Sigh. I guess I’m just never going to see another good Alien movie, am I?
Who’d have thought it would be so hard? Ridley Scott’s 1979 original seemed ripe for further exploration, not one of those movies that would be impossible to ever sequelize. And let’s not forget, A GREAT ALIEN SEQUEL HAS ALREADY BEEN MADE! I’m speaking, of course, of the very first sequel to Alien: James Cameron’s magnificent Aliens. That film happens to be one of the very best sequels ever made, and it’s so good that to this day people debate which is better: Alien or Aliens.
But since then, it’s been strike-out after strike-out. (One of the very first posts I wrote for this site contained my lamentations at the way the Alien franchise had gone off the rails.) I had high hopes for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe, Prometheus. (And make no mistake, despite all the perplexing statements in the press by Ridley Scott, writer Damon Lindeloff, and other members of their team in which they claim that Prometheus is NOT an Alien prequel, from the film’s very first trailer it was obvious that it was.) I mean, surely Ridley Scott, one of the finest filmmakers of our time, and the man who directed the original Alien back in 1979, could finally craft another worthy follow-up to that film?
Sorry, my friends, such is not the case.
Prometheus is jaw droppingly gorgeous. The film is a real work of art, the stunning product of a brilliant director who has the visual effects tools to create anything he can imagine, and the complete mastery of how to use those tools to greatest effect. Plenty of other directors with budgets far larger than that of Prometheus have used CGI effects in garish and ugly ways, but Prometheus is staggeringly beautiful. The other space effects, the look of the Prometheus itself, the realization of the Engineer’s lair that Dr. Shaw and her teammates discover, image after gorgeous image unfold, each more mysterious and beautiful than the next.
Too bad, then, that the story of the film is so maddeningly incomprehensible.
OK, SPOILERS AHEAD so please beware.
I repeat: SPOILERS.
The original Alien has a simplicity that is impressive. In the first half of the film, the crew of the Nostromo answer a beacon and investigate the extra-terrestrial space-ship they discover. In the second half, they are mercilessly hunted by the Alien creature they unwittingly unleash, and try to survive. That’s it, that’s the film. And for all that the Alien is, let’s face it, made-up sci-fi hogwash, there’s still a simplicity to the life-cycle of the creature that is elegant and easily understood by audiences. The face-hugger hatches from an egg, it implants something in an unfortunate human host, that seed grows into a creature that bursts forth from the host’s abdomen, and that creature grows into a big bad Alien.
Prometheus’ story, sadly, is nowhere near as straightforward. There are all sorts of menaces to Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her crew, none of which really go anywhere. There’s the creature that kills and takes control of the scientists who choose (in one of the all-time movie-stupid acts) to spend a night in the mysterious Big Head room they find on the alien planet. There’s the android David (Michael Fassbender), who is responsible for killing Dr. Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and is willing to allow Dr. Shaw to be killed by whatever is growing inside her. There’s Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who behaves suspiciously throughout the film and who acts like a robot even though the film takes pains to tell us, over and over again, that she is not. Then, of course, there are the “Engineers” themselves.
Not only do those story-lines pile up on top of one another as the film progresses, in a weird sort of narrative car-crash, but not one of those villainous (or apparently villainous) characters have motivations or goals that we can immediately understand.
Michael Fassbender’s work as David is the possibly the best thing about the film. I adored the sequence, near the start of the film, in which we watch David’s actions, alone on the ship while the rest of the crew sleeps in cryo-sleep. Throughout the film, there was something mesmerizingly compelling and perplexing about Mr. Fassbender’s performance as David. It draws the viewer in, as we wonder just how human this man-made creature really is. Unfortunately, David’s actions in the film are absolutely inexplicable. What does allowing some of the black whatever-that-stuff-is (shades of the X-Files movie) to kill Dr. Holloway (and then almost kill Dr. Shaw) have to do with his creator, Weyland (Guy Pearce)’s ultimate goals? What was David’s plan, exactly? How could he possibly know that that speck of black goo would kill Dr. Holloway, but not before he had sex with Dr. Shaw thus unwittingly implanting her with an alien fetus that would grow to (almost) burst forth from her abdomen mere hours later?? That chain right there is so ludicrously implausible and complex that I think it underscores all my problems with the film’s script.
But it’s by no means the only plot hole or character implausibility in the movie.
Dr. Holloway seems like a nice enough fellow, so I’m a loss to explain why he’s so nasty to David in one pivotal scene. (Is it just because the writers wanted to cushion the blow of David’s decision to kill him in that very scene?) I also cannot understand how devastated Holloway seems to be in that scene, after the end of their first day on the alien planet. He really expected to meet one of the “Engineers” (the aliens who he and Dr. Shaw believe had a hand in creating human beings millennia ago) in the flesh during his first few hours on the planet? He and his team just unearthed possibly the most significant discovery in all of mankind’s history!! And they still have a whole planet to explore!! So why is he so depressed??
