Because there has been more secrecy around this film than around [relevant political joke], I wanted to put something spoiler-free above the fold for my Prometheus review.
So, have you ever gotten trapped by a magician?
Accidentally caught in his gravitational field outdoors or penned in during a high school talent show, sitting quietly and hoping not to be noticed as he tells you he’s going to show you a trick, and with great flair, pulls a playing card out of his sleeve. He shows it to the audience with relish, his awkward patter filling the air. Once or twice he flourishes it, as if about to make it vanish or turn it into a bird, but he never does. At intervals, he acts as though he’s done something amazing. Finally, someone in the audience takes the bait and asks what the trick is.
And the magician grins and says, “Oh, this isn’t a trick, sir, it’s a playing card! Ha ha!”
Welcome to Prometheus. Except the magician has more character development.
(In space, no one can hear your spoilers.)
1. First things first: Yes, this is a direct prequel to Alien. It’s fine if you didn’t expect that; the entire promo campaign has been, “Prometheus: Not an Alien Prequel, We Swear,” and the production design looks only barely related. Which is about right, unfortunately, for the film in general; everything is only barely related, to the franchise, to itself, to the whole business.
2. There are three opening scenes in a row that, taken together, lay the groundwork for what you can expect. There’s a lovely sequence of android David (Michael Fassbender, in a truly amazing performance that would single-handedly carry the film if the film could be carried) marking time on the Prometheus in transit; he monitors a crewman’s dreams, rides a bike while shooting hoops, learns ancient languages, watches Lawrence of Arabia. By the time the others wake up, you’re already invested in David. So is the movie.
3. The same can’t be said of the preceding scene, where Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and insufferable boyfriend Charlie (who are anthropologists but also maybe medical doctors or professional geneticists, this movie is not sure) find a cave painting with a cosmic marker indicating off-planet origins of intelligent life. Elizabeth cries, wibbles over Charlie, and subtly clutches the cross her dad gave her because Christianity Intelligent Design Faith Character! They are that couple in the diner booth next to you who sit on the same side and coo over their joint Facebook feed on a shared iPad. By the time we see them on board the Prometheus, tweely explaining that they’re orbiting a moon they suspect to be the origin of mankind’s genetic predecessor, you are sort of hoping they get eaten. (This is a particular sadness given that Shaw is a Ripley corollary; we’ll get there.)
4. But the clincher is the scene before that; the camera helicopters through breathtaking scenery until we reach a river, and a topless dude cut like the Atlas in front of Rock Center. He cracks open a tin of alien caviar and eats it. Then his DNA explodes and he falls into the water and breaks into a million pieces, but then his DNA comes back together and now it’s orange, and we all know what THAT means. (We do not know what that means, because what happened makes no sense and is impossible to explain.)
5. Speaking of things that are impossible to explain, let’s talk about the psychosexual monster-birthing worldbuilding during exploration of the Nyarlathotep Beach House. There are fossilized humanoids who were in the middle of having their heads exploded, whose deaths are recorded and replayed forever as holographic memory-static because reasons, and they lead to a room full of weird vases that sweat oily goop and are full of exploding-head caviar, and there are penisvagina snakes in the oily goop, and they shove themselves into men’s faces (of course), except they don’t impregnate men, just choke them and then bleed and explode into acid and then scurry away but that’s it, nothing else happens, and the acid blood burns through space helmets so that the black oil can get into your orifices (of course), but the black oil just turns you into a hairy strong guy who has to be burned AND shot?, and if David feeds you one caviar of alien vase bubble tea, then you immediately get your infertile girlfriend pregnant with Cthulu (of course) and then your head explodes with changing DNA because you know, and then the Cthulu grows up and impregnates someone and when the chestburster comes out it immediately evolves into a proto-Alien alien, because when you’re going for psychosexual bacchanals of terror, it’s important that you have everything creepy happen even if it none of it is related or causal or consistent! WORLDBUILDING.
Above: Idris Elba, just having read the script for the first time.
6. In a lesser offense of worldbuilding, but something that I actually trusted Ridley Scott to be a little better about, the production design in this movie is straight-up hilarious. Though it takes place before the events of Alien, we have approximately twice the schmancy-tech aesthetic, including executive quarters with a seamless projection-screen window, and a med pod (one of only twelve in the world, by the way, Charlize Theron and Rapace hasten to exposit to us!), and real-time holographic mapping technology, and the usual. It’s fine, as far as it goes (except the medpod, but we’ll get there), but even if you make allowances for the Nostromo being a backwater rig and the Prometheus being a limo with a fish tank in it, there is a design gap here that I figured Ridley would have been better about, since he is a director who wants the design to be amazing and his scripts to write themselves and his actors to direct themselves.
7. …With mixed results! Sure, Fassbender is outstanding as the backbone of the film. (The only real moral divide between characters here is their treatment of David: accepting, or othering. Charlie the Dullest and Worst, of course, treats David like shit, and gets exploding-DNA caviar for his trouble. Theron’s character treats David as an equal in her own way, but since she’s the overachieving daughter of Mr. Weyland and David is Weyland’s acknowledged chosen child, it’s not friendly. Elizabeth treats David like an equal – as friend or enemy – and their relationship is the only one in the film with any tension or depth). Idris Elba brings more to the practical-ship’s-captain role than anyone could have hoped, but even he can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and his perfunctory courting of Theron’s officer slides into place with the other proscribed machinations among character actors who, in other contexts, have all done better (the geologist and the biologist don’t get along! The meteorologist and the pilot are best friends!). And in her non-David scenes, Elizabeth mostly talks about how her beliefs trump the evidence (scientist!) and how she can’t have a kid so obviously she’s looking for the root of all life in space instead (feminism!) and crying a lot.
