Strange artifacts are left here on Earth beckoning inhabitants to come visit superior beings and/or ancient visitors, requiring a massive undertaking to build and dispatch a mighty state-of-the-art spacecraft on a long, dangerous journey with an AI on board to take care of its human crew. Director Stanley Kubrick swung for the fences with this set-up over four decades ago and now it’s Ridley Scott’s turn.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now — 2001: A Space Odyssey is a true film classic. It deserves its praise, and it deserves to be seen in any good film school program. If you haven’t seen it, you should. But it doesn’t have a lock on this decision. Much has changed since its creation: in the world, in filmmaking techniques, in the reality of spaceflight. To the right challenger, it could lose.
We could easily have smacked Prometheus with its predecessor Alien, Ridley Scott’s classic foray into space, but it’s clear from the pre-pub and the statements of the filmmakers that Scott was aiming to take down not just himself but also the champion of all-time by making a film that laid out humanity’s relationship with life in the universe and even God. He picked the fight and, here at the Smack, he will get it.
Prometheus is the film that all those seasons of Ancient Aliens are the set-up for. Researchers on Earth have discovered similar art work from pre-history, all pointing to a particular star system. Together they are, as the characters say, an “invitation.” Naturally, a group of scientists are recruited to meet up with the advanced intelligence that created human life on Earth, aliens called The Engineers.
The star-ship they go in, the Prometheus, is state-of-the-art all the way, so advanced they’ve even figured out how to give it gravity so the crew can walk about in flip-flops once they wake up from a two-year hibernation. They waste no time once they’ve had coffee in getting to the planet’s surface which happens to have a vast artificial structure which they race off like school kids to see, driving very cool-looking buses and rovers. Once inside, they find a lot of set-design inspired by Scott’s Alien film. Naturally, things are more than they seem and not in a good way. Mayhem ensues. We are not alone. Regrettably.
If you’re old enough to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out in theaters, you remember how it simply blew you away. Nothing like it had ever happened before in a movie theater. If you’ve seen it only as a piece of film curiosity, not all that different from, say, watching The Wizard of Oz these days, then you probably cannot relate to the extreme emotional connection it made with the vast majority of its audience. I did not see it when it first came out but when I did a few years later I was blown away.
Turning away from that aspect, however, the story is simple. A giant, “intelligently designed” monolith has been found on the moon. It is emitting a signal straight to Jupiter. A massive ship is constructed, crewed by two pilots, and sent to investigate. Along the way, these two men (who so underplay their roles you have to see it to believe it) begin to believe that somehow, the computer, an AI named “HAL,” is behaving strangely. Hal kills one of the pilots, and the other is forced to kill Hal in return. Then, in the last half-hour, ships, computers, and everything that came before goes out the space portal, and we enter into the “odyssey” part of the film that audiences have been debating now for four decades. I’m not sure I could entirely explain it now if I tried, but I sure as hell liked it and not just because the theater was full of smoke.
Forget those now multiple generations of stoned truth-seekers who have had their minds expanded by a late-night screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reputation only goes so far when a champion enters the ring with an opponent. Once the leather starts flying, even a champ can take a fall.
In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey wowed many by virtue of its special effects alone. Based on models and sets and not CGI, it created a world where space was cool, elegant, mysterious and a place where humankind was apt to get more than we bargained for. 44 years later, Prometheus is chock-full of modern-day special effects of its own but, as the Fox publicity proudly points out, the production consumed vast sound-stages of real sets of spacecraft and alien hideaways.
When 2001 was made in 1968 it looked like 2001 which means it still holds up nicely in the visual effects department. Not perfect, but certainly classic and wonderful. Scott’s direction of Prometheus is a mastery of design and probably does eclipse the champ in that area. It looks like the trillion bucks that the ship cost.
