I recently watched Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, and while I did enjoy some of the movie, overall I felt underwhelmed as there was so much wasted potential. Somewhere in Prometheus is a really great science fiction film, but sadly what we get instead is a mostly lackluster homage to the Alien franchise. The technical elements of the movie and the performances were very good, so I’ll mainly be commenting on the plot, as the failings of Prometheus, in my opinion, rest in the screenwriting.
Lots of spoilers, so read on only if you’ve already seen the movie or don’t mind!
1. Cut the Cast in Half and Pick a Protagonist
Prometheus has a large cast that is meant to be reminiscent of the crew in Alien or the space marines in Aliens, except they really aren’t like those at all. Because this isn’t a horror or action film (where a large cast can be whittled down to build increasing tension), there’s no real benefit to having all these people hanging around. Not enough time can be spent on any character, so we end up not really caring about most of them.
I think few will dispute that David the robot (expertly played by Michael Fassbender) is the most developed character, and from the first 20 minutes of the film it felt like he was going to be our protagonist. Unfortunately this isn’t really the case, with the majority of Prometheus jumping around to little scenes with lots of characters we never really get to know. I think about halfway through the film decides that Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) should be the main character, but there’s no real reason for this other than most of the other people have already died. This is fine for a survival horror film like Alien, where Ripley kind of turns into the main character as the plot progresses, but in a science fiction film with a very different narrative focus, it doesn’t work. I get the feeling she was tapped to be the remaining character because the want her to remind the audience of Ripley. This, however, does not work because they are wildly different characters, no matter how many visual parallels the film shoves in. As such, I will henceforth refer to the character as “Not Ripley.”
In my opinion, the film would have benefitted from only having two real main characters, David the robot and Not Ripley. Not Ripley is this idealist scientist looking for her creator, while David is forced by his creator to go on this crazy mission. Focusing on these two characters more makes scenes in Prometheus work a lot better, and would also give more opportunities to provide context for their actions. As is, many decisions of both David and Not Ripley leave us wondering as to their motivations, and not in a good way.
Ironically the film ends with only these two characters, ready to go on an adventure. Show me that movie!
2. Remove the Subplots that Go Nowhere
Prometheus was co-written by the creator of Lost, which should have warned us all that there would be lots of promises of amazing things with no payoff. The film suffers heavily from a saturation of subplots and minor character stories that neither flesh out any theme or contribute toward the overall plot. Here are some of the things that should have gotten the chopping block:
- Not Ripley’s religious crisis. Other than the fact that there is a “creator” involved, focusing on her faith has no connection to the themes of the film. All it does is give characters the opportunity to say “did you lose your faith yet?” over and over to Not Ripley. Prometheus isn’t about having or losing faith in something! It’s about coming into contact with your creator and the nature of those expectations. Religious metaphors could in theory work for this movie, but they used the wrong ones. As a result, it feels tacked-on and trite.
- The Old Man subplot. So CEO Old Man froze himself in the spaceship too so that he could meet aliens. Fair enough, it reminds me a little of the cancer-riddled billionaire who helped out Jodie Foster in Contact, except in this case there’s no reason for it to be in the movie. I’m assuming he was inserted into the movie because the Alien films usually had jerky corporate people screwing things up, but in those cases their involvement contributed to the primary narrative and changed the nature of what’s going on. In Prometheus, though, you can remove Old Man and his daughter Charlize Theron entirely from the movie and nothing would change, other than some of David’s behavior would be less confusing.
You can and generally should have more than one thing going on in a film like this, but subplots generally tie into the main story in some way. Having side stories that just fizzle out with changing or implicating anything is just filler.
3. Cut References to the Alien franchise by 95%
I don’t know how Ridley Scott can say Prometheus isn’t a prequel to Alien with a straight face. It’s not just a prequel, it’s almost a beat-by-beat homage to his earlier film. The references go beyond shameless into the realm of perplexing, and I wonder how many script rewrites it took to force all of them into what would otherwise just be a decent sci-fi movie.
First off, we don’t need an origin story for the xenomorphs (the monsters from Alien). In fact, explaining their existence lessens the impact of the original concept. Half the terror element of the xenomorphs is that they’re from some mysterious place in outer space. Fleshing them out evaporates the mystery and kind of the point of the xenomorphs from a story perspective.
Second, by structuring the narrative like the Alien films, Prometheus fights against itself as it tries to tell a science fiction story. The Alien franchise is in the horror/action genre; and, while each film is very different in style, they all tell a very similar story. However, none of these stories are science fiction stories in the way that Prometheus is, and trying to present Prometheus like those stories is self-defeating.
