Probably the most bitched-about mainstream film in years, Prometheus marks Ridley Scott's first sci-fi film since 1982's touchstone masterpiece Blade Runner, and the first film in the Alien franchise since 1997's Alien Resurrection. Not since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has a film incurred so much fanboy ire while simultaneously earning generally high marks from actual film critics. As one who enjoyed Crystal Skull quite a bit, I find myself generally suspicious of knee-jerk fan backlash, particularly where beloved franchises are concerned, with their baggage of excessive hype and overamplified audience expectations. So with the critics giving their enthusiastic recommendations and the longtime fans crying foul and betrayal, who has it right?
As per typical, neither side has a premium on the truth here. Prometheus is a decidedly mixed bag of offerings. While the budget and technology have advanced in long strides since Alien's comparatively humble days, the plot has remained firmly rooted in a 1970's mindset, with a premise straight out of Erich Von Daniken's bestselling Chariots of the Gods, a rather silly book attempting to convince the reader that the human race was either started or assisted in its development by alien visitors long, long ago. Prometheus has the good sense to present a fictionalized and somewhat more convincing version of the evidence than did Von Daniken, with pictograms of a distant star system appearing in cave paintings scattered across Earth's surface as well as throughout man's long history. Archeologist Elizabeth Shaw believes it to be an invitation for the human race to meet its maker, a quest Blade Runner's Roy Batty would've understood all too well; his pertinent question of "Can the maker repair what he makes?" also taking on significance here. If only the screenplay had any of Blade Runner's subtlety. Every once in a while, it might be nice for those penning scripts featuring scientists to do the slightest bit of research into just what it is that scientists do. Any scientist presenting a theory for which the only support is "It's what I choose to believe" would be rightly laughed out of his or her field (belief is also not a choice. If you think otherwise, then try believing sincerely that the sort of music you most hate is now your favorite. Go ahead, believe that deliberately). Actual scientists also, for the record, do not refer to evolution as "Darwinism;" only detractors and Intelligent Design loonies bandy that term about. One suspects its appearance here is not conicidental.
It would be simpler if Prometheus simply was an out-and-out dog akin to Michael Bay's Transformers franchise; one could then dismiss it and move on. As it is, the film has much to offer, which makes its numerous missteps that much more frustrating, as they stand implacably in the way between the viewer and the good film that could well have been there. The cinematography is nothing if not gorgeous. Ridley Scott's visual sense has not weakened in the intervening years, as seen by his effortless ability to evoke beauty out of bleakness. Alas, as he does not write his own scripts, no such consistency is to be found within the writing of his many and varied film projects. I reject the notion that the story somehow fails to answer all of its own questions. It certainly answers the ones that actually matter, and explains far more than Alien itself ever did. It does not cleanly end right where Alien began, true, but there's no reason it needs to, especially in light of the obvious new franchise being launched here. It does need, however, to have the courage of its convictions, as evidenced by the fact that it equivocates on its philosophical position so much, I honestly cannot be sure of what convictions it actually holds in the first place. In its best moment, it confronts the morality-from-authority fallacy, laying bare the stark truth that deifying one's originator is the wish to be a slave, with all of the horrors that come with that status, grovelling for master's approval and guidance instead of taking on the responsibility for one's own moral outlook. It then, disappointingly, retreats into a tired faith-as-consolation position. In almost all films marketed here in the western world, matters of personal faith are perpetually treated with kid gloves (with Watchmen being a welcome exception), which grows increasingly tedious. The proponents of religious faith have had millennia within which to grow up and learn to share the playground without having to play the "you hurt my feelings by disagreeing" card, and it's high time that they did.
On less lofty fronts, the film presents some nail-biting moments of tension, and Michael Fassbender's android character David is a pleasure to watch, as he charmingly presents a man for whom questions of moral right and wrong simply aren't factors. Between these, one has to deal with several instances of characters doing incredibly stupid things rather needlessly. I'm reticent to invoke the "I wouldn't have done that, ergo no one would've" argument, but when you are writing characters who are supposed to be the educated elite, they should at least come off as smarter than the average audience member. Are not monsters who are a grave threat to the geniuses amongst us just that much more fearsome?
Prometheus is an altogether more welcome entry into the Alien franchise than anything since 1986's Aliens, but that's damning with faint praise. Those first two films managed to become classics without any aspirations at being more than simply good entertainment. I don't at all mind imbuing a story with a greater sense of meaning, but if you're going to attempt to plumb some philosophical depths, you should make sure they're actually deep in the first place. "What is my purpose in life?" is not only not remotely deep, it's a flawed question, one which awaits an answer to the prior issue of "Is there a purpose to life in the first place?" Give your audience some credit, and don't assume we're all as daft as that one character who attempts to pet an angry, hissing snake.
-review by Matt Murray