A visually lavish film, the visuals in Prometheus never disappoint.
It’s just too bad. One one hand, Prometheus will be a victim of hype. There’s almost no way it could ever have lived up to the amount of anticipation that’s been fueling it for over a year. That said, Ridley Scott and writers John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof are the most at fault for what is essentially 2/3 of a good, possibly great film and 1/3 total fucking bullshit. A lot of people are saying that it’s the 3rd act that is weak and are blaming Lindelof for being unable to stick yet another landing with his non-existent, sequel-bait ending. I’d say that even though I’m somewhat facetiously dividing it in thirds myself, the problems start much earlier than the third act. Prometheus is a huge disappointment but there’s an extent to which we have to look in a mirror to find the source of that. Thankfully, this isn’t one of those movies where anyone’s ever going to be taken seriously for “you didn’t get it” defenses. There just isn’t that much to get. Prometheus is a beautiful film with some great ideas and decent performances, but it is also the kind of film that falls apart the more you think about it.
Because describing what I view as the failings of this movie relies a lot on detail and specific reference, I’m going to be spoiling the shit out of this. You may be glad I did, though, as you won’t go in to see it (if you haven’t already) with the expectation that all the mystery is going anywhere interesting. For the most part, Prometheus is old hat. It’s cosmic creators, the boringly named Engineers, are a cypher. The ties to theAlien franchise are tangential or tacked on. The mechanics of the threats, the motivations of the most important characters, and the culmination of a movie-length discourse on certain philosophical issues are all total weak-sauce. On the flip side, I’ve already called the movie beautiful and it really is. It’s also fairly well paced and features many extraordinary and effective scenes (including one of the most horrifying I’ve ever seen) that simply don’t pull together into something that coheres.
Too much of the movie is anchored on these two.
The first sequence of the movie is a prologue that shows us a number of jaw-dropping natural vistas including glaciers, plains, mountains. Something about the photography brings it up a notch or two above even The Tree of Life in terms of expressing the splendor and awe of nature. The sequence culminates in our first look at an Engineer. The giant-sized, white skinned figure is certainly impressive. We see a great big ship taking off, leaving the sole Engineer behind. Is this Prometheus, of a kind? Sure it is. The implication is that this creature’s DNA, some of which escapes his mysterious lonely death, seeds all the life on Earth.
Flash forward and we’re with Dr’s Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Seth Marshall-Green), a young couple who are excavating ruins around the world in search of categorical evidence that many civilizations, separated by insurmountable distances of geography and time, encountered cosmic astronauts who left behind a sort of map. We get to hear some breezy dialogue about the maps being an invitation. These preliminary scenes are also an invitation. We’re being asked to buy into this simple idea, one which does have a lot of traction in some circles as well as plenty of circumstantial evidence (though not quite with the bow on it this movie presents, not that it’s trying to be factual). We accept the invitation on the grounds that we’re going to be taken somewhere interesting. Both Shaw and Holloway are obsessed with the idea of meeting their makers, though they have somewhat different approaches, and it is largely this which carries the momentum of the curiosity and awe that marks the tone of the first half of the film. However, they are not particularly strong or interesting characters. Rapace does fine in her role but she’s the quintessential Christian scientist who refuses to change her beliefs, which she got from her Dad I guess (nice cameo and accent, Patrick Wilson!), even when she encounters stuff that just completely destroys any kind of Christian religious belief. I mean, fuck. Where does the idea that a bunch of milky white giants created us fit into a Christian religious system except in the most apocryphal and metaphorical of ancient lore (the Nephilim?) that is pretty disconnected from the savior myth that centers the whole religion anyway? Holloway, on the other hand, is an adventurer more than a scientist. He’s jazzed about everything all of the time and is a leaper, not a looker. Marshall-Green doesn’t light the world on fire, but his character is the more fun of the two seeming leads. So of course, he dies the first of the ignominious deaths.
Idris Elba can fly my ship anytime.
The first obvious mistake the movie makes is in jumping us directly from that final excavation and its glib conclusions to what must be a hugely expensive (Vickers says a trillion $$$ later) undertaking. The next scenes are of android David (Michael Fassbender) passing the time in the 2 year journey the ship Prometheus takes to the moon the ancient maps identified. This is nice, as David is actually a compelling character for the most part and this is a really solid introduction. The issue is that we’ve completely skipped over the events between the discovery in Scotland and getting out into space. It’s like the movie is telling us that obviously that’s the next step. Um, no. You need to do a little more, and you need to do it in the film and not in the fucking viral marketing campaign. 10 bucks says there’s a fucking director’s cut with all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted.
