Marketed as something of a prequel to Alien, Ridley Scott’s visually stunning new film, Prometheus, offers some unforgettable scenes but ultimately has the recycled, deja-vu feel of a second-grade spin off. While it is in another class to Alien v Predator, it never comes close to the brilliance of Scott’s 1979 space-horror masterpiece.
Prometheus presents itself as a deep and searching exploration of Questions that Matter, about the origin and meaning of human life, and the nature of The Creator. This gives the characters something to talk about, in dialogue that is generally on-the-nose, but there is nothing for the audience to engage with here. Essentially what we have is a futuristic action-adventure.
Where Alien was a horror film at heart, set in a sci-fi world, Prometheus is less about suspense and rising action and more about constant peril, especially in the dragging third act. It does have a slower-paced and intriguing setup, and could have made a compelling science fiction but falls far short of best of the genre.
Where Alien was based a coherent set of ideas, and premise involving well-established rules, Prometheus is a hodge-podge. Yes it involves aliens and spaceships, but offers none of the social or human commentary of films like District 9, or Minority Report, and fits more comfortably into the typically sloppy fantasy genre, where pyramids and aliens and gods and monsters collide – think Stargate or Vin Diesel actioner Pitch Black.
Prometheus opens in prehistory, as a lone, humanoid creature, swathed in druid-like robes, walks upon an apparently barren earth and sacrifices himself to seed life. This sequence is alone worth the price of admission, establishing an unusually discreet and effective use of 3-d which is sustained throughout.
Moving on to the future, scientists study cave paintings and discover a pattern. Millennia and continents apart, there is a story of a man pointing towards a distant constellation. A corporation finances a trillion-dollar mission to explore a planet in a distant galaxy that seems to match this constellation, and search for extra-terrestrial answers to the mystery of the origins of life on earth. They dispatch a rag-tag crew of scientists and so on to check it out.
The beginning is intriguing, and by far the best segment of the movie. As the crew sleep in cryo-stasis, a lone man studies every known language in a successful effort to attain universal fluency. We later discover he is an android, but this is not much of a spoiler. He models himself on Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. His character is perhaps the most interesting in the film, but sadly underdeveloped.
Once the ship arrives at its destination, we transition into an episodic movie lacking coherent narrative development, as plot-lines are raised and then abandoned. Where Alien established a real space crew with real concerns (contractual obligations etc.) real routines and real relationships, the ensemble of characters in Prometheus are fairly uninteresting and lack dimension.
In any film bases its story on characters in peril, it is essential we root for the characters, and watching smart characters make smart decisions is the way to make these films compelling. In other words, screen logic, which boils down to respect for the audience. The trouble with Prometheus is that the mission is a gung-ho shambles, lacking scientific reasoning or any kind of protocols. It is difficult to believe a mega-corporation would send these people so far at such expense without any kind of plan, and allow emotions and impulses to entirely take over. Upon arrival, the corporate CEO drops a bomb, saying the boyfriend / girlfriend ‘scientists’ are in charge – not his on board corporate rep, an ice-cold Charlize Theron. Here the ground is laid for a tremendous power struggle which never happens.
The crew enter the atmosphere of a moon which may be inhabited, or at least may once have been. They have no survey of this moon. For all they know there are cities, functioning or relics, all over the place. Yet they stop and land at the first structure they see without conducting any further exploration.
At this location they make amazing discoveries which will forever change the understanding of the origins of human life. Yet they sulk in disappointment because they cannot talk to these life forms – these are archeologists who devoted their life to studying cave paintings, and these relics should speak volumes to them. They should be fascinated, delighted and see these things as sacred. Yet their every move is characterized by recklessness.
Soon after arrival, they discover perfectly preserved head of an authentic alien life form (perhaps the most beautifully rendered vision in the film). This alone is worth the trillion dollar cost of the mission. Do they make efforts to preserve it? Hell no – they blow it to smithereens. After risking their lives to retrieve it they stick electrodes in it and randomly experiment with pumping up the juice, in the hopes it will be ‘tricked into thinking it is still alive’ and speak with them.
Especially incoherent is the handling of alien life forms, with a life cycle as muddy as the black goop that pervades this film. The goop seems to be DNA related, sometimes to the aliens and at other times to the humanoid Creators. In Alien, an egg hatched a face hugger which attached to a host, implanting the seed of an alien which developed inside the body eventually bursting through the chest.
In Prometheus we have black goop that can be consumed in a drink form, either causing the drinker to explode and seed DNA, or transforming a human into one of these humanoid creatures. When someone has drunk this goop and has sexual intercourse with a woman, she becomes pregnant with an Alien-like creature in her womb. Snake like creatures also arise from this goop and extend phalluses down human throats, as does the womb-born alien which looks entirely different. What is going on here?
All this nonsense at least provides an intense and harrowing ‘abortion’ scene where Noomi Rapace uses automatic surgery to extract the alien from her womb before it kills her. It seems odd that, having escaped this fate, she never sees fit to inform the crew of the presence of this sinister creature which surely needs to be dealt with.
Alien was exceptional in that it was a film about female strength, ultimately culminating in a fight between two women which the sequel more playfully cast at moments as a bitch fight. Here refreshingly unglamorous Rapace is meant to stand in for female power, and she is brave and seemingly indestructible, but never as believable as Sigourney who was tough from the outset. Interestingly the Creators are by all outwards appearances exclusively male, though this is never commented on or questioned by the crew.
Clearly, someone saw a great opportunity to create a money-spinner here. In an excruciatingly dull final act beset with unnecessary and random peril (oh no, they’ve shot down the space ship but now it’s going to roll on top of them!) we are primed for a sequel which may perhaps serve to better explain some things about this film.
Prometheus offers more than the average blockbuster – audiences will find much to enjoy in the visuals, intriguing conceptions of future technologies, and some genuinely edge of the seat moments. But in inviting inevitable comparison with Alien it is promising so much more than it even attempts to deliver. This makes it a frustrating and disappointing film, and although there is clearly some passion that has gone into its making I can’t help feeling Scott has lost the plot.