>> Monday, June 11, 2012

Short version: utterly gorgeous 3D and a phenomenal cast are wasted on one of the most profoundly, fundamentally stupid movies I've seen in a long time.

If you've somehow missed the plot description: a pair of scientists rediscover the lost study of von Däniken-ism and conclude from a paucity of evidence that extraterrestrials visited the Earth long ago and several ancient human civilizations memorialized it in their artwork, along with a cute little starmap of where the ETs were from, which they take to be an invitation. Somehow. We see the scientists discovering one of the paintings in a Scottish mesolithic archaeological site just after a scene in which one of these alien visitors eats goo and disintegrates into DNA (apparently), fertilizing (I guess) a stream (on Earth?). Immediately after the cave discovery, we jump to some spectacular shots of the spaceship Prometheus on its way somewhere, and a nifty little sequence of the ship's sole conscious inhabitant, the android David, amusing himself. The ship arrives at a pretty planetary system where everyone--including our archaeologist heroes (one of whom is also a medical doctor when she needs to be, perhaps connected to her training as the universe's worst forensic anthropologist)--wakes up and we learn the whole Macguffin about the starmaps and that one of the chief pieces of evidence for the scientists' ancient aliens hypothesis is that the lady scientist believes in it (no, really, that's what she tells a room full of people when they ask her if it might be bullshit). The Prometheus lands on a moon in the planetary system, next to a gigantic 1975 piece of H.R. Giger concept art repurposed from Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted Dune adaptation (this piece of forty-year-old art is the third best thing about Prometheus, by-the-by: yes, that's how quickly this film gets to the bottom of the goody barrel). The explorers leave the safety of their ship just before nightfall (instead of, you know, waiting for a whole fresh day and maybe a few hours to get acclimated and monitor the environment) and enter the alien structure, where it turns out there aren't any Harkonnens at all (this proves disappointing) and the screaming and dying and body horror starts happening. People die, which I guess the audience is supposed to care about (maybe because they're in the movie you're watching, you know how that's supposed to work) and someone lives because that's how things usually go in this kind of movie and anyway they're already threatening that this is going to be the first film of a trilogy, gods help us, and that's when the credits happen and you get to leave if you're still in the theatre.

We can talk about the good, first, and dispose of it fairly quickly. If you're one of those folks who are going to see Prometheus out of obligation--because it's science fiction (or at least set in outer space), because it's an Alien prequel, because it's a Ridley Scott gig--you should pay the extra premium to see it in the theatre in 3D even though it's an essentially awful movie; oh, and if you're going to see it at all, don't bother waiting for it to come out on whatever home video format you're using these days, unless you have one of those fancy new televisions that lets you watch things in 3D, and maybe not even then. I know there's a great deal of irony in recommending that if you have to see a movie you shouldn't bother with, you should go to more trouble and expense, but the fact is that if Prometheus has a redeeming feature, it's the cinematography. Prometheus was shot in 3D with the already-becoming-legendary Red digital cameras, which produce utterly phenomenal images, and a friend who knows such things informs me Scott and his crew went to extra trouble to make sure the sets were properly lit to avoid the kind muddle and darkening of shots 3D often produces. Aerial shots are breathtaking, interiors have depth and clarity; if Prometheus were a good movie, it might completely vindicate 3D filmmaking to an extent even Martin Scorsese didn't quite manage. And you'll have at least one nice thing to say about the damn film.

Well--either way, too, you can talk about the cast, which features Idris Elba and Charlize Theron being excellent, Noomi Rapace being adequate to what she's being forced to do, and Guy Pearce for, it turns out, absolutely no reason whatsoever (he gets to wear a lot of okay age makeup playing a character that has no reason to be in the movie, I suppose for the benefit of the viral ad campaign where Pearce got to play a younger version of the character; why they didn't just cast an old man in the movie and a younger actor who looked like him in the viral campaign--if they even had the character in the movie at all--is a pretty good question). And then you've possibly already heard critics gushing about Michael Fassbender's performance; which is justified: Fassbender knocks it out of the park with a creepy, touching, dignified (stately, really) performance as the movie's Pinocchio.

