The bulk of this review was written in the year or so after the film came out. At that time, there was no hint that a sequel would be made. Please take that into consideration when reading what follows below!
Soon after Ridley Scott’s take on ‘Robin Hood’ came out in 2010, an announcement was made that revealed he was to act as producer on a prequel to his 1979 science fiction classic, Alien. As the months went by, Ridley was promoted to director. However, soon after that announcement came another. The movie was no longer a direct prequel but was set in ‘the same universe’. That really got the Alien fans confused. What was going on? It really didn’t auger well for the film if they kept publicly changing their mind.
The following year the film went into production at Pinewood Studios outside London and on location in Iceland and the Isle of Skye in Scotland. A single photo of an astronaut caught in some kind of storm was soon posted on the Internet to wet fan’s appetite.
By now, the news was also out that the film was to be called ‘Prometheus’, named after the spacecraft featured in the movie. Interestingly, ‘Alien’ co-creator Dan O’Bannon did the same thing when he named his sci-fi comedy ‘Dark Star’, back in the early ’70s.
It all went quiet for a while and the absence of any concrete news only raised the anticipation levels even higher. A live video conference call from Iceland during the San Diego Comicon in July 2011 gave a tiny hint of what was to come, but as the film’s release got closer, the first trailer was unleashed. It gave tantalisingly little away and pressed all the right buttons as far as marketing and publicity were concerned.
Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox then went into a marketing overdrive, saturating the web with exclusive Internet promos, trailers and short features as the August 2012 release date loomed large. Presumably Ridley Scott had little or no influence on the marketing machine, as he would have surely objected to some of those trailers for giving far too much away?
The movie duly came out in August 2012 in 2D, in 3D and in IMAX 3D (which is the format I saw it in, front row no less at the Waterloo IMAX in London). Costing around $130,000,000 to make, Prometheus generated over $400,000,000 at the box office by the time it’s cinematic run came to an end. Not huge numbers by modern cinema standards, and due to the way the Hollywood accountants calculate profits, it’s doubtful 20th Century Fox officially made much money on it.
The Plot, in a nutshell
A pair of archaeologists persuade a ruthless trillionaire businessman to fund a journey to a far flung planetary system where they believe the creators of mankind reside. On arrival, they find evidence of such beings but it certainly isn’t what they were expecting.
These beings (nicknamed ‘engineers’) were clearly dabbling with creating life through genetic engineering. Unfortunately, there is also evidence that something went horribly wrong on the planet where their experiments were being conducted. It also becomes apparent that the ‘Engineers’ were readying a deadly shipment that would have wiped all current life off the face of the Earth, for reasons unknown.
Upon arrival at the planet, the crew of the Prometheus not only awake the last surviving member of the super-beings but they also revive creatures and biological weapons that slowly destroy them one-by-one. Throw an unhinged and morally suspect company android into the mix and you know the results are not going to be good for the crew of the Prometheus…
If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound much like an Alien prequel, then you’d be right. However, there are clear lines of heritage that lead to Alien. The trillionaire is a man named Peter Weyland. The name Weylan (without the ‘d’ at the end) was part of the original name of the faceless ‘Company’ that employed the crew of the Nostromo in the original ‘Alien’ movie. By the gun-ho sequel, the company name was prominently called ‘Weyland-Yutani’. The alien craft found inside one of the silos in Prometheus is the exact same design as the derelict found in the original film. Also, when suited up, the engineers look remarkably like the fossilised creature found on-board that craft by the crew of the Nostromo.
So, how was it?
It’s quicker to begin by saying what is good about Prometheus. Firstly, the film looks terrific. Sets and special effects are all top-notch. As you would expect from Ridley Scott, the look of the film oozes quality and you do feel like you are in a real ‘world’ despite the futuristic setting. Ridley Scott has an eye for design and aesthetics that plenty of other directors have tried to emulate down the years, but nearly all of them fall short.
The underlying plot of the movie is interesting, and touches upon whether there has been external ‘interference’ in mankind’s development. It’s an idea that has been explored in science fiction before, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which Ridley Scott is known to have been influenced by in regards to its look and its themes.
