Prometheus and the problem with prequels

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) was on TV yesterday. Now after seeing the bad reviews this film got at the time, I bumped it down from “Head for the cinema now” right past “Get it on DVD” to “Watch when it’s on TV”. And now Prometheus came to TV, I finally did watch it.

Now given that a whole lot of smart people really really hated Prometheus, sometimes so much they posted several times how much they hated it, I expected a feat of truly epic badness.

However, Prometheus is not a feat of truly epic badness. Instead, it’s just a rather meh movie with some pretty bad science. So “meh” in fact that more than twice as many German viewers preferred to watch a rerun of the German crime drama Tatort (Crime Scene) instead.

Spoilers behind the cut, provided you need a warning for a two year old movie.

The Good: Prometheus certainly is a nice looking movie, but then it should be, given the enormous budget and current state of effects technology. The cast is solid, particularly Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, who as usual steals the movie. In fact, if there was one thing that would have massively improved Prometheus, it would be more Idris Elba and less drippy boyfriend of Noomi Rapace. And please shorten the sex scene between Rapace and her drippy boyfriend and give us Idris Elba in bed with Charlize Theron instead.

The Bad: The science is absolutely atrocious and much of the plot hinges on the fact that the characters are all idiots who seem to have slept through their science classes and health and safety instruction and who have never seen a single SF film in their lives either.

In many ways, the movie is also predictable as hell. I mean, was anybody at all surprised that David as played by Michael Fassbender turned out to be treacherous? He’s an android in a Ridley Scott movie, so of course he’s going to be treacherous (and gets his head ripped off). In the end, the only survivor is a young woman – come on, we’ve all seen Alien. As for the reveal that Charlize Theron’s character was the daughter of the man who financed the mission a.k.a. Guy Pearce in old age make-up – I called that one right from the beginning, though I wasn’t sure whether I called it because the connection was so obvious or because I subconsciously remembered that tidbit from the various negative reviews.

However, plenty of extremely popular SF films have atrocious science. Star Wars, the Star Trek reboot, Transformers, Independence Day, Armageddon and every superhero film ever have science that is even more ridiculous than that in Prometheus. And plenty of movies have plots that are driven by the incompetence of many or most characters.

Take for example the biggest hit (in the US at least) of 2012, the same year Prometheus was released, namely the mighty Avengers. The science in The Avengers makes even less sense than that of Prometheus – it’s basically a movie about a glowing magical Macguffin that opens a portal into outer space. As for idiocy and incompetence, pretty much everything that happens in The Avengers can be blamed on the rank incompetence of SHIELD (with some contribution by Odin Allfather’s crappy parenting skills) – and that was before we knew that approx. half of them were really HYDRA operatives. Yet The Avengers is widely (and rightfully) beloved, while Prometheus is reviled with a passion usually reserved for the likes of Sharknado. So why do so many people hate Prometheus – a completely average and forgettable movie – so much, while they are willing to forgive the exact same sins in many other films?

Initially I assumed that the extreme problems many people had with Prometheus was due to the religious content. After all, the movie might be considered to endorse the idea of intelligent design with the “alien kickstarts development of life” scene at the very beginning. And then there is the fact that Noomi Rapace’s character is openly religious and wears a big silver cross around her neck. There is also some religiously flavoured debate about whether David the android has a soul as well as about the relationship between creator and creation.

Now I’m not religious and generally prefer my SF free of religion as well. In particular, I can’t stand theological discussions in my SF. However, the religious aspects in Prometheus did not bother me in the slightest. Of course, the whole “ancient astronauts as gods and bringers of life” concept is bunk, but concepts that are bunk can still make an enjoyable basis for fiction. Nor do I mind religious characters. Some people are religious, so it follows that some fictional characters will be religious as well. Besides, I viewed the attachment of Noomi Rapace’s character to her silver cross as well as her need to know who made humanity less as religiousness and more as the result of her missionary father’s untimely death. After all, we see in a flashback scene that the cross was a present from her late father*. As for the religiously flavoured debates between the characters, the average episode of the new Battlestar Galactica (which was inexplicably popular with the sort of people who hate Prometheus) had a lot more tedious philosophizing and theologizing than Prometheus).

Besides – and a lot of people seem to have missed that bit – the plot proves the various religious theories in the movie wrong. The alien gods want to destroy their creation and kill us all. Guy Pearce’s character realizes with his dying breath that “there is nothing”, i.e. no afterlife. And David, the supposedly soulless android, is not just the most developed character in the entire film (it’s telling that I can remember his name, but not that of the other characters), but also clearly has feelings, including a creepy infatuation with Noomi Rapace’s character. Hell, he even murders her boyfriend.

