I so wanted to love this movie, I'm such a big fan of director Ridley Scott. How can a film that purports to offer the backstory behind the blockbuster 1979 film Alien not be amazing? I rank Alien as one of the ten most influential science fiction films ever made, and getting its director back behind the camera to make another epic when his last sci-fi flick was the equally superb Blade Runner seems like a sure winner.
Unfortunately, it's not.
Prometheus is visually stunning, there's no question about it, and has some of the very best 3D I've seen, even comparing quite favorably to the gimmicky 3D James Cameron used in Avatar. The story is epic, and revolves around one of the most fundamental questions we humans have, something that goes back as far as we have told stories: who are we and where did we come from?
The problem is that there's insufficient narrative thread to weave together everything that happens in the film, and much more importantly, there are a large cast of characters who are generally inexplicable. Why are they doing what they're doing? Why do some characters, like tough guy Fifield (Sean Harris) change personality halfway through the film? Android David (superbly played by Michael Fassbender) is perhaps the most inexplicable of all. With an obvious nod to the malevolent computer HAL from the great 2001: A Space Odyssey, David behaves in ways that were frequently baffling.
The film opens in the mid 21st Century with anthropologists discovering cave paintings in northern Great Britain, paintings that share common elements with others discovered throughout the world. But the civilizations never interacted: how can the paintings have similar elements? Putting the clues together, they identify a far distant planet in another galaxy, a planet that has an Earth-like atmosphere. Is that the origin of mankind?
The spaceship Prometheus is built and its crew, other than David, is kept in stasis. When they awaken in a ship with clear visual nods to the Nostromo from Alien, we meet lead scientists Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), along with the detached corporate representative Vickers (Charlize Theron), Prometheus captain Janek (Idris Elba), another dozen or so crew members and even a holographic elder statesman and mission sponsor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, wasted in a role with so much prosthetics).
To be fair, there were a ton of things in Prometheus that seemed perfectly aimed at me, from the obvious nods to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey to David watching the amazing film Lawrence of Arabia and then seeking to emulating T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in both appearance and mannerisms. I really, really loved that part of the movie and found David a highly intriguing addition to the crew, modelled, apparently, after the replicants in Blade Runner, who were "more human than human".
Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw in "Prometheus"
The ship itself was also glorious. When we first travel through it in the film, I remember thinking that it had a visual appeal unlike anything that's been on screen in years. The closest I can think of is the weird steel box that is the space station in the ultimately claustrophobic film Moon (see: my review of Moon). Again, that's something borrowed from the original Alien, though the ship is clearly cleaner and designed specifically for their mission, unlike the Nostromo, which was a bit of a junker ship traveling through the galaxy a la the Millenium Falcon from Star Wars.
There's also a deep philosophical and religious question at the heart of Prometheus. Heck, just think of the mythological Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods for humanity, and then suffered a never-ending painful death. Sometimes asking the wrong questions, or asking questions of the wrong people, can be a disaster. The production notes for the film also bring up an interesting dichotomy between the lead scientists: "Shaw is a believer: she wants to meet these "gods" as a way of getting closer to her more traditional religious views, while Holloway is looking to debunk these kinds of spiritual notions."
Still, ultimately great science fiction, great movies are a magically blend of story and setting, scenes and dialog, acting and engagement. Prometheus comes really close but the somewhat half-baked story ends up undermining the excellent performances and amazing visuals, producing a film that will be a popular sci-fi summer movie but, sadly, not a movie that will stand in the pantheon of great, epic science fiction. Yes, it's visually breathtaking, and yes, I think it's still worth seeing in the theater. Heck, I'll probably go see the 3D IMAX again before it's only available on the smaller screen, but... I expected better of you, Sir Ridley Scott.