The only possible explanation is that Ridley Scott has a Duke Brothers–style bet running with George Lucas: Who can produce the most crushingly disappointing prequel to a beloved classic of late-70s science fiction cinema? There’s no other way to account for the tedious, incoherent two hour train wreck that is Prometheus—a film whose powerhouse ensemble cast and stunning visuals ultimately fail to rescue it from a script that feels like it was fished from a dumpster of rejected SyFy Original Movie treatments.
How bad is it? The one and only character who doesn’t feel like a robot is, in fact, a robot. The protagonists are so flat and irritating that you end up rooting for the aliens to wipe out humanity—just as long as these guys die first. Nothing about this movie makes sense—not in the cool David Lynchian “makes you think” way, but rather in a “you didn’t think very much about this script, did you?” way. It’s what happens when nobody tells you your apres-bong dorm conversations were not, in fact, super deep. A partial list of plot holes and problems, which will contain many, many spoilers, just in case you’re still planning on throwing away your hard earned money. If you’re really that intrigued by the premise, though, I’d recommend just watching Stargate again.
- The movie opens with an alien “Engineer” preparing to seed a primordial planet—presumably Earth—with life. He accomplishes this by drinking a black goop which causes him to die in agony, disintegrating at the cellular level. It looks cool, but forces you to wonder: Is this really the best means available for this incredibly advanced species to introduce genetic material to a planet? It’s a little like finding out that Prometheus brought fire to humanity by setting himself on fire despite the ready availability of kindling. As with many, many other bizarre moments in this movie, this makes sense at a thematic and allegorical level, but fails at the level of elementary plot logic. This is why doing allegory well is hard: Your story actually has to work at a second level without shattering the viewer’s suspension of disbelief on the first level. Throughout the movie, you get the sense that the authors have decided that if it works symbolically, it doesn’t need to make sense narratively.
- The movie proper begins with the discovery of a glyph that appears in the art of many human civilizations separated by vast distances in time and space. Apparently the configuration of five stars, depicted at the resolution of cave paintings, is sufficient to uniquely identify one area of space 35 light years away. Noomi Rapace concludes that this is an invitation from the aforementioned aliens, who not only visited earth in ancient times, but actually created the human species. Not one shred of evidence for this hypothesis is ever provided, but it’s what Noomi “chooses to believe,” even though this is in fairly obvious tension with Christian doctrine, which she also “chooses to believe.”(She later suggests that maybe God made the aliens, without any acknowledgement that this would rescue deism, not Christianity.) Nevertheless, this is all it takes to persuade the Weyland Corporation to spend a trillion dollars sending not an unmanned probe but a ship full of human scientists on a two-year voyage in cryostasis to see if Erich von Daniken was right after all.
- A big chunk of this tedious exposition is delivered by a hologram of CEO Peter Weyland, who is inexplicably played by Guy Pearce in bad latex makeup rather than an actual old person, even though no younger version of the character is ever seen. Weyland claims he will have died by the time they see this recording, but this turns out to be a deception: He’s actually also in cryostasis on the ship. Since Weyland’s plan involves him being revived once they’ve made contact with the aliens, he must know that this will be exposed as a deception within a day or two, making the whole elaborate ruse completely pointless, except as a setup for a lame third-act reveal.
- Ditto the fact that Charlize Theron is Weyland’s daughter: This is kept secret for no reason beyond setting up a meh-inducing late reveal. Her motives are even more opaque. She believes the entire mission is just a hazardous wild goose chase, and only wants to inherit her father’s empire. She joins them on this 4-year-plus mission because she doesn’t want to hang around squabbling over who runs the company… even though her best-case scenario would appear to involve doing this when she gets back from the perilous mission, having given her rivals 5 years to scheme in her absence.
- Weyland’s primary motive, we eventually learn, is the hope of learning from the aliens some means of further prolonging his life, as he has hit the limits of artificial extension and is near death. Except he can apparently remain alive in cryostasis indefinitely. So instead of funding a probe and further medical research while he waits on ice for the next breakthrough, he has packed himself on this unprecedented and incredibly hazardous voyage.
- Weyland also takes off on a forced and clunky tangent about how his Android “son” David can’t appreciate his own immortality because he lacks a soul. There’s no hint that scientific supergenius Weyland detects any tension between this quaint notion and his apparent conviction that humans, too, have been “engineered” by an advanced biological race.
- Upon arriving at their destination, we see that the team has incredibly sophisticated mapping probes, but charge into an alien facility themselves without waiting for the probes to finish scanning the structure. Immediately upon discovering that there’s a breathable atmosphere within the facility, one Dr. Holloway brazenly pulls off his helmet—chiding his colleague and lover to not “be a skeptic,” because apparently skepticism is anathema to good scientists. Though it’s later confirmed they have no way of being sure the air isn’t full of strange pathogens, and everyone else points out that this is insane, the rest of the team nevertheless immediately follows suit when it doesn’t result in his instant death.
- A hologram recording showing the apparent deaths of many of the aliens millennia earlier is triggered. The supposedly superintelligent android shines a flashlight on the holograms in an effort to see them better.
- The Shaggy and Scooby of the film—a biologist and a geologist—freak out at the sight of dead alien bodies, despite having been willing to truck 35 light years on a perilous exploratory mission, and hasten to head back to the ship in a panic. They get lost, despite the fact that the geologist is the one with mapping expertise. This fear then evaporates as quickly as it appeared, as the biologist decides he should recklessly cozy up to a terrifying alien serpent creature. To nobody’s surprise, it quickly kills the biologist, while his geologist colleague is dissolved in black goop, only to later reappear as a zombie in a completely pointless fight scene. This is a pattern. In almost every scene, members of this handpicked group of top scientists for a trillion-dollar mission routinely make the kind of wildly irrational blunders that we strain to accept when it’s half-drunk teenagers in slasher pics. Nobody, at any time, acts remotely like a scientist
- The DNA of the alien Engineers is apparently a perfect match for human DNA, despite the fact that they’re like 8-feet tall with grey skin, no body hair, and completely black eyes. Just how this could actually be true so many millions of years later remains a puzzle for the viewer.
