophizing about creation and God aside) spout predictable dialogue, do predictable things, thus robbing the movie of any air of menace, all against a gorgeous background.
“If they made us, surely they could save us.” –Weyland
The power of science fiction is its ambition to wrestle with big ideas, or in this case, pursue answers to big questions. At the heart of Prometheus is a scientist asking the most meaningful questions about life: why were we created? Why are we here? Seeking her creator’s approval and needing to ask him/them questions, Shaw wants to confront the beings referred to as the Engineers, regardless of how disappointing she may find the answers. After all, if her “creators” were actually making weapons of mass destruction in order to wipe out humanity, that only leads to more questions: Why did you change your mind? What did we do wrong?
“I deserve to know why.” –Shaw
While the movie and the ship derive their name from the myth of a fire-stealing Titan who wanted to make humanity equal to the gods, the movie’s conceit brought to mind the image of Job when he confronted God about why he had so much suffering in his life. That was the climax chapters of the book of Job, 38-41, as he wrestled with reconciling a good with the natural and human evil in creation. So when Job wanted God to account for Himself for how unjustly Job had been allowed to suffer, here was the answer he received [Job 40:8-14 (as rendered in The Message)]:
“Do you presume to tell me what I’m doing wrong? Are you calling me a sinner so you can be a saint? Do you have an arm like my arm? Can you shout in thunder the way I can? Go ahead, show your stuff. Let’s see what you’re made of, what you can do. Unleash your outrage. Target the arrogant and lay them flat. Target the arrogant and bring them to their knees. Stop the wicked in their tracks–make mincemeat of them! Dig a mass grave and dump them in it–faceless corpses in an unmarked grave. I’ll gladly step aside and hand things over to you–you can surely save yourself with no help from me!”
God gives Job a new perspective of creation and his place in it (going on to reflect on the Leviathan, a terrifying creature, bringing to mind something nearly … alien). That Job is just a part of creation, not nearly on a level to challenge God.
While sometimes the best theological answer to many questions remains “I don’t know,” the questions are still worth struggling with and working through. But some questions have no answers, at least not here and not now, which leaves us learning to live with conundrums and mystery, in the tensions of knowing and yet not knowing.
“I’m still searching.” –Shaw
The dilemma of the letdown factor can be seen with the movie, The Avengers. Again the expectations were so high, the movie had that much more to clear in order to meet fan expectation. It did so and word of mouth became the best marketing for the movie. Prometheus wasn’t bad, it just didn’t clear that bar of expectation, thus the lingering feeling that it wasn’t what it could have been.
What we do have is an attempt to be the thinking man’s Alien. While the production doesn’t skimp on the richly imagined, intricate visuals designed (plenty of H.R. Giger inspired eye-candy), it’s also like the movie forgot some of the lessons of Alien. It forgot how to build tension. There no extended silences, instead orchestral surges broke any budding mood. The characters often did stupid things for no reason other than to service a sense of “doing something,” because of a lot of the action happened for no particular reason. Or worse, made little sense: even the movie’s best (only?) cringe worthy scene, with Shaw climbing into an auto-surgery machine to eliminate the alien within, yet not even a C-section of a tentacled alien stops her from channeling Sigourney Weaver for the rest of the movie.
In short, Prometheus reminded of Steven Spielberg’s A.I., another mess of a science fiction movie, with marvelous production values and dark aesthethic, which asked a series of philosophical questions set against the possibility of an intriguing story, then backed away from answering those questions. One would think that Lindelof doesn’t have a lot of grace left for scripts with deferred answers, as all has not been forgiven after the series finale of Lost. Basically it’s like Prometheus gives up on the pretense of answers, but thanks everyone for dropping $10 bucks a pop in their continuing search for them.