Let's start with the visuals, because, no matter what your reaction to Ridley Scott's prequel to the Alien franchise, the imagery — particularly in 3-D — is truly astonishing. Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Prometheus demonstrates the impact and majesty that can be achieved when a master craftsman employs the latest cinematic technologies. Here, Scott's use of CGI is both seamless and, surprisingly, modest. He has a real talent for envisioning worlds that don't exist, then giving them weight, substance, and even lyricism. There are moments in Prometheus that will take your breath away, haunt your dreams, and bounce around your skull for days afterward.
Too bad its muddled and chaotic script, by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, is more interested in presenting than exploring provocative ideas. Where did we come from? How did we get here? Can science and religion coexist? What would you ask your maker if you had the chance? Has humanity earned the right to live? Prometheus' first 40 minutes are a banquet of juicy themes, speculations and inquiries that are ultimately left to rot on the table. Supposedly smart characters do dumb things, a hodgepodge of icky monsters attack, and the big questions turn out to be nothing more than that — a science-fiction brainstorming session that any freshman in philosophy could generate.
It's disappointing because Spaihts and Lindelof lead you to believe the film is really going somewhere with its ambitious Chariots of the Gods' (or, less charitably, Star Trek V) narrative. But instead of weaving together their multiple plot threads, involving us with their characters, or even building any authentic drama, Prometheus turns into lavish B-movie chaos filled with random events (who decided to include a zombie?), illogical actions and a half-realized retread of Alien's infestation trope.
Lindelof's storytelling is notorious for this lack of focus and follow through. One has only to ask Lost fans how satisfied they were with the iconic TV series' conclusion.
It's 2093. Archaeologists Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) have uncovered a reoccurring star map in the paintings of ancient civilizations and are sent by aging zillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) on a two-year mission to uncover the origins of humanity. Led by corporate lackey Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and assisted by a reassuring android named David (Michael Fassbender), the couple is part of a 17-person crew that travels to a distant moon and encounters the remnants of a long-dead alien race. They are, of course, connected to the U-shaped space ship, mysterious hatchery, and mummified "space jockey" in the first Alien film. And, as you might expect, things aren't quite as dead as they first seem.
Ask anyone to sum up the first two Alien films and you're bound to get a pretty concise description. The first, a haunted house in outer space movie, relied on a stellar cast, unique monster, and a subtext that exploited fears about sexual reproduction to generate its nightmare-inducing scares. The second, directed by James Cameron, was an adrenaline-packed action flick fueled by colorful personalities, a child in danger, and protagonist Ellen Ripley's (Sigourney Weaver) maternal instincts. Prometheus, on the other hand, wallows in gorgeous indecision, unable to choose which story it wants to tell or who its characters really are.
Rapace makes a sympathetic lead as the idealistic heroine, but, much like Theron's icy corporate rep and Idris Elba's brave captain, her character is frustratingly underdeveloped. The script chronically leaves its cast members adrift, only allowing them to interact when it becomes necessary to advance a plot point, and rarely if ever justifying their choices or motivations.
Which isn't to say that Prometheus doesn't have its virtues. The critters are skin-crawlingly creepy, Fassbender is eerily charming as the android with ulterior motives, and Scott layers in an ever-present undercurrent of paranoia and dread. The movie is paced and crafted with enough care and precision to keep audiences engaged, and a few set pieces truly impress. The best is a fiendishly frantic C-section that acts as a clever counterpoint to the original Alien's infamous chest-bursting birth.
Intense and engrossing, Prometheus is ultimately a mesmerizing mess, bolstering the critique that Ridley Scott is a stylist first and a storyteller last. While his movie touches on themes of creation, humanity, death, and parenthood, it never says anything interesting or profound. And while some may subscribe to the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words, Prometheus proves that even the most fantastical of images can be hopelessly inarticulate.