The first thing you’re likely to notice about Prometheus is the magnificent score by Marc Streitenfeld. The title theme especially has strains of the questing heroic in it, as if it were trying to express the innate desire of humanity to break free from our natural shackles and finally find answers to the greatest questions ever posed. It’s a masterful piece of music that simply doesn’t belong in this film, which is not so much dedicated to the proposition of asking the big questions as it is to being the film that finally answers the question: What happened before the events of Alien? That question, of course, is not so big. At this point, it doesn’t need an answer.
The focus of Prometheus is disappointing for two reasons. First, it was originally written to be a straight Alien prequel. Then it was subsequently was it redrafted to feel more like its own film, a true science-fiction movie in the most exalted sense of that phrase. The problem is that the story Jon Spaihts was originally hired to tell (the prequel) was so thoroughly reworked by the more original story of Damon Lindelof that the Alien bits now feel grafted onto a movie where they were supposed to be front and center. Frankly, the film that occupied my attention for two-thirds of the running time is the film I’d rather see…the story about humans venturing into deep space in search of answers about our very existence is much more interesting.
Second, in answering the Alien prequel question, not only do the writers cop out of even offering hints at answers to the grander questions they invoke, they fail to provide real answers for many things that happen in the plot. A person seeking to study the phenomenon Hitchcock labeled as the “icebox scene” should enthusiastically set to the task of studying Prometheus, which seems to offer them at a rate of one every ten minutes or so. What keeps you from noticing them at the time is that the film is exceedingly well-directed, well-acted, and well-animated. So much talent was assembled here to so compellingly present such a sloppy story. It breaks my heart for the movie that could have been, if only the people involved had given up the Alien connection. Still, I’m not sorry I saw Prometheus, even if it was ultimately less than I had hoped it would be.
Spoilers, as always, follow:
We begin with a scene whose purpose is unclear at the time, but in retrospect seems to be this movie’s version of the creation of human life. An odd-looking but noble-seeming humanoid, built like a bizarre version of a Greek statue, drinks a liquid that kills him and dissolves his DNA. Cut to the year 2089, where scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover an ancient set of cave paintings with an unusual star pattern. The pattern refers to a cluster of stars light years from Earth, so far that early humans should not have been able to observe them. Yet the cluster is not only present in the cave paintings of this primitive culture in what is now Scotland, but in the artistry of several ancient peoples – who should have been immune from cultural cross-pollination because of the time and distance that separated them. Yet, there they are. The proof seems conclusive: mankind is not alone in the universe.
Four years later, the scientific vessel Prometheus, dispatched by no less a person than Peter Weyland himself, is arriving at the only habitable object in the star cluster, a moon of a Saturn-like planet. Its mission: to examine the moon for signs of the advanced map-placing race, which our two scientists have named the Engineers. Including the two doctors we have already met, the Prometheus features a crew of seventeen, including its captain Janek (Idris Elba) and a mysterious representative of the sponsoring Weyland Corporation named Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). This being the Alien universe, there is also an android named David (Michael Fassbender). The opinion among the crew is divided as to what they’ll find, or whether they’ll even find anything. Those questions are answered quickly as the ship quickly locates what could be an ancient temple. One thing is for sure, though. The mound has hollow spots and is surrounded by straight lines, indicating the guiding intelligence of a designer.
What the crew finds inside the mound is awe-inspiring. Though no live Engineers currently walk about the site, the crew finds irrefutable evidence of their one-time presence, including a well-preserved decapitated body. They also find some ominous black canisters placed carefully along the floor in what seems to have been some sort of worship room. You shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out what those canisters contain, nor whether David is an android in the mold of Ash or Bishop. You might have a bit more trouble figuring out who Vickers really is, and what secrets the Prometheus has hidden even from its own crew. But I doubt it. In fact, I think the problem that will eat at you the longest is why the writers thought that a significant lack of motivated action wasn’t going to be a problem for sustaining viewer interest through the closing credits.
They do their best to distract you, though. The feel and look of Prometheus is top-notch. Anyone who remembers and reveres the Alien aesthetic is going to feel much the same way about this film, which is just a technological update along the same lines. The alien environment and construction on LV-223 is just familiar enough to be unsettling. And the shots of the Prometheus approaching the moon, flying through its atmosphere, and landing on it are simply beautiful. Within the context of the film, they strike exactly the right note: the ant-like humans, venturing heroically and at great risk to the planet of the gods.
That attitude of wonder, incidentally shared by the characters within the story, is a powerful one, and I find it commendable that Prometheus went to so much effort to encourage it. It should be (and hopefully is) an attitude common to people whose work takes them either to the cutting edge of scientific inquiry or the unfathomable depths of life’s mysteries, let alone the place where both intersect. No matter where they are or what they’re doing, at least a few characters always remember to let that feeling of awe wash over them. Even David exhibits this reaction during the most powerful scene: while poking around inside an engineer spaceship, he activates a program that displays schematics for a mysterious plan on a galactic scale. Had the whole movie been executed along those lines, we’d have a more successful successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey on our hands.