8. It’s one of the movie’s most profound disappointments that she is the center of the narrative. She is, the movie tells us, the proto-Ripley, and we should root for her; it’s her research that proves the aliens and their location, her enthusiasm that convinces Weyland to fund the project. We know that the alien discovery will, of course, be horrific and cast-winnowing, but the movie goes to great pains to enforce the thrill of scientific discovery at all costs, so much that there’s a Magnificent Planetarium Space Feelings theme that plays whenever the movie wants to remind you that discovery is the best (even though this movie hates scientific discovery; it would be genius comedy in a penisvagina-snake movie if it was on purpose), and we’re supposed to identify with her yen to know more. Except that her yen is mostly focused on Charlie and her Jesusdad who died and also cross, so she spends most of her time talking about how she didn’t use scientific rigor so much as religious belief to find this alien connection, and cries a lot (perhaps a side effect of her wooden Charlie-scenes dialogue). One of her main crying moments is about her infertility, which is brought up handily, five minutes before we discover that she’s pregnant, and it’s an Elder God! (How suddenly-gendered of you, franchise!)
When she outwits supercreeper David and the crew who want to put her back in pregnantstasis, and performs surgery on herself in the medpod, we’re supposed to be thrilled at her survival instinct. Instead, we watch as she tries to program a medpod that, in the year 2093, is only programmed for male anatomy (it would be an interesting side note if it was on purpose and not plotcakes!), and instead convinces the machine to take out an unwanted foreign object in her abdomen, with the world’s most precise toy-grab claw ever. David seems very pleased to see her again – in space, no one can hear you having hard feelings about the attempted forced pregnancy! – and she spends the rest of the movie running and doubling over at intervals to remind you that caesarian sections are still painful, even in the future, so never have sex with your boyfriend because he might be infected with exploding-DNA caviar and then you’ll have to deal with a Cthulu-fetus and it serves you right, you weepy Jezebel.
(One of the saving graces of the psychosexual terrorization in the Alien franchise is the leveling of the gender playing field – the rape threat they represent is omnipresent and sexually indiscriminate. But not in Prometheus! Thanks, Prometheus.)
9. Yesterday, I posted about the Alien franchise, and how the through-line of Weyland-Yutani shapes both Ellen Ripley and the entire world of the movies. While I was managing expectations for Prometheus, I did hope it would perhaps continue some of that subtext and find a place in the canon. There is a distinct Weyland presence here – literally, in the form of Guy Pearce, who rocks some aging makeup as the days-from-death Weyland, cryogenically frozen and secretly on board the Prometheus for a shot at meeting his maker. However, his reasons are so personal that the company threat exists only in the foreknowledge of what the company will do when it has another chance to investigate the site. Theron (thankfully better here than in Snow White and the Huntsman) is a hard-line company rep who’s painted as sinister with a streak of cowardice, but since she’s the only one whose protocols were anything resembling intelligent, it’s baffling when her eventual death-by-being-crushed-by-the-ship-like-that-guy-in-front-of-the-steamroller-in-Zoolander is presented as poetic justice, as if we were supposed to know that being crushed to death by a spaceship was what she hated most all along? (God, this movie is just a stew of disappointment.)
10. In fact, so pervasive is the feeling of being a patsy for someone’s $200 million bait-and-switch is that some things that shouldn’t be disappointments still are. Elizabeth Shaw lives; she and a bisected-as-per-tradition David (Weyland-Yutani needs to work on the strength of its synthetic humans around the shoulder area, is the leitmotif of the Alien series) literally fly off into the sunset together in search of more adventure. This is good news for David, who, despite moments of profound creepiness, is a conflicted character capable of growth, and also has the movie’s one moment of profound joy, as the control room turns into a 3D hologram of the navigable universe, enhanced with Magnificent Planetarium Space Feelings at 85 decibels. Yet we like David because of what Fassbender can do with moments of biting disappointment or unthinking empathy, and not because of what has been earned, since what has actually been earned is mostly a slap and some airlocking. So, despite how we are technically supposed to be rooting for the super-religious terrible scientist lady and her robot bestie sailing away, it does not make up for the movie that happened before it, which assured us via text and subtext, in no uncertain terms, that science was dangerous and should under no circumstances be attempted. It’s a thematic tangle that leaves the Magnificent Planetarium Space Feelings coda feeling like a flick in the nose. (Shaw delivering the ship’s computer survivor sign-off is like being flicked in the nose TWICE.)
Though somehow, any of this is less awkward than the film’s last shot, of a familiar xenomorph emerging from a chest cavity and roaring at the sky. It’s clearly supposed to be a chilling big reveal that brings everything home. The problem is that “everything” is just a playing card, and the big reveal is that Ridley Scott struck gold in Alien entirely by accident, and that this is what he wants to add to the canon now; that’s the sort of creeping terror you can never really escape.