Don’t call this a spoiler alert. I’m going to tell you a great deal about what happens in Prometheus, but I will not spoil the movie. Ridley Scott already did that, along with script-hack Damon Lindelof, who in two hours inflicts all the harm on Ridley Scott’s universe that it took him five seasons to inflict on Lost.
Prometheus begins with the deposit of a muscle-bound, humanoid alien man on an ancient, barely post-Hadean Earth. He drinks some kind of wriggling biologic cocktail and disintegrates; his suppurating body falls into a river. We are subsequently given cause to suppose that the alien has killed himself to seed the planet with his DNA. It makes no sense – species capable of interstellar travel could surely figure out a way to deposit DNA on a planet without blowing up one of its own members, perhaps by drawing blood or using a cadaver – but this is the kind of nonsense to which those hoping to enjoy Prometheus must acclimate themselves.
Fast-forward several epochs to meet romantically entangled archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). The year is 2087. Shaw and Holloway have just discovered a cave in which they find ancient glyphs depicting a human in a posture of longing, grasping heavenward toward a particular constellation of stars. And it’s just Shaw’s luck that 1) she has seen this very cave painting before, several times, in caves all over the world; and 2) she is singularly obsessed with it. As Holloway later puts it: “These are ancient civilizations, that were separated by centuries, and yet this same pictogram was discovered in every one of them.” Shaw intuits that the pictogram is an alien invitation.
Shaw and Holloway are very soon explaining this to an interstellar crew of scientists onboard the spaceship Prometheus. All present, save one, have just awoken from two years of cryogenic slumber while traveling toward the star-system depicted in the cave paintings. (The exception is a metrosexual android named David, who’s spent the last two years watching Lawrence of Arabia and electronically eavesdropping on his crewmates’ dreams.) They are all gathered in a gymnasium-like briefing room, and if the scene looks familiar, it should. This is an almost frame-for-frame recreation of the debriefing scene in Aliens, in which that film’s marines discover the purpose of their long jaunt to the interstellar boonies. In that scene, churlish marines curse and grumble when Sigourney Weaver deigns to tell them their business; in this scene, corporate employees curse and grumble when Noomi Rapace tells them theirs. Cursing marines are an expected sight; cursing corporate hacks less so, especially when their boss is standing nearby. That’s the serpentine Ms. Vickers (Charlize Theron); a woman so icily correct that it’s impossible to imagine her friends swearing in her presence. (In fact, it is impossible to imagine her having friends.)
This is not the first scene to unnecessarily recapitulate a moment from the Alien franchise, and it won’t be the last. Already, we’ve seen a non-human making improbable swish-shots on a basketball court, as did the Ripley-alien hybrid in Alien Resurrection. Still to come: worried humans fretting over an electronic map of an alien lair, on which several of their endangered companions are represented as bright dots; at least one line of dialogue cribbed from Aliens; the dismemberment of an android; a long conversation with said android’s head; and a woman who discovers something nasty in her belly, and who insists, over the protestations of attendant medical personnel, on taking a look at the sonogram. All of which will be very familiar to franchise-followers, and none of which is precisely necessary in a movie about extra-terrestrials. The revenant bits conspire to keep this film from reproducing the terror of Alien, which was a great film largely because its set pieces were novel. In their resurrected form, those set pieces are tropes, and their effect isn’t to frighten. It is to soothe, and ultimately to bore.
Back to the debriefing. Shaw explains to the gathered crewpeople that, not only are the aliens she seeks map-makers and invitation-leavers; they are also, she insists, “engineers.” “What did they engineer?” asks a scientist. “Us,” says Shaw. Why Shaw suspects this is never made clear. After reflection, here is the best I can do: Life evolved on Earth a very long time ago; cave-paintings were made a very long time ago; ergo, perhaps the aliens who implanted life on Earth were still around at the time. Problem is, life actually evolved on Earth some four billion years ago, while humans didn’t begin making cave-paintings until around 30,000 B.C.E. In other words, cave paintings are only 1/350,000,000th as old as terrestrial life. To have lumped both life and cave-paintings under the label of “old things” represents a stunningly lazy understanding of geologic time.
Which would be fine, if only the scientists present at that debriefing treated Shaw as the kind of loon she appears to be. They might demand evidence. They don’t. One unhappy fellow accuses Shaw of discarding “three-hundred years of Darwinism,” but that’s the wrong objection altogether – according to Darwin, life evolves via natural selection, but Darwinism is mum on whether the process of natural selection began on Earth or elsewhere.
