You may be one of those amazing people who can watch a movie without any preconceptions, but most of us were expecting Prometheus to be a work of genius. Trailers teased a haunting, galactic epic rich with subtext, a worthy companion to Ridley Scott's brain-warping 1979 flick Alien. Prometheus is definitely an action-packed space opera, but it is no masterpiece. That said, it's a solid monster movie, and often a truly great drama. You will not, however, leave the theater feeling like your cerebral cortex is on fire, nor will your nightmares be changed forever.
Mild spoilers ahead.
Haunted House in Space
Pretend you are part of the minority of people going to see Prometheus without ever having seen any of the previous Alien movies (or maybe you are one of them). Without all the baggage of the series weighing you down, this movie will come across as a fun haunted house in space adventure, whose premise hinges on a cool bit of nonsense straight out of Chariots of the Gods?. Two scientists have found multiple ancient cave paintings showing "alien astronauts" pointing to a particular configuration of stars. And somehow, they convince Peter Weyland, the aging owner of Weyland Enterprises, to fund an expedition to the volume of space next to that configuration.
And so they set out on their mission in a zillion-dollar ship called the Prometheus. Joined by a crew of stoner scientists and a Weyland Enterprises rep, watched over by one of the most awesome androids ever depicted on film (more about him later), our heroes aren't sure what to expect when they come out of hypersleep. A cold moon orbiting a giant ringed world is their target, and as soon as they arrive, it's clear that aliens have been there. They've left an enormous, mysterious mound behind, full of breathable atmosphere and disturbing, ribbed tunnels that make you feel like our explorers are entering a super-sized alimentary canal or worse.
Inside, the structure is full of creepy statues, dead aliens whose DNA matches ours (yes, if you are a biogeek, you will need to snort), and lots of vases bubbling with goo. The whole time our crew is exploring this place is pure awesome, with some genuinely tense moments. What was this installation used for? Why are all the aliens dead? How is that bubbling goo related to the giant, throbbing penises that keep jumping out of nowhere and jamming themselves down people's throats? Some mysteries are solved; some mysteries are made more mysterious. Overall it feels like you're watching a classed-up version of John Carpenter's The Thing, which is one of the greatest space monster movies of all time.
However, if you have seen Alien and Aliens, and you know how insanely brilliant and multi-layered these flicks can get, you might start to feel a little sad. You might say to yourself: I love The Thing with all my heart, but I kind of thought I'd get a little more of an intellectual challenge from this movie.
The Robot Uprising
Luckily, there is one aspect of Prometheus that will leave you with a lot of food for thought: the character of David the android. Played with subtlety, depth, and a touch of weird humor by Michael Fassbender, I honestly think that this is one of the most outstanding acting performances I've seen this year. Indeed, one of the strongest elements throughout Prometheus is the acting: Charlize Theron is ultra-badass as the Weyland rep; Noomi Rapace is mesmerizing as the mission's "true believer" who seems kind of weak until she faces down danger with Ripley-level bravery; and Idris Elba is fantastic as the ship's captain and the film's moral compass. But David — he's something else.
Every Alien movie has had its android, sometimes pretending to be human and sometimes openly synthetic. Weyland introduces David to the crew of the Prometheus as "the son I never had," but then immediately undermines this emotional connection by asserting blithely that as a robot David "doesn't have a soul." After we've seen David amusing himself by watching Lawrence of Arabia and playing basketball while the crew was in hypersleep, Weyland's comment feels like a cruel rejection. We can already tell he has a soul, as well as major daddy issues.
As the film unfolds, David's innocent obedience begins to feel more and more like a program he hates executing. We can almost see him grimacing under his obsequious smiles as he waits on the crew. While the scientists struggle to understand the monstrous truths about the alien installation, he coolly studies what they've found, engaging in ever more dangerous experiments. Knowing that his "father" will never leave the company in David's hands, nor even acknowledge the basic humanity of his son, makes the robot's selfless work for Weyland even more fraught and disturbing.
Eventually, however, we realize that David and the aliens have something in common. They hate humanity, for more or less good reasons, and will do anything to destroy us. All the movies in the Alien franchise (save for the AvP flicks) have played with this idea, comparing and contrasting the motives of the aliens and the robots. But here in Prometheus this idea finally comes to fruition. David's arc is so brilliant and compelling that I'm temped to say that this movie is about the consciousness of robots, and that fighting aliens is just the setting where a story about human-robot relations of the future takes place.
A Specious Spiritualism
If I were to say that, however, it would be a dramatic misreading of the film. Or rather, it would be a wishful reading of a film that is actually about a lot of things, some of which are explored sloppily and a few of which are downright silly.
Throughout most of the film, scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is a kind of foil for David. While she yearns to understand why the "Engineer" aliens created humans and left all those messages behind in cave paintings, David knows all too well why humans created him. Shaw is a devout Christian who wears her father's cross everywhere; David is a "soulless" machine who says at one point that "we all want to kill our parents." Both are on a quest to deliver a message to their makers, but those messages are pretty damn different.
The problems with Prometheus all radiate outward from writer Damon "Lost" Lindelof's decision to inject Shaw's scientific quest with a vague spirituality. Though she's a scientist who clearly understands that the Engineers are really just biological organisms like us, she treats them like God. She keeps claiming that somehow if she could just find a living Engineer, all the riddles of life would be solved. The Engineers made us, so once we meet them, they'll help us become superpowered angels with infinite knowledge.
Why would the Engineers do this? I don't want to get into petty wankery over the goofiness of the science underlying the Engineers and their goo — this is a movie, and you probably weren't expecting a lot of biological accuracy. But I do want to protest strongly that simply injecting a character full of specious spiritual beliefs does not instantly fill your movie with Inner Meaning. It doesn't make the motives of the Engineers more portentous, and it doesn't make any of the film's inexplicable revelations into dazzling paradoxes that we can ponder like koans. It doesn't, in other words, fill your plotholes with payoff.
This isn't to say that spiritual themes in themselves are a problem. I would have welcomed a movie where a Christian character actually grappled with the ramifications of what it means that the Engineers created humanity, rather than God. But that's not what Shaw does. Instead, she espouses a set of beliefs that are pretty much exactly like the ones you may have heard from that History Channel guy with the weird hair who thinks the answer to all mysteries, both spiritual and historical, is "aliens." Lindelof uses her beliefs to motivate her to do all kinds of random things, which culminate in a final WTF moment that will make anybody who has seen the TV series Lexx crack up. And those of you who haven't seen Lexx will still be bathed in WTFery.
Ultimately the biggest problem in Prometheus is that its creators larded too many "meaningful" ideas onto it, instead of just letting the narrative speak for itself. This is a powerful story that manages to intertwine the drama of family inheritance with the awe (and terror) of evolutionary biology. But it's also a story that stumbles in too many directions, losing its path in many places.
What is absolutely guaranteed, however, is that Prometheus will entertain you. It's a damn good ride, and it will, occasionally, make you think. Plus, it's really, really gross. What, you thought it would be all acting and meaning of the universe crap? This is an Alien movie, people! Grab your stuff, head to the theater, and get ready for alien-on-human, robot-on-alien, and alien-on-alien action!