You can’t say you weren’t warned. Throughout the past year, during the production of his new science-fiction epic Prometheus, Ridley Scott has been prepping viewers on what to expect: not a straightforward prequel to his groundbreaking Alien but a new entity with slimy, tentacled connections to that 1979 classic.
There’s no denying that the final product lives up to that promise… But the end result is a movie with an identity crisis. Is Prometheus more interested in tackling the big themes centering around the birth of human existence, or does it want to examine the foundations of the gloopy xenomorph horror that we first saw descending on Sigourney Weaver and the crew of the Nostromo?
In the end, the movie attempts to do both and shortchanges the audience. But although Prometheus is a mess, Scott’s return to science fiction for the first time in 30 years is an engrossing journey that hatches just enough intelligent ideas and startling images to keep the storyline juicy.
However, it’s important to contextualize the movie as well. Whereas Alien was a low-budget B movie horror drawing on the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but elevated by the artistry of its crew, Prometheus is very much a product of the post-Avatar world, painted on a much grander and more expensive scale.
So while it lacks the claustrophobic terror of Alien, Prometheus channels its energy in different ways, making up for a lack of scares with a surfeit of ambition. That the movie attempts to stake out its own identity is admirable but it also overplays its hand.
Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Logan Marshall-Green star as archaeologists accompanying a misfit crew on an inter-stellar journey to the farthest reaches of the solar system aboard the eponymous spaceship. Also aboard for the ride are Charlize Theron’s mysterious corporate suit, Idris Elba’s no-nonsense Captain and Michael Fassbender’s android David, plus several others who may or may not harbour their own agenda.
It turns out Rapace and Green have made a connection between several cave paintings, all of which appear to depict the same star map. Is it an invitation to a planet on the other side of the galaxy, one which could explain how humanity was created? Or should they leave well enough alone? Immediately on arrival at their destination, they make some remarkable discoveries… and more than a few unpleasant ones.
In truth, Prometheus resembles a handsome building with dodgy foundations: Scott’s visual flair frequently pulling the viewer in, even while the poor script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof threatens to collapse beneath it. As expected, the visual sweep of Scott’s film cannot be denied, a dimly lit cave painting fading into a shot of space with the ship shooting past in the distance like a firefly.
One can sense Scott’s excitement at working in the science fiction medium once more. Early on, the camera prowls the interior of the ship (all dim lighting, white metal and odd angles) while later, the disquieting landscapes of the alien planet are an extraordinary blend of cavernous wonder and latent menace, the impassive stone face seen on the film’s posters both recognizably human and… well, alien. The scale of the movie really is staggering.
But while the execution of this cinematic world is remarkable, the script cannot decide where to settle, blending elements of faith, religion, monster movie and icky body horror which David Cronenberg would be proud to call his own. On the positive side, it’s commendable to see a science-fiction movie which foregrounds its ideas, even if said ideas are haphazardly arranged.
There’s an old-fashioned pleasure to a movie which gets to grips with scientific nitty-gritty (examining slimy organisms in jars) and embarking on discourses about meeting ones maker. Indeed, one of the film’s best scenes is a simple exchange between Green and Fassbender: the latter, as the not-quite-human android, asks how far the former would be prepared to go to meet his creator, aware that he himself is surrounded by his own human creators on a daily basis.
But the movie’s thoughtfulness is a double-edged sword, seeing as it awkwardly blends ideas from an original story with the seeds of the Alien mythology without ever fully committing to either. The birth of humanity topic doesn’t quite mesh with the queasy pregnancy horror that eventually comes to fruition, although both subjects are fascinating on their own terms.
There are more fundamental problems. Many of the supporting actors suffer from poor writing (the insistence on having Theron mysteriously waiting in the wings becomes frustrating) and the script also has a tendency to use its characters as mouth-pieces in clunky fashion. When quizzed about her committment to the deep-space mission (the organisational details of which remain sketchy), Rapace simply replies, ‘I choose to have faith’, ham-fisted dialogue meant to define her character when more depth would suffice.
That’s not to criticise Rapace’s performance; she’s perfectly fine and soulful as the dedicated archaeologist, and Fassbender is even better as David, expertly honing off-key mannerisms to suggest a being doing his best to blend in but standing out all the more because of it. Stealing another of the movie’s best moments, he even models his hair and speech patterns after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. In truth, David deserves a movie of his own.
But for all the movie’s strengths, there’s no denying the groundwork is flimsy, turning a potential masterpiece into a flawed hodgepodge of gripping ideas. Still, there are enough intoxicating visuals, nasty moments and solid to strong performances to warrant a return to this universe (for surely, this is the start of yet another franchise), if only to answer the many questions left at the conclusion.