You Can’t Always Get What You Want: A Review of Prometheus

I need to make a full disclosure of bias, something I wish more critics would do (armchair or otherwise; and yes, I realize I’m an armchair critic): I wanted Prometheus to be perfect. I am a deeply devoted fan of science fiction. I wish Hollywood would expend more effort on science fiction projects than they currently do (I also wish they’d find projects that are actually good, but that’s another matter). I wish audiences weren’t so lukewarm-to-possibly hostile of science fiction projects (I also wish they weren’t so anti-science, which I suspect contributes to lack of interest in science fiction, but that’s a whole other matter too). I saw Prometheus as a great hope for science fiction cinema, something that could possibly help fix these problems.

There’s more. I wanted the movie to be great because it was a “big ideas” movie; an epic about space exploration, possibly seeking to restore a sense of wonder that some claim has been drained from a lot of science fiction and fantasy; a Ridley Scott sci-fi picture; etc. Before I even saw the movie, I had a lot invested in it.

A lot of people have responded very passionately to the movie so far in the sci-fi community – some positively, some negatively. I think they’ve projected a lot onto the movie because of these desires and expectations, and when you project that much upon something, whether a movie, book, video game, or whatever else, it alters how you experience it, in a possibly unfair manner.

Thus, I made several conscious decisions about what to expect – or not expect – from the movie:

  1. I would not expect it to be another Alien universe movie. I wouldn’t expect it to follow the template established, then run into the ground, by the succession of Alien movies.
  2. I would expect it to be a flawed project, because quite honestly there is no such thing as a perfect product. Actual perfection is pretty much impossible. Even if a given story is utterly magnificent, there is always something, however small, that can be improved.
  3. I would treat it like any other movie I might watch, straining for objectivity, however impossible that may be. I would not make excuses for its greatness if it were in fact not good.

I saw the movie yesterday at my local cinema. I set my 3D glasses on and sat back, paying attention, delaying ultimate judgment until the very end.

NOTE: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS (for the next few paragraphs, at least…)

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would set Prometheus somewhere between 7 and 8. It’s not a perfect movie, not close to it. I do think it’s better than a lot of people are giving it credit for, though.

The spectacle of the movie is the biggest selling point, surprise surprise. Probably the best implementation of 3D I’ve seen yet in a live action movie. The visuals – by that I mean everything about the look and presentation of the movie: the set design, the cinematography, the artistic vision of the movie – do match the intended story, which I would best describe as an epic. The movie does a wonderful job of generating a sense of wonder at both the universe at large and the alien world that the characters explore.

My favorite parts of the movie were when the characters were just exploring the settings they encountered, finding new wrinkles in it along the way: the tomb/storage room with the black good canisters and the murals of the aliens and their monstrous counterparts; the holograms of the space jockeys racing away from unseen dangers, an instance of the past coming back to inform the present (and foreshadow what was to come); the cockpit of the alien cargo ship, with its immersive display of the universe and all the planets in it, with corresponding orbits. The look on David’s face when he activates that display and steps into it is exactly what I felt at that moment: wonder.It’s nice to see a movie, regardless of genre, that is so strongly about exploration, about finding new frontiers for ourselves, and then celebrates exploration in and of itself. Yes, almost all of the characters in the movie die/suffer horrible fates (pretty much all of them suffer somehow) on that planet, but I would argue their suffering is not due to their exploration per se.

I like the central story of the movie a lot: alien race creates humanity eons ago using black goo, which I took to be a kind of DNA-warper/evolution driver type of material; alien race matrons humanity in its emergent state, up to the point when we can paint their likenesses on cave walls and take them for gods; alien race suddenly vanishes and retreats to wherever the hell they came from; humans discover the cave paintings and such later, discovering the location of their precursors, and venture into space to meet them and get existential with it; humans find out their precursors aren’t gods so much as inscrutable beings with their own agenda, divorced from what humans want that agenda to be; horror ensues. That’s a pretty good spine for a story.

Much about the alien precursors and their motivations goes unanswered, even at the end of the movie. This has torqued a lot of people, who read this as inattention to a vital aspect of the movie, resulting in plot holes. I don’t see it that way. Clearly, they wanted to set up the sequel, where Shaw, the protagonist, and David’s android head go into space and find the homeworld of the precursors, presumably to shake a finger in their faces. I am a little miffed at the blatant sequel baiting there, but not enough to ruin the movie for me. Also, the writers of the movie have no problem with leaving questions unanswered (hello, Damon Lindelof).

