This article contains spoilers. Big ones. Please don’t read until you have seen Prometheus.
This is going to be a slightly curious piece of criticism because I’m not sure I even want to write it. As the title suggests, it’s about Prometheus, which I came out of about an hour and a half ago. I normally try to avoid writing snap reviews, but in this case I think it’s justified. That’s because Prometheus is so strange, so different, so, just, well, ‘I dunno’ that it’s worthwhile capturing a visceral, immediate (and probably error-strewn) reaction to it and seeing how it changes over time and after repeat viewings. Basically, it’s a little experiment in how I’ve taken the film in, and while it could be completely pointless, it may well be very interesting.
So, first things first, what did I think of Prometheus? Well, I don’t know (told you it could be pointless). The thing is, the film-makers don’t know either. Before release, Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof spent months teasing and taunting the audience with hints about what exactly the film is. It’s an Alien prequel, it’s not an Alien prequel, it “shares the film’s DNA”. Well, let’s be clear about this. Prometheus is an Alien prequel. It doesn’t share DNA, it shares an entire bloodline, along with character tropes, creatures and sets from the 1979 film.
This would have been great had Scott and Lindelof had the courage of their convictions. But they don’t. Prometheus delights in being an Alien film, but is much too concerned with not being an Alien film, and being an original story instead. So ultimately, it’s a bit of a mutation. It is and it isn’t an Alien film. It’s a thought-provoking existential sci-fi film and a nasty, visceral horror film (and a very good one at that). If you’re looking for a clear comparison, it’s as if Scott has mashed together Alien and Blade Runner and come up with a film as intense, beautiful and uneven as that would suggest.
It’s the sci-fi elements that are hurt the most. As per the title, Prometheus tries to be a cautionary tale of man’s hubris and the futility of our search for answers. It throws issues of religion, free will and technological endeavour in there for good measure, but so bound is it to the terrifying tone of Alien that these issues develop into nothing more than crude soundbites and clunking symbols. For example, the lead character carries with her a cross, and her faith in God is repeatedly referred to, but what is Lindelof trying to say with that? Is the search for meaning an assault on God? Is the belief in God an attack on the search for meaning? I’m not sure and I don’t think the film is either.
It’s worthwhile comparing Prometheus‘s existential elements to those seen in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which is also inspired by both Alien and Blade Runner and is superior to Prometheus. It is every bit as visceral as Prometheus is (in fact, Scott’s final act reminded me a lot of the end of Sunshine), but the build up is slow, considered and thoughtful, like the first two acts of Alien and the whole of Blade Runner. That means the big questions it poses are engaging because the film can breathe and is therefore allowed to provide you with clear information about the plot. Prometheus never does the same.
Look at the character at the start of the film. Who is he? Why is he drinking that strange black liquid? What is that strange black liquid? Why is it transforming him? Why does it appear later? Why does it turn worms into weird alien snakes? What are those weird alien snakes? What the hell is going on?! Prometheus does everything in its power not to tell you and ends, infuriatingly, by suggesting that you’ll get to know in another film. This isn’t mystery, it’s bad storytelling and while it succeeds in leaving you with questions, they’re all about the film’s basic plot mechanics and not its themes.
If this all sounds gloomy that’s not really my intention. As I mentioned, I’m writing this on the fly – a stream of consciousness rather than a considered opinion – and I’m focusing on the film’s negatives because they seem more apparent than the positives. The good news is that there are positives. Many of them in fact. I was enthralled by the masterful first act and left breathless at the second and third acts. It’s a thrilling film and from first minute to last I had a sense of genuine terror that I haven’t experienced at the cinema in a long time. Quite simply, I didn’t know what was coming next, and while that may well be a result of the film’s confused storytelling, it’s still something to be treasured.
I just wish there were more to be treasured. Prometheus is not a bad film. In fact, it’s a very good film. But Prometheus is not a very good film. In fact, it’s a very bad film. It’s a masterpiece disguised as a mess and a mess disguised as a masterpiece and at time of writing, I’m really not sure which disguise is most convincing. But maybe that’ll change with repeat viewings. Maybe the plot points will become clearer and those thematic soundbites will develop into full-blown speeches. A masterpiece is just quality given time to blossom. Prometheus just about has the quality and for the moment at least, it has my time. I just hope it deserves it.
UPDATE 1: As I suggested at the start, I’ll update this with random thoughts as I go along. This is the first batch and it’s not really good. I discussed the film with a friend after he had returned from seeing it and we both agree that it’s a bit of a mess. The film’s plot holes and conveniences became more apparent as we were talking. Why do Fifield and Milburn return to the egg chamber that they vehemently refused to enter earlier in the film? Why do they then approach the alien snakes, despite seeming so cowardly earlier? Why do Vickers and Janek sleep together when Fifield and Milburn are still out on an alien planet alone? The answer is because the plot needs them to. No other reason.
