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by Eric Kohn
June 6, 2012 12:33 PM
14 Comments
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In a Summer Where Indie Sci-Fi Rules, 'Prometheus' Is Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

The human explorers (and one robot) of "Prometheus."

There were plenty of reasons not to expect much from Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," primarily because Scott hasn't made a good movie in years. Hyped as a prequel to the director's groundbreaking 1979 science fiction horror effort "Alien," the new movie looked like a feeble attempt to recapture the power of that icy genre hybrid after decades of inferior imitations. Even with "Lost" creator Damon Lindelof punching up the screenplay, the mold sounded too familiar: A few astronauts, the familiar mix of passionate scientists and trenchant pilots, trace the origins of Earth's life to a barren world with hideous monsters lurking beneath its surface. Bored yet?

Earlier this year, audiences were given a reason to feel cynical about the state of Hollywood science fiction. The pricey cosmic spectacle "John Carter" was largely regarded as an overambitious and muddled attempt at resurrecting Saturday matinee escapism. Confounding the public and inviting critical derision, the movie was an embarrassment to Disney as well as those viewers hoping for excuses to keep celebrating the genre. More than a monumental dud, it implied the flagging appeal of the once-vibrant space odyssey.

Leave it to Ridley Scott to save the day. Thanks in large part to Lindelof and Jon Spaihts' highly calculated screenplay, "Prometheus" is a brilliantly paced chamber piece, a reminder that a few simple props and solid performances matter as much as impressive effects work (of which "Prometheus" has plenty, as well). Despite occasionally disconcerting pulp dialogue and disposable plot twists to pad a story in no need of them, "Prometheus" rejuvenates the formula that made "Alien" click.

Like "Alien," the new movie derives its appeal not only from stunning, otherworldly imagery but also from the central performances tasked with reacting to it. Noomi Rapace, as one half of a researcher duo driven by ancient cave paintings to visit an alien planet and find the creatures that planted the origins of our DNA eons ago, ably inherits the female survivalist throne from "Alien" queen Sigourney Weaver (and who better to do so than the original "Girl With a Dragon Tattoo"?). Michael Fassbender, as the ship's artificial intelligence assigned by the mission's benefactor to ensure its success, delivers a chilly performance that suggests the love child of HAL 9000 and Spock.

'Prometheus' is an unquestionable good time, one of the best big-screen science fiction accomplishments since 'Avatar.'

There are downsides to the familiar ingredients as well. Other characters, including a barking ship manager played by Charlize Theron and an equally bland captain played by Idris Elba, fall back on clichés and distract from an otherwise compelling ensemble. By its wild finish, however, "Prometheus" is an unquestionable good time, one of the best big-screen science fiction accomplishments since "Avatar" -- and in some ways more impressive for its efficient combination of effects wizardry and sleek, contained suspense.

Appropriately, the credits include a nod to the late, great Dan O'Bannon, author of the first "Alien" screenplay and a collaborator on John Carpenter's debut feature "Dark Star." A primal version of "Prometheus," "Dark Star" also revolves around space travelers stuck in a maze of technological and organic problems largely of their own creation.

Going one step further, O'Bannon's "Alien" concept worked so well partly because it left much of the explanation up to the imagination of the viewer. In the same tradition, "Prometheus" relies on running and gunning, seriously intense body horror and breathless dialogue about religious fate even more than on the modicum of discussion about what's actually going on.

By the time a large, tentacled creature has wrapped its tendrils around the neck of an equally menacing foe, logic has given way to intense immersion. Once the monstrosities take over, the characters' entanglement calls to mind something out of Andrzej Zulawski's "Possession," in which the creature features purely represent a frantic state of mind. As the robotic Fassbender deadpans when one of the scientists insists on uncovering the aliens' motives, "The answer is irrelevant." Indeed. As with Lindelof's "Lost," the fun lies in the chaos of the moment.

"Beyond the Black Rainbow."

This has been a terrific summer for science fiction to rediscover its roots on a small scale. Panos Cosmatos' supremely trippy "Beyond the Black Rainbow," now in limited release, resurrects the iconography of "Alien"-era science fiction while pushing it to a wholly abstract arena of sights and sounds that put it in league with "Eraserhead" in terms of midnight movie excess. "Safety Not Guaranteed," opening this Friday, uses time travel to instigate a charming romantic comedy about regret. Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo's "Extraterrestrial," opening next week in New York and also hitting VOD, similarly uses minimal science fiction components -- a UFO hovering over a barren town -- to set in motion the relationships between a quartet of characters crammed in an apartment for the majority of its runtime.

In each case, plot specifics form only one part of the story. So it goes with "Prometheus," as well. The movie only makes enough sense to keep barreling forward to a thrilling climax, and then it closes the loop with a final nod to its precedent (no specific spoilers, but fans of a certain franchise should expect a climactic big reveal). "Prometheus" never transcends the boundaries of its narrative, but despite the alien setting, its familiar patterns have an oddly soothing effect.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? With Fox's carefully engineered marketing strategy still working its magic, "Prometheus" is set to open strong in wide release this weekend and become one of the summer's biggest box office hits.

