Every now and then a story comes along that’s willing to ask the big questions: who are we? why are we here? Is there life after death?
Prometheus is one such story. It asks us the question, what if we had proof we were created by some higher power (in this case technologically superior aliens)? Would that change our fundamental understanding of ourselves? Would it lead to a crisis of faith or would we find resolution and assurance in that discovery? And of course we would be compelled to ask them the biggest question of all: Why did you create us?
Yes, Prometheus started out with a lot of very philosophical and metaphysical questions.
And then it got distracted by shiny explosions and goofy aliens.
Of course I can’t really blame Prometheus for failing to answer those questions. After all, those are questions that we’ve spent our entire existence as a sentient species trying to answer: countless religions and philosophies have come and gone in our quest to answer life’s existential questions. That said, I can blame Prometheus for asking these questions and then spending the rest of the movie trying to pretend it never asked them. Seriously, the beginning starts out with scientists postulating about the reasons for why ancient aliens would create our species and what that means for our sense of self, and our place in the universe. Then the crew takes off on their journey to answer these questions…and promptly forgets all of that when they finally land on the planet.
These themes are never explored once they actually reach the planet, aside from a very short segment near the end of the movie which I’ll touch on later. That’s what really bothers me about it, it’s not that they failed to adequately answer these questions, it’s that they don’t even try. It’s as if, halfway through making the film, they found out that the themes they were exploring were too difficult to work into their movie and decided to ditch the whole endeavor and hoped the audience wouldn’t notice. Of course even that might have been forgivable if not for one thing:
Prometheus isn’t scary. Not even a little.
This was supposed to be a prequel to Alien, the movie famous for its claustrophobic scifi horror. This is the movie that made my mom scream in the theater and make the man next to her throw his popcorn in the air and angering his girlfriend, forever ruining his chances of finding love and happiness in this lifetime. Yet Prometheus just isn’t scary, it’s not even tense. For one, whereas Ripley was someone real you could root for in the movie, none of the characters in this film were at all endearing or relatable. Two, since we now have this lovely technology that allows us to render anything we want, all of the alien monsters are in full view and…well they aren’t that scary either. Half the reason Alien worked so well is because you couldn’t see the damn movie monster most of the time, leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks and as I said back in October, your imagination will always be scarier than what Hollywood can invent. And while it was a bit weird seeing an octopus being pulled out of a woman’s womb, it wasn’t exactly scary. Let’s compare the womb-octopus with the famous chest burster from the original film, because that’s obviously what they were trying to recreate.
The chest burster was scary because it was fast and unexpected. One minute the guy is eating and laughing, then suddenly his sternum is ripping open and a big head filled with teeth comes scuttling out covered in gore. I think the whole scene takes like two minutes, if that. With the womb-octopus, she finds out she’s got something strange in her before it ever starts to become a threat, making it an expected threat and thus boring. Then it takes her like ten minutes to give herself a C-section so she can remove it. And yeah she’s screaming and crying, but honestly I didn’t really care about her character so her distress is completely lost on me, and it’s just not scary. You know what is scary? A woman giving birth, that’s what’s scary. That’s some ugly, ugly shit right there. I know it’s not considered polite to say that, but it’s the truth, childbirth is gross. An integral part of our propagation as a species yes, but let’s not pretend it’s pretty. Compared to an actual birth, this scene is just downright timid.
Another thing the movie tries to copy from it’s much better forebears is the famous motion-tracker scenes from Aliens. In Aliens, the marines use hand-held scanners to detect the movement of the aliens around them and once again the creators of Prometheus seem to completely miss the primary reasons this was a tense moment in the original movie. Once again, we couldn’t see the aliens and those motion scanners were the only thing between the marines and death by thousands of alien monsters. But it wasn’t simply the fact that you couldn’t see the aliens that was scary, it was the location in which it was happening. It was an abandoned facility, the former inhabitants eaten by the aliens now stalking the marines, and every shadow could be hiding a deadly Xenomorph. The marines were frightened. They actually had to do some acting here and look scared, and that makes a huge difference. You know how they went about trying to copy this scene in Prometheus? Like this:
In Prometheus the guy is wrapped up in a nice blanket drinking some cocoa like a kid home from school on a cold winter’s day, while watching a little red blip stalking some other guys still stuck in the alien facility. Real scary guys. In fact, it’s the titular Prometheus that really kills any chance of creating the claustrophobic fear that permeated the original movies.