- Android David indicates that he thinks he can read the alien language. Nobody follows up with him on this or suggests that deciphering their records might be urgent, especially when it’s clear they’ve got a lethal contagion on the loose.
- With half the team out exploring the hazardous alien facility, Space Captain Stringer Bell decides to abandon his post at the comms station to bang Charlize Theron. Which, at some level, fair enough… but nobody ever suggests this is a gross dereliction of duty.
- Android David infects one of the scientists with the black alien slime for no apparent reason, despite the obvious danger this poses. (Oddly, David’s actions do make sense if you assume he has the same goal as the treacherous android Ash in Alien—to preserve the xenomorph as a biological weapon—though there’s no indication of this, and it would seem to require knowledge none of the characters could possibly have.)
- The aforementioned infected scientist can see there’s something obviously wrong with him, but instead of immediately seeking medical attention, decides to risk himself and the entire crew—including the love of his life—by pretending he’s just hunky dory until he literally collapses.
- Android David tells Noomi she seems to be about “three months pregnant” (about ten minutes after we awkwardly introduce the idea that she’s infertile for the first time)—then immediately reveals that the “fetus” is an alien squid thing. Maybe he read something about the normal gestational cycle of alien squid things in the hieroglyphs? Because… how the hell does he know what “three months” looks like? When she pleads with him to cut it out, he attempt to knock her out and put her in stasis, again for reasons unclear. She then neglects to mention this unsporting behavior to anyone, and nobody seems at all curious when she shows up bloodied and bedraggled after performing an emergency auto-caesarian. David, who was previously so keen to retrieve squid-fetus for whatever reason, exhibits no interest in what might have happened to it.
- At one point, Space Captain Stringer Bell abruptly intuits that they’ve landed at a WMD manufacturing plant wisely situated far from the Engineers’ home world, though it’s not remotely clear that his explanation is anything more than a wild guess. Maybe it’s just what he “chooses to believe”? This raises the additional question: Why did the aliens leave us with an invitation to their weapons depot?
- The sophisticated alien computer has a sort of flute-like control mechanism, apparently used exclusively to turn the system on, at which point it’s operated by buttons. Which is like having a remote control for your TV, except for the power button, which takes the form of a flute. Why don’t they just have an on button? Or an entirely flute-based control system? Because space, shut up.
- A member of this incredibly advanced species that created humanity is found in stasis and awakened. Confronted by a group of humans, including an android that speaks its language, and obviously lacking any knowledge of how many others there might be, or what weaponry they might have, this advanced being makes no effort to gather any information. It roars and begins acting like a space monster, attacking the party with its bare hands.
- When Space Captain Stringer Bell decides he must sacrifice himself to stop the Engineer from returning to earth and destroying humanity, his crew almost gleefully volunteer to join him, on the grounds that he is a bad pilot and will need their help… to ram a spaceship the size of a city block. (As a commenter suggests, it’s possible that this is said sarcastically, and they’re actually just needlessly throwing their lives away in a gesture of solidarity. Hey, what are buddies for?)
- Charlize Theron is crushed to death when said ship topples because she runs along its falling length instead of, you know, going sideways. (In an apparent repudiation of Newton along with Darwin, the fast-moving ship basically drops out of the sky in a straight line rather than falling in an arc to crash miles away.) Noomi survives because the gazillion ton space ship that has just fallen out of the sky in flames hits… a rock or something. So the ship halts a few inches above her head.
- The Engineer survives this crash and almost instantly locates Noomi Rapace in order to continue the effort to kill her, again with his bare hands. The rationale for this is, again, totally opaque, especially given that we then learn there are dozens of other ships—possibly including other Engineers in stasis, though nobody exhibits any curiosity about this possibility either.
- Noomi’s squid-fetus, meanwhile, has grown to monstrous proportions despite being locked in a small room with no sources of food or other places for the additional mass to have come from.
- We end with Noomi heading for the homeworld of the creatures who we’ve just learned are determined to immediately kill any human they see.
There’s more, of course. More excruciating, formulaic dialogue. More emotionally flat scenes tacked on in a desperate, failed attempt to flesh out the characters enough that we might care what happens to any of them. The ham-fisted gestures in the direction of deep questions about which, ultimately, nothing interesting is said or even implied. But this should give you a rough idea of what we’re dealing with. In fairness to the Engineers, my experience of human culture consisted of this movie, I’d probably want to wipe the species out too.
Addendum: The folks at Red Letter Media have a more charitable video review that pokes at some of the same holes. Like these guys, I didn’t want to harp on everything that’s not explicitly and laboriously explained, because there are plenty of things that are left deliberately ambiguous or merely implied and left for the reader to puzzle out, and that’s all to the good. It’s fine that they don’t spell out exactly why the Engineers changed their mind about humanity (there’s a strong hint in the allusion to some catastrophe “about 2000 years ago”), or detail the precise nature of the Black Goo. It’s good to leave a few mysteries, and a smart audience doesn’t need everything handed to it on a silver platter. But there’s a difference between a cosmic conundrum or an implicit motive and a simple plot gap or character inconsistency, especially when they’re piled atop each other in such quantity. That starts looking less like deliberate mystery and more like simple bad writing.