So after years of speculation about a prequel to Alien that explains where the “space jockey” and its ilk came from, Prometheus finally hit theatres this week. The funny thing about this is that such an idea had been in the works since around the time that the abominable Alien VS. Predator
piece of shit film had been released.
(Oh yeah, if you are planning on going to see Prometheus and want to be completely surprised, stop reading now.)
I will say this right off the bat, however. As sequels to science fiction films go, Prometheus‘ first half is way above the pack in every respect. It even puts itself above Aliens during this segment, in fact. This is largely because it takes the same tactic that Aliens followed, giving the audience something different, and peps it up a bit. In fact, relative to the Alien films other than Alien, it follows what I will call the GG Allin rule. That is, in Prometheus, and especially the first half, the audience does not get what they want or expect, but rather what they deserve.
But first, a note that is important to understand in terms of expectation. The original version of the script by one Jon Spaihts was written as a direct Alien prequel. But Ridley Scott decided that he wanted to go in a different direction. Thus, he brought Damon Lindelof on board, and together they rewrote the script into one that precedes the story told in Alien but only has the loosest connection with that franchise. In fact, there are only two visual elements that connect the two films, both of which are pretty cosmetic in nature.
Now, you might have noticed that I made several references specifically to the first half of Prometheus. That is for a reason. There is a scene that divides the two halves of the film and pretty much provides a point at which it can be said that the two films unsuccessfully mesh. The first half of the film is a slow build-up, much like the real Dawn Of The Dead or Night Of The Living Dead. Although not all of the characters are given the same amount of development, a small handful are painted very extensively and make the intelligent audience care what they do. The first two we are introduced to are Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). These two are scientists who discover a cave painting in one of the islands that sit in Scottish territorial waters. Said painting has a common feature with numerous other etchings and markings found in caves and places all over the world, essentially making it a star map. Being that this event takes place in 2089, the film posits that by this time it will be possible for Humans to travel a considerable distance into space. Given the world’s present problems with overpopulation and how a solution in 2089 is no more likely than a solution was in 1989, I tend to think that this is being very overoptimistic to say the least.
But one thing that Prometheus does get right in this regard is the length of the journey that the titular spaceship undergoes. Rather than invent some ridiculous plot crowbar such as warp drive or similar plot solutions that will be just as ridiculous in 2089 as they are today, Scott and his writers take the bold step of displaying the true length of the journey and the nightmare logistics involved. As in Alien, the astronauts are awakened from a state of extreme deep sleep. Unlike Alien, Prometheus shows us something that explains much both about the Alien universe and how it works. I do not know how much the technology advances between Prometheus and Alien, but when the astronauts aboard the vessel from which Prometheus partly gets its name are awoken, it is a nightmare that makes the moaned-about situation in Alien look like a tickling competition by comparison. That is one of the reasons, and likely a major one, why David (Michael Fassbender) is along for the journey. David, you see, is an android much like the Ash and Bishop characters in Alien and Aliens. So whilst the rest of the crew have to suffer the major but transitional agony of being woken from this film’s lower-spec version of hypersleep, David has to stay awake for the entire two-year-plus journey. From go to woah, he has to content himself with playing basketball by himself, watching video material from Earth by himself, or in some instances watching recordings of the dreams of the crew by himself (as we learn later). Michael Fassbender has stated that in the process of character development, he specifically avoided watching Alien or Aliens, and instead watched the Replicants in Blade Runner. Apparently, he also drew upon observations of an Olympic diver named Greg Louganis, and several performances in classic films where men behave oddly, including David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Anyway, as I was saying, after David has been basically watching the clock for two years and change, he is given the unpleasant task of waking the crew. The film is not too clear on this point, but it would appear that this is done in progressive stages. The medical personnel would appear to be the ones that David woke first, as they are seen tending to the rest of the crew when Elizabeth and Charlie wake. Elizabeth’s awakening is focused on to demonstrate just how unpleasant the process is, with repeated vomiting being the most obvious communication to the audience. It seems that between Prometheus and Alien, Earth’s engineers worked overtime on ways to make hypersleep at least tolerable. Because in Prometheus, it looks like the kind of car sickness that gets most people dragged to hospitals.
