Prometheus is Ridley Scott’s much-ballyhooed prequel to seminal sci-fi film/franchise Alien. Does Prometheus bring the hot fire or sling reheated mush? Don’t worry – Major Spoilers is here to give it to you straight.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie
Edited by: Pietro Scalia
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Produced by: Ridley Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill
Previously, in the Life of Ridley Scott: It would be hard (and ultimately inappropriate) to discuss Prometheus without discussing Ridley Scott’s earlier works. In Blade Runner and Alien, Scott directed two of the most influential films in modern science fiction. The former is rightfully in the running for greatest film ever made, and the latter (along with Star Wars) helped usher in an era of lived-in, realistic futurism on film. Since then, Scott has made a career out of sweeping ambitious works that marry epic scope to gritty realism; this includes films like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and, um, Thelma & Louise. Many of his films are critical and/or commercial successes, but these stand alongside recent misfires like Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood. Prometheus problematically stands somewhere between two poles. It is neither a classic for the ages nor is it an easily dismissed also-ran.
I PREFER THE TERM ARTIFICIAL PERSON
For those who have seen Blade Runner (and if you haven’t, go out and do it now), you might recall the pivotal moment in the film where android/replicant Roy Batty meets his literal maker Dr. Eldon Tyrell, saying “I want more life, father.” Prometheus is basically an extended riff on this idea injected into the Alien universe, with a dash of Chariot of the Gods pseudo-archaeology for good measure. The film addresses a heady mix of metaphysics, asking questions like: what does it meant to be human, where do we come from, is there a god, how do science and faith mix? It does so with a decent amount of ambiguity, but an unfortunate heavy-handedness that drags the whole production down as a result.
The basic set-up for Prometheus is this: 75 years or so from now, two archaeologists (Rapace and Marshall-Green) discover a constellation that appears in the art of numerous ancient civilizations across Earth. Believing that it is an invitation from humanity’s creators, they somehow wrangle a spaceship to go investigate a planet that may hold the key to explaining human existence. With the requisite blue-collar ship’s captain (Elba), icy corporate stooge (Theron), creepy artificial person (Fassbender) and odd-ball crew, the scientific mission makes landfall and predictably find mysteries both awe-inspiring and horrifying. Regardless of whatever the pre-release press said, this is a straight-up Alien prequel, with familiar elements such as an android, cryo-sleep, Space Jockeys and the full force of the Weyland Corporation (guess the merger with Yutani comes later).
A lot of action happens that I dare not spoil, but suffice to say, the early mood of wide-eyed scientific exploration gives way to a horror/action mode of contrivance that relies too heavily on pat, overdone tropes (somewhat resembling the jarring shift in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine). There are too many moments to list where the action is moved forward by protagonists doing something stupid for the plot’s sake, or someone makes a weirdly specific leap of logic without any evidence, which then happens to be right. The scientists don’t act like scientists. Professionals act unprofessionally (leaving their post watching stranded crewmembers in order to get a quickie, for example). People spend time discussing metaphysics and the existence of God rather than talking about the extremely horrifying thing that happened five minutes previous in just the other room. I might be willing to suspend disbelief in these things in a film with lesser ambitions like, say, Transformers. But in a film that wants to be so much more, it is frustrating to see such an overreliance on stupidity in a film that is not trying to be cynical about the nature of people.
There are other problems too, such as unconvincing old people make-up and CGI monsters that still cannot convincingly replicate the tangibility of wires and puppetry. Also, the film has a tendency to paint its characters with a broad brush – few felt real or relatable, and some didn’t even seem to be named. And if I may speak self-indulgently as a trained archaeologist, no archaeologist would ever dejectedly mumble “Just another tomb” and then complain that a dead civilization had nothing to teach us. That’s… pretty much what archaeology actually does, in a nutshell; look for tombs and learn from dead folks.
JUST ANOTHER BUGHUNT?
But all is not lost; for me, Prometheus succeeded in spite of these very real problems. The film has real soul, stemming somewhat from its overreaching ambition and realized in no small part due to expert direction, acting and set design. The film looks fantastic, with gorgeous-looking sets and an imaginatively constructed alien world. When Prometheus dives into its horror-movie elements, the results are just as affectingly disturbing as anything else in the Alien franchise; make no mistake, the franchise’s signature Freudian, Giger-designed body horror is in full force here, while sparingly and effectively utilized.
The cast is a murderer’s row of great actors who do a great job, with a few stellar stand-outs. Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Shame) is amazingly creepy as the android David, who has an awesomely weird fascination with Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence. The true lead is Noomi Rapace (the original titular Girl With A Dragon Tattoo), playing a conflicted, spiritually complex archaeologist, and she makes the most out of some very difficult scenes. Idris Elba (Luther, The Wire) has a rural American accent that fades in and out, but his jocular performance grounds the film with rare humor and real humanity. And props to Sean Harris’s (24 Hour Party People) memorable portrayal of a Hudson-esque geologist; geologists are that weird in real life, people. The script does not give a lot of time over to its characters, which would have been a damning problem in the hands of lesser talents.
Ridley Scott has never shied away from complex issues, but the script would have benefitted from a subtler hand in how it addressed its metaphysical goals. One character muses about how perhaps God isn’t all that great, when anyone with “half a brain and a chunk of DNA” can create life, prompting another to essentially blurt out “But I’m INFERTILE.” It is a more than a little clumsy. But there are a few moments of real beauty where Prometheus’s reach actually meets its grasp, such as when David muses over the disappointment of a creator who creates for mere creation’s sake. The willingness of Prometheus to even broach these subjects in a big Hollywood budget film is welcome, even if the results are not entirely satisfying.
GAME OVER MAN, GAME OVER
Prometheus as a film is ambitious, flawed, but ultimately entertaining. The seams in the script definitely show, but I left feeling like I had gotten my money’s worth. I saw the film in IMAX 3-D. I am ambivalent about the new wave of 3-D gimmickry, but if that’s your thing, Prometheus is worth seeing in that format, with a few dizzyingly cool setpieces that fully use the technology. If the upgrade is too headache-inducing or expensive for your personal tastes though, don’t bother.
In full realization that this movie was hard for me to grade, Prometheus earns a three-and-a-half out of five stars. The rating could shift up or down by a full star, depending on how willing or unwilling you are to swallow the plot problems, or how put off you are by gory, violent body horror. If you have any interest, I recommend seeing it on the big screen – just do not expect a film that equals Blade Runner or Alien.