Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Prometheus


Expectations were high last summer when Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in Alien came to the big screen.

Sadly, what we got was a deeply flawed film that suffers from one of the greatest blights in modern Hollywood: Too-Many Cooks Syndrome. Prometheus was passed between screenwriters while Scott also tinkered with his concept for the film. It shows. Even my kids, who usually tell me I’m being way too critical when I nitpick movies, had a field day pointing out the problems with this stinker.


First of all, the good. Prometheus is a beautiful piece of cinema. Visually, it is rendered gorgeously from beginning to end. This ship (though clearly derivative of Serenity) is luxuriant. It’s a marked contrast from the dark caverns of the Nostromo in Alien. The Prometheus itself is closer to the starship Enterprise in its pristine corridors and high-tech displays with floating holographics and lush colors. The sweeping vistas of the opening are absolutely breathtaking. As Scott revisits the imagery from his original film, he injects fascinating new life into what we saw as relics and fossils before.


And, that’s pretty much the last of the good things I have to say about Prometheus.

In my review of Alien, I commented on how poorly Prometheus’s characters compare to those in the original. We are positively surrounded in this film by characters we don’t care about and barely understand. You’d think a mission like this would call for professionals, but we get xenobiologists who run from dead bodies, but cuddle up with clearly hostile looking eels. We get a corporate snake-woman (with daddy issues) who doesn’t believe in the mission she’s given up years of her life to join, instead of running papa’s company back home her way. We have a ribald space captain who wants to bang the boss because…well, because she’s Charlize Theron. If the leads redeemed this motley crew, maybe it would be tolerable, but alas, it was not meant to be. Charlie Halloway becomes petulant and despondent when he learns that there aren’t any live aliens to explain all the mysteries of life to him. This is shallow character development to say the least. Hell, it’s callow character development. This man is an archeologist who has spent years digging in the dirt for the clues that led him to this distant planet. One would not expect him to be such an impatient little baby-man. Also, he’s a total jerk to David for no reason. Likewise, the development of Shaw is equally shallow and predictable. She’s conflicted about faith because of her own daddy issues. She also feels inadequate because she can’t have children. Come on, Ridley, your exposition is showing left and right here. It’s a trend in Scott’s later work. Whenever I see empty characterization like this, I think of Brendan Gleeson dancing around and sneering in Kingdom of Heaven (a film that I think succeeds despite such clumsy moments). Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender do admirable jobs with the material they’re given, but it’s just not enough.

Characters… 4

Truly disappointing, though, is the “science” in this science fiction. Oh, the bad science! Magic flying balls. Magically resuscitated heads. Scientists stupid enough to examine biological samples without masks–much less full biohazard gear. But it’s really the central premise of the film that insults the intelligence the most. We see at the outset one of the big white guys ingest the mystery-goo that’s the film’s über-MacGuffin, presumably launching earth’s evolution toward their chosen form–humanoids like them. Except shorter and with hair. Now, at one point, one of the characters chides Shaw and Holloway for “disregarding 300 years of Darwinism,” but this opening asks us also to disregard three-hundred million years of life on earth that were most definitely not heading toward the human form in some sort of pre-programmed sequence. We’re a late arrival, so unless these giant white humanoids planted their super-goo much more recently, this just doesn’t make sense. But that’s the whole problem with the movie. Ridley Scott wanted to ask the question: What if we are created things? That’s a what if that pretty much everybody has an answer to already. Either we evolved or you believe in some sort of religious explanation for our origin. Those two alternatives, though, leave little room in our imaginations for Scott’s speculations. Now, if we’d learned more about the civilizations that Shaw and Holloway studied, Scott could have built this into a theme asking about the legacies we owe to past civilizations and the big white aliens could just be allegorical stand-ins for various past figures. But there’s no room in this busy, messy script for that level of thematic development…

