I wrote most of this post after watching Prometheus about a week after it came out. Even though this review is late to the party, it is still a spoiler-free as usual though it may be helpful if you've seen Alien before reading this.
I love Alien and Blade Runner so I was excited for Prometheus as Ridley Scott's return to science fiction. The Alien franchise has languished for a while but could Ridley Scott return to the series he started and revitalize it?
Prometheus is a prequel in the sense that it takes place before the events of Alien and in the same universe. However, the movie is not a "direct prequel" since we (thankfully) don't see a younger Ripley for how the "Space Jockey" ship got on LV-426. This is a prequel in the way that Enterprise was a prequel to the other Star Trek TV shows. When it comes to film, most prequels usually don't turn out well and are disappointing. Star Wars, anyone? Many prequels are completely unnecessary prequels like The Thing (2011). Although I was not blown away with Prometheus, I think it is one of the better prequels out there alongside movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (technically a prequel) and X-Men: First Class, which like Prometheus is sort of a reboot and prequel at the same time.
Let's start with what I liked about Prometheus. The special effects and visuals are incredible and aided by an excellent soundtrack. The costumes and set designs are great and help give the film a distinct look and feel in setting up the world in which the story takes place. The cinematography is outstanding and the film was simply beautiful to watch in IMAX 3-D. Overall the acting is good as Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba all did a fine job in an ensemble cast. Michael Fassbender put in a stand-out performance as David, who we find out in the beginning is an android. The David character and the fantastic "birthing scene" were the most memorable parts of the movie.
Prometheus plays on themes and imagery from Alien but is also influenced by classic science fiction films such as Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is clear that literature from the Golden Age of Science Fiction (late 1930s through mid 1950s) by authors such as A.E. van Vogt and Ray Bradbury also played a role in shaping the story.
Now to get to what I didn't like. The character development could have been better. We do have a lot of characters though, in fact I would say that there are too many characters! The amount of people on board the Prometheus ship is at least double that of the crew the Nostromo had in Alien. In Star Trek we have spaceships with hundreds of crew members, but the focus on a small group of people is generally handled better than it was here.
There is an old character who is played by a much younger actor in make-up that frankly isn't very good. Why was this necessary? Unless there is some important deleted scene showing a younger version of the character why didn't they simply cast an older actor?
A lot is left open ended in Prometheus. While there is nothing wrong with that, some stuff was intentionally left a mystery while other stuff seems to have been the result of writing problems. I liked the third act unlike a lot of people, but it I agree that it does suffer some pacing issues. An extended version might make some things more clear and answer some of the film's perceived plot holes.
There are a few of continuity issues with Alien. One is that the Prometheus spaceship appears to be more technically advanced than the Nostromo. This didn't bother me as it is simply the result of Alien being made in 1979 and Prometheus being released in 2012. But there is a more important continuity error that did bother me, though I won't get into details for those who haven't seen Prometheus yet. Any prequel written after the original is going to have this problem to some extent so I can't fault the movie for it, but it annoyed me as a fan of the original. I wish Prometheus was its an original sci-fi movie not tied to a preexisting series so that continuity problems could've easily been avoided.
Although I quite liked Prometheus, it's not a masterpiece like Alien or Blade Runner but instead more along the lines of a film such as Sunshine, which I also enjoyed. But this is a problem with Ridley Scott's return not just to the science fiction genre, but the Alien franchise. It feels like Scott came back not because he had an amazing story to tell within this universe, but because Hollywood was going to hire some random people reboot the series and only Scott's return to the director's chair could stop it. While this is probably better than the Hollywood remake alternative, I had hoped Scott had something better up his sleeve. I have no problem with Scott taking the series in a new direction, as James Cameron did with Aliens, but feel that Prometheus would have worked better as a film in its own continuity. I mean what's the point of using the tagline "The search for our beginning could lead to our end" if we know humanity will still be around so that the events of Alien can take place? Had this been a stand alone movie it would've raised the stakes and allowed for more risks to be taken.
I still don't understand the extremely negative reaction this film has gotten by many people on the internet, as critics generally gave it good but not great reviews. I'm guessing they just had unrealistic expectations built up in their heads and overlooked what the movie does well. I don't think it's fair to tear a film apart that does some things very well, simply because it struggles in other areas.
Despite its flaws, Prometheus is still very good and appears to reward multiple views. The film asks interesting questions but is complex with a lot going on at once, unlike Alien which was much more focused. I'll need to see Prometheus again, especially with an extended director's cut coming out on Blu-ray soon that may be an improvement. There is also the strong possibility of a sequel since Prometheus started out as a two part Alien prequel. Prometheus did well in theaters so perhaps that is still the plan after all.