This is also over at stomptokyo.com
Alien stands with 1982’s The Thing and 1986’s Predator as my Big three of nasty alien critters. While good movies on the subject have come by before and since, these three are my favorite examples of how to do it right. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but they all share good supporting casts and an interesting back-story.
Indeed, I’ve always maintained that while the entire movie is outstanding, it’s the first hour of Alien that keeps it from being dated. The 2nd half of the movie, while well done, ultimately isn’t really much better or worse then almost any competent monster on the loose movie. The 1st half though sets up an intriguing mystery that is left unsolved (correctly so, since given the events of the movie there would be no rational reason for it to be solved.) What did happen on that derelict ship? What was the relationship between the space jockey and the aliens, what did the beacon really say?
Well, some 30 years after the fact after his original masterpiece, Ridley Scott has returned to answer these questions. Well, not really. Let me explain.
First things first...The film is a disappointment. Given the level of hype, I suppose this was inevitable. But it’s not the same level of disappointment as say The Phantom Menace. Before I go on, I’ll mention there are spoilers in this review. Despite my disappointment I do believe this movie is worth a watch, so I’d suggest watching it first. And if you haven’t seen the trailer, skip the trailer as well, it spoils way too much.
Ok, I’ll get the positives out of the way first. The movie is gorgeous to look at. Even with a very subdued color palate, almost everything is a joy to observe. This might even be worth an IMAX showing. Ridley has lost none of his skill at making believable and immersive worlds, except now he has over 100 million to spend on special effects. (Incidentally, 1979’s Alien had a budget of around $11 million, worth about $35 million today.)
Performances are pretty good all-round. Michael Fassbender as David, an early model android has already got a lot of press as the best character, and I would have to agree. David is disturbingly inhuman without being obvious or unsubtle about it. Most of the other performances are competent, they don’t distract at any point really. I’ve heard complaints about Charlize Theron’s performance as Meredith Vickers but I felt she did fine. Logan Marshall Green does fine but the writing for his character is really underdeveloped. Noomi Rapace as our lead protagonist is ok, although your impression of her will likely depends somewhat on how the movie attempts to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her desire to find Aliens that created humanity. All the other cast members are there to die (Sorry, spoiler…). I don’t believe they all even had lines of dialogue. Idris Elba does make an impression as a likeable captain.
Special effects are awesome. In particular the integration of CGI with practical effects is exceptional. The era of laughing at poor CGI may be coming to a close, at least with big budgeted movies. The space jockey aliens, while I really don’t like the design and concept, were integrated so well that only after I left the movie did I realize they had to be largely CGI, particularly when they were sharing a scene with other characters. Having said that, there is a difference between the FX and the actual design of the creatures, and none of the various creatures had the iconic value of the Alien or Predator.
A quick rundown of the plot. Archeologists Elizabeth and Charlie find multiple drawings/carvings of ancient peoples showing a God like figure pointing to 5 little balls in the sky. Apparently 5 extremely crude points on a 2 dimensional surface can precisely identify a star about 35 light years away. If you have trouble swallowing that, you are not going to enjoy this movie. Mega Trillionaire Peter Wayland, dying and wishing to leave some sort of lasting legacy, commissions a mission with the ship Prometheus to find out what’s going on. The ship makes it there (It is explicitly NOT LV-426, its LV-223) lands near some massive artificial structures and wackiness ensues.
I did like how the film incorporated a lot of elements from Alien’s original script that had to be cut out, like the massive pyramids that the crew finds. The first hour of the movie is almost perfect, mystery is set up, characters are introduced etc. And then the horror starts, and things start to go wrong.
One last item I’ll mention in the positives. While Ridley is obviously trying to address “Big Issues” in this movie, regarding Faith, Creation, our purpose in life etc…you don’t get the impression that he felt he had to do this because he was embarrassed to be directing a movie about people getting eaten by various alien critters, the bigger issues are part of the story, but Ridley still intends to create a intense, scary movie at the same time. (By comparison, if you watch The Village, I always felt that M. Night Shyamalan basically felt that a movie where monsters terrorize a isolated village was beneath him.)
