I recently read an article on Cracked about the way that many classic sci-fi and fantasy films disguise incredibly straight forward stories with amazing worlds. Take Avatar. The movie itself is incredibly straightforward. Many, many people have criticized the fact that it is essentially the same plot as Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves. But the world that Cameron creates is so cool that you don’t care. The point is not the plot, or even the characters.
Not all sci-fi and fantasy have this in common. Some build up expansive worlds and twisty plots, although most of those are books or TV shows (Game of Thrones is a great example of this). And some take a different root entirely, and are more interested in the thematic story they want to tell than in plot, character or world building. Prometheus falls into that last camp.
Prometheus is a visually stunning movie, with a clearly defined aesthetic and at least two fantastic lead performances. It also has an interesting thematic question as it probes the outcomes of one “meeting one’s maker.” What would it be like to meet the person who created you?
It’s a cool question. One could imagine a kick ass Phillip K. Dick story about it, or a really twisty classic Twilight Zone episode. Maybe even an interesting, if high-falluting Star Trek episode from the Next Generation era. The problem, in movie form, though, is that these kind of ideas-as-plot scripts require a careful dedication to the maintenance of world, character, and plot, even if you’re going to keep all three of those things ambiguous and/or subjugated to the necessities of theme. To put it bluntly, Prometheus isn’t smart enough to trick us into ignoring the giant, gaping flaws in its world and its characters in service of its themes.
In order to get at the questions that Prometheus wants to ask, it requires its characters to consistently act mind bogglingly stupid. Like the attractive leads in a horror film, characters regularly ignore logic (oh, that cobra looking alien creature that lives in a tomb with tons of dead aliens in it MUST be friendly), training, and basic motivations. This leads most of the main characters annoying plot movers, including the heart of the film, Elizabeth Shaw (played well, despite the material, by Noomi Rapace).
Two characters avoid the idiot trap, but are instead mired in the film’s patent refusal to provide answers to basic plot questions. In a better movie, this would play as the movie requiring the audience to do their part of the thinking. In this movie, it seems like no one actually knew the answers, and so they just hoped that throwing enough spiritual crap around it would make people not notice. These two characters are Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers and Michael Fassbender’s David. Vickers plays her cards close to the chest, and for the first half of the movie this seems intentional. You believe that there is something more behind her cold, calculating demeanor. But the movie doesn’t actually have that good a grip on her character, and her decisions in any given scene feel as though they’re cut from different movies.
Fassbender’s David is probably the best thing about the movie. Fassbender gives a nuanced, fascinating portrayal that hits on the movie’s key themes without seeming over bearing. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really know/care why he does what he does. The first David scene shows him filling time on the spaceship, playing one-man basketball, watching movies, and exploring the dreams of Elizabeth Shaw. It sets up a fascinating examination of what it means to be human. But then the movie loses that thread. David poisons the male lead, and we never really understand why. Again, it doesn’t feel like this is the result of a smart movie refusing to spell it out for the audience. Instead, it feels like the filmmaker’s just forgot.
When I walked out of Prometheus, surprisingly angry, I began to wonder if there was another, four hour version of the film that made perfect sense and really capitalized on all the cool ideas, fascinating visuals, and fantastic performances that it had at its disposal. Maybe, like Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner, we’ll get a Director’s Cut in a few years that addresses all of my problems with the movie. More likely, though, this is a result of a movie thinking that it can get away with crappy plotting and characterization as long as it “asks big questions,” regardless of its lack of answers or even intriguing dialogue to add to the conversation.
Prometheus takes its title from the myth of the Titan punished for bringing humanity fire. It tells the story of a race of creators punished for trying to end life. In between these two really cool ideas could have been a fantastic movie. Instead, it’s a visually stunning mess that suffers from an overabundance of ambition.
SIDE NOTE: As to the Alien connection, after the movie I felt incredibly annoyed at Ridley Scott’s continual coy hints that “it shares some of Aliens DNA,” mainly because that actually spells out the one legitimate surprise in the movie. But mostly, the movie neither takes away from nor adds to the Alien mythos.