Prometheus very quickly became notorious as the movie that Fox was desperate to keep under wraps. Nobody knew a thing about this movie, and everyone involved made damn sure to keep it that way. I could never figure out why.
The cast and crew kept denying that it was a prequel to Alien, waffling with some mumbo-jumbo about how this film and the prior franchise “shared DNA.” This ruse became laughable when the infamous “Space Jockey” and his ship were clearly identifiable in the film’s trailers and commercials. But of course, the Space Jockey’s origins are totally unknown, right? Nobody knew what it was or what it was doing, right? Check out this quotation from Ridley Scott himself in the commentary for the 20th Anniversary Alien DVD (which was released back in 1999, by the way):
I always wanted to go back and make an Alien 5 or 6, where we find out where they came from and go there and answer the question, “who are they?” Mars is too close so they can’t be gods of war, but the theory was, in my head was, this was an aircraft carrier, a battlewagon of a civilisation, and the eggs were a cargo which were essentially weapons. So right, like a large form of bacteriological stroke bio-mechanoid warfare.
Put that together with what we’ve seen in the trailers — scientists head out to find humanity’s creators, only to unleash something that could mean Earth’s destruction — and a very accurate outline of the film’s premise starts to present itself. Thus, with one simple Google search, everything that Fox did to keep Prometheus a secret comes undone.
Having seen the movie, I’m now convinced that the filmmakers weren’t trying to keep the film obscure because there were so many secrets that would ruin the film if spoiled. I’m convinced they tried to keep the film obscure because they had no idea what the fuck they were doing.
Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. After all, the cast is superlative across the board, and the film is visually perfect. I don’t use the word “perfect” lightly, but I totally mean it here. The sets are perfect, the costumes are perfect, the camerawork is perfect, and the effects are perfect. Strictly in terms of visuals, this is a flawless, exemplary movie. I didn’t get to see this film in 3D, and I honestly wish I had.
Something else that this film has going for it is ambition. This is a movie that addresses such enormous issues as mortality, faith, and the purpose of life. There’s one particular dialogue between a human (Dr. Charlie Holloway, played by Logan Marshall-Green) and an android (David, played by Michael Fassbender) that provides some of the most thought-provoking science-fiction that I’ve seen all year.
All of that said, there’s something even more important than heady ideas and provocative science fiction. It’s even more important than great visuals and a sterling cast. All of those things are great, don’t get me wrong, but they’re all for nothing if a movie fails to tell a coherent story. Let me try to explain by describing the plot. I’ll stop whenever my brain starts to hurt.
We open roughly 80 years into the future. The good ship Prometheus sets out for an undisclosed location, housing roughly a dozen crew members in cryo-stasis for the two-year duration of the journey. They are cared for by David, the android mentioned earlier. Upon arriving at their destination, the crew of the Prometheus is finally awakened and debriefed.
So these people — every one of sound mind and body — agreed to board a spaceship, get put into cryo-freeze for two years, then travel out to who-knows-where… and they’re only now being told what’s going on?! They must have been handed some fat fucking paychecks, that’s all I’m saying.
Two of those on board are the aforementioned Dr. Holloway and his lover/colleague (Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace). They’ve discovered a series of pictograms drawn by several different ancient cultures scattered around the globe. These civilizations were entirely separated from each other by time and space, and yet they all show a giant figure pointing toward the same configuration of dots.
The configuration turns out to be a planetary system, one so far away that people of the time couldn’t have known it was there. And according to long-range scans, one of the planets in that system has a moon that may be habitable. So, the Drs. Holloway and Shaw convince Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) — of the company later known as Weyland-Yutani — to finance an expedition to this moon. Why? Well, they seem to think that humanity’s creators reside on that moon. They don’t have any evidence to back that claim up, it’s just “what [Shaw] has chosen to believe.” That is a direct quotation.
As a student of science myself, I feel personally insulted by this story point. Science is all about backing up claims and hypotheses with objective evidence and logic. Coming to a conclusion based solely on personal belief, and then asking others to simply take your word for it, is the exact opposite of science. For Doctor Shaw to make such a claim and expect other scientists to believe her is laughable. Furthermore, it means that Weyland invested $1 trillion (I’m not pulling that number out of my ass, by the way, that’s the amount established in the film) into this entire operation based solely on Dr. Shaw’s totally unproven belief. Actually, given what happens to Weyland at the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if he really was that stupid.
So Prometheus goes to the moon’s surface and finds some kind of building down there. They explore, and… STOP. STOP STOP STOP.
