Prometheus marks the welcome return of director Ridley Scott to science fiction, three decades after he dramatically reshaped the genre with the visionary one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner. Alien remains a milestone film, responsible for launching the careers of everyone involved and spawning a host of inferior sequels, spin-offs and imitators, while the initially unsuccessful Blade Runner is now widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Scott’s career has been patchy since – with occasional hits (American Gangster), misses (A Good Year), and plenty of mediocre efforts (Body of Lies, Kingdom of Heaven) which all share his eye for detail – but sci-fi fans overwhelmingly rejoiced when news broke of his plan for a quasi-prequel to Alien, and expectations for Prometheus soared following an expertly executed marketing campaign. Perhaps we should have known better than to buy in to the unsustainable hype, however, as despite boasting some awe-inspiring opening scenes, a(nother) superb performance by Michael Fassbender, and some stunning cinematography in remarkable 3D, Scott’s ambitious film is frustratingly flawed thanks to a shoddy script which is full of implausibilities, uneven characters and ponderous questions to which it provides no answers.
Prometheus takes place in deep space in the late 21st century, three decades prior to the discovery of an abandoned alien spacecraft and its sinister contents by the Nostromo crew on LV-426 in Alien. The dubious set-up here involves Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in DiCaprio’s leftover J. Edgar make up), CEO of the Weyland Corporation (aka the untrustworthy Weyland-Yutani Corporation), funding a trillion-dollar scientific mission in search of nothing less than the origin of mankind, because two archeologists found some kind of star map in several cave paintings by ancient cultures. The archeologist couple, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), interpret this mysterious pattern as an invitation from humanity’s creators, or “Engineers”.
Now, this may sound like a bunch of nonsense (and it is), but you really don’t notice how little most of it makes sense during the film’s incredible opening sequences, for which Scott, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and production designer Arthur Max (working from H.R. Giger’s Dune designs) deserve due credit. From the opening scene – involving a giant, pale, primordial humanoid – to the cave discoveries thousands of years later, to the introduction of David (Michael Fassbender) – an android tasked with taking care of the titular ship while the crew are in hypersleep – there is a palpable sense of awe and grandeur achieved. The 3D is also impressive, providing these sumptuous images with more depth and pulling you into Prometheus‘ disconcerting world without feeling like a gimmick. David’s early scenes in particular are masterfully realised, as see him pass the time on the silent vessel by monitoring its progress, watching and mimicking scenes from Lawrence of Arabia, and studying ancient languages before rousing his human crewmembers as the ship approaches its destination. These include the usual motley bunch: Vickers (Charlize Theron), an icy representative of Weyland Corp.; Janek (Idris Elba), Prometheus’ gruff, cigarillo-smoking pilot; two disgruntled geologists (Rafe Spall and Sean Harris); the aforementioned archeologists; and a few more expendables.
Once they land on the planet, Prometheus‘ story begins to reveal itself as a house of cards. I won’t go into specific details here for the sake of spoilers, but suffice it to say that things go terribly wrong for the crew and plenty of sci-fi/horror clichés are played out. Reworking an earlier screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof once again relies heavily on ambiguity, teasing lofty, intellectual ideas on humanity’s age-old questions (creation, death, religion vs. science), only to devolve into a series of maddening twists and reveals in the third act which fail to provide any satisfactory answers. Lindelof seems to think that simply asking “smart” questions guarantees an intelligent story, as he so often did in Lost (to varied success), and not providing answers creates a mystery for the audience to solve. What it boils down to here though is a bunch of characters yelling “I want to know the answers!”, followed by “You can’t know the answers!”, which makes for bad drama and asks the audience to do all the heavy lifting to solve the film’s not-so-compelling mysteries.
Not to mention that for a so-called “scientific expedition”, the characters’ actions are highly illogical, implausible and downright idiotic throughout, and both the science and theology on display here are completely bogus. Even less forgivable is that several shocking events (including horrible deaths and one insanely terrifying body-horror scene) are forced into the narrative — seemingly to fill a quota — and then perplexingly never addressed again. None of the characters are given a proper arc and they merely exist to serve the machinations of the script, which is just poor writing, and it means we never really care what happens to them despite the best efforts of the talented cast. This scattershot approach makes Prometheus one of the most frustrating cinematic experiences in recent memory — akin to Terrence Malick’s similarly ambitious, visually spectacular and exasperating The Tree of Life — made all the more frustrating because Scott so obviously wants to deliver a new classic sci-fi film. Like Malick’s film, Prometheus is a little obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s peerless 2001: A Space Odyssey, desperate to mimic that film’s visual spectacle and elegant, meditative narrative. This film nails it visually, but the tone is jarringly uneven as it shifts between hard, R-rated sci-fi with horror beats and the pompous, serious nature of the script’s haphazard themes.
Overwhelming criticisms aside, there is still much to admire in Prometheus. Wolski’s unforgettable cinematography is perhaps the most gorgeous I’ve seen this year and worthy of the admission price alone. The immersive 3D is one of the best arguments for the format to date, on par with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and James Cameron’s Avatar (some have even made the argument that this is Scott’s pessimistic counter-argument to Cameron’s record-smashing eco-parable, which is an interesting thought). Fassbender delivers a wonderfully nuanced and fascinating standout performance as the unsettlingly lifelike android, recalling HAL (2001), Roy Batty (Blade Runner), David (A.I.), Ash (Alien) and Bishop (Aliens) without ever feeling derivative. The haunting first hour manages to create an atmosphere of dread akin to Alien, and if only it were to continue on in that fashion this would be a five-star film. Scott also stages most of the action on real sets with minimal CGI, which is a refreshing change from the majority of effects-relient Hollywood blockbusters.
One of the most rewarding aspects of Prometheus is the endless discussion it has inspired since it opened. I can’t recall the last film to generate this level of passionate and divisive reactions in the many conversations, reviews, analysis, Tweets, parodies, etc. that I’ve come across. Once again, I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, but I found the film’s answers (or lack of) to the origins of the Space Jockey and Xenomorphs to be unsatisfactory — lazily holding out for the obvious sequel (an unfortunate epidemic in recent blockbusters) — and the extent that you enjoy Prometheus will depend on your ability to forgive some seriously bad storytelling. Despite the nasty aftertaste of the film’s final act, I find myself reluctantly recommending Prometheus primarily for Scott’s impressive craftsmanship and visual mastery, only with a caveat: leave your expectations at the door.
Watch the trailer for Prometheus below.