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Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus': The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Well, “Prometheus” is in theaters. And if nothing else, it’s been causing more furious debate — in multiplex lobbies, in bars, online — than most movies in recent memory. And The Playlist head office has been a war zone, with some loving the film, some loathing it, and some (like our review) falling somewhere in the middle. Name-calling and threats of physical violence have ensued.

For all its flaws, the film is a fascinating one, whether you love it or loathe it, with enough ideas and plot holes to ensure that it’ll be talked about for some time to come. With the movie now screening around the world and drawing pretty substantial crowds, we wanted to dig in a little deeper, so we’ve drawn up a list of the good, bad and ugly aspects of Ridley Scott‘s sci-fi epic. Check it out below, and if you haven’t seen it yet, stay away: major spoilers lie ahead.

The Good

1. Michael Fassbender
It’s becoming something of a given that Michael Fassbender is the highlight of anything he’s in — the actor’s terrific performances in everything from “Inglourious Basterds” to “X-Men: First Class” have been some of the more indelible turns of the last few years. And while the actors are all doing their best with the material that they’ve been given and some make serious impressions — Idris Elba brings a lovely blue-collar charm to Captain Janek and Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green are an appealing lead duo — this is absolutely Fassbender’s show. David is by about a million miles the most interesting passenger on that boat, giving a multi-faceted, pristine, physical performance that melds Peter O’Toole, David Bowie and Rutger Hauer into something entirely new. Whereas other actors flounder with the script holes (Sean Harris is a great actor, for instance, and isn’t to blame for the fact that his character changes personality from scene to scene), Fassbender somehow uses them to his advantage, never quite letting on whether his David is faithful servant, malevolent mutineer, curious trickster, or something else entirely. And the answer is: all of the above. If nothing else, the examination of robo-life here bodes well for Scott’s “Blade Runner” sequel.

2. The visuals
Even if “Prometheus” sent you into a blind nerd rage, causing you to angrily snap your 3D glasses in half Lane Pryce-style, you have to begrudgingly admit that “Prometheus” is a genuine thing of beauty and wonder, filling you with honest-to-space-god awe instead of the empty golly-gee-whiz that usually accompanies most Hollywood behemoths. (When you’re watching “Battleship” and thinking of how complex the particle simulators must have been for all that debris, you know things are amiss.) From the outset, the scale and scope of “Prometheus” is overwhelming – not just in the prologue with its glacial IMAX-y photography of Iceland, but the sets inside the titular spaceship and the grungy caverns inside the “pyramid,” including the now-infamous room with the giant head and detailed murals (which include some familiar, xenomorphic shapes). Even during the movie’s most problematic stretch – its somewhat chaotic and unfocused third act – there are things to goggle at that push beyond mere spectacle, stuff like the collision between the ship and the Engineers’ crescent-shaped craft to creature designer Neville Page’s beautiful, aggressively sexualized monster. Scott is in “world builder” mode when he’s doing sci-fi, and the production design, costumes, and creature effects all add to this world (we loved, in particular, David’s opaque “dream goggles”). And Scott’s great eye for detail and spatial geography is enhanced, greatly, by its 3D presentation, which emphasizes depth and nuance instead of things flying at your face, working particularly well in sequences where the pyramid is being mapped by flying “pups,” and in the abortion scene, when you feel like you’re really trapped in that pod. It’s undeniably Scott’s most visually lush film in a while, something you kind of have to acknowledge even if you hated the film.     

