Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ Is A Gorgeous, Fascinating Muddle Of Ideas That Can’t Stick The Landing

Review: Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' Is A Gorgeous, Fascinating Muddle Of Ideas That Can't Stick The Landing

Ambition is a rare thing in movies these days, especially when it comes to summer blockbuster fare. There might be ambitions to blow up bigger things, or include more bad guys, or feature more stars, but in terms of real ambition — telling big stories, about big subjects, on a huge canvas — only a handful of filmmakers are really playing ball. Far more so than its predecessor "Alien," which is, after all, pretty much a haunted house designed to scare the living hell out of you, Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" has big ambitions. It wants to ask the big questions — where do we come from? Why are we here? — while also serving as a 3D, CGI-filled thrill ride.

And for much of the running time, it works, but eventually something has to give, and the film ends up with the two aims cancelling each other out, ending up as neither a thought-provoking "2001"-esque science-fiction epic, nor a rollicking horror-tinged tentpole. There's an awful lot to like, but it's not a film that coheres terribly well.

After a brief visually arresting prologue (which arguably answers many of the film's major questions, so we won't go into it here), we pick up on scientists Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Smith) making a find on the Isle of Skye of a cave painting of a tall, humanoid figure, pointing to a cluster of stars. Four years later, and they're on a spaceship on the way to them, having convinced elderly trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) that he should fund an expedition to see if these creatures are still around, and if they're the source of life on earth.

Pulling the pursestrings is icy corporate type Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), while android David (Michael Fassbender) looks after her (and to a lesser extent, the crew). And also among the crew we've got the laidback captain, Janek (Idris Elba), prickly geologist Fifield (Sean Harris), nervy biologist Millburn (Rafe Spall), medical officer Ford (Kate Dickie), and pilots Chance (Emun Elliott) and Ravel (Benedict Wong). They land on the moon of LV-223, and soon find much, much more than they bargained for.

"Prometheus" is, for the first two-thirds of the film, very, very strong, it should be said, even if it has essentially lifted the entire structure from "Alien." Writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, along with a cast of mostly British character actors, have created a compelling crew who are a lot of fun to spend time, and (mostly) manage to sketch out people who are never merely archetypes. There's a genuine sense of awe — thanks principally to some truly astonishing production design, both on the ship and off it, from Arthur Max — and exactly the slowly creeping under-the-skin dread you'd want.

And once it really gets stuck into the meat of it, it's gloriously, admirably weird. There's imagery and themes in here that you'd never have thought would make it into a big studio tentpole in 2012 (don't expect the religious right to embrace this, for a number of reasons), and you'll be genuinely stunned at some of the twists it takes, and places it goes, culminating in a surgery scene that would give David Cronenberg a semi, and will surely rank among the most memorable movie moments of the years.

And then shortly afterwards, it derails in a fairly major way. Scott's blockbuster instincts seem to take over, and the third act is made up mostly of some pretty uninvolving action sequences or half-hearted reveals. One, for instance, heavily displayed in the trailer (think punch-ups in the hangar) seems to exist only because too much time has gone without blood being spilled; it has no real stakes, isn't terribly imaginatively executed, and is never referred to by the characters once it wraps up. It's like a scene from "Ghosts Of Mars" snuck into the print by accident. Furthermore, by trying to cram so much spectacle in at the last minute, it means that the ideas that the film touches on are never really followed up on, with most threads left dangling in a wince-inducing sequel-bait ending.

And it's a shame, because so much of the rest of it is so right. It's never less than visually stunning, with the 3D, at least in the IMAX screening we were at, very impressive if you like that kind of thing (we can take it or leave it, but it's as good as anything we've seen in the format). And Scott feels energized by his return to sci-fi; he seems more in command of the medium than with anything since "Gladiator." Across the board, every department, from costume to sound to music to effects, are turning in A-grade work.

And for the most part (Charlize Theron doesn't have many notes to play, and Guy Pearce's role is entirely extraneous, and could be removed from the film without much problem; neither is the fault of the actor), the cast are excellent. Rapace and Marshall-Green are a winning leading duo, really making you care about their characters. Elba doesn't get to stretch until quite late on, but has a lot of fun once he does, particularly in a unexpected, offbeat scene with Theron. And the smaller roles all live up to the examples set by Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton et al in "Alien," with Rafe Spall and Emun Elliot particular stand-outs.

