‘Prometheus’ & The Death of a Masterpiece
If you flashback to the early 00’s, there was still a sense of excitement and anticipation at the announcement of Ridley Scott working on a new project. This was a visionary director who’s expansive, ambitious and heart capturing visual eye had given the world of cinema such wonders as Alien and Blade Runner, masterpieces of the science-fiction genre. No longer; one must return to 2000, and the swords and sandals epic Gladiator, to find a great. During a long decade of quantity over quality, he cannot quite find that old spark and sees the excitement turn to pessimistic low expectations. 2009 offers a comeback; after years of talk, experimentation and musing, Scott’s longstanding desire to return to the world of his name-making colossus Alien has come to fruition.
Fox sanctions a project with Scott in the director’s chair and Jon Spaihts on board to write the screenplay. Rumors are rife about the film, and rejected drafts are already doing the rounds on internet chat rooms and gossip websites. They all seem to point to an existential direction for the series, as the infamous Alien Harvest script indicates. Beyond this, all that is known about the project is that it will be a prequel to Alien, only loosely associated with the franchise. The signs are good. Elsewhere, he is also working on a new Robin Hood movie. Worryingly, this film is seemingly in a constant state of flux regarding its plot, its screenplay and even its concept. In 2010, the same year that Robin Hood is released to a mediocre at best critical response, Lost show runner Damon Lindelof is drafted in to work on Spaihts’ script despite the fact that pre-production has purportedly been completed with filming set to commence within six months. It is horribly reminiscent of the stories that are coming out of the camp responsible for Hood, talk of constant rewrites and rethinks, resulting in the desecration of Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’ original vision. Now the signs are ominous.
After months of hype and net based promotional teasing, Prometheus is released in June 2012, billed as the biggest event of a year already packed with massive cinematic releases. It takes about ten minutes after the first screening for the voices of discontent to begin flooding across cyber space. They speak doom of a film rife with a stunning amount of plot holes, narrative lapses and contrivances. Initially wowed by the themes and visuals, fans and critics alike begin scratching their heads due to the volume of unanswered questions and grit their teeth at the poor characterization. Everything is criticized, from the acting to the bombastic soundtrack and, most significantly, the uneven screenplay. Although there is some fanfare, with a significant number of audiences and critics taking to the film’s ambition, the final averaging of the response reveals that it is just that; average. Some go further and claim that Prometheus is the worst film of the year thanks to the sheer disappointment at such a highly promoted film failing to ignite. Given that 2012 is the year of Battleship and Piranha 3DD, this is a significant claim.
So is Prometheus really that bad? Of course not, the power of hyperbole is well demonstrated here by reactions born out of hurt rather than reason. One simply has to stop and look at the film analytically and objectively to recognize that there are many positives, and that there was a general overreaction upon release and backlash to the film’s ‘setting itself up for a fall’ promotional overkill. Some diehard fans make the claim that in time it will be recognized as a great, citing many modern classics; The Shining was panned by many upon release and even garnered two Golden Raspberry Award nominations, but is now heralded as one of the finest horror films ever made. This may be the opposite extreme though, since although there may be a mellowing of opinion towards Prometheus it will never be held up as a giant of filmmaking. At best, it will be respected as a decent movie that didn’t quite manage to fulfill its wishes and potential.
This is after all the excitement has died down, something already healthily underway over a year later. Not so long ago it was still a feverish topic of heated debate, all stemming from the film’s incomprehensibility and mixed messages. Red Letter Media achieved their second global internet hit with their brilliant ‘review’, in which Mike ‘Mr Plinkett’ Stoklasa simply asks an overwhelmingly long list of unanswered questions while an utterly shellshocked Jay Bauman sits in overawed silence. In many ways, this brilliant video (a second Half in the Bag masterpiece is their review of Grown Ups 2) is a perfect summation of the main criticism of the film. The disdain held as a result was heightened when the film’s producers and distributors Fox placed huge amounts of deleted scenes, alternate takes and documentaries on the Blu-Ray release amid much media spin in an attempt to address the matter. Similarly, champions of the film cite promotional material released before the film reached screens as possessing answers. Unknowingly, they were all revealing the biggest problem with Prometheus, the reason it failed.
