During the run up to the long-awaited Prometheus I revisited a small UK film with the rather more alarming title of Inseminoid, a little known cult horror from 1981 where a group of mismatched astronauts and scientists discover some ancient hieroglyphics buried away on an alien planet, the exfoliation of which soon results in a rather grisly and bloody reduction of their factions human resources by an unearthly homicidal ‘other’ which subverts and possesses most of their doomed expedition. As with the better known Planet of The Vampires AKA Terrore Nello Spazio, the lesser known Queen Of Blood and It! The Terror From Beyond Space gestating the mucus encrusted Alien in 1979, the embryo of Prometheus is also blooded in a cinematic passage, the notion of our species evolution being guided and manipulated by unseen, gargantuan alien forces with their own indecipherable motives and agendas. From Kubrick’s 1968 Odyssey to the Egyptian transmigrations of Stargate to the entirety of the X-Files mythology, most successful SF and horror films are hybridised from pre-existing material, with the trope of an ancient alien civilisation birthing our species evolution being a rich seam of speculation ever since Erich von Däniken put his tinfoiled quill to paranoid paper. The interstellar anticipation for Prometheus bursts from two complementary impulses, firstly Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to the genre which cemented his career with Alien and Blade Runner being seminal films that have imprinted their DNA on almost all subsequent genetic clones, the second being the potential resurrection of a long dormant franchise from a quality control perspective, with the first two installments offering the very best the SF and horror genre have offered in the past thirty years, before its calamitous fall into the Aliens Versus Predator mash-ups and the rather dubious charms of both Alien III and Alien Resurrection although both those installments do have their admirers alongside the detractors. From its echo chamber trailer, from the iconography of gothic horseshoe spaceships, ebony allochthonous caverns and brooding title crawls, with the return of Switzerland’s premiere gothic surrealist Prometheus was marketed as primary grade continuity porn of the highest calibre, a project that has been designed to appeal to the fans of the original series and newcomers alike in crowd beguiling, 3D drenched chromatic CGI, as summer event cinema at its absolute apotheosis. Unfortunately, it sucks.
In ancient myth Prometheus was the titan who stole the gift of fire from the gods and gave it to us feeble mortals, a martyr who was rewarded with this pivotal role in our evolution by being chained to a rock and having his liver forcibly extracted and devoured by a giant eagle every day, a fate almost as painful as sitting through this horrendously misjudged failure. In this near future year of 2093 extraplanetary mariners have finally learnt the lesson of not naming their craft with the rather fate baiting names of Icarus or Titanic 2.0 as the expeditionary ship Prometheus ferries a crew of scientists, geologists and archeologists to the distant world of
LV-426 LV-223, a distant sphere that has been identified as the homeland of an ancient species whom have scattered guides and sigils to their origin in glyph form throughout the decaying ruins and mouldy detritus of the adolescent Earth. The ships polyethylene crew gain no purchase; the mission director is the frigid, risk averse Meredith Vickers (an icy Charlie Theron), a supposed counterpoint to our heroine Elizabeth Shaw (a nervous Noomi Rapace) whose wide-eyed innocence and crucifix clutching religious devotion is soon extinguished in a muddy, sterile characterisation. Amongst the men are Elizabeth’s rationalist partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), ship captain and incongruous plot psychic Janek (Stringer Bell) and the rodent whiskered Fifield (Sean Harris) whom are partially illustrated, orbiting them are a retinue of silhouetted crew members whose purpose and abilities remain on the cutting room floor. Much more promising is the series preservation of the android as a manufactured ‘other’that runs like a potent digital seam throughout the series, personified in the form of David (Michael Fassbender), the latest model of artificial intelligence from the Weyland Yutani corporation, headed by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) who is bankrolling the epic expedition for purposes unknown. The source of the signal is identified and as the crew bivouacs on the charcoal planetoid a hesitant excursion is made to a nearby structure, and soon the crew unearth an evolution defying secret, and they are not alone……
Future civilisations will excavate the critical reaction to Prometheus with a bemused wonder, and will worship at the most brilliantly devious marketing campaign of the early 21st century, as not since Keyer Soze outfoxed Chazz Palminteri over a cup of coffee has a film so hoodwinked and violated its audience expectations. If you’re going to make a SF horror movie it kind of helps if it is terrifying, it needs to embrace the isolation of those vast incomprehensible distances, of the universes hostile indifference, with the lurking spectre of civilisations and species that may look upon our puny progeny as little more than a warm incubating host or a particularly sloppy snack, heck even the greatest scientist of our age has suggested that we really may not want to make any alien contact. With Scott and his producers strongly hinting at elements of how the film tied into the universe of the Nostromo and its homicidal, unwanted cargo during the two years of production it therefore had some deep spacebooted shoes to step into, and it repeatedly fails as a thought-provoking SF spectacle, due to a terribly obscured script and the most insulting insertion of franchise references in a vain attempt to glean some historical kudos. I realise this is opening myself up to eye rolling dismissals of fanboy opinions but I assure you and I simply cannot stress this enough, that even if you divorce your mind from any of the potential references to earlier treasures (and this is very difficult proposition as Scott with screenwriters Damon ‘I wish he was Lost‘ Lindelhof and Jon ‘Cowboys Versus Fucking Aliens‘ Spaihts have infected the film with numerous stings and references, so the recent backpedaling of this suddenly not being a prequel, of not trading on previous triumphs is ludicrous) then this is simply a muddled, incoherent mess with galactic narrative omissions, where dramatic events are glossed over or left unremarked through frustrated stabs at storytelling, I assure you that I had lowered my expectations down to acknowledging that we should at least just get a competent, exciting, interesting, thoughtful and dramatic piece of work, and on that criteria Prometheus fails on almost every one of its DNA sequencing levels.
