The film is proving to be a commercial hit, having made $21 million dollars on Friday alone. This means a lot of you have likely seen it and are ready to talk about specific events within it, along with what works in the film and what doesn’t. So here’s where my review comes in. It’s full of spoilers and even points out a lot of things that don’t work in the film, but ultimately is certainly favorable. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’d recommend fixing that before you read this.
“This may read like a bad review at this point, but I actually really like the movie. In fact, I almost love it. But an honest assessment of the film has to acknowledge its shortcomings if I’m going to expect you guys (or myself) to buy into any of this.”
I would love a discussion with you guys about this and I obviously welcome all dissenting comments. So please head inside for the review and feel free to comment or yell or whatever. And, as always, make sure to write your own review as well!
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first and address some of the more prevalent criticisms of the film.
Prometheus isn’t perfect and a lot of that boils down to the script. I don’t feel as harshly towards it as some others do, but it’s problematic. Sean Harris’ Fifield returning as a head smashing zombie doesn’t really tie into the film’s thematic or narrative framework as far as I can tell. Idris Elba’s out-of-nowhere speech to Noomi Rapace’s character about the canisters being weapons is a clumsy bit of exposition that plays to the cheap seats (I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene was added late in the game to provide said exposition as well as explain his character’s sacrifice). Some of the film’s dialogue in general is on the nose. Seeing Guy Pearce pop up again under all that old age makeup (which bothered me less the second time around) diffuses the tension and noticeably splinters the momentum of the film’s third act. If you’re reading this you’ve seen the movie and already know Prometheus peaks at the C-Section scene. This is in part because that scene is an amazingly tough act to follow. But it’s also because the last few reels don’t know where to focus their attention and the film’s ideas get away from it.
This may read like a bad review at this point, but I actually really like the movie. In fact, I almost love it. But an honest assessment of the film has to acknowledge its shortcomings if I’m going to expect you guys (or myself) to buy into any of this. It’s sort of frustrating to feel yourself falling in love with a film only to be pushed away here and there until you have to settle on a platonic relationship with it instead of a romantic one – but that’s what I have with Prometheus. A platonic relationship between film and filmgoer. One that I value quite a bit.
Prometheus dares to dream, it just fails to to see all of its dreams through. I hate to be the guy who says, “at least it tries,” because many movies try and fail and just aren’t worth it. Prometheus fails in a lot of its undertakings but is still completely worth it and utterly works on an experiential level. Even the ideas it doesn’t see all the way through are engaging stuff to chew on after the film ends. I’m not sure if its Alien ancestry helps or hurts it, it might be what got you in the door but I know it was my biggest stumbling block in terms of embracing the film for what it actually is. Starting with that initial shot of the Engineer standing at the edge of the waterfall, staring at a ship that’s alien to even him and sipping the black goop that unravels his DNA (which cascades into the rushing water and creates… us) – you know that this not a pure Alien prequel. Thematically it almost feels more like a Star Trek film married to the tone and biology of the first few entries in the Alien franchise.
The design of the Engineer is shocking, and I can see how it might even be off-putting. This is not the creature you paid to see, instead it’s literally a god made flesh. And it’s also the human ideal. I don’t think the physique evokes Michelangelo’s David (or the Greek Gods) on accident. But I appreciate the film’s boldness to make it pretty much the first thing we see and like that it puts the creation dynamic in our heads right away. Since the bulk of the film is about the dynamic (and divide) between creator and creation and it’s not a bad way to get the ball rolling. It’s also not an accident that Fassbender’s android is named David to begin with. I think the Engineers embodying the human physical ideal (like Michelangelo’s David) comments on our society’s struggles to get approval from the Gods in the same way that Fassbender’s David is trying to get approval from us. Both Davids are facsimiles carved by creators (creators who obviously differ on the definition of “perfection”).
That theme, creator vs. creation (and vice versa), is carried out several ways in the film. Humanity wanting to know “God”. The Gods/Engineers wanting to wipe out humanity. The relationship between Vickers and her father Weyland, whom she’s still trying to impress even though he clearly favors his android creation (the film favors nurture over nature here, and she obviously got the wrong end of the stick in that department). David’s pursuit of human approval is negated by Holloway (who is not directly David’s maker but represents what David simultaneously disdains and desires to be. It’s also Holloway’s treatment of David that seals his fate, David could have “experimented” on at least 4 other members of the crew without consequence, he didn’t choose him by accident ). And finally we have humanity’s relationship with its own creation, the xenomorph (more or less). Shaw gets to have Holloway’s child, something she always wanted but never thought possible. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the first iteration of the face-hugger. While I can’t really disagree with the argument that this theme is hammered repeatedly on-the-nose, I would counter with a mild, “at least it’s thorough.” We don’t get that much dedication to ideas in today’s blockbusters and Prometheus is dedicated to ideas, even if it doesn’t always fully understand its own thoughts.
