Last night I saw Prometheus at the cinema, Ridley Scott's attempt to create a prelude to 1979s Alien. I love the film Alien. It is one of those rarities where I can't find anything to criticise in it, nothing that distracts from the central ritual of experiencing a story. Blade Runner (also Ridley Scott) is another of the handful of films that I can't fault. I knew very little about Prometheus on entering the cinema, so did it live up to Alien? [Note - please don't read on if you haven't seen Prometheus but intend to: this post contains spoilers.]
The first and most obvious thing was that the film was in 3D. I have never watched a 3D film before. Unless you buy cheap plastic glasses to watch the film (sold at the cinema) then it will be blurred and pointless. So, what did 3D add? Actually I was underwhelmed. The 3D effects themselves felt a bit gimmicky - a number of shots pulled me out of the film since it was so obvious that they'd been set up to show off 3D (e.g. an item falling off a waterfall, or rocks in the foreground). As such, and with occasional blur, it distracted as much as it added. Considering that this is an effects extravaganza and I had never seen a 3D film before, the fact that I would have been equally happy with a crisp non-3D image suggests that 3D is not necessarily the future of film. The only bits whee it worked really well were the opening credits and HUDs on helmets from the first-person view. Hardly a reason to increase our consumption of yet more extra plastic gadgets. I suspect that what 3D does well is distracts people from weaknesses in the story with a visual sleight-of-hand. I would prefer a non-3D film with a good story any day.
So much for the technology, what about the film?
First, the positives. I liked the way things were set up for the film Alien (including the evolution of the alien); I enjoyed the many visual references to the earlier film; I was left guessing as to exactly what would happen and when; generally the cinematography was impressive and fitted the story. If everything had been spot-on I would have loved it. As it was I was left feeling that it was only better than average (despite being a genre I love) because it kept including incongruous elements that pulled me out of the story. I'm going to dive in and list them.
- Most of the actors in Prometheus were too good-looking and young, and sometimes too obviously covered in makeup. For example the main protagonist (a top scientist on a ground-breaking mission) always seemed to have eyeshadow and lipstick on; her face looked a strangely different colour to her body skin. Compare that to the realism of Alien where the crew look like normal people, not glamour models.
- The human crew come down at random on the planet - what a surprise, it turns out they've come down exactly where the secret alien military base is! A ridiculous coincidence that any story writer shouldn't have allowed.
- The technology used by humans was well in advance of the film Alien, yet was supposed to be a long time prior to it.
- Every implication is that the ship they knock down at the end of Prometheus is the one discovered in Alien. However, in Alien the Nostromo crew find one engineer-alien (as I shall refer to them in future, rather than the traditional 'navigator') in the control seat with its chest burst out. Whereas in Prometheus the last of the engineer-aliens leaves the navigator seat and is killed elsewhere by a chestburster. So those two don't match up at all.
- Silly character bits. The writer obviously wanted to separate two characters so they could be the victims. How did they do that? They chose to have two scientists leave the party to go back to the ship on their own. Their motivation is most peculiar though. The biologist travelled across space, and he is later shown to be fascinated by alien life - yet when they first encounter a dead alien he suddenly seems to be scared, uninterested, and preferring to leave the safety of the group to head off into darkness with someone who doesn't like him, also seems to have no interest in amazing scientific discoveries, and has just acted incredibly aggressively to another scientist for no reason at all. What we have here is inconsistent characterisation that is obviously only there to create a contrived situation in order to set up a 'kill the ones on their own' scene later.
- The scale is wrong. In Alien a human is shorter than an engineer-alien's forearm, as seen in the photo above. In Prometheus Ridley Scott tried to retrospectively scale them down (see photo below - the engineer-alien is also stood on higher ledge than the humans!). This inconsistency makes no sense.
- The decision to make the engineer-aliens more humanoid, revealing that the 'elephant trunk/bio growth' (see the photo from Alien, above) is just a mask and suit removes a lot of the 'alien' element of the film, reducing alien mystery to banal familiarity. To me the engineer-aliens look like proto-cenobites (see below).
- If the message being picked up in Alien was just the protagonist's warning from the end of Prometheus, why couldn't they understand it?
- There is a scene when the alien navigation is turned on and David revolves in a holosphere of planets. Cue: "This is the bit where you are meant to be in awe, cue lots of 3D and swelling orchestral music, come on people, say wow!" It is so manipulative as to be obvious. The music in Alien is always understated, but in Prometheus it frequently barges in as either 'epic' or 'generic action movie'.
- How does the robot David know how to extract a drop of bio-contaminant, and then infect a human with it, acting as if he knew it would lead to the birth of an alien? This was their first encounter with the race and their technology. The reason seems to be just so that the writer can set up later scenes.
- There is an expensive medical system on the ship, taken by a risk-averse corporate woman 'just in case'. What do we find out when it is used? That it is only designed for male biology. What? Did the head of the corporation not realise this? Or, despite their advanced technology, they can't come up with a machine designed for men and women? It was just silly. And even though this is a super-advanced surgery machine, it does not anaesthetise the patient prior to surgery, forcing them to undergo major operations with just a mild spray to numb the surface skin. In a future where robots have been designed that are superior (and indistinguishable from) humans, this is silly.
- [New one, added 24th June]: Guy Pearce is a great actor, I love his work. However, his inclusion in this film as an old man was just strange. It detracted rather than adding anything, partly because the makeup effects were so obviously that - makeup. What would have worked better would have been using a real old man. There are many who are fantastic actors and would have loved a job. Hollywood seems so addicted to the artificial and averse to age that it would rather take a young person and cover them in unconvincing makeup than use a real old person in the film.
Update, 24th June: A friend on Facebook pointed out that "the characters are one dimensional apart from Michael Fassbender and Kate Dickie (it would have been a much better film if she had been the main character)". I hadn't thought of that but agree completely with those points. Kate would have been a hugely more believable lead. If you haven't seen her in Red Road you are missing out on a realistic, sad, sometimes scary, yet uplifting film.
Update, 25th June: Another friend pointed out that "The reasoning for the medical pod for males only was for Weyland who had been secretly stowed on the ship, why you would have such advanced technology and then make it sex specific though seems strange and unrealistic." Correct, I'd overlooked the first bit by concentrating on the second. My friend also said:"The main problem I had with the film is the under developed characters and irrational decisions. The two scientists who decide to leave the base on their own? The 'zombie' scene with the tattoo'd geologist? The ship's captain at the end who despite having no interest apart from his own needs decides to save humanity after persuading his two crew mates to do the same? The rolling spaceship scene, did it really take them that long to workout to run sidewards? Anyway I enjoyed it and wanted to see it again just for the effects and the background info that was provided on the evolution of the alien." All good points.