When Ridley Scott announced that he would be making a new sci-fi film in the Alien universe, fan speculation immediately began to go absolutely wild with a mixture of derision and speculation. What exactly is Prometheus? What does Ridley Scott have left to say in this world? And more importantly, would anybody care? That answer is beyond the scope of any one review, something that remains to be seen. But I can answer the others readily enough, and hope to do so in as spoiler-free a way as possible.
Prometheus is a gorgeous mess, mostly because it struggles to say anything of value at all.
Let’s start at the beginning. Prometheus begins with a simple quest: a group of scientists head off into space to find a race of beings pointed to in legend, a sort of god-like alien that some of them believe started life on Earth. When they get there, they find many more mysteries than they do simple answers, and because this movie has ties to Alien as you might expect it doesn’t turn into a touchy feely science fiction story. Anything else would be giving away the joy of discovery.
And let me be clear here: there are many joys to discover. Prometheus is by no means a bad movie as one would normally understand it. In fact, for much of its runtime it is a very good movie. Ridley Scott remains an incredible visual filmmaker, capable of doing wonders with technology and good old fashioned staging chops. First and foremost, Prometheus is a beautiful movie, managing to look sterile without looking staged, constructing a future that’s plausible within this century and still full of a sense of technological wonder. And coupled with the incredible vistas of alien landscape and mystery, the movie balances the old and new in a way that I wish more science fiction could get a handle on. If nothing else, it is the kind of visually rich big scope storytelling that deserves to be seen in as big a theater as you can find.
And the people who populate this movie are all pretty solid, too. Far and away the scene-stealer here is Michael Fassbender as the android David, managing to ground the movie in a simple quest for identity that belongs in a much better film. David aspires for greatness in his scenes, especially when Fassbender isn’t being saddled with exposition, and evokes the sort of quieter philosophical sci-fi of 2001 or Solaris. Tagging along right behind him is Charlize Theron, playing a character who manages to hold everyone else in the gravity of her severity without being pegged as either good or bad. It’s a no-nonsense antidote to David, and the scenes between the two of them manage to be some of the most interesting, but are sadly few and far between.
Less lucky is Noomi Rapace, who ends up saddled with much of the heroine duties. Going after Ellen Ripley is a pretty thankless role, but Rapace manages to bring a hardened dignity to a role that could have been a lot of suffering victimhood. Unfortunately, so much of that arc is burdened with thematic material that ends up nearly utterly derailing the movie towards the end, and I’m determined to keep this spoiler free, so instead let’s end by saying I feel bad she wasn’t given more to work with.
Now, this is a lot of talk about the good, but where’s the bad? This is where we talk about how the movie compares to Scott’s most famous film, 1979’s Alien. Now, how much you’re going to enjoy most of Prometheus depends a lot on how much you’re okay with seeing a lot of the same ideas reused, because in some ways they are beat for beat the same movie. A ragtag group wake up, visit a hostile world, and encounter something horrifying. In fact, even a lot of the horror beats are lifted from that movie. I’d call this aggravating, but honestly there are far worse movies to take your ideas from, and it’s not like there’s a huge array of slow burn sci-fi horror out there, so even this derivative shinier version manages to mostly work when it’s sticking to the formula.
That holds up right up until the last half hour or so, when Prometheus goes from being Alien redux to becoming a movie I’m angrily disappointed just talking about. And all the blame here falls squarely at the feet of Damon Lindelof, who took a sci-fi horror script and injected it with many of the same themes that show up in his other famous work: Lost. Questions of faith vs science, identity and destiny, all manage to crop up in one form or another, most of them explicitly stated by characters in a way that probably is supposed to sound portentous but struggles not to seem overwrought. And of course, this being both a prequel and a Lindelof script, none of the many questions are answered by the script itself.
Answers are a difficult thematic concept to talk about, but really it has to do with audience expectation. In a story about who made us, or where we’re going as a species, or what it means to be a living thing, you would expect some payoff, or even some sort of meat to chew on. Unfortunately, there are no answers here, and the movie seems to discard its own themes when it’s convenient only to pick them back up at the last second to tease answers elsewhere. I’d call it bad TV writing, but there isn’t another season of Prometheus to sit through (thank god) and no excuse for this kind of string-along.
Prometheus will answer none of its own questions, and seems to resent the implication that it should. It’s the kind of thematic hack job of a coward of a writer, someone who wants to address big concepts so long as nobody is going to pin them to saying anything with any sort of weight. It’s what manages to take a potentially great movie and turns it into a kind of terrible one, one that begins in wonder and ends with disgust, the kind of ideas-light movie we all feared it would be. I would have rather Prometheus had just been the Alien remake people were accusing it of. At least then I would find it easier to dismiss. Instead it aspired to be more, and failed so spectacularly at it, that I can’t help but wonder why they even tried to connect it to that universe.
Note: I saw the movie in 3D because that’s how it was shot. It looks really great in 3D, and Scott has a great eye for making depth interesting. It’s not vital to the storytelling in the same way it was for, say, Hugo, but if you aren’t anti-3D I say that’s absolutely the way to see it. And reservations aside, you should see it in a theater regardless. Make up your own mind. My serious complaints about the movie aside, they rarely make big slow-burn genre movies like this anymore.
This is totally not an Alien prequel. Why would you think that? Silly you.
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