We had no idea so many would disagree when we called Prometheus incoherent. We'd better explain ourselves.
Who’d have thought we’d stir up a hornet’s nest by criticizing Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus? We were simply making what we thought was a self-evident statement, but perhaps we’re off in left field on this one. We guess we'd better explain ourselves, and if you actually have the time and/or inclination to read this, we’ll be extremely flattered. First, note that defenders of Prometheus often hail the script’s unanswered questions as a virtue and suggest that haters just need everything spelled out for them. But our dislike of the film had nothing to do with unanswered questions—it had to do with failures of craft. Having been paid during our time in L.A. to write a few scripts, we know a little about story construction. Not that our opinion is any more informed than a perceptive non-writer’s, but for those who require pedigree from their pundits, we have a smidge.
Alien worked well for many reasons, but foremost among them was its characterizations. The Nostromo’s crew is intelligent, educated, and experienced. Once they are confronted with a difficult situation, they take appropriate steps—based on the information at hand—to solve the problem. Of course, the true nature of the threat is hidden from them due to the machinations of the science officer Ash, who not only works for the faceless, heartless corporation that has arranged the entire scenario, but is not even human. Thus they never know Kane has an alien embryo in his stomach (they decide the tube down his throat is feeding him air, not impregnating him), which is why they never put him into stasis. This results in Kane’s death. Later they don’t know the alien grows at a miraculous rate. This results in Brett’s death, as he wanders the dark corridors of the Nostromo mistakenly thinking the alien is about the size of a badger.
When Brett is killed the crew realizes the threat is something uniquely lethal—Parker, who barely glimpsed it, says. "Whatever it was... it was big and..."—but they still don’t know the creature is intelligent, or at least cunning. They decide that, like any animal, it will flee in a panic from fire. That’s why Dallas ventures into the ship’s ducts with a flamethrower and a plan to force the beast into an airlock. It’s only once he’s in there that the maneuvers of the creature make clear not only that it’s intelligent (or cunning), but that it intends to attack him. But it’s too late to get out. That results in Dallas’s loss.
After this, Lambert quite rationally suggests fleeing—but the problem is the shuttle only has room for three. Rather than draw straws and leave one person behind, they decide to continue—with considerably more caution—trying to force the alien into an airlock, but first Ripley seeks more information from the ship’s computer. This is quite rational. Before, it was Dallas who interfaced with the computer. But his loss makes Ripley the captain and she must seek all available information. Ash, fearing either that he’ll be exposed or Ripley will ferret out something useful, decides to stop her, and in the struggle he’s decapitated and unmasked as an android. Now the crew knows the full scope of the challenge. Not only is the monster against them—so is the corporation. But with Ash gone there’s no problem with room in the shuttle, so the survivors make the rational decision to get the hell off the ship. But the alien massacres them as they make the attempt.
You’ll note that every link in the chain of decisions is solid and logical. The crew faces a steadily mounting problem and they devise shifting solutions—move, countermove, move, countermove—to deal with that problem as more information becomes available. And having made alogical decision at every turn, they fail. That’s a big reason why Alien is scary. The characters’ logic in dealing with the problem is unassailable—as it should be, considering their education and experience—yet they still lose. Our sympathy as viewers doesn’t derive from cheap sentiment but from our admiration for the characters’ smart approach to tough circumstances, and our horrific realization that smarts aren't enough to ensure survival.
Contrast this with Prometheus. In this you have a group even more steeped in science, yet they behave like teenagers on a field trip to Yellowstone. The entire away party irrationally takes their helmets off because the air in one part of the ancient structure they’re exploring is breathable, but they have no concern for microbes, bacteria, or airborne pathogens. The geologist Fifield irrationally freaks out at the sight of an ancient corpse, and in so doing gets lost in the charnel depths, there to later meet his demise. The zoologist Millburn irrationally approaches and attempts to touch an aggressively behaving unknown species, triggering his demise. The archaeologist Holloway sinks into an alcoholic depression because no living Engineers seem to remain, also leading to his demise, because remember, David spikes a glass of booze with organic goo and gives it to him. Would Holloway have been pounding liquor at all if he’d had enough sense to simply go about his job?
We could go on in this vein, but it’s clear to see that Alien relies upon its characters’ intelligence to create the framework for horror, while Prometheus relies upon its characters’ stupidity to set them up as part of the body count. In this way Prometheus doesn’t differ from Friday the 13th, which is why when advocates defend the movie as intelligent we have to chuckle a little. It’s not intelligent—it’s colossally dumb, and wefind it quite impossible to sympathize with stupid characters. While Shaw doesn’t do anything overtly ridiculous, neither does she show any analytical genius (at most, we can give her credit for intestinal fortitude and a strong will to survive). She’s a scientist, yes, because the script labels her as such, but the writers couldn’t be bothered to demonstrate her intelligence within the framework of the plot. The same can be said for all the other cardboard cutouts populating the movie.
