Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 19, 2012)
Back in 1979, Ridley Scott became a “name” director with the hit sci-fi/horror film Alien. 33 years – and many sequels/spin-offs – later, Scott finally returns to his roots with the semi-sorta prequel Prometheus.
In a prologue, we see how alien “Engineers” visit an unnamed planet that may or may not be Earth. They use their bodies to “seed” the world and launch the rudiments of life.
From there we leap ahead to the year 2089 and meet archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). During a cave expedition, they locate a star map that they believe acts as an “invitation” from an alien culture. Corporate mogul Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) pays for an expedition to follow up on this request.
Led by mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), this sends the crew of the Prometheus on a journey many miles from home. When they arrive on the planet LV-223, they discover remnants of an alien civilization – and some terrifying surprises.
When asked about the subject, Scott vehemently denies that Prometheus acts as a prequel to Alien, and he’s right – in a pedantic sense. No, Prometheus doesn’t directly lead to the events in Alien. That film took place on the planet LV-426, not LV-223, and involved different – but very similar – beings/circumstances.
However, both clearly take place in the same universe, and Scott feels happy to remind us of their connections on many occasions. I think the film’s tendency to both distance itself from and embrace Alien seems disingenuous. Scott wants the easy access to an existing franchise but wants to avoid direct comparisons.
He can’t have it both ways, though I can understand his desire to keep Alien at a distance because it’s the radically superior film. Like many fans of the franchise, I really looked forward to Prometheus. I think Scott’s been a fairly mediocre filmmaker for quite some time, so I hoped that this return to his roots would jump-start his creative juices. I also hoped that he’d expand the Alien universe in a compelling new way.
Unfortunately, Prometheus ends up as a bit of a dud. Okay, “dud” probably overstates the situation, as it’s not a poor film, but I don’t think it’s a satisfying precursor to Alien. Placing it in the Alien pantheon, I’d find it tough to pick Prometheus over any of the sequels; it’s superior to the fairly lame Alien Vs. Predator films but that’s about it.
What went wrong? Lots, starting with the characters. In Alien and Aliens, the filmmakers were able to introduce us to multiple participants and make them easily distinguishable. Sure, they could often fall into the “stock character” category, but they still stuck and we cared about them.
This never happens in Prometheus. I won’t call the characters interchangeable, but not a single one comes across as an interesting personality, and we never care about any of them. I guess we’re supposed to bond with Elizabeth – the spiritual scientist – but we don’t. As played by Rapace, she’s just a weepy, annoying mess.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the most compelling character comes from the robot David (Michael Fassbender). Despite his lack of emotional range, the movie makes him easily more well-rounded and intriguing than any of the humans. Why not add some life to the real people, Ridley? They’re all dull duds without enough personality to involve us emotionally.
And that’s a fatal flaw. Thrills and action don’t matter much if we don’t invest in the characters. With more interesting personalities, the tale might’ve gone farther, but without them, it fails to get off the ground.
Much has been made of the movie’s many logic issues, and I agree that they’re abundant. I won’t harp on them, however, because they’re not especially important to me. I’m willing to forgive plenty of flaws of that sort as long as I enjoy the ride.
Without any form of drama or excitement, unfortunately, Prometheus sags. Scott always was a visual director, but now he seems totally hung up on those elements and appears utterly disinterested in anything else.
Make no mistake: Prometheus looks great. The film creates a vivid universe that blends seamlessly, and it probably becomes Scott’s best-realized set of visuals since Blade Runner 30 years ago.
But we still lack enough meat to make this an appealing meal. Some defenders of Prometheus combat accusations of “style over substance” with the rejoinder that “style is substance” in this case – and I can see their point.
To a degree. Yes, the visuals of Blade Runner became a large part of what made the movie work, but it still had a fairly well-realized tale with interesting characters. Nothing of the sort occurs here, and I get the feeling Scott was so excited with the bag of tricks he didn’t have for Alien in 1979 that he didn’t care about anything else.
Prometheus barely even bothers to tell a new story. Despite its ample “creation of mankind” pretensions – which add up to precisely doodley-squat - Prometheus usually feels like a second-rate remake of Alien. The two aren’t perfectly analogous, but they’re close enough for the newer film to seem uninspired.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Prometheus, for as I alluded earlier, it’s not a genuinely bad film. Nonetheless, it isn’t a particularly good movie either, especially given the baggage it must carry. As part of the Alien franchise, it disappoints.