3. It’s admirably progressive
For a giant summer sci-fi movie, “Prometheus” is packed with some pretty nifty ideas. Obviously there’s the huge, existential question at the heart of the film – where did we come from? It’s a question that seems to permeate the entire movie, whether it’s the pair of scientists searching for grand cosmic architects (one a believer, the other a skeptic), or the robot looking for his place in the world; powerful, thought-provoking stuff. And it’s sprinkled throughout the movie in varying layers – the Engineers’ initial attempt to destroy humanity happened 2,000 years ago, with some speculating that it could be linked to the crucifixion of Christ (something Scott has since confirmed was included in earlier script drafts, with JC turning out to be an Engineer). Even without Space Jockey Jesus, suggesting that our origins lie with something other than a Judaeo-Christian god is a pretty bold central theme for a summer blockbuster. The movie is progressive in other ways too, thanks mostly to its spiky gender politics, which culminate in an operatic manual abortion by our main character. That’s right: it’s a $150 million summer movie where you root for your main character to get an abortion. We can picture Fox News anchors sharpening their knives for the attack on Monday. (It goes along with the film’s overwhelmingly feminine tone/aesthetic, exemplified by its sleek, womanly spaceship and strong female characters — in addition to Noomi, there’s Charlize Theron’s icy corporate shill). And the monsters are aggressively sexualized in the most button-pushing way possible – from the worm-like monster that, when it attacks, simulates forced oral rape, to the giant beast at the end with orifices not unlike vaginas – it’s the stuff of Freudian nightmares. Even if you don’t like the movie, you have to give it props for being so damn outré.  

4. That surgery scene
“Prometheus” might be something of a mess as a whole, but there’s no denying that many, if not most, of the scenes are pretty damn entertaining when taken on their own (it’s just that they don’t make much sense when strung together). And arguably the film’s most unforgettable moment is the surgery scene, when Elizabeth Shaw realizes that she’s pregnant with the fast-growing child of herself and her mutated dead boyfriend (despite having seemingly been sterile before now), and takes the opposite route to “Juno” by trying to dispose of it as quickly as possible. This entails her hacking into Meredith’s medi-pod, getting it to slice open her belly, and remove what seems to be an angry squid from her womb. It’s a neat nod to the chestburster scene of the original, which also plays into very basic, universal fears going back to “Rosemary’s Baby” — I have a living thing growing inside me, what if it turns out to be something horrific? And Scott’s in top form when he shoots the scene — there can be no doubt that this was the one that landed the film the R-rating. There are issues with how it fits into the film around it — why does Kate Dickie‘s doctor not pursue her? Why does no one react to her afterwards? And why is it virtually never referred to for the rest of the film (we get that Shaw’s a steely heroine, but at least show that you remember that shit happening)? But as a sequence, it’s up there with anything else we’ll see in the summer.

5. The marketing
Maybe this is damning with faint praise, but Fox‘s marketing department definitely deserve a round of applause for this one. A dark, R-rated sci-fi horror film, without major A-list stars (Theron and Fassbender are names, but aren’t reliable box office gold), opening against an animated blockbuster taking up 3D screens, and for all intents and purposes an original idea (they could only make the “Alien” link by association, but then again, no “Alien” movie has grossed over $100 million before). But the campaign for “Prometheus” wasn’t just effective, it was mostly a pleasure to watch (with one major caveat, which we’ll explain later). Some of the best trailers of the year, and viral spots that actually extended the universe of the film, with top-notch production values and all the big names getting involved (it was, in the end, the only chance to see Guy Pearce under all the old age make-up). For the most part, it’s a textbook example of how to serve difficult material, and for all the film’s flaws, it’s hard to be too upset to see a film as ambitious and weird as this doing so well in the midst of summer, especially with films like “Dark Shadows” and “Battleship” tanking.

The Bad

1. It’s got a horrible, muddled script
It’s always tempting when a film doesn’t work to blame the writers, and there’s no way of telling which ideas Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof contributed, and no denying that either way, they were acting at the behest of Scott. But while we’re reluctant to point fingers, there’s no denying that the finished product of “Prometheus” is a mess, script-wise, and that most of the film’s crippling flaws come from that. While it raises intriguing ideas, they’re mostly underwritten, undefined and undercooked, confusing ambiguity with profundity in a way that’s undeniably reminiscent of the worst of Lindelof’s “Lost” (a show on which Lindelof recently said he had no real desire to explain the mythology of, which certainly carries over). The dialogue is pretty patchy throughout, character motivations are dictated by plot rather than human (or robot) behavior, and subplots stack up without really being followed through. But most crucially, there’s simply too many unanswered questions, and not in a “What’s that intriguing space jockey creature” from the original “Alien” kind of way, but in a “the filmmakers don’t care enough about this being coherent” kind of way. What exactly is David up to when he spikes Charlie’s drink with the black goo? Is the plan to smuggle back the alien life form in Shaw’s belly, as suggested by David when he tries to put her back to sleep? But how could he know that they’d have sex and conceive? And how did he know what effect the goo would have? And why isn’t this made clear? There’s a difference between building up a mystery and just being aggravatingly withholding, and all too often the “Prometheus” script ends up being the latter.

