Dear Prometheus,

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.

Mournfully yours,

Brian J. Roan

6 comments on “Dear Prometheus,”

  1. Ric says:

    I lament this as the indication that Prometheus is a Scifi fans film and a franchise fans film and so to end its unfortunate that much of its power and relevancy will be lost on casual viewers. It’s brilliance lays not in what it shows you but what it hints at and lets you draw on for yourself.

    However, I am also a forgiving viewer and hardcore scifi fan that liked what was hinted at left up to my imagination.

    Unfortunately, that misstep at the end is nigh unforgivable.

  2. Fogsmoviereviews says:

    You’re in mourning now, huh? Ok. OTE is gonna be fun again this week then… 😀

    I was disappointed, as well, but there’s a lot of good in there to speak to as well.

  3. Dylan says:

    So what is this one idea that you feel became neglected? I can only assume it’s the overarching question posed by Shaw and Co., which is “Where did we come from?,” a question that is most definitely answered in the film. I’m not sure where the disconnect is there.

    I’m with Ric – mostly, though I disagree that this is some sort of niche film that will or should only appeal to a minority of viewers. It stands alone perfectly, and I wonder how it would have been received had it not been a part of the Alien world and didn’t feature that last scene. It didn’t need to be a part of the Alien series necessarily, but it is, and I felt it tied in beautifully and was never extraneously done so. But like I was saying – I agree with Ric that, much like LOST, its power comes from the unanswered questions rather than the answered ones.

    Mostly, I just don’t get where the feeling of bloat comes from. I never felt that it strayed from its core. There were certainly some avenues (or at least added time to certain scenes) that I would have enjoyed seeing played out a bit more, but given the already 2-hour run time, I’m not sure that they would have added much or been all that welcome in the end.

  4. Sam Fragoso says:

    I don’t mean to simplify the film to this, but I just didn’t find the picture interesting. It’s visually striking, though not necessarily made the amount of intellect everyone is giving it credit for. Asking “where did we come from?” isn’t enough to make a film poignant.

    To sort of counter Dylan, I didn’t get that “meaning and mystery” through perplexity. I tend to agree with films that leave question unanswered and plots unresolved, allowing the audience to elaborate upon their own personal response.

  5. Andrew Crump says:

    Interesting take, Brian– most of the criticism I’ve read of this film actually feels the opposite. It’s not that it has too many ideas, it’s that it has too little substance, i.e. those ideas aren’t expanded and explored enough.

    For my part, I agree, but I also think that the film gives us enough to fill in the blanks on our own through discourse and debate. Where Prometheus really screws the pooch in terms of thematic material, though, lies in Weyland. (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER). There’s literally no reason for him to feign death and reappear in the last act, and by doing so the movie robs itself of the key to the big “why” questions it poses; Weyland is kind of the ultimate creator in the film, the man responsible for David’s creation and Vickers’ literal birth. Why do we create? For functionality and for legacy. If that had been explored better, by keeping Weyland as a character in the film to interact with David and Vickers, I think understanding the Engineers’ motivations would have been much easier without having to spell them out (or even hint directly at them).

    I think the problem with asking “why” on this scale is that the answers are never going to be satisfactory to everybody. That’s a massive undertaking. So I don’t mind not getting an answer. But I mind that the movie short-changes itself so heavily on the script level.

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