Directed by Ridley Scott
Prometheus is quite the cinematic paradox. It’s half exciting, thrilling sci-fi adventure and half cringe-inducing, overwrought mess. It’s also one of the most discussed and debated films in recent memory, or at least it is on the internet, the ultimate domain of opinionated people, so I figure it’s about time I weighed in on the subject. But before I do that, a warning to anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie yet: this review is going to be chock-full of spoilers, and I’m not even going to bother avoiding them, so I’d strongly recommend you stop reading this until you’ve seen the movie. Now, I admit, I’m a bit late to the Prometheus discussion party, so a lot of the questions and issues arising from the film have been pretty thoroughly addressed in other places (most notably in this post on Reddit and its adjoining comments; I’d also recommend listening to the latest episode of The Film Talk podcast, because the hosts’ views almost perfectly sync up with mine, which is obviously the main criteria by which I judge a podcast’s quality), but I’m still egotistical enough to throw in my own two cents.
The main talking point for most Prometheus defenders, the one discussed at length in the previously-mentioned Reddit post, is the film’s abundance of religious and mythical allusions. There are the immediately obvious - Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) cross necklace and repeatedly-stated belief in God, the constant discussion of “creators”, the mythical figure of Prometheus referenced by the title - and the more subversive - Elizabeth becoming pregnant despite being barren, much like the biblical Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist; the removal of her alien baby from her stomach, a parallel of Prometheus’s mythical punishment; Engineers who easily resemble the gods and Titans of mythology - and then those that have been hypothesized by astute viewers - is the “black goo” actually sin, attacking and changing those who are sinful? Was the Engineer’s decision to attempt to destroy mankind 2000 years ago in response to the crucifixion of Jesus, himself an Engineer? It’s interesting and fascinating to look at all these references, but a problem arises as you take stock of everything the film offers up - the film isn’t actually saying all that much. Instead, it seems to have simply thrown in a lot of clever allusions without having them lead in any meaningful direction. It’s cool to think that Elizabeth is a reference to the biblical Elizabeth, but what does that really tell us? Any attempt to actually compare the alien she produces to John the Baptist would be ridiculous at best, and the same goes for the connections to the Prometheus myth. Most if not all of the theories that have been tossed about on the internet are made by viewers connecting dots that are in no way connected in the actual film. Now, that’s not to say that’s a bad thing. It’s great that audiences are actively engaging with a film and looking for hidden meaning within it, but I think it’d be dishonest to believe that most of the theories being floated online were shared by the filmmakers. And as for the Jesus idea, that’s based on a Ridley Scott interview in which he says that the “Jesus as Engineer” idea was considered but specifically left out of the movie, which means it shouldn’t apply to interpretations of the actual film, not to mention the fact that assuming the Engineers meant to punish humans for crucifying Jesus completely misses the point of the crucifixion in Christian mythology.
It’s good that Ridley Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof tried to insert some philosophical and theological ideas into the film, which is in keeping with science fiction tradition, even if they weren’t able to make those ideas cohere into any meaningful statements on life or humanity. That failure to find cohesion speaks to the film’s biggest flaw, and that’s simply that the writing is terrible, absolutely terrible. There are so many problems with the film’s script, it’s hard to name them all, but I’ll try to touch on the most significant ones. For one, why are there so many characters? Alien had seven crew members, and each one of them is fully developed, fully realized, and feels like they have a place in the film. Prometheus has 17 crew members, not including Weyland and maybe not including his handlers, although I couldn’t actually tell them apart from the faceless members of the main crew to know for sure if they were separate or not. Not only are there the crew members who function largely as extras, but then there are those who get screen time and dialogue and are still entirely pointless, i.e. the two guys who make the bet with each other, which is literally the only thing their characters do. What purpose do those characters serve? Their placement in the film seems to be an extension of another problem in the screenwriting, wherein the film insists on creating relationships and tensions between characters in the film that add nothing to the film’s plot. Idris Elba’s pilot hitting on Charlize Theron’s character Vickers and then bedding her offscreen - does this really reveal anything meaningful about either character? Same with the painfully-cliche revelation that Vickers is Weyland’s daughter (Theron’s delivery of “Yes…FATHER” made me literally laugh out loud in the theater, which I don’t believe was the intended reaction). Why should I as a viewer care that Vickers and Weyland are related? Why does Shaw have to so awkwardly and ham-fistedly reveal that she’s barren? Would it not be enough for her to be shocked at being several months pregnant after having only had sex the night before? These failed attempts to create dramatic moments and emotional drama feel oddly like something out of Lindelof’s show Lost, which perhaps tellingly also dealt with big issues of religion and humanity, but had the added bonus of interesting characters and years worth of development to make such moments matter. In Prometheus these emotions simply ring hollow. The film’s also plagued by a number of moments that highlight the artificiality of the film and can only be attributed to lazy screenwriting - a biologist who doesn’t want to look at the body of the first confirmed alien being, but then eagerly approaches an unknown hissing snake monster? The guy in charge of mapping the tunnels gets lost, while everyone else makes it out without a problem? The Engineers’ DNA is exactly the same as human DNA, not simply similar enough to prove the ancestry in a way that would be at least remotely scientifically plausible? These and other “plot holes” or “viewer gripes”, whatever you want to call them, could have easily been fixed with just a little more foresight in the writing process, helping to preserve the film’s credibility.