So what precisely was it that had so many people so upset about Prometheus, when it was no better or worse than a dozen other forgettable SF films? I guess in the end Prometheus was a victim of its overblown expectations. Because to those who were eagerly awaiting the release of Prometheus in the summer of 2012, it wasn’t just another SF film. No, it was a serious SF film in a sea of vaguely SFnal summer blockbusters. What is more, it was Ridley Scott’s return to the genre that had made him famous for the first time in thirty years. Finally, it was supposed to link Alien and Blade Runner together.

When weighed against those expectations, it’s obvious why Prometheus had to disappoint. For while viewers might be perfectly willing to accept bad science from Star Wars or The Avengers, Prometheus positioned itself as a serious SF film along the lines of 2001/Solaris/Gravity and we expect better from those. And in spite of the pretty visuals, Prometheus looks and feels a bit old-fashioned, more like a film from the 1970s than a film from the 2010s. It’s an Alien prequel, all right, but it feels like an Alien prequel made in approx. 1975 before Alien came out, rather than in 2012. Which means that it as a prequel it was actually more successful than the Star Wars prequels, which often seemed more like generic 21st century summer blockbusters than prequels to the Star Wars films we all know and loved.

And while the Alien prequel bits were among the better aspects of the movie, they only worked if you had seen Alien fairly recently. For example, the person with whom I was watching the film hasn’t seen Alien in twenty years and only remembered it as “that film where the monster bursts out of that guy’s chest and kills everyone”, so the Alien references were completely lost on them.

It doesn’t help that Prometheus has more than its share of plotholes and doesn’t even answer many of its own questions. For while the movie does offer a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why did the Engineers create humanity?”, namely the “Because they/we could” that Noomi Rapace’s drippy boyfriend offers to David, it never answers the question why they wanted to destroy us. Nor did the film answer the question why the various glyphs pointed at what seemed to be a random military base rather than the Engineer’s homeworld. And what was the lifeform that flickered in and out in one of the tunnels? And while we do get some kind of answers regarding the origin of the Aliens from the eponymous film series – apparently they were a bio-weapon created by the Engineers to wipe out humanity – the connection between the leaking urns, the wormlike things in the cave, the octopus/facehugger like thing in Noomi Rapace (and how did it grow so big anyway?) and the Alien that bursts out of the Engineer’s chest in the last shot is vague at best. Never mind that I for one never wondered where the Aliens came from – they just existed and didn’t need an origin. Which sums up why prequels rarely work. Because most of the time, prequels answer questions that no one ever asked.

Finally, it might be time to admit that just maybe Ridley Scott himself is somewhat overrated. True, he made two seminal SF movies more than thirty years ago. But since then? Sure, Ridley Scott made a lot of movies. Several of them were successful and won awards. But which of his post-Blade Runner movies have really held up? Gladiator maybe, though I for one never got the love for Gladiator, because IMO it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what made sandal epics fun. Ditto for Scott’s Robin Hood, another film which takes a fun genre and sucks all the fun out of it.

And even the appeal of Alien and Blade Runner is beginning to fade. Blade Runner gets worse with every new director’s cut that is released. It’s also a rather incoherent movie, a problem that it coincidentally shares with Prometheus. Alien holds up somewhat better and tells a coherent story. Nonetheless, I find that I no longer stop and watch when I come across the film on late night TV and that I haven’t actually watched it in at least 15 years. What is more, I’m beginning to wonder whether the fact that Alien works is more due to screenwriter Dan O’Bannon than to Ridley Scott. And I suspect that if Dan O’Bannon had lived to write the script for Prometheus, it would have been a better movie.

Now Ridley Scott is still a director with a strong visual flair, which is apparent in Alien and Blade Runner and Prometheus and Black Rain and many others. However, he clearly needs a decent screenwriter, someone with the skills of Dan O’Bannon.

*BTW, has anybody noticed that there are no mothers in Prometheus? Both Noomi Rapace’s and Charlize Theron’s character have daddy issues, but no mother present at all. Plus, Ridley Scott once again demonstrates his issues with pregnancy by having yet another character implanted with a rapidly growing alien fetus.

