Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a maddening mess of contradiction. It is a film that attempts to serve two masters and thus serves neither. It attempts to ask big, smart questions and dares you to think, but once you start thinking, it contains more plot holes than it takes to fill the Albert Hall, to appropriate the Beatles’ lyric. In doing so, it therefore negates its attempts to raise itself above what it ends up being: an A-grade B-movie. Which, in all fairness, certainly makes it more successful than the Matrix sequels which have in common a lot of pretentious dialogue that means nothing. It wants to make a statement, but is so determined on leaving room for interpretation that it leaves itself in complete ambiguity. It is a film that is utterly nihilistic, while spending a good amount of its running time talking about what it means to be human.
It is a film with great actors giving fantastic performances in service of supposedly brilliant characters doing stupid things in order to be able to deliver the horror film that is promised in the final 45 minutes.
Let’s start with what Scott is known for. Visual splendor. The film is nothing short of beautiful in the way it merges the aesthetic of Alien (the film) into the aesthetic of Alien (the concept by H.R. Geiger) in a collision the likes of which has not been seen in any of the previous films in the series.
And words will not be minced. This is, in every way, an Alien movie. It is a direct sequel/prequel/whatever the hell term you want to use to describe it. There isn’t much of a way of knowing why they felt the need to pussyfoot around this, but even if there isn’t a shiny black critter running around and spitting acid, the thematic elements and story beats are so clear that there’s not any question.
But back to how the movie looks. The film possibly features the best use of 3D ever in a live-action film and may be the first non-cartoon to make it worth the extra few dollars in ticket price. If only Green Lantern had used its extra dimension to portray space as effectively. Part of what makes the 3D so effective is that it never feels like a gimmick and never feels invasive. It simply feels natural to the story telling. It does a fantastic job showing size, depth and grandeur. Take one early moment for example: in a nod to Lawrence of Arabia’s famous desert sequence in which the characters are so small on the screen that it is hard to see them without a 70mm print, we see the ship Prometheus as a tiny speck, rocketing silently and insignificantly in front of a giant planet.
The acting is much of what keeps the film from imploding in on itself and makes it an enjoyable trip while you’re in the theater. Noomi Rapace gives possibly her best performance yet as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the woman who inspires the spaceship Prometheus to travel across space to find the origins of man in the universe. It is on her shoulders that the film stands and she shows herself to have been wasted in things like her small role in the Sherlock Holmes sequel. Hopefully following this film, she’ll start seeing the kind of work she deserves. Idris Elba gives an expectedly good performance as the Prometheus’ captain that is often funnier than his oddly serious role on The Office. (Ironic that he had to appear in a horror film to show his comedic chops.) He is the most likable character in the film and provides a needed sounding board for the characters, even as they make seemingly random decisions from scene to scene. Michael Fassbinder gives a standout performance as David, an early android of the type that appears in the later films. Though supposedly emotionless, he exudes quiet disdain for his creators, all while the human characters search for our own. Fashioning himself physically after Peter O’Toole in the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia, he displays no compassion for humans and indeed seems to take every opportunity to differentiate himself from them, yet seems insulted when his lack of humanity is pointed out to him by his creators. It is also worth mentioning that Charlize Theron gives another winning performance as an unlikable bitch.
It all serves to elevate what is a half-assed attempt to combine a pretty standard “Chariots of the Gods” idea that has been explored in other forms such as Quatermass and the Pit or Stargate, with what is expected from a horror film. One wonders how successful it could have been if Scott had simply said what was on his mind, instead of purposely obfuscating his ideas or if it had simply been set outside that particular universe. There are already tons of examples of the issues with the script on the internet, so there’s no need to delve into them and ruin the genuine pleasures you may experience in viewing the film here. Some can be explained in no-prize fashion, but all in all, it shows to simply be sloppy storytelling. How much can be assigned on the writers (including Damon Lindelof of Lost) and how much is on Scott is up for debate.
Yet, for all the kvetching, it is an affecting film with some genuine classic moments in the horror genre. One squeam-inducing moment involving self-sugery is enough to make even the hardcore horror hound cringe. Say what you will about Scott, but once the fan is hit, the tension is successfully ratcheted at a good clip and in a lot of ways, these visceral moments make up for the shortcomings of the film. And it is for that reason and those of the acting and visuals that, while not perfect, it is a movie that can be recommended and on the big screen at that.
(Three out of five stars.)