The thing I love the most about science fiction as a genre is that it gives us an ideal venue for a deep exploration of every aspect of the human condition. It gives us a way to peer into our future, to explore the possible outcomes of our decisions, to ask ourselves what exactly it means to be human. It also gives us just enough distance, by way of allegory, to seek our answers to these questions in a way that lets us take one step away from our own biases, and thereby examine those biases more closely. This of course was why so many classic science fiction stories are so very timeless, and why their themes appear again and again, across different mediums and with new and interesting twists, and this is why I am and always have been an absolute science fiction addict. Give me classic Twilight Zone and a stack of old issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction and you give me happiness, tied up with a bow that is intricately knotted and possibly hiding sharp edges.
As a veteran scifi nerd and a fan of the Alien films (though I have committed perhaps the ultimate sin in preferring Aliens to Alien), I was pretty excited about Ridley Scott’s new prequel to the series, Prometheus. I was incredibly excited after seeing this TED Talk from the future, which I thought was a particularly brilliant piece of marketing:
Even more promising was this “commercial” for the film’s resident robot, David:
Clearly this film had the potential to turn over some incredibly rich earth. Sadly, these two short promotional films were, in my opinion, greater triumphs of storytelling than the film itself was. My primary complaint is that Prometheus sets itself up as a deep exploration of the essence of human origin and human existence, and then completely fails to deliver on that score at all. As a straight-up terrifying monster movie it could have been effective, but it doesn’t quite work there either, in part because having seen the Alien films we already pretty much know what’s coming. Also having seen the original Alien, we already know what a truly revolutionary horror film looks like, and it quickly becomes obvious that Prometheus is not it. If you’re expecting this film to address the topics it initially promises, you’ll probably be somewhat disappointed. If you’re happy to settle for a good old-fashioned outer-space horror flick in the fashion of Alien, you’ll be disappointed there too. Prometheus attempts to cross genres but instead just falls into a void somewhere in the middle, in much the same way that its plot seems to meander rather aimlessly until people start dying, by which point you’ll have realized that this movie is going to let you down.
The set-up is fairly straightforward: a pair of scientists, believing that they’ve stumbled upon evidence that humanity’s alien creators might be found on a distant planet, find a corporate backer and make the trek to this mysterious world, where they quickly discover what appears to be an artificial structure. They venture inside against all better sense, in the fine tradition of horror film heroes everywhere. Thus ensue the hijinks that you’re pretty much expecting from a film of this stripe, though Prometheus is particularly heavily punctuated with people doing tremendously stupid things, to an extent where it’s almost difficult to imagine why you’re supposed to care whether or not they survive. (Though in all fairness, this is a complaint of mine with probably 90% of horror films ever made.) There is also an element of interpersonal drama that seems almost tacked on, including several revelations about characters’ personal motivations which I call “revelations” only because I get the sense I was meant to be surprised by them, even though I predicted them well in advance of their big reveals. These factors make it fairly impossible to like the film, in spite of the weak script, purely on the strength of characterization… which leaves you really with nothing to love except Prometheus’ overall gorgeousness.
And it is gorgeous. The film’s production design is beautiful in a skin-crawling sort of way, as you might expect from the game-changing legacy of its progenitors — H. R. Giger’s original designs for Alien were seminal, definitive, revolutionary and horrifying conceptions of what an alien life form and its landscapes might look like. The casting is well done too, though some of it is wasted. Charlize Theron is a bit over the top in her coldness, Guy Pearce might as well not be in the film at all, and the supporting characters have all the depth and color of a shallow, muddy puddle. Aside from an outstanding performance by Michael Fassbender as David, nobody is particularly noteworthy.
David, of course, is the film’s most interesting character, but not its central one. I say most interesting because, although he’s a robot, he also enjoys much more humanity and much deeper characterization than, in my estimation, any other character in the film. I wish I could assume that that was intentional, but instead it feels like David is the most richly drawn only because nobody thought to bother with real development on anyone else. Fassbender plays the part flawlessly, and though he’s weighed down with some deeply obvious moments — David engages in some questionable activities that are so needlessly pointed out to us by the dialogue that he might as well be twirling his non-existent mustache — Fassbender manages to pull each of them out with a fascinatingly placid performance.
But alas, the weight of this movie cannot be borne by Fassbender alone, so rather than the scifi opus we were promised, we’re left with nothing but an aftertaste of what could have been and a burning need to watch Alien again to remind ourselves what this genre looks like when it’s done right.