Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron

As the summer blockbuster season approached, Prometheus was among one of the leaders on my “must-see” list.   Taking a quick look to the right-hand column of this page, you will find Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, Alien, firmly placed among my all-time favorite films, so the idea of Scott returning to this universe for what may or may not be an Alien prequel was more than enough to get me to the theater.  While the dangers in the original arose quite accidentally with a mining expedition gone wrong, the crew in Prometheus’s mission has far more existential aspirations.  Prometheus seeks god-like figures, or “Engineers,” to ask, “what it all means” but only finds the horrors that brought these figures to their doom.

In the beginning, I was completely sold by Prometheus.  Its intro is at once mysterious, beautiful, and haunting with a chiseled god-like being drinking a black substance and falling victim to a horrific death.  We have no idea what is going on but it is amazing to behold, and once that familiar Alien font slowly reveals the title, I was so ready to re-enter this world.  What follows is a feast for the eyes and many moments of great suspense, but its grandiose themes and stock characters hold it back from being truly great.

In the year 2089, two archeologist lovers, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Halloway (Noomi Rapace, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fame, and Logan Marshall-Green), unearth what is seemingly proof of the existence of extraterrestrial “creators” who brought life to the planet.  Four years later, they’re in a cryogenic sleep aboard a trillion dollar expedition to a moon in a distant solar system where these beings are supposedly to be found.  It is their hope to have deep conversations with their creators to reveal the meaning of life.  Of course, things don’t go as planned.

It is unfair to compare Prometheus to Alien, but one of the original’s strengths is one of Prometheus’ most glaring weaknesses.  Where Alien took careful time to develop each member of the Nostromo’s crew so that when the monster is finally wreaking havoc aboard the ship, our hearts are racing for every character’s well being.  This tactic is not effectively used in Prometheus, as the crew just becomes a string of uninteresting bodies.  When the expedition takes its turn for the worse, they are just stand-ins for cool ways to show an alien attack.  Even when heroic sacrifice is needed, the emotions just felt a bit hollow.  The film is a pleasure to look at but the emotional substance is lacking no matter how hard it tries.

Prometheus does take its time to effectively develop a few characters; it also takes its time to develop Charlize Theron’s icy corporate supervisor, Vickers, and Idris Elba’s down-to-earth Southern captain, Janek, but neither were all that interesting.  The lead roles, which warrant the most attention in the film, belong to Rapace’s Shaw and David (Michael Fassbender), the obligatory android in the Alien universe.  Shaw is no Ripley (damn Alien comparisons again), but there is depth behind her motivations that instills a rooting interest in her survival that is lacking for most of the others.  This makes your heart pump extra hard for her well being during Prometheus’ most suspenseful sequence.  The time given to develop David’s character is also worthwhile.  Fassbender portrays him as the soulless android he is, but there is just a hint of humanity underneath.  We understand that David has spent the trip carefully studying what it means to be human, through the reading of his shipmates’ dreams or embodying Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia.  David's actions may be programmed and calculated but Fassbender’s complex, robotic performance is one of the film’s highlights.  However, some of his seemingly “programmed” actions have grave consequences but little explanation.  For that, David can remain somewhat a mystery, which can be okay sometimes, but was more frustrating in Prometheus

Many huge questions are posed throughout the film while the crew searches for the god-like beings that created life on Earth.  Prometheus tries to tackle issues of creation, the meaning of life, and immortality but the pseudo-science that is used to help explain these issues feels forced and becomes distracting.  I love to be challenged by a film when the writing is worthy of that challenge.  Unfortunately, Prometheus often feels like it's trying to be smarter than it actually is, which is exactly when the plot drags.  Like Alien, Prometheus is at its best when it takes itself a little less seriously and amps the horror. 

I’ve been highlighting a lot of the negatives I found in Prometheus, but I want to make clear that there is a lot about this film to admire.  The special effects are excellent throughout, the aliens provide the right amount of creepiness, and the suspense during the alien sequences is always at full throttle.  I just wish that Prometheus embraced its horror and action aspects a little more (like Alien or James Cameron’s Aliens) rather than trying too hard, and not quite achieving, to also be intellectual.

Overall, I found Prometheus to be a solid effort at times, though mostly disappointing.  Its good aspects are excellent, but there were too many parts of the film that dragged to prevent it from becoming something special.  As is, however, I’d definitely recommend it to people if you were a fan of the Alien saga.  The scene that proclaims Prometheus as an “official Alien prequel” alone is cool enough to make me excited to see if there are more adventures to be told in the lead up to Ripley and company’s entrance into the story aboard the Nostromo.

Mark it 5.