Now, if only that luscious cinematography and great acting were in the service of a film that wasn't fundamentally stupid. And I do mean stupid. Prometheus is an utterly dumb film, and I don't just mean the scientific howlers that pervade the film from the second scene in the movie to whatever point I just stopped noticing anymore; no, Prometheus is the kind of film where the character who built and programmed the little flying robots that are mapping the complex everybody's exploring gets lost trying to go back over the path his robots just mapped; the kind of movie where a scientist who gets freaked out over and runs from an obviously dead, decapitated and dessicated humanoid extraterrestrial decides to treat a hissing, cobra-like, creature that keeps trying to bite him like a stray puppy; the kind of movie where a character who clearly needs medical attention of the sort the spaceship Prometheus appears to have the facilities to provide instead gets flamethrowered to death in an unintentionally hysterical scene.

Characters are stupid when they need to be and smart when the script requires it. They do things no human would do because Damon Lindelof doesn't know how to move them from point A to point B. Sure, the cautious and diligent captain steps off the watch to go have sex with the corporate executive while two crewmembers are lost outside the ship--I mean, c'mon, if he didn't do that, he might be able to keep them from dying or at least know what happened to them, and how would we have a couple of utterly ridiculous scenes attempting to frighten us, later, if that happened? And then there are some of the worst clichés you can even imagine popping up here and there for no particularly discernible reason; when two characters are revealed to have a familial relationship, the biggest surprise in the entire scene is that the money line isn't accompanied by pounding soap operatic chords on a Hammond B3--DUNH! DUNH! DUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNH!

But yes, there are also the scientific howlers. A character quotes the old misconception that God doesn't build in straight lines (a clue as to where some aliens might be residing, supposedly), which might be news to crystal growths or (even more relevantly in the given context) to the Bimini Wall. A character apparently dates a wall painting by looking at it (although a friend points out this may simply be the result of bad editing). Everybody gets excited that some extraterrestrial DNA is "one hundred percent identical to our DNA," whatever the Hell that's supposed to mean. All of the biology in Prometheus is bad science; the archaeology might actually be worse.

This is all supposedly in the service of profound questions, like, "Why are we here?", "How do I work this?" and "Where is that large automobile?" Kidding. The large automobile is in the Prometheus' cargo bay and you work things by learning several ancient human languages which mysteriously imbues you with the ability to operate alien technology and speak extraterrestrialese (not kidding--these things happen in Prometheus; like I said, that's the kind of movie this is; it makes the oddly-similar Stargate look like 2001 on scientific plausibility). This is where Prometheus basic stupidity extends gooey pseudopodia into insulting stupidity, in that Prometheus is clearly a pretentious movie that thinks it's raising serious cosmic questions about spirituality and science, and what Damon Lindelof apparently thinks is a conflict between them. (Lindelof evidently thinks the conflict between science and faith is over whether we might have been created, if we were created, by gods or by monsters, when any conflict between them is over ways of knowing--i.e. do we understand experience by testing it against our assumptions or by assimilating it into our assumptions? Given that everybody, even the supposed "skeptics" in Prometheus pretty much engages entirely in the latter, it's probably fair to say there are no actual scientist characters in Prometheus, just characters who listed the word on their job applications.) There's also a bit of business about whether robots don't have souls because they're machines, even if they're empathic and artistic and whatever; and do humans have souls just because they're born with them even if they're douchebags, but I suppose the audience might end up caring about the answer to that one as much as the movie does, which is to say you might as well forget about it because that's how Lindelof and Scott treat the whole matter. Oh, and there is a modestly entertaining existential Q&A where characters wonder if humans were created by aliens for the same reason humans created robots--"Because they could"--but that really goes nowhere fast though I think it would have made a decent enough Far Side cartoon back in the day.

Regrettably, one can all-too-easily imagine that when the Prometheus backlash peaks (at this writing, reviews appear to be middling or worse), Lindelof and Ridley Scott may come out swinging with claims that SF fans just don't like movies that are as smart and ambitious as Prometheus and don't like religion in their sci-fi (if memory serves, Ronald Moore spouted similar nonsense when everyone hated the last season of Galactica). Of course this would surprise fans of Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and a significant number of other authors dealing intelligently with spiritual and religious questions. 2001 remains one of the most critically-acclaimed SF films of all time and deals (in a much more satisfying and adventurous manner) with the chief questions about human existence that Prometheus twiddles its widdle toes in; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? deals with the whole human-souls-robot-souls issue and will be remembered, discussed and loved long after Prometheus has hit bargain bins and become an answer to a trivia question.

