[11 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There was never going to be consensus. The property was too prickly (and old) to guarantee an aesthetic group hug. But with most of the reviews in and an aggregate standing of 74% at Rotten Tomatoes (and a supposedly more ‘accurate’ 64% at Metacritic), it is clear that some element of the legitimate press were equally upset with Ridley Scott’s return to Alien territory. Even worse, the social media and comment boards have been lighting up with fascinating flame wars, all centering on whether or not the aging auteur did his foundational franchise any good. In many of the discussions, there’s limited middle ground. Indeed, the vast majority of opinions on Prometheus run the gamut from absolutely love to…well, absolutely hate.
Again, it’s not hard to see why. When you say “prequel” - even one disowned by the creator as having anything other than a “DNA” connection to the source - you parse expectations. Those heavily invested in the film series and the stories they’ve told demand answers, anticipate connections, and create a kind of fan fiction fantasy in their head about what and how this introductory movie will function. They are so ensconced in the idea of an Alien prologue that anything other than the vision reflected in their mind’s eye will do. Mythos can only manage so much, almost guaranteeing disappointment. It’s a byproduct of the age we live in and the media marketplace where ideas tend to flourish before flying wildly out of control.
On the other hand, those who can judge without the benefit of repurposed hindsight discover a whole new world waiting to be explored - more than likely in film after box office mandated film. For them, Scott did the right thing. Instead of focusing on the famous xenomorph and its by now iconic attributes (acid for blood, dual mouths filled with razor sharp teeth), he switched his sites to the equally emblematic “space jockey” - i.e., the dead and fossilized skeletal being that the Nostromo crew come across when they are first investigating the crashed spaceship on LV426. What we learn in Prometheus, and where it promises to take the narrative, offer up unique perspectives about life on our own planet. In essence, it’s a cautionary tale about playing God, or more philosophically, what happens when you meet your maker - literally.
Granted, it’s not an easy subject. Fans are still fuming over Stanley Kubrock’s treatment of evolution, alien intervention, and first contact in 2001: A Space Odyssey (blame the last 15 minutes on the misunderstanding) and all movies that focus on the bigger questions about life in the universe and the opposing notion of intelligent design usually dissolve into a kind of “it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature” forewarning. Prometheus promises more…much more. As the title craft leaves the doomed planet, we anticipate the next stop in this interstellar investigation. We wonder where Elizabeth Shaw and the remaining survivors will end up - and what they will face once they get there. Sure, Scott throws a bone to the obsessive with his final shot, but if you look carefully, we are only at the beginning of the Alien folklore, not the eventual link.
The result - passion on both sides of the stance. This legitimate love/hate has a couple of reasons, at least one dealing directly with the advances in technology that have hobbled legitimate criticism for the last two decades. As with any soap box, the Internet has fueled fascinations that border on fetish. Name anything - old fast food outlets, a particular album (or song) from a forgotten artist, or an unknown cinematic subcategory - and there is something proclaiming its genius.
Seriously. Pick anything you think deserves dismissal, not celebration, and try out your Google skills. There is bound to be a website where someone, simulating intelligent discourse, is rallying around. Now there is no stopping such conversations, even when they come from a place of pure obsession, not actual ideals. But the web has worked its way into our lives in such a way that even a minor moment in pop culture gets way too much play.
Add to that the ADD enhancing aspect known as home video. Most of the arguments pro and con are coming from people who never knew a moment when movies weren’t instantly available for repeat viewing and scene-by-scene speculation. We live in an age of instant gratification, of DVR-ing past the boring bits and getting right the good stuff. Under this mentality, Scott would have had to turn the original aliens into something akin to Avatar - showing their planet, their cultural traditions, their weirding ways…whatever. Then he would have had to find a way to link everything back to the first film and then divulge some mandatory information that only their VHS fueled obsession would understand…and even then, he’d get reamed for something he surely forgot.
This is true of almost all heavily anticipated films. Christopher Nolan has his work cut out for him should The Dark Knight Rises failed to find that rarified universal praise. He has already set the bar so high that the only way he can win is to both completely defy and meet every single expectation…and yet there will be someone, sitting on the sidelines, ready to take umbrage with the depiction of the villain, the introduction and use of Catwoman, and any other comic book nitpick they can find. With Nolan, the odds are in his favor. He has been part of this material since the beginning. Scott abandoned Alien after the first film, allowing James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to run wild with it. As a result, his return was bound to be polarizing.
Of course, no one is being pilloried for their particular opinion. Reactions are just that - justifications based on judgment and complementary factors. Scott was never going to please everyone, and his ability to reach two-thirds of the audience (at least, via their surrogates, aka the critics) is pretty impressive. But there is also a level of discourse going on that threatens to take a decent experience and smear it as less than satisfying, and in these days of texting and Facebook updates, it’s an opinion that threatens to overwhelm the truth. For some, Prometheus is a masterpiece. For others, it’s an affront. There is little meaningful middle ground. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm in today’s instant IM world, not the exception.