I took a day off from work yesterday to attend to some other business. But I had the afternoon to myself, so I decided to go to our local theater to see Prometheus, the new film by Ridley Scott and kinda prequel to his classic work, Alien. I went in with high expectations due to some glowing reviews I’d read, but while the film is very entertaining, I left the theater slightly disappointed.
First the good stuff. All the performances are top notch, but two stand out. Noomi Rapace from the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is quite appealing as the archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw, the Ellen Ripley-lite character. Michael Fassbender is utterly convincing as a robot named David with a Peter O’Toole fetish. He endows his character with unnaturally precise movements and facial expressions that are just a bit unsettling.
This film looks and feels great. The genuine live actors look as if they are a part of every scene, even among the most computer-generated special effects. You will have no doubt that these people are on an alien world, among alien artifacts.
But the story does not make a lot of sense. There are holes in the plot and inconsistencies with the science that reduce the film from brilliant to merely entertaining. For example, the alien world they travel too is supposedly very far from Earth, yet it takes just a two-year space voyage to get there. Even our closest neighboring solar system is four light years away. There is no mention of faster-than-light technology (which would be hard to believe, since the film takes place just 80 years from now). If Scott were trying to make a great science fiction film, he would need to deal with this — that he doesn’t tells me his aim is much lower.
The space ship, the Prometheus, looks like a souped up version of Serenity from the Firefly television series, bigger and glossier, but otherwise quite familiar. It not only can travel faster than the speed of light apparently, it can land on an atmosphere-rich planet, which everyone should realize is unlikely. The specifications for a space ship to travel between the stars would be vastly different from the specifications for landing on a planet with atmosphere and quite probably incompatible. Scott shrugs this off merely for the sake of expediency.
Immediately after the Prometheus lands on the planet, the crew rush out to explore what looks to be an artificial dome. If you had robot technology like they do, you would of course send the robot (and why do they have just one?) out to do the initial exploration of an alien world where the possible dangers are almost infinite. But these dopes just barge right ahead and, oops, it turns out to be a big mistake!
And why do they even need human scientists when they could have five or six specialist robots? I’ll tell you why. Robots are less fun to see reduced to goo by the various menacing forces found on this planet than are humans.
From here on I’m going to be peppering this review with spoilers, so don’t read any further if you have yet to see the film and don’t want the surprises revealed. And while there a lot of surprises, you will likely anticipate most of them, especially if you’ve seen Alien.
I could excuse some of the science and logic problems with Prometheus, but it is hard to excuse one glaring issue. The whole premise of this film does not make any sense. That is that alien beings (which are called the Engineers) traveled to Earth in the past and deposited their DNA like cosmic Johnny Appleseeds. The scientists “prove” this when the Engineers’ DNA recovered on the alien world perfectly matches our DNA. But wait a minute. This doesn’t explain why chimpanzee DNA is a 98% match for ours. It also doesn’t explain why the Engineers are bigger and stronger, hairless and white (I mean like pearl white). Apparently the filmmakers do not actually understand genetics, or hope their audience is clueless, becase it is clear humans and Engineers are NOT a perfect DNA match. You can’t get this wrong in a film that wants to be taken seriously as science fiction, or as some sort of meta-physical exploration of the meaning and origin of life.
Beyond this, it turns out that the alien world is actually a military installation, not the home world of the Engineers, so why did they provide primitive man with sky charts to direct us to this alien planet? (Finding these sky charts as ancient cave paintings around the globe is what initiates the expedition in the first place.) Carbon dating reveals that the Engineers’ base has been dead for 2000 years; the cave paintings were made 35,000 years ago. What’s with the 33,000 year gap?
When David awakens one of the sleeping Engineers, the first thing it does is go on a killing rampage like Frankenstein (remember, I’m not talking about the alien from the Alien films, but about our alien progenitors, the Engineers). How does this make any sense? The Engineers have really remarkable technology. They have been around for millenia. Presumably they are somewhat enlightened or at least curious. Now one of them comes face-to-face with the “children” of their endeavor and his reaction is to stomp the life out of them without any attempt to communicate! Does this seem even remotely plausible?
The plot gets pretty complicated at this point, but if I understood it correctly, the Earthlings figure out that the Engineers’ military base was set up to create a biological weapon — i.e. the creepy aliens from Aliens. But the work goes horribly wrong and most of the Engineers are killed by the Alien aliens; hence the fact that the base seems dead when the Earthlings arrive. So how is it that beings that have so much knowledge don’t know what they are growing in their bio labs? And why do they need to create such a weapon anyway? Elizabeth Shaw figures out — and I still don’t know how — that the Engineers have decided to exterminate Earthlings. Even if we accept this silly premise, why would they need to create a dangerous killing species to do this? Why wouldn’t they just invent an incurable virus? Seems like that should be within their technological expertise, as it is probably in our expertise now.
Anyway, it turns out the artificial dome is like a hangar for one of the Engineers’ space ships. Once awakened, and after killing all the humans within reach, he immediately powers up the space ship with the intention of flying to Earth to destroy human beings. What is the sense of this? To our knowledge, the Engineers have created two life forms: us and the Alien aliens. The Alien aliens have wiped out most of the Engineers and are clearly a threat, but instead of dealing with them, the first thing the awakened Engineer wants to do is fly to Earth to kill Earthlings! What? Huh!
There’s also a silly sub-plot regarding David’s hidden agenda. He intentionally infects one of the scientists with some of the bio-genetic alien material, resulting in Elizabeth Shaw becoming impregnated with an Alien alien offspring. David’s motive for doing this is never explored, though it is possible to assume that he wants to smuggle an alien life form back to Earth. Why he would want to remains unanswered. Shaw forces her way into a super-duper medical machine — kind of like the cone of silence from Get Smart, but with sutures and scalpels. The alien is extracted just before it bursts out. She’s got an incision that runs from one side of her belly to the other. It shouldn’t surprise you in this film that she’s running, leaping and fighting within about two minutes of this operation.
What made Alien such a great movie was that it was utterly believable. Prometheus fails that test and in the end it is two hours of raw entertainment with no substance. Has Ridley Scott gotten lazy, or does he think today’s audiences just aren’t that bright?