(a spoiler-free zone)
Prometheus, for me, was a big and gloriously beautiful disappointment. A feeling compounded by the fact I always approach these big film events maybe a little too eager to forgive, as I’m really still just a wide-eyed little boy (albeit with a beard and a rampant sex addiction) and want all films to happily succeed and all audiences to have a great time.
The perfect example of this being Andrew Stanton's recent John Carter of Mars. So many bloggers, tweeters and self-proclaimed film critics publicly panned that film BEFORE even seeing it, seemingly willing it to fail, greedily lapping up Disney’s politically suicidal press releases and then adding their own poisonous spin, yet hundreds of hardworking brilliant film folk had thrown their lives at making that film, which at least deserves some respect, especially from those who should know just how hard making any film is.
For the record, as a piece of blockbuster entertainment, I thought John Carter was an enjoyable romp and held up much better than its mega-hyped 3D peers Titans and Battleship, both of which also quickly and quietly sank into obscurity.
But I was disappointed with Prometheus. Without going into plot detail, one of the overriding issues I had with the whole film was character; the believability of the crew. Visually, the film is nothing short of jaw-droppingly stunning, an epic visual feast, and hopefully it will be that element that helps makes the film a success. The problem is, no matter how expensively spectacular any film is, spectacle will only ever be the cheapest way of engaging an audience, and without any real heart underneath the pomp, lack of substance will always be sorely exposed.
Real drama lies with human action and reaction, and for that to work we need to believe in the characters, yet in this instance the crew fail to inspire belief as a team of experts sent on mankind’s most important mission ever - to meet our makers. Most of the 17 (!) crew members were underwritten, paper-thin, not believable, all ambling around in a story that felt like it was trying much too hard to not-quite say things about a load of stuff we increasingly cared less and less about. I can only think that Ridley must have been so hypnotically immersed in his undeniably brilliant world of creating stunning visuals that he overlooked the heart of his movie: that it should have been about you and me.
In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo, although all from very different backgrounds, were very clearly a group of believable characters who looked and felt like they belonged together as a working team; yet half of the crew of Prometheus had never even met each other before (before waking up on the same ship together at their destination after a 200-year cryo sleep!) and many of them looked like they were recruited from a college campus and acted as if they were recruited from a local dive bar.
Regardless of the fact that it may very well be genius student brains that eventually crack the meaning of life, I refuse to believe that a “trillion dollar” space exploration mission - the greatest mission mankind has ever undertaken - would be crewed by such apparent cretins. And therein lies the major difference and the major problem. The Nostromo was nothing more than a mining ship and crewed accordingly. The Prometheus is mankind's most expensive, greatest and important mission EVER, yet is crewed like a mining ship. A really shit mining ship.
I can’t imagine that any of the crew of the Nostromo felt it was their career highlight to be interstellar scavengers. They were just average workers in a dead-end job in the arse-end of space, clock-watchers desperate to get back home and spend their hard-earned wages, yet circumstance forced them to step up and act like heroes or die. The crew of the Prometheus, on the other hand, are on the greatest mission ever undertaken by the human race, but mostly don’t seem to really give that much of a shit. Surely from inception, selection, training and launch, that crew should have been nothing less than the ultimate professionals on the ultimate mission. But they’re not. They are mostly just a bit shit. A bit rubbish. A bit undisciplined. And just very unbelievable.
In this respect I think the script falls foul of trying to replicate the brilliant dynamic of the Nostromo crew. I can understand why any writer would look to that example as a source of inspiration, but the whopping mistake is that they attempted to replicate that dynamic in a wholly different setting.
Throw the ragged, homesick crew of a mining ship into a tense high-pressure scenario and we fully expect all kinds of hell to break loose. Asking us to believe in the continued nonchalance and fallibility of the expert crew of the most important mission in the history of mankind? Pedestrian screw-ups and technical ignorance and incompetence are used to create many of the problems that serve to drive the creaky plot. It just isn’t believable. Smoking a bong inside a spacesuit while taking the first tentative steps on a planet possibly inhabited by superior beings? Really?
The first Alien was a brilliantly written horror film; tense, brooding, terrifying, full of constricted spaces, dread oozing out of every claustrophobic shadow. Its sequel, Aliens, was a brilliantly written action film, full of wonderful larger-than-life characters, fantastic set pieces, humour and pathos; a full-on roller-coaster ride of cinematic joy.
The much-anticipated prequel and heir to those films, Prometheus, is a badly written CGI masterpiece, one of the best examples of 3D you’re likely to see, on an epic scale, but it lacks any real suspense, tension, heart or atmosphere and is sadly populated by overly talkative cannon fodder B-movie characters plodding obediently and unchanging towards their uninspiring deaths.
On an extremely serious side-note: the film missed what could have been its saving grace in opting not to show Idris Elba and Charlize Theron getting full on down and dirty. Ridley could have safely apportioned at least forty minutes of screen time to those two absolutely gorgeous specimens of hot hot human flesh getting butt-naked and going hell for leather at each other in space, in 3D. But he didn't.
In space, no one could hear them scream.
"The most important, significant thing in all films - I don’t give a shit whether it’s science fiction or a western or whatever - is the goddamn screenplay. Get the screenplay right and all this technology enhances it. But when the screenplay is weak…" Ridley Scott