Hello, person who still checks this site for some reason! I saw Prometheus, the
kinda-sorta maybe probably definite prequel to the Alien movies, last night, and have a bunch of thoughts on it!
If you want the super-short review: it was pretty good, but the details that comprise the plot don't hold up to much scrutiny. The atmosphere and effects are both very powerful and intriguing. It asks some big questions and doesn't answer them. if you liked any of the Alien movies and/or like monster-horror, it's definitely worth seeing.
Now that we got the short attention spanned people out of the way, let's proceed to a non-spoiler review, then a bit of spoiler-based babbling.
So, Prometheus. The basic idea is that this takes place in the same universe as Alien (and the rest of those films), but precedes them in time and isn't a literal prequel (it shares themes, visual style, and general sensibility with those movies, but it doesn't tell the story of a pre-teen Ripley, beating the crap out of high school bullies and cuddling her tiny kitten).
First, a pet peeve: I thought the design of this movie was really great. The general look of the ship and costuming really echoed Alien and its sequels well. But the technology seemed more advanced! This results from a) the better special effects available for movie-makers these days and b) the advanced technology we actually have today, which of course must seem to be surpassed (but a predecessor to) the technology depicted in any decent movie about the future. So it's understandable (and the other option - using technology that is consistent with Alien but looks worse than what we have today - would probably be more aggravating to much of the audience). But it's inconsistent! Not really a big deal, and what it really shows is that Alien was insufficiently forward-thinking, but it still bothered me. Anyway, on to the actual review.
Honestly, I thought this movie was as good as any of the official Alien flicks. It's somewhat less coherent - because it actually provides a lot more exposition which doesn't hold up when you really think about it - and it has too many characters for the audience to really care about anybody but the main characters. So that's how it's worse than Alien. The characters often act like morons, both in terms of being assholes to one another and in terms of making very bad decisions that often lead to their demise. That's how it's the same as Alien. But it explores a much bigger world (both literally and in terms of the scope of the various places where stuff happens), and shows us what to be scared of instead of letting dark shadows hide the mediocre effects. The effects are better and the story is more expansive. And there's not a single cat or child in peril to elicit cheap anxiety in the audience. That's how it's better than Alien.
But mostly, it's incredibly similar to its cinematic cousins. Humans rush into contact with an alien world they don't understand. They mess around without really thinking about it and an unknowable species makes them pay for their hubris. There's an android who may or may not have agency, and may or may not be a "good guy". In the end, a single trembling woman is all that stands between humanity's continued existence and its destruction. One difference is that it makes the themes and questions implicit in the Alien films a lot closer to explicit. The other difference is that it gives us a lot more information about every aspect of the formula, and much of that information isn't satisfying.
Both Ebert and Joey Comeau appear to consider Prometheus a masterpiece (or close to it). I don't agree. I think it's a very well-directed, very well-acted, and somewhat well-written film, and have no problem with the fact that it does not answer many of the questions it asks (including pretty much all of the big ones). The problem I do have with it is that some (most?) of the answers is does give are unsatisfying. I'm perfectly happy with handwavey "science" (there's some very laughable DNA-related stuff in here), but I am not happy with various sentient beings acting completely irrationally so we can proceed to the next scene in the outline. There's a lot of that in Prometheus.
Obviously these movies are all based on putting people in peril. And it's much easier to get the pieces into place if all of the characters are impetuous idiots who shoot first and ask questions later. But that's not plausible. And when everyone you see on screen acts like a moron it's hard to take seriously. With few exceptions, these are two-dimensional archetypes acting however they need to to move the plot along. It doesn't mean the movie isn't fun to watch, but it prevents the movie from transcending the horror genre. And to the extent that these characters' motivations and behavior are supposed to provide us with with an explanation for what's happening on screen, it can be pretty disappointing. Fortunately, although this means that we can't take a lot of plot points seriously, the larger questions asked by Prometheus transcend the individuals we follow around on screen.
Details that hint at the enormous forces that created us and whose influence still guides our lives are hugely powerful. The Matrix taught us that. But bigger revelations that seek to explain everything are hugely disappointing. The Matrix sequels taught us that. In the end, Prometheus was an enjoyable diversion, with powerful visuals and occasionally powerful characterization, but ultimately just confirmed what Alien and Aliens implied: the last thing we want is an explanation. In the end, the best thing about Prometheus is the same thing that's great about the Alien movies: it asks huge questions about life, consciousness, religion, and the purpose of our existence. And it doesn't come close to answering any of them!
