Prometheus (2012)
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron
Running Time: 2 hrs. 4 min
Rated: R

Review by Brother Reed

Thrilling. Beautiful. Ambitious. Messy. Frustrating. Captivating. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, an original science fiction epic set in the Alien universe and tangentially related to that seminal film, is all of these things and more. Scott himself helped shape the genre 30+ years ago when he helmed Blade Runner and Alien – both now considered sci-fi classics – and his return to form is exciting to behold. It’s a spectacle of both practical and computer effects as well as a gallimaufry of the unsearchable ideas with which sci-fi must eternally contend. And it’s the best film of its kind in a decade.

It’s hard to even know where to begin discussing this film. Though only two hours long, it’s conceptually enormous with a somewhat complicated plot; almost the opposite of Alien, which pared its story down to a basic essence. What’s more, many of the questions raised are never fully answered, some because they can’t be and others perhaps because it’s more rewarding for the audience to puzzle over them and draw their own conclusions. It’s already evident that reactions to the movie are split, and that’s no surprise. It would be easy for me to pick this movie apart, ruthlessly deriding characters who make bad decisions and pointing out perceived inconsistencies. I could convince myself that Prometheus is not as great as I believed it was when I walked out of the theater filled with enthusiasm to talk about the movie, mull it over, and see it again after having done so. But what would I gain from that? Instead, I will attempt to tell you why I enjoyed the film so much.

“I can see my house from here.”

The mere fact that Prometheus has generated as much discussion as it has, both personally and on the internet at large, to me indicates that it has more value than most movies released in a given year. The sheer ambition that this film displays is worthy of admiration. It explores themes that have been seen before in such works as 2001, Blade Runner, A.I., Jurassic Park and others, with verve if not with great clarity. Where did humanity come from? What’s our identity? What does it mean to be human? Is creation an inherently good act? Exploration? Discovery? Is immortality possible, or desirable? If we could ask our creator(s) about ourselves would we be satisfied with the answers? Prometheus doesn’t try to resolve such universal issues. Rather it touches upon them through its events and characters and gives us some leads to chase.

Granted, you may come away from the film frustrated by the ambiguity of certain plot points (destined to be decried as “holes”) and the foolhardy actions of characters who ought to know better. There are definitely some moments that seem silly and strain credibility. If you’re the type who needs to have every dot connected and every action grounded in rationality, Prometheus may drive you a bit crazy. It almost seems that director Scott and writers David Lindelof (Lost, Cowboys and Aliens) and Jon Spaihts go out of their way not to explain the motivations behind some of what happens or the rules under which their fictional technology and biology operate. On the one hand this is interesting because it forces you to learn by observation which can enhance immersion. The downside is that the film rarely slows down enough to allow you time to ponder what you just saw and form your ideas before showing you something else totally new. I’m not defending this decision as much as I am preparing you for it. The film is extremely dense and I feel it could have been, say, 20 minutes longer with a bit of a slower pace and been better for it. Truly ambitious films, however, are always imperfect because their reach exceeds their grasp; but wouldn’t you rather watch a movie that reaches for greatness and misses than one that reaches for mediocrity and attains it?

An unlikely friendship – Vickers (Theron) and Janek (Elba) at the controls of the Prometheus.

One of Prometheus’ best qualities is that it seems to exist in a fully-formed, lived-in universe. Like one of the great sci-fi movies of the 00’s, Spielberg’s Minority Report, it shows us technological innovations without stopping to explain them. The dreams of a person in cryogenic stasis can be read by an operator. One crew-member’s cabin is equipped with a medical pod for quick self-surgeries. A large interior is laser mapped in 3D by floating orbs. This all comes, for the most part, without anyone explaining to another character what this technology is or how to use it. We simply accept that this is the world these characters inhabit. It helps somewhat that it hooks into the Alien timeline, taking some of that existing material for granted (for example, the Weyland Corporation and the “Engineers,” previously known among fans as Space Jockeys). While you don’t need to be familiar with the Alien mythos in order to see Prometheus, it’s probably more rewarding if you have at least seen the 1979 movie. Plenty of references both subtle and obvious are scattered throughout, the most pervasive perhaps being the designs based on the work of H. R. Geiger, that twisted artist who laid the visual groundwork for the uniquely upsetting sexual overtones found in Alien. Such sexually derived body-horror also shows up in Prometheus and figures prominently in the movie’s best scene, a delightfully revolting show-stopper.

