Prometheus: In This Gorgeous Space, No One Can Hear You Scream In Frustration
The first thirty to forty minutes of Prometheus left me giddy. From an astonishing opening sequence to the exceptional cinematography at work to Michael Fassbender’s engrossing performance to the stellar production design, it *felt* like the beginning of a science fiction classic. However, it then swiftly employs genre cliches, inconsistent character work, and a seemingly ruleless threat that affects everyone in very different and unexplained ways. If you expect epic from Prometheus, you’ll get it in spades. If you expect phenomenal effects work and imagery, again, it’s in absolute abundance– without question one of the best looking films of the last decade and a triumphant success for digital filmmaking. If you expect answers, you’re watching the wrong film. If you expect satisfaction, again, wrong film. Ultimately, it’s a film that pretends to be smart by refusing to have anything real to say… yet you’re likely to want to see it again.
After a pre-title sequence I wouldn’t dare spoil, we meet Doctors Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) in the future looking in caves. Turns out the same image– a large figure pointing toward six orbs in a specific formation– has appeared in early art from countries all over the world. They look to the skies and find near a similar formation far across space a moon that has the potential to sustain life. Funded by rich corporate man Weyland (inexplicably played by Guy Pearce in terrible old-age makeup) and aided by his android David (Michael Fassbender), they take a ship titled Prometheus across space to see if they can find what they believe to be the genesis of life on earth. They arrive and find an awesomely creepy underground location full of statues, oozing vases, and holograms. They find something during their journey that they bring back with them on board… but a few members of the ship get lost and don’t come back. And David seems to have a secret mission that he’s not sharing with the good doctors…
The Academy should immediately place phone calls to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max and grant them their nominations months in advance. You could take any individual frame from this film and hang it on your wall– it’s breathtakingly gorgeous visual filmmaking. It doesn’t feel like your standard sci-fi film nowadays, riddled with obvious CGI and greenscreens; it feels authentic, a very tangible and thus more awe-inspiring world. They also have at their employ a brilliant sound design, top-notch effects work, and a memorable score by Marc Streitenfield. Add all of those together, and you have a film that would have been great if none of the characters had even spoken (perhaps greater than the film turned out, honestly). Ridley Scott knows the importance of creating a world that feels distinct, using technology that feels within grasp in the future and visual motifs that resonate long after you’ve left the theater.
If only the same attention had been paid to the characters and plot. Sadly, the crew is pre-dominantly one-note. Rapace is a gifted actress and is compelling to watch, but her character is given no depth outside of a cross to fumble around with every fifteen minutes, just in case the audience forgot we’re dealing with religious themes. Fassbender is bewitching (bordering on award-worthy, really), but his character’s motivations are seemingly random– he idolizes humans at times, hates them at others, seems to want them dead in others, and goes immediately back to liking them whenever it is most convenient to the plot. His relationship with Shaw would be called “complex” by the film’s apologists, when in reality it simply makes zero sense. Charlize Theron plays the bitchy corporate person, but the film wants to tease that perhaps she’s an android too. So she’s given behavior that lends support to both arguments while totally discounting the opposing arguments simultaneously– you can’t say she’s an android, but the film’s hints at her being an android are so explicit that instead it becomes clear that they’re merely trying to stir up debate in some circles and provoke anger and frustration in the intelligent circles.
The writing isn’t only intentionally and maddeningly vague, it’s also lazy. In one scene, a scientist played by Rafe Spall wants absolutely nothing to do with the underground area because of proof of alien life, so he leaves to go wander back through the dark underground by himself without any sort of map. (The captain, Idris Elba, could have directed him back via earpiece, but he is conveniently out of the room whenever the plot needs someone to not be helped.) Mere hours later, when they encounter an alien lifeform, the same character says that it looks cute and tries touching it multiple times, even when it starts rearing up and hissing at him. Why would the character who wants to leave the team due to fear of alien encounter suddenly want to start touching the alien? Additionally, why would the space travel team go outside without weapons in the first place? And why would they have taken off their helmets? And why would they go around touching literally everything within arm’s reach like a kindergarden student at a petting zoo? Because the movie fancies itself to be smart but can’t be actually smart enough to avoid all the cliches of the sci-fi/horror genres. There’s even a big static storm that requires them to come back to the ship and run from the storm as it pursues them (wildly cliched)… but then they can communicate just fine with the scientists who got lost and had to stay behind, so why was it so necessary for the team to rush back? Because they needed some standard action and audiences clearly like seeing people running in front of big CGI clouds.
All of this would be forgiven if we had a satisfying ending. Which we don’t. In fact, the ending suffers from two of my least-favorite ending ailments. First, because it’s a prequel to Alien, it is a requirement that the movie go out of its way to be cutesy and show us things we recognize from the other film (look, it’s an alien! it’s the Space Jockey! it’s an android drooling white liquid like Ian Holm! etc.). Prequels rarely ever work because no one cares what happened before the good story took place– they just care about the good story. Listen to Patton Oswalt’s fantastic stand-up routine about George Lucas for further explication on this topic, or just watch Ridley Scott’s previous film, a Robin Hood prequel that teased it would show us the man before the legend and delivered by showing us a really boring man doing absolutely nothing remotely legendary (it remains the only film I’ve ever fallen asleep during). The other thing wrong with the ending: the filmmakers assume there will be a sequel, so they refuse to give us any answers or even any new questions, instead deferring them all to a later date, something that Prometheus co-writer Damon Lindelof knows a lot about from his days as the creator of the TV show LOST. The difference between Prometheus and LOST is that on a TV show, you can build compelling characters over hours and hours, and so even if you’re not answering any questions, audiences will remain hooked because they care about the characters. Here, we get no answers and we get no characters to care about: a tricky combination to reconcile.
And yet, I still recommend the film wholeheartedly. The craftsmanship on display from a visual standpoint is second-to-none, and while things may make no sense, it’s certainly never boring. Rapace is a bonafide leading woman, Fassbender is potentially the most compelling actor of his generation, and Charlize Theron does push-ups half-naked while soaking wet. There are some genuinely unsettling moments, a truly awesome sequence in a surgical pod, and all in all the endeavor is worthwhile. I worry that now when I watch Alien and the Space Jockey scene comes up, it will potentially be tarnished by Prometheus and its intentions of destroying the mystery and grandeur of that image, but the visual experience currently overshadows my concerns about its impact on the legacy of one of the greatest films ever made. It’s better to be frustrated by a film than be bored by a film, after all. Going to this film is like picking up a supermodel at a bar: you just have to know it’s dumb before approaching it, and if you merely try to appreciate it from an aesthetic perspective, you may thoroughly enjoy yourself.