Alien is a classic horror movie in large part because of its simplicity. Stark and raw, it plays on primal fears with no subplots or distractions from the conflict at its center. That is its brilliance, the understanding that elemental needn’t mean shallow. Alien, in its simplicity, is intelligent and incisive and ridiculously terrifying—and Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s new film in the Alien universe, is none of those things because it is a convoluted, overblown, pretentious mess.
Maybe—maybe—Scott and his collaborators deserve credit for their ambition, for trying to make something grand and profound. But I’m reluctant to give that credit because they’ve gone about it in all the wrong ways. There’s absolutely no evident discipline on screen, no rigorous thought, no narrative insight, not even a shred of storytelling capability, just self-indulgent, would-be philosophical ramblings reminiscent of a college freshman getting high in his dorm room on a Friday night. Despite the pretensions of grandeur of Prometheus, Alien is not only scarier but also much smarter and more deeply provocative. Prometheus might as well be called Icarus—it’s failure would be tragic if weren’t so incredibly annoying.
After a gorgeous but ludicrous prehistoric prologue (don’t ask), Prometheus opens with two researchers, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discovering cave paintings that show giants pointing to a particular set of stars. Somehow these drawings are clear enough to indicate a star system light-years from Earth, and somehow Shaw and Holloway get it into their heads that they can find the Engineers of the human race there, and somehow they convince Weyland Corporation to finance their trillion-dollar, years-long expedition to meet their makers. The ship’s crew includes icy Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the unfathomably creepy android David (Michael Fassbender), and the irreverent captain Janek (the British actor Idris Elba, sporting a laughable Southern accent for no reason whatsoever). Without even taking the time to mechanically survey the planet and find their bearings, half the crew plunges blind into exploring the destination planet, and before long they’re stumbling across mysterious eggs and black ooze and ominous holograms. No good can come of this, and no good does.
I have a fundamental philosophical problem with the let’s-visit-God-in-a-spaceship premise, but whatever, I was willing to go along with it for the sake of the movie. But that’s not all Prometheus asks viewers to go along with along with. For starters, none of the alleged scientists onboard the ship behave with anything approaching scientific rigor or even basic logical wherewithal, instead acting like stupid teenagers in a particularly insipid slasher flick. (“Look, it’s a strange alien that looks something like a cobra, and it’s hissing threateningly at me. I shall take off my helmet, stretch out my ungloved hand, and try to pet it as if it were a puppy dog!”) David, the second-most important character, acts inscrutably throughout the movie, often as if he’s in possession of information he couldn’t possibly have, and with a seeming malevolence that never makes much sense. (By contrast, the quasi-villainous android in Alien isn’t malevolent but coldly rational, following a secret protocol we only learn of late in the film. That makes sense.) Compounding the nonsense is a pivotal gross-out sequence in which another key character suffers major bodily trauma and then spends the rest of the movie sprinting, leaping, and fending off attacks with only the occasional tearful wince to slow her down. Rationalizing this super-human endurance as evidence of a massive adrenaline high or spectacular futuristic medicine only gets you so far, and it didn’t get me anywhere near far enough.
This is not to say that Prometheus is completely irredeemable. As raw eye-candy, it’s enormously compelling, starting with that goofy prologue, which soars over sublime, untouched landscapes like a high-end nature documentary. The cavernous structure on the distant planet is similarly gorgeous, and an eerie holographic tour of the universe, which David experiences with apparently beatific joy, is so lovely that I truly longed (however futilely) for it to mean something. The movie’s more visceral thrills are also well crafted. As bizarre as that body trauma sequence is, Scott presents it as a horrific waking nightmare—not scary exactly (it’s far too preposterous for that) but shocking and intense and, for better or worse, absolutely unforgettable.
But all that technical ability is in service to Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s absurd screenplay, so in the end, none of it matters. I feel sorry for the actors who had to try to create coherent characters out of so much narrative gibberish. Fassbender is talented enough to make David’s opacity intriguing for far longer than it should be, but Rapace is hopelessly weighted down by a deeply disappointing character who can’t possibly live up to Alien‘s Ripley, one of the most iconic and beloved film protagonists of all time. Her Shaw seems to have been conceived with the utterly misguided intention of “softening” or femme-ing up Ripley by giving the character the naïveté and emotional intelligence of an eight-year-old. I hope I don’t have to explain how insulting that is, but even if it weren’t insulting, it makes for lousy drama.
And that’s the core problem: Prometheus is a terrible drama. It might have the germs of a few interesting ideas buried in all the hokum, and it definitely has stunning cinematography, but that amounts to little more than the emperor’s new clothes. I’m just glad that Alien (and Aliens, for that matter) has enough substance to make its superiority obvious. It has no need of illusory finery; Alien is the real thing.