There are unconventional sci-fi films. There’s a spectrum. On the one side is the superhero genre. The world is on the line and there’s only one man… On the other end, there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)–my favorite antidote to insomnia. Prometheus (2012) is about three-quarters towards the superhero side. My expectation was that it’d be more balanced, a little more profound. That sounds stupid in retrospect—it’s an alien movie, right?
A humanoid alien being comes to Earth, eats some bugs, and sends genetic material into a river. In 2089, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find a series of ancient artistic endeavors all of which contain reference to the same planetary cluster. They’ve found the cluster and a moon that is similar to Earth and believe that there are beings, Engineers, which might hold the secrets to humanity. On the ship Prometheus Vickers (Charlize Theron) seems pretty ruthless in her desire to keep things out while the rest of the crew is more of the mercenary class and without agenda. Oh, and there’s a synthetic, David (Michael Fassbender), who is there to help communicate with the Engineers. Once there, they find things to be more mysterious than they had anticipated. David is rather secretive and knows a lot more than he lets on.
My theory is that no genre movie is without potential. Michael Mann, among others, proved that for action movies—look at Heat (1995), Ronin (1998), or Drive (2011). 28 Days Later… (2002) proved it for zombie movies. These aren’t all going to be The Godfather (1972), but to be among the best in the genre is going to mean a great film.
In all honesty, I’m going to have to see this again. I went with my grandmother and she immediately declared that she hated it. She doesn’t like things that are “make believe” so the chances weren’t good to start with. Now, I’m inclined to doublethink any complaints I had. Let me try.
One complaint is the strong conventional instincts. That’s a weak criticism. A movie need not be revolutionary to be good or even great, but even within the genre, there’s balance and craftsmanship. It isn’t just a matter of devoting time to the device, but devoting the right amount of time proportionate to the strength of the device. Certainly, though, things like motive and general plot have to be understandable. That’s a baseline. There are too many imperfections on that score in Prometheus.
None of the characters are dealt with perfectly—every single one could have 10-15 more minutes of screen time which they either deserved, like Janek (Idris Elba), or absolutely required, like David. There are things about David that I can’t explain. Trying to avoid spoilers, the trouble areas of David are linked with Charlie’s character trouble. Now, the theater did have their sound drop out with one of Charlie’s scenes, but it was a (unimportant) romance scene, so I don’t think he was made more interesting.
I’m going to give the credit for characters that I wanted to know more about to the writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (along with the actors and Scott). But I’ll blame the editor (and Scott) with failing to keep them well represented.
During the final action sequence, which is long and intense (and good), it’s not exactly crystal clear what the agenda is (or is it are?). Things are going so quickly, you can’t even tell that you’re not following the action. So, during the movie, while you’re sitting there, it isn’t really a flaw, but, upon reflection, I’d kind of like to know why we were running where we were running.
I couldn’t really get a picture of the ship or surrounding area. In Alien (1979), Ridley Scott (director) established the ship in the first series of shots. Here, though, he shows gorgeous landscapes and a couple foreshadows of important areas and that’s basically it. I’m not sure the landscapes were useful. The ship is less important to this story than it was in Alien, but it does hurt the movie. I didn’t feel connected to the ship or to the planet and since the characters were so packed in that the thrilling final third of the movie flew to an ending that didn’t reach its full potential. Don’t misunderstand, the ending of this movie was awesome and so awesome that it overshadowed the weaknesses (imperfections). What I’m saying is that the movie could have been great.
There was a long time there—a long time if you follow these things—where Ridley Scott wasn’t saying whether this was a prequel to Alien or not. I suspect that it didn’t start that way, but when elements started to get too close, there wasn’t any alternative. Really, only the last 10 seconds of the movie are undoubtedly of the Alien influence. If you didn’t know it, and that last bit was removed, you’d say this was the same universe but not clearly in the story.
All of the performances in this movie are strong. Fassbender has established himself as an excellent actor raising the level of whatever’s on screen. Rapace carries the movie with Fassbender and both keep the story alive. Theron and Idris Elba, as the captain of Prometheus, are solid but their characters fall prey to (I suspect) editing moreso than others because they are so apparently interesting. The one person I didn’t like was Millburn (Rafe Spall)—I thought he was a mercenary, but turned out to be a geologist. Weird.
That reminds me of another complaint. So many of the actors are British, but two of them play southern. Why? Another thing, a southerner doesn’t return a V-sign with a V-sign.
The musical theme reminds me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and it is appropriately grand. The movie is surprisingly devoid of music. It comes in and out and is only noticeable when it’s good, so that’s just an observation rather than complaint. It was a good theme. Something John Williams used to do.
So much went right in this movie that my criticisms mean that I’m definitely going to have to watch this thing again. I also expect that the sequel this movie sets up could really be something great. We’ll see. But there’s one thing I do know. If you know aliens are on offer, never get left behind.
Oh, and when survivors record stuff, what are they recording it on and who do they anticipate receiving the message?
**Second Thoughts**Beware of Spoilers**
On my second viewing of Prometheus, I realized what was happening–both on a macro level and in the details of the film’s story. To my infinite shame, I didn’t fully understand so many of the movie’s big (though trite-bordering) lines, like “Big things have small beginnings” and “Sometimes to create, you must destroy.” Now I’ve got a better idea of what they implied. One of the last lines in the movie, “Why did they want to kill us? Why did they change their minds?” requires some serious back-tracking to make sense of–recall these engineers were dead for 2000 years when it takes (at most) two to get to Earth. I’m pretty good with plot, but I feel almost intelligent for making that connection. Though, in my defense, this movie takes the “Show-don’t-tell” maxim to the Beckett end of the spectrum.
What Scott had said about the movie, and perhaps why he was so reticent to call it a “prequel,” is that it was in the same universe as the Alien films. On the second viewing, the prequel nonsense is killed off and gestating in your mind is the idea that this is the beginning of something bigger. It’s like the first Star Wars (1977) movie, but more distinctly Wagnerian in it’s mythological tone. How’s that for a loaded description?
Unlike Star Wars, however, I got the impression that questions unanswered were deliberately asked (and unanswered). “It does leave you with some nice open questions” is an understatement. David’s actions account for most of these vagaries. Really, the next movie should be called Prometheus Part II because the unanswered questions are so pronounced. “un-AN-surd KWES-chuns.” If there is a second part to this story and it is put together with the same skill, then this will be something very special. I’d go so far as to call it the peak of the sci-fi genre. Without the second half, it’s a failed project.
While it does stand alone in a structural sense–it sets the goal of the protagonists and comes to a kind of resolution)–it is, at best, awesome in retrospect. It’s a bit like the Harry Potter books in that earlier books in the series are made better when understood within the whole arc. But each Harry Potter book undeniably stands on its own (with the possible exception of The Half-Blood Prince). How they can go about answering the major questions without being painfully conversational, I have no idea.