The night before watching Alien: Covenant, I gave Prometheus another spin.
Here’s my thoughts.
Somewhere in Prometheus there is a great movie, but we’ll never see it. Its lost somewhere in the jumble of hints and mysteries and confused logic, in the unfocused script that doesn’t know if it’s more interested in Space Gods and mythology than aliens and corporate monsters. Its no disaster, but it is a frustrating mess.
It doesn’t lack for ambition. Essentially it shares the same story as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you don’t get more ambitious than that. The fact that it feels wrong to mention 2001 and Prometheus in the same sentence speaks volumes. 2001 had Monoliths shaping and influencing human evolution (and perhaps, although its never shown, even humanity’s creation). Prometheus has humanoid aliens, the Engineers, doing it. The paintings on cave walls indicating a star atlas serves the same purpose as burying a monolith on the moon; its a test to establish a civilization’s technological ability. As usual though, the logic of Prometheus breaks down- sure, show a map for the Engineer’s homeworld, in order for humanity to meet its creator, but instead it turns out it is a map to the Engineers military installation where they create/store weapons of mass destruction; the logic simply doesn’t follow through, and this occurs time and again.
But anyway, we’ll cut Prometheus some slack for asking the Big Questions. So Engineers use the Black Goo to shape human creation and through repeated visits over millennia shape our evolution, visiting primitive cultures and indicating where they come from. It might strike some as a leap of logic to assume all this is some invitation- perhaps if it had been described as a ‘test’ it might have been more plausible/interesting to the plot.
It might be worthwhile to mention the Prometheus timeline here as I think that might solve one of the films many mysteries/confusions. Ridley Scott suggested during the press for Prometheus that Jesus might have been an Engineer. I think that may have been more than an offhand remark- it may actually be a clue. The expedition exploring the Engineer’s base soon find the corpse of an Engineer which is carbon-dated to over two thousand years old- a holographic recording indicates he was killed during some moment of panic in which several engineers were fleeing some danger. We later see the hapless Fifield and Millburn stumble upon a pile of dead Engineers, having suffered some violent calamity likely linked to those fleeing engineers. Later, David reviews a holographic recording on the Juggernaut’s bridge in which the engineers access a star map and set their destination as Earth- these Engineers seem calm and to not be in immediate danger, so I would suggest this scene predates the earlier one.
So I would suggest this. Two thousand years ago, the Engineers revisit Earth to see how things have progressed. One of them is who we know now as Jesus, who teaches some words of wisdom to the primitive Terrans. Some of it gets lost in translation. Jesus the Engineer gets crucified, begs forgiveness of ‘God’ for this sin. But the Engineers are not so forgiving and decide this particular evolutionary experiment is at an end. So back at the military installation it is decided to send a juggernaut to Earth and bomb it with its vases of Black Goo, wipe out all life and start the experiment all over again. Hence the scene of the star map and the Engineers planning the route. However, things go awry loading up the vases of death and there is a breakout of the Black Goo, resulting in all the dead corpses, the hologram of the fleeing Engineers and the abandoned state of the installation. The last surviving Engineer puts himself into suspended animation to await rescue, which apparently never comes.
Fast forward just over two thousand years, and guess who shows up? Our heroes of the Prometheus. The Engineer is understandably pissed off at his very target waking him up. He kills them for this affront and decides there is no further time to waste, activating the ship and setting off to bomb Earth all by himself.
You know… it sort of makes sense. And usually I love this kind of stuff; films that foster all kinds of thinking and theorising. 2001 itself was the master of this- people still debate that film today. But Prometheus is no 2001, and the film’s mysteries seem more from ill-judgement and confused storytelling than any deliberate master plan. Instead it spends too much time getting audiences side-tracked with superfluous nonsense:
You find the head of an alien being and take it back to your ship. Its the biggest discovery in all of history. Instead of quarantining it or starting labwork, you go all Frankenstein and start trying to reanimate it, after its been dead for two thousand years, somehow causing it to explode. What the hell is all that about? What do they expect it to do- wake up and start chatting with them?
Expedition lead Meredith Vickers tries her hardest to be an utter corporate bitch. She shares few scenes and little empathy with ship captain Janek. Then all of a sudden she turns up at the bridge flirting with him and they go off for casual sex. It doesn’t add anything to the plot; the ensuing relationship has no impact on what happens later. What’s it doing in this movie?
A little earlier, Janek has spotted life signs from one of the robot scanners mapping the alien installation. Signs of life! Set the alert sirens! This is the biggest discovery ever! Instead, he shrugs it off and doesn’t tell anyone, thinking that maybe the scanner is faulty (I think it’s actually picking up the intermittent/cryogenic signs of the sleeping Engineer but that’s never explained either). Janek instead rings up Fifield and Millburn who you remember got lost and are still back in the installation, to tip them off. One of them – I think it’s Millburn- actually checks his map on his forearm and reports his location to Janek. But hang on, I thought they were lost. They’ve got a map all this time and know where they are? My brain hurts. Nothing is making sense.
Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, our star-crossed lovers/archeologists (thats star-crossed lovers with zero screen chemistry- there is some terrible casting in Prometheus). Charlie is pretty upbeat, wildly ecstatic even, at what they have discovered and realises the magnitude of what they have found on the planet. But something in the alien decor doesn’t appeal to him and he suddenly decides it’s ‘just a tomb’ and his mood goes a complete 180 and he hits the bottle and acts like a complete jerk. What? Later he comments about giving life and Shaw pouts that she cannot have kids and boom with the subtlety of a xenomorph crashing into the room its set up for Shaw to get impossibly pregnant from Holloway’s Black Goo-infested sperm.
No, subtlety is not Prometheus‘ strong point. Which is infuriating, really, because it’s trying to be a science fiction film of Big Ideas instead of just another bug hunt, and it looks utterly gorgeous. Advance word on Alien: Covenant seems to indicate that Ridley has second-thought things and is heading back to familiar bug-hunt territory, which might cheer Alien/Aliens fans but actually has me rather uneasy. In just the same way as I really like the film noir/doomladen nightmare of Alien 3, I quite like Prometheus going somewhere else, into Space Gods territory- it is just so annoying how clumsy and stupid and, yes, bad it is at the same time. Maybe going back to Alien basics is the right way to go.
I suppose there is a line of thought that Prometheus only really goes wrong when it is trying to wrap itself around the whole Alien mythology. Certainly the Engineers being the Space Jockey’s of the original, dispelling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the 1979 film, is a major misstep which threatens to derail the whole franchise. I sincerely wish someone had found some other way of linking Prometheus with Alien, if even just that the hunt for the Engineers would eventually lead humanity into deep space and the signal that the Nostromo was sent to investigate- leading to it instead of the Engineers being the architects of it. Indeed, perhaps the Engineers having fallen foul of it themselves. You go find the Engineers homeworld and they are all dead. You investigate the horror that overcame them and stumble on a derelict and some eggs. Something as simple as that, while developing all sorts of Space Gods stuff about creation and evolution.
The funny thing is, for a pretty frustrating movie, I’ve rewatched it several times now and its generated all sorts of writing here on my blog and elsewhere on the internet. So while it did many things wrong, it must have done something right, to generate so much attention and thinking? Will Alien: Covenant, I wonder?
I still wonder if Ridley has a Prometheus: Director’s Cut or Prometheus Unbound somewhere that, while it cannot possibly fix it, might actually be a better movie.