Riddles Wrapped Inside Enigmas: ‘Prometheus’

“Questions will be answered,” promises a sticker on the cover of this Blu-ray+DVD+Digital Copy edition of Prometheus. The bonus features deliver on that, but you shouldn’t have to rely on bonus features to make sense of a movie with an opaque story.

I remember hearing several years ago that director Ridley Scott was interested in making another Alien movie that would focus on the infamous Space Jockey from the original film. That sounded promising, since the long-dead navigator in that derelict spaceship was such a tantalizing enigma. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened to him, but like many fans of Alien, I’ve always wondered why he was transporting a cargo of xenomorph eggs in the first place.

When I heard Scott was coy about whether or not Prometheus was an Alien prequel, I didn’t mind — I figured it didn’t matter whether it was a true prequel or a reboot of the original series; in fact, the latter sounded more promising. I was just interested in revisiting a story world that was never explored in full depth. How did the Weyland Yutani Corporation come about? Where did the aliens originate? And, yes, please, tell us more about the Space Jockey.

I hadn’t seen the film until I received a copy for this review, but I tried to push aside the many negative reviews I had seen online as I watched it. It opens with what we later learn is one of the Space Jockeys — now known as Engineers — drinking some black goo and collapsing in pieces in a waterfall. It’s an enigmatic opening that hints at something genetic happening, but I figured it would pay off later. I was wrong.

We jump ahead to the movie’s two main characters, anthropologists Charlie Holloway and Elizabeth Shaw, discovering a cave painting that matches others they’ve found around their world. That leads to a space mission to LV-223, where they and the rest of the crew hope to make contact with an alien race. They are in stasis during the voyage, their vital signs monitored by an android named David who likes to watch Lawrence of Arabia and adopt Peter O’Toole’s mannerisms; it’s an interesting homage that makes David the most intriguing character in the film. The trip has been bankrolled by Peter Weyland, who is presumably dead when the mission gets underway.

Unsurprisingly, everything goes to hell when the ship arrives on LV-223 and the crew discovers a structure that houses vats of black goo. The stuff seems to affect everyone differently, and not in the same way it affected the Engineer in the first scene, leading to many questions that are never satisfactorily answered. Where did the black goo originate, and what is its purpose? What was David’s goal in poisoning Holloway with a drop of the stuff? What is the relationship between the different creatures found living in and near the goo?

As the film careens toward act three, more unanswered questions pop up. Why are the Engineers now homicidal maniacs when the one we saw at the beginning of the film seemed noble? Why do characters readily accept a suicide mission when they’re hired hands, not soldiers? Why does a woman have an advanced med-pod that can only perform procedures on men? Why is it so hard to figure out that you should run to the side if something big and round is rolling after you?

Sure, there’s plenty of interesting religious and mythological symbolism in the film, as pointed out in this LiveJournal post, but without a logical narrative framework, all of that is pointless. I don’t mind a bit of mystery in a film, but when major characters’ motivations are completely opaque, I end up frustrated, not intrigued. The end of Prometheus sets up a possible sequel, with Shaw perhaps assuming the role Ripley played in the original series, but I have to admit I don’t really care that much at this point.

So, how about those bonus features? Well, they do answer some of the questions I’ve asked, but a movie should stand on its own — if it needs help from ancillary materials to explain its story, then it did a poor job in the first place. In particular, Scott’s commentary track explains his intentions, so if you’re burning for some answers, that’s a good place to start. He doesn’t answer every question you likely have, but he explains many of the mysterious things in the film. Unfortunately, there are stretches of silence later in the movie, and sometimes he just explains what we’re watching, but overall it’s a good discussion.

Screenwriters Jon Spaihts, who was the original scribe on the film, and Damon Lindelof also contribute a commentary track, but they were recorded separately, so there’s no back-and-forth between them, unfortunately. They offer more insight into the film’s development.

We also have commentary by editor Peter Scalia and visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers on the 37 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes that are included on this disc. “We wanted to keep it magical and more mysterious,” Scalia says during the alternate opening sequence, which featured additional Engineers and gave more of a sense that it was a sacrificial ritual. Yes, please don’t give us more information; that would be terrible.

Other deleted scenes would have also helped explain the story and the characters’ motivations, had they been left in. For example, we learn that the ship captain was originally in the military, which would have been nice to know. David’s plan would have still been confusing, though.

We also have a 19-minute presentation called The Weyland Files, which delivers a lot of background material on the characters, including that cool TED 2023 presentation by a young Peter Weyland that made the rounds on the Internet a few months before the film came out.

The rest of the bonus features on this disc showcase how far home video technology has progressed, but unfortunately they also demonstrate that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, especially when a Blu-ray disc can hold so much more content than a DVD. Case in point: the Prometheus Second Screen App, a free download for iOS (and I assume Android) that lets you check out additional content as you watch the movie. It’s tedious to watch the film and stop every few minutes for another snippet of material, but you can also flip through all of it at your own pace, without the movie. You can flick deleted scenes off your iPad and onto your TV, which is cool but pointless since they’re the same deleted scenes already found on the disc.

The Second Screen App also contains Scott’s Ridleygrams storyboards, various production art, and segments from a documentary called Furious Gods. I would have preferred to not bother with the app at all and instead have all that content housed on the disc. In particular, it would have been nice to have all the documentary materials organized into a nice long making-of, like DVDs used to have. I’m all for embracing a high-def world, but presenting bonus features this way is annoying, not revolutionary.

Finally, the BD-Live function on this disc has some of the same character background found in The Weyland Files, along with the theatrical trailer. It’s nice to be able to go online to access this stuff, but what’s there right now doesn’t make the trip seem worthwhile. However, Fox can always update it later, so maybe there will be a point to it someday. And maybe a Prometheus sequel will live up to the hype. Here’s to hoping.

RATING 5 / 10