How Prometheus could have sucked less without changing the plot (or, why I’d like to rip Ridley Scott a new one)
***Warning – ranting ahead, and a few swears (in case the title didn’t give that away …)
If you’re a sci-fi fan, you probably eagerly anticipated Prometheus this year. I mean, hell, the trailer was awesome. It had Charlize. And lots of uber-in-space goodness. And it was part of the Alien franchise, in a prologue-y, know-it’s-going-to-muck-with-cannon way, but that was alright. Reloads are part of the fun of modern cinema. I lowered my expectations, though. That’s wise. And I did a little rotten tomatoes check – just the percentage, no reviews. 74% I think I recall … so, not as good as The Avengers, but supposedly still good.
So now I say, you suck, rotten tomatoes. I’ve lost faith in you. I should have learned after the cinema-going disaster that was True Grit (90-friggin percent my arse for unintelligible dialogue). Because Prometheus sucked the big one. I’m not even going to touch the plot – somewhat because it’s easy to criticise (and much of sci-fi plot sounds stupid when critiqued), but mostly because it wasn’t the problem. I’ll even say I enjoyed the clever integration of the original Alien style sets with our less-monochrome screened vision of the future. But that’s not enough to feel like Prometheus was anything like a good film.
So here’s my Pareto problems with the movie, and how they could have been fixed. They can even keep the gratuitous special effects.
1. The unbelievably sucky characters – Part I. Ok, so this problem falls into two parts – the ensemble cast (this point) and the main protagonists. It should be pretty easy to see from the first two (excellent) Alien films that the secondary characters all knew each other in some capacity before the film began. In Alien, they were a ship’s crew. In Aliens, a colonial marine unit. Why does this matter? Because in the screenplay, relationships are assumed established. We don’t have to see very much interaction to get a flavour of how these people work together, what they think of each other, who is in command, and existing frictions. What happens in Prometheus? The whole crew apparently doesn’t know each other (except for the main protagonists) until the defrost out of cryo. Not only is this logically difficult to believe, but it forces the screenplay to try and develop these characters and, importantly, their relationships from scratch. Which means shitty scenes like Charlize giving them a ‘briefing’ (which gets taken over by Guy Pearce in bad make-up anyway), no sense of command (Charlize tries to make us think she has some, but evidence is to the contrary). It also means totally irrational rushing off into the foreign planet, which does nothing to create tension because there’s no command structure to defy (as well as being completely fricking illogical). I don’t care if random, strange people working together was the vibe they were going for – it didn’t work and that’s all that matters.
The fix – The film had three starts: 1) man-alien seeding primeval Earth with basic DNA building blocks, 2) Main protagonists in the cave finding star pics (you know, the Stargate bit), and 3) creepy android man on the ship. We didn’t need no.2 – that information could have been worked in later. We needed to start with the crew, just out of cryo, eagerly watching the surveying bots as they mapped the tunnels on the planet and prepping gear to go in. This gives opportunity to show their existing relationships (after all, this is a big mission and it would make sense they should know each other), tensions, specialties etc. The creepy android character stuff could be worked into this scene in flashbacks (potentially creepier in not being shown in full – ‘Hey, what did you do for 2 years’ *flash* *flash* … oooh, creepy). Then, we can have some genuine tension when there’s a dispute about when they’ll go in, who’ll go, and what they’ll take. Also, some young Guy Pierce company propaganda could be inserted – on the wall, in manuals, in computer boot processes (somewhere) to help that issue (see below). Flow on scenes could be altered to fit the new set-up. Not a huge amount would need to change.
2. The unbelievably sucky characters – Part II. I didn’t believe the two main characters – I didn’t believe in them as scientists, or as a couple. The male character (their names were so memorable) was a bad-attitude poster boy (whose disinterest in the whole malarchy is palpable) and I wanted a whole cheer squad when his sorry arse was toasted fairly early on [not soon enough]. The female character was bland and the faith foundation for her science jarred with the whole franchise. Was Ridley reaching into the rebooted Clash of the Titans for inspiration? (over which I’ll take the original, stop-motion version any day). But I’m straying.
The fix: Different casting might help, but I reckon one of them needs to go. Choose one main protagonist. Loose the gratuitous sex scene, ffs. The sexual overtones again at odds with the franchise, and feels base (like The Fly II or Alien 4 [which I pretend doesn’t exist]) – horror for horror’s sake. Instead, could we have the android doing some freaky in-test-tube stuff? (which would have some nice circularity with the android/human dynamic that runs through all the franchise, including with Bishop in Aliens – after all, the android in Prometheus doesn’t really seem to find anything out before he starts experimenting. Weird.). Or something other than *oooh, the stupid non-science-y scientist character spawned the aliens after all*. FFS.
3. Lots of stuff chucked in and unrealised. A bunch of threads seemed to get a start in this film and weren’t carried, well, anywhere. Charlize Theron’s character, for example. So much potential. Almost no use. The intriguing depths of the android’s character – especially the boundary to his humanness. WTF Weyland was doing on the ship, really. Patrick Wilson’s 10 s cameo as the female protagonist’s father. Now, I know probably a sequel is coming, but that’s no excuse for fucking around with subthreads that have no place in this short arc.
The fix: Fixing the first point above would open up space to expand at least one descent subthread, because we don’t have to muck around trying to establish all those relationships with the viewer (especially because, let’s face it, they all die anyway).
4. Lack of realism. I know it’s sci-fi. I know. But look at Aliens. When Hicks gets sprayed with acid, it takes him out of the action. Out of it. And when Ripley runs around, you hear the effort in her breathing. She’s sweaty. She’s tired; cranky. There are no bras. What do we have in Prometheus? A female lead sans emotional swings, who cavorts around a Tough Mudder style obstacle course with a fresh abdominal wound, very occasionally grabbing her middle to remind us of said injury. JHC. If I wasn’t already rolling my eyes (and I was) that did it.
The fix: Refer to point 2. Or, if you want to cheat, at least put in some kind of fast-healing technology. It’s the future, FFS. I don’t believe it when they’ve got an automated surgical unit (which doesn’t administer anaesthetic, FFS) that still uses 2012 era surgical staples.
5. Guy Pearce made to look like an old person. One of the things that shitted me the most was why a film would cast a young person as an old person, and then make them up. Ok, you want a celebrity, but why a young one? The problem: even with the make-up, they still look like they have a 40-year-old body, tops!! Oh, I’m so old (yet my body is spritely). Now, I know that the reason for this is that some associated promo material had Guy as the young Weyland spruiking the company, but that’s not an excuse in my book. Look at Captain America, where they managed to make Chris Evans look scrawny and weak. The Curious Case of Brad Pitt (I think that’s the correct title), did a better job.
The fix: Cast an actual old actor and save on make-up. Or, trade a few seconds of that ghastily overdone ooooh-android-discovering-the-alien-maps special effects to make Guy Pearce look scrawny and weak.
Sigh. There are many ways to fix poorly told stories. These are mine, and I acknowledge they could be refined if I saw the film again. But I simply won’t pay to do so. Is this highly personal? Sure. Tell me how you’d fix it.