Do Androids Dream of Appearing in Better Movies?
Yesterday, two friends and I stumbled out of the theatre in a state of collective shock. We couldn't wrap our brains around the boneheaded awfulness of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's prequel to his groundbreaking sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Alien.
Before we go on, you have to understand that Prometheus is, in fact, a prequel. The Marketing department at Fox has been in overdrive for months, promoting the movie as being a unique vision that "shares DNA" with the Alien universe. Scott has said as much himself--I'd guess on orders from studio executives eager to get enough asses in seats on opening weekend to justify backing this overwrought pile of garbage.* There are so many visual, thematic, and narrative call-backs to the franchise that to deny a direct connection with the original film is akin to insisting that a movie with lightsabers, stormtroopers, and Jedi mind tricks has nothing to do with Star Wars. Really, how stupid do these suits think we are?
Plenty stupid, apparently, if this is what they're selling us as entertainment.
Writing a proper Prometheus review is impossible for me right now. It would be five-thousand words long and consist largely of variations on the word "fuck". Instead, I'm going to revisit a therapeutic technique I used when discussing Quantum of Solace--a movie I loathed just as much, but which made me angry instead of despondent.
Seriously, kids, I haven't been this depressed since 9/11.
Without further ado, I present my Nineteen Spoilerific Problems with Alien Seven:
1. Future Tech/Past Tech. When the first Prometheus images hit the 'net, fan reaction was mixed. One of the biggest questions was why a movie set several decades before Alien looked like it was made a couple hundred years afterwards. I understand that the original's deep-space tanker was a mining ship and this movie's titular Prometheus is a trillion-dollar science vessel. But aside from the look of the sliding doors and the Weyland company logo, the design team seem to have gone out of their way to give fans lots to bitch about--rather than think through what future technology conceived in the 1970s might look like if retrograded in the new millennium.
2. Old Man Muppet. Let's talk about Guy Pearce. He plays ninety-year-old multi-gazillionaire Peter Weyland, whose main job appears to be funding science missions while distracting the audience at every turn. In close-up, parts of the old-age makeup look exaggerated in really cool ways. But they're pressed up against other cool and exaggerated features--making for a three-dimensional airbrush painting posing as a man. In wide shots, the result is laughable.
3. Old Man Cameo. If you don't know who Guy Pearce is, and if you're not paying attention to the scene where the ship's Android, David (Michael Fassbender), appears to be talking to himself while caressing a hypersleep chamber, you may be surprised to learn that Peter Weyland's early appearance as a hologram will not be the last time his character pops up--even though someone mentions that he's been dead for several years. If you've made the mistake of not switching off your cell phone and your brain as the lights go down, however, you'll realize what a colossal mistake it was to cast a well-known actor in a part that should have gone to an actual old person that no one in the audience would recognize.
4. What does God Need with a Starship? Let me get this straight: in the future, the only thing it takes for two hippie archaeologists to get a global leader of industry to fund their cross-galaxy trip is a holographic PowerPoint presentation about cave drawings? That's what Prometheus would have you believe, as there's absolutely no back-story regarding Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway's (Logan Marshall-Green) pitch to Weyland. We see the two lovers discover the ninth or tenth cave featuring identical markings, and the next thing you know, they're part of a seventeen-person crew, headed to God knows where on a lark.
Which reminds me of an idea I once tried to sell Bill Gates. After hundreds of un-returned phone calls, I resigned myself to the world never knowing the positively sinful delights of Dutch Raisin McWafflecake Souflée.
5. In Space, No One Can Seem to Remember Their Professional Training. When the crew lands on a distant planet, they discover what look to be temples filled with giant head sculptures and a familiar grid of vase-shaped canisters laid out before them. They also find the bodies of several so-called Engineers, which you'll instantly recognize from the first Alien. The search team splits up and, following a horrific dust storm, find themselves either trapped in the temple or back one the ship.
After a few hours of wandering, the crew's biologist and botanist wind up back at the Giant Head Room, where they encounter a kind of faceless albino cobra. The biologist, completely unaware of basic animal behavior, approaches, teases, and then tries to befriend the beast. Apparently, the temple's atmosphere is thick with a consciousness-altering agent that makes everyone who enters act like they're in a horror movie (Cabin in the Woods, anyone?). The moment the snake shows up, Prometheus becomes a series of bad-decision skits starring morons that make the teens from any Friday the 13th movie look like MENSA candidates.
In case you're wondering, the snake doesn't make nice.
6. 17 Little Indians, aka "Body-count Math". When it's announced that Prometheus' crew numbers seventeen, I thought, "Geez, that's a lot of characters to keep track of!" Fortunately/unfortunately, most of them aren't characters; despite the Weyland-issued blue jumpsuits, ninety percent of the people on-board are red-shirts. The non-marquee actors are distinguishable only by skin color, accent, and frequency of leaving the ship. I swear, during the big Possession Brawl, eight more randoms I'd never seen before showed up, just to get killed off "creatively".
