Before we discuss Prometheus, let’s talk about my favorite Ridley Scott film – Blade Runner. A classic in its own right, Blade Runner is an example of brilliant science fiction; a film that asks big questions while telling a story that promises it’ll have some sort of answer to those questions by the end. Ultimately, we get a simple yet beautiful monologue from a central character that brings closure to the story and offers a perspective on the questions it raises. It’s not an answer, but it’s something to strongly consider.
Now, very quickly, let’s discuss another Ridley Scott classic – Alien: the film that Prometheus serves as a prequel to. (Don’t listen to what Ridley Scott or Damon Lindelof say. It’s a prequel, through and through.) At its core, Alien is a horror film; a slasher flick in space where the heroes are trapped with a killer that’s out for their blood. It’s a film that focuses more on its horrors and scares than its themes, but still works to near perfection because it doesn’t need big themes to work when its scares are doing all the heavy lifting, and doing so competently. It brings up a theme of corporate evil late in the film, but it works within the context of the scene it’s placed. Overall, Alien is a great horror movie that works almost perfectly within that mode of operation.
Alien and Blade Runner are not only two Ridley Scott films, but are also good examples of how great science fiction is done. Great science fiction doesn’t always need to ask big questions or draw from deep themes, nor does it need to be operating only through set pieces. It’s a genre where either goal is acceptable, and even more admirable when the two are mixed. So why did we feel disappointed by Prometheus when it seemed to have that very admirable mixture of elements?
The ultimate problem with Prometheus is that it wants to be the best of both of these worlds, but ultimately can’t find a satisfying balance between them. During the first act, characters (Quite unsubtly) pose big questions and make big statements about life, the universe, creation, and an assortment of other things. From there it enacts big set pieces full of scares, and horrors reminiscent of the ones we saw in the first Alien movie. Eventually, both the need to build towards a denouement for these themes and the need to end a story that is constantly escalating in the way it puts its characters in certain danger comes to a head, and Scott and his crew can’t find a satisfying way to tie it all together. In the end, it felt like they couldn’t find a way to synthesize the film thematically within the storyline they had built, and decided to just end it suddenly.
This is all not to say that Prometheus is a necessarily bad film. It is good, and many of its set pieces are truly spectacular. The visuals in general are gorgeous, and Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David is terrific. What kills the whole production is its confusion about what to do with its material. It clearly wants to talk about big questions, it just doesn’t know what answers to give.
Clearly, the film wanted to fall under the category of “topical” science fiction, which is the category that the aforementioned Blade Runner fell under. It wanted to tell a story that followed a central theme, and used the realm of science fiction to give service to that theme. In Prometheus, Ridley Scott and his writer, Damon Lindelof, clearly wanted to discuss not only our creation, but also the ramifications of being a creator and the nature of life itself. They establish these themes loudly and clearly at the beginning, but by the end no definitive conclusions are made. The way the story develops doesn’t lend itself to culminating on a thematically satisfying note.
Prometheus clearly wants to be a philosophically challenging film, but another thing it seems to want is to be the heir to Alien. This is fitting enough, since it is the prequel to that film. However, it makes the choice of shifting its focus back and forth between big, frightening set pieces and moments that awkwardly and unsuccessfully hint at the heavy themes it sets up. It seems to want to be as great a horror film as Alien, but it keeps oscillating its focus between being a horror film and being an inelegantly ponderous mediation on existence.
Now, Prometheus has a score of other problems beyond its conflicted approach. Besides David, there are no really compelling characters in the film, and often times these characters change in service of what Scott and Lindelof want to do with the story. Its biggest problem, though, is its constant shifting between pure horror with no thematic bearings and rumination on existence with supposed metaphysical implications. Compare this to Alien, which remains almost purely a horror film, or Blade Runner, which allows its themes to guide it through the story towards the film’s finale. These films are great because they stick to a single approach and follow through with it. This process can apply to great films in any genre, but with science fiction, it’s key. This is a genre known for being driven by theme or being driven by spectacle, and usually, if films can do one of those two and make it work, it’s a wonderful thing to witness. Prometheus wants to do both, which can surely be done. Blade Runner made it work, but Prometheus just simply couldn’t.
I will stress again that Prometheus is not a bad film. It is simply a muddled one in a beautiful package, but for that it is only mediocre science fiction. Great science fiction does exist, and when done well it can be revelatory. The genre allows for the exploration of just how far human imagination can go, and just where it might lead us. It can allow for old stories to become new again with a brand new coat of paint, and it can drive us to make a better future, or in some cases a better present. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis, and Blade Runner don’t come along often, but when they do the conversations that grow from their musings are provocatively stimulating.
Science fiction that focuses more on adventure like Star Wars gets made all the time, and often not very well. When someone knows how to nail a story on the scale and in the vein of Star Wars, it’s pure magic. Often what constitutes science fiction across these different films is the same: Embracing the imagination it takes to envision a different world of endless possibilities, and what those possibilities let us do as imagineers. If you see Prometheus and it isn’t everything you had hoped it would be, don’t panic. There is a world of great, thrilling, and intellectually exciting science fiction out there waiting for you. Like the archaeologists at the beginning of Prometheus, though, you need to embrace the search it will lead you on.