There are films which stay with you long after you’ve stepped out of the cinema. Films which give you a new insight into the human condition. Films that make you laugh or cry or jump clean out of your seat in fright. Films that give you a new perspective on the world.
Prometheus is not one of those films.
I’m sure you all know the basic story by now, so I shan’t detain you long with it. Sometime in the latter half of this century, two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, gather details of numerous ancient civilisations which, taken together, seem to point to visits to Earth by extraterrestrials from a certain solar system.
The Weyland Corporation funds a trillion-dollar, two-year expedition to this solar system, a motley band of scientists aboard the exploratory vessel Prometheus. The crew lands on a moon of one of the planets in the solar system, and Things Go Wrong, both with the expedition and the film itself.
I have rarely been as disappointed with a film as I was with Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s Alien was, as we all know, a little gem; a taut, claustrophobic, accelerating ride. Prometheus is bigger, loftier, flabbier.
The first thing that goes wrong with the film is that the crew of the Prometheus is seventeen-strong. There were just seven people (and a cat) aboard the Nostromo and within a few minutes of them emerging from hypersleep we knew (or in the case of one of them thought we knew) what they were all about. Here, most of the cast only get a couple of lines – and in some cases these are only screams as they’re done away with – and we don’t really care about them at all. They might as well be wearing red shirts.
Even the majority of the main cast aren’t exactly well-served. Idris Elba’s Janek, the pilot of the Prometheus, is Gruff and gets an accordian which supposedly once belonged to Stephen Stills as his Unique Character Point. Why? I don’t know; he doesn’t appear to be able to play the damn thing.
Rafe Spall and Sean Harris – both of them nifty actors, but then everyone here has done nifty, and sometimes quite considerable, work in other productions – play Millburn and Fifield, respectively the worst biologist and the worst geologist in the world. I couldn’t help but compare their role in this film to the two Comedy Redcoats who kept turning up in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, the Weyland Corporation’s representative aboard the Prometheus, is Icy, and even a late revelation about her character fails to add any depth. The (offscreen) bonk she enjoys with Janek seems shoehorned into the story solely as a way of getting us more interested in the two characters, but it rings false.
Which leaves us with the final three crewmembers: Holloway, Shaw, and Michael Fassbender’s David – an ancestor of Ash and Bishop from the first two Alien films.
Holloway, played by Logan Marshall-Green, is frankly a bit of a dick. He spends quite a lot of time being androidist towards David and to be honest I couldn’t work out what Shaw sees in him.
Noomi Rapace’s Shaw is…all right, I guess. She makes a spirited stab at a Scottish accent. What more can I say?
Fassbender walks away with the film by the simple expedient of having the most interesting character. Acting-wise, all he really has to do is smile all the time and talk in a calm upper-crust English accent. There is some wry humour to be had in the early part of the film watching him ‘caretaking’ the crew while they sleep through the voyage, riding a bicycle, shooting hoops, learning ancient languages, and watching Lawrence of Arabia while perfecting his Peter O’Toole impersonation and dyeing his hair blond, but he stands out because most of the other characters are little more than sketches.
Storywise, the whole thing seems to have been bolted together in modules without much attempt to make them join up. The Weyland Corporation appears to have assembled a crew consisting of some of the world’s dimmest scientists, who behave as the story demands rather than as rational people would. One of the great things about Alien was that everyone was professional, everyone did their job and the story proceeded from the decisions they made. Here, everyone seems to go to pieces the moment they arrive at their destination.
We are told that Prometheus asks Big Questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? Who is our Maker? What makes us human? Well, no. The Characters ask those questions, and I wished they’d shut up. Blade Runner asked the same questions without the words ever passing the characters’ lips. Here, the message that this is Significant Stuff keeps being underlined, and it becomes wearing.
The latter part of the film is, frankly, incomprehensible. Stuff Happens without the slightest explanation. I’m all in favour of the audience doing the heavy lifting, but come on, Ridley, you could at least have given us some clues, cock. There are monsters, there’s a big explosion, there is Black Goo, there are Unknown Motivations. The Weyland Corporation, the ending, and the presence of a ship similar to the alien vessel from Alien, supposedly connect us to the earlier film, but frankly Prometheus might have worked better if it had severed all contact with Alien and struck out on its own because the weight is too much for it. There is ample room left for a sequel, in which many of my questions might be answered, but I’m not certain I’m all that bothered about knowing any more.
I’m aware that many other people have enjoyed this film. I did not. Ebert, a critic for whom I have a lot of time, liked it a lot, and I’m sure he and I could agree that two people sitting in the same cinema often don’t see the same film. I found Prometheus sloppy in ways I have only scratched the surface of. I haven’t even mentioned some of the dialogue, and I’m not going to because I’ve rambled on for too long already.
It’s not all bad news. The film looks wonderful. Dariusz Wolski’s photography is never less than above-standard, and some sequences – the descent of the Prometheus through the moon’s atmosphere springs to mind – are rather extraordinary. But the film they serve really doesn’t deserve them.
I’m quite sad to be writing this because I really wanted Prometheus to be an absolute corker, but instead of being a companion piece to a classic film from 1979, it feels more like something hurriedly cobbled together to take advantage of a hit film from a couple of years ago. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I came away deeply, deeply disappointed.