There are few things in the process of making and writing movies harder to implement and/or analyze than narrative ambiguity. Movies defined by philosophical musings or non-linear narratives have to decide how to present their secrets and secluded themes. Make things too obvious and you sacrifice narrative stakes and also insult your audience; make things to confounding and you…sacrifice narrative stakes and insult your audience, by limiting or completely removing the catharsis that can make a movie satisfying.
It is even harder when a movie has connections to an older, more beloved movie, one made by the same director to boot. 1979’s “Alien” is a masterpiece of slow, unbearable dread; a haunted house movie in space that gave birth to one of cinema’s iconic monsters in the Xenomorph alien and launched the careers of star Sigourney Weaver and director Ridley Scott. When it was announced a couple of years ago that Scott was working on a project that may or may not be a prequel to “Alien,” a storm of intrigue brewed as a result. That film has become “Prometheus,” and the onslaught of trailers made a lot of people wonder how much of a connection to the “Alien” universe this new film would have.
First of all, “Prometheus” is a prequel to “Alien.” This is undisputable. But how does it do as a stand-alone movie, and not just another chapter in a franchise? “Prometheus” comes close to drowning in its own ambiguity and mythology, creates characters and plotlines that go nowhere, and its lofty ambitions are sometimes beyond the grasp of director Scott and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of “Lost”). But despite the flaws in its vision, “Prometheus” can be downright electrifying; visually stunning, almost vibrating with otherworldly intensity, and for better or worse, tries to add some philosophical heft that summer movies, and the sci-fi genre, have been missing for many a moon.
After an eerie prologue involving a humanoid being drinking a strange substance and disintegrating into the ocean, we are introduced to Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who are married and happen to both be scientists. While exploring some ancient caves in Scotland, they find drawings containing a star formation that has popped up in heiroglyphics around the world. This star formation exists in a far off solar system, and Shaw and Holloway lead an expedition funded by the mysterious Weyland Corporation (run by Guy Pearce under a mountain of old-age makeup) and take the good ship Prometheus, along with 15 other crew members, to this distant star system, hoping to find what may be the key to the origin of mankind.
On this journey, on which they all spend two years in hypersleep before reaching their destination, Shaw and Holloway are joined by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a representative of the Weyland Corporation, Janek (Idris Elba), this ship’s gruff and charismatic captain, a bunch of red-shirt scientists that turn out to be cannon fodder, and David (Michael Fassbender), the enigmatic android with a slightly unsettling interest in humanity. The star map leads them to the moon LV-223, where they find caves filled with familiar markings, and more importantly, pods covered with a tar-like substance and monuments of beings that look just like humans. Shaw finds a severed, humanoid head and brings it back aboard the Prometheus. And for the rest of the movie, all hell breaks loose in a variety of gruesome and shocking ways.
It would be unfair to reveal what happens next. “Prometheus” is so defined by its own mystery that knowing them would dampen the experience of seeing the film. For the first hour of “Prometheus,” the film is a master class in mounting suspense. We’re left wondering what are those creatures that they find? What is up with the black, gooey substance, and the small worms that swim through it? And what is the deal with David? Can he be trusted? Does he have an alternative agenda that may endanger the rest of the ship?
That is a lot of mystery to cram into two hours. And for the first half at least, it works beautifully. We are just as curious about the meaning of these discoveries as the crew of the Prometheus, and that is thanks to Ridley Scott himself. Over the past decade his films have become very ham-fisted in his directorial approach; using liberal amounts of slow-motion and editing his films into mush like they all suffer from ADHD. There is none of that here. Scott’s directorial approach is very restrained, using long shots and slow, snakelike camerawork to give the movie an atmospheric, almost seductive pull. Scott’s best films, including “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and Matchstick Men” all put story first and trickery second. Scott has rediscovered his storytelling mojo. It helps the film is glorious to look at; the shots of the landscape on LV-223 are as beautiful as a Monet, the ship itself has an eerie, green glow. The fact that this movie is so amazing to look at makes some of its more frustrating aspects easier to deal with.
The acting does too. Elizabeth Shaw is a different kind of heroine than Ellen Ripley; she is more curious, less of a warrior-in-waiting than Ripley was. Shaw’s devout Christian beliefs are what lead her on this quest; she thinks solving the mystery of the star formation and the origins of the Earth may bring her closer to God. Rapace, Lisbeth Salander 1.0 herself, is put through one hell of a ringer in this film (there is a scene where she must perform surgery on herself that is one of the most unsettling things you may ever see), but she makes the path from exuberance to terror seamless and realistic. Her husband Charlie, as played by Marshall-Green is less interesting; in both the way the character is written and the performance; the movie doesn’t know what to do with his character. Same with Theron, who can do the “uptight bitch” shtick in her sleep at this point. Idris Elba (the immortal Stringer Bell from “The Wire”) brings humor and tenacity to Janek; but the rest of the crew are barely developed at all; they are just there to get ripped to shreds.
But the best part of the movie lies with David. Fassbender is brilliant, finding the right balance between David’s obviously robotic nature combined with a darker undercurrent and something approaching childlike wonder. He is obsessed with humanity; he models his personality and appearance on Peter O’Toole in the film “Lawrence of Arabia;” he watches the dreams of the crew while they’re in hypersleep; we come to empathize with part of David’s plight. He was given the gift of having an understanding of humanity, but his prime directive is to serve them and cast his curiosity aside.
But once the crew touches down on the planet, and digs around in the strange artifacts that they find, all this mystery becomes too much of a good thing. Every answer brings only more questions. “Prometheus” delivers on the suspense and some truly terrifying moments, but all the setup collides in a traffic jam, and the story becomes distractingly muddled. But the most frustrating thing about “Prometheus” is how much of this murkiness is intentional; does the film’s lack of obvious answers come from bad writing, or is the film withholding information on the beginnings of mankind to comment on how curiosity can lead to despair and hubris?
The answer will different depending on who you ask. I don’t know for sure what role the ambiguity plays, but I think “Prometheus” could really be, at its core, a movie about faith. Shaw and David are both on a quest for knowledge, although they want to know different things. David wants to know what makes humans tick, Shaw wants to know who built the ticking mechanism. We have not, and possibly never will, find a definitive answer to where we came from; but Shaw, and plenty of people in the real world, keep searching anyway because their faith burns so brightly that no roadblocks can diminish it, sometimes to their detriment. Do we as an audience have faith that answers will come, or do we give up and go look for easy explanations? Horrible things happen to Shaw, David and the people they care about, but their faith is never diminished, even though the answers are hazy at best. Maybe we as viewers have to decide whether or not to follow them down the rabbit hole.
Or maybe I’m wrong, and Lindelof and Spaihts are just trying to hide the holes in the story they concocted. With “Prometheus,” you have a decision to make; if you can ignore the ambiguities and expect the film to work as entertainment, “Prometheus” can be thrilling. If you want it to provide revelations withing its own story and its connective tissue to “Alien,” this movie may give you a headache. Either way, “Prometheus” is worth the ride. Perhaps hindsight will elevate this movie to the level of the genre’s masterpieces with mysteries of their own, like the aforementioned “Blade Runner” or “2001.” Or maybe it will only become a footnote; but Prometheus is still an enthralling, flawed vision; albeit one that is defined, and consumed by, to quote Tolkien, “riddles in the dark.”