The movie lasts another 70 minutes, and never does anyone bother to explain why it is that several people onboard the Prometheus believe – correctly, as it turns out – that the aliens they seek are the progenitors of life on Earth. Since this remarkable assertion is the central conceit of the film, it’s a significant lapse. Hoping that some clarifying bit of filmmaking might have been discarded by an overzealous editor, I looked for an explanation in an early draft of the screenplay. It wasn’t there. But the screenplay, penned by Lindelof and Jon Spaihts, does provide some insight. For example: Lindelof and Spaihts seem unaware of the distinction between “you’re” and “your.” They use the homophones interchangeably. And they are unclear on basic rules of comma-use, period-use, and capitalization. A sample, representative line of dialogue:
Ravel open the shutters. I wanna see this Bastard
Another, from the same scene:
Meredith Vickers. She’s a company suit sent here to make sure all of our actions are in the Companies best interests. Janek might be in charge of the ship but Vickers can end all of our contracts just by blinking.
Best stop swearing in front of her, then. Here’s a sample line of stage direction, also from the same scene:
RAVEL activates the shutters. Everyone faces forward as the large gold metallic shutters vertically raises revealing a window. As the shutters raise we can see the shape and form of the planet Zeus and it’s massive planet that Zeus orbits.
The shutters raises on planet Zeus and the massive planet Zeus orbits – the mind boggles. (The minds boggles? The mind boggle?) If you believe, as I do, that sloppy writing is both a cause and a result of sloppy thinking, then a quick look at the Lindelof/Spaihts screenplay will go a long way towards explaining the masterfully shot, intermittently terrifying, and thoroughly hare-brained remainder of the film. Prometheus swoops through the atmosphere of its destination planet and lands near what appears to be an alien pyramid. A team sets out to investigate. Within the pyramid, they encounter all manner of dead things, living things, and half-sentient ooze. David, the android, somehow intuits that the ooze is massively fecund – that if he were to, say, deposit a drop of it in somebody’s cocktail, that somebody would become an incubator for all kinds of interesting alien life. Why would David do this? No particular reason. He does it anyway. (With this scene, Prometheus becomes a hodge-podge not only of Alien franchise flicks, but also of B-grade Alien ripoffs; in this case, a film called Leviathan.)
There is a storm. Some men are killed by nasty snake-things. One man becomes an alien zombie. He murders several of his crewmates before being killed by another. When Shaw, who has no idea about the business with the alien zombie, decides she ought to revisit the alien pyramid, no one feels the need to inform her about the violent episode that has claimed the lives of several co-workers.
At length, it is revealed that there is a stow-away onboard the Prometheus: a very old, massively wealthy man who has sought to extend his life in space, and who is a great believer in Shaw’s alien-progenitor theory. (With his introduction, Prometheus becomes a hodge-podge not just of Alien-franchise flicks and Leviathan, but also of Contact.) He is also, we learn, Ms. Vickers father. The revelation isn’t particularly important to the plot, but it does somehow give the Prometheus’s remaining crew an excuse to revisit the alien pyramid once more, as a lead-up to a denouement that is so loud, so massive, and so emotionally inert that it made me think of Michael Bay.
Throughout it all, there is much nattering about faith, the meaning of life, and the enduring mystery of human origins. None of it’s any deeper than conversations enjoyed by a million over-stoned, under-read, and bleedingly earnest high school students every day. Nevertheless, these exchanges are apparently the most important part of the film – they represent Scott’s and Lindelof’s attempt to tackle the Big Questions, which is what Scott and Lindelof promised Prometheus would do in dozens of interviews in the build-up to the film’s premier. The gulf between intention and result is instructive. When Scott set out, 30 years ago, to make the ultimate creature-feature, the resulting film was so masterful, so aesthetically perfect, that it actually enriched the lives of viewers all over the world. Now that Scott’s set out to profoundly enrich our lives, he’s created merely a flawed creature-future. Humility is an underrated virtue in Hollywood.
So is poverty. The original Alien was shot on a budget of $11 million, which translates to approximately $33 million in today’s dollars. Scott couldn’t afford waste: Alien‘s every line of dialogue, its every element in every shot, was bent towards the creation of a particular mood, the reinforcement of a particular aesthetic. As a result, the film is as lean and efficient as the killer extra-terrestrial it made famous. Prometheus, in contrast, communicates bloat and decadence; a feeling that these rich film-makers sensed they could rectify any problem of motivation or logic or consistency in post-production. And the post-production is fabulous. Prometheus cost $130 million, and that will buy a lot of CGI. Enough to bury the Alien franchise, and Scott’s profound but limited gifts, beneath its weightless mass.