I recognize the practical reasons they left those questions unanswered. At the same time, I actually used that lack of understanding as a thematic touchstone for the movie. These alien precursors, like I said, are utterly inscrutable. They’re supposed to be. They’re so far gone from humanity, even as they share our DNA (although it wouldn’t be a total match, like the movie says; if it was a total match, they would be us). I don’t understand their motives, but I don’t cite that as a flaw in the movie, just a means of realizing how “alien” the aliens really are.

The characters are a mixed bag. They’re not all that fleshed out, not even the main characters. Much is left up to the inate ability (or inability) of the actors and actresses to make their characters interesting. The four characters that fare best are Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the head explorer; David (Michael Fassbender), the ship’s robot butler; Vickers (Charlize Theron), the head management of the trip; and Janek (Idris Elba), the ship’s head pilot/captain. Shaw and Vickers are two-dimensional characters, with Janek possibly qualifying as two-dimensional.

The best of the characters by far is David, who basically owns the movie. He’s three-dimensional. His motives are unclear, though he possesses them. His actions do not follow a typical black-and-white morality, neither good nor evil. He does things that have horrible consequences – poisoning Shaw’s honey and fellow head explorer Holloway; lying to the crew about his boss’s presence on the ship; resurrecting the last living alien precursor on that planet (and possibly telling it to go nuts on everybody, which it does) – but not because he wants horrible things to happen.

As a protagonist, Shaw is likeable; she has a moral compass that makes her sympathetic, and I admired her gut-level survival instincts and resourcefulness. Nothing she did surprised me, though, and arguably her character didn’t grow over the course of the movie. It’s up for debate whether she actually needed to change, and I’ll leave some wiggle room there. The whole “science vs. faith” thing that the writers attempt to hang on her character actually feels shoehorned in without much justification. I think they could have done without it. The movie already does a good job of evoking questions of religiosity and science from the movement of the story alone; they didn’t need to try and make it more explicit.

Everyone else? They’re archetypes. Vickers is the stone-cold executive with secrets; Janek is the gruff, honorable captain; Holloway is mainly a foil for Shaw, as the resident devil-may-care skeptic. Everyone beyond them is cannon fodder/meat for the story. Your mileage will vary on this. I dislike allocating characters as cannon fodder, especially when they’re so easily identifiable (and you will spot the dead meat within minutes of seeing them). It feels like lazy writing.

The characters also sometimes exhibit a maddening trait of turning into idiots. For instance, when an alien cobra pops up and hisses at you, back the hell away from it. And when a giant, circular spacecraft has landed on its side and comes rolling after you, take a right-angle turn and keep running.

Sometimes the more horrific scenes aren’t integrated into the story in an organic manner. When Holloway has Vickers torch him because he’s infected with a horrid contagion, that works because it’s implied that the black goo has that ability and it’s established that David poisoned him with it to see what would happen. When the geologist comes back from the dead to attack the crew onboard the ship, it just feels wrong. It’s supposed to be a tense scene, but there’s no real build-up to it. It just happens. It feels like a beat the writers had to add to the story to give it more “action” and kill some of the extra cannon fodder.

The connections to the Alien movies also seem to dissatisfy a lot of people, mostly because they expected more on that front. I see it pretty plainly: the xenomorphs (the titular aliens of the franchise) are the offspring of the space jockeys, the black evolutionary goo, and the proto-facehugger “born” from Shaw halfway through the movie. Assumedly, from there the xenomorphs evolved in multiple locations under similar conditions and proceeded to wreak havoc. That’s fine by me.


The movie is worth seeing. There’s a great imagination on display here, and the movie evokes a sense of wonder and amazement that I wish I saw more often. It’s not a perfect movie; the character work is iffy at times, and the shift from epic exploration to survival horror in the story isn’t nailed as smoothly as it should have been. A lot goes unexplained; if you don’t like questions going unanswered, this movie will bug you, but in all honesty I think the filmmakers want it to bug you. Don’t walk into it expecting the perfect sci-fi movie for the 21st century. Don’t expect it to be another Alien movie. And check your expectations at the door, preferably beforehand. Think about what you’re bringing to the movie that might make it into something other than what you’re provided, and think about why you’re bringing those things.

Is it an amazing movie, the movie I wanted it to be when I first saw the trailers and read about it? No, it’s not that movie. I created that movie in my head out of what I was given and what I wanted it to be. If I had held on to those expectations going into the movie, I would have been sorely disappointed. If we go into any movie expecting it to match the ideal version of it we create within our heads, we would never be fully satisfied. So long as you understand you won’t get everything you want from Prometheus and approach it with an open mind (as much as is possible), the movie will do quite nicely.

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