Best of all, predictably, is Michael Fassbender. His android David is a curious creation, more Roy Batty than Ash, with a unique physicality, ever-shifting loyalties and a subtle inner life. The film's worth watching just for him, and it's another reminder, as if a reminder were needed, that Fassbender is one of the most exciting and versatile performers working today.

Those expecting "Prometheus" to reinvent the wheel will be disappointed: it's got too much on its mind, and not enough willingness to see those things through. But there are plnety of pleasures to be found in it, and if nothing else, it's a film entirely unlike anything else you'll see this summer. Just don't expect to walk out of it satisfied. [C+]

This is a review from the Playlist's UK correspondent, who saw the film this evening. The film opens there on June 1st, before hitting theaters in the U.S. on June 8th.

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Comments

Rock The Reactors

I just want to know when they took off their helmets after they discovered breathable air, why didn't they keep carrying them? Did they just leave their helmets lying around at the entrance, hoping they'd still be there on the way out? How freaking ridiculous is that? Wouldn't you want to hang on to them, just in case? It drove me nuts!

Nik Grape

Been on a bit of a movie hiatus but saw Prometheus last night and immediately needed to find out what you guys thought about it. Yep. It's a dissapointment. And I'm just angry at the marketing for this thing – making believe it was going to be this epic masterpiece and turning out to be nothing more than a generic sci fi flick. Gorgeous visuals and art direction not with standing, this was a huge huge let down..

Kate

I kind of feel bad for these reviewers who have to go watch a movie with such an analytical mindset. Its impossible to allow yourself to feel emerged in a movie when you can't stop critiquing it for ten seconds. Personally, I thought this movie rocked. Seriously amazing and I am so happy I don't have to watch great films like this and dump on it because it wasn't perfect. C+ really?? You are giving people the wrong idea my friend.

Chris

I honestly dont understand how a vague ending warrants a C+ grade after what was mostly a glowing review. And what confuses me even more is that most critics seem to have problems with the ending. I see nothing wrong with the ending. It was perfectly understandable, and it made ME at least excited for another movie. Tons of movies end with anticipation for a sequel to get some unanswered questions..answered.

I wish I could unveil some spoilers in here, because it would make my point a lot easier to make lol but anyway, I understand hating when a movie asks a question in the beginning, and then it goes unanswered by the end, but that wasnt the case with this one. The ending questions that werent answered were only brought to light near the end anyway.

I dont know. I just dont understand all of the critique of this movie in particular. Amazing performances. Amazing visuals. Amazing lore. Great philosophical questions that keep you wondering after you leave the theater. What else is there to ask of a great sci-fi film?

Jens

A beautifully written review and gives me a real idea of what I'm in for. Thanks Oliver!

Oscar

I really enjoyed this movie and found it satisfying. I love how it leaves us all wondering and wanting more, isn't that what makes movies fun and exciting?

Mia

I'm still looking forward to seeing it.

Frankly, looking at the amount of hype before, I'm not sure any film could equal that.

JOHN MURRAY

I decided not to compare this to Alien and had low expectations having briefly glimpsed some of our more jaded film reviewers sniffy opinions on this film.

I can't wait to see it again…

Simone

Prometheus is an incredible film. While it doesn't have the delicious dreadful intensity of Alien, this film stands on it's own with an original and intriguing plot about how human beings were created. The visuals are stunning, and the acting was great. The standout of course was Michael Fassbender… and Noomi Rapace was brilliant as well. I think people are being too harsh on the film, but those who love it are very satisfied. I hope a sequel is made due to the cliffhanger.

4/5 http://www.fassinatingfassbender.com

Andre

Yeah, it falls short. It's so gorgeous and insanely addictive that it makes you want to cry, but as a tie–in to the Alien universe it's somewhat disappointing. Anyway, it's more of a B+. Please.

