The cinema has always done hostility better than history. Perhaps that is a characteristic it shares with most of us. So, 33 years ago, the spaceship Nostromo was a beaten-up heap ready to be retired, but the engine of its story and the stealthy uncovering of its ultimate confrontation of raw hostility and Sigourney Weaver in her underwear might have been handled by a trio of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Ben Hecht (the latter a pro screenwriter, the first two theorists on larger matters of story). That was Alien (1979), made by Ridley Scott before his knighthood and “maturity,” when he trusted menace and dread to leave their own sticky residue in our minds. This was long before the inane pomposity of Prometheus, and its attempt to kid itself, as well as us, that we care a hoot about the obscure origin of our “stuff.” It’s our terminal finale that grips us these days, and which responds to a metaphor and a monster that waits for us to scream so it can scuttle into our open mouths.
Alien was a generation ago, and the first four films in the series were one and a half pictures too many. When David Fincher (whose dislike of people—even his own characters—puts him close to the alien category) killed off Ellen Ripley, we were suffering one of the great follies in space adventure. But does the film business, and Twentieth Century Fox, really believe the past has been wiped clean? When we see the severed head and torn wiring of android David (Michael Fassbender) lying on the ground, still talking and thinking, does Fox reckon our cultural history has no file for Lance Henriksen in the same posture in Aliens—but so much braver and more poignant? How can Prometheus ruminate on cave paintings and the origins of man if it doesn’t remember 30 years ago?
The falling off is apparent at the outset. Burrowing through deep space, the Prometheus is a steroid Lego construction beyond any child’s dreams, whereas the Nostromo was a weary trampship such as Joseph Conrad might have known. But the crew on this latest trip is a greater letdown: idealistic scientist, Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace—the Swedish Lisbeth Salander), an African American skipper named Janek, a bunch of guys you can hardly tell apart, Fassbender’s android, and “Meredith Vickers,” the business leader on this new mission. She is Charlize Theron in gray bodysuits and repressed sexuality (Vickers could have a stateroom cabin filled with pornography). The warning may be halfway witty: that in the future, space crews will be anonymous compared with the rag-tag weirdness that was Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, and Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Listening to those oddballs was a delight and a clear lesson that space travel entailed ships as doomed by human vagary as the Caine or the Bounty. Have we forgotten? Ships and voyages need character actors, and character.
When landing comes and we get to see an immense sepulcher on some desolate planet, the design work is impressive, but it all comes from H.R. Giger and the previous films, except that it’s more expensive and more imaginatively numb. Eventually we get to see the monster itself, the prototype with the hammer-head and the double-barreled jaws, and this critic felt not dread but the surge of delighted reunion that occurred when John Travolta started to dance in Pulp Fiction.
You see, Prometheus is scary only in the sum of instincts and talent for movie-making that have been lost. There is a set-piece where the Noomi Rapace character discovers she is pregnant and has to do her own abortion (is this a prophecy?). In The New York Times, A.O. Scott spoke of this scene playing to a “stunned, appalled, almost reverent silence.” Maybe that was a critics’ screening. When I saw it, the audience was laughing at the absurdity of the procedure, all the way to when Rapace closes her mighty incision with a heavy-duty staple gun. The same suggestion that Ripley had been impregnated by the monster was so much more touching and upsetting in Alien 3. Noomi Rapace is no Sigourney Weaver, and the original big step for feminism has been abandoned in this film. We don’t even have the realization of the first films that the monster was a bitch and a mother.
Prometheus has been written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. David Giler and Walter Hill (the original writers, along with Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett) are remembered now among the “producers” and they must be groaning as they see the travesty that the kids have made of their classic. Are there any fresh virtues? Well, you will not be surprised that Fassbender is droll and dry as an android. But he never lays a glove on Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, or challenges the disquiet of Ian Holm’s Ash in Alien. Theron looks awesome (what is new?) and she might just as well be wearing her more exotic costume from Snow White and the Huntsman—“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the loveliest fascist of them all”—but she has not nearly enough to do. There is also Guy Pearce, swathed in ancient-man makeup as the industrial mastermind Weyland, who owns the space ship and its journey. (Am I dreaming or was there not an early trailer in which Pearce was a much younger man?)
Which brings us to Sir Ridley Scott, so esteemed now at 74, and so commercially viable that he can claim “Scott Free Productions.” But this picture manages to be both pretentious and unscary. Scott is one of the last people who has made exciting and creative films within a mainstream commercial framework—The Duellists (his debut), Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, White Squall, and as recently as Black Hawk Down. He has also had his share of silly pictures (G.I. Jane, Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, Body of Lies). This is not just one of the silliest and emptiest. It insults his own earlier classic and the audience that rose to its frightening ambition. In a nutshell, this film opts for a hollow new score (by Marc Streitenfeld) and has forgotten the haunting (and pirated) Second Symphony by Howard Hanson (first performed in 1930) that did so much to distinguish Alien and conjure up the loneliness of space and human vanity.
Does “Scott Free” imply liberty, or the absence of character?
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.