Prometheus represents a different type of sci-fi, one that has been severely underused for years. This type of sci-fi is not Lord of the Rings in space – aliens that have very human issues, a la Star Wars – it is more philosophical, and uses the setting of space to ask questions about our very existence in the universe. And while Prometheus doesn’t entirely fulfil the promises it sets out in its opening hour, it is still a remarkable blockbuster that treats its audience like adults.
The film in itself is a prequel to the Alien franchise, which I absolutely adore (well, the first two films anyway). What made me excited originally was the news that the original director, Ridley Scott, would be returning to direct – while I loved Aliens for its pulp action thrills, James Cameron didn’t quite manage to fully replicate the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Scott original. Coupled with the teasingly ambiguous viral trailers spread around the internet months before release, the hype was building to unbearable levels. We’re talking pre-Phantom Menace here. I was expecting great things, and was starting to get a little worried about the initial lukewarm reviews from the press.
Fortunately, the opening put me at ease. For a start, the film is gorgeous. The art direction is extremely strong – certain designs, such as those of the Cryo Chambers, are similar to their counterparts in the later films, but have a distinct retro flavour, placing the film firmly at the beginning of the Alien timeline. The ships, the holograms, the ancient temples… everything looks fantastic – it’s all beautifully shot, too. Scott’s use of actual physical sets also does wonders to keep the film’s atmosphere dark and foreboding. Acting is fantastic, with Fassbender in particular being one of the best characters in the franchise. The fact that he references Lawrence of Arabia, one of my favourite films of all time, is just a bonus.
As I have said before, the opening hour is damn near perfect. I haven’t felt this sort of wonder and awe in a sci-fi film in a long time. The characters are mostly two-dimensional, but they convey their sense of excitement very well, and we are excited for them. The amazing soundtrack enunciates key moments in the plot, keeping quiet for the more subdued parts. The themes used here – higher intelligence, the meaning of humanity, the role of science in progress – are very lofty indeed, but the subtle narrative manages to flesh them out in interesting, and often surprising, ways.
Unfortunately, approximately halfway through the film, the script abandons these themes in favour of a more traditional Alien splatterfest. And while all the horror and the gore is extremely well-done (one set-piece in particular, one that pays homage to the original in its own way, made me cringe), it feels disconnected from the tone of the masterful first half. To put it politely, the script has some thematic inconsistencies. To put it less politely, it feels like the writers had a stroke. That’s how jarring it feels to go from deep, cerebral philosophising to a guy falling face first into a puddle of acid.
I would even be able to forgive the tonal inconsistencies if the latter half was a little less complicated. A plot element (or twist, perhaps) is introduced late in the game, one that is completely unnecessary – coupled with some revelations that have no real bearing on the overall plot, and the fact that this entire segment is chucked out the window about twenty minutes after it appears, and we have a diversion in the storyline that has absolutely no business being there, apart from producing some cheap shocks.
All of this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the film – fact is, I really did enjoy it. I’m just disappointed by the fact that the storyline became unnecessarily confusing for absolutely no reason. It’s one thing when the plot is being playfully vague (much like the opening half) – it’s an entirely different thing when you begin to struggle to understand what’s going on.
What makes the film ultimately worth it, though, is the final shot. I had not experienced this sort of nerd freakout since the climax of The Cabin in the Woods. Throughout the entire film I had been trying to figure out how the narrative fits into the Alien universe, and while I spotted certain elements from those previous films, I couldn’t quite fully make the connections. The final sequence makes all those elements fall together at lightning speed, and all of this shines a new light on the franchise. In a way, it’s the opposite of the ‘midichlorian’ mess from Phantom Menace – if the ‘midichlorians’ made the original films worse, this final shot from Prometheus actually makes the Alien films better.
So to sum up, if you’re going into the film without any previous knowledge of the Alien universe (and shame on you if that’s the case) then you’ll be seriously entertained for the first half, and seriously confused for the second. If, however, you’re a fan of the originals, then you will be completely floored by the entire thing. Three cheers for intelligent sci-fi, and let’s hope that the Blade Runner reboot will be even better.