Probably the film that I was most looking forward to in 2012, Prometheus has generally been dubbed a let down by fans of the Alien franchise and science fiction cinema in general. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes shows that the film has a 74% fresh score (on 12 June 2012), which really isn’t bad, but browse online and one can find loads of negative comments of people who have seen the film. So what gives?
Prometheus wants to be a thought-provoking science fiction epic about a group of scientist exploring the origins of humans. The problem is it poses many questions, never answers them, and opts for genre picture thrills instead.
The opening prologue looks amazing and sets up some very interesting questions. A humanoid drinks a black fluid, decomposes and falls into a waterfall. Is the humanoid (space engineer) on pre-historic Earth? Does his death provide the seeds for life to flourish on Earth? It is a very intriguing and impressive opening.
After the movie titles appear, we are now in 2089 and 2 archaeologists discover some cave paintings. Apparently, these painting are very similar to those found across different ancient cultures and they all show a large figure pointing at some stars in the sky. They believe this to be an invitation to a distant planet (LV-223) where the creators of man may reside. The archaeologists jump to the conclusion that we must go to this planet – in the next scene, we are already in space en route to LV-223. We are never shown any discussion about what the cave paintings may or may not imply. Couldn’t the paintings just be some sort of rite – a king / leader figure pointing to alignment of stars that might mean the coming of rain or something like that?
Throughout the film, the scientists / specialist act without any rigorous analysis of events and act spontaneously (and sometimes quite moronically). For example, when the crew arrive on the planet and venture out into the weird cave, one of them detects that the atmosphere is “breathable”. What do the crew do? They immediately take off their containment suit helmets! Surely they should be aware that while the atmosphere may have enough oxygen, it doesn’t mean it is safe to breathe. What about bacteria and alien viruses? That night, two of the crew left behind in the cave encounter a snake-like creature. What do they do? Do they run away given that they have seen loads of dead humanoid corpses? Do they sense any danger? No, they poke the creature with their hands. These are just some examples of what I find to be a let down in Prometheus. In a genre picture that aims simply to provide thrills, it is perhaps okay. I don’t question too much when I watch the Resident Evil films and I enjoy them. But Prometheus promised to be more.
Having said all this, I liked Prometheus. I really do. I would rather watch a film that tries to be great than a calculated Hollywood franchise like Battleship. Prometheus is truly beautiful to look at (I saw it in 2D – now I’m dying to see it in IMAX 3D) and if you don’t think hard about the plot holes or unanswered questions, it can still be an enjoyable genre picture. Michael Fassbender is excellent as the synthetic David (who models himself on Peter O’Toole‘s Lawrence of Arabia – I’m sure there’s a paper in that); the rest of the cast is serviceable but their roles aren’t quite as meaty. The science effects are top-notch too – we are no longer watching dark space ship corridors (which really seem to me to be a practicality back in the original Alien to hide the flaws of the special effects) and squinting our eyes to see the details. Everything is clearly shot and look simply stunning.
So in short, Prometheus is ambitious and stunning to look at but deeply flawed.
Some interesting reading : here is a blog post that tries admirably to argue that Prometheus’ plot isn’t that full of holes. There are loads of interesting points mentioned, but at the end, I’m not sure it works for me. Still it makes for very good reading.