Few films are as explicit about their themes as Prometheus. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What would our creator say if it saw us now? The characters in Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated return to science fiction ask these and other similar questions as they investigate the potential origin of the human species — an origin that might have come from light years away.
Noomi Rapace plays the expedition’s lead scientist, who believes that humankind was created by some sort of extraterrestrial race and that these alien engineers must therefore hold the answers to the important questions. In essense, she literally seeks God.
It’s all a bit blatant, no doubt, but the fact that the film wears its thematic intentions on its sleeve isn’t inherently a misstep. The overt approach can often work fine in exciting, big budget fare like this — look no further than Sarah Connor carving out Terminator 2’s “NO FATE” maxim with a knife. No, where Prometheus goes wrong is in falling short of answering these age-old inquiries into the beginnings of mankind with an unconvincing protagonist and a loosely constructed story, failing to add an insightful voice to the discussion on all of its whys, wheres and hows.
Much of the blame lies with Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw. She’s referred to as a “true believer” early on, and the screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof — unsurprising, considering the ABC phenomenon’s obvious theology — doesn’t provide enough evidence to convince viewers that she’ll go to any real lengths to affirm her beliefs.
Sure, all her actions work toward that goal. But her attitude doesn’t sell it: She lacks the passion, anger, and raw fanatic conviction to justify her choices, and though the film sympathizes her point of view, it rings hollow. And because the last act relies on her — and specifically, her “deep-seated” resolve — as an anchor, the whole movie practically falls apart.
It’s an ending made all the more frustrating considering Prometheus has a lot going for it. The visual design is perhaps the best that science fiction has enjoyed in a decade, with awesome environments, sleek digital readouts and unspeakably disturbing horrors all rendered in effective, unobtrusive 3-D. Purely from a visual standpoint, the film is never boring.
Then there are the few supporting performances that manage to stand out. Charlize Theron is all business and self-preservation, exuding icy dismissal in a way that raises a lot of questions about her character that, unfortunately, are explained in a cartoonishly over-the-top reveal. Idris Elba, however, only gets better as the film goes on, effectively playing the workingman captain who wants to do his job right while lightening the mood where he can. He’s the most likable person on board — unless Michael Fassbender, as the android David, can be considered a person.
Fassbender gives the best performance by far as a curious and amiable synthetic man who, though talked down to by practically everyone on board, gives the distinct impression that he’s above them all, only humoring the homo sapiens because that’s what he was programmed for. How ironic -— intentionally, one hopes — that the most sympathetic character in a film about our creation isn’t human himself, but merely our best attempt at crafting intelligent life out of nothing.
On the subject of intelligent life, it doesn’t help that the so-called scientists in Prometheus make an inexcusable number of mind-numbingly stupid decisions. They take off their helmets and breathe in the alien air, get lost despite their high-tech map-making technology, lose track of each other in what can only be continuity errors and treat an unfamiliar life form as a friendly pet even when the most animal-loving of audience members would, with one glance, describe the creature in question as a deadly space cobra.
There are far too many moments in which the characters do things that no thinking person ever would, continually reminding viewers that beneath all the visual fidelity and brilliance from Fassbender lies a script that could have used a lot more work.
Though it has many strong sequences — one scene involving automated surgery is impossible to watch without slack-jawed, terrified astonishment — and truly aspires to be more than the average blockbuster, Prometheus ultimately loses its footing not because it doesn’t provide answers, but because it doesn’t do enough to sway viewers over to its point of view.
Prometheus is rooted in one of the most revered properties in all science fiction — Alien — and tackles the engineering of humanity. By the time the credits roll, however, it’s only cheapened the Alien mythology (especially in the pointless final scene) while adding nothing of note to the philosophies it desperately trumpets. It is the very definition of disappointment: A small thing, from great beginnings.