Although Lindelof has never said this, so far as I can tell, he comes off as one of these writers who seems certain he needs to save science fiction from itself, the kind of screenwriter who thinks SF is a great idea for a genre, it only it didn't have so much damn science in it, who thinks the fans are just fanboys in it for the shiny and sparkle and its his duty to smuggle in some intellectual pretense to uplift the whole endeavor. I'm trying to figure out, then, if there's any irony in using a film with the title Prometheus as the vehicle for this particular missionary work: "big" questions exactly identical to what Lindelof and Scott want to ask were raised in what is sometimes regarded as the first science fiction novel (there are other nominees), an 1815 Gothic subtitled "The Modern Prometheus". On the one hand, not only is the reference unsubtle and the subject identical, but connecting Frankenstein to Prometheus thematically would very nearly salvage the latter from some of its basic incoherence (i.e. the extraterrestrials are the mad doctors trying to create life like Victor Frankenstein, and the human beings are collectively The Monster, coming back to the creator for answers or, in the alternative, senseless destruction--good grief, that almost makes sense, and would have made a pretty good movie had Scott managed to make that one instead); on the other hand, it seems difficult to believe Lindelof has that much wit as a writer; it's possible Ridley Scott wanted to make that movie and Lindelof's script screwed it up, though that begs the question, why didn't they just get a third screenwriter to start from scratch?

It also has to be said of the movie's stupidity and questions about whether Prometheus is really a prequel to Alien that there seems to be some confusion on the part of the filmmakers over whether something is original and different just because it has a new coat of paint on it (hint: the answer is "no"). To be fair, Lindelof did compare the Prometheus script to a U2 concert where the band is expected to play so many hits during the set (less charitably, one might say Prometheus is like a U2 concert in that it's the project of once-great artists who are well past their prime struggling for relevance while appealing to the nostalgia demographic by flogging what little life is left out of their most exhausted and nearly-dead horses). Everyone, it seems, was tired of the original H.R. Giger creations raping faces, impregnating victims, exploding out of chests and growing into monsters that jump out of shadows and from behind closed doors and around corners, etc.; so, to fix the problem, they created a lot of different alien creatures that rape faces, impregnate victims, explode out of chests, and grow into monsters that jump out of shadows and from behind closed doors, etc. I.e. it's all more of the same, only different, because those monsters were black and biomechanoid and these monsters are pallid and fishy. I.e. it all ends up being difference without distinction, and there's no especial reason for them not to have just used the same old creatures they were sick of when the new ones just do the same exact thing to less effect.

Again--and I know I've said this plenty--it's just a dumb film. All-the-way-around dumb, and not fun dumb the way a Farrelly Brothers movie might be. It's just dumb in the somewhat offensive way a really expensive movie that thinks its clever is dumb. Coming out of the movie, I tweeted it was worse than The Phantom Menace, and that wasn't actually a joke: as execrable as TPM is, it at least has a couple of decent setpieces (podracing, the lightsaber duels), is more-or-less coherently plotted and characterized, and generally isn't trying all that hard to be much better than it actually is. Prometheus aims for being 2001 and somehow manages to miss the target well short of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (another thematically-similar film; everything that was once old is old again).

A long review, I realize; I just needed to get it out of my brain. If you've seen the movie, I'd be happy to hear what you think of it. If you haven't seen it yet: lucky you.


Carol Elaine Monday, June 11, 2012 at 1:22:00 PM EDT  

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I was wondering if I were the only person in the universe who wasn't blown away by the trailer. Yes, it was gorgeous and I love Michael Fassbender's work, but the trailer just left me cold.

John Healy Monday, June 11, 2012 at 1:50:00 PM EDT  

So, you enjoyed savaging the movie more than watching it? A lot more.
Good for you, Eric! Very enjoyable review.

