There are two scenes in Prometheus, Ridley Scott's new hotly anticipated sci-fi thriller set in the same universe as Alien, that are so masterfully choreographed and so terrifically unnerving that I'm tempted to declare the film a rousing success based on them alone and be done with it. And indeed one operatically terrifying sequence in particular, involving a medical machine and a terrified woman all by her lonesome (sort of), might rank as one of the most viscerally, but beautifully, horrifying things I've seen in a long time. So there are moments, brief jangling bursts of energy, when the film approaches something akin to greatness. But alas the whole of the film is strangely less than the sum of its many quality parts. Prometheus is a sleek and grave beauty to behold, but when grabbed at, when one tries to actually wrestle with the big ideas it offers up, it disappointingly falls apart.
Let's talk about the good things first. Ridley Scott is, as we've learned these past few decades, a sure hand when it comes to putting together an elegant spectacle. The blue, wintry beginnings of Gladiator dissolve gracefully (amidst brutality) into the summery sadness of the film's end. Hannibal, for all its ugliness, had a classical beauty to it that, really, made the ugliness all the uglier. And of course the original Alien, with its functional and lived-in and yet somehow still tasteful spaceship aesthetics, presented mounting dread as a parabola shadow rising on a wall. It's gorgeous terror, a ratcheting that feels like expert clockwork. And in that vein, Prometheus does not disappoint. It too looks and sounds crisp and tailored. It's Ridley Scott couture.
Toward the beginning of the film, not quite the beginning but almost, we're on another spaceship, this one called the Prometheus, which has just arrived at its destination, some lonely point far out in space beside a ghostly gray ringed planet and its small moon. The glassy Michael Fassbender, playing an android named David, glides around on his own, eating meals and mimicking movies and, through a glowing visor, watching the dreams of the rest of the crew, who are all in sleep stasis waiting to be awoken. The dream-watching thing isn't exactly clear as a concept, but it's an effective visual so we're willing to skip over the logistics part in the service of preserving the eerie surface beauty. That Prometheus begins this way — with this solitary sequence of a robot busying itself while humans rest — is one of the film's numerous smart and curious flourishes. It's not exactly necessary, we're here for monster scares after all, but it adds welcome, enriching texture. Scott likes exploring the world he's built, and we're happy to let him.
The world looks great, all burnished grays and purples, with flashes of a rich, maize-y yellow. Scott builds a sense of grandeur and scale immediately in the film, and every roaring, pulsing shot of the ship landing on the ghost giant's moon gave me the same chill as the the opening scenes of There Will Be Blood — it's the wonder and majesty of human invention and exploration, but it's all the horror of it too, the invasive arrogance of it. The crew is there because of two scientists, Elizabeth (the alienly beautiful Noomi Rapace) and her beau Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green, making an assured big budget debut), who have found pictograms on Earth that they believe are an invitation to this crusty, mountainous moon. You see, they believe they will find the aliens that created life on Earth. Elizabeth, deeply religious in a sort of nondenominational way, hopes to find God through science. Charlie is a believer too, but he's not as soulful as Elizabeth. She's the wet-eyed dreamer in this crew, and it's mostly her we follow through the dark turns of this grim and punishing story.
Everyone else on board, however, is hesitant to buy the theory. Chief among the skeptics is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a representative of Weyland Industries, the shadowy mega-corporation that has sponsored this trillion-dollar scientific expedition (and the company that Ellen Ripley worked for in Alien). Vickers is so cold and steely that she is asked at one point if she too is a robot. Scott clearly loves filming Theron, and he gives her lots of strange business to do with a just-ever-so-slightly off physicality to it, which he shoots at odd angles and in tight closeups. There's something going on with Vickers that never gets quite answered in the film, but it's an interesting question nonetheless.
That's true of much of the film, in fact. It's full of questions, about life and creation — by parents, by engineers (in David's case), by the gods themselves — that are meaningful ponders, and certainly at the core of what this film is about, but that are only teasingly or glancingly handled. And unfortunately when we're not just dealing with a small character detail, the film's elusiveness is a serious detriment. Simply posing a question is a fine thing for a film to do, but sometimes a little more is required. And in Prometheus' case, in order to justify all the shriek and rattle that comes with these big questions, we need some kind of, if not definitiveness, maybe opinion by the end of the film. I blame this "Ask a bunch of cool questions and then run away" tactic on the film's screenwriter Damon Lindelof (he updated an original draft by Jon Spaihts), the chief ideas man behind Lost who turned that show from a canny mystery machine into an unwieldy tangle of ultimately unanswered riddles. This is Prometheus' chief sin, and it's a big one. For all the film is struggling to be about, nothing tangible is created by the end, there is nothing to walk away with but a shrug and a frustrated head scratch.
I realize I'm being vague, and that's on purpose. I don't want to spoil the particulars of the film, because it is certainly one worth seeing and discovering on your own. Just know that, of course, things do not go as planned on this jagged, unforgiving moon. That creatures are encountered. As to those two eye-poppingly scary scenes mentioned up top, they come at perfectly paced-out points in the film's timeline. The first, involving two lesser characters, satisfies a long 45-minute-or-so wait for something awful to happen with the kind of parasitic body terror that made the first Alien such a squirmy phenomenon. It's one thing to have a big monster kill you with a swipe of its claws. It's another to have it kill you from the inside. That "get it out, get it out, get it out" sensation carries into the film's other big horror set piece, which is so shocking, so bizarrely and wonderfully political, that I can't wait for you all to see it so we can talk about it. Scott stages these scares with an old pro's confidence but an ever-growing artist's sense of inventiveness. In the second sequence in particular, I was oddly reminded of Alfonso Cuarón's work in Children of Men, that smooth and technically nimble approach to something soul-shakingly awful.
So let's say that, as a sci-fi horror/thriller, Prometheus works beautifully, if increasingly a bit nonsensically. The motivations and mechanics of our villain(s) are never made clear enough, but they scare and intrigue nonetheless. But as a bigger film, an inquest into deep questions of faith and science, Prometheus is both too big for its britches and too small-minded. Scott is once again saddled here with a script not up to the level of his impressive technique. If he wanted to make a movie about all this existential wondering, I wish he'd sought out someone who knows how to end a story as well as he can begin it. All of the actors are game and ready for both the visceral stuff and the intellectual heavy-lifting, but by the climax are mostly left to their own devices, scrambling around with as much conviction and fury as they can muster over a rather half-baked premise. With an occasional spike of activity or two, Prometheus is sadly a downward slope from beginning to end, starting sharp and alluring but finishing up a muddle. For a film at least partially about what happened before evolution, Prometheus spends most of its time devolving.