Directed by Ridley Scott
How can a movie be so dumb and yet so smart at the same time?
Yeah. That’s right. My name is Joel and I’m a Prometheus apologist.
What’s the best way to understand how a movie hits you? The first time I saw Prometheus I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. That first teaser that basically told you nothing apart from that constant sound like Christoper Nolan bashing a tuba and small enticing slices of somekind of fucked up horror / something fucked sci-fi is (still) one of the best things ever. That increasing sense of dread like a giant Lovecraftian something slowly heading towards you and a rushing feeling like you’re bubbling up towards an epiphany. Yeah. It’s a cool little minute and ten seconds of film and I think I must have watched it like 100 times at least.
The trailer that came after that is admittingly not as cool. I mean – it does have lots of very nice moments. The fact that it cuts to black just before you can get a proper eye full of that spaceship hanging over the waterfall. The last part where everything goes crazy and it strobes in black so you can’t quite be sure if you’re seeing the things you’re seeing. And yeah – it must be said: every frame is a beautiful strange little painting promising wonder and terror.
Except – there are bits when it starts to fill in what the story is really about and there’s a part of that which just kinda felt a little bit – deflating? Maps in caves? A team of scientists? The origin of life? Saving the fucking world? Really?
Like a part of what makes the original Alien so cool is that they stumble upon this ultimate horror whilst basically trying to get home and get paid (Yaphet Kotto ftw!). This new Prometheus stuff just kinda seemed a little bit more cheeseball and (uh oh) a little bit more full of itself. Like ever since 2001 the whole “aliens are responsible for human beings” thing just feels a little bit… played out you know?
But then also maybe this is just the problem with horror in general? When it’s just a bunch of random images and fucked up sounds thrown together it’s basically one of the coolest things you’ve ever seen. And then – once you start to add a plot over that and have characters (urg) explain things then all that dark crazy stuff hiding away at the edge of your imagination just kinda evaporates. The possible gives way to the actual. And everyone knows that the possible is always way more interesting.
(The thing where you can’t quite see what the whole thing is).
And I feel like this is part of the problem with Prometheus itself.
Basically when it’s suggestive and leaves these blank spaces it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. What does that first scene mean? Were those invitations on the walls or were they warnings? What’s with the Giant Head Statue? What does David want? What happened 2000 years ago? What did those murals mean? What’s the deal with that Engineer? Is the whole place a Military Installation or something else?
When it’s cool fucked up images that refuse to give you a straight answer then it’s glorious and my whole brain is totally just NOM! NOM! NOM! NOM! But then yeah: when it’s character doing stoopid things then that does mess things up a bit (although the movie does get a lot better when you read it as that they’re not actually scientists doing it for the love of knowledge (of whatever) but motivated more by – as Fifield literally says – the filthy money (obviously he’s a Yaphet Kotto fan). Also I’m not sure this bit can make things any clearer?
Millburn : Is that tobacco? Is that tobacco in your respirator?
Fifield : Yeah, sure.
[takes a puff]
Fifield : Tobacco.
Millburn : On the behalf of scientists everywhere, I am ashamed to count you amongst us, Fifield. Really.
But yeah. I do get that that doesn’t really excuse seeing an alien lifeform that looks like a fucked up cobra and erm sticking your hand out to pet it (sigh).
Still that being said: isn’t it enough to just love a movie because of how pretty it looks?
Because yeah – I mean at the end of the day I think that’s my big draw with this movie and why it keeps holding such a fascination over me. I mean I do think Ridley Scott is a production designer who never should have become a director but fuck – he always makes his movies look like someone threw a million dollars up on the screen and then melted liquid gold over the top of it and that probably the best way to experience this movie is to watch it in another language with the subtitles turned off.
And that scene when David first steps into the alien ship and triggers that whole amazing lightshow? I mean – that’s movie making in miniature right? All these lights and sounds and it feels like you can hold the whole Earth in your hands. And just because it’s not real – doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.
Leaving aside the quality of Prometheus, the main story is to the extent to which the producers massively misread the room when it came to what audiences wanted. Indeed far from reading the room it seems they basically stumbled through a haunted hall of mirrors and produced a thing nobody was asking for.
Of course that is not necessarily a bad thing, no one was asking for a movie about Iron Man before that is all anyone seems to want. It is completely reasonable to say that if you are making an original film that you should be actively avoiding audience preconceptions, but Prometheus was a prequel to a franchise that had had 3 direct sequels and two spin-offs. Of course Ridley Scott can say “fuck you, you’re not my real dad” and make what he likes, but then the price for that is that you have to be ready for disappointment on all sides.
And the depths of disappointment were fairly spectacular. Firstly one of the beauties of Alien is the lore which is just nonchalantly tossed away in the set design. “Yeah it’s a giant space jockey, what of it?” “Duh, of course it lays eggs inside you” “Weyland Yutani, yeah they are bunch of guys” But Prometheus by contrast spoon feeds so much and really strains so hard on the premise of the engineers and Peter Weyland, but because of its relationship to the franchise we already know who the real bad guys are… it’s the robots.