Lance

Well first of all a review is one person's opinion, and I wont slam on any reviewer, they are merely trying to help us. Second, how can someone argue a movie they have not seen yet…..this does not compute!!! Ridley Scott is a great director, that much we do know. No reviews on this film will stop me from seeing this…..and as for Alien….I knew zero about it when I viewed, and it still stands the test of time of being great sci fi horror. I will not compare this to alien as I dont expect alien…..lets see what happens, and Oliver your review was fine and well structered!!! THX

Kate

So, the major US reviews are starting to trickle in–not good, and this film probably won't light the box office on fire. Whose career takes a hit? Lindelof and Spaights? Rapace–many people are saying she's serviceable at best. Theron isn't having a great summer with either this film or SWATH. Fassbender and Elba seem to be the only people who could emerge completely unscathed. I'm hoping the Playlist or Anne Thompson will do some kind of breakdown on this stuff.

Edward Davis

This review is far too kind…

Scott

I am expecting this to be a feast for the eyes while juggling numerous ideologies slowly building to a climax that is uncertain, unfinished and just the begining. With what looks to be some great performances and beautiful imagery accompanied by sound and anticipation, I think I will leave satisfied. Things we can't prove and dance around in this film don't need closure…that's for the sequel.

Mel

C+ really? This sounds like fan boy talk to me

Fred

Faboys like Marcus should know, even genre-favorite sites like Hitfix's (DrewMcWeeney) and Screencrush gave similar reviews to this one (and Movies.com on Twitter). All saying essentially: that it falls short.

Marcus

Wait.. You gave Avengers A grade.. Case Closed.

boby

Prometheus is one of the worst script of 2012, no doubt. This movie is a real joke. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The scientific crew is just a band of morons. The last hour is a non-sense because of the unoumerous holes in the story. It would need at least more than 30 min of footage for having a coherent movie. Good special effects however but that's it. And don't watch it if you want scaring scenes : you'll be afraid only two minutes (and only if you haven't already see an Alien movie)
C+ is a too good grade for that pretentious and awfully bad movie. But congratulations to the marketing campaign, really one of the best of the last decade.

Congratulations

Xian

C+??? Really Playlist?

Worth noting a few things about Ridley Scott's new film. The original "Alien" we all know and love was going to be just a monster movie in space (original title was "Star Beast" during Dan O'Bannon's first draft) and the hope for the screenwriters was that Roger Corman might produce it. After being brought to Brandywine productions, the script got a big re-write (to O'Bannon's curmudgeonly displeasure) and added Ash the robot while changing the other characters and situations significantly. It then sat on the shelf at 20th Century Fox until the studio desperately needed another space picture after "Star Wars" hit big. Then, and only then, after Fox considered a number of directors, did it get classed-up by Ridley Scott and the design team Dan O'Bannon helped bring on (Cobb, Foss, Giger). Even then, upon its release, most critics found it a mixed bag and it got mixed reviews (though it did blockbuster business).

Mixed reviews are fairly typical of Sir Ridley's work… sometimes, the reviews are even scathing noting his films are empty save for the brilliant design… but over time, many critics have reconsidered some of his work and cast it in a much better light So, Sir Ridley gets categorized as a "world builder" in films rather than say, a master filmmaker on par with Kubrick and others in the pantheon of visionary directors.

"Blade Runner" was just as savaged by critics that found it a grim, but visionary bore. It did middling business, and I gather if "Alien" had lacked its classic horror movie jolts ("chestburster" scene, etc.) it too would have been dismissed by critics and ticket buyers (luckily, those scenes were in the first draft of the script and were crucial in getting the film made in the first place).

Anyway, I only mention this because with the burden of "Alien" (a film that still holds up quite well) on its shoulders, "Prometheus" would have a tough time living up to the classic film no matter what. I'm sure it will be pretty amazing in spite of the great expectations placed upon it.

Javi

The Avengers and 21 jump street A and Prometheus and C+? Really?

Mother of God…

Javi

There are two groups: Prometheus is GREAT (great majority) and Prometheus is "meh, dissapointing, visually stunning, fascinating, but the story has too many holes" (minority)

88% in Rotten Tomatoes, now.

