Friday, January 3, 2014

Prometheus Is A Bad Movie

Look, I'm sorry, Prometheus is just a bad movie.

I didn't like it at the cinema. Even first time around, my gut reaction was disgust. I felt as though I was being psitol-whipped in the face with stupidity pretty much every five minutes.

But maybe I had been too hasty. After all, there are a lot of people who like it. So I decided to give it another chance. But, after subsequent viewings, I'm sorry to say that Prometheus is not a good movie that's been misunderstood, it's not a movie chooses to focus on theme over plot, and it's not a 'flawed masterpiece,' as many people have suggested in their reviews. It is a BAD movie.

Pretty much all of its problems stem from the script. Apart from the script, there's a lot to like. The movie looks great, the soundtrack is amazing, and the actors are all ... well, professional at playing the stupid, unlikeable characters they've been written. The special effects are fine. The designs of the planet and the sci-fi high tech, while not really to my taste, are well executed. There's no problem with any of that stuff. It's a perfect example of a movie where a huge amount of talent and effort has been used to render a story that is absolutely woeful. It's sad, really.

Below I've listed some of the problems I have with the movie. For the most part, I don't feel like I'm nitpicking: these were things that irritated me the first time I saw the film and really brought me out of it when I was trying to enjoy it. And of course, none of these things alone make Prometheus a bad movie. I happily overlook the occasional flub in logic or characterisation so long as all the other elements of a movie are working well and I'm enjoying it. It's the perfect storm of shit, the constant string of incoherence and badly-thought-out ideas that makes Prometheus a no-hoper for me. Even the bits that do make sense are full of clunky exposition and obvious, artless foreshadowing (Shaw finds the medical pod, Shaw mentions that she's barren, etc), but I've stuck to the real problematic stuff below.

I don't normally cut movies up into bits like this, but Prometheus annoyed me so much when I first saw it for being filled with really, really obvious bad writing, that felt compelled to chronicle all these problems.

Wish I was watching Jurassic Park

1. ALIEN DNA: After an admittedly amazing intro sequence, with gorgeous cinematography and one of my favourite scores of the year, things start to become a little bit troubling when the Engineer alien, on prehistoric Earth, releases his own DNA into the ocean. The film later hints that the Engineers created either (a) just humans or (b) all life on Earth. It's not made clear which is the case. This means that either humans are actually aliens and not closely related to any other species on Earth, despite everything that evolution and genetics tells us, or the alien's own personal DNA created single-celled organisms and evolution as we know it happened after that point. Except that his DNA should only have been able to create another Engineer. That's how DNA works; it can't somehow 'regress' through evolution and create simpler organisms.

How big a problem is this? For me, not a big one. The film could have introduced some technobabble to explain how the Engineer DNA works differently to ours, but I think that would have been awkward for the script to include. Plus, it's not really necessary. He's a goddam alien and we don't know anything about him; I'm willing to accept that his DNA is just different and can do weird things. It'd have made more sense to have had the alien use some technology to start life on Earth, but the film-makers obviously wanted the 'alien-DNA-is-the-same-as-ours motif' to be introduced right from the beginning. So, not a huge problem, but still a clumsy and potentially confusing way of getting the idea across.

They practically OWN South America, dude

2. CHARIOTS OF THE GODS: Prometheus wants to be a 'high concept' sci-fi movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its big concept is the Von Daniken-inspired idea that aliens appeared way back in Earth's prehistory and somehow created life on Earth. Trouble is, this idea has been knocking around for a long time. It's a big enough part of the public consciousness that it shows up in episodes of Johnny Quest and godawful movies like Mission To Mars. So, y'know, while it's still an interesting concept, and I'm not saying that someone couldn't make a good movie with it, it's not likely to blow anyone's mind or anything.

How big a problem is this? For me, it kinda is a big one. The movie presents the 'ancient astronauts' shtick like it's this big, mind-blowing idea. But it isn't for the audience (at least, the portion of the audience who have even a passing familiarity with any kind of sci-fi).

This military guy hates scientists for no reason.

3. MR. SCIENTIST: In Team America, the main character, an actor called Gary, joins the titular team only to find that one of the other members, Chris, acts inexplicably hostile towards him. Chris' irrational and over-the-top nastiness towards Gary is Matt Stone and Trey Parker's way of spoofing this type of character in movies. They feel that such characters function as a cheap way to bring more tension to a script. Their motivations are usually revealed to be tenuous or tacked-on (Chris has an aversion to actors because he was raped by the cast of Cats).

