Cool connections to Ridley Scott’s Alien, a great performance by Michael Fassbender, and impressive production design make Prometheus well worth checking out in theaters, but a familiar plot and stupid choices by the characters keep it from being the sci-fi classic it could have been.
In 2089, after scientists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover clues about ancient astronauts on Earth, the Weyland Corporation funds an expedition into space where the aliens are believed to be located. Shaw and Holloway go along for the ride with the expedition.
When they arrive on the desolate planet, they find clear signs that intelligent life has been there. The crew is drawn to a massive domed structure obviously built by the aliens they are looking for, but when they get inside, they are completely unprepared for what they discover.
Let me start off by saying I’m a big Aliens fan. While I loved Ridley Scott’s Alien, James Cameron’s Aliens remains one of my all time top 10 favorite films. I thought it was a major sin to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3. I thought AVP was a seriously missed opportunity. I”ve read the Dark Horse comics, the books, and more. So Prometheus was a film I was really, really looking forward to. Did it live up to my expectations? Yes and no.
First off, I have to applaud Fox and Ridley Scott for revisiting the Alien universe. Rather than giving us another movie that feels like a simple cash grab, they put some time and love into rebooting the Alien franchise while at the same time hearkening back to the first film. We got hard sci-fi from an A-list director rather than a B or C-grade sequel. It also expands on the world and makes us go back and look at the previous movies in another light. In fact, figuring out how Prometheus ties to Alien is the biggest draw of this film. If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know the Space Jockey from the first movie is featured heavily here. When the creators coyly say this isn’t an Alien prequel, this is what they were talking about. The Space Jockey is the center of this film, not the Aliens. So exploring this previously unknown corner of the universe is the major appeal of this movie. (Dark House Comics actually thoroughly explored the Space Jockey race, but that continuity is completely thrown out the window with Prometheus.)
Another big attraction of Prometheus is the production design. It’s really cool to see how this world blends with the one we saw in Alien, but with the benefit of both 3D and computer graphics. We see impressive holographic displays. We see amazing robotic medical devices. We see cool space suits and vehicles. It all still feels impressively futuristic while matching with the Alien production design from 1979.
As for the performances, the standout is Michael Fassbender as the robot David. He more than holds his own with Ian Holm’s Ash and Lance Henriksen’s Bishop. He delivers an unsettling performance as you don’t know whether to be afraid of him or comforted by him. He has his own agenda from the other characters and he leaves you guessing what he’s up to until the end. And as he’s introduced in the opening minutes, the movie has a distinct 2001: A Space Odyssey feel to it. Noomi Rapace is also good as Elizabeth Shaw, but she’s in the unenviable position of being compared to Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. While Ripley remains the stronger character, Rapace delivers a memorable performance especially in a scene where Ridley Scott attempts to top the chestburster scene from the first movie. The scene is not quite as good, but it does manage to push all of the right buttons for people’s phobias.
I also have to give recognition to Marc Streitenfeld for his score. In a summer lacking memorable orchestral scores, his does stand out.
Now,while I’m a big Alien fan, even I have to admit that there were a lot of problems with this film.
First of all, the core of the story is simply Alien done all over again. Yeah, the details are different, but the main plot points are the same. A crew wakes up out of a long sleep in space, their spaceship lands on an alien planet, the crew discovers an ancient alien construction, they awaken an alien force, then they are picked off one by one. The story is a bit too familiar and that makes it predictable.
Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the crew makes a ton of stupid mistakes. The crew splits up inside the scary alien dome. You never split up in a scary location! One crew member takes his helmet off and takes a big breath of air. If you can’t drink the water in Mexico, I think it’s a stupid decision to breathe the air on an alien planet that you’ve only been on for less than a day. This is emphasized later when Shaw refuses to take her helmet off long after she’s already done so earlier in the film. The dumb decisions go on and on and on. You quickly start to think the crew is getting what they deserve. In a reality based hard sci-fi film, they make a lot of unrealistic decisions.
Even though this movie is over two hours long, it felt like there were a lot of deleted scenes. For example, David is able to work the Space Jockey devices without problem. Why? Because he can read pictographs from Earth? It isn’t explained. It goes even further later when he’s mysteriously able to speak the alien language fluently. How? Then at one point, Idris Elba walks into a room as Captain Janek and is able to quickly summarize the purpose of the alien dome and everything they found in it. He got this from where? And pieced it together how? It felt like a lot of expositional dialogue thrown in at the last minute to help accelerate to the finale.
While I love Guy Pearce, I have to seriously question why he was cast in this film. Why, when you need an elderly character, would you cast a younger actor and pile makeup on him? It did nothing for the character or story and only made you, as the audience, look at his face and think, “That looks fake.” It disconnected you from the movie.
Fox and Scott are selling this as a standalone sci-fi movie that happens to be set in the Alien universe, but as a standalone sci-fi movie, it’s a bit of a disappointment. There are simply too many unanswered questions at the end. I think anyone unfamiliar with Alien is going to walk out of Prometheus scratching their head. It is more satisfying (although not entirely so) as an Alien prequel.
While I think there were a lot of problems with the script of this movie that could have been fixed easily, I have to say that I’d still like to see a Prometheus 2. It’s a universe I’d like to explore further. And Prometheus is also the kind of movie that has you talking about it and dissecting it long after the credits roll. That’s a rare thing, so I definitely appreciate it. It’s worth checking out in theaters.