Prometheus: humans discover their origins…sort of.

I saw Prometheus recently. Although a fan of many science fiction/horror flicks, I have to say that few are remarkably good. It is difficult to pull off a good film in this genre. The first Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, to which this film is loosely connected, is perhaps one of the best of these types of movies ever made. In its visual effects, the dark and cavernous background of the ship, it portrayed a futuristic world of space travel that seemed far more realistic, and terrifying, than most previous movies in this genre. Before Alien, most spaceships were depicted as roomy, bright and rather pleasant, with lots of happy colors and bright lights. Alien, with its shadowy, almost claustrophobic darkness, changed that forever. I remember when I first saw Alien I thought, “Yeah, this is way space travel in the future, if it does ever happen, will look. The ship will resemble more a giant, dank, dark and grimy oil tanker than a pleasant and sunny hotel resort. And what we find out in space might be unbelievably dangerous.” There was a grim darkness to Alien that appealed to me. It was not heroically gay, like Star Wars.

Sadly, Prometheus does not follow enough in Alien pattern. I can understand how Scott would want to branch off into a new story. He does this quite well. It is a good movie, entertaining, with well designed scenes of danger and terror. The story unfold well. But overall it lacks something. I cannot quite say what, but I was a bit disappointed when leaving the theater. Perhaps Scott, in his attempts to make a film with grand philosophical designs, namely, the origin of human life, overreaches. There are some topics that are simply too big for this or any film to tackle. This is one of them. You simply cannot deal effectively in two hours with such deep, metaphysical questions as the origins of human life. Film does not really lend itself to these questions. In doing so, you sacrifice a bit of good narrative. A movie can touch upon these ideas, tangentially, like 2001, A Space Odyssey, but, like that movie, the film should leave those ideas as merely somewhat confusing questions best left unanswered. And 2001 is a rather strange, although effective, treatment of these questions. What the hell was the monolith? No one knows. Best to leave it at that, as the ridiculous sequel, 2010, proved.

Scott, in attempting to render some sort of concrete, historical narrative for the origins of human existence, tends to make a film which is more in line with a tv show on the hunt for Bigfoot, than an truly deep science fiction film. I think if he had concentrated more on the origins of the horrific xenomorph alien, the creature of the first Alien film, rather than the origin of life on Earth, the film would have been more effective. I go to see most movies to be entertained, first and foremost, and not for philosophical speculation. Not that speculation can result from a film, a good film will produce that, but first and foremost the narrative and characters must be believable and effective. This concept of where man came from is too deep for any film to successfully depict. After realizing they have discovered the origins of mankind, the characters henceforth seem rather ridiculous. It is simply too big a topic for any character to live up to. On the other hand, a good movie about the sinister and potentially catastrophic consequences of biological weapons, which the Alien franchise hints at, as well as this film, is effective. Throwing in the origins of man in the process dilutes that simple but powerful theme. Like a strong hurricane running into even stronger headwinds, such huge themes often fray and damage the power of a film. A good film needs sharp focus. This is especially true for certain genres, such as horror or science fiction.

Nevertheless, Prometheus is worth seeing. The visuals are magnificent, and I rarely go a theater these days unless I know I am going to get good visuals on the big screen. It is entertaining. I felt I got my money’s worth. But if you are looking for the answers to who we are, where we came from, and the meaning of life, you are better off reading some philosophy, or attending Church some Sunday, than seeing this movie. If you want sheer terror and a stimulation for bad dreams, and a cynical notion of what space travel might actually look like someday, the original Alien is still unmatched.