The Thing (1982)
The Alien films comprise one of the most famous and loved sci-fi franchises of them all, even though half or more of its installments (depending on how you count them) are mediocre. The only redeeming quality of Alien3 was its contribution to Alien lore, and Alien: Resurrection, though underrated, is still nowhere near the quality of the first two films. Then, if you actually want to consider the Alien vs. Predator films as part of the franchise, you’re really getting into some woeful territory. Now Ridley Scott, director of the film that started it all, returns with a prequel: Prometheus. While it is a welcome addition to the franchise that has struggled aesthetically over the past twenty years, it is not enough to return the ongoing tale to its original glory.
After two scientists discover cave drawings that suggest alien life visited us in some way tens of thousands of years ago, the Weyland Corporation funds an expedition to the star system suggested by the images. The scientists, Charlie Holloway and Elizabeth Shaw, believe the beings they are seeking somehow seeded the human race, and they thus hope to find answers to some philosophical and scientific questions on their trip. Weyland, on the other hand, is there for purely capitalistic reasons. Only a handful of crew members know precisely what those reasons are. When the team begins exploring a potentially life-sustaining moon, things begin to go deadly wrong, due both to the encountering of some dangerous life forms and some behind-the-scenes scheming.
The film sets itself up as an exploration of humanity and its origins, as Shaw and Holloway attempt to find and communicate with the aliens that may have created them. This aspect of the story plays out intriguingly throughout the film, even if there is not as much focus on it as many viewers likely would have wished. At one point the characters determine that they were pointed to this particular planet in order to be killed, which results in a state of remorse similar to what an unwanted child must feel. Of course, this makes the characters even more eager to discover the truth about their beginnings and their makers. The desperation they eventually face is moving because it reflects our own desire to understand who we are and why we exist. This is something to which we can all relate.
Despite establishing itself as a story about scientific and existential discovery, however, Prometheus spends most of its time delving into thriller sequences. Instead of philosophical pondering, we have arguments about procedure. Instead of observing beautiful phenomena, we watch characters try to survive alien attacks. It should be noted that there is no inherent superiority to be found in thought as opposed to thrills, and indeed the original Alien films were primarily successful in that they were so horrifying. In Prometheus, likewise, many of the thriller sequences are intense and even harrowing (especially when a robotic surgery chamber comes into play). However, the first films in the franchise did not set themselves up to be journeys of self-discovery, whereas this one does. There is nothing wrong with the fact that Prometheus is ultimately a thriller. However, I feel it would have been even better if it had picked one strategy and gone all-out, rather than switch between seventy percent of one (thriller) and thirty percent of the other (existential drama).
Oddly, while Scott’s Alien was largely driven by its claustrophobic atmosphere, there is hardly any atmosphere to be felt in Prometheus. As opposed to his original film, spacesuits are shiny, the ship is uncluttered, creatures are fully visible, and most environments (even underground) are sufficiently lit. Instead of trying to instill horror, claustrophobia, or some other feeling, the camera angles, lighting, and set design are all geared toward emphasizing the thriller- and action-oriented aspects of the film. Given that Prometheus turned out to be a thriller, I suppose this is fine. Still, I wonder whether the film would have been more interesting if imbued with an atmosphere that emphasizes the characters’ feelings of being lost in life and the universe.
Prometheus is not a bad movie at all. In fact, it is consistently successful in its attempts to place us in tense visceral situations. However, I just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been much more, nor can I ignore the wish that it was something slightly different. In an age where we’re inundated with alien-based action sci-fi, the more atmospheric or contemplative films are the ones that stand out. Apparently Scott is just not interested in making that kind of work right now. Still, I have to say that it’s good enough, and--though this may be a ridiculous thing to admit--I wouldn’t be surprised if, years from now, it turned out similar to Blade Runner, which at its time was passed off as nothing special but was eventually rediscovered as a masterpiece. Is there something brilliant hiding beneath the surface of Prometheus? Despite my misgivings with the final product, I have to admit: I wouldn’t mind watching it a few more times to try to find out.