'Prometheus' was titled as such in an attempt to move away from the 'Alien' series. A noble idea - to tell an original story set in the same universe, without relying on existing efforts. However, the result is frustratingly indecisive: it is too far from the brand to share its winning traits yet too close to be considered as anything other than 'Alien: Episode I'.
In 2089, Logan Marshall-Green and Noomi Rapace find a cave painting, and decide it must be an invitation from aliens. Guy Pearce (very rich but apparently not enough to afford passable old-man makeup) hires them to go into space, accompanied by an android Michael Fassbender, horrible boss Charlize Theron, cool pilot Idris Elba and other clichés. After discovering an abandoned alien structure (read: haunted house), bad things happen.
In an attempt at something more original than 'Alien'’s claustrophobic survival-horror, 'Prometheus' initially aims for wide-eyed sci-fi adventure. The production design is marvellous and the visuals are stunning, a little reminiscent of '2001: A Space Odyssey'. It’s an intellectually solid start, which raises interesting questions about humanity's faith, purpose and origin.
But these questions are not properly addressed. The narrative loses focus and instead gains characters. Most of them are entirely pointless; all of them are underdeveloped. There is rarely a sense of cause, and the characters switch between wasting screen time and making inexplicable decisions.
The film ends up being thought provoking for the wrong reasons. It’s not clever or coherent enough to offer multiple interpretations, à la Inception. Instead, people will find themselves asking what happened, or why a character does something. And most of the time the answer will be a simple one - because it was badly written.
Fassbender and Rapace suffer the most from this. Fassbender’s android is the most engaging character, but his actions lack motivation and end up falling on the wrong side of ambiguous. Rapace gives a good performance, but she is undermined when her characterisation is abandoned and she ends up as Sigourney Weaver-lite. Things unravel very quickly. Supposedly smart characters do alarmingly idiotic things, which is usually a lazy way of switching to Alien mode.
When the film embraces its roots and turns to horror, it does so effectively — and the stupidity that usually comes before is quickly forgotten. The set pieces are classic 'Alien' fare: tense, gruesome and horrific. These are some of the strongest and most immersive moments of the film. Unfortunately, they only account for about a quarter of 'Prometheus'.
The rest of the time is spent working out what the film is trying to be. Ridley Scott tries to tackle space exploration, the origins of Man, the existence of God, the scientists’ relationships, the robot’s attitude towards humans, slimy alien deaths and the mystery of the haunted house. This proves overambitious - there are too many ingredients, all of which end up undercooked.
It feels as though there is enough material for another two hours. There will probably be an extended director’s cut, as is tradition with Ridley Scott. It will most likely be an improvement and make more sense. But it is not fair to expect audiences to pay extra for answers, particularly when it should make sense in the first place. Perhaps Scott just needs to learn the meaning of ‘concise’.
'Prometheus' is not so much a bad film as it is a missed opportunity. It has the makings of an enjoyable sci-fi adventure, but all too often it becomes a disjointed, convoluted mess. 'Prometheus' is still a memorable and effective experience, despite its flaws. Just mind your step around the gaping plot holes. Or wait for the director’s cut.
'Prometheus' is out on wide release across UK cinemas now.