Aug
10

Prometheus: An Aesthetically Beautiful Spectacular Misfire

What do you say about a beautiful science fiction film filled with “scientists” who are the type of characters that Harold and Kumar would have outwitted or whose plot holes are larger than the worlds it’s trying to build? There already has been heaps of derision piled upon Ridley Scott and the ridiculousness that is Prometheus. The following two videos by How It Should’ve Ended:

and Red Letter

sum up most of my feelings about the plot pretty well. The best thing you can say about the film is that it has sparked a lot of conversation.

What I want to talk about are the missed opportunities within the film. It’s obvious that Scott put a lot of care into the design elements. The spaceship, the spacesuits, the Engineers’ craft, and even the monster designs of the “alien penis snake” and the straight out of the Cthulhu mythos squid, are all rendered meticulously. There are elements, like the human’s helmets, that are meant to be a nod to golden age sci-fi. It is a distinctive vision Scott seemed to be striving for.

And it was such clarity that made Ridley Scott’s Alien a classic film. Think back to the aesthetic of the rundown look of the miners and the griminess of the USS Nostromo, the otherworldliness of their walkabout on LV-426 in response to the distress beacon, the small touches of how the hanging chains and dripping water mimicked the alien appendages and slime. All of those moments not only express the clearness of vision but incorporated that vision into the sense of awe and tension that was needed for such a film to work.

That is exactly what’s missing in Prometheus. Ridley Scott does not weave the aesthetic elements and the story elements together. Instead of being immersive they are forever apart. To the point where it feels like the actors are just walking on the set as if it was a play. That might work in a film like Glengarry Glen Ross. It does not work in a science fiction film.

Hammerpede Attack

Scott had the opportunity to build tension in several scenes. Take the Hammerpede (aka alien penis snake) scenes. When the characters of Fifield (Sean Harris) and Milburn (Rafe Spall) get attacked by these things it feels haphazard. One minute there is black goo leaking down containers, the next there are worms playing in the goo (don’t get me started on how/why there are worms on a spaceship that is in on a desolate planet), then bam a large Hammerpede thing is attacking the love struck biologist.

Silly as it is the scene would be forgivable if there was any tension to it. A simple stalking scene would have sufficed. The stage was set after all. They were stuck in the alien ship for the evening, after seeing dead alien bodies they had hustled over to an area filled with strange containers and black liquid. It would have been an excellent setting for a stalking scene. The scenario could have played out in several ways:

  • Our hapless scientists could have been herded through the room by the Hammerpede or;
  • Since we had seen multiple worms the scientists could have successfully killed one but have been overcome by the others.

Either would have been better than the “Oh what a pretty alien-snake-cobra-penis-hissing-thing. I think I will touch it” scene that played out.

The opportunity to have a stalking scene could have played out at a second point in the film when the remaining characters discover Milburn’s body. The audience already knows the creatures are dangerous. Having the snakes pose some peril to the crew would have amplified tension.

Rock and a Hard Place

The protagonist being stuck between a rock and a hard place is standard dramatic trope. So near the end of Prometheus, when the character of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is stuck between the Cthulhu mythos squid she birthed and the pissed off Engineer whose shipped she helped down, I felt we were in for a good climatic moment. But again Scott missed his opportunity.

Think of the scene in Peter Jackson’s King Kong where the character of Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is stuck between a pair of battling tyrannosaurus rexs, that are set on making a meal of her, and King Kong. That scene plays out with such a mix of tension, action, and awe that the audience is left a bit exhausted afterward.

The Engineer’s demise at the the hands of the squid can be instead described as punctual.

I would have loved to have seen a few moments of Shaw’s character attempting to hide from and between the squid creature as the Engineer was hunting for her. Allowing for the audience to see the squid creature to slither about at the parameter while the Engineer missed its presence being too focused on the hunt for Shaw through the rather large escape pod. A few moments would have made all the difference.

Sense of Awe

Scientists have a sense of awe and wonder. One need only look at the video of the NASA engineers reaction when Curiosity landed successfully on Mars to know this. The characters in Prometheus are devoid of awe. Things happen around them and to them and they scarcely seem to notice.

Discover an alien head? Not nearly interesting enough, let’s mope and go drinking. Find an alien ship and translate its language? No big deal. Let’s not take any samples (other than the aforementioned head). Covered in blood after undergoing a self-guided c-section? Par for the course. Missing colleague turns into a zombie and kills several crew members. Just a plot point move on.

Each moment moves forward without a sense that characters are in awe of the magnitude of their situation. Ridley Scott provides no sense of scope other than the visual palette.

It dosen’t have to even be in a big moment. I think of Peter Jackson’s King Kong again. There is a moment out of time at the climax of the film where Kong, with Ann Darrow in hand, steps on to some ice. It is playful, it is magical, it is full of wonder. It is the scene that made the movie for me providing more awe than any moment in Prometheus:

At the end of the day good science fiction or fantasy should instill those elements. Otherwise it is simply cold functioning aesthetic much like the character of David in Prometheus. During the marketing campaign that was the build up to the film, fake commercials around David were released. One started with the question, “What is it about robots that makes them so robotic?” One could ask a similar question of Prometheus.

Interestingly the viral videos done around his character are sharper and more alive than anything in the actual film.

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