Prometheus (United States, 2012)

June 07, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Prometheus Poster

In 1979, science fiction was thriving, but the movie community, becoming gorged on lightweight space opera fare like Star Wars, was unprepared for what Ridley Scott delivered with Alien, which was as much horror as it was sci-fi. Since the iconic xenomorph made its debut, it has been overused to the point where there's little left to excite a serious filmmaker. James Cameron's Aliens was the only sequel to build effectively upon the foundation laid by Scott. The lazy and disappointing Alien 3 and the lackluster Alien Resurrection degraded the brand - a brand that was utterly destroyed by the Alien vs. Predator abominations. So, when Scott expressed a desire to return to the Alien universe, it came as no surprise that he wanted to avoid doing another Alien movie, although the temptation not to fully sever the umbilical cord was too great. Prometheus is a prequel that works as a stand-alone but offers added benefits to those familiar with the Alien series. Is it a worthy addition to a franchise that has been unable to boast a genuinely satisfying entry in more than 25 years? That depends on what you're expecting.

Prometheus is not without problems but, for the most part, they are problems that result from overreaching rather than playing it safe. In a strange way, I was reminded of Tree of Life. Scott takes chances and some of his choices don't work, but the movie is never uninteresting. Prometheus is more cerebral than I expected, and that's a good thing. It weighs more heavily on familiar science fiction conceits than action, adventure, thriller, or horror elements. In fact, some of the "monster moments" seem almost to have been shoehorned to elevate the energy level and keep things from becoming too talky.

Prometheus has a little too much going on. It's a story of big ideas and, as is often the case with movies designed to be about something, the human characters are marginalized. Even the best developed of them is a little two-dimensional and many of the secondary characters are defined only by recognizable traits. It's difficult to argue that any of the individuals in Prometheus has what could be considered a satisfying character arc. One of the principals (think: tall, blond) in particular is cheated. The film also deals with the genesis of the alien, although that in some ways is a tangential element. Although Prometheus has a lot of hooks that lead to Alien, a direct sequel to this movie would likely go in another direction. The conclusion of Prometheus gets things to where they need to be at the start of the 1979 movie. If there's no Prometheus 2, it won't leave a gap in the Alien chronology.

The majority of the movie takes place during the final weeks of the year 2093. The 17-man crew of the science vessel Prometheus is awakened from hypersleep when the ship approaches their destination - a desolate planet orbiting a distant sun-like star that may be the home of space visitors who intervened in early human history. The creations have come in search of their gods to ask one of the most basic questions of existence: Why? Although this is the stated goal of the mission, several individuals have their own agendas.

The lead scientists are Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), although their role as "leaders" is somewhat limited. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is in charge, and she makes it clear that if aliens are found, contact is not to be initiated. Prometheus' captain, Janek (Idris Elba), is content to remain on the bridge of his ship and watch on monitors as the expedition departs. There is also an android on board (a precursor to Alien's Ash and Aliens' Bishop): David (Michael Fassbender), whose motivations are inscrutable. The initial expedition discovers a series of massive underground caverns and chambers as well as the corpse of one giant humanoid, but nothing is alive. That quickly changes, however, and the life forms that come into being are not friendly.

If there's an obvious element missing from Prometheus, it's a strong identification with the humans, who are underdeveloped and underwritten. Most of what's interesting about the story has little to do with the protagonists. Prometheus is about solving mysteries - not only piecing together the specific series of events that lead to the "birth" of a lethal species, but also answering questions about the motivations of the "Engineers" who came to (what would eventually become known as) LV-426 and what their long range plans are. The conclusion is open-ended but doesn't feel incomplete.

Watching Prometheus in 3-D, I was strongly reminded of how different a native 3-D production is from a converted one. Scott is one of only a handful of filmmakers to film a major motion picture in 3-D and the visual quality is striking. Prometheus' 3-D creates a sense of depth and detail that even the best 3-D conversion cannot come close to replicating. What's more, because Scott compensates for the dimness of the glasses, the movie never descends into a murky mess. It's a crisp, clear experience entirely unlike about 90% of what's out there being touted as 3-D. Prometheus, like Avatar and Hugo, shows that, when used as a tool and not a money-grubbing gimmick, there is a place for 3-D in today's movies. Unfortunately, it takes directors like Cameron, Scorsese, and now Scott to find the "sweet spot." Although I have no doubt that Prometheus will work in 2-D, the 3-D is worth the extra money; it enhances, rather than degrades, the experience.

Prometheus is not an actor's movie and there are few standout moments. Noomi Rapace, looking absolutely nothing like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and appearing a little lost, has the most screen time and undergoes an experience even more harrowing than the one forced upon Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Rapace's Elizabeth is the most rounded character - we learn details of her childhood, understand what motivates her, and respect her strength and survival instinct. Aside from her, the most intriguing individual may be the android David, who is played with a mixture of curiosity, detachment, and arrogance by Fassbender, whose appearance is intentionally like that of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Guy Pearce has a small but important role as Peter Weyland, the funder of the Prometheus expedition, although the actor is unrecognizable under old age makeup.

It's easy to forecast Prometheus' biggest obstacle: getting audiences to buy into adult science fiction with a movie that is being touted as an Alien prequel. On the sci-fi spectrum, Prometheus is a lot closer to 2001 than it is to Alien vs. Predator. Viewers should understand what they're getting; it has less to do with action and shock killings (although there are a few of those) than with an exploration of space as a means of learning about what it means to be human. This is intentionally a very different movie from Alien; Scott consciously did not repeat himself, except perhaps in small doses. One could argue that Prometheus has more in common with Scott's other iconic science fiction endeavor, Blade Runner, than with Alien. Whatever its pedigree, however, one thing is clear: Prometheus is the antithesis of the "big, dumb summer movie." Its visuals and special effects can stand toe-to-toe with any of the season's spectacles, but are audiences ready for something with an intelligent, thought-provoking screenplay where the action is secondary? Prometheus is flawed, but stupidity cannot be numbered among its missteps.

Prometheus (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2012-06-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1