There are a lot of things I like about online fandom, but one of its traits that gives me pause is the speed with which it forms an overwhelming, inescapable consensus about certain pop culture artifacts. Not to keep beating a much-too-lively horse, but this strikes me as a much bigger problem than the dreaded spoiler. It's one thing to know what's going to happen in a movie, but quite another to know how you're expected to react to those events--to know that The Avengers has been judged the greatest thing since sliced bread, or that Prometheus, Ridley Scott's prequel-but-not-really-but-actually-yes to Alien, is generally reviled. Which is not to say that I disagree with the fannish consensus about Prometheus, which is indeed a terrible, terrible film. But I am a bit troubled by the fact that when I settled into my seat at the movie theater on Saturday, a mere week after Prometheus's release and without having gone to great lengths to take the temperature of fandom regarding it, I already had no expectation of enjoying it. Instead, the question foremost in my mind was, what could possibly be so bad about this movie to justify not just disappointment or negativity, but the palpable sense of outrage that has tinged the conversation surrounding the film?
Having watched the film, I'm not sure I'm much closer to an answer. Again, I think Prometheus is a terrible, terrible film--messily plotted, peopled with unpleasant characters whose decisions one can only explain through a catastrophic combination of idiocy, lack of professionalism, and sociopathic tendencies, and littered with half a dozen themes, character arcs, and throughlines, none of which come to any sort of fruition, and most of which work at cross-purposes to one another. Plus, there are hardly any scary bits, and no action scenes to speak of. I'm just not sure that it's quite so terrible as to justify the opprobrium that has been heaped upon it, to the extent that I'm wondering if there isn't a reverse Avengers affect in play. I liked The Avengers, but couldn't quite understand why it aroused such extreme love in large portions of fandom, and by the same token I'm having trouble understanding why Prometheus, terrible as it is, is the subject of so much outrage. Were people expecting great things from Ridley Scott? The man hasn't directed a truly excellent film since Blade Runner. Are fans upset at the damage that Prometheus does to the Alien franchise? You'd think that a fandom that has managed to reason away of existence both of the Alien vs. Predator movies, Alien: Resurrection, and, in the case of certain purists, Alien3, would have no trouble doing the same to this movie. I can see how science fiction fans, in particular, would be upset at Prometheus's anti-science, anti-evolution bent--the titular ship embarks on its ill-fated journey to the alien moon LV-223 because our heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), believes it to be the home of aliens whom she has dubbed The Engineers, who created the human race. When it's pointed out to her that she hasn't got a shred of scientific proof for this theory, Shaw simply replies that it's what she chooses to believe. Not a very compelling audience identification figure for science fiction fans, then, especially as in her zeal to prove her theory--which is explicitly likened, on several occasions, to religious fervor, not least in the way that several characters restate Shaw's mission as the quest to meet her makers--Shaw smugly ignores every common-sense safety precaution and research protocol, and plays a substantial part in bringing about the disaster that kills almost all of the Prometheus's crew (in fairness, Shaw is matched for recklessness and lack of professionalism by pretty much every other character in the movie, but she's the one we're meant to identify with).
On the other hand, science fiction film and TV have been moving away from scientific rationalism and towards a vague sort of deism for the better part of a decade, and Prometheus's writer, Damon Lindelof, was one of the standard bearers of that movement in his work on Lost, so it can hardly come as a surprise that Prometheus continues that trend, especially as the film's trailers all but laid out its Von Däniken-inspired plot. So while I can see how fans might be disappointed by the film's anti-science stance--which is anyway somewhat ameliorated by the revelation that though Shaw is right about the Engineers, they are far from benevolent parents, and in fact created the organism that would go on to evolve into the original films' Alien in order to unleash it on Earth and destroy their creations--I'm not sure that it on its own justifies the vehemence of the negative reaction the film has received.
