Ridley Scott | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R
With all the furore this week over the (supposed) behind-the-scenes problems with attempts to launch Prometheus 2, it’s about time I posted my review of last year’s intended franchise-starter…
Ridley Scott’s not-an-Alien-prequel-honest Alien prequel is nothing if not divisive, with critics and fans alike declaring it to be a revelatory masterpiece, irredeemable faux-profound slop, and every point on the spectrum in between. I did my best to remain spoiler-free throughout the four months between its theatrical release and disc debut (crikey things reach DVD quickly these days!), though I did read a leaked plot description in advance that was reportedly decried as rubbish. I wish I could remember where I found it because I’d love to know if it matches up. Sadly I can’t remember the details, but obviously something stuck — and therefore it was right — because I was singularly unsurprised by the majority of Prometheus’ story. But that doesn’t necessarily matter if the film is any good, and Prometheus… well…
The first half is quite good, in a slow, meaningful kind of way. Even at that point there’s doubts: some of what occurs is just unnecessary detail; shots and scenes that seem consciously designed to give it a slow pace rather than stuff we actually need to see.
The second half is batshit crazy. It abandons the thoughtful Serious Science Fiction trappings for schlocky body/creature horror, and in the process abandons the semblance of making sense. Plot holes glare at you. Characters make unfounded leaps of logic. It feels like whole scenes or sequences are missing. Indeed, quickly scanning through the disc’s description of some of the deleted scenes, it looks like they might explain some of the film’s gaps. I presume there’s a good reason they were cut though… right…?
And then, to top it off, it doesn’t have a real ending! They may as well slap “to be continued” on screen, such is the obvious lack of conclusion. It’s immensely frustrating, only to be topped off with a “in case we don’t get the sequel” bit of connective tissue to the Alien series. Mysteries and unanswered questions aren’t a problem in and of themselves — there are plenty in Prometheus’ franchise forbears, the first in particular — but they’re not the kind that require answers: their stories work as a discrete unit; who the Space Jockey is, or how the aliens came to be, and so on, are set dressing. Conversely, the gaps in Prometheus are in the primary narrative. There would be an argument for it being a thematic point — a Bergman-esque ‘silence from the Gods’ — but the starkness of that ending, as clear a cliffhanger as either of the first two Lord of the Ringses, undermines that. It fairly screams, “there’s more to come! See the next film for the answers!” And that isn’t on, because that isn’t what we were promised — this isn’t Prometheus: The Fellowship of the Prometheus, with Prometheus: The Two Planets already shot and scheduled for next year, and the trilogy-forming conclusion Prometheus: The Return of the Alien for the year after that; it’s just Prometheus, full stop, the sole definitive article. But it isn’t.
The sense that everything’s been cobbled together in the current blockbuster fashion of “keep writing even while shooting” extends right down to things like character development; even to individual scenes. Take Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), for instance. He’s a dick. I’ve no sympathy when it all goes wrong for him because he’s not at all likeable. What’s somewhat ironic is that the deleted scenes note at least one sequence was re-shot to try to make him more sympathetic. And, funnily enough, I remember during that scene in the film thinking it was about the only time he seemed even vaguely appealing (even then, only relatively). Just one of many such apparently-bungled elements in the film.
No character is fully developed. Some barely register, suggesting too big a cast, while others suffer from being plain stupid, or doing inexplicably stupid things, or just piss-poor acting. There’s some thing made about Shaw (Noomi Rapace) being religious or a true believer or something, but it’s not properly explained and doesn’t go anywhere. David (Michael Fassbender) and the way he’s treated by the other characters are both very interesting areas, and clearly of huge thematic resonance, but he acts inconsistently for no obvious reason, and despite the horrendous things he does to Shaw at one point, she just gets on with him again in the next scene, and… well, that’s far from being the film’s only plot hole or inconsistency.
At one point a character escapes a situation only to be killed off in a different one. If that sounds like a reasonable thing to do, that’s because I’m trying to avoid spoiling parts of the climax. It’s not a particularly reasonable thing to do, though; it plays as “here’s a cool death”. I’ve not read multiple versions of the script or read interviews with the writers or listened to their commentary (yet), but one does wonder if Damon Lindelof was brought in to pull back on some of the Science Fiction (with a capital SF) and build up the blockbuster-y elements, because that’s what said cool death feels like: a film constructed from “what would look cool? What haven’t we seen?” rather than “what are we trying to say?” I have no problem with the former in its rightful place (Tomorrow Never Dies has the awesome bike chase because it was the antithesis of GoldenEye’s tank chase, for one ready example), but a film that sets out its stall around Concepts is not the right place.
The daft thing is, I think a lot of people would’ve been happy if it had chosen to just go all-out as a schlocky alien horror movie. That’s what Alien is: an exceptionally well-made haunted house movie in space. There’s no shame in that (well, maybe in cinéaste circles, but pish.) But that’s not where Prometheus pitches itself. There’s too much other stuff for it to be just that; stuff that’s apparently aiming to be Profound. So when the horror does turn up, it doesn’t belong.
It does all look bloody gorgeous, from the real landscapes to the CGI. It was shot by Dariusz Wolski, whose previous credits include all four Pirateses and not much else that would suggest a remarkable skill. But sod a pixel-generated tiger, these vistas surely deserved recognition. (But then I’ve not seen the tiger movie, so…) I didn’t see it in 3D, obviously, but it certainly looks like it was shot for the format. Not because there’s stuff poking out at you, thank goodness, but look how light it all is, especially compared to the original Alien. I’m sure the scenery had lovely depth.
A side effect of such format-hopping is a debate on the correct aspect ratio: it was reportedly shown at 1.66:1 on IMAX, 2.00:1 on IMAX Digital, and 2.35:1 otherwise (the Blu-ray remains at 2.4:1 throughout). I have no idea whether the IMAX was opened out or cropped, though I’d imagine the former, which does make you ponder why they didn’t just use that everywhere, especially on home formats. I guess 2.4:1 must be Scott’s preferred ratio… but is that OK? Should we lament the missing top and bottom? I dunno. More interested parties than I have debated this at length, if you fancy scouring the web for it.
Prometheus is a funny old beast, then. There’s lots of good stuff in there, but also lots of baffling decisions and confusing shifts of tone, emphasis, style… Considering it was made by an experienced master-filmmaker, who was presumably granted all the time, freedom and money he wanted to craft the film he desired, it’s baffling how it ended up feeling like such a hodge-podge. Many fans have blamed Lindelof, brought in late on to re-write the screenplay; but considering Scott ruined Robin Hood by ditching an innovative, exciting screenplay for a stock this-is-real-history re-telling of the legend, perhaps the blame lies at his door. He’s reached a point where he can order anyone to change anything and it will be done (writers have no power in Hollywood, after all). Perhaps, at 75 now, he’s lost the ability to spot a good script; or perhaps he just tinkers because he feels he must, because he’s the director and he’s in charge.
Whatever. Here he’s turned in a scrappy, confusing, but not meritless movie; one that will probably endure thanks to its franchise connections, its moments of clarity, and its intense controversy. It’s not a good film, but it’s kind of a fascinating one.