And yet Prometheus finds Ridley Scott using this hoary old trope completely without irony. When Shaw and Holloway first meet the crew of the ship, the geologist/biologist pair immediately act like complete dickwads to them (and everybody else) for absolutely no reason. One of them announces angrily that he's 'not here to make friends' and sarcastically addresses people as 'Mr Biologist', a line which is straight out of South Park. This really annoyed me and took me out of the movie. There's NO justification for their over-the-top behaviour. Anyone on an expedition like this would have to have gone through a rigorous testing procedure to assess their suitability for being in space for long periods of time with a small number of people; hell, NASA have been doing that since the 50s. There's no way these jackasses should be on that ship. The worst part is that their behaviour is never justified. They don't even get a crappy 'this is why I'm angry' scene.

How big a problem is this: It's a huge one. There are already so many cold, unlikeable characters on board that having false tension jammed into the script by having characters act unprofessionally and unpleasant FOR NO REASON AT ALL simply reeks of bad script-writing. It's an extremely hackneyed old trick that I'd expect to find in a cheapo slasher-flick, and there's absolutely no reason for Ridley Scott to be using it. The man knows better, come on.

Pretty spooky right here ... sure glad I didn't bring any weapons though!

4. SHAW ACTS LIKE A DUMBASS AND PUTS EVERYONE IN DANGER #1: Shaw is supposed to be the hero. I think so anyway; she's the least unpleasant character on board; I guess she's the hero. So the script repeatedly expects the audience to side with her, even when her decisions are stupid and put the rest of the crew in danger. When they arrive on the moon LV223, she has an argument with one of the other crewmembers about the drop-team bringing weapons. So: they've landed on an unknown world which they have reason to believe may be inhabited by beings about which they know NOTHING. It makes perfect sense to bring weapons. Heck, doing anything else would be irresponsible and possibly dangerous; the kind of decision that would get someone in a position of command reprimanded in any military or scientific organisation. Not putting the crew in any uneccesary danger ought to be pretty high on their list of priorities. And yet we're supposed to sympathise with her request. It's not pacifistic; it's stupid. Any aliens they meet are unlikely to recognise (or tell the difference between) a weapon, a scientific instrument or even a flag of truce anyway, so they might as well carry the damn weapons.

The best part is, she's clearly proven wrong! Once they get into the hive-ship-thing on the surface, weird and spooky things immediately start happening. They've clearly entered an unpredictable situation. Anything could happen. 'Glad we didn't bring weapons now?' sneers one of the Asshole Scientists. AND FOR ONCE IN THE MOVIE HE'S RIGHT. Of course they should have brought weapons, who the hell knows what's gonna happen now that weird alien-ghost-holograms are running around the place and creepy black goo is turning everything into monsters. Everyone's life could be in danger.

How big a problem is this: Well it made me hate the lead character and convinced me that the expedition was being run by idiots, so you do the math on this one.

Aliens? Meh.

5. ASSHOLE SCIENTISTS NOT INTERESTED IN ALIENS: When the group comes across the body of one of the aliens, one of the Asshole Scientists gets scared and whines that he's a geologist and therefore doesn't want to know anything about the big spooky alien corpse. Now I'll accept that the situation is getting pretty creepy at this point and that even a trained scientist might lose their shit a little. It's just that this character has been acting so unprofessionally up to now that I'm not willing to give the movie that slack. Any scientist who signs up for an intergalactic voyage of discovery (and I know that the characters were not given much exact info prior to the voyage, but still. They're scientists. Who work in space) and are good enough to actually get selected, ought to be absolutely blowing their intellectual wad at the prospect of finding even a few crumby cells of alien life. Instead we get this dingus freaking out like (again) a badly-written teen in a slasher movie. And just like those stupid teens, the Asshole Scientists split off from the group at this point. They don't announce where they're going, and the film never addresses it. I think we're supposed to assume that they're going back to the ship, but who knows?

How big a problem is this? Yeah, as a scientist, this really annoys me. As a movie-goer who enjoys the kind of sense-of-wonder sci-fi that Prometheus is aping, this annoys me. The characters are not acting like someone in their situation ought to, and it pulls me right out of the movie. Now I know there's an interpretation that states one of the Asshole Scientist character is disturbed at what the existence of the Engineers might mean for Darwinism (because of one throwaway remark made earlier), and that's why he freaks out. But for me it requires quite a few leaps in logic, and guesses at the psychology of the character, because we're really not given enough info to know this. Which indicates that someone on the script-writing team isn't doing their job.

