Let’s play a game. Can you identify which of the below are 1982 reviews of Blade Runner and which are of Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi piece, Prometheus?
“And it's also a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned. Almost nothing is explained coherently, and the plot has great lapses...The end of the film is both gruesome and sentimental. Mr. Scott can't have it both ways, any more than he can expect overdecoration to carry a film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story. That hasn't stopped him from trying, even if it perhaps should have.“
“Design is a vital element, especially if the audience is to accept anyone’s physically imposing vision of the future, but staggering technical virtuosity – in and of itself – can never replace character and story values. And this realization points out Scott’s fatal flaw...Had Scott cared to extend this lavish attention beyond the film’s settings, we might now be contemplating a fully-realized masterpiece. By falling well short of classic status, given the great potential implicit in the material and the film’s undeniable achievements, the film taps a keener disappointment than would be felt in the presence of lesser ambition and lesser results.”
“He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time.”
Answers: It was a trick question. All of the reviews were for Blade Runner’s initial 1982 release; New York Times, Cinefantastique, and Roger Ebert.
The argument could be made that critical pull-quotes for any poorly received film could be compared against any other negative reviews, but it’s curious that in Prometheus’s case, the criticisms are strikingly similar. You can’t remove Ridley Scott from this equation either. This is a filmmaker distinct enough for his body of work to be considered as a body of work. It’s as fair to compare Prometheus to Blade Runner as it would be to rank your favorite Pixar films or spitball on which thriller was Hitchcock’s best.
The internet likes its opinions in tidy flavors of good/bad and right/wrong (makes sense for a digital world to demand binary opinions). The fact that Blade Runner has been embraced as a classic over the years doesn’t negate the original opinions at all, but it should provide an example of how everything deserves context (and time).
Prometheus arrives as a bundle of contradictions -- the seventh film in a tired series that attempts to completely divorce itself of that series, except when it decides to call upon direct reminders of that series. It’s an original work of science-fiction that is also not original at all, cribbing from Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods and clearly acting as a predecessor to Alien. It’s advertised as sci-fi horror, but it tries for something slightly out of its reach -- big questions about man and creation. It also bears the weight of being a Big 3-D Summer Event Movie that also has to serve as “Old Home Week,” with Scott returning to the series he started, following up a film that has become an indisputable classic. Catching lightning in a bottle is hard enough; try replicating the trick thirty-three years later with the whole world watching.
My intent isn’t to make any excuses for Prometheus’s weaknesses. I was satisfied by it as a dark sci-fi adventure story, full of visual dazzle and a low-grade sense of dread that was maintained throughout (and if you’re curious, my expectations for it were a big, fat nebulous question mark -- I had no idea what to expect from the film). It’s become one of those movies that I can’t stop thinking about, and that’s extraordinarily rare for a tentpole sequel. The weaknesses will always be weaknesses, but time and distance will create new opinions (maybe even change old ones), removed from the context and expectations set for the film.
Critics may have been largely sour on Blade Runner at first, but as its influence began to be felt (immediately -- in movies and on TV) and as people began discovering its uniqueness on their own, popular opinion on the film began to change. Prometheus is nowhere near the game-changer that Blade Runner is, but, hell, if movies like Alien3 can go on to become respected genre efforts, then Prometheus should have a healthy future ahead.