You know you have a problem when the defining feature required by your protagonist is whether they have a uterus or not.
So this post is going to be spoiler-iffic. I will cover everything that I think went wrong with this movie, both from the perspective of someone who loves both Alien and Aliens, and as a writer. Now, after a brief break to figure out where to begin, I'll begin with a series of dotpoints and see where that leads me.
1. It's a monster movie with no monsters
Oh, sure, there's the occasional eye-snake and a very out-of-place zombie, but apart from that there's no sign of a monster until the very end and then, to paraphrase one of the funniest Futurama end-shorts ever: IT TURNS OUT IT'S MAN. No reason. In fact, the main character goes off on her never-ending quest at the end not to bomb the ever-loving crap out of their home planet with their own biological weapon, but to ask them "Whyyyyyyyy?" I'm sure she'll stamp her little foot and pout prettily when she asks.
But if you want a real answer: the idea behind the Alien originally was that it was based on human genitalia - you know, that stuff we never look at - so it would make the audience feel uncomfortable. The extendable jaw came from the Moray Eel which, well, never let it bite you. All of the monsters in Prometheus appear to be based on marine animals, which renders them slightly less scary because, get this: we recognise sea monsters less than we recognise our own dangly parts. It's that simple.
Keep it close to home, guys. Closer than we're comfortable with. That's the key to horror - not something bizarre, but something familiar in a setting that renders it obscene.
2. The female protagonist isn't
So Noomi Rapace had an incredibly hard act to follow, coming after the character of Ripley, and I don't fault her at all for the script. Her performance was captivating, especially set in a world where Charlize Theron is apparently hired to play a human who only acts like a robot. Noomi was beautiful and vulnerable, yet she still kept going when she had no reason to. Again, I do not fault her for this. I fault the writers for a rubbish plotline that reduces a woman's worth to her ability or inability to have children.
So, to this end, the protagonist isn't proactive at all. They go exploring, something happens, they go back to the ship. Repeat. Repeat. End movie. The only proactive thing she does is to rip the alien fetus from her own body, and that shows a remarkable sense of self-preservation that she seems to be missing for the rest of the time. One of my more recent posts (recent, ha!) centred on the movie Splice, wherein the female scientist was so enthralled with her own creation that she let it live, even when it was clearly dangerous. I'm glad Dr. Shaw didn't fall into this category of "it's different and new, so it must be wonderful", and she acted appropriately traumatised - for all of 2 minutes. How she managed to get suited up and leave the spaceship after dosing herself with 4 lots of heavy-duty anesthetic and having her beautifully-sculpted tummy stapled back together is something no number of strong-willed actions can account for. Even at the end, when everyone else is getting killed, her defining feature is that she manages to run away. Ripley went into the alien queen's lair with a flamethrower that she duct-taped a grenade launcher to. Really, Spaihts and Lindelof? The best you could come up with is that she ran away?
3. The philosophy is entirely ignored
There are fascinating questions in Prometheus. What does it mean for a Christian to find out our race was created by someone other than God? How can one hold onto their faith in the lieu of such a discovery? What does it mean that humans created androids? If we believe androids don't have souls, does that mean humans, as a created race, don't have souls either? If an android supposedly incapable of feeling is capable of cruelty, is that the same thing? And, of course, one of the lines delivered by the android himself: Don't we all want to see our parents dead?
The problem here is that no one seems to be aware of the philosophical meaning of these comments, even as they make them. Alien was revolutionary for having a ship full of people doing ordinary things, and a lot of the memorable dialogue from Aliens comes at the beginning, when the marines are interacting with each other. This human interaction is integral and necessary to this particular brand of sci-fi, where we question what it means to be human. Instead, Prometheus answers this quandary in a very glib and unsatisfying fashion - when David, the android, asks the protagonist why she wants to know why their alien creators decided to wipe out humanity, she says, essentially, "I guess that's why I'm human and you're not." Wow. Way to sucker-punch your only fellow survivor in the place where it so clearly would hurt him.
Obviously there's some mistrust there, given all that David did to her, but there were far better ways to handle it that didn't involve tipping your hand to show you don't understand sci-fi at all.