Keep the door open, I'm just going back for something...

6. SHAW ACTS LIKE A DUMBASS AND PUTS EVERYONE IN DANGER #2: The crew gets chased back to the ship by a huge dust storm. Shaw drops the alien head when the storm is literally in their face and they really need to close the entry gate, like right now. Instead she goes back for the head, nearly gets herself killed, prevents the crew from being able to close the gate and causes massive damage inside the ship. Good going, Shaw.

How big a problem is this? It's a reasonable-sized problem. If Shaw had been portrayed as the kind of obsessive scientist who'd let nothing stand in the way of her goal (I'm thinking of Saffron Burrows in Deep Blue Sea), then this kind of thing might be in character. But instead she's been foistered on us as the good-hearted hero pacifist. So this going-back-for-the-head thing just comes across as stupid and inconsiderate.

Derp ... let's split up. You come with me, Velma.

7. ASSHOLE SCIENTISTS GET LOST: When Shaw and co get back to the ship, everyone discovers that they have no idea where the Asshole Scientists are, confirming that the Asshole Scientists did indeed just wander off into the dangerous, unknown alien structure without anybody asking them what they were doing. You guys are running a great expedition. Way to insult my intelligence, movie.

In a scene worthy of Scooby-Doo, it then transpires that they are lost within the structure. This despite the fact that the movie has already taken pains to show us that they themselves had earlier mapped the entire place using flying drone mapping-things. And I absolutely refuse to believe that they don't have access to the map the drones put together: I can do stuff like that on my smartphone now. In any case, it's clear that they're in radio contact with the ship (and presumably the others in the alien building: why not?), and the ship has access to the map, so there's absolutely NO BELIEVABLE EXCUSE for their getting lost. Oh, wait , I forgot: they're bumbling morons of the type who would never, ever in a million years be selected for a dangerous, expensive expedition to another planet. That's okay then.

How big a problem is this? Any scene that makes me think of Scooby-Doo when I should be thinking of 2001: A Space Odyssey has got big problems.

You know you want it.

8. VICKERS RIDES THE CAPTAIN: Vickers hasn't had lots of character development time up until now. We know very little about her. Then she appears on the ship, flirts with Janek the captain (we've never seen them in the same frame before this so we have no idea what their relationship is) and bluntly propositions him. Wait, what?

How big a problem is this? Um ... this scene certainly annoyed me, but in the scheme of things I guess it's not one of the movie's bigger sins. It's just a scene that comes out of nowhere. We're not even given enough info about either janek or Vickers, so I can't even say if it's really out of character for either of them, but it just feels wrong. Of course, the only reason it occurs is so that the captain is not on the bridge when the Asshole Scientists call for help. After all, he's the only character we've seen so far who seems to be behaving professionally, so he's due an idiot moment.

Cute ... why don't I pet it?

9. ASSHOLE SCIENTISTS GIVE A GOOD EXAMPLE OF AN 'IDIOT PLOT': I'm afraid we're not through with those Asshole Scientists yet, as they appear one more time on my list to demonstrate what an 'Idiot Plot' is.

An Idiot Plot is a plot that can only progress if some or all of the characters behave like idiots. If everyone behaved sensibly and professionally, then bad things wouldn't happen and there would be no plot. It's an extremely lazy way of writing a script, and results in audiences becoming detached from the characters and the action. There are ways to have characters behave sensibly and still progress the plot, but it requires, you know, some good writing.

Case in point: the Asshole Scientists, having got themselves lost inside the alien structure, and having been scared witless by the giant alien body, then decide to return to the scary room with the enormous spooky head and the jars that leak alien black goo. And then one of them gets stoned, apparently via some built-in weed dispenser in his spacesuit.

This is where I check out. Space is a dangerous place, and there's absolutely no room for people who behave like these two do. F*ck them, I don't care what happens to them because they've shown themselves to be more idiotic than anyone I've ever met in real life. They deserve to die, and so does anyone else who ever thought them fit to join a space expedition. This is one of the stupidest scenes I've ever seen in a movie ever, and I'm a fan of James Nyugen.