Ok, on to the bad. The Big Issues I mentioned, Its very hard to make a mainstream movie about things like this without seeming heavy handed, contrived, or stupid. Prometheus manages to simply be…odd. These issues are raised, but they are either not resolved or resolved so poorly that its not very satisfying. Of course, answers to big questions not being very satisfying is actually part of the point of the movie, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. The movie suffers from a credibility problem as well. Suggesting that Aliens had something to do with the evolution of humans, or life on earth is one thing. Having Humans and the Space Jockeys (Called engineers here) end up having the same DNA is really not something that I can take seriously. The opening scene suggests a engineer ritually sacrificed himself some billions of years ago by creating some kind of DNA accelerant by ingesting the black goo. (This black goo is a major part of the movie, and it does whatever is required of it by the plot. While I could imagine a actual hard set of rules underpinning its behavior, it feels more like the script is just making stuff up as it goes.) Ok, I can go with that, I could even accept there was some sort of genetic memory in the DNA so that once sentient life evolved it would express itself subconsciously as matters of faith, even as cave drawings of Gods pointing us to the stars. But we wouldn’t be the Engineers, not by a long shot. Billions of years of evolution would render Humans completely different, and there is no reason our DNA would be closer to the Engineers DNA then anything else spawned from them, like say a grasshopper, or for that matter a slime mold. If the movie is trying to suggest that this is only a few million years ago, and this somehow produced modern humans…honestly that’s even harder to swallow. Instead of having a complete match the movie should have had a line about a handful of similarities in the DNA, perhaps some movie techno babble about a handful of ancient genes that have always been inactive etc.
But viewers problems with the issues raised by the movie will likely depend a lot on your personal reactions to those issues, so I won’t dwell on it. Let move on.
The actions scenes. Honestly I don’t think directing a coherent action scene is Ridley Scott’s strength. He simply can’t do it. The first big action set piece is when a sandstorm forces the team to retreat back to the ship, they barely make it. The tension is there, the special effects outstanding and the action is completely incoherent. While the broad strokes of what is happening is clear, they are trying to get the last few people inside, how this is happening is not. Incoherent action scenes are not uncommon in today’s movies, even a movie as well regarded as The Dark Knight has fight scenes that are more headache inducing then impressive. The Dark Knight's overall quality was such that most people could overlook this. Prometheus’s quality doesn’t lend itself to overlooking this as easily.
The set pieces. Major spoilers ahead, although you should only be reading this if you have seen the movie… The middle part of the movie is based around several set pieces as various crewmembers encounter unpleasant things. The crew finds the decapitated head of a engineer. Two members of the crew encounter some alien life forms inside the ship. David performs a little experiment on one of the crew. There is a action scene involving a missing crewmember. David makes a discovery in a unexplored portion of the ship. These scenes are ok, as far as they go, but they don’t build on each other because they really don’t have anything to do with each other. Let’s compare this to Alien.
1. Alien face hugs Cain. Ok, this is a issue, and we have broke quarantine, at least no one had died yet.
2. Alien chestburster. Follows directly from the previous scene. We now have a small problem, note that at this time, the biggest danger would appear to be accidentally killing it and destroying the ship.
3. Alien kills Brett. We now have a big problem.
4. Dallas is killed in the air shafts. Despite being more careful, and armed, the Alien is proving to be more dangerous then anyone realized.
5. Ash is revealed to be a robot.
6. Alien kills Lambert and Parker, this leads to the endgame.
Note, even when it would be technically possible, you really cant change the order of these scenes. It would be absurd for Brett to go looking for the cat after the full sized Alien had killed anyone, Dallas would not have bothered to go alone into the airshafts if the thing had already killed Parker and Lambert etc. While nothing tops the Chestburster scene for shear dramatic impact, Alien steadily builds towards its inexorable climax. In Prometheus however, nothing builds from the prior scene, you could literally shuffle the scenes up, and it wouldn’t make much difference. In a couple of cases one scene does lead to a 2nd scene (The fate of a missing crewmember from one scene is revealed, and the ultimate results of David’s experiment obviously has to come after the experiment itself) but even in those cases they only link to a second scene only. None of these scenes have anything to do with David discovering the last Engineer, which leads to the climax of the film. There is no real dramatic buildup, and these scenes really only serve to whittle down the crew to a more manageable number. I will concede there is one very memorable scene (You will know it when you see it.)
The writing. While the acting is uniformly good, or at least acceptable, I can’t say the same thing about the writing. Prometheus suffers from having characters act in implausible, stupid ways to advance the plot. While most horror movies suffer this in some degree, Prometheus has it in spades. I’ll break down one scene in particular in detail.
