Movie Review: Prometheus

Over thirty years ago, in 1979, Ridley Scott wowed audiences with a little horror movie called “Alien.” I say “horror movie,” rather than “sci-fi movie” because really – at its heart – that’s what it is. Even its tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream” reflects that simple truth. Sure there were aliens, and a spaceship, and an android, and any number of science fiction elements. But ultimately it was a film about a monster that systematically killed off an entire crew of people before being finally defeated.

Then in 1986, another visionary director – James Cameron – transformed the franchise from horror, to action. Instead of one creature, there were hundreds. There were marines, guns, a mecha suit, guns, explosions, and oh yeah, guns. This is one of the exceedingly rare examples of a sequel that matches the original. And again, there were those science fiction elements, but ultimately it’s an action film.

The 90s saw two more sequels. Alien 3, directed by yet another amazing director – David Freaking Fincher – and Alien: Resurrection, written by JOSS FREAKING WHEDON. Unfortunately, these movies were terrible, and I prefer not to think about them. Alien 3 went through many, many writers, which undoubtedly contributed to the shoddy nature of the film. Alien: Resurrection was written (for some stupid reason) as a campy parody, but directed like an action-horror. So basically you have characters delivering terribly cheesy, ridiculous lines completely seriously, which makes it look even worse.

So, over the course of four movies – about aliens, robots, and spaceships – we have a horror movie, an action movie, a worse action movie, and a parody. Not one that I would truly consider “science fiction.”

Until Prometheus. This, at last, is truly science fiction. Not because it features different kinds of aliens and more sophisticated CGI, but because the focus of the movie is less on the monsters, or defeating the monsters, but on questions. Where did we come from? Why were we created? Should mankind be allowed to learn the answers to such questions? What makes someone human? What is the nature of the soul? None of these are new questions. In fact, they are some of the oldest questions out there. But they will never stop mattering.

You see, science fiction is not just about robots, aliens, dystopian futures, mutants, genetic engineering, cloning, or intergalactic travel. Science fiction is about the consequences of robots, aliens, dystopian futures, mutants, genetic engineering, cloning, or intergalactic travel. What does it mean if we can just clone our dead children? What does it mean if we can weed out undesirable traits in the population? What does it mean if we can live forever? Science fiction is about questions. And so is Prometheus.

In short, Prometheus is the story of a team of naive scientists out to answer some fundamental questions about the origins of the human race. After discovering an “invitation” or road-map to a distant planet, the team investigates an ancient structure. Inside, they find a number of large humanoids all gruesomely killed, and rooms full of ominous vases that ooze black goo. Any movie-viewer worth his salt can see where that is going. Infection, murder circus, monsters. Many questions are raised, some are answered. And now, to discuss the movie. Spoilers ahead.

First off, the best thing about this movie is the cast. The lead character, Elizabeth Shaw, is played by the fantastic Noomi Rapace, aka the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And while I personally preferred Rooney Mara’s portrayal, Rapace was fantastic. Then there was Charlize Theron as Vickers, the corporate representative. And last but not least was Michael Fassbender as David the android. These three characters formed the core of the story, and represented a lot of different goals. Rapace was a naive idealist, whose primary goal was to find our creators and ask them the questions. Theron was there on behalf of her company, to make sure the risks didn’t outweigh the rewards, and to make sure proper procedures were followed. And then there is David, who represents a boundless curiosity – unencumbered by morality – and obedience to his “father,” Peter Weyland – head of the corporation – who also wants to find our creators. His goal however, is not scientific but selfish, hoping the Engineers hold the secrets to life eternal. Other standouts, though in a far less substantial role, are Idris Elba as the Captain, and Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland.

The second best thing about the film, undoubtedly, were the visuals. Previous movies in the franchise focused on the negative side of the future – on corporations that run the world, about run-down space junkers and disgusting prisons. Prometheus though is not as bleak. The ship is shiny and new. The med-pod is super nifty. The holograms are clean and gorgeous. The CG is simply amazing, as are the sets, the props, the costumes, all of it. In fact, the only thing that stuck out as silly looking was Guy Pearce as a 100 year-old man. I just don’t know that his part was big enough, or his performance profound enough, that Weyland had to be played by a younger man. Why not some random old guy? Anyway.

