MOVIE REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Ridley Scott returns to science fiction with a lifeless, derivative prequel to one of his most famous movies.

MY RATING:

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.

MY REVIEW:
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.

35 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)”

  1. First: great review. Informative and highly entertaining.

    Second: sad that Scott once again fails to deliver on the promise he had many moons ago.

    Third: “barely achieves the transcendent awfulness of Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce or Robert Jaffe’s Nightcrawlers.” Zing!

  2. I think if anything you’re being kind with this review. I was genuinely shocked at how awful I found this film. The characters and their behaviours were so poorly drawn and so incomprehensibly ridiculous at times that I thought I was watching a spoof comedy. And the story itself just didn’t make any kind of obvious sense – it could have done, but it was like the writers felt it didn’t matter if they didn’t keep a sense of internal consistency.

    Great effects yes, but as far as I’m concerned, the story and the script are everything. Get that right and you have a good film. Get it wrong, and you have a mess.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this movie for a while now, and I think it’s biggest flaw was how far it went in establishing itself as an Alien prequel. Before I watched the movie, I read an interview with Scott that said fans would notice the nods to Alien, but it was its own film. Watching it though, the nods were more like brutal head-butts with Scott screaming “SEE! IT’S ALL CONNECTED!!”
    The final half of the movie was a by the numbers revisit of Alien’s scares and thrills, stripped of their originality and excitement. I think this movie could have been great if it had been its own creature.

  4. For me, the story was clear, compelling and completely enthralling. Duplicate DNA in “separate” species, a sense of exploratory wonder that has never been so well illustrated and a genuinely scary horror film in the out-of-doors seems to me to be new and worthy. Two strong female characters seldom figure in films, but the picture has them in spades. I really never noticed the effects, since they blended so well into the film.
    All in all, this is the speculative fiction feature film of the past decade. Box office is another matter; films that require active participation from the viewer’s intellect have a spotty financial history.

  5. I did not read this review. I will read no review until I see the darn thing. I will keep *nothing* in my mind.

    1. Jeff. However much you might suspect it sucks, it sucks even more than that. Drop your expectations down a hole to the centre of the Earth and you still won’t have lowered them enough.

    2. If you keep nothing in your mind, then you and the movie will be as one, and you’ll have a swell time.

  6. Agreed. This film is utterly abysmal. Rather than comparing it to Lifeforce, I tweeted that it makes Alien Resurrection look like a work of art by comparison. It staggers me that a film so utterly inept could possibly have been financed. it’s my sincerest hope it flops, because I have nightmares about it being successful enough to get sequels.

  7. I disagree.

    This was a complicated film and most of the connective tissue is there by implication rather than standard film exposition. I probably will watch it again just to make sense of some lingering questions. For instance, you seemed to miss why David dosed the drink but that action only becomes understandable with the last act of the film revealing possible motives if not outright ones. (Clues: Why does David disobey his fellow crew members? How? Does he possess what we would call free will?)

    My only complaint would be that the best characters really steal the show from the rest of the cast (primarily Rapace’s and Fassbender’s stellar performances as you point out,) and the inter-character drama is a little lopsided because of this. More development of supporting cast at the beginning would have benefitted the film immensely.

    I suspect that the main backlash against this film will come from those that goes into the film expecting a horror/suspense film—the trailers may be to blame here. I was clued into this mismatch by the tone of the opening score but it was still a little jarring to have the film go where it went.

    There are horror elements but this is a work that stands alone from Alien’s impressive lineage despite the occasional nod. I also think the film raises some interesting questions beside the obvious thematic staple of the origins of life and it doesn’t go out of its way to answer them.

    Like all Ridley’s sci fi films, I predict it will stir some controversy in the short term and be revered in the long term.

  8. “It’s beautiful,” one of them says, despite the fact that it looks like a large undead penis.

    POW!

    Yeah, I really agree with you. I blogged about the movie, too. Actually, I think I’ll go add your review to my post.

  9. Two of the most glaring holes in the film:
    If the engineers are a more technologically advanced race that can travel among the stars and create life can’t they come with a moe efficient process to do so than having to ingest the insepid black goo and hence commiting suicide?

    Why do Shaw and Holloway insist on calling them Engineers . Where is the proof that they had anything to do with creating the human race, when there has already been a million years of archeologocal evidence to support evolution’s hand? Also why does the Engineers technology seem less advanced than that of the humans?

    1. I disagree with you on point one, totally agree with you on point two.

      I liked the idea of breaking oneself down to the cellular to create life. I think it’s an interesting idea that suggests at a different concept of science, their culture and how they create life. We use mechanics, they use biology.

      What about evolution, though? Oh boy, did that bug the hell out of me. When the crewman calls bullshit to the idea of being ‘created’, I expected some kind of proof. But no. They just push that aside. Nothing to see here. Evolution? Don’t know what you’re talking about. Arrrggghhh! Aliens!

