In 2012, Ridley Scott returned to the Alien series with Prometheus, intending to explore the origins of the mysterious Space Jockey and ask deep questions about mankind's place in the universe. The goal was to take the series to new heights beyond its origins in science fiction/horror, but sadly these noble intentions were both ill advised and poorly executed. This isn't about whether or not #Prometheus was a good film; more about why for many, it just didn't work.
Alien And The Space Jockey
Since its release, #Alien remains the unquestioned champion of science fiction/horror. Aside from its astounding execution, Alien also promoted discussion with several compelling mysteries, not least of which was the Space Jockey.
The Jockey was the ancient skeletal pilot of the ship where the Nostromo crew first runs afoul the titular monster. Described as the film's Cecil B. DeMille moment, this scene was stunning in both its imagery and implications of just how insignificant humanity was in the expanse of space and time. The creature fascinated fans for decades, including Scott himself. Scott aimed to delve into this creature's background and motivations, and it was here his problems began.
Subversion Of Mystery
In order to understand why exploring the Space Jockey was ill advised, one need only look at the decline of the Halloween series. The first two films never offer a clear reason for Michael's insanity, making him all the more frightening. Later sequels attempted an explanation dealing with ritual sacrifices and pagan cults, which greatly dissatisfied fans and did little apart from making Halloween a lot less scary. It was this problem that first confronted #RidleyScott.
The Jockey was envisioned by Alien creators Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett to be as far removed from humanity as possible, desires later reflected by creature creator H.R. Giger. The universe was simply too big for mankind to be anything more than an afterthought to this mysterious race far older than we. This created both the series' fear and allure, much like Michael's unknown motivations. Prometheus's first misstep was explaining the mystery, spinning a tale where the Jockeys created man and Giger's breathtaking work was but a suit worn by a humanoid.
In sequels, audiences desire to see favorite themes expanded on, not directly inverted. Though screenwriter Jon Spaihts argued the Jockey had to be related to humanity in order to be interesting, this misunderstands that the Jockey's alien nature gave it its power. Furthermore, in making the creature a suit, Scott seems to nullify the stunning design work by Giger, the appeal of which was its otherworldly feel. Scott wanted Alien to be bigger, but may have only made it smaller. Explaining the Jockey was a no-win scenario, because no answer could ever be as satisfying as the mystery itself. While some found these answers intriguing, many others were alienated (pun intended) from the start.
Posing As Provocative
Prometheus was ambitious in the ideas it wanted to explore. Scott didn't want to make another creature feature, but a thinker's movie. Making an effort to bring something more to the viewer is a good thing, but if films like Zardoz, Mission to Mars and Southland Tales are any indication, ambition is no guarantee for success. In delivering its messages and themes, Prometheus often struggled.
Intellectual #scifi can be both entertaining and stimulating when done right. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey explores identical themes and has a very similar plot to Scott's film. In both, an extraterrestrial intelligence helps create mankind, leaves clues behind, a mission is organized to follow said clues, the A-I on the ship goes insane, etc. Like Alien, Prometheus sought inspiration from works of the past such as 2001. Whether or not it did anything new with these ideas is another matter.
Prometheus relies heavily on dialogue to explore its ideas, but sadly spends so much time talking about big ideas that it never allows the audience to experience them. Losing faith is explored with Dr. Shaw, but she regains her faith with little explanation. The Engineers' motivations are discussed in a few scenes, but never really explored in the film's conclusion. 2001 explored its ideas visually, showing how small its characters were before the universe and showing how artificial intelligence could be lethal. As a visual medium, what's onscreen always holds more power than anything the characters say. It's for this reason the Nostromo crew first entering the Derelict remains a series highlight.
What Prometheus becomes is an almost schizophrenic blend of creature suspense and high brow science fiction. One moment characters discuss life's mysteries, and the next an alien snake crawls down someone's throat. For all its musings, Prometheus doesn't build up to anything mind-bending or profound, closing instead with a monster chase that does little to stir thinking, and isn't terribly scary. It almost seems Scott wanted to deliver a smarter picture, but assumed his audience was too beneath it to accept anything apart from a horror film. In trying to be both, Prometheus failed to be either.
A Shared Vision
On its own, Prometheus may have been a perfectly adequate film, but in the context of this series it just didn't quite mesh. It's been said this universe was Ridley Scott's vision and therefore he should have license to explore it as he sees fit — only, that's not true.
The story was conceived and written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, then polished to perfection by Walter Hill and David Giler. The industrial spaceships were created by Ron Cobb, and much of the series' popularity is due to the surreal creature designs by H. R. Giger.
Alien never was Ridley Scott's baby, for he was part of a shared vision. Since gaining creative control of the series, Scott has steered it away from the intentions of O'Bannon, Shusett, Giger and others with both Prometheus and, more recently, with the similarly polarizing #AlienCovenant. Perhaps that's the biggest shame of all, because they have just as big a claim to Alien as he.
Alien was created by a team that though oft conflicted, somehow found the synchronicity to create a classic, and Scott was the leader they needed to bring this vision to screen. That's Scott's true talent — not writing the music, but leading the orchestra. He may not know how to play the flute, but he can conduct it like a king.
What do you think was Prometheus's biggest shortcoming?