Here's the thing: if you have a dozen engaged and insightful friends who are willing to share a beer after seeing 'Prometheus,' you can talk yourself into thinking it's a fabulous movie. That's assuming you and your friends are positive people. If it's the other way, you'll be shouting “Fie! Scott and Lindelof, you've wasted our time!”
'Prometheus' is a nothing if not aggravating. It comes within spitting distance of greatness, yet is still something of a disappointment. There was not one moment where I wasn't dazzled, yet I feel like I'm still anticipating the good stuff that's about to come – even though I left the theater hours ago.
'Prometheus' is set very much in the same world as the Alien films, and I'm not 100% sure this is a good decision. Ridely Scott's 1979 'Alien' is a masterpiece of horror and James Cameron's 1986 'Aliens' is an outstanding action picture. 'Prometheus' is nothing like either. (If anything it is most like Paul W.S. Anderson's cheese-ball 'Alien vs. Predator,' although with a lot less action.) If 'Prometheus' were just its own story about scientists on a discovery mission, maybe the feelings of missed opportunity wouldn't be so pronounced. (I recognize that major motion pictures with enormous budgets independent of a preexisting franchise are a rare breed these days, but a boy can dream.)
So who are these scientists? Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green collect enough cave paintings and petroglyphs to prove that the old 'In Search Of. . .' episode was right. Aliens have visited us, maybe even created us, and are pointing us somewhere. Since this is the future, they've got the tools to figure out which star the images suggest, so next thing you know an expedition is underway.
After a cryosleep of two years they've arrived. The trip has been funded by the creaky old zillionaire Peter Weyland who claims to be unique because he asks big questions like, “Why are we here?” (Because, I guess, no one else asks that.) By the time they've awaken he's surely dead, but Weyland Corp's interests are watched by the cold, blue eyes of Charlize Theron. Idris Elba is the ship captain and a bunch of goons play the bunch of goons. (Question: Weyland Corp. doesn't vet which people get to go on an important trip like this? Why hire jerks? Jerks who'll, you know, see something suspicious and they go to touch it?)
Also on the ship is Michael Fassbender as David, an android and the film's most interesting character. (Frankly, he and Elba are the only characters you'll care much about.) David studies languages, watches 'Lawrence of Arabia' (and dyes his hair accordingly) and, without acting too much like Pinocchio, wonders what it is like to be a real boy.
The ship parks outside of a cave/pyramid/tomb/temple/spaceport and that's when things start getting familiar. The beats in 'Prometheus' beats don't exactly mirror the ones in 'Alien,' but they rhyme with them. Eventually, we're back in the sick bay and there's a bugger coming squirming around Rapace's belly.
The film spends so much time asking deep questions and impressing with 3D displays and bones and ooze that by the time people started getting killed I'd almost forgotten that, oh yeah, there's a bill of blood that needs to be paid.
The thesis of 'Prometheus,' one could argue, is “don't question things.” Go off looking for answers and you'll get beaten down. Or, worse, get an answer you don't want. It would appear that the very beings that created life on Earth are now on a mission to destroy it.
The funny thing about this film is that it is about frustration in the face of unanswered questions. And it leaves so many questions unanswered – yet not the ones you expect. I have plenty of answers to give the pursuant Rapace, both from my own ideas and from what is right there in the film – but I can't answer questions about the decisions of some of the characters make that no one in the movie seems to care about.
I know that sounds incredibly vague, but without rehashing the plot beat by beat, let's just say Michael Fassbender's character does something to start a huge chain reaction. I was willing to let the script stay a few steps ahead of me, expecting a catharsis at the end. It never came. Furthermore, there are two moments wherein Idris Elba enters the scene – as if he were just handed studio notes – and explains stuff that there's NO WAY he could know. This, of course, led me to believe that there was something in his character that would later reveal the source of his omniscience, but it never came.
What did come, however, was a dumbass final act where an unexpected, unmotivated villain comes and goes smashy-smashy.
Sigh and double-sigh. However, I can't stress enough just how cool this movie looks. Spend the extra money and see it in 3D (so many graphical displays!) Go out and argue about it with your friends. Heck, you may even decide it stinks. But it is a movie that is at least worthy of the kind of intense scrutiny that other summer duds ('Snow White and the Huntsman' or 'Dark Shadows,' for example) don't deserve. You won't just shrug it off and think, “meh, it's just a movie.” 'Prometheus' wants to be a transformative work of art. It isn't, but with so few large-scale movies even reaching for the stars, we should recognize those that at least manage escape velocity.
‘Prometheus’ hits theaters on June 8th
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.