Lately it seems like mainstream summer movies play it safe by delivering a standard genre exercise with little in terms of innovation or below-the-surface thought. This is precisely why Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is like ice-cold lemonade in a hot summer movie season that has been brimming with lukewarm studio product. A flawed, but fascinating film and the best work Sir Ridley has done in over a decade, Prometheus provides an immersive visceral experience and enough ideas to spur more post-cinema conversation than the average big-budget thriller. Like Scott’s early works, it nicely balances gripping suspense, a dark sense of humor, and an inventive visual palette.
Billed as the unofficial prequel to Alien, Prometheus is more of a prequel to life itself, opening with a muscular humanoid drinking an elixir that restructures his DNA and creates a new life form in an earthen environment. Fast forward millions of years and scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are studying cave paintings in an environment that looks similar to the prologue, searching for clues about mankind’s origins. Because of their research, Shaw and Holloway are chosen to be crew members on the spacecraft Prometheus along with a corporate stooge (Charlize Theron), a cocky captain (Idris Elba), a life-like droid (Michael Fassbender), and a number of other scientists.
When the craft lands on their destination planet, the crew begins the exploration and quickly discovers shocking similarities with Earth including a breathable atmosphere and comparable rock formations. The most startling discovery comes when they find human-like bodies and remnants of an ancient civilization. Various members of the crew have direct interactions with the mysterious planet in a series of striking action set pieces. The most disgusting and suspenseful moment comes when Shaw finds herself impregnated with a foreign object, leading to a scene that directly reflects one of the most iconic moments from Alien (with a thrillingly different result).
With the exception of Shaw, most of the characters receive what might be considered inexcusably minimal development. Screenwriters Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) use broad science fiction archetypes to define most of the members of the Prometheus crew and Scott cleverly uses these character tropes to comment on uniformity in movie plots. The broader the archetype, the quicker the death (i.e. the badass scientist has a shorter life span than the morally ambiguous droid) indicating Scott’s desire to rid the cinematic universe of less intimate character studies.
There are very few answers given in Prometheus, but the questions raised are momentous. It sets itself up for a challenge by posing the eternal question “why we are here?” and then cleverly side-steps that impossible quandary to focus on how we have always used art, specifically film, to find those answers. The film acknowledges epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, and of course Alien, paying homage to the methods each of those filmmakers used to search for meaning.
Scott’s mistrust of technology that was present in his early science fiction work also makes a strong return. When comparing the portrayal of droids in Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens it is clear that Scott sees technology as a hindrance to our search for truth and Cameron sees it as an aid (some might dispute that Cameron is indifferent towards the search for truth altogether, but that’s an argument for a different review). David, the droid in Prometheus, learns how to interact with his human companions from repeat viewings of Lawrence of Arabia with the film’s iconic line “the trick…is not minding that it hurts” serving as his mantra. Michael Fassbender delivers his lines with such precision, that there is little indication whether David’s misdeeds are genuinely meant to be sinister. It is the uncertainty that makes him such an interesting character and his blonde, Peter O’Toole haircut allows him to feel like the true explorer. David’s existence also serves one of the film’s major questions: if a robot who turns evil can be destroyed by his human creators, what is stopping mankind’s creators from punishing our sins?
Unlike many other directors who let their big budgets diminish creativity, Ridley Scott uses his vast resources to make a pretty effective argument in favor of visual effects. From the opening helicopter shots of beautiful landscapes to the realistically animated creatures, Scott immerses the viewer in a magnificent experience that is so aurally and visually realized that the viewer feels present in the unique environment. It is worth seeking out the biggest screen available to see Prometheus in order to feel the wind, smell the air, and get absorbed by the world created on screen.
Some of the underdeveloped characters get a little frustrating as the film approaches its climax, such as Idris Elba’s captain whose final act seems a lot less heroic than it was supposed to because we know so little about him. There is also the baffling decision to cast Guy Pearce as a 90-year old man, wearing caked on prosthetics that again make the argument for CGI instead of hand-made techniques. But all of these flaws are minor when taken in the larger scheme and do not take away from the thrills or ideas that make the film such a worthwhile endeavor.
Bottom Line: Prometheus provides an immersive visceral experience and enough ideas to spur more post-cinema conversation than the average summer thriller.