7. Possession Brawl. The botanist, who we last saw suffocating on the melted face-plate of his helmet and lying next to his co-worker, the idiot biologist, shows up later as a mutated supervillain. The black goo apparently got to him, too, taking over his mind and imbuing him not only with super-strength, but also the ability to run up walls and fold himself in half. He gets inside the ship (more on that in #9) and proceeds to smash most of the rest of the crew into mushy heaps before being put down. This scene rates a two on the Entertainment Scale, but at least the action music woke me up.
8. Where We're Going, We Don't Need...Rewind Buttons. In the future, Rewind buttons on video-display technology will be obsolete. I know this because Prometheus knows this. The biologist and the botanist have cameras mounted to their helmets and jumpsuits, allowing captain Janek (Idris Elba) to monitor them from the ship. The two fall victim to the black goo monsters about five minutes after Janek slips away for a quickie with company big-wig Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).
Even though no one is around to see the poor suckers get mutilated, you'd think that someone would review the transmission from their cameras the next morning, after they fail to report in. This would have certainly saved a few lives on the search team that's dispatched to go find them. If only they'd had the ability to review that footage!
9. Security Cameras Are Only Useful if You Use Them. Preceding the Possession Brawl, Janek notices that the botanist's camera has come back on-line and is filming a pile of rocks. His personal locator thingy shows up as being right outside the ship. Sadly, the Prometheus is only equipped with a single rear-view camera with a fixed, inconvenient angle.
None of this explains why Redshirt Number Eight opens the loading dock door when he hears that the botanist is outside. It's doubly puzzling, considering that Number Eight was, I believe, present a few hours earlier, when the second search team returned and had to kill Holloway--who'd also been possessed by the black goo. It seems the Weyland Corporation can afford to throw around so much cash because they save a bundle on bargain-basement personnel.
10. Baby, Baby, Baby, Ohhhh! Moments after David slips a dollop of black goo into Holloway's glass of champagne (don't ask), Holloway visits Shaw's quarters for some celebratory, We've-Just-Found-God's-Laboratory sex. You won't be surprised to learn that Shaw becomes insta-pregnant.
Following Holloway's death, David tells her that the thing growing inside her is the size of a three-month-old, and she dashes to the ship's emergency surgery pod for an alien abortion. What comes out of her looks like Squidward with naughty bits, minus the interesting design possibilities that implies.
Honestly, I can't tell you everything that happened in this scene because I kept wondering how much cheaper and more realistic it would have been for Scott to hire a practical effects artist, rather than settling for cartoonish CGI meat. If the guys who executed Alien's chestbursting scene are still kicking around, would it have killed you to give them a call?
11. "Father". It Figures. Following the "big reveal" that Peter Weyland is on-board Prometheus is the equally puzzling news that Vickers is his daughter. Sure, maybe Viagra is super-potent in the future. Or perhaps Vickers was adopted. Whatever the case, there's neither text or subtext to warrant such Empire Strikes Back-lite hooey. I'd hoped that during Vickers' death scene we'd at least see her arm pop off to reveal some of that milk-and-eggs android wiring inside.
But then I remembered that hope is dead.
12. Science is Stupid (Just Look at Those Who Study It!). David discovers that one of the Engineers is still alive, and that his mission was to attack Earth with his payload of mutagen canisters. After waking up, the giant alien man beheads the android, and kills everyone in sight--except for Shaw. She runs away, and devises a plan by film's end to find the Engineers' homeworld in order to..um, ask them why they're so mean.
Seriously, this bald alien monster just wiped out a room full of curious Earthlings, and the best you can come up with is to play twenty questions with a whole mess of them? If an ant woke you up out of a nice, long nap and started asking about the meaning of life--in your native tongue--would you calmly hear it out? Or would you be more likely to stomp the shit out of it and get your house tested for gas leaks?
13. What's the Point of Alien Parts One Through Four? For years, we've understood the Weyland/Yutani Corporation to be an evil entity hell-bent on getting the alien life form back to Earth for use in its bio-weapons division. Did no one at the company review the Prometheus's transmissions? Or did they just think that the vastly superior species who developed these biological weapons of mass destruction just couldn't handle them the way human beings could?
Also, why did it take a hundred years, or whatever it was, for the company to find another craft like the one Prometheus encounters? The crew from Alien ostensibly found it by accident, and were ordered to investigate. But if Weyland/Yutani was so interested in the goo or the Engineers, couldn't they have just sent a contingent of scientists and colonial marines to Prometheus' last known location?