As a lead up to this scene, while the atmosphere outside the pyramid is similar to earth, its CO2 levels are lethal. Inside the ship the air appears breathable, so naturally everyone takes off their helmets. Now I could accept this if only the young brash careless (I.e. stupid) characters took it off, but they all take them off. Sigh. The movie calls attention to this idiocy later by having Elizabeth note they don’t know how the infected crewmen got infected and that maybe they shouldn’t take them off even if the air is breathable. As it turns out, no one actually dies from this, but its still stupid.
After the initial exploration runs across a long dead engineer body, two characters (Fifield and Milburn) decide to head back to the ship early. After the sandstorm hits it turns out they got lost and have to stay in the Alien pyramid. The problem with this is that they were in constant radio communication with Prometheus ship, and the captain knew exactly where they are, so how exactly did they get lost? They could have been guided out by the radio. Worse, a line from the captain indicated he didn’t know they were lost which means A. He wasn’t paying attention to the locations of the team, and B. Fifield and Milburn never tried to simply contact the ship to explain the situation and ask for help. So the captain is careless, and the crew is stupid. At least they are setting up consistent character motivations for later.
Next we have the only good part of this sequence. The captain informs them the scanners are picking up intermittent life signs in the ship. A brief discussion of if they should investigate follows as such. “What direction is the life form?” “West” “We go east.” This provoked a honest laugh from the audience and suggested they weren’t quite so stupid as we first thought.
Nevermind, immediately after this they decide to wait out the storm just past the door where they had freaked out originally and is now covered with creepy black goo oozing from various capsules until there is literally a stream of the stuff flowing through the room. Yeah, that’s where I’d stay. Soon after a snake pops out of the goo. Ok, these two characters were smart enough in there previous scene to go away from a unknown life form, now they are confronted with one. So what do they do? One of them tries to pet the damn thing.
Sigh. This scene is just wrong on every level, the set up, the motivations, everything. Seeing stupid people die for acting stupid really isn’t scary, and the worst thing is that none of this was necessary. You could have easily had the two characters stuck there not because they were stupid, but by being just a little further into the exploration and not being able to get back in time. You could have them wander past the goo room, note how messed up that was, and immediately try to get as far away as possible (If you wanted to tie this scene into the movie better, you could also have them discover the intermittent life scenes that lead David to discover the last engineer.) Then they could be hunted down and killed despite having taken every precaution they could to avoid it. That had the potential to be scary.
While this scene doesn’t directly lead to any plot advancement, it does tie to one other scene. Milburn is killed, but Fifeld’s body is missing and later it shows up as a super zombie from being exposed to the black goo. The action scene that follows is fair enough, albeit marred by being so rapidly edited that its not even clear how many people die. (It was edited so fast, that a significant part of the audience thought the superzombie was actually a different character, in fairness they do mention Fifeld’s name, but its easy to miss.)
In any case we eventually get to the one iconic scene in the movie which I thought was very well done, albeit marred by bizarre non reactions by the rest of the crew to the implications of it. (David at least had to have known what happened, and the two medical crewmembers that were knocked out during the scene, although since they never show up again I guess we can assume that Elizabeth actually killed them, which leads to more issues.) Non reaction to stuff is a common theme here, not surprising considering Lost writer Damon Lindelof has partial credit for the script. For example, on entering the pyramid David is asked if he can read the writing.
Charlie “Please tell me you can read that?”
David “I believe I can…”
And of course no one asks David what it says, and its never brought up again. Maybe it says “We come in Peace” or “Trash Pickup on Friday” or “All those standing here will be face raped by a giant alien dong.” All Charlie cares about is if David can read it, not what it says. Later 3 characters make a incredibly noble and self sacrificing decision, and act like they are taking the ship in to get cleaned.
Like almost all alien movies, there is a “The Alien is not really dead” scene, but I actually appreciated it since it was pretty much the only scene not spoiled by the trailer. It does however call specific attention to how absurd the Alien growth rate is. How the Alien gets to full sized on a diet of nothing but air is a issue with all the movies to varying degrees, but at least there is a passage of time in other movies, you can fan wank that the alien is raiding food stores etc. Here a alien in a sealed medical room grows from the size of a cat to a horse in a matter of hours.
But I digress, I’ve written a lot more then I anticipated. I really didn’t hate the movie, its beautifully shot, performances are good, special effects are spectacular, the gore is serviceable and the writing is bad. Ridley puts a lot of imagery and call backs to previous movies and literature, so if you like spotting that stuff you might appreciate it more. Ultimately I’d have to rate Prometheus as a interesting but flawed film. If the writing was tightened up a bit, as it might be in the sequels, it might grow into a excellent franchise.