I watched the three videos featuring a commercial for the David series androids, a TED talk given by Weyland in the 2010′s (80 years before the events of the film) that sets him up as some kind of rogue visionary who we might believe would fund something like this, and finally a telephone pitch Shaw gives to him to try and get the backing to launch the Prometheus mission. These videos contain much of the missing connective tissue that would have shown a little more respect for the audience than simply saying “and then they all went into space”. It’s just jarring as presented. Even something like Holloway saying “call Weyland” would have let us in on something which justified the stuff we see next. Instead, the movie seems to be assuming we already know who these people are and how this all came together. It’s either lazy or it’s presumptuous in a distinctly irritating way.
The tech is glossy and expensive looking, an intentional far cry from the “blue collar” of Alien.
Still on the ship, we see David watching Shaw’s dreams. This singularly creepy scene sets up a strange fascination he has with Shaw and could be seen as the preliminary moments leading to where their relationship eventually goes, but it’s never really clear why David takes such an interest in Shaw and therefore never clear why he does any of the fucked up shit he does to her. Once he’s woken everyone else up, we’re introduced to Vickers (Charlize Theron) who is a total hard-ass and the most confusing, wasted “main” character in the film. More on that later.
As they hit the moon, LV-224, they almost immediately discover ruins that are obviously artificially constructed. No one acts shocked or amazed or gratified, the movie doesn’t have time for that. Instead, they actually check to see if the big symmetrical objects are natural or not. Buh? Then, as per Holloway’s enthusiasm, they just get right on with exploring. I like that, actually, as it is exactly how I’d feel if I were a part of something like this mission. The next sequence is everything you wanted from this movie. Creepy atmosphere, simultaneous awe and vague unease, lots of cool technology and witty exchanges. Some violence, some intriguing potential double agendas, etc. Here is where the movie is at its strongest and here is also where things start to really go wrong, both for the crew and for the movie.
One of the film’s many great, evocative shots.
They discover that the Engineers are dead. They find bodies and a strange room full of vases and a giant head that looks very human. On one wall is an edifice carved in a shape eerily like the classic xenomorphs. The vases start to react almost as soon as the crew shows up. Though he is told not to touch them, David grabs one anyway while the other crew members try to recover the masked head of one of their supposed alien gods. Now, we know this is the set up for whatever crazy evil shit is going to happen to these people and has already happened to who they’ve come looking for. It’s also one of those artifacts of poorly thought out bullshit that drags this movie down like the fucking Hindenburg. See, we never really know what the goop inside the vases is or does exactly because it seems to be and do everything.
Almost immediately shit starts to go bad. Two crew members are left behind and encounter a phallic proto-facehugger that promptly dispatches both of them. Meanwhile, David starts messing with his vase while Shaw and other scientists examine the head of the Engineer. In one of the better scenes calling back to Alien, they try to reanimate the head a bit using an electrical probe in order to see how it died (it has an obvious affliction, manifesting as sores on its skin). We see that it died much like the one from the prologue: its veins and skin turn black and start to basically disintegrate. It’s super creepy and confirms that the elephant-like mask is some kind of helmet and that yes, the Engineers are a lot like us. Of course, the movie can’t let the obvious physical and circumstantial resemblances be. Instead somebody pulls out their ACME Science Cap and decides the Engineers are 100% genetically identical to humans. It’s bafflingly stupid. I understand that the margin of difference in DNA is huge but I don’t understand being asked to believe that humans have genes for Giant Muscular Milky Men hidden somewhere in the ol’ code.
David is a character wrought by contradictions in the writing, contradictions which occasionally convince you he’s more interesting than he is.
So that out of the way, let’s go back to David and his new toy. David is an android who professes to have no emotions. In fact, during the earlier little presentation that is the movie’s way of telling us how we got from Scotland to space, ancient Weyland (Guy Pearce in fucking terrible old man drag) goes out of his way to use David as some kind of philosophical counterweight to the spiritual quest Shaw and Holloway are on. David has no soul, sneer sneer, but humans do and that is why we are human and ask BIG questions and think BIG thinks and zzzzzzzz… wuh?