The initial idea and drafts of the screenplay were written by Jon Spaihts, and the quest for man’s origins gives the main characters their initial motivation. So far, so good. The early drafts of his screenplay were a direct prequel to the original Alien, with eggs, face-huggers, chest-bursters and fully grown adult aliens causing havoc by the end. However, had they made that movie then the potential for other films (sequels) would have ended there and then. For good or for bad, it was decided that the film shouldn’t include all those familiar trappings. Ridley Scott was of the opinion that the design for the alien was no longer ground breaking, and indeed the various stages of the creature’s life-cycle had been done literally to death. With that opinion, you do have to ask the question why make an alien movie at all? Why not make an original and very different movie instead?
It’s at this point that the good intentions start taking a turn for the worse. Jon Spaihts is replaced by Damien Lindelof and a re-write of the material begins. With pre-production quite far advanced, there’s only so much the new writer can do. Remove scenes that are too costly to film (like showing Peter Wayland’s Mars operations when Shaw and Holloway meet to persuade him to fund their mission) and water-down the direct alien references. Unfortunately, other things were changed that turned the plot into a mess, as we will learn shortly. In general, an awful lot seemed to be left deliberately unexplained. Whether this was intended for a sequel or not is not clear, but it creates far too many questions for the audience to ponder on when the credits are rolling at the end.
In no particular order… which planet was the engineer by the waterfall at the start supposed to be on? Did we – the audience – blink and miss something that hinted where it was? Was it meant to be earth? In the original Spaihts draft, it was definitely earth. The engineer’s ship at the start was a big flying saucer and not one of the horse-shoe or croissant-shaped ships seen later. Does this mean there are different factions of Engineers? None of this is returned to, hinted at or explained. Certainly the engineer who drinks the black goo and sacrifices himself looks much like the one we meet later on in the movie, but was he?
Why was Weyland hiding on his own trillion dollar spaceship? There was no point to him hiding away, other than to serve as a surprise later on… except it wasn’t a surprise at all! You could see him in the very first movie trailer they released, and there was no build up to the big reveal at all. David was obviously talking to him earlier in the film via the visor, and when they did reveal it there was no reaction from Shaw, who just stumbled upon him after her ‘abortion’ (more on that later!). In the original script, the hidden passengers were actually four armed security guards. As a scientific mission, weapons or trained soldiers would not have been part of the manifest, so it makes sense that they are hidden as an insurance policy in case something goes wrong. It certainly makes more sense than Peter Weyland hiding on his own ship.
Of course, along with this non-surprise was the reveal that Vickers is Weyland’s daughter. Was it a surprise? No. Was it necessary? No. Does it explain why she’s a bitch all the time? Possibly, because Weyland says very near the start of the film in his recorded speech to the crew that David is the closest thing he’ll ever have to a son. Trouble is, that line pretty much gives away the relationship between Vickers and Weyland and nobody bought the idea that Weyland was dead just because he said so in his speech. Poor dialogue, and a very poor plot device. It would have made much more sense for Weyland to officially come along for the ride and be in charge from the outset. Hiding security guards with guns to protect him made much more sense.
Immediately after the scene where Weyland explains that Drs Holloway and Shaw “… are in charge”, Vickers gets David to pull them aside for a little chat, where she lays down that they are both “an employee, nothing more”. During the conversation, Holloway challenges her and asks if there is another “agenda”. The fact that her boss had only just revealed that Holloway and Shaw were in charge should have given Holloway all the ammunition he needed to put Vickers firmly in her place. She might have been in charge of the Prometheus crew, but Holloway and Shaw were in charge of the mission, but no – it’s as if that part of the recorded message never happened.
Another example springs to mind. Janek asks Vickers at one point if she’s a robot and before we know where we are, there is the hint of something flirtatious between them. Later on, they are back to being cold and distant to each other. It wasn’t consistent with how those characters had behaved up to that point and it felt like something that should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Holloway’s poor attitude towards David (and androids in general) was also out-of-the-blue. All of a sudden he starts saying things to David to put him and his kind down. Previous to this there was no build up or hint of this anti-android stance. Just the odd little remark or even just a look during the moments when David is revealed to be an android might have given us some reason to suspect it before Holloway just blurts it out.