Which leads me on to the second point which is the Alien Xenomorph itself is Batman levels of cool. You could put an Alien in any movie and improve it. Robocop vs Alien yes pls; John Wick Vs Alien thank you; Portrait of a Lady on Fire Vs Alien, take my goddam money. But Prometheus does not have an Alien. I mean I admire the cojones of the the film makers to ignore their best IP, but then you better have something pretty badass to follow up. Like Lord of the Rings never really gives you a showdown the Sauron, but the burning eye thing was cool enough and there’s like giant spiders and armed elephants and the like. Also as well as being bad guys Sauron and the Aliens as hunters served a purpose to drive the characters through the story and it is a bold choice to have the characters basically spending the moving searching for god.
Lastly as well as having a cool monster and detailed plots, the first three Alien movies stand up as horror movies and the original is easily one of the best horror movies ever. But you would have strain to describe Prometheus as a horror movie, sure it has horrible things happening in it but there is little sense of fear or dread or tension or claustrophobia. OK it scrabbles its way to a sort of Shadow over Innsmouth “what if I am the child/sibling of a monster all along” vibe, but half heartedly, which feels like a missed opportunity.
Instead of taking the xenomorph, the horror, and the show-don’t-tell world building they lent into a sort of Jurassic Park prequel. Indeed with its surmons about immortality and the status of god Jurassic Park is a much closer relative in terms of inspiration, which is interesting because as I have often said Jurassic Park also borrows from Alien.
But this is beside the point because there remains the question of should franchise extensions stick to the old formula? Do we just want to run the old favourites of the first few movies into the ground or is it a duty to show the audience something new? While Marvel movies often bring new characters and contexts to the screen, the criticism often levelled is that as productions go they stick to the same template to the extent that the simple fact of Chloe Zhao filming the Eternals on location was a novelty. Prometheus is at least exploring the universe and society of the original movies, creating space to branch off in to different directions, and it has every right to do that, but then what was the reason not to separate itself entirely from the franchise?
What if Return of the Jedi had not just been a remix of New Hope and instead changed lol perspective completely? Well we know people would have been super-annoyed, but if it had been done well perhaps they would have been grateful in the long run because it would have avoided the cul de sac the series has been stuck in for 30 years or so with over-commitment to canon ossifying the whole series. Prometheus could have taken the existing audience and taught them a lesson about hard sci-fi or of confounding what science fiction films look like. This could have been Ridley Scott’s Space Odyssey or at the very least his Event Horizon, and with that budget and existing good will it would have stood as a monument to his ambition. Instead it sort of makes the shapes of an epic space opera without following through.
Perhaps this just the doom of making these massive movies, which is why Lynch failed with Dune. The genius is not in the big ideas or even in the lavish attention to detail, and certainly not sprinkling classic references into the dialogue, all of which are present in spades. The genius is the curation of unforgettable moments where plot, design and character come together, and this is where Prometheus sadly ducks under the bar.
Honestly I find it weird when people care about franchises.
Like what is a franchise anyway? A vague concept cobbled together and tied up in marketing to make you go and see the next installment of “Whatever The Fuck.” Oh yeah right they’re advancing the story and taking you back into a world that you thought was amazing and fantastic the first time because it was like nothing you’d ever seen before (hmmm – maybe there’s a clue there about what you really want?).
Like yeah sure sometimes there are good sequels and people remixing familiar elements in a new and interesting way and yeah there’s characters you’re into and monster designs that look cool. But would it be too much to suggest that one of the failings of 21st Century movie culture is how we went from turning our noses up at the idea of sequels (“nasty shameless cash grabs”) into thinking that they were what we really needed.
Let me be clear: the thing to look for in terms of what makes a movie worthwhile are the people who made it. This is why I’m (against my better judgement obviously) anxiously kinda looking forward to the next Doctor Strange movie – because it’s being directed by Sam Raimi. Who – let us never forget – actually makes very cool movies now and again (Darkman is the my personal pick for “Best Superhero Movie of All Time” if only for the pink elephant scene). Because yeah it’s not really concepts that make cool movies – it’s people.
Although fuck – Prometheus does kinda twist that around upside down because yeah – Ridley Scott is very much not my favourite director because he mostly seems to make cool movies despite himself (LOL) and a big part of what makes me love Prometheus so much is – well – all of the concepts (ha!).
But yeah judging it on whether or not it works as a good Alien movie or not is like getting a giant big fat delicious chocolate cake and being upset that it’s not a bag of chips. So yeah – there’s no real Alien in it. And yeah it doesn’t really work like the other Alien movies. And it keeps on looking like it’s going to tie into the other movies in a way that will make things make sense (“Oh cool – it’s the same ship from the first Alien movie!”) and then deliberately swerves away (“Oh wait. WTF? It’s not that ship at all.”) And yeah – it seems like most people on the internet think that that’s somehow a failing of the movie when actually it’s one of the many things that make it so completely enjoyable.
Like imagine you saw a Jurassic Park prequel that didn’t have any dinosaurs. Imagine you saw a Godfather prequel that didn’t have any gangsters. Imagine you saw an Avatar prequel that didn’t have any blue people.
I think that basically there are two different types of people – those who want to know exactly what they’re getting from a movie and don’t want any shocks or surprises. These are the people that have made Marvel into one of the most successful cinema thingies of all time and they’re basically the death of art and the human spirit. These are people who see films as product and want to know the things that are coming before they even arrive. And then there are those people who want to be fucked with. Who want a movie that’s going to mess with you and surprise you and withhold from you the things that you think you want and give you a whole bunch of things that you never expected.
And that is why I love this movie.
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