14. What's the Point of the Opening Scene? Prometheus begins with an Engineer being left on Earth with a small box. He opens it and is attacked by the black goo, which disintegrates his body. His remains fall into the sea, forming a mutagenic jambalaya which, I guess, became the basis for us, or something. The filmmakers aren't clear, and the scene has zero resonance beyond its gorgeous nature imagery.
15. Ram, Bam, No Thanks, Man! Janek learns of the Engineer's plan to wipe the Earth clean of humans and decides to dive-bomb its ship with Prometheus. In a matter of seconds, he's got two willing accomplices (we'll call them Redshirt Fifteen and Redshirt Sixteen) who decide that the captain will need lots of help pressing the "Accelerate" button.
It's a nice gesture, but a silly one, and I felt robbed of two more bloody CGI attack deaths.
No, really. Robbed, I tell ya.
16. George Lucas's Legacy of Puke. Ever since the Star Wars prequels were shat into cinemas everywhere, studios and filmmakers have been desperate to dust off their name-brand franchises and explain absolutely everything about them. Wait, you wanted some mystery behind Michael Myers? Lame! Move over, purists, here comes the Back-story Brigade!
Imagination is for suckers, apparently--especially when pop culture icons' secret origins are in the hands of clueless hacks that never fail to mistake repetition for mythology. Writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts are especially guilty of this, as they steal the story structure of Alien and claim to break new ground. Prometheus is recycled to a "T", with everything from a sinister robot to the entire landing-on-an-alien-planet-and-bringing-back-a-parasite-from-an-empty-structure bit--not to mention an escape-ship showdown with a creature the heroine had thought dead. Hell, these jokers even steal from Alien Versus Predator, shoehorning in a head-scratcher of a chestbursting scene at the very end.
I understand providing signposts to help the fan base feel at home, but this shit is ridiculous. Anyone who claims this movie can stand on its own in a world where the other Alien films exist should be put out of my misery immediately. Prometheus is nothing but a rip-off, hastily disguised by half-a-dozen coats of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek remake aesthetic and a parasitic-black-goo storyline from The X-Files--complete with creepy eye-worms.
17. If One is to Ask the Big Questions, One Must First Form Complete Sentences. Prometheus is packed with pseudo-science, pseudo-faith, and the Big Questions surrounding the origin of man--none of which add up to anything by film's end. I'm not being cute here. We're no closer to understanding the motivations of the Engineers, the scientists, or the corporatists now than before the film was greenlit.
Scott and company posit a lot of high-falutin', half-baked ideas that are, I believe, meant to distract us from the numbing familiarity of the movie's action. Only Janek has the good sense to not care about where we come from; given the people he'd likely have to spend the rest of his days with, his idea about ramming the Engineer craft seems less altruistic and blatantly selfish. Not that I blame him.
18. Baby, Baby, Baby, Nooooope! The only things Lindelof and Spaihts didn't take from the franchise's other entries were notes on continuity. Prometheus ends with the Engineer giving chest-birth to a more-or-less-fully-formed prototype of the alien queen--thanks to a run-in with a prototype facehugger. In every other Alien movie (except for Part Three, which was technically aborted, anyway), the baby aliens come out as nasty little worms that develp limbs and height later on.
I get that the creators are mucking about with origins here, and that we may have to wait for the prequel's sequel to find out what this new monster is (or how the aliens we know and love came into be in the first place, given the fact that they were ostensibly made from a DNA mash-up of Engineers, humans, black goo, and dirt worms from the temple--a temple housing a spaceship that is decidedly not the one discovered in Alien). The closing shot was meant to make fanboys cream their jeans, but it just made me mad.
I'm all for the alien making an appearance in the prequel, as long as it makes sense. This monster is just ridiculous, and its birth is an abomination in more ways than one.
19. In Space, No One Has Any Original Ideas. I wasn't kidding when I compared reactions to Prometheus and 9/11. On both of those days, my hope and illusions were shattered and I wandered around for hours not knowing quite what to feel or say.
The problem with legendary directors like Scott and Lucas going to pot is that there's little indication of our generation having its own moviemaking heroes. Many of the classic big names are caught in this game of visual oneupmanship and philosophical drought. The images get prettier, more expensive, and extra-dimensional by the day, but the words and ideas they service aren't worth the paper the admission tickets are printed on.
It's impossible for a movie to live up to the stature and awe of Alien. Disappointment on some level is inevitable. But it didn't have to be this bad. In nearly every regard, Prometheus fails spectacularly, dumbly. It's science fiction for Tweeters, tweakers, and people who think that books are things you read on screens. If the Engineers are out there, I'll be the first one to welcome them and their precious, lethal cargo.
*When Prometheus' opening-weekend box office comes out on Monday, subtract between a quarter and a third of that amount to see how the movie really did. Tens of millions of those dollars will represent 3D glasses concessions and IMAX up-charging--not enthusiastic fans lining up around the block.