Oh, I wanted to like this movie so much more than I did.
Between the trailers for the movie, the viral videos, and interviews during its filming, it seemed Prometheus had the potential to be one of the best and perhaps most important science fiction films in a long while. The viral videos and interviews indicated that this was going to be so much more than the usual action fare that has become associated with science fiction movies: it would ask and probe some of the big questions that drive science fiction as a genre. And yet there would still be suspense and action, enough to make summer moviegoers relatively happy. And yet Prometheus really falls short on delivering either of those, making it a curious mishmash that while entertaining didn't shake my world in the way of, say, Children of Men.
It starts promisingly enough, with gorgeous panoramic vistas of remote settings on Earth, fully making use of the 3D technology in breathtaking fashion. The scenes demonstrate loneliness and remoteness coupled with beauty and act as metaphors for the human condition as we currently understand it. The scenes of the ship Prometheus in flight are also beautiful work, but eventually the movie moves to interiors, visually representing the change in attitude on this voyage of discovery. For mankind has received an invitation to the stars, to perhaps discover its origins, and it all goes so bad so quickly.
Noomi Rapace plays Elizabeth Shaw, one of the co-discoverers of the invitation, a specialist on this mission. She is vibrant in her hope and determined in every decision she makes. Accompanying her is her boyfriend, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), the other discoverer, who is fated to an ancillary role in the film, more of a walking plot point than an active participant in the thrust of the movie. Michael Fassbender plays David, the Weyland android accompanying the crew of the Prometheus, and plays it admirably, making the character believable in the midst of actions that the plot forces him to perform, actions that sometimes stretch credulity.
And there is the heart of what ails this story—characters regularly do things that make no sense at all, things that are used to move the story forward. Captain Janek (Idris Elba) tries to assert authority once the Prometheus lands, but his imminently practical suggestions are ignored and overturned by Holloway. David performs sabotage that has interesting and plot-advancing repercussions, but within the plot itself, there is absolutely no reason for him to do it. And sure, I suppose that the movie could be making the point that it's ironic that in our attempt to understand aliens, we don't really understand our own race, but that seems an awful minor point in the grand scheme of rooting out our ancestry to take up so much space in the movie. It's an ugly comparison, but when Prometheus moves into its action/horror sequences, it becomes nothing more than a big-budget slasher film with its limited morality—if you do something stupid you die, usually in horrible fashion. You go in the darkened basement alone, the serial killer gets you; you wander away from the main group inside an alien edifice, you're not going to make it to the end of the film. And just like audiences in those movies, you eventually have to wonder why people in the story keep doing stupid things. As the movie was winding down, I actually started sniggering at the foolishness the plot made the characters go through (protip: if you are being pursued down a hillside by a colossal rolling thing, move at a 90-degree angle to the path of the rolling thing rather than DIRECTLY IN ITS PATH).
All of these miscues distract from the philosophical question of where we came from and our apparent aloneness in the universe. Fans of the genre will recognize that the movie goes through the stages that science fiction has gone through regarding the same question—man is alone; man is not alone but dominant; man isn't dominant at all. I actually like that Prometheus takes another step in that progression, similar to where other stories have gone but not entirely the same. But it's not at all clear why the progression has moved where Prometheus takes it, though I can be satisfied with not being able to understand why aliens do the things they do.
There are a few surprises along the way, which liven up the mediocrity of the plot, but the revelation of which would act as spoilers. There is strong acting, even though the plot makes their actions unfathomable. Idris Elba is actually very strong as the captain though he is a cipher; I'll just assume that his random Southern accent is an affectation of the character similar to his owning an accordion that once belonged to Stephen Stills. And honestly, the exterior shots are stunning, reminding me of the cinematography of BBC's landmark series Planet Earth, but on a much more massive scale. The end result is an entertaining film, just one that doesn't live up to the expectations that were set upon it by all the hype. Fans of the Alien franchise should appreciate this origin story of sorts; it's not exactly a prequel, but it does go a long way towards explaining the background of those movies. And as gorgeous as the 3D is, so much of the movie is shot with interiors that the extra cost may not be worth it.