Review: PROMETHEUS Soars, Then Stalls

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Review: PROMETHEUS Soars, Then Stalls
If I could choose one movie to have seen on opening day, knowing almost nothing about it in advance, that movie would probably be Alien. Every time someone brings it up, I imagine just how insane and exciting it would have been to have seen the masterpiece before it was canonized and discussed over and over again, to watch that dinner table scene unfold knowing only that something bad was going to happen, and then to experience the surprise, fear and joy at seeing what exactly that something was and where it led.  

And so I went into Prometheus as blind as possible, just on the off-chance that Ridley Scott had somehow captured that magic again, or even better, pulled off something entirely new and equally satisfying. To this end, I avoided trailers, early reviews, viral videos, message boards and script leaks. To be clear, I certainly didn't expect the movie to deliver some life-changing genre film experience -- Scott hasn't made a movie that I found particularly memorable since the Blade Runner/Alien days --but I wanted to be prepared just in case it did.

To conclude the personal anecdote quickly: Prometheus did not change my life, nor even my perceptions of sci-fi horror or big budget filmmaking. Most likely, asking any of these things from a movie with so much hype behind it is too tall of an order anyway. So then let's be thankful that Scott's return to sci-fi is by no means an unmitigated disaster -- it's visually stunning, well-paced, icky, intense and even thoughtful at times. In fact, It's one of the most satisfying huge-budget studio genre movie to hit theaters in years. But unfortunately, none of the visual pizazz and nausea-inducing special effects can mask the well-trodden ground that the plot covers or the fact that the script becomes noticeably clunky during the second half. These problems don't sink the film, but they're incredibly frustrating because Scott lays the groundwork for something much more intense and thought-provoking than he actually delivers.

The film begins on Earth in the year 2089. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her dopey boyfriend have just discovered a millenniums-old cave painting which, taken in relation to several other cave paintings from different civilizations and eras, seems to suggest that a certain, far-away star system might hold the key to the creation of human life. Two years later, with sponsorship from Weyland Industries, they wake up from hyper sleep in a spaceship symbolically named Prometheus, which is headed for the galaxy in question. They are, naturally, accompanied by a ragtag team of corporate employees and supervisors including the Icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who supervises the mission with an iron fist, a few scientists who talk like offshore oil-rig workers, the no-nonsense captain (played Idris Elba from The Wire, who gives more depth and life to his stock character than anyone else in the cast) and of course, David (Micheal Fassbender) the android who may or may not have a shady agenda.

When they first land on the planet, it looks barren and uninhabitable, not at all like a place that birthed mankind. But soon they find an underground compound that feels every bit as vaginal and womb-like as the sets in Alien, and they begin to work on, presumably, unraveling the mystery of human existence. These scenes unfold with a sense of foreboding and genuine wonder, and, thanks to the slow-burn pace, the film actually re-captures the feel of the original and the uneasy sense that anything might happen. It also poses some interesting and even unsettling questions about existence and the effect of scientific discoveries on long-held religious faith.

Even more exciting is the fact that Scott seems to indeed be telling an entirely new story set in the same world as Alien. All of the visual elements of the first film are here -- the claustrophobia, the sweat, the sex-organ obsessed set-design -- but they're all directed with elegance and straight-faced gravity, never pandering to the audience or playing like knowing winks. But once the inevitable menace emerges, the film alternately waters-down and tosses aside most of its intriguing elements and delivers non-stop action that seems designed to cater to the lowest-common-denominator expectations of an Alien prequel. Also, the echoes of the first film suddenly become relentless and frustratingly obvious.

That's not to say it's a steep downhill plummet to the end -- some of the sequences are indeed breathtakingly intense. In fact, one set piece alone is so jaw-dropping, inventively gruesome and insane that it makes the entire film worth the price of admission. However, there are also several incredibly bland sequences which ironically feel like toss-offs from the last third of Danny Boyle's Sunshine. Also, while the creature-effects and attack-sequences aren't simply retreads of Alien, it does seem like Scott has watched John Carpenter's The Thing more than a few times over the past several years. Most damaging is that the trajectory of the plot becomes so messy and unfocused that the film never manages to sustain any sort of intensity or suspense, but rather moves moment to moment. Some are exhilarating, and some are obvious and dull.

It's also during the second half that the weak-character setups start to hold the film back, as none of the arcs ever coalesce into anything particularly affecting. Theron's character turns out to be more layered on paper than we originally expect, but her one-note, stilted performance as an ice queen never really makes us care. Rapace proves herself totally capable as a blockbuster leading lady, but as her boyfriend Charlie gets more and more annoying, her infatuation with him becomes puzzling and frustrating, which in turn hinders any sort of identification with many of her emotions. Ripley had her flaws to be sure, but I'm pretty sure she would have told Charlie to fuck off long before they embarked on a space voyage together.

In between action scenes, the film labors  to expand on the ideas and philosophical questions introduced in the first half, but by the end, it all feels convoluted and half-assed. Scott at times threatens to go into some pretty unsettling emotional and intellectual territory in terms of the implications of the events in the film, but he always steps back before actually confronting the dramatic potential head-on.

