Come what may, Prometheus is a mid-level version of what it is. By that, I mean it is, in the end, a somewhat generic Alien/The Thing-type horror film. It is mostly science-fiction only in that it takes place in the future and involves inter-stellar travel. Its 'big ideas' can be summed up in two sentences, and they are not only not-revolutionary but recognizable to probably 90% of the viewing audience. It has some truly wonderful visuals and it's arguably worth seeing once purely for some of the images it creates. But as a full-blown movie it doesn't quite work. Like Super 8, it gets tied up with horror elements in its last half that its filmmakers don't truly care about and feel like a commercial concession. Like last summer's botched 80s-Spielberg homage, Prometheus takes advantage of a genre audience so worn down by threatened reboots and remakes that it seems almost groundbreaking that this film is merely a glorified rip-off of earlier genre entries of this nature. While advertised as an original science-fiction epic with tangential ties to the existing Alien franchise, it really is a bigger budgeted and better cast variation of that specific template. Despite must-see production values and some genuinely compelling imagery, it's somewhat closer in quality to The Thing 2011 than The Thing 1982.
Since the marketing campaign has pretended to be cryptic while in fact being quite spoiler-filled, I will try to reveal less than the marketing chose to. After a discovery that drops a big clue about the origins of mankind, a team of 17 hop aboard a spaceship to travel to a distant world that may hold answers to the various 'big questions' of human existence. Of course the scientists immediately find what they are looking for, they record and log the scientific proof of their groundbreaking discoveries, and everyone goes home safely with fortune and glory awaiting them. I jest, but what they find or how explicitly things turn south I won't reveal here. I will say not to expect too many mind-blowing plot twists as there aren't any. What's left unspoiled is merely the existence of storytelling past the second act. It seems that in this day-and-age, the very fact that a film actually has its story unfold over all three acts qualifies any third-act narrative beats as 'shocking plot twists!' (essay).
Other than a few lead characters (personified by Nooni Rapace, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba), the vast majority of the humans are blank slates and even the film doesn't bother to care when a number of them start dying. This is clearly a film more concerned with visuals and its alleged big ideas than with any kind of viewer investment in the people partaking in the journey. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a film that put emphasis on special effects and set design over character was a prototypical bad film, but I guess times have changed. It's fitting that the most engaging and interesting character is not a human but rather a robot, played with duplicitous charm by Michael Fassbender. His interactions with the lead characters make up the bulk of the engaging dialogue scenes in a screenplay otherwise lacking in thoughtful dialogue. It's one thing when you don't care about characters in a genre film, but it's quite another when the filmmakers clearly don't care about them.
As for its alleged profundities, its centered around an age-old theory that most of us first heard about in grade school (highlight to reveal: Chariots of the Gods?), yet Ridley Scott and company seem to treat it as never-before explored scientific territory. Most frustratingly, the film teases at some indeed interesting questions brought about by third-act revelations, but it refuses to answer them, instead using said concepts as cliffhanger material for a theoretical sequel. There are moments of good storytelling peppered here and there, especially in the first act (the prologue is flat-out spectacular). But the second act gets caught up in halfhearted horror elements (really halfhearted, as in the film loses track of its own body count), first aping the likes of Alien, then moving on to a mostly forgotten 2000 science-fiction drama (hint - *not* Red Planet) before somewhat riffing during the third act on another more recent science-fiction film that ironically shares at least one cast member. There are moments of visual wonder and at least one outstanding scene of squirm-inducing horror (which is the prime reason for the film's R-rating, natch), but overall it fails to compensate for the lack of interesting characters or a narrative that goes beyond the template for the genre.
Prometheus is grandly ambitious in scale and visual scope, using its $130 million budget quite well, as every penny is clearly onscreen. The 3D may be useless to the film, but it looks fine and shooting in the format has forced Ridley Scott, like Michael Bay last year, to tone down the 80-cuts a minute editing style personified by Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. If you choose to see it and can handle 3D, do seek out an IMAX screen for this one. This film is shot and edited in a classical style, with big sweeping shots plus long and fluid takes. The picture looks spectacular, and there are indeed moments of must-see visual splendor. But the size of the film masks what it basically a mega-budget revamp of, if not quite Alien per-se, an Alien-type film. There is no harm with Prometheus merely being a B-level science-fiction horror film dressed up in A-level production values. But the film fails to engage beyond its visuals, with lackluster characters, too few moments of genuine terror or even compelling violence, plus allegedly big ideas that are rehashed from other sources without any unique spin to justify the recycling.
Those expecting a game-changing science-fiction masterwork will be painfully disappointed. Those expecting merely a top-notch variation on the sci-fi "And Then There Were None" template will be only slightly disappointed. Only those who came purely for the eye candy will feel they got their money's worth. Despite all the pomp and circumstance, Prometheus ends up being another scenario on that dry-erase board from Cabin in the Woods.
Follow Scott Mendelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottMendelson