Prometheus is certainly a film that leaves you pondering many a complex question when you leave the theatre; questions that will puzzle your puzzler for days after. Sadly there are as many questions to ask about gaping plot holes and character motives as there are questions posed by the film’s grandiose exploration of creationism and the meaning of life. Reader Note: this is spoiler free review in terms of plot points, but those wanting to stay completely spoiler free should NOT read on.
The crew of the Prometheus, a mixture of corporate types (from the Weyland corporation of the Alien franchise), scientists, and the ship’s pilots are heading to the distant moon known as LV-223 in search of an alien race thought to be Engineers.., i.e. the engineers of mankind. After a brief setup the film is essentially an exploration of who these creatures are and what the consequences of this discovery are for creationism and Darwinism. This isn’t the only thing being explored by the participants in this puzzle to end all puzzles; unknowingly the crew are also exploring the extraterrestrial origins of the human and non human characters in Ridley Scott’s 1979 seminal sci-fi horror Alien. And it’s here where the problem lies. The film is constantly battling to tie these two threads together; a task both unenviable and clearly unachievable.
To call Prometheus an Alien prequel isn’t a spoiler. We’ve known it for a while now, ever since the unashamed Alien-esque trailer debuted. How and how far the film would go to explain the origins of Alien became the point of debate. For once, the blame of audiences’ missed expectations can’t be placed at the feet of mischievous marketing bots who put together the trailers that convince us to watch movies. Scott too is guilty of this throughout the movie itself. First there are the obvious ‘same-universe’ links to Alien; the Weyland corporation (and logo), the Space Jockeys, period setting, the preset ‘LV’ for planet naming, the alien spacecraft and the android David all directly link this film to Scott’s original. Then there’s the plot structure itself; ship’s crew lands on alien moon, discovers evil lifeforms, crew infection, danger, evil corporate agenda, corporate android helps/hinders. You’ve been here before. When? 1979. And finally there’s the tonal qualities; anything from the title card to the alien craft design, human craft designs, the faded in Jerry Goldsmith score, flame throwers, chambers containing dangerous icky substances, creatures that like throat raping and stomach bursting. For me the film simply isn’t a satisfying payoff to all of this Alien discourse.
The cast do well with a muddled script. The top billed players all deliver solid performances respectively. Rapace is a solid action heroine who gets a couple of stand-out moments in particular, Theron is good as the heartless corporate type, and Michael Fassbender steals the show as camp android David. In fact, David is a more successful prequel than the movie itself, tucking in nicely beside Ian Holmes’ Ash. Sadly there’s the kind of cast overload which you’d associate more with AVP than Alien. Nameless characters there for the killing that get little to no character development and are irritating by their confusing motivations. For example a Biologist (whose name I genuinely can’t remember) is in one scene scared to learn of a possible close encounter, and in another happy to attempt to pet a giant, arm-breaking, space worm. Doesn’t make sense. Likewise, the ship’s Captain shows little to no care for two crew member’s safety in one scene, and in another is offering himself up for self sacrifice. Doesn’t make sense. There’s just too many characters delivering awful forced, clunky, hokey dialogue meaning less screen time for the main players and the grander plot at large. A huge error.
Because of these reasons the ending is rushed ,and again confusing. There’s a push to deliver an Alien pleasing finale which then shies away from actually being anything whatsoever to do with the events of Alien. A hugely frustrating and baffling move. Scott pulls a Kansas City Shuffle of interstellar proportions here friends; he’s shown you one card and dealt you something else entirely. Clever? Intentionally tricky? Ambiguous? I’m not sold. As a massive Alien fan, I would have been happy to watch Prometheus and its brave attempt at human explanation without any links to Alien. I would also have been happy to watch Prometheus through the lense of ‘Alien same universe’. But you can tell that the weight of the Alien expectation is playing on the film’s mind throughout. It’s no surprise that this movie began life as ‘unnamed Alien prequel’. So what we end up with is a clutter of ideas. Two square pegs and one round hole. It is visually stunning. It is a very different, and welcome type of summer blockbuster. It does have some wonderfully memorable moments. It is scored very well by Marc Streitenfeld. It is photographed beautifully by Scott and Dariusz Wolski. But if you were expecting this film to be the journey from Prometheus A to Alien B then you’ll be sorely disappointed. That is a problem as the film wants so much for you to make these connections throughout, and that is a failing as it simply doesn’t pay off that way. If anything, Alien is the C of this equation.