(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of Ridley Scott’s controversial Alien prequel Prometheus.)
Like most of you, I walked out of my first screening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in some combination of confused and angry. That was the Alien prequel we’d spent the past two-plus years anxiously anticipating? The film that absolutely wasted Charlize Theron and Idris Elba, featured some of the worst character beats I’ve ever seen in a science fiction narrative, and bled all over the memory of Scott’s original Alien film? No matter how I approached the film – how charitable I tried to be in my interpretation of its story – all I saw was a barren wasteland where a promising Alien franchise might’ve stood. My hatred of Prometheus ran deep and pure.
And then a funny thing happened. A few months ago, as 20th Century Fox began to roll out new footage from Alien: Covenant and people in my social network started talking about Prometheus as if it wasn’t the worst thing since death and taxes. A few friends even argued passionately on the film’s behalf, suggesting that Prometheus, despite its flaws, was one of the boldest science fiction films to hit theaters in a good long while. This put me in an awkward position. I had spent more than four years nursing my grudge towards Scott’s film, and while I remained convinced that the film would only get worse on a re-watch, I knew it would be disingenuous of me to argue against the film without at least giving a second shot.
So I popped Prometheus into my Blu-ray player again, and wouldn’t you know it? That movie grew up a helluva lot in our four years apart.
Granted, Prometheus still has its flaws. That entire sequence with the two scientists in the Engineer’s control room? Charlize Theron running in a straight line from a collapsing spaceship? Borderline unwatchable. But what I found is that the ability to anticipate those flaws meant that I focused less on the things the film did wrong and more on what the film got right. And my goodness, does the film get a lot right. From the visual effects to Michael Fassbender’s masterful performance to Prometheus’s philosophical mean streak, there are sound and logical reasons to argue that Ridley Scott’s film might be one of the better science fiction movies of the last few years. And thankfully, I’m here to defend the poor, helpless $130 million studio film.
What’s Old Is New
Because I was taught to look for common ground above all, let’s start with a point I know we’ll agree on. No matter how much you hate or love Prometheus, you can’t deny the beauty of its production design. Scott’s film is often breathtakingly beautiful: in David’s quiet journey around Prometheus as his shipmates stay in hibernation and in the holographic universe that explodes out from the Engineers’ control center, Ridley Scott demonstrates that it is possible to be an iconic filmmaker well into your seventies. Even the planet LV-223 is a marvel of both digital and practical effects, from the metallic terrain the Prometheus crew regularly traverses to the pre-Mad Max: Fury Road dust storm kicked up in the second act. There’s not an element of the film’s production design that hasn’t been carefully thought out beforehand.
But for as much effort and energy went into making Prometheus a first-rate blockbuster, what stands out on repeated viewings is how carefully Scott’s team balanced their visual effects against the precedent set by the original Alien film. Call it the Star Wars dilemma: with modern studios looking to remake or reboot many of their successful franchises from the ‘70s and ‘80s, audiences often find themselves puzzling over the anachronistic visuals of the latest films. Why are the starships of Star Wars: A New Hope so rectangular and rundown while the starships of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace are shiny and chrome? Why do the space stations of the 2009 Star Trek run circles around anything in the original series? I’m not talking about plot holes; I’m talking about a visual aesthetic that often puts contemporary films at odds with the franchise they are meant to emulate.
No good modern science fiction film will risk their box office for an authentic DOS computer screen – well, no good science film outside of Space Station 76, I suppose – but Prometheus does a remarkable job of creating a well-worn universe. Nowhere is this more evident than in the alien spacecraft’s holographic replay system. Using old televisions as a reference point, Scott’s VFX team was able to create an effect that was both decidedly modern – holographic rendering – and as worn out as anything we’d seen in the original Alien film. This was also echoed in the 3D mapping performed by the Prometheus and its crew; the environment is not created as a full video display but as model built out of a million different data points. It may look like a million bucks, but it feels a little anachronistic in a manner that serves the film well.
Oh, and don’t forget the Engineers themselves. While not quite on par with the hulking creature we saw at the beginning of Alien, the Engineers of this film are fascinating character models who manage to convey both human and inhuman elements in the design of their features. Scott’s team wisely chooses to downplay digital effects in the facial construction, further linking the past and the present together through a few smart tweaks to their scope and scale. They didn’t quite sit with me right the first time, but after a few additional screenings and a little bit of reflection, it’s a creature every bit as memorable in its own way as Giger’s xenomorph designs.
The Story of David
If we can find some common ground on the film’s special effects, then we may also find that we agree on Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David. While Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is present for most of the movie’s most lurid beats, it is David who serves as the true protagonist and our host for the film’s most iconic moments. David carefully dying his hair as he sits enraptured by Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia; David pausing as the holographic character explodes around him; David (or David’s head, rather) quietly goodbye to his creator as the remaining Engineer seeks his revenge against humanity. Prometheus is about David’s journey from Pinnochio to, well, a real, live boy, and Fassbender has committed himself to this performance in a way we rarely see from most actors.
What’s remarkable about David is his humanity, not his inhumanity. There’s more than a little Rutger Hauer in Fassbender’s performance; the actor lets soft expressions and strict posture keep him at odds with the crew around him, but you never question the character’s agency. For most of the film, David gawks at the world around him with a sense of childlike wonder. But even if he weren’t programmed to follow the instructions of his creator, you get the impression that David would find his way to betray Shaw and the other members of the crew more quickly than not. It’s not personal, after all. It’s merely evolution.
His own evolution, of course, explains much of his initially confusing betrayals. Just as the humans in the film are quick to turn on their gods when they discover the Engineers are more enemy than benevolent being, David’s own quiet acts of rebellion are those of a child who has discovered his parents’ weaknesses for the first time. And once you lean into the bleak worldview of the film, you may find yourself strangely pleased by its uncomplicated resolution. So much of Prometheus boils down to daddy issues, but what else would drive a brain of his ilk? For Prometheus to find hidden poignancy in this narrative would be to undermine the core values that Scott’s film holds dear. It is, after all, a film about disappointments.
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Source: Slash Film