Theme… 1

Because this movie doesn’t know what it wants us to do: think or be afraid. Scott continually throws in his hamfisted “big” questions, but then the scene quickly changes to some monster/action scene. We are treated to an alienish snake attack, a zombie bloodbath, a squid abortion, and a giant white dude rampage–none of which seem to fit together into any coherent whole. It’s a jumbled mess of threats because deep down, Scott wants us looking elsewhere for an antagonist. Is it David, who is coldly following his orders and condescending toward the flawed human beings around him? Is it Vickers and her calculating single-mindedness? Or late-comer Weyland whose greed for life is supposedly driving the entire enterprise from the belly of the ship all along? In the end, none of them is particularly compelling, leaving us feeling like protagonist Elizabeth Shaw’s real enemy is bad screenwriting.

Antagonist(s)… 1

Total: 16


  • The black goo seems as wildly improbable as it is inconsistent. Even assuming that the stuff we see the first “Engineer” drink to seed life on (presumed) Earth is a different formula, the effects vary widely from scene to scene. It turns the little worms in the giant head room into snakes, which then try to jam themselves down the biologist’s throat. Based on what happens to the last Engineer, you’d think that’s a prelude to a chestburster, but none is forthcoming. Charlie’s infection is primary and leads to him siring a monster, but then a primary infection in the geologist makes him into a really, really unfriendly zombie-type thing. Basically, the only consistent principle of the black goo seems to be: make everything worse!
  • The Engineers have some interesting design aesthetics and a really crappy understanding of ergonomics. Their biological storage labs are laid out like temples with murals and giant head sculptures. Meanwhile, their control panels require the user to lean way forward out of his ginormous chair to touch the goey, egg-shaped buttons–oh, and the on switch is a flute, go figure.
  • So, um, where did the aliens who burst out of all those Engineers’ chests go anyway?
  • Like I said, everything in this movie looks sumptuous and convincing…except for the god-awful old-age make-up on Guy Pierce.
  • Whoever at Weyland Robotics wrote David’s passive aggressive dialogue sub-routines needs to be fired.
  • The really sad thing is that there was a better movie than this on the cutting room floor. The deleted scenes really fill in some of the gaps that left audiences scratching their heads. The biologist, whose conflicted reaction to alien life was so conspicuous in the release version, would have earlier shown his excitement over finding living worms on the planet (hence making his appreciation of the snakey thing later somewhat more believable). In an alternate version, the zombie version of Fifield that attacked the ship was much more like the traditional alien xenomorph in both appearance and movement, evoking more menace and connecting Prometheus to its cinematic lineage. The last Engineer’s nature is seen more fully in cut scenes. He talks to David at greater length, with subtitles that seem to give credence to his outrage. He is also humanized further as he enters the remains of the Prometheus, before finding Shaw, making him less monster and more the “maker” he was meant to be. These changes wouldn’t have completely transformed the film (ala I Am Legend‘s original ending) but they would have strengthened it. It’s absolutely puzzling why Scott left us with this cut of the film.
  • And just what is with that final crash sequence? First of all, thanks for ruining the climax of the film in the trailer, Hollywood. More importantly, though, the Prometheus is not a really big ship. We see the bridge’s relative size to the exterior in the opening sweep over it. Likewise, we know the alien doughnut ships have HUGE internal volumes from the scene in Alien when Cain descends into the egg chamber. So really, the Engineer’s ship should dwarf the Prometheus, but instead, it looks like a fair fight when the human craft crashes into it. But what happens next is the real problem, though I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that filmmakers so comfortable throwing out every rule of biology would also pay no attention to gravity. The damaged Engineer ship free falls slowly enough for Shaw and Vickers to make what would, in the real world, be a futile effort to run away. The shockwave from the crash would have killed them no matter how much sprinting they did, but the ultimate insult to the audience’s intelligence, though, comes when Shaw is saved by…a rock.

So why am I writing about Prometheus now? Well, because we just rewatched it. What’s that? Why would we rewatch a movie we’re so deeply disappointed in? Um…well…gee…



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