It's A Floor Wax, It's A Dessert Topping, It's Prometheus: A Spoiler-Sensitive Review

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Before we can discuss Prometheus, I must first give a brief history lesson on Frustrating Science-Fiction Movies That Panned Out.
Now, when Blade Runner came out, it was widely viewed as an incomprehensible failure – critically panned.  The motivations for the lead characters baffled people – fortunately, the film had a clear line for villanous Replicant Roy Batty, who wanted “more life, father,” but people were wondering why the fuck Deckard was so mean towards poor Rachel.  I’d like to say the clues were all there, but they weren’t.  They were subliminal, beneath the surface.  Few people really knew what the fuck was happening until the Director’s Cut of 1991 gave us a dream sequence and an origami unicorn that told us, “Hey!  Deckard’s a Replicant!”
It was all there from the start…. except who the fuck could interpret it?  But, you know, some people like lots of ambiguousness in their sci-fi.
Likewise, the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey was often viewed as senseless eye candy for stoners… And it was.  But if you watched the movie a lot, or read the Arthur C. Clarke book that explained it all, then repeated viewing did reward you with a series of events that turned out to have a rather wondrous coherency.
Yet those are the exceptions.  For every 2001, there’s a hundred lesser films that looked to have a shit ending that didn’t hang together, and lo!  It seriously did not.  On the other hand, we have a genius director in the form of Ridley Scott, who’s kind of famed for being smarter than his audience.  On the gripping hand, we have Damon Lindelof, who’s famed for flinging up his hands and going, “It was about the experience, man, not the explanation!  Don’t get so hung up on, you know, a logical cause and effect!”
So.  Prometheus is getting a lot of flack because it didn’t make any sense.  So is it a hot mess, or a cunningly-plotted movie that will reward the viewer for digging deeper?
The good news: It’s both!
If you’re confused by Prometheus, Adrian Bott explains the aliens’ motivations to you – including the driving force of their culture, the reason why they created us, and the reason why they then turned it around and wanted to kill us.  (WARNING: Link involves both spoilers and Space Jesus. No, seriously, Space Jesus.)  And viewed from this lens, Prometheus’ overarching story (the creation of both us and the Aliens) makes perfect sense, the kind of subtle storytelling that really functions in a long-term sense.
So yes!  It all comes together.  In the long run.
In the short run, the run that’s underneath a gigantic spaceship tumbling out of mid-air, Prometheus makes no sense at all.
Prometheus is that rare movie where the aliens’ motivations ultimately make more sense than the humans.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what Prometheus is trying to do: by keeping the characters’ motivations oblique to us, it’s trying to saturate us with a sense of mystery and concern, because every moment on the screen could reveal something new about the crew.  It’s trying so hard to pull off that trick of making every bit of character in media res, which keeps us on our toes.
Unfortunately, this fails if the characters don’t have consistent motivations, or use.  And that’s exactly what happens in Prometheus… In particular to Charlize Theron, where the entire film would have functioned exactly the same if she were off the ship.  (As my smartie wife points out, she does two things that someone else would have had to do anyway, and one inexplicable thing with the Captain that distracts him from something he couldn’t have done anything about anyway.)
I mean, seriously (mild spoilers ahoy!), you have the guy who plotted the map, who yells how he’s out of his depth and wants to go back to the spaceship, and then wanders off with his buddy to get conveniently lost?  You have a biologist who apparently trained at the Steve Irwin Institute Of Fuckology, whose reaction to the first living alien being he’s ever encountered is to poke at it?  You have an entire crew of people who’ve been hauled out for a four-year mission in cryosleep, and they not only do not know why they’re going, but they have never met each other, even incidentally, on the way to their cryosleep chambers?  You have a lead character who inspired this whole goddamned mission into space, who desperately believes the aliens can [ACTION REDACTED], and it’s never explained WHY exactly he’s so confident the aliens will [ACTION REDACTED] that he spends a trillion dollars on an expedition to nowhere?  And whoa, look how happy the Captain is at the end!
The problem with Prometheus is that we have characters acting in completely random ways.  I think that Tobias Buckell nailed it when he said that the reason the first two Alien films worked so well was that everyone in them worked so hard to stay alive in a character-driven context.  Yes, often their actions were suicidal in retrospect, but given a) what the characters knew and b) what their ultimate goals were, it made perfect sense that such a mass of fuckery would erupt.  Since we don’t understand what the half-drawn characters in Prometheus want to do right up until the moment that they do it, we as the audience are frustrated because it’s a big shaky ladder of “Why did they do that?” and then we have to extrapolate the reasons why.  Which isn’t satisfying, and doesn’t hold itself up to poking nearly as well as Scott and Lindelof think it does.
On the other hand – and this is a big hand – Prometheus is fucking pretty.  The shots are gorgeous.  The visual effects are new and stunning and certainly worth your popcorn money.  I could watch it again just to have my eyes fed pretty pretty candy.  But on the gripping hand, it’s also not a particularly scary movie – there’s one terrifying sequence in the middle involving staples, but mostly the terror isn’t there because hey, these guys are getting killed by SFX, look at that.  Hey, look at it.  Dopes getting meat-ground.
The good news is that Prometheus does inspire debate.  It’s a challenging movie, which is rare these days.  Unfortunately, it’s challenging like the pissy bouncer at a bad club, where you get this feeling of initial triumph of getting past him, and then discovering that the club itself is shabby with overpriced drinks.
Prometheus is worth seeing.  It’s a very, very hot mess, the kind where you’re nearly glad you bedded hir.  But then you walk away feeling your self-esteem’s been a little corroded.
Your spoiler discussions may now commence. I’m certainly going to list some complaints in my first comment.  (And if the title confuses you, watch this old SNL skit.)

1 Comment

  1. Mishell Baker
    Jun 11, 2012

    One thing that many of the film’s detractors are not getting, which one of my Clarion classmates blogged about quite eloquently, is that a lot of the stuff that makes no sense about the movie was there from day one, long before Lindelof got involved. So people who have been harassing him for how much the movie sucked are kind of blaming the guy who was called in to patch up the mess and did the best he could.

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