Great pains have been taken in recent weeks to preserve the mystery and secrets of Prometheus, the film that represents director Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise which he unwittingly launched over thirty years ago with 1979’s Alien, before the notion that film concepts could go on forever and ever through endless sequels and reboots. A big screen secret agent with a habit of introducing himself last name first was about the only example of such a process of constant recycling that has now became the norm. It was widely known that Prometheus was more of a prequel, all the better to avoid acknowledging the pretensions of David Fincher’s Alien3 and sprawling mess of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (not to mention whatever the hell was going on in those bastardizations that set the titular killing machine and its brethren against the creatures from the Predator films). This return would give Scott a chance to restore art to the series, bringing the added credibility of knighthood and multiple Oscar nominations that he’s picked up in the intervening years. It’s been a while Scott had a film that could be termed a hit, even under the most generous definition. Presumably, that was a motivation too.
So Prometheus was discussed in hushed anticipation, bolstered by cryptic trailers and the various stars of the film making the promotional rounds with a cheeky, cheery insistence that they weren’t allowed to reveal any juicy details of the film they were ostensibly selling. The project was washed in the bright lights of the retroactive sci-fi reverence bestowed on Alien and, maybe even more so, Scott’s 1982 follow-up, Blade Runner. A master of intelligent genre filmmaking was returning to it for the first time since those back-to-back artistic triumphs from so long ago. Surely, the results would be spectacular. While the various intricacies of plot and theme are pinging all over the internet like greased-up lottery balls, I’ll adhere to the now-lifted information embargo. Even though there’s actually nothing all that shocking in the film, I respect the ever-eroding value of saving surprises until the theater too much to start spilling secrets. However, please allow me to share one spoiler about Prometheus: it’s terrible.
The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane once wrote about Scott as an example of a director who was paradoxically “growing less mature” as his career went on, astutely using the exceptional Alien to illustrate his point. The 1979 film is achingly patient, partially a product of its time, but also as a reflection of a director who understands the building blocks of cinematic narrative. The crew of the interstellar vessel Nostromo is given time to establish their personalities and relationships, not through explanation but behavior. They are people who have clearly worked together for some time and are keen to get home after a long mission, so when an unexpected detour leads to all hell breaking lose, the interpersonal conflicts that arise make sense. These are individuals under stress who are being pushed to their limits. In Prometheus, by comparison, the action takes place essentially at the beginning of the mission (the purpose of which many of the crew members are entirely unfamiliar, an early example of how the film was going to traffic in nonsense that defies belief), so Scott and credited screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof develop onscreen conflict by having the crew populated almost entirely by incompatible assholes who behave in idiotic, inconsistent ways. It’s the difference between valuing the integrity of the story and wanting to sidestep the complicated mechanics of getting from beginning to end in a plausible manner. All the spectacle is meaningless if there’s no reason to care about the people who are either gazing at it longingly or being eviscerated by it.
The visuals are at least marvelous to look at. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski is exquisite, and the art design throughout is beautifully conceived and executed, maintaining a few visual echoes of the 1979 film while fully utilizing the greater capabilities for movie magic now at the creative personnel’s disposal. The whole thing has the pristine sheer of a true prestige project, where no expense was spared to make sure it looks as wondrous as possible. Whatever else Prometheus is, it certainly looks like one of of the most expensive movies ever made, and all those dollars are there in the frame.
If only as much loving effort had gone into addressing the logical inconsistencies with the story and the immense credibility issues that arise from making many of the characters operate as if they are the worst scientists since esteemed scholars were insisting upon the flatness of the planet. They’re either making unfounded leaps that could only come from reading ahead in the script rather than examining the evidence before them or, even worse, drawing dour, defeatist conclusions at the first setback. They have crossed the vast reaches of space to explore a distant planet and are somehow ready to make definitive statements about what is there after spending a single afternoon exploring one small portion of one enormous hollowed-out mountain. It’s like announcing expertise on the human race and the fate of the Earth after spending a couple hours poking around in the subbasements of Disney World’s Epcot orb.
That’s a lot of problems for the actors to try to elbow their way past in order to make an impression, so it’s no surprise that there are decidedly mixed results on that front. Michael Fassbender continues his impressive streak of being the very best part of whatever movie he’s in, largely due to some appealingly kooky inspiration for his character, inspiration which is openly acknowledged in the film. In what is the film’s truest lead, Noomi Rapace is admirably energetic and game, especially when events turn in a way that allows her to demonstrate that her old dragon tattoo still shows. Charlize Theron plays her role like she’s wandered in from some sweaty melodrama with creepy undercurrents, practically snarling even the most benign lines. At times these actors seems like they’ve converged on the set from very different movies with very different tones, and Scott exhibits no interest whatsoever in drawing them together. This could create a fascinating friction, but it’s instead just another damning example of the intellectual laziness that is the most consistent characteristic of Prometheus.
Despite all the wishes for its greatness across the known universe, Prometheus is no redemption for the franchise or the nicely humble 1979 film that spawned it. Instead, it’s an incoherent mess that should beset chills upon the devoted fans of Blade Runner, which Scott is equally committed to revisiting. The film is laughably bad, in fact, bounding from one bizarre peak of storytelling madness to another. If I were involved with the creation of this film, I’d want to keep it secret too.