So then a gross alien penis/vagina snake appears and (I can't even type this, it seems so ridiculous) they pet it. Even on Earth a sensible person wouldn't pet something that looked like a snake (well, I do, but only snakes I actually know), never mind on an unexplored alien world. I can't believe that this scene survived even a single rewrite, it's so moronic. Needless to say, horrific things happen to them as a result of their stupidity.

How big a problem is this? Obviously in order for the plot to get going, crewmembers need to become infected. But if the only way you can get your plot to progress is to have trained professionals act like Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, then you've got yourself an Idiot Plot. Again, Ridley Scott is better than this. Above all the others, this scene makes me feel as though the film-makers are just giving me the finger and saying 'fuck it, we don't care about this movie.'

She should have burned the script.

10. WHAT THE HELL IS QUARANTINE ANYWAY: Here's a scene in which pretty much everyone acts stupid to some degree. While out on the planet, Holloway gets sick. The others bring him back to the ship. But Vickers won't let him on, ostensibly in case he infects other on board. She's played as the cold-hearted one here,  but in fact she's dead right. Of course astronauts who pick up unknown ailments while on alien planets (we know Holloway was actually infected by Daniel, but nobody else does) shouldn't be just brought back onto the ship. But because she's a moron too, Vickers picks up a flame-thrower that's just handily sitting by the door (huh?) and leaves the ship to threaten them, instead of just closing the door.

Meanwhile Shaw, whom we're supposed to sympathise with, wants Holloway brought onboard so that he can potentially infect everybody, thereby putting everybody's life in danger for a third time. Just about the only sensible thing that happens here is that someone eventually suggests that Holloway could be put in the sealed-off medical area, but by then Vickers has gone all flame-thrower-crazy and it's too late. You could argue that she doesn't want anyone using the medical area in case they discover that Old Man Weyland is there. After all, he's gotta remain hidden because ... because... Stupid movie.

How Big A Problem Is This: Once again we're supposed to side with the hero because she's soft-hearted when in fact her disregard for the rules makes her extremely dangerous.

What's really disappointing about this scene is that Ridley Scott tackled exactly this dilemma, far better, back in the first Alien. Then, Ripley refused to let infected crewmembers on board her ship without having them undergo quarantine, and we sympathised with her because that was the safe, sensible thing to do. She knew the rules were there for a bloody good reason. And she even did it without opening the doors, clever girl.

Me? Why, I'm just here to help you white folks out!

11. CAPTAIN KNOWS TOO MUCH: The captain, despite not ever having left the ship, is the one who first figures out that the alien structure is a weapons depot. Up until now he hasn't been in the film a whole lot, he hasn't said too much and we don't really know anything about him. So I don't know how much he really should know, but this scene just feels wrong. I think that just about any character other than him ought to have more reason to come to this conclusion first. You know, like any of the characters who actually went and saw the structure. It felt like the script-writers were just giving the captain something to do. And while we could surmise that he's been paying attention to all the weird shit coming back to his ship from the alien structure, and therefore guessed the truth, the movie hasn't shown us this. If the viewers have to make stuff up to explain what's happening, then you've got a bad script.

How big a problem is this? There's something of the Magical Negro about this character. He's a comparatively lowly, minority-race character, an earthy and workmanlike engineer-type compared to the *cough* intellectual scientists who surround him, and he's given very little to do apart from his big announcement about the weapons depot. Like most Magical Negroes, he's only around to provide the main, white, characters with information, and doesn't undergo any change or character growth himself. Oh, and he sacrifices himself (alongside the other minority characters) so that the white folks can escape. Again, this is all stuff that Ridley Scott should be above using.

Remember me?

12. SET-UP ODDLY PARALLELS THE BEGINNING OF 'ALIEN': Towards the end of the film, it almost seems as though Scott is setting up for the beginning of Alien. We've got the deserted planetoid, the downed Engineer ship (that's been confirmed as having the same shape as the one from Alien), the Space Jockey in the cockpit, and the proto-xenomorphs running about. I have no doubt that most casual viewers were certain that this was, in fact, setting the scene for Alien. Then the ship blows up and the Space Jockey flies away, showing that this is not the case.

I KNOW that the planet from Prometheus is not the same one from Alien. It's not a secret or a twist: early on in Prometheus, we're told the name of the planet: LV223, which is different from the planet in Alien: LV426. It's just that, for viewers not overly versed in the lore of this universe, it's easy to think that they're the same place. After all, they don't look overly different: the planet from Alien could be the planet from Prometheus in slightly worse weather conditions. Ok, the details about atmosphere and such don't really work out, but casual viewers will probably overlook details like that.

