Damon Lindelof is a jackass.
I know those are strong words to open a review with, but I’m trying to provide a sensational opening to get your motor charged for what I’m about to say. Lindelof was one of the head writers of “Lost”, a television show about a mysterious island that expresses incalculable power (e.g. healing a man who has lost the ability to walk, keeping another man alive for centuries). From the outset, the show implied that there was some grand scheme at work and that all of the pieces would fall into place eventually. When the show ended its run in 2010, it did so with a thud: many unfinished threads of plot remained, and the conclusion as a whole went beyond unsatisfying… it was offensive. The show had led viewers on for years to believe that intelligent design was present, when in fact there was none. Some try to defend the show in hindsight, claiming that it works on an episode-by-episode basis, but this was never the way the program was intended to be taken – as evidenced by the soap opera form it emulated. Further, this comes across to my eyes as mere justification for terrible writing.
With Prometheus, Lindelof has done it again. With total disregard for concerns about plot holes, whether characters are acting in realistic ways, or – let’s just say it – story structure entirely, the man has crafted an ugly blight of a movie. And once again, even though the film is more interested in looking good than being good, it has the gall to pretend to be about abstract philosophical questions: the nature of our existence, what it means to be human, to what extent science can hope to resolve philosophical dilemmas. In fact, it is the film itself rather than the android David (Michael Fassbender) which “has no soul” – a motley collection of half-formed ideas and the occasional visually dynamic scene distract from the movie’s empty-headedness.
Perhaps the best illustration of the film’s outrageous gracelessness comes in a scene where starship commander Ms. Vickers (Charlize Theron) confronts the grizzled old man who made her journey into the far reaches of space possible. He has apparently limitless wealth and has gathered 17 individuals on this expedition in an effort to find a possible alien race which may have created our own. Cave paintings across varying locations and time periods have exhibited the same strange constellation, so there’s got to be something out there. During the scene in question, Vickers questions the older gentleman’s hubris and ultimately finishes her sentence with a venomously snarled, “Father.” This is treated as though it’s supposed to be some kind of revelation, but there is literally zero emotional punch. Even if their relationship hadn’t been telegraphed from the start, the news has absolutely no bearing on the story in any way. It feels like a crude substitute for actual storytelling, a go-to dramatic instrument placed here for the looks alone.
That’s par for the course with Prometheus, which gets by on its fans’ willingness to forgive a lack of cohesion by calling it “open to interpretation”. Why the android David would sabotage the mission (in a peculiarly round-about way), why the race found on that distant planet seeks to destroy the humans, why a star-map all over Earth leads to a deserted (possibly military?) outpost, why there are holographic recordings showing aliens running down corridors or opening a second hologram, why an alien creature destroys itself in the opening shot – by this theory, it’s all part of a greater plan, and we are lucky to have the opportunity to try to parse it. In a great piece about some of the backlash the film has received, my friend Levi Agee compares the tangled mess to a tree sprouting in the corner of your yard: “I can have faith that either the engineer of that tree’s growth placed it there for a reason or I can ignore the logic and just enjoy it for its shade and beauty.” Allow me to amend that analogy somewhat… it’s more like finding branches and leaves all over your yard where there is no tree. You could try to just embrace the mystery and learn to love the disorganization, but more likely you’ll clean the debris from your lawn.
Prometheus is primarily debris. A major thread through the film concerns the intersection of faith and science, but yet again the purpose of the conversation is barely discernible. The closest the movie comes to engaging this line of thought comes when scientist Dr. Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) tells his lover/colleague Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) that the discovery of an alien species which gave rise to mankind necessarily rules out the existence of God. It’s an embarassingly trite argument, and even this gets sidestepped in favor of a sob story about Shaw’s alleged infertility – another cliched dramatic device shoe-horned into the film for no particular reason. Beyond this, the word “faith” exists in the film as a meaningless buzzword that sounds important but means nothing. “Have you lost your faith?” David asks Shaw near the end of the movie, and she doesn’t respond because the answer is irrelevant. David did not ask in order to receive an answer, or to contemplate what the answer means. He asks because it sounds heady and deep.
I have taken care not to mention until now the movie’s various other annoyances. The geologist who screams, “I don’t care about anything but rocks!” when struck by the possibility of danger (I’m not sure if that’s a direct quote, but it very well could be). The supposed scientists who immediately remove their helmets when they learn that the atmosphere is breathable. The awkward, uncomfortable conversation Vickers shares with the ship’s captain (Idris Elba) about whether she wants to get laid. The way that characters run in a straight line when attempting to avoid being crushed by a rolling object when moving a few feet to the left or right would mean totally avoiding the danger. The many lazy, inconsequential references to Alien (e.g. Shaw cautiously moving through an abandoned spaceship while the lights flicker and strobe, as though viewers are thinking “I totally forgot that this was a prequel to Alien, this parallelism really helps!”).
In short, Prometheus reeks of miscalculation. It acts smart, or thoughtful, or epic, or meaningful, but cannot back any of that up. It assembles tired dramatic elements, lifts a few scenes wholesale from Alien, and otherwise seems comfortable appearing to have connections where there are none.