My high school English teacher once assigned an essay on Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She was pushing the idea that the novel was one big Jesus allegory, with its hero McMurphy dying for the salvation of the other patients, but I couldn’t agree. Kesey had worked in a mental institution, he’d been involved in psychiatric drug tests, hell, he had even tried electro-shock therapy so he could convincingly write of the experience. Wasn’t the novel exactly what it seemed to be, with no allegory required? And wasn’t the insight, observation and imagination needed to write this novel amazing in and of itself?
No, said my teacher, it’s about Jesus, and she gave me an “F.” She never convinced me of her position, but she did — in a roundabout way — sell me on Kesey’s thoughts about “The Combine” and how authority needs to insist upon control and conformity. In her head, great books had to be about something bigger than reality, and what could be bigger than the Bible?
It’s a mode of thinking that has completely infected modern sci-fi/fantasy filmmaking, from “The Matrix” series through “Harry Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings” and even “Superman Returns.” Ridley Scott now seems to be the latest victim of grandiose allegory, as evidenced by “Prometheus,” his prequel to 1979’s “Alien,” the first (and best) of the long-running series. “Prometheus” sets its controls for the heart of the creation myth and struggles under the weight.
The original “Alien” was a taut survival-horror flick, originally written by a desperately out-of-work screenwriter (Dan O’Bannon) who hoped for nothing more than being able to pitch it as ” ‘Jaws’ in space.” It was a genre flick, born of trash such as “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” (1958), but with a number of bold innovations: a close focus on gnarly insect parasitism, innovative creature and set design by nightmare-surrealist H.R. Giger, a blue-collar view of life on a starship, a heroine stronger than any of the men and unprecedented body-horror gore. It was a B-movie writ large, and a galaxy far, far away from the deep cosmic musings of mankind’s origins and destiny in space that marked Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.”
In “Prometheus,” Scott attempts to split the difference between those two films, and winds up neither here nor there. The film is set some decades before “Alien,” with the starship Prometheus traveling to a planet that a couple of cave-painting-obsessed archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) believe may be the home of an alien race whom they call The Engineers, and who once brought life to Earth. (A nod to the “ancient astronauts” theory popularized by author Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods?”)
The exploration mission is funded by the Weyland Corporation, and the assorted scientists on board are under the tight control of corporate rep Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), while Mr. Weyland’s personal android David (Michael Fassbender) is also present, seemingly with his own agenda. They land on the planet and explore a labyrinthine structure that could be either a lab or a temple, but which contains hundreds of pods/caskets that will look eerily familiar to anyone who’s seen “Alien.” (Many have thought that perhaps “Prometheus” takes place on the same planet as “Alien,” but there’s a pretty clear indication that it doesn’t.) It soon becomes clear that the Engineers weren’t too pleased with their creation — mankind — and sought to snuff it out.
The film’s best thematic riffing comes in contrasting this with the disdain shown toward David by the humans on board Prometheus, with creators again showing little respect for their creation. Fassbender, drawing on David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” creates the film’s most enigmatic and tragic character, and — amid a cast that’s mostly cannon fodder -he goes a long way in making the film watchable.
With Giger again assisting with the film’s design, and Scott’s insistence on using as little CG as possible in favor of physical sets, “Prometheus” looks astounding. The suspense builds nicely too: While the original “Alien” scared the bejesus out of you by hitting you with something you’d never, ever seen before, this one plays with the anticipatory terror of knowing what’s to come, that it’s only a matter of time before a “facehugger” rapes someone’s windpipe.
The problem is that, rather like “The Dark Knight Rises,” it takes a while to get going, and then after building to a delirium of terror — in a scene where Rapace’s character must deal with a hideous ordeal — it drops the ball and stumbles toward a drawn-out and unsatisfying conclusion, replete with way too many direct quotes from the earlier film (including the fate of David and a confrontation in an escape pod) and even more gaps and gaffes in the overly muddled plot.
“Prometheus” gets so involved in its spiritual mashup of Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian/Mayan/Raëlian imagery and ideas — with everything from an immaculate conception to a “god” who created mankind in his image and a “Space Jesus” theory that has attracted much blogger commentary — that the film becomes ponderous and a bit of a drag. The problem may not be Scott’s so much as a symptom of our times: The enormous budgets lavished on the CG-heavy event movies these days seem to demand themes that are just as grandiose.