  1. I mostly agree with this review, and with the 6 rating, at least until I can see it again. The more I think about the problems with this movie, the more they bug me. And what I find especially aggravating is how easily most of the oversights would be to fix. This was a fun movie to be sure, but that it came from the director of the original Alien means, I think, that it can be held to high expectations. And on that front, it didn't quite succeed. I think this film tried to ask "big questions," but I just wasn't moved by any of them. And so here, with hopefully only minimal spoilers, are my technical problems with Prometheus:
    1) It failed to use the show, don't tell philosophy, especially with regard to the foreshadowing. "Oh, look at this self-surgery medpod. They only made a dozen of these." Why not just say, "This is a self-surgery machine. Make notes for later on, everyone."
    2) These were the dumbest scientists ever. As Tasha Robinson at AV Club noted, "Oh, here's a snake-like creature making obviously threatening gestures. I'mma poke it."
    3) Why would you take off your helmet on an alien world, even if there is oxygen?
    4) The geologist was a complete cliche. I believe he even said, "I'm not here to make friends." That's just bad. Bad, bad, bad.

    I expect Ridley Scott to avoid insulting the audience's intelligence. This is a failure on that count. But oh well, we'll always have Alien.


    The faults of "Prometheus," as outlined by Zack and Josh, were no doubt evident. Logan Marshal-Green as David, especially, didn't work. He seemed more ambercrombie-fitch model and not enough passionate archeologist/scientist. He felt like a sci-fi channel movie scientist. An older actor with more gravitas, and better character writing would have helped greatly to fill him out as a character we believe, and better yet, care about.

    I've seen enough stupid decisions by supposedly smart people in movies to not let it bother me all that much. More irritating were some glaring plot holes, or unexplained plot developments. For example, the powerful opening didn't integrate itself into the rest of the story, minimizing its impact by the end of the movie. Who was the humanoid destroyed at the beginning? Was that Earth? Or was it the planet, or more correctly moon, on which alien race was found by Prometheus? Were they the same "Engineers" destroying another version of themselves, or another, higher level-alien race? Etc... Another example is when the scottish geologist, or whatever he was, comes back to the ship as a monstrous version of himself to attack the crew. While a well-filmed and excellent action sequence on its own, within the context of the rest of the movie it didn't jive with the rest of the story and left too many questions. What happened to him? What inhabited his body, was he possessed somehow by the giant humanoid "Engineers" or more likely by the alien/deadly biological/'weapon of mass destruction' creature possessed by the "Engineers?" The ambiguity did not, such as is the case in a movie like 2001, leave me with deeper questions about what I had just seen and experienced, enhancing the movie, but rather left too many questions that actually detracted from the effectiveness of the movie. (I know it may not be fair to compare this to an all-time great like 2001, but I actually find it a fair comparison, because both movies set out with huge ambition to tackle a simple theme like the beginning, evolution, and future of the human race and our place in the universe)

    1. I definitely agree here about the plot holes. The whole black goo thing never came together. Sometimes it broke down one's DNA so it could be reconstructed to build new life forms. Sometimes it gave folks eye worms. Sometimes it turned people into super-strong zombies (i.e., the I'm-not-here-to-make-friends geologist). Sometimes it spontaneously created snake monsters. Sometimes it impregnated women with squid babies that had to be removed by med pods. It just wasn't coherent.

      And yes, Logan Marshal-Green's character was just awful. Where I do kind of take issue with your assessment, Nick, is the forgiveness of the stupid scientists. I, too, would normally overlook their decisions if this was any other movie by any other team of filmmakers. It is, though, a prequel to Alien by that movie's director. I think it's fair to expect the movie to hold to higher standards. What I can't get over is just how easy these problems would be to fix. Don't take off your helmets on an alien world. Find a less lazy way to include foreshadowing. And develop a more coherent life cycle for the black goo.


    All that being said, I'm still really glad Scott decided to tackle this movie and return, kind of, to the "Alien" universe. There are many more positive attributes than negative. I loved the ambition of the movie, both in its theme and execution. The deliberate pacing, similar to Alien, in which the dread slowly builds then explodes about half-way through the movie and then maintains throughout the rest of the movie, is directed with a strong hand by Scott. The special effects, set-pieces, design, sound, action sequences, and overall look of the movie is impeccable and often horrifyingly beautiful. And there is one plot sequence that are so intense and well done that I was literally on the edge of my seat. The intense "birth" sequence in the "self-surgery" machine Josh mentioned above, was a great call-back to the most famous scene of Scott's original "Alien" movie, but also stands on its own with that scene, along with a few others from the first two classic Alien movies. Great horror movie filmmaking.

    Probably the biggest compliment I can give Prometheus is that while it doesn't reach the level of greatness of the Scott's original "Alien" and Cameron's classic sequel, it does work as an effective prequel. Maybe it wasn't necessary, it does however, I believe, enhance the Alien world and build upon what was made before, while also standing on its own as an individual movie. That is something that is extremely difficult to pull off (see- or better yet don't see- the other Alien sequels except of course "Aliens" and the Star Wars prequels) and Scott does it very well with "Prometheus."

    If anything its faults come in large part by being too ambitious and biting off more than its writers, director, and actors can chew. But I'd rather it failures come out of over ambition, rather than out of laziness and lack of effort and talent that ruin other, lesser movies . I'd mark it a little higher than Zack, if this was my website, a strong 7.