Warning – some spoilers ahead

Although I am not a diehard fan of the Alien franchise, I have been eagerly awaiting Ridley Scott’s prequel, Prometheus, since its phenomenal theatrical trailer hit the web a few months ago. And while in Prometheus there is some fun to be had, the film is sadly not quite up to the same standard.

I should probably mention here that I’ve never actually seen the original Alien. My exposure to the franchise has been limited to the James Cameron sequel, Aliens.  That being said, while there are doubtless some winks and nods I missed that will delight longtime fans, Prometheus is very much its own movie. In fact, no xenomorph appears on-screen until a haphazardly tagged on and very brief final scene. And with that we dive in.

As seems to be my habit, let’s start with what went wrong and work back around to what went well.

First off, the crew of the eponymous spaceship Prometheus has got to be one of the most ignorant, stupid, and ill prepared group of explorers in all of science fiction. The action of the film kicks off with two young archaeologists discovering cave paintings in Ireland. Apparently similar designs to these paintings have been found among the relics of several other ancient civilizations which had no connection to one another. These designs include a cluster of stars which, with modern technology (the film is set at the end of the 21st century) can now be located. So a few years after their discovery they’re off on a privately funded expedition to the stars. All the humans pass the two-year journey in stasis as an android watches the ship. Upon arrival at the planet the crew comes together for a meeting at which for the first time it is explained to everyone what they are there for. Yes, it’s every bit as odd as it sounds. You’d think they’d be doing research and preparation together for a couple of years before venturing forth to an alien world where, I might add, the archaeologists expect to meet a race of aliens who genetically engineered human life. I’m not quite sure why they think this is likely, but they do. So to recap so far: this is a crew of roughly 15-20 individuals (although more people seem to pop up as the movie progresses) who embark on a long and dangerous journey, most of whom without knowing why they are going, and the few who do fully expect to meet extraterrestrials whom, the little evidence there is to the contrary, they assume are benign and benevolent. So that’s the introductory stupidity.

But wait, there’s more!

So the Prometheus arrives at the planet, finds some evidence of intelligent life (big dome structures in a straight line), and sets down. Immediately, they suit up and go for a little adventure into the nearest one. They actually make a smart choice in sending out some scanners to map the interior of the structure, but then proceed forward recklessly. Eventually, two of the group get lost and separated from the rest, one of them a biologist. They stumble upon a bit of alien life. It’s a thing that behaves like a water snake and shows no reason to believe it’s not wild, but the biologist treats it like a teacup poodle. The snakelike thing proceeds to wrap itself up the biologist’s arm and constrict it until it breaks before strangling the man. I mean, did these people not take tools for this sort of thing? Or did they really expect that holding out one’s hand and cooing to a hostile animal was a good idea?

Yeah, so for those and other reasons the film is rather lacking in the brainpower department. And that’s my main complaint with Prometheus. It’s fun enough sci-fi, but I was oh-so-desperately hoping for some smart science fiction and instead I got stupid sci-fi. Fun. But Prometheus wants you to watch the pretty lights and action/thriller/horror stuff a lot more than it want you to think.

And sometimes that can be ok, but Prometheus gives mixed signals. For all the thrills it does provide, Prometheus is rather plodding a lot of the time. Some of this is so that it can give a halfhearted attempt at developing character relationships and philosophical questions. With regard to evolving character relationships, it fails rather wholesale. The whole movie really just takes place over a couple of days, so these people aren’t around each other long enough to change pre-existing bonds. Well, that and the fact that there are three or four different interests all vying with one another, so most of the characters can’t develop interesting relationships to the others around them.

Prometheus also tries to ask some very weighty existential questions, primarily through the interplay of the android played by Michael Fassbender and the rest of the Prometheus crew. He’s the human creation as the real humans supposedly seek their own creators. It’s got some potential, and Fassbender’s character gets some of the more meaningful lines in the film, but the plot just doesn’t allow for much more consideration than, “Hey, here’s something kind of interesting to think about if you find yourself alone with nothing to do.” The problem is magnified by the fact that it doesn’t do a very good job of asking the questions. Again, a function of the plot and a focus on making the film more summer cheese than worthy of Oscar consideration. Not necessarily a bad thing, but a choice that Ridley Scott and the producers seem to have made.

So what was good? Despite all of the above, I did enjoy Prometheus. Part of that is I’m just a fan of sci-fi, and it does the sci-fi stuff pretty well. There’s just something fun about the idea of going to a wholly alien world and finding  alien artifacts. The film does do a good job of linking the on-Earth archaeology that it opens with to the xeno-archaeology that dominates the rest of the film. A lot of the alien stuff that the film displayed was creative and interesting to watch in its own right, but like I said, I’m a fan of sci-fi so if those ideas aren’t your cup of tea, you might not find as much to like in Prometheus.

The music of the film was also a standout, the big sweeping main theme in particular. It felt at once perfectly appropriate to the movie and a bit of a throwback to cinema a generation ago. Which is, after all, when Alien was first released. The special effects work was impressive in much the same way. The vistas of the foreign planet were beautiful to behold, and both the Prometheus and the alien spacecraft were gorgeously detailed. In addition, while the characters didn’t have too much depth, the cast was large enough that they could be interesting on just one or two key elements.

A quick note on before the verdict: I saw Prometheus in 3D rather than standard projection. As I’ve written before, I’m not a big fan of 3D, but it managed not to be obnoxious. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, and there were a couple of points that I would have preferred the greater resolution that comes with a 2D projection, but it didn’t detract from the film overall.

The Verdict: 3 out of 5

Most of what Prometheus tries to be is just summer fun, and to the extent that I consider only that, it succeeds. But I had higher hopes for Prometheus, and it seems it had higher hopes for itself. While it’s a decent action/thriller, I think it had hopes of being provocative in the way perhaps similar to that of Inception a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, it never lives up to these lofty goals, as it succeeds in its action/horror sequences but falls significantly short in all the places that would have raised it to something more.