Even though the writing is painfully flawed, everything else in Prometheus works, more or less. The film is a visual treat, thanks to fine camera work and special effects as well as art and design by Alien’s original designer H.R. Giger. While I was snickering at the poor writing, I was still marveling at the sights and sounds that believably created a plausible spaceship and alien planet. It’s a shame that the film couldn’t keep the same blue-collar, run-down aesthetic that helped Alien to stand out amongst sci-fi films, but the glossy, high-tech shininess of the Prometheus and its equipment makes more sense and adds a layer of irony, pointing to the notion that all our advances in technology still pale in comparison to the Engineers who created us. The only misstep on the visual front is Guy Pearce’s horrible old man makeup, which begs the question of why Scott didn’t just cast an age-appropriate actor in the first place. The film’s acting is for the most part solid too, although even the best actors would have a hard time delivering some of this dialogue without sounding ridiculous. Rapace does admirably in the lead role, particularly in more intense scenes such as the “abortion/caesarian” scene (people argue over which is the more accurate way to term the scene, but the point seems largely moot) (also, what kind of ridiculous future world makes a medical capsule that only works on men?), which is easily the most effective and memorable scene in the film. Logan Marshall-Green (a.k.a. “Not Tom Hardy”) struggles a bit more as her romantic counterpart, but only because his character’s motivations are confusing; why does he react so immaturely after such a major scientific breakthrough, just because he didn’t find exactly what he was looking for on the first try, and why’s he such an asshole to David? Idris Elba and Charlize Theron both are enjoyable enough actors that it’s easy to like their work even if they’re really not doing anything significant or remarkable here. Easily, the true standout is Michael Fassbender as David the android, the one character in the film whose emotional arc and development is actually earned. Fassbender plays David not as a purely cold and emotionless robot, but rather as a robot trying to be cold and emotionless because it’s what is expected of him, an android who is increasingly prone to jealousy, resentment, and even simple, almost child-like curiosity.
As an Alien fan, I appreciated the connections made to the franchise’s mythology, even those that are particularly subtle (the advancement of technology in the time between the two films explains why the Nostromo crew don’t get sick when they come out of their freeze and why Ash the android passes as human so much better than David does, even while their junker ship is less technologically impressive), although I do wonder if the film couldn’t have been better if not shackled to the demands of that mythology. Even though the film isn’t a direct prequel to Alien (the planets and ships of the two films are definitely not the same), the film still hints at the mysterious events at the opening of the original film. This actually saddens me in a way, although for a reason based only on personal preference. With Prometheus, it’s made explicit that the existence of the aliens a.k.a. xenomorphs is connected to human existence, as they were evolved from interactions with the Engineers who share human DNA and planned to use the xenomorphs to wipe out mankind. I liked the idea, though, that the alien in Alien was a creature that developed wholly independent of humans and was simply a better evolved being that existed in an environment humans were never meant to interfere with, similar to a foreign animal causing havoc after being introduced into a new ecosystem. Suggesting that the xenomorphs are somehow evolved from human DNA and made specifically to kill humans seems to me somehow egotistical, for lack of a better word. That’s just my own take, though, which can’t be blamed on the filmmakers. Even with that bit of personal disappointment, I did still enjoy Prometheus. It was a fun film to see in the theater, one I’m glad I saw in a theater (in 2D, mind you), and one that I’m heartened to see so many people reacting to and seriously talking over in a way that’s quite rare nowadays (I haven’t seen much heated debate on Madagascar 3, for instance). I’m sure that one day it will also be a great educational tool for film students, expressing how easily a good film can be ruined by a bad script. Better screenwriting and Prometheus could have been an exceptional piece of science fiction filmmaking, on par with its predecessor. Alas, that’s not the case, and we’re left with a film that’s fun but frustratingly mediocre. But hey, they’re making a Prometheus 2, right? So maybe they’ll get it right next time.
Three out of five suns