When Ridley Scott announced he was making a kinda/sorta prequel to Alien, the film that made his career, the response from Alien geeks was equal parts hopefulness and trepidation. Once it was released, that response to it deepened the polarization: some fans love it for the visuals and technique (while admitting its flaws) and other fans hate it for revisiting a beloved film in a way that fails to improve upon it or add anything meaningful to its history. Both are camps a little bit right: Prometheus is the kind of film that exhibits a technical mastery of how the genre should look while also exhibiting a shocking ineptitude in basic storytelling skills.
The story begins on a Chariots Of The Gods note with scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) completing a vital scientific discovery – they’ve found identical cave art in multiple locations around the world suggesting that the planet’s early cultures had some interaction with aliens. This earns them the sponsorship of corporation Weyland Yutani, who assemble a crew to take Shaw and some other scientists to the planet they believe might be the solution to their questions. The crew includes practical-minded ship captain Janek (Idris Elba), chilly corporate observer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and humanoid robot David (Michael Fassbender).
Shaw has additional motivation for this mission: she is trying to continue her father’s work while seeking out the secrets behind the birth of the human race (like if it is a result of alien intervention). However, the story shifts into familiar narrative patterns once Shaw and her crew begin exploring the planet. They find a temple housing several canisters that contain some very familiar alien eggs… anyone familiar with the Alien series won’t have trouble imagining what happens from that point on. There are a few new wrinkles, namely a meeting with the ancient race hinted at by the cave art, but “hapless human vs. slimy alien” action/suspense is the main order of the day.
The end result is both dazzling and maddening all at once. The part of Prometheus that works is the visual design. Scott has always a knack for visualizing the future in a convincing way and he brings those skills to the table here. The ship designs are convincing, the alien planet/temple sets have a comforting Giger-esque touch and Scott uses CGI in a manner that is stylish without becoming overbearing. Even better, he uses 3-D with subtlety, using it to enhance depth and flesh out landscapes rather than using it for cheap scares. It’s one of the few modern 3-D efforts worth seeking out in this format thanks to his confident touch.
However, Prometheus falls apart almost instantly as a piece of storytelling. It’s trying to do a number of things and each of them is under-realized in its own way. The main plot, considered by some to be At The Mountains Of Madness re-invented as a space opera, has pretensions to being idea-based sci-fi with a chaser of Lovecraftian surrealism but it never follows through on any of those aims. The main characters name-check big concepts like the beginnings of the human race and the idea of aliens being mistaken for Gods but it never really explores them or adds anything to do. Once the film reaches its frantic, action-driven final stages, you realize the film isn’t building towards an exploration of those ideas. It thinks talking about ideas is the same thing as having ideas – and that’s an intellectual/artistic copout.
The other part is the Alien prequel stuff and it feels synthetically grafted on to the main narrative. It relies on a familiar procession of face-huggers, alien eggs, etc. that have knee-jerk effectiveness but don’t really do anything different from the litany of ripoff films that followed the original Alien. The last third of the film is where the elements designed to connect this film to the original Alien kick in… and they are all deployed in an obvious, frequently redundant way. You could strip out all the elements that refer to the original film and it wouldn’t hurt the storyline a bit so their appearance in Prometheus ends up feeling like cynical reverse-engineering designed to boost the film’s box office chances.
However, the worst elements of the script in Prometheus are the surprisingly weak characterizations and dialogue. The featured crew members are built on the simplest stereotypes (the pragmatic captain, the hard-ass corporate type) and the peripheral crew members barely get any characterization at all. Shaw and David get the most screen time as far as characterization stuff goes but it’s all familiar beats: she wants to carry on her deceased father’s work and he wants to be a human. The dialogue is ho-hum stuff and never shows any enthusiasm for the story’s themes or scientific ideas (note how little the scientific crew acts or sounds like actual scientists).
Plotting is also problematic, particularly in how it strains to connect the cast with the methods of alien invasion. Particularly of note is a truly awful scene where two crew members (who happen to have the sketchiest of characterizations) get “trapped” in the alien’s chambers and bumble their way into getting attacked. It so bad, so poorly written, that you might feel like you accidentally switched over to a particularly awful slasher movie for a minute. Scenes like this make Prometheus feel like someone took a really rough first draft and shot it without thinking about whether or not it actually worked.
So what the viewer is left with is the cast and the direction. Rapace tries hard – her physical acting in one effects-intensive scene is very impressive – but she doesn’t have much to work with and is cast in a role than any female actress could have played. Theron is good at being icy but also given little to work with. Marshall-Green isn’t remotely convincing as a scientific type but that could be chalked up to a threadbare characterization. Fassbender fares the best, working really hard to breathe life into “robot who wanted to be human” cliché – he at least has some interesting character tics, namely his character’s fixation on Lawrence Of Arabia. Elba also steals a few scenes as the captain: he seems to be the only one who plays his role like a real human being instead of giving a self-conscious performance.
As for the direction, it is top-shelf from a visual perspective as noted before – but pretty pictures do not a great sci-fi film make. Interviews with Scott make it seem like his heart was in the right place but he should have known this script wasn’t ready to shoot – and as a result, Prometheus is a sad and strangely under-realized afterthought to one of the genre’s modern classics.