Ridley Scott’s Promethean Stinker

I often disagreed with Roger Ebert‘s rating of movies. Sometimes, our disagreement would be a simple matter of Ebert being a little too kind, a little too forgiving. The latest instance of this discord may be found in our differing assessments of Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus. Ebert gives it four stars. I don’t.

I found Prometheus to be a failure as a horror film, a philosophical meditation, or an action movie.   A few visually striking images, some memorable set pieces and an interesting character–the android David–did not compensate for a movie that felt stale quite quickly.

My disappointments began early. Indeed, matters go rapidly downhill once the humans wake up from their hibernatory slumbers on the good ship Prometheus, Their motivations–despite the avowedly profound goal they declare themselves dedicated too–are not particularly interesting and neither are their resultant interactions. Try as I did, I found it hard to get worked up about their fates. So in a movie whose central characters frequently emphasize their soul-centric humanity to their android interlocutor, it is the latter is that is more emotionally affecting, a more compelling focus of our attention and interest. (I think I could have stood a version of Prometheus–shorter, of course–that features David navigating–by himself–the mysteries and attractions of  the LV-223 moon).

The central conceits of the movie–that it can simultaneously terrify, edify and entertain–are rendered false by its failure to address any of these goals with consistency and depth. The horror scenes strive, and fail, to put new spin on old, familiar tropes, sometimes drawn from close by in the director’s own oeuvre; the debates between science and religion–as ludicrously instantiated in human form in its characters– are sketchy; the central speculation–creation and design of humans by giant, really buff dudes who look like Olympians on ‘roids and live in a galaxy far, far away–isn’t particularly exciting; the action scenes suffer from a familiar modern failure: sound and fury with no heart. I am a little baffled by some of the critical acclaim the film has garnered; so impressed are the critics it seems by the overt claims of the film to profundity–the origin of man, the central epistemic and moral crisis of the science versus religion conflict–that they seem not to have examined the evidence presented to them.

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps. It might also be that when I am presented with glittering surfaces, I expect sublime depth will follow.  Prometheus fails because it seems to devote a great deal of energy in getting its stage to look good without bothering itself with the human-machine-creatures conflict supposed to play out on it. Strangely enough, by the end of the movie, so stricken had I become by the ennui dispensed by its central human characters, that I stopped caring about the human planet itself. I was curiously unaffected by any response approaching anxiety as the mighty Engineer’s spacecraft took off on its putatively Earth-destructive mission; and so, concomitantly, unafflicted by any pride or joy in Captain Janek’s Kamikaze-like ramming action.

Prometheus aspired, I think, to a kind of greatness; its failure is correspondingly larger.

5 comments on “Ridley Scott’s Promethean Stinker

  1. Amyclae says:

    Perhaps the critics, after surviving through the sensory overload that some misspell as ‘Transformers,’ were simply happy that a movie attempted–and failed–serious questions. At least Scott is trying in his action scenes, like in his movies overall, to give a certain amount of direction and purpose–something that has been lacking in the ‘thirty different cameras going thirty different ways!’ scenes of (most infamously, imho) Battle Los Angeles and so forth.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Amyclae:

      I think I got faked out by the fact the movie was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, and expected something a little more cerebral. It might have been OK if I had gone in expecting a regular summer action flick.

  2. There was critical acclaim for “Prometheus”? I missed that. Sorry I didn’t miss the film, which I think you’ve described quite accurately.

  3. […] few days ago, I wrote a scathing review of an expensive, bloated, ponderous, big-budget, 3-D action movie–Prometheus–that […]

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