Why ‘Prometheus’ failed to deliver fire
Prometheus was the titan who brought fire to humanity, kick-starting our ascent to civilization, for which he was punished with an endless fate of stomach-bursting (thanks to a liver-hungry eagle). There are clear parallels to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a story of genetic ‘fire’ disseminated on Earth by a god-like super-tech alien, who dies a hideous death for the privilege (with some delightful stomach-bursting to come later).
Prometheus the movie is massively ambitious, with stunning atmosphere, effects, and scope, though it does not really deliver on its premise. There are serious problems with editing and structure, as Scott seeks to stitch other sci-fi movies together, resulting in a cobbled-together plot with a let-down ending.
Critics have slated it for ‘trying too hard’ (Eric Henderson), for trying to ‘remake Alien by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Jordan Hiller), and for being actually ‘worse than Alien Resurrection’ (Jim Schembri).
Here I’ll outline the story’s problems, and offer story-doctor prescriptions to fix them.
*** SPOILERS ***
Firstly, what is Prometheus? What are the constituent movies in its Frankenstein blend?
No doubt it is an Alien movie. There are plenty of gross-out, freaky alien encounters that echo the original movie. People get impregnated, get infected, get blood-acid burned, get lengths of flesh burrowed down their throats, all within a creepy, haunted locked-box environment.
These Alien-like bits were some of the best in the movie. When Noomi Rapace was screaming “Get it out of me!”, staggering down the leering halls to the auto-surgery pod, I was enthralled. The notion of having something growing inside you is utterly repellent, and still has its bite despite being in the cultural pot for so long.
The problem is- Prometheus is only partly an Alien movie.
Alien derives its power from being such an utterly locked-box story. Event Horizon cribbed this too. I suppose it is the haunted house trope, taken to murderous extremes. A crew is sent to a remote, isolated planet with a job to do. We never see Earth, we never see their lives, we never see anything other than the sick mining installation and the dirty confines of their ship. When they start dying then, we are completely locked into the experience with them. There is no outside world, and no escape, and no-one to hear you scream.
Prometheus, with its Earth 1.0 opening, followed by the sweeping Isle of Skye opening, then dream sequences back to Rapace’s childhood, doesn’t keep us in that box. It doesn’t limit us to the sensations of any one character, as Alien largely did with Ripley. We bounce around through history and geography at will, as though we were watching nbc’s Heroes.
Even worse, by opening with the Earth 1.0 beginning, where one of our giant precursors (Engineers) commits suicide to spread his genetic datum in a primordial river, Ridley Scott eviscerated the later revelation that the Engineers’ DNA and our DNA are a match. It should be a big reveal, but thanks to the opening, we already knew it!
I would have much preferred to learn that alongside Noomi Rapace. That is what builds connection to a character- shared experience. I can understand he wanted to wow us with a ‘hook’ at the beginning, set the tone and what not, but by showing the Earth 1.0 thing, it really undid all the drama of the story. By the end, we hardly knew any more than at the beginning! And it was completely unnecessary. We were all in the cinema already, having seen numerous trailers and heard lots of buzz. We didn’t need to be hooked.
- Cut all the opening matter, instead open cold on Prometheus in deep space. We get the exact same experience as the crew, no more, no less. We are in the locked-box with them, not hovering impersonally outside. It is an old beginning, a cliche maybe, but it’s tight and it works. There was nothing in the pre-openings that we needed, at all.
- To that end, I would also cut the HUD text that popped up, telling us Prometheus’ mission (classified), distance from Earth, and what-not. Reminded me of Phantom Menace TAX-WAR!!! pre-scroll. Who cares? It’s apparent.
Cold, hard open.
2- 2001: A Space Odyssey
“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”
2001 went big, opening on primordial apes, morphing to deep space, and ending in an alien mega-structure with access to everywhere. Prometheus follows this pattern fairly exactly, but in its broadest strokes offers a lesser reward than 2001. 2001, in the same way as Prometheus, offered an opening salvo of the deep past, where apes have their evolution interfered with and sped up by a mysterious monolith. In Prometheus we see the alien himself, kick-starting evolution.
So far, perhaps, so fine. But the ultimate reward is very different. In 2001, the story takes us not just to the starting point, but beyond it. To return to the stating point would have meant- show Bowman the map-room of the alien civilization.
That is effectively where we end in Prometheus. By the end, we have reached only a point equivalent to our starting point- knowing that aliens seeded life on earth, had crazy genetic tech skills, and were capable of flying around the stars. We end there.
Nice blue star-map. But is that it?
2001 took it a step further. When Bowman enters the space tunnel, it seems like his evolution is massively sped up. He sees himself at multiple stages of his life, all at once, traveling through time, space, experience. His mind is expanded, the same way the apes had their minds expanded at the start.He has taken the next evolutionary step forwards.
In Prometheus, there is no commensurate advance. In effect, this makes the movie a prequel to itself, simply explaining (with lots of new questions annoyingly posed) how we got to the point at the beginning. It takes no further step forwards. It was that step in 2001 that made it great. Without that, its a mystery and battle with AI in space, and some non-functioning alien tech.
Perhaps there are excuses for this absence in Prometheus. First off Ridley could hardly re-use the 2001 plot exactly. His map room comes close- though we have seen such similar 3D maps many times by now in other movies. Also there is the threat of sequel movies to come. Perhaps those will have answers, and feature the next step forwards? Unfortunately that doesn’t help this movie. finally, there is the ‘Lindelof’ effect.
Damon Lindelof co-wrote this script. He was also a co-writer on LOST, from the J. J. Abrams ‘mystery box’ school of writing, where asking questions and setting hooks is always considered more important than following through. LOST is the perfect example of this- an endless stream of promises with no follow through.
