Movie Week #5: Prometheus

The ‘Alien’ movies, especially the first two, were seminal movie-going experiences for people of my age.  I was 12 when ‘Alien‘ was released.  I vividly remember the TV commercials for it – the minute I realized which commercial it was, I’d run to hide behind the TV set.  Needless to say, the ‘Alien’ series left a strong impression, and I count the first two among my favorite movies of all time.  So, when Ridley Scott decided to re-visit the Alien universe, I was torn – would ‘Prometheus‘ be another glorious film a la ‘Alien’, or would it be a disaster?  Read on to find my take on it…. {SPOILER ALERT – I will discuss plot elements – BEWARE]

Short answer?  I’m still very torn.  I saw Prometheus twice, once with my family on Father’s Day and once with Mike.  This is a movie I would love to love, but in the end there are too many things that bother me about it.  Prometheus is set before the events of Alien, with most of it taking place in the same planetary system, but not on the same moon, as the early events of Alien.  A team of scientists are sent from Earth to the system, after finding ancient traces on Earth that directed them to the system.  They hope to find aliens that they believe may have once seeded Earth with life.  Once there, they find large alien structures, with interiors that look a lot like the interior of the spacecraft from ‘Alien’.  The intrusion of the humans sets events in motion, leading to the rebirth of life in the alien structure.  Not too surprisingly, the lifeforms that develop look suspiciously like various aspects of the Alien.  Most of the team of scientists are killed in various ways, while David, a robot with a hidden agenda, makes contact with a different life form – one of the ‘Engineers’ that the team set out to find.  Unfortunately, the Engineer isn’t very friendly, appearing to be bent on returning to Earth and wiping out mankind with the biological weapons they’ve developed (i.e. the Alien-style creatures from the first movie).  The Engineer’s plan is stopped by the sacrifice of the crew of the Earth ship, leaving only a single survivor.

Prometheus had a number of elements that I really appreciated.  In many respects the movie parallels the events from the original Alien movie.  Themes and situations are repeated, as through a mirror darkly distorted.  The effects in Prometheus are phenomenal – I’m not a big fan of 3D, but in this case it worked well.  Individual actors gave impressive performances, especially Michael Fassbender as the android David and Noomi Rapace as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.  I respect the idea of making a movie that tries to deal with larger issues, and attempts to go beyond just the standard summer shoot-em-up that seems to be the height of aspiration for too many movies these days.

Unfortunately, there were too many annoying elements about the film that I just couldn’t ignore.  The portrayal of the scientific party was abysmal, as was the science in the movie.  A major plot point revolves around the discovery that the Engineers have the ‘exact same DNA’ as humans, with a chart shown numerous times that depicts a perfect overlap.  Anyone whose taken a freshman-level biology course in the last twenty years should be able to understand how ludicrous that is.  The scientists themselves act completely out of character many times.  No biologist would act in the manner that the the team’s biologist does.  Elizabeth Shaw, the main character, is an archaeologist, but once on the alien planet she apparently forgets all of her training in the proper way to handle archaeological surveys, as she goes charging around, disturbing everything without regard.  It’s the equivalent of starting a dig for dinosaur skeletons by dropping dynamite down some crevices and shouting for the jackhammers once everything’s all nicely blown up.  Apparently Elizabeth also knows xenobiology, as she directs the medical officer in various aspects of the analysis of an Engineer corpse, with amazingly bad results.  Once again, methodology that no self-respecting scientist would consider applying, especially on specimens of such enormous value.

Finally, the last aspect of Prometheus that bothers me is the lack of mystery.  The first ‘Alien’ was spell-binding because of the mystery.  Things were never explained, and so you never knew what to expect.  Even by the end of ‘Alien’, there was no real closure.  Sure, the monster had been killed, but since nothing was known about it, there was no guarantee that another one wouldn’t be lurking around the next corner.  Prometheus strips away all of the mystery.  I never felt that the characters in the movie, and the audience by proxy, were stepping into the unknown.  I never had a moment of the “Wow, that was unexpected!” feeling.

I was happy to see the movie – the effects were marvelous and the acting was spectacular.  Unfortunately, too many plot holes, too little mystery, and a huge inattention to details and reality prevent me from thinking of it as a classic.  Like too many movies, it fell short of the goal.  At least, however, it made the attempt – an increasingly rare quality in modern movie-making.  For that alone, Prometheus is worth seeing.

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