Conceived as an “Alien” prequel but morphed into something more ambitious, Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to science fiction is equal parts wondrous, frustrating and flawed. Beautifully produced with some truly stunning visuals, it’s a sci-fi film that poses some big questions about existence along with an interesting tangential exploration of the same universe in which the “Alien” films reside.
Yet the film is equally a disappointment of considerable order. Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts’ club-footed script contains all the hallmarks that made Lindelof’s work on “Lost” both captivating, annoying and ultimately unsatisfying. The film’s determination to be a prequel to “Alien” only by heavy inference ultimately undermines it from working as either a progenitor to that series or a sci-fi epic that stands on its own. For every inspired sequence or clever idea there’s a pure cliche or just plain dumb move to match it.
“Prometheus” may not break any new ground with its idea of alien species seeding the human race, territory that other sci-fi franchises have trodden before, but it handles this early section of the film with such confidence and brio that you initially look past its few faults. The various key characters are distinctly setup, Scott’s pacing is decent, the mystery is interesting and the atmosphere builds carefully in its tension. The film is one of Scott’s most beautiful looking and handsomely photographed, with the stellar visual effects (and judicious use of both CG and 3D) only enhancing the luster.
Even the early stages on the planetary moon, which deliberately says its LV-223 (not the LV-426 of the “Alien” films), have a nice foreboding about them. Comparisons to H.P. Lovecraft’s Antarctica-set “At the Mountains of Madness” are very apt, the film not only following many of the basics of that story but also indulging in the ideas of ancient alien Gods and tentacled beasties that the author is synonymous with.
Once the black goo starts flowing though, the promising sci-fi gives way to cliched spook house antics and tired action formula which – with one notable exception – deflates much of the good will that it had been carefully building up. Scott plays up the body horror but never quite gets to David Cronenberg levels of inspired insanity. The film’s most memorable scene involves a harrowing and visceral emergency surgery that’s well conceived from top to bottom. More conventional antics involving mutations however are far less successful.
Though the film has some decidedly shaky elements early on, it’s the third act where it falls apart. Scientists suddenly behave in ways either unbelievable or contradictory to both their natures and logic in general. The lead character alone starts out an archaeologist but by the end has become an expert in xenobiology, temporal mechanics, emergency natal surgery, and piloting interstellar vehicles. Numerous surprise reveals prove increasingly ridiculous, while the constant offering of cosmic questions and subsequent answering of them with only more nebulous remarks or over-written exposition quickly becomes irritating.
The various on screen production departments can’t really be faulted – the art and set design, the creature work, and the cinematography are all top of their game. The 3D is excellent as well, some of the best since “Avatar” and in no way distracting from the story. On the flip side there’s the score which is overbearing and forgettable, while the editing and pacing isn’t as robust as you come to expect from Scott (especially as the film goes on). Make-up isn’t as spot on with one character’s old age work and another’s metamorphosis prove artificial and even rubbery. The Engineers however, who look like albino steroid gym freaks, are realised superbly onscreen.
Michael Fassbender’s robot David starts out initially like Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” albeit with a love of Peter O’Toole’s interpretation of T.E. Lawrence. After a great introduction sequence the character proves even more ambiguous and interesting than expected, his motives and intentions never entirely clear. While this makes some of his actions fairly dubious, even when all the twists have been laid out, Fassbender’s delivery and small mannerisms are so precise in every detail that he easily steals the film from his other cast mates.
Charlize Theron also does a solid turn as the no-nonsense company rep, giving a weakly written part more depth and entertainment value than it deserves (though even she can’t take the sting out of one of the film’s true howlers of a bad line). Both Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green underwhelm as the scientists of the piece – Rapace handles the action scenes just fine but fails to give an already bland character any more dramatic depth.
Idris Elba acts as the audience really, the working grunt with a sense of humour and pragmatism to him, and has fun even if his final actions are contradictory. He also gets one line of throwaway exposition (an overly insightful leap of logic on his part) which pretty much explains the entire film’s central questions more effectively in one sentence than the rest of the film combined. The rest of the cast, like Sean Harris from “The Tudors” or Rafe Spall, are there mainly to be cannon fodder and rather eager to the slaughter these faceless men are.
It’s a film that will spark debate – one side claiming it’s just a dumb and silly mess with no redeeming value whatsoever. The other will deride the haters, saying they went in with far too high expectations or they just don’t like “intelligent sci-fi”. Both arguments are utter crap, Scott has created a beast that isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, but it is one that can not be dismissed out of hand because there’s too much commendable stuff in it to simply skip it.
It’s a visually luscious film that, in the vein of true science fiction, asks some serious questions and comes up with some imaginative scenarios. It’s just a shame that those involved didn’t jettison the “Alien” connection (and thus its baggage) and instead focused on delivering a satisfying and self-contained film in its own right. As a standalone movie it fails because it touches upon all sorts of things (the faith/science divide for example is handled mostly by a two-minute pre-school level lecture from Patrick Wilson), and fails to not just resolve them but even consider them beyond anything but a cursory glance.
Neither does it work as an “Alien” prequel as it suggests a possible origin story but again pussyfoots around to such a deliberate degree that the enigmatic quickly becomes tedious. Why those involved seem much more keen on laying the foundations for potential (and far from certain) sequels rather than actually getting this establishing chapter to stand on its own two feet I couldn’t begin to guess. What is certain though is that more than a few will walk away disappointed. Like all of Scott’s work – it’s a film that the passage of time, an alternate cut and subsequent viewings could potentially yield a quite different perspective on down the track.