Be that as it may, before too long, the entire crew are assembled in what appears to be the ship’s cargo hold. There, they watch a 3D film of the man who is financing the entire expedition, one Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). Weyland explains that given how frail he must look to them, the crew can expect him to be dead by the time they see this video. But he was so swayed by Charlie’s and Elizabeth’s presentation of evidence that aliens had left a message for the people of Earth, and that message pointed to the planetary system the crew were now approaching that he simply had to find a way to make this happen. So that leaves Charlie and Elizabeth on the spot, explaining to fifteen other crew members why they had travelled all this way to visit a planet. Given that nothing in the film indicates that this vessel is capable of travelling faster than light (which the laws of physics presently state is impossible), I will be generous and assume about half of the speed of light, which is still far faster than any vessel I have heard of in 2012 can travel. So in two years and change, a maximum distance of 15 trillion kilometres have been travelled. Given that the nearest star we know of, which also happens to be believed to have planets capable of sustain life, is 4.22 light years (somewhere around 40 trillion kilometres and change) away, the question of exactly where in the universe these people are is one that draws curiosity but is never answered.
But right from the get-go, we get hit in the face with a lot of questions about the meaning of this message. Both Elizabeth and Charlie are working under the theory that the alien race they are expecting to find is one of “engineers”, and these engineers designed the Human species. Given that the first sequence in the film basically shows one of these “engineers” on an ancient Earth poisoning himself and then diving into an ocean or river as his body begins to disintegrate, I think these two have got high hopes, like in the song. I also think the manner in which the film tries to differentiate this couple does not really work. The film sets both characters up as archaeologists, but Elizabeth is set up in a more faith-based manner whilst Charlie is the one who risks life and limb (sometimes not necessarily his own) in the search for evidence. But right from the get-go, the film throws questions in our faces about what kind of idiot engineer would design a living organism the way we have been designed.
As I said, the film consists of two halves. For approximately half an hour after the ship lands on a moon given the alphanumeric code LV-223, we see the crew search out the site from which the good archaeologists believe the signal originated. Once there, we notice a few odd things about the site. As the crew are searching the place, they find things like the decapitated corpse of one of what they have termed the Engineers. They also find cylinders full of liquid that looks like really badly congealed Coca-Cola, one of which David secretly brings back to the ship on the orders of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the person in nominal charge of the expedition. For reasons that one would have to watch the entire film to really get a grasp upon, David intentionally infects Charlie with this substance. The next time the crew go out to the site, Charlie comes back looking like he is suffering a very serious case of leprosy. When Meredith refuses to let him back on board on the grounds that he could infect the entire crew and kill them all, Charlie desperately begs Meredith to just let him have it with the flamethrower she is wielding. People generally do not do that unless they are in such extreme pain that a fiery death would seem like bliss by comparison, so you know something is up. But the thing is, much like Alien and Aliens in contrast to the latter episodes in that franchise, Prometheus invests enough time in all of the characters that when this does happen, one gives a shit about how much pain Charlie is in, and not merely through proxy of Elizabeth’s feelings for him.
Unfortunately, this is where the film also goes into its second half, and it comes off the rails slightly. Not as badly as some second halves of films I will not glorify by mentioning here since egotistical little pricks from the place even Australians look down their noses at do not deserve it, but enough to make a difference. After a white-out and Elizabeth waking up on the ship’s equivalent of a sick bay bed, we learn some even weirder news from David. In spite of one exchange between Charlie and Elizabeth earlier in the piece making it clear that the latter is sterile, Elizabeth is somehow pregnant. Of course, the fact that the implied sex scene resulting in this pregnancy occurred sometime between David’s intentional infection of Charlie with the black liquid and the following visit to the black liquid repisotory should give audiences a big hint that something is really wrong here. And when David tries to evade Elizabeth’s requests to see the foetus that he has just told her she is carrying, well, that prompts one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have yet seen in a film. You see, Elizabeth, having worked out by now that whatever else these Engineers she was so anxious to meet at the beginning of the film are, are not friendly, is in no mood to carry a child she knows she should not have. So she fights her way, in spite of the severe discomfort the whatever it is she has in her abdomen is giving her, to the ship’s sick bay. In a display of hilarious in a sad way twenty-first century sexism, the automated surgery bay she does manage to reach tells her that it is not designed for female anatomy. Not caring, Elizabeth overrides all of the machine’s programming and, taking devices to administer pain medication with her, climbs into the bay. The bay’s machinery uses lasers and mechanical claws to slice open her abdomen at grain pain to herself in spite of said medication. And after the machine indelicately staples her stomach closed, she gets a further rude shock when she actually sees what was in her abdominal cavity.
