Film Review – Prometheus
Early twentieth-century writer of the macabre H.P. Lovecraft once wrote: “Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos…” Lovecraft commonly revisited a particular, promethean theme—that knowledge is the path to demise. In the grand scheme of the universe he created, humans were nothing but an insignificant joke (or mistake) to our creators, the Old Ones. Humanity’s need to feel significant usually drives some scientist, or group of them, to seek out the mysterious clues left behind by these beings that created us, only to learn of our insignificance and, in turn, a dark horror that surrounds the truth.
Director Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction for the first time since 1982’s Blade Runner is in effect an H.P. Lovecraft story as more direct sci-fi. The film’s title is about as basic as you can get in drawing a correlation without stamping the words At The Mountains of Madness on it. Now that the film’s been released, we can see exactly what director Guillermo del Toro was talking about when he referred to it being a part of the demise of his own adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal story of scientists who find the remains of the beings who created us in caves in Antarctica.
In Scott’s Prometheus, scientists find what appears to be evidence of the beings that created us, and a map of the stars guiding them to where the beings are—an invitation, as one of the scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), says. Corporate business owner Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) takes it upon himself to fund the expedition, and several years later, Shaw, her boyfriend and fellow scientist Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green), and a moderate crew that includes an android named David (Michael Fassbender), the corporate liaison Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and the ship’s captain, Janek (Idris Elba), are on their way to a distant planet that possibly is where the beings who created us exist.
Engineers, as the beings are referred to by Shaw and Holloway, gave birth to our existence—or so that’s the theory. Hopefully by accepting what’s perceived as their invitation to us, answers to questions like “Why?” will be answered. However, much like that established Lovecraftian tradition, as the crew of Prometheus comes to find out, the answers to the questions they seek come with a price. Just as with the mythical hero who stole fire from the gods. Knowledge is condemnation.
When the crew of Prometheus arrives on the planet LV-223, they soon find that nothing is what they expected it to be. Several mountainous pyramids line up in a row across a valley, nestled between a mountain range. What lies in the pyramids is more of a mystery than any definitive answer to their questions, and the filmmakers, who treat the audience much like the characters of the movie, leave much to be pondered. It’s hard to say whether this approach to storytelling is more of hindrance or a benefit. On the one hand, it can leave the audience—once again, like the characters—frustrated at the lack of answers. But on the other hand, Scott and the screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, are attempting to treat their audience like thinking adults, and thus try to make up for the film’s lack of verbal answers by littering it with visual ones (albeit slight visual ones).
To the film’s discredit, much of the plot is driven by bad character choices. Some of these make little to no sense. In one scene, two of the film’s crew become lost when attempting to leave the first pyramid investigated. The path they took in was pretty straightforward and is emphasized when several minutes after the first two leave, the rest of the party hastily follows an order to beat an oncoming storm back to the ship. The mistake of getting lost is simply to set up a series of events that follow. This unfortunate plot device is relied on too heavily, and at times becomes even more frustrating for the viewer than the lack of answers in the wake of the slew of questions that arise.
The acting, for the most part, is on point. Michael Fassbender delivers a deliciously benign performance that borders on sociopathic, as the crew’s android accompaniment. His self-awareness of his lack of emotion becomes almost too much of a reason for him to be creepy and say foreboding things to the crew, though. I would offer that much of that is due to the script and not so much Fassbender’s performance. In fact, much of what does not work in Prometheus comes simply from the script. Spaihts, as stated in a May, 3 2012 interview with Forbes magazine, had a solid story developed about the origin of the film Alien‘s creature, the Xenomorph, alongside the human tale of the discovery of the origin of our species and the design for our demise. In the end it was re-written by television scribe Lindelof (Lost). Lindelof stated on the Kevin Pollack Chat Show in June 2011 that he did not want to write a script that would line up with the beginning of Scott’s Alien, and instead did his best to eliminate that factor. However, in doing so, Lindelof, being a serial story writer, has applied that same type of esthetic to this film. In the end, the movie presents far too many questions and not nearly enough answers; instead, it chooses a TV-style ending that promises what this story didn’t deliver in another installment. While that’s nice for television, where the promise of the next part comes in another week, as indicated by the preview at the end of each episode, it’s not what works for film.
While Prometheus suffers from its inability to be the self-contained yet mysterious story it could’ve been, that’s not to say what Scott and company have crafted isn’t an entertaining and thought-provoking film in its own right. It is. The attention to technical detail, combined with a haunting visual atmosphere and foreboding tone of dread, is a wonder in itself, and only serves to make the film more of what we once expected from Ridley Scott.
Final Grade: B+