Like its ill-fated protagonists, Prometheus‘ greatest sin is overreach, which is a shame for a movie that manages to grasp so much. Director Ridley Scott has refined and polished his return to the Alien universe by creating a self-contained mystery that falters when he attempts to answer an unasked question of his classic 1979 film. While he doesn’t come close to recapturing the magic of his original film (an almost an unfair expectation), he does manage to give Prometheus a unique majesty through gorgeous visuals, a thrilling pace, delightful sci-fi horror, and a slew of fantastic performances with a standout turn by Michael Fassbender. However, some sloppy narrative shortcuts and a jumbled thematic through-line keep the flame from igniting into an all-consuming blaze.
Prometheus opens with a bizarre scene featuring a humanoid creature on Earth drinking a fatal liquid, and getting his veins choked with black goo before crumbling into a pile of dust. His ashes find their way into a river and presumably this is how life begins on our humble planet. Fast-forward to 2089 and archeologists/anthropologists Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her colleague/boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshal-Green) have discovered cave paintings shared across separate, unconnected ancient civilizations. The paintings are star maps, and the wealthy Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) funds an expedition on the starship Prometheus to give the two scientists a chance to find a moon which may contain the secret of our species existence. Also aboard the ship is the chilly commander Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), laid-back captain Janek (Idris Elba), cynical geologist Fiefield (Sean Harris), innocuous biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall), and an assortment of other crew members who will be on the wrong end of what the expedition discovers. Also on the ship is David (Fassbender), an android whose ulterior motives are hidden behind a mask of manufactured emotions and genteel manners. When the crew heads out on foot to explore the inside of the moon, LV-223, they don’t discover the big, happy aliens who want to dish out meet-your-maker high-fives. They discover not only death and ruin, but that there’s still plenty more death and ruin to go around.
Ridley Scott originally set out to make a two-part Alien prequel (first as a producer, and then as a director). On numerous occasions, Scott has mentioned his fascination with the “Space Jockey” from Alien, a huge dead alien the crew of the Nostromo discovers on planetoid LV-426. The creature’s chest has burst open, which foreshadows the fate about to befall crewmember Kane (John Hurt) after he’s attacked by the facehugger. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts was commissioned to write a script for the proposed prequels, and then the idea transformed into what Scott called a movie with “Alien-DNA” rather than a straight prequel. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof took over the script, and his story structure is felt throughout as mystery propels the story forward.
The “mystery-as-narrative” approach isn’t always the best way to go as it can obscure a stronger plot and provide a constant distraction as we’re always wondering what’s at the end rather than observing what’s in the present. However, this kind of storytelling is perfectly suited for Prometheus where the entire plot is about the search for answers. The movie is perfectly paced as it has us constantly guessing “What happens next?” In the back of our minds, there’s the question of how this movie will tie into Alien, but ironically, the Alien stuff is the least interesting part of the equation.
The best Alien has to offer is the chance for H.R. Giger to realize a vision far beyond what he provided to Scott’s 1979 film. The original movie cost $8 million to make, but Prometheus cost well over $100 million, and it all shows on screen. In addition to Giger’s beautifully crafted interiors of the alien planet, the movie is at its best when it’s inspired by the original rather than making a direct connection. It’s a nice touch to see how the doors and sleep pods on Prometheus mirror the Nostromo even though the Nostromo is nowhere near as sleek and shiny as Weyland’s exploratory vessel. But aside from the art direction and pulling in an android, Prometheus could have worked as its own sci-fi horror film. In fact, up until the end, Prometheus owes far more to H.P. Lovecraft‘s At the Mountains of Madness than Alien.
When it does reach the end, the Alien connection becomes overbearing, and full parallels are drawn to the point where the film has to twist itself in circles to reach a point that wasn’t worth reaching. Much like the film’s opening, the close of Prometheus confuses more than it illuminates. The script also has to take some frustrating shortcuts by making the science team look like folks who flunked out of DeVry University. Fiefield and Millburn are ridiculously unprofessional, and the film never explains why these characters had to be scientists as opposed to regular crew members. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much scientific method to a $1 trillion science expedition. The story doesn’t need to be realistic to a fault, but it swings too much in the other direction so that it can get the scares and keep the momentum going.
And when it has the momentum, Prometheus is unstoppable. Despite the narrative shortcuts and rough ending, Scott has crafted an engrossing sci-fi horror that drips with atmosphere and pulsates with tension. The movie is visually stunning, expertly paced, and well cast. No one will confuse Shaw for the next Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but Rapace does an admirable job in the lead role, and the supporting cast acquit themselves admirably at contributing to the overall picture. But no one can come close to Fassbender’s David. Granted, an android on a ship full of humans is already a standout character, but Fassbender completely grasps the notion of a person without a soul. He is a true psychopath but not one who’s malevolent. He may be creepy, strange, and at times darkly comic, but he’s neither bad nor good, and Fassbender’s performance is absolutely captivating as the actor intelligently finds a way to bring this unique character to life (or an imitation thereof).
Wrapped inside the fascinating world of Prometheus are some weighty themes that never quite coalesce into a puzzle worth solving. The script has a very clear idea it wants to explore—the complex relationship between the creator and his or her creation—but it never coalesces into open-ended material or a strong argument. It’s a halfway finished thesis that shrugs up the suggestions of parents trying to kill their children and children trying to kill their parents, and that this is somehow the core of all evolution. Sadly, there’s not much emotional weight or powerful moments to force deep consideration of the ideas Prometheus brings up.
And yet Prometheus absolutely deserves credit for even trying to explore these ideas in the first place. Few summer blockbusters give audiences anything to chew on, and Prometheus at least wants to engage your brain as well as your adrenal gland. Scott has painted a world that’s a wonder to behold even if it leaves you wondering about why it wants to be Alien when it comes close to creating a splendid beast all its own.