Among the issues that Prometheus tackles are such age-old questions as, “Where do we come from?” and “Why are we are?” while also attempting to provide the backstory for the 1979 blockbuster Alien. How effectively Prometheus manages to handle all of this is debatable, but there is so much to admire about the movie that its lack of resolution almost seems beside the point.
On a purely visual level, Prometheus is stunning. The cinematography and special effects are brilliantly conceived; Scott doesn’t miss a single beat, whether he’s showing us the spectacular rivers and canyons of an alien planet, or the grotesque squid-like life forms that the crew discovers there.
In fact, the entire movie has a Lovecraftian feeling to it that proves uniquely unsettling—far more so, in fact, than any of the film’s gorier moments.
Nearly as good as the visuals are the performances. One of the biggest problems with Prometheus is its surplus of characters—there is simply not enough time to explore all of them in the kind of detail the movie seems to be aiming for—but the star-studded cast makes the most of what they’ve been given.
Idris Elba as the ship’s captain and Charlize Theron as Meredith Vickers—a representative of the company funding the Prometheus’s mission—deliver surprisingly nuanced performances given their lack of screen time.
On the other hand, Noomi Rapace is curiously flat as expedition leader Elizabeth Shaw, though this may simply be a result of the unfortunate but predictable decision to make the film’s least complex character the nominal hero.
It is, however, Michael Fassbender as David—an android accompanying the crew on its mission—who truly shines.
David is an enigma; although the ship’s human inhabitants view him as a soulless machine (and make little effort to keep their disdain for him a secret) David’s own words and actions suggest that the truth may be more complex.
Fassbender’s David is certainly not human—if his preternatural physical abilities didn’t give it away, his oddly clinical sense of curiosity would—but he seems to harbor a wistful desire to understand humans (and perhaps even to be one) that is nowhere more evident than in his fascination with the film Lawrence of Arabia.
In a movie that focuses so heavily on the nature of creation and the relationship between a creator and his work—all the way down to the human level of fathers and children—David has a unique role to play. Unfortunately, it is not always clear what that role might be, and it is here that Prometheus begins to flounder.
Scott tosses out a lot interesting questions—“Does a creator hold the power of life and death over his creation?” and “Is it in the natural order for a creator to be eclipsed by his works?” for a start—but he doesn’t do so in any organized fashion. What’s more, he doesn’t really have the time to delve into the psychology of the issue, so the characters’ motives are often ill-defined.
To its credit, Prometheus tries really hard—in fact, it probably tries too hard.
There are too many characters, too many storylines, and too many questions left unresolved—although perhaps we, like Dr. Shaw at the film’s end, are meant to keep searching for answers.
There is, however, something oddly mesmerizing about the movie.
Perhaps it is the sheer spectacle, which is at once breathtaking and repellant; perhaps it is those not infrequent moments when Prometheus hits on a truly thought-provoking question.
Perhaps it is simply Fassbender’s superb performance. Whatever the reason, Prometheus—though not an unqualified success—is well worth seeing. Besides, can we really fault Scott for failing to wrap up in two hours the problems that thousands of years and hundreds of philosophers and scientists have not been able to resolve? Prometheus tries, and in this case, that’s enough.