Saturday 9 June 2012


2089. During an archaeological dig on the Isle of Skye, scientists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, prominently showing a star pattern in the sky. This same pattern can be found in cave paintings, stone carvings and other artifacts from ancient civilisations that never had any connection with one another. Shaw and Holloway, who believe that humanity was created by another species, convince Peter Weyland, one of the richest people in the world, to fund an expedition to the star system indicated by the pattern.

Christmas, 2093. The interstellar exploration vessel Prometheus arrives at LV-223, a moon circling a giant ringed planet. The crew discover a series of vast, artificial structures and begin an exploration, hoping to find evidence of humanity's creators. Initial findings suggest that the inhabitants of the planet are long dead...until the deaths begin.

Prometheus is a quasi-prequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 classic, Alien. It's set in the same universe and concerns itself with one element from the other films, most notably the origin and identity of the dead 'space jockey' creature found in the first movie. However, contrary to expectations, it's not a direct prequel. There's still a fairly substantial gap (of almost thirty years and several star systems) between the way things are left at the end of Prometheus and where they are at the start of Alien, to be filled in by sequels (if Prometheus is a financial success) or by the viewer's imagination (if it isn't). The distancing of Prometheus from the rest of the franchise allows it to be fully enjoyed without any foreknowledge of Alien, which is a good thing.

Prometheus is Ridley Scott's first foray into SF since 1982's Blade Runner and is also, easily, his best movie since Gladiator. Visually, the film is stunning, rich in detail and thoroughly impressive. Scott's directorial powers have not been diminished by age, with some brilliance evocations of landscape and atmosphere. Nor have his abilities with terror dimmed: there are some moments in the film which are genuinely stomach-clenching, including at least one moment which made the audience I was with react with audible horror (and caused several to walk out). It's also rare in being a movie where the 3D element is successfully integrated with the rest of the picture rather than being an ill-considered afterthought. The effects are, of course, awesome as well, all the more effective for so much being achieved practically rather than CGI. The use of actual, massive sets rather than CGI backdrops also immensely enriches the visual style of the film.

In terms of performances, clearly this was always going to work well: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron are all on top form, delivering convincing and impressive performances. Especially noteworthy are Rapace, our convincing main character, and Fassbender, whose portrayal of an android with ambiguous motivations provides much food for thought.

In terms of pacing, the first half or so of the film works well. We're rushed through early scene-setting scenes and get to LV-223 almost ridiculously fast, with lots of backstory being filled in through a mission briefing sequence. This works well and gets us to the action quickly. Lots of odd elements are established early on (what is David doing in that secret chamber on the ship?) and developed in an interesting manner, with some intelligent foreshadowing of a later plot twist. Initial explorations of the alien planet are hampered by an awesome sequence in which the characters are caught up in a silica dust storm, which may be the film's most impressive visual moment (a later 3D holomap sequence is also up there in quality).

Then, of course, the movie starts to falter. The film's biggest problem is that it is forced to resort to 'movie logic' to keep the story on track. Having the alien planet reconnoitred by probes before Prometheus lands, or having the robotic sphere-things zipping around inside whilst the humans watch from a distance, would be far more logical and convincing than everyone just bundling inside the structure and running around like headless chickens, getting separated, disappearing, killed etc. For a bunch of scientists these guys are pretty inept. Shaw and Holloway's theories about humans being the result of alien genetic engineering are never backed up by evidence (when asked about how her theory is disproved by evolution, Shaw's answer is a moronic, "I choose to believe,") and no-one in the movie has ever heard of quarantine or slow, methodical investigations. There's too much reliance on short decontamination sequences which, predictably, end up not working, allowing mayhem to erupt.

Major characters are also apparently capable of running around and engaging in severe physical exertion minutes after undergoing major and traumatic surgery of the sort that most people would take months to recover from. The less said about the final 'confrontation' in the alien vessel's control centre (in which quite a few of our characters appear to have had full lobotomies) the better, and the musical score is also severely annoying. In some moments, it's okay, but in too many others the overwhelming bombast of the music is tonally inappropriate (I had to double-check to make sure it wasn't the guy who does Doctor Who's music).

There is much to enjoy about Prometheus. It's the best film in the Aliens universe to be released for more than twenty-five years, which is in itself an impressive achievement. It's visually stunning. The performances are excellent. The humanoid alien species (aka 'space jockeys' in the franchise's parlance) are an interesting creation and you definitely end up wanting to know more about them. There's a great deal of backstory that's left undeveloped and it'll definitely be interesting to find out more about why these 'engineers' created humanity and then decided it was a mistake. It's also great to see an adult-oriented, adult-rated film with a big budget which genuinely unsettles and scares the audience. The ingredients are certainly present for something that could have been brilliant.

Instead, the film is sold short by lazy contrivance, dubious movie logic and some poor plotting. Little in the final quarter or so of the film makes sense, the result of it trying to do too much with too many characters in too short a running time (Idris Elba gets sold rather short, despite some excellent lines and moments).

Ultimately, Prometheus (***½) is an overwhelmingly impressive visual spectacle and an effective horror experience, definitely worthy of being seen on the big screen, which is undercut by some severe logic and scripting problems which disrupt the viewer's sense of disbelief. The movie is on general release right now.


Paul Weimer said...

I'm surprised that given the weaknesses, you gave it 3.5 stars, Adam.

I am not so kind and generous to the film, myself (just saw it a few hours ago)

Adam Whitehead said...