What was less successful, really, were the characters. I mean, they were almost all scientists. But they were so painfully dumb. I mean, sure you find a bunch of ancient relics pointing to the same star system, you assume it’s an invitation. OK, I can live with that, even though I would be pretty skeptical. Then you get to this planet, and you see giants violently murdered, but no trace of what killed them, and you’re not suspicious? Or – and this is the big one that killed me – you find an evil space cobra hissing in menacing black goo, and you refer to it as a sweet girl and try to pet it? REALLY? Have you not seen Jurassic Park? I mean really. It is hissing at you and screaming at you and it’s an alien on a planet full of dead giants that CREATED HUMAN LIFE. How are bells not ringing???

Also, it really bothered me that things were only sort of set up for Alien. I know it isn’t so much a prequel as a parallel story, but it kept almost setting up Alien, without quite getting there. Why was the final Xenomorph at the end not fully Xenomorph? Why was it on the lifeboat rather than an Engineer ship? Why did Prometheus have a room full of evil goop jars, but Alien had a room full of eggs? Does the proto-Xeno from Prometheus lay all those eggs? Why does it go back to an empty ship rather than stay on the ship it’s on? What happened to all those jars? My point is – and I’m not trying to nit-pick – why set things up at all if you aren’t going to fully commit?

Along those lines, Prometheus raises a lot of questions. Not just plot-hole questions, but actual questions. For example: was the Engineer at the beginning on Earth a million years ago, or was that another planet? Are there humans out in some other galaxy? Why did the Engineers create us? More importantly, why did they try to destroy us? How did the characters figure out that’s what they were doing, because all I saw were floating lights and planets. Why didn’t they destroy us? Why invite us to find them, if they wanted to kill us? If they changed their minds about killing us, why did it kill everyone on the planet?

Now, I get that part of the theme and point of Prometheus is to raise those very questions, to discuss the importance of asking questions. And I get that a sequel would, presumably, set out to answer some of those questions. But really, that’s a LOT of questions. I mean, I just think it’s ultimately dissatisfying to raise so many questions without actually answering, well, any of them.

And that is ultimately what I felt about Prometheus: unsatisfying. Some of this can be laid at the feet of my own high expectations. I allowed them to get so high. But I don’t think that can be the only problem. Some of it lies with Prometheus. For example, what kind of movie did it want to be? A horror movie? Well, there were creatures jumping out at people. There was definite body horror. There was chasing and scrambling and running and screaming. But it wasn’t a horror movie. An action movie? Well, there was some flame-throwing, and some shooting and tasing, and fighting. But it wasn’t an action movie. As I’ve already said, it’s a science fiction movie. It raises questions. It explores implications. Except that it never really said anything about them. It left a little too much open to interpretation and extrapolation (or to theoretical sequels). And that, ultimately, led to a sense of let-down.

Now, I realize that I’ve been pretty harsh, but I really did like the movie. Michael Fassbender was incredible. He was so fantastically child-like in his curiosity and sense of wonder. He was so deliciously evil in his experimenting and plotting and secrets. He blew my face off. Charlize Theron played cold and bitchy and ominous so well, but then brought unexpected sympathy – not to mention being the only truly competent character other than Idris Elba. Noomi Rapace was an excellent expy of Ripley, and expertly conveyed a sense of terror at all the right times. The movie was truly gorgeous, and it did get my heart pumping many times. I thought it was well-written and well-directed. As I told my brother when I saw it, “I liked it. I didn’t love it. But I recommend it.”

And now, readers, I say the same to you, especially if you’re a fan of the Alien series. If you’re not, just go watch Alien and Aliens, and ignore the rest.

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One Response to Movie Review: Prometheus

  1. Ben Humeniuk says:

    I think you’ve drawn a good distinction in categories. It helps to buttonhole it as sci-fi… and maybe a little bit as myth, too. There’s definitely a mythopoeic feel with so many characters acting as archetypes (instead of fleshed-out individuals) under the gaze of “gods.”

    I think this one will get better in retrospect as time separates it from the title of “Alien Prequel” and shifts it toward “part of Ridley Scott’s oeuvre.”

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