Note: Because most of my problems with the film happen in the second half, this review will contain heavy spoilers.
Right when the film starts I know I’m in trouble. A pale-skinned, humanoid creature stands against a pristine digital backdrop of giant waterfalls, on a planet not yet populated with human life. It removes most of its clothing, kneels down in front of a bowl, and drinks a black liquid as some sort of self-sacrificing ritual, which causes its body to disintegrate. The decomposing body falls into the rushing water and slides over the edge, the remains eventually blending into the large mass of liquid below. Now, do I view this as an evocative and profound statement on the beginning of human life on Earth? Or do I view this as a fairly silly piece of filmmaking and an ill-judged way to open a film? I was faced with this dilemma, this choice of whether to open my mind to the big concepts or keep it closed because of the flaws in the presentation, many times over the course of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. In the end, it pains me to say, the latter won out over the former.
It’s really a shame too, because from the outset this was always a project that had a considerable amount of promise. The biggest point of interest was the return of Ridley Scott to the science fiction genre, where he made arguably his two best films, Alien and Blade Runner. Additionally, not only was it a return to the world of science fiction, it was a return to a fictional world that was home for two of the most well-regarded works in the genre, Scott’s own Alien and James Cameron’s sequel Aliens. Throw in a very talented and diverse cast and an amazing early promotional campaign, and it’s no surprise that expectations were very high.
After the opening sequence, the film jumps forward in time to 2089, where we meet the scientists/couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). They have discovered a cave painting containing a star map, the latest of several similar discoveries found all over the globe. Another few years pass, and the scientists find themselves traveling on the ship Prometheus to the distant moon LV-223. They are accompanied by the corporate director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the android David (Michael Fassbender), and the ship captain Janek (Idris Elba), along with a number of others that essentially function as alien bait. Of course, because the film is set in the Alien universe, what the crew encounters on LV-223 isn’t exactly friendly.
Let’s start with the positives. Firstly, the production design is first-rate. Ridley Scott has always excelled at creating unique and unforgettable environments, whether it’s the dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner or the combat arenas of ancient Rome in Gladiator. The environments in Prometheus are no exception. The film is loaded with digital-effects work, but the most striking settings and moments involve more tangible techniques. The interiors of the ship are appropriately dark and moody, while the altar that the scientists discover in the subterranean corridors of LV-223 is an instantly unforgettable and terrifically ominous image. Even though there are many elements of the film that don’t come together, at the very least it can be enjoyed from a purely visual level.
Despite all the talented names in the cast, only one goes above and beyond with their performance. Michael Fassbender as the android David is in many ways the best part of the film. Sporting the mannerisms and blonde haircut of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia, Fassbender steals every scene he’s in, projecting an unnerving calmness that stays steady even in the film’s most intense moments. Of the remaining performers, Elba has a few charismatic moments as the ship’s captain, while Theron plays the “ice queen” role with ease. Rapace seems at times a little in-over-her-head as the central protagonist, and she has to deal with most of the thematic heavy lifting, something for which her ill-developed character doesn’t seem entirely prepared. The biggest weak point in the cast list is Guy Pearce. Normally an effective and reliable actor, Pearce, completely buried under some of the worst old-age makeup you’re likely to ever see in a big-budget production, overacts everything. It also doesn’t help that his character is at the center of some of most unsuccessful moments of the film. The big question here is why didn’t the filmmakers cast an older actor to play the part? My suggestion: how about Peter O’Toole? It would have allowed for some clever moments between Weyland and his creation, the Lawrence Of Arabia-admirer David. In the end, the character of Weyland feels more like a missed opportunity than anything else.
Lastly, and most importantly, there is no denying that Prometheus is a film that raises several interesting and thought-provoking questions. The central idea behind the film, humans meeting their creators, is a good one, even though it’s not exactly an original idea in science fiction (see: Contact, Star Trek V, to a lesser extent Star Trek: The Motion Picture, etc.). More interesting is the idea that the creators have reversed their opinions, and are now actively seeking to destroy humanity, setting up a confrontation where humans will have to face the dilemma of killing their own creators. In the last couple of weeks since the film’s release, there have been many well-argued and interesting arguments about the film’s thematic content. To single out a couple, Roger Ebert wrote a predictably insightful article, and there’s a particularly interesting blog post that sees religious parallels all over the film. This is all well and good, but my view is that all of this grasping for hidden symbolism and deeper meaning doesn’t amount to all that much if the film itself isn’t up to par. I wanted to be intellectually stimulated by the film’s thematic content, but from about the halfway point onward, the only questions that were running through my head were questions of logic.
