For filmgoers frustrated with a visionary filmmaker whose films’ quality provided diminishing returns as he became ever more prolific, Prometheus was anticipated as a welcome return to form. For those hungry for R-rated, thinking person’s science fiction, Prometheus provided a welcome respite from a summer promising mostly routine franchise continuations. For those who see the 1970s and 1980s as the height of modern Hollywood filmmaking, Prometheus promised a homecoming for a type of blockbuster that was long thought to be dead. Prometheus even beat out The Dark Knight Rises as the most anticipated summer film of 2012 on this very site.
But then the reviews came in. And thus began the qualifying, criticizing, parsing out, hyperbolizing, dissecting, backlashing, and disappointed exhaling. There were many responses to Prometheus, but very few of them were the songs of praise that a film this hotly anticipated – and highly desired – by all means should have satisfyingly warranted.
Part of this disappointment is no doubt due to the film’s effective marketing, which released a barnburner of a trailer which promised sustained terror, and created one of the most compelling viral campaigns to come out of a Hollywood studio (the David long-form ad, which Ridley Scott’s son reportedly directed, suggests an entirely different type of sci-fi aesthetic and deals with many of the film’s same issues rather elegantly in under three minutes).
But the massive anticipation for and buzz that accompanied Prometheus seemed to be tapping into something else as well that genre fans have long been deprived of. In the past few years, interesting (if far from great) science-fiction films like Duncan Jones’s Moon and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine have been relegated to limited release while action film franchises ranging from Transformers to The Avengers (which, technically, incorporate subjects such as space and aliens) to whatever Cowboys & Aliens was pass as the closest thing that wide-release cinema comes to affirming science-fiction’s central subjects, except without fresh ideas or an earnest sense of wonder. It’s clear that we were hungry.
The Legacy of Alien
Prometheus was not a simple prequel or franchise re-launch. In other words, it wasn’t set up to simply be a continuation of Alien, either narratively or in terms of what we expect based on the film that first made Ridley Scott’s name. While Alien by all means deserves its prominent place in the history of the genre, that film’s legacy has grown far more expansive that the 1979 film alone. And the problem with Prometheus (and what was perhaps what inspired such intense anticipation) was the film seemed hell bent on rekindling Alien’s legacy, prominence, reputation, and all of the associations that the genre classic brings up rather than simply Alien itself.
On the one hand, Prometheus delivers all the anticipated beats of Alien (and some from Aliens). The film contains an ostensibly Ripleyesque final girl, a robot that will inevitably show its man-made innards, and a ragtag group of scientists, capitalists, and crew members. On the other hand, Prometheus overtly addresses questions about the origins of humanity’s existence and man’s reasons for being. As John Gholson astutely pointed out in his comparison of critical reactions to the existential conundrums raised both by Prometheus and Scott’s other sci-fi classic Blade Runner, such questions fit within the genre universe constructed by Scott, but not specifically with Alien itself.
As Scott himself states in his DVD commentary, Alien was intended as little more than a sleek, polished exercise in genre: Jaws in space, but with the artistry of 2001. Scott’s horror/sci-fi hybrid is still celebrated today because it works so damn well as both an exercise in genre and in its assured aesthetic presentation. After over thirty years, Alien is still visually stunning, tonally intoxicating, and scary as hell. Alien is masterful filmmaking, but it’s not (at least, not decidedly) a thinkpiece; it doesn’t beg the same questions as Prometheus or Blade Runner. This is not to say that depth cannot be read into the original Alien, or that the fact that the film is “only” a genre exercise somehow reduces its value – as Slate recently illustrated, something of an intellectual tradition has developed from the franchise.
Even outside of the poetry and rumination of Scott’s 1982 non-Alien-related science-fiction classic, the post-Scott Alien franchise developed a tradition of cultural, if not philosophical, commentary. James Cameron’s Aliens indulged in much of the allegory that science-fiction often provides a potent framework for: the relationship between the automaton Bishop and the all-too-human Ripley elicits a discussion of identity politics and prejudice, Ripley herself is portrayed as a feminist heroine even more strongly than in the first film, and Aliens’s action movie hook – while on the surface resembling the excessive and meat-headed Schwarzenegger/Stallone films of the 80s – is used as a Vietnam allegory that counters the nationalist ideology expressed in most 80s action films. Similarly, David Fincher’s ill-fated Alien 3 was originally envisioned as an ideological battle between corporate and socialist politics.
With four visionary directors making each of the individual Ripley films, various types of genre experimentation toyed with throughout, and the fact that this franchise created half the impetus for two Alien v. Predator films, the legacy of Alien has become incredibly diverse, attending to an incredible variety of topics and addressing high culture, low culture, and everything in between.
What is Prometheus?
In attempting to channel the legacy of Alien as well as Scott’s reputation within the sci-fi genre, and at the same time endeavoring to distinguish itself, Prometheus appears to contort in a state of identity crisis that perhaps all-too-accurately reflects to multifaceted and even contradictory nature of the cinematic history it’s attempting to emulate.
All the components of Prometheus are familiar enough to be exciting, and the film at the same time manages to promise something new. But in attempting to balance not only the new with the old, but some facets of the old with other facets of the old, Prometheus doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. For example, the seemingly tacked-on revelation of the nascent xenomorph in the film’s final moments (after a rather elegant if forced dénoumant) illustrates this tension Prometheus experiences in attempting to simultaneously be an autonomous film, tap into a beloved franchise, and deliver on the many associations with that franchise and its director.
Prometheus is a film that certainly has its virtues. Besides perhaps that other movie starring someone who looks just like Tom Hardy, you’re not likely to see a more visually striking studio release this year. For someone who was far from a fan of Robin Hood, Prometheus for me restored the notion of Ridley Scott as artist – aesthetically at least, if no longer as a master of genre. And I’d rather see a movie come up short attempting something interesting than not attempt anything interesting at all. But Alien was a straightforward genre exercise. It does not overtly pose existential questions of Prometheus, yet somehow it’s the latter that feels “simple.”
Unfortunately, Prometheus proves Hollywood can’t go back home again. Since Alien (hell, since Aliens), summer blockbusters have changed a great deal. Prometheus could not be a standalone film in a system now beholden to franchises. Prometheus could not simply portray terrifying aliens encountering humans in a claustrophobic space; it had to develop an ambitious narrative universe that ultimately proved unsustainable. The footage Scott shot was not sufficient enough to advertise the film for what it was; viral marketing had to expand the world of the movie which, ironically, proved so effective that it ended up reducing the very film it promoted. Prometheus wants to channel Alien, but at the same time treats Alien as insufficient. It’s as if a single, solitary, ‘simple’ movie isn’t enough anymore.
But while Hollywood stumbles in the arena of science fiction, independent and arthouse filmmaking has clearly taken up the reigns. Films like Melancholia, Another Earth, Beyond the Black Rainbow (which invokes the same era as Alien to remarkably different effect), and even the comedy Safety Not Guaranteed are attempting to mine previously underutilized areas for the genre. While Hollywood wants to benefit from sci-fi’s past without investing in it, the actual future of a futurist genre lies in the margins.