Given its pedigree and hype, one would expect “Prometheus” to have Great Film written all over it. This is an even more important label than Oscar Material, because Great Films are the ones that set the standards and populate the coffee table books, becoming the currency of Best lists and endless debates about what works qualify as great and why.
Director Ridley Scott, who already has a couple of Great Films on his resume, won’t likely ever see this one gain that distinction. For now, what this critic can tell you that “Prometheus” is an ambitious, grandiose swing for greatness, truly dazzling yet at times shockingly flawed. It’s a rare work that has one awed, bored, intrigued, and incredulous, all in near-equal measure.
Described as a “sort of prequel” to “Alien,” the film proves to be a definite prequel, amping up the monster movie aspects of Scott’s 1979 classic and layering on top the theme of all themes: the origin and purpose of human life.
Set in 2093, the plot follows the crew of the starship Prometheus, which travels to another world in order to discover the origins of human life. Our heroine is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archaeologist who, like a lot of the crew, is a Believer. Much is made here about faith and creationism, though I had to wonder: wouldn’t proving that humans were engineered by aliens make any major contemporary religious beliefs hard to swallow? Shaw’s boyfriend and shipmate Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) functions as a skeptical counterweight to her Christianity, though he appears to share some of her theological optimism. In effect, they’re looking to see if God has any answers to their questions.
Where Shaw seeks the Why, the corporation funding the expedition seeks the How. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the ship’s icy corporate executive, remains skeptical of the ship’s mission but nonetheless committed to the project. David (Michael Fassbender), the ship’s android, plays a central role thematically, as his sentient observations come free of the curiosities, desires, and fears that drive human thirsts for knowledge. The corporate view seems to be: If God exists in some form on this planet, why ask for explanations when one can learn his methods?
Once they’re arrived on the planet and begun exploration of its alien ruins, the film switches tracks from sci-fi to horror. Fans of “Alien” will know to expect parasitic beings with acidic blood, though their more intelligent designers, called the Engineers by the Prometheus’ crew, prove just as deadly.
Whether it’s the majestic opening scene on Earth, the eerily sterile corridors of the spaceship, or the hauntingly beautiful wonder of an alien star map, Scott’s talent for gorgeous composition still astounds. So does his capacity for the grotesque, especially as demonstrated in an already famous sequence likely designed with the sole purpose of making the chest-bursting scene in “Alien” seem almost pleasant by comparison. One might not think of self-inflicted caesarean sections the same way ever again after seeing this.
Scott has long resided in the class of great directors, but has always remained towards the outer edge, rarely coming up first or even quickly in discussions about the masters. “Prometheus” is a perfect example why. Scott’s aesthetic sensibilities are nearly unrivaled, and his actors perform well, but as a storyteller he’s only as good as the script at hand. Here, that limitation nearly proves fatal.
The screenplay, by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, tantalizes with its heavy themes and “Alien” lore, but regularly squanders opportunities for dramatic tension and narrative cohesion. Other than David, the characters are thinly written, demanding the actors flesh them out with their limited screen time. Thanks to apt casting, the actors pull that feat off, though the characters still are not terribly interesting.
There are nice script flourishes, such as David’s interest in “Lawrence of Arabia” and a flirtation between Vickers and the ship’s pilot (Idris Elba), but by the third act the plot has become a jumble of quasi-Creationist dialogue, explosions, and action scenes. The revelations teased early on give way to creature feature theatrics. The headier material, supplanted by the action, is either beyond Spaihts and Lindelof’s writing capabilities or simply not of lasting concern to them. Like Shaw, the audience is hoping for answers, but instead ends up with extra questions. Most disappointing is how conflicts between faith and fact are raised, but effectively disregarded for the thrills. By the final shot, hopes of that Great Film have faded away.
Still, one can count the number of blockbuster films per decade with aspirations this grand on one hand. If “Prometheus” fails at bending the mind, it ranks as a noble effort, adorned with the most breathtaking visuals one will see onscreen this year. Its lack of greatness becomes easy to forgive when one looks at the aspirations of the films beside it at the multiplex. Whether you love it, hate it, or are unsure, you won’t be indifferent – the response all too frequently elicited by summer blockbusters.