I just saw Prometheus and, for some reason, I can’t get The Tree of Life out of my head. I know I just lost 80% of my readership, but the rest of you hear me out.
These two movies have very little, if anything, in common, I grant you. Prometheus is the big-budget, highly anticipated summer blockbuster “prequel” to an insanely beloved franchise directed by a popular director and The Tree of Life was a divisive, enigmatic fever dream by a reclusive director known for creating rambling and beautiful works of art that appeal to anything but the masses.
But what both Prometheus and The Tree of Life do have in common is a passionate sense of being, of purpose and ambition, and even basic story: the origin of life. All of these reasons are why I can’t untie these two movies in my head. But mostly, I just can’t ignore the fact that what these movies really share for me is a unique cinematic experience that reminds me why I love movies.
The Tree of Life was my favorite movie of last year because it was gorgeous, deep and moving. I hadn’t had an experience in the theatre like that in a very long time. It was packed with big concepts, like birth, death and, well, life itself. Mostly, though, it was a visual masterpiece that challenged every one of the senses and I couldn’t let it go.
Prometheus is a much less visionary film, but it is equal in scope and ambition and, for all of you who hated Tree of Life, Prometheus is a whole hell of a lot more fun. While it also deals with a lot of big ideas, Prometheus is not content to sit and ponder them the way Tree of Life does. Prometheus is not only about the origins of mankind, but about those willing to take action to seek out the proof, no matter the risk.
Widely considered to be the prequel to director Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1979 sci-fi blockbuster Alien (and subsequent sequels), Prometheus is the story of a mission into the deepest parts of space to locate a theoretical group of planets that may or may not hold the secret to the origin of humankind. Of course, what the members of this mission don’t know and what the audience of course does know, is that what awaits them, somewhere and somehow, is something very bad and that’s exactly what we’ve paid our money to see.
And even though we don’t exactly get all of our money’s worth, what we do get at times are some of the best sci-fi movie effects I’ve ever seen. Director Scott, who revisits his original movie in more ways than one, knows how to build the suspense and to deliver moments of absolute terror mixed with revulsion and delicious ickiness. This is outer space, after all, so there are no rules, and there are no limits, both in imagination and in delivery. The effects are spectacular and there is not a single image on the screen here that isn’t brilliant.
But, unfortunately, Prometheus fails to live up to the potential and impact of its predecessors. While the film looks amazing and creates a mesmerizing sense of place (the ship itself is by far the coolest spaceship ever put on film), I felt a bit withdrawn from its ambitious plot as it became more and more convoluted and wandered away from the simplicity of man vs. alien that became the most riveting and interesting element of the previous films. The aliens here are absolutely awesome, but we don’t see them nearly enough. So much of this movie is spent building a tension that should pay off but rarely does. Don’t get me wrong, there are scenes here that are phenomenal, but they are too few and far between.
And I so want to pile on the script, about its giant gaping holes and some of the unbelievable and impossible plot points, but I can let all of that go in the spirit of the genre. Harder to let go of is how the writers again missed a chance to create anything other than stock characters, especially considering the talent they had to work with. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce are stuck playing one-dimensional, go-nowhere, add-nothing roles, and the underrated Idris Elba is relegated to the background—how I would have loved to see him more. But, thankfully, Scott makes full use of Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, two actors who can take on anything and deliver. Rapace carries the movie with her Ripley-esque anti-hero quality, playing a scientist who reluctantly realizes that what she thought would be a mission of knowledge and peace has turned into a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions. Rapace doesn’t have the physical presence of previous Alien heroine Sigourney Weaver, but she makes up for it with spunk and a never-say-die attitude, even in the most dire (and hard to believe) circumstances. Rapace is the center of the best, most disturbing and most memorable scene in the movie, one that will be talked about for a while. But Michael Fassbender is the best thing in the movie, playing an android designed to guide and advise the mission, but whose agenda becomes increasingly contrarian. Fassbender echoes the tone established by Ian Holm, who played an android in the original Alien movie, but Fassbender is a bit more playful and a whole lot more central to the story here as his character of David is in control of much more than his colleagues realize.
In the end, Prometheus works, even if it could have been a little tighter and a little less ambitious. But it is definitely worth the price of admission for Scott’s directorial vision and for the CGI effects that remind you how far we’ve come in 33 years. And I promise, no matter how confusing this script may be, it’s much easier to understand than The Tree of Life.