Contains no intentional spoilers
The marketing for the release of Prometheus on DVD and Blu-ray promises that the film will reveal long-waited answers to key questions. Which is outrageous, because the one thing that this film pathologically resists is making anything clear or answering anything at all, even as it piles on a whole boat load of new questions to bamboozle you with.
Now for me, this is not necessarily a bad thing in a movie. A film that artfully obfuscates and teases, which leaves you speculating and discussing theories for weeks afterwards, is entirely welcome – especially if it means that it avoids having to give really trite, hokey answers in the film itself. Stanley Kubrick demonstrated this perfectly with 2001: A Space Odyssey, where some of the original plot ideas would have had the eyes rolling in the aisles accompanied by groans of aesthetic pain, so instead Kubrick dialled it all back and left the whole thing as the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma for people to puzzle over and read into it what they bring to it.
Ridley Scott attempts much the same trick with Prometheus: much is implied and hinted at, and there are some very deep ideas and symbology laid over the fairly sparse plot, but he manages to keep the details vague enough to stop it being too embarrassingly overtly close to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods 70s pseudo-science territory, The X-Files’s conspiracy arc or to invoking the cringeworthy concept of something akin to a space alien Jesus. You can read all those aspects in and roll your eyes on your own time, but at least Scott avoids overtly forcing it upon us in the two hours of running time.
The story, then, can either come across as tantalising and thought-provoking, or as frustrating and full of plot holes and oversights. It’s very much a case of the eye of the beholder on this one, and either view is valid. And maybe the film caught me on a good day, because I’m firmly in the ‘tantalising’ camp even while I’m fully aware of its deficiencies.
I’m less inclined to accept other failings in the script relating to the characters. It irked me that after mounting this half-a-trillion dollar five-year mission, the crack team of scientists burst out of the eponymous Prometheus ship and start running around an alien world prodding and poking everything in sight with absolutely no regard to any recognisable scientific methodology, process or basic health and safety practices. Their behaviour would be reprehensible for any adult of average intelligence let alone for trained scientists – they deserve anything bad that happens to them as a result.
Their basic reactions to what they find are also badly off. They’re on the surface for a few hours before people are whining “Is it time to go home now?” The scientists seem to have no interest or excitement in the world-changing discoveries that they do uncover. One of them even slumps into an alcoholic depression because one day’s reconnaissance in one isolated site on one small part of a giant alien world hasn’t turned up the one result he wanted, even though the rest of his previously-scorned wild theories have nonetheless been miraculously vindicated at a single stroke. Overall, it’s as though the script writers still have the image of the original Alien film’s Nostromo crew in their heads – cynical blue collar workers only in it for the money and the bonuses. They completely misapprehend the nature of the characters that they’re supposed to be writing for here.
Although there’s a nominal crew of 17, only four of them get any real screen time: Noomi Rapace (the original screen Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is the star in the central role of Elizabeth Shaw, and very effective she is too; Logan Marshall-Green is her boyfriend and fellow scientist Charlie Holloway; Charlize Theron plays icy company boss Meredith Vickers with an eerie lack of humanity; and Michael Fassbender totally steals the movie with the standout performance and role as ship’s android David, who has taken to styling himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (now surely that should be a flashing danger sign if ever there was one!)
In the second layer of characters, Idris Elba makes a far bigger and better impression as ship’s captain Janek than the material in the script warrants; Guy Pearce plays an oddly brief cameo under a ton of prosthetic makeup; and Sean Harris and Rafe Spall are totally starved of screen time as well as oxygen as bickering scientific odd couple Fifield and Millburn. Everyone else is essentially set dressing, making no impression whatsoever other than to diffuse the tension and claustrophobia by having too many people cluttering up the place at key moments, especially compared with the tight precision of the seven-man crew of the original Nostromo.
While I’m at it, I’ll add that the other problem with the film for me is that it’s just too like Alien overall. When Scott announced that Prometheus was no longer formally being made as a prequel entry to the Alien franchise, I thought that’s because it had drifted too far away from the Alien series to make that positioning justified. But in fact this is every inch an Alien movie, right down to its basic plot structure, thematic preoccupations and characters. The plot, the pacing, the mood and all the most memorable big plot pay-offs come from Alien: the film can’t really stand up independently without the earlier film being in your mind.
Why’s that a problem? It’s an unfair trick to play on an audience, to tell them that a film is a standalone when it palpably isn’t. And for fans of the original Alien, the amount of references and similarities to the 1979 movie become a distraction that force you to come out of the current cinematic experience in order to compare and contrast, analyse and evaluate everything within the context of the first film. The only difference is that whereas Alien was always a monster/haunted house movie with a sci-fi twist, Prometheus turns that around to become a fully fledged science fiction movie with some added chills.
