(There are kind of spoilers here, but I’m pretty sure everyone who’d be worried about such things has already seen the movie.)
The movie Alien could have been a pretty pedestrian affair. Being just a monster movie set in space, there was no reason to expect too much from it. But it transcended those humble beginnings by doing a lot of things right. First, it focused on the characters. There’s a very slow build-up in the movie, time in which we meet these people and see them going about their daily lives. They’re regular folks, out working a lousy job straight for the paycheck. Second, the movie focused on the word “alien”. Not only do they keep views of the monster sparse, it and the elements associated with it are not explained. The alien ship, the “space jockey”, the creature’s weird life-cycle, all of them are solid, towering mysteries which the main characters simply don’t care about — it’s above their pay grade, they don’t want to be there in the first place, and eventually they’re just worrying about surviving. (It’s telling that there’s still, thirty years later, no name for the creature from this movie other than “the Alien”. It is the avatar of alien-ness.) Third, The art design reinforces all this. The alien and its point of origin don’t look like anything familiar. The space jockey is baffling as it’s unclear where the living being ends and the machine it’s seated at begins. These elements all combine to take a by-the-numbers monster movie and elevate it to a classic.
Many lesser, mostly unforgotten, movies tried to ape Alien‘s success, and while they tried to focus on (2) and (3) above, they usually forgot (1). The most blatant example I recall of this was 1989′s Leviathan, which I paid money for and wanted to walk out of. The premise of that movie is, “What if Alien took place underwater and also you didn’t give a shit about any of the characters?” Well, now there’s a new entry in this ignoble ledger, and it’s unfortunate to have to say so.
I went ahead and saw Prometheus this weekend, despite my suspicions that it was not for me. Sad to say, those suspicions were correct. It looks gorgeous. It had a nice fat budget and a great cast. It even has a good character and performance in Michael Fassbender’s David. But when the closing credits rolled, I hadn’t seen another Alien, I’d seen another Leviathan.
Not only are most of the characters disposable cardboard cutouts, the ones who rise above that are — and I’m being generous here — the stupidest people ever shot into space. I can only assume that the director’s cut of this movie features every single named character walking into a door frame at some point. Charlize Theron’s character (one of the few to show traces of rudimentary intelligence) claims that a trillion dollars was raised by Weyland to finance this trip; I can only assume that in the year 2089 a trillion dollars is not that much money. They certainly didn’t hire the best and the brightest.
These people, supposedly trained scientists and researchers, do not take even the most basic of precautions upon setting down on an unknown world. I’m not talking about things I would expect professionals to do, I’m talking about things I would do, and I’m something of an amateur when it comes to exploring alien planets. When faced with not only the unknown but piles of corpses of the unknown, they show no concern, even taking off their helmets because the only reason you wear a helmet in an unknown environment is that you might not be able to breathe. When they discover living, bubbling, hissing black goo, they do everything short of see what it tastes like instead of showing the slightest concern for their own safety. I can imagine Peter Weyland instructing David on developing this expedition: “I want you to check out this possible extraterrestrial life form. But wait — see if you can assemble the crew from the stupidest motherfuckers imaginable.”
I guess some people complained that they didn’t understand the plot. When they said that, I don’t think they meant, “I couldn’t follow what was happening” but more, “What was happening made no sense.” The plot isn’t hard to follow, and the characters helpfully tell you everything along the way. (There’s a great scene when the ship’s captain, who’s been given the full Star Trek: The Next Generation character package — race, musical instrument, secret crush — pretty much out of the blue describes exactly what is happening, not because there’s any particular reason he or anyone else should have figured it out but because someone needs to say it, I suppose.) What people are complaining about is that the actions don’t make sense as things adult people who can feed themselves would do. This is a movie which, before it worries about passing the Bechdel Test, needs to worry about passing a Turing Test.
Since these characters don’t have names we know, don’t have any personality to speak of, and don’t have the sense to come in out of the storm of flying glass, it’s impossible to give even the most charitable of damns about them once everything goes south, largely because they have driven everything south themselves at breakneck speed without wearing seatbelts. They don’t stumble into doom so much as just plain stumble, on a planet where doom happens to already be.
In addition to this, there also comes the overarching mystery of the story. The “Engineers”, once known for being unlike us, are, it turns out, exactly like us (except for being 11 feet tall, preternaturally strong, and blue, none of which is apparently coded into DNA). The big mystery turns out to be equal parts by-the-numbers (meddled in God’s domain, science got away from them, blah blah) and unfathomable (they direct us to go to a military research lab, get pissed off when we get there, and then take off to cluster bomb Earth). One could argue that their motivations remain true to being “alien” since they don’t make any sense, but I wasn’t really looking to trade the space jockey for Mork from Ork.
Finally, despite looking fantastic, the movie is just so clumsily done. The characters are underdeveloped, nearly everything is telegraphed, stuff happens just for the sake of stuff happening, and nothing seems particularly thought out. It feels like a draft of a script, not a final one. Other than David and the visuals, there’s a fair amount of shrugs and half-assery on display. (At one point Theron’s character says they’re half a billion miles from Earth. That doesn’t put them outside the solar system. That’s the level of work we’re looking at here.)
Ultimately I didn’t feel like I saw a prequel to Alien, but yet another rip-off of it. In this case, since it was Ridley Scott (who it’s fair to say I’m not a fan of) it could actually use some of the Alien elements, but to no good purpose. It’s still just a bunch of people running around from a CGI peril and who cares which of them make it out alive. It not only doesn’t add anything to Alien, it potentially subtracts from it. Even if you approach it as a stand-alone movie it’s still not that great; the weak, stupid characters and hamfisted plot remain.
I guess, though, I’m dumber than the characters. They seemed to have no self-preservation instinct whatsoever. I ignored mine.