Do you remember Knowing? I don’t want to say that it’s too similar to Prometheus, as one is a flat-out terrible movie and the other… well, I want you to read further than the second sentence to find that out from me! But in a lot of ways, Knowing and Prometheus are similar sorts of films. They both represent a “comeback” of sorts for one-time film geniuses (Alex Proyas in Knowing, Ridley Scott here). They’re both seemingly more concerned with the metaphysics of their universe than they are in the action that still exists within their worlds. They both have plot holes so large you could drive a semi through them. And not coincidentally, they’re both loved beyond all reason by one Roger Ebert.
With apologies to Mr. Ebert, who is a true inspiration for me and the reason why I became interested in film criticism in the first place, but in both cases, he’s off his rocker. It’s thankfully not as bad with Prometheus (Knowing is in the running for worst “legitimate” film of the 2000s), which is a deeply flawed film that will almost assuredly be made better by Scott’s promised directors cut; but one can start to see a bit of a pattern emerging - something about these films have twigged an intellectual reaction from Ebert, getting him to consider the implications of these films far more deeply than they actually deserve (see his most recent essay on the concept of Panspermia for proof).
This is fundamentally the main problem with Prometheus: it does want to be considered deeply; or, at least, the first hour of the film would like us very much to think that, before the floor falls out and we’re left with a movie that has a split personality, wildly trying to appeal to far too broad a range of viewers and satisfying none of them in the process.
Is this a grand sci-fi philosophical rumination on the nature of existence, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is it a modern update to the body horror of the original Alien? Does it need to connect to the Alien franchise at all? Indeed, Prometheus falls victim to a case of mistaken identity, trying so hard to be one thing while failing to realize that the whole time it is, and should be, a totally different thing. I have no doubt that Ridley Scott, at the very least, shot the movie he wanted to come out, but it also can’t help but feel like studio intervention or audience reaction or something changed the course of this film drastically into something far more conventional and therefore boring, even as its conventional parts jut up more noticeably against its unconventional parts than any modern summer tentpole that I can think of.
The first thing that Prometheus is (and should have been for its runtime) is an absolutely gorgeous paean to the wonder of interstellar exploration. The film concerns archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who in the year 2089 (a very generous time frame to set the film in, if you ask me) have discovered that cave drawings all over the world feature the same conglomeration of stars in them, and that that constellation is so far from Earth that they couldn’t possibly know that it exists. This leads the two of them to believe that humanity’s “maker” continues to live on this planet. Jump ahead five years and the Weyland Corporation has apparently funded the archaeologists’ plan to visit this Earth-like planet known as LV-423. The Weyland Corporation is run by an incredibly aged Peter Weyland (played, incredibly distractingly under gobs of old man makeup, by Guy Pearce) who has funded this trip as a plan to keep himself alive indefinitely (somehow).
As trillionaires are wont to do, Weyland staffs his ship with a veritable freakshow of scientists and technicians, ranging from his ice-cold “daughter” Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the salty captain of the ship Janek (Idris Elba), and a seemingly self-aware and mildly psychotic android, David (Michael Fassbender). I’m not one to criticize a movie’s decision to make its cast of characters more interesting or more archetypal than the actual situation would call for, BUT Prometheus does such a bad job of handling these characters (and the many background characters who populate the ship and I can’t be bothered to look up the names for - you know, there’s like the beardy Welsh guy and the dude in the stupid glasses) that something that we’d normally just take for granted as, “oh, maybe these people are eccentric but they’re probably the best in their field” instead comes across as Scott (and his scriptwriters, Jon Spaiths and Damon Lindelof, who are as much to blame for this as anyone) manipulating these characters simply to bend to the whims of the plot, instead of providing them with strong characterization and allowing their decisions to be made organically out of that, as in any well-plotted film ever made. Indeed, when a movie can flat-out squander what comes close to a career-best performance from Michael Motherfucking Fassbender, making his character an inscrutable mess of plot holes and inconsistent motivation, you know there’s something deeply wrong with the script of the film - but I’m jumping ahead of myself.
In the first hour of the film, Prometheus was gunning to be my favourite film of the year, and possibly my favourite film of this short decade so far. In purely visual terms, there are times where Prometheus looks like God himself shot the film. The first ten minutes of the movie, where a giant, pearly white humanoid eats what looks like rotten pomegranate seeds, falls to his death and has his DNA decompose within a river, while the camera swoops in using a combination of practical effects and CGI to show us the DNA splitting into cells, which is then coupled with some of the most achingly gorgeous landscape shots in any film ever made, and also justifies and perhaps even improves upon the 3D used in Hugo, led this viewer to believe that Prometheus was going to be a cinematic tour-de-force, even if all it was was Scott demonstrating his command of special effects in the service of making the audience’s eyes orgasm over and over again. Indeed, for the first hour, Prometheus is basically Scott and his art team proving that they are some of the finest sci-fi designers in the history of film, designing the Prometheus ship to be both functional and chilly (again, in the vein of Kubrick) in equal measure.