For much of the movie the Prometheus serves as a safe harbor for the characters, and for the audience. Every time the movie comes close to creating a truly frightening atmosphere, it always cuts back to some other characters lounging around the Prometheus like the crew from Cheers enjoying an evening drink. Aside from the Android shenanigans, and the aforementioned womb-octopus, nothing bad really happens on the ship until the final minutes of the movie. In the original movies there were no safe harbors, the characters were always trapped with the alien crawling all around them, no character was safe anywhere in the movie. Even though Alien 3 was horrible in many respects, the attack in the med bay (I think, it’s been a while) was a really good horror scene. Two characters are reconciling their differences, the entire area is clean and brightly lit, and then BAM! An alien eats an entire character right in the middle of a conversation! That’s how you raise the stakes of a story, by killing a character right when and where you least expect it. There was nothing like this here. I mean was anyone really surprised when the two morons who walked into a room filled with alien eggs died a terrible death? No, we all saw that coming a mile away, and that’s not scary.
The only scary thing about this movie is just how little sense it makes. Why does David the android start putting black goo in people’s coffee? Why are these aliens creating a bioweapon of mass destruction? Why are they bent on the destruction of the human race? In fact, how do we even know that’s the goal? I mean sure they kill Pete Weyland, but who the hell wouldn’t? The guy is a massive dick. The minute the ship starts taking off though, the main character just somehow knows that the aliens are going to earth to unleash their new weapon. How does she know that? Is she really so arrogant as to think that the first thing this alien is going to do upon waking up from a centuries long sleep is visit her homeworld and destroy it? Maybe the dude was just headin’ home to tell his people just how crazy things got at their secret weapons lab.
Maybe he was just freaked the fuck out by seeing his science experiments walking around in his ship, did they ever consider that? The alien was basically waking up in his version of Planet of the Apes, suddenly the creatures he created in a test tube are capable of space flight in (to him) the blink of an eye. Last time this guy saw us walking around was probably before we were even clothing ourselves, and he was observing us using whatever fancy equipment their biolab has.
Peter Weyland’s appearance temporarily gave me hope that maybe the movie would redeem itself in the final few minutes, because he once again brought up the themes that were touched on during the beginning of the film. He wanted to cheat death, he wanted the secret of immortality, and who better to give him that secret than the species that created us? This hearkens back to the first story ever, and my personal favorite, the Epic of Gilgamesh in which Gilgamesh attempts to trick the gods into giving him the secret to immortality. In the end Gilgamesh discovers that there is no such thing as immortality, and that because his life is finite, he can appreciate life in a way no god could ever appreciate it. It’s a very moving and deeply spiritual awakening, and represents Gilgamesh finally coming to terms with Enkidu’s death.
In Promtheus though, instead of Peter Weyland or any of the other characters learning something profound, the aliens just bitch slap poor old Guy Pearce across the room, rip an android in half and then set out to destroy Earth (for some reason). And the trouble is that none of the character subplots present in the movie go anywhere either, there’s ultimately no payoff to any of the stories.
So you might be asking why I didn’t make this a Story that Never Was article. Well the reason is…I don’t really know what story they could have told here. I don’t have a better idea, because honestly I don’t think the Alien franchise demanded a prequel. Honestly, does anyone really care where the Aliens came from? I always just assumed they were just some hostile species that had naturally evolved somewhere and some aliens decided to visit the wrong planet, leading to their deaths and the crashed ship we find in Alien. What we need is a good Alien sequel. Just retcon all the Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection crap and give us a proper sequel, one where the aliens finally land on earth (which incidentally was supposed to be what Alien 3 was going to be about before production trouble nixed it). What really amazes me about Prometheus is that it’s getting a sequel…really? Does anyone really care where the main character and the severed head of an android end up?
Perhaps Prometheus is an apt name for this movie after all. It tried to steal the fire from the more successful Alien franchise, and now it is doomed to have its literary liver torn out by me ad infinitum through all of its sequels. We’ll see how many livers get ripped out when Prometheus 2 is released I suppose…