Sometimes disappointment is the result of expectation being set to high, and certainly it cannot be denied that Prometheus, the return of Ridley Scott to science fiction after a thirty year absence and the universe of his masterpiece, in a work hubristically named after the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, could have been the most important film of the year. Unfortunately, in this instance the disappointment is the result of a film that genuinely should have been considerably better than what has been released, with the frustration that the required improvements could easily have been made.
In the year 2089, discovering a 35,000 year old cave painting on the Scottish Isle of Skye, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) connect it with other similar archaeological sites from different cultures across the globe, all displaying the same arrangement of stars which they believe indicate ancient contact from an alien civilisation whom they name the Engineers, offering an invitation to their homeworld.
The USCSS Prometheus is dispatched to the planet LV-223 under the command of Captain Janek (Idris Elba), though it is made clear that all aspects of the mission are under the direct control of Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Descending to the planet, vast structures are found on the surface, a pyramid containing a labyrinth populated solely by ancient corpses, intricate statues and murals indicating a connection to humanity, and a holographic recording indicating a disaster befell those who inhabited the outpost.
The downfall is the script provided by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof; while Lindelof has a strong background, Spaihts’ only previously produced work was The Darkest Hour, and while the bold premise of Prometheus is an improvement on that amateur effort, the obvious structural flaws and unconvincing dialogue that permeate this script confirm his ineptitude, and it is shocking that Scott allowed it to go before the cameras without substantial rewrites from a competent script doctor. Strong ideas are raised, such as the origin of life, and the responsibility of parent and child and creator and creation to each other, but none are explored, as though simply expressing an awareness the questions exist is deemed to be sufficient.
Plotting is clumsy, such as the device by which two crewmen are separated from the main expedition following an argument and become lost, when it has already been established that the layout has been mapped and that their suits have transponders that allow them to be tracked. In a dramatic choice expected from soap opera rather than a major film, shouting is substituted for dramatic conflict, and the unprofessional behaviour of two trained scientists who have been selected for a long term deep space mission costing trillions of dollars is unbelievable, when a more convincing device would simply be to have them investigate a distant part of the complex, which would also satisfy the need to have them unable to return to the ship when the storm arrives.
This amateur approach to plotting is also evident in the obvious way Shaw is set up for later events in a heavy handed dream sequence and in the apropos of nothing discussion about her inability to bear children, but this does not balance the absence of any effort to establish the identities of the other crew which necessitates later panicked scenes of character building and exposition immediately preceding corresponding scenes of telegraphed revelation or payoffs; the sacrifice of characters is more convincing when the audience can remembers them from earlier appearances.
It would be a kindness to say the cast are variable, and while visually astonishing, it is apparent Scott’s focus was entirely on the presentation of the film rather than coaching the performances of his ensemble. Elba and Kate Dickie, the ships medic, are the strongest of the many underwritten supporting roles, though despite her greater screen time, Rapace never does more than react to events rather than driving them. Theron, however, must be singled out for underacting that borders on indifference: for half of the film she displays no investment in events or connection to the other characters, and crucially lacks the authority her position requires, then in one scene with Captain Janek her personality changes so radically it draws attention to itself as though it is a plot point.
The focus of the film is Michael Fassbender’s android David, both in terms of screen time, development and participation in the story, indeed, it is him who drives the narrative, though his actions are cavalier considering the lack of knowledge of the Engineers, and his motivation is not addressed other than acknowledging his direct link with Peter Weyland, whose own stubborn determination to go forward despite evidence that their theories are erroneous is matched only by how ridiculous his makeup is. If the plot necessitated that Weyland was elderly, surely an actor matching that description would have been more convincing than Guy Pearce in obviously false prosthetics?
Despite the stated determination to set his latest work aside from Scott’s Alien, the events of Prometheus shamelessly retread the same path as that film, repeating images and even dialogue, with the final log entry an intrusive repetition of Ripley’s matching “last survivor of the Nostromo” log, destroying any pretence of independence, and yet for all the continuity that is adhered to, what is established here undermines much of what was believed to be known about the xenomorph and its lifecycle. Similarly, after teasing the audience with the ring system of the gas giant the destination planet orbits, present in Alien but absent in James Cameron’s sequel, the planet is designated differently from that world, though in the same format.
The technical aspects of the film are flawless, with Scott blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is not, and the high definition 3D is encompassing and unobtrusive, the magnificence of the sets revealed through shadow and glistening highlights, but while Prometheus is undoubtedly unlike anything likely to be seen on the silver screen for a long time, the fire that it offers does not burn as brightly as it should, and unlike all the previous Alien films, this merely serves as a prelude to what it must be hoped will be a sequel that will be more satisfying and perhaps even go some way to redeeming the failings of this mission.
Prometheus is currently on release in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D
Prior to release, we had discussed our hopes for the film and how if might fit within the Alien universe here