As a result of the closeness of the film to the franchise the impact of watching Prometheus in its own right is weakened, which is a shame. Because – despite the impression I might have given up to now in this review, and well done those of you who have stuck with it – I actually found this film utterly compelling, enchanting and addictive. At times I flat-out completely loved it, even with (because of?) all its many flaws and deficiencies.
A large part of this spontaneous love affair is to do with the look and sound of the film. It’s one of the most beautifully realised films I think I’ve ever seen: an early five-minute sequence where we follow David around the titular ship and get a guided tour of the state-of-the-art research vessel is the most sustained piece of utter starship porn that I can ever remember seeing. Even Apple, Inc. hasn’t come up with technology this gorgeous, this ‘must-have’, as Scott has here in his first return to the science fiction genre in thirty years.
That beauty extends to the planet exteriors (filmed on location in Iceland) and the rest of the film’s settings. Every frame of the film is just astoundingly beautiful and to die for: it’s one you really have to see in high definition, and it takes a huge amount of willpower not to keep pausing in order to drink in the freeze frame – and if you do pause it, you’ll see just how perfect a transfer the Blu-ray disc has been able to roll out.
Almost as good is the sound of the movie, which really evokes atmosphere as it successfully unnerves and unsettles you as the movie progresses. There are times why I couldn’t work out why I was feeling so on edge – because on on screen the events depicted didn’t seem to warrant it. Then I realised that it was the soundtrack that was getting under my skin and making me so anxious so effectively. Marc Streitenfeld’s restrained, minimalist score is also very effective, following the lead of Jerry Goldsmith’s original 1979 Alien score without too closely pastiching it.
The overall end result is a fantastic piece of ‘world building’, which is what Ridley Scott has always been best at: he presents you with an environment that you not only believe in, but want to stay and live in well beyond the film’s running time. Even the dirtiest, grimiest, most dangerous places look like fabulous places to be once Scott gets his hands on them, whether it’s the xenomorph-infested Nostromo, or the overwrought LA of Blade Runner, the brutality of the Roman Colosseum in Gladiator or the Medieval Crusades of Kingdom of Heaven. This film is no different: Prometheus has the vision of space travel that you really want to be true, and would do almost anything to be a part of. Perhaps that’s why it felt to me that the film was paced too quickly and was over too soon, when it should have taken more time and slowed itself down to allow us all to drink in the experience; and why I had to physically restrain myself from rewatching the film again the minute that it was over.
In other words: this film managed to plug itself into my emotional centre so directly that it appears to have overridden the intellectual critical doubts, reservations and nitpicking that I know are present and very real, and yet at this point just don’t seem to find to matter very much in the final analysis. If I was to sum it up in a star rating, I’d have to say that it’s strong four stars out of five for me: but more important is the fact that I’m going to be rewatching it again real soon. And not just the once, either.
The picture is immaculate and is a must-see in high-definition. The sound is also exceptionally good, conveying both music and sound effects big and small without drowning out the dialogue for once – it’s been balanced by a master. The extras supplied are not extravagant – we’ll come to a significant omission in a minute – but include some interesting deleted scene with filmmaker commentary, and two audio commentaries including one from Ridley Scott himself. There’s some specially shot extra videos from the “Peter Weyland archives” amounting to an extra 20 minutes of take-it-or-leave-it footage
However, there are some caveats about the Blu-ray – starting with that significant omission. 20th Century Fox have adopted a very cynical release strategy here, with the only way of getting the main ‘making of’ documentary by paying £6-£10 more and getting the 3D release. That edition also includes the 2D Blu-ray and the digital copy, but you’re essentially being forced to buy the 3D package if you want the main extra whether or not you have a 3D capable player and TV. Well, that means it’s not an ‘extra’ at all, but a bloody expensive additional purchase bordering on moral extortion in forcing you to buy a product you don’t actually want or need. On principle (not to mention available funds), I stuck with the 2D version.
More seriously, this is the first Blu-ray disc I’ve had any trouble playing on my Sony BDP-S360. The glitches were two-fold: once the film started, any attempt to return to the main menu caused the disc to ‘crash’ and have to be reloaded; and halfway through the film the picture suddenly started to break up into massive pixellation. Fortunately it played fine once the disc was reloaded and the film resumed from the original point of the break-up.
Looking online I see that others have had similar issues with the Blu-ray (the 3D disc as well as the 2D, interestingly.) The answer to the menu glitch appears to be to turn off the player’s BD-Live connectivity (if it’s not usually connected to the Internet.) Sure enough, this fixed that problem for me and the main menu worked fine after that. The pixellation could be likewise related to the network availability issue, while other theories suggest that it’s to do with the latest DRM encoding and that it’s necessary to update the player’s software to the latest version available. While I’ve done this, I didn’t rewatch the whole film from the start to be able to fully confirm that this had actually resolved the problem.