See, this is the point in the movie where the story starts to go in several different directions. First we’ve got Holloway and Shaw, both of whom are leading the expedition while maintaining their romance arc. Then we’ve got Janek (Idris Elba), the Prometheus’ salt-of-the-earth captain. Representing the interests of the Weyland Corporation is Ms. Vickers (Charlize Theron) a woman so cold that when Janek asks her if she’s a robot, it’s a genuinely interesting question. These four characters are all constantly asserting themselves as the leader of the group, trying to advance their own agenda. That in itself might be enough to fill an entire movie.
But then we also have David, with his various duties, backstage maneuverings, philosophical ruminations, and day-to-day activities taking up a ton of screen time. Then there are whole scenes dedicated to Fifield (Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall), the two comic relief characters. The former is supposed to be a geologist, even though he’s so gruff and surly that I’m sure he was initially supposed to be some kind of bodyguard. The latter is supposed to be a biologist, but he’s far too stupid for it. Both of these guys were begging to get killed off.
There are a ton of storylines going on in this movie, far too many for one film to properly manage. Not only do characters randomly disappear when convenient, but the screen time is divided among the cast in such a way that it’s seldom clear just who the protagonist is supposed to be. Furthermore, some characters go from sympathetic to unsympathetic and back again, which makes it really unclear how I’m supposed to feel when someone gets killed off. Most importantly, all of the characters have their own separate agendas, with arcs that are entirely separate from each other. Not only does this mean that our characters fail to operate as a single cohesive team, but it means that the narrative fails to congeal into a single cohesive story.
Then again, it’s not like the story to this movie makes any sense at all to begin with. For example, we see during the prologue that the Space Jockeys created life on Earth. So far, so good. But later on, we learn about all the biological weapons on board the ship, and that the ship is headed straight for Earth. Why? According to one character, “Sometimes to create, one must destroy.” So the Space Jockeys created humanity so they could destroy it and make it again? What kind of sense does that make?
Another chestnut comes with the assumption that the moon where this all takes place isn’t the Space Jockey homeworld. They’re too smart to build weapons of mass destruction on their doorstep, you see. And yet they’re apparently stupid enough to keep an entire cargo hold filled with thousands of containers of the stuff, right next to the cockpit. Again, what?!
But of course, all of this is beside the most important query of all: What the hell did the pictograms have to do with any of this?! Why did the Space Jockeys leave us a map to find them? Why did they need us to go there? Why was the ship just sitting around there when it could have left at any time? Just what was the aliens’ plan here?!
These are just the (relatively) spoiler-free examples, folks. There’s a lot more where that came from. The more I think about this plot, the less sense it seems to make, especially with regard to Alien. For the life of me, I couldn’t draw you a line from Point A to Point B and tell you in any logical way how we got from one to the other.
Now, the fans might say that it’s all in the themes of this movie. Of course we don’t know the will of the aliens because it’s not our place to know the will of God. We don’t know why the Space Jockeys created us because we have no way of knowing why we’re here. And so on.
I refute it thus: Metaphors in a movie should not come at the expense of making narrative sense. Characters need clear motivations, effect must follow cause, and things must work according to some kind of logic. All of these things are necessary so that we the audience can understand just what the hell is going on. Even in The Tree of Life, there was an understandable coming-of-age tale buried under all the symbolism.
Furthermore, I have an especially hard time giving the movie any slack for using thematic depth as a crutch when so little is actually done with these themes. As a direct result of how poorly this movie was paced, the filmmakers bring up a lot of very intriguing questions without actually taking the time to examine them with much depth. There are a few novel approaches to some old quandaries (the aforementioned human/android dialogue comes to mind), but those are few and far between.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t sure what to take away from this film. When I normally leave a genuinely intelligent and thought-provoking film, I walk away feeling like my horizons have been broadened and I’ve been shown a new way of thinking about something. With this film, I didn’t feel enlightened, scared, thrilled, humored, or otherwise entertained. I just walked away confused.
Prometheus is a movie with a reach that far exceeds its grasp. The film tries to fit into so many genres at once that it doesn’t really work in any of them. Some of the deepest and darkest themes of the human condition are addressed, but seldom with any amount of depth. There’s a huge cast of potentially interesting characters, but their arcs all feel rushed or mishandled in some way. I just don’t know what happened with this movie, especially since so much talent and effort obviously went into it. The film is so visually superb that Ridley Scott clearly has some of his old directorial genius, and every single actor in this cast is a gem.
In short, I’d call the film a failed experiment. The filmmakers were trying to make something huge and thought-provoking, but only managed to create a well-produced narrative mess. I wouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it — the visuals alone are worth the cost of admission — but lowering your expectations is a must.