Another question. Why did David experiment on Holloway at all? Was he doing this off his own back? Had Wayland told him to? David stole one of the jars with the black goo and then just places it inside a fridge back on the ship. He didn’t lock the door to his lab, he didn’t hide the jar anywhere. Nobody challenged him, nobody walked into his lab at an inopportune moment. He was just left to it. No hint of what he was doing being sinister, subversive, etc. either in the music or in the pacing of the film. Some careful editing or the addition of the odd look or glance to suggest subterfuge would have given some hint. Instead, we got nothing.
Other characters get equally short-changed in the film. Why did Fifield and Milburn get lost at all? Fifield was the geologist who mapped the tunnels yet the map was only available back on the ship? How stupid is that? Why didn’t the people on the ground have full access to the map as well? Of course, it’s so the two characters could get lost in the tunnels. Another stupid, dumb plot device and it just made those characters look stupid and dumb as well. These are the best people in their areas of expertise, hand-picked to go on this mission. Really?
Milburn was then killed by the Hammerpede (the creature from the black goo), but from a plot point-of-view you would have thought he would have at least been impregnated or eaten. What was the point of that creature just killing him? Nobody seemed to care that much either way, but if he had been half-eaten that would have at least been some motivation for what happened. Next up, Fifield was affected by the black goo and it turned him into a contortionist monster. Okay. That we can understand up to a point. However, who was the crew member that found him by the ship’s ramp and was killed five seconds later? We’d never even seen him before. Was he even named? Why should the audience even care about someone we hadn’t even seen or heard from before? At least in other Alien movies we had met some of the characters and had an inkling what they were like before they were killed off.
Why was there one engineer in suspended animation? If the engineers were trying to take their payload to earth to wipe out mankind, why was this one asleep? Surely they would only do that after a successful take off? On the subject of engineers, what exactly did happen on the planet and what were they doing? Why was there a holographic recording of just their last few moments? Why was nothing recorded before or after? Admittedly, the recording is very handy for exposition, because the screenwriters gave themselves a very hard job by having alien creatures die two millennia before the humans arrive during the events of the movie. How else are the Prometheus crew meant to work out what happened? Without this, they’d just have to come up with theories pulled out of thin air… which is exactly what they do later in the movie anyway.
Captain Janek, who has pretty much just been sitting in the pilot seat for most of the movie doing very little or just tagging along for the ride more often than not, suddenly announces that the engineers aren’t from that planet at all and that it is just a remote base for their biological weapons. Hang on, where did that come from? How did he know that? And anyway, if that was the case… why were all those carvings, writings and cave paintings back on earth pointing to that particular star system? Surely the paintings would depict the engineer’s actual home rather than this ‘honey trap’?
The alien head. Oh, it’s a helmet not a head. Shaw couldn’t have just turned it over and looked to have worked that out? It took a 3D scan to make that revelation? And why bother with that whole scene where they make the head come back to life, only for it to explode? It’s painfully obvious in hindsight that they needed the head to carbon date it so they could say the events in the hologram all happened 2,000 years ago. Interesting, except that they don’t come back to that point at all and Shaw irrationally concludes that the engineers were rushing to destroy us for some mysterious reason…. anyone else wondering where these leaps of logic are coming from? The whole 2,000 years ago idea came from an earlier version of the screenplay where they hinted that Jesus Christ might have been one of the engineers and it was his crucifixion that so angered them into wanting to wipe out all life on earth. Of course, I’m no expert in carbon dating but I’m fairly sure it is something to do with how carbon decays and its interaction with a planet’s atmosphere. That’s fine when the planet is the earth but how could they compare it when dealing with an artefact on an alien planet that they have literally just landed on?
