Image from IMP Awards
"We were wrong! We were so wrong!"
The above line, uttered by Noomi Rapace's character Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in Ridley Scott's return to science fiction in 30 years, pretty much sums up my assessment of the - perhaps unreasonable - expectations the film has engendered. The fact that Scott directed the classic and brilliant progenitor to this film, Alien, makes the disappointment that much more stinging.
Prometheus begins intriguingly enough with a brief prologue involving a mysterious, beefy humanoid alien. This leads in to a second prologue in which Dr. Shaw and her bland boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) discover ancient cave paintings that point to a star pattern, one that is contained in a series of disparate paintings from different time periods and cultures. The implication is that human development, perhaps even our origin itself, was alien in nature. This initial premise sets alarm bells off straight away as to the intellectual level the film is striving for, but it is easy enough to put aside as a flight of fancy if developed in an interesting way. Sadly, it isn't developed in an interesting way at all. In fact, I think it's fair to say that the film is completely glib in the way it handles its ideas.
After the prologues we are transported light years away and in to the primary narrative. The space ship Prometheus arrives at the planet pointed to in the paintings, the crew - including the two scientists, android David (Michael Fassbender), the ship's Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and company overseer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) - awake from stasis / hyper sleep and brief the remainder of the nondescript scientific grunts as to the purpose of their secret mission. Namely, that they are here to discover the origins of mankind and perhaps to quite literally meet our maker. The ship lands near an 'intelligently designed' structure on the planet, the crew hops out to explore its cavernous interior and discover... well, I won't go into details but in truth, not all that much of consequence apart from some dead aliens, holograms, and things that will be familiar to fans of the original film. From that point onwards the film shifts into horror/thriller mode, the half baked ideas are dropped, picked up again, and then dropped again as the story builds towards an explosive climax.
So what's wrong with the film? To get the obvious out of the way, I'm not complaining that the film isn't enough like 'Alien'. On the contrary, it actually borrows a little too much from that film in terms of story beats. It's also not a knee jerk reaction to expectations - I ended up seeing it twice, and my expectations were out the window during viewing number two.
The major problem is the fairly dire story and script; it should come as little surprise that 'Lost' writer Damon Lindelof was involved in writing it. The whole thing raises 'questions' and 'mysteries' that are somewhat interesting but aren't examined in any meaningful way, and by the end, hardly anything is resolved and we are given the set up for a sequel that teases potential answers. God and 'Darwinism' are name dropped in the most superficial way, with Shaw being a religious scientist who 'chooses to believe' things and regularly clutches her cross. The purpose of 'the engineers' of mankind is raised, but again only perfunctorily. Birth and the creation of life are brought up and lead in to a tangential subplot that feels horribly contrived. The rape subtext from the original film is made silly and overt. And as far as plotting goes, lots of stuff happens that makes very little sense.
The film is in an awful hurry to get from one scene to the next, never allowing one to build up to anything of substance, never allowing any tension or awe to take hold; a serious misstep in a story about first contact with alien life forms who also happen to be our creators. The whole affair is strangely inert and devoid of feeling. The dire dialogue doesn't help at all, populated as it is with repetitive Hollywood blockbuster cliches. Characters behave in idiotic and impulsive ways, incongruosly so for a team of 'expert' scientists. The narrative stop starts, shifts gears, and erupts into violence on occassion but all of it feels disjointed and the characters themselves don't seem too involved in what's going on around them. Most of the supporting cast are forgettable, which compounds the film's problems. To top it all off, the musical score is loud, overbearring, and repetitive.
That's the bad, but there is a lot good in the film as well. First of all, visually it's simply stunning. The effects, sets, costumes, and design work, some of which have their origins in the seventies, are stunningly realized. Scott's camera work is smooth and coherent and his shots are epic, and he does create atmospheric sequences. It genuinely looks and feels like what we are watching could be real. Rapace, though a far cry from Sigourney Weaver's Riply, makes for a decent lead, wonky fake English accent and all. Idris Elba is reliably cool despite having very little to work with. Charlize Theron is excellent as the icy Vickers, ironically one of the few characters who seems like a human being.
And then there's David, the android, played to perfection by Michael Fassbender. David's presence is by far and away the most interesting part of the film. It's the one relatively subtle and intelligent thematic element, paralleling as it does the broader questions about the creation of life and the relationship between creator and creation. Fassbender gets decent words and he makes the most of it, playing David with an undercurrent of sardonic menace, moving with graceful and mechanical precison, and exhibiting a sometimes childlike sense of curiuosity. His motives are never really clear - again, lousy plotting - but he's never anything less than compelling.
Prometheus is ultimately it's a science fiction film whose intellectual pretensions extend well beyond their grasp. It devolves into a horror thriller but is never truly scary, horrifying, or thrilling. It's fairly entertaining and looks good, and is mostly salvaged by one brilliant character and performance. Worth seeing for genre fans and fans of the Alien series. The ill advised final scene, which is truly groan inducing and exists solely as fan service, is a fitting note on which to end what is a poorly conceived film. In an era where almost anything that can be imagined can be realized on screen believably, the fact that this was the end result is nothing short of disappointing.