The reviews thus far:

This review contains mild spoilers. Major spoilers have been saved for the end, and cannot be seen unless highlighted.

There just has to be something meaningful under the surface. Right?

When the spectacle is this detailed and carefully composed, and the mythology this intriguing, and the caliber of the cast this impressive, how disappointing would it be to find out that Prometheus indulges mindless escapism no more rewarding than that of a Michael Bay film?

If only. I could forgive “disappointing”, so long as the mindless escapism on offer were willing to commit to the part (see: Aliens). But there’s a key difference between a silly sci-fi affair like Prometheus and that of the Transformers variety: Michael Bay knows exactly what he wants his films to be, and doesn’t insult viewers by pretending that they’re anything more. He doesn’t allude to a higher purpose when presenting his particular brand of sensory assault, and then refuse to pull back the curtain when it comes time to reveal what that higher purpose is.

Prometheus may seem like more sophisticated fare, with a promise of greater significance deeply entrenched in the oft-mentioned subject matter (i.e., uncovering the origin of human life), but the movie utterly fails at tying its ideas and its monstrous happenings together. Despite feigning interest in probing life’s most pertinent mysteries, the film has nothing to say. It asks — literally asks, aloud — weighty questions without any interest in exploring the answers. The film expects you to do the heavy lifting, as though it should be rewarded for even daring to ask the questions to begin with. What is the meaning of life? Where do we come from? Why do we believe what we believe? What makes us human? What drives us to find the answers to these questions?

Well?

Yes, I’m asking you.

What, am I supposed to contribute something to the conversation? I’m the one who asked the questions. That’s, like, the hardest part. Because naturally, nobody watching Prometheus has ever considered these questions before. This is literally the first time anyone has thought to breach such existential territory, save for stoners, coffee shop philosophers, and everyone who has ever lived since the beginning of time.

Prometheus is at its most interesting when it strives for simple pathos, suggesting that by not supplying the answers the audience so desperately craves, it’s making a point about human nature and the pursuit of the “why” beyond the “what”. I can only imagine this was co-writer Damon Lindelof‘s wily way of addressing what he spent so many years dealing with on LOST. And yet, once again, his refusal to provide adequate closure demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of why ambiguity is so often frustrating — or at least, why his reliance on it is. Because, unlike life’s great mysteries, we know that there is a creator responsible for the story playing out in front of us, and possess the cognitive ability to discern between one that utilizes ambiguity as a means of truly enhancing the narrative and one that resorts to it because learning the truth would serve only to disappoint you all the more.

This is a disappointment shared by the film’s most compelling character, an android named David, who’s ironically imbued with more humanity than any of the actual humans aboard the film’s titular ship. For David, the intrigue lies in the “what”, not the “why”. When confronted with the disappointment of a crew member over never being able to ask his “Engineers” why they chose to create humans, David questions why humans made him. “We made you because we could,” the crew member flatly responds. “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same answer from your creators?”

This exchange is easily among the strongest in the film, and yet it’s also its most infuriating, because it seems to willfully forgo any responsibility on the writers part to make sense of the narrative.

Oh, what, you have a problem with the lack of meaningful plot resolution? You’ve completely missed the point! It’s about the desire to find answers, not the answers themselves! Why try to satisfy you with answers when life doesn’t have any satisfying answers to give? Check mate, motherfuckers!

Is this seriously the point of Prometheus? We’ve waited this long to have our questions about the Alien mythology answered, only to be told that expecting satisfying answers to those questions is actually reflective of the folly of mankind? That’s it?

How profound. Nevermind that I only sought the answers to those questions to begin with because Ridley Scott chose to make a movie that asks those questions.

Before early word of Prometheus rolled around, I never took issue with Alien‘s ambiguity. I was content with knowing nothing about the space jockey. I didn’t question the origin of the xenomorphs. They’re an alien species with seriously disturbing reproductive tendencies. They did to that pilot exactly what they end up doing to Ripley’s space pals. What more is there to know?

As it turns out, very little; and way too much.

Alien was an intimate horror tale that alluded to a story behind the story, but left it to your imagination to consider what that other story actually was, cleverly intensifying the horror as that creeping sense of the unknown lingered fiercely in the back of the viewer’s mind. Even though the scale of the story that the film ultimately told was relatively small, the scale of the film felt larger than life because of how confidently it carried its cast through each reveal of its meticulously crafted mythos.

Prometheus is written by people who understand why that aspect of Alien was so appealing, but they lack the ability to contribute anything of worth to the mythology, or to even figure out what they want the film to be. Is it horror? Action? Adventure? Thriller? Drama? It’s all of those things, really, except when it’s not — which is most of the time.

