This year marks the 10th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus. Few Hollywood projects this century have been anticipated with such fervour, nor greeted by such open hostility. The film feels like the unwanted poster child for bad screenplays: your Hollywood blockbuster may be as ripe as a three-month-old orange, but at least it isn’t Prometheus levels of bad – at least I imagine that’s how the conversation goes. Is that fair? Does Prometheus deserve such enthused and ongoing scorn? The continued reactions put me in mind of an earlier instalment of the Alien saga. Alien³ was widely lambasted in 1992, but over time – and taking into account its production woes – has subsequently be re-evaluated by many as something much better. Perhaps Prometheus, separated by a decade from its widely panned debut, deserves the same chance.
Here’s the thing: I do think Prometheus is a better film than its reputation might suggest, but I thought that was the case in 2012. Before it was released it was pretty much the most hotly anticipated science fiction film since George Lucas had returned to Star Wars in 1999. A new science fiction film from the director of Alien and Blade Runner was such a tantalising prospect that pre-release expectations were figuratively through the roof. Just as high hopes for Star Wars Episode I led to crushing disappointment for many once they managed to see it, Prometheus was effectively reviled in part not because it was bad but because it did not meet the unrealistic expectations of the market. Coming to the film expecting a follow-up to Alien is a very different prospect to coming to it expecting something to improve on Alien Resurrection, AVP, and AVP Requiem.
That in mind, Prometheus is not free of serious flaws or problems. While it may represent a huge jump in the quality of the design, the acting, and the photography, it struggles with a muddled screenplay that asks characters to regularly catch the idiot ball and the audience to not think too deeply about the logic of the plot. I do not personally believe the screenplay is any weaker or sillier than those written for the previous three Alien adventures, but the difference is that Prometheus acts as if it is smarter. It boasts an awe-inspired grandeur and tone that promises “proper” speculative fiction, not to mention an elevated title that tries to scream importance at the viewer. The wobbly script is not Prometheus‘ ultimate sin; it is the earnest promise that the script will be much better than it actually is.
In Prometheus the discovery of multiple ancient carvings on Earth, all pointing to a single distant star system, lead two scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) to embark on a corporate-funded mission to the moon LV-223. They expect to find the aliens who created the human race. Instead they stumble upon a long-dormant mission to end it.
In my film writings I have always been fairly harsh on prequels. The basic idea of them is terrible: they are attempts to transform back story into drama, and that is a hugely flawed creative approach. For one thing audiences know where the prequel story is going to end. For another, were the back story more interesting that the actual narrative then that back story would have been dramatised in the first place. There is no benefit to knowing how the strange horseshow-shaped ship came to be on LV-426 in Alien. There is no dramatic satisfaction in knowing who that ship’s crew were, or why they had a vessel full of ominous alien eggs. Stories are intended to create drama; prequels can only deliver trivia.
Ridley Scott was clearly aware of this problem, because in the development period between Jon Spaiht’s Alien: Engineers – which got Prometheus greenlit – and Damon Lindelof’s shoot-ready rewrite there is a seismic shift in precisely what the film is about, and how it aligns with Scott’s original Alien. The action is relocated from one anonymous alien world to another, ensuring its conclusion does not align with the original film at all. The famous xenomorph aliens themselves do not show up in any recognisable or meaningful sense. As director Scott is noticably disinterested in Prometheus being an Alien film: the focus seems to be on the mysterious Engineers, the origins of the human race, and a few misplaced and reasonably silly Biblical references. He also seems particularly interested in David (Michael Fassbender), an artificial human more in line with Scott’s Blade Runner than with Alien. There is some worthy science fiction content in Prometheus, but it is hard to shake the feeling that it would have worked much better had this all not been a prequel at all.
It doesn’t help that the characters in Prometheus – while well performed – regularly act in ways that seem foolish – if not maddeningly nonsensical. The expedition to LV-223 is based not on evidence but faith: a trillion-dollar experiment funded on the whim of a religious scientist. An entire crew appear to have accepted a dangerous interstellar mission without being told what it is for. Two specialists become lost in an underground maze despite having just mapped it with drones. Someone’s reaction to encountering a terrifying snake-like creature is to try and pet it. Some of the behaviour could be hand-waved away on the basis that sometimes panicky people do stupid things, but that fails to excuse all of it and thus winds up feeling like none of it can be.
The design work is wonderful, and the film is probably the most visually attractive of the whole franchise. From moment to moment it boasts some tremendous ideas, but simply fails to stitch them together in a coherent manner. It is worth noting that it is still an improvement on all Alien productions post-Fincher, but it still fails to match the quality, impact, and edge of those original three productions. Scott’s interest in David and the Engineers does extend into 2017’s Alien Covenant, but this strange and unsteady prequel narrative appears to have ended there.
Prometheus is hardly the worst film ever made, but it is a very disappointing one. You can see the film that could have been made off somewhere in the distance, but you cannot reach it because somebody built this replacement in its way. It’s a deep shame.