Important to note here is that none of the creatures shown in Prometheus really resemble anything shown in Alien or Aliens. There are similarities, just enough to make a visually-oriented viewer think of them as precursors to their Alien series equivalent, but not enough to make the viewer think they are exactly the same. The biggest similarity is the severed head of one Engineer found on the first visit to what the crew begin to believe was a biological warfare storage facility. And as it turns out, the Space Jockey was not some monstrous entity that defied comprehension at all. That weird snot-like-looking head was actually a helmet. What the crew found under said helmet when they managed to make it open was, although dramatically larger than a Human head, still very Humanoid in appearance. Whilst there are aliens shown in Prometheus that shove tentacle-like appendages down the throats of unwilling victims, these are far different in form to the facehuggers of the Alien franchise. As is the black-skinned, wedge-shaped-headed alien we see burst out of the Engineer at the end of the film. Although the audience’s eyes light up in recognition when this creature is first seen, it is also very much a prototype rather than an exact copy of the creature that we see in Alien.
But no matter what way one slices it, the second half of Prometheus just does not work as well as the first. A big part of the problem is that we are just meant to accept that within mere hours of having her abdomen stapled closed by a machine, Elizabeth is running about from one ship to another, fighting a Humanoid that is at least two and a half feet taller than her, and even abseiling from the side of a now-derelict ship. Whilst I can understand that these are extraordinary circumstances, and that Elizabeth is highly motivated in a negative fashion, it is just too much to swallow. Also problematic is the manner in which the film abruptly shifts gears and attempts to be faster-paced in the final act. As I just said, Elizabeth goes through much of this act having just hastily performed a radical surgical procedure upon her own person with the only assistance coming in the shape of an uncaring machine that does not even seem to give much of a shit about how she will recover (if at all). To see her running at all, much less descending or ascending heights, had me wondering at multiple times how she can even survive it all. Oh, and in case you are still not convinced about earlier warning to not read too far unless you have already seen the film, this part will give away things about the ending.
At the end of the film, we learn that the hobbling, shambling husk of a man called Peter Weyland is, in fact, very much alive and on the ship. Given how strenuous space travel of that magnitude is, and how much more strenuous hypersleep is made out to be earlier in the film, to say this stretches probability beyond the point where it would normally be expected to break is an understatement. As is the old man shambling his way into the Engineers’ navigation room and repeating his oft-expressed wish that he be allowed to live longer. Granted, Elizabeth’s hasty surgery makes it difficult to believe she can do all of the thing she is seen to do in this part of the film, but she does have the underestimated advantage of youth on her side. Whatever difficulties are posed by recently having one’s abdomen stapled together in order to prevent death from surgery, they are nothing compared to the difficulties that would be posed by Peter Weyland’s advanced age. Weyland should not have even been able to survive the vessel’s takeoff, leave alone the two years and change in hypersleep. He should have shattered into a million pieces the second that David and Meredith attempted to drag his hobbling, needing leg-braces form towards the Engineers’ ship.
Also problematic is the ending. You noticed how I mentioned that the second half does not jibe that well with the first. Well, the ending does not really jibe with either half. David, having proven quite conclusively that the whole thing about androids being programmed to be helpful and friendly was strictly an Aliens-onward thing, pleads with Elizabeth to take him with her as she attempts to leave the planet. His reasoning is that he can help her decode the Engineers’ language, and thus will be useful in her journey. Given that this film takes place on a different planet to Alien, I sort of saw a leaving of the planet coming, but Elizabeth’s flight to parts unknown, presumably to the Engineers’ planet, is just a bit too much of a happy pill to swallow in context of the rest of the film.
Having said all of that, I would have to give Prometheus a Roger Ebert rating of three and a half out of four. The half of the film leading up to the white-out and Elizabeth’s waking up on the sick bay table is a four out of four. Rarely am I invested in the characters of a film to the degree that was the case in this half of Prometheus. But the moment Elizabeth decides she does not want a biological weapon growing in a part of her body that is not supposed to work anyway, the film descends to three-star level. It is not quite the fall in quality from one segment to another that I have seen in other films, but to say that I am very bitterly disappointed by this dramatic change in tone and quality is not unfair. Michael Fassbender proves once again that as actors of his age bracket go, he does a steaming, gigantic shit upon the like of Josh Hartnett from a height comparable to the distance travelled in this film. Noomi Rapace, contrary to how she was (badly) utilised in the Sherlock Holmes sequel, proves that her turns in the Millenium series was not a flash in the pan. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce, as the controllers of the money in the operation, also prove that contrary to what previous points in their careers suggest, they can shine like 3C 273 when working with a good director, which Ridley Scott once again proves he is.
Do I recommend Prometheus? If you get to a theatre that gives you a choice between the 2D and 3D versions, I say go for the former as fast as your legs can carry you. I did, and in spite of how hard it was on my monetary resources at the time, I left feeling glad that I did. If you enjoy science fiction that is consistent with what science fiction was intended to be by its greatest writers, Prometheus will light up most (if not all) of your dials.