Will Akers Monday, June 11, 2012 at 4:01:00 PM EDT  

At times your writing style makes you sound like a child. That being said, I agree with your thoughts on the movie. Dying from a flamethrower in a high tech space suit, getting lost in a place they just scanned(no gps like device?),VERY weak thoughts about God and creation, character being fascinated by some alien life after scenes of him and his buddy being totally freaked out by everything. I find it offensive as well that this movie tried to be smart and thought provoking and yet failed so hard. It's like 3 people wrote scripts and then they just glued them together. Nothing seemed cohesive. BAD MOVIE.

Eric Monday, June 11, 2012 at 4:11:00 PM EDT  

At times your writing style makes you sound like a child.

Dammit--I'm usually trying to sound like a child all the time. Which parts did I screw up? Probably by spelling "Jodorowsky" correctly; in my defense, I did just cut and paste it instead of manually typing it out.

I'll try harder, Will.

paddy Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 8:49:00 AM EDT  

Thank god everybody out there isn't a moron. I agree entirely. See my blog post, if you so desire. An offensively bad "smart" movie. Some good acting and effects, but everything else - bad bad BAD.

Nick from the O.C.,  Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 10:15:00 AM EDT  

"Sure, the cautious and diligent captain steps off the watch to go have sex with the corporate executive while two crewmembers are lost outside the ship--I mean, c'mon, if he didn't do that, he might be able to keep them from dying or at least know what happened to them, and how would we have a couple of utterly ridiculous scenes attempting to frighten us, later, if that happened?"

I haven't seen the flick, but is the Captain in question Italian?

Brian Wohlgemuth Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at 12:17:00 PM EDT  

Visually stunning, premise good, plot horrible, characters...well, I was rooting for the Engineers/Aliens in the end.

Would have been somewhat appealing to have synchronized chestbursters to "Singing In The Rain" as a nice homage to Kubrick.

SF Fan,  Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 8:16:00 PM EDT  

Saw it and agree. This is probably the best assessment of the film I've seen so far (review, blog, vblog, what have you).

I was struck by the stupidity of the scientists, in particular. The deaths of two of them provoked laughter in the audience I was in, and reminded me of a typical horror movie scene where two dumb goofball characters get offed early, and perhaps deservedly. The lack of any strong characterization overall made it difficult to care about anyone, or how the movie turns out for these people. On the verge of perhaps the biggest discovery in human history, we would deserve better representatives.

Scott has made two classic sci-fi films and hosted a TV series on science fiction. His appreciation of the genre will be undercut by a movie that ignores science and insults the intelligence of viewers who "get" the genre, appreciate great storytelling, and expect better from a fellow serious student.

In the end, I agree that the film is simply "pretentious." It can't be both "Alien" and "2001" and so fails at being anything.

Anonymous,  Friday, September 14, 2012 at 1:08:00 PM EDT  

Spot on!

Well written.

As I said, Prometheus should be renamed to "Exobiology with Three Stooges."

Nice visuals, but the story sucks bi time!

Anonymous,  Thursday, September 20, 2012 at 3:25:00 AM EDT  

First off: ignore Will, he's just bitter from the divorce. He'll get over it. Your writing is excellent.

Secondly, thank you for spelling out in fine detail what was so very wrong with this movie. It is a silly, silly film. The basic premise is intriguing, but is completely undermined by the characters being head-scratchingly stupid.

I paid for space saga, but I got cheap horror.

Eric Thursday, September 20, 2012 at 9:23:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, Anon.! I wasn't too worried about Will's comment--I'm as thick-skinned as I'm thick-headed....

Unknown Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 10:48:00 AM EDT  

I just watched it for the second time on DVD (first time 3D at cinema). Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear... The dialogue is cringe worthy & every character is unlikable (except David, obviously). WTF was with the Superman music? There are so many things that feel out of place in this film.

I'd say that the best & "scariest" (not sure that's the right word) part of the film, was when they tried to reanimate the severed Engineer's head. Only bit that had me going, a very tiny bit.

I know it doesn't deserve it, but this film needs a sequel. Dump Damon "Couldn't write my way out of a wet paper bag" Lindelof overboard, get an exciting new director & let Ridley concentrate on what he only seemed to care about (the look of the film). At least we'll have Fassbender giving us good head throughout the film & it can be about him becoming a real boy, with Noomi as his surrogate mother.

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