Prometheus (2012) *½
I realize I’m in the minority here, but I honestly believed that a crossover with Predator was the dumbest and worst direction in which the Alien series could plausibly be taken. I thought so in the early 1990’s, when Dark Horse built a comic book around the premise, and I thought so even more strongly in 2004, when Alien vs. Predator the movie bescumbered whatever still remained of the two franchises’ good names. Then I heard that Ridley Scott was working on an Alien prequel. Recalibrated the whole bad idea barometer, that did. There is not one aspect of that movie’s back-story that I want to see explained concretely and officially— not the conditions pertaining on Earth in whatever future that was supposed to be, not the mechanism whereby the Weyland-Yutani corporation’s executives discovered that something usefully dangerous was alive on Moon LV-426, not the secret of that suspiciously well-maintained monster hatchery in the cavern beneath the ancient derelict spacecraft, and certainly not the disaster that occurred aboard the alien ghost ship untold eons before the Nostromo landed! Oddly enough, though, it seems that somebody involved in making the movie that ultimately became Prometheus decided at some point that they agreed with me— or sort of, at any rate. The details are murky, as is usually the case when a huge Hollywood movie gets redeveloped beyond recognition in mid-production. However, it appears either that Scott contracted belated misgivings about doing anything as crassly mercenary as directing a decades-belated prequel to his most imitated early hit, or that Damon Lindelof, who received primary writing credit for the completed film, convinced him to try something more ambitious. In any case, the conventional prequel went bye-bye, and something arguably even more misconceived took its place. Instead of an Alien prequel, Prometheus is a film set in something that looks exactly like the Alien universe, whose every scene is littered with detailed callbacks to Alien and its sequels, but which is impossible to reconcile with any of those movies, either tonally or in terms of continuity. It is also an impressively stupid film, which aims ineptly for the optimistic grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey while wallowing in a species of schlock horror more closely akin to Alien Contamination, and putting about as much thought into the hows and whys of its story as The Pumaman. I’m tempted to call it the Exorcist II: The Heretic of the Alien franchise, but that would falsely imply that it spent at least as much time entertaining the audience with its gonzo overreach as insulting our intelligence with misapplied clichés and sheer laziness. For that matter, it would also falsely imply that Prometheus could make up its mind whether or not to be part of the Alien franchise at all.
There’s a reason why I picked The Pumaman specifically as a point of reference, out of all the dumbass story-idea head cheeses in the world. Like it, Prometheus proceeds from a variation on the thrice-damned Chariots of the Gods premise, and goes about it every bit as sensibly. A flying saucer that mysteriously bears no resemblance to any other piece of extraterrestrial technology we’ll see over the next two hours hovers above a waterfall, and disgorges a big, bald, white-skinned, ‘roided-out spaceman who looks like the titular weirdo from Powder after vowing to himself that Victor Salva was never going to fucking touch him ever again. The bald guy strips down to a sumo loincloth, and then tosses back a shot of some disgusting-looking black shit which causes him to melt from the inside until there’s nothing left but DNA suspended in slime. Hey, Jägermeister’ll do that to you.
An unknown but surely very long time later, in 2089, a team of archeologists dig their way into a cave on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, and discover a set of 35,000-year-old paintings. The leaders of the expedition, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, from The Monitor and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and her husband, Dr. Charlie Holloway (Devil’s Logan Marshall-Green), are very excited about the ancient murals, especially the one depicting a crowd of figures standing beneath a quintet of stars.
Flash forward another four years, and Shaw and Holloway are two of the sixteen people in hypersleep aboard the spaceship Prometheus, two years into a voyage to who-knows-where. Incidentally, you know who explicitly doesn’t know where the ship is headed? Everybody aboard, except for Shaw, Holloway, an android called David (Michael Fassbender, from Blood Creek and Centurion), and a representative of the Weyland Corporation by the name of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, of The Astronaut’s Wife and The Road)— oh, and also the eponymous and incredibly aged Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce, from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Time Machine), but shhh! It’s a big secret that Weyland is even still alive, so I wasn’t supposed to tell you that he’s hiding out in the luxury lifeboat that officially serves as his daughter’s living quarters. For that matter, I also wasn’t supposed tell you that Weyland and Vickers are related. There’s absolutely no reason for Weyland to be concealing any of that stuff, though, nor does his secrecy ever have the slightest impact on the plot, so fuck him. Anyway, robots apparently don’t get cabin fever, so David has been up and about this whole time, monitoring the vessel’s systems, studying a strange language reverse-engineered from all the known tongues of the human race, and amusing himself by playing basketball, watching Lawrence of Arabia about a thousand times, and perving on his human shipmates’ dreams by interfacing somehow with their hibernation chambers. (So Mark Zuckerberg designs hypersleep equipment in the future? Good to know.) David is also in charge of waking everybody up when the Prometheus reaches its pointlessly secret destination, an approximately Earth-like moon in orbit around a familiar-looking gas giant.
