It’s been argued that you can piece together the entire plot of Prometheus simply by watching the trailers. That’s only half true. On the one hand it’s most certainly a kind of love letter to Alien, another story of a group of people who go searching in space and find something terrifying. But on the other it’s a surprisingly complex sci-fi drama teeming with ambition and big ideas that, while sometimes a little overstuffed, packs plenty of rewards if you’re willing to follow where it leads.
I’m keeping this completely spoiler-free, so you don’t have to worry about reading on. The only bits of plot I’m divulging are things you already know from the trailers and whatnot.
In 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) make another in a series of major discoveries while on a dig in Scotland. The image they find – a cave painting of humans worshipping a giant being who’s pointing at a configuration of cosmic bodies – is the same image they’ve found in some form or another in seven different completely unconnected ancient civilizations. Their theory: life on Earth came courtesy of alien visitors.
Four years later, the pair leads an expedition onboard the starship Prometheus to a planet that matches the configuration in the ancient drawings, in an effort to prove that we did indeed come from the stars. Among their companions are Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) a representative of the Weyland Corporation, which funded the trip, David (Michael Fassbender), an android created by the late Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), and Janek (Idris Elba), a no-nonsense captain who just drives the ship, thank you very much.
And that’s as far as I go with the details, friends. They land, they find things, those things aren’t necessarily very nice.
The most obvious praise I can give the film is something you already know from the trailers: it looks incredible. It feels like Ridley Scott has been dreaming up magnificent sci-fi vistas for 30 years just waiting for the right movie to put them in, but the stunning shots in Prometheus never feel forced. They’re all organic to the story, so much so that in a great many sequences you could turn off the sound and it would still be a completely coherent film. Though there are a few visual homages to Alien, Prometheus is much more kinetic in its visual construction. It doesn’t have that slow, quiet, Kubrickian patience that Alien did, but it doesn’t need it. Scott’s found a new visual dynamic, and here he wields it masterfully.
The cast is not spectacular, but they are strong enough to compel us to keep watching them. Rapace is ostensibly the star, but Fassbender steals all of his scenes with a layered, surprising performance as David. Theron relishes the darkness of Vickers, and Elba, though slightly flimsy at times with his Southern accent, is clearly having fun.
The script by Damon Lindelof (Lost, Star Trek) and Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) is among the more ambitious stories attempted by an FX-heavy, big-budget flick in recent years. Each of the principal characters is given weight with a personal struggle, from Shaw’s deep-rooted faith to Vickers’ cynicism to David’s polite but shadowy agenda. It makes even the scenes without alien horrors hum with a sense of scope. There’s always something going on. No scenes are wasted on attempting to make us laugh or catch us off-guard for a cheap thrill. It’s a film stuffed with plot.
It’s also a film stuffed with big ideas, things well beyond the whole “ancient aliens” thing that we get up front. Here you’ll find questions about the nature of belief, the defining characteristics of humanity, the validity of immortality and, yes, even the meaning of life. And it’s here that we have to talk about what was, for me, the film’s only failing.
It’s not that these ideas aren’t done well. They are. There’s no corniness or over-indulgence or reliance on melodrama or cheap exposition to make any of it work. The problem is that at times there’s just too much. The plot is hurtling forward and new developments are snaking out at you like tentacles, and before you can wrap your head around one big concept, you’re forced to simultaneously grapple with another one. As a result the film can occasionally feel jarring and messy, but honestly that’s OK. If my only real criticism of a film is that it was too ambitious, odds are that’s still a pretty damn good movie.
Now I have to talk about the ending without, you know, actually talking about the ending. I’m obviously not going to tell you how this ill-fated journey to find humanity’s originators will pay off, but I will say it’s bound to divide some fans. I will also say that Lindelof, Scott and Spaihts stayed true to their story. They were brave, they didn’t go the predictable route, and even if you walk out of the theatre cursing their names (I’m not saying you will, so settle down.) you have to at least show them respect.
Though it has a few flaws, and it doesn’t quite reach the masterwork level of Alien, Prometheus is a daring, visually glorious work of science fiction cinema. Ridley Scott hasn’t lost his touch. He’s taking new risks and exploring new worlds, and 30 years after his last visit to his genre the results are still stunning.