There were plenty of mysteries in Ridley Scott’s movie Alien, but the only question the characters in that movie were concerned with was figuring out what it was that was killing them one-by-one and how they could get rid of it. It was simple, straight forward, and still scary to this very day. In Prometheus, the characters are much more concerned with getting answers to the big questions they’re asking, and therefore so are we. The problem is, Damon Lindelof of Lost fame helped pen this script, and if you know anything about that show, you know that questions are plentiful but answers are scarce and often frustratingly obtuse. So combine that with the scary, tense monster atmosphere of Alien, and what you get is Prometheus; a movie that’s trying to figure things out—including what kind of movie it wants to be—but remains entertaining despite being somewhat frustrating.
First piece of frustrating news will be for fans of the film Alien. Is Prometheus a prequel? Not in any traditional sort of sense. It does have ties to that film, but the ties are tenuous and implied at best (at least until a final scene, that quite frankly, seemed to be there for no other reason than to solidify the ties, but without answers to any questions to how the films actually tie together, is rather frustrating). I’m telling you this so you can go in with the proper expectations. Oh, there are story beats and moments that resonate quite strongly with Ridley’s masterpiece, but those often get in the way of the type of story being told in this movie and it often feel like those moments are in here more or less just to remind us that, yes, the movies are connected… somewhat.
The second frustration is that this movie didn’t even really need to tie-in all that much with Alien. In fact, if it hadn’t worried as much about doing so and had been content with being its own kind of movie just set in the same universe, I think it may have been much more compelling. Or on the flip side, just go ahead and make it a full-on prequel that neatly sets things in place for the other film. The story of Prometheus, of humans setting off on an adventure to meet the beings that perhaps seeded life here on Earth—to find questions to things like why were we made, do we have to die, what is our purpose—is pretty heady and interesting stuff. Plus, the sense of wonder and exploration with that tinge of dangers is fun stuff. The problem is Prometheus is content to let everything remain nebulous. The crew finds what they’re looking for, but they don’t find answers. Things happen filled with a sense of impending doom, but there isn’t a motivation or context given. “Why” questions are brushed aside with the “just because” of getting from once scene to another. Had more time been spent, not necessarily answering the questions fully, but giving them more nuance and substance and meaning to chew on, with some nudges towards possible answers and within the context of some sort of motivation for the events, this could have been another sci-fi masterpiece. Perhaps some will still think it is, due to its vagueness; but while sometimes less is more, less can also sometimes be not enough.
My final frustration had to do with the discussions of faith. While one character is said to be a “true believer,” and at other times questioned as to whether or not she’s lost her faith, most of this is without substance. What is her faith? Is it a faith in faith? That’s not much of anything at all, and therefore it would be easy to lose. Is it a faith in God? The God of the Bible? Well, then we get into some really interesting territory, or could have had the movie gone there. Specifically whether or not that faith is necessary any more after we discover whether or not there is alien life? My answer to that question would be yes, it would still matter a great deal. One of the points C.S. Lewis made in his essay “Religion and Rocketry” was that even if we were to discover alien life in the universe, it wouldn’t change the condition of humanity one whit. We wouldn’t suddenly not need God anymore because our nature wouldn’t suddenly change with such a discovery. We would still be a sinful, fallen people who still need a Savior to redeem them. The existence of aliens wouldn’t negate or change that (after all, who’s to say that we’re the only creation of the Creator, but perhaps, the only creation of said Creator to screw things up the way we did?). So after making their discovery, when someone states to our character of faith about her cross that she carries with her, “Guess you don’t need that any more,” it’s a statement that really misses the point. If anything, such a discovery would make what that cross represents all the more precious.
So there are plenty of frustrations in Prometheus, probably more so (or maybe less so) for nitpicky fans, but there’s plenty that’s good too. Michael Fassbender is once again brilliant as the android David, and in fact is probably creepier than anything the crew encounters on the planet. Charlize Theron also puts in a strong performance as Ms. Vickers (man, is she on a run with this and her awesome show in Snow White and the Huntsman). Noomi Rapace does a fine job taking on the type of role that Sigourney Weaver made so famous in the original Alien, and truth be told, having a bit more time to get to know these characters would have made the good in this movie even better. The rest of the crew of Prometheus pretty much amounts to a bunch of red shirts, and that being the case, we’re never given much time to get to know them so it’s hard to feel too much when things start going bad, and they do, because extras and secondary characters in these kinds of movies have never watched what happens to extras and secondary characters in these kinds of movies. They always want to touch, and that’s always a bad thing.
The other good thing about the movie is that it looks great; which should come as no surprise from Ridley Scott. The film has a cool, bluish, metallic tint to it that accentuates the alien landscape of the Icelandic terrain. It’s not quite the slow boil that Alien was, which compared to many of today’s movies, moved at an almost snail’s pace in the early going, but it is well paced, which helps build tension for all the appropriate moments.
Illusionists are good at what they do because they get us to think we’re seeing something when it’s not really there. Lindelof is a great illusionist in that he gets us to think we’re seeing some big questions and mysteries, when in truth, they’re not really there because they never have any answers and were probably never intended to have any. The fun was supposed to be in the mystery, and while there is a tingle of adventure in having unanswered questions, too many of them going unanswered as more are being asked can ruin some of that fun. There’s plenty to think about and examine in Prometheus, but the problem is much of it probably won’t take you anywhere; it’s just kind of there. Other parts may lead to some interesting places, but we’ll never know because the movie often gets distracted with its Alien DNA and regularly interrupts proceedings to try and exhibit that heritage. Well, it was going to be a tough thing to pull off no matter what direction this movie went in. There really wasn’t any way it could fulfill all the expectations of fans, so the best thing is to check those at the door and just enjoy Prometheus for what it is and tries to be; sci-fi that once again explores existential and philosophical questions while entertaining with thrills and chills that can only be found in space… where no one can hear you scream. (sorry, couldn’t resist)