How I’d Fix It: Prometheus
Prometheus is by and large the greatest disappointment I’ve had this year at the movies. There was a metric ton of potential for it, with the cast the movie had in it, the crew it had behind it, and the money that had been poured into the production. What came of all that potential was one of the greatest-looking average films that I’ve ever seen. It’s not bad, not by a long shot. It looks great and has a terrific sense of atmosphere. But it’s just. So. Stupid. And worse, it’s stupid while trying to be smart. While every other element of the film was nigh-perfect, the script failed it, and that is, ultimately, the most vital part.
The fact is that to fully describe how to make Prometheus a better movie would take devising an entirely new plot progression for it, and I don’t really have the energy for that. So in lieu of delivering my own Hollywood-ready treatment, I can only offer problems and not alternatives. I must be observational and diagnostic, rather than prescriptive. What I won’t do, though, is dwell on the plot holes. That aspect seems to be the main focus of Internet debate over this movie, and while it is far from a useless conversation, I want to go a bit deeper. I’d go so far to submit that, had the movie addressed the issues I go into, the plot holes could remain as they are and be much less irritating.
Anyway, standard disclaimer before I begin: I’m not going to claim that this is “the right way” to handle this material. I also don’t claim to be an expert on filmmaking or story. And I certainly will admit that I don’t know much about the behind-the-scenes deal with this movie, so I have no idea what kind of battles had to be fought for how the film turned out the way it did. All I have is the finished project, and while I won’t pretend this is some definitive solution to the movie’s problems, or that I could somehow make the movie perfect, I do think that the ideas here are an improvement over what ended up on screen.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it!
Oh, and of course, SPOILERS.
Setting aside all the plot progressions that happen as a result of stupidity from the characters or narrative fiat, think about what actually happens in this movie. Think about what events took place that were actually important to the overall narrative. The main thread is the scientists seeking out the Engineers, but how much that happens to them actually ties into that thread? The myriad scary things that go on with the do-anything black goo really have nothing to do with that at all. They are, in fact, a massive distraction.
The reason I think they are in this movie goes with a problem I’ll address in the next section, but for now, chew on this: Shaw’s entire plot thread once she gets infected with mutant squid sperm has nothing to do with the quest for the Engineers. And she’s the main character! If you removed that subplot, the only thing that would have to change about the rest of the film would be the deus ex machina that saves Shaw from the murderous Engineer at the very end. That’s the sum narrative importance of the Worst Abortion Ever. And that’s just one example. Others: Weyland being alive, Vickers being Weyland’s daughter (really, anything Weyland), everything with the mohawk geologist who gets turned into a zombie. I could go on.
Despite Ridley Scott’s insistence otherwise, this is an Alien prequel through and through. And that’s not just because the Alien (or something kinda like it) shows up. It’s because of the horror movie angle that he’s going for. But is that really appropriate for this story? It’s not the kind of story that’s promised by the (amazing) opening sequence, which is all about awe and cosmic mystery. The scary elements of this movie are a huge distraction from the more philosophical ideas that it’s trying to deal with, and a major reason that the film can’t really engage those ideas (more on that in a sec, though).
It’s far from impossible to organically marry those two tones, horror and wonder. After all, Stephen Spielberg has made a career off of that exact combination. But the way this movie goes about it, with base monster stalking, doesn’t mesh with the “search for answers” angle the film is supposedly about. There’s an excellent angle for philosophical terror here, with the idea of our creators turning on us, or seeing us as only an experiment, or otherwise not caring for us, but the random black goo monsters don’t embody that kind of terror. They’re just low-rent knock-offs of the Alien.
My idea here boils down to two main things. One: pare down the cast drastically. Two: make David the main character. The first suggestion wouldn’t be hard to do at all. The film as is focuses on a few of the crew members while the rest just sort of hang around in the background, waiting to die. All you need from them is Shaw, Holloway, David, Vickers, and Janek. Toss in perhaps Kate Dickie’s character, Fifield, and Millburn, and you have a nice, comfy cast to work with.
From there, there just needs to be something of an attitude adjustment made to the characters, and I’m not just talking about having Holloway not be a dick, Fifield not an obnoxious coward, and Millburn not an utter idiot. I’m referring to the way they treat their mission. They approach a search for the origins of humanity as if it’s toilet detail, and no one except occasionally Shaw and Holloway ever acts with the appropriate amount of wonder and curiosity. Again, this is Scott trying to recapture the feel of Alien. But the characters in Alien were space truckers; these are scientists. And if they don’t care about all these world-changing discoveries, why should we?
As for David, he’s easily the most interesting thing in the movie, and at least two-thirds of that is Michael Fassbender’s terrific performance. That guy’s almost casually consistent awesomeness is starting to scare me. But there’s also a great idea with David, and that’s the angle of a creation of humans going along as they look for their creator. That’s such a thematically rich prospect, but instead David is an antagonist, and one with horrifically muddled motives, to boot. It’s such a waste of potential, such a waste of the Fass.
As a former hardcore Lost fan, I blame Damon Lindelof for many terrible things in the world, including famine. But even without that, you can lay a lot of the problems with this movie at his feet, since most of the problems come from the story. Lindelof likes to write about faith, except I don’t really get the sense that he understands faith all that well. The biggest statement on belief that this movie makes comes from Shaw actively choosing to believe in a higher power despite all that happens to her, and that makes no sense. And it’s not the belief part that doesn’t make sense; it’s the choosing part. You don’t choose to believe anything, religious or otherwise. You either believe or you don’t.
That’s just one symptom of this movie’s much bigger issue with theme: it likes talking about Big Ideas, but it’s all talk. Asking a question is not the same as addressing that question. Keep in mind that I’m not cheesed off that the movie never gives any answers, not in the least. But even if you don’t answer a question, you have to engage it. Simply asking it doesn’t count. And it certainly doesn’t make your movie intelligent.
So what is Prometheus about? The search for our origins, right? While going to the stars to find the reason for existence (probably) has no real-world application, there’s plenty of ways to work that story metaphorically. But when you look at what actually happens in this film, you see that it really isn’t about that idea at all. It’s just a monsters-stalking-people horror movie, with some philosophical window dressing. And that is the real death blow to this movie: it really is an Alien prequel.
There’s nothing wrong with having this film be set in the Alien universe. Even though it makes for a colossal coincidence in the original film, I don’t even mind that you retcon the Space Jockey to actually be one of the race that created humanity. But in trying to tie in to Alien, this film loses everything that could have made it something special. Because it’s a prequel to Alien, it seems that the people making it felt they had to make it a horror film. Because it’s a prequel to Alien, you get the extremely roundabout sequence of events that leads to the birth of an Alien-like thing at the end.
But think about it: what’s the point of that last scene? Is it supposed to be a surprise that the Alien shows up? This can’t be the birth of the species; there was a mural of the Alien in the vase chamber. It can’t be a cliffhanger; that alien poses no threat to Shaw, who’s already left. Think of it this way: what significance would that scene have for you if you were seeing this movie before Alien (which will most certainly be happening to people in the future)? None. It couldn’t possibly mean something to you.
A few people have compared Prometheus to The Phantom Menace, which is absolutely ludicrous. But on one count, there is something of a parallel, in that there are elements of this film which simply hold no weight if you haven’t seen another film. Which should not happen in any movie, much less one that’s supposed to go before said other film. I remember a year ago or so, when I read about how this film had been turned from a mere Alien prequel into something different, and I thought it sounded much more interesting. It turns out that they didn’t go far enough with their big ideas, and didn’t tear themselves away from the shadow of Alien properly. That, in essence, is why Prometheus failed the way it did.