BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After finding identical cave paintings throughout the world, a pair of scientists boards the starship Prometheus bound for an alien planet to uncover the origins of humanity, and uncover horrors they never anticipated.
PROS: Strong casting, especially of Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbinder; good looking visuals; strong incorporation of 3D technology.
CONS: Derivative screenplay and underwhelming direction; never engaging emotionally or intellectually; too familiar ground covered.
Like the prodigal son returning home, Ridley Scott comes back to science fiction after more than twenty-five years. The count includes his beautiful but deeply flawed fantasy Legend; the last time he focused his camera on true quill science fiction was thirty years ago, with the now classic Bladerunner. And if one judged Prometheus solely on the year-long anticipation and hype surrounding it, to say nothing of the viral future dispatches from Weyland Industries, its grosses would match Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s The Avengers within ten days and we would acknowledge it as an instant classic. Hugo voters no doubt would bestow the 2012 Dramatic Presentation award early, sight unseen.
Unfortunately, Prometheus sees Scott’s transformation from the daring visionary who once said he intended to become the John Ford of science fiction movies into a grizzled crank who drank too deeply from the waters of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and too shallowly from both the Cthulhu mythos and the very movie which not only inspired Prometheus, but also put Scott on the cinematic map: Alien, to which Prometheus is a prequel. Lumberingly paced, surprise-free, far less intelligent than it thinks it is (or should be), it aspires to the transcendent awe of its seminal predecessor, wanting to be 2001: A Space Odyssey as envisioned by H. P. Lovecraft, but barely achieves the transcendent awfulness of Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce or Robert Jaffe’s Nightcrawlers. Think of it as “At the Mountains of Madness” adapted by Event Horizon director Paul Anderson: At the Molehills of Blandness.
Not that it doesn’t try. The opening scene focuses on a marble-white hairless humanoid staring across an enormous waterfall as, above him, a large saucer-shaped construct looms. Presumably we are on Earth, and this being, one of our ancestors, is about to sow the seeds of our inception. With an almost religious solemnness he ingests a substance that causes him great pain and, as he falls into a lake, ultimately breaks his body apart, molecule by DNA molecule. Another sequence involves the robot David (played with chilling grace by Michael Fassbinder) in the recesses of an alien structure standing amid a holographic star map. Evocative and haunting, these moments promise a degree of mystery—as well as ecstasy and dread—that the rest of Prometheus fails to deliver.
At other times Prometheus hints at adding infusions of space opera and near-future extrapolative techniques. Consider the sleep pods carrying the crew of the starship Prometheus. As they slumber, David eavesdrops on the dreams of scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) by touching the pods smartglass front, seemingly alive with diagnostic data. Consider, too, that as Prometheus treks to its destination, David practices being human by combing his hair and watching movies, specifically Lawrence of Arabia. Effective, though perhaps too reminiscent of 2009’s vastly superior Moon.
Who were these fathers of humanity? Shaw and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) dub them the Engineers. Why did they come to Earth? That’s what Shaw and Holloway want to find out, which is why they board Prometheus, captained by Weyland shill Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, here splicing a blonde Hitchcockian ice queen to the Campbellian competent hero) and bound for a world seemingly indicated by prehistoric paintings, a hostile moon without a breathable atmosphere. There they find a structure, a giant dome pointed out by lines etched in a field (“God does not build in straight lines,” Holloway tells ship’s captain Janek, played by Idris Elba) and send a team to investigate, finding the remains of alien humanoids with genetic sequences identical to ours. Even more fascinating is a room filled with dark cylinders sitting in front of a large bust of one of the Engineers.
Although promising if undemanding up to this point, Prometheus’s flame flickers and extinguishes completely when it begins incorporating its horror elements. Holloway, shaken by the discovery, pours a significant amount of alcohol into his system. (It rings false; as a scientist, wouldn’t he be more energized and intrigued by this major paradigm shift?) David pours him a drink containing a parasitic being found in one of the cylinders…though why he would do so is never explained. Two lost crewmembers, Fiefield (Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall), stay behind in the dome as a storm approaches, despite the fact that Janek can clearly see them in a scan made by probes. Why wouldn’t he just lead them to the entrance? Perhaps because they need to be taken out in idiot fashion by a snakelike creature within the dome that they try to coax from hiding. (“It’s beautiful,” one of them says, despite the fact that it looks like a large undead penis.)
Part of Prometheus’s problem stems from the clichéd approach screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof take in dealing with the material. Although the setup suggests an existential thriller grafted onto a rich science premise, too much of it feels under thought and overworked, a diagram of a story more than an involving tale, which hampers rather than heightens the terror. The chestburster scene in Alien came from screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s deeply personal experience involving the pain he felt from Crohn’s Disease. When Elizabeth runs to a medical pod to have an alien parasite extracted (one of Prometheus’s highlights), it’s treated far more like a problem-solving exercise. Moreover, the movie’s two big twists (which I won’t reveal here) hold few surprises for those who have a high genre comfort level, amounting to little more than a shrug. And while Scott presents a number of flawlessly executed shots (and a remarkably successful use of 3D imaging), he fails to show the audience anything particularly breathtaking or original.
In science fiction, familiarity breeds not contempt but boredom. Although Scott, in interviews, has called Prometheus “original sci-fi,” it covers territory so well traversed that merchants have established souvenir shops. Perhaps Scott has just lost his touch. Or maybe he’s trying to avoid what should be the obvious tagline: in space, no one can hear you snore.