I generally try to avoid writing about a film's production, marketing campaign, and general "presence" in popular culture in my movie reviews. I was taught that a film critic has two relationships: one with the movie screen and one with the typewriter, er, laptop keyboard. Everything else is just white noise. We're not here to judge TV ads or promotional promises or, god forbid, empty-headed TV spot blurbs... just the film itself. But in the case of Ridley Scott's long-awaited sci-fi horror story Prometheus, I have to bend the rules a little bit. Ridley Scott's Alien, you see, is my favorite film (like, ever), and since its inception, Prometheus has been billed as the Alien prequel that's not exactly a prequel. Confused yet? I am too, and I've seen the movie.
Let's start off on a good foot: it is somewhat inarguable that Ridley Scott's return to science fiction is sort of a big deal. Say what you like (or dislike) about the man's films between 1982 and 2012, but fair is fair: the man's Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) are modern classics (fair credit to his many collaborators) -- and now he's back in the genre he used to kick some serious ass in. Working from a screenplay by newbie Jon Spaihts and Lost producer Damon Lindelof, Mr. Scott seems to be playing some games with his audience: Prometheus certainly takes place in the same universe as Alien, Aliens, etc., and it definitely predates everything we saw in the original Alien -- but beyond that there are no real connective tissues.
Oh, except for the Space Jockey. That's the big one. In Alien, the "space jockey" was a gorgeous, massive, frankly scary piece of production design combined with special effects. It appears as a harbinger, a fossilized relic of something very unpleasant. We never learn what the creature was, or how it died, and THIS is when we start to worry about "aliens." The Space Jockey is one of the creepiest and most iconic images in all of horror cinema.
So obviously we need a completely separate movie dedicated to explaining what this creature was. Call me a cynical movie fan if you like, but revisionist prequels are sort of like cheating: you learn what people liked about an old movie and then work backwards. We don't need a film to explain what happened before John Carpenter's The Thing, we certainly don't need our old boogeymen to be modernized with sleazy, abusive parents -- and no, I firmly believe that we do not "need" a film dedicated to explaining what the Space Jockey is. It was perfectly awesome before you went and explained it.
Having said all that, Ridley Scott and several other people clearly disagree with my assertion, and since they're the filmmakers and I'm the film critic, let's just focus on what they did make and not on what I don't want: Prometheus is, to put a blunt point on it, a dark, beautiful, frustrating, occasionally creepy, and plainly flawed film. It has ideas that are borderline brilliant, and it has editing blunders that run rampant just as things are supposed to get interesting. Prometheus has several interesting actors -- but it gives them nothing to do. (Charlize Theron is a one-note company exec; Idris Elba is a curiously absent-minded ship's captain; a few icky guys get dialogue just so that they can die later.) The film aspires to be deep and intelligent, but is also saddled with numerous moments that are plain old silly. Novel ideas vanish, characters change their minds and attitudes at the weirdest whim, and a few scenes feel like they were simply dropped in randomly.
And yet... there's also a lot to like here. Divorced from your affection and expectations that come from adoring Alien and/or Aliens, there's certainly nothing too painful about a visually stunning space quest movie that has both comic-book goofiness and legitimate intelligence in some spots. And while very few of the Prometheus crew members are fleshed out beyond one simple stereotype, leading lady Noomi Rapace and her co-star Michael Fassbender (as a duplicitous android) manage to elevate even the driest of scenes. The plot, which is basically about an outer space mission to discover God, is nothing all that new. Sci-fi fans have already seen movies like Red Planet, Mission to Mars, and Sunshine, and that's sort of what Prometheus feels like: an epic space trek to discover the meaning of human life.
Love Prometheus or hate it, that's a pretty heavy plot to drop down in the middle of the mindless summer movie season. It's easy to admire the intelligence and the intentions of Prometheus, and yes, a little bit of plain old smarts can help one to forgive a variety of other shortcomings. Act III in particular, while certainly fascinating to behold, feels like it was written, shot, cut, and thrown together after the final test screening. Vagueness and ambiguity are wonderful things within the realm of science fiction, but there is clever screenwriting -- and then there is sloppy, choppy, confused editing. As if you didn't get the point by now, Prometheus is an almost maddening film to dissect, partially because it has problems that are plain as day, but also because it has several moments, themes, and ideas that are legitimately cool. And through it all, even the drier spots, is the almost painfully gorgeous Dariusz Wolski cinematography.
By all accounts, I should simply hate this movie and move on. It's weird, kinda derivative, and pretty clunky in a narrative sense. It's also an unnecessary cousin to my favorite film, and it tries to explain stuff I don't particularly want explained. Yet I'd still recommend Prometheus to the sci-fi and horror junkies. Despite all the problems I have, Ridley Scott is still a masterful visualist, there's just enough smarts to forgive the sillier stuff, and it has two or three moments that genre fans will definitely be talking about for a long time. A movie doesn't have to be an instant classic to be interesting, and while I wish I liked this movie a lot more, it simply has too many assets to dismiss outright.