Prometheus is (in theory) much closer in content and scope of traditional sci-fi, something like Solaris, Contact or Star Trek: the Motion Picture, where the narrative moves forward by way of increasing discovery and understanding. We’re interested in seeing what happens next because we want to uncover the scientific mystery; exploration is the driving force of the plot. Unfortunately, Prometheus takes that premise and tries to make it unfold like a film from the Alien franchise, which is partly why most of the horror/monster elements in the film fall completely flat. We don’t really care about these various monsters, not only because they’re all over the place and have no explanation, but because the reason we’re engaged in the story isn’t based on who lives and who dies.
Prometheus, at times, feels afraid to embrace its own concept and is constantly throwing little visual nods to the Alien films, as well as damn near recreating scenes from those movies. The ending, in particular, is so comical and forced that you have to wonder what anyone was thinking when they wrote it down.
If you want to have one or two little tie-ins with Alien, fine. The “space jockey” image is enough on its own, really. Just having that visual connection makes the universe richer while still being tasteful. We don’t need detailed origin story for a monster from 1979.
4. Move the 3rd Act Reveal to the 1st Act
So 500 hours into the film and we discover that the Engineer/Progenitor aliens are evil and want to kill the human race. Or maybe it’s just the one guy. Who knows? The film certainly won’t tell us. Hearkening back to the comparison to Lost, this really feels like a sloppy “twist” that, expectedly, goes nowhere. The reveal that the Engineers wanted humanity dead is a fascinating concept in itself, but it’s what should have gotten the main plot rolling instead of being a last-minute 3rd Act Twist.
The problem with that revelation is that it doesn’t change the tone of what’s already going on and it doesn’t change any of the stakes of what’s already been presented. Since the first act of Prometheus, all the characters have already realized that “things aren’t how they seem.” They’ve also known for most of the movie that their expectations were wrong and this world (and possibly civilization) is hostile to them. They’re already in danger from the start; showing the Engineers to be hostile along with everything else just adds to the growing list of vaguely-connected threats they’ve already been dealing with. Granted, having the Engineers turn out to be evil is the largest threat, but it’s so late in the plot that no consequences are developed, other than the tired “Earth is in danger” trope. Any time that trope is thrown in and an Earth we never really see or talk about is threatened by a bad guy, it’s a bad sign.
5. Follow Through With the Film’s Premise
The Greek myth of Prometheus is about a god who dared to give fire (civilization) to humanity and is punished. This is what the film Prometheus should have consistently been about, but failed to follow through. The first 20 minutes, in my opinion, held to this very well, but after that there’s a severe loss of focus. Instead of exploring the concept of why a superior civilization would create a new race and then want to destroy it, we’re given a detailed and unfocused origin story for the monsters in the Alien movies.
If we assume that Prometheus follows through thematically with that myth, we can then say that the Engineer from the opening scene is the Prometheus character that is giving “fire” to humanity, and that he is perhaps acting against the wishes of the other Engineers. Were the cave paintings left by the “good” Engineer(s) to warn humanity of their brethren’s evil designs, or was it all an extremely elaborate trap? These are fantastic concepts that should have been the driving force of the movie, but instead we have to perform film archaeology just to piece them together.
Just sticking with that one theme and following through would make for an excellent film. Plotwise, we’d get great things like:
- Providing a serious existential threat of basically having a malevolent God
- Discovering why one Engineer sympathize with (or at least created) humanity
- Setting up a clear thematic relationship between creators and their “children,” represented by the Engineers, humanity and robots
- Offering more opportunities for David to discuss his own motivations in contrast to his human shipmates
- Actually having conversations with at least one Engineer and understanding their motivations
Imagine a film where the generally benevolent aliens (akin to Contact)actually had it in for the human race. This is really terrifying, and what’s more it’s a totally different kind of threat than the xenomorphs from the Alien movies. The Engineers and the Xenomorphs are two opposite ends of the “alien threat” spectrum. While the Xenomorphs are scary because they’re monsters who are numerous and hard to kill, the Engineers are terrifying because they are smarter and more advanced than we are. This calls for a different type of film to be made, which is why the Engineer in the film comes off as silly, as he’s portrayed as just another big monster who punches people.
My general complaint about this movie is a lack of focus. There were too many unconnected ideas (probably the result of multiple script revisions), and it loses sight of what the first portion promises. Prometheus beings by asking questions about the nature of the human race and its origins and then promptly forgets about this until the last few minutes. As David and Not Ripley flew away, I immediately though “wait, they’re going to go do what I thought they were supposed to do in this movie!”
And those are my basic thoughts. As I said, I don’t think Prometheus is exactly a bad film, but rather a lackluster movie with a much better one hidden inside it.