This review contains no explicit narrative spoilers.
Prometheus is a hugely disappointing film on several levels. The first is in regards to its director Ridley Scott, never the most consistent filmmaker but one with an especially underwhelming track record since 2003’s pleasant Matchstick Men. Scott’s two legitimately stellar works, Alien and Blade Runner, were both science fiction efforts and his return to the genre after a 30 year break is not even half as successful as either of those films. The second source of disappointment is in regards to Prometheus as a prequel to Alien, being that, among its many expansions of that fictional universe, one narrative reveal towards its end effectively undoes one of the central appealing conceits of Scott’s original film: that theme of the Darwinian brand of survival of the fittest, revised in Prometheus by having knowing but elusive engineering bearing a primary influence. The third source of disappointment, and the most crucial, is that the film, regardless of its relation to its director’s filmography and an established fictional universe, is a wholly unsatisfying work in its own right.
A relevant source of comparison for Prometheus is the recent “premake” of The Thing. One of the key issues that film had was a slavish tendency to hit the same sort of story beats as John Carpenter’s version, even going so far as to have similar scenarios occur in the same sort of locations, despite its story taking place separately and prior to the earlier film. Prometheus is not quite as guilty an offender of this – there’s no blatant repeating of Alien scenes akin to The Thing 2011’s rec-room rampage redux – but for all its lofty ideas thrown around on basic levels, and even in the absence of the iconic xenomorph creatures, the film is so frequently prone to reviving the same old cat-and-mouse pursuit traits of the rest of the series. Regular franchise characteristics like company representatives with underwhelming agendas also pop up to distract further from any of the potentially interesting new ideas, but even when there are moments devoted to the big questions raised it all feels rather squandered.
For all of Scott’s usual reliability regarding pacing, atmosphere and world-building, the film is unusually impatient, busily rushing through its set-ups and never devoting enough time to fully realise any aspect in regards to themes, narrative or mood. When it delves into horror, there is little to no suspense because the film’s constant business and expository noise prevents any establishment of dread. Scott’s other consistent trait, his painterly compositions, are also lacking in abundance here. Some of the more interesting shots aren’t given much room to breathe, and the effect of the film’s admittedly impressive production design is diminished through repetition. The focus keeps switching back and forth between the same two confined locations in close proximity to each other, diminishing the sense of discovery and wonderment, fueling a feeling of insignificance through its awkward positioning between the claustrophobic and the epic; much of the film’s promotional material conveys more awe than the final product does.
That sense of insignificance is further enhanced by the film’s clear desire to continue into further releases. When the final act’s vague ideas are thrown around, they are not exhibited so as to be elusive in a way that promotes viewer interpretation; the film’s reliance on the haunted house formula doesn’t allow for that sort of thing. It is so that they can tease content for yet another prequel, a desire made explicitly clear in the film’s concluding scenes and in the ways its hints towards expanding on Alien’s various mysterious elements (like the space jockey in the chair) ultimately prove irrelevant; material saved for a follow-up feature. Free of consistently stellar aesthetics to boost it, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s really quite awful screenplay proves consistently unrewarding. An assortment of reliable actors (Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Sean Harris and Kate Dickie among them) are provided with either extremely under-realised parts or ones that are complete non-entities, and everyone is burdened with some frequently laughable exchanges; practically none of the actors come across well as a result.
Almost everyone registers as just cannon fodder or plot devices, with various motivations receiving a half-baked treatment and virtually no-one feeling recognisably human. Logan Marshall-Green’s character is especially guilty of the plot device treatment, and Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth’s progression feels entirely rooted in trying to echo the franchise’s previous human star. The sole aspect that proves consistently good throughout the film is Michael Fassbender’s David. While not exactly a wild deviation from the android characters of previous Alien films, his turn is at least multi-faceted, and his various obscurities don’t prove detrimental. Fassbender’s is the lone character that does not feel under-realised, and his scenes on his own are highlights. While not elevating the film’s worth, David, alongside a surgery sequence unrelated to him, at least provide some of the few moments in which Prometheus excels beyond frustratingly flat banality.