Film review – Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus

The titan Prometheus was forever punished for defying the gods and advancing the human race. It’s an appropriate name for both Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel and the ship within the film that is carrying a scientific team into the depths of space on a mission to find the race of alien beings known as the Engineers. The Engineers are believed to have created the human race so are also Promethean figures, and like the human characters trying to find them, the Engineers have acted in a way that subverts the natural order and are heavily punished for their sins.

The most frustrating thing about Prometheus is how close it comes to being a brilliant film. Part of the problem is it seems to be unsure to what extent it is completely removed from the original four Alien films (the Alien vs. Predator crossover films don’t count) and to what extent it is part of the mythology that Scott began in his original 1979 science-fiction/horror masterpiece. The idea is that Prometheus depicts the events that happened on the planetoid LV-426 before the crew of the Nostromo landed there and made their deadly discovery in Alien (it has since been pointed out to me in comments such as this one that this is incorrect). The film therefore takes place within the Alien universe, but without being an actual Alien film. The resulting tension between being a completely original story and giving enough nods to the other films means that it doesn’t quite work as either a stand-alone film or an Alien prequel.

Prometheus certainly begins differently to the Alien films with a sequence on the Engineers’ home planet that evokes the climatic journey to the alien planet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with sweeping shots of landscapes that looks similar to that of Earth, but are also otherworldly. The sequence introduces the themes of creation and destruction with a close up of a DNA strand breaking down, before cutting to a brief scene on Earth, which is something that has never been done before in the franchise. Everything suggests that this is an origins story that contains the familiar themes of artificial and monstrous creation where nature is made nightmarish. Through the horrific idea of the parasitic alien creatures being violently born from with the chest of humans, the uncanny androids and the theme of the corporate and military interest in using the creatures for biological warfare, the original films explored a range of anxieties about motherhood and birth. Prometheus continues these themes, but adds the new idea that with the discovery of the Engineers, humans also now have a creator, making them not unlike the androids they have created. Not only is motherhood and nature being challenged in Prometheus, but this time God is also undermined.

Prometheus very quickly then moves into the mode of Alien and while it is not a borderline remake, as with the case of The Thing prequel, it still adopts a very similar narrative structure.  By doing so, its deviations from that structure stand out. Part of what makes the first four films so compelling is that they are about a close knit group of people, whether it be the crews of ships in Alien and Alien Resurrection, the marines in Aliens or the prisoners in Alien 3. In Prometheus the characters are travelling together and on the same mission, but they are all detached from each other to only ever substantially interact in groups of twos or threes. When one of the leading characters, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), goes through an extremely traumatic experience – in a wonderfully grotesque and disturbing play on the destructive motherhood theme – she does it alone and it barely gets a mention. There are great individual characters such as Weyland Corporation employee Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the ships enigmatic android David (Michael Fassbender) and the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba), but there is too little interaction between them. Without the close-knit dynamic between the characters, what happens to them is of little consequence as far as audience sympathies are concerned.

Impressively Prometheus does incorporate the design of Alien and Aliens, although some of the technology seems more advanced than the films it is supposedly set before. Minor quibbles aside, it is great to see the same military hardware, vehicles and video transmitter displays from Aliens and the spacecraft and space suit designs from Alien. Most impressive is the use of HR Giger’s original designs for the Engineers and their technology, which visually link Prometheus to Alien in a way that is difficult for admirers of the original films not to be excited by. And while the score for Prometheus is overall unremarkable, the moments where it repeats some of the signature cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s original score do send a shiver down the spine.

Prometheus is a visual triumph and if nothing else it deserves credit for the moments when it does evoke the early scenes in Alien with the same degree of sinister wonder. However, there’s never the same sense of dread or excitement as the previous films and it does strange things like use a ridiculously made-up Guy Pearce to play an elderly man rather than simply cast an elderly man. Most perplexing is how close it comes to tying into Alien to then completely disregard a key detail at the very end. In fact, Prometheus would have benefited from removing one of its final scenes so that the audience could fill in the gaps themselves to make the films correlate rather than be presented with a scene that flatly denies correlation. For what it is Prometheus is a lot better than it could have been, but it also displays so much missed potential.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012
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14 Responses to Film review – Prometheus (2012)

  1. anton says:

    i was very happy to read your review thomas. there’s a lot of indecision about prometheus out there … and to read something from an obvious fan of the earlier films gives me the perspective i need. thank you.

