The previews for to we're starting to look amazing, but then I checked IMDb and found bad review after bad review. If you sort by "hated it," you'd get back 250 out of 300 reviews from its overseas release. And even the good reviews we quite apologetic. So I started to develop that glee that can start to gather around bad movies, where you want to see them fail. This was not helped by the fact that this is said to end on a note leading into a sequel, that it's a kind of craven cash-in anyway, and a quote by Ridley Scott (who has devolved into a bloated hack lately) saying that this story "would require at least three movies to get to the point where we start Alien." Most of the reviews knocked it for having a banal mythology, and for having shallow characters that make moronic decisions. Regardless, I was still possessed to see it.
We open with a white muscle dude with like ZERO body fat on a planet (could it be Earth?) with a spaceship taking off in the distance. He has an interplanetary snak-pak pudding cup with him, swallows it, and starts to get all skanky. We zoom in and see his DNA breaking down, then he falls in the water... and we see his DNA building up again. Could THIS have been the beginning of life on Earth? Then it's 2096 or something and Noomi Rapace as Ellie and her boyfriend Charlie are exploring caves, and find a symbol of a giant person pointing at an arrangement of planets. Ellie says she thinks it's "an invitation" and that "they want us to come find them." You'll find that for a person trained in a field that relies entirely on physical evidence, Ellie puts a lot of weight on her own wildly sentimental wishes.
Now we join the ship Prometheus as it goes to these planets. It has 17 people aboard, which seems like a lot, especially as many of the main characters have nothing really to do. Michael Fassbender as David is the android, and he watches Ellie's dreams while she's in hypersleep, which serves as a convenient way to deliver exposition. We see a memory of her father, and find out she's really attached to her crucifix, which flashes on the screen during certain key words such as "Heaven." Eventually they all wake up, and watch a hologram of old man Weyland, who explains that they're hoping to find the origins of human life on Earth. Also delivered, exposition-wise, is that Charlize Theron's cabin, her name is Vickers, by the way, is a self-contained escape pod with a handy auto-surgery vending machine in the middle. When a skeptic asks Ellie why she thinks that these aliens are friendly and want humans to visit, she replies "it's what I choose to believe," which, we know from her dreams, is a notable quote from her daddy.
So they enter the atmosphere, which is gray and stormy, and looks amazing. They find these structures, and set down outside. They take a crew in and explore. Soon they discover there's breathable air inside, so they all take off their helmets. They then walk off and LEAVE their helmets back wherever. These are scientists, by the way. They find one of the creatures from Alien with the elephant head. He's been decapitated. They find a room with a big head sculpture and a bunch of urns that look quite like the egg chamber of Alien. The urns start defrosting and moving in weird ways, but no one notices except David, the android. Two guys with "victim" stamped on their foreheads decide to go back early. Then there's a huge storm, and the crew is called back. Ellie and friends decide they'll just bring the alien head back on the ship, and that'll be no problem. David, unnoticed, bags an urn. Then--a sandstorm the likes of which haven't been seen since The Mummy II! Or that last Mission: Impossible one. But whatever.
Turns out the two guys who went back early, because they were too scared, got lost and now have to spend the night in the ship. They are soon finding a pile of dead aliens, who were all trying to get away from something. Then a little alien snake sidles up to them, and one of them starts playing with it like it's a friendly bunny. Then it rears up and hisses at them, making threatening gestures. Oh, isn't that just so cute, they decide--these dudes who were terrified of aliens not moments ago--and play with it some more. Turns out it isn't in the mood to play, and that's where matters head south fast for our dunderheaded heroes.
From here things take a turn for the horrifying, and there are not-all-that-surprising twists and turns. You've probably heard that there's a squirm-inducing self-surgery sequence. Turns out not to be SELF-surgery, as it is conducted by the surgery vending machine, but I indeed had my hand over my mouth in horror the whole time, and at a certain point was involuntarily stamping my feet because of the insanely horrific tension. The other thing not mentioned is that once the offending alien is removed, very much alive, the character is trapped in the tiny surgery module with it, and that's about enough to make you jump out of your skin. You then might be surprised to learn that, if you've been cut open to your organs, with just a few surgical staples, you'll be ready for ACTION! From here, rather than things growing more claustrophobic, matters start to open up to events on a huge scale. You'll also be intrigued to learn that if something super LONG is falling on you, you should just keep running straight, staying within the path of danger, instead of just stepping a few paces to the left or right, and complete safety.