How big a problem is this: It isn't a big problem; it's just an example of confusing story-telling. Why did Ridley Scott end with a sequence that almost fits with the opening to Alien, but not quite? Since it's not the same planet and not the same spacecraft, why not have the designs clearly show that? Why not make the planet and/or the Engineer ship look clearly different in some way? Why does everything look so similar to Alien? Is this attempt at confusion deliberate? What is this supposed to achieve? Again, it's not a big problem, but in a movie already plagued by bad plotting and murky character motivation, weird parallels like this strike me as adding to the confusion rather than strengthening themes or whatever.

This image actually contains all of the text of Ulysses in ancient astronaut language.

13. ASSUMPTIONS MAKE AN ASS OF U AND ME: The entire plot is pretty much fueled by assumptions. When Shaw and Holloway discover the evidence that humans made contact with aliens in our distant past, they immediately make a bunch of assumptions based on this. They start telling people that the aliens have 'invited' us to find them, and more importantly, that the aliens created us. It's made clear that they have no reason to believe this, other than faith. There's even a scene where they're called up on this, and Shaw says that they believe it because they want to. Fine, except they've created this idea from scratch themselves: there's no mention of it in any of the archaeological material they've found. WHY DO THEY THINK THE ALIENS CREATED US? And they manage to convince the Weyland corporation to fund a massively-expensive expedition off the back of this assumption.

Old man Weyland assumes, apropos of absolutely nothing, that the aliens will be able to prolong his life. I don't know why.

How big a problem is this? It depends. As I've said before, I'm willing to overlook the occasional logistical problem in an otherwise decent movie. I know that movies often have things happen that aren't realistic just because it results in a scene that's cool or scary or funny. That's fine. The problem with Prometheus is that the motivations of the characters are already so murky that when we have to guess at their motives, and those motives are themselves based on illogical assumptions, the whole thing falls down like a stack of cards.

Take David as an example. One of the main plot points gets started because he infects Holloway with some of the black goo. Why he does so isn't immediately obvious. But based on some of the half-heard conversations he has with Weyland while the old man is in stasis, probably the best explanation is that Weyland is desperate to find out how the alien substances operate, just in case they can lead to him finding out how to prolong life. Which, for me, is still an explanation that's clutching at straws. Why would Weyland think ANY of this? Nobody knows ANYTHING about the black goo by this point. Is David under orders to just put ANYTHING alien that he finds into the bodies of random crewmembers? Or is he just a mentalist? Again, when the only explanation for illogical actions requires stupid assumptions and leaps of logic, someone on the writing team is not doing their job.

CONCLUSION: So there you have it. I tried to cut the movie as much slack as I could. I like when a movie doesn't tell us everything; doesn't give us all the answers. I tried to see Prometheus as a movie that's primarily about visuals, themes and atmosphere instead of plot. Some movies are like that: 2001 is a movie that isn't particularly focused on plot or dialogue. Sections of it are extremely open-ended and psychedelic, and it certainly doesn't always spoonfeed the audience by making it clear what's going on. But none of the characters act like morons, and the interpretations a viewer might have as to what's going on don't require ridiculous leaps of logic. And furthermore, Prometheus, in terms of genre and format, is not a free-wheeling, psychadelic story taking place is some dream-world. It's presented as a fairly conventional, plot-driven movie taking place in some facsimile of the real world (albeit in the future). It's just that the plot is extremely badly-written.


  1. Thanks man, that was far more entertaining than actually watching Prometheus. There are too many Prometheus sympathisers around. That film needs to be slammed, hard. Nicely done.

  2. I think Scott really had no idea WHAT sort of movie he wanted to deliver. To me, Prometheus came across as a hodge-podge of half-baked vignettes that enjoyed no particular continuity. Almost as though Scott had been working on two or three different sci-fi films simultaneously, then abruptly decided to just say fuck-it and combine all the footage into one film. It was THAT disconnected and clumsy to me.

  3. I think Scott really had no idea WHAT sort of movie he wanted to deliver. To me, Prometheus came across as a hodge-podge of half-baked vignettes that enjoyed no particular continuity. Almost as though Scott had been working on two or three different sci-fi films simultaneously, then abruptly decided to just say fuck-it and combine all the footage into one film. It was THAT disconnected and clumsy to me.

  4. Yep, I think you're spot-on with that thought!