[Warning: contains spoilers]
This could have been fodder for savage cosmic comedy, one that actually could play off the Promethean myth referenced, obviously, by the title. Prometheus' great crime was in giving man the power of a god, in giving mortals the chance at equaling, and perhaps bettering, immortals. The great thing about Greek mythology is how repulsive the gods are. They are belligerent, venal, venereal, and vain to the point of incest—for who else is worthy of a supreme being than something with that being's bloodline? They are deities unworthy of worship other than as a means of staving off death in their thoughtless rampages. If Lindelof ever went any deeper into his mythological fetish than merely connecting a web of references in dense but ultimately facile subtext, he might have truly reflected the nature of the gods Prometheus rebelled against and made something wonderfully deconstructive. That would require a willingness to treat the material with any kind of earnestness or thought, however, and Prometheus is instead one of the most tediously ponderous blockbusters in years even as it also routinely fails to invest its ideas with any severity.
Ridley Scott opens the film with helicopter shots of what one can assume is planet Earth in its infancy, volcanic eruptions cooling in torrents of sulphuric water. Straight-down shots of hardened magma give the impression of veins carrying the planet's lifeblood to its still-forming body. At a waterfall, an alien creature drinks a black fluid that dissolves him, depositing his DNA into the foaming waters as the credits roll. These moments represent the one time Scott's direction achieves any kind of visual grace, a humble beginning that is, though more explicit than the start of 2001, agreeably mysterious and captivating in a manner not unlike Kubrick's masterpiece.
Then, the movie abruptly cuts to the year 2089 as a group of scientists in Scotland discover a cave painting of a star pattern that matches exactly with ones they found in archaeological digs across ancient civilizations all over the world. The two in charge of the expedition, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), date the painting at 35,000 BCE. Later, Charlie says it is 35,000 years old, either because he likes nice round numbers or because he cannot add Common Era to Before Common Era. Elizabeth, for her part, is a Christian despite being a scientist in any capacity but especially a scientist who may have found the way back to humanity's decidedly non-spiritual maker. Her faith becomes a recurring issue only insofar as it allows the film to add yet more half-formed wisps of religious thought.
They track the primitive star maps to a distant moon capable of sustaining life, and the Weyland Corporation funds a covert expedition to meet God. The crew of the titular ship instantly sets in motion a series of problems that spiral ever further out of control as the film progresses. Not to harp on the many ways in which Prometheus suffers compared to Alien, but consider the casting of the two movies. Alien is nearly revolutionary this regard, populating the Nostromo with character actors who look like working class stiffs in space. Everyone on the Prometheus is a star, with the exception of some particularly red shirty fellows who might as well baste themselves in marinade for the benefit of whatever will inevitably consume them in 15 minutes. Everyone in Alien and its sequels tends to be referred to by their last names, stressing how work and assignment forces these people together. Everyone in Prometheus is, despite being strangers hired for a mission for which they are given scant information, on a first name basis.
Once the ship lands on the moon, everything falls apart. As is usual with Lindelof's writing, the supposed depth of his mythological and philosophical wonderings can only be facilitated by characters who do the stupidest thing at every turn. Charlie, upon learning the atmosphere inside a strange installation clearly erected by some sentient species is technically breathable, removes his helmet with no worries for bacteria or any other contaminants which his body would be wholly unprepared to fight. Our two redshirts inexplicably get lost on their way back to the ship, then play around with an actual lifeform they meet on an alien planet as if it were a stray dog. And though these two were always destined to die, they are helped along by the horniness of the ship captain (Idris Elba), who leaves his post monitoring two of his men out in the field to get some nookie from Vickers (Charlize Theron), the Weyland representative.