To that end, Prometheus is not an exploration of every possible result of that dynamic. Rather, it functions like any good argument would by using several different examples to make one very specific point. The case that the film makes? That the initial result of meeting your gods or idols (or knowing your parents – or getting the answer to anything) is disappointment. Sure, there’s room to rebound from that disappointment – to use the shock of what you’ve learned to build toward an even deeper understanding of what makes whatever you hold iconic tick. And I’d be willing to wager this is what the film’s sequels will set out to explore (should they happen). But if you’ve invested a significant amount of time or emotional energy projecting your desires onto something or someone that you don’t truly know – the reality of that object or person will always be a potentially dangerous let down. Ironically, this is actually pretty well exemplified by the experience of someone who came to this film looking for the perfect Alien film and saw Prometheus instead.
Another thematic strand I find equally interesting is the simple idea of perspective. What is evil? What is good? What deserves to live and what needs to be killed? The Engineers want to wipe out humanity completely, what do they see in us that they find so dangerous? Is it similar to what we see in the Xenomorph? After all – we created them yet the accepted plan of action in the rest of the Alien films is to destroy every last one of them. We act exactly the same towards the Xenomorphs as the Engineers act towards us. And even though the Engineers in Prometheus want to kill us, they’re not depicted as particularly evil. And Xenomorphs in the canon aren’t necessarily evil either. One of the points Prometheus makes is that there aren’t necessarily such things as “good” or “evil” – just the interests of any given species versus the interest of its opponents.
The last big component of Prometheus is faith. I’m not even slightly religious but the film spoke to me about the value of carrying faith – not necessarily in a deity, but in optimism and survival – in the face of irrefutable proof otherwise. In the film this is obviously illustrated by Shaw’s insistence on holding steadfast to her faith even though the “God” she found not only outright rejects her, but tries to kill her. But I think the significance of the message can be applied in meaningful ways across the board. We live in a tough, bleak world – and to believe in any kind of sustainable future or prolonged happiness is to have faith in the fact that things can get better (or even just avoid getting worse) despite all evidence being to the contrary. At the end, when Shaw asks David where her cross is, she’s not just reaffirming her religious faith – she’s restating her will to live even though she’s just been through an untenable series of events that would cause most of us to give up outright.
Do I wish the film had seen all these ideas through more thoroughly? Yes. And I can’t chastise people and say they “didn’t get it”, because it’s likely a lot of them got it but just didn’t like the movie. Fair enough. So all I can really do is point out what I liked about the film, and hope that some people are willing to forgive Prometheus for what it suggests, rather than what it explains.
Let’s also not forget that, experientially, the film is top notch. It’s a visually arresting and often gorgeous experience. The opening frames, the sandstorm encroaching on the Prometheus, the final crash of the Space Jockey’s crescent ship – it’s all marvelously executed. The sets are as intricate, ornate and expansive as any you’ll find on film. There are some great moments of dread and the film’s centerpiece – the caesarian – is one for the ages. In fact, I’d argue that the main fault of Prometheus is that it peaks too early and is never able to match that scene. The narrative splinters and becomes somewhat diffuse by the end of the 3rd act. The film loses its sense of urgency by cutting between two many strands of action, none of which are as compelling as Shaw fighting for her life in that medical unit.
That’s not to say the remaining minutes of the film are a wash, it simply settles out of that urgency into the cradle of its own ideas. Ideas that are more than worthwhile if you’re willing to engage them. Just because a lot of what the film has to say is rooted in well explored terrain doesn’t mean that further examination of those concepts is ill advised. After all, there are only so many core stories from which to draw. And every film draws on them to some extent. It just so happens that most of with far less visual and editorial currency than Prometheus.
*By the way, the film does not take place on LV-426. I know most of you got that but I’ve heard some people asking why the Space Jockey isn’t sitting in the chair at the end with a hole in his chest. That’s a different Space Jockey on a different planet.