14 Comments

  • Kenneth | August 21, 2012 6:40 PMReply

    Hello,

    Did we see the same film!!!!?

    It looked great but at that budget level it should do. Hell, my film would! The story was a mess; plus it had sloppy characterisation. My expectations were high for a contemplative, shocking, thought provoking film which I spent my £8 quid on. Instead I had a nice chance to catch up with some mates (we went as a group) and some poorly conceived film school effort. This film is one of the reasons I go less frequently to see big films – they are so poor and devoid of credible narrative drive.

    Kenneth
    UK
    …yeah, I could only wish to have 100th of that budget and my film would leave you very satisfied.

  • eutrophicated1 | July 12, 2012 3:03 AMReply

    The writers seemed to hate the characters they wrote about. because they made
    them do so many stupidly self-destructive things, I couldn't like them either.
    Any half decent Sci Fi writer would know: 1. You don't land your main source of
    transportation directly on an alien planet 2. And you don't land anything on an
    alien planet till you've done exhaustive remote surveys first.
    It looked as if the bankers who were backing the film didn't supply a good
    enough budget either; which is probably why there were no remote survey scenes,
    creative depictions of even simple life forms, or decent virtual views of
    planets from space. Another desert planet landscape. Please, no more of this stuff.

  • Carolus | June 18, 2012 7:45 PMReply

    Seriously guys, if you don't like sci-fi films, save your time and don't make any more stupid comments about Prometheus. Also, don't waste the time of its fans and next time don't waste your own money and words if you already know you are not going to like the film. Prometheus, will stand on its own as one of the greatest sci-fi films of the decade, whether you like it or not is not important.

  • Rohan | June 11, 2012 11:26 AMReply

    IndieWire.Com, please put this article back on the front page so it get the readers' attention again. Mainly because I want to add my opinion on the film a bit here, briefly actually and then I will also share a link, no direspect to this article, which I enjoyed reading the first time. After reading some of the comments here, and other movie--goers' comments regarding PROMETHEUS being boring, redundant and that their opinion is better than Ridley Scott is quite shocking. Why did you hate Prometheus? - Is it because it asks some important and burning questions that you cannot answer? - Or is it because today's film-goers are stuck in the corrider of straightforwardness? I do blame studios here, for bringing less films like PROMETHEUS, INCEPTION for film-goers, and when films like mentioned titles comes out, audiences and most critics, I have to add them as well here, bash the film because of its original concept and that it is not straightforward. My comment can get long, but I don't have the time now to type more. If you like to read my brief point of view on Prometheus, please give this link a visit (http://www.mastersofcinema.net/2012/06/point-of-view-prometheus/).

    Thank you

  • jim | June 11, 2012 4:14 AMReply

    Really boring movie. Another "Hugo", if you will. People want to be entertained when they go see a movie--on this point alone Prometheus fails miserably.

    The worst part of this movie is that the story is so stupid and riddled with plotholes that it insults your intelligence and just kills your suspension of disbelief.

    Ridley Scott hasn't made a good movie since Black Hawk Down. I think part of the problem is that he has not chosen good scripts lately. Visually, Ridley Scott is a genius but movie audiences want a story and characters they can relate to--Prometheus is such a huge disappointment in this respect. Nice visuals but no heart. Prometheus never connects with the audience at any point, and this is a real problem. Even the corny Dances with Smurfs by James Cameron was miles better than Prometheus because audiences could relate to some aspects of the story and characters.

    Honestly, since 1986's Aliens, there hasn't been a truly great sci-fi movie. Aliens just hit all the right buttons--great characters, great suspense and thrills, and great action. Who can forget Ripley in mum mode kicking the alien queen's ass? It just connects instantly with audiences--there was no need for tons of meaningless semi-mysterious dialogue like in Prometheus. Everyone understands how ferocious a mum can get when defending her child, people get this instantly. There is nothing like this in Prometheus, just emotionless dialogue and characters doing stupid irrational things.

    Wish that movie directors in general would study Aliens and get back to basics. Seriously folks, this is not rocket science--people just want to be entertained. If you're going to spend hundreds of millions on a movie, (1)don't insult the audience's intelligence and (2)make sure the movie is entertaining. Look at Avengers 2012, not a classic by any means but entertaining and it cleaned out at the box-office.

    Heck, even The Artist 2011 was way more entertaining than Prometheus--and it was made on a $15 million budget in black and white! If Blade Runner 2 is going to be more drivel like Prometheus, seriously Scott--don't bother.

    The best science fiction movie in the past 3 years remains District 9--made on a small budget yet was superbly entertaining and thought-provoking. Even "Moon" by Duncan Jones (another sci-fi movie made on a small budget) kicks Prometheus' ass bigtime.