The core premise of Prometheus is only really clear after multiple viewings, analysis and research, quite often borrowing observations from others to create a hypothesis. At the end of this an answer is there, one that ultimately exists within the film but is lost in the crowd. This video takes certain liberties, but reaches a summation that perfectly fits. The Engineers didn’t hate mankind, and were not simply setting about destroying them. Having already created humanity, they then intended to use them as a Petri dish for their latest great concoction; the xenomorphs, or aliens to any laymen. The black goo in those vases was to be transported to Earth, where they would be used to infect mankind and birth from them a new species. Think to David’s line “to create, sometimes one must destroy”, and also to that hugely important mosaic in the big head room, in which a xenomorph in a Christ like pose is portrayed, among other coy hints. So this is the key point of the film, a plot summary that can be made in one sentence: “Mankind seeks out its creators, only to discover that they intend to build something new out of them”.
This ingenious idea should have been the making of a modern masterpiece, but instead was lost amidst basic levels of failure. Why? It wasn’t that Prometheus didn’t answer the questions it raised, it was that those answers were not concise, were not clearly pointed and relied too heavily on information not present within the film. The fact that this ‘truth’ is not clear within the film demonstrates this aptly. Most importantly though they were lost amongst the chaos of two very different films clashing and fighting for dominance. Rarely do the perils of rewriting manifest as vividly as they do here. Whether you blame Spaihts, Lindelof or Scott himself, the simple fact is that Prometheus is a film ruined by its attempts to do too many things and tick too many boxes. At its heart it is a musing of life’s greatest mysteries, and a fascinating attempt to answer them, but it is watered down by tendencies towards more action based modern genre cornerstones and poorly hashed horror conceits.
Everything suffers, not just the mystery aspects. Characters are flat and range from uninteresting to unlikable due to a lack of time spent on their development. The wonderful Noomi Rapace is wasted as the provincial protagonist since we don’t know her well enough to feel her pain, and since she doesn’t seem to have a character to work with. Elizabeth Shaw is a pawn in the plot who merely has things happen to her without displaying any real personality. In contrast, her lover Charlie Holloway is deeply irritating and loathsome due to lacking the depth to justify his negative behavior. The film’s most interesting character is Michael Fassbender’s David, the android. The non-human cast member feels the most authentic. Elsewhere, set pieces lack suspense or tension since we haven’t had a chance to become invested. An attack by a mutated crewmember is almost boring when it should be exhilarating, for example, and comes across as a compromise to include more action.
These symptoms of poor health and poor planning are indicative of execution by committee. What started out as a focused and highly imaginative piece was, like several of its characters, mutated into a horrible mess of creation barely recognizable as its original self. A director now most famous for his penchant for Director’s Cuts and bowing down to studio demands, Ridley Scott was never going to challenge the idiotic ‘logic’ he was faced with at a boardroom level. It is easy to imagine the meeting in which the vision died.
“We love this idea, the Gods and the subjects, creating new life from old life, its great”
“And we love all the parental subtext too, that’s great”
“Yeah, brilliant. But…”
“But…well, its great, but…we said this was going to be an Alien movie…This alone is like a Malick movie or something”
“Yeah, people won’t get it, and they definitely won’t like it. We need it to have more…”
“Action…it needs to have lots of action, all good sci-fi is action. Look at all the most commercial sci-fi films, they were action”
“And Alien was a horror film. We need it to be a horror film”
“But it has to be a mystery film, you need to keep people interested”
“People loved Blade Runner too, try and add some links to that”
“Yeah, and lots of Alien references, make sure people remember it’s an Alien film. People pay to see an Alien move”
“I like these characters too, try and develop them like you do in the script. All seventeen of them”
“And try to keep it simple too, don’t get too complicated. People won’t get it otherwise”
“So…you want us to make a…philosophical, thoughtful and original science fiction film about creation, the origins of mankind and the exploration of life’ greatest question with plenty of subtext about parental conflict and angst…that is a mystery horror action movie with lots of references to two different films, with full development and study of a large group of characters that isn’t too complicated or hard to understand?”
“Yeah, that’d be perfect. Oh, and make it less than two hours long”
This is filmmaking at its most unsustainable, unrealistic and irresponsible, without appreciation for what is possible or feasible. Whether this conversation occurred between Scott, Spaihts and Lindelof or between Scott and Fox executives isn’t for us to know, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. The end product represented the second time in the space of three years that a film by the son of South Shields had overseen the dismemberment of a concept in favor of commercial interests. What was supposed to represent his return to form actually proved his most sorrowing disappointment, the failure of his comeback and the on screen death of something so much better. On the most basic of levels, it failed the dreams of its creators by not heeding the most basic lessons of the business. More galling perhaps, it failed its audience by crucially underestimating them. In an attempt to simplify, it overcomplicated.
Prometheus should have been that masterpiece, that revival of true, great science fiction in its purest and wonderful form. Instead, it was the most chewed out film of the decade as far. Forget about the blame game and semantics, that is a heartbreaking loss for cinema.
This has been a Strange Interpretation.