  2. John says:

    Should point out it is in fact a different planet they go to, LV_223 in this film, its seen during the scene with noomi rapace is explaining where they going and the name of the planet is seen as such, its easily missable but does clear up the connecting plot holes.

  3. Thanks Anton – I do love the original Alien films (including parts three and four!) so I was trying to write a piece that didn’t betray how much of a fan I am. It looks like I failed, but maybe that’s not a bad thing on this occasion.

    Hi John – I’m more than happy to be proven wrong, but I am pretty sure the planet in Prometheus is the same one at the start of Alien and the majority of Aliens. After all, so much of this film is about setting the scene for Alien quite literally.

  4. ParanoidAndroid says:

    Great writeup as usual Thomas, and I concur with all of what you have said, though I think I may be far more disappointed than you were overall. I would also like to second the correction that this actually takes place on LV-223, not LV-426, so the events in this film are supposedly not a direct leadup to the discoveries in Alien. Why they made this distinction is still a bit puzzling, though if a sequel is greenlit (as I suspect it will be), then that puzzle will be solved.

    ** Possible Spoilers **

    I was intrigued for the first 20 or so minutes of Prometheus by the potential that the storyline it was introducing could present, and I particularly enjoyed the opening montages of David’s (Fassbender) activities on the ship while the crew were in cryostasis. I thought these early scenes had an interesting tone, and actually gave me a sense of hope that Ridley may have returned to some form beyond being just another blockbuster feature maker.

    Unfortunately from the moment the crew awoke the film slips downhill into standard fare and never regains control, and I’m going to lay a lot of the blame for this at the door of Lindelof, as I can see his DNA (haha) all over it. The screenplay introduces a number of big ideas that it simply can not deal with in a 2hr film and never really payoff, other than to introduce a few scenes of interesting dialogue. This is much like his 6 years of Lost. Instead the film devolves to some fairly cheap, flat thrills that never scare or even cause tension. There are several moments throughout where something bad happens, there’s a few minutes of hysteria and noise, and then the problem goes away and they move onto the next one without any concern or reflection for what has just happened. And yes, the soundtrack is pretty dismal.

    All of the characters are severly underwritten and used merely as plot points, with Theron in particular given very little to work with. I see no use for her character other than to introduce the “twist” (that is so telegraphed they may as well not have bothered with it), and to reuse the “Father” line that was shoe-horned back into the final cut of Blade Runner.

    It is telling that the most interesting character is David who, as an android, is by design the most one-dimensional character on board, yet he is clearly the key to the whole story. But I feel there was a missed opportunity to perhaps use him as the sole protagonist, as I think the events and themes they tried to introduce would have been far more interesting and easier to deal with.

    The scenes WITH David = great
    The scenes WITHOUT = meh

    ** END RANT **

    A generous 6/10 from me, about 5 of which are for Fassbender/David.

  5. Louise says:

    It was inevitable that I was going to be disappointed by Prometheus. Aliens has been my most favourite of films from the age of 12, with Alien in the higher ranking. The stories value the relationship between characters, and so their peril and terror of monstrosity is utterly compelling. With high expectations there’s almost nowhere to go but down.

    There are so many inconsistencies and missed opportunities in Prometheus that I might pass out from lack of oxygen if I rant out loud.

    SPOILERS. LOTS AND LOTS OF SPOILERS.

    Undeveloped characters is point number one. What we know about the characters is what we are told, not shown. We are told that Elizabeth Shaw has passion and conviction. But when is it displayed? We are told (repeatedly) that David doesn’t feel, but he would seem to be motivated by spite. And then the characters contradict their own characteristics. The biologist on the crew doesn’t want to inspect what might be humankind’s first encounter with an alien body? The geologist flees the discovery of the alien body, then beds down in a room with dripping urns, which he can only get to by walking past the previous decapitated alien body? Why doesn’t the Captain review the last known footage of the missing crew before venturing into a potentially hostile environment? If Wayland believes he is worthy of eternal life, why would he place himself so readily into harms way?

    Misconnecting plots points is point number two. The holographic aliens seem to be running from something, but are in fact running into rooms of doom (ie, liquid contagion). If the aliens have been contaminated and given “birth” to monstrosities, where is the evidence of the “offspring”? What is the goal of the virus – genetic breakdown into melty goo; zombified superman, or face hugger/slug which lays an embryo that bursts violently through flesh? That one virus has quite a diverse range. Why was the Engineer pilot in stasis at all if he could pilot the ship independently? Couldn’t he have done that 2000 years earlier? Why does no one notice that Elizabeth has escaped the medlab and try to interrupt her surgery? It’s almost like she’s given a wide girth because the other characters think it would be more dramatic if she were alone. And for someone who has had significant surgery, Elizabeth runs, fights, and abseils with relative ease.

