I’ve been struggling with my review of Prometheus ever since I saw it on Saturday.
Not because there isn’t a lot to discuss…this is a movie that whether or not you like it, there is a lot to think about and a lot to talk about.
Partially I think I’ve been held back because I am not 100% how much I liked this movie. There are moments when I think about all the plot holes, jumps in logic, idiotic character decisions, and I think “Wow, that really wasn’t very good.” But then I’ll think about watching it, being caught up in the story and visuals, the questions the movie posed and mostly never answered, the handful of wonderful performances, and I’ll think “Wow, that was really very good.”
See the problem?
Add to this the issue of talking about the movie, the heart of the movie without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it.
So I had written about 2/3 of a regular review and stopped because it working. And since then I’ve just been thinking and reading a lot about Prometheus, and then doing some more thinking.
I will do a spoiler warning now because I will have talk about particular plot points. Sorry.
Prometheus is essentially a movie about the search for meaning. Yes, that is a grand statement and yes, it’s fairly reductive, but that’s at the core of what happens. Humanity has always looked to understand the “why”, not just the “how”and that is what moves everything. To know the why you have to ask someone, your creator; you have to meet your creator to find out. If one exists, that is.
Thing is – what if your creator doesn’t want to meet you. What if your creator made you just because they could, not because of any grand plan or moral purpose. Just because. How utterly demoralizing would that be. An answer like that would make so many lose whatever hold they have on their place in the universe and become completely untethered. And how much worse would it be to know that your creator looked up on you and didn’t see that it was good…
With that we think about the opening of the movie. On a green and vibrant planet, a giant, pale humanoid watches as a spaceship leaves him behind. He purposefully opens a small container, whose dark contents seem almost alive. He drinks. Almost immediately he starts to come apart – his skin becomes flakes in the wind, his connective tissues dissolve. He falls off the cliff and into the waters below, all the while breaking down into the barest of components. We end with his very DNA strands becoming infected and disintegrate. But before we leave this, we see the strands reform, creating the proteins for something new. And life is born.
Is this our creation? Is the above our creator? Within the confines of this movie, probably.
And these creators or “Engineers” leave star maps in caves and stone walls all across the globe for two intrepid scientists to discover. These scientists – Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these maps exist across civilizations and across centuries because the Engineers want us to come find them. An act of faith and hubris if there ever was one.
So they go looking and find this moon, LV 223 (not, LV426 the moon where the original Alien took place). This is a desolate moon, that clearly housed some sort of alien structure (nature doesn’t do straight lines). Once on the moon, the crew heads for this structure and explores where perhaps they shouldn’t and things start to fall apart. Personal and secret agendas change the course of basic scientific exploration. Human make human decisions and err the way humans do; endangering the lives of all, the way humans do. And theories are proven oh so very wrong.
Even though this is at its core a movie about ideas, there are characters and performances that are just as essential. Michael Fassbender’s synthetic human David is the most remarkable of all. Before the ship Prometheus lands on the moon, we are treated to several minutes of David awake and roaming the ship, as his human counterparts are in hypersleep. These are some of the most fascinating scenes in the movie.
From the moment I saw the viral video about David, I knew that this was going to be the character that I would want to follow most. Being the only conscious creature on board, he has to find ways to keep himself occupied. David watches over his fellow shipmates as they slumber, peering into their dreams, learning about them in a manner that is most unfair. David rides a bicycle in a cavernous room, shooting hoops as he circles around. He studies ancient languages. David watches Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, and adopts O’Toole’s mannerisms and carriage, and dyes his hair to match. You get the sense that there is a lot going on beneath the surface while that surface remains calm and collected.
His motives aren’t always clear, though. It’s more than just working Weyland. The moment David dips his fingertip into that glass, that moment that changes the rest of the film, does not seem to come from an order. Like Ash and Bishop after him, David has his very own agenda. And I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a little bit of revenge in that flick of a finger.
Another character who was interesting, but didn’t work quite as well for me was Elizabeth Shaw. Noomi Rapace captures Shaw’s fervent belief and the brief glimpses we see into her past explain her ability to have faith when it would be so easy to dismiss it. But by the time she has had to perform a self surgery (easily the most difficult scene to watch) and been chased down narrow corridors and across the moon’s surface by a creature that would rather see her dead than give any explanations, you have to wonder why she is so eager to continue to follow her research at the end. Her faith propels her forward when all rational minds would stop dead in their tacks. Perhaps that is just the way of blind faith. It struck me, however, as foolish.
There is a nice dynamic between Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, the corporate member of the delegation with an icy demeanor and calculating stare, and Idris Elba’s Janek, captain of the ship. Their little chat about whether Vickers was a robot herself gave the movie a much needed moment of levity, and cracked the surface just a bit on both their characters who weren’t otherwise wholly fleshed out.
And I had a personal soft spot of Fifield, the geologist played by Sean Harris. His attitude was the most pragmatic, his desire to leave early logical, and his end was the most bizarre.
These characters aside, this is a movie about the why of it all. There is an obvious parallel between the situation of humanity and the Engineers with that of David and humanity. Holloway is almost combative when he questions David about his lack of curiosity about his own creators. When Holloway answers that David was probably created because “we could”, he fails to see the danger in that answer. Since David is without real human emotions and is only a simulacrum of a real person, the answer doesn’t bother him. But perhaps this is where David’s thoughts of quiet revenge began?
Holloway and Shaw and the rest are not as lucky when they get their answer to the same question. The utter indifference that the Engineer shows Shaw and her fellow humans is shocking. Our very existence was spawned by the self sacrifice of one of their own, but the Engineers seemed so hell bent on destroying us nonetheless. Ships full of the mysterious black goo that mutates DNA and creates monsters with the slightest contact were headed for Earth before the Engineers were downed by their own folly (and a few xenomorphs). This discovery is just as devastating as hearing that you came into being “just because”; created on a whim, destroyed on a whim. Nothing like apathy about your very survival from your creator to make you feel completely insignificant and random in a universe that already makes you feel insignificant and random.
While the plot may be a bit overworked and spotty, that doesn’t translate to what you see on screen – everything visual is beautifully realized. The opening scene, filmed in Iceland, is a vision of paradise. LV 223 is desolate and harsh. The alien structure is dark and scary and just alien enough to make you feel ill at ease. Filming in 3D makes a huge difference to the quality of the 3D effects – you feel immersed, rather than poked at. And Scott’s decision to use CGI only when reality couldn’t work is visible in every shot.
So I still struggle. Is this a great movie that will stand the test of time as Alien and Aliens have? No. Does it try to tackle the great mysteries of the universal truth and fall short? Yes. But is this a movie that has stuck in my head and I continue to mentally chew days after seeing it?
A resounding yes.
(An all paper version of the trailer)