Moving on to other characters I didn’t understand, let’s take Fifield and Millburn, the two scientists who cowardly decide to return to the ship but then somehow wind up lost in the alien structure. First of all, Fifield was the one responsible for MAPPING THE WHOLE ALIEN STRUCTURE!! He had robotic drones (his “pups”) that flew through the complex, creating a map which Fifield seemed to be able to access from his suit. So how could he possibly get lost??? But, OK, somehow he did. So then he and Millburn decide to head back into the creepy Big Head central room, filled with countless mysterious cylinders? THAT is where they decide to spend the night, the most creepy and mysterious room they can find? Absolutely absurd.
Speaking of characters not behaving in ways that make any sense, how about the moment later in the film in which a bloody and almost-naked Dr. Shaw staggers into the room where David and Vickers have just awakened an elderly Weyland. Why does no one in that room seem remarkably surprised by the naked bloody woman who just came in? Why does Dr. Shaw never mention to ANY OTHER CHARACTER that she just cut a tentacled alien fetus out of herself, and oh yeah, it’s hanging out in the med-tube in Vickers’ quarters?
As I mentioned above, for some reason, Ridley Scott, Damon Lindeloff, and the other filmmakers have been claiming, for a year, that Prometheus is not an Alien prequel. But the film clearly is set in the Alien universe, because it is all about fleshing out the story of the mysterious dead alien “space jockey” that the crew of the Nostromo film on LV-427 in Alien. The Engineers are obviously those same aliens. The Engineer ship we see in the third act of Prometheus is a dead ringer for the one found on LV-427 in Alien, and of course the look of the control room is exactly the same.
But I am perplexed at how the events in Prometheus are supposed to connect to those of Alien. OK, on the Engineers’ “military installation” or whatever-it-is on the world the Prometheus finds, they were creating biological weapons that got out of control and killed them. But the exact same thing happened to the Engineers on LV-427? Are we to believe that the same catastrophe wiped out ALL of the Engineers in the galaxy? How could that happen?
The biological weapons on the world Prometheus lands on are clearly connected to the xenomorph seen in Alien. The creature that gets birthed out of Dr. Shaw grows into what looks like a giant face-hugger. The cylindrical cases in the Big Head room certainly resemble the face-hugger eggs found on LV-427. The mosaic in that chamber seems to depict the familiar Alien. And the alien seen in the film’s final shot bears a resemblance to the original fully-grown Alien. But there are enough differences that I don’t understand how we are supposed to connect the events of Prometheus to that of Alien. Were the eggs/face-huggers/Alien seen in Alien just another attempt by the Engineers to create a weapon of mass destruction? I sort of assume that’s the case, but then I again come back to the silliness of the idea that on both of these different planets, and perhaps many more, the exact same thing happened: the aliens got out of control and killed all the Engineers.
I could go on and on. What exactly happened in the film’s opening scene, in which an Engineer seems to kill himself? Was that the process of them “seeding” Earth to lay the groundwork for the creation of mankind? (If that’s the case, why did the black flecks the Engineer turns into prove so deadly when David gave one fleck to Dr. Holloway?)
For what reason was Weyland’s presence on Prometheus kept a secret?
Why did all of the Prometheus’ crew agree to freeze themselves for two years to head into a deep-space mission without knowing what the heck they were doing?
Why did the Engineer care about killing Dr. Shaw at the end of the movie?
Why does the Engineer fly into a murderous rage when awoken by David and Weyland?
Finally, the biggest question: If the Engineers really did create humanity, WHY DID THEY DECIDE TO TRY TO WIPE US OUT???
There is plenty in Prometheus to enjoy. There are a number of sequences that work like gangbusters. The team’s initial exploration of the Engineer’s lair is creepy and mysterious and wonderful, and in particular the sequence in which they discover the Big Head chamber is magnificent, a triumph of set design, visual effects, and direction. Too bad the questions raised in that scene are never answered by the film. The sequence in which Dr. Shaw struggles to give herself a caesarean before the alien fetus bursts out of her is a gore-drenched bit of horror, in which I was totally squirming in my seat. Too bad that scene makes no sense in the context of the film, and is never really addressed by Dr. Shaw or any other character at any point for the rest of the film. The moments of visual connection to Alien were great fun, from the reveal of the main title, to the shot of the xenomorph in the alien mosaic, to our first glimpse of the “Space Jockey’s” control room that exactly replicated the one seen in the crashed ship back in the original Alien.
But ultimately, disappointingly, none of those great elements of the film go anywhere. Prometheus utterly fails to hold together as any sort of a convincing story, and the film stubbornly refuses to answer any of the questions that it raises. It doesn’t really work as a prequel to Alien, nor does it succeed as a stand-alone sci-film to be taken on its own right. As a visual artist and a painter with cinema, Ridley Scott’s skills have never been more impressive. Too bad it’s in service to a script and a story that go nowhere.
Some day I still hope to see another great Alien film!!