The start of Prometheus is absolutely stunning. As we glide over a primordial landscape (shot in Iceland), deep sounding horns are playing noble music. The scene exhales a sense of significance akin to something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are at the start of time, and a circular space ship hangs ominously over a powerful waterfall. This fantastic image could have been an inspiration for the visuals of Arrival (2016). An alien reminiscent of a Roman statue drinks a potion and dissolves in the water, most likely seeding the Earth with its DNA.
Not only is it a great scene that imprints itself into the memory, it is also a promise that the film we are about to see is epic and profound. Alas. It has the look, but the story is messy, full on confusing turns, jumbled backstory, needless complication and characters making dumb decisions. But my, does it look epic.
The story is much more like a soft reboot than a prequel or sequel to the Alien films from the 80s. Just like Star Wars: The Force Awakens reminded so many of 1977 Star Wars story, Prometheus follows the beats of the first Alien film very closely. Presumably, Ridley Scott wants to remind his audience of that first feeling of frisson that the first Alien film gave them and play it safe. Also, Prometheus gets to retread that satisfying road of exploring giant alien structures and building up tension. It all looks great. Also, David the robot (Michael Fassbender) is there with his uncanny behavior. Fassbender talks just like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And so, in the first hour, the audience is firmly put at ease that they are watching an epic story that is going to deliver what they were hoping for. Only afterwards does Scott start to mess around with backstory and characters and things start to get confusing. There is one basic difference between Alien and Prometheus though, and that is while Alien was about people being hunted by a terrifying monster, Prometheus is more straight up biological horror. Of course, Alien is known for its sexual horror, since the monster attacks humans through penetration, insemination, procreation and so on. Prometheus is much more about infection and not about being hunted.
Actually, after only half an hour the team that is investigating a giant alien building is already showing signs of tiring incompetence. They are rash, needlessly confrontational and follow no protocols. Nobody is on the same line regarding goals and expectations. What is wrong with these people? I know that conflict is supposed to generate tension in stories, but when people are behaving stupidly, it generates something quite different: frustration.
Prometheus is very impressive when it comes to atmosphere. It’s beautifully shot; the production design and creature effects are great. Especially tense is that surgery scene. But some characters are really, well, wrongly selected for this mission, and raise a lot of frustration. Neither did I like Guy Pearce in his unconvincing make-up and Charlize Theron as the icy, cruel blond board member of Wayland enterprises. It is a role that Theron is filling in more and more often in Hollywood, most recently in The Fast and the Furious 8, and that’s a shame because she has much more to offer as an actress.
The main problem is that I didn’t care about them. I also didn’t care about the occasional confused rambling about science and religion. Mr. Wayland (Pearce) keeps on asking questions that sound profound, but make little sense. These aliens have created us through biological science, and Wayland and the scientists keep asking “what they are” and want to “find the answers”, because Ridley Scott interprets this discovery as something about gods and belief, but it sounds as if everyone in this movie is chasing some ill-defined esoteric question that the story never really clarifies for us. All in all, Prometheus is a mixed bag. It is easy to mock, but I feel sad mocking it.