There is a moment towards the end of Ridley Scott‘s Alien prequel Prometheus in which a character, searching for the meaning of life and death, is left for dead. In this character’s final existential moment (or, maybe it isn’t . . . you’ll have to see the movie to find out the answer to this vague spoiler), he remarks that at the end of it all, there is “nothing.” Unfortunately, nearly every audience base that Prometheus attempts to target (fans of the Alien films, sci-fi films, horror films, or all of the above) comes away with the same same sentiment once the final credits role. Prometheus, while a dazzling piece of visual storytelling and one of the few films worthy of the 3D ticket surcharge, is a cinematic disappointment not witnessed since the sequels to The Matrix were released.
The film begins with a series of questions that extend from prehistoric time to the not-so-distant future. We watch as a large, mysterious humanoid drinks a corrosive tonic and dives into a waterfall, becoming the seedling that will eventually sprout into all of human life. The film then flash-forwards to the year 2089 as scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover a cave painting in Scotland that depicts the same event. Shortly thereafter, we discover that Shaw and Holloway have linked this image to numerous historical relics, separated temporally and spatially by centuries of time. Their theory is that the ancient beings—whom they dub “Engineers”—arrived to terraform Earth at different times but they differ on the motive. Shaw views the aliens as being a manifestation of God while Holloway pins them down as the beginning step in Darwinian evolution.
The film then flash-forwards . . . again, this time to 2093 (Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof co-wrote the screenplay, so many of the tropes like flash-forwards and begging questions without answers also run rampant here). Shaw and Holloway’s research has inspired trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to sponsor a voyage to LV-223, the planet depicted in the cave paintings. The scientists—along with a crew including a pilot (Idris Elba), corporate suit (Charlize Theron), and robotic assistant (Michael Fassbender)—have been put into a state of hibernation aboard the spaceship Prometheus. Their objective is to track down the Engineers and learn more about them.
Of course, this being an Alien prequel, their plans gradually unravel. Crew members are struck down by a virus that takes the form of a thick black liquid flowing out of stone vials in an ancient crypt. Some of them die instantly, some attack the survivors with superhuman strength, and one crew member becomes pregnant with Rosemary’s Xenomorph Baby. Eventually they begin to wonder if their creators had actually sought out to destroy them as well . . . this, of course, begs a major question: why bother to even create in the first place? Is God simply a sadist?
So the film has the philosophical depth to ask a bunch of existential questions but—just like those raised by your stoned roommate in college who became permanently sucked into an Ikea couch—never finds any answers for them. Moreover, and this aspect involves minor spoilers, Ridley Scott and the screenwriters completely botch the film’s prequel status. First, the biological linkages don’t sustain the pressure placed upon them and quickly break apart. In Alien, the creature begins as a facehugger, impregnates a human, and spawns a small snake-like creature that grows into H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph. Here, the creature begins as a facehugger, impregnates a character, and spawns a Xenomorph. What happened to the third step? Secondly, the Space Jockey from Alien is shown dead from the chest-busting Xenomorph baby in his pilot seat. The space jockey in Prometheus dies elsewhere. Are these two separate creatures that give birth to the same type of alien? Or is this just sloppy storytelling? In the end, this is all indicative of the larger problem that Prometheus has: inattentive storytelling that masquerades as existential ambiguity.