Continuing a great story can be tricky, especially in the realm of cinema, where audiences seem to always want more. In an age where studios usually care more about profits than good showmanship, sometimes continuing a great story through film isn’t such a good idea. Ridley Scott’s wildly influential 1979 film Alien was essentially a haunted house /horror film in space, where the title character was a “slasher” that played a game of “Ten Little Indians” with a group of “space truckers”. What elevated Scott’s film above that and set it apart from all the rest was that Alien was a great story told within the sci-fi genre; a smart thriller filled with intelligent performances told with a great sense of style. James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens was a follow-up smart enough not to repeat what its predecessor did so well. Cameron decided to go the other way, fashioning an action movie with a story that ultimately served as a cathartic experience for Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley, the only human survivor of the first film.
Though Cameron’s film made for a nice bookend of what ultimately became Ripley’s story, the powers that be pressed on, producing two unnecessary sequels that did nothing to expand the mythology, followed by two spin-offs that were nothing more than lame attempts to cross-pollinate franchises. Sometimes to take a franchise or mythology in a fresh new direction, you have to start over from scratch. Scott’s return to horror/sci-fi originally began as a back-story to the Alien series, but thankfully, fresher ideas came into play. Prometheus does contain some of Alien’s “DNA” within it, as Scott has hinted at, but ultimately it stands on its own. The film is far from perfect and features a number of flaws fans of Alien and lovers of cinema in general may find unforgivable, but it is no doubt a far more noble attempt at something different rather than just a tired old sequel that represents more of the same.
Thirty plus years after Scott’s Alien, the two biggest questions that remain are who created the alien eggs aboard the derelict ship Ripley and crew discovered and who was it’s pilot aka “The Space Jockey”? Prometheus doesn’t flat out answer these questions, but steers you in a direction towards answers you may already know. Some things are more intriguing when they’re left a mystery and while some answers are given, others are merely speculated or hinted at, ultimately leaving us with far more questions than we had before. Is that a good thing or bad? Well, that depends on the viewer. Whether you love or hate what Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindeloff and Jon Spaihts have presented here, one thing is for certain and that is they know how to push our buttons.
Prometheus, opens with the suggestion that the advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence who created the iconic monster may have also been responsible for the seeding of the Earth. In 2089, archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’) and her lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Greene) are one step closer to proving that theory when they discover a cave painting in Scotland dating back 3500 years. The painting matches several others they’ve found across the globe from various ancient civilizations that couldn’t possibly have had contact with one another. Within the paintings are a group of stars, representing a solar system light years away from whence these travelers must have originated. All that’s missing is an arrow and a note saying “come out and see us sometime.”
The big baddie in the Alien films was never really the creatures themselves, but the evil “Weyland-Yutani” corporation that was always so hell bent on bringing back a specimen for bio-weapons research. Shaw and Holloway’s expedition to the stars is funded by none other than the late Peter Weyland (an aged Guy Peace who appears in a rather unique fashion) a rich industrialist who has spent a trillion dollars, much to the chagrin of his company officer Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). While the crew sleep in suspended animation for two years, their vital signs and their vessel’s progress are monitored by David (Michael Fassbender), an android continually fascinated by human behavior. Fassbender is featured in some of the film’s strongest scenes early on in the film, sometimes as the only character on screen as David occupies his time alone riding a bicycle in the ship’s hanger, playing basketball or attempting to imitate Peter O’Toole while watching scenes from Lawrence of Arabia.
Their vessel, the Prometheus, named after the Greek God that was punished for stealing fire and giving it to mortals, features your basic rag tag bunch of forgettable crewman characters, save for Idris Elba as Janek, the Captain. Elba’s role isn’t written nearly as well as Yaphet Kotto’s “Parker” in the original Alien, but the actor manages to make a character that basically represents the working class memorable. The same can be said for Theron, who in the film’s promotion, comes across as an icy corporate bitch, when in fact she surprisingly turns out to be a voice of reason. Unfortunately, no one on a scientific expedition wants to listen to reason and when the crew reach their destination, a mysterious Earth-like planet, they begin exploring and soon enough, people begin to die.
The advanced extra-terrestrials in the film turn out to be a humanoid race that Shaw and Holloway dub early on as “The Engineers”. The question remains: did they really “engineer” us? Are we their “children”, made in their own image, or just small insignificant specks caught in the grand scheme of some experiment? When the crew of the Prometheus enter a pyramid-like structure on the planet’s surface, it appears the Engineers have been doing a lot more than experimenting. But were they working on something to create life or destroy it?
Prometheus is at its strongest during it’s first two acts, raising many questions, yet full of ideas and a sense of mystery. It represents some of the strongest and most intelligent sci-fi I’ve seen at the cinema in quite some time. That is until Scott and company start injecting bits of horror into their story. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s just the manner in which they go about it tends to dumb down what came before. It’s as if Scott looked at his plot, fully drawn out on map sized paper and started blowing holes through it with a BB gun. Nevermind some of the story inconsistencies, on more than one occasion, characters who initially appear intelligent, soon make bone-headed decisions that turns them into “collateral damage” just so the story can turn towards a frightening direction you might find in a slasher film.
Despite some of those flaws, I did find it refreshing that Scott doesn’t attempt to explain the motivations of every single character. There are some major players that make drastic choices which affect the lives of those around them as well as the outcome of the story. Sometimes a story can be a little more fun when you are called upon to fill in some of those missing blanks yourself. Some of those answers are right in front of us, others revealed after careful consideration, long after the film is over. The problem with Prometheus that many viewers and Alien fans may find frustrating is that it calls upon you to fill in more blanks than you bargained for, making it feel like a less rewarding experience.
When Prometheus does shift away from intelligent science fiction to more traditional horror-action-thriller aspects, it isn’t a total loss. Scott and his writers do fail at developing believable tension amongst the strong main characters they’ve developed, but there are a number of frightening and exciting moments which provide a visceral cinematic experience that stays with you long after the end credits have rolled. There are even some bits that are appropriately icky, including a surgery scene that’s enjoyably uncomfortable to watch. Familiar faces such as Elba, Pearce, Theron and Fassbender - who in particular, perfectly balances warmth and intelligence with creepiness – all bring dimension to their respective characters, which leaves Rapace, who as the lead has been unfairly called the weakest link. Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is no Ellen Ripley, but the actress does give her character a sense of vulnerability as well as strong survival instincts. There’s a back-story involving Shaw’s religious beliefs, that has little impact, but Rapace makes her unwavering pursuit for answers believable. Because of her character’s determination and drive, I’d actually like to see this story continue in yet another film, a possibility Scott has already hinted at. In fact, this story might actually improve the further it strays away from the Alien mythos.
As I said, Prometheus is far from perfect, but a mess it is not. Scott’s attempt at something a little bit different is somewhat off target, but his efforts should be applauded and no doubt deserve praise. When plot, character development and Scott’s visual storytelling are all working and supporting one another, the film feels like a well oiled machine more often then it doesn’t. Even Scott’s use of the 3D process appears to have a lot more thought behind it than you’d find with most films today. He doesn’t push the 3D or his visuals in too hard a manner that detract from the story. If Prometheus were described as merely Scott’s latest big budget experiment, then I wouldn’t call it a failure. In fact it feels like a test run for something even grander, leaving me eager to see what the 74-year-old director is ready to “cook up” next.