So many of the film’s flaws boil down to Lindelof’s script, and while I can forgive many of them (those aforementioned contrivances, bad dialogue, cliche characterisation, clunky exposition), I’m finding it difficult to forgive the seeming pointlessness of it all. Watching Prometheus is like watching the most frustrating of frustrating Lost episodes. The end of the film leaves you no more illuminated than you were at the start of it and fittingly for a man who cut his teeth on TV, Lindelof’s concluding teases feel like they were born out of serialised drama. Tune in next week for more! Except you can’t. Prometheus 2 won’t be out for another 3-4 years, if it comes out at all.
That said, I do want more. I want Prometheus 2 and I want to see Prometheus again, even if the more I think about it, the more like a cynical attempt at trilogy-building it seems. I want to explore more of the Prometheus myth and I want to see how it ties into the film and how the film ties into Alien. I also desperately want to find a point. All I’m coming up with at the moment is the futility and destructiveness of man’s search for answers. That’s why the film offers no real solutions, that’s why it ends in the same place it begins – with Shaw searching. Answers are not easy to find, but we’ll risk destroying ourselves trying to find them.
So the morning after the night before, I remain as intrigued and frustrated by Prometheus as I was last night. I’ll probably catch the film again at the cinema and I’ll definitely buy it on Blu-Ray, but at the moment, after sleeping on it, my impressions are more negative than positive. It’s a five-star horror film and a three-star sci-fi film, battling for supremacy and ultimately knocking each other out.
UPDATE 2: After viewings of Alien and Alien 3, Prometheus seems even messier and even less satisfying. Alien, of course, is a masterpiece and comparisons between the two are a little unfair because they are trying to achieve such different goals (Alien is straight-up horror, Prometheus cerebral sci-fi). What jumps out at you, however, is just how well-drawn the characters in Alien are. We’re told so little about their lives, but the tension and interplay between the actors brings each person to life. It’s so minimalist, but so perfect, and Prometheus never really comes close to it.
Alien 3 is perhaps a more appropriate comparison, with both films being messy sci-fi experiments with cliched characters and good ideas that never quite gel. Alien 3, however, is more focused in its ideas and while it remains as flawed as its ever been you can draw conclusions from it in a way you can’t from Prometheus.
UPDATE 3: You know all that stuff I said before? Forget it. Well, not all of it. A second viewing of Prometheus reveals many of the same script problems remain: the characters are still cliches, they still do inexplicably stupid things, and they still spout clunky, expository dialogue. Lindelof’s script is just not as good as it should be, and whatever I say over the next few paragraphs, that’s not going to change.
However, on second viewing, many of the concepts the film deals with become clearer. It seems to me now that we’re thinking of the wrong story when we consider the film’s title – it’s not the original god Prometheus, but Frankenstein that the title refers to (Mary Shelley’s novel is sub-titled ‘The Modern Prometheus’). In the world of the film then, Prometheus isn’t so much Weyland (who wants to ‘steal fire – in other words, the stuff of life - from the gods’), but the Engineers who, like Frankenstein, bid to create life.
The guy at the start of the film, for example, is making a concerted attempt to create life and not bidding to become a sort of Superman, as I had previously thought. The fact his DNA merges with water to create humans is no accident – we are, of course, made up primarily of water. I got the impression from this scene that these Engineers travel across the universe merging their DNA with the natural elements of whatever planet they’re on. So, if they’re on a sandy planet, they’ll make creatures that thrive in sand, if they’re on a jungle planet, they’ll make creatures that thrive in the jungle. In Ash’s words, they’re creating “the perfect organism”.
They then create a species on LV-223 that proves too perfect. They can’t control what they’ve created and decide to kill it, along with all the other species they’ve made, including humans, in fear that they too will rise up. It’s a classic hubris story, and while some of the plot holes still aren’t resolved (why invite humans to LV-223 when they can just hop in a spaceship and attack Earth?), it makes for compelling viewing. I just couldn’t see it first time, because I was focusing on the idea of the humans being the arrogant ones.
What next? Hopefully we’ll find out the answers to some of the burning questions. Just what inspired the Engineers’ arrogance? If they created us, who created them? Was it the black goo? If so, what is it and where did it come from? These issues should be answered in Prometheus 2/3, but I remain adamant that they shouldn’t need to be. If Prometheus has one over-riding problem, it’s that it plays too much like a TV show, dangling mysteries in front of us and expecting us to return next time for more. This is fine when ‘next time’ is weeks/months away, but Prometheus 2 won’t arrive for at least another 3 years and that’s a heck of a long wait.
So what’s the overall verdict? Despite its many flaws, Prometheus is compelling, thought-provoking and original sci-fi. It really is unlike anything we’ve seen before and I’m not sure we’ll see the like of it again (barring Prometheus 2/3). As for my experiment in film reviewing, I’ve learned that snap reviews are interesting but not very accurate. Reviewing any film, not least one as complicated as Prometheus, so soon after seeing it is a bad idea and I’m intrigued to see if the hastily-written write-ups that appeared in the press last week change when the film is released on DVD.
Whatever happens, Prometheus proves one thing: the Alien franchise’s hold over us is as strong today as it’s ever been. And with the debate around Prometheus producing some polarised opinions, that doesn’t look like it’ll change any time soon.