But that, I think, is a clue to the answer I'm looking for. Taken on their own, none of Prometheus's flaws, serious as they are, justify the revulsion it's elicited, but taken together? Just about the only thing that works in the film are its visuals, which combine H.R. Giger's by-now iconic and still wonderfully creepy designs for the alien ship with CGI and some clever interface design, creating an environment that is both lived-in and foreign, and culminating in one of the film's two truly successful scenes, in which the android David (Michael Fassbender), activates the control room on the alien ship that Prometheus finds, and becomes the focal point of a symphony of holographic astronavigation information. If you take just about any other approach to the film, though, you'll fall flat. Want to learn where the Aliens came from? Prometheus does contain answers, some silly--the elephant-like head of the alien in the control chair in the original film turns out to have been a helmet concealing a humanoid face, which no one on the Nostromo noticed--and some interesting--after four films in which the Weyland-Yutani Corporation repeatedly tries to get its hands on the Aliens in order to use them as weapons, it's darkly funny to discover that the Engineers created them for precisely the same reason (and it's somewhat to the film's credit that we don't find out the Engineers' reason for wanting us dead is that humanity is just so awful, an infuriatingly supercilious conclusion that too many science fiction stories are happy to plump for--though it seems that Scott's original vision may have included this wrinkle, and that the film can still be read as saying this)--but there's a gap between the film's ending and Alien's beginning that seems hard to bridge, and also unnecessary. Want to find the answer to Shaw's questions about the origin of the human race? The film leaves them, and her subsequent desire to know why the Engineers decided to destroy humanity, completely unresolved. (There's a strong sense that Prometheus's ending is intended to tease a sequel, but given the film's catastrophic box office results that is now mercifully unlikely.)
The film's themes fare no better. Want to find out more about David, whose nature the film repeatedly puzzles over even as it shows him alternately saving the crew's lives and endangering them, for no reason in either case? These contradictory actions, and David's own expressions of mingled fascination and revulsion towards humanity, never cohere into a comprehensible character, and David's motivations, sanity, and personality remain opaque all the way to the credits, in no small part because after playing a major, plot-advancing role in the film's first two acts, he is unceremoniously sidelined for its denouement. Want some more development of the previous films' themes of gender and sex? For the most part, Prometheus leaves this aspect of the franchise alone. The Engineers are all male, but nothing is made of this, and though the film's mid-segment seems suddenly to remember that pregnancy, motherhood, and the appropriation of both by a masculine power structure are important themes in the franchise, its handling of them is at once over the top and perfunctory--no sooner have we learned that Shaw is infertile than she turns out to be pregnant with a proto-alien and is sedated by David (who was creepily sort-of lusting after her in the film's early scenes), then breaks free and seeks her own solution to the problem. This leads to the film's other truly successful scene, in which a naked Shaw locks herself in an auto-surgery unit and watches, fully conscious, as she is cut open and the proto-alien is removed from her body, and then must escape from the unit as it hisses, spits, and tries to capture her. As effective as this scene is, however, it's also terribly broad, taking an already not very subtle theme and intensifying it to the point that it seems almost like self-parody (the same is true of a later scene in which the last surviving Engineer is vanquished by Shaw's now fully-grown "baby"--his death is so blatantly meant to recall sex, or rape, that the power of the correlation is complete denuded). More importantly, it's an interlude that seems almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the film, to the extent that when a bloody and traumatized Shaw wanders into an inhabited part of the ship, she's met only with puzzled stares, because everyone else has been going about their business and hadn't even realized that something bad was happening to her.