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6 Responses to Prometheus and the problem with prequels

  1. Andre Jute says:

    Anyway not to keen to be the spawn of an “Engineer”. Though I know a few elegant, sophisticated and thoughtful engineers, Time Magazine was right that time when they asked on their cover, and in a long story inside, “Why are engineers the ugliest people in the world?” A race of humans designed by engineers is likely to be a) ugly, b) nastily efficient as ruthless raptors, and c) destined to fail.

    Great review, Cora; thanks for paying your readers the compliment of believeing they can concentrate for longer than a soundbite.

    We’re working our way through a thousand or so films (as many DVDs as fit in about 20 or 25 feet of shelf space) and saw Prometheus, Blade Runner, Gladiator and Alien again recently, as well as every single other movie you mention, though I dropped out halfway through the first of the Star Wars movies — what a waste of Alec Guinness! Of Ridley Scott films you mention, Blade Runner and Alien and Gladiator are the landmark movies. Prometheus is just plain unsatisfactory: I said to my wife afterwards, “Ridley wasted about forty million dollars’ worth of special effects on his private dreamworld in the mistaken belief that it would fascinate paying customers.”

    • Cora says:

      Glad you liked the review, Andre. I’m not good at sound-bites, so I mostly do longish reviews.

      I hear you about engineers BTW. I meet a lot of them in my day job. Though I actually am the “spawn” of an engineer, cause my Dad is one.

      IMO Ridley Scott didn’t just waste a lot of special effects, but also some very fine actors on a movie that could’ve been so much better than it was. And when they run Ridley Scott retrospectives twenty years from now, Prometheus will always be an also-ran, while Alien, Blade Runner (though the various director’s cuts aren’t as good as the original), Gladiator and perhaps Thelma and Louise are the ones that will be remembered. Even many of the lesser known Ridley Scott movies are better than Prometheus, e.g. I quite like Black Rain.

      Besides, Black Rain offers a fascinating case study about how the human mind will imagine it has seen something happening (here a finger cut off), even though it can’t have seen that thing (the camera cuts away just before the knife starts to slash through the finger). There’s a similar example in The Avengers. Viewers will swear that they have seen Loki’s spear emerge from Coulson’s chest, even though you never actually see the spear.

      However, the original Star Wars trilogy is something I can watch countless times and still enjoy it, probably because it meant so much to me as a kid.

  2. Chris Gerrib says:

    In my mind, Avengers is a “comic book movie.” In these kind of movies, like kabuki or opera, people do things because that’s what the plot requires, not because of logic. Prometheus was billed as a “serious” movie, and we expect the people in those kind of movies to make intelligent decisions.

    • Lkeke35 says:

      The stupidity of the scientists, the sly bigotry of Rapace’s bf towards the android, the pointless skulduggery, these were all factors in my hatred of the movie. OTOH, I loved Idris, Charlize, and Fassbender. They did just fine and I wish the movie had had more of them in it but I could’ve done without the whole PoC sacrifice their lives to save the world trope.( I suppose I should be grateful that Ridley at least has PoC in the future and waits to the end of the movie to kill off the lone black guy, thereby getting maximum use out of such characters.)

      • Cora says:

        More Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender and less Noomi Rapace and drippy boyfriend (and idiotic scientists who get lost in the caves) would have been nice. I also wouldn’t have minded if it was Charlize Theron and Idris Elba who survived in the end rather than Noomi Rapace. Though to be fair, Noomi Rapace is a very good actress otherwise, she simply didn’t have much to work with here.

        The sacrificing the POC thing was very noticeable here (And why do Hollywood SF films insist on sacrificing Idris Elba anyway? If you have Idris Elba, you don’t kill him off) and the Asian guy who had barely any lines was very much “token diversity guy”. But then Ridley Scott at least doesn’t kill the POC and women first. Also see Alien where the white guys died first and the last three survivors were two white women and a black man (and the android was the fourth last to go). Meanwhile, in Prometheus, the last survivors were two white women, a black guy, an Asian guy, a somewhat ethnically ambiguous guy (the actor is Scottish though, hence white) and an android. Definitely a pattern there, though I wonder why there weren’t more POC among the random crewmembers.

    • Cora says:

      There clearly is a difference, because we’re a lot more willing to suspend our disbelief for The Avengers (even though all of the Avengersverse films have extremely smart people doing very stupid things) or Star Wars than for something billed as a serious SF film. This is probably also why the bad science in the Star Trek reboots is so annoying, because we expected better from Star Trek.

      Of course, some SF films simply foist too many crass stupidities on the viewer such as Armageddon (funniest comedy of the 1990s alongside Independence Day) or The Black Hole (just plain stupid).

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