Furthermore, the film is gorgeous to look at. It rivals the prettiest movies I’ve seen up to this point, including King Kong (2005), The Tree of Life, and even Avatar. See this in IMAX 3D if you get the chance. Usually I avoid 3D, but Prometheus was shot natively in 3D. It doesn’t use post-conversation techniques and so looks very natural and complete. For the first few minutes it may be a bit distracting but afterwards you’ll barely notice. Details such as the HUDs inside the explorers’ helmets are especially effective in 3D. It lacks the grittiness of Alien, instead taking on a more polished sheen representative of Prometheus’ corporate and academic staff (the astronauts aboard the Nostromo in Alien were blue-collar workers). Scott and co. also opted, thankfully, for a lot of practical effects and makeup work which are seamlessly integrated with the computer graphics. This helps make even the more outlandish moments believable in-universe, visually if not intellectually.

At this point I’ve barely even mentioned the story, in which a 17-person team of scientists, business people and the usual grunts set out on a space expedition (Prometheus is the name of their ship) to a planet indicated by ancient cave paintings which may hold answers about the genesis of mankind. I’ll spoil nothing regarding where they end up or what they find, though I will say that what they discover is only part of the puzzle – equally important is what they brought with them. Personally I believe that focusing too much on the plot mechanics of the film is the wrong way to view it and is detrimental to your enjoyment; not because the plot is nonsense, but because the plot and characters aren’t written to exist for their own sake. The joy of watching Prometheus is what its characters represent more than who they are, and what is left out of the plot is in many cases as important as what was left.

Sometimes the truth is hard to face.

The cast ranges from excellent to merely adequate. Logan Marshall-Green who plays researcher Holloway feels somewhat miscast as a scientist. He seems more like a frat boy, all impulse and twinkly eyes, and his performance failed to convince at times. Charlize Theron is appropriately chilly as Vickers, the corporate representative aboard the Prometheus, though it’s not a role that really allows her to shine. A standout among the supporters is Idris Elba as the captain, whose warmth and wit lend humanity to his scenes. The real revelation is Noomi Rapace, the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in her first American starring role. Like Sigourney Weaver before her, she’s not the biggest name in the cast but she makes a strong impression, becoming a likable, resourceful heroine. She hits the right notes as hopeful, idealistic and determined, emotional but exceedingly tough. As Shaw, she’s the soul of the film, a faithful believer undaunted by the shocking revelations she uncovers. Remember her face – you’ll be seeing more of her.

The only person who owns this film more completely than Rapace is Michael Fassbender as David. Fassbender is a rising star and one of the most consistently impressive actors working right now. He is flawlessly cast and his character is perhaps the most intriguing of all. The first moments on Prometheus belong to him, awake from hyper-sleep and learning everything he can during the voyage. David is sympathetic yet slightly unnerving, his actions and motives mysterious. Every aspect of his character from his hair and posture to voice and inflections is pitch-perfect. If none of the other characters ever woke up and the entire movie was about David practicing shooting baskets from a bicycle and watching Lawrence of Arabia, it would still be entertaining.

Prometheus is flawed but beautiful, with a meditative heart under its sparkling candy shell. It may not be a masterpiece but it’s pop art of the most invigorating sort. I saw it two weeks ago and can’t stop thinking about it. Will Prometheus‘ nebula of detractors eventually coalesce around a more positive opinion, their backlash against surface-level shortcomings giving way to recognition for its visual and thematic accomplishments? Only time will tell, though this wouldn’t be the first of Scott’s films to be lauded retroactively. Get in on the discussion and go see Prometheus. It’s well worth your ticket.