I kind of want to subtitle this review The Perils of Over-Anticipating a New Movie.
Because Prometheus is probably my most anticipated movie of 2012, just a smidgen ahead of The Avengers. Basically Ridley Scott returns to science fiction and the Alien universe. Wow. Can’t loose.
Early on the filmmakers were at pains to say that the movie was not an Alien movie, and they made that clear by putting no Alien words in the title or on the poster.
But still, a little part of me whispered, it’s in the Alien universe. It’s Ridley Scott returning to science fiction, a mission of exploration going wrong, the tension ratcheting up, surely some Ripley-style action at the end.
Also I had some concerns that the trailers revealed a bit too much of the story.
So, that’s the background of my mindset going in, now on to the movie. There will be some spoilers in the next few paragraphs.
The movie starts with a sort of prologue featuring a tall humanoid dude on what I assume was long ago Earth. Then we jump to 2089 and join scientist Elizabeth Shaw finding a 35,000 year old cave painting (as seen in the trailer). This discovery leads to a 2093 space mission on the titular Prometheus.
Inside the entire crew are in hibernation while android David passes the time on the two year voyage. He is of course played by Michael Fassbender who is probably the most memorable thing in the movie. His Lawrence of Arabia obsessed David is wonderfully creepy with just the right amount of artificiality in his mannerisms and speech patterns. We get an early hint of his trustworthiness as we see him eavesdrop on a crew member’s dreams.
We also get our first real look at the interiors of the ship and I was very pleased to see Nostromo-style corridor intersections and doorways. Looking good so far, I’m thinking.
Once the ship arrives at its destination the crew members get revived and a busy scene around a dinner table provides a brief hint of Alien-style character interaction. But this only lasts a moment before The Plot curtails such distractions. A crew briefing (as seen in the trailer) reveals that the ship is on a mission to search for the origins of life on Earth.
Some of the scientists are called to meet the Wayland company’s Miss Vickers played by Charlize Theron, one of the other good things in the movie, I might add.
Here, I am sorry to say, there is an unfortunate exposition of Essential Plot Information along the lines of ‘Miss Vickers’ quarters can be jettisoned from the ship in the event of an emergency. And look over there at a high tech bit of medical equipment that can be programmed to operate on you. They made only twelve of them you know.’ In space you can hear the sound of clunky dialog.
After landing the crew investigate a hollow mountain where they find a Really Big Human Head in a room full of urns filled with gloopy black stuff (as seen in the trailer). There’s also a cool little bit with a grainy holographic replay of the tall alien dudes who it turns out are the ‘space jockey’ aliens from the first Alien movie. A head of one such alien is brought back to the ship. (There a lot of head imagery going on in this movie. David eventually looses his as well.)
One of the scientist dudes is a bit downcast that all the tall humanoid aliens appear to be dead and he won’t get his questions answered. David asks him why mankind created androids like himself. ‘Because we could,’ comes the answer. ‘Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same answer from your creator?’ replies David.
The only other remotely interesting character is the ship’s captain played by Idris Elba who tries to do what he can with very little material. He tries to chat up the frosty Miss Vickers and gets nowhere until he delivers one of the movie’s best lines: ‘Are you a robot?’ he asks bluntly. The line works because it’s exactly what the audience has been thinking up to now and surprisingly it also does the trick as a successful chat-up line.
Without going into too much detail various crew members get infected by different stuff in different ways. It seems that searching for your origins is risky. Many crew members are dispatched in short order and you know what, I couldn’t even tell who they were, and I didn’t care because of that.
We eventually get to the climax of the movie and here I find myself describing stuff that should be spoilers but aren’t because they were included in the trailers. The horseshoe shaped alien ship is taking off, destination Earth, it’s cargo full of nasty, gloopy, genetically-engineered death. The only way to stop it is to ram the alien ship with the Prometheus. The alien ship crashes back to the surface spectacularly.
And its all. In. The trailer.
There a bit more story after that and then the movie kind of ends.
And I had been kind of enjoying it. There was much to like.
But I go back to what I said at the start. I was expecting some Alien-style suspense, even if there was no Alien. I was expecting the last fifteen minutes to be a master-class in rising tension as a Ripley-substitute (preferably Charlize Theron) races against time to avert disaster, or even just their own personal extinction. I realised later that I was hoping for something along the lines of those final sweaty, claustrophobic, noisy, music-less minutes on the Nostromo as Ripley races against time to shut off the self-destruct, with that Alien lurking somewhere in the shadows.
That’s where my expectations were wrong. This is no Alien movie. It’s not even an Alien-style suspense movie. It’s an occasionally thoughtful science fiction movie made by a skilled director and has some gloopy black stuff seeping out of alien urns. It’s like 2001: A Space Odyssey with more action and Michael Fassbender’s David playing Hal.
So when the movie ended I was disappointed. The credits started rolling and I had the exact same feeling that I had in the same cinema 20 years ago as the end credits of Alien 3 started rolling. Something along the lines of ‘WTF?’
(As the years have passed I’ve learned to appreciate Alien 3 a lot more. Given its troubled production I think it is actually a decent movie and the longer work-print version is well worth watching if you’ve only seen the shorter theatrical version. The problem is that it should never have been marketed as summer blockbuster.)
Prometheus is by no means a bad movie. There’s a lot to enjoy and I’ve decided that I like Charlize Theron as she’s pretty. But my enjoyment was hampered by (a) unrealistic expectations, (b) a hope for more suspense, and (c) trailers that told too much of the story in advance. In time it may well grow on me, but right now I’m thinking ‘when does The Dark Knight open?’
Oh, on a final note, Guy Pierce plays the aged Weyland with lots of ‘old’ makeup on. I therefore expected him to get rejuvenated to a younger Guy Pierce at some point. But no, it didn’t happen. So why the hell have a younger actor playing a very old man with makeup? Why not just cast an old actor?
PS Please let me know your theories on the head imagery.