The defense to this is- well, what follow-through would you want? Hard to say, but as the audience, it is not our job to know that. We didn’t set the hook. Whoever set the hook should know how to pay it off, and Lindelof repeatedly doesn’t.
- Either cut the grand 2001 opening, as per Alien advice above, or keep it, but take us a step forwards by the end. This could be genetic, since the ‘Engineers’ skill is clearly in that direction. Noomi Rapace becomes human-plus, perhaps in a similar, automated procedure to the surgery pod she already used. She is granted a new form, and new understanding with it. Perhaps it could have been like the excellent Star Trek-Next Generation episode Inner Light, where Picard gets implanted with the memories of a life-time on a dying alien planet.
That would have done it. Give us a few definitive answers as to why the Engineers made us, why they wanted to come back and wipe us out. We already are inferring its some kind of Engineer plague. Make it clear, and take us the next step forwards. Perhaps Rapace is made the cure for them, a combination of engineer and human DNA that can heal them all.
- Now I’m rolling. This means- change the ending. We can have her squid-baby kill someone, but in this case, let it be the freak her boyfriend became. Fine. The ship can still crash, but perhaps that was all automatic. David calls to her, but not just to save her.
- OK, now I’m going to say what I thought the ending was going to be, and the purpose for the Engineers and the map room. They got sick with a disease none of their know-how could cure, so they set up the universe as their laboratory. They inoculated many planets, earth amongst them, with a virulent form of the disease, then left a map that begged their descendants, should evolution be able to form them resistant to the virus, come save them.
- This also explains why the Alien species formed, on another planet. It is one of thousands of planets, all adapted from the virus. We however, were the cure.
- So, the engineer computer figures this out from a sample of her blood. When she comes at David’s calling, she enters the surgery pod/thing, willingly. It gives her memories, explains the Engineers’ plight, and draws a sample from her to cure the sleeping Engineers.
- They wake one up. They look at him. He opens his mouth to speak. END.
This would take it a step forwards. It would explain everything. It makes sense.
David contemplates Earth, the cure.
3. Other problems
Those two movies are the father and mother of Prometheus, shaping its structural DNA and whether it broadly succeeds or fails, but there are also numerous other problems that play minor roles. Here is a list-
David infects Rapace’s boyfriend for no reason at all. I don’t care if David hated him, would he really risk everyone’s life in such a way just to get rid of him? It is very far from logical. At least HAL followed a kind of logic. David’s actions here are just inexplicable. Is his circuitry faulty? Then that is a ridiculous coincidence, considering he has overseen his cargo of cryogenic bodies for over 2 years. If he was going to be crazy and try to kill some of them, why have it only happen upon waking?
Furthermore, why did Rapace’s b/f hate the robot so much? No reason. For it be the reason, which caused the outbreak, it needs to be better set up. Explain why he hated him. Otherwise is like kicking a toaster, senselessly cruel and vindictive, when otherwise the b/f seemed a nice guy.
- Rapace’s boyfriend gets infected randomly. We already see he is reckless, as he takes off his helmet first. Have him touch a blob of goo and infect himself. further to this, I do not believe he would see an infection in his eye and not tell anyone. It is the old ‘I didn’t get bit by a zombie’ trope, and just silly here. He may still be saveable, and would surely beg to be given medical attention. Silly.
- Don’t have b/f hateful to David. Be playful instead.
b- Guy Pierce
I do not know why they hired a young man, Guy Pierce, to play the rich old patriarch, then slathered him with old man makeup. Looked ridiculous, and from the moment I knew it was Guy Pierce inside, I could not take it seriously.
Hire an old man to play an old man. Very simple indeed.
c- Old man / Vickers
Why was the old man’s presence aboard the ship kept a secret? What purpose did it serve? And why were we supposed to care that Vickers/Charlize Theron was his daughter? What even was the point of Vickers- just because you needed someone to launch the life-boat at the end? Not necessary at all. She did nothing but prance around and muddle up the stage.
- Cut Vickers completely, have David be the old man’s sole overseer, if he must be kept a secret, and have the lifeboat eject automatically, perhaps just for the old man. No problem.
d- Stupid People
This is a common problem in horror movies- of victims acting just plain stupid. First, all the taking off of helmets, touching things, opening doors without due thought. David is able to read the inscriptions, but nobody asks him what they mean. The two rock guys, including the one dude who ‘loves’ rock, and sent his ‘dogs’ around to map the place, got lost going home. Unbelievable.
Then the other scientist guy, in a room which Engineer’s designed to access, when faced with a bizarre genetic creation born after a few hours in a gross-looking broth, acts like it is a cute little puppy and beckons it near.
Stupid. He deserved to die.
- Do not have such stupid people. Make the monsters better and badder, so that it is their winning, not our protagonists committing unforced errors, that lets them kill us.
e- Rapace backstory
There were several times we get Noomi Rapace’s backstory. In the dream sequence, which was utterly unnecessary. When she gets sensitive and teary when her b/f says she can’t make life- though he was clearly talking about something else. These moments felt latched onto the story, and unnecessary, certainly as high points, if at all. By sharing experience of being hunted with Rapace, is how we come to like her. We don’t need her background to have that. she stands for us all, as Ripley did.
- Cut. Nothing is lost. Time is gained back, to invest in the proper ending.
f- God Stuff
The large proportion of god stuff was bolted on. I can accept a few, like ‘god does not write in straight lines’, as figures of speech. But that it kept being a focus was artificial. That David took her cross because it ‘might be infected’ made no sense either. she was still wearing all her? clothes. They left her hair on her head. How would a cross be any worse than any of that?
- Just don’t bother.
I will now take your call, Hollywood.