Prometheus: It’s Lost… in Space

by Ethan Alter June 8, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Prometheus</i>: It’s <i>Lost</i>… in Space

Few collaborators have seemed better matched than the minds behind Prometheus, writer Damon Lindelof and director Ridley Scott. After all, both men are big picture guys who enjoy building worlds that viewers can lose themselves in for two hours or six seasons. In movies like Blade Runner, Legend and even the otherwise lackluster Robin Hood, Scott paints on a giant canvas, transporting audiences to the past, the future or a fantasy realm. Meanwhile, throughout the run of Lost (particularly in its early seasons), Lindelof and his co-executive producer Carlton Cuse successfully created an environment where mysteries and secrets seemed lurked around every corner and down every hatch. So unleashing these two on a tentpole sci-fi blockbuster, with an apparently limitless amount of resources and money at their disposal, sounds like a recipe for an enormous spectacle of epic proportions -- one of those films that's simply bigger than life. [Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

And Prometheus is nothing if not big. In terms of the sheer scale of its spectacle, it dwarfs every other film released so far this year up to and including the box office phenom The Avengers. In fact, aside from Christopher Nolan's upcoming trilogy-capper The Dark Knight Rises, it seems unlikely that another summer movie will fill the screen as memorably as Prometheus. (It's also that increasingly rare 3-D film where the 3-D is essential to the experience as opposed to an unnecessary add-on.) Returning to the sci-fi genre after 30 years away, Scott brings the full force of his immersive visual style to bear, plunging the audience into a series of vividly realized settings, from the decks of the titular spacecraft to the moon of a distant planet where the answer to the mystery of life itself possibly awaits. Meanwhile, Lindelof adroitly sets the narrative in motion, establishing a number of compelling mysteries with a minimum amount of exposition. (It probably should be noted that Prometheus's script has another credited writer -- The Darkest Hour scribe Jon Spaihts -- but it feels like classic Lindelof in its construction and pacing.) Despite the futuristic setting, the first hour and change of Prometheus feels like a studio epic from Hollywood's Golden Age like Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia (which is referenced several times in the film) -- it's the kind of grand, shoot-for-the-moon filmmaking that Hollywood often seems scared of making.

Prometheus's enormous scale actually winds up distinguishing it from the movie it's ostensibly prequelizing, Scott's own 1979 sophomore feature Alien. Although the numerous (and, apart from James Cameron's Aliens, lesser) sequels to that stone cold classic expanded its scope considerably, the original is essentially a claustrophobic slasher movie that just happens to take place aboard a spaceship and involves a phallus-headed, acid-spitting extraterrestrial as opposed to an axe-wielding psycho in a hockey mask. In the run-up to the release of Prometheus, many wondered just how much Scott and Lindelof would attempt to connect this film to the existing Alien mythology. The answer turns out to be: quite a bit. Although a good three decades separate the events of Prometheus from the events of Alien, what happens during the course of this movie shapes much of what is to come and not just in the backstory regarding those nightmarish Xenomorphs that we've come to know so well. Scott also explores the beginnings of other key franchise elements, from the cryosleep technology that allows for ships like the Nostromo to go on multi-year deep space missions (since the process is still in its infancy here, when the travelers are awoken from their induced slumber, they suffer from nausea and physical weakness) to the Weyland Industries-created androids that alternately act as devils and angels in the later movies. (This film introduces us to one of the earliest models of these androids -- the handsome David, played by Michael Fassbender, who gives the best performance of the likable, but largely forgettable cast. You don't realize just how essential Sigourney Weaver was to the success of the Alien series until you see Noomi Rapace struggling to replace her.)

But Prometheus doesn't just function as a bridge to Alien; it has its own story to tell -- a tale of first contact and how man's best intentions can go awry due to hubris and greed. Following a potentially revolutionary discovery that mankind was visited by aliens in the distant past, scientists (and lovers) Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) convince Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, made up to bear a striking resemblance to Rupert Murdoch) the ancient head of Weyland Industries to fund their journey to a remote planet in the hopes of finding these space tourists and potential ancestors. Weyland offers them the use of Prometheus, a fully tricked-out ship whose crew includes the aforementioned android David, jovial pilot Janek (Idris Elba), a few other red shirts and, last but not least, the mysterious captain of the expedition Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who clearly has her own agenda. Touching down on this distant moon, they quickly find the aliens (whom they've taken to calling "the Engineers,") they've come in search of -- unfortunately, they're all long dead, the victims of some kind of horrible accident. Testing a DNA sample, Shaw is thrilled to discover that these beings are, indeed, a genetic match for mankind. But her celebration is short-lived when Holloway is felled by some kind of parasite and two other members of the crew become the victims of a deadly creature... a snake-like thing that can spit acid and likes to hug faces. (Insert your own "Dun dun DUN!" here.) Eventually, the Prometheus becomes a hothouse of horrors that few, if any, of the crew members seem likely to escape from.

It's around this time that you start to remember that, as great as Scott and, in particular, Lindelof are at the big picture stuff, what often trips them up are the details. And that's what cuts Prometheus down to size as it enters its second half. Having established a number of intriguing questions and promising plot threads, the movie proves unable to address any of them in a satisfying or even internally consistent manner. Perhaps the film's biggest missed opportunity is in the way it handles the Engineers, who never feel like interesting or relevant players in the proceedings even though the story hinges on their discovery. (It's not unlike what happened to The Others -- save for Ben Linus -- in the later seasons of Lost. ) Even after a potentially game-changing revelation in the third act, the motives and personalities of these crucial characters remain frustratingly opaque. The Engineers are just one of the many casualties of Prometheus's mid-movie shift from thoughtful sci-fi drama to balls-out action flick; it's almost as if, halfway through production, Lindelof and Scott got spooked by the slow, deliberate way the movie was unfolding and tore up the second half of the script to bring it more into line with what audiences and studios now expect from a typical summer blockbuster, particularly one that's connected to a popular franchise like the Alien series. If the first hour of Prometheus finds Scott and Lindelof indulging their inner Kubricks, the second is closer to Paul Verhoeven, minus the social satire. (Although it must be said that one of the movie's very best scenes comes in the back half -- a stunning setpiece involving Shaw undergoing a surgical procedure that functions as a kind of prelude to the original Alien's famous chest-bursting sequence.)

So many movies think so small these days, it feels wrong to dwell on Prometheus's plot problems when the images that are onscreen are often so remarkable. But the fact remains that those details do matter; as anyone who sat through Lost in its entirety knows, it's frustrating when a storyteller can't keep up with the yarn he or she is spinning. And the fact that Prometheus begins with such confidence and brio makes it all the more disappointing when it becomes clear that Lindelof and Scott haven't thought the movie through, right down to a final shot that's designed to please franchise fans, but is entirely egregious both in the context of this particular story and what's supposed to come next. (Supposedly, Prometheus is intended to launch a whole new pre-Alien trilogy, but that seems like an even worse idea than those Alien vs. Predator movies.) Would it have been better had Scott and Lindelof made a film that exists entirely separately from the Alien franchise? Perhaps, but we'll never really know; by it's very design, Prometheus's DNA will be forever linked to Alien and -- despite its incredible sense of spectacle -- it'll be found wanting.

Savor the best part of Prometheus -- the visuals -- with the gorgeously illustrated Prometheus: The Art of the Film from Titan Books.

Click here to read our picks for Ridley Scott's best and worst movies
Click here to read our look back at Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection

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