For me, the point where the film took a severe nosedive is the point that everyone has been talking about most positively. I’m talking of course of the scene where Rapace’s character Elizabeth Shaw has to perform her own abortion using a complex medical machine. The scene, when separated from the rest of the film, is intense, suitably gory, and undeniably effective. Placed in context with the rest of the film, however, the scene almost literally comes out of nowhere, and it serves very little purpose beyond providing a memorable set-piece. It’s also the turning point when I stopped caring about the thematic questions of the narrative and started worrying about the constructions of the narrative. When this scene was going on, the following questions ran through my head:
1. What happened to the scientists who were attempting to prepare her for hypersleep? Did Shaw knock them out? Why didn’t they chase her to the machine room?
2. Why is the machine programmed only for male patients? (This can be explained somewhat by a revelation later, although it’s not a very convincing explanation)
3. So just because Holloway unknowingly drank one drop of the strange black liquid from the planet, he now has the ability to impregnate his previously-infertile girlfriend with alien creatures?
4. Are staples really going to be enough to stop the bleeding after the surgery is complete? How does Shaw have the strength to run around afterwards?
5. Why does Shaw not tell anybody about what just happened? Wouldn’t everyone want to know? Wouldn’t that be something you’d probably want to tell everyone?
This is only one example of the narrative sloppiness of the second half of the film. Shortly after this happens, there’s a completely baffling scene where Idris Elba walks in and basically informs the audience that the planet they’re on is actually a weapons facility. How the hell did he know that? It doesn’t surprise me that Ridley Scott has already come out and said that an extended cut will be available when the film hits the home market; it certainly feels like a film that has had its guts removed in the editing bay. I could continue to list more of these annoying moments, but instead I’ll just direct everyone to the guys at Red Letter Media, who do a good rundown of almost every question raised and unanswered throughout the course of the film (video below).
My last criticism of the film is something I would have never thought could be a problem. Everyone planning to see Prometheus is already aware that it exists in the Alien universe, and that it acts as a loose prequel to the events of those classic films. There’s this sense throughout the first half that there is this behemoth lurking just below the surface, just waiting to burst free and derail everything. When it eventually does surface in the second half of the film, the results couldn’t be more underwhelming. It reminded me of last year’s terrible prequel/remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which sold itself as a prequel that would answer some of the questions of the original film, but it actually turned out to be more of a straightforward remake, with the filmmakers just recycling all the famous bits, only to less overall effect. Prometheus is plagued in a similar way, with many moments amounting to nothing more that just tired fan service for the original Alien films. Charlize Theron won’t allow a potentially-contaminated crew member back onto the ship, recalling the actions of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Michael Fassbender’s android character is decapitated, recalling the fate of Ian Holm’s Ash. Noomi Rapace has something growing inside her that is eventually removed in a gruesome way, recalling the infamous moment with John Hurt’s Kane. I don’t even want to mention the closing moment, which feels like it was tacked on later to provide a definitive “Alien” moment. Going into the film, Ridley Scott returning to the world of Alien was one of the main draws. Exiting the film, his return ended up being the most disappointing failure.
There’s a very fine line between a film being successful in spite of its flaws and a film being unsuccessful because of its flaws. Looking back at Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, for example, there is a very strange and jarring third-act shift that threatens to destroy the good will of what came before it. Luckily, the film redeems itself with a deeply moving and satisfying finale. Unfortunately, Prometheus doesn’t have any last-act redemption for its flaws. Instead, the wheels fly off the tracks and the entire production goes careening off a cliff. The original Alien films were fairly simple affairs, but they did have more thematic depth than most people give them credit for (much has been written elsewhere about the constant sexual imagery, the theme of male fear of pregnancy, the mother/child dynamic that really moves to the forefront in Aliens, etc.). The difference between those films and Prometheus is that they kept most of their ideas as subtext, and they never let the ideas get in the way of their storytelling. For Prometheus, the ideas come first, and the storytelling comes a distant second. The end result is my first real disappointment of the year.
Final Note: I’m including links to two trailers here. The first one is an example of a great trailer. It gives the audience a glimpse at what’s to come without revealing any specific plot points or spoilers. The second one is an example of a poor trailer. It essentially summarizes the entire film, from start to finish, while also spoiling some of the film’s biggest moments, in particular the abortion scene and Idris Elba’s death scene. I admit to watching this trailer before seeing the actual film, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect my overall impressions.