2. Third act turns into dumb action-adventure at the expense of the ideas
Only worsening the script problems is the way that the film abandons most of its thoughtfulness as it drops into the third act and becomes a dumb-as-a-rock sci-fi horror that feels like it could have been directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Throughout the film, there’s the sense that the spectacle is being shoe-horned in (what’s the point of the storm sequence, exactly, other than to provide a few money shots and to give a reason to separate Fifield and Millburn from the rest?). But it only gets worse in the third act, best demonstrated by the attack by a mutated Millburn on… well, some people we’ve never seen before, pretty much. There’s no stakes, because his victims are essentially strangers. It feels out of nowhere, because last time we saw the character, his helmet was melting over his face, which seemed to be the definitive end of him. It feels dumb of the characters to open the door with open arms to him, when they’ve already had to put down one mutant in the shape of Holloway. The make-up design makes him look like an extra from “Ghosts of Mars.” And the overwhelming feel is that it exists only because it’s been ten minutes since the last action scene. And it continues on — the confrontation with the Engineer is rushed, scrappy and vague, and while the spaceship collision is a nice hero moment for Idris Elba and his crew (and actually motivated by character and plot, for once), what follows is disappointing. Charlize Theron is kept alive for no reason (what was she going to do on the surface, exactly, except wait for die?) other than to be given one of the more unintentionally hilarious deaths in screen history, squished like an ant under the plummeting Engineer craft. And that the surviving Engineer (who’s survived… how, exactly?) then stalks Shaw, who he’s basically never met before… just to be a dick? It’s entirely possible to be a tentpole that deals with big ideas, but when the third act is as stupid as the one here, the spectacle and the food for thought simply cancel each other out.

3. It suffers from prequel syndrome
Here’s the thing about prequels: most of the time, we simply do not give a shit. We don’t really want to know how Anakin Skywalker went from annoying moppet to Darth Vader. We’re particularly uninterested in how Father Merrick first came across demons. And we have no desire to see how Robin Hood became Robin Hood in Scott’s last film, “Robin Hood.” They invariably hurt the mystique and integrity of the earlier films, and that’s certainly true here. Part of the reason that the Alien was so terrifying was that it embodied the unknowable — a seemingly impossible-looking creature that seemed to want nothing but to kill everything, that couldn’t be reasoned with. That was frightening. Knowing that it’s the grandchild of the girl with the dragon tattoo only lessens one of cinema’s most iconic monsters, rather than enriching it. Being a prequel also lessens the suspense; we know that there’s no chance that the engineer will make it to Earth with its payload of black goo urns, because we know from future Alien movies that Earth is still alive and kicking a hundred years into the future, so the outcome’s never in doubt.

4. Disappointing design of the Space Jockeys
For the most part, the design work is stunning (although again, the old prequel trick of more advanced technology in the ‘past’ is glossed over). But there’s one fairly major disappointment, which is the look of the Engineers themselves. Scott has been open that the question of the enormous, helmeted ‘space jockey’ scene in the original “Alien” provided inspiration for the new movie. And yet it’s hard not to be disappointed when those elephantine helmets come off to reveal… a giant, bald, albino Vin Diesel-looking motherfucker. We get that they should be vaguely humanoid if they sacrifice themselves to serve as our creators, as the opening scene suggests (although surely we should look exactly like them, if that’s the case?), but any hint of them being truly alien is lost, and sheer size aside, they’re not particularly menacing. Maybe they’d have served as a testosterone-y prequel to “Dark City,” but it’s hard not to feel deflated by the solution to that particular mystery.