Yes. That is about as deep as this movie ever fucking gets, guys. ANYWAYS. David may be said to not have emotions but he occasionally shows some intriguing bits of self-direction that just wind up being programming from Weyland. Even when it’s clear that David’s autonomy is predicated on a second set of programming from the old man, it still isn’t clear why either he or Weyland wanted to infect Holloway with that blackskin disease much less get Shaw pregnant with a squid monster, or even that this would happen. That’s probably why, after Shaw deals with the critter in her own way (the aforementioned super horrifying scene that outdoes anything in the other Alien films), no one bothers to talk about it any more at any point in the movie. Of all the weird lapses, the glossing of plot and character, this was the most insanely frustrating one. Why even put that shit in the movie if its just there so that there’s a giant squid facehugger to kill the last, obnoxiously evil Engineer? Why, you fuckers?
Worse than that is that the goop, or the cockmonster, somehow turns the somewhat fun Scottish geologist Fifield (Sean Harris) into some kind of zombie thing. And wouldn’t you know it, he just has to go on a rampage and kill all the useless extras. I could understand if the goop was a bioweapon that just disintegrated motherfuckers. I could even understand if it created parasites that did xenomorph like stuff but there seems to be no connection between the cockmonster’s effect on Fifield, the vase stuff’s effect on Holloway and then Shaw, and the generation of the cockmonster in the first place. My BEST GUESS is that it’s supposed to be some linear or cross-generational succession of proto-xenomorphs. The final shot of what comes out of the last Engineer’s chest seems to support that but it’s just poorly handled in the movie. Just incoherent and too abundantly silly for any viewer-generated theories, no matter how logical, to make any difference.
Shaw does get to prove she is one tough customer, at least.
It just tears out all the significance of the birth scene. It also renders the prior scene where Holloway and Shaw discuss her infertility a laughable one. An obvious insert to somehow make the birth scene more what, shocking? Unexpected? Okay, then, but why are we forced to hear this totally forced discussion between these two? It’s nice to see them hook up and show that, after everything, they are still in love. We can even see why without being told, they are both on a spiritual journey and their mutual enthusiasm, if not their scientific acumen, ties them together on it. That’s nice, I guess, but I’ll take the funny and much more human bit between Jarrek (Idris Elba) and Vickers any day.
Then as Shaw stumbles around presumably looking for someone to say WTF WTF WTF to, she finds Weyland all woken up (because he’s obviously been on the ship the whole time) and being tended to by David. It turns out Weyland just wants to live forever and somehow figured going out in space on a wild Engineer chase would be just the thing. I mean fuck, a few minutes of thought could have yielded a better justification for either his presence or his belief that he’ll be saved. Or you could have just had him want to “meet his maker” before he died, making him a de facto ally of Shaw and Holloway’s and totally explaining, in a stroke, why he’d risk the venture. There’s no development for the character and there’s no reason for him to be played by Pearce when you never see him Pearce’s actual age in this movie. It’s mind boggling and technically a bigger waste than Vickers, but she’s a much more integral character so I feel much sorrier for Charlize Theron, though she does get to have more fun than most of the other actors.
They actually have some chemistry in their one chemistry-laden scene. Too bad the movie doesn’t have time for them either.
What isn’t fun is the scene where she greets Weyland. She seems to want him to die so she can take over the company. Her demeanor and attitude are highly suggestive of the Weyland-Yutani we see in the other Alien films. They are cold fucks and Vickers is sort of the queen cold fuck, except for that one little dalliance I guess. It’s Idris Elba though. Idris Elba. The Weyland scene suggests not only that Vickers is a sociopath but also that she might just be a robot like David. I half expected this to be the case not only because Jarrek jokes about it, but because she calls Weyland “father” for no apparent reason. Like why shoehorn this extra dimension in there? It’s just a lazy way of trying to make their bullshit more resonant and it’s so cynical that it stings.
For all that Vickers is one of the last Prometheus crew standing and has some unresolved conflicts with, like, everybody… she also dies a totally wasteful and stupid death. You’re left wondering what the point of her character even was. But only for a second cuz then it’s back to Shaw outrunning a fucking spaceship.
Just a beautiful moment. Gah, this movie.
