Early on in Prometheus, when the story first starts to rumble along through its exposition and the beginnings of its extraterrestrial intrigue, I couldn’t help but notice a considerable number of similarities to a previous film in the Alien franchise. That film: 2004’s instantly forgettable AVP: Alien vs Predator.
That may seem a little far-fetched, but think about it- in both films, a Weyland from the franchise’s ever-present Weyland-Yutani Corporation funds a massive exploratory mission, complete with all manner of scientists and hired guns. The basic stories of both films hinge on the discovery of alien involvement in the beginnings of human society. And both films eventually lead us to a structure vaguely resembling a pyramid that’s full of something vaguely resembling Alien eggs.
Thankfully, Prometheus draws on a whole lot more than the murky, goo-splattered mess that was AVP. Over the course of its two-hour and four minute running time, Prometheus bears a striking similarity to some films with much higher cinematic aspirations. The film’s opening sequence, a dialogue-free re-telling of the origins of all life on Earth, is full of sweeping views of huge swaths of nature, not unlike something you might see in last year’s The Tree of Life. When the eerily emotionless android David (Michael Fassbender) whittles away two solitary years on the titular spacecraft, it evokes both the space loneliness of Duncan Jones’ recent sci-fi outing Moon and the dreaminess of 2001: A Space Odyssey (thanks to a touch of classical music in the soundtrack).
And of course there’s Alien, the film that launched director Ridley Scott into the annals of science fiction history and created the world in which Prometheus resides. Here, more than a few of Alien‘s story beats are recycled with only the slightest of alterations- the spaceship crew emerging from stasis, making small-talk at the breakfast table and fighting over whether an infected crew member should be let back on the ship. Even Alien‘s climactic final moments are copied and pasted into the end of Prometheus, though largely without the shock and horror that made the original so memorable.
It’s this mishmash of different sci-fi homages- some from classic films, some from duds, some that uplift the film and some that make it seem derivative- that illustrates how Prometheus fares as an overall film. Above anything else, Prometheus is inconsistent. It wants to be a thoughtful, high-concept film about theology, creation and life. At the same time it wants to be a straightforward creature feature where nameless space explorers get picked off one-at-a-time by slimy monsters from outer space. And in trying to do both, it succeeds at neither.
The actual story is very simple. A motley crew of scientists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, among others), a corporate shill (Charlize Theron), a ship captain (Idris Elba) and an android (Fassbender) voyage to a faraway planet that may be home to the alien species that originally created life on Earth. Naturally, very little goes according to plan and soon all manner of alien nastiness is running amok.
And that’s the bulk of the film right there- various characters getting offed by extraterrestrial creepy-crawlies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, per se. In fact, Prometheus improves dramatically when it abandons the big questions about life and the universe and focuses all of its attention on the blood and guts. There’s a chunk of the film around the halfway point where the tension and the craziness finally starts to boil over and Prometheus becomes as breathless, unpredictable and scary as the original Alien. Characters reappear unexpectedly, others undergo drastic changes, and the alien planet’s biology starts to surface in surprising ways (especially in a graphic emergency birth sequence).
Yet when the horror aspects fail, they fail spectacularly. The crew members of the Prometheus tend to make laughable, cliched decisions in the face of danger, to the point where the film almost feels cartoonish. I’d like to think that if a slimy alien monster were to hiss menacingly at me, I wouldn’t approach it while trying to sooth it with baby talk. It also doesn’t help that every character who isn’t played by a popular actor (save for Marshall-Green, who does a better-than-decent job as the lead character’s love interest) has either one general personality trait or none at all. Unlike Alien, the majority of those on board the Prometheus are nameless cannon fodder- instantly memorable characters like Mercenary 3 or Mechanic 4.
This points the way to Prometheus‘s biggest flaw: the script. The dialogue, for the most part, is achingly flat, devoid of any personality or spark. Scenes that feature neither alien worlds nor life forms, and rely on the characters interacting within the confines of the ship, tend to sink like a stone.
Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw suffers under the weight of the script more than anyone else. Shaw, as a character, has absolutely zero personality. She exists only as a reaction to other, more well-defined characters- over the first half of the film, her boyfriend (Marshall-Green) and her boss (Theron) make decisions, display emotions and further the story while Shaw simply nods along and delivers bland, expository dialogue. Then as the action heats up and she becomes a variation on Alien’s own heroine Ellen Ripley, there’s no emotional connection to Shaw and her action scenes seem cold and disconnected.
The script’s not doing anyone any favors, so ultimately the strength of each character depends on the actor filling the role. Elba and Fassbender make the most of what they’ve been given, each grinding some genuine likability out of the brief moments meant to highlight their characters. Despite the high caliber of the cast, no one else seems to fare as well.
Yet when the dialogue is shoved aside, Prometheus‘s spiritual side transforms into something genuine. Two scenes in particular- the origin-of-life opening and a scene where Fassbender’s android marvels at an alien map of the cosmos- allow the film’s visual strengths to get the point across in a much deeper way than the dialogue ever could. In these two instances, Prometheus is full of wonder, conveying both the mystery and the awe-inspiring power of the universe in a way that’s both simple and overwhelmingly huge.
And the visuals are by far the strongest aspect of Prometheus. In terms of cinematography, the film is leaps and bounds above anything that’s been released in recent memory, aspiring to the visual greatness of the sci-fi classics it imitates. The photography, stark alien sets and creature effects (both digital and live-action models) all combine to create a world that’s realized in full. Nothing in Prometheus feels like a set or a soundstage, or even a real-life locale that’s been wrangled for a movie shoot. It just feels real.
So ultimately, would I recommend Prometheus?
Maybe. It’s a film where the whole is significantly weaker than the sum of its parts. Those parts can be fantastic at times, with occasional glimpses at genuine spiritual discovery, tightly paced action and a few well-earned scares. Visually, it’s a joy to behold. That said, a weak script will forever keep Prometheus from greatness (and, more often than not, plunge it into boredom and frustration). But if you’ve been longing for intelligent science fiction on the big screen, it’ll at least give you some food for thought.
It may not be an outright success, but at least Prometheus was swinging for the fences. And that’s a lot more than you can say for most big-budget films these days.