So despite my cynicism going in, halfway through, I thought to myself: I am SUPER into this, and it never really let up. I came away completely satisfied. It's only afterward that you start to think back, and realize that this is clearly set-up as part one of three (or more?), and you've been a little bit bamboozled. Several things are brought up that are never answered, or provide momentary frisson, but come to nothing. For example, when they're in the chamber with the head, they see that the murals on the walls are changing! And then... on with the show, no more about that. Later, the alien head they've brought back come to life! And then... let's just move on. And there are much larger questions raised about the aliens' life cycle that are left a complete mystery (we do continue to get lots of terrifying sexual imagery, however, including all the vagina dentatas and choking phalluses as you could want), as well as a few alien races who were up to... you know, something, much of which will probably be explained in further chapters. Maybe this movie should come with a sort of Alien Loyalty Card, and if you get it punched three times you get a free child's popcorn or something.
Still, while it was unfolding, I was transfixed. It also looks amazing. The whole film has a palate of deep grays and the world it creates becomes a large portion of the content of the film, as with Alien or Blade Runner. And although this is the first Ridley Scott film I've enjoyed since Thelma and Louise, you've got to admit this guy knows how to create powerful imagery. When I complain about younger directors who don't know how to put together an image that has power and resonance of its own, here's an example of that done right. Compare and contrast Battleship with this.
Finally, a lot of the reviews I read fault the movie for the banality of its answers to the big questions of the universe (which aren't too far from the answers delivered by Mission To Mars). Well, personally I think it's probably best not to look to major tentpole summer action movie blockbusters to deliver answers to the big questions of the universe. This will show you a vast, convincing, alien world and creep the living fuck out of you, and if it turns out to be only the first installment of a movie investment plan you have inadvertently been suckered into, well, you've fallen for less rewarding schemes.
ON SECOND VIEWING
So I snuck off to see this movie on opening day (I have summer Fridays), knowing full well I was going to see it again the following Wednesday, but I figured what the hell, I like spaceships. And when it was over, I was actually eager to see it again. However, on second viewing it became apparent that I didn't understand everything on the first go-round, and now, seeing it again, I did, and those critics are right: It is banal. It's so banal, in fact, that it does indeed hinder one's enjoyment of the film, because whole, long scenes are based on stupid ideas, and you have to sit through them. Then there's the fact that our heroine is a big, overemotional twit, who just gets really pissed on behalf of Earth's human dwellers, to the point where she's shrieking "Why do you HATE US?" to various advanced life forms she meets. She later shrieks "DIE!!!!!" as she kills said life form, which doesn't seem to be advancing the cause of interstellar understanding.
Then there are massive amounts of things that are never explained, primary among then the alien's life cycle. So, it's a black paste til it's a worm, til its a squid, til its a full-fledged alien? And you can give it to someone and infect them? And then it can be passed through their reproductive organs? It just doesn't make any sense, even accounting that it takes some of its hosts' DNA each time. Also, when a certain character comes back and kills a number of the crew, I'm sorry, WHAT does that have to do with anything? I guess it's just to kill off all those remaining characters, but... why introduce them in the first place? Especially since they have nothing to do throughout the entire movie. Speaking of nothing to do, what was the point of Charlize Theron's role? Why is she in the movie at all?
It still looks amazing, but it really just comes to nothing, and falls completely apart with the slightest bit of thought afterward. It also seemed quite long the second time, as, now that I knew what was going on, there were several scenes you just have to sit through. The other thing is that it has very little structure. Whereas Alien had one kind of danger--the alien--this one has all different kinds of threats and a ton of running around on this planet and then this and then that, it just ends up seeming kind of exhausting and disparate. I would see it once, and have whatever reaction you might, but you might want to think long and hard before you go see it again. If you think you didn't quite understand it... count yourself lucky.
Once for sure. Not twice.