Prometheus is a film abnormally resistant to definitive statements, and movie reviewing is a form that lives and breathes definitive statements, and this brings us to a pretty pass. I will, anyway, begin with what might well be the only absolute judgment on the film that I'm willing to pass, and it is this: the last 25 minutes of the movie, perhaps just the last 20, are an unmitigated car-wreck of lousy dramatic contrivance, shamefully illegible editing, on-the-fly changes to characters that serve only to keep driving things forward and to hell with logic, a sequel hook that promises further emphasis on the least interest parts of this movie, and a final gesture that is, I am certain, meant to be read as a complex way of underlining the degree to which the film both is and is not a prequel to and remake of director Ridley Scott's 1979 breakthrough Alien, but which plays instead like an excruciating bit of fan-service tacked on by people who neither understand nor care for the original film that they're referencing. I will confess that it is all ramshackle enough to leave a rather acidic taste in the mouth, so much so that I found myself filing out of the theater wondering if I had actually enjoyed a movie that was for every bit of its first hour as satisfying in every way as any effects-driven summer picture has been for at least a couple of years now.
That theater was, by the way, a 3-D IMAX venue, and that is the way I propose you should see the film; if not in IMAX, then at least, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, in 3-D. This is unquestionably the best use of that sometimes-gimmicky, sometimes-revelatory, sometimes-both technology since Hugo; and hey, look, I was just able to make another definitive statement, a positive one this time! But back to my point, which was: Prometheus is often good and sometimes bad and occasionally horrendous as a narrative, but it is never, ever, less than a stone-cold masterpiece of design and world-building; production designer Arthur Max and set decorator Sonja Klaus and a whole platoon of credited art directors have very nearly equaled the genre-defining achievement of Alien, in creating a futuristic world that is wildly detailed and extraordinarily plausible, not just as a natural development of our own current level of technology and design mentality (the film is set, rather optimistically, in the latter half of the 21st Century), but also because it has been fully worked-out as a world to itself in which everything makes some kind of intuitive sense and there are no buttons for the sake of buttons, no high-tech idiocy that nobody would actually want, though it "looks cool". It is really quite great, and that's before the film ends up inside an extra-terrestrial spacecraft, where our human protagonists accidentally unlock a video log that re-creates the three-dimensional events of 2000 years ago using floating incandescent particles that take the shape of creatures running, shooting, dying; in 3-D, this single effect is everything that spectacular Hollywood movies are meant to be the best at, a transporting moment in which a cluster of very imaginative creative types all bend their skills together to create something that is, for one sublime moment, like absolutely nothing else.
So, yeah, the film looks astounding, and on those grounds alone I cannot help but suggest that every last person reading this should see it. And not even feel guilty about it, either. Because it's not like Prometheus has a really bad script, nor that Scott does a poor job of directing it. To tell the truth, I still haven't quite made up my mind on how the film functions as a drama, though I will confess that my suspicions have been tending consistently towards, "not very well".
The short version of the plot: a pair of archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, fighting the English language to a draw) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), have discovered fairly ironclad evidence that at some point, thousands of years in Earth's past, the planet was visited by a race of space travelers who very well might have had something to do with the creation of humanity, though what "something" that is is a mystery. This discovery triggers the Weyland Corporation to send a science vessel, the Prometheus, on a mission to the planet apparently described in Shaw and Holloway's artifacts, in the hope of meeting the creatures that made us. The usual assortment of unstrustworthy types are assembled onboard, the most important being Captain Janek (Idris Elba), extraordinarily shady Weyland representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and other Weyland represenative David (Michael Fassbender), a state-of-the-art android specially appointed to the crew as an agent of no less a figure than industrial giant Peter Weyland himself (Guy Pearce, giving an indescribably distracting cameo in some of the worst old-age makeup this side of Armie Hammer). And once we get this far, the plot is basically Alien in the broad strokes and even down to some very fine points of specificity.
