Two-thirds through, I wrote, “Hey, what the hell happened to that terrific, summer sci-fi thriller I was watching?”
Prometheus opens millions of years in the past, with the first shudder and swirl of life on Earth—the primordial scene burns with a cold ethereal light and thematic heft that’s darkly intoxicating. There’s a low, ominous hum in the gloaming, as if you held your ear up to the universe and felt something listening back.
Eventually this Terrance-Malick-on-‘roids vibe gives way to more conventional storytelling as the film jumps 80 years into our future. Two scruffy archeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) find Chariot of the Gods-like markings from ancient humans that lay out a primitive star map.
Soon they and other scientists are off on a corporate-funded, deep-space mission aboard the exploration ship Prometheus to find humankind’s extra-terrestrial “Engineers”—our fathers who art in the heavens. Scott’s sprawling vistas on Earth and beyond (beautifully lensed by Dark City’s Dariusz Wolski) are backdrops to what the film considers The Big Questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens when we die?
(Never mind these Big Ideas aren’t far beyond the level of high-school notebook doodling—for anyone willing to listen, they’ve pretty much been answered by evolutionary biologists and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Still, they’re good enough for a summer sci-fi flick’s pseudo-intellectual springboard.)
Once the explorers follow the map to a desolate alien planet, things feel more familiar. Scott, Twentieth Century Fox, and writer Damon Lindelof spent the past winter playing coy about whether or not Prometheus is an Alien “prequel,” and later I’ll argue it both is and isn’t.
But the new film does follow the original Alien’s narrative structure and beats – the landing, the exploration, the strange discoveries in an otherworldly storage building, the conflicting and sometimes nefarious crew agendas, and of course the running afoul of nightmarish goo.
Yes, Alien visual cues start popping up, soon followed by the aliens themselves (or their genetic cousins). Most of them, however, do not match up exactly with the face-huggers, chest-bursters, and oblong-headed adult aliens with which we’re familiar. Still, biological similarities remain—though he was not a designer on the new film, once again the various stages of critter growth follow H.R Giger’s disconcerting psycho-sexual visuals.
In addition to Rapace and Marshall-Green, the Prometheus cargo list sports genuine acting talent. Company Ice Queen Charlize Theron is in charge, her ramrod corporate climber an easy martinet. And as the ship’s captain, the great Idris Elba provides blue-collar, no-nonsense honor. But the film’s best thespianing is from Michael Fassbender as David, the now-obligatory android. Smoothly carved with a crystal-clear, blue-eyed lack of soul, this is not Michelangelo’s David but Mitt Romney’s: The Corporation as Person (by way of young Peter O’Toole, as David spends his free time studying Lawrence of Arabia for cues on how to act “human” and style his bright blond hair).
Unfortunately, the film’s plot centers on Rapace’s character, and the Swedish-Spanish actress comes up flat and reactionary, lacking spark or fire, and unable for the second time in a year (after Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) to find her way from under the limitations of tent-pole franchise making.
(Rapace’s career-making performances in the Swedish Lizbeth Salander films were much more inward-turning—to make her way in Hollywood, she’d do well to lay off the big stuff and find smaller films that grant her time and space to create real characters.)
The rest of the crew are a mix of comic relief and alien chow—we don’t care much even when a major one bites it, since they’ve all been slopped out with broad strokes and dotted with signifying “details.” (This one plays an antique squeezebox, these two have a running bet, this one has a funny beard…)
There’s plenty of the horrific here, but Prometheus is not a horror film—it shares Alien’s trappings and sense of impending doom, but not the original’s claustrophobic suspense or haunted-house terrors. The film’s R rating is not so much for blood, gore, nudity, or language–relative to its genre peers, there isn’t all that much of it here. (In fact many editing decisions appear to be aiming for an elusive PG-13.) Rather the final R is here for the unsettling invasiveness of the alien violence—in keeping with the original’s primal themes of sex and death, the creepy crawlers literally get under your skin.
So is this a prequel to Alien? Absolutely yes, and kinda no. It directly sets the stage for the arrival 30 years later of Ripley and the Nostromo and the start of the full-blown Alien franchise. But by its end, Prometheus is headed in a different direction, one clearly aimed at multiple non-Alien sequels. It may still have slimy monsters in its dark corners, but its mind is on more than simple survival.
And yet, for all those big ideas about humanity’s origins and the attempts at 2001 and Solaris-style mystique, Prometheus’ entrancing mists eventually give way to familiar green goop and oily gunk. By its third act the film’s once-solid narrative fragments, and characters are tossed willy nilly by plot necessities, not the earlier goings’ existential poetics. (Why is this character suddenly over here in this part of the ship? Um, because she needs to be for the finale…) We end up with the usual gruesome sci-fi deaths as the film’s internal logic melts down as if drenched in acidic alien blood.
(*Speaking of story contrivances, we’ll Spoiler-talk in the comments below about the biggest head-scratcher: Why the film makers intentionally avoid sticking the Single Visual Plot-Point Landing needed to set up Alien.)
The first half of Prometheus has bravado grandeur. (Marc Streitenfel’s score sports heroic Copland-ian horns, though less would have been much more when it comes to the increasingly intrusive musical cues.) Ships of size and weight move heavily through expanses of space and landscape, and the film often looks and feels vast, open to cosmic possibilities.
But ultimately Prometheus doesn’t get anywhere with its deep ideas. Scott, Lindelof, and co-writer Jon Spaihts can’t bring it all together in the end, narrowing their sights on a creature-feature parade that slops aside the larger themes and aesthetics.
Alien and sci-fi fans will find Prometheus is about half the film they sought, though that half is still well worth seeing. Blinking our way back into the present-day, we feel a hollow absence only because the film set its frame so enticingly wide.