The film ends on a middling note that sums up its overall problem: It feels like Scott wanted to have everything both ways. Sometimes it seems like he's trying hard to deliver an intense, stand-alone sci-fi horror movie, but at others he seems all too eager to please anyone who wanted a retread of the the previous, superior film. He also seems earnestly interested in making a film that examines deep existential questions and long-held ideas about faith, and yet he's afraid to go all the way and risk (ahem) alienating anyone. He certainly directs the hell out of the movie, and as a result, it's quite a ride, one which totally justifies the 3-D and IMAX surcharges. Still, I doubt that any future generations will spend much time wondering what it would have been like to see Prometheus on opening day in the theater.

Note: I reviewed this after a packed-house opening day screening in Paris, where I'm based.
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More about Prometheus

Ard VijnMay 31, 2012 9:17 AM

Congrats Brian on a terrific review. I will be seeing PROMETHEUS tomorrow night on 3D IMAX and might be chiming in shorty after, but if we are in total agreement I think I will just point people towards this article instead!

Niels MatthijsMay 31, 2012 9:52 AM

(haven't read the review yet) .. but general reception seems luke-warm at best. I'm a bit surprised to be honest, can't remember a film that was this hyped and failed to truly excite the early birds.

can-DMay 31, 2012 10:39 AM

I couldn't agree more Brian, felt the same way.
It feels that they cut a lot of things in the second half, it's all over the place and way too fast comparing to the first half.
Really disappointed...

Brian ClarkMay 31, 2012 10:42 AM

Maybe he will release 5 new cuts of the film over the next couple decades a la BLADE RUNNER and it will get awesome...

psunvincentMay 31, 2012 10:56 AM

Not surprising. I've no idea why Scott is held with so much reverence.
Is he a good director? Yes.
Did he peak in 1982? Yes.

skinnyboy23May 31, 2012 12:05 PM

Well it is hard to judge this so soon. The initial reception for Alien wasn't all that great when it was released and was only over time it has reached the critical acclaim that it receives now. Sci Fi fans made that movie what it is today and I have a feeling the same is going to be said about this movie.
Blade Runner was another film that had people split on its release as well and only after YEARS did we get the different versions of what it is today.

I guess what I am getting at is I bet this film in the years to come will grow on people.

bewarethemoonJune 1, 2012 5:46 AM

A Flawed masterpiece? I saw it last night at a local midnight show, with say... 20 /25 other people, bizarrely quiet!
Anyway, the film.... thoroughly enjoyed Prometheus, but I have to concur with some of the characters 'arcs" being under developed, Ralph Spall's and Sean Harris's characters were crying out for some more screen time /back story/ fleshing out.... the other minor roles suffered from the Star Trek red uniform syndrome, cannon fodder... I just think Scott should either have edited it down to a shorter run time, kept the pace up, or like he did with Kingdom of Heaven, fleshed out the storyline more and truly gone epic! I could have watched another 30mins easy as the film didn't seem to flag at all, maybe ther will be a directors cut on the blu-ray, he seems to like giving us directors cuts, I suspect there's more on the cutting room floor (so to speak) that would give the film a more complete feel.

stripeycatJune 1, 2012 2:56 PM

Wish i hadn't read the reviews, watched the virals, seen any of the build up. I have no doubt that this piece may not be anywhere NEAR the heights which Ridley Scott achieved previously, and yet i can't believe that it's this lukewarm :(

steverogerJune 1, 2012 11:40 PM

I am not trying to step on any one's opinion. After all, opinions are like *aholes--everyone has got one. I would like to point out Brian you made an error in your prep for this film. First, it isn't a prequel for Aliens. Second, the marketing of the film was intended to let you know that this wasn't an Alien film but something entirely different. By avoiding all things Prometheous and hyping yourself for an Alien like experience may have killed the film for you.

And, @bewarethemoon, Kingdom of Heaven was not well received and is considered a failure. Bladerunner was a failure too. But some of us loved them all from the get go. I was really stoked with the subsequent cuts of these films, but it wasn't like I went from hating the original, too finding God in the Director's cuts.

Not liking anything Scott has done since Bladerunner and he peaked in 1982? I find it odd then, you are here at all. Are you aware that they don't make movies in the same way anymore? (a fact that makes me sad) However, Scott has totally embraced the new cinema technology. We have him to thank for revitalizing mass market film making after Lucas gutted it with the Phantom Menace.

I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't see the cinematic power in the body of work by Scott, including post 1982. Check out a list of his films and then try to say that he "peaked" in 1982.

I am just glad that Promethous got made at all. Sci-fi hasn't been given the attention it deserves. The Sci-fi Channel cheapies make me sick. Starship Troopers 5 is trash. Promethous is what I want to have--it ain't perfect, but it is the direction I want film to go. Go see it.

JahsoldierJune 3, 2012 3:33 AM

Good review. I quite agree with your assessment.