The mere fact that I said “approximately Earth-like” just now should be enough to tell you that despite many appearances to the contrary, this is not LV-426 we’re looking at. Rather, it’s LV-223. And as we and the crew are now informed via a presentation by Vickers, Shaw, Holloway, and a holographic recording of the totally-dead-and-not-at-all-stowed-away-aboard-the-Prometheus Peter Weyland, it’s also the principal attraction of a system in that star cluster the archeologists found painted in the cave on the Isle of Skye. Indeed, they’ve been finding representations of that star cluster all over the place— in Egypt, in Mesopotamia (which Lindelof apparently thinks is someplace different from Sumer and Babylonia), in Mayan Mexico, in Hawaii, etc.— and on no basis that would convince anyone who didn’t believe in crystal healing or the Illuminati, they have concluded that the recurring image represents an invitation from the aliens who invented Homo sapiens to come on home and meet our makers. Interestingly, this revelation provokes sharp differences of opinion among the crew, with the battle lines drawn in ways that raise questions about how and why this mission could have been allowed to go so far. Rather less interestingly, the three most vocal members of the “Okay, but do you people have any real evidence?” faction— Vickers, Milburn the biologist (Shaun of the Dead’s Rafe Spall), and Fifield the geologist (Sean Harris, of Creep and Isolation)— are characterized respectively as an inscrutably evil ice queen, a smirking jackass, and a truculent, tattoo-faced assbag, and it’s basically a foregone conclusion that the latter two exist solely to be always wrong about everything. This was the point at which Prometheus started to piss me off, and it never regained my goodwill afterward.
From the moment the Prometheus makes landfall on LV-223 until the onset of the endgame, this movie’s plot outline is largely indistinguishable from Alien’s. An away team explores what amounts to an extraterrestrial haunted house; extravagantly shitty weather impedes communications between the ship and the interior of the alien edifice; a horrid biohazard is brought onboard through a combination of human short-sightedness and android connivance; and grotesquely venereal monsters begin slaughtering their way through the crew. The trouble is that the versions of those events presented here are, to a one, silly and not thought out at all. Worse still, they’re dependent in nearly every case upon the Prometheus astronauts behaving not like the well-trained, rigorously vetted professionals they’re supposed to be, but like a bunch of nitwit teenagers spending the summer at Camp Crystal Lake. The away team, to begin with, bring no weapons with them into a 2000-year-old alien ruin for explicitly no reason but that Shaw wishes to believe the Engineers, as she and Holloway dub the beings whom they credit with initiating human evolution, to be friendly. Neither the obvious abandonment of the giant dome dominating the landing site nor the likelihood of such a place being taken over by potentially dangerous animals ever crosses her mind. The explorers do something even dumber a bit later, when chemical analysis reveals that the air inside the dome (unlike the air outside) is breathable by humans: they all promptly remove the helmets from their environment suits, heedless of the danger of alien disease microbes! Not even the discovery of hundreds of leaking jars full of viscous, black fluid in the dome’s central chamber is enough to raise worries about contamination, and the severed head of a dead Engineer receives special handling only because the breaking of the airtight seal on the jar room suddenly accelerates its decay. Meanwhile, after David ridiculously turns out to be capable of reading the inscriptions inside the dome (ridiculously because the dozens of millennia separating the Earthly advent of speech from that of writing plainly rule out the Engineers having any influence over the latter, even if we accept that all human languages ultimately derive from the one spoken by the aliens), not one person among the away team ever thinks to ask him what they say. And those are just the most glaring idiocies of the exploration phase!
