Is there a god? Does god hate us? What is god? Is Michael Fassbender god? Prometheus asks all of these eternal questions, pondering with a grandiosity now only seen in vapid summer movies. It is easy to admire Prometheus for what it dares to accomplish. In the same breath, it is easy to dislike the film for supplanting the wonder of these unanswerable questions by setting up answers and, naturally, botching their delivery. The film believes it is smarter than it truly is, meaning that it believes it is smarter than us. Prometheus buckles under the weight of its own mangled but beautiful ambition.
The plot behind Ridley Scott’s “space epic” has been kept under wraps, or so they say. The stirring trailer, replete with those Alien wails and stroboscopic cuts to black, actually reveals most of the movie. Not in context, of course, but the most memorable images of the film’s latter half are already in the marketing campaign. It is a mixed blessing that the images in the trailer are so captivating that it is hard to forget them.
Prometheus opens with the inception of life on Earth. The theory proposed is a rather clumsy variation of panspermia, wherein life originates from elsewhere in the universe. The first shots are beautiful, not unlike some of The Tree of Life’s stellar second unit work. Fast-forward so many years to 2089, where scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are searching caves on Scotland’s Isle of Skye for paintings that carry extraterrestrial secrets, pointing to life in the distant stars. Boring. Snap to the spacecraft Prometheus four years later, where Shaw and Holloway awake from stasis alongside a collection of mercenaries and scientists. There is that initial crew dinner scene you have seen in Aliens, Star Trek and every other sci-fi ‘space soldier’ flick, except the jokes fall flat. There are two knuckleheads, Millburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris), both poorly written and supplied weak banter. You know what is going to happen to their characters; you do not protest.
The mission at hand is to land on the moon LV-223 and see if these aliens were even there at all and why. They were there, of course. These proto-human “Engineers” manufactured a base on this moon long ago and … it is best to let the film tell the rest.
Dialogue is the obvious misstep. The most memorable line from the film is one from another. Android David (a wonderful, Bowie-esque Michael Fassbender) occupies part of his time on the ship watching Lawrence of Arabia and even styled his hair after Peter O. Toole’s. Before stepping onto the alien surface, he repeats the haunting quote, “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.” To be fair, it is tough to beat that. But the lack of humor (a memorable aspect of Aliens) and perceptive discourse (in a film with such ideas) is what will keep an audience five or 50 years later from connecting with a film so graphically dependent.
There is one laughable scene when Janek (Idris Elba), the ship’s callous pilot, runs into a room where Shaw is suiting up for the final mission. He lists a number of crucial details regarding the Engineers that he would have no way of knowing. It is a lazy excuse to advance the story and a screenwriting blunder.
The problem with Prometheus comes down to the way it chooses to tell its story. Clearly, it is an action-adventure film, and a pretty good one at that. Scott stages compelling entertainment. Older audiences tired of the politically correct PG-13 blockbuster standard will find a violent spectacle with production values normally reserved for safe bets like Avatar. The visual team crafts some of cinema’s most sweeping and striking moving images. A shot of the Prometheus gliding across the stars and another dwarfing the ship against the moon affirms the movie’s epic scope, an inverse of the slow pan over the Nostromo that commenced the self-contained Alien.
Scott sees this as his 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the opening shot of a shadowed Earth not too subtly suggests. Communication breaks down, however, when addressing philosophical questions about god, man’s purpose and the Copernican principle within a generic action movie structure. The film’s climax could carry a sense of wonder — without spoiling much, it relates to a “first contact” with superior beings. Instead, it is an action scene with nothing to say. Not ‘nothing’ in the nihilistic sense, nor even an ambiguous, interpretative one. Prometheus just botches the landing, feeling limp and disconnected.
Take the film’s half-baked commentary on religion. Deeply pious, Shaw demands her cross back after it was confiscated. Bombarded with death and destruction, she still insists on believing simply to put a positive spin on all this tragedy. There are plenty of critiques of religion at hand, from the Engineer’s dark plans for mankind to expedition CEO Peter Weyland’s (Guy Pearce) god complex. To balance the debate, a religious protagonist is thrown in, but she comes across as naïve and senseless. Maybe that is the point. In any case, Shaw is either an incomplete character or a degrading attack on faith. I'm not sure which one is worse.
I levy these criticisms only because the filmmakers have brought these expectations upon themselves. Once upon a time, madmen like Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick were granted millions to create intellectual epics like Apocalypse Now and 2001. Ridley Scott was one of those crazies, as Blade Runner was made under similar circumstances. You do not see cinema of that ambition and allowance today.