Bad Syfy makes us groan into our popcorn, good sci-fi makes our brains work a little harder, and great science fiction can challenge and change the way we think forever. Prometheus runs a bell curve between all three. Regrettably, the bulk of Ridley Scott's latest film settles somewhere between decent-to-good, but then there are those outliers; those rare moments of inspiration that make us wish for more in a liberated director's cut, and those clawing moments of desperation that make us beg for a round of rewrites.
With a script tag-teamed by Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (Cowboys & Aliens), Prometheus transports to the year 2089, introducing us to a pair of romantically-involved archeologists (played by the chemistry-free Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) having just discovered the oldest in a line of alien-depicting cave paintings made by civilizations dating back to antiquity. They believe it's an invitation to the stars; a roadmap to the extraterrestrial progenitors of all human life, and they've convinced the dying head of the Weyland Yutani corporation to finance a deep space trip to meet their maker(s). Their solar pilgrimage to the moon LV-223 is overseen by an elegantly uptight corporate hand, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), aided by a more-human-than-human android named David (Michael Fassbender), and padded with a largely irrelevant and nameless crew of sample takers and spaceship console button pushers played by the likes of Idris Elba, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall and Benedict Wong.
As is to be expected any time someone in a sci-fi movie tries to stand on the shoulders of giants, it doesn't go so well when the ship's crew touch down on LV-223 and begin exploring a derelict structure once occupied by a race dubbed the Engineers. Death awaits, and as inevitable as the chaos is here, the preamble to it is the strongest stretch of Prometheus' otherwise muddled story. Ever the purveyor of immaculate production design, Scott's keen awareness of audience behavior and expectation offers plenty of visual geography to lose ourselves in before blips on the radar start drawing us closer to the edge of our seat. It's thrilling to be swept up in these moments, to watch how a sleepless android spends his years, and see a primordial ooze come to life and form the building blocks of familiar horrors.
Those moments prove fleeting, as Scott, Spaihts and Lindelof can't maintain suction for long. When the spell of Dariusz Wolski's bar-raising 3D visuals breaks, it's with clunky, violent spasms. Thoughts jerk from the glossy action to the film at large, and question marks begin to scar the picture like so much acne on a teenager's face. This is Prometheus' downfall. Not questions and a lack of answers - though of those there are plenty - rather a sort of pubescent naïveté. There are grand ideas and intentions seeded into the film, but few of them mature to anything of import.
Instead elements like the droid's favorite movie being Lawrence of Arabia, or the emotional importance of a scientist's crucifix necklace, or a character's inexplicable, rampaging reanimation feel like fruitless flora one must hack out of the way to get to the heart of things. Only Prometheus' heart, all about the unending burdens of faith, is frail. There's a disparity between what's empirical on the screen and what Scott and company are clearly trying to convince the audience is actually on there, just so long as you do your homework after the credits.
And to the film's credit, you will think about it. You'll find it still tumbling in your mind days after, but it comes out none the smoother in the end. The character's motivations still don't make sense. They evolve wildly from scene to scene, which would be fine if the atmosphere on LV-223 being made up of mood-altering gas were a plot point, but it's not. And so it's jarring when characters theorize about one thing and then act in the exact opposite manner in the next scene. It's a schizophrenic fate that befalls nearly every character and the result is a cobbled together stretch of film that plays like a trope in The Cabin in the Woods written to deliver action beats for the audience, not for the characters.
That's not the cast's fault, either. Sticking with tradition, Fassbender's droid does once again steal the show, but there's no weak links here, either. Everyone does a fine job given the material, but they're all Geppetto trying to wish life into wood, and that's no easy feat when your behind-the-camera team of magical fairies are more concerned with what's in a shot than what it should mean.