5. The characters are almost all underdeveloped and/or extraneous
One of the benefits of the original film was that rich supporting cast, with a bevy of character actors like Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, they brought depth to the crew of the Nostromo. Here, despite a fine cast… not so much. Of the more notable figures (and there’s plenty of redshirts knocking around purely to get killed off late on), Sean Harris‘ Fifield, the world’s least likely geologist, is wildly inconsistent, Rafe Spall‘s Millburn is mainly kind of annoying (and never convincing as a scientist) and Kate Dickie‘s Ford has literally no characteristics of any kind. it doesn’t help that Scott’s eye for casting is off, particularly when it comes to nationality: why are Brits Idris Elba and Rafe Spall given ropey American accents, while American Patrick Wilson and Australian Guy Pearce dodgy British ones. Even Shaw herself goes from an English-accented child to a Swedish-accented adult). And what’s curious is how much even the bigger cast members seem adrift, in part because they’re often inessential to the story. Logan Marshall-Green is charismatic, but doesn’t have a lot to do before he gets mutated: we get that he’s arrogant, and disappointed that he doesn’t find what he’s looking for after two hours of looking around a cave, but there’s not much to the character beyond that. Charlize Theron‘s mostly given one note to play (other than her beguiling scene with Idris Elba, maybe our favorite one in the film), with a daddy-doesn’t-love me arc that’s obvious to even the dimmest audience member from the first reel. And just when Guy Pearce is revealed to be on the ship (and why exactly does he feel the need to hide? Dude’s a trillionaire, he can pretty much do what he wants on his ship, surely?), he’s quickly dispatched. And lord knows what Patrick Wilson’s doing in the film — we assuming there’s more on the cutting room floor, but even so, it’s the biggest waste of a good actor since Danny Huston stood around the background of “Clash of the Titans.”

The Ugly

1. The characters are all idiots
Reasonable, right-minded people go to museums and slowly walk through each room, reading the plaques on the wall, observing paintings, examining every detail. Casual laymen, we’re talking here. So it stands to reason that scientists on a new planet should have this curiosity amped to eleven, right? If that’s so, how come all of the scientists in “Prometheus” walk around like children at a Chuck E. Cheese’s? Let’s grab this, let’s squeeze that, oooh, what does that do? It’s hard to not watch “Prometheus” and spend 60 percent of the film’s runtime thinking, “Please put your helmet and/or mask back on.” As Charlize Theron’s Vickers explains, this is a trillion dollar expedition, so maybe a little caution should be considered. A biologist reaching out to a new lifeform is one thing, but a biologist who’s already run like a coward away from the possibility of alien life, reaching out to pet a cock monster with sharp fucking teeth deserves to die gruesomely. And there’s so much more beyond that. How does the geologist, the guy whose job it is to make the fucking cave map, get so badly lost? Why do they go back to the scariest room in the building to sleep out the night? Why does a conscientious captain like Idris Elba decide to go for a roll in the hay with ice queen Meredith Vickers after seeing a lifeform pop up in his maps? In fact, why doesn’t he try and talk Fifield and Millburn out of the cave, given he’s looking at a giant map? (And yeah, we’re aware of the storm, but he could have helped earlier. Also, that storm is such a terrible deus ex machina of a plot contrivance.) Why does Shaw react to her boyfriend’s death and having a squid cut out of her by putting a suit back on and going back into the cave of death? It’s behavior dictated entirely by what the writers need to move the plot forward rather than anything else, and it made us want to rip up the seats at the filmmakers’ sheer contempt for the audience.

2. Too much given away in marketing material
As strong as the marketing was, we started to suspect near the end that we’d basically already seen everything that the film had to offer. And indeed, we had: virtually everything from the Engineers to the deaths of several characters was featured in ads and trailers by the end. Particularly annoying was the extent to which the final takedown of the Engineer’s craft by the Prometheus was so prevalent in the advertising (right down to featuring on an international poster for the film), presumably because it was the biggest effects things-go-boom money shot they had. It’s of course possible to avoid trailers and TV spots (less so in our line of work), but still, placing that scene so front-and-center again drains the film of any suspense whatsoever. In an age when “The Avengers” and “The Hunger Games” become monster hits despite keeping much of their third acts under wraps, it’s hard not to feel a little dissatisfied when you can recreate most of the movie by reconstructing it from trailer footage.

