2089. During an archaeological dig on the Isle of Skye, scientists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, prominently showing a star pattern in the sky. This same pattern can be found in cave paintings, stone carvings and other artifacts from ancient civilisations that never had any connection with one another. Shaw and Holloway, who believe that humanity was created by another species, convince Peter Weyland, one of the richest people in the world, to fund an expedition to the star system indicated by the pattern.
Christmas, 2093. The interstellar exploration vessel Prometheus arrives at LV-223, a moon circling a giant ringed planet. The crew discover a series of vast, artificial structures and begin an exploration, hoping to find evidence of humanity's creators. Initial findings suggest that the inhabitants of the planet are long dead...until the deaths begin.
Prometheus is a quasi-prequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 classic, Alien. It's set in the same universe and concerns itself with one element from the other films, most notably the origin and identity of the dead 'space jockey' creature found in the first movie. However, contrary to expectations, it's not a direct prequel. There's still a fairly substantial gap (of almost thirty years and several star systems) between the way things are left at the end of Prometheus and where they are at the start of Alien, to be filled in by sequels (if Prometheus is a financial success) or by the viewer's imagination (if it isn't). The distancing of Prometheus from the rest of the franchise allows it to be fully enjoyed without any foreknowledge of Alien, which is a good thing.
Prometheus is Ridley Scott's first foray into SF since 1982's Blade Runner and is also, easily, his best movie since Gladiator. Visually, the film is stunning, rich in detail and thoroughly impressive. Scott's directorial powers have not been diminished by age, with some brilliance evocations of landscape and atmosphere. Nor have his abilities with terror dimmed: there are some moments in the film which are genuinely stomach-clenching, including at least one moment which made the audience I was with react with audible horror (and caused several to walk out). It's also rare in being a movie where the 3D element is successfully integrated with the rest of the picture rather than being an ill-considered afterthought. The effects are, of course, awesome as well, all the more effective for so much being achieved practically rather than CGI. The use of actual, massive sets rather than CGI backdrops also immensely enriches the visual style of the film.
In terms of performances, clearly this was always going to work well: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron are all on top form, delivering convincing and impressive performances. Especially noteworthy are Rapace, our convincing main character, and Fassbender, whose portrayal of an android with ambiguous motivations provides much food for thought.
In terms of pacing, the first half or so of the film works well. We're rushed through early scene-setting scenes and get to LV-223 almost ridiculously fast, with lots of backstory being filled in through a mission briefing sequence. This works well and gets us to the action quickly. Lots of odd elements are established early on (what is David doing in that secret chamber on the ship?) and developed in an interesting manner, with some intelligent foreshadowing of a later plot twist. Initial explorations of the alien planet are hampered by an awesome sequence in which the characters are caught up in a silica dust storm, which may be the film's most impressive visual moment (a later 3D holomap sequence is also up there in quality).
Then, of course, the movie starts to falter. The film's biggest problem is that it is forced to resort to 'movie logic' to keep the story on track. Having the alien planet reconnoitred by probes before Prometheus lands, or having the robotic sphere-things zipping around inside whilst the humans watch from a distance, would be far more logical and convincing than everyone just bundling inside the structure and running around like headless chickens, getting separated, disappearing, killed etc. For a bunch of scientists these guys are pretty inept. Shaw and Holloway's theories about humans being the result of alien genetic engineering are never backed up by evidence (when asked about how her theory is disproved by evolution, Shaw's answer is a moronic, "I choose to believe,") and no-one in the movie has ever heard of quarantine or slow, methodical investigations. There's too much reliance on short decontamination sequences which, predictably, end up not working, allowing mayhem to erupt.
Major characters are also apparently capable of running around and engaging in severe physical exertion minutes after undergoing major and traumatic surgery of the sort that most people would take months to recover from. The less said about the final 'confrontation' in the alien vessel's control centre (in which quite a few of our characters appear to have had full lobotomies) the better, and the musical score is also severely annoying. In some moments, it's okay, but in too many others the overwhelming bombast of the music is tonally inappropriate (I had to double-check to make sure it wasn't the guy who does Doctor Who's music).
There is much to enjoy about Prometheus. It's the best film in the Aliens universe to be released for more than twenty-five years, which is in itself an impressive achievement. It's visually stunning. The performances are excellent. The humanoid alien species (aka 'space jockeys' in the franchise's parlance) are an interesting creation and you definitely end up wanting to know more about them. There's a great deal of backstory that's left undeveloped and it'll definitely be interesting to find out more about why these 'engineers' created humanity and then decided it was a mistake. It's also great to see an adult-oriented, adult-rated film with a big budget which genuinely unsettles and scares the audience. The ingredients are certainly present for something that could have been brilliant.
Instead, the film is sold short by lazy contrivance, dubious movie logic and some poor plotting. Little in the final quarter or so of the film makes sense, the result of it trying to do too much with too many characters in too short a running time (Idris Elba gets sold rather short, despite some excellent lines and moments).
Ultimately, Prometheus (***½) is an overwhelmingly impressive visual spectacle and an effective horror experience, definitely worthy of being seen on the big screen, which is undercut by some severe logic and scripting problems which disrupt the viewer's sense of disbelief. The movie is on general release right now.