Prometheus flies to close to the flame

Flipping through channels one boring Friday night, I ran across a title I’d seen before but hadn’t watched in quite a while – Ridley Scott’s 2012 thriller “Prometheus,” the prequel to his 1979 horror classic, “Alien.” Though my reaction to the film on initial viewing was less than positive, I thought I’d cue it up and revisit the science fiction epic (in part because it was such a slow night).

“Prometheus” came billed as a “non-prequel” to “Alien” if only to avoid, I think, unfair comparisons. Scott wanted to have it both ways – as a film that “existed in the ‘Alien’ universe, but was not an ‘Alien’ movie.” This, of course, was purely a marketing strategy – “Prometheus” concludes with a shot that directly ties it to “Alien,” though it spends much of its time telling a completely different story, set untold-years before the original film.

To summarize, it is a spectacular science fiction film with one of the worst stories/screenplays I’ve ever run across. Scott is a master stylist, particularly skilled at creating worlds that either don’t exist yet, or existed so far in our past that their recreation almost seems like sci-fi. “Alien” and “Blade Runner” were both set in the future (though “BR” is now already upon us), and required considerable imagination to make their worlds seem real. “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Gladiator” are historical dramas that use CGI and clever set design to create their verisimilitude. All four are extraordinary technical achievements that are watchable to this day. Scott has made a handful of other films, set more or less in the present day – “Hannibal,” “The Counselor” and “Black Hawk Down” – that prove he is equally adept at creating contemporary worlds. Though he has some duds in his catalog (“Robin Hood,” “A Good Year”), he’s still one of our greatest directors.

This, however, is not one of his greatest films – at least from a story standpoint. “Prometheus” looks great; it’s one of his most visually-impressive films. Every moment of it is convincing, even though it’s set in the far-flung 2093. The spaceship Prometheus is a miracle of production design, art direction, and CGI – I would have loved an entire movie spent exploring its technology. The ship is used to transport a crew of humans from Earth to a distant planet that might hold the source of man’s very creation. The protagonist, Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace, believes a race of extraterrestrials can be seen in ancient cave paintings, pointing the way to the stars. The ship represents a heavy corporate investment from Weyland-Yutani, the villainous “company” from the original “Alien.” Company founder Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) may have ulterior motives for sending the crew out searching for man’s otherworldly source.

This is a great setup, but things quickly fall apart once the film reaches the distant planet. First, we are led to believe that this is the same planetoid discovered by the freighter Nostromo in “Alien.” Then again, Scott seems to suggest it is not the same barren, inhospitable rock – it looks slightly different, if only because the surface isn’t covered in perpetual storm. It’s even named differently; the Nostromo crew lands on LV-226 (or some such); in “Prometheus,” it’s called LV-223. What’s the difference? Are we being toyed with, or was this intentional? The screenplay never explains. (Leading to the question: why change it at all? Why not make it exactly the same?)

We don’t much like the characters and don’t feel much investment in them. There is David, the nominally villainous android, who we know is an android from the get-go – in “Alien,” the gory appearance of the evil robot provided one of the greatest shocks of all time. Here, Michael Fassbender plays David as quiet, inquisitive, and intelligent, sort of like a butler. Then his motives get murky and his actions become sinister – especially when he seems to hatch a scheme that results in some “Alien”-style bio-horror. David remains a cypher throughout the movie, neither good nor bad, and that hampers the effectiveness of the story. Do we root for him or not?

I like Noomi Rapace – she was magnificent as the one-and-only cinematic version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Here she is largely wasted as Shaw, who gets a good dramatic workout along the lines of Ripley from “Alien,” but just isn’t much of a character. Scott jerks her around far too much – first she’s an intelligent scientist, then a fence-straddling religious “zealot,” then a conscientious space explorer, then a sexy girlfriend, then a victim of David’s horrible plan (or botched experiment, take your pick). As intensely as Rapace sells her scenes, Shaw just isn’t a great character.

Her ideological opposite is her boyfriend, Holloway, another thin character whose philosophical arguments (delivered in douche-y, preachy terms) provide the bulk of his dialogue. He’s not a bright guy, despite his job title; David dupes him pretty easily into taking a fatal sip from a contaminated chalice. To put it bluntly, Holloway is one of the dumbest characters in the film – and two of them are unforgivably dumb.

