Expectations can be dangerous things.
Ridley Scott‘s twentieth feature film is a return to a genre that he hasn’t visited in thirty years, but it’s also one that’s simultaneously been quite good to him. Alien and Blade Runner are seminal works of science fiction that went on to influence a multitude of future films, and by any stretch of the imagination they set an impossibly high bar for anyone to reach (let alone the director of A Good Year).
Like some ambitiously misguided mash-up of those earlier movies Prometheus features stark futuristic settings, scenes of graphic biological horror and grand questions on what it means to be human, but while its pieces excite and engage its whole fails to form anything resembling a finished thesis. Instead we have big ideas in the form of casual statements destined to go unchallenged.
It can’t be overstated how frustrating this is when so many of the film’s smaller elements leap from the screen (in 3D or 2D) to make our eyes widen, our pulses race and our minds quiver at the possibilities. Stunningly beautiful visuals, both natural and effects-wise, help create a dangerously seductive world that wraps viewers in slime covered tentacles and thoughts. Call-backs (call-forwards?) to Alien tease us with answers and even more questions while other parts offer enticing glimpses of creation itself. This is epic science fiction storytelling that too frequently forgets it’s telling a story and yet still manages to be worthwhile spectacle in spite of itself.
“We made you because we could.”
Prometheus opens above a landscape both alien and familiar. Lush vegetation and fog-shrouded mountains give way to a raging river cutting through it all to end at an enormous waterfall. A man who’s not quite a man approaches, and through an act of self-sacrifice he seeds this very Earth-like planet with new life.
The main narrative then begins in the year 2089 as two archeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Not Tom Hardy), discover what they believe to be an invitation from the very beings who engineered human life to come visit them in distant space. Four years later the titular spaceship arrives at their destination, and this group of explorers set down in search of the answers behind mankind’s creation and its creators. Joining the couple are fellow scientists, corporate stooge Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), down to earth ship captain Janek (Idris Elba), and a mischievous android named David (Michael Fassbender).
This is first and foremost a film of ideas and visuals. Questions and possibilities are tossed against backdrops filled with heavenly landscapes and dazzling technology, and both will frequently make viewers’ heads spin in dizzy delight. The group’s initial walk-through and subsequent discoveries within an intelligently designed mountain are breathtaking and apt to leave arm hairs standing on end. Answers are found but at the cost of lives and many, many more questions.
Lost amidst the big ideas though are two very important things. The script from Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof gets stuck up its own face-hugging behind and forgets the story needs an ending, and it also neglects the details necessary to make their characters interesting, believable and worth our investment.
Scientists, supposed experts in their fields, do the most amazingly stupid things. One reaches his hand out to pet an alien, snake-like creature that’s hissing menacingly. One guess what happens to him. Another has a large, decapitated, humanoid-alien head (which should go without saying is a pretty big discovery) in her possession for barely five minutes before deciding it would be a good idea to shove an electrode in its ear. A cheap, overly familiar subplot involving one woman’s barren womb essentially writes “She will be impregnated soon!” across the screen in gigantic letters. People run from a falling structure in the direction it’s falling for what seems like minutes instead of simply stepping to the right or left. And at least one character’s casual reaction to witnessing something simultaneously awe-inspiring and horrific shows poor direction, editing or both.
The ending feels at first like a miscalculation, but that’s quickly replaced with the realization that what you’ve watched is prologue to a sequel that has yet to be green-lit. It’s rushed and messy and filled with gaps that should have been time used for answers, revelations and closure.
Prometheus is a movie worth seeing. 2D is always preferable, but the 3D here is some of the least intrusive and most impressive and it suits the imagery and action wonderfully. The action itself is sporadic, but when it happens it’s always with excitement and tension to spare. The cast is uniformly good, with the exception of a somewhat lost Rapace, but Fassbender is absolutely mesmerizing. His early scenes are exceptional as they introduce him wiling away the multi-year space journey with bikes, basketballs and an affinity for Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, but even later scenes that confuse more than enlighten showcase an actor capable of balancing the robotic with the curious.
It’s not nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but Scott’s latest is still smart (enough) film-making from a man who’s made some fantastically entertaining movies over the past thirty-plus years. Even as it’s head gets too big for it’s thin narrative it remains standing high above the bogus science fiction films audiences are routinely delivered for the sole purpose of selling toys, cars and theme park rides.
Expectations can be dangerous things. The pedigree involved, the history, even the phenomenal early teasers have all led viewers to expect something from Prometheus that could never be delivered. Much like Shaw and Holloway we were given a glimpse of something wonderful, and our own needs, desires and imagination auto-filled the rest with incredible possibilities. Those possibilities may yet exist, but unfortunately and somewhat unfairly, they may only come at the cost of a ticket for Prometheus 2.
The Upside: Some stunning visuals and effects; mostly fantastic cast; familiar ideas given a fresh spin; some breathlessly exciting sequences and scenes; Michael Fassbender
The Downside: Addition of Alien mythology feels forced as opposed to a natural part of the story; script so focused on big ideas it drops the ball on many of the smaller things; scientists aren’t this consistently stupid; Noomi Rapace
On the Side: Michelle Yeoh was at one time considered for the role of Meredith Vickers. This would have changed things considerably.