Maybe 'Prometheus' Would Have Been Better Without Any People in It

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How could a movie that looked so good have been so bad?

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And Man in portions can foresee / His own funereal destiny. The words are from Lord Byron's 1816 poem "Prometheus." And while it seems unlikely that he foresaw Ridley Scott's 2012 film of the same name, the critique is pretty spot-on. The is-it-or-isn't-it an Alien prequel (I say yes; Scott says not really), out on DVD today, is at once a genuine triumph of design and cinematography, and a film sorely lacking any rudiment of internal logic or plausible character motivation, let alone a 4th-grade grasp of biology. (When it comes to, say, the electrical reanimation of dead tissue, Frankenweenie offers a more scientifically persuasive portrait.) As I wrote in my review:

Prometheus is at its best...when extraterrestrial nightmares are slithering and undulating and finding novel ways to burrow into the bodies of their hapless human prey. (There is also the film's most queasily memorable sequence, in which Elizabeth is trying to get one out.) To this end, the film borrows liberally from the Alien saga (in particular the first and third installments), John Carpenter's The Thing, and David Cronenberg's "venereal horror" period.

Alas, Scott is not content with such grotesque delights, and aims for something larger, a contemporary 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the director put it, "the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large, and provocative," and I suppose those terms more or less apply, provided one also appends hokey, shallow, and confused. Elizabeth's character is one of those rare creatures—more alien to Hollywood than any extraterrestrial—known as "practicing Christians." Perhaps inevitably, her faith is the source of a great deal of category confusion over the difference between belief in God and curiosity about the alien beings who manufactured humankind—the latter a subject that I suspect would interest Richard Dawkins as much as anyone. Moreover, the script, by Jon Spaihts and Lost guru Damon Lindelof, is an utter mess.... It all leads up to a conclusion so false and off-key that it is borderline astonishing.

Indeed, the clearest takeaway from Prometheus may be that Scott should limit his future sci-fi output to movies that contain no human characters at all. Two birds with one stone—more moistly tentacular alien metamorphoses to enjoy, no complicated terrestrial motivations to worry about! (An exception can be made for androids: Michael Fassbender offers the film's one standout performance as the marvelously sardonic David.)

I won't attempt to catalog the absurdities that pile atop one another over the course of Prometheus's latter half. (Commenters to the original review did a more than adequate job.) But I will note one particularly illustrative howler that takes place toward the film's conclusion. An immense, torus-like alien spacecraft has crashed and is rolling violently along the barren, rocky landscape. Two characters find themselves caught in its mortal path. But rather than move out of said path, both diligently run in a straight line directly in front of the onrushing colossus. One of the two stumbles and, falling to one side, is saved. But her fitter companion keeps going, never deviating a centimeter from the obviously doomed route, and is ultimately squashed. It almost seems intended as a moral of sorts: Try as you might, you can't outrun the narrative inanities of Prometheus. You can only step aside and watch them barrel past.

Next week: The precocious charms of Moonrise Kingdom

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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