My father took me to see Alien when it came out in 1979. He had also introduced me to 2001: a space odyssey, which I consider one of the best movies ever made, and probably still the best science fiction film (the likes of Star Wars are for me unimaginative in this sense, essentially Westerns in space). I really liked the original, then saw the first few Alien sequels, which weren’t so much sci-fi as sort of military-meets-monster movies, and lost interest.
Good science fiction at the movies is rare. Really rare: in the past couple of years, the only things I’ve seen that qualify would be Melancholia (trailer); Inception; and Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979—trailer). Arguably only Inception was science fiction, and it was a letdown; Stalker was brilliant but arguably not sci-fi; and Melancholia didn’t have science fiction concepts at its centre.
So I had pinned my hopes this year on Prometheus (trailer), the much-hyped sort-of-prequel to Alien. Ridley Scott was back as director; H.R. Giger was again responsible for set design; and the initial “viral” advertising campaigns—see for instance the TED talk from 2023—made it look potentially clever.
Alas. Despite being absolutely visually stunning, much of the rest of the film was either stupid (the whole story of the origin of life on earth), puzzling (unintentionally, as far as I could tell on first viewing), or cringe-inducing (the dialogue). Or all three simultaneously, but I’ll deal with these one at a time.
I expected there to be far more exploration of the (yes, tired) religion versus science “debate.” I’m a pretty staunch atheist, though given the right treatment this sort of thing can at least offer some interesting banter. But here it really wasn’t anything more than the topic of a few weak asides, never developed. I didn’t really believe that Dr. Shaw, supposedly a leading archaeologist of the late 21st century, could be a religious nut like some of those still hanging on in our own era. However, what wasn’t explained at all was how an alien race with identical DNA to humans could seed life on what was, from appearances, a lifeless earth using a sort of decomposed body and have all the other species evolve, or arise, or something: away from human form? You might explain our close genetic relatives in this way, but how (and when) would insects, never mind dinosaurs, have arisen? None of this makes any sense if you give it more than a second’s thought. Even Star Trek had a more coherent, though similar, origin story in the episode The Chase.
The puzzling bit for me was the motivations behind the founding race or civilization, and those apparently competing with it. Having created us, they seemed out to eradicate us—um, I think—until stopped by a hodgepodge of related but unrelated monsters and viruses and worms and such, all breeding and morphing into each other and working in concert—I think. I might go see the film again just to ensure I didn’t miss something here, but I’m pretty sure it was glossed over or left without satisfactory explanation; and I don’t think this was entirely intentional. Some sort of motivations should have been apparent in order to tell an interesting story.
And oh, the dialogue. Though Noomi Rapace (Dr. Shaw) and Michael Fassbender (David the artificial life form) were great in spots, all actors had some embarrassingly poorly written lines to read. I won’t bother quoting them here.
Worse, many of the characters simply aren’t believable. Sorry, but you’re just not going to spend a trillion dollars on a ship and staff it with a crew who seems to have been selected at random from the local pub. What I think is happening here is that the old stereotype of scientists as socially inept dweebs in white lab coats has been replaced with the “cool”—and stupid. And the decisions they make! After travelling so far and for so long, to jeopardize everything by immediately doing an EVA when it’s almost nightfall, removing helmets, and generally being reckless, is laughable. Then again, a more realistic bunch probably wouldn’t have triggered all the action.
The apparently illogical story and the bad dialogue may be explained by the presence of the writer Damon Lindelof. I found out a few days before I saw Prometheus that he was involved, and my expectations were immediately lowered; he was responsible for Lost, a ridiculous bit of television rubbish which I was compelled to watch for reasons I won’t get into here. That story was similarly unsure of itself, essentially a shaggy dog affair that had not a clue how to establish or maintain or wrap up any kind of internal consistency. Lindelof seems to be going for profundity via obscurity; whether he is incapable of constructing a coherent story universe, or is just lazy, is an open question.
One more thing: I didn’t care for the music. After hearing many great film scores in recent years, from Philip Glass to Trent Reznor to carefully selected classical pieces as in The Tree of Life, this dull orchestral score was a disappointment, and for me, out of place.
The film ends making obvious way for a sequel. It’s a shame that, given the mess we have here, the next part of the story will be so much more intriguing left as a mystery than put to celluloid by this hapless crew.