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!