[I recently ran a poll on my social media over which sci-fi classic film series I would be covering over the next few weeks, and the winner--by a slim margin--was this one. To have a say in future polls, make sure you're following me on Facebook, and if you want to have even more influence on the topics I cover, consider joining my Patreon.]
I genuinely struggled with whether or not I should even write this review. There are certain movies--Batman v. Superman, The Last Jedi, etc.--where proclaiming an opinion on the Internet seems to do more harm than good. These films are so polarizing, so divisive, that people inevitably congregate into groups that exaggerate the film's positive or negative qualities and then spend an inordinate amount of energy engaging in flame wars to convince the whole of cyberspace that their chosen opinion is the only "right" one, that one must be insane to disagree with their hyperbolic proclamation that the movie is either a timeless masterpiece or an indefensible piece of cinematic trash.
Prometheus is one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon, a film that, once it hit theaters, became the subject of exhausting "controversy" in message boards and comment threads the world over. I'm not particularly interested in contributing to this madness, and I sincerely hope that enough time has passed that we can discuss this film rationally. With that in mind, this is my opinion, and I'm sure you have one of your own that I am in no way trying to invalidate.
When this movie was first announced, I was impossibly psyched. This was Ridley Scott's return to science-fiction after decades, and it promised to bring something new to the Alien franchise by the same director who started the whole thing. The cast included the likes of Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, and Michael Fassbender, and it was being cowritten by Damon Lindelof (who I still idolized in those days). In my mind, this had the potential to be the biggest thing in sci-fi cinema, ever. When the previews and viral videos started trickling out, it looked absolutely stunning and beautiful, and that shot of the Engineer chamber with the giant face that got a two-page spread in Entertainment Weekly was something I wanted to put on my wall. (Alas, marriage requires little sacrifices.)
Fassbender is incredible
I'm not sure anything could have matched those expectations, and when Prometheus finally released in 2012, I came crashing down to Earth. I understood the polarization at the time, because I felt pretty torn myself, drawn to either defend the movie with all my heart or to condemn it with all my might. When I tried to be honest with myself and sort out my thoughts in peace, I came to the conclusion that Prometheus is a wonderfully directed and spectacularly shot film that is severely let down by a haphazard script that isn't nearly as intelligent as it thinks it is. I didn't argue with people at the time, because from certain perspectives, the movie is both great and terrible.
I've watched it a few times in the intervening years, including once a few days ago to prepare for this review, and though there has been some vacillation here and there, my basic assessment remains the same. With tempered expectations, I can enjoy the movie, but it is still deeply frustrating. I won't go over all the plot holes and seemingly incomprehensible character changes that are sprinkled throughout, nor will I condescend to explain everything away with my own rationalizations while telling you you're just not smart enough to "get" it. Instead, I'd like to compare it to a surprisingly similar film from two years ago: The Cloverfield Paradox.
This makes no sense
If you haven't seen it or read my review, I can sum it up thusly: The Cloverfield Paradox is a godawful film. The basic premise is that a group of scientists on a space station activate a futuristic super-collider, which results in a whole bunch of random, chaotic things happening. It's the kind of movie where it feels like the writer came up with a few cool and disconnected scenarios--like a guy with worms filling his body, a disembodied arm crawling along the floor, a woman being frozen in water from a hull breach, etc.--and then had to contrive a way to string them all together. The collider incident is used to explain absolutely anything the writer wants, and it lacks any internal logic or consistency to bind the narrative together.
Prometheus has a similar problem with the black goo, which is the one thing in the story that annoys me the most. The black goo does whatever the plot needs it to do, whether it be create tentacle monsters, turn Fifield into a superpowered alien zombie, explode a centuries-old Engineer head, make a little worm-thing come out of Holloway's eye (The Cloverfield Paradox borrows this), ensure that his sperm will create a squid-monster-slash-face-hugger thing in Shaw's womb that can magically grow to tremendous size without nourishment, etc. The goo has no coherent, internal logic of its own, and so it makes the script feel like it's being made up as it goes along, that things happen for the sake of the plot rather than the plot coming naturally out of events as they happen. Another prime example of the plot dictating the story rather than the other way around is the Engineers' boney spacesuits. There is no in-universe explanation for this, because the only reason behind their existence is the story's desire to have the Engineers be more human combined with the need to explain away the decidedly inhuman Engineer skeleton we see in Alien.
Granted, the auto-doc sequence is intense
That said, The Cloverfield Paradox is also a good contrast to Prometheus that helps highlight everything the latter does well. Prometheus is clearly trying to accomplish big things, whereas The Cloverfield Paradox isn't aspiring to be anything more than genre schlock. Prometheus manages to get decent performances out of at least some of its cast (such as Fassbender and Elba), whereas The Cloverfield Paradox wastes Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, and Ziyi Zhang. Prometheus has gorgeous cinematography and interesting musical cues, whereas The Cloverfield Paradox has bland cinematography and an utterly forgettable score.
As an entry in the Alien series, Prometheus is surely a disappointment for anyone expecting the kind of thrills you find in Alien or Aliens. However, it does a remarkable job recapturing the look and feel of that universe, with just enough tweaks to keep it fresh. Storywise, it's clear Ridley Scott wasn't terribly interested in revisiting the actual Xenomorph, and though that no doubt pissed off a certain corner of the fandom, I'm fine with it. A franchise shouldn't be beholden to a single idea, and if anybody shouldn't need permission to explore the universe, it would be its original creator. I'm even fine with the heavy religious subtext, although no amount of lantern-hanging can make me forgive the complete dismissal of human evolution or the weird misunderstanding of how DNA works. Scott surely has a lot of ideas and a lot to say, and with a better script that wasn't so invested in forcing wacky horror scenarios without much logic to them, Prometheus might have come a lot closer to meeting my admittedly lofty expectations.
All that said, yes, it absolutely pisses me off that they take off their helmets. There's no need for it in the story--things would play out precisely the same with the helmets in place--and it just makes the characters look like drooling simpletons. And yes, it's downright silly that Vickers and Shaw wouldn't run sideways away from the rolling spaceship. There are plenty of really, really infuriating and idiotic moments like this in the movie, and they definitely do detract from the experience of watching it.
-e. magill 4/2/2020
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