Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Prometheus: Using the wrong formula

It seems to become a bit of a bad habbit to nag at the storyline of games and movies on this blog, but watching "Prometheus" on DVD left the same bitter taste in my mouth as when I left the cinema back in the day, so I want to talk about why this movie simply doesn't work. Of course, "Prometheus" is by no means a bad movie. Ridley Scott knows his ways around the business, after all, and the pacing and compilation of scenes is almost flawless. Problematic is the underlying structure: Scott is using a formula in "Prometheus" that worked well for the first three "Alien" movies and doesn't work at all with these movie, despite covering essentially the same universe and basic storyline. Why is this? The key word is believability. 

Depicted: the best scientific mind of his generation

It's not in the visuals, that's for certain. You may want to point out here that the technology in "Prometheus" seems far more advanced than the gear on the Nostromo some hundred years later (in-universe), but that would be unfair critizism. We wouldn't tell union struggle stories in a sci-fi-setting today like they did in the 70s, which I personally find unfortunate, but that's the way it is. Scott couldn't really anciticipate how computers would evolve, and the CGI in the movie is stunning. The landscapes and the panorama shots of the planet especially are beautiful. One can delve into them to no end. The mythology is also wrapped up nicely, and David the android is a perfectly realized character.

But Fassbender could play Wolfenstein's Hitler convincingly.
Even the other characters seem solid choiced in the beginning. Shaw is a worthy successor for Ripley, and the supporting cast resembles the crew of the Nostromo. So, when Scott is basically reusing the same formula that has worked once before already, why doesn't it work for "Prometheus" when it worked so brillantly for "Alien" and "Aliens"? It's in the context. Remember "Alien": The Nostromo was a mining vessel that stumbled upon the aliens, and the Sulaco was crewed by a squad of Marines that didn't know shit besides a fairly narrow skillset. They had no knowledge of their enemy and totally inadequate equipment. The knowledge part especially ins important, because many mistakes they make are totally understandable - they simply don't know better. 

The know union regulations, though.
In "Prometheus", on the other hand, we have a crew of scientists that goes to LV-233 specificly in order to find aliens and to communicate with them. Look at what they have: a security guard with high-tech-weapons, a geologist, a biologist, a language expert, two archeologists, some random badasses. They are prepared for everything, even going so far as to install a really lush lifeboat, especially compared to the one Ripley is forced to use. So, in order to create tension and suspense, Scott drives the characters into making the same mistakes as his old ones. They ignore basic quarantine protocol, get lost, shout at each other and generally fuck up everything in every conceivable way. 

We need no stinkin' helmets.
Only, these guys have no excuse. When Ash opened the hatch, he did it on purpose. When the Marines enter the complex in formation, they simply don't know better. Shaw and the others, however, know better. They are trained for this. This leads to almost hillariously stupid scenes. It starts with the characters themselves: the gruff, somewhat freaky personell worked for the Nostromo and the Marine squad, since you believe that they are a rag-tag-band. It's low-stakes, after all. The Prometheus however cost one trillion dollar, as Meredith Vickers points out. Using emotionally unstable punks as principal crew is totally unbelievable. You want experts in their field. It continues with the startling briefing: apparently, no one knew what they signed up for. Why? This makes no sense at all, because you would want to prepare for a mission like that and not go on a potentially inhabited planet without any coherent plan whatsoever. Yet the only one who prepared is David the android. Even Shaw didn't so much as draw up a plan. 

We consider this a throw-away ship.
Then we have two main scientists, the geologist, who snaps at everyone, is clothed like a punk and generally behaves like an ass. His mental state isn't up to Dennis Nedry's, and that says something. But the guy is the one responsible for mapping and finding their way around. The first thing he manages to do that is relevant to the plot is getting lost. He's the one in charge of finding their way around, and he gets lost. But no matter, since it's the biologist who insists on touching every lifeform he stumbles over with bare hands. Unsurprisingly, he's the one to carry the virus. Shaw's love-interest Charlie Holloway, who's supposed to be a scientist, takes the helmet off in the complex because his computer tells him the air is breathable. Yes, you genius, and what if it isn't? If there's a poison in the air you don't know? Or if you need your helmet real quick, like freaking three minutes later? This kind of stupid shit is totally acceptable with the crew of the Nostromo or a Marine squad consisting of guys like Hudson. This team is supposed to consist of the best scientific minds of its generation. 

This one has more brain-cells than the whole scientific team of Prometheus.

One can't shake off the feeling that Scott simply was too lazy to change his formula. He didn't even acknowledge that it didn't work for the story he had in mind, and went through with the old one, because, hey, when it worked twice before, it will work three times, too, right? Not in this case. You have to adapt to your premise, and the premise wasn't "guys who stumble into the mess" but "elite scientists seeking the mess". Different premise. Different formula.


  1. I'd disagree about Prometheus not being a bad film. Yes, the visuals are stunning, but the pacing is very, very off because it depends on one of the worst scripts in recent cinema. I really don't get how noone tells Ridley Scott that he is shitting all over his greatest movies.

  2. There are too many good elements in it, like the acting, to dismiss it as bad movie.

  3. One Fassbender alone is not enough to account for good acting, in my humble opinion. I especially don't see how one could call Noomi Rapace a successor for Ripley. I am still angry about the wasted possibilities of Prometheus. And the horrible, horrible script.

    Did you see ?

    1. I actually liked Noomi Rapace and her character, with the exception of "I choose to believe". And thanks for the link.

    2. So, I watched basically the first two-thirds, but these two guys, while entertaining at times, definitely fall into the haters trap. At some point, they flip, and they hate EVERYTHING. Some of their critizisms are ridiculous, because come on guys, it's still a movie. Some parts of it just have to work in order to generate drama. At points, they almost intently misunderstand plot points, like David's poisoning Shaw's boyfriend and such.

  4. I've found it difficult to follow criticism of this movie, since so much of it seems to really be "I don't like the end of Lost, which was co-written by Damon Lindelof, who co-wrote this movie, so I don't like this movie". To be fair, Prometheus and Lost share some of the same problems. But to put all of that on Damon Lindelof---as if Ridley Scott and everyone else involved in the making of both are mere vassals to Lindelof's lord---is nuts.

    Anyway, you make some good points. I sort of liked the portrayal of scientists as rough-and-tumble, tattooed, hard-drinking, mistake-making folks, since there really are a lot of scientists like that. I've known some that look like the guy in your first picture. But you are right that many of the mistakes they made were just unforgivable in the context of the story.

    1. I didn't even know that Lindelof was on Lost. Didn't make the connection. :)