The characters of 2001 were as cool and detached as the space scenes were removed and insanely mind-blowing. The characters in Prometheus are as not cool and detached from each other at all. They get in each other’s faces, use bad language, and clearly whoever put this mission together at Weyland Industries made no effort whatsoever to do even a basic psychological profile to see how they might mesh as a team. The idea of other life in the universe, particularly one that may have created us, ought to bring people together in a sense of awe and wonder and curiosity. But these people have none of that. The robot, David, played by Michael Fassbender is probably the only one you really can warm up to and he’s an android. On the bright side, Ridley Scott has used the tools available to him to make a film that looks great. Sometimes exceptionally so.
The last director to aim for dethroning 2001 was Danny Boyle with his 2007 film Sunshine. It lost that Smackdown, but it was even on points, until the final rounds when Sunshine lost its way. In this match, Prometheus shows promise of having the goods, particularly when David is alone for two years and has to find a way from going android-shit crazy, something he accomplishes with basketball and repeat viewings of Lawrence of Arabia.
An unexpectedly large part of this Smack is the comparison of HAL versus David. Back in 1968, the idea of an AI going quietly insane and killing its crew was delicious and HAL was the best bad guy you could imagine. But he was a red light and a soft voice from a machine while David is simply a machine that looks human but knows he isn’t quite one and probably thinks that’s just fine, given the way these humans he’s been assigned to watch act around him. But he also seems to have an agenda that, like HAL’s, the human crew has not been made aware of. And,finally, there’s the obvious point that both HAL and David seem likely to be gay, if computers and androids can be.
There is absolutely no doubt that Prometheus looks beautiful at the beginning when it’s all 2089: A Space Odyssey and its space scenes are a match for those in 2001 (which — as we say — still stand up nicely). Ridley Scott always nails it. He has an eye and clearly demands perfection from the people who work for him and the studio that finances him. His goods always end up on the screen.
But these characters… that’s a cutting edge.
I know Ridley Scott fans will disagree, and probably strongly, but I just can’t get over this. The way the underlying structure of the mission is explained in Prometheus is lame. And it could tip the Smackdown.
Anyone who would spend a trillion dollars on a hot-shot spacecraft like Prometheus and send it out on the most important mission ever conceived with a crew of morons like this one, well, it just boggles the mind. People in this film simply do not behave rationally — not toward each other, not toward the mission, not at all. Most films can be forgiven a time or two when the characters veer off wrongly in order to accomplish a plot point, but the problem in Prometheus is chronic.
They arrive, wake up and instantly land without time to even scan the surface for a good landing zone. Once on the ground, even with daylight going and storms approaching, most of the crew races off without a plan in their space buggies, without even a bare moment of awe. One of them gets infected, tells no one and endangers everyone. They have no quarantine procedures in place at all. I could go on and on.
In the original Alien, you could forgive the squabbling because half of the crew was blue-collar working types forced to investigate this strange planet. In Prometheus, all of these people signed on willingly so the idea that they would be grousing complainers arguing with each other from the moment they re-gain consciousness after waking from suspended animation seems like the cliche choice of a bad action film. These are the best Earth has to offer? Nope. These are the now stock “at-odds, emotionally unstable” characters who spar while on the mission. That may work for the criminals of Ocean’s 11 fame, but this is a make-or-break mission beyond our solar system where the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Hell, this crew makes the oil drillers in Armageddon seem like such a better team for the job. And I’m clearly not arguing the characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey are all that satisfying, cold and tight-lipped as they are. However, everyone in 2001 more or less acts the way somebody in their position given the givens might act. You just can’t say the same of Prometheus.
There must be an untold story about why a film of this magnitude got made without fixing this. The crew mission demands group cohesion and these people have none. Zippo. Why? What went wrong in the process that this was relegated so far down the list of priorities?
So, despite its incredible promise and how pumped-up I was just to go to an early screening, Prometheus turns out to be the most disappointing film I’ve seen in years. I am so terribly awfully let down by what could have been the artistic reach of what it teased and has been squandered. To create a film where aliens can be brought to screen so realistically and to have them kill humans you don’t give a goddamn about because they act like idiots is a complete and total tragedy.
2001: A Space Odyssey may be an aging champion, one that is destined to lose sooner or later. But not today. And not to the bickering crew of Prometheus.