I'm in the first group. This movie is awesome. With script problems, ok, but awesome in so many levels. Ridley work it's phenomenal (for me, deserve a Oscar nomination), visually is like a dream, Rapace and Fassbender are perfect, amazing scenes…

FranklinG

"How can this movie not be anything short of utterly amazing?" — be prepared for a lot of comments like this Playlist. Good review and seems fair in its balance of plaudits and criticisms. Still interested in seeing it, that's the whole point.

jake

1. The reason this film received so much buzz is because it's Scott's first Sci-Film in 30 years.

2. This film could be polarizing, based on some of the reviews that I've read so far. So just because Oliver gave it a C, does not translate into being a bad film.

3. Shocked you, along with so many others, gave Avengers an A.

Mr Anonymous

C+ grade. Tad harsh. Not good enough for a B grade? Really?

Great Scott!

Worry not, peepz, the folks at the Playlist rarely seem to understand mainstream flicks. I come for the art house buzz and non-subjective news items and that's it.

Harry

And in today's inane self-aggrandizing movie review environment, how would Kubrick's 2001 have been reviewed? Hmm…

sven

I have seen the movie and I can assure everybody: it's great. The review above is right, though: at the end, there are just to much ideas, but Scott goes for a more traditional Hollywood-spectacle ending.
But I do not agree with the C+, it's still one of the most visually impressive films i've seen lately, and the characters are intriguing, so i would definitely give it a B+ or even an A.

Yawn

The only thing that caught my eye about this movie was Michael fassbennder… Then I watched some of his movies. jane eyre and haywire…. I was bored. He's definitely overrated.

Nick

This review sounds a little contradicting. You give this movie quite a lot of praise to assert that audiences shouldn't expect to be satisfied — "The most memorable movie moments of the years", "Visually stunning", "A-grade work", "The cast are excellent".

Obviously, it's hard to write a good review without spoiling the movie. But you did not exactly pinpoint why this movie was not satisfying, which makes me curious. I'm still really looking forward to seeing this movie in 3D Imax! Thanks for the review, Oliver.

hickslv426

Don't be put off by some of the luke-warm reviews. The critics who have been somewhat negative to this movie are too busy trying to compare this movie to the original 'Alien'. Acting performances- Who wants Shakespeare in space? Who cares if some of the minor cast members are only there for alien fodder! Ridley has been saying for ages that it wasn't a direct sequel to 'Alien', but that seems to be forgotten by the critics. The problem with the movie was that Fox hyped the movie to high heavens and for that reason it wasn't going to exceed everyone's expectations. People keep reminding us that 'Gladiator' was Scott's last great movie, but remember 'Gladiator' was somewhat of a sleeper hit; nobody expected it to succeed. The sword and sandals genre was dead at that particular time. I say go in with an open mind and enjoy the movie on its own merits, not trying to compare it to either 'Blade runner' or 'Alien'.

KitCon

Hmmm. I usually agree with Oli's reviews and his picks among Scott's film's below so I'll just have to make sure I savor the first 2/3 then.

Oogle monster

Damn. But I kind of expected it to be fall below expectations. I'm still going opening day. Also, it's a shame Theron doesn't have a bigger/more versatile role (same with Snow White and the Huntsman… I hear she's quite campy) considering she's a damn good actress and her work in Young Adult was some of the best acting I've seen in awhile. Now onto TDKR…

jimmiescoffee

i guess my thinking is that scott has not been all that commercially or critically acclaimed for quite a while. yet this film, based on a few nice trailers, got some serious talk in its favor for whatever reason. is it just because of the 'alien' connection? i guess…

[A]

Huge bummer. Still (obviously) seeing it in the big screen.

jimmiescoffee

i like scott. i liked 'robin hood,' 'body of lies,' 'kingdom of heaven,' and think 'matchstick men' is really fucking underrated. but why did this film get so much GREAT buzz. i'm sure i'll like it, but did i ever think OLIVER LYTTELTON would like it? nope. i bet he has not really liked a Scott film since 1991 if not before he was old enough to buy a cinema ticket. no big deal, but the buzz this film got, and is getting always seemed strange to me. look at scott's past 10 years at minimum and tell me which one of those movies gets an A from this this type of blog. and i do not mean this to be negative. i enjoy the hell out of the writing here.

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