*spoilers for Prometheus*

For a man who went unmolested by science-fiction for thirty years of lucrative and critically successful career, Ridley Scott was launched into the fold by the greats in the genre. Dan O’Bannon, Philip K. Dick — it’s writers and storytellers who facilitate the direction of great films, and without them, story seems lost on filmmakers. This wasn’t readily obvious until 2012, when the much anticipated Prometheus landed to positive reviews but bewildered fans. The writers behind the movie cannot be fully blamed, as a complex history and the tides of the industry crippled our great craft before it took off to realms unknown — albeit ones predictable and mostly disappointing.

As disjointed and odd a story as Prometheus is telling, its financial backbone and subsequent success (not quite Matrix trilogy but a lot for SF), alongside its critical evaluation, speak to a recent development in science-fiction film: people taking it as seriously as the filmmakers. If Sunshine were released today, it’d be a similar story, but it went largely ignored in 2007. I’m also 100% sure that our buddy Roger Ebert would’ve given AI: Artificial Intelligence a perfect score rather than a three our of four stars*. This is a post-Avatar world, and while these movies aren’t great sci-fi, I’m enthusiastic about seemingly new properties making money on nothing but quality, as was the case with District 9.

As we know, this wasn’t entirely the case with Prometheus, but thumbs up for not calling it Alien: Prometheus or Alien: The Beginning or at this stage, Alien. Yes, the big, slime-dripping elephant in the room is the Alien franchise, a sci-fi horror giant that languished in relative obscurity after the critical failures of everything after 1986. Somehow, the Alien cycle, even in the air around a movie, makes a big push, making me wonder about Blade Runner 2, and even something like the Arrested Development movie. Is there something to be said for audiences given time to grow while a franchise is on temporary hiatus? Was 2005 too early for Serenity? We’ll have to see, but I’m optimistic about both of those near-future projects.

Alien helped Prometheus find its space-legs but ultimately destroyed anything it may have been. There would be no latter without the former, but this is the story of how a space exploration horror tale can be beaten into ungainly shape by the hammers of reference and homage. This prequel is meant to setup a series, but is being pulled in so many directions. Not only does it attempt to be as mysterious as the original film while demystifying areas of the universe (effectively trying its hand at the delicate art of answering questions while asking them), it adheres to one man’s interpretation of a film that was expanded by numerous creators, and implies a new series of its own, leaving an open ending.

In an environment such as this, how does a story even survive? Not well, the bluntest answer I can offer given source material with Prometheus as its title. The plot, on the surface, is classic stuff — spaceship heads off “The Sentinel”-style to find the alien god, and bad things happen. The motivation for everything that happens however is nonsense, and the bad things that happen alternate being random and expected — bad in both ways.

It’s a new day, and as overviewed, Prometheus has a history. It isn’t something completely new, and therein lies the fallacy of prequels — the excuse of story. Well we don’t need to cook up something new, or perhaps we can’t, given constraints of the universe, and whatever we slap on the silver will be accepted, so long as we mention “corporate runs” or something during the crew meeting. The first act of the film, the setup and introduction to the characters and world, is further hurt by the fact that Alien’s setup is what’s consistently praised in that film, among other things. Whatever happened to novelty? Alien was the first (one of the first, I imagine) to have blue-collar spacefarers and talk of bonus situations rather than the fantasy trappings of humble beginnings and promise of a grand adventure. Arguably the greatest terror of the film comes about in a computer monitor readout, one mentioning in less than verbose terms that the crew is but a means of company advancement, and are expendable.

Prometheus does nothing new, and in fact becomes this year’s Terminator 3, eliciting the most excitement from me by reverse-engineering old designs. Speaking of which, the world of Prometheus may be beautifully rendered and designed, but artistically it’s analogous to what the movie is holistically. We have by the end a smooth, pointy-headed Xenomorph with two jaws and nothing sexually horrific about it, and a few miles away the H.R. Giger toilet-bowl ship. Under that haunting Space Jockey face, also designed by Giger, is a blank human face and body. Prometheus is a mixing bowl of the old and the new, the latter of which feels uninspired. The intrepid astronauts explore this new territory and everything that happens is par for the course if it’s old, or ridiculous it it’s new. But that’s the science-fiction fan talking. Prometheus is a popular film, so perhaps it has merits beyond the world and the Alien connection.

Unfortunately the characters are victims of predestination, in that they fill roles I didn’t even know still existed, and the plot gets jumpy after the first hour. With such a straightforward storyline, one wonders why so much is seemingly forgotten by the writers — and everyone else. Why does nobody seem to care that Shaw is covered in blood? Don’t those scientists she just beat up care? Aren’t they curious that she isn’t pregnant anymore? The Guy Pearce revelation can’t be that mind-numbing. And doesn’t Shaw want that alien to be dead? Of course not, because then it wouldn’t be Chekhov’s Facehugger.

There is no sound logic to the movie, but often times things like this can be excused if it’s a more cerebral experience or something emotionally satisfying. Prometheus attempts to poke questions on religion and evolution, as well as Arthur C. Clarke modes of thinking with the alien gods and seeding worlds, but this isn’t that type of story. In a sci-fi horror, we typically only know as much as the characters do, and they know nothing. They’re exploring. In Childhood’s End, the aliens would actually exposit, but all the aliens want to do in Prometheus is play Frankenstein’s Monster and throw a fit. Answers are ahead however, as the ending implies. So Prometheus is an incomplete story that hints at more than there was actual story.

It’s a lot like the video-game Gears of War 2, whose story was so laughable it’s good fortune the gameplay elevates it to triple A status. The creators got all sequel crazy as Scott and co. did, seeking to answer questions with questions. The effect that has on the story is that Delta squad is going from place to place for next to no reason. What are we doing here? Well we’re trying to answer questions with questions, so we can’t really say. Prometheus isn’t just a sequel, it’s a super awkward piece in an entertainment franchise — a quasi-prequel to one movie that spawned a series that became the identity of the franchise, which comes fifteen years after the last official release. I rewatched Strange Days recently, and I feel like Angela Basset grabbing a now Ralph Fiennes-shaped Prometheus and shouting that this is real time, Prometheus. Memories are meant to fade. That doesn’t mean Prometheus needed to replace Alien, but it didn’t need to be so submissive to it, as if whenever Ridley Scott attempted to lift the 1979 classic off this new one the tail tightened around the throat, and don’t dare cut the leg…

As bad as Prometheus is, I still enjoyed the movie, though not nearly as much as if it were merely average. I enjoy the trappings, the visuals that feel like home in this fantasy-strangled film climate, and the ideas. I don’t like it when those ideas are tainted by brainless philosophy (so this is what people see when they watch the Matrix sequels…) and reached by insultingly flat characters. There’s a moment in the movie that in any other would have me smiling from ear to ear — the supporting cast (one group of many), the pilots and Captain Janek, sacrifice themselves by flying the eponymous ship into the Giger craft, and while Janek imparts some final charisma (I liked his character), the other two crewmembers have a third act payoff in joky dialogue which is now somber in this context. A good idea, but hindered by the fact that these characters weren’t really in the movie, outside of setting up this payoff. It’s so unnatural and difficult to excuse, but it was the best moment aside from “DIE!” which was also stupid in retrospect.

*I make this crack only because the man seems to give everything four stars these days. But then you look back and you’re like — 3/4 for The Matrix? On what grounds?! Granted, Strange Days and Dark City and other important films of the time were given good grades — all the more important because nobody has ever seen those very mainstream, very American movies

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