The movie gets off to a rather lacklustre start with a mysterious prologue and title sequence, but this indifference is soon eclipsed by a succinct leap forward into the mission to a distant moon orbiting a unremarked planet, and faint glimmerings of excitement are sparked with a prowling montage detailing David going about his chores and activities, whilst the human crew slumber in hyper-sleep. Alas this is the most interesting and engaging sequence in the entire movie, complete with potential nerdfan reference to this, before the crew are awakened and the initial sojourn to the obsidian ruins is made. To give credit where it is due the designs are delicious, and initially I felt a genuine sense of a plausible future world (if that’s not an oxymoron), the SFX is smoothly unobtrusive, with the 3D oscillations of the planets and spheres providing the expected and anticipated eye teasing candour. A film with just David wandering around performing his duties would have been throughly entertaining but he is wasted as a character despite Fassbender’s best efforts, with confusing motivations (I’m avoiding spoilers but some of his actions and comments simply do not make sense and are never explained) with questions of artificial life mirroring the discovery of our species evolution, a potent area of exploration for a SF film being initially raised then spun off into incoherence along with numerous other themes and ideas which are not entertained or explored. Now of course a little mystery is welcome and not everything should be telegraphed to the audience (although this does happen with the worst cliché of a character suddenly delivering the entire plot of the film further down the line, a plot which he seems to have psychically gleaned through some magical powers), it’s a fine line between seductive ambiguity and illogical incoherence, and Prometheus firmly and repeatedly squats in the latter.
SPOILER SECTION – There are no surprises in this movie, you can map its two-hour run time to its two-minute teaser, all the way down to the climax of panic-stricken scientists - presumably relatively intelligent souls with a fundamental grasp of geometry and physics – not realising that running at a 90 degree angle to a collapsing superstructure might be slightly more efficient than trying to sprint the full distance of the lethal monolith. That probably sounds incredibly picky and absurd, right? Well, in my defence by this point of the films closing moments I was so frustrated with the wasted promise of the opening act that every logical flaw and character defect provoked an exasperated groan, there is no sense of threat, no sense of story or narrative, and the film is utterly confused on whether it is a scary picture or an adventure piece, a SF treatise or an action movie. Prometheus never gains any momentum, scenes bleed into each other seemingly independent of previous developments in the most lacklustre and butchered fashion, it is a mess and not even Scott’s trademark visual dexterity gains any traction as the entire film feels like an entire franchise setting waste of fuel, not as a self-contained piece, including a final, deeply insulting, acid drenched spit in the face which has to be one of the worst afterthought shrugs to the audience I’ve seen in many, many years. Why can’t anyone on this ship lock a god-damn bulkhead? Why are major plot twists given such cold, undramatic presentations, such as the ‘shocking’ revelation of Weyland on board? What was the point of Meredith as a character, and why is her being Weyland’s daughter even remotely dramatic? Why was Guy Pearce even cast in that role? So medical equipment is programmed for one sex only? Really? That makes fucking sense, as does recovering from a major traumatic abortion in roughly twelve seconds, then going on to trust and team-up with the android that killed your partner and infected you with an alien parasite? And why did David even do that? Under Weylands instructions? WHY? OK, OK, I think I need some oxygen and a bit of a lie down…..SPOILERS END
The effects are shimmeringly slick in that post Avatar world design way where everything must be represented in a holographic 3D interfaced realm – see also The Avengers – and the sloshing screen GUI’s that have been ubiquitous since Minority Report ten years ago. It would have been nice to see more of a Ron Cobb or Moebius flavour to the ship and equipment designs, but to be fair this was a different type of vehicle designed for a different purpose, and on the whole the visual SF sheen of the film is perhaps the only element that will lure me back for a Blu-Ray revisit. Just to go into hyper-drive pretentious mode there is nothing compelling here in terms of corporate malfeasance or the sexual horror of the series which I concur isn’t necessarily the films objective, but then we are subjected to an obviously brainstormed horror scene which is designed to up the ante on the chestburster sequence of Alien which leaves one bemused rather than horrified, prior to this we are subjected to some rather halfbaked conservative positions on the evolution versus design debate which like the rest of the film remains unindulged, unfocused, unresolved and unremarkable. But, as Eldon Tyrell so memorably (heh) said all of this is academic, with the Blade Runner* sequel now in pre-production not even the presence of original writer Hampton Fancher recruited onto scribe duties bodes well for another revisit to Scott’s earlier oeuvre, and I actually hope he gets caught up with the other projects he has on the drawing board before returning to a future Los Angeles. I realise I have trailed this film to death on the blog and yes along with The Dark Knight Rises this was the most anticipated summer project of the year for me from a blockbuster perspective, the whole sordid enterprise has left me with a combination of tired exasperation and deep disappointment, and a weak prayer of not being seduced by such relentless marketing manipulation ever again – I mean when they started posting trailers for a trailer you had to suspect that something was up – but those associated virals were superbly manufactured, and I’d like to live on a planet where the final product lived up to their quality and style. In 1979 we were warned that in space no-one can hear you scream, 33 years later with Prometheus no-one will hear you seethe;
*If you’re a Blade Runner aficionado you need to check that link out by the way, tweeted by Mr. Gibson no less….