We have a couple more points to make. Why does the prequel have infinitely more advanced technology than the original, which takes place later? The idea of Prometheus as retro-futurism is a tantalizing missed opportunity, not just in terms of production design, but because a lower-tech future similar to Alien’s would have been scarier. But no, the front office types say lights and bells dazzle the masses, so the movie has floating laser probes where Alien, which takes place later, has mostly bolts, jury-rigging, and wishful thinking. It’s pure Hollywood logic. A big budget movie must have gadgetry—period. Thus we have David spying on Shaw’s dreams. What purpose does this intrusion serve? It reveals to him how Shaw’s father died, but he could have gotten that info from a sheet of paper in a manila folder. The scene exists only to flaunt pointless fx.
There are a hundred other problems with the movie, from its unneeded intro sequence to its outro of a full grown semi-alien emerging from an Engineer’s body to Meredith Vickers’ hilarious inability to dodge left or right, but we’ll leave all those alone for now. But we do have one last question. When Fifield gets his face burned off and Millburn gets to deep throat an alien worm, why is it Fifield who comes back as a homicidal monster, rather than something that gestated inside Millburn? It’s a very minor point, but it highlights the sloppiness of the script. If the ship must be attacked, why not have it attacked by something that grew from within the character that was obviously implanted by something? This would be efficient story-wise, as well as consistent with the established alien life cycle. By contrast, having the weaponized goo turn Fifield into a monster is extraneous. The movie was so desperate to show an alien that it tacked one onto the end. Why not instead simply have an alien grow inside Millburn and use that creature as the centerpiece of the attack against the ship? Utterly baffling.
Are we hard on the film? Yes, and everyone should be, because the difference between Prometheus and a low budget sci-fi throwaway is the same as the difference between a street magician guessing your card and David Copperfield making a limousine disappear from onstage at Caesar’s Palace. The breadth of the ambition determines the intensity of the scrutiny. It has always been that way with art, it always will be that way, and it’s completely appropriate. The world expects more of thosewho show great ambition. That’s why a dinky little pulp cover can be praised with the same vocabulary used for the Mona Lisa. Before art can be great it must first meet or exceed the expectations established by its creator or creators. Prometheus was promoted as a scintillating piece of deep-thinking entertainment. While it looks amazing, two viewings of it (we watched it again last night) only make us more certain that it's just a loud, shiny failure.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1986—Otto Preminger Dies
Austro–Hungarian film director Otto Preminger, who directed such eternal classics as Laura, Anatomy of a Murder
, Carmen Jones
, The Man with the Golden Arm
, and Stalag 17
, and for his efforts earned a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, dies in New York City, aged 80, from cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
1998—James Earl Ray Dies
The convicted assassin of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., petty criminal James Earl Ray, dies in prison of hepatitis aged 70, protesting his innocence as he had for decades. Members of the King family who supported Ray's fight to clear his name believed the U.S. Government had been involved in Dr. King's killing, but with Ray's death such questions became moot.
1912—Pravda Is Founded
The newspaper Pravda, or Truth, known as the voice of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, begins publication in Saint Petersburg. It is one of the country's leading newspapers until 1991, when it is closed down by decree of then-President Boris Yeltsin. A number of other Pravdas appear afterward, including an internet site and a tabloid.
1983—Hitler's Diaries Found
The German magazine Der Stern claims that Adolf Hitler's diaries had been found in wreckage in East Germany. The magazine had paid 10 million German marks for the sixty small books, plus a volume about Rudolf Hess's flight to the United Kingdom, covering the period from 1932 to 1945. But the diaries are subsequently revealed to be fakes written by Konrad Kujau, a notorious Stuttgart forger. Both he and Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann go to trial in 1985 and are each sentenced to 42 months in prison.
1918—The Red Baron Is Shot Down
German WWI fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, sustains a fatal wound while flying over Vaux sur Somme in France. Von Richthofen, shot through the heart, manages a hasty emergency landing before dying in the cockpit of his plane. His last word, according to one witness, is "Kaputt." The Red Baron was the most successful flying ace during the war, having shot down at least 80 enemy airplanes.
1964—Satellite Spreads Radioactivity
An American-made Transit satellite, which had been designed to track submarines, fails to reach orbit after launch and disperses its highly radioactive two pound plutonium power source over a wide area as it breaks up re-entering the atmosphere.
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