Prometheus, industrious and monstrously ambitious, deserves to be seen divorced from hype and hubris. Admittedly, that’s scarcely a small feat. Few films released in 2012 carry with them the massive weight of expectations which Prometheus bears on its shoulders. That’s just how things go for any production intent on serving as the precursor to cinematic iconography; in the case of Prometheus, that’s Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror masterpiece. How does even a master like Scott top one of his best works more than thirty years after the fact? Put simply, he doesn’t have to, pedigree or not. His film only need exist on its individual merits, and happily Prometheus, a beautiful and thoughtful and flawed creation story, very much stands out as its own beast.
There’s no denying that Prometheus nonetheless roams the very same cage as its predecessor– but it does, perhaps shrewdly, keep a safe distance more often than not. Unsurprisingly, one of the greatest obstacles Scott must overcome with his film is that aforementioned grand hurdle of anticipation. While the two projects connect in loose ways, more concrete bonds don’t form until the end, so any viewer demanding the same pleasures and ideas present in Alien should prepare themselves for rank disappointment. But that’s not to say Prometheus fails utterly. It just differs.
Mostly. Chitinous onyx-toned monstrosities don’t take up residence in cramped air ducts here– in fact, there’s even an alarming shortage of ducts in general– but that doesn’t suggest an absence of extraterrestrial horror. There’s something comfortingly familiar about the set-up: take a crew comprised of scientists, an android (Michael Fassbender), down-to-Earth working class types (notably Idris Elba), and a company woman (Charlize Theron), load them onto a spacecraft, and send them hurtling off to a distant planet’s moon for purposes of research and enlightenment. The details vary, though. Archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have uncovered evidence suggesting humanity’s origins lie in the stars and secured funding from the Weyland company for a trip to LV-223, where they hope to find the answers to life, the universe, and everything.
And, of course, everything goes to hell in a hand basket, but when do cinematic deep space scientific explorations ever go according to plan? In fairness, and foregoing great or even minor detail, the characters get something of what they’d hoped for– contact. It’s the particulars that leave them shaken, scarred, and frequently dead, and which viewers are better off discovering on their own. As it turns out, Prometheus also represents of 2012’s most enigmatic films; viral marketing has kept the movie from being totally shrouded in mystery, but Scott, writer Damon Lindelof (co-creator of TV’s serial riddle, Lost, as well as scribe to some of its best and worst episodes), and the cast have all done their share of running interference on the project’s puzzlements and secrets.
Which renders Prometheus a slightly difficult film to review in purity. Warning audiences– particularly fans— not to expect Alien isn’t much of a spoiler, but informing them what they can expect is a different matter entirely. So if Prometheus isn’t Alien , what is it? Atmospheric, for a start, working in a mien that walks the fine line between awe and terror with ease and which Scott handily maintains across the film’s running time. Taken for the viewing experience alone, Prometheus succeeds; the movie grips with an eerie, discomfiting confidence, luring us into its depths with nearly unrelenting suspense. Save for moments of script-level missteps, Prometheus basks in escalating dread as the plot thickens– occasionally too much.
Something must be said of the contemporary desire to surprise and to “twist” narratives, inflicting unexpected beats on unsuspecting audiences for no appreciable benefit other than shock value. Lindelof has talent, but he also suffers from such significant weaknesses as a writer that he relies on this sort of trickery as a crutch. Regrettably, that trait rears its head in Prometheus in the most needless and embarrassingly telegraphed ways possible, to the effect that such beats feel more like the culminations of insidious lies rather than organic turns along the narrative’s course. If ever you forgot about Lindelof’s involvement with Lost,Prometheus will remind you with force; listen carefully and you may even hear a single booming drum beat echoing in the back of your head during the film’s more disingenuous moments of revelation.
When Prometheus isn’t busy engaging in hackish deception at the expense of our intelligence and dignity, though– and contrary to what others may argue, it does so less often than not– it occupies our attention by presenting big questions within an utterly gorgeous framework. That Prometheus is visually stunning, perhaps, isn’t such a surprise; Scott has long proven himself a master at capturing his films with breathtaking composition. Here, however, he’s working with 3D for the first time to impressive results. Like Martin Scorsese in 2011’s Hugo, Prometheus loudly proclaims the gimmick’s viability in the hands of a veteran talent who knows how to dazzle our senses with it.
Of course, Scott’s peddling more than mere eye candy (though Prometheus certainly deserves a viewing in 3D for the jaw-dropping spectacle alone). He’s woven together a single creation story and folded it into a number of additional stories, asking numerous questions about the act of creation along the way. Consider that Prometheus, a film about people attempting to very literally meet their makers, itself provides an origin to H.R. Giger’s xenomorph; consider as well the theme of parentage that crops up in the concurrent arcs of Shaw, who we learn early is sterile, and Fassbender’s android, David, a child surrogate to Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the wealthy, powerful, and deceased industrialist funding the mission. Humans possess an instinctive drive to create, even if the “why” isn’t always crystal clear– and that question resonates throughout Prometheus‘ structure and narrative.
A word of warning, though: you may not like what Rapace, Fassbender, Theron, Elba and the rest of the excellent cast come to discover. Prometheus begins as a mystery and ends only slightly demystified; even for a filmmaker so gifted as Scott, resolving the truth behind the existence of life on Earth in two hours is a tall order. Coyly, wisely, the answers he and Lindelof offer are scarce, and often raise even more questions. But that’s okay, because the film contains so much to chew over that we can easily come to our own truths.