    The poor interconnection with the overall series is number three. There are multiple alien ships on the planet. One is destroyed while taking off – we know this is not the ship from Alien as the planet’s atmosphere is wrong, and the pilot was not in the pilot’s seat with an exploded chest. A second ship is commandeered by Elizabeth and David. I’ll assume this ship is not piloted by an alien and is also not the ship from Alien. So. A third ship needs to have crashed into another planet. With a different version of the alien virus – pods instead of urns. And this is the ship that was found by the Nostromo. That’s significant overkill to destroy humankind, a species that 2000 years earlier still believed the earth was flat.

    I can justify the advancement of the technology on Prometheus as part of a state-of-the-art expedition personally authorised by the company CEO. In comparison, the Nostromo and other ships were purely functional ships equipped with routine hardware. I can’t justify the lack of expertise displayed by the “support” characters, who we should believe are experts in their fields given the expected reach of the Wayland corporation.

    Does the audience feel compelled to ask why the aliens want to destroy humankind? What if the Engineers were targeting all intelligent races of the universe (just at the point where each race became space-faring and therefore a threat). Or if humankind was bred purely to be incubators for a new weapon and the alien’s own carelessness was the reason we survived at all. Maybe they created life because they could. And then created the ultimate weapon to destroy life because they could do that as well. We’re given no answers. Usually I don’t mind open endings. Except this one feels incomplete. Sloppy, and not at all deliberate.

    The plot gaps and misfires are a shame because the design of the film in stunning. It is such a rich and texture visual experience. But I’m a story nerd. To see elements which could have been great but are only okay is frustrating. Why does it seem that story is often the element which is sacrificed in so many films?

  6. I appreciate that the film doesn’t just show us aliens as evil, but also humans!! The other four films only showed alien villains. I’m part alien, part human and part terminator. We’re not all evil!

  7. ParanoidAndroid says:

    Sounds like you’re experiencing all of my frustrations too Louise, I have to concur with every point.
    As far as relating to the rest of the Alien franchise, they are clearly leaving a number of loose ends that they can explore within the next 1 or 2 sequels. This is one if the biggest drawbacks, as the original Alien films did not have this “franchise” factor, and were completely standalone films set within the same universe. As another reviewer I read recently pointed out, this is a film that is about the search for answers that provides no answers, which is really a slap in the face to it’s audience.
    I will say that is visually quite stunning up on the big screen, particularly in 3D, and when taken out of context from the rest of the film there are some great scenes. But the basic framework to connect these moments logically and/or suspensefully is very poorly constructed.
    My frustration grows daily as I can’t stop thinking about how badly executed this was. I had considered seeing it again in case I was too harshly judging it on first viewing, but on reflection I honestly don’t think I can stomach it. My rating is now down to 4/10.

  8. Benicio says:

    Great comments Louise and ParanoidAndroid, you both nailed it with what I found so frustrating about this movie.

  9. Justin says:

    The planetoid in Prometheus was not LV-426 (the planetoid from Alien), it was LV-223.

    The planetoids are given different names, when they show the holographic pictogram of the ancient “invitations” on Prometheus they show it’s a planetary system that contains LV-223. Just Google “LV-223.” Not to mention Ridley Scott himself has said the planetoids are different.

    Some sources: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1446714/faq#.2.1.11

    http://www.empireonline.com/interviews/interview.asp?IID=1490

    And here’s an interview from Damon talking about the differences between the planetoid in Prometheus and the one in Alien: http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/06/11/the-secrets-of-prometheus-with-damon-lindelof

    Here’s the relevant quote: “I think another thing that’s interesting about the system that they visit is that the moon the land on in Prometheus is LV 223. And we know LV 426 is where the action takes place in Alien…”

  10. Thanks Justin (and others) and I very much stand corrected about the whole planet thing. I won’t elaborate here about why I made this mistake or speculate on why I was confused, but in the episode of Plato’s Cave that we recorded on 11 June 2012 it is something we discuss: http://rrrfm.libsyn.com/webpage/plato-s-cave-11-june-2012

  11. James says:

    This is a great review, but it fails to mention many plot holes and problems the film had, and I think it comes off as a bit too lenient towards the film in general. To name a few:

