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Not so great Scott


Director Ridley Scott has coasted an awfully long way on the strength of two classic films he made 30 years ago. Blade Runner was a triumph of set design (take a bow art director and Buffalo native David Snyder) that suggested that the future was not going to be all sparkly sterile but, more likely, overcrowded with the kind of crap we were even then choking our cities with. And the original Alien was a claustrophobic little horror thriller with a great cast of character actors (Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Bannen, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skettit, a star in the making (Sigourney Weaver) and one unforgettable scene that made many men really wonder for the first time what childbirth must feel like.

Through a career that has included some commercial highlights (Gladiator, Thelma and Louise) and a lot of duds (Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven, White Squall—must I go on?), Scott has occasionally paused to complain that the Alien sequels should have gone in a different direction, following not the voracious and rapacious monsters but the circumstances that brought them in contact with humankind.

Certainly something better could have been done than the series that started with James Cameron’s Aliens, a war movie disguised as sci-fi, and went steadily downhill until it hit rock bottom with the Alien Versus Predator movies, Hollywood’s big-budget answer to mixing Godzilla with Mothra, Megalon, Ghidorah, or whatever other Toho monster wasn’t doing anything better that week.

But if you’re looking for Scott’s much ballyhooed Prometheus to be a worthy reboot, let me advise you to lower your expectations.

And if you’re expecting it to be a smart speculative fiction epic, lower them even further.

What we have here is Scott, who trained in commercials and has worked more regularly as a producer than a director, working from a script by Damon Lindelof, who wrote most of Lost after J.J. Abrams got bored with it. (And yes, that includes the finale.) Reportedly Scott initially only wanted to produce the movie and planned to hire Carl Rinsch, a director of commercials with no feature experience, to direct it. Scott himself settled into the director’s chair himself only because the studio refused to find it otherwise.

In other words, something less than an auteurist vision, if that was what you were expecting.

Which is fine: most great films are collaborative efforts. Then again, so are most of the bad ones, where no one has an eye on the big picture. Prometheus is a big, slick special-effects heavy summer movie that offers lots of candy for the eye and just about nothing for the brain.

It isn’t really a prequel to Alien at all, other than that it depicts events that in this fictional universe branch off into that story. No, what Prometheus wants to be is a reboot of 2001 A Space Odyssey, only faster and with more action. Which is to say, a complete misunderstanding of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film. If you never appreciated it, Prometheus is likely to make you look at it in a whole new light, which is about the best thing that can be said for Scott’s movie.

It opens with all possible bombast in what is presumably an antediluvian version of Niagara Falls, where a ridiculously buff humanoid sacrifices himself so that his DNA will nourish our planet. Or infect it, depending on your perspective, which is something the film generally lacks. (In the hands of people who know what they’re doing, it’s called “ambiguity.”)

The bulk of the film is set in 2092, as a spaceship lands on a distant planet to search for the “engineers” who apparently put mankind on our planet. As fiction based on scientific knowledge and speculation thereof, Prometheus is already toast by this point: doesn’t such a notion ridicule 200 years of evolutionary science as much as any creationist insistence that the world is only 7000 years old?

Without belaboring the story, suffice to say that mankind meets an alien intelligence, and all it wants to do is kill us. Strife and gore ensue, including a high-tech auto-abortion that is probably the first of its kind (and hopefully the last) before the film ends with many points unanswered and an open path to a sequel.

Prometheus fails to create a plausible vision of the future as an extension of the present. Granted, most sci-fi films do that, but one might expect better from the director of Blade Runner. Instead, we have a crew comprised of disparate types that satisfy a writer’s checklist (one black guy, one Asian, one Brit with a punk haircut, etc.) but contains not a single Latino, despite the fact that Latinos will be in the majority in the US by the year 2050. Is that a petty criticism? Let’s say it’s a point that a serious writer might have considered, along with the fact that an intelligent, capable black man in the year 2092 probably would not talk in the urban drawl of a black man from 1992.

But plausibility of any kind is clearly not a consideration. Prometheus is chock full of all the dumbest clichés of sci-fi action movies, from the people outrunning a massive storm to the monster that grows in size by a factor of 30 in the space of less than a day.

If Prometheus only wanted to be an entertaining futuristic thriller I wouldn’t mind all that. But its pretensions, its attitude that it’s something smarter than it is, just rankle and make those silly clichés stand out more than they usually would. (I could go on all day with a list of niggling questions about the movie. Why are the alien “engineers” ridiculously buffed up with the kind of muscles you get only from working out in a gym for hours a day? Why would they bring flamethrowers to a planet where they don’t expect the atmosphere to contain oxygen? Why are their space suits not flame retardant? Why hire 44-year-old Guy Pearce to play an 80-something tycoon in really bad makeup when there are plenty of capable 80-year-old actors who would have taken the job? (There’s a potential good answer to that question—because the character will become younger. Not the case here.) Why do actresses in these movies always have appear in their underwear when the male ones never do?)

In an interview with Discover magazine, writer Lindelof says, “The jumping off point for Prometheus for me is this: If somebody believed in God and you presented scientific evidence that directly contradicted that belief, what would he do? I find that question tremendously compelling.” That might well have been an interesting topic. Wish he’d worked it into the movie somehow.

Watch the trailer for Prometheus

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