Prometheus opens with some stunning, sweeping vistas of an ancient Earth (presumably?), back when the planet was still forming – still trying to work out what it was going to be – and the CGI assisted landscapes are simply beautiful. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is saturated with stunning, desolate landscapes and apocalyptic, epic visuals. And while the film is a visual tour-de-force, it also seems like it’s trying to work out what it wants to be. What theme does the script want to tackle? Is this a prequel to Alien or not?
There are a lot of ideas and flourishes floating around in Prometheus – too many, in all honesty – and as a result the film lacks focus at times. The film touches on several weighty themes; where did we come from? What’s our purpose? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be God?
For a summer blockbuster to tackle such complex philosophical ideas is to be commended, but while they are nicely set-up, making things feel appropriately significant and biblical, the film never quite manages to fully explore, run with, or answer any of them to a satisfying conclusion. And that’s the film in a nut-shell; unsatisfying.
The plot – without giving too much away – concerns a team of scientists who discover ancient cave-paintings and carvings, all featuring a mysterious being pointing at a particular star-system. Acting upon this “invitation”, the crew of the Prometheus set out to visit that star-system and try to puzzle out the mysteries of life. Director Ridley Scott played down the link between Prometheus and his earlier masterpiece Alien, but it turns out they are intrinsically linked. And that’s part of the problem.
There are a multitude of links and references to Alien. Some of them provide undeniable thrills for those familiar with that earlier film, but on the whole, they simply don’t make any sense. The film plays fast and loose with the audiences inherent knowledge of the series, and makes it nearly impossible to reconcile events here with those of the earlier film. Scott keeps setting things up as if they’re leading to the status-quo of Alien, but… then this is all taking place on an entirely different planet, so none if it’s relevant. It’s a cheat, frankly.
And there are other examples, too. The plot is riddled with holes, and the story doesn’t hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. Things descend into sheer silliness by the end – at one point some complex alien technology is activated by…wait for it… playing the flute. I mean, really? It actually becomes a little insulting to the legacy of Scott’s earlier work.
But it’s not just in the links to Alien that the film drops the ball; it’s in Prometheus’ own self-contained story as well. The script –a combined effort between Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof – is too often obvious and clunky, posing a multitude of questions that it either doesn’t answer satisfactorily, can’t answer at all, or just forgets to bother with (Lindelof suffering a repeat of the problems that plagued him with Lost). It’s particularly hard to invest in things when we have absolutely no idea what anybody’s motivations are.
The exception is Noomi Rapace’s strong-willed Elizabeth Shaw, the Ellen Ripley of the piece. She simply wants answers; to know what the “Engineers”, as she calls them, have to teach us about life, the universe and everything. She’s driven and motivated and that’s fine, but what anybody else – including the film’s antagonists – want, is left untold, and thus it’s difficult to connect with any of it.
Charlize Theron is effective as steely corporate stiff Meredith Vickers, but pretty much everyone else lacks shading and simply gets lost in the mix, their expected demise when things go wrong lacking any impact. The exception, almost inevitably, is Michael Fassbender, who gives a great performance as the ship’s resident android David. David is a somewhat tragic character; the crew of Prometheus seek the Engineers to find answers about how human life was created, but it was human life that created David, and yet they can provide him with no such answers.
Fassbender lends David a creepy, calculating air, and you’re never sure quite what he’s up to. He’s the one instance where ambiguity works in the film’s favour, and whether he’s trying to learn how to be a real boy by watching Lawrence of Arabia, or cruelly and coldly manipulating others in the name of science, Fassbender nearly carries the movie.
The film isn’t all disappointing. The middle-section features some great moments, while the inclusion of a few aliens (but not necessarily the alien) injects some life and energy into the repeated scenes of people exploring ancient ruins and just looking at things. But then, even some of those scenes are good, conveying a genuine sense of wonder at the universe in a 2001: A Space Odyssey sort of way.
That’s the thing with Prometheus – there’s so much thrown at it that some bits work, and some bits just don’t. It’s the epitome of a mixed bag.
The standout sequence by far involves one character having to perform horrible emergency surgery on themselves. It’s a riveting, gruesome sequence of body-horror, and it’s the only time the film will have you holding your breath, perched on the edge of your seat with terror; it’s the only sequence that feels truly worthy of an Alien prequel. The rest of the film fails to generate any scares at all, and where exactly is that terrifying musical cue that featured on all the trailers? It seemed like it could become iconic, but it’s conspicuously absent from the final movie.
While the middle section does ramp things up nicely, the films ending is sadly awful, consisting of little more than sequel set-up, when Prometheus should absolutely have been written as a stand-alone movie. And the less said about the embarrassing, very final scene – which plays like a post-credits tag bafflingly bumped up to pre-credits – the better.
Prometheus is masterfully shot by the old master Ridley Scott, and the film genuinely does look amazing. The interior set design is excellent, while the alien world exteriors are brilliantly realised. You’ll struggle to see a more bleakly beautiful film all year.
But you can’t help but feel that this would have worked better without the Alien link, as just an original slice of sci-fi. And it certainly didn’t benefit from the over-marketing it received. There are some surprises left, but when the film’s climax is heavily featured in all of the promo material, you’re inevitably going to be left with a sense of disappointment.
The incredible hype around the film may have put it in a position where it can realistically only disappoint in the face of such expectation, and while that may be valid, it’s unlikely anyone would have predicted that the film would be disappointing in quite these ways – and that’s what’s even more disappointing. A film full of plot-holes, nothing-characters and a poor script is not something we expect of Ridley Scott.
If this review seems harsh, it’s only because Prometheus is being held to such a high standard. There really is a lot to love about the film, but for the most part, Prometheus doesn’t quite hold up, and instead stands as a beautiful, but wholly unsatisfying experience.
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 1st June 2012 by 20th Century Fox.
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