I guess my biggest issue is the flow of the film. The last 2/3rds of the film really felt uneven and some scenes seemed to be played out in a vacuum, which has no real impact on the rest of the story or the characters.

*Can have some spoilers*

E.g. The scene where the biologist shows up back at the ship and wreaks havoc, never seems to be mentioned or even noticed after that scene. Edris appears a little bedraggled but no one seems to mention the incident or care that some of them just died violently. The fact Noomi beats two of her colleagues with a metal canister and yet there is no mention or consequence of the action. The foetus is totally ignored until the end and even David doesn't seem to care what happened even though he "engineered" (pun intended) the whole scenario.

And lastly Guy Pierce's character could have been removed without it impacting the film at all. It is a shame we only was the young Guy Piece in the viral video because he was much more interesting in that one video than the whole film. Oh and I am assuming this ship cannot be the one Ripley and co. find since the Engineer died away from his ship and not in the famous seat behind the huge gun. The more I think about it in detail, the problems I see.

*Spoilers done*

There are some amazing scenes (especially the creature scenes) and I think it is better than most Sci Fi today, but the story needs some work to make it flow better. I don't mind the unanswered questions with regards to the wider story but the fact that so many important scenes seem totally disconnected from the rest of the film is quite jarring. Hopefully the dvd receives some much needed editing.

KyleJune 3, 2012 3:52 AM

Nice review.I'm excited.

But my question is.... weren't the famous Blade Runner and Alien premiered to mix reviews when they were first released? Now they're are instant classics. So what's to say this is not great and something different?

Brian ClarkJune 3, 2012 5:31 AM

Yo! Thanks for all the reading and the thoughtful comments.

I want to be clear: I do not mind that the movie left questions unanswered. I mind that it refuses to engage them with any depth and instead just starts casually layering plot twists on top of said questions like an episode of LOST. The last third plays like a dumb person trying to sound clever, and its annoying. I also mind that with even a little bit of script work, the ideas in the movie might have felt like they actually meant something to the characters. Hell, it would have been nice if I ever knew what meant ANYTHING to most of the characters. I am frustrated with the dramatic potential that just gets tossed aside. I cant get into the ins and outs of this without some spoilers, which I dont want to post just now.

Also, a quick word about the apologist "critics hated BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN at first too" arguments. Of course, time will tell. But the argument really doesnt hold water for me. Film criticism has changed a lot since critics went to town on those movies. It used to be an elite field full of skeptics and academics (exceptions sure, but less). Its the opposite now. Weve got every geek with a twitter account and a press pass jumping for joy because they got to see THE AVENGERS a week earlier than everyone and then proclaiming that its some sort of life changing masterpiece right out of the gate.

Im not whining about this -- its old news -- but at least acknowledge that we are dealing with a completely different landscape than when all the critics beat up on alien and blade runner. I think its far more likely that these internet critic wet dream movies will become less appreciated as they age.

Im on a weird Italian keyboard and cannot find the apostrophe key for the life of me. Thats why there are no apostrophes here.

Brian ClarkJune 3, 2012 5:36 AM

No matter how many errors I made in my prep, Im pretty confident the clunky second half would have bothered me.

Timmy J.June 3, 2012 6:21 AM

I agree with you Brian, and a very valid point about the modern panel of critics. I've read that argument about Alien and Blade Runner being initially ill-received so many times now and it's so dull and cheap.

I went into this movie with lowered expectations given the many negative reviews I had read. It certaintly helped and I loved this film in terms of pure entertainment - I was never bored.

But overall, I was disappointed. I didn't want a re-hash of Alien, I wanted a film about the Space Jockey - something which invokes such a great sense of mystery everytime I see that scene onboard the Derelict in the original film. All I wanted was a story that I could be completely immersed in, which I found terribly difficult given the poor characterization and illogical narrative.

One thing that irked me was that the alien life cycle was particularly convoluted and ill-defined. It just felt poorly thought-out and rushed.

In the end, I enjoyed this film for reasons I didn't want to enjoy it for, making my feelings towards it somewhat complex. 4, 2012 3:30 AM

@Jahsoldier your comments are pretty much spot on.
had they removed waylands's plot line and used the time to give the other characters time to react on what's going on around and among them, it would have been much better.
this movie better have a 3-hour lond director's cut....

BillJune 9, 2012 2:22 AM

They can recut this movie any way they want, they'll never get a decent version unless they reshoot it with an entirely different script. This thing was packaged like you should expect some pure sci-fi, a la Asimov or Arthur Clarke, but it delivered nothing more than a bad Star Trek episode (with a really shitty, borderline insulting, Alien reference). It's to Alien what the Will Smith "I, Robot" is to Asimov's book. They just had an ambitious idea as a starting point but didn't know where it should go and never had any clue what to do with it.

Mr. CavinJune 9, 2012 5:36 PM

It's a movie where the characters spend thirty-five percent of the run time in skin-tight astronaut suits with light-up bubble heads--duking it out, romancing, running around, talking science. Spoiler Alert: every once in a while one of the heads breaks and it's it's delightfully gross. So what's not to like?