Whether you consider Prometheus a prequel to Alien or not (and I don’t know how you couldn’t), it’s important to judge the movie on its own terms. And on its own terms Prometheus generally fails. It is a magnificently made movie based on an elementally bad script, a gorgeous movie that is too stupid to understand how dumb it is. It’s a disappointment.
I toyed with the idea that Prometheus’ massive disappointment is purposeful. In the film a group of scientists heads to an unexplored planet hoping to meet up with the beings who created human life on Earth, a group of musclehead ETs called The Engineers. When the scientists arrive they find that the answers they sought are either not forthcoming or are vaguely disappointing, and I wondered if the movie intended to replicate that sense of deflation in the audience.
But if that had been the point, Prometheus could have done so without also being a mess. A mess compounded by the fact that the first thirty or forty minutes show enormous promise. There’s a sequence where David, the android played by Michael Fassbender, wanders the space ship Prometheus for two years as the crew hypersleeps, and he plays basketball and watches Lawrence of Arabia and dyes his hair to be like Peter O’Toole. It’s a fascinating bit, elevated by Fassbender’s extraordinarily precise performance, and it hints at a different, better film that is keenly observational and layered. There’s another sequence where the scientists explore an ancient alien craft and come upon a vast chamber full of vases, dominated by an enormous statue of a humanoid noggin that resembles the Olmec Heads. This moment is awe-inspiring and spine-tingling with its sense of profound mystery and sinister wonder... but that soon all fades away as the film falls back on hack action beats, booming score and character cliches.
Ridley Scott has made a beautiful, atmospheric film, utilizing 3D sparingly and well. There are shots of planets in orbit that stun, and there are moments of nail-biting anxiety that are perfectly put together. But the visuals of the film cannot hold up the whole thing, and the script (by Damon Lindelof from an original draft by Jon Spaights) is a completely unsound foundation. The script is incompetent in a way that is hard to believe while watching the film; characters reach out to pet obviously scary space snakes, characters speak in bad, baldly expositional declarations, characters have no character. Once the team gets to the vase chamber Prometheus slowly begins unraveling, and the terrible dialogue and uninspired acting that was merely a nuisance during the more interesting first act becomes an unbearable problem. Finally by the end the movie has turned into a truly moronic monster mash that resembles the final chase of any given Friday the 13th film more than anything else in Scott’s ouevre.
The bad script is doubly disappointing because it seems convinced that having characters again and again say ‘Don’t you care about the Big Questions?’ somehow counts as addressing the Big Questions. The opening scene of the movie - before the title even comes up - shows us that the Engineers (roided out aliens who wear Space Jockey suits) did indeed seed Earth with their own DNA, so the question is not whether life on Earth came from elsewhere, but what the meaning of that is, and who our creators are. These questions are never addressed at all - they seem to be left for the sequel that is being ham-handedly set up in the final moments - but the film also never addresses what it means for us as humans to discover our origins. There are a couple of scenes where Noomi Rapace, playing an English scientist with a Nordic accent, fumbles with a cross she wears, but that’s not an exploration of anything except jewelry.
The script is spiritually retarded, which isn’t surprising coming from Lindelof, whose ending of Lost had all the characters gather in a non-denominational church in the gauzy afterlife. Rapace’s faith is explained in a flashback to her father (inexplicably played by Patrick Wilson with an English accent, getting about two minutes of screen time) where he says when you die you go someplace nice. That’s the movie’s entire examination of faith, buttressed with a scene where Rapace keeps wearing that cross despite having the creation myth (which most intelligent people of faith already view as a nice story, not as a fact) disproven to her.
There’s not much else to say about Rapace. She was horrible in the latest Sherlock Holmes movie but is less bad here; she’s simply generic and dull, but it’s hard to tell how much of that comes from her and how much comes from the script (which has her alternately as an archeologist, a physician and a xenobiologist). Rapace gets the most backstory of anyone in the movie, but that doesn’t add up to character. She’s certainly no Ripley.
Charlize Theron is fine as an evil bitch character who, in my opinion, isn’t an evil bitch. Everybody acts like she is, but she makes judgment calls (like not letting a guy infected with a horrible alien disease back on the ship) that seem fairly reasonable. I kept waiting for the moment where her true evil would be revealed, but it turns out she just doesn’t like everybody else on the mission and she thinks it’s a dumb expedition altogether. Fair enough.
The real standout in the movie is Fassbender. As I said earlier there’s a better version of this movie that focuses more on his David, including one that bothers to explain what the fuck he’s up to the whole film. He’s not quite calculatingly evil like Ash in Alien, and he’s not quite the heroic guy like Bishop in Aliens. He seems sort of mischievous, mostly. There’s never a sense of why he’s doing the things he’s doing - things that cause trouble for the scientists, although malice doesn’t appear to be part of the equation. Honestly, his character arc is baffling and nonsensical, and it isn’t helped any by the fact that the script decides all we really want from an Alien movie is for the exact same things to happen with androids again and again and again.
All of that said, Fassbender is great. He’s a truly magnetic screen presence, and even if I have no clear idea of any of David’s motivations the character is fun to watch. Fassbender seems to be the only actor in the piece who believes he’s in a very good movie, and it’s almost enough to convince you likewise.
There are some other okay performances - Idris Elba captures the working class aesthetic of Alien perfectly - but most of the characters are totally undercooked and poorly written. There’s a geologist played by Sean Harris (who I quite liked in the Red Riding films) that is simply a schizophrenic character who makes no sense from scene to scene. I don’t blame Harris, I blame the script, which places bizarre and contradictory words in his mouth. There are other characters who get a great hero moment at the end but who are so sidelined most of the movie you barely know they exist. And there’s a sequence where a monster attacks the crew, but you have no clue who is being attacked because they’re all tertiary characters who have said and done nothing. Guy Pearce shows up in shockingly shitty old age make-up for no good reason - maybe they’re planning on de-aging him in a future film or something, but that’s no excuse for not simply hiring a competent older actor today.
A number of baffling, stupid decisions in the movie seem predicated on stretching the story out to a planned trilogy. That’s always a bad, bad idea, and it’s truly terrible here. By the time Prometheus ends you don’t feel like you’ve seen a story, you feel like you’ve seen a prologue - but you also don’t want to see any more. You’re quite ready for the movie to end, even though absolutely nothing has been solved, resolved, answered or even adequately addressed. Buy a ticket to the next one if you want to find out why you should have cared about anything happening in this one!
I’d recommend seeing Prometheus in 3D on a big screen as it’s a great looking, well shot movie. But that’s all that it is - Prometheus is a totally hollow piece of design work, even by Ridley Scott standards. In the myth Prometheus brought fire to man; as written by Damon Lindelof he’s just bringing an ornately carved piece of firewood with a simplistic, reductive homily written on it. It’s lovely but utterly useless.