Prometheus (Movie Review and Discussion)

Prometheus move poster

Prometheus

I strongly disagree with the common consensus about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. While most people dismissed it as incomplete, illogical, or just a well-meaning mess (that last one would be much better applied to The Dark Knight Rises), it really fulfilled my hopes for an Alien prequel. It was a stunning spectacle that felt like a love letter to the originals without being beholden to the past. I don’t plan on giving a typical review here. Instead, I’ll focus more on the criticism of this movie. Just know that my experience in the theater was a solid A, and it feels like a B or B+ in retrospect. I officially give this an A-.

I really have to wonder what most people were expecting: I’ve challenged friends to name another movie series that provided a more satisfying ret-con after a years-long break, and no one has been able to. Expectations for follow-on movies are always confusing: Remember that Alien and Aliens came out in a very different culture than we have today, partly just because those very movies had yet to make their impact. Making something too different now would disappoint people, but on the other hand, one of the major criticisms of Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection was how closely they copied the first ones.

I should admit that I’m a fan of all four movies. (I haven’t bothered seeing the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs.) While I normally would complain about the repetition in the third and fourth movies, in this case I think they’re vital to the our understanding of the series as a whole. The first two movies portrayed conflicts that seemed winnable, but by the end of the fourth, the struggle feels hopeless and eternal. Ripley can win battles, but human nature and the uncaring universe combine to ensure we never escape this nihilistic cycle. Those last two may not be great, but the context they provide is what turns the first two into masterpieces.

Knowing all this, it’s not surprising that I would like Prometheus. All the key elements of the original mythology were there. But rather than being an Alien 5, the new characters and setting gave the movie an excuse for a slightly different atmosphere. By splitting the difference between the old and the new, I feel like Prometheus opened up fertile ground for a new series.

(There are thematic spoilers for Prometheus from here on.)

The first time I watched Alien, I remember a strong regret that I would never get to experience it the way audiences had when it first came out. It just didn’t seem possible to reproduce the movie’s long, slow build-up. It goes for quite a while before anything bad happens, and even longer before the horror truly becomes apparent. I don’t think many first-time viewers today would sit through the entire opening if they weren’t promised that it would all be worth it. What would it be like, I wondered, to watch Alien in that time of slower movies and more patient viewers? What would it be like to see H.R. Giger’s designs unfold without any idea of what to expect?

Now I know.

The opening of Prometheus isn’t the same as Alien’s, of course. Where the old movie had a spartan aesthetic and action to match, this one’s view of the future is Star Trek-meets-iPad, and there are more characters doing distinct, interesting things. Also, of course, we know what to expect from the Alien stories, so it’s not one giant mystery, but it manages to mix the familiar with intriguing new ideas. Prometheus finally provided me with that slow-building introduction that I’d been missing ever since I first saw Alien, and it does that by deftly adapting the things that worked in 1979 for the sensibilities of 2012. That is a huge part of why I loved it.

(In fact, Prometheus seemed to take even longer than Alien does before the first person gets hurt. While I knew that we’d see some early versions of those monsters, there was honestly a time when I wondered if this would be more about exploration than horror. I love that I could ever wonder that, and be happy with either possibility.)

Of course, the horror does eventually dominate, including the most visceral, memorable scene of any Alien movie. And one of the biggest complaints about this is how stupidly the characters react to it. Once again, I disagree. The issue seems to be that the characters didn’t realize they were in a horror movie, and I’m glad they didn’t. It’s well-established that the space-farers of Alien are blue-collar workers just planning to do a job and cash a check. Once you’ve done the same job a couple hundred times, you start to take shortcuts around all those safety regulations. This is especially true here, since the corporation has to select the sort of people who are willing to spend years in deep sleep while everyone they know dies. Most of the characters’ “stupid” actions make sense for antisocial people, surrounded by strangers, expecting to do yet another survey of a safe, dead planet.

(If you don’t like that logic, you probably shouldn’t bother with the original movies. How will you ever accept that highly-trained Marines would barge in so recklessly on an unfamiliar enemy in unknown territory, or that a space crew would want to break quarantine rules for someone infected with an unknown organism?)

Similarly, I appreciated the information we learn about the ancient Engineer race. Remember, the thing I like about the Alien movies is the way it portrays humans as lost beings in an uncaring universe. Given that, Prometheus once again manages a twist that’s true to the original: We learn about just how irrelevant and purposeless we are in the universe. It’s the perfect direction for Scott to take the story in. And just like ants crawling around someone’s foot, there’s no reason for the characters to learn the whole story from the ruins they find. Presumably the Engineers had political divisions, beliefs we don’t know about, and a culture that changed over time, so it means little that they made conflicting decisions or carried them out ineffectively. While many people complained about how little we learned, my only wish would have been to learn a little less.

There were a few minor things I’d quibble with, but overall Prometheus was everything I would have dared to hope. Maybe I was the perfect audience for it, but I still have trouble believing that it was as bad as a lot of people thought. I hope that time is kind to this movie.

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