Prometheus is a story built around a mystery, which is problematic. Stories after all need conclusions, but unfortunately, the makers of Prometheus preferred to preserve the mystery. It’s easy to understand why. The need to know is what powers Prometheus. It’s what motivates the characters and gets the audience engaged in this foray into the unknown. But a mystery must never become the end in itself. The most important aspect of a mystery is its solution. If, at the end, the central mystery that has been powering your story remains unsolved, that story is unfinished. And no matter how entertaining Prometheus is, that flaw is very noticeable.
Prometheus is a semi-prequel to director Ridley Scott’s Alien, in that the former is related to the latter, but is willing to tell a very different story. After uncovering a series of identical artworks produced by a variety of ancient cultures, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe they have found the location of humanity’s creators. Having received financial backing from the Weylan Corporation, they and the crew of the ship Prometheus, including amongst them the cyborg David (Michael Fassbender) and presumed human Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), travel to a distant planet, in the hope of encountering real gods.
Unfortunately, things do not go as well as Shaw and Holloway hoped. This is after all a prequel to Alien, the landmark sci-fi horror, though Prometheus employs a different style of horror to the older movie. Alien is a haunted house movie in space, with a small ‘exploring the unknown’ quotient. Prometheus on the other hand is all about the unknown, and needs a truly alien world to generate the needed suspense. Luckily, it is set in a universe based on the artwork of H.R. Giger, a painter of strange, dark genius. Brought to three-dimensions by production designer Arthur Max, the alien habitations are a mixture of the gothic and the surreal: all bones, maggots and giant frowning faces. Their exploration feels like a step into a place humans don’t belong. Watching it, especially in IMAX, makes for a nicely suspenseful experience.
This suspense sets the stage for the coming horror, and when it arrives, it does not disappoint. Prometheus’ creature design is simple, but gruesome, as is what the monsters end up doing to their hapless victims. This is true body horror, where people are not just harmed, but violated, and it culminates in a single, protracted sequence so tough it had me writhing in my chair. At times Prometheus is an atmospheric, vile movie. And I loved it.
I also adored Michael Fassbender. The man has long experience of playing tight, repressed characters (see: Magneto, Brandon, Jung), as displayed by quality of his performance as the android David. This may sound like an oxymoron, but Fassbender brings a genuine artificiality to the role. David is the perfect engineered servant: calm, polite and utterly obedient. But he also has depths: there is emotion at his heart, enough for him to be hurt, to be ironic, and to love films. It is Fassbender’s triumph that he makes clear the balance within David’s persona. With his monotonously helpful voice and mechanical movements, Fassbender becomes a computer program given human shape. But in the smallest shift of expression, Fassbender shows that shape is not all that is human about David.
The other characters are less interesting, though well-acted. Noomi Rapace does well as eager scientist Shaw who, as is horror tradition, receives a fairly heavy punishment for her optimism. Rapace really sells the trauma and her convincing disgust and terror is at the core of Prometheus’ best body horror sequence. Meanwhile, Charlize Theron makes a good ice queen: she’s certainly tough, blonde and statuesque enough. But the problem with both these characters is that, though they have depth, it is revealed in a fairly perfunctory fashion. I’m not saying they would be better off without depth. Certainly Shaw and Vickers are far more interesting than Idris Elba’s Janek, about whom we know almost nothing, despite him having a pretty pivotal role towards the end. But nothing we learn about these characters really gives us a sense of who they are, and so the attempts at depth feel a lot like writers ticking boxes.
But the real problem with Prometheus is the big one I started with. The damn film doesn’t have an ending. This is a film built around the thematic foundation of science fiction: the power of human curiosity. From the beginning this story was about finding the gods and uncovering the why of human creation. But at the story’s end, we are only left with more mysteries, with the added implication that we will have to wait for yet another film to solve those mysteries. That is the kind of ending a marketing department likes, because it sets up a profitable franchise. But a film about curiosity that contains no answers, is ultimately a film without closure.
All in all, Prometheus is a really entertaining movie. I loved the look of it, was captivated by Michael Fassbender, unnerved by the alien catacombs and revolted (in a good way) by the horror. And yet, as the credits began to roll, I was left with that four-star feeling. Prometheus may have given me spectacle and horror and beauty. But it failed to provide answers. And because of that, it feels unfinished and ultimately unsatisfying.