The Gospel According to Ridley
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Ridley Scott, U.S., 20th Century Fox
In the beginning, there was a hairless, pearly white albino humanoid with an exceptionally strong nose and dead eyes. Let’s call him Powder. After flying to Earth in a massive black frisbee, this mysterious figure climbed to the top of a vast waterfall and stripped down to his retro-futuristic skivvies. Nearly naked, but unbothered by the cold, he then pulled out his high-tech flask and imbibed of an inky black potion, which immediately began tearing his body apart at the seams. His disintegrating corpse toppled over the lip of the falls and into the pools below, finding a final resting place at the lake floor. The rushing water kicked up his DNA all over the place, and this dispersal of genetic material gave rise to all life on Earth, which includes the protagonists of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus—late 21st-century archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green)—as well as some rad computer graphics, and also, one day, the films of Victor Salva. Or, at least, the prologue of this shiny new Alien prequel seems to suggest something like these eventualities; the overture of Prometheus is never linked to the rest of the movie that follows it by anything beyond the scantest of inference. The disconnect is odd, as the lugubrious portent with which Sir Ridley imagines the genesis of Earth’s biosphere suggests he believes that he’s shown us the most important thing ever committed to film.
Never let it be said of Ridley Scott that he doesn’t believe in the power of images—his own specifically. Yet instead of cajoling, tantalizing, or seducing his viewers (like one of his idols, David Lean, whose Lawrence of Arabia is quoted in Prometheus suggesting Scott imagines some equivalence, or at least kinship), he’s mastered different tools: bludgeoning, didacticism, sensory exhaustion. His films don’t exist in dialogue with their audience; rather, they’re created to conquer them. He wasn’t always this way; Alien is practically a chamber drama in comparison to anything he’s offered in the last twenty years. It’s clear from the very opening frames of Prometheus that instead of using this return to the franchise that jumpstarted his career as an opportunity to explore his leaner filmmaking roots, Sir Ridley has instead taken all he’s learned about bloat and self-seriousness in the intervening decades of big-budget hackwork and applied it to ruining the memory of one of the two defensible movies in his oeuvre (IMDb suggests some kind of Blade Runner reboot in the works; hoo boy.). Alien didn’t fuck around. It was nothing more than an expertly executed horror exercise transplanted to a spaceship with an acid-slobbering monster neatly subbing in for the requisite weapon-wielding serial killer or malevolent spirit. This simplicity of concept lies at the heart of that 1979 film’s continued iconic stature, and its stripped-down execution is a far cry from the ponderous, White Elephant cinema Scott has now made his stock in trade.
Prometheus was almost destined to crash and burn; at least it does so in grand fashion. At some point in the film’s lengthy gestation process, Scott and his scenarist (Lost writer Damon Lindelof, rewriting a script begun by Jon Spaihts) decided that what the diehard fans of the Alien series really desired out of a creation myth for H. R. Giger’s nightmarish creature was a film that provided a creation myth for all of mankind. (Ah, parallelism.) So, in Prometheus, Elizabeth and Charlie, a pair of eager, Christian archaeologists who have discovered a repeating star pattern in primitive cave paintings, hieroglyphs, and artifacts scattered across the globe, convince the shadowy Weiland corporation to dispatch a scientific mission aboard the spaceship Prometheus to a distant star system to try and discover the origins of mankind. Lo and behold, within minutes of entering their destination’s atmosphere, they find visible traces of life, huge stone domes packed with tunnels ripe for exploration. They begin searching in earnest for their answers and things get gory almost immediately. If this sounds like an episode of Ancient Aliens with a multi-million dollar budget and an R rating— well, that’s what it basically is.
