There are two films within Prometheus, one brilliant and the other inane. The brilliant film is preoccupied with questions about man’s place in the universe, and the ghastly indifference of the universe to such questions in the first place—much as Alien itself was before. The inane film is full of people running around like idiots and screaming at each other and getting killed horribly by space monsters. Sorry, folks, but that's the way it is.
It’s not impossible for two such wholly disparate films to coexist inside the same skin. In fact, the one movie that comes most readily to mind is not any of the previous Alien films, but the “Hellraiser-in-space” horror-SF hybrid Event Horizon. Buried within that mess of a film was either a great horror movie or a great SF movie, but the filmmakers tried to have it both ways and the studio a third, and the end result is one of those films that deserves a director’s cut that we’ll most likely never have. Prometheus, on the other hand, was the movie that Ridley Scott and his cohorts wanted to make, so none of them can fall back on the Terry Gilliam Tampering Clause to explain the results.
It’s a shame, because the good things in it are very good indeed. It’s one of the few SF movies in recent memory that features a theistic main character—Shaw (Noomi Rapace, very far indeed from being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)—whose faith is not simply treated as a whipping boy by the film. She and her partner, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), have excavated what they believe to be evidence of mankind being visited millennia ago by what they call “The Engineers”, aliens who might well have had a hand in human evolution. Their thesis is either convincing enough or batty enough—or both—to earn them a seat on an exploratory mission, the Prometheus, funded by the world-building Weyland Corporation of the Alien universe’s extended mythology. Their destination: a planet singled out in their findings as the possible point of origin for the message. God, it seems, has an address.
Most everyone else on the mission is either indifferent or actively hostile to their work. Their boss, Vickers (Charlize Theron, with liquid nitrogen in her veins), orders them to make no contact whatsoever with anything that might be planetside. The engineers and pilots are mostly in it to pick up a paycheck. The only one who seems to have real interest, apart from them, isn’t even human: David 8 (Michael Fassbender, easily the best thing in the film), the android overseer whose smoothly-sculpted features and swept-over blond hair bring the words “master race” a little too readily to mind. He’s not only spent the entire flight preparing to crack the code of whatever alien linguistics might be waiting for them at the other end, but honing an arsenal of tics and eccentricities to make him seem that much more human … and that much more above suspicion.
The crew of the Prometheus find a great deal. The planet they visit is barren and windswept, but they locate a massive silo inside which they find the bodies of what they presume to be their hypothetical Engineers. They also find a crypt decked out with hundreds of canisters, all filled with an effervescent black sludge that does terrible things to whoever’s unlucky enough to ingest some of it. It’s a catalyst, a kind of accelerator for mutagenic biology, and if I read the film’s cryptic opening sequences correctly (in which an Engineer imbibes some of it, dies, and has his ruined biology kick-start life on Earth), it’s the reason any of us are here at all. David hoards some of the stuff, and in one of the film’s most thematically-rich plotlines, uses it to both further Weyland’s agendas and turn the tables on his human cohorts. He is immortal but also sterile, and the Engineers may provide him with a way to be that much more human by making the humans around him that much less so.
Then the movie starts to accumulate foolish decisions like cars piling up in the fog. A sequence involving the examination of an Engineer’s mummified head takes a turn for the ridiculous. A subplot involving two of the mission’s clockpunchers, Millburn and Fifield, is most likely meant to remind us of the Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton greasemonkey characters from the original Alien, but all it does here is make us wonder how such a pair of dozers could ever get picked for a mission with a trillion-dollar pricetag. A scene where Vickers and the ship’s captain evidently decide to knock boots instead of doing their job just comes off as plot gears grinding instead of any kind of characterization on their part. (They have to be away from their desks so people can get killed, you see.)
Even worse is how the movie botches one of its own best, most emotionally-affecting moments. (Warning: spoilers.) Shaw, who cannot conceive, finds herself about to spawn a monster, and has to perform emergency surgery on herself to get rid of it. The setup and even part of the payoff are horrific and beautifully staged – she waits until she’s been sliced open before doping herself! — but I defy anyone, even with painkillers and 22nd century medicine at their beck and call, to get up and walk after having their stomach muscles laterally bisected and then stapled back together. Forget having her spend the rest of the movie grunting in pain as she totters around; she shouldn’t even be able to sit up. (Even Black Jack had to recuperate after hacking himself open to remove an intestinal parasite.) It’s emblematic of the movie’s problems as a whole: it has such grand ideas in its head, and even pulls some of them off, but then it turns around and cheats us on the details. But again, there are many other things that do work, and it’s most aggravating how they sit side-by-side with the things that don’t.
I’m most frustrated by, and unforgiving of, movies that have a lot more on their mind than the usual run of the mill but botch the delivery. Hollywood knows how to do SF well in a functional way, but it falls flat on its face when trying to do more than simply put spectacle on the screen – something I suspect is a general limitation of film, which is best when it appeals to our emotions and not our intellect. (One wonders how the soon-to-be-released adaptation of Ender’s Game will fare because of this.) Much of the fault here lies with the writing team – specifically, Damon Lindelof, fresh from having taken us for a ride for so long with Lost. The problem with withholding information as a form of generating mystery or suspense is that you have to withhold the right kind of information. Withholding the Engineers' motives is one thing; having them come onstage and do nothing but act like Jason without the hockey mask is stupid. They're smart enough to build all this, but not smart enough to do more than snarl at us and throw us through bulkheads? Please.
Science fiction, especially on film, usually eschews or deals very badly with characters that hold a particular belief system. At best you get something metaphorical or abstracted (The Matrix); at worst you get strawmen. A big part of this, I suspect, is the unspoken sense that science fiction and religion are always going to be on opposite sides of the aisle — never mind that the two have been fused beautifully before (A Canticle for Leibowitz), and that the inimical attitudes of either vs. the other are largely a gratuitous embroidery rather than a root conceit.
Prometheus's biggest redeeming quality is that it has more sense than to treat Shaw’s religion as a fatal flaw. By the end of the film, it’s one of the few things that keeps her going. Even more intelligently, it’s something that she appreciates entirely apart from the horrid things she experiences. By the time she decides she wants to find out where the Engineers came from (it’s clear this isn’t their home) and get answers from them, it’s because her idea of god is by then even greater than anything the Engineers could be responsible for. After all, how is it that they exist in the first place? And so on. I consider all this and think how a movie with this many good things on its mind shouldn't be tripping over its own shoelaces.