Onto the medical pod, which might as well have had a huge flashing neon sign saying ‘plot device’ above it from the moment Shaw rushes up to it and starts giving a full history on how wonderful it is and how there are only four in the world. She’s an archaeologist. Why would she even know about it? Later on of course she knows exactly how to use it. Oh, hang on though. It can’t do female specific operations. This was a really ham-fisted attempt at hinting that maybe it was intended for a male character. I wonder who that could be?
Now we get to address the white elephant in the room that is Shaw’s alien abortion. This is the real ‘chest-burster’ scene in the movie. She goes through the whole process in the med-pod, escapes and then stumbles upon Weyland moments later just as he is being revived by David and a few other characters that we barely recognise. Shaw then doesn’t mention to anyone that she has just given ‘birth’ to a monster and that it is trapped in Vicker’s escape module. A few minutes later it’s as if it never happened. Maybe the screenwriter was hoping that that audience would forget about the squid beast so it could come back later on and surprise us all? No, instead we are all just left wondering why the characters are all acting so dumb and of course, we fully expect that creature to come back before the end.
Why would Janek and his two co-pilots (again, two characters who did very little for almost the entire movie) be willing to sacrifice themselves by crashing the Prometheus into the alien ship near the end? They’ve pretty much been been emotionally detached throughout the whole movie. You would have expected some characterisation, some agonising over the decision. Maybe a tiny reveal of a family left back on earth waiting for them? Anything to make the audience feel sorry for them in that situation. Instead, there’s no empathy between the characters and the audience. Why should we care about these one dimensional, bland characters?
Moving on to major character demises. To be fair, Holloway’s death was handled in an interesting way, although it would have been more interesting for David to keep him alive and see the end results of his experiment. There was no hint of disappointment with David once Holloway was roasted alive by Vickers. Of course, Vicker’s ultimate demise was pretty laughable in comparison. Squashed by a giant alien ship… or was she? Her death wasn’t actually shown, presumably to keep the rating down to a 15, but then it should have been easily avoidable anyway. The alien ship had a huge big empty area in the middle for Vickers to aim for, or maybe she should have just just run perpendicular to the direction it was rolling. It turns out that this idea wasn’t in any of the early screenplay drafts and was thrown in by Ridley Scott because he felt it would be a neat visual. A real shame that some people actually found this scene quite funny. Another example of making characters appear really, really stupid in this movie. When will it end?
Peter Wayland was a bit of a stereotype it has to be said, but he was played well enough by Guy Pearce, under layers of prosthetic makeup. They used a younger version of the character (minus the ageing effect) in some online videos released prior to the movie, but they could have just got an older actor to play the role in the movie. His surprise inclusion was ruined by the first trailer where he is seen suited up in a spacesuit in the background of one scene. In this age of internet downloads and rock-steady freeze frames, the marketing department really should have been more careful.
It was no real surprise in the end that the only human survivor was Dr Shaw. Mirroring Ripley’s escape from the clutches of the eponymous alien in the original and ground-breaking first film, Elizabeth Shaw survived everything that was thrown at her and got to fly off in an alien spaceship at the end.
I really hate to be negative about a movie, but there are far too many things wrong with Prometheus in general. The seeds of its doom were sown the moment they decided not to have it link directly to Alien. Had they changed their minds earlier in the process, they could have gone with a totally different idea. In fact, as I hinted near the top of this article, it might have been better for Ridley Scott to have just made a new science fiction movie without the alien elements at all.
I really wanted this film to be good, but instead it has ended up being on a par with or just below the latter two ‘proper’ Alien movies, namely Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection in my estimation. For those people who might be wondering, that’s not a good thing! There are one or two good moments (and characters) in both those films, and there are a few good moments in Prometheus, but the bad points far outweigh the good. Production values were top notch, the score was okay and by far the best thing to come out of the movie was the android, David. it will be interesting to see how they make a sequel – assuming there is one – where one of the main characters is a talking head in a duffel bag!
It was only when re-watching the film on Bluray that I even noticed that Shaw had what was presumably David’s body in a bag as well. I’m assuming he might be reconnected before we get to see the sequel!