I’ve read some criticism of the performances of the stellar cast of Prometheus, while I can’t comment on this with any conviction as I saw the movie in French and my rather limited French only allowed me to understand about 55% of the dialogue. However, it shouldn’t really come as much surprise that Ridley Scott didn’t get the best out of his cast, he never really has been a hands on actor’s director, Harrison Ford’s problems on Blade Runner are well documented and to testify to this.
So why did Prometheus fail to live up to its billing so conspicuously? A cynic would assert that this is the case with most US financed blockbusters, where at least 55% of the budget is devoted to promotion. I guess that the central problem is the provenance of the film, despite Scott’s and Lindelof’s insistance, is still widely regarded in the context of the Alien Franchise, and in particular because of Scott’s involvement, with the first, and arguably the best, of those films. So I’m making no apology for what follows, which seeks to identify some of the problems I found with Prometheus.
What made Alien so convincing and frightening was the unquestionable humanity of the characters, particularly Ripley, despite their grudging professionalism and cynicism about how ‘the company’ treats them. This humanity is lacking in Prometheus and the naïvity of too many of its characters is a little grating, thus their motivation and relationships are unconvincing, and ultimately the effect is that one doesn’t care too much about their demise. I guess that this element is what made Alien successful despite its heavy generic cues, as the attitudes represented were far more redolent of its time than Prometheus is.
Where the production design for Alien (and indeed for most movies in the franchise) was claustrophobic, and the screenplay taut, eschewing anything that didn’t contribute to the discomfort, and fear induced disorientation of the audience, Prometheus is grandiose in production design and merely disorientating as a result of the confusion of ideas that it attempts to address (filmic, relating to the franchise, and vague spirituality). Add to that the plotting, which seemed to merely chuck most of these ill-formed ideas randomly into the story and the whole thing seemed at best rather muddled. In fact the only element holding it all together was the bombast of the visual elements, The production design was magnificent, but this alone can do little to maintain the engagement of audiences where characterisation, story and plotting have failed (see Thor). In his reliance on the visual elements, Scott seems to have reverted to his traditional strengths, struggling with a clearly flawed screenplay. The writers should take most blame for this (including Scott as producer). There should be little surprise really when one considers that chief writer Lindelof’s most notable accomplishment is the supervision of writing for the 6 seasons of the US series ‘Lost’. Scott is surely aware that writing for a season of 26 fifty five minute episodes, and writing for a 120 minute feature are completely different skills. He should have imposed greater discipline on Lindelof to be more economical over plot-lines. The ending was clearly absurd, and clumsily edited; a voice-over (not so) neatly rounding things off, offering an unconvincing resolution where irresolution might have worked better (just as the original Bladerunner, and, I suspect for the same reasons), with somewhat trite story ideas left hanging, just enough to permit a sequel. Although, frankly there would’ve been enough material incompletely addressed in Prometheus for a couple of movies at least.
I read that the first-cut of the Prometheus was about 150 minutes, perhaps it might have made more sense to leave it at that length, at least some of the story issues could have been addressed more completely, it could have ended properly, and the editing motivated by the story and less obviously about ‘fitting it all in’. This seemed to work for Aliens, whose central theme (motherhood) became far more important once one saw the restored version.
Incidentally, for those who still hold to the ridiculous idea that such a film (or any that Scott has been involved in) could be the work of a single individual/auteur, this alone should convince you otherwise.
And another thing. The epilogue sequence, which demonstrates the utter sloppiness of the plotting and makes an extremely clumsy segue into the rest of the franchise. Surely this final sequence was plotted by a committee of Fox executives rather than anyone who cared about the project.