Turning our attention now to the “getting butchered by monsters” phase, most of the problems are really just aspects of a single, truly enormous defect. One of Alien’s greatest strengths was the biological credibility of its monster. Even the creature’s one undeniable implausibility— the vast and rapid growth of the parasitic larva in the absence of any obvious food source— is at least susceptible to fan-wank justification centered on the organism’s impliedly silicon-based biochemistry. (I for one like to imagine that it was eating the silicone lubricating gel off of the Nostromo’s landing gear, since it seems to be hanging out in one of the retraction wells the first time we see it as an adult.) The things in Prometheus, on the other hand… All of them appear to be developments of microbes living in the Space Jägermeister, but what develops from them and how defies any rational interpretation. If an Engineer drinks Space Jägermeister, he melts into a puddle of DNA slime, and causes the birth of the human race— but only if he’s on Earth. If the Engineer is on LV-223 when he drinks it, he just keels over dead, after which his corpse will wait patiently to explode until after it has been discovered and brought home by somebody who will fully appreciate the explosion, even if that takes 2000 Earth-years or more. If, on the other hand, a human drinks Space Jägermeister, the microbes within it grow into Space Blood Flukes, which give him Space African Sleeping Sickness, and which horrify his friends and coworkers by swimming visibly around in the aqueous humor of his eyeballs. The Space Blood Flukes get into a male human’s sperm, too, and if he has unprotected sex with a woman after drinking Space Jägermeister, she becomes pregnant with a quick-gestating Squid Baby, even if she’s naturally infertile. Then, if the Squid Baby grows up to become a Bitchy Squid Teenager, and the Bitchy Squid Teenager is allowed to face-fuck an Engineer to death, the Engineer’s corpse will eventually give birth to the next logical step in the seven-film degeneration of H. R. Giger’s original design for the adult instar of the LV-426 organism. However, the Jägermicrobes don’t require a host to cause problems. Released into a hospitable environment (like, say, the interior of the dome), they grow beyond the Space Blood Fluke stage, ultimately maturing into Phallic-Headed Vagina Cobras. The Phallic-Headed Vagina Cobras normally prefer to hollow out the bodies of their victims after entering through one of the major orifices, but that’s not the only threat they pose. Like the LV-426 organism, their blood is acidic, and a human who dies from blood burns will come back to life as a nearly indestructible Rage Zombie. If you come away with the impression that Lindelof was just making this shit up as he went along, you’re probably right.
It’s in the third act, however, that Prometheus really commits to shitting the bed, because that’s when it finally begins taking up the question of agendas. It’s when we learn that Weyland was on the ship all along, hoping like Blade Runner’s Roy Batty to convince his creators to bestow upon him the gift of extended life, if perhaps not actual immortality. Consequently, it’s also when we realize that no element of that plan required Weyland to fake his death, that no element of it required the myriad other forms of secrecy which he imposed on the Prometheus mission, and that no element of it required the ongoing mission command dick-fight between Vickers and the Shawlloways that ate up so much of the running time up to then. The third act is also where Vickers reveals that her entire purpose for being in this movie in the first place is to add a drearily literal layer to the daddy-issues theme already being worked through much more interestingly by David, and on a diffuse, interspecies, interstellar scale by the voyage to LV-223 itself. It’s where we begin to suspect that not even the filmmakers understand David’s aims or intentions, since no two of his actions are in any way consistent with each other. And most of all, it’s where some light is shed on the goals of the Engineers, at which point Prometheus’s failures become truly catastrophic. (Giving this part of the film the bitch-slapping it deserves will require spoilers aplenty, so bail out now if you want to be surprised as well as infuriated.)
For starters, Shaw and Holloway named the Engineers aptly enough. As Ford (Outcast’s Kate Dickey), the ship’s doctor, discovers from analyzing the severed alien head after it blows itself up, their genetic structure is identical to ours. So obviously they were our creators, and we should politely refrain from asking why they’re ten feet tall and completely devoid of hair or skin pigmentation if they’re supposed to have exactly the same genes as we do. They must have hung around Earth for a while, too, because the Cro Magnons on the Isle of Skye knew how to depict LV-223’s star cluster, which the Shawlloways assure us is indistinguishable to the naked eye from our world. So far, so clunky— but at least within the realm of plausibility for a sci-fi movie made by people who don’t know anything about science. But remember that David can read the Engineers’ writing. While poking around in the dome alone and unsupervised, he discovers not just an interstellar spacecraft housed in the basement, but also the vessel’s owner’s manual. 2000 of our years ago, that ship was to have taken off for Earth, bearing enough Space Jägermeister to give every man on the planet Space African Sleeping Sickness, and to get every woman knocked up with a Squid Baby. As Captain Janek (Idris Elba, from Prom Night and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) later explains to Shaw, LV-223 was not the Engineers’ homeworld; it was their bioweapons factory, and the ship beneath the dome was being prepped for a mission of genocide before something went wrong and exterminated its crew instead. Some quick questions, though:
1. How the fuck does Janek know any of that? He’s never even set foot off the ship, and the only thing we’ve seen him do since putting the Prometheus down on the moon was to blow off his overnight shift manning the con to play Hide the Salami with Vickers, so that Milburn and Fifield could have some privacy while being killed by Vagina Cobras.