As in any Ridley Scott attempt to grapple with “big themes,” the ideas in Prometheus get handled with utter heavy-handedness in those few moments where they aren’t being ignored entirely in favor of empty bombast. Take the “questions of faith” Scott boldly explores here. Elizabeth, shown to be religious from childhood in a dreamscape flashback, and Charlie, who bears a cross tattoo on his arm, are the film’s standard-bearers for belief; they’re convinced their quest will lead to final answers. On the opposite side are the ship’s pragmatic, universe-weary captain Janek (Idris Elba), stern Weiland representative Meredith (Charlize Theron), and geologist Fifield (Sean Harris), all of whom seem far less concerned with the identity of their creator than making money and continuing to live. Somewhere in the middle is the ship’s android steward David (Michael Fassbender, providing the film’s only true signs of life); his motives in relation to the overall mission are opaque, but he does take any chance he can to remind the humans of his own created-ness at the hands of man. This confluence of characters should be the basis for some meaty narrative conflict, but you won’t learn much more about Sir Ridley’s thoughts on these weighty matters beyond the brief description I’ve just provided. Why explore the elements of your films, when it’s just so easy to merely introduce lots of stuff and hope that audiences will do the work for you?
Though science fiction often seems uniquely positioned to ponder the most massive of ontological questions, one can forgive when well-crafted futuristic fictions skimp on the thematic heft; Alien is remarkable for just how little it seemed to care about anything beyond great scares and thrills. It didn’t try to be 2001, unlike its new prequel. However, the real problem with Prometheus isn’t that its pretension can’t mask its ultimate empty-headedness; it’s that on a very basic level the movie just doesn’t really make any sense. (Not to mention that its creation myth completely contradicts everything we learned about our prehistory from Alien vs. Predator!) Plot threads begin, but are never resolved. Others happen in inexplicable vacuums: Elizabeth, accidentally impregnated with alien DNA, aborts the deadly fetus with the help of some kind of surgery machine pod, yet somehow no one else on the ship seems to know or hear anything about it. Major events are completely unlinked from consequence or are raised and resolved with impressive velocity: when Charlie, infected by the same DNA, is torched to death a few scenes later by a flamethrower wielding Meredith, the rest of the team reacts with little more than a “whatevs.” Others simply baffle: when the remaining members of the group find Powder’s similarly albino cousin and wake him from his eons-long slumber, what does the creature do but immediately recommence the mission to destroy all life on Earth that was begun thousands of years prior? Couldn’t this highly advanced race of beings just have sent another ship and killed off the human race at any time? Why wait until a bunch of knuckle-dragging cave dwellers learned the art of interstellar travel and came to find their “engineers” (the film’s ridiculous parlance, not mine)? This list could easily extend. It’s fine for movies to be simple of mind, but it’s unacceptable for them to treat their audiences as if they are as well.
Roger Ebert argued in his wildly positive review of Prometheus that it is “all the more intriguing because it raises questions about the origin of human life and doesn’t have the answers.” This is a quite stupid thing to say in relation to a film like Prometheus for any number of reasons, not least of which is that it is clearly so utterly underconceived that it couldn’t even be said to be actively withholding the answers it obnoxiously never provides. It’s a lovely thing to look at—a feast of silvery grays and murky browns—but Scott’s been the master of lushly brainless imagery since at least as far back as 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Why do we exist? Prometheus will never tell—it’s not even curious enough to guess.
I think, though, I might have a pretty good idea of why it exists. Those who’ve been paying attention to the onslaught of well-executed trailers and TV commercials will likely have noticed the quickly glimpsed images of the engineers’ massive warcraft detonating in the sky and crashing to the ground. But wait, you might wonder, isn’t this supposed to be the climax of the film, the pivot around which all the action revolves? Why would a marketing team worth its salt reveal the film’s grand finale and neuter its most potentially compelling point of tension? The answer is clear: Prometheus, though gussied up in a jumble of New Age hoohah-ery, isn’t really interested in any of that business, nor its characters, nor their struggles. It exists not to explore the origins of life, but only to extend the commercial life of an aging franchise, to pummel us for two hours with nonsense before its truly crass, utterly calculated money shot: the birth of the long-familiar Alien xenomorph, dripping, snarling, ready for its close-up. Roll credits, cue sequel.