Science fiction is perhaps the most fertile breeding ground for Big Ideas in all of cinema. The ability to expand and diminish worlds or problems with a flick of the speculative-technological wrist allows for the perfect pruning and cultivation of narratives suited to specific ideas. Concepts of immortality can be addressed via a future where cure-all medicines have ended disease. Humanity’s need for imperfection can be viewed through the lens of a genetically-engineered tomorrow. And of course, our place in the universe and the origins of our very genesis can be explored with galaxy spanning voyages in space ships filled with instruments that can perform any function they need to in order to expedite the progression of the plot and the ideas held within.
The unfortunate side effect of this simplicity of expansion is that it allows for a void to form, a void where other story concerns should be. So sooner or later, for a filmmaker ambitious and powerful enough, the impulse becomes to fill that void with more and more ideas. Unchecked, this surplus of concepts will create a choking effect, and the opportunities for exploration of a certain idea will become backlogged with more questions, more theses, and all room to breath or think will be lost.
This is the unfortunate eventuality that I believe was your undoing, Prometheus. You begin with such an engrossing kernel of an idea, but then expand it ever outward until the bounds of the narrative have far exceeded the meat of the story. Like transplanting a seedling too soon into too large of a pot, the roots of that first idea barely have time to take hold, and the enormity of the area around it ultimately leads to its death.
We begin with a scene of abstract and contemplative wonder, and then jump forward to a moment of discovery. In a remote cave in Scotland, two researchers find a pictogram that seems to point them into the stars, towards a place where our celestial ancestors dwelled – or perhaps still dwell. Thanks to the auspices of the Weyland Corporation, a team of researchers is sent out to discover just what it is we are being pointed toward in these ancient diagrams. Who were these people that created us, why did they do it, and why did they leave us behind for so long?
These are massive, heady ideas, and that you have the courage to ask them at all is a pretty welcome change from the usual mindlessness of the summer movie season. However, when the time comes to pile on clues to the main mystery, we are met instead with more questions and deeper mysteries that serve only to dilute and confuse the primary thesis. Suddenly we are wondering at the motivations of certain characters, the meaning behind certain artifacts, and the nature and properties of certain unexplained viscous fluids. Knowing that this story takes place in the same universe as Alien only serves to further muddy the waters, as we now have a specific idea of the biology and eventual outcome of certain other components of your tale.
Layering a narrative is one thing. It is quite another to bury an initial existential quandary beneath an ever-growing set of seemingly superfluous acts and ideas. Somewhere inside of your bloated, concept-rich story is a streamlined, spiritually terrifying yarn waiting to be unravelled. But the messiness of your execution of your endlessly inflating side stories smothers this potential.
Yet if you stumble under the burden of your various plots and ideas, at least the pitfalls are blunted somewhat by your stellar craft and execution. As any action/adventure film must, you have a succession of set pieces that are tense and exciting and spectacularly huge. You are a visually stimulating film, one that makes exemplary use of space and composition to tell a story visually. Of course this only further undermines your more cerebral aspects.
Similarly, your actors – seemingly far too many to recount in totality – bring to their roles all of the pathos and gravity that anyone could want. Noomi Rapace is the emotional and narrative center of your story as Dr. Shaw, who is driven to explore as a means of rewarding – or at least better defending – her faith. While not a standout, she ably carries the role, even in the more ridiculous moments towards the end.
Michael Fassbender, as the android David, is cold and mechanical, and yet edges toward the humanity one would hope to find in a being created to bridge the gap between tool and man. It is a testament to his power as an actor that even his more questionable actions seem natural to his character. In fact, if there were an aspect of your story that could or should have been expanded upon, it should have been David, and the nature of his personality and possible evolution as a being. Sadly, this idea is teased but never grown.
Charlize Theron is likewise powerful in her role, though her talents are ultimately wasted on a part that is underwritten and underserved for the eventual reveal it must support. She makes the only intelligent choices in your story, but is demonized for them.
So in the end, how could I sum up my feelings for you? I think, sadly, more than anything else, I’d define my lingering reaction to you as a sense of mourning. Mourning the film that you could have been, mourning the loss of that one idea that became neglected through your story and was ultimately still-born at your finale. Beneath the many shrouds of plot and half-baked intellectual posturing that you eventually cloaked yourself in were the bones of a leaner, meaner story. If only you’d had the conviction to better explore that one idea, rather than feeling the need to pad it with so many lesser musings.
Brian J. Roan