But hey, at least the film asks some big questions, right? True, compared to most blockbusters, Prometheus aims considerably high in what it wants to say, or what it thinks it's saying. Sadly, at no point does Prometheus follow through on any of its ideas, instead presenting a bunch of theories and leaving them to be argued over for years on Internet forum as false proof of depth. The opening images of the "engineer" sacrificing himself to give life become an endlessly referenced theme, with one character even saying, "Sometimes to create, one must first destroy." But it's not even correct to call this a theme, as it plays no part in the actual story of Prometheus. The nearest the movie comes to building on this notion are in the actions of David (Michael Fassbender), an android who seems to start his emotionally removed, superior outlook at Ash's "I admire its purity" speech in Alien and only goes madder from there. A dissatisfaction constantly lines Fassbender's otherwise impassive, eerily welcoming face as he follows his own agenda during the expedition, a sideplot potentially more complex than the philosophical reaching of the primary story. David brings up ideas worthy of the depth of Blade Runner, a creature essentially going to meet his grandparents and perhaps eager to carry out the mission implied in what they left behind to enjoy his own existence. Infuriatingly, though, these threads are the least explored of the film, David's behavior so ungrounded it is only justifiable as a manifestation of Oedipal impulses, which is too simple and human a box in which to place a robot.
After a time, an uncomfortable, pathetically self-serving subtext emerges in the crew's search for the great answers of our existence. Charlie, who shares surnames with the actor who played Sawyer on LOST, in blatantly a stand-in for LOST fans irritated by that show's own inconclusiveness and false promise. The crew of the Prometheus makes mankind's most significant discovery, and all Charlie can do is pout that they only found alien bodies, not their living selves capable of definitively answering all his queries. Lindelof sets Charlie up to look like a fool for this, and soon he punishes the character for his stubbornness. I'm not the only person to pick up on this, but there's something particularly infuriating about Lindelof dragging down another franchise to get out lingering feelings over his main gig.
But then, Prometheus bombastically displays all of LOST's worst traits. The self-satisfied, meaningless appropriation of religious and mythological symbolism. The characters who serve at the pleasure of the plot, rewritten on a whim to facilitate some new development.* The assumption of emotional investment in a story that openly prioritizes deep, arching mysteries over character growth. In addition, Scott ports over the worst of his own tendencies. He's clearly happy to be back in science fiction, but he has CGI mounted on such a ludicrous scale that the film falls flat, most egregiously in a storm of dust and static electricity that is shot with unforgivable incompetence in spatial relations. (I wish Scott's brother Tony had handled this scene; he would have turned the flying shards of metallic dirt into a Pollock painting.) And while everyone wanted to avoid regurgitating all the franchise's iconic imagery, this results in a lot of roaming around nondescript tunnels and too-shiny ship cabins (what happened to that incredibly tactile, lived-in quality of the Nostromo?). The only time the film looks interesting or has any sense of shot rhythm, in fact, is when it actually does reuse some of the old imagery and symbolism, especially on a set that will be instantly familiar to fans.
I didn't want to drag Alien into this too much, but that film illustrates everything Prometheus gets wrong. Though this new film aims at profound questions about the nature of humanity and a dark truth that could be behind it all, Alien manages to address the same ideas fluidly through its plot-driven story. It crystallizes the vicious nihilism this film cannot bring itself to fully endorse: on the one hand, the Nostromo had to contend with a perfectly evolved killing machine that existed only to kill and reproduce. On the other was the heartless corporate power that came to govern humans, a capitalistic juggernaut willing to destroy its own species for the sake of profit and expanded power. Alien is a film so bleak that the only two moral acts of selfless concern—bringing the infected Kane back on-board the ship and Ripley going back for that damn cat—are so out of place as to seem insane. The only victory in Alien is survival at whatever cost, and they respond organically to this trauma. In forsaking profundity, Alien achieves it; in desperately pursuing it, Prometheus falls laughably short. As with LOST, Prometheus will be defended for posing complex questions, but the explanations, hidden as they are in the promise of a sequel, are so easily gleaned from this lame collection of heady sci-fi tropes that, taken with its two-dimensional plotting and banal direction, Prometheus emerges a failure not for its obscurity but its simplicity.
*This is especially true of David, whose intriguing, sinister arc is dumped in the last few minutes in favor of inexplicable acquiescence, even pleasurable, willing cooperation.