The Alien relationship is by far the most puzzling and difficult aspect of Prometheus - much more so than its ballyhooed thematic ambition about the origin of life and mankind's relationship to its creator, a notion that the filmmakers undoubtedly regard as more profound than it proves to be in the execution, in part because it is a truly ancient idea in science fiction, and in part because Scott and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof rely on overt Christian imagery as far too much of a crutch. What is clear enough is that the film takes place earlier in the chronology of the same universe as Alien, though not necessarily any of its sequels or spin-offs; that, in fact, the events of its closing act can be scene as a direct precursor to the events of Alien, with a sufficient number of leaps of faith; that the plot is largely a repeat of the original film, with a slow-moving first half given largely to establishing the world though not the characters (who are largely ciphers), following as the ensemble does some exploring, and then it gives way to a second half in which something is awakened that was best left alone and a great many people end up dying before... well, I guess it's technically spoilery to say more, though anyone who has seen Alien has absolutely no excuse not to predict in fairly good detail what happens at the end of the movie.
It is not only tempting, but practically obligatory, to understand Prometheus as being Scott's commentary on Alien, how cinema has changed since then, and how his own career has evolved; it is virtually impossible to regard Prometheus as being just its own thing, though I think it would be a good deal easier to enjoy it if one could manage to do so (though, if it truly were its own thing & not meant to be thought of as an explication of Alien, it would thereupon become necessary to regard it as one of the most unabashed and shameless Alien rip-offs that has ever been made). Simply trying to parse out how the two films are related - something the last scene of Prometheus makes both unavoidable and insoluble - is to engage in a kind of laboratory experiment Scott is conducting, in which Prometheus is a litmus test for fanboys. And by recycling most of the ingredients of the 1979 film in a completely new emotional register, Prometheus demands that we re-evaluate our perspective on that film while also calling attention to how we respond to the new film; it's also something of an experiment in how meaning is even generated in film, because what amounts to an identical plot is given completely different emphasis because of what strikes me as being the most important difference between the two films, which is that Alien is first and above all a horror film, and Prometheus, despite a profoundly grueling scene of body horror that is its very best sequence in a walk, simply isn't.
All of this is theoretical and fascinating and dense, and not really at all what watching Prometheus is like; it's the post-film debate that tries to make sense of the weird hodge-podge that the movie itself ends up being. Really, there's quite a lot that's terrible about Prometheus: it is a film of ideas in which the ideas are allowed to starve from inattention, and it is a film about finding the answers to great questions that doesn't itself ask the questions nor muse about the answers. The nice way to describe it is as a genre riff that marries the sobriety of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the thrills and action of a sci-fi monster movie, but that's being awfully generous to the screenwriters. The cast is uniformly lost in characters that don't do much of anything besides stand around and brood until the third act causes them to act in utterly inexplicable ways, with the single, marvelous exception of Fassbender, whose Peter O'Toole flavored performance of a android with just the slightest inkling of self-awareness is the only point where all of the philosophisin' and thematic grinding actually meets a human dimension that makes it feel like anything other than a blind.
But then... it's gorgeous, and until the editing starts to implode, it's so very easy to get caught up in the moment-to-moment energy, and the way that all of the inexplicable and esoteric gestures at the edges of the film, that make no sense if you don't spend three days mucking about in viral videos and extra-cinematic folderol, can wash over you in a sort of blanket of sensory overload even if none of it makes any sense, and even if it certainly feels like doing the work of figuring out how it does make sense would just lead to disappointment... it's engaging in every other regard than on an intelletual level, and this is absolutely terrible for a movie that makes such a big fuss about thinking, but it's far more than most big studio movies with their crabbed, factory-produced visual sensibility can claim, and if there's nothing here remotely satisfying on the level of Scott's earlier experiments in science fiction and visual style, at least it's not because the film assumes we are idiots. That alone is refreshing in this day and age.