Somewhat before Shaw defeats the spaceship using jocular suicidal astronauts like a baseball, there’s the big meet and greet with the last Engineer whom David discovered when exploring the bridge of what is by now obviously a ship. For reasons that we can only guess at, the Engineers were all poised to slaughter us 2000 years ago with their magical goop before it got them instead the silly buggers. The frustrating thing about the Engineers’ reasoning is that it can only be one of a few equally boring things: we were an accident caused by one of them dying in our prehistory, we were the result of that but it was an intentional ritual or something and we just went wrong, they do this sort of thing for fun, etc. I mean, it is interesting in some ways to consider a race of human (100% genetic match!) supers who worship a death god or something (that xenomorph edifice?) and maybe create and murder sapient species as some sort of religious ritual. The statement you coulda made with that, Ridley! Anyway, we never find out why they want to kill us but it seems like the one thing Elizabeth Shaw cares about by the end. Her quest for answers might be interesting if we were given any, even unsatisfying ones, but we aren’t. Or if they hadn’t already ruined these guys forever by having the last one a total cardboard villain. It just straight up starts killing fools the moment they talk to it. No pathos, not even a sense of it as a being we can’t possibly understand (see: Lovecraft). Instead, it’s just a snarling, murderous monster and that, ladies and gentlemen, is fucking boring.
So after the ship is sunk and the last Engineer face-fucked by a giant squid, the time comes for David’s head to agree to help Shaw strike out into the unknown to find the origins of the Engineers, to ask them “why?” as if that wasn’t the point of the whole movie we just watched. I mean, I like the idea of Shaw and David’s head on a sort of sojourn through the universe. There’s something neat about that for sure. The trouble is, that’s the ending. Which is to say, there isn’t one. To beat the drum one more time, it’s the same ending as fucking Transformers right down to Shaw’s final recording. I was literally blinking at the screen.
The action finale of outrunning a crashing spaceship is just bad. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still just… bad.
So this has kind of been a tally of what I didn’t think worked in this movie. Most of it didn’t work, I guess. It was determined to unravel itself and that is just disappointing. Prometheus is a movie with which no one is going to get what they want. The Alien purists are going to wish it was scarier or whatever and the people taken in by the grandeur of the philosophical pretext of the movie are just going to shake their heads. I mean, it’s all right if you want to touch on faith and spirit and belief vs. reason, guys, but Christianity is not the automatic voice of all spiritual inquiry. I’m sorry, but that’s just insulting at this point.
At the end of the day, though, I can’t really say “don’t see it” even if I have a sneaking suspicion it might end up on my Worst list for 2012 if only because the “worst” movies for me are always the ones with the most promise and least respect for that promise. It’s not even a matter of Prometheus not doing what I wanted it to. All I wanted was for it to be internally logical, smart, and to have an ending. No, not a different or happy ending. Just a fucking ending at all. No, I have to say that people should go see it if only to see what they make of it. To see if it really is as empty as it seems, as I and many others have found it. Will knowing that it isn’t going to blow your mind make any difference? Maybe it doesn’t matter if blowing your mind with science fiction spectacle and grandiose philosophical inquiry was the very thing that sold people on this movie. I think it does, though.
Part of the ship’s systems are activated by playing a fucking flute. I am not making that up. It’s one of the most absurd, out of place things I’ve ever seen in a self-serious movie. Just bonkers.
Still, this is one of the most technically amazing films ever made. For that alone, I may be going too far in saying I’d ever dream of including it in a Worst list (I guess we’ll see). I spend a lot more time on narrative stuff than technical stuff in my reviews because, frankly, I know far more about the narrative than the technical. That said, it seems obvious while watching it that Prometheus is a technical masterpiece. Even the weirdly buoyant theme winds up winning you over after it’s finished weirding you out (seriously, it sounds like a fucking Star Trek theme). Beyond the precision of his visual and auditory design, Scott shows that he is still good with actors. The stand-out is Michael Fassbender, which should surprise no one. His performance manages to transcend the on-page silliness and contradictions of the character to give us something uniquely creepy, intriguing, and perhaps misunderstood. The idea that David might grow into more as he journeys with Shaw into the stars is one of the lingering pieces of solace I can muster for a movie that wants to be a franchise-starter but probably won’t be. Critical word on it is that it’s a mess, narratively, and that’s just certifiable and will be obvious to most people. The kind of people who shrug off the Transformers 3′s and the John Carter’s of the world will not shrug off Prometheus. It’s a movie meant to be taken seriously, that vows high-brow, and never quite delivers.
I could be wrong. This could be another movie where the divide between audience and critical response is as wide as the space between a good ending and whatever happens in Prometheus. This is Ridley Scott’s Avatar and everything that statement entails.
Or maybe it’s the X-Men: First Class of 2012, a movie composed of technical flare, a selection of nigh-perfect scenes or moments, hampered by stupidity early and often, on an escalating scale until it all ends so bad it is like this happening to you:
Needs to get out of the way when hack writers start playing their magic space flutes.