I am the girl who, to this day, cannot watch director Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien without hiding my eyes and jumping at every scare. It’s one of the most perfect films ever made, and after 33 years, it’s as effective as ever.
Sadly, history won’t be as kind to Prometheus.
Perhaps it’s unfair to so doggedly compare Scott’s latest to Alien, but — whether you consider the director’s return to the Alien universe a prequel or simply a continuation of its themes — the parallels are abundant. Prometheus is one part fascinating, one part frustrating, and endlessly discussable. And within that last bit lies its merit. It’s not so much that Prometheus’ heart isn’t in the right place; it’s just that its guts get in the way. The script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof needs a chest-bursting, to say the least.
There’s a lot for purists to love in the first act: We’re treated to Scott’s understated introduction of the spaceship Prometheus, via the wanderings of android David (Michael Fassbender), as the crew slumbers in stasis. He ambles through the washed-out, spare kitchen, control deck, exercise and entertainment rooms, watching Lawrence of Arabia, clutching a basketball and peering at holographs of crew members’ dreams. These quiet moments give us a glimpse into the locations we’ll be familiarized with, but the fact that David is our chauffeur resonates strongest. He’s truly the film’s most-faceted, fully realized figure, in no small part due to Fassbender’s brilliant performance. Among many of the themes that Prometheus unravels, meeting (and questioning) one’s maker is its most fascinating. And David, a robot created by man to mimic and assist him, but who also struggles with the reason programmed within him, is an omnipresent reminder of that.
Perhaps this is also why the human characters seem so wooden in comparison, though frankly that’s giving their pithy development a pass. The rest of Prometheus’ crew consists of hollow archetypes boasting confusing (or, at times, nonexistent) back stories and motives.
Charlize Theron, as corporate representative Meredith Vickers, gets the most succinct introduction, emerging from stasis first and immediately launching into a round of push-ups. She’s present to keep the mission on track, and she does so with a steely, detached demeanor. We’re supposed to hate her — she embraces the cold-hearted bitch role with reckless abandon — but her decisions continually make sense (in fact, they’re eerily reminiscent of Ripley’s actions in Alien).
Among the rest of the crew are Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), archaeologists and romantic partners brought aboard for their knowledge of ancient cave drawings depicting alien encounters. The two divulge that the ship is headed to a shared point among nine of their archaeological sites — a planet where they believe the answers to the origin of man exist. They’re hopeful that, upon landing, they’ll make contact with these Engineers, and the rest of the crew has been recruited to assist. Most notable among them is the otherwise-excellent Idris Elba as Captain Janek, relegated to generally hovering about the deck quipping orders in a velvety tone. He and Theron make the best of one sparky scene together, but his talents are sorely underutilized.
There are some awe-inspiring moments shortly after they dock, when the group enters a hollow dome structure containing a massive human-like head (a goose bumps-inducing reveal akin to landing on Easter Island, only, y’know, in space). Canisters within pose a mystery that quickly reveals itself, and this is about the time when the plot begins to trip over its own ambiguity, weaving the untied ends of confused religious undertones, baffling character arcs and ever-evolving motives.
To her credit, Rapace does everything that’s asked of her, and as the main female protagonist, it’s not her fault she’s given a trite backstory, cardboard-cutout love interest and the general inclination to pout sullenly in the face of danger. She’s no Ripley, but then again, Alien didn’t bother with the history of its protagonists. Prometheus, in an effort to take the development a step further, tangles the plights, characters and action pieces into a mess of clichéd confusion.
The rapidly unhinging plot showcased in the second and third acts admittedly doesn’t altogether spoil the film, however. First and foremost, Ridley shot in native 3D, and he showcases the technology incredibly. Every frame is rich with saturated colors, flawless lighting and impressive effects, and the creature design (namely, the desaturated humanoid-on-steroid Engineers) is inspired. It’s undoubtedly a film to be seen in 3D (this coming from someone who almost always shuns the technology). Prometheus is a technical showcase of sweeping vistas, claustrophobic caves, otherworldly compounds and futuristic living spaces; if only the narrative could follow suit in brazen, bold style.
And where the action is concerned, the trademark Scott tension is instilled early on, building and releasing to harrowing effect throughout. You’ll white-knuckle your way through the gross-outs and jump scares. (At one point during my screening, a woman near me tossed up her hands and yelled, “I can’t take it!” The outburst made me smile.) Scott, in his sci-fi element, hasn’t lost his touch.
There’s a simple, effective story somewhere within Prometheus, a straightforward yarn about searching for meaning, and being displeased with the discoveries made along the way. While it looks phenomenal and thoroughly entertains, you may find yourself left wanting when it comes to the details. And they will inexplicably haunt you. Will Prometheus land itself the same classic status as its predecessor? Not likely. Will you find yourself talking it over with friends long after the credits roll? Definitely.
It seems like an easy pass to say Prometheus dangles unanswered questions due to the possibility of additional movies — but that’s a likely argument you’ll encounter. Even franchise films need to be self-contained, but, at the end of the day, you’re probably going to see Prometheus anyway. And it inspires a conversation worth having.
Prometheus opens today nationwide.