To sum up: I'll take a flawed but ambitious action movie over a dumb, by-the-numbers action movie any day. Prometheus isn't a perfect film, but it is a worthy addition to the Alien series.
Spoiler section for people who've seen the movie after the jump!
As far as I can tell, this is supposed to be the first real evidence of alien life that humans have found. And it certainly appears to be the first time humans have actually interacted with alien lifeforms (or, at first, alien corpses/relics). So a) why didn't any of the crew seem to feel like merely finding proof of the Engineers was a big deal? And b) why were they in such a goddamn hurry to explore everything? This is a scientific expedition, for heaven's sake - and they spend the first 6 hours on the planet fucking around with everything they can get their filthy hands on. And then they seem to just conclude that this one lunar nipple constitutes the best place on the entire moon for their exploration. Why not spend some time checking out the rest of the place before you start poking at sweaty urns emitting an organic ichor?
Related: okay, so you can remove your helmets. Does that really mean you should? And even if an obviously reckless guy did so, does that really mean that everyone else in the group would do the same? Moreover, once it was obvious that basically the entire installation was trying to kill them all (including by shooting alien eel babies down their throats), would they seriously continue to take their helmets off??? I know movie audiences prefer to see faces but this really bothered me throughout the movie.
Pity Guy Pearce. He spent the whole movie in old man makeup. This made sense in one sense (he's playing an old man!) but was completely absurd in a much larger sense (just cast an old man, Ridley Scott!). It was also pretty unsatisfying that he spent all that money and shuffled all the way into the ship, just to exchange not a word with the Engineer (and then to get immediately killed). I liked the idea of this character and his motivations, but it really wasn't executed well at all.
While on the subject of acting, here's who did a good job: Fassbender was persuasively unreadable without being bland. (I didn't write anything about his character, David, because I really have no idea what to think about him - on the whole I think that's a good thing.) Charlize Theron was stoic for most of the movie but seemed like a fleshed-out character (two caveats: the "FATHER" reveal was cheesily written and cheesily performed, and whenever I see her in a nominally serious role I remember that she played a British "Mr. F" on Arrested Development). Idris Elba and his mustache were both terrific. Here's who did a bad job: the two main actors (Noomi Rapace and especially the guy who is not Tom Hardy), who were both super annoying - though a fair amount of that can be chalked up to mediocre writing. The Engineers weren't very expressive, were they? Seems like they just alternate between violent aggression and blank staring (kinda like the former Ron Artest).
Here's a big one. As the AV Club reviewer, Tasha Robinson, noted in her Spoiler Space review, it's kind of hilarious that Ridley Scott could have easily ended Prometheus in a way that led directly to Alien: "[H]aving nearly set up Alien, why have the giant alien get chest-bursted on the floor of Rapace’s shuttle, rather than returning to his pilot’s cradle, where the crew of the Nostromo found him, and sending off the warning message that brings them to his moon? It’s like Scott is torturing fans." Other than proving the truth of something he had already said (that this was not an Alien prequel), what is the point of this approach? It's all of a piece - the entire film seems to relish raising big questions and leading toward an answer, only to veer off and leave everything ineffable. And this actually seems like a pretty good thing to me. The movie's overarching message is that some things are (and should be!) unknowable. We may be better off not knowing the prosaic details of our origin. This is a great argument for the many questions that Prometheus leaves unanswered. And hilariously it may actually justify the many questions that Prometheus does answer - poorly. Were we happier when we thought that the "Space Jockey" was of a truly alien race, not human beings' weirdly-tall ancient creators/long-lost relatives wearing a spacesuit? Did we really need to know that they somehow piloted their interstellar ships with flutes and squishy buttons? Do we really want Ridley Scott to make a sequel that shows us the Engineers' homeworld? I hope we do, because according to this interview it certainly sounds like he's going to do it. (It also sounds like the Engineers were going to wipe humanity out because we crucified Jesus Christ - thankfully, that little tidbit didn't make it into the actual movie). It seems to me that the decision not to give the audience what it wants - a clear path from Prometheus to Alien - practically mandates that Ridley Scott walk away from the franchise before he screws it up any more. I'm thinking that the boatload of money this movie will make is going to lead Scott in another direction, though.