Prometheus is a film that wants very much to be more than a horror film. Sir Ridley Scott, who crafted the 1979 film Alien (from which this film is inspired), has grown as an artist in the last quarter century. It is therefore understandable then, when revisiting the universe of Alien, he would want to do more than simply make another “haunted house in space” film. And that is the fatal flaw of Prometheus. The audiences’ expectations are wildly different from the intentions of the filmmaker. Rather than simply jettison the Alien connection and make an original film (allowing the both the filmmaker and the audience the advantage of a blank slate), the makers of Prometheusattempted to create a synthesis, attaching elements of the Alien mythos into their story. Unfortunately, the resulting film suffers as a result.
The plot of Prometheus is fairly simple. Scientists on Earth discover a series of ancient paintings and artifacts that indicate that our ancestors had contact with an alien culture. Jump-cut several years and said scientists are arriving at a remote world, believed to be the home of the alien culture. The ship transporting the scientists, the Prometheus, lands on the planet and investigates an ancient ruin. If you have seen any of the Alien films (or any SciFi horror films) you know the rest of the story: scientists disturb the ruin, set off a series of events that brings something back to life, and are then picked off one by one.
Despite a cliché storyline (I believe the SyFy channel has made at least a half dozen films with this plot), Prometheus has a lot to recommend. The film’s opening sequence (which may or may not portray the creation of life on Earth) is both stunning and disturbing. In fact, this sequence answers many of the questions that some viewers angrily claim are left unanswered (more on that in Spoiler section of the review). Also, as with all of Ridley Scott’s films, Prometheus is beautifully filmed; Scott’s vision of space travel and planetary exploration looks amazing, particularly in IMAX 3D. One of the sequences, a silicon storm that traps several of the crew members outside of the safety of the Prometheus, is remarkably unique and extremely exciting to watch. I also enjoyed the acting. This recommendation comes with a reservation: the characters, like most everything involving the script, are poorly written. But I did like the characters (even though I couldn’t tell you most of their names if you put a gun to my head) and that, I believe, is because of the charismatic performances of the cast. They didn’t have much to work with, but did their best. Finally, the film has tremendous atmosphere. As mentioned, it looks amazing and Scott manages to make you believe you are on another planet, visiting an alien vessel. The film does work as an experience.
And now for the bad: let’s begin with the script. There isn’t much here. For a film that wants so much to be a deep 2001-ish meditation on the meaning of life, there are few serious questions asked. At one point, a character tells another that she should remove her cross because they have discovered that mankind was created by an alien life-form. Her response is “But who created them [the aliens]?” This is circular logic that defies explanation and deflates any possible questions. As a result, aside from a few platitudes (some atheistic, some theistic), there are few deep questions asked. I am left wondering if the studio feared that if the film dug too deep in matters of spiritual existentialism it could hurt the box office. Everyone believes in something (even if that something is nothing) and the vast majority (on all sides of the argument) are quick to stop listening when someone states something else as the truth. So, platitudes and emasculated questions are the order of the day in Prometheus. As already mentioned, there is next to no character development. The people who populate Prometheus are not characters; rather they are walking plot points who speak only exposition. A perfect example of this is David, the android. I have conflicted feelings about David. He is a cliché but understandably so. He has learned to be human by watching humans (and movies) and mimics what he has seen. He feels familiar and unoriginal. Within a few minutes, the audience knows what role David will fill in the film and how he will move the plot along. His every action and every word of dialogue are almost preconceived by the audience. This is an interesting way to view artificial life, but the portrayal of David contributes to the “been-there done-that” feel of the entire film. There is very little which is original in Prometheus: it feels like a typical SciFi horror film, just more artfully shot.
And then there is the ending. Needless to say, from this point forward there will be SPOILERS. The ending of Prometheus is terrible. After nearly everyone is killed (which is fine, after all they, like the mythical Prometheus trespassed where they should not have gone and must be punished), Shaw and David survive and, finding another alien vessel, depart to find the home of the “Engineers” and find the answers to why their creators had decided to destroy them. I understand the desire to please the audience, but, if any film called for the death of the entire cast of characters, this was it. Shaw should have killed David (who was the Lucifer of the film, manipulating all, whispering poison in peoples’ ears) and surrendered herself to death, for trespassing where she should not have gone. This would have been the natural and organic ending. Instead, she chose to help the android that, essentially, killed the man she loved. Only moments before she was in tears, apologizing to God and the memory of her lover, claiming that they should not have come here, but, all of a sudden, all’s forgiven with David and let’s go out even further and find more aliens. You know, just forget everything she had said for the last hour of the movie.
I have to comment on a chief complaint about Prometheus. The film, obviously, has its flaws. But unanswered questions are not one them. The film is perfectly clear in its thesis. Mankind was created by the “engineers”. Sometime later, the engineers had decided to eradicate humanity with the biological weapon we all know so well from the Alien films. This has apparently confused some people. The film does not explicitly state why, but I believe the answer is implicit. The Engineers create by way of destruction; the opening sequence made that quite clear. The Engineers had created a perfect organism (as the original Alien film described the Aliens) and, following the pattern, its creation had to come by way of death. We all know the drill: the aliens must gestate inside a living host, before killing the host during the birthing process. Doesn’t it make sense that the Engineers first create life that will later act as hosts for their perfect organisms? The reason humanity was created, according to Prometheus, was to act as a womb for the Aliens. There you go: questions answered, please recycle your 3d glasses in the bin outside the screening room. Or, at least, that’s what I got out of the film. Of course, there are mysteries to the film: what is the goo coming from the pods? Why did the head of the Engineer explode? Why do the aliens in this film look somewhat different from the spidery face-huggers of the earlier films? These unanswered questions didn’t bother me. Their answers were not necessary to the plot; rather their strangeness added to the “otherness” atmosphere of the film. After all, when visiting an alien world, we will probably not understand all that we find.
As mentioned above, the film is hurt primarily by its inclusion in the Alien universe. I can’t help but feel that if the film had been able to stand on its own, it could have delved deeper. Instead, Prometheus is an interesting, beautifully shot, but ultimately uninspired science fiction film. It is not a bad film; it’s just not all that could have been. I’d give the film 3 stars out of 5.