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.