Let's pretend that it's early 1982. Three years ago, Ridley Scott's Alien became a runaway success and his newest science fiction film, Blade Runner, is gearing up for release. Scott is poised to become the premiere voice for mature, science fiction film-making for years to come. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned and, despite he successes, Blade Runner would Scott's last science fiction movie for nearly twenty years. Fast forward those twenty years and Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which was to be his triumphant return to the genre that launched his success, has finally be released. While Scott has lost little of his prowess as a visual artist, Prometheus' greatest failing is that it simply doesn't live up to what it could be.
Prometheus' journey from concept to screen is nearly as complicated as the concepts it explores. A project several years in the making, it was originally pushed aside in favor of pursuing the Alien vs. Predator cross-over films and after the financial failure of the second movie in that series, the idea of reinvigorating the Alien film series with a Ridley Scott directed prequel resurfaced. Somewhere down the line, the film became it's own entity set in the Alien universe. The story primarily follows Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, Noomi Rapace of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame, whose discoveries on Earth lead to her to seek out an alien race that may have created all life on Earth. Joined by an eclectic crew of misfits and scientists, headlined by Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, the crew of the spaceship Prometheus land on the moon of a far away planet and find more than they bargained for. A fistful of Alien references and an awful lot of carnage ensues as things go from bad to worse. What Scott does well, he does really well but, while many of the component parts of Prometheus are fantastic, it simply spirals out of control.
There are elements of Prometheus that deserve significant praise. The performances in Prometheus, especially that of Michael Fassbender as the android David, are quite good. The rest of the assemble does admirably, but it's Fassbender who steals scene after scene with his calm intensity. Ridley Scott is a master at building suspense and crafting beautiful films and both of those skills are on display here. Prometheus is, through and through, a gorgeous looking movie. Everything from the art direction to the cinematography and lighting work together to make a visually stunning film. This is supported wonderfully in the first act, by the great pacing. Like Alien, little happens in the first hour of the film. Scott uses this time to build the suspense and the mystery of this journey and an impending sense of dread creeps into the film that is quite effective. While the second half of the film tries it's best to capitalize on this feeling, it is far less successful.
While the first half of Prometheus runs marvelously, the film's second half seems to fall apart for no reason other than a lack of focus and clarity. The later events of the film come with a rapid fire intensity that is appealing, but they become disjointed as Scott attempts to build more and more layers of complexity and symbolism on a foundation that simply isn't there. It's not always essential to provide answers for the viewer, but following a consistent set of logic and causality goes a long way in creating a cohesive final product. The best example of this lack of consistent logic is demonstrated in the black substance and it's effects on the various beings it comes in contact with. The substance is first seen dissolving a creature into it's component genetic pieces to begin life on earth. Later it causes severe illness in humans, it also seems to alter some reproductive traits of humans, and after that it seems to alter maggots into huge worm-like creatures with the ability to make humans they attack into some kind of zombies. Ultimately, this becomes a source of confusion for the audience because it simply lacks consistency. Rather than focusing on the themes that Prometheus explores, the audience is trying to wrap their brains around the logic of the world they are viewing. Good science fiction is clear about the elements of the world that are foreign to the viewer so that they can understand how the characters react to situations that simply never occur in the world that they currently reside in. Simply put, Prometheus tries to do too much in it's final hour and the result is a muddy, even if it is sometimes exciting, conclusion.
Ultimately, Prometheus is an ambitious return to science fiction for Ridley Scott. It succeeds at times, fails at others, and is, ultimately, a mixed bag. There are some great moments and some solid performances, but it's simply a disappointment for those who were waiting to the spiritual or literally successor to Alien.