Worse still, each and every glimpse into the recesses of its hitherto unexplored mythology consists largely of monster mayhem bereft of imagination, excitement or soul. These developments don’t build upon one another to uncover a thoughtfully assembled framework, steadily escalating the tension and terror until all hell breaks loose. Instead, each development stands alone as its own little piece of nonsensical horror violence.

On the receiving end of these grotesqueries is one of the most incompetent crew of scientists to ever grace the silver screen, always ready to take off their helmets, touch foreign contaminants, split up from the team when frightened, and assume any alien lifeforms are friendly pets — all while having next to no knowledge about where they are and what they’re doing there. The crew is at its smartest when it lets their high-tech gadgets do the work for them, which pretty much comprises the entirety of the first act. This is when the film is at its best, re-introducing audiences to this world with startling confidence and an overwhelming sense of visual awe. It’s a shame, then, that the film is so much better at characterizing its technology than its humans.

That technology includes David, played with chilly ambivalence by the always reliable Michael Fassbender. As characters go, he’s the film’s one saving grace, but even he can’t escape the sheer aimlessness of a story that has no idea what to do with him. (A realization that only occurs once the film nears its end, and his actions have been cast in a new, thoroughly underwhelming light.)

Noomi Rapace holds her own in a lead role that does her no favors, repeatedly emphasizing the nature of her faith in God without ever letting her believably convey it.

“Why do you believe, Ms. Shaw?”

“Because I choose to.”

Cute, but does that strike anyone as something a true believer would say?

Rapace is more convincing when forced to respond to the devastation at hand, particularly during one terrifically gruesome display of maternal terror that stands on its own as the best sequence in the film. (But, like everything else in Prometheus, the rushed set-up zaps it of its vitality.)

The rest of the cast isn’t as fortunate, the luckiest of them enjoying half-formed relationships that go nowhere before suffering their abrupt, obligatory deaths. Most wasted is Charlize Theron, in a role that amounts to an entirely incidental dramatic revelation that’s neither dramatic nor revelatory.

In the end, it isn’t the thematic ambiguity that kills Prometheus; it’s everything else.

Stripped from its Alien roots, Prometheus barely has a story to call its own. A lot happens in it, but the events play out with so little thought or urgency that almost nothing seems to happen at all. By the time it hits its third act, the film has completely devolved into generic sci-fi drivel, rushing through each incongrous payoff without bothering to properly root them in any sort of intellectually or emotionally substantiated context. Scene after scene, the film subjects its expert team of stock horror dummies to inactivity and death, completely devaluing the inherent thoughtfulness of the themes at hand, and in doing so removing any trace of intelligent design in a story that’s all about tracing back the roots of intelligent design. But then, maybe that irony is not lost on the writers, who treat the film’s actual gods like dummies, too.

The big loser of the film, though, is science. For a movie that’s so eager to express wonder and fear at the possibilities of scientific advancement, it’s startling to find the field abused with such reckless disregard for narrative coherence.

[Highlight to read spoilers]

To review: Alien “Engineers” have pioneered a new sort of chemical warfare, concocting a mysterious black goop that decays DNA, completely disintegrating its creators upon contact. Worms, however, transform into alien snake things (uh, what?) that have vaginas for faces, because of biology and stuff. Exposure to humans, meanwhile, transforms them into super-powered, fat-headed rage zombies, in spite of them sharing a 100% DNA match (uh, what?) with their “Engineers”. And you better be careful to not blow your infected load without a condom, or your previously barren girlfriend will have a fully grown alien squid fetus (uh, what?) ready to pop out of her within days. Once birthed, that squid will grow into an enormous face-hugger in a matter of hours, and god forbid it latches onto the faces of any hefty bald dudes with milky complexions, because then you’ll be facing a brand new species of… Xenomorphs.

Everyone together now…

Uh, what?

Yup, that’s the big reveal of Prometheus. The xenomorphs are the incestual offspring of giant albino men and idiot scientists aimlessly fucking about with weaponized, monster-morphing ooze. That’s the shocking truth behind how this iconic species came into being. Of all the things Prometheus could’ve been about, of all the things Prometheus could’ve introduced to the Alien mythology, in the end, it all boils down to… General purpose bio-goo.

[End spoilers]

To call Prometheus inconsequential would be a severe understatement. This movie is a trifling blip of narrative disarray, so lacking in anything resembling an intelligible throughline or purpose that I can’t help but wonder why there was any incentive to tell this story at all. Prometheus isn’t just bad; it actively detracts from the very mythology it’s trying to enhance, reducing the Alien legacy to little more than an accidental byproduct of a mind-numbingly stupid expedition.

But boy, it sure is pretty.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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Adam Quigley can be reached at adamquigs[at]gmail[dot]com, or on Twitter at twitter.com/alwayswatching.

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