The characters are lightly but effectively sketched. Dr. Shaw is a Christian,
and Dr. Holloway is not; the latter believes that the existence of the Engineers validates his view of a wholly naturalistic universe, while the former holds out hope that she will find the Engineers to be fellow believers. Janek is a man just doing his job, looking out for his ship and his crew. Vickers is much more concerned with the success of the mission, or more accurately (as we come to learn) its failure. David mimics humans, but – in a refreshing departure from the norm – actually considers himself to be superior, and behaves like a human only to coddle the weaknesses of his fellow crewmembers. The actors all give wonderfully professional performances. In fact, some of the highlights among the cast are only briefly onscreen: Patrick Wilson can be seen briefly as Dr. Shaw’s father, and Guy Pearce makes us believe in Peter Weyland even through the very unconvincing age makeup. All of these positives might well keep an audience spellbound for some time.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time to develop most of the characters to a significant degree. As a result, either we don’t care about them or they come off as stupid – and sometimes both. And certain awkward moments, such as Dr. Shaw’s out-of-left-field confession of sterility, might well yank an otherwise sympathetic viewer out of the experience long enough to notice how many connections are simply left unmade. For example:
Why would the aliens leave us a star map to the sort of facility we see? Why does Peter Weyland attempt to deceive the crew of the Prometheus over at least two matters,
one of which seems like a thoroughly unimportant thing about which to lie? On what, precisely, does Weyland found the bizarre notion that is ultimately responsible for launching the Prometheus on its journey? Why does David knowingly infect one of the crew when he should already know perfectly well what will happen? Why does a man who claims his concern is solely for his ship and crew so cavalierly endanger them both for no good reason? What could motivate Vickers to put up with Weyland’s plan, when it could only work to her disadvantage if the plan were a success? (And if she was on-board to sabotage the whole operation, why do we see her making no effort toward that end?) How can a woman who has just had a C-section undergo such strenuous physical activity immediately afterward without killing herself? What makes Janek so confident that his last-minute plan will work, and why do two of his crew stick around to help? Why do both Shaw and Vickers behave so stupidly in the aftermath of Janek’s decision? (Seriously, if you want to evade a rolling wheel, don’t run away from it in a straight line. Step to the side!) What makes David so murderous, and then so helpful at the end [shift attitudes toward Dr. Shaw with such abandon]? Why does Shaw pursue her final decision, when all the evidence points to it being a suicidal mission that will not result in answers to any of her questions?
Those are just the questions I brainstormed. I could come up with more. Prometheus leaves a few questions legitimately unanswered, such as “Why are the Engineers behaving in the way they are?” These could be the foundation for a sequel, or simply left to dangle enticingly. But all the more basic questions that go unanswered give me little confidence that a sequel wouldn’t engage in the same sloppy storytelling and leave a comparable number of plot holes open.
Finally, let’s talk about the reason everyone was so excited and nervous for the opening of Prometheus. What we see of the xenomorph and its predecessor creatures is excellent, so you should have no worries on that score. Anyone pulled in by the trailer will find a few good fright-jump moments, and a few scenes of a satisfyingly disgusting nature. But this reason for the film’s existence clashes with the overall tone of much of the film itself. If you were drawn into the plot by the audacious aim of meeting our makers, as I was, the Alien bits will seem more like distractions than anything else. If you’re in the theater for those bits, however, the first third of the film is not going to be a pleasant experience for you, because nothing you wanted is there. The whiplash between the science-fiction segments of the film and the horror segments could have been interesting if managed better, but it wasn’t. Lost in the praise for the original Alien is that it wasn’t trying to be science-fiction; it was a horror film in space. The visceral impact of those scenes does not sit well beside the sense of wonder engendered by the rest of the film, which really does want to ask questions and seems at times like it could even aspire to offering answers, if those pesky xenomorphs weren’t in the way.
“My name is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the last survivor of the Prometheus,” Shaw says in her closing monologue. “And I am still searching.” So am I, Elizabeth. I’m searching for the rest of what could have been a truly great film. I suspect we’ll both be disappointed.
[EDITED TO ADD: Having recently seen the movie a second time, I have to modify a couple of statements. First, there is no solid evidence regarding Dr. Holloway’s attitude toward God, and though some of his comments could be taken to indicate a belief in naturalism, it is never explicitly stated. Accordingly, I am withdrawing those statements. David’s attitude is never murderous, but he seems at several points to say things designed to hurt Dr. Shaw, who alone among the crew has treated him with friendliness. Finally, I misinterpreted Weyland’s holographic statement. One of the two things I thought he lied about was actually a statement of truth, but the words were carefully chosen. Either he was trying to mislead the crew, or deliver a subtle rebuke to someone present. Reflection has convinced me that it is the latter. I’ll talk more about that in another post, however.]