Last Saturday, I spent my morning on the couch with a debilitating migraine, wondering what karmic injustice I’d committed in order to deserve being so miserable on my weekend off. But like the glass-half-full seeker of silver linings that I am, I whipped out the Prometheus 4-Disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray I’d gotten as a gift this past Christmas, and set to work watching . . . well, all of the included special features. Something like seven hours’ worth of making-of documentaries, featurettes, and commentaries.
I’m left feeling — even after a week’s worth of reflection — that those hours were not, in fact, ill-spent. Even after almost a year since the film’s theatrical release, I can’t help but maintain that Ridley Scott’s science-fictional reprise is, if flawed, also criminally underappreciated.
For my money, science fiction is little more than fantasy with an eye toward the future.
That’s why it’s so tremendously important in our culture, despite the various stigmas that still cling to its otherworldly exterior: it’s a myth for tomorrow. Quite often the difference between so-called “soft” and “hard” science fiction seems to be the difference between who’s willing to admit they’re faking it and who’s not.
That’s not to say there’s no value in scientific rigor within the literature of science fiction — just that the air of intellectual elitism on the part of certain hard SF advocates is a tad misplaced in its priorities, I’d argue.
In the realm of fantasy, set pieces like magic spells and secondary-world kingdoms, hobgoblins and dragons, are utterly taken for granted. The standard by which a fantasy novel’s judged is not the scope of known scientific fact but rather the degree to which the author crafts a sense of verisimilitude; it’s about not breaking the story’s individual “rules,” and just generally smoothing out the edges.
But what makes Prometheus worth a second look, in my opinion, is the way it comes together as a cohesive thematic and aesthetic whole after repeated viewings, and especially after you’ve seen the amount of work that went into crafting the audiovisual experience of the film’s faraway world.
Sure, the script is broken. The characters aren’t particularly believable a good deal of the time; Scott made a handful of decidedly bad calls in the editing room, like keeping Fifield’s transformation subtle rather than super-scary and cutting down on the final confrontation with the surviving Engineer; and the “purpose” behind much of the alien biology throughout the film has been diluted, likely as a result of Fox having too many hands in the pot: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof . . . not to mention Scott’s own colossal ego.
According to what we’re shown in the pre-production and storytelling portions of the special features, the film began life as a straight-up prequel titled Alien: Genesis, which Spaihts wrote with a handful of broad suggestions from Scott. From this, the idea of the Space Jockey as the seeders of sentient life on Earth — even the specific term “Engineers” — emerged as a dominant plot concern for the film.
For practical reasons as well as philosophic ones, apparently, the Space Jockey was given an all-too-human face beneath its alien exoskeleton. And as a result, we’re led to question the motivations and history behind the biological weaponry that wreaks such unholy havoc on the crew of the Prometheus.
So of course there’s an element of disappointment, of being ultimately underwhelmed, in pretty much every review of the film you read. People want to understand everything; it’s why we have the literature of SF.
That’s why Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey, while considered by many to be the greatest science-fiction motion picture of all time, still feels inferior alongside its companion novelization by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke, who offers more explicit gestures toward the monoliths’ intended purpose, as well as painting a very striking portrait of their alien creators in the space of a few paragraphs.
If we’re being far-sighted in our assessment, however, it’s worth noting that Blade Runner was upon in its initial release a massive financial flop, earning at the box office merely half its budget; and yet Scott reputedly regards the film as his most personal, most artful achievement — especially if we’re narrowing the sample to only his science fiction pictures. And its popularity as both a cult classic and filmmaking achievement continues to grow with every passing decade.
Scott mentions in the Blu-ray commentary that he intends to direct a sequel, which news and fan sites have referred to as Paradise (one of the post-Alien: Genesis working titles for Prometheus, if I recall correctly). This leads me to another key point: Without the context of a larger implied universe, without a sequel or two to bring closure about the Engineers’ true goals and beliefs, Prometheus will always feel like a promise unfulfilled.
Imagine, for a moment, if George Lucas’s 1977 version of Star Wars had earned little money in its first theatrical run. Would Darth Vader be the chilling, mythic character we see him as today if he hadn’t shone so brightly at the undeniable height of his complexity in The Empire Strikes Back? And furthermore, would the first Star Wars film feel like such a “classic” without the benefit of retrospect and its implications for the later, arguably more interesting installments in the trilogy? I’m not so sure.
Take the so-called Special Edition scene in Scott’s Alien (’79), for instance: We glimpse the goopy, horrific hive-making habits of the Xenomorph on display with Captain Dallas strung up, helpless and begging for a merciful death courtesy of Lieutenant Ripley’s flamethrower — but this scene is unnecessary and meaningless without the larger context provided by Cameron’s highly competent sequel, Aliens (’86).
Blade Runner got away without the sequel treatment for so many years, sure, but that’s because it feels so utterly complete. The ending — Scott’s Director’s Cut ending, in particular — is poignant, puzzling, and appropriate. The script ignored elements of Dick’s novel, like Mercerism, World War Terminus, and the titular electric sheep . . . so we’re left with a film that fulfills every inch of its promise, and reveals something poetic and unexpected each time we revisit it. It’s a compelling visual story, for one, but it’s also thematically timeless.
Don’t you think Prometheus will be a hell of a lot better once some of these quibbles get explained? A director’s cut release is all but inevitable.
It would have been nice, I think, to see a younger Guy Pierce living out his wildest fantasies at age ninety-six, granted eternal youth through the interplay between cryonics and Scott’s notion of “cyber-sleep,” which didn’t ultimately make it into the film. It would have been perhaps more satisfying to know the purpose of the Engineers’ light-years-spanning biochemical warfare campaign, and the role Earth was to play in all of that mess. . . .
Still. The original Alien, for all its dramatic brilliance and classic atmosphere, got away with its fair share of hand-waving. Blade Runner went underrated for years. Given enough time, I foresee that Prometheus will stand alongside some of the great works of SF cinema as a troubling but artful achievement in the realm of cosmic nightmares.