The Common Good

Prometheus: Promises Much, But Fails To Deliver

It’s a little over 12 hours since I walked out of the movie theater, as the seemingly never-ending credits of Prometheus rolled behind me. It’s safe to say that I walked out of the theater in a very different mood than I had entered it. Three hours previously, I had butterflies in my stomach – the anticipation that I and my fellow late-night moviegoers exuded was palpable – we were all ready to witness something special. A master storyteller returning to, arguably his greatest work. 

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Michael Fassbender and Ridley Scott at Prometheus premiere. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

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It is 33 years since Sir Ridley Scott scared the wits out of filmgoers with his horror/sci-fi classic Alien. In Prometheus, he returns to the universe he created all those years ago, to the mysterious workings of the Weyland Corporation, and to deep space where, as we all know, “no one can hear you scream.”

At 12:01 this morning, I was ready to see a film that has been a decade in development, an epic piece of cinema that would tantalize everyone who loves the Alien franchise, and that would introduce a younger generation to one of the most feared cinematic monsters in history. Sadly, the film I was ready to see was not the one I saw.

Prometheus gives itself every opportunity to be a hugely successful film, both commercially and critically. Scott has the chance to explore both the origins of mankind – a search around which the plot of the movie centers – and the origins of his own creation in Alien. He has a chance to grab a hold of an audience and not let go, to have them on the edge of their seats, watching the film through their fingers in fear. He has the chance to utilize the awe-inspiring visual technology now at a filmmaker’s disposal to bring new worlds to life. But, as I left the movie theater, I felt that he had done none of these things. Not well, at least. 

With a script that does him no favors, Scott is faced with a number of characters who flit between feeling very one-dimensional and completely out of control. Despite a cast of incredibly talented actors (including the original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace; Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Michael Fassbender), the dialogue feels forced and at points contrived. For a film that is about seeking the truth of the origins of mankind, not one of the characters seems to have the ability to articulate profoundly why this is so important. 

Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, one of the archaeologists who believes they have found evidence of mankind’s creators, is presented as a devout Christian seeking answers, while her professional and romantic partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) contrasts in the role of the ‘rational’ scientist. The rest of the characters make the trip for less honorable or profound purposes – for most of the crew, it’s a matter of financial interest (a clear throwback to the opening scenes of Alien). 

When it comes to keeping filmgoers on the edge of their seats, Ridley Scott is something of a master. Whether it is Blade Runner, Gladiator, Alien (or even Hannibal for that matter), he knows how to get the audiences’ hearts racing. And yet, for all its promise, Prometheus struggles to live up to this reputation. There are one or two scenes where we glimpse this magic – and one in particular (no, I’m not going to tell you when it happens!) – but for the most part, Prometheus is light on the scare factor. Those in the audience who were expecting ‘facehuggers’ and ‘chestbursters’ had their hopes teased, but ultimately were left feeling short-changed. 

For all I have said previously, I am not going to be asking the movie theater, or Sir Ridley, for my money back. Prometheus entertains, and provides enough references to the Alien mythology to keep a fan happy. Fassbender’s portrayal of David, the Weyland Corp android who takes care of the ship and its crew, is at many points mesmerizing. It’s made all the more impressive when you know that Fassbender took on many of the character traits of David as he prepared for the role – watching Lawrence of Arabia repeatedly, just as David does during the years of solitude he endures during the ships voyage across the universe. And yet, even Fassbender’s performance to some extent lacks the menace and darkness that it really requires. It is his character — the only crewmember who is not human — that you feel warmest to by the end.

Perhaps I made a mistake in re-watching Alien just a few days before Prometheus. Perhaps I was guilty of measuring up two films that really shouldn’t be compared. Alien is a horror movie — its purpose to scare you into submission, so that by the end of the two hours, even the bravest or filmgoers is cowering in the fetal position in the seat. Prometheus is not a horror movie. It sits right in the middle of the sci-fi genre, a film that asks the same questions as any television show or movie in that field – who are we and where did we come from? And I could have got on board with that if those questions had been asked (and answered) well. 

There is no question to which the answer is lusted over more than that of ‘where do we come from?’ But Prometheus struggles to escape from the shadows of its own origin within the Alien mythology. It does not command a strong enough plot to carve out its own place in the mythology, and does not deliver a high enough body count or enough ‘scream-out-loud’ moments to top what has come before it. 

Go and see it, by all means – it will entertain. But promise me one thing – after you see Prometheus, go home and watch Alien. Even if you do so from behind the couch.

Jack Palmer is Communications Associate for Sojourners. Follow him on Twitter @jackpalmer88.

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