2. What the hell sense does it make for the Engineers to give humanity directions to a monster-munitions plant? Even if we say that the Shawlloways got it wrong, and that the recurring star cluster in all that ancient art wasn’t an invitation after all, then what was it? Non-diegetically, it’s a callback to the bit in Alien where Ripley figures out that the acoustical beacon emanating from the wreck is a warning instead of a distress call, but in-story? I mean, why bother warning people away from a place that they won’t even be able to see for three or four hundred centuries?
3. So the Engineers created Homo sapiens, then 498,000 years later, they decided we weren’t such a hot idea after all. Okay, fair enough. They hatch a plan to exterminate us by seeding the Earth with Campbell’s Concentrated Instant Space Monster. I’m not sure how that’s better than blanketing the planet with neutron bombs, but sure— whatever. That plan backfires, and everybody who was supposed to carry it out comes down with a bad case of Delayed Bodily Explosion Syndrome. Yeah, I can totally see that. But do you really ask me to believe that in all the ensuing two millennia, nobody on Engineeria Prime ever came up with a Plan B? What, did the Engineers back home all get together after the big mishap on LV-223, smoke a bowl, and agree that in retrospect, we really weren’t worth getting all that worked up about?!
But wait— there’s more. See, while David is on the alien ship, reading the manual and familiarizing himself with the control interface, he notices that there are hypersleep chambers on the bridge. More importantly, one of them is still working, and the creature inside it is still alive. The chain of events set in motion when word of that gets out is probably the second-stupidest thing to happen in the whole movie. (For the record, the stupidest, hands down, is Milburn offering belly-scritches to a visibly pissed-off Vagina Cobra after spending the past quarter of the running time wisely wanting nothing to do with anything that ever lived or might still be living on LV-223.) Having already endured exploding alien corpses, Space Blood Flukes, Rage Zombies, Vagina Cobras, a Squid Baby, and the deaths of nearly half the crew, David, Vickers, Ford, and the last of the Expendable Meat accompany Weyland into the ship to wake that final Engineer up. Shaw hurries out after them, too, despite the fact that her guts are being held in place by staples as a result of the Squid Baby abortion she had about half an hour ago. Unfortunately for them, the Engineer is really not a morning person. Now I want you to imagine a being of great intellect, from a society of almost incalculable age and technical sophistication. Think about him emerging from suspended animation to find himself surrounded by creatures of the species he had been charged with exterminating, one of whom speaks to him in his own language. How do you think such a being might respond? It’s just a hunch, but I’ll wager not one of you envisioned him immediately ripping off the speaker’s head and beating the others to death with it. I said before that the crew of the Prometheus constantly behaved like counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, so I guess it’s fitting in a way that the alien they thaw out at the end turns out to be Jason Voorhees.
Balanced against all of that foolishness, about all I can say in defense of Prometheus is that it mostly looks nice, and that the cast would have been terrific if they’d had anything worthwhile to work with. Ridley Scott has always been a very visual director, and Prometheus undeniably looks like it cost ten times what 20th Century Fox spent on Alien. A lot of H. R. Giger’s original designs have been resurrected, including a few that got cut from Alien on budgetary grounds. For example, the jar room has a mural covering most of the ceiling, which is clearly based on the hieroglyphic stele that the Nostromo crew were supposed to find inside the egg hatchery, and it’s good to see that stuff finally get an appearance on film. For that matter, it wasn’t only orphaned Alien designs that got dusted off, for the dome is based less on Giger’s unused egg silo than on his conception of the spice-harvesting combines for Alejandro Jodorowski’s abandoned version of Dune. Much as I gripe about the haphazard nature Prometheus’s monsters, I have to admit that they’re all nicely done. In fact, the only thing I don’t like the look of is the Engineers; it would have been a terrible disappointment anyway to learn that the strange, bony body of Alien’s fossilized pilot was really just a space suit, but it’s twice as frustrating to find nothing but a huge, albino muscle-twink inside.
As for the cast, I cannot tell you how much I would rather have seen the movie hinted at by the final shot, with Noomi Rapace as a plucky archeologist and Michael Fassbender as her broken robot, joyriding around the galaxy in a stolen alien starship. Those two can almost make you forget that four out of every five things Shaw and David say or do are ill-motivated, character-inconsistent, or logically indefensible. Idris Elba and Charlize Theron come out much worse, but I’ve seen them both be great elsewhere. If anything, it’s a sign of how weak this screenplay really is that neither one can find a toehold in it for their abilities. Guy Pierce has a special handicap, in that no force on Earth could have made him convincing as a man who has childhood memories of the Reagan administration on the verge of the 22nd century. It’s not his fault that no one can make out his acting over the din of that over-the-top age makeup. Put the five of them together in a smartly-written film with a strong premise and an original approach, and you’d surely have something fabulous. Put them together in Prometheus, on the other hand, and you get… well, Prometheus.