Spoiler Level: Low
I'm on record as saying that I think Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien is more or less a flawless movie of its kind, and so it has not been hard to understand the incredible anticipation and hype surrounding Prometheus, Scott's return to the universe of that earlier film (and his first science-fiction film since 1982's equally seminal Blade Runner). Sir Ridley had cautioned viewers that they should not expect Alien 5: The Beginning—this is not, he insists, a prequel—but that was just fine with me. The Alien franchise is pretty played out at this point, so I was actually more excited when I heard he was simply using this shared universe to tell a new story and explore new themes.
And for about the first half of Prometheus I maintained that excitement, entranced by Scott's gorgeous, fascinating visuals and intrigued by the important ideas being explored. Science fiction is at its best when it is dealing with huge themes, and Prometheus asks a lot of large questions about theology, the origin of species, and the definition of life. But the film is ultimately not able to deliver on these promising ideas. It is perhaps unfair to point out that screenwriter Damon Lindelof (who shares credit with John Spaihts) is one of the creators of Lost, but Prometheus frustrates in many of the same ways that TV series did: by pretending to be smarter and deeper than it actually is, and by asking more questions than it is finally capable of—or interested in—answering. Visually stunning, and filled with all the promise in the world, Prometheus eventually degenerates into an incoherent assemblage of mismatched elements, and a wasted opportunity on an epic scale.
Prometheus opens in 2089 (roughly 90 years before Alien), with archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering some 35,000-year-old cave paintings in Scotland. These paintings—and other ancient symbols like them that have been discovered all over the world—suggest that an ancient race of alien giants were originally responsible for all life on Earth. The couple have shared their theories with a mysterious billionaire named Peter Weyland (a bizarrely cast Guy Pearce, in old man makeup), who foots the bill for an expedition to the star system suggested in the drawings.
So, a couple of years of cryogenic sleep later, Elizabeth and Charlie are on board a ship called Prometheus, orbiting the planet their map seems to indicate. The vessel is captained by Janek (Idris Elba), but they quickly discover a cold autocrat named Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is really in charge. Vickers doesn't believe in the alien ancestors, but Elizabeth—the cross-wearing daughter of a missionary—sees a theological purpose to the journey: she wants, she says, to meet her makers, and find out why humans were created in the first place.
The expedition is fully staffed with doctors and geologists and various others, but—and here the film suffers in its inevitable comparison with Alien—most of them are not particularly well drawn. The only other character who registers as interesting—in fact, he steals the movie—is David, a blonde android played by Michael Fassbender with a fascinating mixture of boyish innocence and machine-like inhumanity. David could have (and perhaps should have) been the focal point of the film: he is the only character the writers have approached with any wit or imagination—he models his human persona on Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, for example—and Fassbender builds on performances by Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen (who played synthetics in the Alien films) while imbuing the character with a creepy charm all his own.
The best parts of Prometheus are in the first half, as the team explores the familiarly textured caverns of this planet, and discover clues about these alleged ancestors and what might have happened to them. Ridley Scott's filmography is decidedly uneven—I'd argue he's made far more mediocre films than good ones—but his visual style is never less than interesting, and here you can bask for an hour or so in the riches of his vision. One of Scott's trademarks is that he seems to paint with air as much as light, and in Prometheus—as with all his films—the (literal) atmosphere is beautiful and evocative. (The film's 3-D lends disappointingly little to Scott's already arresting style, but neither does it detract: it's the clearest, least obtrusive use of the technology I've seen so far.)
And, as I've said, the ideas are interesting: the theme of confronting one's maker is as old as science-fiction itself—going all the way back to Frankenstein—but it is still a worthy one, and Prometheus dovetails it nicely with the character of David, who has already asked these questions of his makers. ("We built you because we could," Charlie tells him, dismissively, and David asks him to imagine how disappointed he will be if he gets the same answer from his creator.) The cast is fine, with Rapace in particular doing as much as possible with the thin, largely ineffectual character she's given.
But none of it goes anywhere rewarding. Too many random elements—spontaneously changing murals, oozing creatures, mysterious infections, and random attacks—are introduced without being satisfactorily explained: Prometheus has that made-by-committee feel, where one suspects some action sequences were stuck in simply because the studio was worried Alien fans might nod off. This would have been a deeply problematic movie regardless—among other problems, the writing is incredibly clunky—but it might have been vastly improved if Scott had stuck to his guns and made a film that stood completely apart from the Alien movies. Instead, Scott and the screenwriters try to find a happy medium, awkwardly introducing elements that refer to the earlier franchise, without any reward: there are things that sort of look like facehuggers, things that kind of remind us of H.R. Giger's iconic creature, and moments (like a spurt of acid blood) that clash with the existential Chariot of the Gods story but are unlikely to satisfy fans who were hoping for the scares of Alien or the fun of Aliens. A few moments try to invoke some of the body-horror of the earlier films, but they are simply more graphic without being anywhere near as disturbing. Fittingly for a movie that's about the origins of life, Prometheus too often feels like a strange genetic splicing of incompatible strands of narrative DNA.
The biggest failure of the film, however, is that it feels like it gets stupider and stupider as it proceeds: we begin in wonder and fascination, and we end with anticlimactic violence and stuporous disappointment. The few answers the film provides are infinitely duller than its questions, and far too many mysteries are left to be answered in the two sequels Scott hopes to make. Sadly—and despite Ridley Scott's lush visuals—Prometheus delivers neither enough fun, nor enough food for thought, to make one excited for future installments.