When it comes to movies, I am a devoted and unapologetic monster-buff. Rare is the film that I feel can’t be improved by the abrupt introduction of a mutant dog or sneering zombie. Take Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Early in the film we witness the formation of the universe. We see the creation of our planet, with its sea life, its plants, its dinosaurs. But then they disappear, and we are fed some heady narrative centered on the childhood memories of a modern-day architect, played by Sean Penn. What that was all about I don’t know, because I kept waiting for a fuming T-Rex, or a pack of grinning velociraptors, to jump forward in time to tear off Brad Pitt’s head.
Tree of Life shares some thematic concerns with Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated return to the sci-fi genre (his first since 1982’s Blade Runner) — and quasi-prequel to 1979’s Alien. Prometheus, too, opens with the creation of life: a humanoid has a bad drink, disintegrates, and triggers a biological reaction as its DNA drips into a waterfall. Fast forward to 2093, and we’re aboard the Prometheus, a sleek and manicured spacecraft on a mission to investigate an alien life form believed to have been responsible for our creation.
Cinematically, there is much to admire: The Prometheus banking low through cloud cover on descent to planet LV-223 is an indelible image; its sheer size and scale impress and humble the viewer. You feel small and human, writhing in your seat. This is what 3-D is supposed to look like. This is what 3-D is supposed to feel like. And so Prometheus cruises into a deft second place on my all-time favorite 3-D movies list. (First place, unquestionably — no doubt — is Piranha 3D.)
But hang on. After forty-five minutes or so the narrative whirrs into action, and Prometheus begins to sag. Structurally it doesn’t depart much from the original Alien (that creepy cinematic masterpiece): the curious crew finds alien life form and makes contact (Spoiler alert: lots of death and destruction ensues). But where Alien capitalized on an aesthetic of reticence — no grandiose plot, no philosophical pretension, just pure, claustrophobic suspense — Prometheus is all fat, all excess. And it is exhausting. Themes with a capital T are kept simmering until the exact moment some poor fool gets too close to a vicious, fluorescent egg — then Scott cranks the heat and Big Themes are ablaze: The Meaning of Life, Fertility, Religion, Science, Creation and — my favorite — Father-Daughter relationships, introduced for no discernible reason at a late stage in the movie, and abandoned just as swiftly.
The plot makes no great claims to coherence, despite its ponderous philosophical undertow. Why, for instance, does no one in the movie make note of the fact that Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) performs an unlikely caesarian on herself when she finds out she’s been impregnated with an alien? And why doesn’t anyone register the sudden presence of an enormous, tentacled creature in one of the ship’s labs?
Michael Fassbender, of Shame and genital-size fame, provides the only real casting pleasure. In his role as an android he is a worthy successor to Ian Holm (Alien) and Lance Henriksen (Aliens), though he is less robotic and more human in his motivations. Still, even he can’t neutralize the cartoonish familiarity of the rest of the cast, who seem to have dropped in from just about any science fiction blockbuster in recent history (come on, take your pick). A friend of mine who recently saw Alien for the first time said how realistic she thought the dialogue was — dialogue delivered a pitch above an audible mumble, forever interrupting and bumping into itself. It is realistic — unlike Prometheus, with its heavy borrowings from Greek Mythology, its Friedrich Nietzsche and its T. E. Lawrence. A website referred to at the end credits of the film — whatis101112.com — shows an elegant book cover of Thus Spake Zarathustra, adorned with the quote “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” A video in the corner has Peter Weyland (the CEO of the Weyland Corporation that finances the Prometheus exhibition, played by Guy Pearce) adjusting a tie and whispering to himself, “I am a law only for my kind, I am no law for all.” This will come as no surprise to viewers familiar with Damon Lindelof, co-writer of Prometheus and one of the masterminds behind the television series Lost — a show of such extraordinary subtlety that it named a main character John Locke. (I remember watching the first few episodes of Lost. When it transpired that the mysterious monster was a polar bear and not a dinosaur, I vowed never again to give it the time of day.) And as with Lost so with Prometheus: bingeing on its own mythology, the film leaves the viewer with little more than a hangover of philosophical allusions and a pair of cheap 3-D goggles.
Oh yeah: and there were not enough head-tearing aliens.
Prometheus is playing in theaters around the world.