So this is going to be pretty spoiler-y if you care about that. But I want to say right now: you shouldn’t, because there’s nothing about Prometheus to actually spoil.
So I’ve gone over this a lot since I saw the movie Saturday, and I think I’ve boiled down why I really didn’t find it that enjoyable. First and foremost is that I went in with pretty high expectations. I watched Alien the night before, and I was really excited to see another tight, interesting sci-fi film that maybe expanded upon the intriguing mysteries of Alien a little while focusing a bit more on exploration than on sheer body-horror. For all that Alien is remembered as a “slasher movie in space”, it was a much more tightly focused and interesting exploration of a strange new landscape and the dangers it contains than any of the more bombastic sci-fi that has come after. The visual effects supervisor of the movie “Moon” actually has a great little bit on why the Alien script is so well-done. Prometheus is badly done in equal measure to how excellently Alien was crafted.
Before I get into just non-stop griping, I will say that Ridley Scott is a master of visuals and cinematography. He’s capable of making every single shot look amazing, as well as creating a surprisingly believable futuristic world (besides the spaceship having a fucking rec room and basketball court NO no griping). Beyond a few silly “transparent things with holo-graphs” and “generally using holograms just for the fuck of it” that so plagues modern movie SF, he sticks to believably chunky surroundings and very pretty but functional-looking space-suits. He also uses color in a way I don’t actually have the vocabulary to describe properly. He doesn’t just slap a filter over a scene, he makes sure that light sources line up in exactly the necessary way. So yeah, he’s great! The guy who is not great is the script writer, Damon Lindelof, the same dude who did LOST. And Ridley Scott for thinking any of the script was good and then filming it.
There are multiple lengthy and funny discussions of the exact nature of the many small terrible bits of the script, like how they take their helmets off maybe an hour into their expedition, even though it makes nothing simpler. These are all great, and you should read them. My problem with the film can be summed up quicker, though: it did not matter. No individual mattered, no event mattered, and no theme mattered. Three examples stand out. Spoilers, obviously. The first is Extreme X-Games Archaeologist. Boyfriend/Husband/whatever to the female lead. He gets poisoned with black goo by David the android for… well for no real reason. You could invent a clever reason, maybe, but that would be all on you. Following this poisoning, he’s burnt alive by a flamethrower in order to protect ship quarantine. Following that absolutely nothing and no one ever references, mentions, or as far as I can tell thinks about him. Including his significant other. I’m not the best person, but should my significant other get cooked alive in front of me, I would like to think that my thoughts will occasionally turn to the trauma of that event. Following the cookery, the female lead is on a surgery table blah blah Terrifying Demon Pregnancy! So she cuts it out in a well acted but intensely silly/gory sequence, and heads back to the rest of the ship. No one mentions that again. She occasionally holds her lasered open abdomen as she makes flying jumps. At one point, two crew members are trapped in the cave system thing that the team is exploring. A chuckle is had, and they are told to stay there for the night. Obviously they die. No one seems super perturbed about this afterward. When one of the dead men comes back as a zombie, he murders a half dozen nameless, faceless crew members. The captain roasts him back to death. None of that is ever mentioned again, as why would anyone ever bring up what has to be the most terrifying thing ever to happened to them?
The little stuff makes the movie annoying, but it’s that schizophrenic tapestry that really kills it. I was hoping for more a “Rendevous with Rama” vibe, exploration of the vast unknowable, trying to figure out as much as you can before realizing you’ll never get it all. A contrast with the scared truckers of Alien, but with hubris comes the fall and oh noooo they didn’t realize X would Y or whatever. They completely ditch that, and make the scientific exploration worse than the average sci-fi original movie about ice volcanoes. In place of that, they have many more gory scenes of carnage, none of which actually lead anywhere. No one reacts, no one even flinches. So what if half the crew was just ripped in half? We didn’t know them, and the captain doesn’t seem to give a shit! So what if at the end the captain and Nameless Crewmen A and B sacrifice themselves? We never got to know them, and they don’t have a chance to be humanized at any point in a two goddamn hour movie. You could cut scenes at random without altering the flow of the film at all. Almost all of the characters could be ditched, and you’d never notice.
The ostensible reason for the pacing and plotting issues is that this movie is concerned not with lowly things, but with high and interesting questions about life, the universe, and everything. The only issue is that, like LOST before it, the movie seems to believe that raising those questions is exactly as thought-provoking as attempting to answer them. It is not. “Why are we here?” is not the end of you philosophical discussion. And the annoying bit is that if it focused more on the actual small scale human element it would probably do a better job of conveying interesting answers! Alien wasn’t great about characters, but it had many little moments of characterization, and the decisions made by crew members reflected their personalities well. In “Alien”, the lowest man on the totem pole mouths “the money” to his more charming friend, so they can see if it’s possible to upgrade to full shares. We get an idea of the chain of command, of the interpersonal style and conflicts of the crew, and of the overarching corporatism that will ultimately kill most of the people on board. In “Prometheus” a man angrily states “I’m only in this for the money!” at someone saying hello, as it is the first time they’ve met. Almost characters show evidence of interpersonal relationships and most characters lack a discernible motive for any of their actions.
Jeez, that was longer than I meant it to be. Basically, this is up there with Inception and Avatar as a big, beautiful sci-fi movie that so focuses itself on “big themes” that it forgets how little those matter when your characters are disposable cardboard and the script is just egregiously bad.