  • SaneMovieGoer | June 7, 2012 6:04 AMReply

    What? This movie was TERRIBLE! I hate that pure nostalgia and Ridley Scott's patented visual effects that give a nod to his great Alien franchise will invoke so many people to pretend that this was a good movie! Take away the glitz, glamour, and HYPE and this is a B movie barely deserving to appear on the Sci-fi channel. Someone should tell Mr. Scott that he's not making a motion painting where visuals are all that matter but that he's making a movie that needs something resembling a story... They fly half a billion miles and spend a trillion dollars because they found some cave drawings that seem to match a distant solar system? (Okay, heck of a leap already but it's a movie I'll let it go) Then, they make a RANDOM assumption that they are our creators and when asked why, she literally shrugs and says "because that's what I believe". THAT'S WHAT FUELS THE WHOLE FREAKING STORY! Leading the biggest expedition in the history of mankind based on nothing more than one woman's whim? Okay. Fine. Movie could still redeem itself. Except it proposes all these questions and NEVER answer any of them. It gets to the aliens, which one would think would be the redeeming part considering it's Ridley Scott, but instead you are left confused... There's a worm like creature that turns the guy into zombie... a little egg that begins to turn a guy into an alien called the Engineer (I think, not really explained), who has sex with a girl giving birth to a squid... a squid that becomes a gigantic version that subdues another engineer alien with the classic alien face-hugger method... which gives birth to the classic alien at the end of the movie. Sound stupid? It's because it is stupid. So please explain to me how this was a good movie beyond mere hype and nostalgia? Please?

  • Alan | June 8, 2012 3:38 AM

    But - as the marketing keeps telling us - Ridley Scott invented this world. Because Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett's original draft, David Giler and Walter Hill's revisions, Derek Vanlint's cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith's score, Michael Seymour and Roger Christian's production designs, the actors and H.R. Giger's creature designs had nothing to do with that film's success. I mean, Scott directed it and did a fine job, but the guy is not an auteur and the film's successes stem from a collaboration, not his own 'vision'.

  • SANEMOVIEGOERTOO | June 7, 2012 11:59 PM

    Couldn't agree more. I was just so utterly disappointed in this movie! It was the 'Happy Birthday David' and Guy Pearce 'Ted Talk' trailer that got me so amped for the entire premise that it hyped things way beyond what Scott could actually achieve. But the bullsh*t thing is that he doesn't even TRY address those big questions, or even create any intrigue. He just falls back on a bog-standard horror script set in space... with some filler about finding the genesis of humanity.

    Add to that the plethora of terrible performances (hold Fassbender and Rapace) and RIDICULOUS plot points and you have a film that does nothing but frustrates. I mean, I'm fine with glossing over minor incongruencies or taking a few liberties with a story to keep things ticking over but when the whole premise is shot down in the first few scenes it just doesn't make for happy viewing or any immersion in the story. Like, a company apparently spends 1 trillion dollars sending a expedition in search of what might be the birth of humanity (based on rock drawings) but the crew who are sent there wake up at their destination with no idea who anyone else is on the ship and asking "alright, what are we doing here? SEARCHING FOR OUR HUMAN ORIGINS!? Oh na fuck that! I came here for something else. To look at rocks or some shit." Nothing fits. And the animosity between all the characters on the ship is just totally unneeded.

    I could go on for hours about how disappointing this movie was but I will just hurt myself so... just do yourself a favor and don't go see this movie.

  • Alan | June 7, 2012 3:53 AMReply

    Oh, give me a break. This film is utter hypocrisy: Scott says it is, ahem, intelligent sci-fi, but resorts to cliches in its characters and situations. Shaw and Holloway are soooooooooo interesting because one is a believer and the other isn't and ... oh wait, that's it, huh? That's the depth of their relationship? Sean Harris is a very interesting actor, but you wouldn't know it from this film: the guy he plays only ever spouts inane, annoying cliches ("I like money"), and - instead of being the audience surrogate as intended - he becomes very annoying, very quickly. And I had to stop myself at laughing from the Vickers' revelation, which - like so many things in the script - has little-to-no influence on the rest of the film. (Same goes from some of Vicker and David's choices, which do not impact on the story at all). Frankly, Scott is like that ex who promises to change and that things will be different this time, but doesn't and then blames you for not understanding him.

  • Rohan | June 6, 2012 7:02 PMReply

    I find this review quite interesting, for it gives the film a chance and doesn't ruin the expectation for others. I am sure that I will enjoy the film. Afterall, it's Mr. Scott, who is on the director's chair here.

  • Paul | June 6, 2012 1:06 PMReply

    A very satisfying movie, seen it twice already and will be going back for thirds. Ridley innovated and didnt try to replicate, shrewd, clever and pays off in spades.

  • Simone | June 6, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    Glad you guys like it. I gave it a 4 out of 5 stars too. It didn't have the 'intense dreadful fear' of Alien, but it's a damn good film. I'm going to watch it for a second time this weekend!

  • TL | June 6, 2012 12:58 PMReply

    I've anticipated it for so long, but in the end, I was disappointed. Too flat and empty. I didn't care at all for Elizabeth Shaw's religious aspirations which is a huge conflict with Prometheus' mission. Too many plot loopholes and things that have no reason to happen. But, strangely, I was entertained. And agreed that performances were incredible (especially by Fassbender). I wrote this on my blog: http://bit.ly/KLbQHX

  • KRS | June 6, 2012 12:49 PMReply

    Not on par with "Alien" but more enjoyable than "Avatar."