Prometheus was a film that totally did not deliver enough Titan action. In fact, I am fairly sure, for a film titled Prometheus, it did not show a single Titan in it. The lack of Titans in films with titles otherwise suggesting their presence hasn’t been seen since… Clash of the Titans.
The only thing is Prometheus had another Titan to contend with. While Clash of the Titans is held by many to be a classic, if only for its then revolutionary special effects, I don’t think anyone had high hopes for the remake. It looked pathetic and it performed pathetically. The titan that Prometheus had to deal with was Alien.
Prometheus is a semi-sequel to Alien. It is set in the same universe as the Alien films and attempts to expand on one throw-away detail in the first film. It began production as a direct prequel, but then became its own beast. I heard about the shift away from being a direct prequel and was a little concerned. I then read what the film was about and my heart sank. I was grateful they decided to make it its own thing based on what the screenplay ended up being.
However, the final product used so many iconic images from the Alien franchise that it became difficult to disentangle it from the rest of the movies. This is where the majority of my dissatisfaction with the final product stems.
Put simply, Prometheus is not a great film. Put even more harshly, Prometheus is not a good film.
Now that’s out of the way, I can begin to talk about the film on its own terms. I am trying something out here and I would like you to play along. I would like you to read through the following twice. The first time I would like you to ignore any of the indented text. Then when you re-read it, I would like you to read all of it.
In the near future scientists discover a star system that has been hinted at in numerous ancient artworks from a number of unconnected civilisations. This prompts the Weyland Corporation to fund a trillion dollar expedition to the system to seek out answers to humanity’s origin and the rare opportunity to meet our makers.
The rant about titans at the beginning may seem spurious, but the film actually strives to make a thematic connection to Prometheus’ quest to bring fire to humans and his eventual punishment. It is mentioned in dialogue in fact. This is one of the problems with the film. It is thematically grand in scope, but nothing ever ties in with anything else. Prometheus’ betrayal of the Gods and eventual punishment, religious faith, morality, the fear of mortality, the nature and use of biological weaponry, and the meaning and purpose of humanity are all themes that Prometheus name drops and then decides to do nothing with for the rest of its runtime. Any one of these themes tackled with seriousness and care would have made for a strong, thinking person’s horror film. In the end, the film was much too ambitious for its own good and its kitchen sink approach allowed for only superficial exploration of the questions it raised.
The kitchen sink approach to the writing permeates all levels of the film. Characters are not characters as much as they are devices to provide impetus to the plot. They are exactly what they need to be in order to lead to the next horrific development. At points in the film characters will do something in complete contradiction to their previously stated course of action with no justification at all. For example, early in the film two characters are spooked by a particular room in a formation the crew is exploring. Later on they voluntarily return to the same room they were eagerly attempting to escape, have no fear of the room, and then even engage completely out of the character they are meant to be. The characterisation in this film was on par with, if not worse, than that in Avatar. Avatar may have had boring, utterly flat characters, but at least they were the same person throughout the film.
This disregard for characters’ motives and professions expand to almost the entire cast. Biologists approach foreign and clearly hostile lifeforms with little regard for their safety, geologists spend half the movie being represented as gruff security specialists before suddenly informing everyone that they are not hired muscle but are actually scientists, characters aren’t even introduced and just show up later in the film, and no character save for Fassbender’s has any clearly defined and consistent motivation. It is worth noting that his performance is also the strongest. He really disappears into his character, and that is something special to see.
In sharp contrast, Alien spent its first act developing each character, building motivations and relationships and adding dimensions. They were not archetypes or stereotypes, they were miners in space. Miners in space that just wanted to go home and get paid.
Moving on, there are many horrors that await the crew of the Prometheus. None of them are at all well developed enough to be seen as a credible threat. By this I mean to say that a new threat pops up seemingly at random with no foreshadowing and no build up only to be dealt with by scene’s end. Prometheus is so busy throwing cool and unusual menaces at your face that the film loses all sense of tension and feels akin to an amusement park’s haunted mansion ride.
Alien, on the other hand, was a slow boiling flick that introduced a clearly defined, singular source of danger and then built tension around the crew members’ fight to survive it.
Unfortunately, for a film that attempts to not be a direct prequel to Alien, it ends up being rather derivative of it. Fine details are different, of course, but the structure of the film’s first act, the exploration of the ruins and the introduction of body horror elements all call back to Alien. The film being set within the same universe makes it all the more obvious. With the themes it paid lip service to, Prometheus could have truly been its own beast. It could have been a thought provoking exploration of adherence to religious faith in the face of indisputable evidence to the contrary. Instead Prometheus ended up feeling like a failed attempt to make the lightning strike twice with only the barest attempt to give it an identity of its own.
Things that can be said to be in the film’s favour are its spectacular special effects, amazing art design, and beautiful cinematography. Prometheus may be an absolute mess of a film, but it is a gorgeous to look at mess of a film. It basically looks like a more polished version of Alien given the amount of art direction they share. I would not say this is a bad thing at all given how spectacular the art direction was in Alien. As mentioned, Fassbender’s performance is one of the high points of the film and he brings a real sense of menace to the film that is sadly lacking in other areas. There are also one or two sequences in the film that deserve attention for how well they were staged. An encroaching sandstorm and an impromptu caesarean are two sequences to watch for, though the latter is not as grisly as some may have you believe. It may still make some viewers uncomfortable, mind.
Prometheus was a mess. It was a well executed, at times exciting, and always visually stunning mess, but the fact remains that the film could have really done with a rewrite or twelve. Inconsistencies in the characters should really have been picked up and dealt with. The film should have been less thematically ambitious and stuck to one idea and done it well. The idea of a person dedicated to Christianity discovering that humanity was engineered and brought into creation by an alien species rather than God and her struggle to justify her continued faith to the rest of her crew would have made for a much more interesting film. There were elements of this conflict in the film but they were pushed aside far too quickly to be explored by the audience. Even dropping the theologic angle, the film could have ramped up the body horror, trimmed the cast and developed the characters and it would have been better than a visually stunning, quasi-intellectual generic slasher flick set in space.
That is the sad part, really. It had the potential to be so much more and just ended up being a slasher film with some sci-fi trappings.
All in all, a gorgeous and sporadically exciting disappointment of a film with great potential in the hands of more competent writers.
Imagine I gave the film a 6/10. I’d say if my deconstruction of the film could be boiled down to a number out of 10, 6 would be it.