When the film is firing on all cylinders, it is truly a wondrous thing to behold. But with the exception of the scene that you see at the top of this review (where David discovers an ancient hologram composed entirely of luminescent particles that is perhaps the best use of 3D in film yet in terms of pure spectacle), this commitment to the fundamental building blocks of science-fiction gets tossed aside in the second act, and distressingly quickly as well (a bit of theme with this movie - it seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere, good plotting be damned. I’m going to lay this at the feet of the editing, which is at times brutally clipped and not in a David Fincher sort of way. Again, I may revisit this one when the Director’s Cut comes out), as the team lands on LV-423. The team’s wonder at discovering this planet is pretty damned muted, even for scientists - it’s obviously setting the audience up to be disappointed at the potential for, perhaps, gentle wonder at benevolent extraterrestrials and to make us more on edge for the inevitable action sequences, but GODDAMN do I wish this movie wasn’t in such a hurry to get there.
Anyways, the planet does have an Earth-like atmosphere, but it’s so full of carbon dioxide that it’s unbreatheable. This leads the team inside of a giant dome/pyramid, where they discover the last traces of the advanced civilization that lived on this planet. Things get dark, things get creepy, a snake-like alien kills a couple of the scientists, and from then on out the movie essentially abandons its questions about the origins of humanity, questions that, if a little bit overdone and hackneyed in the pantheon of science-fiction, would at least provide an ounce of intellectual fodder in the midst of a particularly braindead Hollywood release schedule. It’s hard to take the sort of postulating that someone like Roger Ebert has been doing for this film seriously when the movie itself is seemingly content to forget all about its opening hour and instead have Rapace going through an alien pregnancy a la the original Alien (oh, but she’s barren, so isn’t that ironic? Though with a bit more than lip service being given to the theme of insemination that seems to run through the movie, it could have been a little more interesting than “amped-up fanservice”) and facing off with a giant evil starfish thing.
But here’s the thing: the second act, in and of itself, is still mildly successful. Sure, there are contrivances abound here - why one of the dead scientists comes back as a zombie, for instance, is never really explained - but in terms of pure body horror, it matches the style and tone of the original Alien blow for blow while making it far more stressful for the viewer. But whereas the original Alien was structured from the beginning as a horror film in space, Prometheus just isn’t structured like that. It doesn’t want to be a horror movie, but that’s what it is anyways, which makes this sequence feel gratuitous and weird, a convenient way to quietly drop the philosophizing of the first act and hope that the audience doesn’t notice.
Least successful of all, though, is the final act, which attempts to blend the “whoa, where did we come from?” questions of the beginning with the action of the second act, with a climactic showdown between Shaw and the Titan-esque figure that has awoken from its slumber pod. These final twenty minutes are such a slapdash, nigh incomprehensible slurry of poor editing, expedient plotting (the film puts the explanation of Titans’ plot for Earth domination in the hands of Janek, of all people, who has no real reason for knowing what their plan is, and it’s only due to the prodigious talents of Elba that this sequence even kind of works, at all) and characters shifting on a dime that it feels like Scott and his screenwriters were just ready for this shit to be DONE already, and if it could lead into a sequel and/or provide fanboy “connections” to the Alien franchise, so be it. In fact, it’s the last shot of the movie, which features the birth of the alien from Alien that galls perhaps the most, demonstrating the complete lack of class in this final act, providing only the most cursory of Alien connections and basically suggesting that, yeah, Prometheus as a whole doesn’t really connect to Alien, but these last thirty seconds do! So be happy, fanbase!
Did Prometheus need to connect to the Alien franchise at all? Absolutely not. This could have been just a gorgeous, even wondrous science-fiction movie. In fact, as I watched, I could only think of better science-fiction movies that Prometheus seemed to suggest it wanted to be in league with, and should have gone full force into emulating - 2001 was the obvious pick, but there’s also shades of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Abyss, and even Scott’s own Blade Runner. I’m not against the idea of sci-fi horror - Alien and its sequel are both great, of course - but not at the expense of the things that the movie actually does well, and not at the expense of anything resembling a tight script.
The thing that stings the most about Prometheus, then, is that there is a good movie in there! It’s worth watching just to see some of the most fucking unbelievable cinematography and 3D ever committed to film, and if the movie could have had a legitimate investigation of something resembling a science-fiction narrative, that just would have been icing on the cake. I feel like a Director’s Cut of Prometheus might make the transitions and the motivations of the characters a whole lot clearer and seemingly less arbitrary (one hopes that some of these performances - actually, Rapace, Theron, Elba and Fassbender all give it their best shot, giving further credence to the idea that some of their best stuff was probably left on the cutting room floor by a too savage editor/studio), but fundamentally, there’s not a masterpiece to be found here either. This is a film too ashamed to pursue its identity fully, and while we might have a better film in a few months, we’ll likely never have a better story, and that’s always going to hold Prometheus back from joining the ranks of Scott’s best work. That makes Prometheus a real missed opportunity, and one hopes that whatever Ridley Scott decides to do next, he’ll have a real script to match his ability to generate insane visuals.
EDITED: because I kept calling David “Daniel.” Scorn this way, please!