Those two are scientists who make the most egregiously asinine decision ever in the history of science fiction. I won’t go into it, but their decision not only costs them their lives (in horrible, “Alien”-fashion) but goes COMPLETELY AGAINST everything they’ve spent their few scenes arguing for – science over emotion, logic over intuition. Inexplicably acting on fear, they endanger themselves almost willfully, in a situation they themselves could easily solve. In other words, they conveniently go from rationalists to pussies to “hey, look at the cute little alien serpent,” all according to Scott’s need to ratchet up tension. The writing here gets REALLY bad, and there is no coming back from it.

“Prometheus” concerns itself with the ship’s crew coming in contact with a race known as the Engineers; these are the beings whose story was only suggested in “Alien,” with the famous shot of the Space Jockey in the derelict craft. Scott has said he always wanted to tell the story of “big guy in the suit,” but this was the wrong story and the wrong script. After the crew literally digs up the remains of an Engineer in an ancient temple built by alien hands, the screenplay loses focus and seems to want to tell several different stories, none of which add up.

Is this the story of how Man was created? Well, not really. Is it the story of a monster terrorizing a spaceship? Well, not really. Is it the story of explorers making a remarkable discovery? Well, yeah, but the explorers are incredibly, lethally dumb. Is it a philosophical endeavor that asks abstract questions of an existential nature? Well, yeah, but it’s also gory and action-packed, and again, the characters are so dumb they hardly deserve credit for asking. You can’t even believe these people actually made it into space.

Individual scenes don’t make much sense. Why does David trick Holloway into unknowingly drinking a biohazard? Why does the substance react so quickly in Holloway, and how could it transmit to Shaw with such rapidity? How could she possibly survive the abortion she performs on herself? Was this all part of a plan? These questions are essential because the David-to Holloway-to Shaw thing takes up a huge part of the movie; if anything, you’ll remember the abortion scene most of all. How and why does it all happen?

Other cause-and-effect questions arise. How does the lone survivor from the bio-weapon site make it back to the ship, especially in re-animated form? Why does he/it behave the way it does? Is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) a robot? If not, why does she behave the way she does? Why don’t we get more scenes with Janek (Idris Elba), the captain? He’s ten times more interesting than Holloway. Why do we need the Rumpelstilskin-like stowaway? And what’s the deal with the Engineers? Their motives are not only unclear to the audience but a complete mystery to the characters. Why is this movie avoiding the merest suggestion of what we’ve all come to see – the classic Xenomorph from “Alien”?

My biggest problem with the screenplay comes at the end, when it becomes clear (finally) that what’s happening on LV-223 could have disastrous results on Earth (albeit years in the future). There’s a tremendous explosion in the sky, and a ship falls – directly atop two characters running flat-out. Neither of these characters seems to realize that if they were to make a 90-degree turn, they could escape the danger of the crashing ship. One of them does not realize this and keeps running in a straight line, always beneath the ship. This character does not survive. The other simply falls to the ground waiting to die. Why are these characters so stupid?

This leads to the climactic scene in which one character attacks another, and a third “character” appears, from nowhere, to threaten the bad guy (and allow the hero to escape). Not a bit of it makes sense. The special effects and acting are all convincing, and yes, terrible things do happen, and it’s all gross and fascinating to watch, but if you think for one second, it makes NO SENSE.

Finally … well, one character is improbably saved from destruction, and the final scene is just ridiculous, with two obvious payoffs: one paving the way for a direct sequel, the other for 1979’s “Alien.” Both feel inadequate. We have tons more questions than answers. It’s almost like the whole movie has been one big tease.

All of this said – I do like the visual style of the film. Scott has created an amazing movie to look at. The interiors of the Prometheus and the ancient temple represent some of the most fantastic special effects and art direction I’ve ever seen. The computer graphics, practical sets, costumes, weaponry, vehicles, cinematography, sound effects, CGI, are all on par with “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “The Matrix,” et cetera. I saw the movie on the big screen, in 3D, and it was an extraordinary experience. There is one particular shot, of the Prometheus cruising through deep space that is jaw-dropping in its simplicity – a bright streak flashing across the screen, left to right. Bravo, Mr. Scott!

The film is both stunning to look at and stunningly bad. On every level except story, it is monumental. The script needed at least five rewrites. The characters are mercilessly unlikable. There’s a great movie built all around them; they just don’t deserve a single frame of it.