  10. My problem with this review is that it was so over generous with the stars it gave this movie. OMG That’s $14 and 2 hours of my life that I won’t be getting back. Awful. Just awful. I’m not sure where to begin! How in the world do you get a bad performance out of Guy Pearce?!! Well, slap thick unrealistic make-up all over his face. And the Aliens … man … the Asgard of SG-1 was better. The story line was stupid, too. OMG What happened to Riddley, man? What happened?

  11. I just saw Michael Fassbinder & Noomi Rapace on Charlie Rose. They make it sound so interesting. Ridley Scott was in love with Noomi in Girl with a Dragon Tatoo.

    Sometimes this anti-spam password thing doesn’t work right.

  12. Very incisive review.

    The film really does not make a lick of sense.

    Nothing happens organically; every event seems to be shoehorned into the narrative; no development follows logically from what precedes it. Characters wander around aimlessly; emergencies on one part of the ship are ignored on another part of the ship; no one takes actions for coherent reasons. It’s often not even clear *when* events are occurring in relation to each other; how much time has passed; and who knows what in relation to what’s happened. Plot contrivances abound; in a sense, they’re all that drive the story forward. The script seems perfectly willing to change a character’s personality and motivations when it needs him/her to become a vehicle for a different cliche.

    I’d like to see “Red Letter Media” give this film the “Phantom Menace” treatment. From a story structure standpoint, it richly deserves it.

    It’s hard seeing so much truly outstanding visual talent being deployed in the service of such weak material.

  13. I saw the movie today, oh boy.

    I am not quite as hard on it as Derek…but there are some fundamental problems with characters, motivations and the scriptwriting of this movie.

  14. Holy crap, there are a lot of idiots who didn’t get this film. Doesn’t speak well of SF Signal!

    1. Oh I understand the movie, Tom.

      Understanding the movie does not obviate plot holes, character development and other weaknesses, flaws and outright stupidity.

      And, by the way, insults? Not cool.

  15. I have never seen a more clear movie review on this site.

    Congratz!

    The film was one giant plot hole with characters doing exactly what no one would do. My favorite, was when the female did surgery on herself to extract a monster, wonders bloody with a giant stomach wound into important characters, they never ask what happened to her, she never tells them, then they all decide to go and meet an alien. David the robot understands the aliens aren’t friendly, never tells anyone, and gets himself damaged. Meanwhile, stomach wound managed to run miles, jump, get beaten, sprint, fight more, and so on, with a few staples holding her abdomen closed.

    Hollywood:

    I’m amazed that investors putting down hundreds of millions don’t have some system for logic checking scripts.

  16. By coincidence I saw The Avengers the same day. The characters were intelligent, kept a mission in mind, and treated each other as valued members of a team. This was the opposite of Prometheus. Characters were either fools or knaves, and were about as convincing in the role of scientists as Denise Richards’ nuclear physicist in the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough.

    Among the cliches there was the removal of the space helmet because the atmosphere was breathable. I understand the reason for this–so the audience can easily see the actors’ faces. But had this been a real expedition, and granting the atmosphere were breathable, helmets would have remained on in order to protect the alien environment. Think how cave paintings (Lascaux, etc.) have been damaged by the breath of visitors. And Arthur C. Clarke saw the human threat in “Before Eden.”

    I did find some things to admire, such as the conceptualization of the alien ship interior and the occasional sense of atmosphere. Fortunately, I didn’t have the anticipation that some fans had, so my disappointment was less keen.

  17. I liked it.

    I think it is extremely difficult to not go over the same roads in a film. Everything that takes only 2 and half hours to explain has already been done or is far too boring to put anyone in theater seats at 10$ a pop.

    The film does delve into interesting territory with the engineers and David…the fact that it is wrapped up in a action/horror movie is to be expected. Again we are talking about a feature film here movies that delve deeply into a robot man and mysterious creator alien races cannot get action/horror type film budgets…and to be honest they probably shouldn’t. A book, an indy video game or tv series is a far better place for such a thing.

  18. Well, I saw it. I liked the surgery scene, heh. I was rooting for Noomi to have good scenes all the way through. Sometimes she did. There were some cute ideas here and there, but mostly it was like a Syfy monster movie with a higher budget.

  19. Saw it last weekend.

    It felt like Scott had this great idea in his head but then got impatient when it came time to make the movie. I loved the concept and it really could have been cool, but all the stupidity detracted from it. The “scientists” were idiots, the crew were basically redshirts and the whole plot seemed to be cobbled together. Disappointing because it felt like this could have been a great movie had it been given more love and attention.

  20. Great looking movie, but lacked story telling coherence which ultimately left me feeling a bit cast adrift from the action.

  21. I find it hilarious that a site that constantly considers vampires and urban fantasy to fall under the umbrella of science fiction to understand Prometheus.

    Need I remind readers of this site that it also gave Blade Runner 1 out of 5 stars.

    I’ve read this site for quite awhile and I’m fully convinced that it pretty much has jumped in bed with the tired vampire/werewolf/urban fantasy popularity while throwing science fiction squarely under the bus.

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