    *spoilers*

    1. Why does Weyland pretend to be dead?
    2. Why does David poison the scientist?
    3. How do the two scientists get lost in the caves with all of their technology?
    4. How the hell does the captain just randomly come up with the information that the planet is a weapons facility?
    5. If the planet is a weapons facility and not the Engineers’ home planet, why did the starmaps lead them there?
    6. Why do all of the scientists act like complete idiots (touching the unknown and potentially dangerous snake creature, electrifying the head, opening the door for the clearly infected crew member, etc etc etc).
    7. Most importantly, what is the relationship between all the monsters??? In alien and its sequels, it was very clear… The queen makes the eggs, the eggs hatch the face grabbers, the face grabbers infect you and a mature alien bursts out of you.
    Upon examining the monsters in this movie, we get – black ooze either makes you disintegrate or it infects you and turns you into a killing machine – Snake like creatures living in the black ooze whose origin is never explained – Upon having sex with an ooze infected crew member, Dr. Shaw is then impregnated with an entirely new monster, which grows to 100x its size without any food – Finally, the new monster infects an Engineer, which then produces a typical alien. What the hell is going on here? It’s as if the scriptwriters simply said, “we need something else thats gross and weird… how bout this? Sure, let’s throw that in there too.”
    One additional note – as you said, there were some very interesting characters here. I particularly liked Charlize Theron’s character – there is a lot of potential in a character who is quietly hoping for the mission to fail and her father to die, especially when that character is so driven and calculating. It’s too bad that so many of these characters were not used to their full potential, instead being tossed aside (like so many of the themes set up in the first act) for more gross monster action.

  12. serenan94 says:

    I just read your review and I agree with your views. When I first heard Ridley Scott was making an Alien prequel and that my favourite actor Michael Fassbender was playing an android, I automatically got excited but I came out of the cinema unimpressed . Like you said it was a “visual triumph”, the special effects were outstanding, if it wasn’t for the effects I would not have the same respect for Scott I had going into the cinema. As for Fassbender’s perfromance, I believe he did the film justice, every scene he was were the best, he played a convincing android.

    Overall, I was left with questions that have not been answered.

  13. SP says:

    Great review. And Louise covers most of my gripes.
    LV-426, LV-223 LV who cares. IF the Prometheus is the first ship in the system it would be the ship that catalogues the objects. But it crashes and is destroyed without transmitting this information. Or did some other ship pass through this backwoods?

    In any case as pointed out above it stretches the whole thing too far. It would make more sense if events from both periods occurred on this planet(oid).

    As to the “wrong atmosphere” argument above, was not the atmosphere being altered and continually being altered by the terraforming process? Did not some event occur at the end of the movie where all the bases started up?

    Also, the genesis of the classic alien monster as depicted in this movie required a female to be inseminated by a black goo infected male, the subsequent birth of a four tentacled squid thing which inseminates an Engineer to produce the tailed quadruped.

    No mention of male/female distinction among the aliens and the subsequent role of subserviant males to a pod aming Queen. No reason as to how we get to 10 fingered face huggers, no explanation as to the source of the acid blood thing… in fact I remember in the good old days that the alien in these movies was talked about/supposed to be a silicon based life form (thus requiring the acid blood) – but not explaining the need for carbon based life!

    Are we seriously expected to suspend disbelief to the extent that this sequence of events occurs twice on different planetoids?!

    If this is a weapon, it is the most convoluted method created since Dr Evil wanted frickin’ laseeerrrssss attached to the heads of sharks!

    The movie fails the logic of the universe in which it is set and for that it is a failure. At times beautiful. But a failure. In fact that is the main memory I have of this film… how much of an internally illogical and disappointing thing it was to watch.

  14. Disappointed says:

    Having seen this film several times (now that it is out on cable) my disappointment continues to grow. What a profound lost opportunity. Wonderful filmography and digital special effects, but a script that can only be described as ad-lib. The multitude of holes and inconsistencies well covered in this article and comments. Allow me at add one observation that left me with my head in hands in the theater. When the alien ship was brought down by the crash with the Promethus at the end of the film, naturally, since the ship was round, it should roll around like a doughnut! No crash damage, no crater…what an embarrassing amateurish idea that defies physics, all for the sake of drama? Please, will someone put the science back in science fiction?

    In one interview, Scott stated that he wanted to do a story that would rival 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mr. Scott, I am familiar with Aurthur C. Clarke, you are no Clarke.