In other words, pretty much everyone who watches Prometheus will find something about it that they dislike intensely, to the point that it ruins the film for them, and when those individual dislikes are fed into each other in fandom's crucible, the result is a critical mass of hate. For me, Prometheus's core flaw is the way that the film's self-conscious and over-obvious attempts to recall Alien keep running up--and even playing up--Lindelof's obvious incomprehension of what made Alien work. Prometheus opens on the image of a ship in space, and with an opening crawl that introduces that ship and its complement, and ends with the recorded message of that ship's sole survivor, an almost word-for-word recreation of Ripley's final message from Alien. It has a female lead, and a menacing android character. There is a scene in which a character refuses to let crewmembers aboard the ship because one of them is infected with an alien pathogen, and a false bottom ending in which our heroine arrives at the seeming safety of an escape pod only to find an Alien waiting there for her. But everything is backwards, reversing what was interesting and appealing about the original film. Shaw, as I've already said, is an unappealing character, absorbed with her quest to the exclusion of almost all other considerations until the awfulness of what she's discovered become inescapable (in other words, until it kills her boyfriend and impregnates her). She seems more like Aliens's Burke than a Ripley. The character who tries to stop the infected person from coming aboard is actually the one signposted throughout most of the film as a villain--Weyland Corporation's on-board representative, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Despite which, she is the closest the film comes to a Riply character, being the only member of the crew to reject the fool's errand that her company has embarked upon, and hoping--as Ripley does in Aliens--that the expedition will be for naught. Vickers is no heroine--she's infected with the same stupidity as the rest of the cast, and is in addition selfish and craven, lacking Ripley's compassion and moral authority (for those traits, we turn to Idris Elba's Captain Janek, who would be a shoe-in for the film's Ripley if he weren't even stupider than Shaw, massively underserved by the plot, and also a man)--but she's the only one with enough common sense to keep the infection off the ship (later, when she's off the bridge, Janek simply lets an infected--and, as he should well know, long dead--crewman on board, which dooms most of the crew) and the only one who distrusts David from the start, which makes her the easiest character in the film to sympathize with. Unfortunately, the film ends by dropping a house--or rather a spaceship--on Vickers's head, as if to make it clear which of its final girls we're meant to root for.
Perhaps what's most annoying about the way that Prometheus misapprehends Alien is the use it makes of the Weyland Corporation. In the Alien films, Weyland-Yutani was more of a villain than the Alien. As Genevieve Valentine explains in her recent, excellent essay, the franchise begins because the corporation has embedded, deep within the computers of all its ships, a directive that declares its employees expendable in the face of the opportunity to capture an Alien specimen. The fact that she is expendable is what dogs and dooms Ripley--and her crewmates, and the colonists of LV-426, and the marines who accompany Ripley there, and the prisoners on Fiorina 161--not the Alien, and even more than it, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is faceless, inhuman, and ultimately unbeatable (there will always be more corporate officers, after all--you feed a Burke to the Alien, and a Bishop turns up to replace him). In Prometheus, Weyland's impersonal, coldly calculating nature is replaced with a boatload of daddy issues. The mission to LV-223 is a spiritual quest that the fiscal-minded Vickers considers a waste of time and manpower, and as we discover around the film's midpoint, its actual purpose is to bring the dying Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce under a ton of old age makeup) to beg for immortality from the Engineers. Vickers, who turns out to be Weyland's daughter, and David, who calls Weyland "father," are both desperate for his approval and for the freedom that his death will grant them, which echoes in both the film's title and the discovery that humanity's parents have turned upon it and must be murdered lest they murder us. As overheated as this theme is, what makes it even worse is how completely it defangs the franchise's most terrifying villain.
The story we've been told about Prometheus's inception is that it was originally envisioned as a prequel to Alien, then spun off into its own story, and then brought back to the franchise, but to me it feels that the truth must be the other way around--that the film was first an original story, and only then folded, rather inexpertly, into the Alien franchise, the joints and fittings still showing quite clearly. Maybe that's why, despite its too-obvious echoing of the original film, Prometheus feels less like an homage to Alien, and more like a dark retelling of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The imagery of the film's opening scene--a shot of the Earth illuminated from behind by the sun--recalls 2001 so strongly that it is almost unnecessary to go on and see an Engineer kill himself--and possibly jump-start human evolution--at some distant point in our past. David even makes more sense as HAL in android form--unlike Alien's Ash he, after all, has no directive to cause mayhem, but does so for his own inscrutable, perhaps insane reasons. And, of course, the film's preoccupation with meeting aliens who uplifted humanity and learning their purpose for us echos with 2001 and 2010. Unfortunately, reading Prometheus as a twisted retelling of 2001 is just as unsatisfying an approach as any other we might take towards the film. The revelation that our alien parents are villains is trite, and tritely handled, and despite a few exceptions like David's scene in the control room (and despite the soundtrack breaking out the classical music at the slightest provocation) Prometheus doesn't even approach 2001's immersive audio-visual majesty. Prometheus may not be the worst movie ever, and may not deserve the intensity of the scorn heaped upon it by fandom, but it is a waste--of money, talent, and not one but two iconic science fiction film franchises. That, maybe, is something worth getting worked up over.