When it comes to cinematic science fiction, few directors have done more groundbreaking work in the genre than Ridley Scott. Back in the eighties, Scott was behind two of the biggest science fiction films ever made, Alien and Blade Runner. The former is famed for being a terrifying genre-bending deep space adventure that gave birth to a franchise; the latter is a brilliant futuristic film noir detective story that helped gave birth to the entire cyberpunk subgenre. Together, they made huge waves in both moviemaking and science fiction, and made Ridley Scott a revered visionary in both. What better way to get out of his post-Gladiator dry spell then for Ripley to return to his roots with one of the most anticipated sci-fi movies of the year, Prometheus.
Having turned to Ridley Scott to reboot the suffering Alien franchise, which after Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, to say nothing of Alien vs. Predator, needed his care to avoid total destruction, the planned Alien prequel evolved into something far rarer in cinema: an unconnected film in the same universe. The trailers promised a star-studded action-packed haunting galactic epic about the origins of mankind, topped off with the score from the original Alien trailer. Remembering all too well the sort of works that came from Ridley Scott’s last dabbling with science fiction, I, like many others, could not wait to see just what Prometheus had in store for us, and rushed off to the theater on opening day.
So does the movie live up to expectations and soar to cosmic heights or do we have a failure to launch? Set your sights on the stars my dear readers, as I review Prometheus.
The movie opens with a humanoid alien seeding a young Earth with his DNA, and then fast forwarding eons to see the fruit of his labors, humanity, uncover evidence of our origins, and how to find the race of our progenitors, whom are quickly dubbed the Engineers by their finder, the religious archeologist Elizabeth Shaw. Along with her, a group of scientists and spacefarers set out on Weyland Corp spaceship Prometheus, the motley crew including her fiancé, a cunning android named David, a Weyland Corp corporate head sent to monitor the expedition, and a number of others as they set out for an alien world where they will meet their maker – literally and figuratively.
While I can’t give too much of the plot away due to spoilers, there is good and bad to be had here, and the story, especially with the ending, more than anything else puts the movie clearly in love it or hate it territory. Those expecting a frightening Alien prequel will be disappointed – there are few scares to be had, and none of the sort that made Alien a classic. That said, Prometheus is a creative haunted house film in space, playing both to and against genre clichés, but is never boring. A friend of mine pointed out that the movie shares a lot of plot points with At the Mountains of Madness, and given the Guillermo del Toro film was canned in favor of Battleship, it may be the closest to a proper adaptation we’ll ever get to see. In addition, it touches on themes ranging from theology, creationism, evolution, and a number of others without being weighed down or sounding preachy. With a few brilliant and entertaining twists and turns, little surprise given that the script was penned by one of the men behind Lost, the best way I can describe Prometheus is what you’d get if Alien had a child with a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey made by HP Lovecraft, and though it is nothing earth-shattering, it’s certainly smarter than the average blockbuster.
If there are problems to be had with the story, there is none to be had with the characters and acting, both are very well done. The side characters, though most are not too fleshed out, all feel authentic and realistic, and at times manage to go against the grain – one example is how two members of the exploration party decide to head back to the ship once things start getting eerie, something I always wondered why the redshirts never do in these movies. For the main cast, we have the likes of Charlize Theron portraying the distant, cold corporate supervisor Meredith Vickers, Idris Elba does superbly as our salty space captain Janek and Logan Marshall-Green as an impulsive scientist who’s made it his life’s work to meet these aliens, and all are fantastic and enjoyable to watch. Noomi Rapace, in her first major American role, as lead character Elizabeth Shaw, a religious scientist who discovered the aliens role in our origin, and is used to touch on themes of creationism, science vs. religion and faith vs. evidence, is very well played, and watching her journey in the film helps move the film along, in a large part thanks to Rapace’s performance.
All of these however, pale in comparison to Michael Fassbender’s show stealing performance as the android David. Fassbender has quickly been one of my favorite actors since 300, usually for his ability to turn even the smallest side characters into one of the highlights of the movie, and here he goes all out in turning David into what may be the best cinematic android ever put to film since Rutger Hauer’s talks of C-beams on the Tanhauser Gate. From the time we see him playing basketball or watching Laurence of Arabia while the crew is in stasis, David is the heart and soul of the film, despite the movie reminding us he has neither – one character makes a point of calling David both the son he never had and saying having no soul in the same sentence. All the same, he’s not altogether wrong – throughout the film, David’s intentions are never truly made clear, and watching his scheming agenda unfold is one of the nuances of the film. It helps that the character touches on some of the best themes of the movie – the parallel between the aliens who made humanity and the humans who made the robots is very well done, and the way the various human characters treat David as if he is nothing better than a tool is a sad point possible future bigotry as it is a comment on the relationship between creator/creation. Yet another contrast he provides is one between the religious Shaw and the ‘soulless’ David. As a whole, it is a developed, well rounded character that manages to be starkly human while remaining robotic, and you are never sure what the intentions of his Machiavellian machinations are, with almost every other uttered line carrying triple meanings. His performance is a joy to watch in every way, and I would have happily seen a movie just revolving around his character alone – as it stands, almost any moment he is on screen in Prometheus is often one to remember.
However, the main strength and selling point of the movie are the special effects, though not due to any weakness of script or acting, but do to the utter level of detail given to everything. The CGI special effects, from the details of the ship to the design of the various aliens, all are some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen – all of it looks real enough to touch, providing some crisp, clean and startling visuals, that alone are worth watching the movie for, if only to understand why I rip on CGI laden barf fests like Avatar/Transformers/Battleship/Star Wars Prequels/etc. They are helped by some truly epic scope cinematography, a Ridley Scott signature that helps make the most of every moment. Add in some superb sound work and a score that compliments every scene.
Another great point of the film is the number of connections to prior films, as well as other outside references throughout the movie. Some are obvious, such as the presence of Weyland Corp and Xenomorphs, while others, such as various cave carvings detailing prior movies or the planets name referring to a bible verse (LV233 = Leviticus 22:3) that foreshadows the movie’s plot. Though not a direct sequel or prequel, the strands of Alien’s DNA can be seen in the film, no pun intended, and topped off with some superb world building (universe building?) and set design that is a masterpiece in and of itself, and Prometheus is its own beast to behold.
Overall, a few people might not like the film due to either the fact it is not a direct prequel to Alien, or that fact it raises just as many questions as it answers, and I will say the movie is very much a love it or hate it affair – in that regard, it is much more like Blade Runner than Alien, and not just because I’m sure it will benefit from repeated viewings and fan theories, and it may still raise yet more questions. Director Ridley Scott also admits more than thirty minutes were cut from the film, so we may well see a Kingdom of Heaven-style extended DVD cut that fixes a few flaws and answers a few questions.
That said, I loved the movie myself, and even if it’s not a masterpiece, it is a well acted, lovingly crafted science fiction adventure that manages to be the rare sort of cerebral science fiction film that, aside from rarities like Inception, we haven’t seen in many of in years. While that may deter some of the more popcorn movie oriented audience, for folks like me who have been craving something more in cinematic science fiction, it is a long needed breath of fresh air, and manages to be the best thing Ridley Scott has tacked his name onto since Gladiator. A few cracks aside, Prometheus aimed for the stars, and, though your mileage may vary, I feel it more than made it there. Whether or not it will measure up to Alien or Blade Runner will be decided in the future, but for now, it’s one hell of a lovely trip you should take at once.