Playing witness to a long-standing director’s career can be fascinating, especially when said director enters his twilight years. While few of them would ever admit to it, any artist who has found an enduring critical success must eventually look at his oeuvre in terms of “legacy”, measuring his work against that of his peers and cinematic kin. For Ridley Scott, this self-evaluation brought him back to the bleakly-industrial and brilliant Alien, and a desire to see that world augmented. Like any artist with an eye trained on his own mortality, Scott chose to build on his Alien world existentially, and the resulting epic is Prometheus; a film somehow both ceaselessly mesmerizing and utterly baffling.
In 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover cave paintings in Scotland that happen to sync with a variety of other paintings found all around the world, and from different time periods. The paintings are star maps, leading them on an expedition—funded by the man-behind-the-curtain magnate Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce)—to a life-sustaining moon light years from Earth. The mission is lead by the chilly Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and composed of a menagerie of scientific and blue collar personalities, along with the eerily omniscient android David (Michael Fassbender). Their goal is to find the beings who left these star maps behind; beings that Shaw and Holloway believe “engineered” the creation of life on earth. In finding these Engineers, they look to ask the only question one can of their creator: “Why?”
Films with reputations for divisiveness are very different from films that are simply good or bad. To be divisive a film must be composed of acutely variable elements, capable of fulfilling one viewer’s cravings and dashing another’s hopes. Interestingly, in the case of Prometheus this dichotomy is the product of a single goal: To make the most epic film of Ridley Scott’s career. “Epic”, as in broad of scope and thick with plot; the type of film that transcends insular tales of this man or this woman. The type of film that fills the screen and stays in your mind for days. For better or worse, Prometheus does all of the above.
Much of the film’s bombast is tied up in the visual and auditory experience, with Scott channeling Space Odyssey-era Kubrick for his world-building. And this is the jumping off point for any praise you’ll hear regarding Prometheus, as the surface-level execution is flawless. Scott is intent on showing us the organic beauty of planets and the space that surrounds them, and revels as much in creating these settings as he does in capturing them. Whether its the rocky hills of Scotland or the alien architecture of the Engineers’ pyramid, there is a devotion to sound and setting and scenery that can distract the viewer from the swollen, equivocating other half that is the film’s plot.
I’m not going to get into specific plot holes, as there are simply too many to choose from. Again, Ridley Scott seems hellbent on making Prometheus a saga, yet from a scripting point of view it seems his approach is to simply squeeze as many things into as many scenes and as many characters as he possibly can. Where the mise en scene is mostly a subtle concoction of beauty and gloom, the film’s story is a corkboard full to brimming with jotted notes and half-finished character back stories. Prometheus—and the entire Alien franchise, for that matter—requires ambiguity to maintain its flavor of galaxy-sprawling mystery, and certainly some of the questions raised are meant to go unanswered, but there are just as many (if not more) minor character and plot related holes that seem a product of shoddy storytelling. From this perspective, Prometheus is a disaster.
This paradox of perspective is ultimately the reality of the film’s reception: It all comes down to how you look at it. You can interpret Ridley Scott’s world-bridging Alien origin tale as a beautiful, complex space opera, and you won’t be wrong. You can certainly applaud a few strong performances (particularly Michael Fassbender, who has found yet another role he can play better than anyone), and leave it at that. You can even love it for the the unique brand of suspense that only aliens, space, and blood can create. But if you’re like me—or a whole lot of other people who seem to feel pretty gypped—then the end of Prometheus will mostly be a massive “HUH?!” moment. This is simply another case of a filmmaker giving himself far, far too much to do, and while Prometheus might be the most impressively jam-packed film I’ve ever seen, quantity over quality never won anybody an Oscar.