Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. They must have been pretty damned cold. But the gods cared not for our chilliness and punished Prometheus by tying him to a rock and forcing an eagle to pluck out his liver every single day until the end of time. It’s a sad fate for Prometheus, but I always wondered what the poor eagle did to get punished with an eternity of monotony. What did the eagle steal, anyway? Nests? With that sense of pity in mind, I can’t help but support Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for its attempts to break out of the tedious sci-fi action movie mold, and yet I can’t help but damn it for failing to make the most of that ambition. To put it another way, I won’t say that I’m con-metheus, but I’m not entirely pro-metheus either.
Prometheus is a prequel to Alien. Yes, it is. All of the attempts to market the film otherwise are all a desperate attempt to mislead audiences into not comparing Prometheus to one of the greatest science-fiction movies of all time, probably because it doesn’t hold up, but also because Prometheus doesn’t have H.R. Giger’s aliens in it. As predicted, Scott’s prequel focuses instead on the type of alien craft in which the xenomorphs were discovered in the first place, and asks reasonable questions about who those other aliens were all along. Attached to those questions are existential dilemmas about the nature of human existence, and indeed all life in the universe. Prometheus begins with the promise of discovery before drowning it in the horror of the unknown.
At that, Prometheus occasionally succeeds. Scott’s film is a quiet one that actively pursues an atmosphere of doom. The interactions amongst the cast waffle between high-minded philosophy (which Prometheus takes great glee in tearing down) and blunt character tropes that remind us that most of the heroes are simply fodder. One guy smokes pot in his space suit. Yes, he dies early. Despite the solitude of Prometheus’s tone and production design, it falls into distracting storytelling clichés and irrational attempts to force action scenes into existence, ruining the otherwise palpably macabre and elliptical story taking place.
I’m hesitant to ruin too many plot points, because I know some audiences are avoiding spoilers like the plague, but I want you to pay attention to the part in which one of the crew is transformed into a monster. It’s by design, but for what purpose? Once the motivations for the expedition are revealed, the entire sequence makes no sense except as a thin excuse to add a little more violence to Prometheus’s mid-section. Worse yet, once the motivations are revealed, Prometheus turns out to have more in common with Alien vs. Predator than Alien. From a structural perspective, they’re basically the same. How disappointing is that?
Providing answers to all of Prometheus’s ponderous questions would have diluted the film’s Lovecraftian purpose, but providing a few more would have been mildly satisfying. What little we learn is mostly based on wild assumptions made by the cast, and what little is left is dissatisfyingly topical, and familiar to fans of the extended mythology of the Alien franchise.
If we were to treat Prometheus as an itemized list of ingredients, the good might outweigh the bad. The special effects can be jaw dropping. The cast is mostly excellent, although few get anything of consequence to do or say. Michael Fassbender is particularly remarkable as an android obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, but Charlize Theron appears to have used up all her energy overacting in Snow White and the Huntsman, leaving nothing but a shell to work with here. More importantly, thanks to the strange editing rhythms, mysterious production design and melancholy tone, Prometheus feels like no summer blockbuster before it. But its concessions to conventionality are so distractingly derivative that the final product feels defective, like an otherwise awesome video game haunted by persistent and distracting bugs.
The audience I saw Prometheus with exited the theater in a mild daze, some unwilling to write Scott’s film off without further contemplation, some doing so already in a kneejerk reaction to having their expectations dashed. I think it’s merely a failed experiment. An attempt to turn big budget science-fiction filmmaking into something contemplative, diminished by awkward attempts to make it marketable. Maybe the solution was to give no answers whatsoever, and lock the audience down in a pathetic quagmire of hysterical misunderstanding; to pull the rug out from under us and reveal but a chasm of incomprehensible terror. Instead, we’re offered just enough information to dismiss the unknown as not worth investigating in the first place. Some might say the same about Prometheus itself, but I’d rather watch a film that tried to be magnificent and failed than a movie that pursued mediocrity and achieved its goals.