Ridley Scott’s Prometheus seems to have been made as a kind of rebuke to those publications that attempt to distill their movie reviews down to simple letter grades. If I were forced, whether by a flamethrower-wielding Charlize Theron or an ooze-dripping alien parasite, to assign such a grade to Scott’s return to the universe he first explored in the original Alien, I would have to give it a middling mark: a C-plus, or if I were feeling generous a B-minus. But that sounds like a grade suitable to a so-so romantic comedy or a flabby superhero flick. Prometheus deserves better, and it deserves worse: This is a blockbuster that merits a flat-out A for some of its components, and something between a C and a D-minus for the rest.
The grade-A material starts with the concept, which takes the primal dread inherent in the Alien universe and blows it up to cosmic proportions. From its opening sequences, the arc of Prometheus offers a kind of pessimistic counterpoint to the “why are we here?” yearnings that animated Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life last year. Like that film, Scott’s traces mankind’s quest for understanding all the way back to the fire and ice of a primordial earth, opening his movie with shots of glaciers and rocks and rushing, seething water on an as-yet-lifeless planet. But in place of Malick’s hidden, inscrutable Jehovah, Prometheus gives us a towering, albino extraterrestial, who stands over the fjord, drinks some sort of potion, and lets his body fragment and dissolve, sowing the water with fragments of what will presumably become our own human DNA.
A few moments of screen time and untold millennia of history later, we meet our protagonists: two archaeologists, partners and perhaps lovers, whose excavations have revealed an image common to every ancient civilization, showing a titanic figure being worshiped by our ancestors even as he gestures toward a constellation in the sky. This constellation, inevitably, becomes the destination for an expedition — a purely scientific mission, insists the female archaeologist (Noomi Rapace), a missionary’s daughter who still wears her father’s cross, but veterans of the Alien franchise are well aware that the corporation paying for the ship and the crew may be inclined to disagree.
That crew includes Rapace’s cocksure partner (Logan Marshall-Green), the ship’s laid-back captain (Idris Elba), the corporation’s icy representative (Theron), and a gaggle of geologists, biologists, and mercenaries not long for this mortal coil. It also has an android, the silky David (Michael Fassbender), whose persona is modeled on Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence (thanks to repeat viewings of David Lean’s epic during the long space voyage) and whose formal obedience to his human makers masks obscure and possibly sinister motives.
Together, this cast — all of the performances, too, are A-grade — set out to explore the world they find awaiting them: a planet of vast, mausoleum-like structures, containing intimations, sculptural and holographic, of the ancient race of “engineers” that the company is seeking, but no sign (at least at first) of their actual flesh-and-blood existence. What does exist, in flesh and slime and acid, is Something Else, or maybe various Something Elses: not the familiar xenomorph of the original Alien, but what might be its evolutionary antecedents, which slither and burrow, impregnate and destroy — until slowly, slowly, it begins to dawn on our heroes that the makers they seek might not exactly be our friends.
This stew of myth and science, action and horror — Genesis and Darwin, Chariots of the Gods and H. P. Lovecraft, Rosemary’s Baby and, well, Alien — is the stuff of which great pop blockbusters are made, and with Scott behind the camera you know the movie will have the visual style to live up to these aspirations.
What it lacks, though, is the script-doctoring necessary to make its story hold together. In part, Prometheus suffers from the horror-movie habit of featuring characters who behave so witlessly that the audience finds itself rooting for the monster instead. Elba’s pilot and Theron’s executive seem to be competing for an award for Most Oblivious Leadership of a Trillion-Dollar Mission to an Extremely Dangerous Planet. Their alien-fodder subordinates switch from blind, existential terror to “Hey, there’s a cute little snake” idiocy the instant the plot demands it. The movie’s most horrifying/riveting scene, in which a character performs emergency self-surgery to remove a creature gestating beneath her flesh, is followed by an unintentionally comic coda in which that same character staggers through the ship, bloodied and stomach-stapled, and nobody seems to care or even notice.
This is the kind of lazy writing that’s forgivable in a low-budget slasher film, but not in a movie with Prometheus’s ambitions. But worse than the laziness problem is the Lindelof problem. Scott’s movie shares a writer, Damon Lindelof, with ABC’s famous plane-crash serial, Lost, and this presumably explains why it shares that show’s infuriating habit of featuring plot twists and plot devices that cry out for an explanation, and then resolutely refusing to explain them.
The overall design is somewhat clearer in Prometheus than it ever was on Lost, mercifully. But the narrative blueprint still includes far too many blind alleys and bridges to nowhere. From the meaning of the pictograms that set the movie in motion, to David the android’s various maneuverings and double-crosses, to the hinted-at connection between the film’s finale and the plot of the original Alien, the story presents tease after tease without offering a payoff.
The final tease is the suggestion of a sequel. The best material in Prometheus is certainly powerful enough to justify one. But the worst aspects of the movie suggest that any follow-up will be just as flawed, and just as ultimately frustrating.