3. The instantaneous transition of Rapace’s character to a blubbering wreck when children are mentioned
For all the provocative progressiveness of that abortion scene, and for Scott’s long-noted love of strong female characters, the maternal aspect of Elizabeth Shaw’s character still strikes a sour note. She’s a brilliant scientist, resourceful and ass-kicking under pressure, and seems to be in a true relationship of equals with Charlie Holloway. She even has an open-minded but firm religious streak that seemingly can’t be shaken even by the revelation that we’re created from alien lifeforms (Or can it? One brief scene aside, we don’t really get her reaction to the whole God-is-dead-and/or-wants-to-kill-us-all thing). But one mention of children, or the lack of them, and she’s reduced to a whimpering mess of tears. We get that the film is trying to talk about progeny and the birth/life cycle and all that, but it’s possible that an independent woman like Shaw had maybe just made the decision not to have kids, right? If you’re going to weaken your character into a caricature of women-are-there-to-have-children, at least get some drama out of it: you could have had a beat where Shaw finally gets what she’s always wanted, and is then forced to abort it. But like everything else in the film, it’s underdeveloped and rushed, the character simply carried along by the plot to the next set piece.

4. It’s pretty much all set-up for the sequel
One of the major plagues of the blockbuster tentpole these days is the desire to spend much of your film setting up further entries to come (“Iron Man 2” and “John Carter” being particularly egregious examples of late). Scott and co. have been clear that they’re planning for at least one more installment, but we dearly wish that the set-up wasn’t quite so cynical. Much of the pre-release hype revolved around the idea that the film was going to answer big questions: Where do we come from? Why we were created? But the film scarcely answers the how, and barely brushes on the why, preferring instead to hold real explanations — for who the Engineers are, why they created us, and why they seemingly wanted to destroy us, for a future installment where Shaw and David’s head journey to their homeworld. We’re not against leaving some doors as yet unexplored, but what you learn in “Prometheus” is fairly minimal (maybe it would help if the characters actually reacted to their discoveries by being anything other than blase about them), and it’s hard not to feel that the filmmakers have pulled a bait-and-switch. And that’s even ignoring the dreadful bait-and-switch coda with the baby alien, which played to audible groans at our screening.

5. Ridley Scott made “Alien,” but has he actually seen it?
There’s a school of thought that says that, as “Prometheus” is being described as an entirely separate entity to “Alien,” that a comparison between the two is unfair, and that the new film should be judged on its own back. There’s also a much larger school of thought, of which we’re proudly a part, that suggests that “Alien” is a much, much better fucking movie than “Prometheus.” Scott’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, playing down any parallels between his 1979 sophomore feature, and yet borrowing its structure and littering its spin-off with references to the original, not least that final coda. He was a hungry, lean young(ish) director when he made “Alien,” and the film was a tight, focused, terrifying and pure experience set around a rich world. Here, Scott’s trying to cram dozens of ideas into one film, many of which would be better suited to his “Blade Runner” sequel, and where “Alien” was like a shark, this is closer to the octopus-like monster that Shaw’s spawn grows into — messy, formless, limbs waving around in all directions. Perhaps Scott would have been well-served to rewatch his original before he started on this one? 

6. “Prometheus” Has Its Own Midichlorians
Despite the fact that Damon Lindelof says prequels are generally pretty dull because they simply tell the details to events we essentially already know (and he’s dead right), going as far as to take some knocks on George Lucas‘ “Star Wars” prequels, “Prometheus” has its own type of mystery-ruining Midichlorians — the microbal stuff that explains the Force in the ‘SW’ series and for many, totally destroyed the mysticism that surrounded the Jedis “religion,” i.e., it’s all a bunch of bacteria and not that special. While not the exact same thing, “Prometheus” does take away a lot of the mystery in “Alien” as well and shows the direct lineage to the alien birth. Alien goop is put into Charlie’s drink by the android David, he becomes infected, he has sex with the supposedly barren Elizabeth Shaw and their collective DNA mixed with this goop becomes a proto-alien baby. That proto-alien baby grows up (super fast) ingorges itself into one of the Engineers and voila, all those various DNAs mixed together equals the xenomorphs we love and adore. Sure, there’s still lots of questions left unanswered, but to say “Prometheus” isn’t really a direct prequel is kinda bogus (and yes, the events of both films take place on different planets, but c’mon, the outcome is the same — Aliens fucked up the Engineers and now you know how they were born).

— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, RP, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Simon Dang

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