It's rare these days to encounter a movie that has this kind of craft put into the visuals and atmosphere, and particularly not into the scares. Seriously, the studio wanted this to be a PG-13 and Scott fought them tooth and nail to get an R, as it should be. They then thought the film would only take $30 million in the first weekend and it's on course for twice that. So Scott poking 'perceived studio wisdom' in the eye is quite satisfying :-)

The plot holes are a major problem, no doubt, but in the case of movies the visual impact and the quality of the acting (which I found to be very high in general) does count for a lot.

Brett said...

I found the movie dull, to be perfectly honest. It rushes to the planet so that we can get the movie going, and then slows down - at which point, you can guess how virtually everything is going to go down if you've ever seen an Alien franchise movie before. Even the acting couldn't save it, and I felt no emotional involvement in the story at all.

SunnyReads said...

Great review! I saw it today and am still unsure of exactly how I feel about the movie, but I think I'm leaning more towards "awesome" than not.

I also felt the music was odd in places, but mostly because it kept reminding me of Star Trek...

Iain said...

The c-section sequence is truly bonkers and horrifying. It reminded me of the birth of my son when I popped a look at proceedings. Needless to say I nearly fainted. Though he didnt look like a baby Cthulu.

I enjoyed the film but felt it was let down by the coda in the lifeboat. That felt like a sop to the studio/ fanboy community. I feel hopeful for any sequel.

Yohan said...

It is still up there with the best sci-fi movies to appear in the last few years, but did not live up to the hype or lineage.

There was something not quite right about the script and pacing. I blame Lindelof.

Also, what is up with the music score? The score was straight out of Saving Private Ryan or some other cheesy Spielberg production. Totally inappropriate for an epic sci-fi movie like this, and shows the poor judgement that Ridley Scott took with many elements of this film.

Felix said...

"Shaw and Holloway's theories about humans being the result of alien genetic engineering are never backed up by evidence (when asked about how her theory is disproved by evolution, Shaw's answer is a moronic, "I choose to believe,")"

Wouldn't it be kind of trite and uninteresting to say: "look, folks, this is how it really was"?
I mean the possibility acquires arguably more interest if it's left without a definite answer (or with more questions).

This guy likes the movie (there also seems to be a different interpretation of Shaw's character):

Wastrel said...

Damon Lindelof delivers a script with a terrible ending that doesn't make any sense?

Well colour me shocked, I say.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there will be a 'directors cut' that will flesh out the story better and fix various plot points. Kind of like Kingdom of Heaven. Scott just might have had too much film and had to make big cuts for the theatrical release.

Anonymous said...

"I blame Lindelof."

I saw this with my girlfriend todau and after it, I told her "the writer was one of the Lost guys" she said " aha! so obvious now that you say it!"

I understand leaving some stuff unexplained, especially in a SF movie like this but when Lindelof is involved I cant help but thinking he just writes anything he wants without worrying about explaining it later with logic (even movie logic).

I also didn't quite get what was so important about C. Theron's character being Weylnd's daughter, nor why writer kind of wanted audience to hate her..the scene where the last alive Engineer woke up felt beyond stupid, Shaw asking questions and Weyland trying to stop her like Engineer had a quote of words he is allowed to hear before he explodes or something..

Also I wished they had explained the connection between this and first Alien movie better, how those jar like things "evolved " into eggs if they ever did, or why the facehugger in the end was that big..maybe I'm just dumb.

Adam Whitehead said...

"Also I wished they had explained the connection between this and first Alien movie better, how those jar like things "evolved " into eggs if they ever did, or why the facehugger in the end was that big."

The theory I'm favouring now is that the Engineers regarded the xenomorph, which existed already, as a 'pure' entity of destruction, hence why they painted a mural of it. They had a stockpile of 'real' xenomorphs but lost them on the ship that crashed on LV-426 (the equivalent of a plane carrying nukes which crashes and you don't want to go down there in case you get fried by radiation/facehuggered to death), so had to fall back on their own genetically-engineered equivalent. This substance then went nuts and backfired, wiping everyone out.

The inefficient 'giant facehugger' creature, weird worm things etc are a result of the liquid trying to behave like the xenomorph life-cycle but malfunctioning, or at least that's how I took it. I liked a theory on a forum where someone suggested the black goo is the distilled essence of the xenos, so when Fifeld's corpse is infected with it, he starts behaving like a xeno, curling up in a weird ball and then jumping up the walls and killing everyone in sight.

Prankster said...

You're very kind, Adam. I don't think I've ever seen this big a disparity between the amazing, immersive world and visuals of a movie, and the utterly hackneyed script, which manages to be boring and unoriginal AND make absolutely no sense from one scene to the next. And yes, the flaws of Lost are manifest here times ten. Drew McWeeney at Hitfix has a great breakdown of just SOME of the nonsensical plot holes in this movie:

Honestly, if you were to read the script of this movie with no indication of who was making it, you'd think it was a crappy early-80s knock off of the original ALIEN, something from Golan-Globus maybe, not an expensive prestige movie from the director of the original.

Unknown said...

+1 to Prankster. I believe that with such amazing atmosphere, cast and budget, what the screenwriters did was no less than a crime against humanity (not to mention the weird giant dudes and the xenomorphs). What... the... hell...?! I will never understand this. The scripts are the cheapest part of any film!

messy said...

i haven't seen the movie, but maybe the "i choose to believe" comment is a reference to the same (equally moronic, in my opinion) statement made by people who believe in a god despite a lack of evidence of the existence of one.