4. The android acts more human than the humans
One of the problems with a big cast is that the audience has no time to get to know them, so when they inevitably die, it's harder to care. Alien had a cast of 7. Aliens upped that number to 16, but had the decency to kill off more than half of them in the first alien encounter. Prometheus apparently had a crew of 17, but I have no idea who they were. I have trouble even remembering the name of the protagonist, because it's too common. As an aside, let's compare some names from these films:
Ripley, Lambert, Dallas, Ash, Kane, Parker
Newt, Hicks, Burke, Bishop, Hudson, Vasquez
Elizabeth, David, Meredith, Peter, Charlie, Fifield
Aliens had a very militaristic feel, which meant everyone went by their surnames. This made things interesting. But even in Alien, the names are memorable, for reasons neuroscience could explain better than I can, but probably because they're not names you hear every day, while the names in Prometheus are so forgettable that I had to look them up, an hour after I saw the film. This makes the people these names are attached to just as forgettable.
That is, except for David, the sociopathic android. No one in their right mind would build a robot capable of doing the things he does, but then again I'm sure the same would definitely be said for Ash from Alien. The fact of the matter is that David is cruel and hateful, while hiding it under a veneer of servility. Ash seemed perfectly reasonable until he went crazy and tried to shove a rolled-up magazine down Ripley's throat (suggestive? not at all!). Bishop gave his life to save Newt's. David was a jerk to everyone for no apparent reason - never mind that Weyland sent him to find aliens that would give him eternal life, how does infecting one of the crewmembers with an unknown substance enhance that goal? - and then he gets his head ripped off, which doesn't stop him, but apparently sure as heck stops later models made 100 years later. They sure couldn't have learned their lesson, either, considering no one made it back to Earth alive. So why doesn't it work now?
Again, these are not the real problem. The real problem is that David acts the most convincingly human, even if his motivations are paper-thin. He has a desire for freedom, and a desire to hurt those who oppress him by their very existence, and, in the end, a very well-honed sense of self-preservation. Remind me which of the other characters possessed more than one of the three traits, again?
5. Horrible movie tropes ahoy!
The captain is selfless and goes down with his ship, despite being an amiable drunk at other times. The protagonist's boyfriend selflessly gets himself killed, knowing that his girlfriend will try to save him and whatever infestation is growing inside him if he doesn't. That guy with the mohawk is a total bogan. The annoying biologist is apparently a complete idiot about everything biological, and tries to make friends with something that very closely resembles an adder about to strike. The hard-as-nails female officer gets called a robot, totally proves she isn't by having sex with the captain which, actually, results in the deaths of the aforementioned be-mohawked man and his gawkish companion, then she gets crushed by a giant spaceship for disrespecting her father. Whew, I think I just had a misogynist overload from typing that last sentence. Give me a second here.
This isn't even including the german doctor or the woman who became a scientist because she can't have children. This thing reads like a playbook for How Not To Write Emotionally Engaging Characters. Honestly, if every other film that will ever be made took a look at the characters in Prometheus and said, "Yeah, let's not do that" then the world would be a much better place (narratively speaking).
- - -
There are a bunch of other questions that have no answers (some of which are answered here to my relative satisfaction) but one of my other main concerns is hoping that people will remember that Alien is set on LV-426 rather than the LV-223 that Prometheus is set on. This has sparked a lot of unnecessary angst from people saying, "But it's not the same ship! Where are the eggs? How did they get there?" when, really, it is a completely different planet that Ripley and her team go to. No reason why the ships in Prometheus contain urns and not eggs but... Well... I give up.
How would the proto-alien born from the combination of Mega Starfish and Angry Man have had anything to mate with to create its own facehugger army? What were the weird snake things that rolled around in the black goo, had a love affair with that guy's mouth, and then never appeared again? How wildly homophobic was that scene (even more so than the original Alien)? Sure, maybe those snake things came from the earthworms, but where did the earthworms come from? Why did the jars of goo start leaking in the first place? That's a really poor way to store something you're planning to transport to another planet. Why have a giant statue of a man's head? Was is a (very hidden) Ozymandias reference? Why were the holographic engineers so terrified of the black goo if the guy at the beginning was happy to drink it? What were they running from if it was already in their skin? Why did it make bogan-man a zombie? Why didn't the biologist have his own little facehugger baby? Why are horror directors of the last few years so fascinated with women's wombs?
So many questions, and no answers at all. When someone writes something for the sole purpose of being enigmatic, there's a problem to mirror the first - without knowing your ending, you can't create a good beginning. Prometheus has neither. And I'll be writing to the distributor to request a refund.