Published on June 21st, 2012 | by Jordan Petersen0
I’m a sucker for good sci-fi. A real sucker. I’ll grant that a whole lot of sci-fi movies are pretty bad. OK, really bad. But if a film can nail the sci-fi aspects, I’ll probably forgive some of its narrative flaws more liberally than I would if it was operating within a different genre. Perhaps this is a full disclosure thing, since I’m going to tell you that I really, really loved Prometheus. It was pretty much everything I was hoping for.
That said, it had some narrative flaws that were not insignificant. First of all, the characters were well-written enough that their (sometimes major) inconsistencies were quite frustrating. There were also too many people in this story or, more specifically, there were too many who seemed important, which occasionally undermined the ones we really needed to care about.
Thankfully, however, Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) was a splendid protagonist. Though also somewhat flawed from a writing standpoint, she exhibited a lot of power as a tough but vulnerable heroine and, surprisingly, a beautifully compelling advocate of faith. The latter point was an unexpected and lovely element in an otherwise dark and worried story.
The other weakness that should be noted was some plot confusion. To Ridley Scott’s credit, he was working with an immensely complex and ambitious script, but there were a few things that were tough to grasp, so that by the end, I had invested more of my interest in figuring things out, instead of worrying about the struggle of the characters. This was another problem significant enough to detract from the emotional payoff of the film as a whole.
On to the strengths — and they were many. This was epically gorgeous sci-fi in every detail, from the rich, forbidding alien world to the texturally familiar Prometheus (the space ship after which the film was named); from the quite believable futuristic human technology, to the strange and stunning alien technology. The total sum of experience was deeply immersive. This is a case in which tremendously talented production designers, set artists, visual effects supervisors and a host of other brilliant technicians got together under a director who knew his stuff, and laid flesh on a deeply meaningful and terribly difficult story. And all to breathtaking results.
That would have made for a pretty joyful experience, except that Prometheus also very much resides in the horror genre. And there were indeed some horrific moments, many of them incredibly squirm-inducing. Scott makes an enthusiastic return to his chest-popping days of yore. This time, though, a lot of stuff seems eager to get inside human bodies, rather than the other way around. Actually, yeah, the other way around too, as I think about it. This isn’t horror in the more traditional sense, in which dark things hide in dark corners. Here, the gross and terrible things are executed pretty frankly and openly. In that way, it’s perhaps a bit more like a war film.
But if shuddering and nausea were the primary point, it wouldn’t have succeeded in the way it does. What worked so well for Alien would not have worked here, because this film has loftier intent. The themes at work dig pretty deep and exhume some surprisingly resonant and disturbing ideas. This story and its characters are interested in creation, where we came from and why. And what they discover is arguably (definitely) much more disturbing than any of the “oh snap! look how that guy just died!” material. Even though that very material is fundamentally essential to the higher aims of the story, which is pretty cool.
Perhaps most remarkable of all are the notes of hope, affirmation and human striving on which the film ends. This, friends, is great sci-fi. And so, yes, I loved this film, which aspired for something uncommonly grand, and mostly got it right. ♦ ♦ ♦
UPDATE: Brandon Habermeyer, a brilliant film theorist, philosopher and very good friend of mine wrote a response to this film which kept me from posting this review until now, because when I read his thoughts, I felt there was no way I could say it better. So, instead of trying to suture his mental work and insight into my own words, I figured I might as well just link to his post. Here’s an excerpt (but read the whole thing here):
A film that raises more questions than answers should leave us pondering the questions…
Is this just more commentary on the promise and peril narrative concerning how we use agency? Is anything more celebrated and damned, cast as utopian and dystopian, than the rise of modern technology, or as the film suggests, modern “fire?”
Is this a commentary on false gods and modern wars and those who try and vainly apprehend a heavenly warrant for cruelty? Does it make sense that the Engineers would be offended by human weakness? Is it their inability to control the fire? Worship properly? What religious implications would this hold for intelligent beings who try and play God?
Jordan Petersen is SOUND’s resident sensei of all things movie-related. Recently graduated from Brigham Young University, he is now working towards a Master’s degree in film at Boston University. Check out Jordan’s filmmaking blog at twentyoneninety.blogspot.com.